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04 November 2008

On birthdays, elections and South Africa

Today is not only Election Day in the USA but also the 89th birthday of my grandmother, after whom I am named (Cleo is short for Cleone, which is her middle name; my middle name comes from my paternal grandmother). We call my grandmother “Mamma” (a long family story behind that one); she lives in an eighteenth century cottage on three acres in the countryside and keeps geese (on which she is something of a rare breeds expert), chickens, and rabbits; she grows much of her own fruit and vegetables, makes jam and bakes fantastic cakes for both her family and to sell on charity cake stalls.  Happy Birthday, Mamma!

As I mentioned before, I was in New York last week for a variety of meetings, including Working Mother’s Annual Work Life Congress - which celebrates the top 100 companies in America for working mothers.  I met some incredible people, including two women from GE, Sandy and Nancy, who have job shared for the last eleven years and have a great story – I’m hoping to be able to interview them for the blog and share it on here with you at some future point.  I also met Carol Frohlinger, a previous blog contributor, when we sat together at the WM Gala Dinner. Carol is just as great in person as I sensed that she would be from our telephone interview last June and I’m already looking forward to re-connecting with her next time.  Read more of her views on women in business at The Thin Pink Line.

And I was interviewed by the website The Glass Hammer for a number of forthcoming articles; we talked about the PwC film, “Closing the Gender Gap” and also about my own career and path before and then within PwC.  Towards the end of the call, the journalist asked me about my career-based travelling and if I found it stressful or unpleasant.

“No”, I replied, cheerily. 

“I love to travel – I get to see some great cities, have wonderful experiences and meet some of the most interesting people … what’s not to like?” 

I also mentioned how terrific it had been the previous evening, walking back from the WM event down Lexington Avenue and seeing the Chrysler Building illuminated against the night sky.  Beautiful.

Of course, I was tempting Fate by saying all of this, as my return journey back to London was massively disrupted the next day; I arrived home TWELVE HOURS later than scheduled, which was, if not stressful, deeply boring.  Thankfully, I had plenty of reading material (another travel tip).      

I’m keeping a close eye on the various websites which are tracking the US election results today; I’m still not convinced that the result will be as clear cut as the polls are indicating.  I was on holiday in Florida earlier this year and discussing the then Democratic primary race with my husband.  At that point, I wrote down my end result predictions and sealed them in an envelope.  The piece of paper reads:

Obama will beat Clinton.

McCain will beat Obama.

Believe me when I write that I take no pleasure in being 50% correct to date; this time tomorrow, we will all know if the second statement is right or wrong.

In the interim, here’s a fantastic piece from guest blogger Pinky Patel of Pfizer.  Regular readers will know that I spent some time on PwC business in South Africa earlier this year, together with my colleague Dale Meikle (also a guest blogger) who is based in Belgium.  At the end of the business trip, Dale stayed on for a few more days (a smart idea – wish I had done the same) and went on safari.  Whilst she was out game watching, she met Pinky, who had also just come to the end of her time in South Africa, where she had been working on one of Pfizer’s global philanthropic programmes.  Upon her return to Belgium, Dale told me all about Pinky and how fantastic she is, and what a great article she had written for Pfizer’s in-house journal about her experiences helping women and children in South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda. I immediately asked for an introduction to this amazing person, and then asked her to write me a piece for the Gender Agenda.

Here is Pinky’s story.


“My name is Pinky Patel. I am writing to tell you about a journey that took me across the world from a small town in South Carolina to the middle of Cape Town, South Africa where I was blessed to meet and learn from some of the most amazing women I have ever encountered. These remarkable women invited me into their lives and opened my mind, my heart, and my eyes to the power of the human spirit to not just survive, but to thrive and reach out to help others do the same.

My journey began in February 2008 when I became the recipient of the Pfizer Global Health Fellowship, which is a philanthropy program created by Pfizer in 2003 as a way to work with non-profit organizations around the world. Pfizer loans out its trained and skilled employees - doctors, nurses, human resources, and other experts - to help local NGOs overcome operational obstacles to growth. The program is open to all Pfizer employees who meet tenure and performance criteria, through a competitive application process. After several years of success as a professional healthcare representative, I had earned my chance to apply and I did.

I chose to work with an organization called mothers2mothers, an HIV prevention organization started in 2001 by Dr. Mitch Besser, an American OBGYN who was working in some of the most under-resourced clinics in South Africa. While there, he discovered that many pregnant women were testing HIV positive and then being sent home with little to no PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission) education or training, thus creating an unending cycle of death that has already wiped out an entire generation of people in Africa. In an attempt to help, he began enlisting the services of mothers who had gone through the PMTCT training and counseling to return to these clinics to work as “mentor mothers” to new women coming in.

These mentor mothers are the actual miracle workers in the field, reaching out to newly diagnosed HIV positive pregnant women - giving them hope and care despite carrying heavy burdens of their own. This model of care by m2m has met great success and is currently in place throughout South Africa, Rwanda, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and soon to be in Uganda and Tanzania.

Most of my time was spent in the head office in Cape Town, South Africa - a city of incredible beauty and diversity, but also of extreme disparity, which creates a very unique setting for a girl who finds it difficult to understand the extremes of the rich and the poor. With glorious beaches backed up against the striking fortress of Table Mountain, Cape Town offers a playground to many looking for fine dining, excellent wine, breathtaking views, and diverse cultures.

However, right beside those chic boutiques and gated homes roam the hungry, wide-eyed street children begging for a few Rands and trying to survive outside of the townships that line the outskirts of Cape Town. These townships are home to over 1.5 million people - except you do not see houses. Instead, you see irregularly shaped shacks formed by planks and scraps of tin as roofs. It is hard to turn a blind eye to all of this, especially set against the history of Apartheid, which delves into an entire world of repercussions that South Africa will long be facing.

As for my role at m2m, I served as a communications consultant which offered me some incredible opportunities - ranging from working on the 1st m2m e-newsletter, creating new sites for the m2m Intranet, and even making site visits to Kenya and Rwanda to interview and photograph the mentor mothers in the field. From some of these site visits I created a collection of success stories about these mentor mothers for m2m.

One of the most remarkable stories I uncovered was of a woman named Lillian. With her large dark eyes and round shy face, Lillian looks like any other normal healthy young woman. But, at the age of 22, Lillian has lived through far more than her years should have allowed. She survived a very short-lived childhood filled with constant family feuding, until she was sent to the streets at the age of 9 to begin fending for herself. Vulnerable and alone, Lillian became the prey of a much older man who repeatedly raped her until she was 12 years old. That is when she fell pregnant.

Despite her young age, Lillian had her son. However she only had a year with him until he was kidnapped by his father, Lillian’s rapist. She fought to get him back, but as an unmarried woman with very little rights, she lost him. She has not seen him since. He is around 7 years old now.

Eventually Lillian did move on through her despair. She did find love and marry and have two more children. It was her third pregnancy that led her to discovering her HIV positive status which she has fought long and hard to accept and learn to live with. Although she still struggles, Lillian is a testament to how one can rise above and beyond her tragedy. From a girl who never even had a chance to go to school, Lillian is now a woman who is educating others and helping to save future babies from HIV.

It is remarkable how many of these amazing women are out there all over the world surviving, growing, and reaching out to help others. It is a testament to me about what we as human beings and are capable of, if we only come together, believe in one another, and WORK to make a change. This is my greatest lesson from my time at m2m and it is a lesson that I will continue to grow from in my life.

I walked into m2m six months ago having never met a single person with HIV and knowing very little about the virus and the treatment. In fact, I had many doubts about whether anything could really be done to impact an epidemic that has already wiped out a generation of people throughout Africa. Through their stories, their courage, and their strength, the staff and mothers of m2m have shown me just what a difference can be made. I returned home a better woman with a renewed belief in humanity and of what can be achieved. I know that, whether within Pfizer or elsewhere, I will continue building on this experience to unlock the potential and opportunities not only in my life, but in lives all over the world.”


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