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 teacher. Having overcome the many challenges in her lifetime, the ambassador is well positioned as a role model and inspiration to the many young women who may seek to choose diplomacy as a career. In an exclusive interview she speaks to The Times Kuwait Managing Editor about her many accomplishments.
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself; your background and what brought you to a career in diplomacy?
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.
Did you have a role model that encouraged your choice of career?
Yes, I do have a role model. Growing up, I admired Haja Alarie Cole, who like myself was a teacher, an administrator and a Muslim woman. She diligently served her country for many years.
Being one of the very few girls fortunate to attend school and complete university education, I served as a role model for 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.
Where were some of your previous tenures, and any interesting episodes during your diplomatic career?
During my four decades of service, I became a beacon of hope for many girls, specifically in providing counselling and mentorship which contributed immensely in changing the negative perception of parents to girl-child education in my province, instituted and maintained discipline in the exercise of my duty. These attributes served as building blocks and enhanced my capabilities in representing my country diplomatically.
What challenges did you face as a woman diplomat and how easy or difficult do you think it is for women to be able to work in the diplomatic field?
The field of diplomacy has its advantages and disadvantages; having a blend of the two has added value to my work as a diplomat. The cordial relationship with ambassador colleagues gives you a good sense of direction. The challenges are there, but the advantages give one the highest assurance to continue. My profession as a teacher, prepared me to be result-oriented. I therefore pursue my job with diligence and determination to produce positive results.
Do you face any obstacles being a woman diplomat in Kuwait, especially in attending the Kuwait Diwaniya circuit?
Being the first African woman Ambassador in the State of Kuwait was initially challenging. Before, 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, Diwaniya has become all-encompassing, accepting diverse cultures, opening the space for women and enabling information sharing.
What do you enjoy most in your life as a diplomat?
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 self-gratifying.
Tell us about your experience in Kuwait so far.
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 settled conveniently. I have been exposed to the Kuwaiti culture, and as a Muslim, Kuwait has become a home away from home.
Where do you see yourself in the coming years in your career?
Girls’ empowerment is still a herculean task to overcome in my country. After completing my tour of duty, I will continue to strengthen my foundation, Badaiya Women’s Association, with a view to inspire girls and young women in fulfilment 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.
How do you see Kuwaiti women’s role in society?
The role Kuwaiti women play in shaping the development of the state has been quite fascinating. 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 organisations, 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.
Any experience you would like to share with us?
Sierra Leone’s Free Quality Education project is a catalyst for Human Capital development, and this 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 human capital, a paradigm shift from the old school of the country’s emphasis on mineral deposits. In this new vision, the 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 only ones fortunate to go to school. In the end, girls, whose hopes were let adrift, were substituted to 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.