JOAN THE WOMAN
Q: If you were to describe your personality in one word what would it be?
A: A dreamer, however I do not know if one word could describe my personality. I see myself as having a strong will. I care about the welfare of others and love to see people life in dignity.
I love challenges, if it doesn’t make me scared it is not challenging enough.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself, your cultural heritage and what brings you to this work?
A: So, I come from a very rich cultural heritage. In the sense that I am from African decent, oh my goodness I love my people. Back to the question, the Surinamese nation is one of different ethnic groups, coming from different parts of the world. The people from African decent in Suriname are divided in different sub groups. The history of African people in Suriname was dramatically influenced by slavery, which is the root cause of the division, and so my existence in this country (laughs). I am from Okanisi, that’s the largest “maroon” group in Suriname. Maroons are the descendants of enslaved Africans who heroically choose a life of freedom in the Surinamese interior where they settled in small groups: the Ndyuka, Saamaka, Matawai, Aluku, Pamaka and Kwinti. The economical and social reality of these groups is one of neglect and marginalization. At this point in Suriname, we may conclude that there are positive future perspectives.
My grand parents moved from the interior to the urban city of Suriname, Paramaribo, when my mother was a teenager. I was born in 1982, I turned 32 last December 19th. Coming from marginalized group I was very determined to succeed in education. My mother used to tell me that I shouldn’t become a teen mom, and that she wanted me to stay in school as long as possible. Having said that she and my father did their utmost for me and my siblings to attend school.
Being the dreamer that I am, when I was in secondary school I used to watch a yearly African Heritage Pageant. And every year as a young girl I see myself walking that stage. I promised myself that once I entered university I would participate. It was called the Miss Alida Pageant, an empowerment program for young women of African descent.
In 2002 I was admitted to the Anton de Kom University and was supported by my mother, siblings and friends to participate in that pageant. In 2003 I was crowned the new Miss Alida of Suriname, which became a life changing experience for a then 20 year old me.
Once being the new Miss I got engaged in different social initiatives focusing on youth leadership and empowerment. I began to work in my community, empowering youth, especially young women. During these interactions I became aware of the major inequalities that my people had to bear as it relates economically and access to quality education. I knew that Suriname, my country will be developed once all people in the country had the opportunities in life. Determined as I could be, I participated in the elections for the youth parliament and became elected with the majority of votes in our capital city. It was painful to see and to bear that my country, the government didn’t initiate a housing plan for more than 20 years. The poverty, I could not life knowing that we were impoverished.
Q: What motivates you to get out of bed every morning to do what you do?
A: Seeing my parents proud!!
I would also say the next generation is what motivates me to get out of that warm bed. I want to work to better my country so that the children of today have good opportunities tomorrow so they can live in dignity. Suriname was colonized by western powers. They treated my country for their own well being, to build their own , I do not want the next generation to suffer the consequences. Past generations has suffered a lot for Suriname to be at the point at which it is now. Suriname is endowed with enough for everyone of us. In order to ensure that everyone gets their fair share we the people , including me, must participate in the development process.
Q: As busy as you are, how do you unwind and what to you enjoy doing to take time for yourself outside of work?
A: What’s that?? I would love to spend more time with family. Usually when I take time for myself I have to do the other important task; being a mother, partner, sister, once again sister from other parents lol. Honestly I love doing what I do…. I would love to read and cook more. Between you and me, I love to dance but in private settings with family. (smiles)
LEADERSHIP AND POLITICS
Q: So you are a female politician and work in government, tell us more about your work and the purpose for getting involved in this realm of leadership?
A: In Suriname there is a popular saying that politics is nasty; on the contrary I believe that politics is an important vehicle to bring sustainable development in areas where there is none. I really want to see positive change in my country that no matter where you are the personal opportunities are the same. A lot of big things that change the world where done by those who had the conditions to unleash there creativity. You cannot think about innovation or be creative or about a new world on an hungry stomach, when these are the demands for our generation to excel. So my purpose is to fight poverty in all its forms.
I am the youngest member in the current constellation of The National Assembly. I also work as policy official at the office of the president focusing on youth and women. I believe it is my commitment to do all in my capacity to contribute to the eradication of poverty that brought me to this point. Especially coming from a certain background. Democracy focusses on "we the people", so I believe by being there myself, being part of the people I can be a voice.
Q: As the elections are coming up in Suriname, what do you hope to achieve through your work? And what have you achieved in the past working in government?
A: On a personal level I wouldn't say that I have achieve enough for my people. However the current government is very committed in ensuring a more equal division of the economic growth of Suriname by implementing a comprehensive social agenda that focus on the well being of the elderly and children. Especially the initiatives on the access education are applaudable; suspension of the tuition fee for elementary and secondary school. Furthermore, making clean water accessible to women in areas that were neglected. There are several occasions during this term that policy initiatives where referred to as historical. The current Government is closer to the public than any other government.
I would love to see a more comprehensive focus on Public housing. For the past 15 years prior to this government Suriname did not have a proper Public housing plan, resulting in crowded homes with all its challenges. The implemented housing policy is not sufficient to adequately alleviate the demand.
Q: Tell us about a challenge you have faced in being a young female politician and how you overcame it?
A: The political culture of my country is quite demanding, in the sense that apart from the parliamentary work in office you also have to be visible at the “grassroots” especially since I represent a grassroots party and also the management of a “young household”. So, you have to manage time. Politics in its essence is a challenge itself. But the circumstance that often put me in a dillema is balancing work and family. I am a Mother of two year old Ngheiny Sontea. God blessed me with a caring Mother and siblings with whom I can leave her when duty calls. If I could buy more time in a day I would. Because often when I am finished and get her to go home, she is asleep. So we have litle playtime together. But I am working on improving that.
Q: As a woman living in the African diaspora what do you think the key important way women in the diaspora can contribute to the development of women around you in Suriname here and on the continent?
A:I would say that there should be more communication and connection. There is something positive in the cooperation of “black” women. Together we can move mountains. When looking at women of African descend here in Suriname and on the soil of Mother Africa I would say that there has been some improvement in raising awareness about our heritage. We relate more to each other. A few years ago we did not have that connection but with the export of Nollywood and the Ghanian movie industry we got to understand some things about pop culture in Africa. I look forward to a structured mechanism to connect women from Africa with the diaspora. In the past I was thinking maybe a Miss Universe African Pageant would be a friendly way to break the ice. But whatever the choice of vehicle it should focus on young people--young women. I believe that young people are the key drivers of change. We should build each other, reaching out to each other. When one of us have reach a certain point in the ladder of success, we must make sure that the hand behind you is holding at least one younger one!
You see like what you are doing now, you dared to dream about “Women change Africa”, and now you are giving me a stage to present other women. You rock!!
Q: Do you have any advice to offer to other young women looking to go into government? What would you advice them to do?
A: Being a Young women in your reproductive years, in a committed relationship puts much more pressure on you because at that stage in life you are investing in your "nest". Especially if you started to build a Family after your 30's, like my case. Your partner might not understand your priorities. Which might lead to conflicts. Be prepared to handle it with care.
In general women are taught to be submissive, and men (also the ones in the arena) expect that behaviour. I would say be your bold self and be sober-minded in all your steps.
Q: 10 years from now where do you see yourself?
A: By the grace of the Lord: serving my people. I believe that all is possible and I should want it!
Q: Finish the sentence “Women Change Africa because”
A: We are builders. When women move the whole nation moves. We should build upon that synergy and contribute to the development of Africa. I pray for Africa.