You can't be better than yourself. You can't be someone else. You can only be who you were born to be.
Sheila Nana Akua Ashong is an Environmental Management practitioner and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Expert. She currently serves as the Deputy Director for Natural Resources in the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana. Over her 18-year career as a natural scientist, Sheila has determined that for sustainable development to be effective; local communities need to understand it on their own terms. To this end, she is dedicated to incorporating traditional Africa knowledge in the management of our protected area systems.
She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.
Sheila, what do you want to be remembered for?
Two things. One, for having done work that impacts our local communities in a positive way. And this is going to take very deliberate efforts. Because the problem within the environmental sustainability world is we are talking a lot at international conferences and in our offices, but there is still inadequate awareness and considerable poverty at the local level. I am grateful to have had a very full career, but there is still so much work to be done. All our scientific and policy work needs to be truly reflected at the local level.
The second thing I want to be remembered for relates to my deep cultural orientation. I'm not too fond of the fact that our children are speaking less and less of our local languages. I would like to see a turning point where we can merge our rich African culture with our modern ways of living.
Why do you think we have become so disconnected from our traditional cultures?
In my case, it had to do with the convenience that came with adopting the western culture.
When my first child was eight weeks old, I had to go back to work. This meant that my husband and I had to plan for our children to start school a bit earlier than the average age. We didn't want to deal with scenarios where they would be mistreated or yelled at because they didn't understand what was being communicated in school. So, we had to make sure that they understood the official language as early as possible. And before we knew it, our children were speaking more English than our local dialects.
Maybe it also had to do with the fact that my husband and I come from different tribes. While we understand each other's dialects, English is our common ground. Perhaps we should have settled on one local dialect from the beginning. Our children are now learning our dialects, but part of me sometimes feels like I failed them because they had to learn the fundamentals from their teachers, not from us.
There is this general unease around speaking in local languages among some youth, especially for urban dwellers. In my local church, where I teach Sunday school, the children often prefer to sing English songs because the English hymnals for them are more common and because they feel it's unfashionable to sing and communicate with one another in their African dialects.
That makes me feel we are losing control of our own cultures. The question is how to orient the children; I think they want to identify with their roots, but they haven't figured out how. Maybe we need to project more of our Africanness in all we do.
How do you, on a personal level, project your Africanness?
Primarily, it's through the way I dress. I realised that when we go to all these international conferences, we felt compelled to wear formal suits in order to conform. I have always felt like they don't quite match my complexion or the way I wear my hair or my personality. It was an uncomfortable combination for me. So I decided to go for traditional clothes. Today, that's how many people remember me. It feels like a movement of sorts because more and more younger Africans are beginning to wear their traditional attire at international conferences. In a sense, Africa gains from that, which is great because we need to look for every possible opportunity to uplift Africa.
There are so many beliefs that shine a negative light on our traditional African cultures. Take religion, for example. In my culture, traditional ceremonies talk about God in ways that are aligned with Christian values. But I feel like the colonialist came and made us think that everything African was evil– in the name of Christianity.
And you know, women also had a unique role when it came to traditional knowledge. In our Ghanaian culture, when the elders in the palace couldn't agree on an important issue, they would ask “Abrewa”, the elderly wise woman, to step in. She always had the solution. So right from those days, women had a special role to play in decision making.
My PhD research in traditional knowledge and biodiversity focuses on some of these critical questions. How can we begin to project our traditional African knowledge and integrate it into conventional protected area management? What role do women play in the sustainable development of our societies? We know what we should do, we just haven't done it well.
What have you struggled most with in life?
I've always been the "different" one in my family. I was the only scientist, and, amongst my sisters, I was the least "fashionable" one. I am the youngest, so I had a slightly different upbringing. My siblings all grew up in the good times when there was more money. I saw a few hard times.
Also, as a child, I had a very dark complexion. People call me dark today, but I'm not dark; I was really dark. And I look very much like my father; he has a lot of body hair, which I inherited. As a teenager, I felt very unattractive because of this. I considered shaving the hair but realised it grows even faster when you shave it, so I just learned to accept the way I looked. Now I am married to somebody who likes the hair, but it's taken a long time to get to the point of self-acceptance.
Academically, I stood out in my class, but despite my intelligence, I never really felt worthy; until relatively recently actually.
What was the turning point for you?
In 2020, I had to have surgery for an ovarian cyst. It was during that period that I seriously started to examine my life. I had to do a test to find out if the cyst was malignant or benign. Thankfully it was benign, but it was a wake-up call.
I asked myself: If I died today, what would I be leaving behind? Why was I holding back on so many things? Because that is what I had essentially been doing most of my life: holding back. And hanging on to a lot of hurt and resentment. After my surgery, I told myself there would be no more limitations for me.
I went on to apply for my PhD, something that I had been putting off for more than ten years. I also applied for the WE Africa program; the former me would not have dared do this because of fear of being rejected.
I now want to do as much in my line of work to impact people's lives as I can. I don't want to dwell on 'what ifs' anymore.
This year, the doctor detected glaucoma in my eyes, so I have to use eye drops twice a day. I am trying to manage many issues and, surprisingly, I am going about it very calmly. I have a lot to be grateful for and I'm learning to fully appreciate all my blessings.
What have you learned from the challenges that life has thrown your way?
Over the years, I learned to build resilience without even realising it at the time. And following the scare in 2020, I realised I had a lot to lose. I let go of all the resentment I had towards people in the office. This resentment had developed because of the times I felt I had been unfairly passed over and sidelined in favour of candidates who, I thought, were less qualified and less deserving than me. When I started to look at life in a different way, I addressed those issues head-on, and I feel better for it.
I have learned to accept things I can’t change and appreciate myself for who I am. You can't be better than yourself. You can't be someone else. You can only be who you were born to be.
Are you content with where you are in life?
Yes. When it comes to what I do, I am one of the best there is. In that respect, I feel like I am in the right place. When I look back to events in history, I can see I was being directed to now.
Initially, I set out to be a medical doctor because everybody thinks you must be a doctor when you are good at the sciences. I even had the chance to go and write the exam and got offers from 2 universities. The first would lead to medicine, but medicine required physics which I hated. The other one was to study natural resource management. The calculating me, who likes to plan everything in great detail, opted for this second option. You see, I had calculated the number of years before my mum retired. I wanted her to retire in comfort and not have to worry about paying bills, so I chose to study ecology, which would take a shorter period of time. Everyone thought I made the wrong choice at the time, and so did I for the first few years. But now, I enjoy working in the field, with communities and teaching children about the environment. I believe I am at my best when I am making presentations in local dialects to people in villages.
Failing to seize opportunities. And this was because I didn't think I could get them. Today, I am the “class mother” doing a PhD, and some of my lecturers were way behind me in school. What took me so long? I was too scared and lost time over-analysing things instead of just doing them. Looking back, my decision to skip medicine because of physics was misguided. I now know that if I had put my mind to it and believed in myself, I would have made a great medical doctor.
I am learning to get rid of all the emotional baggage that I have been carrying for years.
Some people call me an introvert, and some call me an extrovert, but I would love to be seen in the same way by everybody. I want to be authentic. And I deserve everything that I want.
So, are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I think I’m a mixture– an ambivert. It depends on the situation. When I was younger, I was an extrovert; people used to call me a parrot because I talked all the time. But at some point in life, after my first degree, I became more withdrawn. I think I was protecting myself from getting hurt. Today, I am learning to live life on my terms.
This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2021 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.