The growth zone: where the magic unfolds in the AfYWL Fellowship journey

In part three of the #AfricanWomenLead blog series, the second cohort of African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL) share how they have all been pushed far beyond their comfort zones – to where the magic happens.

December 13, 2022
Boitumelo Gabankitse, AfYWL Fellow

Boitumelo Gabankitse (centre) pictured with AfYWL Fellows (left-right) Oratile Moloko, Atika Najar, Priscilla Plat, Tamiwe Kayuni, Rowan Ahmed and Nisrine Mbarki

UNDP Regional Programme for Africa

Stories about personal and professional success typically mention elements like commitment, ambition and a hunger for change. Often, they describe journeys of tenacity and resilience. Yet rarely do these narratives touch on what is probably the most essential ingredient for true development and growth: discomfort.

Discomfort in the form of imposter syndrome. Discomfort in the form of gnawing self-doubt. Discomfort in the form of being challenged so deeply, that the slightest whisp of familiarity – a call from a friend, a product from home, or a favourite song – is enough to induce tears of gratitude and longing.

Boitumelo Gabankitse compares this experience to the way that diamonds are formed.

“Diamonds are the hardest known material, defined by toughness – yet beautiful to the eye, and of high value. They are formed under intense heat and pressure. In the same way, the challenges and adversity we face shape us into strong and powerful beings; diamonds in human form.”

Boitumelo is one of 38 fellows who make up the second cohort of African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL), a flagship initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the African Union Commission (AUC). The AfYWL fellows come from 22 African countries, and have been deployed to UNDP duty stations in 26 locations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the USA.

Originally from Botswana, Boitumelo was deployed to the UNDP country office in Pretoria, South Africa. “Moving to and working in another country will teach you a thing or two. From getting lost, making new friends and adapting to a new work environment to mastering a new lifestyle – things don’t always go as planned. This fellowship has taught me to be open-minded, and that there is growth in discomfort. The experience has made me stronger, more adaptable and resilient.”

While Boitumelo was posted to a neighbouring country, many fellows are placed in duty stations far from home. Abiba Moussa from Niger sums up the most challenging aspect of her deployment to Equatorial Guinea in one word: Spanish. “The first few months were overwhelming in many ways, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. I had not realized that my social skills and my ability to adapt would be my most precious tools.”

"I had not realized that my social skills and my ability to adapt would be my most precious tools.”
Abiba Moussa, AfYWL Fellow, UNDP Equatorial Guinea

Mona Moustafa agrees. “Since day one, the journey has challenged and stretched me. But one thing is certain; in the process, I am learning more about myself. I learned to embrace my doubts, act amid uncertainty, and cope with disruptions.” When Mona, originally from Egypt, was deployed to Lao PDR, it was the first time she was exposed to life in an Asian country. “Everything is completely different: the culture, the food, the weather, and the architecture.”

While being uprooted and moving to a new country is a tremendous shift, the fellows also face the challenge of starting a brand new job. Beyond an introduction to the UN system, their year-long appointments to UNDP offices at HQ, regional and country levels provide invaluable opportunities for mentorship, work experience and wide-ranging skills.

Based at the UNDP HQ in New York City, Datcha Byangoy describes having to overcome her own moments of doubt. “I consider myself as someone who quickly adapts to changing contexts, however, I struggled to find my space.” Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Datcha says her buffer against total discouragement was her sense of purpose. “I managed to fully integrate in my team and my work. My supervisor gives me the space to express my ideas and manage my projects as I see fit under her guidance. This fellowship has allowed me to continue tailoring key skillset as I move forward in my career path.”

“Pushed out of my comfort zone, I’ve had to unlearn, relearn and adapt so I could become a better version of myself. There are tremendous opportunities in uncertainty,” shares Datcha.

Having passed the halfway mark, many of the fellows are proud of their achievements thus far.

“I am most proud of my personal growth; from being a shy and introverted person, to challenging myself to do the things I was previously uncomfortable with and afraid of,” says Esther Bansah.

Atika Najar says that accompanying the Malagasy delegation from her duty station at the YouthConnekt Summit in Rwanda was one of her top accomplishments. “Organizing the preparation of these young people, advising them on how to pitch their projects, and supporting them during the event was a rewarding experience. It taught me a lot about the role of UNDP in supporting public institutions.”

Some fellows may remain in the UN system, while others will return to their home countries or move to different sectors after completing the fellowship. Whatever their respective pathways, the fellows all leave with the ability to advance the Sustainable Development Goals across the continent with true leadership and confidence. “With every challenge, I needed to remind myself of my ‘why’, my motivation for applying for this programme. I reminded myself of my passion for service and the joy the development work gives me,” shares Mona.

 “With time you start to embrace these imperfections, you find balance in all the chaos, and you develop the confidence to do anything,” reflects Boitumelo.


About the African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL) Fellowship Programme

The AfYWL Fellowship Programme, a flagship initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the African Union Commission (AUC), focuses on building leadership skills and professional experience over the duration of the 1-year fellowship. The Fellowship cultivates a new generation of young African women leaders to drive change towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063.


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