‘I think there is a space for men as allies in feminist conversations’
Sierra-Leonean activist and social entrepreneur, Moiyattu Banya-Keister is keen about impacting African women and girls. She does this actively through several initiatives, notably- Women Change Africa, a social enterprise that curates the stories of African women and Girls Empowerment Summit Sierra Leone, a social impact feminist-based organisation that supports girls in becoming leaders and change agents in their societies.
She is passionate about developing sustainable communities, channeling resources, and developing tools for women and girls globally. Moiyattu has a Master’s in Social Enterprise Administration from the Columbia University School of Social Work with a Law Minor and has been recognized on various media platforms including Okay Africa Magazine’s Okay Africa 100 Woman Award 2018 as an Okay Africa Okay 100 Woman Honoree.
In this interview with Aderinsola Adeniran of Leading Ladies Africa, Moiyattu discusses her “feminist manifesto,” the importance of including men in feminist conversations and the role sisterhood has played on her journey. Be inspired!
The conversation on social, political and economic equality of the sexes is at an all-time high, especially in Africa. Do you think the impact of this conversation is felt in Africa? How so? What do you think can be done to move the conversation forward?
I think a lot of strides have been made on the African continent mainly because of the historical contributions of women’s rights activists and feminists over time. I think the shift we are seeing now isn’t new, it is more pronounced because of the digital space. There are many wins we must say- women are pushing in leadership roles across the continent, various laws to protect women have been implemented both at the international and regional levels. African women are now taking ownership of their economic independence by going into entrepreneurship, yet there is so much more to be done.
Just a week ago, a young woman lost her life in South Africa due to a rape perpetrated by a man in the community who is well known for raping women. No one protected that woman and she lost her life. Xenophobic attacks are still prevalent in certain areas of Africa, poor access to quality education still puts girls at a disadvantage. In Sierra Leone, pregnant girls are banned from attending school. We need collective action on all levels and for larger machines such as the government to pay attention to the innovative solutions that rest in the hands of women and girls and serve as allies to fuel those innovations on a larger scale.
What does female empowerment mean to you?
I don’t necessarily go with the term “female empowerment,” as I think the space of female empowerment is very much so cluttered now and it has become difficult to see who is truly doing this because they care about the work and who is doing it solely because of the dollars. I ascribe to feminist thinking which basically advocates for equality of resources, power, and spaces for both women and men.
What are your thoughts on including men in conversations that pertain to female empowerment?
I think there is a space for men as allies in feminist spaces, but I think we haven’t been intentional about what this looks like. I have noticed in the recent five years, more men are “championing” feminism mostly because of movements such as the He for She movement. I think it’s fine for men to serve as allies if they truly can own the privilege they possess and actively feel fine to give up their power. Instead, what we are progressively seeing are men posing to be feminist or champions of “female empowerment” and taking up spaces and resources that are meant for those who are disadvantaged by patriarchy- women and girls.
I also think there is a space for men in empowerment for boys. Feminism is also about helping boys and men think about their masculinities and identities of what it means to be a man or a boy and how to tear down some of the very labels society places upon them that end up serving as some of the reasons women become disadvantaged. I think that is a space that is heavily neglected and having men who have lived experiences and employ a feminist lens can have a significant impact on young boys.
Focusing on your corporate experience briefly, it would seem you knew early on that you wanted to work in the social development sector and tailored your educational preferences to reflect this. Why social development? Also, why the specific focus on women and girls?
I recently completed an interview for a potential opportunity. I remember at the end of the interview, the interviewer told me she was shocked that at a very young age, I had been dreaming about what I wanted to do and went ahead and did just that. She went on to say most women don’t have this opportunity. I never realised my experience was a rarity. Maybe because I am surrounded by women who dared to dream at very young ages. That push and encouragement from the women around me are what enabled me to know at a young age that I wanted to make a difference.
My family, environment allowed me to be inquisitive, explore, build relationships with people who didn’t necessarily look like me. My experience being in the civil war in my country of birth Sierra Leone, I think had a significant impact on why I work with women and girls. I lived in a pretty stable environment until the war happened in Sierra Leone over 15 years ago. My yearning to ensure stable and peaceful societies for women and girls is what drew me to my work which I have done for over a decade.
Having spent a significant amount of time in this sector, can you share some of the challenges you have personally experienced?
Having a vision and being consistent with the vision is a challenge because every day you must wake up and ensure that vision is on target. You must also learn how to tune out distractions and so many come along the way. A lot of times, I get tired, frustrated, and jaded by the number of people who have now suddenly become “women’s empowerment enthusiasts.” People who truly have questionable intentions in the space and the damage they may be doing with this work. These types of things can be very challenging particularly as you look for resources to create a sustainable organisation.
Another challenge is that there are still many people who believe that women and girls do not deserve equal rights. In Sierra Leone, for instance, you will find these beliefs with both women and men. It is a challenge because just when you think you are 10 steps ahead in your work, you feel taken 10 steps back by one statement or action someone makes.
And the highlights?
To know I contributed to the work so far that has impacted the lives of women and girls has been my greatest highlight. Another highlight is the amazing women I have built strong feminist sisterhoods with by virtue of doing this work. I truly couldn’t do this work without the women who God has blessed me to work with who are now like sisters to me. Another highlight is having a family that supports me and understands my vision and work. I have a very supportive partner, and my mother is also strong support for my work. Without a strong family foundation, it is impossible to do this work which I call heart work because it is priceless. No amount of money can substitute for its impact.
If you get the chance to be the President of an African country for one-year, which country will it be and what changes will you effect?
Can I create my own African country? Lol! in all honesty, I’d love the opportunity to create a “woman topic” of sorts where women are strong positive forces in leadership, equality between women and men are realised, laws exist and work that protect the lives of women and girls. I guess I’d like Sierra Leone to be that womantopia, but now it isn’t. If anything, it is quite the opposite.
Can you walk us through what you do at GESL and Women Change Africa briefly?
Girls Empowerment Summit Sierra Leone (GESL) is a social impact feminist-based organisation that supports girls in becoming leaders and change agents in their societies. We support girls to enhance their leadership skills, build positive peer relationships and help develop them in the areas of self-development, health, technology, community activism, sisterhood, and mentorship. We work year-round with girls who enter our program at JSS1 usually about the age of 11 to 12 and leave our program at SS3 which is about 17/18. We believe in investing in young girls, so we do this in a holistic manner and take the time to support each girl and their family to become ready for the next stage of their lives.
Women Change Africa (WCA) is a social enterprise that focuses on celebrating, connecting and cultivating female entrepreneurs, trail-blazing leaders, and culture shifters both in the Diaspora and on the African continent. We digitalise stories of African women as well as provide workshops to help their businesses develop, whilst connecting them to investor-based programs to help strengthen and grow their businesses. Since its inception in 2012, WCA has partnered with organisations and brands such as Afroelle Magazine, African Women’s Development Fund USA (AWDF-USA), MUI PR, Moremi Initiative, Africans Gone Natural (AGN) and Applause Africa among others.
Can you share some milestones that the organisations have recorded so far?
To date, GESL has impacted 400+ girls through the consistent rendering of our programs. We have empowered the leadership skills of 400+ girls so far. We have enabled girls to remain in school due to the mentorship aspect of our programs. Over 90 per cent of our girls in our program reported that our programs help them stay focused and in school. To date, WCA has reached and impacted the lives of over 300+ women entrepreneurs through our workshops and events and over 7,000 women entrepreneurs in the digital space. WCA serves African women in the diaspora, mostly social entrepreneurs and thought leaders through event and digital partnerships to amplify their stories. In addition to the Diaspora, WCA also hosts events in the form of masterclasses to build the capacity of women entrepreneurs.
Digressing a bit, how have you been able to stay focused and consistent on your path in a world that is constantly churning out ideas on how women should be and what they should aspire to?
God has been my reason for being and for my purpose. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and I am unapologetic about what being a woman of faith has done for my life. It has kept me focused on my path and not to compare what I am doing to anyone. This is what has pushed me to constantly keep going. What has kept me grounded is my faith and prayer.
I also believe sharing life lessons from my journey has been instrumental in keeping me focused too. I recently started sharing the lessons I have learned over the course of my work and life through my latest digital project my podcast Tea and Pepper soup (http://www.moiyattubanya.com/tea–peppersoup.html) a podcast (available on both iTunes and Spotify) focused on social impact and entrepreneurship using a faith and wellness lens.
What does sisterhood mean to you? Has it been instrumental to your growth? How so?
Everything! I thrive off communities of women supporting each other in beautiful and authentic ways. My strongest relationships are with women and women have been at the center of everything that I do. Sisterhood has been pivotal to my growth. From the mentors I have to the women I work with, to the little sisters I have in GESL; we all find ways to support and build one other. There is never a time I need something and feel as if I can’t call on someone and for that alone, I feel blessed. That’s sisterhood. Having women who stand in the light when you are in the shadows to direct you back to your light. Having women who get you without having to say much. Having women who have a passion for changing communities and serve effortlessly with no hidden agendas. That’s love and that’s sisterhood for me.
What counts as fun for Moiyattu Banya?
Honestly, I love my solitude and indulging in a really good book. I just finished Stay with Me by Ayobami Adedeji and I enjoyed sitting in the bookstore for three days and gobbling it up. I also enjoy travelling to cities with history and indulging in the architecture of the city, as well as the natural habitat. I love a good beach day.
Tell us three things people do not know about you?
I enjoy eating spicy mango popsicles at odd hours of the night. I fall asleep watching movies at night. I love to go hiking in very estranged mountainous places.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Fulfilling the call that God has me here for Unlocking destinies of women and girls and helping them in fulfilling their life’s purpose.
How would you advise women who are trying to find themselves and hone their voices?
Find out what brings you joy, follow that, stick to it, serve God and be of service to people.