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A Magazine Maven on a Mission: Empowering West African Girls

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By Leanna H. Cannafax

Leanna H. Cannafax is a 3L at Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Mississippi, where she serves as editor in chief of The Legal Eye. Cannafax is also a representative of the ABA Law Student Division.

Fatmata S. Kabia is no ordinary third-year law student. Balancing her duties as exec‑utive vice chancellor of Cornell Law School’s Moot Court Board and articles editor of the Cornell International Law Journal would keep anyone as busy as Grand Central station. Somehow, Kabia has found time to undertake another challenge: launching a campaign for a classroom magazine for teenage girls in West Africa.

A one-of-a-kind publication aimed at girls ages 10 to 17, Memunatu promotes a platform for literacy, leadership, and empowerment. In an area known for the Ebola virus outbreak, governmental unrest, and a persistent disparity between boys’ and girls’ education, Memunatu is the only magazine tailored to this underserved demographic.

Kabia cofounded the magazine in 2011 with her twin sister, Mariama, a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public policy.

As the proud daughters of Sierra Leone immigrants, issues like drop-out rates, early pregnancy, and impoverished futures facing the youth of Sierra Leone hit all too close to home. The Kabia sisters quickly learned their lives in the United States were harshly different from their cousins’ back in Sierra Leone—a society still recovering from the aftermath of a debilitating civil war in the 1990s. The challenge, Kabia said, was discovering how to make a difference.

The courage and passion to launch Memunatu was a crossroads between two sources of inspiration. Fatmata and Mariama grew up reading magazines like Scholastic News, Seventeen, and Teen Vogue. “Each publication offered something different and a sense of community,” she added. “That’s when we knew that this magazine format could be something that girls in Sierra Leone could benefit from.”

The greatest inspiration behind Memunatu was their family. Their mother, born and raised in Sierra Leone, was a north star for Kabia and her siblings growing up. She attended graduate school, and then pursued a career in the sciences. Her mother’s confidence, determination, and passion for education personifies what Kabia calls the “Memunatu girl.”

Education is the driving force behind Memunatu magazine. Memunatu is distributed through secondary West African schools, with an accompanying teacher’s guide. The primary objective is to develop a fun, community-driven publication linking girls to fundamental educational resources. Kabia hopes African schoolgirls will picture themselves as an integral part of each issue—from the cover girl to the articles inside.

Kabia’s own education had a tremendous impact in developing the framework for Memunatu. Her undergraduate studies in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania sparked an interest in comparative politics.

Her legal education at Cornell Law School facilitated an understanding of the complex challenges facing Sierra Leone’s women and girls, such as gender discrimination and low levels of human rights awareness.

Kabia is interested in pursuing a career in litigation after graduation: “I grew up with the perspective that doors are open if you are willing to look for them, work hard, and have the courage to walk through,” she said.

Memunatu has received recognition as an Echoing Green Semifinalist, Harvard Business School New Venture Competition Semifinalist, Dell Social Innovation Competition Fellow, Wharton Venture Initiation Program Company, and Clinton Global Initiative University Commitment to Action, among others. Memunatu was a resident team at Harvard innovation lab and is now working out of the 1776 incubator in Washington, D.C., where the Kabia sisters aim to expand the reach of Memunatuthroughout West Africa.

Vol. 43 No. 6

 

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