Simone de Comarmond

23 November, 2009

Simone de Comarmond

 Growing in pre-independent Seychelles in the fifties was not exactly a bed of roses – in fact the bushes were strewn with more than a few thorns.  One thing that was strange and at odds with the rest of the vast continent of which we were, and remain a number of dots in the Indian ocean – even then – was the fact that growing up as a girl was a decided advantage.  In Seychelles, no matter where you were born, or to whom, or to what gender for that matter, there was no escaping school.  As a matriarchal society girls occupied an important status in the community and they had to become literate in order to fend for themselves, and their inevitable future children.  (Our matriarchs gained their stripes on the number of children they brought into the world and regarded their begetting as a primordial role).  They were also required to replace the aging teachers, nurses, nuns and Government stenographers.  The mothers of girls ensured – to the best of their abilities – that their daughters would go beyond their own achievements and would definitely not have to report to a mistress to keep house, wash clothes by the riverside and be subservient to inappropriate men.

 Thus my future was clinched at birth; I would attend the local missionary school, would matriculate and attend the elite Regina Mundi Convent catering for girls aiming to achieve the then British Cambridge University Ordinary Level certificates.  If I worked hard and had been blessed with the brains of a genius, I would obtain a bursary; but if I was among the world’s average then my parents would have to make sacrifices towards the certificate that would assure a future in the institution of state.

 Fortunately for me, apart from the fact that with a mother like mine the term ‘hard work’ had an entire new meaning that could well travel into the realms of modern-day slavery, I had an important and impeccable role model. My grandfather was the Editor of one of Seychelles’ earliest daily newspapers and he was also a local philanthropist.  He was also a best grandfather a girl could have.  From an early age he epitomized “success” and I wanted to emulate him.  I did not want to be attached to bed pans in a hospital, nor to blackboard in a bleak classroom.  I wanted to work in an office and I wanted to be part of the team that took important decisions.  And I was in a hurry to participate in such decision-making.

 Loaded with  my “Senior Cambridge School Certificate” on the day that I left the gate of the convent for the last time, I approached the highest Government Office in the land – the Governor’s office – and successfully moved in as a young, not-so-gullible, Clerical Officer in the office of the then Deputy Governor.  I was attached to filing cabinets, staplers and a lot of red tape.  I was a happy young woman who felt that I was on my way to greater things – if only things could change and our country could be propelled into the rest of the world.  The sway of the coconut palms was just too sedate and too slow.

Meanwhile in Africa the winds of change had blown and the whiff was beginning to be smelt in our languid islands.  I listened to conversations, indulged in discussions and realized that the country needed to change if we were to really participate in the decision-making that I longed to be part of.  I was beginning to see the woods from the trees and to realize that although the women provided the backbone to the country they were not adequately represented where it really mattered.  In spite of our strength, and power in the homes, in the affairs of state we had no voice.  I took up the cry for change and joined the movement for equality, fraternity and freedom.

 By the time independence was achieved in 1976, I had steadily moved up the ladder and at the age of 28 I was made the Chief Executive Officer in the office of the President – which position made me the executive head of Public Service.  As a newly independent country we were also diversifying our economy and as a result had established a number of quasi-government organizations that required new statutes, evolved and challenging system of management and administration.  They were exciting times and everyday was an adrenaline shot propelling one into unchartered waters.  It would seem that everyone was being carried by this wave of excitement and advancement.  It was a question of all hands on board and it motivated and energized the whole country.

 The social system was changing.  Schools were being constructed in all districts and teachers were being recruited from overseas to work in the schools.  From the health perspective, community health centres were set up and Seychelles was already being commended for its strides in achieving the World Health Organisation’s Health for All Goals.  Maternal and Child health were improving, child and maternal mortality rates were reducing and school attendances were getting higher.  The country’s literacy rate was at all-time high.  In fact all our social indicators had topped every chart for the African continent.

 In 1986 I was made Secretary of State in the office of the President and was also the Secretary to the Cabinet.  In addition I represented the Government on many national and international boards and was also a member of the ruling party’s Central Committee. This would require a tome to discuss!  An interesting part of being a Member of the Central Committee is the need to be in direct touch with the people in the district to which you are allocated.  Another interesting and possibly surprising aspect of the allocation of districts is the fact that the women Central Committee members were allocated two districts each!  We, the women, associated this with President F.A. Rene’s faith in our proven effort to deliver.  Our “contact with the people” included house visits, weekly “clinics” at which individual will indicate personal issues requiring follow up actions, chairing of various committee meetings and organization of functions that helped to mobilize and motivate members.  As women are want to do, we took our tasks very seriously.  It was almost like having another office with different sets of props and materials.  This provided one with an overview not to deliver to its populace.  From a gender perspective it enabled me personally to size up the situation and to have specialised knowledge of the extent of the need to empower those very women that we had assumed were already empowered!  In other words, it was an exercise of separating myth from reality.

 My girlish tendencies to liberate Seychelles from the claws of colonialism gave way to my womanly aspirations to liberate women from complacent inertia.  The opportunity presented itself when I was appointed Minister for Education in 1989.  This was not an appointment that I accepted without a fight.  I felt that I was too young, had young family who hardly ever saw me, and besides my glimpse into the realms of politics had left me somewhat jaded.  I also felt that I needed to work towards a degree that would provide me with some academic fulfillment.  As faith would have it I was once again propelled into another nebulous area.  As the country’s first woman Minister of Education I do believe that I brought another perspective and with my innate tendency to give attention to details I recognized issues that hitherto had been rather simplified.  Apart from major education reform I convincingly addressed the conditions of teachers, who in the great majority were women.  Through positive restructuring of their terms and conditions of service came recognition of the importance of this noble profession.  A special teachers’ day was proclaimed and this has since been institutionalized.  The desire to complete the Bachelor’s degree was successfully achieved against all odds since this had to be done through a distance education programme.

It was during my tenure at the helm of the Ministry of Education that I decided to cast my net further afield to take a special interest in the education of girls particular on the African continent.  A group of women educational ministers met in the Kenyan capital and the foundation for the Forum for African Educationalists (FAWE) was laid.  The aim of FAWE is to promote the education of girls and it currently has 35 chapters in sub-Sahara Africa.  Its Chapter in Seychelles – Seychelles Association of Professional Women (SAWOP), which I founded in 1993, is focused on empowering girls and women and promoting gender equity.

 I went on to serve as my country’s Minister for Tourism and Transport until I retired in 2003 – a span of fourteen years.  My journey continues and I am very much involved in the service of my country but I have added the world to my list.  I am currently the Chairperson of FAWE and also the Chairperson of the Commonwealth Foundation.  My two sons have become men and I have a granddaughter who at 8 years old would appear to be set to follow in my footsteps.

 I have come a long way from the girl who watched the tide bring up the periwinkles on a far flung island in the Indian Ocean.  The girl had dreams, but most importantly she was part of a bigger dream: the dream of her matriarchs that she would be all that she set out to be and more.  This dream will live on so that those, especially the girls, who come after will know that no task is too great that it cannot be achieved.