Ms. Ebba Kalondo is the spokesperson in the Chairperson’s office of the African Union Commission. Prior to that, she has held several senior positions in strategic and Risk Communications at the World Health Organization, Foundation Hirondelle, France24, and Reuters.
In this interview, Ms. Ebba talks about her work as a leader in the African Union Commission.
Be the exception to the rule. Go to that meeting that no one invites you to, sit there like you belong and speak up - @EbbaKalondo Click To Tweet
What was your ambition growing up?
Growing up I read a lot and questioned everything around me. I was always inquisitive and analyzing the information presented to me with a desire to learn more. So upon reflection, I must say that my ambition was always to learn more.
Would you say your family environment/childhood shaped the person you are today?
My parents’ relationship which each other forged my personality. They were and remain a strong united front.
They had five daughters and a son. We were always allowed to ask questions and encouraged to read. My mother was soft-spoken but strong. She was a disciplinarian and my father taught us the importance of family.
Did you ever think you would end up in international affairs, or at the AU specifically?
Yes, I worked in international news and in development with a strong focus on security and the humanitarian industry.
With my desire to constantly learn, I grew a desire to ignore the headline and discover the more nuanced reality behind the story.
What was your path to working at the AU? What factors helped you along the way?
It is the people I met on this path that I walked and the rich experiences that brought me to where I am. I always knew that I wanted to be of service to my continent and I am very fortunate that I have been able to do so.
The AU is the platform to do this, and I will always be grateful for the call to be of service.
Can you compare the AU with other organizations you have worked with?
The AU is a microcosm of the state of its evolving Union – a 55-member Union of nations with different governance systems, varying levels of socio-economic development on a continent that is home to a third of humanity but that is still fighting for its rightful place in the world as a primary actor of its own development and indeed that of the world.
Born of a unique history of colonialism not seen in any other continental grouping in contemporary history, the African Union is also the largest intergovernmental in the world.
There is no other organization quite like it, that I know of.
The AU is currently undergoing a process of institutional and financial reform. Why is the reform of the AU essential?
Our continuing existence in the new world we live and engage with depends on making our Organization more fit for purpose to better serve the needs and aspirations of the people of the Continent.
This is not a choice, this is a stark existential reality and an obligation to the founding fathers of our Union.
Are the reform’s youth and women targets attainable by 2025? (35% of AU staff as a youth and 50% as women).
Why should they not be? Self-belief and the ambition we have set out for ourselves is key.
What do you say to critics of the AU who point to its bureaucracy and who doubt its capacity to change?
The AU Commission is a bureaucracy like other multilateral intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union Commission. And like all institutional bureaucracies, it is a slow-moving ship.
It is not as agile as say a start-up. This is not unique to the AUC. What is unique is that unlike the UN and the EU, the AUC has started to implement its reform agenda.
Who influenced you the most in your professional life?
Not one person in particular. There have been so many people who have, through their experiences, mentored and supported my journey.
Have you ever received a painful rejection in your career? How did you handle it?
Not rejection per se, but definitely some occasions where I could and should have acted differently. The first thing is taking responsibility and then fixing it and learning to do better.In case of a rejection, the first step is taking responsibility and then fixing it and learning to do better - @EbbaKalondo Click To Tweet
When have you felt most out of your comfort zone?
On the contrary, I actively avoid comfort zones, I feel most comfortable pushing myself outside of comfort zones. Growth has always been more important to me than comfort has.
Having worked in war zones where putting oneself in harm’s way is part of the job, I’ve learned that security comes from within.
What have you learned in your career about women in leadership? Any advice for women who aspire to leadership positions?
Being a woman in leadership is tough, but being a black African woman in leadership is not for the fainthearted.
Be the exception to the rule. Go to that meeting that no one invites you to, sit there like you belong and speak up. Your opinion matters. Even if there are other women there, and none are speaking up, be the one that does.
Stay informed about everything around and never take the bait of being treated as the “affirmative action” or “gender sensitive” presence. Your results will not be judged on your gender.
You got the job, not your gender, so do it. Never fear ridicule. Ever.I've learned that security comes from within - @EbbaKalondo Click To Tweet
Have you undertaken any measures to support women in the professional workplace?
There is nothing I can teach, but I can share my experiences truthfully and what has worked for me, and what has not. I find that we support each other not so much by saying or doing, but by really being there for each other, making the time to listen without judgment and simply accompanying each other on our journeys.
That I do by instinct, not by obligation. Empowered women should empower women, through service and support. Always and without exception.
What’s your advice for fresh graduates looking to join the AU?
Don’t fear to start at the bottom, in fact, it is always instructive to see how those who think they have power treat those they think don’t have power.
Study by doing. Don’t fear failure. We are who we are despite it. And again, never fear ridicule. Those who laugh at you and make fun of you while you are learning will learn from your courage.
Even if they will never acknowledge it. And the job has nothing to do with your feelings. Do the job. Keep your feelings.
What do you struggle with, in the work environment?
I strongly believe that struggle is inevitable, and contrary to popular belief, I believe we hone our survival instincts through struggle. But the struggle to maintain a life-work balance is real, and it never gets easier.
What are some of the most challenging things in your current role?
That’s a tough one. But in a world where the everyday person doesn’t trust politics and politicians in general, it is important to stay honest and credible despite the challenges. And to be honest, it is the challenges that most attract me. No two days are the same.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment, both personal and professional?
My biggest personal accomplishments are my children. They have taught and continue to teach me some of my most important life lessons.
Professionally, I’m proud of where I am but the road ahead remains long and I’m still working at it.
Do you have any regrets?
Being far away from my family is not easy.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing today, what other career paths would you have taken?
I would have become a psychiatrist.
What is your dream destination?
As a child, I was fascinated by Genghis Khan, so Mongolia remains a mythical place for me. Samarkand, Timbuktu, Kano, and Isfahan are also cities that I dream of visiting.
What are you currently reading? What genre of books do you read?
I’m reading a few books simultaneously:
- Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes
- Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred
In French, I’m alternating between a book on mindfulness by Christophe Andre – a French psychiatrist, Alexandre Jollien – a Swiss philosopher, and Matthieu Ricard – a Buddhist monk, called ‘Trois amis en quete de sagesse”.
I just finished Behave by Robert Sapolsky and Aisha La Bienaimee du Prophete by Genevieve Chauvel.
What’s something your friends and family might not know about you?
I’m an open book to those who know me, so I would like to think that they know everything necessary to know. Those that don’t know me, probably don’t need to.
How do you stay motivated?
I am motivated by my desire to keep on learning, there is so much I don’t know. And working at the African Union, having a front row seat in the process of working towards the Africa we want, and it is within our reach, is enough motivation every day.
I am also motivated by my family.
What do you do in your down time?
I read. I read and reread. I buy and rebuy books.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?
I frankly don’t know, but what is certain is that challenges will remain. The important thing is to keep on going and that no one can make you feel illegitimate unless you allow it.
So it is our responsibility to focus on the solutions together, and work towards our goals and achieving our ambitions.