PROFILE: Dr. Asha Mohammed, pushing for more female inclusion and leadership in emergency response
By Patience Nyange and Esther Kiragu
This week in the #KenyaWomenSeries we feature Dr. Asha Mohammed, a woman many firsts. She believes that women are gifted with the ability to play multiple roles in all spheres of life. I couldn’t agree more!
She upholds that women should encourage each other to do away with self-limiting thoughts. How? By adopting two powerful mantras: ‘It is possible’ and ‘We Can’.
Dr. Mohammed believes that women will sustain conversations that enrich, empower, and win sisterhood empowerment.
She is currently the Secretary-General of the Kenya Red Cross Society. As a woman, mum, mentor, and a leader, she believes in the power of sisterhood and asserts, “No one will invite you to the table; you have to get yourself there. As women, we have to push each other to the front seats and support each other to stay there.”
A Dentist and Public Health practitioner by profession, Dr. Asha Mohammed was born and bred in Kibra Constituency. She is the first of five siblings and proud to be a Nubian: a community with a great heritage and culture. She is also a wife and a mother to six children -two biological and four adopted. Talk of a woman with a big heart!
1.Tell us about your career journey and some of the memorable events that have shaped it.
My career began as a dentist working for the Ministry of Health in Nairobi. After my internship at the Kenyatta National Hospital, I was posted to the Kenya Railways Headquarters staff clinic, where I attended to staff and their families and did mobile dental outreaches to vulnerable communities within Nairobi at the children’s remand centres.
After three years, I felt that I had a greater passion for working with communities, so I enrolled and did a Masters in Public Health at the University of Nairobi. On completion, I was posted back to Nairobi, this time to the Provincial Medical Office, where I worked on Public Health issues and deputised the Provincial Medical Officer.
A significant event occurred in 1998 that shaped my career, the bombing of the American Embassy. At the time, my boss, the Provincial Medical Officer, was on maternity leave, and I was acting. I was standing at a window of the office on the 10th floor of Nyayo House when suddenly I heard a thunderous blast.
Soon after, thick black smoke engulfed the air in the city centre. As medics, we had to respond quickly, and we were led and coordinated by the Provincial Commissioner then, Mr Joseph Kaguthi.
This is where I met and worked with the Kenya Red Cross for the first time. I was impressed and admired how they responded to the emergency at hand. I knew then that this was the work I would love to do. Before the bomb blast, we had developed a disaster management framework for the province.
I later moved to the Ministry of Health headquarters Afya House to work with the Chief Dental Specialist, Dr Ogonji, where I was in charge of Preventive and Promotive Oral Health programmes. Again, I got to continue working with communities through organising dental clinics for vulnerable communities in partnership with private sector partners and the dental school.
In early 2000 Kenya declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster and formed the National AIDS Control Council (NACC). I saw an opportunity to fully venture into the public health field and apply for the post of Provincial AIDS Control Coordinator for Nairobi.
As the pioneer of this office, I had to set it up from scratch. I developed a working framework that included support to Government Ministries and Community-Based Organisations in the province.
In 2002, finally, my dream came true when an opportunity to work with the Kenya Red Cross presented itself. They were recruiting for a Director of Health and Social Services, and I threw myself in the race. I got the job. I then requested for secondment from the Ministry of Health and moved to work with the National Society.
To date, I have never left the Red Cross Movement. It is addictive, and we say, “once a Red Crosser, always a Red Crosser”.
2. What are some of the key highlights of your career journey?
One of the highlights in this role was the coordination and facilitation of a National HIV programme, starting with developing a 5-year strategic plan that saw the organisation implement projects in 13 districts mainly on prevention and home-based care.
In 2005, I was appointed Deputy Secretary-General, a position I held until 2007 when I went to work for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) firstly in Nairobi as its Head of Zone office covering 15 countries in East and Horn of Africa plus the Indian Ocean Islands.
In 2010 I was posted to Johannesburg, South Africa, as Head of Operations for Africa. An interesting coincidence in all these roles is that I was always the first officeholder.
This gave me lots of opportunities to show my capacity and also be creative and innovative. I came back to Kenya Red Cross in 2013 again as deputy Secretary-General, and I was out again in 2015 when I was seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross as its Movement Partnerships Advisor based in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 2018, I was back to Kenya Red Cross as Deputy Secretary-General, and in January 2020, I became the Secretary-General.
3. With such an incredible career journey, what does it mean for you to be a woman in senior management in an international organisation? Based on your experience, what do women need to break barriers, create influence, and occupy decision-making positions?
Leadership is a testament that women can change the narrative and demystify the myths that women cannot make good leaders. It is not easy to be in senior management as a woman.
You have to work harder than your male colleagues before you can get acknowledged or appreciated. People tend to see and highlight your weaknesses more than celebrate your strengths and successes. If you are doing well, your success has to be attributed to someone else.
Unfortunately, as women leaders, we do not have many networks to support each other compared to our male colleagues who have the so-called Boy’s / Men’s clubs. You need these networks; learn to create them even as you rise the ranks.
I believe women can be anything. It is about accepting that this is who we are. We can do it all, and yes, it can be a bit difficult to balance, especially when trying to climb up our career ladders. We have the determination to make sure no role suffers. When you take a role, give it your best, whether as a mother, wife or a career woman.
Having mentors and role models in life is also critical. Today, many of us are where we are because we were either inspired or supported by many women leaders who came before us. It is also important that men also support women in this quest. In my case, lots of credit goes to my father, husband, and brothers as key supporters all along my journey.
4. In your new role in senior management, what are you doing differently and what three key lessons have you learnt so far that you can share with women and girls regarding career and life?
I have made a deliberate decision to include mentorship as part of my everyday activities. I create time even within my busy schedule to do this. I have identified a number of women/girls and men/boys at the workplace and in my community that I mentor and follow them up regularly.
My priority is to work with young people both as agents of change in our communities and support them in their future as much as I can, either directly or indirectly.
At the Kenya Red Cross, we intentionally support women to continue with leadership roles whilst still balancing other roles in the homefront through flexible work arrangement like providing breastfeeding room, among others.
My advice to women and girls is to be focused and have a vision that you work towards achieving. Remember it is first and foremost about you, so ignore the noise around you, which can easily derail you. Work hard– nothing comes easy!
5. You run a foundation that focuses on education, mentorship, and coaching in Kibra. You are also part of several women groups in Kibera that meet up once a month to discuss issues affecting both women and girls in this community. Tell us about this initiative and what it means to you.
A number of us came together as professionals from the community led by our village -mate, brother and friend, the Late Prof. Saidi Hassan. We asked ourselves what is it that we can do to give back to our people. After a long reflection, the issue of excellence in education carried the day.
We were convinced that education is the only game-changer. We started to develop programmes to answer to this, including awarding our best primary and secondary students as a way to motivate and encourage them and those behind them.
This initiative also gave birth to the Nubian University Students Association that is responsible for coaching and mentoring students in primary and secondary school, especially during the school holidays.
We have an annual retreat where we bring the students together to discuss various issues affecting them, including imparting life skills.
I hold this initiative very dear because it has tangible results, and I am proud to have the privilege of contributing to it.
There are many other activities that we also carry out as a Foundation, for example, medical camps, bursary provision to needy students and support to disadvantaged families like now during the Holy month of Ramadhan through the provision of food and cash.
6. You have about 25 years of experience working for an international organisation; what are some of the lessons that locals need to be privy to in order to thrive and stay at the decision-making table, especially for women?
There is the perception that women who pursue leadership positions often sacrifice top jobs for family responsibilities for fear of being perceived as running away from home/ motherhood responsibilities, or in other cases, lack the spousal support that allows them to pursue leadership positions in humanitarian organisations.
Looking at the humanitarian sector, we need more women in leadership positions. As you would know, women and children suffer most when it comes to the humanitarian crisis. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that- female responders understand better how the shoe fits.
The situation as it is now is that humanitarian response is hardly designed to support the well-being of women, particularly in insecure areas.
Additionally, we also have cultural challenges that do not factor in women’s ability to actively lead in response. As the Secretary-General, this is part of the policy work that I am involved in and advocating for implementing policies to support female inclusion and leadership in emergency response.
7. If you were to reflect on your career journey, what would you say have been the guiding principles in your life and work?
In my line of work, community and people come first; therefore, empathy and selflessness have guided my journey. Every day I get to see how people suffer –whether it is through natural or human-made disasters and at the same time, I get to see our volunteers and first responders go out there to reduce that suffering.
Seeing the dedication from my teams encourages me to keep working hard. I am a believer in pro-activeness and living each day with the sole purpose to change lives. Above all, God first, as he has a purpose for us and says we must be our brother’s keepers.
8. What have been some of the biggest challenges in your quest to climb the career ladder, and how did you overcome the same?
Culture and perceptions that a woman cannot be as effective as a man. Unfortunately, sometimes the battle comes even from fellow women who see themselves as better than you. Working internationally in multicultural environments has been even more challenging.
For me, it has been about being first a woman, an African and thirdly a Muslim! Staying true to my creator and myself has been a great pillar.
I have adopted the attitude of you know what, I am not responsible for your negativity! I have a purpose in this life, and I just have to get on with it. I have no apologies to make for who I am, and I love myself just as I am and thank Allah for making me who I am.
9. How do you describe yourself, and how do others describe you?
I believe in the goodness of human beings and can work with anyone from that perspective. I am compassionate and people-centred, and I thrive best in an environment where we treat each other as family. I am accommodative and can take a lot before I get stressed. Many people will tell you that I rarely show signs of stress, even in challenging times.
Many would also say that I am motherly, and as a result, I have earned myself many names, e.g. Mama Africa, Queen Mother, including my husband and children who call me ‘Mama Asha.’ Others describe me as soft-spoken and humble. Those who have worked with me closely would say that I am fair but firm.
Esther is a writer, editor, and communication professional in Kenya while Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University. Prior to joining Cardiff University, Patience served as an Assistant Director at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).