My Ecocash Hero, My Role As A Mentor And Why Young People Should Take On SCARY Assignments: UK Ambassador
Ambassador Catriona Laing reflects on the women who’ve influenced her during her time in Zimbabwe – and her life as a top female diplomat.
By British Embassy
In 1993, Catriona Laing was a young economist working for Britain’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA) when an improbable job opening beckoned. The US had intervened in Somalia to avert a humanitarian crisis.
A large UN mission had just been established to help stabilise the country. The ODA was looking for volunteers – including someone to lead the UN Development Office. The country was highly volatile, and the UN Mission was in some turmoil.
Despite having no experience of this kind Laing put up her hand.
“I did it,” she says. “It was scary and very tough. I worked there for nine months solid with just one break. That mission ultimately failed. But it gave me real on-the-ground practical experience. It was massively life-changing.”
Build your own resilience
The experienced British diplomat is keen to encourage young Zimbabweans, particularly women, to challenge themselves to take on assignments they think are too big for them.
“You take it, you prepare for it. That is how you succeed. You have to gradually build your own resilience. And you must work on your ability to network,” she says.
Networking and building relations is a diplomat’s lifeblood. The UK ambassador has invested considerable time building relationships in-country, many of them with women.
If she had to pick four Zimbabwean women who’ve had the biggest influence on her, who would they be?
Putting business at the heart of Africa’s future
She names Natalie Jabangwe-Morris, the 34-year-old CEO of Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile money network Ecocash and one of the first executives Laing met when she arrived in Harare.
“I was blown away by her fascinating story,” says the ambassador.
“She’s got a first degree in computer engineering and then an MBA from Imperial College London.
She brought together that amazing set of skills to run Ecocash. Her goal is to put business at the heart of Africa’s future. She’s such an inspiration.”
The ambassador cites Sekai Holland who has decades of experience of peace and reconciliation and defending human rights.
“She does not shy away from difficult causes and is active now on the violence against women that is happening within the political parties,” she says.
Whatever life throws at you
Radio journalist and disability rights activity Soneni Gwizi came to speak at an embassy event in mid-2018.
“She’s one of the most inspiring speakers we’ve ever had,” says Laing.
“Soneni’s message is that whatever life throws at you, you can make success of it. Her strapline is Flawsome. I really like that.”
The late Zimbabwean ambassador to Senegal, Trudy Stevenson, is another role model. “She spent the last 11 years as ambassador but she’s also one of the founding members of the Movement for Democratic Change.
She was able to transcend party politics to reach her ultimate goal, which was to serve her country. She was a great role model for aspiring young female diplomats and gave her time very generously to mentor and support.”
These four women are among a number of mentors Laing says she’s been privileged to have while in Zimbabwe.
But the thing about mentoring is that you too have to give your time, she says. And that’s exactly what the ambassador has done: taking part in an “absolutely brilliant” mentoring programme set up by Alexi Zekas. The course, called Measure Up, teaches mentees a practical skill – in this case, cooking.
Says the ambassador: “I was matched with ‘R’, who was extremely talented but unable to complete her schooling. We’ve done role-play together and she’s drawn up a business plan. This course has given her a confidence that she didn’t know she has.”
Challenging child marriage
Laing says she’s particularly proud of the work the embassy has done on challenging Child Marriage in Zimbabwe because “it’s clear that a child who marries young won’t be on a successful trajectory.”
What of Laing herself, a senior female diplomat in a world that not so long ago didn’t accept that a woman could be ambassador?
“Not that long ago, you had to resign (from the diplomatic service) if you got married. I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband.
“The world of diplomacy involves packing up constantly and moving on. It can be very hard to sustain relations. My biggest tip would be for women and men who live this kind of lifestyle is this: you mustn’t forget your friends, your family and your network.”
“It’s challenging. But it’s also enormously rewarding. There is no greater privilege than to serve your country in this way. And it’s fun!”