|By Professor Leenta Grobler
Associate Professor in Digitalisation and Digital Economy at the North-West University, South Africa
A story is told about an African president who decided to find the most prolific citizen in his country. So he interviewed the smartest and most prominent academics, professionals, sportsmen and artists. First was a doctor, who took out a photograph of a state-of-the-art hospital and said: Mister President, look at this beautiful hospital, the best machines in the world, the best doctors, fully digitized management system, patient filing system. We can even link up with a specialist in New York, who can do an operation, with the aid of robots, on a child in an African village thousands of miles away. It’s my life’s work.”
And the President was impressed and replied: “Well done, Doc! You doctors really change the world. Keep up the good work!”
Second was an engineer. She took out a diagram explaining how to monitor a patient on a ventilator, hundreds of miles away, with alarm notifications to message the nearest nurse, if the vitals or oxygen uptake of the patient falls below certain levels. “I patented this in 44 countries, Mister President, it will change the lives of so many people, it will even save lives in remote villages in Africa, South America and Asia. Isn’t she beautiful? It is my life’s work.”
And the President was in awe: “Wow, impressive! Well done! You engineers really change the world. Keep up the good work.”
Third was a prominent politician, he was a governor of a large county where he relentlessly worked to improve the lives of his people. He took out a picture of a new precinct with a new training hospital and an R&D center for digital health solutions, funded by some of the largest philanthropic organisations in the world. “Isn’t she beautiful, Mister President” he said, “we are going to change this county, create jobs and heal our people.”
Again the president was impressed: “Some of you politicians really impress me. You can really change this world for the better. Well done!”
The President turned to the next person in the row, a small, old lady with a walking stick, her wrinkled face smiling in the sun. He was perplexed. “Mama,” he asked, “and what did you achieve in your lifetime?”
She shuffled and retrieved a faded black and white picture from her dress, where she kept it close to her heart. It was of 3 elementary school children, playing under a tree, singing nursery rhymes. She presented it to the President: “Aren’t they beautiful,” she smiled. “They are my life’s work.”
Confused, the President asked: “Mama, they’re beautiful, but who are these children?”
And she responded: “You just interviewed them. I was their teacher”.
In October last year I had the privilege of sharing this story at the launch of the Grace Onyango Foundation for Digital Health in Africa, in the lakeside city of Kisumu, in Kenya. It was an august occasion, graced by diplomats, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, academics, technocrats and other interesting people, sheltering from the tropical heat in the former Native Cultural Center, where many of their forebears were allowed to gather socially in pre-independence Kenya.
And what brought us all together was a diminutive, wrinkled faced 98-year old woman, a grandmother and great grandmother to many, and a teacher and role model to so many more in the region: Mama Grace Onyango.
The story of Mama Grace Onyango is simultaneously mesmerizing and inspiring. As daughter of this region she initially trained and became an elementary grade teacher, before entering politics in a firmly patriarchal society and becoming the first female mayor of Kisumu, thereafter the first female member of parliament in post independent Kenya and later also presiding as speaker of the Kenyan parliament. She not only changed the colonial names of the streets in the region, she also changed people’s perceptions about women in leadership, long before it was in vogue, and she changed the lives of many, many people.
And despite the many accolades and achievements her legacy evokes, what struck me most about the story of Mama Grace Onyango was the caliber of people who was taught at her feet in the villages around Kisumu, many decades ago. People who became internationally renowned doctors, professors, politicians, economists and lawyers, and who learnt the basics of reading, writing, counting and a love for life from this remarkable lady.
It was therefore very befitting that a number of her former pupils, now also gray and wise, resolved to name a Foundation for her, to etch her name forever in the history of this county, the region and the continent: The Grace Onyango Foundation for Digital Health in Africa. It didn’t matter that she doesn’t do digital, that she isn’t an engineer or a doctor. The important fact is that she inspired and laid the foundation, many decades ago, for children in Kisumu to become the doctors, engineers, professors and politicians that will change this continent, and make it a better place for all its people.
Also in attendance were some very dear friends and contemporaries of Mama Grace, formidable ladies in their own right who had battled from the same trenches the many barriers facing women in leadership, over many decades: Mama Muthoni Likimani, Mama Julia Ojiambo, Mama Jael Mbogo, Mama Professor Miriam Were. Hearing their fond memories of camaraderie and friendship was moving and inspiring and a welcome reminder that women must not hesitate to celebrate each other. We’ll done and thank you to the Forum for African Women Educators, FAWE, for making their attendance possible.
It was further befitting that the celebrations were held in the former Native Cultural Center, now aptly renamed the Grace Onyango Cultural Centre by the Kisumu County Government and spruced up with the generous help of the French embassy in Kenya. Evoking many rich memories amongst the attendees, many in their seventies and older, who frequented the venue in their youths, the newly refurbished Centre was the perfect setting for the celebrations.
To crown the gala dinner event, FAWE also celebrated their founder members, all prolific women in education, including former Ministers of Education, from across the continent, who founded FAWE three decades ago in 1991: Hon. Simone de Comarmond of Seychelles, Hon. Dr Fay Chung of Zimbabwe, Hon. Paulette Missambo of Gabon, Hon. Alice Tiendrebéogo of Burkina Faso and the late Hon. Vida Yeboa of Ghana.
The spontaneous applause every time when an award was presented to a founder member, some mastering the modern dial in technology to greet us on screen, reminded me why I also elected to become an educator. It really is a noble profession, a calling, and it gives birth to all the clever, innovative modern developments in society.
We should celebrate our educators more often. Not only on 5 October, World Teachers Day, or on 24 January, International Day of Education. Every Day should be Educators Day. Celebrate them while they are still with us.
Pick up your phone today, and phone that teacher who shaped your life. Just do it. We are their life work, like the old lady in the story.
Professor Leenta Grobler is an Associate Professor in Digitalisation and Digital Economy at the North-West University Business School in South Africa. She is a qualified Computer and Electronic Engineer, a keen inventor of digital health solutions, a board member of the Grace Onyango Foundation, a mom of 3 young busybodies and most of all: a teacher.
Photo credits: FAWE Malawi
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