A Toastmaster in Ghana: ‘The goal is to impact women more positively’

Talking with an African administrator on the eve of International Women’s Day.

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Patricia Dzifa Mensah-Larkai, a leader of Toastmasters International, lives in Ghana, in West Africa.

Provided photo.

When it is 9 a.m. in Chicago it is 3 p.m. in West Africa. A fact I learned Friday, chatting with Patricia Dzifa Mensah-Larkai, an administrator at the Ghana Boundary Commission, which tries to keep that nation’s borders and internal boundaries where they are supposed to be and settle disputes.

“Most Ghanaians speak or understand nine major languages,” she said, ticking them off: Twi, Fante, Akuapem, Ewe, and such. “That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing. Not everyone is able to understand all the different languages.”

Mensah-Larkai also speaks French and English, which is how we could communicate. As to why we were talking, thank Toastmasters International, which sent an email introducing “five inspirational females” to commemorate International Women’s Day, which is Tuesday. The holiday was established by the United Nations in 1975 to “honor the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.”

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Toastmasters held their 87th international convention in Chicago in 2018. Regular readers might recall I went and discovered a touchingly sincere, upbeat global organization that seems to exist on a plane apart from the grim chaos of daily life, which goes double for both International Women’s Day and the UN.

That could be reason to either embrace them or ignore them. I chose the former, asking to speak with the inspirational female in Africa because, really, how often do you get the chance?

“I love to empower women, in terms of giving value, making sure the skills are God-given, not just on certificates but putting them into practice,” Mensah-Larkai said. “To say, ‘I’m not going to settle for less. I’m going to work and try, not to attain the average, but always strive for excellence.’ To ask myself, ‘What I can do better?’ and then look for the answer.”

She grew up in metropolitan Accra, a city of 4 million people, in what we’d consider a cop family — her grandfather was a police officer, as was her mother. Her father — both her parents are deceased — was career military.

I wondered how the public and law enforcement get along in Ghana.

“The relationship has become better,” she said, since police have done a better job of making sure their ranks include “a good representation of all ethnic groups.” A reminder of just how hard-wired humanity is about parsing differences. Some Americans looking at Ghana might ask: “What ethnic groups?” which is not the situation there. There is a majority group, Akan, comprising almost half the country, but the other half is broken into more than 70 distinct ethnicities, including a white minority of about 4%.

Mensah-Larkai is married, with two daughters, 7 and 16. She hasn’t been to Chicago, but lived in Alabama when her husband was studying there.

“My stay was a nice experience for me,” she said.

No racism? Because the South, well, has a reputation...

“I wouldn’t say personally I experienced any form of racism,” she said. “It all stems from how you assert yourself, your humanity. The more we think negative things, the more it continues to bring us down.”

Speaking of being brought down. Given the war being waged by Russia against Ukraine, a person easily could wonder what possible relevance something like Toastmasters, International Women’s Day, or the UN might have. Are not all lofty ambitions shattered by the first missile slamming into an apartment building?

You could look at the situation and decide nothing changes. Women hustle their children to safety while men attack each other; the same now as it was 10,000 years ago, with only the backdrop changing from savannahs to train stations.

There are real differences, however. The Sun-Times published a story about a wedding in Oak Park conducted in the shadow of the Ukraine war, only it was the bride returning to home to fight. That’s certainly a change; I’ll let you argue whether that constitutes improvement. I would say that the world is better when everyone across the range of gender gets to be what they want, not what society tells them they must.

“The journey hasn’t been smooth, but a lot of women in leadership have made a lot of strides,” Mensah-Larkai said. “We have to look at how we can help women make further inroads. To seek solutions in our workplaces, our countries, our continents and beyond. The goal is to impact more women positively.”

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