As Vice President and Global Leader, Partnerships for not-for-profit The Hunger Project, Cathy Burke has spent a lot of time with some of the world’s most incredible leaders. But they’re not the people in the top jobs, the rich or running countries – they’re actually some of the most marginalised women in the world. Cathy’s just come back from Senegal, where the 2018 journey will be held, we asked her advice for anyone considering coming along (read: it’s life-changing).
You recently went on a trip to Senegal with The Hunger Project. Can you tell us a bit about that trip?
I led a leadership immersion trip for global executives of eBay. Senegal is absolutely, gob-smackingly gorgeous!!! It was warm and lovely – and the colours were incredible. As it’s mainly a Muslim country, the outfits the men wear are stately and beautiful, and the colours and fabric of the women’s clothes made it a visual feast, like a burst of happiness everywhere I looked!
We spent time in villages with people mobilised by The Hunger Project. Many communities have now nearly ended their hunger, so it was awesome to talk to them about what it took, and reflect on what their younger self thought at the start of that journey. So often we feel we need to know the outcome or the way before we start anything, but these people demonstrate that with the right mindset and belief, along with working together, anything is possible!
How long has The Hunger Project been operating in Senegal?
Since 1991! It was the first country in Africa to partner with The Hunger Project, and now we work in 8 African countries in total.
What challenges are the people in Senegal facing and how is The Hunger Project helping?
Almost half of the population of Senegal lives below the poverty line. That’s 7 million people struggling to survive on less that $1.90 a day, which is completely unacceptable. Another major challenge is that women typically hold all responsibility for feeding and caring for their families, yet they are systematically denied access to the resources they need to do so. They are set up to fail! Instead of giving aid or providing band-aid solutions, what The Hunger Project does is train people, particularly women, to become community leaders and take strategic actions to bring about a sustainable end to hunger in their villages.
What kinds of economic, climate and political challenges do the people of Senegal face compared to the other areas of Africa or even the world?
Three-quarters of people in Senegal work in farming or are employed in the agriculture sector. What that means is that they are highly vulnerable to the frequent droughts and the devastating effects of climate change already seen in Senegal. This is having a deeply negative impact on millions of people and their ability to grow enough food and the right kinds of food to feed their families. Also, one in two Senegalese people can’t read or write which really limits any other employment and business opportunities available to them. Sadly, these kinds of challenges aren’t faced by Senegal alone, but by many other countries around the world too.
Have you noticed any differences in the outlook of women in Senegal compared other women in African countries?
No, not really. The issues they face are similar – lack of access to education, rights, clean water and sanitation, safe birth, and finance.
Can you share with us the greatest takeaway from your trip?
I have spent a lot of time in communities around the world, so my takeaways from Senegal felt like a deeper knowing of the power of people: normal people, people like us. How even when your husband has 3 wives and you weren’t allowed to go to school, you can still create a powerful relationship of trust and respect, set a new path for your children, and grow and learn yourself!
This is the first time Business Chicks has visited Senegal. Can you tell us how the experience might differ from previous years?
Senegal is a French-speaking country, so it’s a great chance to brush up on your French. And the food is so delicious – the bread and cheese and fish – ooh la la! (I can say that – just because we are with The Hunger Project it doesn’t mean life’s pleasures should be diminished or felt bad about!)
What would you say to the women considering the trip?
When I look back on my life, there have been those key forks in the road open to me. One of those was my first leadership trip to Ethiopia in 1992 as a young mum. I had all the reasons why not to go – financial, childcare, and my own fears that I wasn’t a leader and didn’t really have anything to contribute. Like the poem by Robert Frost, ‘I took the road less travelled, and that has made all the difference’. Look, I know that fundraising $10,000 and then getting yourself to West Africa is a big thing. It’s normal to have concerns or fears. But if this truly calls to you and you go, you will get your life out of it. You’ll get meaningful connection, time to reflect, a larger perspective for your life and the world, and a unique insight into what it truly means to be human. You’ll fall in love with yourself more deeply because you will have your heart stretched open in meeting the women in the villages. I know this to be true for myself. You can thank me for it later!
Cathy continues support The Hunger Project through her new role as CEO, UPLIFT.
Applications for The Business Chicks and The Hunger Project 2018 Senegal Journey are open now. Click here for more info and to register your interest.