Chosen from among 4588 applicants across the globe, Fatumata Bah is young, Muslim and black - and she's representing New Zealand at the 33Sixty Commonwealth Young Leaders Programme in Scotland this year.
"Over the years, it’s been a rarity to see another African person in Auckland. It’s like, 'oh look - there’s another black person who looks like me!' Auckland is becoming so much more diverse - not just Auckland but New Zealand as a whole - and there is a need to have young ethnic leaders in representations of local level as well as government, and at senior levels in private or public sectors." - Fatumata Bah
Aged between 16 and 24 years, the young leaders were migrants, refugees, long-term settlers or people born in New Zealand who identified with their ethnic heritage and had an interest in a government career.
This year, Fatumata Bah, a young Muslim woman and outspoken member of the African Youth Forum, has been actively discussing issues affecting youth within her community in Auckland.
This same young leader is about to attend another young leaders programme - this time on the other side of the world.
Fatumata has been chosen out of 4588 applicants globally from Commonwealth nations and territories for just 100 places at the 33Sixty Commonwealth Young Leaders Programme to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in April.
Currently fundraising hard to get there through a give a little campaign Fatumata is driven to challenge stereotypes of Muslim women. As a “black woman in a hijab”, she says she faces discrimination regularly but now she can make a difference on the world stage.
A visit to a young leader's home
I’m in Papatoetoe, Auckland, at Fatumata’s home with her close-knit family and she's telling me how they escaped civil war to make a life here.
Originally born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, her family fled to New Zealand from the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), but she remembers little of this because she was just a baby when her parents arrived in New Zealand as refugees.
Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. Fighting over the country's natural resources contributed to a civil war that devastated the country, leaving more than 50,000 people dead and over 2 million displaced as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Papatoetoe is home now, and the world Fatumata knew growing up as a child. She may have shown signs of being a young leader as a child, her father Kabba Bah says. He laughs as he tells me Fatumata was always quite “bossy” as a child, as though she was a natural leader at home too.
Fatumata was head girl at Papatoetoe Intermediate School and also actively participated in debating at high school, her father says. He recalls transporting his daughter many times to inter-school debates in Auckland.
“Parents will always be proud of their children’s achievements. For every success there’s room for improvement - that’s what drives her.”
Mr Bah himself is very involved with Auckland’s African communities and a member of the Federation of Islamic Associations, NZ (FIANZ). Father and daughter agree that their job is to break down negative stereotypes about Africans and Muslims.
She says contrary to popular belief and negative stereotypes, growing up with her father as a role model had led her to become an Islamic feminist.
“He studied Islamic law in Saudi Arabia - he built for me a strong foundation as a Muslim but also as an Islamic feminist. If people feel the need to place their stereotype on me - I will speak out."
Fatumata acknowledges both her parents as role models. She tells me her mother Aissata is a formidable woman who she looks up to as well. Fatumata has observed how dedicated her parents are in helping the African community in New Zealand.
"I think it’s a necessity to get our ethnic youth out there to be involved, not just at a community level but also in the wider sense, in national and in global issues," she says.
And Fatumata’s achievements are being noticed at the top.
Department of Internal Affairs ethnic communities office director Berlinda Chin says the office is “stoked” Fatumata has been selected for the 33Sixty Young Leaders Programme in Scotland.
Ms Chin says she has seen many talented and amazing young ethnic individuals come through New Zealand's Young Leaders Programme but Fatumata stands out:
"We’re stoked, we’re very proud that she’s been selected for the 33Sixty Commonwealth Programme. I think she’ll represent New Zealand really well and she’ll bring home her insights and learning for her communities and wider New Zealand. We’ll be following her progress on our website."
"Fatumata’s intellectual rigour surpasses her age. There’s a layer of maturity that comes through with how she thinks about issues affecting not just her community but New Zealand as a whole.
I’ve found my conversations with her at the big picture, strategic level."
Fatumata laughs when I ask if she considers how she’s faced adversity on many personal levels, as a young, black and Muslim woman but also with her health.
She was born with sickle-cell anaemia, a severe hereditary form of anaemia in which a mutated form of haemoglobin distorts the red blood cells into a crescent shape at low oxygen levels. It is most common among those of African descent.
Fatumata's spleen and gall bladder were removed in 2009 and she faces numerous hospital visits every year. She tells me oxygen is her best friend on long-haul flights when she travels internationally.
She hasn’t lost her sense of humour: “Life is worth fighting for, as cheesy and corny as it sounds! I’ve been blessed with people in my life who did not allow my surgeries or road-blocks to define me. Life gives you lemons and you make lemonade, with lots of sugar!”
And why is it called 33Sixty? Fatumata says: “More than 60 percent of the Commonwealth is under the age of 33 - it’s acknowledging the youthfulness of the Commonwealth. I’m so blessed to go and look forward to the conversation and discussions to be had with the Commonwealth Leaders attending.”
A 'Common Purpose'
British-founded charity Common Purpose runs the 33Sixty event and other leadership development programmes around the world.
It specializes in cross-boundary leadership. A not-for-profit, Common Purpose runs programmes in over 70 cities worldwide. Founded in 1989, over 4000 people became Common Purpose Alumni every year.
They had this to say in response to Fatumata's application:
"Common Purpose is delighted to award Fatumata Bah a place on 33Sixty, a leadership development programme convening 100 exceptional young leaders from across the Commonwealth to equip them with the skills and the experience to cross boundaries, lead change and use the Commonwealth’s networks effectively," it said.
33Sixty takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, in April 2016, enabling the young participants to connect with 100 senior leaders from all around the Commonwealth who are gathered for CSCLeaders, the renewal of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences.
"We received many extraordinary applications for this opportunity, but Fatumata’s outstanding application stood out for us because of her inspiring story; fleeing Sierra Leone and starting a new life in New Zealand, Fatumata used her life experiences as a driver to create positive social change both at home and globally.
"An extremely active citizen in her local community, Fatumata also clearly regards herself as a global citizen, with achievements including addressing 400 young people at the United Nations in New York and contributing to an international movement fighting for the rights and inclusion of all people with learning disabilities.
"Lastly, Fatumata’s application shows a strong sense of who she is, what is important to her and what she wants to achieve, both for herself and for 'the great nation that is Aotearoa and the world'."
33Sixty is a leadership development programme convening 100 young leaders from across the Commonwealth. The programme brings young leaders together in order to give them the skills and the experience to cross boundaries, lead change and use the Commonwealth’s networks effectively.
33Sixty builds on the hugely successful 33Fifty programme which was first run in July 2014, and was sponsored by the Scottish Government and Legacy 2014.