Kansas State University


The Loop

Leading change with women and girls during COVID-19 in Uganda

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies partner Zaharah Namanda, with framing from Trisha Gott, considers how our academic framework, research agenda and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Zaharah Namanda is a community worker and leader, with a focus on education with and for women and girls. She is a country co-director for the Africa Education and Leadership Initiative (Africa ELI), a non-governmental organization that provides educational opportunities for young female refugees from South Sudan. Namanda has been leading prior to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing strategic direction and working with a team to implement programs, coordinate logistics, and monitor and evaluate student performance.

Her commitment to empowering young women and girls through education drives her desire to shape and belong to a community where young girls and boys have equal access to education. Since completing the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in 2020 Zaharah has worked to strengthen her education advocacy work and empower young women and girls in Uganda. Recently, she provided reflections in organizational and community adaptations to leadership in the time of COVID-19 what follows are her words about local, organizational and global responses.

Local, Organizational, and Global Change

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, community activist, Zaharah Namanda set down to write some early reflections and responses to the crises. Her work described efforts locally, organizationally, and in leading change.  While she wrote in her context of serving women and girls in Uganda, her reflections can serve all those seeking to practice leadership today. She began by sharing how her team is adapting work in real time:

  • Locally: We are working online with people and organizations in the tailoring department to stitch locally made masks that we can distribute to people who need them. Already a prototype has been created and stitching is ongoing. Also, we keep sharing information regarding COVID-19 online to keep the community informed.
  • Organizationally: We created a WhatsApp group after we returned our students to the refugee camps when school closed. Our students reside [in] the refugee camps and not everyone has access to a smart phone. We inform our girls about what is required of them during this period. We keep them engaged virtually through wellness activities and challenging them to express how they feel through poems, helping us learn how to support their needs. The elders will provide feedback regarding how our students who are offline feel about the situation.
  • Leading change: I urge everyone to be proactive in this critical time, especially where we rely on one another. This is a call for us to serve in our own capacity. We can do small things that can change people’s lives. Who knew that today the greatest teaching shall be teaching people how to wash their hands or sanitize? 

Beyond the local and organizational context, Namanda also shares a message about communicating to a global audience about the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • What would you want to communicate to a global audience (using social media) about leadership in global pandemic? This pandemic is proof that leadership is people. Everyone is called to serve in different ways, small or big, and we should learn to value people’s contributions. In addition, this period is evidence that leadership is not power/authority because it has humbled everyone regardless of their positions, technology, health care systems or finances.

Considerations for reflection:

Namanda framed some reflections for consideration related to how we reclaim, rewrite, and redesign

our use of discourse, narrative and rhetoric for leadership in this time. “COVID-19 has got people out of their comfort zone. Most people have stood up to help advocate for the safety of others. Given that it is an emergency, I have seen people stop implementing their priority activities to take a lead in the common fight of COVID-19, seeing that it requires an emergency response measure. It’s evident in how people communicate on social media, innovate memes that are informative in this line and push beyond their limits to give sanitizers and hand washing liquids to the minority…”

With this in mind, we may pause to consider:

  • Is there a new narrative seeking to be told that might advance understanding in your circle? What discourses might help promote health, offer insights into wellbeing and advance our sense of community and purpose today?
  • What observations can you make about leadership activity in your organization and/or cultural context? How have the everyday circumstances of your leadership efforts changed as a result of COVID-19? What can your organization and/or community learn as a result of taking notice of the everyday circumstances that inform your approach to leadership activity during COVID-19?

Considerations for reflection:

In making sense of the embodiment and emotion that is key to our efforts, Namanda offers this reflection, “Staying home is one thing but also having collaborators who are mindful about emergencies is something else. Some collaborators only want to see progress and they may not be a force towards the progress in critical times like this. This means that contracts everyday are being lost. “

  • What is required to not just seek progress, but to be a force for progress in critical times like these?
  • How do we re-imagine what “progress” includes in a time of COVID-19? What role does our leadership activity have in advancing re-imagined notions of “progress?” efforts today?

A call to action

In reflecting on what is required of each of us today, she shared, “It is time to value digital productivity, value partnership beyond results in a state of emergency and time to have critical contingency plans to support employees.” Namanda’s charge to you is to consider your commitment (individually, organizationally, and globally). She reminded us that a commitment regarding work right now (situational awareness) may require we ask new questions about how we proceed (privileging day-to-day experience), what defines productivity (building a new narrative), and how to innovate in new and creative ways (embodiment of our work). Her final charge: “Those who find a common solution to this will progress and yield results or will find weaknesses that they will learn from.”


*The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Kansas State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented U.S.-based Leadership Institutes as a part of the Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org.

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