Interview with Susan Namondo Ngongi, UNICEF Ghana Country Representative (2013-2017)
Susan Namondo Ngongi has been the UNICEF Ghana Country Representative since 2013. She is now finishing her term, and will move on to Asmara, Eritrea, to assume her post as the UN Resident Coordinator for Eritrea. In this interview, she speaks about her personal and professional life in Ghana, her achievements and challenges she experienced, as well as her hopes for the children of Ghana.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m from Cameroon. I joined UNICEF a long time ago, in August 2000. Since then, I have worked in different countries and situations. I started off in Southern Sudan during the North-South war. After a break, I came back and worked at the UNICEF Regional Office for Eastern & Southern Africa, supporting countries of the region to manage emergency situations. It was a wonderful experience to travel to different countries and see how they configure themselves to deal with their various problems. Then I went to New York, and worked with the office of emergency programmes as a desk officer, covering the Middle East and Eastern and Southern Africa. Then I went to Liberia as the UNICEF Deputy Representative, then to Comoros as the Representative, and in 2013 to Ghana as the County Representative. I am very fortunate to have seen so many different contexts, from acute emergencies, to the work at regional level and at Headquarters, to a solid development country now.
What were your aspirations when you came to Ghana? Have you met them?
To be honest, I was just very excited to come to Ghana. It was on the top of my list of countries to go to. Everything I heard about Ghana from the outside was that it is an amazing place. I never come with aspirations. The only thing I come with is the hope that I will be able to lead the team, and that, together, we will be able to be helpful to the Government and the people of the country. It is impossible to know what you will find when you are still outside of the country; it is impossible to know what you should be hoping for before you meet the team etc. And leaving Ghana now, I think I feel very proud of the accomplishments of the UNICEF team. We have a fantastic team here, and we have made credible contributions to the government, as it works towards it development plans, in all our working areas, be it WASH, education, social protection, child protection, health or nutrition. I think we have been a very good addition to the UN’s work programme in the country.
You have been moving from country to country. How did you make Ghana your home?
When I go anywhere I always have things that are consistent. At least my physical space, as soon as the shipment arrives, looks like home. Everywhere you go, it works best when you try to fall in love with the country. So, I tried to fall in love with Ghana. I met Ghanaians and made friends, I tried to appreciate Ghanaian culture. And this is how it gradually became my home.
What were your best moments in Ghana, both personally and professionally?
For my private life that is very easy to answer: it is when I became a mother; I have a very lovely 10-months old baby. That is easily the best time I have had. Professionally, I had so many good times, so it is hard to isolate them. I can tell you about one really difficult period though, which was when we had the threat of Ebola in the second half of 2014. That was difficult for all of us. The uncertainty of the disease; administrative procedures not in place; we just didn’t know how we would deal with things; trying to organise ourselves so that we could provide credible support to Government. With such a large “unknown” – it wasn’t easy at all. That was the only time when my life in Ghana felt “heavy”. But even then, there was also something very nice to experience: the team work, to see how the UN family rallied in times of real difficulty.
In the work that we do, no one anywhere has all the answers to everything. Especially in a leadership position, you need to ensure that you are working on the environment so that everyone can contribute their little piece, so that we can arrive at an answer that helps us to deal with whatever the problem is. And that’s really what I learned during those six months. None of us had the answer. But we consulted, we talked, we sometimes argued. But we all arrived at something, I think, we generally felt proud about. Of course, we were lucky that we didn’t have any case of Ebola in Ghana. So, our solutions were actually never tested. But by the end of that year, we were beginning to feel confident that there was a robust enough response in place.
Could you tell us about your next career move?
I am heading to Eritrea next. It is a change in country but also a change in function. I will be the Resident Coordinator of the UN there, a position that is a lot larger than being UNICEF Representative. Eritrea is a complex country in many ways, in terms of developmental, political, humanitarian challenges, that the team has to face. It will be very interesting. I think that the Susan Ngongi who will be there after one year, will be very different from the Susan Ngongi who goes there. I hope to fall in love with Eritrea. I hear absolutely wonderful things about Eritrea and Eritreans. Asmara, now a world heritage site, is a very beautiful place. I am looking forward to really understanding the situation there, to supporting the UN family, and to being of great support to the Government as they pursue their development goals.
Within the challenges of a new work environment, you will also have to balance your family life.
My first month back from leave was one of the hardest ever in terms of combining work and private life. Luckily, at this point, the body has gotten used to certain challenges, and there are some routines in place. It is easier to cope now. Of course, in a new country there will be a lot of new challenges. I am very lucky that I have help, excellent people who support me. Like many working mothers, I will find a way to get through it.
Leaving Ghana, what is your hope for the future of children in the country?
I am very proud of all the important achievements we made collectively. However, I also feel sad that we did not achieve more. I think Ghana is capable of doing a lot more for its children. For example when it comes to quality education: we have most of the children in school but many are not learning. Or: many women attend antenatal care services, but the rate of newborn deaths is still too high. Or: there is still a vast majority of the population that has no access to quality toilets; only 15% do. I think, at this stage of its development, Ghana should be able to do more for its people and its children. Of course, I am aware of some of the challenges that the Government and people of Ghana have to face; it is not at all easy or obvious. So, I hope that, in the future, when we look back at Ghana, some of those blockages, that are preventing us from having more achievements, will be unblocked, that people will become more ambitious in terms of the quality of life that they expect for themselves and for their children.
Of course, I am going to follow the developments in Ghana, and I am taking a piece of Ghana with me: my daughter was born here, and Ghana will always be in my heart.
The interview was conducted by Juliane Reissig, Communication Specialist at the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office on behalf of the UN Communications Group (UNCG).