Reflections of a Changemaker

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This piece was taken from a speech delivered by one of ALA’s graduates, Mariem Bchir in a speech delivered to ALA’s Global Advisory Council (link to Global Advisory Council page) on the eve of her graduation.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

“I would like to ask everyone in this room to close their eyes. Try to forget about the people seated next to you and the people you need to call right after this meeting. Take a deep breath and imagine; imagine yourself in a huge garden: The smell of the white peaceful Jasmine, and the enormous trees generously protecting you from the sun. You are walking through one of two paths drawn on the green wet grass. First step forward; bare-footed, you can feel the soil between your toes drawing a smile on your face. Suddenly, a small sharp object penetrates your skin. It hurts. You look down and it is a carnivorous plant known as “snap traps”. You quickly push it away, clean your skin and limping, you journey on. Second step forward, an innocent-looking cub appears from behind a tree. You approach it gently and start playing with it. Without warning, it attacks you, transforming into an enormous lion hungry only for your flesh. A second later, you find yourself back in the green flowery garden. Horrified from the incident, you run as far as your legs can get you. Your aim is to get out of this mysterious garden. You see light from afar. You smile! Tears manage to fall from your eyes. You let go! But boom!! Metallic bars have hit your face standing between you and the light. Behold, it’s a cage.”

(You can open your eyes)

That was me, before attending the African Leadership Academy. The garden represented my life in Tunisia. Everything seemed so nice and beautiful. Family and friends were around. I was excelling in my studies. Yet I was given only one of two paths to follow: engineering or medicine. In trying to become an engineer, I was terribly bullied. My classmates never stopped calling me names: the nerd, the one who becomes deaf when focused, the old-fashioned student. The friends I trusted blindly ended up hurting me and stealing my confidence. The cage symbolized my intellectual prison. Our Tunisian schools were and still focus on teaching mere theories. That’s why as a student I was always expected to learn my lessons by heart and regurgitate them during exams. My life was a beautiful optimistic garden imprisoned in a metaphorical cage built by my own society and culture.

Fortunately, a door opened and I was admitted to the Academy in June 2013.

As I embraced the Academy’s culture, community and curriculum, I was given three magical powders: Intellectual Liberation, Creativity and Entrepreneurial thinking. Starting from the founders to the Sodexo staff, everyone was constantly challenging my beliefs and pushing me to think out of the cage. I was soon forced to push myself out of my comfort zone, by attending conferences and by acting in plays such as Kimba and L’échange. Two years ago, I desired to change the Tunisian educational system, but that was never my first priority. Because of my experiences at ALA education reform is now a passion which I hope to make a career. And it is not just any career, it is a risky one. In fact, after my first year at ALA, I learnt that taking calculated risks is a necessity to fail, grow and succeed. This realization enabled me, last summer, to successfully pilot “Show me How you Teach”, a teacher training program for Tunisian educators. This was enabled by a sponsorship from the head of the best private engineering university in Tunis. For me to have achieved all these, I had to have supportive friends, inspiring teachers, and outstanding mentors. All of these people helped me look at life through different, colorful and hopeful lenses. As a result, I can feel this positive energy which keeps saying “YES” to the craziest ideas and the riskiest adventures.

In March 2015, I was admitted to Davidson College in North Carolina as a Belk Scholar. As much as I am excited to attend an American university, I am more interested in understanding the Tunisian educational system in depth. Thus, I decided to take a gap year to run two more Show Me How you Teach pilots and collect more data. I am also hoping to spend time in Slovakia and contribute in the building of the entrepreneurial Leadership curriculum at LEAF under the mentorship of my former College Guidance Counselor, Mr. Chris Cheney. The other day, I called my mom and shared with her these plans, she hesitantly said “Mariem, this sounds so scary and uncertain. What will you be in the future?” I happily replied “Mum, if I knew I wouldn’t be as excited and happy as I am today. So bear with me.”

On this note, I wish to say Thank you. Thank you for believing in the seemingly crazy dreams of Fred Swaniker, Chris Bradford, Acha Leke and Peter Moumbar. Thank you for supporting my classmates and I as we journeyed through the Academy, learning, failing, and discovering solutions to Africa’s problems. Lastly, thank you for trusting us as African leaders to bring change in our home countries and on the African continent. I leave no empty promises, no illusions of hope, just three words: Wait and see.

Author: Mariem Bchir

About the author: Mariem Bchir is a young leader from Tunisia who graduated from ALA in June 2015. Read full bio here

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