There is a video on YouTube of the president of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Fakim doing her marketing near her home in Quatre Bornes, a town in the Plaines Wilhems District. It was shortly after Ameenah became the first woman president of the island nation and Mauritian news agency l’express were documenting (presumably) a day-in-the-life type of footage of the newly elected president’s weekend routine.
As she picks her tomatoes and greens, market vendors and patrons come over to congratulate her on being unanimously elected president by the country’s National Assembly after the resignation of her predecessor, Kailash Purryag in May last year.
It has just been over six months since she took office and Ameenah says that she rarely has the time to go on her market rounds anymore.
“I love to go out and do things myself ... talk to people and feel the pulse of the people. But I travel quite a bit now so I don’t have the time. Also, every time I go, people want to take selfies with me ... it isn’t as simple anymore,” she says, with a laugh in a skype-interview recently.
Ameenah, a biodiversity scientist, says she is ambitious but was never drawn to politics, let alone becoming the president.
“I always say I didn’t choose politics; politics chose me. I have been a scientist all along . I chose Science because I am passionate about it. But when the proposition (to be the presidential candidate of the Alliance Lepep (Alliance of the people) party came, I saw it as an opportunity to serve my country at the highest level.
“I never sought high positions but because this constitutional post would allow me to serve my country, I took it,” she says.
It wasn’t the first time Ameenah has chosen country over self. After she completed her PhD in chemistry from Exeter University in Great Britain in 1987, she returned to Mauritius even though she knew job opportunities were limited. Her other option was to continue with post-doctoral studies in the United States.
Ameenah chose to carve a niche for herself by studying phytochemistry or the study of the chemistry of plants. Ameenah concentrated on the rare plant species in her country and the islands surrounding Mauritius (including Madagascar) that had the potential for medicinal or cosmetic use.
In a talk she gave for TED Global in 2014, she explains her choice of study: “We know plants have a fundamental role to play. Well, first of all they feed us and also give us the oxygen we breathe. But plants are also the source of important, biologically active ingredients that we should be studying very carefully. Human societies over the millennia have developed important knowledge and cultural traditions on plant-based resources.”
Ameenah set up the Centre for Phytotherapy Research in Mauritius and was Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Mauritius (she was the university’s first female professor) for many years. She has co-authored over 20 books on phytochemistry and has won accolades for her work, including the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for Africa in 2007. She was the Laureate for the National Economic and Social Council in 2007 and won the African Union award for Women in Science the same year.
As one of very few female heads of state, Ameenah is aware of the huge influence she has on girls all over the world, particularly in Africa.
“I guess at some level I have shattered the glass ceiling. But, there are many more glass ceilings that need to be shattered. We need more women in politics and other areas of work. If you asked me, I would never wish to be a man ... women are multi-taskers and can get so much done in a day by comparison.
“But changing mindsets and attitudes is a generational issue which can only be modified through education,” says Ameenah, 56, who has two children with her husband Dr Anwar Fakir, a surgeon.
The best way to effect change in people, she says, is through education which must be accessible to both girls and boys.
Ameenah recalls fondly how her teachers ignited her passion in science, making her realise that science holds the answers to practically everything. The birth of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby in 1978, sealed Ameenah Gurib-Fakim’s resolve to study science as she felt it could really change one’s life.
“When I was growing up, education was not free. Education only became free in Mauririus in 1979. But I had very supportive parents who saw the importance of education for my brother and I. My father was and is my biggest champion in making sure I got as good as my brother did.
“This equality … this must be inculcated in society because when you educate a girl, you educate the family and you educate society and a nation,” says Ameenah.
In Mauritius, the post of president is not an executive one and Ameenah’s role is mainly to safeguard the country’s constitution and head its para-military.
However, she has a definite idea of the kind of legacy she hopes to leave behind.
“It’s early yet to talk about a legacy but ... even though I am limited by the constitution there are a few things I hope to leave behind: the legacy of integrity, sincerity and hard work,” she says.
“These are important for any country to advance.”
In particular, she urgently wants to adress her country’s youths’ work culture.
“We are increasingly becoming a consumer society that wants everything to be done quickly. But there should be no compromise (on quality). If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” she says.
Ameenah also hopes that her appointment as president will show girls and young women that they can achieve anything they want – be it to run a country or be a scientist.
“I want girls and women to believe in themselves, to learn to be independent ‑ especially to be financially independent, and to set their objectives and just do it. But be prepared to take risks because that’s part and parcel of it all,” she says.