September 21, 2011 | Politics and Leadership

Kah Walla: “The Time is Now”

With conviction and courage, Kah Walla is pushing back against Cameroon's status quo.

By Anna Louie Sussman

In a video taken in February this year, Kah Walla, wearing jeans and a red t-shirt, stood facing the water cannon, her body leaning forward, both fists raised high in the air. High-powered blasts of chemical-tinged water wash over her and cloud the screen. Soon after, the police beat her and her companions with clubs.

That day, she was one of an estimated 300 protesters who had gathered in downtown Douala to peacefully demonstrate for democracy. Last October, she ran a candidate in Cameroon’s contested presidential elections, under the slogan “The Time is Now.” Like February’s tear gas incident, a recent day-long abduction by two men who identified themselves as policement also failed to intimidate her. She’s wildly popular according to polls, but a corrupt electoral system will likely keep her out of power.

“Actually, she joked to me that that meant she had a chance at winning,” said Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices. “To her, getting kidnapped was a sign that the party in power is taking her candidacy seriously.”

Walla, now 46, attended Howard University before she returned to Cameroon to launch STRATEGIES!, a successful consulting firm. She is a member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum and has been honored by the World Bank, Vital Voices and Newsweek for her development work, business expertise and leadership. She also founded the civil society group Cameroon Ô’Bosso, which campaigns for electoral reform. In one of her signature initiatives, she worked with Vital Voices to train over 500 women traders at Sandaga, one of Douala’s largest produce markets in business registration, tax procedures and space management. Today, the Sandaga Market Women Traders Union boasts over 200 members and is actively working to improve conditions at the market for women and men.

Her commitment to grassroots community engagement defines her leadership style, said Nelson, who interviewed Walla for a forthcoming book about women and leadership.

“It’s very easy to have a vision and speak from podium about that vision,” said Nelson. “But for Kah, an effective leader is someone who goes down into the community, sits with people and understands their challenges, and listens. She worked at the grassroots of society with these market women, and she will carry their voices with her as she goes to run for president.”

In a sign of her ability to inspire, since she announced her candidacy in October 2010, (the first time a woman ran for president in Cameroon’s 51-year history), three more women announced theirs, said Nelson, a huge step forward in a country that the World Economic Forum ranks 114th out of 134 in its 2010 Gender Gap Index. Her anything-is-possible attitude, she added, comes from a “deep internal compass” that guides her vision of an inclusive, democratic Cameroon.

“She has a deep commitment to a core set of values, and it’s so deep that no matter what comes along – intimidation, adversity, or even success, she is not swayed from that core vision,” said Nelson.

The invincibility of her spirit emerged in a letter written just after her run-in with the police in February. With her eyes still burning from the chemicals, and the welts on her back still stinging, she sent out an email describing the day’s events: “Note my two fists up in a victory symbol under the water cannon. That’s the lesson I learnt. The power is within us. No amount of violence and hysteria can remove it.”

It’s not just the lesson she learned, Nelson says, but one that she can teach us.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.