There is no shortage of conflict and calamity across the world. When calamity ravages communities or countries, one woman is tasked with ensuring those affected can access the vital assistance they desperately need.
Joyce Msuya is a master at creating ease, making you feel as if you are old friends reuniting after years apart. On her face hangs the gracious smile of someone who sees the most pleasant happenings in the world. Many times, at least on this trip to Africa, she sees the opposite.
She enters one of the offices at the UN headquarters in Nairobi as if she is coming to meet friends for evening drinks.
“Mambo,” she says with a firm handshake that lingers longer than usual while making small talk. Some of the people here were her former colleagues at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
She is comfortable. In her skin and with people.
Msuya is a Tanzanian microbiologist and environmental scientist who has been serving as the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Earlier before we sat down for the interview, she met Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua to go over the response to the drought and the preparedness to face the El Nino rains. The Kenya National Disaster Operations Centre estimate the total displaced population at about 94,000 households in the country.
“I wake up around 5.30am and I have no idea which part of the world is falling apart and why it’s falling apart and the primary focus of my work is complex humanitarian crises in places like Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine-Russia and also prolonged crisis like that in the DRC and Yemen,” she says.
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For someone who works to find solutions to global crises, Msuya says her secret to remaining balanced in life lies in optimism and gratitude.
“I tend to look at a glass half full other than empty.”
In the Northern regions of Mozambique, she encountered the heartbreaking reality of overwhelming poverty and suffering. Women and children bore the trauma of brutal assaults, rape, displacement, and the grievous experience of returning to their homes, only to find unfamiliar faces occupying their once-familiar communities.
The ongoing violence has resulted in a tragic toll, claiming the lives of 2,838 individuals and forcing a staggering 800,000 people from their homes.
“I was thinking there is got to be something in this community. People who have had to leave their home with nothing, some women being raped, their children had children and then they come back and they have to start from scratch,” says Msuya.
“So there, the gratitude was the resilience to tell them, my God, how many people have nothing and still have this courage and desire to say I am somebody, I am going to make it even if I have two children at 16 years.”
But her work doesn’t end with words of encouragement, seeing the extent of the crisis is part of her job description. By understanding this suffering and getting the numbers she can engage with donors and make a case for humanitarian action and financing. “I also work with humanitarians across the world and also on the ground to assist in terms of food medicine and making arrangements of evacuation.”
For the better part of the month, she has traversed Southern and Eastern African countries starting in Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania and finally Kenya.
Throughout her journey, she engaged with the survivors affected by a convergence of tragedies — ranging from conflict to the devastating impact of Cyclone Freddy — unleashing the harrowing effects of climate change, leaving over 2 million people in dire humanitarian need.
“You go to a place like Mozambique and every single year they experience a cyclone and El Nino is now causing the damage. Dams are destroyed, communities are moved, the agriculture sector gets disrupted and depending on where they are, people die,” says Msuya.
“Every day when I wake up, what drives me is the desire to make a difference in the world. I tell myself that whatever I do and don’t do should make a difference in someone’s life. It could mean saving lives, it could mean supporting myself to do their job or it could mean mobilising and advocating for resources.”
Msuya’s early years can be traced back to Dar es Salaam. She was born in 1968 and fortunate to come from a well-off family of a Makerere-educated father who worked as a senior government officer.
“He was one of the first government officers in Tanzania’s post-independence that Nyerere handpicked. He worked for the government and climbed up the ladder,” she says.
Despite the rise in class status for a family that once lived in rural Tanzania, Msuya explains that her parents insisted on having their children remember where they came from.
“Instead of sending us to school in the city, I remember my late mother telling me, ‘We don’t want you guys to be spoiled. You need to go live with other Tanzanians in public boarding schools,’” says Msuya.
Decades later, she believes that the foundation of her childhood is what has taken her this far.
“My upbringing has a lot to do with it. I was raised with many ethnic groups and different religions. I was raised to look at the universality of people rather than the difference. So, when I meet a person whether they’re from a different nationality, I look at the person.”
It is through this experience that Msuya learned to engage and gel with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Studying in a self-reliant school where students needed to till the land and farm, she says the experience taught her how to work hard and be independent.
“WeruWeru Girls Boarding School had students from all over Tanzania. What I didn’t know was that it was a melting pot of cultures religions and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
After high school, she would meet with other Tanzanians in the compulsory National Youth Service where high school graduates went through military training and requisite knowledge, skills and cultural values meant to contribute to the social-economic development.
She would later go on to be the first African to work in the World Bank office in China and later the first World Bank representative in South Korea.
After two decades with the World Bank, Msuya joined the UNEP in 2018 and served till 2021.
I ask whether she knew her life and career trajectory would have spun her this far.
“I had no idea,” she says with a laugh.
She reminisces about her unexpected journey — a path that meandered from her studies in Scotland to a tenure at the Centre for Global Studies in Canada, where she spent considerable time before ultimately finding herself at the World Bank.
She humorously refers to this trajectory as a series of unexpected twists — a zig-zagging route she had never envisioned taking.
All she knew was that she wanted to pursue a degree in science and ended up doing biochemistry and Immunology, which she pursued to PhD level. Msuya says she gets bored easily and a constant curiosity itch always has her seeking the next exciting thing to do.
“I was about to finish my master’s when I changed into a PhD programme and I hated it and got bored. The life in the lab in centrifuges and test tubes. That’s not me.”
Summarising her guiding lights in life, she points to curiosity, gratitude and hard work.
Both were pillars that supported her during the challenging period of balancing motherhood, marriage, and demanding jobs that required extensive travel across the globe.
In those challenging times, like most people, Msuya would find herself cornered with fear and self-doubt.
“When I went to China being new, having relocated my family, a big job as the regional coordinator of the World Bank Institute, I had self-doubt whether I could succeed as a black African woman in China in an office that had not had anyone from Africa who is a woman,” says Msuya.
Rather than succumbing to fear and self-doubt, she delved deeply into her work, asked for help from her colleagues and dedicated long hours to not only prove herself, but also to enhance her skills in areas where she felt apprehensive about potential failure.
“I met others who had experienced the same thing and asked them ‘how did you do this?’ I don’t shy away from being vulnerable and say I don’t know,” she says, adding that growth lies in uncomfortable things.
However, fear and emotions have a knack for always coming back and reminding us we are just human.
“When crossed over from the World Bank to the UN after 20 years, I had self-doubt having secured the number two position. I was thinking, ‘What if I failed as an East African in UNEP, in Nairobi, four hours from Kilimanjaro.’ What did I do? I worked hard. Once I reached a certain optimum, I was okay.”
Msuya believes that young people should have the courage to take the first step in trying difficult things that make them uncomfortable.
“I find sometimes young people give up very quickly. Have that courage to say I’m going to try because I have nothing to lose.”
Msuya’s current mission in Africa holds significant weight in advocating for Africa’s representation at the upcoming COP-28. Amid conflicts and natural disasters, her efforts will be pivotal in highlighting the need for support in addressing the climate crisis.
Despite being home to 27 of the world’s 40 most climate-vulnerable countries, the continent receives only a small portion of the financing intended to assist these vulnerable communities in adapting to climate change.