Bellagio Conversations/

Rumbidzai Chisenga and Dr. Adaeze Oreh

Discover what happens when a trail-blazing organization nurtures and amplifies the voices of African women leaders.

Image is a headshot of Rumbidzai Chisenga.Rumbidzai Chisenga is the director of programs at the EJS Center. Through the Obama Foundation Scholars Program (2018-2019), Rumbidzai completed a leadership residency at Columbia University. She leads the Amujae Initiative, the EJS Center’s flagship mentorship program.

Image is a headshot of Dr. Adaeze Oreh. Dr. Adaeze Oreh is a healthcare advocate, author, and Country Head of Planning, Research, and Statistics for Nigeria’s National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS). Her advocacy work focuses on blood policies that lower infant and maternal mortality rates in Africa. She is an Amujae Leader.

The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center) amplifies the voices of African women and girls, by challenging systemic barriers and championing their ascension to the highest levels of leadership. It achieves this through advocacy, research projects, convenings, and mentorship. It was founded in 2018 by the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected woman head of state in Africa.

The Rockefeller Foundation invited members of the EJS Center to the Bellagio Center in 2022 for an Amujae Leadership Forum. This convening facilitated the ongoing support and mentorship of a cohort of Amujae Leaders – African women in positions of public leadership – and marked the two-year milestone of the Amujae Initiative’s inception.

Here, Rumbidzai and Adaeze discuss their time at Bellagio, including the goals they assessed and re-set during their convening.

Rumbidzai: Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had the vision to ensure a pipeline of high-caliber women leaders could participate at the highest levels of decision-making across the [African] continent. She called it the Amujae Initiative, a program that gives women who aspire to the highest levels of public leadership the necessary support to achieve their goals. We hosted some of these women at Bellagio to further our discussions on the next practical steps in meeting their individual goals.

Adaeze: In 2021, I was honored to be among a group of amazing, inspiring women – some of whom have inspired me in my career. They’ve faced enormous obstacles, but come out strong and winning on the other side. That bolstered my conviction and determination to contribute what I can to society. When I got the invitation to the leadership forum at the Bellagio Center, it was a no-brainer. I had an idea of how inspiring and motivating it would be, but nothing quite prepared me for the actual experience.

Rumbidzai: We had three ideal outcomes for this gathering. The first aim was to reflect on the past two years of the Amujae Initiative and to envision a future for both its leaders and the Initiative itself. We wanted everyone to emerge from the post-Covid situation with a strong sense of intentionality. The second outcome was reviewing and adjusting individual leadership goals, which is our permanent outcome at any of our gatherings or interactions. The third and final aim was to deepen connections and engender a sense of community, and our overall theme for the convening was “enduring bonds.”

Adaeze: I would say that those goals were achieved, from my perspective. I can speak for the Amujae leaders: right from our arrival, there was that nurturing sense of welcome. The Bellagio Convening laid an excellent foundation for a forum of sisterhood, and the atmosphere encouraged openness.

Rumbidzai: It was a two-and-a-half-day forum, and we had quite lengthy engagements with The Rockefeller Foundation convening design team who helped us in restructuring the program to enable some of the deep conversations we wanted to have. We had a workshop format that made the most of the larger Center. Some activities required the participants to walk around the residence to be inspired by the scenery, or there were activities specifically designed to aid visualization – for example, in “Future Walks” they would go out and try to imagine the future for themselves. We also had virtual interactions – most of our coaches, including Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, joined virtually to share their remarks and to participate and engage with the Amujae leaders.

Adaeze: I’d like to share a conversation I had with Yawa Hansen-Quao [a social entrepreneur from Ghana]. We were talking about our motivations for what we do, and I told her about how some of my personal experiences have bolstered my conviction for working in health and development. Yawa encouraged me to lead with that in my advocacy work because it would position me as someone with first-hand experience of poor healthcare and development opportunities. Knowing that the entire program was designed to be a safe space made all the difference, and we could share our fears and hopes for our individual goals. There were insights I got from talking to Yawa about myself, and she later shared that she, too, had some insights. That is the product of designing the meetings around the space.

Rumbidzai: Observing the depth of the conversations among the Amujae leaders was very encouraging. The main drive behind the program is that these women support each other as they journey through the hurdles of being in public leadership. Since we’re taking a long view on what this program should accomplish, we pay attention to the strength of relationships. The Bellagio Center was ideal for something like that. Another thing that stood out for me was the discussions around the role that men can play in supporting this work of increasing women’s representation in public leadership. The leaders opened up about how they can see themselves being supported by male allies.

Adaeze: Yes, it’s important to demonstrate that it’s not men versus women in Africa – women can be movers and shakers, but also be part of the team. Some of the leaders were able to voice ambitions, which perhaps they were voicing for the very first time. I think the catalyst was the fact that we were in a safe space. They knew they were in a supportive environment, and they could trust that whatever any of the sisters could contribute to bringing their ambitions to reality, it would be done.

Rumbidzai: I definitely agree with you Adaeze. These are highly accomplished women, so their goals are incredibly ambitious – but at the Bellagio Center it seemed that they felt more empowered to express exactly what they wanted to achieve. There wasn’t a fear of their private goals getting out before they were ready to execute them. I appreciated that they created that environment for themselves. It resonated with our long-term goal of fostering sister-like connections. We finally saw some of the walls breaking down, and that was very rewarding for us.

It also taught me about the importance of providing space for the Amujae leaders and then letting them be. They just need us to facilitate their gathering to bring them together, and then they’ll work things out for themselves. A big lesson for us was to make sure that, whenever we do convene, we leave enough breathing space for them to connect with each other. We’d love to make the convening a regular fixture for the EJS Center.

Adaeze: The entire week just reinforced the need to take a step back and think, envision, re-group, and revitalize. That was a key takeaway for me from the week. I left Bellagio feeling energized and motivated to continue on this path. It’s important to work hard, but it’s equally important to take time to reassess ourselves and our motivations. That’s how we can look further ahead and re-strategize. I feel as though I evolved thanks to this convening and my time at Bellagio.

Explore more

To find out more about the work of the Amujae Initiative, visit the EJS Center website.

For more information on the work of Rumbidzai, read her EJS Center team biography or listen to Chisenga explain her work with the AI in her own words in a video from Columbia World Projects.

The work of Adaeze can be explored in her EJS biography or you can simply follow her on Twitter.