Keep Going: New Adventures in East Africa

By: Raymonda Burgman, Director of HERS Institutes

Can you imagine traveling 28 hours, changing planes in Minneapolis and Amsterdam with a stop in Kigali, for a 20-minute speech? During my time at the HERS-East Africa program meeting, I learned how unimportant meeting agendas are when expressing the personal and professional importance of an experience.

When enlisted to attend the meeting, I understood that HERS-EA was joining HERS-South Africa in bringing leadership development to women in the East African region. During my time there I would be engaging with women not only from Uganda but also Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia.  My background includes teaching Economics of War. In this course, we discussed how antiquated the term war was for the slowed economic growth which would result from the conflicts and political instability occurring across the African continent. I did not want that knowledge as a solitary lens for these meetings because as Adichie Chimamanda so eloquently shares no person, country, or continent is a solitary reference point. There are complexities I expected the internet to clarify for me. I wanted to learn as much about the region as possible prior to my trip. Unfortunately, the Internet does not have all the answers. My exploration did not elucidate much on the lives of women in the region beyond what I already knew. I was comforted knowing that I would only be contributing a mere 20 minutes to the meeting when I received messages from the HERS-EA organizers, “You are so Welcome to Africa.” I too hoped that not only was I welcome but also that HERS-EA, the brainchild of Drs. Margaret Khaitsa and Florence Wakoko-Studstill, both HERS Denver Institute Alumnae, would be a success.

On the first full day of the meeting, after having slept only 4 hours, I glided pass several women and men standing outside the conference room and entered into a room buzzing with activity. I scanned the space and a slight smile with a subsequent happy feeling came over me. I enjoy the opening of the HERS Institutes located in Bryn Mawr, Denver, and Wellesley. It is fun to see the group come together, just as I imagined this group fusing. The smile, conquering the 9-hour time difference and the marathon travel, was not in anticipation of what I thought was coming. My happiness was about the moment. The room had energy and as a Black woman, this was a sight to behold. It was a room filled with Black women and a sprinkling of men. Are there this many women and men who want to advance women’s leadership in East Africa?

The jet lag, lack of sleep, and general disbelief that I was in Uganda vanished. I was fully present during each session. Internally, I laughed as we started with introductions because it felt like a HERS Institute, even with the men in the room. The program committee had asked me to introduce the participants to the organization by covering a history of HERS. I thought: I can cover 42 years in 20 minutes. I was listed as one of the first speakers on the agenda I received prior to the meeting. Happily, The history of HERS presentation came much later than scheduled because the organizers changed the agenda to allow several other speakers to address the group first. I learned some of what I wanted to know from my internet search by listening attentively to the two male speakers who spoke after the 90 participants completed their introductions. Both shared the important role women will play in regional growth and success because of efforts like HERS-EA. Memorably, they also noted that higher education institutions need to develop programs and supports for women which are nation-transforming.

After brief comments from Dr. Khaitsa, I was asked to speak about the history of HERS.

Good afternoon. Greetings from Dr. Judith White, HERS President and Executive Director, and the HERS Board of Directors. Thank you to Professors Khaitsa and Wakoko-Studstill and planning committee members and all partner organizations and universities. I am honored to be here in service of the HERS mission. I am especially pleased to be here to share a little time with women from the East African region, women who look like me. I am here to challenge you to go beyond the equilibrium because equilibria are not sustainable, stable. Those who shake things up make change happen. To paraphrase something commonly heard during a HERS Institute, well-behaved women rarely change anything (sic Mother Harris Jones and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). 

This was the moment when the experience moved beyond me as the Director of HERS Institutes. I reconnected with long held values associated with community. We are a community of higher education leaders in separate nations on different continents. Yet, we share the desire to advance women. The cultural differences are not trivial and I realized this as participants asked me questions after I closed how much every HERS Institute is about diversity and inclusion. The HERS-EA program will have a format and discuss issues which elevate women in the East African context. How do I know? Well, in the 2 days, after having small group discussions, the participants presented curricular ideas and governance schemes. The 90 women who birthed the HERS-EA community will not be derailed. Dr. Wakoko-Studstill offered this well-known Harriet Tubman quote to the participants, as a reminder of work that lies ahead for the group.

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”