By Jemila Abdulai
Growing up with three sisters and numerous female cousins, I had an early introduction to the world of sisterhood. I never questioned that my sisters – both biological and destined – would be there when I needed them, or that I would do the same for them. True, there were fights and annoyances here and there, but it’s what sisters sometimes do. You disagree, fight, get pissed off, forgive each other, and carry on.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have my fair share of disappointments when it came to expectations from specific female friends. I did, but it didn’t rip out my pillar of sisterhood from its foundations and leave me sitting in the rubble. Like most Ghanaian girls, I ended up at an all-girls boarding school; Wesley Girls’ High School. I went through what virtually every person does when they are dropped into a new situation: I had to make new friends, find my rhythm and “tribe”, and learn the rules of the game.
Where women and girls are concerned, it can be a very complex game: we are our biggest supporters and cheerleaders, and in the same vein, our wettest blankets and worst enemies.
Thankfully, my transition to boarding school wasn’t too troublesome. My intuition is very keen, and just as it had served me in primary and junior high school, it would serve me again. I not only made friends (or acquaintances) easily, but also picked up on social cues that might not be immediately obvious to others; perhaps an effect of being the first of five siblings. Girls and women can be mean to each other, sometimes without even realizing just how much.
A handful of the girls I met at WGHS ended up being some of my closest friends. One lady in particular had a profound impact on me: Naa. I met Naa through a mutual friend who she went to primary school with. He asked me to look for her on campus, which I did. As it turns out, Naa and I were studying the exact same thing; the difference was she was a year ahead of me. Like all Gey Hey girls, we never had any time, but eventually set up a date to chat during entertainment while she worked at the student shop. Saturday came and we spent time talking – she, more than I – as she sold refreshments to our schoolmates. Beyond our academic interests, it wasn’t obvious that we had a lot in common: Naa was chatty and outgoing during our first meeting, while I was quiet and a bit shy. She immediately delved into stories while I responded in short, wary sentences. For whatever reason, we clicked. Naa eventually became my “girl” – school mother, sister or mentor – and would write me beautifully decorated notes a few times a week. I always looked forward to a lovely note to read at the end of the day and in time I started writing my own. Her “a-girling”notes – funny, creative, inspiring, and genuine – would end up being a lifeline that kept me going through hectic school days, failed tests, and a skin ailment which did more damage to my sense of self than my pigmentation. I still keep many of them tucked away in an album set Naa got me for my seventeenth birthday.
By the time Naa graduated, I had found my rhythm, “tribe” and place at Wesley Girls’. She was always on my list of people to call on the rare occasions I made it to the crowded phone booth. A year later, Naa returned to campus for her speech and prize-giving day with news about an opportunity to study abroad at an all-women’s school. I was excited for her and even more so when I received her first email about her academic exploits at a women’s college in a small town in Massachusetts.
Soon enough, it was my turn to take the SATs and apply for school abroad; despite the fact that I always thought I would pursue my first degree in Ghana. As fate would have it, I found myself on a KLM flight to South Hadley via Amsterdam. My final destination: Mount Holyoke College. I first learned about Mount Holyoke at the Wesley Girls’ school library, but it was Naa’s vivid emails about her classes and life on campus that convinced me..
Contrary to what many people think or are told, the curriculum at America’s colleges is no pushover. In addition to demanding classes, myself and other international first years had to navigate a new educational system and way of learning. There was also the homesickness, bland food, and cold weather. Having Naa there to advise, guide and comfort me was a great relief, but equally important were the other women I encountered: my model UN team members; colleagues at the career development center; the Muslim and African and Caribbean student associations; and the six Ghanaian women I embarked on the four-year journey with. All these women have been instrumental in my life and understanding of the world in one way or another, and my biggest takeaway from my time at Mount Holyoke is the importance of women nurturing, standing with, and supporting one another.
We didn’t compete with each other, we challenged each other. Why? Because at the end of the day, if you didn’t get the gig, you would rather your sister did. That simple.
While we were African or international students and classmates, we were also – what some would call – competitors. The limited number of career opportunities for “black women”, often meant that we applied for the same jobs, scholarships and so on. Some would have expected us to opt for self-preservation; to treat our counterparts as competitors; safeguarding whatever knowledge or insights we had for ourselves. To the contrary. It was commonplace to see two (or more) who were women vying for the same job meet up somewhere on campus to work on and review each other’s applications. We would often ask each other “Have you submitted your application yet?”. We didn’t compete with each other, we challenged each other. Why? Because at the end of the day, if you didn’t get the gig, you would rather your sister did. That simple. That lesson has always stuck with me, and when ego creeps in and I feel averse to sharing something beneficial with another woman, I remember this: It will turn out fine. Everybody will end up getting what they need and where they need to be. There is more than enough to go around.
So you can imagine my surprise when I returned to Ghana late last year to discover a cold war of sorts between women who really should be allies. From trying to keep other business women out of the loop, to actively bad mouthing each other, it was clear hunting season is an all-year affair in these parts. A number of conversations with some female (and male) friends confirmed exactly that – many of us don’t really support each other. Even then, I still hoped that it wasn’t true, until it happened to me – not once, not twice, but many times by the same woman.
As March rolled in, I wondered how Circumspecte could commemorate international women’s month. In the past I’ve written articles and even hosted a regional Google+ hangout, but this time, I felt something more….concrete was needed. Hearing yet another lady describe how another woman had thwarted her affairs made the decision easy: a campaign on celebrating sisterhood and women who truly encourage, support and inspire each other. After speaking to Ob of Auntie Oboshie, Freda of Fabulously Fit & Fine, Pearl and Angela of Green Basket and Yvette of Cafe Kwae – all amazing initiatives by or focused on women – we decided to move forward and included a giveaway to celebrate some of the campaign participants. Over the next two weeks, women in Ghana and beyond published photos online of “sisters” who have influenced them and shared why sisterhood matters to them.
Beyond the virtual event, we also organized the SisterhoodMatters Sip + Chat, an intimate event that brought 17 women at the cosy premises of Cafe Kwae. Our group consisted of some #SisterhoodMatters giveaway winners and participants, and others who champion the women supporting women cause. The moments and experiences shared were genuine and priceless. Until then, I hadn’t realized just how much of an anomaly having real bonds of sisterhood are; some of the women in attendance had never actually had girlfriends because they felt “all women do when they come together is gossip”. Until then, the concept of sisterhood had always had negative connotations.
The Sip + Chat also confirmed what I had witnessed at Mount Holyoke: that women are often the biggest influencers of other women, particularly when it comes to relationships, academic and professional careers. Many ladies shared inspiring accounts of how women – familiar and otherwise – had supported, mentored or encouraged them. We also discussed how each woman can own her uniqueness while celebrating others. And then there were the questions; oh so many of them. Like how to tell a close girlfriend that her life decisions are affecting you negatively. How do you strike a balance between being a confidant and letting a sister discover some lessons for herself? What about tough love? How do you overcome your own resistance to supporting other women? How can we create spaces – brunch? – where women come together to bond and network? How can we be better at being sisters to one another and why should we even try when it’s not reciprocated?
We hope to share some footage from the Sip + Chat soon, but in the meantime here are some of the #SisterhoodMatters campaign submissions and photos from what was a memorable event. It also happens to be Circumspecte’s first official offline experience (woot, woot!) – thank you to everyone who participated and a special thanks to our partners.
Did you find this useful? We would love to keep the conversation going; check out some of the submission below and use the #SisterhoodMatters hashtag to celebrate or surprise a phenomenal woman throughout the year. Do you identify with anything above? What has your experience of sisterhood been? How do you support and show up for other women? Leave a comment below.