The League in Africa: the beginning of a longlasting relationship

The League in Africa: the beginning of a longlasting relationship – Woman Power in Politics: Building Grassroots Democracy in Africa

Zaida Arguedas

The League’s three-year program, Woman Power in Politics: Building Grassroots Democracy in Africa, was completed in December 2002. This program was inaugurated in 1999 by the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Education for Development and Democracy Initiative (EDDI). The goal was to engage African citizens in the political life of their countries by exploring the special role nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in educating citizens about their democratic rights and responsibilities. Eight countries were targeted: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The program was comprised of two phases annually: a four-week Grassroots Internship for 24 African NGO women leaders in the United States and a two-week Grassroots Partnership Training for 16 League members in the targeted African countries.

Over the three years, 72 African women traveled to the United States, spending two full weeks with different Leagues. The hosting Leagues were located as far north as Casper, WY; south to Baton Rouge, LA; west to San Francisco, CA; and east to Larchmont, NY.

The impact these highly committed and energetic African women leaders made in more than 15 U.S. communities has been enormous and did not stop when they left. Four Leagues have created long-term partnerships on issues of mutual interest and have “adopted” the partner. One League trainer from Clemson, SC, sponsored a student visa for a Kenyan to attend a school in Clemson.

During this same period, more than 22 League members participated in the Grassroots Partnership Training. They worked with African partner organizations to prepare specific workshops for diverse areas in the targeted countries. These adventurous League participants traveled great distances from the capital cities to remote areas. They were able to share with African women mutual concerns and problems, fostering a sisterhood where skin color and language had no place.

To record the impact of this program and the cultural outreach that has been accomplished and will continue in the years ahead in these few pages is impossible, but it is possible to highlight some of the memorable experiences, especially through the lens of the participants.


“My favorite part of the visit was on the last day of the workshop when participants resolved to “organize” a new association for citizen education! The news since our return is that a group of trainees met in October and are going forward, writing by-laws and contacting trainees from the previous two workshops conducted by LWV facilitators during the 3-year program… Their vision for the association is ‘to see a country where equality of women and men prevails.’ What a wonderful outcome for the LMV program in Ethiopia.

It was such fun to interact with them to develop actions plans that were relevant to their organizations and/or communities. The workshop provided a comfortable forum for them to express their ideas and feelings. We found them to be special people–dedicated to making a difference in their communities regardless of their gender, language, religious beliefs, or personal values. It was especially rewarding…that many of the trainees wanted a follow up or a continuation of the training… Visits to their various workplaces, associations and organizations inspired us. We were moved by the sacrifices and dedication of our new found friends to improve life in their communities. While we believe that our lessons encouraged their leadership and will enhance their efforts to empower their communities we value the lessons we learned from them. We would be happy to return for follow up training for them and for us!” Esther Connors and Miriam Brierly (Columbus, OH)


“For several days before the workshop we toured the city and traveled along the coast to Cape Coast. Our impression was of a people who were extremely bright, friendly and soft spoken. Ghana is a poor country with high inflation. It is apparent that under a democratic form of government, progress (although slowly) is being made to improve the lot of the citizens.”

When the attendees at their workshop were challenged to “make use of the information they had been acquiring and to ‘form political parties and run for office.’ The zeal and enthusiasm with which the participants took up the gauntlet [were] exciting to see. These women have the intelligence, desire and will to be active participants in their government. Some have been elected to office and others are ready to take up the challenge. It was watching these bright, eager, capable women interact with each other that gave credence to the value of the program.” Barba Edwards and Muriel Frank (Omaha, NE)


“The best part of the program was the Kenyan women leaders. They are knowledgeable of good leadership and know their basic needs. They are courageous in the face of adversity such as domestic violence and tribal clashes during election time. Several women are seeking seats in Parliament and as Councilors and others are mobilizing voters to support women candidates. They face the great challenge of funding a successful campaign, being discriminated against by their political parties and being faced with the threat of violence. Nevertheless, they endure for the sake of improving the lives of other women. Generally, Kenyan women lack many material goods but join together to share what they have with each other.” Linda Gahan and Elaine Epstein (Clemson, SC) 2002 Intern Joyce Mwangoji (in blue, standing) at a civic engagement workshop, Taita, Taveta Hills, Kenya.

Program Director Zaida Arguedas visited Kenya for on-site evaluation, and brought back this wonderful news. “Joyce Mwangoji (2002 intern, an attorney in Taita, Taveta Hills, some 5 hours outside of Nairobi) is currently running for a seat in Parliament in the elections… the 27th of December 2002. Mwangoji’s husband is her campaign manager and they are mobilizing a force of over 50,000 in her district. She is committed to improving and empowering the lives of women in and beyond her community. Mwangoji is also a member of The League of Kenya Women Voters, Taita, Taveta Branch. She will be a fantastic addition to Parliament.”


Mary Hilton (San Francisco, CA) and David Hooker (Atlanta, GA) took three trips to Enugu, some miles from Lagos. The first was to visit a traditional ruler who has put women in his cabinet. He entertained questions and explained his role as he sat on his “throne.” His short-term goal is to get electricity to the village. Their other visit was to a group of some 50 mothers and babies and very old men, displaced from their former village and starving to death. The third visit was to a traditional ruler who has brought women into leadership roles, despite some resistance from the community. Hilton notes, “The most difficult aspect is responding to participants’ frustrations in making meaningful change against a volatile and uncertain political future.”


“Throughout the time together, the African partners presented a scope and sequence of events that would crescendo to a dramatic conclusion… Formal presentations and informal discussion increased understanding and expanded ideas. The culminating activity in Arusha was a dinner celebration that brought all of the participants from the individual sessions together for an evening of music, dance, and celebration… The workshop sessions, made more relevant because of what had gone before, were rich with lively discussion… Each participant was able to see herself as a leader and identified leadership characteristics she was proud to have. The concept of advocating for an issue captured their imaginations. It is their experience that parties are elected on the basis of personalities, and issues play little part. They began to see the possibilities for a different kind of election process in the next election year, 2005. Some expressed an interest in being a candidate. All expressed certainty that what they had learned was useful and would be shared by each of them with at least 50 other people.

It is the sense that there are things that must be done that brought the group together. It is the belief that they have ideas and tools to make things happen that is going to keep this group together and growing. They are currently building an organization to continue the Partnership project. Some say they should call themselves the League of Women Voters of Tanzania. They like non-partisan policy and thorongh study of issues. They want to lobby and run for office and change antiquated law. In the final workshop session they selected a steering committee of six.” Heather Robins and Constance Cameron (Minneapolis and Northfield, MN)


Judy O’Gorman (Larchmont, NY) and Tern Rittenburg (Laramie, WY) ran very successful workshops in Uganda. Consequently, there has been a plea from the African partners for the League to continue these types of exchanges.

Over the past three years, the League’s reputation with Ugandan elected officials and other high-level policy makers has been heightened. During a May 2002 onsite visit, Program Director Arguedas was invited to a meeting of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) where she met with its chairperson, Loyce Bwambale, and Winnie Byanyima, a member of Parliament. As a result of this meeting, Arguedas was further invited to meet with Uganda’s Vice President, Speciosa Kazimbwe.


Cheryl Johnson and Pamela Lucas (Calvert County, MD) were the League’s representatives to Zambia in 2002, organizing and running the workshops in that country.

2002 Intern, Alice Mkandawire of the Foundation for Democracy: “The lobbying and advocacy part of[my] the visit to Washington was particularly helpful. My organization has been struggling to effectively lobby. I participated in the lobbying for Voting Rights Day for Washington, DC. I have brought the lobbying and advocacy aspect [home] to my organization in Zambia. We started a campaign on electoral reform and have had a very positive response from the representatives in the legislature. The project is also helping my organization to expand its membership and volunteerism, using the League of Women Voter’s models. I am now confident that our organization will grow fast in coming years.”

During a May 2002 evaluation trip to Zambia, Program Director Arguedas met with key government officials and elected women, members of parliament. One such meeting was hosted by the Zambia Civic Education Association (ZCEA) and included a cultural presentation by a local group working on AIDS prevention education. Also, a special forum, “Women’s Participation in the Just Ended Tripartite Elections,” hosted by the League, the Zambian Civic Education Association and the National Women’s Lobby Group was held. Betty Majula (2002 intern) moderated, and among the panelists were a re-elected member of parliament, a newly elected member of parliament and a candidate who was not elected.


“Zimbabwe is heartbreaking. Once the breadbasket of Southern Africa, this year Zimbabwe will be lucky if it can feed itself. Every day people queue for bread, salt, sugar and gas… Six years ago, one US dollar brought 12 Zim dollars. Today, one US dollar brings 700 or more depending on how much of a chance you are willing to take when exchanging money. Women in Zimbabwe… are at the very bottom. Domestic violence and marital rape [are] constant[s] and they have the highest rate for AIDS. Zimbabwe’s women…are the first to suffer and the last to get help. They have been raped for supporting democracy and imprisoned and beaten for joining the opposition party.

With such oppression in the background, we worked with roughly 30 courageous women, many of whom had been arrested for their political and human rights activities, to explore ways to promote democracy and advocacy at the grassroots level. We worked behind closed doors and removed all evidence of our efforts at the end of each day. Speakers included women who worked on issues such as constitutional rights, human rights, AIDS education and domestic violence. LWV representatives with hosts at Action for Development in Kampala, Uganda.

We explored new opportunities for advocacy and agreed that what we had started during the League’s 2002 workshops were the crucial first steps to creating a new spirit of cooperation devoted to the empowerment of the next generation of Zimbabwe’s women.” Sarah Diefendorf (San Francisco, CA) and Ida Johnson (Merced, CA)

Yvonne Mahlunge (2000 intern) recently reported that she was part of the high-powered Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) trio negotiating with the Zimbabwe African National Union Political Front (ZANU PF) at talks brokered by the South African and Nigerian Presidents following the February 2002 Presidential Elections. Mahlunge attributes some of her accomplishments to her LWV exchange experience.


Without a doubt this entire experience has been a win-win situation for all three major partners in this program–the targeted African countries, the League and the funding U.S. governmental agencies.

This exchange program has unquestionably expanded understanding between the two continents, and all are now stakeholders. This has been a positive learning experience for the hundreds of Americans (in more than 15 U.S. communities) who have been exposed to the 72 African women participants, and particularly the 22 League members who traveled to Africa.

There is no question, either, that this exchange program has left an immense imprint at three different levels in Africa. The local NGOs–the partners–benefited greatly from partnering with the League, an organization with a worldwide reputation. The participants, the interns, also are beneficiaries. The prestige associated with being selected to travel to America to participate in an exchange program is not easy to quantify. Having visited four of the targeted countries, this writer can attest that the interns enjoy an increased prestige and their public and political profiles have been tremendously enhanced by their participation in this program. This addition to their resumes truly facilitates their work and effectiveness; many more doors have opened and accessibility to decision makers has increased. The local women who attended the workshops were exposed to ideas and concepts that cannot but start the germination process that will have a lasting impact in their communities and their countries.

Woman Power Politics has ignited a process that cannot be stopped. The League is committed to continuing this relationship and nurturing the excellent network of committed and talented women working for change and for democracy in the African countries. As 2002 Intern Alice Mkandawire declared, “During my visit to Washington, I discovered that this project was not only enabling sharing and learning experiences with American counterparts, but African counterparts as well. This was really wonderful–it is not easy to make these connections ourselves. We now exchange a lot of information with U.S. counterparts and Africa counterparts about activities that we are undertaking.”

Zaida Arguedas is LWVUS deputy director as well as director of Global Democracy Programs.

COPYRIGHT 2003 League of Women Voters

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group