As a child in Lusaka, Zambia, Chola Lungu Mutoni wanted to be one thing: a teacher.
“I remember coming home from school every day, lining up my dolls, and teaching them everything I had learned that day,” Chola says.
Chola, dressed on an afternoon in late July in a flowing, indigo gown and a geometric, tangerine necklace, is soft-spoken but self-assured.
“If we are going to influence the next generation of African leaders,” she says, “we need to speak their language, and if we can’t, we at least need to understand their culture.”
Chola, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow and an independent communications consultant, says having a keen understanding of community traditions is essential before trying to change minds.
“I noticed that NGOs would come to Zambia and try to influence people without learning our customs,” she explains. “But you have to understand people before you can persuade them.”
Chola shares the example of a failed contraception advertisement in the country.
“I remember the brand’s individualistic ‘my condom, my choice’ message overlooked the strong communal ties present in Zambia,” Chola says. “‘My condom, my choice’ isn’t something we’d say.”
Chola explains, too, how eye contact conveys status in Zambia and is often misused by newcomers.
“You should only make eye contact with those in your age group,” she says. “So if a junior employee working at an NGO makes eye contact with a senior colleague, that would be seen as a sign of disrespect or of equating himself with the senior staff member.”
In her own work, Chola has noticed how mentorship in Zambia isn’t seen as a distinct concept but rather as a way of life, a fact that makes her consultancy work that much more challenging.
“In Zambia, we don’t typically see the need for mentorship, as we have close friends and family members we can consult,” she says. “But it’s worth seeking out professional mentors — and this is something I tell young adults — because they can give you the objective advice that you need.”
Chola sees this close engagement with community members as a first step to understanding and changing society.
“I advise newcomers to learn from others, to educate themselves about social customs and to focus not just on their bottom line, but also on how they are helping the wider community,” she says.
In this, Chola stresses the importance of social entrepreneurship or starting businesses to solve societal or environmental issues.
“There is a word in South Africa, ‘ubuntu,’ which roughly translates to ‘I am because we are,’” Chola says. “It’s the idea that whatever we do, we are doing it for our community.”
“That’s what being a leader comes down to,” she says. “It’s a selflessness focused not on what you can gain but on how you can help others.”
“Real leadership is asking, ‘How can I take my community with me? How can I empower someone else?’”
Inspired by Chola’s story? Learn how you can create, innovate, and prosper on the YALI Entrepreneurs page.
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