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Friday 23 August 2019



If she is not Africa and world’s youngest diplomat, she will definitely be one of the youngest. And she admits that much even though she would not disclose her real age as she spoke with PAUL UKPABIO, putting it simply at under-30. Fatima Al Ansar, the Head of Mission at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Mali recently visited Nigeria to witness the grand finale of AGS Enterprise Challenge, a programme put together by Ifedayo Durosinmi-Etti to promote the birth of new businesses that can end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all through socio-economic empowerment of women with funding, training and mentorship.

Fatima Al Ansar was also at the programme to give a lecture and encourage young female entrepreneurs, after which she spoke about her dreams and lifestyle, among other issues.

Why did you come to Nigeria?           
I am here on the invitation of AGS Enterprise Challenge. The programme’s coordinator wanted me to share my experience and I liked the topic that I was given to speak on, as I knew the lecture would be useful to women in various businesses.

What was the experience like?

I stayed in Nigeria for five days. I really enjoyed Nigeria. I met the right people, real nice people. The people I met were very detailed and business oriented. Your women are very active in business and I like it that way. It was fantastic. I felt comfortable with them and I can tell you that I am already looking at working with them in the near future.

We don’t really talk about Mali much in Nigeria, but what do you think the ties between the two countries have been like in recent times?

The relationship between the two countries has been good. We have your ambassador here and he has been contributing one way or the other to development here. He is supporting some of the work that we do here.

Tell us about Mali. What does your country look like? What is it known for?

Mali is popular for the first university in the world, which was the Sankore University in Timbuktu since 13BC. It is the oldest university in the world. It is in northern Mali and it is a tourist attraction. There is also the monastery and we are known for our cultural diversity. Ours is a very diverse culture and languages.

There’s the issue of accessibility between some African countries. Until recently, to get to some countries within Africa, one needed to go through Europe because there were no direct flights. Is it the same experience traveling from Mali to Nigeria? What are the hurdles for to travelling between the two countries?

I experienced the same thing when I was coming to Nigeria, because we do not have direct flight from Mali to Nigeria and vice versa. As for the issue of visa, Mali does not give visa to Nigeria because it is free entry from Mali to Nigeria and Nigeria to Mali, because we are both ECOWAS countries. However, I find it difficult and greatly problematic that I had to go to Cote d’Ivoire to get to Nigeria or go through another country before getting to Nigeria. For instance, I had to spend 3 hours in Abidjan before I could commence the journey to Nigeria. So I wonder and ask myself why there are no direct flights between the two countries.

Our people are working on it to make it easier, because there is a lot of development and trade that should be encouraged between the two countries. Also, we cannot develop trade between us, I mean, African countries, when we cannot even access each other’s country. For instance, if I have to go to Kenya, I have to go and get a visa, so that makes it harder for people to go there to do business or conference. So I think Africans should try and make one another’s country easily accessible, because that is very important for African development. It is actually the key to that much needed development.

Were you able to eat Nigerian foods like eba and amala?

I love Nigerian food. I naturally love spicy foods, and I think that Nigerian foods are very spicy. I actually gained some weight while I was in Nigeria. I spent most of the time eating and eating, because I really loved the food. I love the way jollof rice is made over there. There was also another cuisine I ate that I really enjoyed. I can’t remember the name now. I remember I could eat it with meat or chicken. I love Nigerian foods. I can say that the jollof rice is now one of my favorites.

Were you also able to acquire some of Nigeria’s native dresses? What is your impression of fashion and style in the country?

It is not because you are a Nigerian that I am saying this, but I must tell you that I love Nigerian fashion. When I was in Lagos, most of the clothes I was wearing were made in Nigeria, though I also wore clothes from Mali. I bought lots of clothes from Nigerian designers during my short stay over there. I bought dresses, tops that I will be wearing here in Mali. I even went as far as getting the contacts of some of the designers that I met over there. I plan to be buying clothes from Nigeria and bringing them to Mali because I love the way the clothes are designed in Nigeria.

I intend to encourage local, African designers because we have talented Africans and we should be patronising our own talents. Here in Mali, we produce a lot of couture. We are very well known for that. Right now, I am seeing a lot of Malian designers and people in Mali wearing a lot of made-in-Mali clothes, and I think there is a lot of potential for Mali to have a lot of designs that are made in Mali, just like it is in Nigeria.

What is the fashion like in Mali and what kind of clothes do you like wearing?

The fashion is not as diverse as that of Nigeria, I would say. But in Mali, we like to wear our native traditional clothes even when going to work, except those who work in corporate offices like bank. I would also say that we do not have a lot of designers in Mali like you have in your country, and that is because there is not as much competition here like there is in Nigeria. That makes it harder because we kind of buy the same clothes. It is not out of place to see us wearing the same type of clothes in Mali because the designers are not many. But then, we are working on expanding, so that we can be making more clothing here.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Timbuktu in northern Mali. I moved there because my father was a soldier. We all moved down there. I later moved out of there to Bamako, which is the capital of Mali. It was there that I did my primary school before going to South Africa for my high school, a pan African School for Leadership. I attended a school where young people were brought from different countries to be taught intensive leadership programmess, entrepreneurial studies and general African studies. We were meant to return to our respective African countries to implement the things that we had learnt in the leadership programmes to impact the world.

Then I went to a university in the United State of America. After graduation, I worked there a bit then came back to Mali where I resumed work fully.

How was life in the US?

Life in the US is easier compared to life in Africa. In the US, everything is about yourself. The social life is not as strong as it is in Africa. In the US, it is a daily struggle; you have to work hard. There is nobody to do it for you, so you have to do it yourself. Here back home, we work hard too, but it is easier for us because we have this social and family circles that helps, which they not necessarily have in the US.

In the US, it is all about the individual. It is all about me, me, and me; how can I make it? But here in Africa, it is not like that; there is always someone who is ready and willing to help you with your bag, and that could make a very great difference.

In what ways would you say that your early life influenced the person you are today?

Whenever things get harder, I remember what my parents taught me, that I have to work hard. This makes me to persevere because I always know that at the end of it, it will be better. I do not sit down and think that people will come and do things for me. I know that I have to work hard and I always try to do the best in whatever I do.

Who influenced you the most between mum and dad?

I will say both have influenced me in their own different ways. My mum has taught me how to be patient and also to be humble and passionate while dad taught me humility, perseverance and hard work. Both, I can say, have given me values that are very important, especially my father, more so growing up in a patriarchal society. I have been lucky to have a father who encourages the education of women and girls. My father encouraged my education, which was there for me from the beginning. Even when I got a scholarship to go to South Africa for learning, he didn’t say that I am a girl; that I should not go, like some parents would do, especially when you are a young girl. They can say you should not go because they are scared of releasing you to go to a foreign country. Instead, it was my dad who supported me to go for the scholarship and supported me all the way throughout my stay abroad.

What influenced your appointment as a diplomat?

I think it is my work that has helped me, because I have always been working hard in whatever I do. Even while I was abroad, I was coming home to my people every summer to do one work or another. Also, I have had a good network, because to be a successful diplomat too, you have to have a good network with people. If I didn’t create this good network of people around me, I may not have been appointed. I was doing the work and sharing it with a network of people who I know care about such.

When you are in the midst of diplomats and you suddenly realise that you are far younger than most of them, do you feel embarrassed?

At the beginning I used to feel a lot of pressure to do more than I can necessarily do. Then, when I was in a meeting where we all were, I was afraid of talking, not because I didn’t know what I should say, but because I did not want to sound smart and I was afraid of being judged. But I was not feeling embarrassed at all. But then I was learning a lot. Now I am very used to sitting around older people, looking up to them and being exposed to their knowledge as well.

I must confess that I am exposed to a lot of things that I wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to being with younger people. It’s good to be in a mix like this, having older and younger people working together. It is very useful, especially when it comes to diplomacy issues. There’s the need for work experience. Also the innovation, the new ideas from the young people is important. Having these together can make a lot of difference.

I think I’m learning a lot from them advising me on the kind of mistakes they made in the past. They advise me so that I can do better. I see them as advisers that I can look up to. We need more young male and female diplomats in Africa.

Have you met other young diplomats like you in recent times?

(Laughs) I haven’t, and that probably will be because on the average, we may be very few. It is a rare field for young people.

Most diplomats are men. How do you feel being in such a male-dominated career? Does it affect your work?

Yes, I agree that most diplomats are men. However, it does not affect me. I face my objectives. As a female working most of the time with men, I focus on objectives. I do not consider that because I am a woman, I should be distracted by that. So far, I have gained respect from the men that I work with, and I think that my ideas are very much considered. Of course, it is not hard. Sometimes, it is not even the men; it is your subconscious trying to tell you or remind you that you are the only woman around the men. And at such times, I just tell my subconscious that I am here for a reason and I am not there with the men because of my gender, I am there with the men because I have something in my brain to offer. So I try to focus on that and I do well.

Do you enjoy your work?

I enjoy my work and I travel a lot. I encounter a lot of people. I come in contact with different cultures. I learn a lot and I am able to work on projects that I enjoy. I have flexibility in the kind of projects that I should do, the kind of policy that we should create, the relationship that we want or need to create with countries. I have something to say on these. I feel urged on and I am considerate. At the same time, I am learning about the work too because I am young.

How would you describe yourself?

I would say I am very passionate and aggressive in work because I always know what I want and I usually go for what I want. I persevere a lot. I am focused. I love meeting new people. I love having good conversation. I am a huge fan of female education. I would also say that I am a human rights activist. I actually like to call myself a diplomat and an activist. Activists are people who advocate for something. For instance I believe in girl-education, youth empowerment and in whatever position I am in, I try to see how best I can empower more women. I believe that every woman has a right to better life.

If you were not what you are now what else would you have loved to do?

I would have been full time on my own organisation. I have an organization that empowers women and girls education in Mali. So if I wasn’t a diplomat, I would be full time on that, probably engage more people to drive the project and extend it to other countries as well.

What do you value the most?

I value respect. I value people and I love my family.

Are you fulfilled?

I will not say that I am fulfilled, because I am always looking to be better. I will always be looking for something better because I am too young to say that I am fulfilled.

What changes will you like to see in the world?

There are lots of things I really want to see. I want to see more women sitting in government positions and in leadership either financial or independent. I will like to see less violence in the world. I will like to see a peaceful Mali, a peaceful Africa, a peaceful world. There are so many things I want to see take place in the world. That is why it is so hard for me to say I am fulfilled, because if I don’t see all these things. It means I have to work harder to make sure we get a peaceful world that we all want to live in.

How do you spend your holidays?

I just travel. I go to the beach. I love water. I love to sit and meditate by the beach. That is how I like to enjoy my holiday.

Do you have memory of a particular holiday you enjoyed most?

A few years ago, I spent time in Turkey and I really loved it. I saw and enjoyed the exotic culture of that country. I enjoyed the sea and highland there.

With your hectic schedule, do you cook?

Yes, I do cook. But it has been a long time I cooked, I have to be honest. However, I used to cook. I love to cook. I just don’t have the time these days unless when I have family or friends around.

When do you hope to return to Nigeria?

Oh, pretty soon! Whenever I have a reason to come, because I have some projects that I am considering working on in Nigeria with some of my colleagues there. And who knows, maybe I will become the Ambassador of Mali in Nigeria.

How about marriage? Are you looking forward to it?

Hmm, for now it (marriage) is not my priority. I still do not have the time for that at the moment. I am still busy. Maybe later.

Maybe after the next two years, I will start looking at that.

So what is your idea of your dream man?

My idea of a dream man should just be someone who respects and loves me. Somebody who we will share the same values. Somebody who can help me grow and I can help to grow too.

Are Nigerians welcomed in Mali?

Oh yes! They are very much welcomed in Mali. We have some Nigerians who are living here, though they are not that many because of the language barrier. Your embassy is here and we do have a good, strong relationship. So Nigerians are most welcomed in Mali.

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