Ambassador of Sierra Leone H.E. Haja Ishata Thomas
By Reaven D’Souza
Kuwait’s first woman diplomat from Africa, the Ambassador of Sierra Leone H.E. Haja Ishata Thomas, has come a long way from her early years as a school teacher. Having overcome many challenges in her life, the ambassador is now well-positioned to serve as a role model and inspiration to the many young women in Kuwait and Sierra Leone who may yearn to choose diplomacy as a career.
In an exclusive interview with The Times Kuwait Managing Editor, Ambassador Thomas speaks about some of the most challenging odds that she had to overcome to reach where she is today. While highlighting the strong and continuously growing bilateral relations between Sierra Leone and Kuwait, the ambassador also expressed her admiration for the many achievements that women in Kuwait have chalked over the years.
Ambassador Thomas began the interview by telling us a little about herself, how she came to choose diplomacy as a career, and some of the role models that encouraged her to pursue diplomacy. This interesting insight gains even more relevance in light of the fact that she hails from a country that, much like Kuwait, is considered male dominated and paternalistic.
“My experience as a teacher, lecturer and an administrator, broadened my horizon and shaped my career, especially in becoming a diplomat. The call to serve my nation in building the capacity of the current and future leaders through teaching, has been the driving force in my profession. My ability to manage people coupled with the determination to achieve results despite the odds, and the confidence reposed in me by the President of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Julius Maada Bio to represent my country, has been the hallmark of this great journey — diplomacy.
“Growing up, I admired Haja Alarie Cole, a fellow Sierra Leonean, who like myself was a teacher, an administrator and a Muslim woman. She diligently served her country for many years as ambassador of Sierra Leone to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and held several other diplomatic posts in my country’s government.
“Being one of the very few girls fortunate enough to attend school and complete university education, I served as a role model for many parents to send their girl-child to school and allow them to achieve their God-given potential. As a teacher and mentor, I earned the respect of my community and was able to inspire, counsel and advocate for the enrollment and retention of girls in school.
“During my four decades of service, I became a beacon of hope for many girls, specifically in providing counseling and mentorship, which contributed immensely in changing the negative perception held by many parents to girl-child education in my province. I have also instituted and maintained discipline in the exercise of my duties in public and private life, and these attributes served as building blocks and enhanced my capabilities in representing my country diplomatically.”
On a personal note the ambassador revealed some of the attributes she valued most in herself: “Modesty, respectability and humility have been the guiding principles of my work as a diplomat. Meeting with dignitaries in Kuwait, and other high-profile personalities outside Kuwait, especially in advancing my country’s foreign policies, rebranding its image and wooing development and investment opportunities are also very self-gratifying.
Turning to some of the unique challenges associated with being a woman diplomat, and specifically elaborating on her experience in Kuwait, Sierra Leone’s top envoy said: “The field of diplomacy has its many advantages and disadvantages; experiencing and coming to terms with a blend of the two has added value to my work as a diplomat. In addition, the cordial relationship I enjoy with ambassador colleagues gives me a good sense of direction. The challenges are there, but the advantages give one the highest assurance to continue. Moreover, my profession as a teacher prepared me to be result-oriented. I therefore pursue my job with diligence and determination to produce positive results.
“Being the first African woman Ambassador in the State of Kuwait was initially challenging. Before, attending Kuwaiti Diwaniya posed a huge challenge for me because it was a platform exclusively dominated by men. As a woman, you feel the sense of not belonging. Today, Diwaniyas have become all-encompassing; accepting and welcoming diverse cultures, opening the space for women and enabling information sharing.
“Kuwait is a magnificent country with great zest to achieve more. The country has made great progress in building a robust economy and an enviable foreign relation over the years. My experience in the State of Kuwait has been breathtaking, in that I have been able to settle down conveniently and comfortably. I have also been exposed to the Kuwaiti culture, and as a Muslim, Kuwait has become a home away from home for me.”
Speaking on what she hoped to achieve over the coming years in her professional and personal life, Ambassador Thomas indicated: “Girls’ empowerment is still a herculean task to overcome in my country. After completing my tour of duty, I will continue to strengthen my personal foundation, Badaiya Women’s Association, with a view to inspire girls and young women in the fulfillment of their dreams. I believe that the girl-child has huge untapped potentials locked in the shackles of patriarchy. My objective will therefore be focused on producing more female diplomats, ministers and leaders in all capacities.”
Turning to the important role of women in Kuwait society, the ambassador said that the role Kuwaiti women play in shaping the development of the state has been quite fascinating. She added, “Unlike other countries in the Gulf Region, the State of Kuwait has made it possible for women to play an active and a productive role in the social, economic and political well-being of the country. I am impressed with the way women have been empowered and encouraged to take leadership responsibilities; I have had lots of engagements with women organizations, and Sierra Leone has benefited greatly from these engagements in the form of charitable projects championed by Kuwaiti women, including through Madam Narjis AlShatti. The level of education and sophistication that Kuwaiti women have should serve as a symbol of hope to women in other countries.”
The envoy concluded the interview by highlighting her country’s contribution to developing its human resources, especially that of the girl-child: “Sierra Leone’s Free Quality Education project is a catalyst for Human Capital development in my country, and this als plays an integral role in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. President Julius Maada Bio’s vision is to have a society that can rely on its human capital, a paradigm shift from the ‘old school’ way of thinking that emphasized the country’s mineral resources. In this new vision, girl-child education forms the bedrock. Girls are now encouraged to learn and those who are in the sciences are given scholarships for university studies.
“In our days, the story was quite the opposite; girls were discouraged from going to school; they were always told that their duty was tied to early marriage and to manage the home, and boys were the only ones fortunate to go to school. In the end, girls, whose hopes were let adrift, ended up becoming housewives instead of taking part in development activities. My case was exceptionally different, in that, my father, who was a Muslim scholar at that time, created the enabling environment for me to learn.
“Just like Singapore, which took upon itself to invest in its human capital, the emphasis on developing human resources has enabled Sierra Leone to take an unprecedented leap to success.”