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WFP Women Leaders: Sheila Sisulu

WFP's Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions Sheila Sisulu served as South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States before joining WFP. She worked as a high school teacher in Soweto, was active in the struggle against apartheid and married into a famous political family. We recently sat down with Sheila and here’s what she had to say:

WFP's Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions Sheila Sisulu served as South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States before joining WFP. She worked as a high school teacher in Soweto, was active in the struggle against apartheid and married into a famous political family. We recently sat down with Sheila and here’s what she had to say:

Q. So tell us about your role now in hunger solutions, how do you explain to the outside world what are you trying to achieve?
A.
Well, you know, the world has changed since WFP started. Before, WFP came in with solutions to particular issues on long-term hunger. Now the architecture of all aid requires that governments are engaged, the host governments are engaged… My role is to work with developing country governments to embrace long-term hunger solutions as part of their social and economic development strategies, moving away from the notion that ensuring food security for the extremely poor is an expense, but understanding that it’s an expense that can be turned into an investment and ploughed back into the economy.
I would really like to talk about this (shows WFP in Africa brochure) because I am using it extensively now when I go to African countries. Previously, documents like this would show a woman carrying a bag of food from a feeding centre or from a distribution point. This woman is holding money; we didn’t give her this money - we bought food from her in Malawi and she’s much more powerful with that money in her hand than if she only had food.

So that’s the hunger solution angle that comes in because it's less likely that this woman will need food to be given to her now. She has money from selling the food that she is growing. In the process, she’s learning how to preserve it, how to make it of high quality and get the best price. She’s learning to buy her own fertilizer and buy her own seeds and take advantage of the seasons if they’re good. In the lean season she has money to buy more food if she needs to, and most importantly, she can make decisions about her family. She decides this money goes for fees, this money goes for seeds, she is able to be the boss of her life.

Q. Tell us about your husband, your married life, your family life.
A. It’s interesting because my mother-in-law (Albertina Sisulu) just passed away. She was really like a second mother to me in more ways than one.  One of those ways is very significant in that, traditionally, when you give birth to your first child, you are supposed to go to your mother, because only your mother can empathise and understand the joys and tribulations of being a mother for the first time.

My mother-in-law was a nurse and a midwife. She discussed with my mother who could not take leave and said: “Look, I’m a nurse, I’m a midwife, I can take leave, I will take leave, this is my first grandson who is born in South Africa. I will be the midwife for Sheila”.

It was an amazing, amazing thing. She took two weeks leave and nursed me, but more than that, I was going to go back to college and having just bonded with my child, I was beginning to have second thoughts and I’m thinking, "now I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m happy and I’m thinking...oh well...I can go back another time and study." My mother-in-law is a very strong person and she said no, you’re going back, you’re going to finish because I promised your parents and, at any rate, you have to have an education. She took care of my child until I finished university.

So for me, and this has been almost 40 years that I have been with this family, I have seen her go through a lot, first as the only bread winner while my husband was also studying and working. She was the bread winner throughout their lives in fact, because my father-in-law (Walter Sisulu) was committed to the struggle.

Q. Yes... your husband... tell me about the family's political activism and how it affected the family.
A. He stopped running his own business to work full time for the African National Congress as a Secretary General organising and building the organisation. And one of the feats that he brought to the organisation was to recruit Nelson Mandela into the ANC and nurture him and build what he had seen as his potential. So that took all of his time, and the ANC did not have money at that time. My mother-in-law was the one who took care of the family.
There were tough times, I must say. I wouldn’t say there was a day when we went without food, but she always made a plan -- you know, we’d say “we’re hungry”  and she’d say “ok, ok, eat me then!”, but then she’d go into the kitchen and scrape something together and voila they would have something to eat. Her husband, my father-in-law, when he came out of prison, often said “I know I would not have been able to do what my wife has done had the roles been reversed.” And he was one that believed in women and their capacity and their potential within the struggle and at home, so my mother-in-law had -- even when he was still around -- pretty much free rein.