Exchange Opportunity

by Lani Diane Rich

August 4, 2017

Nigerian-born Timi Komonibo, the Newhouse School's director of recruitment and diversity, visited Kenya to help empower young women.

Timi Komonibo, director of recruitment and diversity at the Newhouse School Visitor’s Center, had no expectation that a hypothetical proposal for her master’s in public diplomacy would someday send her back to her motherland for a life-changing experience.

Komonibo’s class project focused on empowering women and young girls to find a solution to a long-standing problem: managing menstruation without easy access to feminine hygiene products.

“Then when the YALI [Young African Leaders Initiative] fellows came last year, one of them was a woman named Qabale Duba,” Komonibo says. “She was doing a project that had similar themes to our fictional project.”

Duba, a native of Kenya, visited Syracuse University last summer as a Mandela Washington Fellow, the flagship program for YALI that sends promising talent from Africa to a series of American schools to learn skills they can bring back home.

Komonibo, born in Nigeria, has been living in America since the age of eight, when her family moved to Houston. When Komonibo met Duba and discovered they’d had similar ideas for addressing menstrual health issues in Africa, the connection was immediate.

“One day she strolled into my office and we started talking,” Komonibo recalls. “She’s so impressive and passionate. I helped her with the one-pager for her organization.”

When Duba returned to Africa, she reached out to Komonibo to tell her about an exchange opportunity that would allow Duba to bring an American colleague to Africa to help with her project. She chose Komonibo.

The exchange opportunity, funded by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), made it possible for Komonibo to spend 10 days in Kenya last May assisting Duba with her project.

“When women don’t have pads, they’re not going to school,” Komonibo says. “If you give girls pads, you can keep them in school. They can graduate. It seems like something so small, but it makes quite the impact.”

Their work consisted of two parts: educating women in menstrual health and teaching them how to make their own reusable pads, which will allow them to prevent periods from disrupting their lives.

“One of the first steps is taking away that shame that’s associated with menstruation,” Komonibo says. “If you feel like you’re the only one who had to go home from school because you had an accident, you’re mortified and you don’t want to go back to school.”

It was Duba’s standing in the community, and her willingness to discuss these taboo issues, that created a bridge for the young girls and women to talk openly about menstruation, combatting the associated shame.

“She’s somebody who came out of the community, went on to be trained as a nurse, and then came back to the community, which is very rare,” Komonibo says of Duba. “When you educate a woman like that, people expect that she’s not going to come back, but she came back and is a big hero in her community.”

That community, a small village in northern Kenya called Turbi, is where Duba launched the PAPA (Pads and Pants) project in 2016 through her community organization, the Qabale Duba Foundation. This year, with Komonibo’s help, the goal was to find locally available materials the women in the community could use to make their own panties and reusable pads.

“A lot of it was us going to stores and seeing what kind of materials work,” Komonibo says. “It was trial and error to see what the panty could actually be made of.”

In addition, there were other logistical concerns, such as unreliable electricity in the village. Electric sewing machines were not viable, so Komonibo and Duba had to search for manual machines.

“That’s the thing when you do a project like this,” Komonibo says. “You have to be culturally responsive. Whatever is going on, there are certain things that you can’t introduce because it’s not sustainable to have them there.”

During her 10 days in Kenya, Komonibo was able to assist Duba with some of the project, but it remains ongoing. “They’re doing the training now for the women. Qabale has a small team of women who work with her and now she’s having new women be trained to give workshops and be tailors and make the pads, so she’s building quite the army there.”

While her personal connection is to Duba and the PAPA project, Komonibo sees this as just one example of the tremendous value in the Mandela Washington Fellows program.

“It’s not a small thing to leave your entire country and your family to come learn and then take back what you’ve learned,” she says. “I have a bunch of friends in other universities who are involved in YALI and Mandela Washington Fellows and we all are inspired by these people.”

Syracuse University has been a selected University Partner for the Mandela Washington Fellows since the program’s inception in 2014. William J. Sullivan, assistant dean for external relations in the Maxwell School, has been involved with the program every year.

“This past year there were a thousand Mandela Washington fellows selected,” says Sullivan. “The competition for these slots is extreme. The thousand people were selected from 170,000 applications.”

The Mandela Washington Fellows travel in cohorts of 25, visiting different partner institutions for six weeks and then gathering in Washington, D.C. for a few days.

“It’s an exceptional group of people that have developed very close ties to Syracuse University,” Sullivan says. “We encourage them to stay in touch.”

Komonibo maintains her connection with Duba and thinks often of the women of Turbi. “Any opportunity to go back and follow up, I would really love that. It’s one of those really worthwhile projects that I know will flourish because of the passion of everyone involved.”