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

Article by Damaris Agweyu
Posted: June 22, 2022  

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.

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About the author

Damaris Agweyu

Damaris Agweyu is the founder of Qazini and author of Different Paths, One Journey.


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