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The Need for More Active Role Modeling for African Girls

Drawing on my experience in youth development, particularly within the non-profit sector, I have tried to understand the experience of black youth within development. I don’t care for the experiences they describe on the evaluation forms we coerce them to complete, but insight into what they really think about the work being done. So I started listening in on the informal peer chats after workshops, graduation events and outings. What I heard was a longing and need to identify with and be inspired by people like them, people of their colour and social and economic upbringing.

In our work with young people, particularly girls, we take so many things for granted. We build on what we understand to be assumed knowledge. As development workers, we seldom take context into consideration. We sell a lie to black children that if they work hard enough, they too can achieve great success without acknowledging the barriers they will face. We make success seem effortless. What we don’t ask is how many graduates are sitting unemployed drinking in shebeens (informal drinking places), how many girls are trading their bodies as commodities in exchange for drinks on a Friday night. We often don’t realise that the role models we present to youth are out of sync with the reality and reference points that our youth experience. We take youth from outside of the community, often from rich middle class suburbs, to act as role models for our youth. We forget that youth from middle class backgrounds have access to the information and resources necessary to facilitate exposure to opportunities.

Sisters Lien and Hahobejwalo Thipa. Photographer: Monica Thipa

Sisters Lien and Hahobejwalo Thipa. Photographer: Monica Thipa

The best way to describe this is to give an example. I am a motivational speaker and volunteer my time to inspire and mentor youth, particularly black girls. At the beginning of each session, I start with my name, profession and what I studied to get to where I work. Second to how old I am; the most common question is: where did you grow up? On telling them that I grew up in the same township they live in, came from a single parent household, commuted two hours each way to school and worked extra hard to make up for the limited resources I had to support my educational aspirations; the initial reaction is usually disbelief.

Then their eyes change; suddenly they realise that I am one of their own. Then it hits them: Oh! I too can be her, I can be SOMEBODY. I AM SOMEBODY. I too can break the cycle of poverty; I too can dream a dream that will surpass the multiple poverties of my surrounding. Suddenly these young people relate and identify with me in ways that I know to be different from how they relate with volunteers that come from outside of their community. That realisation is the fundamental difference we need to inspire in our children if we want them to succeed. Black children need more role models they can relate to on multiple levels. More of us black professionals, particularly black women, need to go back to our communities and share our stories with young people. We need to tell our young the stories of our success – stories that aren’t often given mainstream attention. We need to tell our young so they too can dream bigger dreams that are beyond their circumstances.

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Rethabile is a development practitioner specialising in M&E, researcher, mother and daughter. She has worked for a number of years in public health with a focus on sexual reproductive health, social behaviour change communication and youth development. She dabbles in philanthropy, has an interest in girls’ education and a staunch black feminist. She is currently based in South Africa but has aspirations to leave a footprint on the African continent. Connect with her on @ritsiemashale

5 Comments

  1. Dear Rethabile, thank you for your inspiration and for sharing your story with the world! You really encourage us all to be role models and we need more women like you. Thank you for what you do and keep it up! There are so many girls out there that WILL change the world, that I’m sure of!

  2. Hi Julia,

    Thank you for the kind words. As a sisterhood, we can do great things. I’m happy to be part of a global movement that understands that investing in girls is not only necessary but critical to humanity’s future.

  3. Dear Rethabile
    Thanks for sharing on this eye opening story/thought, as a young woman, I beg to differ a bit though from you on this.

    First of all it depends on how each person defines Role Models,I’ve heard many girls when asked who their Role Models were, and they mentioned among the few: Neomi Campbel, Beyonce or even Rihanna. I think the choice in role models is influenced by looks or status,whereas values and principles should be taken to account. For me in this context I think African girls could do with mentoring.

    A mentor is a person who would accepts us for who are and what we believe in, people who would help us to: gain self awareness, confidence and drive. an indivudual who could sharetheir life experiences and learnings, something Role Models don’t and may never be able to do.

    People who challenges us and not provide by simply thinking they know or understand the situation without asking. There’s a need for ‘Mentors’ as anyone can be a role model and a faked one. A mentor for me, is someone who’s able to motivate you to face challenges and see them as opportunities for growth, an equal person in thinking and planning, someone who would celebrate you as you grow whether in failure or successes, someone who would be there even if there are no words to say,but you feel their presence.

    • Rethabile Mashale says

      Hi Kgothatso

      Thank you very much for your comment. I think you actually prove my point. In your examples,you name WOMEN of COLOUR as the role models that young black girls aspire to be. While I agree with you that we need to positively redefine the term ‘role model’ to mean constructive and productive citizens who contribute to the economy and society, we needn’t overlook the fact that African children yearn to identify with people of colour. We need an African definition of ‘role model’ that is embedded. Our girls also look at Khanyi Mbau and Uyanda Mbuli and aspire to be them too. Why do you think that is so? Could it be because they are from the hood, of their colour and have ‘found gold’?

      We seldom hear of the Khanyi Dlomo’s, Basetsane Khumalo, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Geraldine Fraser, Joyce Banda, Mam’ Sirleaf-Johnson et al in the main discourse. These are women who are formidable women of colour doing amazing things to systemically put women and particularly women of colour on the international map. Ask any 16 year old girl in the township streets if they know anyone of these women, what they do and where they are from. I dare to do it and come back and let me know how it went. Just walk up to a girl in the hood and say do you know who Khanyi Dlomo is?

      Re mentorship, awesome idea hence my unrelenting efforts to play that role for as many girls as my time allows. However, I am one person and there are many sisters doing things in silos, hence my invitation to the black sisterhood to be actively engaged.

  4. Hi Rethabile

    I love your thinking and approch. I run a womens leadership programme at EY for young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. The programme is called NextGen and has been running for two years now with some great successes. I would like to chat to further about our programme and how you can possibly be involved with us.

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