By Rosemary Nalisa, Namibia Red Cross Society
Bience Gawanas is the fourth child in a family of 11. She lost four of her siblings in very difficult circumstances. Her eldest brother was murdered in 1974, during Namibia’s politically turbulent years. The second born committed suicide, the third was shot dead, and the fourth died in a car crash. In January 2018, this mother of four—and chairperson of the Namibia Red Cross—was appointed as UN Special Adviser for Africa, by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres. She is excited about this opportunity to serve the people of Africa from the “other side”. A few days after her appointment, we spoke to her about her achievements, her work with the Red Cross, as well as her expectations for her new job in New York.
1. What attracted you to the Red Cross?
My upbringing influenced me to advocate for social justice and human rights. That’s how I ended up being the chairperson of the Namibia Red Cross Society and the Patron of the Namibian Federation of Persons with Disabilities. As you know, I was the Ombudswoman of Namibia, where I listened to complaints from the public. I then moved on to become the Commissioner for Social Affairs of the African Union Commission, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I dealt with issues like those the Red Cross tackles.
2. After you dealt with all these social issues, what would you say are the prominent humanitarian challenges in Namibia and Africa?
I guess one must start with drought. For the longest time ever, we thought drought was something that comes and goes. Drought is something that we must adapt to and whose effects we should mitigate, focusing on long-term solutions. For example, we now have a food bank in our country today because of the level of hunger experienced by our people. We should also solve other social issues such as the lack of proper shelter and housing for the people and access to justice, which are the basic necessities of life.
3. How can we work together as Africans in order to tackle challenges such as hunger, drought, health, migration and build resilient communities?
When I worked at the African Union Commission as the commissioner for social affairs, I collaborated with 54 African governments and civil society organisations. There is no doubt that if Africa stands together, it can be a powerful force for change. We have developed a lot of frameworks and policies that all governments have ascribed to. If we could successfully implement some of those policies, we can make a difference in the lives of the people of this continent.
4. What do you think about your new role? What are your hopes and challenges?
I have been an activist throughout my life. I did it both at the national and continental level. I will continue to push my agenda at the global level now that I have enough experience. One of the mandates of my new office is to strengthen the collaboration between the United Nations, the African Union and other regional institutions such as, the African Development Bank and the Regional Economic Communities of the African Union. I believe that a prime institution, such as the African Union, should lead the development and peace process on the continent, with the support of the global world. Africa just adopted Agenda 2063 of the “Africa We Want” and it will be up to my office to ensure that the world listens to what the continent wants and supports it.
5. How are you going to use your role in contributing to the strengthening of livelihoods in Africa?
The whole Sustainable Development Goals framework is premised on the wellbeing of people. It is about looking at the environment where Africans live. As the Special Adviser on Africa, the Sustainable Development Goals are the agenda issues that I will focus on and ensure they are implemented. I am quite excited that I will have an opportunity to sit on the other side and to look towards the continent, and to know that I am there to serve the people of Africa.
6. Will you continue working and collaborating with the Red Cross in your new mandate?
The Red Cross has been an important part of my life ever since I was a refugee. I knew about it in refugee camps, as well as in exile where the Red Cross received us. My relationship with the Red Cross has been on both personal and professional levels. The Red Cross works very closely with the United Nations, and I have no doubt that I will continue to carry the Red Cross flag in New York, even if I won’t be working directly with the Red Cross Movement.
7. How would you like to see Namibia Red Cross Society and the entire Red Cross Movement moving forward into the future?
We need to expand the Red Cross and make it visible all over Namibia. Of course we focus on areas affected by hunger, but we hope that our presence will be felt across the country. It is all about repositioning the Red Cross to be relevant to Namibians during humanitarian emergencies, while still recognising that it is part of the international Movement, hence the need to adhere to the norms and standards that have been set globally.