December 8, 2020

Mentoring: Extraordinary Two-Way Value

As I sat across Lesego Pearl Nkosi, Friday 27th November 2020, she was thanking me, to which I teared up as I actually thanked her for the impact she has had on my life and said to her, “I have been broken down by many, many people, but I espouse and give back after learning from those who have built me up, my only hope is that you will now go on to build others”.

I must be honest, I have never formally reached out to anyone as a mentor, I was not quite sure how it all works and what I would “want” from another person. Although, over my career, whether we formalised the relationship or not there have often been, those sterling individuals who never seek recognition, who build you up and genuinely want to see you thrive but also those you trust and turn to for advice. Over time, it does become an invaluable friendship, the compass we all need I believe early on in our careers, and the type of leadership we learn from.

A couple of years ago, I had been selected as a mentor for the Global Health Mentorships (GHME) Programme (which is totally virtual and impressive) and I must admit I was not quite sure how to mentor either.  As a naturally warm and gentle person, even I admit, it is always awkward meeting a new person and it takes time to ease into a safe, open and nurturing relationship. The recipe I go by, is that whether you are doing it through a formal structured programme or less structured programme or even informally without realising it, is to offer insurmountable support, cheering from the side lines and just an ear to listen. The relationship needs to be built on both the mentor and mentee being able to offer their authentic selves with openness on either end to truly benefit. The rest falls into place and it is as if you had known each other for years as you speak and debate robustly. Mentorship programmes come to an end, but lasting relationships certainly do not.

Often, we speak about the benefits you gain from being mentored, but rarely do we speak about how rewarding it actually is to be a mentor. In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic had hit all of us quite hard, including myself, I was down, grieving, feeling discouraged, fatigued quite a few times, only to have my spirit primarily re-awakened after rich conversations with youth through the Democracy Works Foundation Programme. I felt energised relating to these young South Africans who see what is wrong in society (it is so refreshing) and in their own ways are already changing it.

While as a mentor you often try to open doors for others, I must admit I did have this huge sheepish grin, when a GHME mentee, such as high-flying pharmacist Arinze Awiligwe came to fetch me from the airport in Geneva, for a truly African welcome or have Tambudzai Magwenzi or Brenda Formin give a glowing recommendation! Not that anything is ever expected from a mentors’ end but the reciprocity and genuine bond formed is one I treasure and is so important in building our fields, our work, connecting and I believe collaborating well into the future. It doesn’t take much, in fact, one of the learnings from the YouthLead programme I participated in and benefitted from, is it only takes a monthly 20 minute virtual conversation (structured/ formal or unstructured/ informal) to be there for someone, go on, give back and I guarantee you it is the most rewarding journey of our careers.

Here’s to the day we all sit down for a coffee together, or perhaps even a Christmas Lunch; Akanksha Rai, Arinze Awiligwe, Asonele Kotu, Brian Mafuso, Denaya Dennis, Humayun Nosheerwan, Lesego Pearl Nkosi, Linda Marková, Philbert Aganyo, Sagar Vasandani, Vuyani Ndzishe, Xin Ya Lim, Xoliswa Jwili, Yolokazi Mfuto

Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning independent public health practitioner, and pens #ThoughtSpace with a touch of inspiration, critical thinking, and creativity

Tweet: @ChoonaraShakira

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