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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Exclusive: Auma Obama discusses economic empowerment and diversity 

US president Barack Obama's sister to speak at women in leadership gathering in Dubai this week

Auma Obama embraces her brother the US president Barack Obama in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Carl de Souza / AFP
Auma Obama embraces her brother the US president Barack Obama in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Carl de Souza / AFP

The 19th Global Women In Leadership (WIL) Economic Forum Dubai, which runs from October 25 to 26, is bringing together female and male business leaders, policymakers and young female professionals and entrepreneurs. They are gathering to discuss the challenge of diversity, share experiences and produce strategies to strive for women’s economic empowerment.

Endorsed by the UAE Ministry of Economy for the past three years, the forum has championed the recognition of women as key economic drivers for over a decade. Held under the theme of "The Butterfly Effect - From Intent to Impact", this year's edition discusses women's empowerment, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, Diversity and Inclusion and more.

Among attendees this year will be Auma Obama, the sister of the US president Barack Obama. Ms Obama leads Sauti Kuu, a foundation that empowers young people in Kenya, her country of birth.

In her early years, Ms Obama tells The National she was irritated by assumptions made because of her gender. "I grew up hearing very often that I could or couldn’t do this or the other because I was a girl," she says. "It was very frustrating for me, especially since I was the only girl in the family. I could not understand why I would be discriminated against just because of something that in the first instance said nothing about who I was as a person."

That, she says, has to a certain extent become less of an issue today. "The next generation of girls in my family does not have this problem as much.

"Although we women are still not were we would like to be in terms of gender equity, girls today have a lot more opportunities and are not just judged by their gender," Ms Obama says.

Of her now globally famous surname, she says the fact that her brother was the US president has been a positive factor. "My name is first and foremost just my name. In connection with my brother it has gained greater meaning and has opened many doors for me and given me opportunities that I would not have otherwise had," she says. "I am grateful for that and know not to underestimate this.

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"I also know the responsibility that comes with it," Ms Obama, adds. "I am in a position to lend a voice to those that do not have one. I take this very seriously and act upon it in all of what I do. I of course hope I will continue to have doors opened to me even though my brother is no longer president."

And, of course, Barack was not her only male sibling. "I have seven brothers - not half-brothers," she points out (Barack Obama's mother Ann Dunham and his father Barack Snr divorced in 1964 and Barack Snr later remarried). "In my culture we do not lessen the bond of family by talking of halves. We embrace and include. That is why I object strongly to the term half-sibling," Ms Obama says. "My whole family has contributed a great deal toward making me the strong woman I am today."

With her work with the Sauti Kuu Foundation and projects such as Grow to Eat, Ms Obama says educating financially disadvantaged families about what is available locally, especially land, is a prime focus in tackling deprivation and ensuring food security and financial independence.

"At Sauti Kuu we insist that poverty is no excuse," she says. "Using the principle 'Use what you have to get what you need' we teach young people and their families to recognise, appreciate and use locally available resources – in particular land, as an asset to elevate their living conditions.

"We provide a mental and physical space for them to actively participate and collaborate with us to come up with realistic, workable and sustainable solutions that enable them to become economically independent. Hence the Grow To Eat project, which starts off with the establishment of an organic kitchen garden for purposes of food security, that then yields enough not only to feed the family but also to take the surplus to market and earn money." This is under the Grow To Earn project, Ms Obama says. "This is sustainable economic growth, not development. Why? Because we just improve on what is already there."

Ms Obama splits her time between the UK and Kenya , having lived in Germany and with family, obviously, in the US.

"I actually live in Kenya, although most people think I live abroad. I only travel abroad for work, which keeps me out of the country for long periods," she says. "Most of my travel is to Germany and the German speaking countries where I have a lot of support for my work.

In Kenya, not far from her ancestral roots, Ms Obama is creating a facility for for children, young people, their families and the community at large.

"What I am building currently, not far from our ancestral home in Western Kenya - Alego Nyagoma Kogelo, also fondly known as 'Obama country', is a centre. It will be a sport, resource and vocational centre, with facilities such as a library, computer lab, workshop rooms, sports facilities and a vocational training centre.

"It will be a secure and safe physical space for disadvantaged rural children and youth to meet and interact regularly while participating in the different activities," she says. "The centre will serve as an incentive for rural youth to recognise the potential of their environment as a possible alternative to an urban slum existence."

Ms Obama says she has high hopes of her visit to Dubai and the WIL Forum. "I hope to meet amazing people, in particular women, doing amazing things.

"Such meetings are important for networking, exchanging and sharing ideas and views. Most of us are trailblazers in our fields of work, and it is good to be at a gathering of like-minded people, who can encourage, energize, support each other, and from whom we can learn," she says.

"I will do my best to contribute to that."

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