By Jen Thorpe
I was priveleged enough to attend the Young African Women Leaders Forum hosted by the American Embassy in Johannesburg last week. Here I met 75 other young African women who were making change and shaking foundations in their respective countries and communities. This meeting had an incredible effect on me, although we only had two days together. It made me realise that women in Africa are in it for the long haul, and we’re not giving up on the world we live in. These women were ready, the fight is in their eyes, and they are filling up every space that exists with brilliant ideas, and even making more space for new ideas.
Of course, one of the highlights of this forum was meeting Michelle Obama. On the first day of the forum we waited for almost an hour in height order for a photograph with her. My headache was pounding, I was dehydrated, and some of the women around me had begun to take off their high heels (thank goodness I was in flats) and we had all become more than a little grumpy. When Michelle Obama walked in it was like all of that went away. She is a truly engaging and genuine person, who started off by saying ‘I want my daughters to be like you’ (flattery, Mrs Obama, will get you everywhere). Interacting with her felt incredibly exciting, but also incredibly normal.
She IS committed to the youth, in particular in furthering young women in Africa. Her speech in Regina Mundi was simply one of the most relevant and moving speeches I have heard in a very very long time. She had researched our history, and she could link it to her present. She reminded us that patience is essential in this struggle, and that change might not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. She challenged us all to choose which generation we would be, because we are not the generation of the future – we are the generation of the present. I was really impressed at her ability to challenge us to not give up, and to engage with the world around us.
In small discussions she was honest, open to comments that challenged her opinion, and warm. She really set the tone for some great discussions, and I loved that she referred to her husband as ‘that skinny guy with the funny name’. I guess that’s what you call keeping it real.
She is someone that looked at the world around her from a very flashy office in a very flashy law firm and decided to give up the immediate comfort of material wealth to make things better for those around her. I met 75 women just like that on those two days, and I guess the challenge is now for you to go out, recharge your batteries, and start making that positive change.