I didn’t know how deeply it ran until I got here. I didn’t know how afraid I was until I decided to be brave. Until there was no other choice but bravery, but freedom, I didn’t know how deeply fear and timidity ruled my life.
Maybe I should start at the beginning. I got a phone call, THE phone call telling me that one of the applications I had been dying to get, I got. Finally, third time lucky, I was finally a Mandela Fellow. The Mandela Washington Fellowship, an initiative of the Obama administration and the Institute of Research and Exchange was an amazing opportunity for a fully funded 6 (or 12) week programme in the US. The programme equips and empowers what they believe are Africa’s leaders of tomorrow with the chance to learn more about business and entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership. The fellowship ends in a week-long summit in D.C and thereafter a select few remain for an additional 6 weeks assigned to a US office or corporation.
I was incredibly fortunate and got picked for the additional 6 weeks where I was placed at a Fortune 500 company. The companies I read about in the TIME magazine with wide eyes.
I stepped in, yes with wide eyes and the more I learned the more I started to feel this thing creep up. See I know the feeling but I hardly ever give it mind because it became part of me. I knew it. The shrinking back, the feeling of wanting to be at the back, unseen. The fear. But I didn’t know just how deeply it was rooted in me as I walked the floors of this company. The feelings of inadequacy were strong and breathing in and out with me. I was reminded of all the subliminal messages I thought I had risen above but had so cleverly followed me all the way to Philadelphia from Namibia.
My head swirled with thoughts about my race, how my race limited me because yes stereotypical corporate America not many people have my skin color and wild Afro. Yes because in stereotypical corporate America my gender still is outnumbered to an extent. I tried so hard not to focus on the conversation statements that my ambition will be the end of my suitability as a wife. All the fear came washing in.
But then the more I engaged American women, women in this company, women on the streets of America, something seemed different, subtle but present. Their interactions with me made me feel this thing less. I met men too, who for the moments of my interactions with them made me feel brave. All of a sudden, I found myself readily thinking “yes I am capable of that” or I would find myself sitting upright and offering my opinion without second-guessing. Truly America was the land of the free and brave.
So in this land, the atmosphere is to me was filled with freedom and bravery. I was encouraged to do what I want (quite literally), I was encouraged to take the leap, to jump and so easily. The people who internalized this slogan, live it out so tangibly that it became evident to me that this feeling, this thing, this fear was itself shrinking back the longer I stayed here. Every professional I talked to moved with freedom and thought with bravery.
I come from a culture that for intents and purposes is conservative at its core. I live in a culture where marriage is held in very high regard. A society that allows the educated woman but constrains her ambition to fit into the mold of a nurturer.
As I mentally prepared myself to return to a place that environment I worried that my bravery would diminish. I picked up “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. One of her first weighted questions “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” A much-needed reminder to hold onto my new found freedom and bravery.
Fear inhibits, it outright stops us or at times allows us to move but in such a burdened manner that we might as well be standing still. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
America, land of the brave and free, embraced these two words and became what it is today- the most talked about nation for good and bad. Its people exude bravery and walk freely in thought and action. I sure am glad I got to experience it and better yet, I’ve been transformed into a mind and heart that refuses to live any other way.
This will influence the way I carry myself at home by embracing my new found freedom and bravery. The onus is on me to tell my story and to create an awareness for other young women like me that it’s okay to have the drive we do.
That it’s okay to step out of the norm. I do not, for a second, think it will be easy, I might have a few steps back but I’ll remind myself that it’s important to be brave for myself and for others.
More importantly, beyond advocating through my story, I’d like to create the space to dream, to express feelings and experiences freely without judgment. This will take the forms of circles and focus groups that I already participate but changing the topics. I’ve also signed up for the Lean In, an organization with free resources that educate women on negotiation that I intend on using in the circles.
It is important to me to spread the word- the world has made space for the brave and free woman. It is better for it.
Seno Namwandi is one of the pioneers of Intellectual Property (IP) in Namibia, with 3 years of experience; she currently serves as the youngest director on the board of the Business Intellectual Property Authority (BIPA), the national IP regulatory body. As a board member, she plays a critical role in ensuring BIPA fulfills its fiduciary duty to the government and citizens. Her oversight includes the review of policy, making strategic decisions and monitoring the financial status. Seno is also employed at the International University of Management (IUM) where she serves as the Director of Innovation and IP. Her role involves supporting research from a perspective of innovation and establishing and managing the IP generated.
Additionally, she consults for companies in drafting IP strategies. Seno has a Masters degree in IP from Africa University, Zimbabwe and other postgraduate certifications in IP. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her unique combination of qualifications enables a broad understanding of technical fields such as science, commerce, and regulatory issues. Seno plans to return better equipped to contribute to governance and policy issues in Namibia, especially focusing on transparency, implementation, and accountability.