How did you get here?
It would be a lot of fun if I had an enthralling story to tell, involving long-eared beings, secret rituals and coded verse. But I don’t. I was born in Malawi and spent a lot of my formative life as a child of expatriate scientists based in India. It was a wonderful time when I learnt a lot about a completely different culture and was able to travel a lot, since I went to high school in Swaziland. My tertiary studies took me to the UK and my first job back to Africa, this time to South Africa. I have almost always worked in the world of finance but I began to look at finance through a different lens when I was working on a transaction to reduce the tax burden of a listed company and I thought to myself “What on earth am I doing this for?” I then moved into development finance, which I enjoyed because it gave finance a human, more purposeful face. I took a couple of years break from work after my daughter was born and then consulted and tried to set up my own business. This period of experimentation was critical in my life, because I was really able to follow my dreams, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Ironically, one of the main reasons why that business didn’t take off is because the financing plan fell through! But all those efforts led me to the NGO world where I began to develop my skills in sustainable finance, with a strong focus on environmental issues, eventually working with WWF South Africa. My time there was very exciting because I helped to develop their sustainable finance programme, which was a new area for them.
I am now taking a year’s break after being awarded the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship at the African Development Bank. I applied for the Fellowship because I wanted mentoring from Dr Kaberuka, who I view as a great leader, and because I wanted to understand how decisions are made at the top. So I am on yet another journey and another learning curve, but I am loving every minute of it.
Are you stressed?
I think that stress is a daily part of modern life. Some of the stresses are obvious, such as being late for an appointment because of a traffic jam, or not being able to sleep because of worrying about an important presentation the next day. I find such stresses are easier to handle, through techniques such as yoga, which helps with breathing and bringing overall balance to life, or from just good planning. There are other stresses that are a lot less obvious, such as the stress on our bodies because of the environment that we live in, or the expectations that we have of ourselves in terms of achieving a certain image in society. Living in large cities, many of us breathe in air that is not clean, use cleaning and skin products that have a myriad of chemicals whose combined effect on health is not known, and impair our body’s natural inclination for movement by sitting at a desk for hours on end. I am increasingly becoming aware of such stresses but they are not always easy to address. So yes, I experience stress, but I that address it in various ways: in trying to live in balance, doing things that I enjoy and with people that I respect, and also by not taking myself too seriously.
If not yourself, who would you be?
What a fantastic question! In an imaginary world, I would have superpowers: the ability to fly and to mete out justice through simply thinking a thought. There are online apps where you can create your own superhero and my creation, Malango the super heroine, was able to fly, was wickedly flexible and had psychic powers to turn any bad thoughts into dust!
In the real world, I want to be an enlightened version of myself: wiser, with more equanimity. I would also want to be someone who keeps a regular diary: it’s something that I have always wanted to do but I have never managed it, and I often want to kick myself because photos and memories are not the same as written word.
Which living person do you most admire?
I admire many people. Anyone who manages to pick themselves up with grace in the face of adversity, people who make others smile, people who follow their dreams, people who choose the road less. I admire Dr Kaberuka, the President of the African Development Bank, which is one of the main reasons why I applied for the Mo Ibrahim Fellowship at his institution, because it meant being mentored by him. I admire my parents and my brother, teachers that I have had, and friends that I still have. But I also avoid putting people on pedestals: we all have our failings and it’s important to remember that because otherwise admiration can quickly lead to adulation which is not a good thing.
Which place do you call home – and why?
Having lived in several countries in three continents by the time I was in my teens, home was always where my parents where: heart and hearth were combined. But now that I have a family of my own, home for me is wherever I find like-minded people. I lived in Johannesburg for nearly 20 years before moving to Abidjan, and going back there after a foreign trip always feels like a home-coming. London was my home for several years as well, but after a while, it no longer felt like home because I started being harassed whenever I arrived at the airport, in spite of having entry and exit stamps in my passports stretching back for 10 years. I began to feel very much like a foreigner, even though I was often mistaken for being British because of my accent. I recently moved to Abidjan though, and I could easily call this wonderfully vibrant city my home. Well, as soon as I get some furniture in my apartment that is.
Home, for me, is about a feeling of connectedness to the people around me, and a sense of belonging, rather than a particular country or city.
What is a typical day in your life like?
I used to like the idea of never having a typical day. But I now crave a degree of routine, so I try to wake up early for my spiritual practice because getting my daughter ready for and to school takes up a significant part of my early morning. After getting ready, I like to use my smart phone to see what emails I have before I get to work, and to start work on a to do list for the day, for personal and work matters. After that, it’s work which varies a lot. In my current position as Mo Ibrahim Leadership Fellow at the African Development Bank, my day can involve anything from attending meetings with the President, to reading up as much as possible about an area of the Bank’s work that I don’t know about, to engaging colleagues on a particular project or event. At the end of my day, after supper, I always try to read before bed, and practice a technique called ‘yoga nidra’ which induces a deep state of relaxation that is beneficial in many ways.
What’s the worst piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?
“Don’t rock the boat”. It was well-meant advice, and led me to a safe space, but it also meant that I lost the opportunity to define myself in my career at the time, and to build on the strong base that I already had. It also made me lead part of my life from a position of fear, which was not good.
But ultimately, it’s not the advice that others give you that is important, but the advice that you give yourself, which should be based on a lot more than what other people say.
Which film character do you most identify with?
I can’t think of any film character in particular. But there are films that strongly resonate with me, partly because of their cinematographic beauty but also because of the story line. Films like ‘Sheltering Sky’, Mo Better Blues, Do the Right Thing, Incendies, Couscous, Farewell my Concubine, the Piano and ‘B is for Boy. And going back to the super hero theme, although I dislike gratuitous violence, I enjoy fantastical movies as X-Men or Lord of the Rings where good triumphs over evil such because I always feel uplifted after watching them.
(Apart from religious texts) Name one book you think everyone should read?
It’s hard to narrow down the choices because there are so many books out there, so I will make a choice based on the books that I have read several times, books that I am not ready to ‘pass forward’, at least not just yet. And I am going to get around the narrow choice problem by simply cheating in my answer.
For fiction, it would have to be ‘any Jane Austen novel. Barbara Kingsolver once said that ‘fiction is the only way to get into another person’s head’ and Jane Austen’s intricate analysis of gender, class and familial politics is relevant today.
My top choice for non-fiction, bearing in mind the narrow choice problem, is ‘The Road Less Travelled’, by M Scott Peck. It’s a book that I turn to again and again because of its lucid analysis of the human psyche and what it means in terms of the choices that we make in life. One of my favourite quotes from the book is “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers”. I take this thought with me every day, more so now that I am at the African Development Bank as a Mo Ibrahim fellow because many of the issues that the Bank is trying to address are difficult and uncomfortable, and it requires leadership to stay with the discomfort in order to work through it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness. Just saying that almost guarantees unhappiness because most states of mind are fleeting. Having said that, I can say that I feel supremely content when I am outside with my feet touching the bare earth, the sun is shining – but not too strongly – I am listening to a track by one of my favourite singers, and am in deep conversation with good friends around how to solve the problems of the world. The state that I experience after eating a good meal comes in at a close second.
What quality do you loathe in other people?
Someone lying gets my heckles up, as does cruelty of any kind. But I also recognise that when one finger is pointing at someone else, you have 3 fingers pointing at yourself. So I try to learn from such experiences, using them to build my own character. It’s not always easy, but I always think that however I react, I should not go down to that level in my response, because that only worsens a situation. I recently chose to back away from a situation where someone was rude to me because I knew that if I expressed what I was really feeling, I would not be able to control my anger and that would have affected the whole atmosphere of the gathering, which was in the context of yoga and so diametrically opposed to the qualities of the person who chose to be cruel to me. I am not saying that you should always be cool, calm and collected, but I think that it’s not always sensible to react immediately when the consequences of doing so are far worse than the initial slight and only sever to mimic it, which perpetuates a cycle of negativity.
What quality do you most admire in other people?
My answer to the earlier question “If not yourself, who would you be?” answers this question as well. In the world of super heroines, I would be a cross between Catwoman, Batman and Professor X (from the X-Men), because in the real world I admire the qualities of determination, compassion and justice.
Malango Mughogho is a Mo Ibrahim 2016 Fellow. She joins the programme from WWF South Africa where she was the Programme Manager in Sustainable Finance. Malango managed the organisation’s strategy engagement to reduce the ecological footprint of financial sector activities.