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“I Have Had to Learn to Speak Up, and Put In My Word Early”, Susan Waithaka on Securing a Seat at the Table

Susan Waithaka, image source: supplied

Susan Matindi Waithaka serves as the Country officer – a liaison between the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and its network of government and civil society partners in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

With over 20 years of work experience in the conservation field, she has developed a keen interest in bringing more female voices into decision making spaces, particularly on the African continent.

She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.

Susan, when reading about you, I came across a statement you made, “I am keen to see a fair, just, and equal world”. Can you unpack that for me?

This statement speaks to my work with the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Having worked with colleagues on the development of a gender policy within the organisation, I could see the roadblocks that women, in particular, face in decision making spaces. They have done the work in the background but are not always recognized for this work.

There are times we’ve had meetings to plan projects that are worth millions of dollars, and the people sitting at the table were all men. At the end of the day, it is the women who are impacted by these projects, but the men are speaking on their behalf. I have visited some African countries where the women have openly told me that they could not hold government positions because they have a place. And that place is not at the decision-making level.

There was one incident where I organised a government meeting in an African country — with representatives from other governments in the region. We intentionally said we would be accepting two delegates per country; we recommended as strongly as possible that one one should be a man, while the other, a woman. Interestingly, some men brought their wives or girlfriends along; there was a case where one of these women didn’t even speak English! It was a case of, you want women? Ok, we’ll bring women.

These are the issues I am keen to address.

Working in this space as an African woman, has your personal experience been overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly challenging?

I would say it’s been a balance. It has been challenging in the sense that sometimes I feel pretty isolated. It feels like there are very few of us in this space. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I live far away from my home country, Kenya. When working within the context of African countries, there is a tendency for men to dismiss women’s opinions. It takes time to build credibility, longer still as an African woman.

There are times I walk into a place, and I am the only African woman, so I have had to learn to speak up and put in my word early. This is not something that I was raised to do as an African woman. My default was to be seen and not heard. And learning to overcome that and prove myself as knowledgeable has been quite a process.

On the positive side, the pride that comes with knowing that I’m here on merit gives me the courage to keep going. Sitting at the table, I am always on the lookout for other women to bring along. When we want to organise a panel discussion, my mind goes straight to the African women who can participate.

Besides speaking up and speaking first, are there other strategies you have employed to retain your seat at the table?

To a large extent, it all goes back to doing my homework, knowing my subject and having 2 or 3 things that I am ready and comfortable to speak on. Over time that has become easier in the sense that I know what the GEF does, I know the countries, I am familiar with the various Environment Conventions, I know the strategies, so I’ve got the answers. Being prepared cannot be underestimated – and this applies in every field and in life too.

Once you’ve proven yourself, they have no option but to accept you. But if you’re at a meeting and you don’t speak up, then you don’t get seen. It’s so funny because when I first came to the US, I realised that even children in schools speak up. Their culture encourages them to do so; ours doesn’t. I think that takes us back in many ways. Since we moved, I have watched my children speak up more. In the context of any of these meetings, I didn’t come with the same background, but I have learned that speaking up and letting them know I am there as early as possible can work wonders.

How did you get to where you are now?

I am a teacher at heart. My career began as a French and English teacher in Mangu High School in Kenya. I taught one of the last form 6 classes before the curriculum was changed. There was a paper called General Paper, GP. It entailed learning about upcoming and trending issues. I went to an NGO called Kenya Energy Environment Organisation, KENGO, to do the necessary research that would help me teach the students about desertification and climate change. This topic was becoming a big deal.

KENGO was one of the first NGOs in Kenya to deal with the environment. I kept going back because I liked what they did. The organisation became a learning resource for me. They eventually offered me a job, and that was when I left teaching. At the time, they were working on the Kenya ceramic jiko (stove) for energy conservation, and I was the information and communications person.

I then left to do a stint at Red Cross, working as a press officer before getting back into conservation with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, (IUCN),  and later the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). At WWF, I was running an environmental education programme around Lake Victoria. It was a whole education program that involved parents, students, teachers and the community.

I was also part of a multi-stakeholder gathering with UNEP. One of my colleagues moved to GEF and told me about an opportunity to work there. They were looking for someone to work as a country relations person for Africa. I applied and got the job. We assessed the opportunity as a family because it would be a significant change for us. We said yes. I ended up in the US with my family, where I have been working for GEF for the last 12 years.

Having lived in the US for 12 years now, do you still have a strong connection to Africa?

Even more, and with a deeper sense of appreciation for it.  Fortunately, the focus of my work has been Africa, and I have learnt a lot to deepen my connection. I can see myself physically working in Africa in future.  Life in the US is fine, my family is here and I have made friends. In Africa, there is a lot more connection amongst people. I am fortunate to be able to work in Africa even from the USA.

What drives you?

Connecting with people, communicating, and working on bringing environmental solutions with various stakeholders. This has been affected over the last two years with COVID. Maybe it’s got to do with not being able to interact with others physically. Having zoom meetings is all very well, but you don’t get instant answers nor do you get to the crux of an issue or even feel as though you have engaged. The conversations are very mechanical; the last two years have been different for me — as I know they have been for many people.

I think Covid has got a lot of us questioning how to continue working in the spaces we have been in.  For me, it’s something I am still trying to work out. I love what I do and I want to give a fresh look at how I can do it better.

What have you struggled with most in life?

I don’t know if I’d consider it a struggle, but I’ve worked so much on environmental issues, yet I trained as a social scientist. I have been thinking a lot about formalizing all that I know in further study – another degree perhaps ….this is a work in progress. Because I find myself questioning how I got here.

The imposter syndrome?

Yes, that’s it. I am working for the World Bank and GEF, but how did that happen? Such thoughts can get you down. It’s a difficult place to be. I know there’s been a lot of talk about the imposter syndrome, and I know it can stop you short, paralyze you in the sense that it makes you doubt yourself.

What have you taken away from the WE Africa journey?

One of the things I did early on was to go through the bios of the other fellows in the program. I wanted to get a sense of who they are. I was amazed and excited to be in the company of very accomplished women. It’s a huge privilege and there’s been a lot of learning.

I have never had a coach before, so for me, the coaching part, having somebody I can sit with and think through things with, has been a super plus.

Listening to different experiences during the dialogues has also been eye-opening. It makes you appreciate other people and, to a large extent, brings everybody down to a point where we are all human. We’ve listened to all these superwomen doing amazing things, but they become human when they share their experiences. I feel like I can reach out and talk to them. This journey has helped me create incredible bonds.

Over the past 12 months, what have you learned about yourself that you didn’t know before?

I don’t know if I learned anything new about myself, but I have definitely learned ways of coping with things that come my way. For instance, sometimes, I get myself into a muddle, almost to the point of not being able to move. And one of the things I discussed with my coach is how to deal with the overwhelm and break down the different things I am dealing with into bite-sized, manageable pieces. That has helped me in terms of planning and looking ahead.

What advice would you give to younger women coming after you?

Follow the convictions of your heart. Seek knowledge. Speak up on the things you are passionate about. Get to know who you are because many of us don’t. My daughter keeps telling me how everybody should go for therapy. She says African parents in particular — those who do not believe in therapy, are the ones who need it most. She probably has a point. I have heard a lot of talk about childhood trauma, and many people are looking into that.  Personally, I am comfortable with who I am. When the time comes and I need to explore all that, I believe I have grown enough to take that step.

I would also urge young people to take breaks and look after themselves. We only have this one body and taking care of oneself is something that we should all incorporate into our lives.

Is this the same advice you would have given to your younger self?

Yes. I certainly could have listened a lot more to advise. I was pretty cocky at some point and didn’t take all the advice I could have taken. However, I am grateful for how far I have come and happy with where I am. Sometimes thinking about what could have been will dim what is, so I choose to live in the present. Regrets won’t add to my life but thinking about how best I can use this moment will.

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This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2021 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.

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