Who is Ms. Francoise Odoh? In addition to being our Togo Program Director and the woman who oversees all of our girls' education initiatives, she's a talented seamstress, knitter, motobike rider, and one of the most inspiring people we have ever known. It's hard to capture all of Francoise's spirit in writing, but as you'll see in her interview below, she is truly amazing.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My childhood was very upset with illness and my doctors thought I would survive to adulthood. When I started school, I didn't know I could be successful. I honestly didn't even know why I was going to school because I didn't have a guiding influence in my life. When I got to the 4th grade, I was the only one in my class to have failed at the end of the year and my classmates made fun of me. My mom cried wondering why I had to be the dumbest in the class. I was so very ashamed, and I questioned whether or not I wanted to continue my studies.
It was at this moment that my religious sister took me to the town of Dapaong in northern Togo to a boarding school where I could continue my studies. I suffered a lot when I was in boarding school. I didn't have enough to eat, and it was this malnutrition that caused me the most trouble. But I am very resilient, and I was determined to rise to challenge. I knew I couldn't give up on myself because I was the only one who believed in my abilities, and I knew I could surpass everyone's expectations. So I was studying every moment; I use to stay up late and wake up early to study. At the end of the year, I was part of the top 5 students in my class. I was so happy and said to myself that actually things weren't impossible. It just takes me a little more effort to get there.
This is where I started having a taste for studies, however, in the sixth grade I was struck by an illness that led to surgery. Thankfully I recovered, but two years later, I had the same health problem and had to undergo a second surgery. This continual deterioration of my health forced me to return to southern Togo. I was sent to another religious sister in Notsè where I finished Junior high.
After a third surgery, I was sent to Ivory Coast where I attended high school. I returned to Togo to attend university. When I got to campus, I couldn't afford to pay for my tuition. My dad helped pay for my registration, and I took care of everything else. I worked all through school and learned how to sew and knit as a way to support myself. I walked more than 20 km a day to get to the campus, but I held on until my 5th year.
After my thesis defense in 2015, I wasn't able to find work, so every morning I went to the Administrative Services Office to submit my files, but It was not successful. It was in 2018 that I was admitted to volunteering which led me to ICPSD and finally to S H E.
After a lifetime of hard work and perseverance, I finally reached my goal. I have succeeded because I am the first girl in my village to graduate high school and the only person to go to university. Unfortunately, many of the girls I grew up with remain in our home village in poverty. So my life is a testament to the importance of education and resilience in pursuit of your dreams. Like me, most girls in Togo don't receive the guidance and support they need to overcome the many obstacles in their lives, so I am incredibly passionate about supporting girls and women to overcome social issues of society.
What's so special about working at S H E?
I would say that my work at S H E is not coincidence. Since I was in high school, my ambition has always been to open an orphanage when I finish my studies. This is how began studying social issues and was guided by my professors to sociological science. I wanted to better understand the human condition, and I emphasized in anthropology and defended my thesis on the theme: Dynamics of the socialization of young girls in rural areas. When I started volunteering, I was assigned to the town hall of Tsevié to take care of local development, but I felt like I was moving away from my goals.
Thankfully, after a few months I was called back to Lomé and sent to the nonprofit, ICPSD. And ICPSD is the main in-country partner of S H E. I began by working for S H E part-time and assisting in the afterschool program. I told myself that I am gradually approaching my goal, and my dream really began to come true in 2019 when I took over the leadership of this project that I so long desired.
In summary I can say that through my work at S H E, I realize my dream, I learn from others, I acquire enough experience and the values of S H E align so perfectly with my own.
What advice would you have for young women who are going through difficulties?
I will tell them that life can be a struggle with ups and downs. If you happen to fall at some point, you have to get up and move forward. Me, for example, I decided at a young age to always keep moving forward, and I succeeded.
In all the notebooks since I had failed my class in elementary I wrote: "The stone that the builders rejected, has become the key stone. Little by little, the bird makes its nest." It's an African saying that encourages us to keep going even if others don't see our value. We still are valuable people.
What inspires you in life?
I would say it is the success of young girls, and I'm especially inspired by the development of women. I want all women to be comfortable in life. I want to create a new world where women will feel empowered in all areas.
I'm also inspired by the way S H E took it upon themselves to promote young girls and women in the world and especially in Togo. I feel lucky to be in such an inspiring company.
What do you want people to know about you?
I would like people to know that I love all people without any distinction. I like to learn from others. I love children and women, and I will live my life in a way that uplifts them. I like everything social. I especially like to help. I am a fighter, I'm sociable, and I'm a philanthropist.
I'm also not perfect. I am always working to improve myself and it is S H E who transformed me in this regard. I want people to know that despite my shortcomings, I always seek the best and strive to reach that level. Thanks to S H E, I have grown in so many ways that I didn't even know were possible. Today, I’m proud of myself.