The first time I ever heard the term social entrepreneur was just a few days before my interviews to become an Ashoka Fellow in August 2001.
At that point, I'd been pouring my soul into Life in Africa for nearly 3 years, and everything Ashoka stands for spoke to the very marrow of my being. It was an absolute thrill for me to learn that there were others around the world like me, driven by an inexplicable passion to do whatever they saw they could to develop new system changing ideas. I knew clearly in those days that the possibilities for using the Internet for development I was seeing from my side of the world could change whole global development aid system. I wanted to help shape that new people to people system, and it was exciting to learn from Ashoka that I was not alone in having the audacity to think that big.
But by the time I was actually offered the Ashoka Fellowship - 4 months after the interviews - my immediate response was to turn it down. Sept 11 had happened, completely upsetting the online equation I’d built LifeInAfrica.com on. I later learned that many other promising online projects from Africa failed in the post 9/11 shift in global attention too. Nobody had time to think about Africa any more, traffic to our website completely died, and so did the programs it was raising funds for. I worked myself to into a manic frenzy that fall trying to come up with new ideas that could save it. By the end of 2001, my family had lost a ton of money in the venture, my marriage was ending, and the organization I’d poured so much of myself into was going down in flames. I was a blubbering, burnt-out basket case.
So when the Fellowship offer came from Ashoka, I turned it down. But since I was to be the first full Fellow in the East African region, the local Ashoka Director worked really hard to convince me not to. Ashoka isn't about projects, it's about a certain type of person. They had no doubt that I would continue to pour my heart and soul into trying to make replicable, large scale change happen. They were offering 2 years of financial support to help me start over, as well as lifetime membership in an elite global professional network, with access to services and opportunities designed to help people like me grow our big ideas.
But I was in dire need of a break. My whole life had gone down in flames around me, and I wanted to do nothing but sit and rest, and watch the world go by for a while. The local Ashoka director had told me that if I didn’t take the Fellowship then, it wouldn’t be available again. I later learned on a visit to Ashoka HQ in Washington that I actually could have deferred it for 1-2 years. Since the Fellowship was new in East Africa, the local Director probably didn't know. Anyway, in the end I accepted it, with the obligation to continue my work and submit regular reports for 2 years.
In retrospect, not taking a personal break when I knew I needed it then has been the worst professional mistake I’ve ever made. It has hampered my vision, my professional judgment, and my emotional capacity to do my job as a leader in ways that I sincerely regret, for far too long now.
There is a particular strength of character - a good amount of resilience, patience, confidence and determination - that a social entrepreneur must have alongside a deep sense of personal integrity in order to succeed. Sincerely speaking, since my life fell apart in late 2001, that strength that I know I did once have has failed me again and again and again in my work. I look at the past 7 years and know that I have not been the type of leader I’d hope to be if I could do it all over again. I have far too often made decisions based on desperation to just find a way to keep the project going and keep myself emotionally afloat. That’s not to say I’ve achieved nothing of value or made no impact – what I did do was a lot. But my ability to effectively lead others and exercise balanced judgment has been sorely compromised these past 7 years by feeling that I was now obligated to give from my battered and badly bleeding heart, and forcing myself to rise to the task.
For the past 4-5 years, I have worked with intent to develop Life in Africa into an organization that would be carried forward by Ugandans – not because of the weak leadership patterns I now see in retrospect, but knowing realistically that I might someday move on or die. The past two years, in particular though, have been just horrendous. The intensity of the heartache when things started to go very wrong from an unexpected direction was paralyzingly painful. I watched others I love here in Uganda fall apart too, not knowing how to fight against what was happening to the vision we had all put our hearts and souls into making real.
The sense of community we had managed to build locally and globally through Life in Africa was wonderful, but proved to be very fragile... and easy to sabotage by those who felt excluded from the magic in some way. Some of the back stabbing was brutal. At one point we found ourselves in a political war against small town bullies who knew how to fight better and dirtier than we did. I didn’t know at all how to handle the situation, and under the grief of it all I simply shut off. Transitioning to an organizational structure that could give the Ugandans control over Life in Africa took on an unfortunately desperate nature.
I botched up a lot of things and made a lot of decisions I now question, in an intense eagerness to get myself out from under the horrible emotional pressure. That's not the kind of leader Life in Africa needed. And in the middle of that transition (earlier this year) my mother-in-law died, changing many things in my personal life very suddenly. I had planned to spend most of 2008 on a working sabbatical in the USA, building a website to support the new Life in Africa structure. Right or wrong, I chose to stay in Uganda to help my husband and his family get through their crisis instead. With another badly needed break from Uganda thwarted and new challenging demands at the family level, I kept myself shut off from Life in Africa for most of the first half of this year. I let the website go stale, and didn’t pay enough attention to the resulting operational challenges until it was too late.
Among other factors, my inability to effectively lead when others were expecting me to has created all sorts of confusion and imbalances in the transitional plan we worked so hard to design with Life in Africa’s stakeholders. An under-resourced LiA USA providing sole financial support to the Ugandan orgs has unfortunately created the kind of unhealthy dependency relationship that the LiA of my visions was meant to help fix! That feeling of dependency has kept the Ugandans looking to LiA USA to give them the boundaries of what they are allowed to do or try in Uganda. The Americans have been trying to tell them what to do but don't see the Ugandan's vision or reality clearly, so communication between all of them about expectations has broken down. The relationships have steadily become very confusing for everyone involved, with many misunderstandings and well intentioned misfires on both sides, eventually leading to a point of crisis.
It became clear to me over the past month that I had become an unnecessarily dis-empowering presence as a middlewoman in these new relationships between the Life in Africa organizations, that I’d hoped would support and empower my Ugandan colleagues. LiA USA was still looking to broken down me (instead of to the Ugandans) for vision, and I just don’t seem to have the current capacity to provide it. So I’ve done the only thing that feels responsible in the face of this latest LiA crisis, and taken myself completely out of the management loop. About 10 days ago, I officially announced my retirement from the board of LiA Foundation, and submitted my resignation from the Board of LiA USA.
A few months ago I received a surprise sum of money from an investment I'd made with my ex years ago in Europe. Last week I transferred most of it to Life in Africa Foundation (Uganda) as my parting gift, in the hope that it can help to break my Ugandan colleagues' feeling of dependency on LiA USA and give them a chance to fly on their own, while at the same time allowing LiA USA some breathing room to regroup and refocus their ways and means of providing fundraising support.
I've advised the LiA USA Board to start taking their cues from Life in Africa Foundation’s Director, Grace Ayaa, and I am really excited to see how Grace is embracing the challenge of letting her own visions for Life in Africa's future be known. The LiA Kireka community of war-affected families has also received some funding through the gift I made, to be used at the discretion of the community's elected Board. I've been told in a letter from the community's chairman, Peter Ndelo, that they will use it to start at least one community income generating project from among the many plans the community developed this year that lacked funds to get off the ground. I got news from the USA this past weekend that a new website is finally under development, and that sales of the crafts we exported to LiA USA last year have started to pick up.
So things are still moving. I still believe I did enough right to ensure that Life in Africa won't die, and I do believe the new group of Life in Africa orgs that the old Foundation has become will find their footing in the end. I have a tremendous amount of faith in all of the people involved, and I trust them with Life in Africa's leadership more than I trust myself with it any more. I hope to become a model supporter and remain a lifelong Life in Africa fan. If you're reading this, I hope you will also think of doing what you can to support their continued efforts to use the internet in new ways to support African development - whether it's visiting and commenting on the blogs of LiA's leaders, clicking on sponsored ads, helping a grassroots project promote a chip-in campaign, or doing your holiday shopping through iGive, there are many small things that anyone who spends time online can do to help make big change happen. I'm including some links below.
I know others may have mixed feelings about my decisions of this month. I also know that others not understanding me doesn’t change who I know I am. Now that I know what a social entrepreneur is and have lived this life for 10 years, I don’t believe I will ever be able to turn off my desire to make a long-term positive impact on society with the talents and knowledge I have been blessed with. I will always be that particular kind of person who sees connections and opportunities where others don't, who is driven to try new things if they might benefit others, and who takes responsibility for what I put out there in the world very seriously. But I have learned a critical lesson about recognizing my own limits, and committing of myself only what I know I realistically, humanly can.
There’s a lot at stake in my line of work. I owe it to any people and issues I’ve committed to working with to give them my very best. Someday, the leader I know I can be will re-emerge in an evolved form – stronger, with a more level head, and once again ready to face the heart and soul level risks that are always involved in tackling our planet’s most pressing problems, like poverty in Africa.
Once a social entrepreneur, always a social entrepreneur. I fully intend to someday become a better one.... after I've finally taken that long overdue break.
Thanks for reading.
Kampala, Uganda (East Africa)
Founder, Life in Africa Foundation
Ashoka East Africa Fellow (2001)
blog by Grace Ayaa, Director, Life in Africa Foundation (Uganda)
- Kireka Concerns
blog by Peter Ndelo, Chairperson, LiA Kireka community
blog by Shawn Kelly, President, Life in Africa USA
- Life in Africa global discussion group @ ned.com
- LiA USA discussion group @ ned.com
- Life in Africa group at facebook
- Life in Africa @ cafepress
- iGive for Life in Africa