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A Diamond in West Africa

Dr. Saran Daraba Kaba
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Located in West Africa, the Mano River basin encompasses regions of Cote d’Iv oire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This sub-region of Africa is known for war, but also for its richness in natural resources. Quests to control oil, diamond and gold stores have contributed to the areas conflict, but there is one Guinean woman determined to bring stability to the region.

Dr. Saran Daraba Kaba, a CEDPA alumna, is the founder and president of the Mano River Women’s Peace Network. In 2000, tired of seeing women suffer as victims of these wars, Dr. Saran led women from all walks of life to participate in the process of bringing peace to the region.

The network participated in negotiations and mediations during the following years, which ended in peace talks in Ghana in 2003. The network was asked to sign the Liberian peace accord because of their efforts and the U.N awarded them with the Prize in the field of Human Rights.

Dr. Saran is quick to give others credit for her success, including her family.

“I was blessed to be born in a family where my dad, but also my mom, believed in education,” explained Dr. Saran. This type of encouragement for girls’ education was uncommon when she was a child; even today only 30 percent of women in Guinea are literate.

“My father didn’t go to school, but he followed a literacy program…and could read and write,” she said. Dr. Saran’s mother was illiterate, but she would quiz her daughter every night to be sure she knew her school lessons.

“One thing my father told me every day, ‘Don’t rely on anybody else, you have to rely on your own efforts,” she recounted. “And, he said ‘You must be the best. Don’t think because you are a girl you have to be behind.’”

Not given the opportunity to use excuses, Dr. Saran pursued her education and postponed marriage until she was 23. She found a husband who was as supportive of her career as her family. In 1993, when Dr. Saran had the opportunity to pursue a CEDPA training her husband helped take care of their home for the weeks while she was away.

Dr. Saran was a participant of CEDPA’s francophone Institution Building workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop brought together participants from French-speaking countries to help strengthen their organization’s capacity to provide efficient programs and services.

A Diamond in West Africa

“We were from Guinea, Mali, Cameroon, Madagascar, Romania, Morocco…I think even Tunisia,” she recalled. “The training had to do with concrete issues…For example, how to write a proposal, how you manage, how you raise funds, how you plan an action, how to build very strong partnerships and so on. It was really very, very concrete.”

“Another important part of the training was communication. How to reach out to people you want to influence or at least to understand what your cause is,” Dr. Saran continued. “The trainers were really inspiring.”

After the training, with sponsorship from International Women’s Health Coalition in New York, she went to Rio de Janeiro for the Reproductive Health and Justice: International Women's Health Conference for Cairo in January of 1994. The objective of the conference was to produce recommendations for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

In Rio, she met Bella Abzug and became the representative for the francophone countries in Bella’s delegation to ICPD in Cairo. The following year, Dr. Saran was nominated to become part of the official Guinean delegation to the subsequent conference in Beijing, representing women-focused NGOs.

Dr. Saran’s role at ICPD and the Beijing conference led to her appointment as Minister of Social Affairs and the Promotion of Women in Guinea. She served as minister for three years, doubling the Ministry’s funding in the Guinean national budget and bringing in a substantial amount in foreign aid.

“The training I had at CEDPA, but elsewhere also, notably in Dakar, on communication skills, leadership, management and fundraising contributed to the success of my ministry,” stated Dr. Saran. “What was most rewarding was that using the skills I had learned in networking, lobbying, advocating…I got USD$8.5 million for the ministry.”

After she left the ministry, she was appointed by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa to assess the implementation of the Beijing platform in Africa in the areas of education and health. She was charged with measuring improvements in the 53 African countries in terms of education and health for women and girls.

Always wanting to do more for the women in her country, in 2010, Dr. Saran ran for the office of President of the country. She is the only woman to run in the presidential elections in Guinea.

“I knew it would be very difficult to win, but my first goal was to let people know what women think about how the country is run. What are the real issues, not the political nonsense,” she explained. “And I had that opportunity...it obliged the male candidates to talk about women’s issues.”

Dr. Saran traveled around the country to get her message across, and she felt like she was embraced by her countrywomen.

“In the rural areas, when I went there, women came with the clothes filled with vegetables. They said, ‘We have no money to contribute to your campaign, but this is what we have.‘ It moved me. In fact, I cried,” she described. “There were more than 2,000 women. They said, ‘She is our candidate. She will not win, but she is the one telling what we have in our hearts.’”

They were right. In 2010, she did not win, but Dr. Saran is not discouraged. She said she will run again. In the meantime, she began a new chapter in her life as Secretary-General of the Mano River Union, an organization dedicated to human security and the sustainable development of the sub-region.

“This sub-region has huge natural resources. Eighty-two percent of West Africa’s water originates from this region and we have 25 percent of the world’s forest systems,” boasted Dr. Saran. In her role as Secretary-General, she, as always, wants to focus on women’s leadership.

“This sub-region has succeeded in electing the first female President in Africa,” she said, referring to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who also chairs the Mano River Union. “I think if we have anything to say and to do about women’s leadership, it is time in this sub-region!”

Learn more about CEDPA’s workshops.