Have you ever met a stranger from the Internet?
That is, someone with no real-world connection to you whatsoever, whom you decide to encounter offline, axe-murderer urban myths be damned? In 2012, I did.
And as it turned out I was fortunate to come across one of the most inspiring, intelligent, straight-up-and-down badass ladies I ever could have imagined.
Living in Côte d’Ivoire at the time, surrounded daily by the overwhelming bustle and beauty of Abidjan, I was struggling with my French language skills. I found myself reaching out into the universe for a fellow English speaker. It was Stéphanie Kimou – Ivoirienne-American-extraordinaire, who reached back. We met, we clicked, we talked for hours – and we’ve been on each other’s team ever since.
Stéph started this year with a pledge to herself – to be unapologetic. For many women, this is a radical idea. For Stéph, a black woman living in a world that she experienced as both racist and sexist in alarming measure, it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Stéph’s identities – as an Ivorian and an American – work in harmony, so strongly rooted is she in both.
Growing up in Washington DC surrounded by an inclusive African-American community, Steph felt a definite sense of belonging. At the same time, she was raised to be proud of her Ivorian heritage and spent many of her formative summers in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’ivoire. While a lot of people talk about seeing suffering and feeling a call to make a difference, it was Stéph’s positive experiences on the continent, her connection to family and the yen she had just be there, that influenced her. She settled on higher education with an international bent – the sort that would allow her to travel.
In college Stéph discovered a passion for pan-africanism, black feminism, and systems of colonial oppression. She finished her postgraduate studies at Georgetown and promptly accepted a position in Tanzania with WomenCraft, a collective that harnessed local women’s weaving skills by turning their talents to income-generating social enterprises. She worked with the women to implement programs for literacy, business acumen, and quality control – all the skills needed to thrive in modern business.
And, all went well – until it didn’t.
“We realized six months into our work that women were dropping out because they weren’t able to control the timing around when they had children.” While many people would have dismissed family planning as an insurmountable cultural issue, Steph decided to tackle it head on. She was convinced that “reproductive health and the economic advancement of African women go hand in hand.”
Today, Stéph runs PopWorks Africa. It is a consultancy that aims to harness Africa’s most precious resource – its population – with impactful, locally rooted programs emphasizing family planning and sexual and reproductive health. In speaking about her work, Stéph emphasizes that she doesn’t like the word “empower”, as it suggests women don’t have any power until it is bestowed upon them from an outside source. In her words, everyone has power, strength, grit and potential – Steph is interested in finding ways to amplify that power and circumvent the societal models that hinder it.
It is no accident that often when Westerners are asked what they picture when they hear the word “Africa”, answers often range from poverty, to war, disease, and death. This may not be true for everyone but for many years images of skeletal black bodies bloated with kwashiorkor used to be the go-to for non-government organizations (NGOs) and the media.
It gave a new meaning to what was known as “the dark continent”, shocking donors into offering their support. But these images often misrepresented a place which is so much more than that. The untold damage, not only to the way the outside world viewed the continent, was multiplied by the collateral damage to many Africans who began to view themselves in this diminutive way.
The world has generally moved past the so-called “poverty porn” narrative that shaped the portrayal of this culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse continent, instead seeing it in a more positive and empowering perspective. But Stéph wonders if some of the pathos-driven images of smiling, happy African women bring other limitations.
Is ‘Mama Africa’, who cleans and cooks, looks after family, and takes on “safe” jobs within the confines of traditional women’s work (sewing, making things, selling at markets, etc), all that she is permitted to be? Steph sees this stifling and paternalistic image as being just as problematic as the bleak campaigns of old.
There may have been a shift towards more positive narratives, however control of those narratives is still out of the hands of the women they purport to portray. Shouldn’t these women be driving the discourse about who they are and how they want to be seen?
That’s why, in addition to her work on reproductive and sexual health, Stéph is showcasing black women working on the front lines of development. She wants others to follow suite as, in her words, “black women working in international development are more than just storytellers and gatekeepers to stories of other black women.”
Steph insists that representation matters and opens doors to create a path of ownership. “The more black women we can get working in international development, the richer the work is going to be, the more safe spaces we will see, the more innovative solutions we will see popping up from other black women.
The white saviour complex is so crippling, and so limiting, it really stifles the innovation that could be happening in Africa… but when black women create safe spaces, they’re unique – magic happens. Locally rooted solutions happen.”
Speaking to Stéph isn’t just enlightening – it’s nourishing. Infectious and uplifting, her conviction comes through in a visceral way. She is passionate but also practical, and incredibly insightful. She brings the best of her worlds – our worlds – together to effect meaningful change.
Stéph amplifies African women’s voices – unapologetically.