Liberating potential: Sailors and young women inspire one another in West Africa

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Navy News / March 6, 2019

By Lieutenant(N) Jeff Lura

On February 23, 2019, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Kingston and Shawinigan entered the Port of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, eager to begin Operation PROJECTION West Africa in earnest. Within an hour of the ships’ arrival, members of the two crews departed for an event in the local community that, for many, would turn out to be a career high-point.

After 45 minutes, they arrived at the Lycée Moderne de Jeunes Filles, an all-girls school devoted to encouraging students to enter non-traditional career fields. There, they were greeted by hundreds of young women in immaculate uniforms, clapping and cheering in excitement at the sailors’ arrival. In a hall on the large campus – which boasts over 4,000 female students of varying ages – the crews were treated to an elaborate reception, including a unique rendition of O Canada.

“Liberate your potential, ladies” encouraged Hawa Ouattara-Koffi of Canada’s embassy, during her address to the students. “Anything a man can do, a woman can do too.”

In her own remarks, Colonel Mireille Gignac, Canadian Defence Attaché to Cote d’Ivoire, emphasized the many opportunities available to women. “We probably have a few future Generals and Admirals in the room,” she said. “It’s up to you to decide your future.”

In response, the school’s headmaster expressed her appreciation: “(You) have entered into the history of our school. It is our hope that, during your interactions with our students, you will share your experiences and your extensive knowledge of the world. I’m in fact convinced that you will find some future naval personnel among our girls…I would like to both thank you and congratulate you infinitely for this visit.”

The warm welcome was followed by a Q&A session, with most questions directed at Lieutenant-Commander Teri Share, HMCS Shawinigan’s Commanding Officer. The students were very curious about life in the Royal Canadian Navy, opportunities that exist within the Canadian Armed Forces, and what academic and physical areas they should focus on in order to succeed.

Sailors then dispersed around the campus, conducting electrical repairs, fixing broken pipes, and painting the main hall. At the same time, members mixed with students, posing for photos, sharing experiences, and creating bonds of friendship and understanding.

Prisca Coulibaly, a student in her sixth year at the Lycée, had been looking forward to the visit for weeks. “I’m very happy that you have come,” she explained, adding that what she had learned that day gave her courage as she considers her future. Asked if she had anything to say to Canadians back home, she switched from her native French to well-practiced English and replied “Canadians, I love you.”

The day ended with a game of handball between students and sailors, which the sailors found particularly challenging due to the girls’ skills. After a presentation of donated school supplies, books, and personal hygiene items, Canadians and Ivorians parted ways, grateful for the unique experiences they had shared.

“My heart is full,” said Master Seaman Michaela Alexander, one of HMCS Shawinigan’s Marine Technicians, as she reluctantly prepared to leave, “I’ll never forget meeting these girls.”

For Lieutenant-Commander Share as well, it was an experience she will never forget. “Being here in Côte d’Ivoire and spending time with the incredible young women who attend and work at this school means so much to me. Speaking to these future woman leaders was both an absolute honour and a career highlight.”

One of the primary objectives of Operation PROJECTION West Africa is to foster regional stability by empowering women and girls. The deployed ships will conduct a series of similar engagements in other West African nations during the mission.