The Power of my SheVillage: How this has been relevant to both my professional and personal life.
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Growing up in rural Zambia, my memory of a SheVillage comes from being raised by two grandmothers – maternal and paternal. Their sense of community rubbed off on me in ways that I have only been able to understand as a grown woman and mother. Both my grandmothers left their birth homes (one came from the Eastern Cape - Transkei - South Africa) and moved to locations where they knew no one and as such navigated their new environs through the SheVillages and networks they created – in a non-internet age – with such great success.
In 2016, while attending a meeting in Bonn, Germany, I decided to host a dinner for about fifteen black women who are friends and also professional connections at the AirBnB I was staying out. I love to cook and I always find that there is a special bond that happens around sharing a meal with sister friends.
You see I was deliberate about this dinner. Why Black Women? Because in my opinion we are socialized differently, and don’t always have the same privileges as our white counterparts. And for most of us working within the UN system or other multilateral institutions or NGOs, we have had common experiences of navigating complex bureaucracies and work spaces. Or even experiences around unemployment, racism, sexism, name it. It was during this dinner that we all agreed that we wanted this to be a safe space, to be able to discuss mostly professional issues with honesty and transparency.
It was incredibly eye-opening, touching, healing and painful at the same time in realizing more of our commonalities than differences and how we almost never have safe spaces to share these experiences without judgment. Or let alone speak openly about the challenges we are all going through. It was this informality of the space that also provided each one of us an opportunity to interrogate our issues head on. I remember one of the ladies arguably pointing out that while it was ok to moan and groan about our experiences, however, it was equally important for us to agree on how best to address some of the challenges, going forward.
Enough of the complaining – what would we do about the issues we had brought into the open and to the surface? How would we have the intergenerational learning? Who would mentor who? How would we support each other professionally and personally where possible? And More!
Following this dinner, I proposed we set-up a WhatsApp group where we would continue our discussions on and off but also share insightful information that would be relevant to our lives. But we were also deliberate about regular meets be it in smaller or larger groups whenever we met at some conferences, meetings and/or events to continue to encourage each other and touch base. Of course, giving one another prior warning on who would be where at what moment. This was also extended to email exchanges as and when needed, checking each others presentations for conferences, providing morale support where needed in person or otherwise screening CVs, cover letters, facilitating connections to other networks and contacts.
What has emerged over the last three years has been incredibly enlightening for me and my SheVillage. I refer to this Black sisterhood network as a SheVillage for various reasons.
Power of community.
I realize now more than ever growing up as rural girl, community was everything. We ought to remember that one is only as strong as their community. I have been in awe of the consistency of these women regardless of where in the world they are. Scattered across the world from Chicago to London to Copenhagen to Tokyo to Nairobi all the way to Johannesburg to mention just a few places, they have come through for me personally and I for them – whenever I can. They have been my cheerleaders both in person and virtually too. We retweet each others posts whenever we can, just as an example. We connect each other with other relevant networks/contacts on a needs basis. We give each other intelligence on issues that we may have info about – be it a job, meeting, personalities etc. My work travel in the last few years has increased and when circumstances dictate that I can’t make it for my child’s sports event, my SheVillage kicks in, followed by videos of screams, cheers and laughter. I am so indebted to this incredible support system. Even as I have sat in intense and highly charged meetings, I am calmer knowing another sister is holding my hand – invisibly as it may seem – yet visibly.
Many a time life takes over and we forget to celebrate even the seemingly smallest of milestones. To us every milestone matters – even your child starting kindergarten. New Job. Marriage. A birth. Publishing a blog – name it. Where milestones have brought two or three together, even a bottle of champagne or a joint dinner have been held to celebrate. A moment to give our sister a hug or two.
A lot of times as women we sugar coat our advice for fear of hurting the other. Am I fat? What I do with these pimples on my face? Should I punch my horrible boss in the face? Should I do my PhD or not? Some of the questions that have popped up with some sisters and many more.
I have been fortunate enough to have this SheVillage that has been frank, sensitive and courteous in dispensing advice. I spoke to one sister about my struggle with weight after giving birth to my son and how I wasn’t feeling confident at all. She looked me straight in the eyes and went: Musonda, you need a rethink around your lifestyle. Be diligent with exercise and remember weight management is really 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. Gosh you live in Nairobi and close to Karura Forest – go for regular walks instead of being in the office for longer hours. And remember to love YOU as well because your body belongs to you.
I am so indebted to this sister because right now this moment I have never felt better. I am back to yoga and running consistently and have been vegetarian for a while now. My self-esteem and confidence are on a whole new level and the constant affirmations from the SheVillage have helped tremendously. Another sister was struggling with finalizing her PhD and as someone who has been through this journey, I provided tips on how best she navigates this PhD-Daunting-Journey to complete it.
Navigating the multicultural boundaries
As someone who grew up in rural Zambia, community was everything. We ought to remember that one is only as strong as their community and network. I have been in awe of the consistency of these women regardless of where in the world they are. Scattered across the world from Chicago to London to Copenhagen to Tokyo to Nairobi all the way to Johannesburg to mention just a few places, they have come through for me personally and I for them – whenever I can. They have been my cheerleaders both in person and virtually too. We retweet each others posts whenever we can, just as an example. We connect each other with other relevant networks/contacts on a needs basis. We give each other intelligence on issues that we may have info about – be it a job, meeting, personalities etc. My work travel in the last few years has increased and when circumstances dictate that I can’t make it for my child’s sports event, my SheVillage kicks in, followed by videos of screams, cheers and laughter. I am so indebted to this incredible support system. Even as I have sat in intense and highly charged meetings, I am calmer knowing another sister is holding my hand – invisibly as it may seem – yet visibly.
We all lead pretty much busy lives. However, what I have learnt from these women are the regular check-ins on each other and also as a collective. Once I noticed that one of the ladies had not commented, posted nor been active on the group for a while. I checked-in with her bilaterally. She had relocated to a new country, new job, trying to juggle so much she could not find her bearings. A phone call. A long chat. Listening.
We are wired differently as women generally and I realized that sometimes it’s hard for someone to just say “I just want to vent on how I am struggling here!” And so all one may need to hear from the other sister(s) is “Hey, is everything ok?” And all another sister can do is listen. In this fast-paced world, listening has become a rare gesture. And more so – Empathy.
Over a year ago I went through some professional and personal struggles and then I experienced first-hand the power of the SheVillage. Some sisters flew in from far and wide, cooked for me, loved me, and were just simply there to hold my hand or take my kids for a walk or ice-cream while I slept. One of them brought me a pair of red high heels – “You need a pick me up girl!!” I have never laughed so hard. Another just sent me a box of chocolates which I ate without sharing. I was headed to speak at a conference, and one of the sisters aware of my situation came over to check what I had packed in my case. Black cloths. She lost it and started unpacking my bag. “Girl, you are NOT going to a funeral!! You are going to represent us all on that podium and so you better show up in power RED! Please remember that you an oak tree growing on terra firma – real earth – NOT as a potted plant!” She further reminded me how many other young black women were learning from me having never had the same opportunities. I was blown away.
Another sister friend reminded me of a line from the lyrics of the Jazmine Sullivan song “Masterpiece”: “Who is this I’ve tried to be for so long? Filling my head with lies that I am not good enough. Then I heard something in my ear tell me I’m perfect, now that I know the truth – Time to show and prove…….Every part of me is beautiful. And I finally see I’m a work of art. A masterpiece!”
This was a moment in my life when a combination of all-of-the above kicked in with such sheer force, love, kindness and giving. After listening to this song I walked into my office, bald, platinum and confident. I have never been the same. And this SheVillage makes me feel so totally beautiful and confident. I could not have done this alone.
I believe that behind every confident, determined and thriving woman is her SheVillage.
This article is a dedication to my Purposeful Women - A fierce SheVillage - You know who you are and thank YOU. Aluta Continua.