By Ngozi Cole
“…And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach them to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I grew up in a family that believed in the power of education and success, regardless of gender. My parents were hard workers, and from an early age, the passion to strive for success and to not settle for less, was heavily instilled in my elder sister and I. From an early age, my mother would insist on reading my school exercise books to make sure I did my homework, and the earliest math lesson that I remember was from my sister urging me to recite my times table – all of it.
Living as a refugee in The Gambia for some part of my childhood, lagging behind academically was not an option. Once, during Primary (grade) two, I attained eighth position, out of a class of approximately 70 students. My mother had promised to buy me a doll, if I attained first or second. She bought the doll anyway, while offering words of encouragement and making me promise to do better next time, but the look of disappointment in her eyes when I showed her my report card, made me vow never to disappoint her and most importantly, myself, again. We both knew I could have done better, and I vowed to be the best I could be, to push myself to higher heights and challenge barriers and obstacles in my path to success.
Four years later, I came second best in the National Common Entrance examinations in The Gambia, a place of refuge, where my status as a second class citizen, an “alien”, was highlighted as soon as the results were announced on the radio. That was my first true taste of the ecstasy of success, of the beauty of striving against all odds, to prove the world wrong. That spirit of striving to reach to the highest point of my capability, has stayed with me, and has even surprised me time and time again.
Today, African women cannot afford to conveniently settle for less and to not be ambitious. For so many years, we have undergone several layers of oppression: sexism, racism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, misogyny – all operating within a convenient construct of patriarchy, pushing us further and further down the global socio- economic ladder. Being ambitious is not about unhealthy competition, dragging other people down, cat-scratching our way to the top, double crossing and back-stabbing. These negative connotations associated with the word ambition, negates the will to strive to achieve the next level, be it seemingly possible or not. Ambition is neither a soft nor an easy trait to have-it is a strong burning desire to achieve; it is the fuel of personal success, the will to do and be more. A person’s ambitious spirit will help them push beyond their limits and take them places they never thought they were capable of going. That is why I don’t believe women can be too ambitious, I don’t believe there is anything called a “full potential” for us, there is always room for more-more ideas, more creativity, more connections and networks, more success.
Why this idea of more ambition? The quote by Chimamanda Adichie highlights centuries of our cultures telling women that there is a certain point up to which we can achieve. “Too much book” is not good for any woman who wants to find a man who can “take care of her”. In high school, I had a teacher who would vehemently discourage girls from going on to law school in Sierra Leone, because he believed that by the time they finished, they would be “too old for marriage.” The sad truth is, he killed many dreams. These types of messages have gone on for too long, and women need to take ownership of their path to achievement. We have to find and keep that drive to move forward, pushing beyond imaginable and unimaginable limits, be hungry to be the best women we can and should be. Let us not be afraid of breaking barriers, let no one police our drive. There is no such thing as being “too ambitious” for today’s African woman.
Image Source: Black Enterprise