Mentorship is a big part of JA’s work; the idea that someone with more experience would take a young person by the hand and guide them as they navigate life and career. It is something I am very passionate about and believe other professionals should invest time in. Let me tell you about my experience with one of my mentees:
When Nathaniel Gemegah first reached out to me on LinkedIn in September 2017 I was uncharacteristically impatient with him. His communication was clumsy, his email address was sketchy, he didn’t write in complete sentences, he didn’t seem serious, he was unclear what he wanted and I was already mentoring several young people and reluctant to take another on. But something about our exchange convinced me that this was a young man who really needed my help. At our first meeting he was painfully awkward; limp handshake, slouchy posture, barely spoke above a whisper, would not look me in the eye. We had our work cut out for us. We discussed what he wanted to work on and agreed to meet once a month for an hour at my office. I thought I’d never see him again but he showed up every time, braving Accra traffic to get there and with each visit he visibly improved from the last. His handshake became firmer, he sat up in the chair, he looked me in the eye, his voice became more steady, he was engaging and present, and he had become very clear about what he wanted. He learned how to introduce himself. His confidence was improving. He was making friends. He wanted to work on becoming a good public speaker but I insisted we work on the foundation first – we had to first find out who he was.
We went on a journey of discovery. I probed, coached and guided him to find himself and his passion. What did he want to do with his life? What was he good at? He was studying construction engineering at a local technical institute, but his interest was in architecture. I thought he’d get bored of the mundane homework I gave him every meeting but he didn’t. It was like in that movie, The Karate Kid. I was Mr. Miyagi. He was Danielson. Wax on, wax off. He karate’d his way through my Mr. Miyagi tactics. My aspiring architect wanted to go abroad to learn architecture. I encouraged him to start by learning about African architecture. He was not convinced there was such a thing. So we learned together: the Cliffs of Bandiagara and Dogon construction, Takienta Tower houses in Togo, the Komoguel Mosque in Mali, the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan. I made him read about Ashanti architecture, Ndebele architecture, Musgum houses of Northern Cameroon, Hausa Tubali, Bambara architecture. I made him listen to Burkinabe Diebogo Francis Kere’s TED talk. I gave him articles about Rwanda’s Christian Benimana, Ghana’s David Adjaye, Nigeria’s Kunle Adeyemi. He read them. As we explored more of the subject he was interested in, he emerged from his shell. We had fascinating conversations. His hands were beginning to gesticulate when he walked. Passion. That is the first sign.
Each week he came back more interested, more engaged. As he learned, I learned too. He spoke about his courses in construction finance, surveying, drafting, things I had never heard of before. We learned about Timbuktu, Agadez, Djenne, Zinder, Basotho dwellings and much more. I let him do the talking. It was the beginning of his public speaking aspiration. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in, breathe out. Sand the floor. When he told me he had ideas about buildings he wanted to design I gave him the drawing pad which had been sitting unused on my desk for months, the one I had bought for myself and not gotten around to using. I told him my dream of one day having a museum house the shoes of great Africans. I told him about the time I stood in Nelson Mandela’s shoes and how much that inspired me. I asked him to design what that museum would look like drawing from his lessons at university. I feared I was piling on too much work on his already heavy workload, but he didn’t flinch. He became more confident. I could see him grow before my eyes. Each week, I gave him homework. He came back having fully completed it.
For his final assignment I’ve asked him to come ready to do a presentation on ancient African architecture, his own personal TED talk in my office, in front of my staff. It will be in a month. But I know he is ready for it.
Six months after we started our journey together, Nathaniel is a different person from when we first met. I am so proud of him. I am confident in what he will become.
The journey has been deeply fulfilling for me. I may have gotten more from it than he. I highly recommend mentorship. It has become my ask for all of my friends and colleagues. Get a mentor or become a mentor. Make time to invest in this young man or in other young men and women you may meet every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said “we cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future. YOU can be a part of that through our mission. The investment pays off in dividends in the future and it will be most rewarding thing you do for yourself.
CEO, JA Africa