By Tula Dlamini
Dr. Carleene Dei is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission Director to South Africa.
If this makes you conjure up images of a stiff necked, prima donna, waxing lyrically about development at endless conferences, you’re way off base.
Born in Kingston Jamaica, Dr. Dei is part of this historical island of nearly 4,500 square miles, holding 2.7 million descendants of Africans some of who later turned up in Miami, New York, Africa and every where, as leading lights for the emancipated ‘Negro’ race.
This day Dr. Dei and staff are low-key guests at a mini-lunch party in Johannesburg, organised to commemorate the late Jamaican reggae legend, Bob Marley. She still recalls memories of a poor man's party—a turntable, homemade speakers, reggae, ska and calypso music. It is a nostalgia shared by many Jamaicans, including politicians, businessman and professionals.
But this is a far cry from Dr. Dei’s usually high profile schedule - a briefing for Bill Gates on USAID’s HIV/AIDS programmes, a tour of Johannesburg job creation projects with visiting US senator Barack Obama, or strategic meetings with her staff, South African government and development officials.
Both parents were hard working professionals. Her father worked as a civil servant, while simultaneously involving himself with projects in the theatre and radio, and later television. "He produced and/or directed radio programs, TV plays, pageants...that sort of thing." His ambitions in this area were fulfilled when he was appointed the head of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. Carleene’s mother was a school teacher who doubled as an actress. But as fate would have it, her parents divorced when she was 12 years old.
When her mother moved to the US in the late 1950s, Carleene joined her. That was a life altering experience, but one that would open endless doors. She became a US citizen by virtue of her mother's American citizenship. In the US, young Carleene distinguished herself as a committed scholar. "I was a high academic achiever and that gave me a sense of self-esteem"
She attended high school in Manhattan at the School of Music and Arts. Enrolment to the school was extremely competitive. It was compulsory to take an audition in order to be admitted. That required talent and Dr. Dei’s particular talent was music. She played piano, the flute and also did voice. "I'm a classical pianist by training, though I have not played for a long-time. I also had a good singing voice"
"I like and enjoy good music when I hear it. I can also appreciate a good performance when I hear or see one".
For Dr. Dei, the most important lesson learned at Music and Art was discovering her talents and skill, while at the same time understanding her limitations. This, she says, is because she was always surrounded by people who are the very best of New York City. “You do not get an over inflated idea of your talents".
"Rather, you understand earlier that you are good but not necessarily the greatest. Otherwise I would have graduated from high school thinking I was so wonderful, only to be blown away by real competition"
So high school left Dr. Dei with an appreciation that she was talented, but also with a realistic view of her limitations. This allowed her to move on and to pursue other options.
She completed her Bachelors degree at Cornell University in 1965, where she majored in Political Science. This is where she met her husband - Seth Dei in 1963. "Seth attended university at Cornell where he pursued a degree in agricultural economics, and later obtained an MBA from Columbia University."
Today, both Dr. Dei and Seth are proud parents of a daughter, Ama Dei. In the Twi language of Ghana, where Seth hails from, Ama means born on a Saturday. Carleene explains that Ama was actually born on a Friday but, that the name for Friday sounded unappealing in English, so she used the Saturday name.
Ama graduated from Colorado College with a major in English and is currently preparing for her Masters degree in Education. "I do not know if that is what she wants to do all her life but education is her passion right now and I am extremely proud of her achievements. Ama is also a certified yoga instructor and she likes outdoor sports".
“Education not only enlightens the receiver, but also broadens the giver. The more you give, the more you get”. This is the path Dr. Dei took – graduating with a Masters Degree in Education from Harvard University in 1966.
Dr. Dei first visited Africa in 1967 when she went to visit her husband’s family. In 1973, she and Seth settled in the Ivory Coast next door to Ghana. She immediately became part of the people of West Africa primarily because she could relate to the collective developmental challenges that lay ahead. Millions in Africa, like in her native Jamaica, continued to endure countless hardships bred by poverty, post-traumatic slavery and colonial disorder.
"What struck me was the similarity to Jamaica, above all in countries such as Ghana. Both were former British colonies, the architecture was the same - similar housing and even the way they strung the electrical poles reminded me of Jamaica".
“The climate was the same as the West Indies so I had a tremendous feeling of familiarity - a sense that I have been there before."
In total, she spent over 20 years in Ivory Coast. This is where she started to note in real terms, the disparities in income, problems arising from illiteracy, lack of primary health care and so on.
The conviction that something could be done to alleviate under-development would later propel Dr. Dei to pursue studies in Urban Anthropology – graduating with a Ph. D from New York’s Columbia University in 1985. "It occurred to me that we should and could do something to improve the socio-economic conditions of the ordinary folk. This is how I became interested in development work"
"USAID offered me a job doing social and gender analysis for a housing programme. This job I did for 2 years, in the process developing a keen interest in municipal management and decentralization issues and low-income housing programmes”.
The work was insightful for Dr. Dei. She began to fully understand in real terms the extent to which women were marginalised in West Africa. "Women were disadvantaged in multiple ways. The legal system, the social system and the political system disadvantaged them. Even where by law they were entitled to certain rights, traditional customs were still dominant. They were less likely to be sent to school and more likely to be married off at a younger age to an older man who had wealth, which the family could tap into materially".
From 1994-1999, she headed the USAID Regional Housing and Urban Development Office in South Africa, where together with the South African government and other partners, worked on a program to construct a million houses and make water and electricity available to people living in the country’s black townships and rural areas.
From 1999 to 2001, Dr. Dei served as the Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Office of Sustainable Development for the Africa Bureau based in Washington.
Prior to her assuming the current position in South Africa, Dr. Dei served as the first Mission Director of USAID’s West Africa Regional Programme, now based in Accra, Ghana. This is one of USAID’s three regional programmes on the African sub-continent.
Her desire as a USAID mission director is to remain relevant to community needs beyond mere provision of humanitarian assistance. For Dr. Dei, dealing with challenges such as famine and drought is good only if addresses the underlying issues. "You got famine because you can't produce enough food to feed yourself or you cannot deal with environmental forces and so on. I hope we keep on working on resolving underlying issues that help reduce poverty and we devote more resources to education, health and job creation”.
The Victoria Mxenge project in Capetown, South Africa, near Langa Township is one of Dr. Dei's favourite projects of all time because it demonstrates what a group of determined individuals can do for themselves. She became involved with the project during her initial posting to South Africa in1994-1999. The project was started by a group of women from informal settlements who were living under very poor conditions. Dr. Dei says she was fascinated to see these women, mostly with no formal schooling, with absolutely no money, take their government subsidies and produce a community that now has a couple of hundred substantial, well-built nicely landscaped houses.
Patricia Matolengwe and 11 other women started the Victoria Mxenge Housing Savings Scheme in 1992. Little did they know that their project would alleviate the plight of thousands of other South Africans who had no real homes. For more than a decade they followed a course of saving and managing the process of constructing houses that suited their needs. The trick was everyone would save every day, no matter how little. These were the poorest of the poor – the majority of them single mothers.
"Today you see a community that developed from nothing, people who had no hope, becoming proud home owners and members of a community that has decision making powers. I find that inspiring”, says Dr. Dei.
The project is named after Victoria Mxenge - a human rights lawyer who was killed by agents of the apartheid state in South Africa in the 1980s.