Fatma Abdalla is a product of community action. Growing up, her mother would fundraise to pay her tuition. “The community stood by me so that I could gain my degree,” the business school graduate tells YALI Voices. “I feel that it’s my time now to pay back to the community.”
In 2014, she founded Lamu Professionals Forum as a way for like-minded young professionals from the Island of Lamu, Kenya, to share their experiences with education as a means to grow socio-economic opportunity and empower the whole community.
“I believe that education is key, and that each and every youth in the community should benefit from it so that the whole community can benefit at large,” she says.
The forum focuses on education advocacy, employment opportunity awareness and entrepreneurship.
“So we don’t just tell them about the employment or the formal opportunities that are available, we also sensitize them on how they could create employment, so as we improve the living standards of the community in my county.”
Abdalla doesn’t see community service as an act of charity, but as an act of community-building that lifts up everyone involved, and she wants the YALI Network to embrace community service as a tool for creating a more prosperous society.
“YALI Network members, on the Mandela Day, please just go and do something you are passionate about to the community, be it small or big, it doesn’t matter, and make sure that we all bring an idea of unity towards a better African continent.”
Hear Abdalla tell how she harnesses networks of volunteers to spur socio-economic change by listening to the YALI Voices podcast or read the complete transcript below:
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“YALI Voices Podcast Transcript: Fatma Abdalla”
FATMA ABDALLA: YALI Network members, please just go and do something you are passionate about to the community, be it small or big, it doesn’t matter, and make sure that we all bring an idea of unity towards a better African continent.
VOICE OVER: Greetings and welcome to another edition of YALI Voices. The YALI Voices podcast is your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network.
Meet Fatma Abdalla.
FATMA ABDALLA: OK, my name is Fatma Abdalla from Kenya.
VOICE OVER: Currently, Fatma is vice chairperson of the Lamu County Public Service board, where she advises the county government on human resource management and development. She also works on ensuring compliance with the principles of public service and good governance. She has over 10 years of experience in finance, administration and management.
Fatma is also a Mandela Washington Fellow.
FATMA ABDALLA: As a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2016 I must first admit that this experience was a life-changing experience for me — a turning point in my career life — and for my community.
VOICE OVER: She’s the founder of the Lamu Professionals Forum, an organization of like-minded professionals who are creating awareness on the importance of education and opportunities, both formal and informal, to spur socio-economic growth through economic empowerment.
We start with why Fatma thinks it’s important to give back to her community.
FATMA ABDALLA: So why should we pay back to the community? We can’t afford to just keep the experience and the exposure just to ourselves. So I feel that whatever I have learned from the experience, from the leadership calls, from meeting different people, and what I’ve learned from different organizations the way they do things, I should as well replicate that to the community.
I’ve always been passionate about community work. Before I went for the fellowship, I used to volunteer at community level and having the experience and the exposure made me do things differently and in a better way. The impact that I have seen through the — I mean, through conducting various programs is different from the way I used to do it before. So I feel it’s essential that as a Mandela Fellow I should share what I have gained from the United States so that the community can benefit as well.
MS. ABDALLA: Why I feel it’s important that we should pay back to the community without being rewarded? I personally — I come from a very humble family background; I grew up so passionate about education. Seeing my family very poor, I wanted to make a difference, and my parents had to do a series of fundraising to make sure that I go to school. And I thought that having experienced all that in my early childhood, I should also give back to the community because the community also stood for me to make sure that I achieved my dreams. And I’ve always dreamed that education is key; that once you’re educated, it will be able to alleviate poverty. And I must admit that in a community or a society set up that one has to give back to the community.
As I’ve said earlier that I went through difficulties to gain my education, having coming from a background where it was very difficult for my family to raise my education or my fees, and the community stood by me so that I could gain my degree. After that, I struggled to work so that I’m able to pay for myself for my master’s, so it was — it is an experience that I felt that it’s my time now to pay back to the community.
So immediately I started working. I will do sort of mentoring young kids on the importance of education because I know it has changed my life and that of my family, and I wanted it to be replicated also to the community ’cause I believe that education is key, and that each and every youth in the community should benefit from it so that the whole community can benefit at large.
MS. ABDALLA: I want to tell those who feel that any work is not for free. In my perception that is not true. Even according to our religion, we are told that if you help somebody then definitely God will reward you for that in-kind, not actually in cash. People should not expect to be rewarded for doing something good for the community. We should all have that heart for helping the community, so that we can all come to a level whereby we can all afford a good standard of living.
VOICE OVER: Here Fatma shares what motivates her as a member of a professional organization and why finding time to volunteer is important to her.
MS. ABDALLA: OK, this brings me back to how I go to learn about YALI; always passionate about education. Always passionate about women, because I’ve seen my mom struggling, doing tailoring, vendoring to make sure also she supports me, she helps my dad who was just a supervisor at the telecom company, so I’ve seen them struggling in life. So I’ve always been passionate about girls’ education, specific, and the women empowerment.
So in 2014, we established the Lamu Professional Forum to incorporate all the professionals from Lamu as a way of them paying back to the community ’cause my story is not just about me — almost the rest of the women and the men who went through education system they were helped in some way or the other. So we decided to come together.
So I founded this community-based organization called Lamu Professional Forum, and we decided that we are going to address three key issues. One of them is on education advocacy, because I felt that that is key.
And then on the other issue was the creation of awareness on employment opportunities and other opportunity, and thirdly, on aspiring of socio-economic activity. So through the education advocacy, we have done and we intend to do several activities so as to realize that, because our vision is to have an enlightened community.
We also have the Vision 2030, which also will come with so many opportunities — the employment opportunities. So we don’t just tell them about the employment or the formal opportunities that are available, we also sensitize them on how they could create employment, so as we improve the living standards of the community in my county. So that’s how we address it.
Then we intend also to do like free tuition services so that they are able to improve on their performance because they will not be able to achieve what we want if they have poor performance. So we are intending to do that, but we have not realized because of lack of resources and at the same time provision of materials to schools, to the student, so that they get informed, they get exposed on what is expected of them.
Then when it comes to the creation of employment opportunity, what we have actually tried to do as Lamu Professional Forum, and intend to do, is to create workshop-like skill development workshop. As I’ve told you, I work as the vice chair of Lamu County Public Service Board, and one of my main mandate is to advise the county government on human resource-related issue, including recruitment of county government staff. And I found this gap that the opportunities — the employment opportunities available are not being fully realized by the community. As I’ve said earlier, we want to — we thought of doing something so as to make those who are privileged to be — I mean, who are educated to get this opportunity and to become competitive both locally, at the county level, and also outside, ’cause you realize that you conduct an interview and people can’t express themselves. So they’re not competitive. You realize that when they apply for that particular job, they don’t have the necessary skills to do the application. So what we do is to, I mean, capacity-build the graduates now on résumé application, how to present themselves in the interview so that they become competitive, and also encourage them to also create the employment, not to just wait for the government opportunities or private-sector opportunity, then themselves they could create employment.
Then lastly now, for the economic empowerment, we felt, yes, our women, especially women and youth, they’ve been struggling because of lack of education, as I’ve told you. They need something that they could do to sustain themselves. So actually, we are trying also, because, as I’ve told you earlier, because of financial problems and resources, we are unable to realize all these things because it’s huge, and you realize that all these things I’m telling are interrelated.
So what we want for these women and the youth empowerment is to see if there’s an activity they could do and is sustainable. And what we have done is to talk to the women to venture into maybe agribusiness, so that they are able to eat maybe in their gardens, to feed themselves, and to solve the problem of food insecurity and to, as well, create business opportunities for themselves.
MS. ABDALLA: Initially, I must admit, it was very difficult getting people to accept the idea and the concept you want because of time — almost all of them are working in the government sector — and to accept what you do. But initially, they came to realize that this is important because we were deprived of that, because at our time we didn’t have anybody to tell us this is the right career to do. So they also feel the importance of doing this. So we will call people in a meeting and we will share the vision of Lamu Professional Forum and what we want to achieve for the future generation. And, I must admit, that we have, like right now, we have almost over 35 dedicated Lamu Professional Forum members, who when we have any kind of activity, they volunteer without expecting any return.
VOICE OVER: Fatma is an active YALI Network member who has held several YALI Learns events in her community. We discussed how she uses the YALI online resources and why she volunteers to share her knowledge.
MS. ABDALLA: Yes, I have conducted several program. I used to do programs with the American — and I’m still doing some programs with the American Space in Lamu, and we have capacity-build women, we have capacity-build youth. And I’ve shared with them several times about YALI, the importance of YALI, what kind of resources they could benefit from YALI. The online courses, which are there, that you don’t need actually — because the American Space provide the facilities, the computer, and the internet, they could just come do the courses. You don’t have to go to college for those who cannot afford, but they could come and, or access internet and do those particular courses and get a certificate. So I will encourage them to do that as one of way of capacity-building themselves.
I remember after I’ve done an online course on the rights of women and girls, and I took it up. First, I decided to talk about the rights of girls and education with the mothers because I felt that they were the key stakeholders. So I did first a workshop with the mothers and teachers just to get an insight of what is preventing these girls from pursuing their studies or finishing their studies. And it was very overwhelming because I get to learn from the teachers that there are several problems which are hindering the girls. One of them is poverty, and other issues to do with menses — some will say that early marriages — and we came up with solutions as well on how we are going to tackle these problems that they feel are hindering our girls from pursuing their studies.
So after that, we decided now let’s go and hear from the horse’s mouth, so we went to two different schools. We sampled two different schools. We went, and you can’t believe it, we had a very interactive session with the girls. We asked themselves to tell us what are the main problem? We’ve heard from your parents, we’ve heard from your teachers, but we want to hear from you. What is preventing you from finishing your education? They will tell us the reason and one of them they’ll say that the peer pressure, having a boyfriend, thinking, you know, the adolescent stage is disturbing them, and then also forced marriages. So we did that program and the girls promised that they will pass this crusade to their other fellow girls and to make sure that they will finish their studies and encourage others to also finish their study because they saw the importance of it.
Then I also did for the climate change — the YALI Goes Green — I also got a pledge for that. I also went to schools. We did one at American Space. Then we went to schools; I did with Lamu girls, and it was very nice. At least they appreciated that people come talk to us about girls, telling us about something different, and we were amazed, in fact, that the girls knew so much about the climate and they were so much interested. And we even had an activity like planting trees. So it was wonderful.
And also at workplace, I’ve also encouraged other members, or other public officers, to also join in YALI. When it comes to the application of this kind of opportunities, like the Mandela Washington Fellowship, and the East Africa (Regional Leadership Center), I encourage them to apply because it’s one way also — it’s — I don’t feel that it’s a reward. It’s one way of capacity-building them further and expose them because, I must admit that this fellowship has given me a platform because I never used to put more emphasis about networking. I never saw the importance of it till after my, I mean, when I was there I learned how important networking is and that is something that I’ve taken back with me back home.
So yes, I sensitize people and, like this time two of our members from the forum have been selected. One has gone to the East Africa, and one is a Mandela Fellow. So I can probably say that I’m doing a great job. And some of the youth they consider me as their mentor and a role model, and I feel proud when somebody tells me that “I look up to you.” They come for my advice — “What can I do? I have this problem. I need to apply for this particular position, or I need to do this kind of degree; do you think it’s marketable? What can I do?” So I will advise them accordingly depending on their interest levels.
VOICE OVER: July 18 is Mandela Day; a day of service across the world. Fatma talked about her plans for July 18, and she encourages YALI Network members to make sure they also commemorate this day of service.
MS. ABDALLA: I want that day, on Mandela Day — you see when — this YALI thing has brought all the African country together. We now know each other. We can call each other brother and sister. Before, we never had an idea somebody from Uganda doing a great job; we never have an idea somebody from Tanzania, but the YALI Network has brought us together. And, in fact, there are other people who are already doing a collaborated effort in ensuring that they do something now not only just for their community, but for the African continent. So I want to see that all YALI members coming together and do one particular project. In fact, there’s an initiative by one of the YALI member, we do a particular program on that particular day just as a way of showing how grateful we are for this program and also bringing Africa together.
YALI Network members, on the Mandela Day, please just go and do something you are passionate about to the community, be it small or big, it doesn’t matter, and make sure that we all bring an idea of unity towards a better African continent.
VOICE OVER: It was great hearing about Fatma’s volunteer work with the Lamu Professional Forum and her enthusiastic support for sharing knowledge by hosting YALI Learns events. This is a great example of how she is using her skills to help future generations in her community.
As always, thanks for listening to another YALI Voices Podcast.
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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Government.