Deborah's Changemaker Journey – Save A Girl Africa
This story was written by Alina Kalmeyer and edited for length and clarity.
Deborah has maintained her sense of humor, her spirit, and her big dreams throughout her changemaker journey, and continues to spread joy in her daily life; “I want to leave everyone that I have met better than how I met them. I want them to begin to see possibilities in themselves, and begin to think of growth.”
[TW: this article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual assault and abuse.]
Determined to Change her World
Deborah grew up in Ibadan City, Oyo State, Nigeria where she lives with her family. From an early age, Deborah was very confident in herself. She says, “I felt like my background, my skin color, and my height– because I am kind of short– should not determine how great I can be.”
Deborah has always thought about the world outside herself and felt connected to her bigger purpose and how she could act on it through leading change. “A special memory of home would be when my siblings and I volunteered to coach the little kids in our neighborhood,” she reflects. “We helped them out with their assignments and taught them rhymes and played games with them.”
For junior high, Deborah attended a neighborhood public school. When she arrived at the school, she observed how her female peers felt powerless and lacked self-confidence. They “[felt] very intimidated by their environment, and by boys in particular,” who often acted in ways that were violent and cruel towards women. Witnessing this, Deborah was eager to share her confidence with the other girls. She began organizing after-school workshops, where she would lead sessions on public speaking and art, so that other girls could find their passions and strengthen their self-confidence.
“[When] you have something that you're doing and the people around you are very proud of you about it, it has a way of improving your self-esteem.” As a result of her workshops, the girls at Deborah’s school finally began standing up for themselves. At the time, Deborah had not heard of leadership or changemaking, “I didn’t even know the meaning of what I was doing. I was just really mad at the state of things at this school, and I wanted to do something to change it.”
Combating Violence Against Women
Deborah hoped that the girls’ newfound confidence would transform their experience at school. But during her second year of school, something happened that changed Deborah’s life–her best friend was sexually assaulted. Deborah and her friend had stayed on campus late to study, but because they lived in different parts of town, they took different routes home. While walking home, her friend was assaulted on the school compound. When her friend opened up about the assault, Deborah was only twelve. She was mad, confused, and unsure about what to do next. She began to think about her proximity to the situation, and about all the other girls who could have been in the same situation.
This experience would later lead Deborah to create an organization promoting education and positivity in the face of gender-based violence in Nigeria, but she had a long journey of changemaking ahead of her. Before the end of her time at public school, Deborah was accepted into a leadership academy called JumpStart Africa. There, she accessed a global network of young people working to solve problems in their own societies. She also connected with young people from Nigeria who were working to solve social problems, from food insecurity to power imbalances to gender inequality. Inspired by the innovation she saw around her, Deborah began imagining “the possibilities that exist in Nigeria. I began to see how beautiful the Nigerian people are, how beautiful the cultures are, how beautiful the diversity and the unity [is].”
The possibilities that exist in Nigeria. I began to see how beautiful the Nigerian people are, how beautiful the cultures are, how beautiful the diversity and the unity [is]."
Deborah became inspired by Nigeria– she overflowed with ideas for bettering the lives of the people in her own community. “I am here to do something and this is [exactly] where I should be,” she says about her work. “If I was supposed to be somewhere else then I would have been [born] there.”
At JumpStart Africa, Deborah was able to turn her ambitions and dreams into a reality. While at a pitch meeting one afternoon, she voiced her vision for combatting gender-based violence in Africa. The immediate response from her teachers and peers was overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging. Soon after, she was paired with a team of two other passionate young leaders, and together they began to research, dream big, and eventually, successfully pitched their idea at a national conference.
Alongside her peers, Deborah finally “felt like I was not alone, and that I had the support I needed to kickstart what I wanted.” Together, the team formed what would become Save A Girl Africa (SAGA).
Her First Venture: Save A Girl Africa
Deborah began her work at SAGA by hosting small community picnics. “I wanted girls to be able to share their experiences in a free environment where they wouldn’t feel burdened or scared.” In this casual environment, young women shared donuts and drinks and exchanged stories.
Deborah shared her own anger and frustration with the prevalence of abuse and assault and the way it had touched her own life. “Nigeria is not a country where you want to come to the forefront and share something like this about yourself,” Deborah reflects. “And that we were able to share openly here made a huge difference for me, and for the people involved.” Through these open, comfortable gatherings, Deborah had created an invaluable space for young people.
Although her work felt meaningful, Deborah began to doubt her impact and question her abilities. “Am I really making a difference?” she asked herself. “This is Nigeria, what difference is what you’re doing going to make.” Then, at one of SAGA’s events, a sixteen-year-old girl opened up for the first time about her own experience with abuse. Afterward, she came up to Deborah to thank her; being a part of SAGA had given this young woman the confidence she needed to open up to her parents about her experiences and, because she was able to finally speak about what happened to her, she finally felt free and grateful.
So even if it's just one person that what I’m doing is going to help, I’m just going to continue.”
Hearing that her work had touched this young woman’s life so deeply, reinforced Deborah’s confidence and inspired her to continue. “How I’m helping one person, how it is influencing who they are and who they are becoming,” now matters more to Deborah than hitting targets. “So even if it's just one person that what I’m doing is going to help, I’m just going to continue.”
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Currently, Save A Girl Africa’s work focuses on raising young girls and boys to feel safe and empowered to stand against gender-based violence in Africa. Deborah believes that “Nigeria [cannot] solve the problem of rape and gender-based violence by talking about it, as the conversation does not go to the root cause.” Media amplifies stories of sexual violence– every day there is at least one case of assault announced on the radio. But there is little to no action being taken by the government or citizens to prevent violence in the first place. Instead of simply creating dialogue, Deborah’s work aims to raise a community of young people that understand their sexual health and are equipped to stand against sexual violence.
At the core of Deborah’s approach is positivity. “We’ve been exposed to a lot of [negativity], because of the kind of country we are in. So, I am raising young people to be bold, safe, teaching them safety measures, and something that is opposite of rape...I am teaching young people to see positivity, safety, and brotherliness.” SAGA’s aim is to show young people that there is another narrative, and that being kind and having a healthy mind matters immensely.
In the middle of 2020, with that vision in mind, Deborah created the SAGA Teen Advocate Movement (STAM) bootcamp. The bootcamp is a two-week virtual bootcamp for African teenagers to teach young people the skills and self-confidence to stand up against gender-based violence in their own communities. Deborah believes that young people must remain at the forefront of change, as voices for other young people. “When children see other young children speaking up against things like these violent acts, they feel empowered to do the same.”
A World of Possibilities
“Being a changemaker has opened me to a world of possibilities,” Deborah shares. “I have through my work at Save a Girl Africa built strong confidence that has shaped who I am today. Young girls have been inspired by the things I do and have sought to also become changemakers” and lead the change they want to see in their world, too.
Today, SAGA has more than doubled in size. It is now made up of a diverse team of eight, with sub-teams that utilize members’ talents and interests, such as finance and advocacy, to continue innovating. Currently, Deborah is the executive director of SAGA, and is constantly thinking of ways to link her organization’s work to the work of other groups and organizations. She believes that having great connections is essential, as understanding others’ approaches will help her own organization navigate its journey. “Yes,” Deborah reflects, “I have a lot of big ideas and dreams and visions for this work...[but] I know that I cannot do it alone.”
Thinking back to the start of her journey, Deborah acknowledges how far she and SAGA, have come. “When I was younger, my environment was very limited, I couldn’t think past the four walls of my school,” she remembers. Adult role models have served Deborah in building her confidence and knowledge to see beyond the four walls of school. She says, “Parents and adults need to begin to pay more attention not the efforts of young people in affecting change. Parents should cheer their children on for participating in changemaking, instead of discouraging them.”
Although she continues to forge her path forward, Deborah’s journey has not been easy; it has taken immense self-reflection and insight. “One thing that has helped me is self-development,” Deborah shares. "A lot of times people want to become community leaders without being personal leaders. So, when I speak at small events or have the chance to meet other young people, I want to tell them ‘You need to figure out you before you figure out how to help your community. You need to begin to work on yourself.’”
Ultimately, Deborah says, “you need to begin to learn how to be rather than do.”
To make a change, every changemaker must begin by working on themselves, because you can’t give what you don't have. By making space and time in our busy lives to work on ourselves, we “can actually become anything [we] want to be.”
Ultimately, Deborah says, “you need to begin to learn how to be rather than do.”
Moving Foward and Farther
When Deborah graduated from high school, she took a risk to work on her personal development; instead of applying to university, she took a gap year. She knew she had to take this step for herself, as she wanted to experience being a part of the change, directly. By doing hands-on work, she was able to see the tangible impact of changemaking, and begin to imagine new possibilities for carrying out the change she wants to see in the world.
Although she is now a linguistics major, and media and communications minor in college, Deborah continues to be informed by her gap year learnings. “When you know what you want [and] when you know that this is what you want to do despite the odds... you’re already on your path to becoming a changemaker.” Listening to her instincts and taking time to grow allowed Deborah to reach a place of renewed insight and confidence in her journey as a changemaker, and she’s forging her path forward with a new passion.
“Changemaking is everything,” Deborah reflects. “I recently spoke at a conference, and people were really surprised to see a young Nigerian changemaker attending. Normally, when people think of changemaking, they think of people abroad, outside Nigeria, and white.” There is so much potential for change in Nigeria, and there are no better change agents to bring that about than Nigerian people themselves.
Deborah could have abandoned her passions in secondary school; she could have let the intimidation of the boys at her school win over her passion. Instead, she created workshops to help her peers, and “because I did something about it, I gained more confidence in myself, and I got more inspired to do bigger things.” Deborah is confident that we need changemakers in every social sphere, not just in organizations and NGOs, but in our daily lives, wherever we are. “Changemaking is [simply] making better something that was not right.” Although it can turn into a profitable career for some, at its core “changemaking is a lifestyle, and if you can live it, you are a changemaker.”
Throughout her journey, Deborah has maintained her belief in herself. She continues to dream big, often dreaming so bid that she sometimes has to take a step back and ask herself, “Deborah, can you even pull this off?” But, at the end of the day, Deborah is confident that even her biggest dreams and ideas are valuable, because “being a part of something bigger is what makes me a changemaker. Nobody can make change without [confronting] things that are bigger than them. Change is big!”