First Lady

Sasha Rabsey

Here’s the scene: 90 degrees in Ouagadougou, unrelenting sun, dust so thick I shook it from my hair last night. This morning I scouted my suitcase for an outfit that, after three days of bouncing over potholed roads and visiting distant villages, would show the least amount of dust and sweat—by this time all our party were pretty travel worn, and, well, fragrant... But today we aren’t shooing goats and stubborn donkeys from the main road to Bobo, today we’re headed to the palace of Burkina Faso’s First Lady.

Four days ago I flew to Burkina to visit Aminata Diallo, an Ashoka Fellow and HOW Fund grantee who built Maia, an extraordinary organization that runs mentorship, leadership, and training programs for girls and women. Like other Ashoka Fellows I’ve met from Kampala to Sao Paolo, Aminata’s Maia holds the promise of big impact. I’m proud to have supported her and now, at the end of my three-year grant, I had been invited to meet Aminata face to face and see her work in the villages, all arranged by Ashoka’s headquarters in the DC area and by Ashoka’s dynamic West Africa region director, Coumba Toure.

Today’s meeting was a triumph for Ashoka. Coumba had secured an audience with the First Lady and Ministers of Youth and Employment, and Women’s Affairs to present the work of their Burkina fellows, especially Aminata and Baghomboe Bakiono. Baghomboe founded and runs a network of youth working on issues of employment and health. The meeting was to make the First Lady and her ministers aware of the outstanding programs that are already being carried out by strong Burkinabe leaders who, with her backing, would be able to expand their work exponentially. Coumba’s goals for the meeting? To get the government to open doors for Ashoka Fellows in order to diminish the barriers to access and to engage the private sector with regards to youth employment by providing jobs and money. In addition, I had been invited by Coumba to speak as an international funder about the stellar reputation of Ashoka Fellows.

At the hotel this morning Coumba, Aminata, and I climbed into the car that would take us to the palace and I was acutely aware of the beauty of Coumba’s African dress and of Aminata’s colorful, exquisitely-made dress that girls in her program had sewn for her. I felt like a dull bird in my sensible travel skirt and blouse. Rolling through dusty streets we reviewed our roles as the density of Ouagadougou thinned as and we headed out of the city and finally up a long arrow-straight avenue toward a marble and glass one story building shimmering in the heat and dust.

As we approached the grand portico all I could think of was the contrast between the First Lady’s palace and the abject poverty we had just driven through. In a country so dry dirt blows like puffs of baby powder, the palace was surrounded by lush grounds and decorative fountains awash with voluminous amounts of water. I know by now that such contrast of riches and poverty are de rigeur in developing countries.

As we pulled up to the grand entrance doors a phalanx of press representatives sitting in a long line flanking the doors looked alert but continued to sit quietly. Was this a dream? I has a flash of my journey since I started my HOW Fund, and of the amazing places it had taken me around the world.

We made our way up the stairs of the marble building and through the sliding supermarket type glass doors, greeted by a blast of over-air conditioned air. I thought irreverently that the First Lady and I, two women in mid-life, must something in common!

Then there she was, resplendent in a bright aqua and gold floor length dress with perfectly matched head wrap, earrings and shoes. She greeted each of us warmly and guided us to a reception room with twelve gilded chairs arranged in a U. Coumba was seated next to the first lady and even though Coumba is petite she looked regal, maybe even a little kick butt. The conversation begins in French so I have time to take in my surroundings. Ok, even I know you’re not supposed to gawk in a palace, so I try to look like I’ve done this before.

The stuffed leopards! The crystal chandeliers! The gilded…well, everything! I sat perched on the edge of my seat for fear of wrinkling the delicate green and gold silk fabric. As I sat with my ankles nicely crossed and my hands folded in my lap a solitary fly that had made it past security and managed to survive the icy temperature decided to make me the object of its affection. First it landed on my arm. Then it made its way into my ear and I took a deep breath. But when it landed on my nose, my eye, my forehead I tried to act as Queen Elizabeth might have—a regal swish of the hand-- while containing my overwhelming desire to catch the bugger and administer a slow death.

After a few minutes Coumba asked me to speak. The First Lady declined a translator; she understands English. I felt confident speaking about the prestige of Ashoka Fellows, including Aminata, and of the powerful grass roots work they are engaged in. Coumba, Aminata, and Baghomboe then made their cases, all in French. I remember how intelligent, interested, and alert the First Lady was. After an hour it was over.

We were escorted past the statuary and to the great doors. Then pandemonium broke loose—on the other side was the press corps, eager with their pads and cameras.

The audience at the palace was a triumph; the First Lady and her ministers had “gotten it.” She would travel to Aminata’s villages to see her work; she would use her influence to open doors; she would help harness the private sector to support both Aminata and Baghomboe. Coumba was dignified but jubilant. The TV cameras rolled. By the time we were back at the hotel restaurant the calls had started coming in—“You’re famous!” “We saw you on TV!” “What a great day!” Aminata glowed, her success palpable. We wished some of her students could have seen her on TV wearing the dress they lovingly made for her.

I was exhausted, excited, and grateful. To support inspiring and talented people like Aminata, to travel the world, to meet the people whose lives I have the privilege to touch—both grantees and the women and girls whose lives will be different as the result of the work—is more reward that I could possibly have asked for three years ago when I started the HOW Fund. What I saw today was one outcome many philanthropists never see: the process by which a successful grantee has the opportunity to have her program supported by government at the highest levels, the prospect of creating real change in a nation and a culture.