Remarkable biochemist, activist and politician shares her powerful story

Isata Kabia is the founding director of Voice of Women (VoW) Africa, a network of female leaders serving to amplify women's voices and inspire collective action.

Born in Sierra Leone, Isata moved to London as a child and then to the United States, where she worked as a biochemist before moving back to Sierra Leone in 2008.

First elected as a Member of Parliament in the Port Loko district in Northern Sierra Leone in 2012, Isata is a seasoned politician. She most recently served as a government Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs in 2018 and as a Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in 2016. She also represented Sierra Leone in the Pan-African Parliament.

Throughout her term, Isata learned how to manage community relations, explore increased access to jobs and deepen supply chain opportunities for local communities. Inspired by her experience, she established AFRiLOSOPHY, a social enterprise focused on skills provision and job creation, in 2015.

In February, Isata was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the Zonta Spirit Working Group.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

Going from biochemistry to activism

"I always say biochemistry used to pay the bills, but it was not really my interest. I remember when I first came on vacation as a 16-year-old to Sierra Leone, and I fell in love with my country. I felt like I found my life mission. … Even within my adult life in the United States, I was very much involved in Sierra Leone affairs. This would be the period between 1995 to 2008, when I ultimately moved back to Sierra Leone. … In 1998, I started an organization called African Women of Substance, and it was an organization of young people. We were all in our 20s and we wanted to do something. We landed on helping children back home. We were ultimately in support of two orphanages in Freetown. We used to put on beauty pageants in the New Jersey and Washington areas and raise funds and send some supplies back home, or pay school fees, or support orphanages for feeding."

Moving back to Sierra Leone

"That 16-year old [on] vacation in back in Sierra Leone for the first time truly, truly fell in love with the country, and if I had my way I would never have gone back to London. … Having gone back, thank God, and finding myself graduating from college and then working in the United States, there was always this passion that I wanted to ultimately move back to Sierra Leone, but it was about the timing. … I lost my mother in 2006. I was having a really difficult time, and my grandmother was still living at the time. I felt like she must be going through twice as much pain as I am because my mother was her everything. My grandmother was the reason I first came back home at 16 years old because I wanted to see her after so many years. And in 2008, my grandmother was the reason I moved back home. I figured she should be able to support me through my difficult time, and I'll be able to support her."

Becoming an 'accidental politician'

"I decided that when I was back home, I would not work with governments because I didn't see myself as a political person or public person. But I thought, having started an organization in Jersey that had done so much great work, I'll be able to run a business here, and also possibly start my own community-based organization to continue the work we had done with children and in the education field in particular. … In 14 years back now, I didn't just work with government; I became government—running for elected office and ultimately being a minister of government."

"I call myself the accidental politician, [while] also acknowledging there are really no accidents. … I approached my work in government, both as in the legislature and in the executive branch, as an activist. … I felt like I had the power to do more. I had the responsibility to do more. So for me, it was a continuation of the work I started when I was very young."

Honored and privileged to represent Sierra Leone

"I felt proud to be the face of Sierra Leone internationally [in the Foreign Ministry]. It was a privilege and an honor. Imagine being a child and coming here, and with my own little money, trying to support schools and trying to support hospitals, and then being placed in a position where you actually were a decisionmaker. It was an honor and a privilege, and I never imagined that."

The importance of educating girls

"If girls are not educated in 20, 30, 40 years, we will still be talking about the dearth of women that are not available to take up leadership roles. To be able to create that pipeline of educated, qualified, experienced and confident women, we have to start early. So I wanted to support girls' education in my constituency. Education in primary school was practically free … but when you transition from primary to secondary school, then you have to start paying fees. And if there is limited amount of financing in the homes they're going to choose to send the boy to school and keep the girl at home. So, we supported scholarship for girls who are performing very well in the transition exam from primary to secondary and gave them scholarships to continue that education."

Empowering and accompanying women

"It felt like being responsible for the kinds of vulnerable communities that I'd so much enjoyed working with and being able to make decisions to change the narrative for people that were physically challenged and the aged and children and, ultimately, trying to… structure a way to support and assist these communities in social welfare without making them dependent—a way to empower communities to empower women to say, hey, this is what you can do. This is how you can grow with government support as opposed to government perpetually supporting communities. So that's why I said I approach my work within the executive branch as an activist continuing the work of empowering people and accompanying people. … I always had such a hard time talking about empowerment because I don't see people as passive and dependent. I see them as powerful, and it's for us to show that power, especially with women, to create the space for them to have agency, to amplify their voices and showcase their work."

"I figured if I want to help girls stay in school longer, their mothers have to have the kind of income that would make that possible. If women have money, then girls are more likely to be educated. … We figured that if we help women to create and run sustainable businesses, increase their revenues, then they'd be able to help their daughters stay in school. So our philosophy was born: a woman-centered approach to development, about making sure women had access to financing—which ultimately can't be separated from the leadership question, because when they are able to contribute anything in the home then their voices are valued; their voices are respected. And once women are able to find their voices in the home, they are more likely to get involved in community affairs."

How her grandmother impacted her life

"She was my everything. My grandmother never went to school, so the work I'm doing is in honor of her as well. … When I was younger I heard stories that her father, my great-grandfather … came to the city when she was still a little bit young. He met women working in offices in Freetown and he cried and said he wished he'd sent [my grandmother] to school. To prevent those tears going forward from parents who have regrets, or to prevent the limitation of excluding powerful contributions from our society, we have to send every child to school—not just every girl, but every child—and make sure they have a limitless choice of what they could do and what they can contribute."

"My grandmother taught me the importance of valuing everybody. I don't value people based on their education level. I value people based on what they want to do. … When I work in these communities now, training women to run their small businesses and grow them into something sustainable, that is always in the front of my mind—the fact that they have something to contribute; they have something to teach me. I'm not going in there to teach. We're learning together, and people who are most affected by these hardships are able to contribute the most to developing comprehensive solutions, and we have to make that the foundation of our policies in government. We have to make that the ideology within our work as activists and NGOs. We have to respect. We have to listen to the people we are trying to help."

Treating all people equally

"Poverty is just a location; it's not who you are. it's where you are right now and it shouldn't be different to how people deal with you based on the amount of education you have or the amount of money you have."

Overcoming challenges

"I don't see my difficulties as hardships; I see them as life happening. You're going to lose loved ones. You're going to face challenges. But when your environment doesn't even provide you the opportunity to solve your problems and you have to rely on somebody else., you know that's a different scenario altogether. … As long as I'm determined to take the next step, there are systems around me that will support that. So, I'm trying to create systems around people who may not otherwise have that chance."

"If I hadn't had those downtimes, I may not be the kind of leader I am now. When you have the experience that you're trying to help people overcome, it really informs how you approach it. That informs how you develop those solutions. I have so much respect for the women I work with, because in the end, when you're down, it doesn't mean that you don't know what you want to do. … You just need somebody to come along and say, 'Hey, let's go together.' "

Biggest strength as a leader

"Empathy is something I used to run away from because empathy for us signified weakness and not strength. And it's my greatest strength, because if you're able to feel what somebody is feeling enough to be moved into action, I think that's what everybody who is trying to make change in this world should be equipped with. Because I was very quiet, it made me a very great listener. I couldn't share my thoughts with too many people, but I could listen to them. And I hid behind the cover of listening so that I would not have to talk, I would not have to share, but it developed this skill that I think is the number one skill you need when you're dealing with multiple challenges and many different kinds of people."

"I truly believe that leadership is about action. … Once you're able to find something that you believe in, just take action. … I'm starting work regardless of whether I will see that success. Remarkable women of the world, just start the work. It's not your job to finish up."

Community of encouragers

"I know the difference between self-belief and confidence. … I know it's just about putting one foot in front of the other and having somebody to say, 'I got you.' I go back to that place in New Jersey when I first had the confidence to call a few women together, and then was given the support to be on the front line as opposed to in the background by people in my community who thought the work I was doing was important, and they were there to support me. And if that hadn't happened, Parliament would not have been possible."

"Any woman you know that has the qualities to make a difference, ask her. And ask her again. And then ask her again. After women came to me three times, I ultimately said yes because when I visited the areas in my constituency and I saw the kind of work that needed to do, I knew that I had the heart to do that work. I realized the hero you've been waiting for is you."

Gender equity

"It's going to take another 100 years to get where we need to, and the world doesn't have 100 years. The world will be losing an opportunity to move the globe in the right direction. If we continue exclusion, if we continue to disenfranchise girls in education, and if we continue the structural barriers we have within certain cultures about the spaces that women can or should occupy … we'll find women in the back of the house cooking in the kitchen, and then in the front discussing politics."

Women in politics

"Moving into political spaces, we are seen very much as intruders, and we're here to say that we are not trying to exclude men. It's not about that exchange. It's about working side by side with men to ensure that the difference that we bring to the table, the difference of our leadership, is what's missing right now. And that's what the world needs. The world needs the softness of leadership that can actually take us to a place where we care about what happens, not just in our neighborhood, but 10,000 miles across the world."

"The most important work I'm doing is to get more women to vote and be voted for, and working on increasing women running for elected office is crucial at this point of our politics. Politics in Sierra Leone is scary. Generally, I think it's scary for women around the world who want to put themselves in a space where they're going to be invariably insulted and excluded and marginalized, or bullied. And we've seen the experience of that. When people see what happens to women [in politics] they're less likely to opt in, so women are permanently opting out and saying, 'OK, this is not for us.' And I continue to say, 'This is for us.' The more you feel that way, the more you're needed in this space, so that you could change the space."

What's next

"We have national elections coming up in June 2023, so to be able to hopefully encourage and enable women to opt in and run for office is a really important time and really important work that I'm back in right now. … If we're able to increase the visibility for more women and amplify women's leadership and normalize women's leadership, then there will come a time when we will just have candidates. And we don't need to see how many men are candidates and how many women are candidates, because we've built the right kind of culture that actually encourages all voices."

To keep up with Isata, follow her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Watch Isata's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories video below:   

23 FEBRUARY 2023