By Fatima Babih
Dear First Lady Fatima Bio:
Congratulations on your husband’s victory at the 2018 elections in Sierra Leone!
I write this letter on behalf of the majority of women and girls in Sierra Leone, who are illiterate, living in abject poverty and are in dire need of a Compassionate First Lady; one who is willing and able to put aside personal ambition and fame to genuinely contribute to women’s struggle for socioeconomic, civil and political change in our beloved country.
As First Lady in a country where women are grossly disadvantaged and conditioned to seek redemption through men, you are automatically a role model; in an influential position to either perpetuate this caustic societal norm or contribute to making changes that would put women on a progressive trajectory.
I would, therefore, implore you to carefully choose how you proceed in performing your role as First Lady. As you navigate the limelight, please keep in mind the predicament of girls in Sierra Leone whose future rests on the shoulders of the generation of women before them.
Being the 5th First Lady in less than 50 years, a role that started with the wife of Siaka Stevens when her husband became the first president of Sierra Leone, your position has a relatively short history and practically no template for how to perform your role. Other than perceiving them as distant celebrities, the Sierra Leone public has generally not been privy to the work or activities of their First Ladies. There is no national narrative about how Rebecca Stevens, Hannah Momoh, Patricia Kabba and Sia Koroma performed their roles, nor is the role of the First Lady known to be a great source of respite for girl’s and women’s issues in our nation.
In her decade long tenure, your immediate predecessor, First Lady Sia Koroma, who was the first to come into her role in the era of the internet and social media, the public got to learn a little about her activities through her website and social media postings. Even so, little was known about Mrs. Koroma’s “initiates” and activities beyond Freetown. Therefore, your predecessors have not set a trend for how the first lady’s role should be performed.
Is the lack of a model for the First Lady’s role in Sierra Leone a hurdle or opportunity for you to make meaningful contributions to women’s struggles? The answer to this question depends on which of two pathways you choose to proceed as Sierra Leone’s current First Lady: Famous First Lady or Compassionate First Lady.
Famous First Lady
A Famous First Lady is an ambitious woman who views her First Lady position as a performing stage for personal celebrity, as well as a pathway to achieving fame, fortune and political gains for herself and her husband. Should you choose to proceed as the Famous First Lady, your chances of contributing meaningfully to women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone will be diminished.
On the path of being a Famous First Lady, you will focus more on what makes you feel celebrated than what benefits women and girls; your face will be on television, newspaper front pages and your voice will be heard on the radio every day, claiming to champion the issue of the day. You will endeavor to set the agenda for women’s development while using girls and women as pawns to gain favors with donors, the media, and the international community. Thereby diverting attention and resources from real gender issues, as well as draining vital donor funds that could help sustain legitimate organizations and institutions that have been working in the interest of girls and women for decades in Sierra Leone.
Furthermore, should you proceed on the path of the Famous First Lady, you will self-appoint as the sole arbiter of women’s agenda in your husband’s political party as well as the country. Given your closeness to political power through your husband, and our country’s dependence on donor funds for social programs, you stand to have a huge portion of resources in your control for girls and women.
Given such resource control, a Famous First Lady would be inclined to commandeer and spearhead gender empowerment activities that could be better managed by passionate and seasoned women’s empowerment organizations in Sierra Leone. Commandeering gender movements by a Famous First Lady jeopardizes decades-long struggles to foster sustainable paths to women’s advancement in our highly patriarchal society.
A Famous First Lady, therefore, is a false messiah that grassroots women would look up to as a savior. With a false messiah championing women’s agenda, there will be fragmentation among women and repression of women’s chances for progress in all areas of our society.
In this era of social media, choosing to take center stage and full control of programs and vital resources as a Famous First Lady would lead to disrepute for you worldwide, which would place you on the list of Famous First Ladies around Africa, who have historically strangled women’s empowerment by usurping vital resources for their personal ambitions and husbands’ party politics, at the expense and detriment of girls and women in their countries.
Former Famous First Ladies such as Mrs. Grace Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mrs. Nana Rawlings of Ghana, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo of Nigeria, Mrs. Vera Chiluba of Zambia (the list could go on), have left nothing behind but their legacy of draining needed resources to promote their own fame and fortunes. These Famous First Ladies are not good role models for the First Lady of Sierra Leone to emulate, because women and girls in Sierra Leone are in such deplorable condition, we simply cannot afford or withstand a Famous First Lady.
Compassionate First Lady
The better option, in my view, is for you to proceed in performing your role as the Compassionate First Lady; a woman who understands the plights of girls and women in Sierra Leone and is ready and willing to contribute to making positive changes.
A Compassionate First Lady will not be focused on the glamour and celebrity of being First Lady, but strives for real results by lending vital support to strengthen organizations and institutions that are working to engender change in the lives of girls and women in Sierra Leone.
Should you choose the path of the Compassionate First Lady, you will have a great chance to develop positive synergy with existing women’s movements for advancement in our society and be a more effective First Lady for your husband’s administration and his political career.
Being a Compassionate First Lady, you would recognize that the political power and prestige you have today was granted first by the Almighty, and by virtue of you being the wife of the president of our beloved nation. As such, you are in a transient position of trust and must be a willing partner of gender empowerment institutions and organizations, through which you could contribute more sustainably to women’s struggle for advancement in Sierra Leone.
In a grossly patriarchal society, such as Sierra Leone, women are mainly able to gain political power and leadership through the favors of the male power brokers, which is why women’s self-sufficiency is not valued nor promoted in our society. Instead of aspiring for leadership, girls in Sierra Leone are conditioned to aspire to become wives or mistresses of men of means or power. But this social paradigm must shift in order for women to realize any significant advancement in Sierra Leone.
Though transient, your position as First Lady provides a window of opportunity to contribute to this needed change in our society; by performing your role judiciously, not just for self-promotion, but in genuine support of girls and women’s progress in our society, you will triumph as a Compassionate First Lady.
Whether your position impacts the lives of girls, women and all in our society positively or negatively would be determined by your choice to proceed either as the Famous First Lady or the Compassionate First Lady.
May the Almighty guide you in your role & bless women’s struggle in Sierra Leone!