The mayor of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, is a tree-planter

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr gained notoriety as the mayor of a West African city that is on the verge of a climate disaster through her efforts to plant trees. In addition, the 56-year-old is the first woman to be directly elected as mayor of Freetown and the first to be re-elected since the role was put up for vote by citizens of the nation’s capital city two decades ago. In the lead-up to the elections, BBC Africa Eye gained exclusive access to her and her family, providing an intimate look into the highs and lows of Sierra Leonean politics as well as the personal price of being in the public eye.

 

However, the thing that has startled her the most about returning home after working in finance for several decades in London is the obsession with her gender and her ability. “It was always the same question during interviews: ‘So do you think you can do this job as a woman?'” Ms. Aki-Sawyerr grinned. In the past, I would ask, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ I am a professional first and foremost. By coincidence, I’m a lady. Things like, ‘Oh, she’s so stubborn,’ are what you get. She’s challenging. ‘Oh he’s strong,’ would be the reaction if a male were to exhibit those behaviors. He understands himself.”

 

She gives her father a lot of credit for her achievements. “I’ve come to realize how much I took for granted during my upbringing. Greetings to [my dad]: ‘Hey, very sorry, you know, no males.’ I am one of four girls. “He says things like, ‘My girls are capable of anything a boy could do.'” “So we grew up just full of confidence and never thinking of our gender as being in any way an inhibitor.” Freetown is where Ms. Aki-Sawyerr was born. She relocated to the UK in 1988 after earning an economics degree from Fourah Bay College in the city.

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