Making memories and moving mountains

Reflections from the first 100 days of the AfYWL second cohort

September 13, 2022
Reflections from the AfYWL Fellows’ first 100 days

Gloria Nyang’iye (far right), AfYWL Fellow, with UNDP Malawi colleagues

UNDP Malawi

Friday, 25 March 2022, at 7:12 in the evening. This was the exact time Gloria Nyang’iye received a call informing her that she would be one of 38 young women, selected from over 5,000 applicants, for the African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL) Fellowship Programme. 

Less than 48 hours after accepting the assignment, Gloria had packed up her life in Nairobi and found herself en route to Lilongwe for a one-year deployment with UNDP Malawi. 

The second cohort of the AfYWL Fellowship Programme saw three dozen women deployed to 38 UNDP hosting offices in 26 countries, across four continents. Armed with master’s degrees and heaps of motivation, the fellows each brought their own inspiration; the legacy of parents, supportive families, their African heritage, a desire to uplift others, faith and plain curiosity.

Gloria describes her first 100 days working in Malawi as both challenging and personally transformative. Other fellows echoed these thoughts. While one fellow noticed that time seemed to move faster, another was pleased to finally rise above “drowning in work”. Others highlighted how the fellowship was strengthening and stretching their foreign language skills.

"Being a woman is a strength and not a weakness. I like to call it a superpower! We can be feminine, nurturing and empathetic while being intelligent, creative and ambitious. These are all traits of a strong leader."
Gloria Nyang’iye, AfYWL Fellow, UNDP Malawi
AfYWL Fellows deployed to New York met Ahunna Eziakonwa, UN Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Africa

AfYWL Fellows deployed to New York and Ahunna Eziakonwa (centre), UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Africa

UNDP Africa

In 2019, UNDP partnered with the African Union (AU) to advance their shared commitment to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa. The AfYWL Fellowship Programme was one of the outcomes of this partnership. Across their various duty stations, the young women are gaining the leadership skills and experience they need to advance the Sustainable Development Goals and the AU’s Agenda 2063. This will enable them to contribute effectively to decision-making in public, private and multilateral institutions – both at home and abroad. 

Pearl Odigwe quotes Nassim Taleb, Lebanese-American professor and author, from his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: “Look for what confirms your ignorance and not knowledge.” Pearl, who is from Nigeria, is deployed with UNDP Cabo Verde. She describes the fellowship as a unique example of intra-African exchange, allowing Africans to explore the continent through professional opportunities. She believes that Africa is well on its way to achieving “substantial transformative change” through initiatives such as the AfYWL Fellowship Programme.

"I’m not a pro, but I’m wiser and stronger."
Esther Bansah, AfYWL Fellow, UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and Central Asia (RBEC), Turkey
AfYWL Fellow Jemima Michael, UNDP Ghana (right) with the Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy

AfYWL Fellow Jemima Michael (right), UNDP Ghana, with Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy

UNDP Ghana

The programme is also creating a network of young women professionals and building a diverse talent pool to enhance UNDP’s organizational efficiency and contribute to more responsive and effective policies and programmes. While the first cohort (2019–2021) was made up of 21 fellows, the second group increased to 38.

Participants describe feeling privileged to be able to form part of the fellowship, gain access to the United Nations system, and be able to live, work and travel in other countries. Adja Sy, a Senegalese national stationed with the UNDP Regional Programme for Africa in Ethiopia, appreciates the opportunities she has had so far. This has included access to peace and security meetings at the African Union, taking part in a data collection quality assurance mission in Ghana, and engaging with other changemakers in “Africa’s political capital – Addis Ababa”.

Ayak Wel comes from South Sudan and serves as the Gender Focal Point for UNDP Djibouti. Here, she plays a leading role in implementing gender-mainstreaming activities, including the office’s participation in the Gender Equality Seal. In her position at UNDP South Africa, Botswanan Boitumelo Gabankitse has already worked on projects ranging from biodiversity, energy and transboundary water management. She has also participated in field missions and facilitated a study tour between The Gambia and South Africa.

"I am learning more about myself… to embrace my doubts, act in uncertainty and cope with disruptions."
Mona Moustafa, AfYWL Fellow, UNDP Lao People's Democratic Republic

The women leaders also recognize the responsibility of representing both their gender and their countries; as well as the scale of work ahead. “I am reminded of the responsibility that I have to make sure the work I do and life I lead have a positive and meaningful impact,” says Vanessa Akibate, originally from Ghana and deployed with UNDP Zambia. 

The fellows’ first 100 days required many adjustments and transitions, and this process has not always been easy. Zimbabwean Mercy Nyamutswa admits to shedding a tear or two despite being surrounded by what she calls the “warmest and kindest people in the world” while working with the governance and human rights team in UNDP Gambia. 

Despite being selected for their already impressive backgrounds and motivations, some of the fellows felt a degree of self-doubt creeping in. Kenyan Veronica Otieno, deployed to the UNDP Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy in New York, wondered “Why me?” Jemima Michael of Tanzania who was placed with UNDP in Ghana, asked, “Do I have anything worth sharing?” After conducting a gender audit for the country office and participating in other tasks, Jemima realized how wrong she had been to question her contributions.

These 38 women, like those who came before them and those who will come after, are putting in the work to become successful professionals and leaders. Among them, they are creating indestructible building blocks for shaping #TheAfricaWeWant. “If someone believes in you,” says Adja Sy, “prove them right.”

"I hope my AfYWL sisters are making memories and moving mountains, wherever they are!"
Makeda Leikun Yeshaneh, AfYWL Fellow, UNDP Bureau of Public Policy and Support, New York