If you’re active in Ghanaian digital spaces, you are likely to have encountered the Twitter handles @JAbdulai and @Circumspecte. The woman behind them is the multifaceted, multilingual Jemila Abdulai, a writer, blogger and digital media strategist with an academic and working background in economics, development and media.
Jemila: first impressions
My first encounter with Jemila was offline, in 2009, when she worked for Devex International Development, the media platform for the global development community, as an International Development Consultant. I was attending the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for the first time in my role as the then Communications Officer for the African Women’s Development Fund. Jemila had been in touch to arrange an interview with Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi who was the Executive Director at the time. Jemila’s interview questions were thoughtful and incisive; she was clearly well prepared and had researched both the person she was interviewing and her subject area. By the end of the interview the Executive Director was ready to offer Jemila a job, which she declined, saying she would shortly be travelling to Senegal to work for the African Women’s Millennium Initiative (AWOMI). That’s the kind of effect Jemila has on people. After a concentrated amount of time in her company, you can’t help but be impressed by her.
The lure of the unknown
I came into my ‘Ghanaianess’ when I was away. In Ghana we tend to identify along the lines of family, high school, ethnicity and religion. That’s an aspect of being Ghanaian, not a national identity.
Jemila’s decision to work for AWOMI in Senegal was well considered. She chose to move to Senegal although she had received an internship opportunity in Nigeria, the country where she was born to Ghanaian parents, with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In her own words: “If you give me the choice of a well-paid job in a part of the world that I have lived in versus an okay-paid job in a part of the world that I haven’t lived in, I will pick the unknown country.”
Beyond the lure of the unknown, Jemila’s decision was also motivated by a sense of loyalty and a desire to give back. As a previous participant in the AWOMI Youth Institute, Jemila wanted to contribute to a leadership programme that she knew would benefit African women.
Jemila sees the experience of being in the unknown as an opportunity to learn and grow, a principle that has always shaped the choices she has made and continues to make. After studying at Wesley Girls High School, a school renowned in Ghana for producing many of the country’s most prominent women leaders, Jemila decided she wanted to study International Relations, which was not offered at any of Ghana’s universities. She applied to universities abroad and won admission and funding to attend Mount Holyoke College in the United States, where she had the opportunity to work as assistant editor of the college newspaper, Perspectives. She was able to bring her international experience to bear on the task and, alongside the editor, ensured that the college newspaper become more global by focusing on at least three different countries in every edition. Being in the USA sharpened Jemila’s sense of identity as a Ghanaian.
“I came into my ‘Ghanaianess’ when I was away,” she says. “In Ghana we tend to identify along the lines of family, high school, ethnicity and religion. That’s an aspect of being Ghanaian, not a national identity. Saying ‘ei’ in so many different ways and each one has its meaning and it only takes another Ghanaian to know which ‘ei’ you mean; saying you haven’t eaten, meanwhile you have eaten, it just wasn’t Ghanaian food, so it’s as if you have only filled your belly.”
Being away from family and living on her own for the first time also honed Jemila’s independent spirit and a desire for new experiences. Highlights of her time in Mount Holyoke included an opportunity to travel to France in 2007, which led to the creation of Circumspecte, a blog initially created to document her travel experience. It has now evolved into a website highlighting a broad range of African perspectives on diverse issues.
Conquering the digital world
Have you ever wondered how Africans are using digital spaces to raise awareness of a range of issues, and whether ‘hashtag activism’ has any impact? These are questions that interest Jemila and her team, and she has collaborated with others (including the Ghanaian satirical blog Yesi Yesi) in an effort to explore some of these questions. An enquiry into ‘Africans on Twitter – 15 Hashtags That Defined 2015’ indicate that ‘Kenyans on Twitter’ (KOT) are the most powerful digital activists on the continent, responsible for starting and amplifying over half the popular hashtags in 2015, including #MyDressMyChoice #PrayForKenya and #SomeoneTellCNN.
Jemila’s knowledge of digital spaces is woven into the entire range of her creative production. Her short story #Yennanga was published in Lusaka Punk and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015 and is a multilayered account of a mysterious woman who murders her government official boyfriend. Her trial is constantly debated on Twitter by Team #FreeYennanga and Team #DeathToYennanga.
The future for Jemila will be a blend of online and offline activities. In 2017 her blog will be 10 years old, and a Circumspecte book is in the works to mark a decade of documenting people, policy, places and perspectives. In this, her 29th year, Jemila is determined to live her best life, and is no doubt a formidable woman whose work we should continue watching and appreciating.