Devotha Mlay, Managing Director for Programs in Tanzania is devoted. With 8 years of progressively responsible leadership at the organization, she is devoted to educating girls and providing them with the knowledge, skills and mentorship they need to transform themselves and their communities. She is also devoted to her family and to the idea of raising her daughters entirely differently.
Devotha’s devotion to her career and her family comes though in this interview.
What were you like as a young girl?
Young girls in Tanzania grow up believing that they are weak, less important than boys and that their main purpose is to take care of the family. Young girls grow up believing that being confident and determined in what they want is being rude, asking questions to elders or their teachers is lack of good manners and that they are not good in anything unless men do them a favor and support them. I also grew up believing that.
Since working at AfricAid, I personally have learned that I am as important as men are, I have learned that I have talents, I can give my opinion and that my opinion matters a lot. I have learned that whether a man or a woman, short or tall, black or white, we all have abilities that can contribute to change our community to be a better place.
I only wish I had learned in Secondary school what our Binti and Kisa Scholars are learning now. The Kisa Project and Binti Shupavu change that perception and let girls know that they have the power to choose what happens in their lives, something that girls in Tanzania are not taught. AfricAid believed in me and that changed my perspective of myself. Because of that I want every girl to experience that. Young girls in Tanzania don’t have Tanzanian role models and that is why we Mentors do what we do.
What did you dream of becoming when you were a girl? How does what you are doing today compare to that dream?
When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a teacher. My parents were both teachers. My mom taught English and my dad taught mathematics and physics. What I loved the most was how passionate they were about it. Their faces showed how happy they were when their students passed. And they were very sad when their students were struggling.
I really liked the thought of sharing knowledge with other people, especially girls, and I love it whenever I get to do that. When I am able to share my knowledge with a girl, and help her to transform and succeed, that makes me very happy. But, it also makes me very sad to see a girl failing and I wish I was there to help her.
Did you enjoy school as a girl? What was your favorite subject? Did you have a favorite teacher or one that had the most influence on you?
I enjoyed school very much as a girl. What I liked most was the chance to meet young people from different places. Everyone had their own tradition, their own upbringing, and it was fun to be in a class with people from different backgrounds. When I was in primary school, my favorite subject was science. It taught us a lot of things we didn’t hear at home, for example, the parts of our bodies. At secondary school, my favorite class was English and this was because of my English teacher. Her name was Susan. She was very bubbly, not as strict as other teachers, she engaged us the most, she asked us questions, she laughed at our jokes, and when we got things wrong, she encouraged us.
Do you have a mentor(s) who helped you along the way? Do you still have a mentor today?
When I think of my English teacher and the way she influenced me, I really liked the way she used to encourage us. She was like our cheerleader. When we passed, she would be so happy. When we didn’t pass, she said “you will do it next time.” If you look at the team we have right now, I am the one cheering for everyone. It is very important to encourage people and cheer them up because that really increases people’s effort.
Growing up, I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have someone that I trusted to go to when I needed support. I didn’t know what it meant to have a mentor. When I joined AfricAid, in the early years I realized that having a mentor is something that is very helpful and very important.
Currently, I have several different mentors and I discuss with them leadership in general, how to best manage government relations and the educational system, as well as my specific role. I am so grateful that I have these people available to me because I know I am not walking alone. When I am happy, I share my happiness with these people. When I am struggling, I share my struggles. It makes my life and my work easier.
What does the Managing Director (Programs) for the organization do? And, why do you like your job?
I am balancing my time between government relations and compliance (how our organization fits in with the nation’s objectives for education) and staying in the loop with all that happens every week at our 40 Partner Schools where our Mentors are delivering the Kisa and Binti Shupavu curriculum. I keep in constant communication with different people in the education field (for example, the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) that we have been a member of since 2017). Most of the time, in the middle of the week, a meeting will pop up, which requires me to travel from Moshi to Arusha or Dar es Salaam.
What I love about my job is the fact that it puts me in the center of communicating with different people from different corners of the world about things I am most passionate about. That is supporting girls’ education so that they can become resilient and confident, and eventually changemakers in their communities. The process of bringing all these people together for the girls we serve makes me really happy.
What special skills or personal characteristics does someone need to be a Managing Director for an NGO?
I believe you need to be a good communicator, outgoing, flexible, optimistic, calm and focused. I also think knowing how to multitask is a must!
What are your proudest moments (inside or outside of your job)?
My proudest moment in my job is whenever I see a girl that I personally mentored succeed. Recently, four young women that I mentored in my first year working with AfricAid joined our team. I am bursting with pride about them!
Why do you think it is important for women and girls to be empowered and leaders in society?
Being empowered means being confident, resilient, and educated. When a girl is confident, this allows her to participate and to give her opinion. When she is resilient, she is able to stand by that thing she believes in. She gets to choose who she wants to be because she believes she can do it. These girls will lead their community to be a better place. When girls are educated, they are increasing their chances to become financially independent and break the vicious cycle of poverty. That means they can take care of themselves and their families. They will be healthier and you won’t expect domestic violence and abuse to happen to them.
There is a saying in Kiswahili that says “Kutoa ni moyo sio utajiri” which means “Giving is not about being rich or how much you give, it is about what is in your heart.” Thank you — thank you for championing the girls and women of Tanzania. Your support really does change lives.
What three words might others use to describe you?
Asimwe, Project Manager of Binti Shupavu here in Moshi, took a poll with the staff in this office. The most frequent responses were: charming, straightforward and honest, and leader.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time I enjoy running, hiking, and reading books. My favorite author is John Grisham. I have read about 10 of his books. I love watching crime investigation shows on tv too!
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I would like people to know that I am a mom of two beautiful daughters. I am so so excited to be their mom because with all the transformation that has happened to me, I am so looking forward to using the knowledge I have to change the story and raise my daughters differently. I am curious to know how they will turn out!
AfricAid mentors secondary school girls in Tanzania to complete their education, develop into confident leaders, and transform their own lives and their communities. We equip girls to overcome challenges and reach their full potential because educated girls create lasting positive change. The outcome is proactive, resilient, and socially-responsible girls who secure better jobs, raise healthier families and increase the standing of women in society.