She doesn’t consider herself a woman leader, a feminist or an activist.
Saba Sebhatu, the communication strategist and program coordinator for the Peacebuilding Center of the Horn of Africa (PCHA) makes me raise an eyebrow; her response to my question surprises me at first. I’ve known her for a few years now and she’s as feminist and activist as they get. However, as she continues to explain herself, I can’t help but to fully agree with her assessment. Surely this young woman is not someone who conforms to the status quo.
“I don’t like to put such labels on myself,” she says. “It’s not those labels in particular; I just don’t like labels because they have their own connotations. For instance, I can’t label myself as a minority because I just don’t feel like I am. You can say I’m in a certain camp or club but I don’t see it as me being non-influential or less powerful. I feel like being a minority has been coined that way. I’m just a leader who happens to be a woman.”
As an Eritrean-American woman, she believes stories are not being documented properly. She wants to do more reporting on politics and social issues that focus on Africa in particular because she feels there is a void. In full confidence, Saba says, "I want to become the voice of the voiceless."
Saba studied journalism because she felt it was the most practical way to become a writer, but the more she learned about it, the more she became interested in media criticism.
She started working in market research and public relations, analyzing different types of publications that were visible in mainstream media. Realizing the void that exists between world issues and stories that weren't being told, she started to critically analyze the people who were writing the stories and why they were writing them. This led her to become more interested in non-profit, non-governmental work.
“I started working for an educational non-profit in Washington DC that was oriented in social justice. And through my experience with them, I became their Africa specialists when it came to African publications in particular. Being in that position, I started to know and understand how people viewed Africa and how they taught students about Africa. I noticed that when it came to writing about Africa, it came from a more academic view point but there wasn’t anything for a basic level of teaching young students about Africa. There weren’t any contemporary children’s books or intermediary books written by Africans available to neither Americans nor to African Diaspora youth. And that is when I became interested in community service and activism within my own local community.”
Saba is known for being active within the Eritrean-American community in Washington, D.C. She started organizing activities to bring youth together so they may learn more about their culture and heritage. She also coordinated external outreach activities to the non-Eritrean communities through fundraisers, writing and website development.
Saba doesn’t work for a newspaper or magazine. In retrospect, her career path seems to have reared far from that of a typical journalist. But how did this chain of events lead her to live and work in Eritrea? Her answer is classic: “Initially, my career path wasn’t something I chose; it was a career path that chose me.”
She had first decided to do some volunteer work as well as research for a children’s book she started to write as she felt like writing about Africa isn’t the same as writing from within Africa. She tells me “it opened my eyes to struggles and barriers in the developing world verses the developed world.”
When I asked her about the types of barriers she’s referring to, she replies “having knowledge is one thing, but not having the means and place to export that knowledge is in itself a barrier.”
“It goes back to having an understanding of why there is a western understanding of Africa verses an indigenous identity and perspective. If the means aren’t there to export information, then how would people have the means to access information?”
Her question is valid and leads to several others: Through what means and channels can Africans write, publish and share their stories to the wider world? Why does mainstream media only report on negative news about Africa and never the positive? Why is the bad news considered the only thing that sells? And how do these negative images affect the way young Africans think of themselves?
I don’t bother referring to published research papers that might have looked into these issues because I don’t need an academic confirming to me the negative affects brain drain has had on the African continent. I’m more interested in learning about how Saba is a great example of brain gain and what tools she uses to try to change the negative images of Africa.
One of Saba’s tasks includes developing PCHA’s website and its content. Saba also uses Web 2.0 to network with other peacebuilders and online readers who are interested in related topics. She uses social networking to make sure that there is more contextual information about regional issues and social conditions available to younger people so as to bridge the generation gap when it comes to information. Saba also networks with other activists, journalists, and policy makers.
Does she face any challenges in having access to influential netizens? "I think that social networking and the internet has really revolutionized the way people communicate with each other," she says. "It is such a dominating force that it has equalized the access people have to one another. If you can navigate it wisely, you won't find any barriers."
Saba tells me more about how she came to work at PCHA. “I didn’t really look for it; it was happen-stance,” she tells me. Surely however, her interest in writing and playing a role in reversing the negative images of Africa led her to where she is now.
“Since I was already interested in Horn of Africa issues in particular, working at PCHA was the place for me to be being it’s a non-profit as well. So when everything fell into place—non-profit, journalism, PR experience, and working in a local organization within Eritrea—PCHA seems like the best place to be.”
Still, working for peace in the Horn of Africa isn't exactly the easiest job in the world. Does Saba ever feel discouraged working in the most conflict-ridden region on the planet?
"Bringing peace to the Horn of Africa is a very ambitious goal,” she says, “but as long as I can create an environment or a microcosm of what the Horn of Africa's potential could be, then I am okay with that."
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignment: Profiles