PROFILE: Mildred Ngesa, fiery communicator in brave fight against breast cancer
I first met Mildred Ngesa in 2018 when I enrolled for the Women in News management program.
The Pan-African media and communications specialist had been invited as a guest speaker and the sheer boldness with which she spoke has stuck with me to this day.
During a recent interview with Citizen Digital, Mildred Ngesa spoke about her career, her family and her battle with breast cancer:
Tell us a little bit about yourself: your background in media, your work at FEMNET and currently at the organization you have established.
I am a mother, a daughter, a lover of life and an advocate for kindness. In a world that is filled with so much sadness and suffering, kindness is such a rare commodity. We must deliberately institute it… Anywhere, everywhere.
I like to say that I am a ‘recovering journalist’: I have about 27 years of experience in media. Over half of that was in print media at all the newspaper organizations in Kenya and subsequently in radio at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany.
My most creative media years though are now where I work as a media and communications expert in various spheres. I have served as head of communications in three Constitutional Commissions: the Waki Commission; the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution (CIC) and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya (TJRC).
On the regional and international level, I have served as head of communications at Amnesty International and at The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET). Both positions demanded strong instincts from the media industry as I worked directly with bilingual media across over 47 countries.
This kind of experience and exposure gives you an edge in the field, more so, when you are on women’s rights platforms. It becomes a hugely transforming and enriching experience to harvest the impacts of media and communications in various spheres.
You have two daughters. What is it that fascinates you about them?
My daughters are both such amazing gifts to my life that I often wonder who I would be without them. Neema and Nuru are increasingly confirming their purposes in my life through the reality of the grace and light they bring me every single day. Neema will be 15 in May and Nuru is 7.
Neema fascinates me with her sharp analytical mind on issues and is such an overwhelming presence of joy to be around. I love that she is so pleasant to all and is brilliant at making conversations and making friends.
What I see in her is what I think I have. I see her friends galvanizing a lot towards her: to confide in her and lean on her wisdom at this tender age and this is surely a gift. She is witty and smart too.
Nuru is the ‘Philosopher’ for sure! At the tender age of 5 she told me that she had been born to be my life coach. I was baffled! She has this sense of reflection and spirituality embedded within her young soul that disarms me all the time.
She has this caring gentle spirit that seems to want the best for everyone and gets really hurt when she sees injustice or discrimination. I think she is very mature and conscious of the world around her. I feel like she keeps all of us on our toes about what is truly important in life.
My two girls have increasingly affirmed to me the power and beauty of motherhood and the connectivity to your heart(s) walking outside your body. I see God’s presence in both of them. Motherhood for me became the highest calling… That and the definitive call to be humane and to serve humanity.
You describe yourself as a Pan-Africanist. What does this mean to you?
It is Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah who aptly described what I feel as a Pan-Africanist. He said: “I am not African because I was born African. I am African because Africa was born in me”.
The depth of this statement means that I have dipped my entire body soul and mind in the consciousness of being African: born and bred here and in turn embracing with my being the truth of my ‘Africanness’. The pan-African in me sees Africa as an undeniable destiny for greatness whose glory is temporarily shrouded in the hitches of pre and post colonialism hang-ups.
My view of Pan-Africanism is that of cautious optimism that can only come to pass if Africa deliberately and pro-actively works towards emancipating herself from past, present and future threats.
Pan Africanism will prosper if we teach Africans the truth about ‘her story’ (Not the colonial deceit that is the history we read in our colonial-influenced education systems! But the reality of who we were, why we are and what out true destiny as an African people is. So identity and ‘her story’ ranks highly in my list of Pan African objectivity.
Did you always know that you would end up being a vocal communicator? What was that journey like for you through school and into your first job after university? Did you have any mentors at the time?
I always knew I had the ‘gift of gab’. By the time you admit your purpose, it means you have come of age to be brave enough and embrace who you really are.
All through the different levels of education, I was convinced that there was something beyond my writing. I would later excel as a features writer with eight media awards both local and international.
However, I somehow always knew there was more to it. I would take the podium to speak and the feedback would be overwhelmingly positive; so I started praying about purpose to transform – in that any moment I take up the microphone, I would ask that God gives me the right thing to say, not to destroy but to build.
Most journalists are expert communicators. Many would excel in vocal communication if they tried. We just need to stretch our limitless ambitions and we will realize it. Today as Pan African transformational leadership coach, expert facilitator and motivational speaker, I know that it is possible. This vocal communication drive is the main reason why I set up www.mildredngesa.org
What was your transition like when you moved from the media industry?
I believe you galvanize towards your purpose with time but only if you are open to embarking on your journey towards that purpose. Journalism is my first profession because I love writing. I am a human interest/human rights journalist, so naturally, issues of rights, justice and transformation were my domain even in the newsroom.
Media has the power to change things and so does activism in different spheres. I ventured out of mainstream media in 2008 after the post-election violence. It was a time for personal reflections as a journalist and as an individual. After the PEV, I saw the role that the media either knowingly or unknowingly played in fanning the conflict.
I wanted to instigate change in media dynamics and how we cover conflict, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. Everyone wants good dreams at night. No one wants to be embroiled in war and conflict. So I set up my media-based organization Peace Pen Communications (PPC) for this exact reason. PPC’s ambition is to enhance the capacity of journalists and the media as a whole for transformational change.
So far, this has been the focus. It is not only women journalists who gravitate towards individual purpose: this shift is for all. It only takes the brave to embrace it and embark on it.
What would you say are your greatest achievements both personal and professional?
Motherhood has been my greatest achievement and blessing. Motherhood means un fathomable sacrifice to a women’s entire trajectory both as an individual and collectively. More so, it is a personal delight when motherhood enriches you and affirms your sense purpose. I am grateful to motherhood.
Professionally, I am glad that I excelled in my active journalism years and thrived in spaces where I held positions managing media and communications. My highest acknowledgment of success though comes in my transformational leadership platforms: when I see my mentees excelling it thrills me to the core.
When motivated to the brink of positive action, I feel validated in my purpose: when I instigate or take part in anything transformational, I celebrate.
Whatever I do that enriches and enhances our standing as humane human beings gives me immense joy. It therefore means that I have succeeded even if it is speaking words of kindness, motivation or ‘speaking life’ in hopeless situations. I relish these opportunities.
Many journalists get into the profession because they want to be the voice of the voiceless and the messengers of hope. For many, this is a true calling. I would like to believe that I am succeeding in this pursuit.
Your advice to young women seeking to dismantle patriarchal systems in the workplace, at home or in society at large?
Dismantling patriarchy is not only the preserve of young women: it must be the ambition of everyone because patriarchy diminishes one gender, discriminates and disempowers.
We should look at patriarchy wholesomely as an act of aggression against women and girls which should have no place at all in who we are as human beings. To effectively dismantle patriarchy we have to raise our consciousness around gender dynamics and gender issues.
We must act as gatekeepers against discrimination and inequalities. We have to ask the uncomfortable question ‘Why?’ in situations of social, cultural, religious and collective discrimination of women and girls. We must be extremely uncomfortable with patriarchy, so conscious of it that we can smell in a mile away in how it manifests.
You were recently diagnosed with breast cancer after a misdiagnosis of mastitis. Tell us about that.
No cancer diagnosis is easy. You get the final prognosis and your world literally shuts down in your mind, body and soul. In December I was misdiagnosed with mastitis after getting an uncomfortable lump and mass in the breast.
It took a while for me to go through proper professional checks to the point of picking out breast cancer. It is an emotionally draining and tedious process that requires you surmount all your faith. Without faith in God, you cannot be able to walk this journey. I am still in the treatment journey.
What is important is to break the stigma around cancer: to let people know that it helps to speak out; to make people understand that there is indeed a path to treatment especially when diagnosed early; to inform and educate people about what to look out for in cancer detection and the process of treatment to follow.
What I am learning about cancer is that HOPE and FAITH become such an important component of the treatment journey that you cannot disengage from this two. Support from family and friends carry you through the dark days. This disease makes you feel lonely, mentally, especially when you lapse into doubting your longevity with it and its impacts on your loved ones.
But above all, if approached from a positive angle (which I am fighting to use every day), cancer is a disease to raise our consciousness about life and how we live. It teaches us appreciation of every single day and kindness of the human soul. For this fact, I am grateful.
What does the treatment entail?
Cancer is such an expensive disease! The mastectomy (surgical removal of affected breast) and lymphadenectomy (surgical removal of affected lymph nodes) cost about Ksh. 700,000 including a series of tests. I still have the expenses of chemotherapy, radiotherapy to consider which we estimate will cost over Ksh. 2million.
So you see, we have such a long way to go financially but I am so grateful of all the overwhelming support of those that keep my funds-raising processes going. It is so humbling to get love and support from both friends and strangers.
Every single day I get an act of kindness either financially or in kind. People have been praying for me earnestly… Some I have never even met! This is what keeps me going. This is what enriches this journey regardless of its challenges. For this, I am entirely grateful.
What keeps you hopeful?
God keeps my hopes high. I am a believer. I am a Christian. I know the promises that God has kept for us when we believe in him and so I am focused on that promise.
My girls motivate me. There is such an overwhelming sense of worth and purpose when you look at the fruits of your womb. So I remain hopeful every time I see my daughters.
The love and support by family, friends and even strangers is pushing me every day to keep hope alive. This tells me that there is still so much to live for in the kindness of humanity. I am encouraged every day.
I remain hopeful always.
A virtual auction will be held for the Mildred Ngesa Medical Fund through her social media pages on May 1, 2021. Meanwhile, a fundraiser is ongoing and those wishing to take part can use MPesa PayBill No: 891300 Account Name: Mildred