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Leela de Mel- a woman of high attainment and humility

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By Zanita Careem

When I heard the news of Dr. Leela de Mel’s demise in Perth Australia many thoughts and memories passed my mind. We first met each other when I entered Ramanathan Hall, at the Peradeniya Campus, as a fresher. Leela was then a third-year Political Science Honours student at the time I entered the campus as a fresher.

The last time I met her was a few years back when she was here for her niece’s wedding. I invited her for a cup of coffee at the Taj Samudra Hotel, when unforgettable memories of the good times replayed in my mind. Her mischievous laugh and anecdotes are now just happy memories.

These nostalgic thoughts of the university life we shared against the picturesque setting at the Peradeniya University speak volumes for our happy times together. Our senior lecturer Dr K. H. Jayasinghe, Head of the Department of Political Science and later President of the Peradeniya Campus, who was also our mentor, thought very highly of Leela.

Leela, Indra Panditharatne who was also offering political science and I were named the ‘three musketeers’ by the then warden Mrs. Cooke, a strict disciplinarian with a tough exterior.

Leela, the daughter of Rear Admiral Royce de Mel and one time Head Girl of St. Bridget’s Convent was bullying or ‘ragging’ the freshers. However, unlike today, ragging then was a form of familiarization between the seniors and the freshers. Leela’s way of ragging, unlike now, was innocent and without malice. She would ask the freshers to wear the slippers on the wrong foot, switch off the light in the room plunging the place in darkness and such. After the two weeks of ragging she always showed her concern, warmth and took all the freshers under her wing. Almost every adventure with Leela, be it visiting friends, dinner parties, trips to Sigiriya, holidaying with her two older sisters in Tangalle and visits to tea estates, meant fun. Leela loved Saraschandra’s drama and during the week for dramas at the famous Peradeniya ‘Wala’we would stand in long queues to get our tickets and had So much funfighting for seats under the moonlight.

Not only was she full of humour and repartee, Leela also had a large heart. She would help students at a time of need. Two incidents in particular come to my mind. She would often take Indra and I to afternoon tea at Elephant House in Kandy. The waiters looked forward to her visits as she always tipped them very generously. Leela also took time off her busy teaching schedule at Peradeniya to teach English to primary school students in a village called Barigama near Nugawela once a week. Often Indra and I would accompany her on this journey. The smiles on young students’ faces when they saw her said it all.

Her close friend, the amiable undergrad reading for a degree in Sociology, Padmini Bandaranaike enjoyed Leela’s company and sometimes we would end up listening to Leela’s anecdotes until the wee hours of the morning. She was well versed in world affairs and international relations and we would often have hot debates and at times indulge in social gossip too.

Leela’s academic achievements and accomplishments were many. An avid reader and a traveller, her achievements at school and university earned many accolades. But none of that got into her head. She was immune to false airs and always chose a lifestyle of simplicity.

After Leela completed her BA in Political Science, she was appointed as an Asst. Lecturer at the Peradeniya’s Department of Political Science. She went to Australia National University in Canberra on a Ford Foundation scholarship, and completed her Master’s degree in International Relations and later read for a doctorate in the School of Social Inquiry at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. She was an outstanding lecturer, who was not only erudite but caring, independent and unbowing.

After we graduated and were on the staff of the university Leela, Padmini, Indra and I shared an apartment at Ramanthan Hall. It was such a fun time in our young lives. Leela was an excellent cook and she wanted to make sure that her three friends would be able to put some palatable dishes on the table! She drew up an afternoon tea roster and once a week one of us, under her guidance, had to cook a suitable dish. She would then comment on it and most often I was never up to her high standards.

Dr Jayasinghe would occasionally invite a group of Political Science Honours students to his home for dinner. This was a much looked forward to event as Dr Jayasinghe would always say he made the ‘best chicken curry this side of the Suez’! Leela however, never agreed with that.

The two lecturers in Political Science, KC Perera and Ranjith Amarasinghe who had recently returned to the university after completing postgraduate studies in the UK. Leela made sure that they were welcomed back into the Political Science family. Birthdays were a case in point and Leela made sure they were celebrated in style.

Indra’s father was based in Nuwara Eliya, so taking advantage of this we did a trip to Nuwara Eliya with KC as his brother was working there too. The jokes and pranks Leela played on them are still very vivid in my memory.

This is seen as a common thread that runs through all tributes paid to her. She had a passion for working for the underprivileged and was always warm, helpful, refined and dignified. She touched the lives of many with her kindness, empathy, generosity and her readiness to help.

Now as I look back on her loss I notice that she was a high achiever which was reflected in many messages of condolence. All of them spoke of her great endurance, humility, grace, cheer and her positive attitude and achievements.

Our conversations in person, on rare occasions we met in Sri Lanka were mostly on family affairs. Her sparkling eyes and vibrant personality were her highlights. A Parliamentary tribute made by Dr. Anne Aly for Cowan (WA) aptly sums up Leela’s contribution to Social Justice and Multicultural community work. Her Alma Mater, St. Bridget’s Convent’s Old Girl Association also made a fitting tribute to her.

Her boundless energy, loyalty, generosity and capacity for fun and mischief made the lives of her husband Michael and son Janek, friends and colleagues happy. Her light hearted outlook was her forte. My thoughts are with her two loving sisters Nimmi (Loku), Priyani (Podi), and brother Manil, sister-in-law Radha, nieces and nephews whom she adored and who will dearly miss Leela.

Leela, I salute you not only your illustrious career, but also your innate goodness. You are gone yet never forgotten.



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The tragedy of Afghanistan. Is there a way forward?

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by Anoja Wijesekera

The desperate scenes at Kabul airport of Afghans trying to flee and the image of the US Airforce flight taxi-ing down the runway while people were trying to board it, and hundreds running alongside, is an image that will be etched in our minds forever.

The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the same saga of desperation and suffering has been repeatedly endured by ordinary Afghans who have been at the receiving end of war, throughout their lives. They have suffered death, loss of limbs, loss of breadwinners, loss of livelihoods, the destruction of their homes, the trauma of displacement, the horrors of seeing their loved ones killed before their very eyes, squalor, pain, hunger and cold, for over four decades.

At a human level, the Afghans feel betrayed by the Western Alliance and the US. This is not the first time but the second. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there was no overt resistance from the West. However, the Afghan warlords and their supporters who provided some resistance were armed and funded by the CIA, via the ISI of Pakistan, in order to defeat the Russians. The Afghans paid a heavy price; an estimated two million died another two million lost their limbs and approximately 800,000 women became widows. The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed.

Once the Russians left, the US turned its back on Afghanistan and paid no heed to help in the reconstruction and development of that battered land. This was the first experience of betrayal and it was also at that time, that Osama Bin Laden who was an ally of the US and a part of the Mujahideen, became its sworn enemy.

The second episode took place after 9/11. In order to get at Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. Although Osama Bin Laden had already left Afghanistan, many bombs were dropped, followed by drone attacks. Large numbers of civilians including women and children were killed as a result, throughout this 20-year period. Now in August 2021, with no proper system in place to ensure peace and stability, the US forces simply left. Even General David Petraeus, former Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan and former Director of the CIA, expressed his shock when interviewed on TV. For the Afghans, in their hour of need, the sudden and inexplicable departure of their President, Ashraf Ghani, is an even greater disappointment that they find hard to bear.

It is difficult to think that President Ghani left because he wanted to save his own skin. It is possible that this was part of a hasty deal worked out with the Taliban that went hand in hand with the sudden withdrawal of American troops. By paving the way for the Taliban to enter Kabul unhindered, and with no resistance offered by the Afghan army, a blood bath was averted. The destruction of the infrastructure and livelihoods in Kabul was also prevented. In turn, it is possible that the Taliban agreed to all the concessions that they announced during their press conference in Kabul, on 17.8.21.

The Taliban spokesman declared that an amnesty has been granted to all those who opposed them and that all citizens should remain in Afghanistan and help in re-building the country. They announced that all would be safe and that they forgive those who fought against them, and in turn that they should be forgiven. The Taliban stated that women would be allowed education and the right to work, as per the dictates of Sharia Law. It was also announced that no one will be allowed to use Afghanistan to attack other countries and that opium cultivation and its trading would be stopped. There was an indication that an inclusive government would be formed, but under their command.

The inevitable takeover of the country by the Taliban should come as no surprise to anyone, as it was evident right from the start. There is a popular Taliban saying “You have the watches, we have the time. We were born here and will die here. We are not going anywhere”.

A look at the map of Afghanistan, showing the areas under Taliban control indicates clearly how the Taliban gradually and surely increased the areas under their control over these 20 years. The take over of Kabul on August 16, 2021, was just the last lap of the race and was a parting gift offered on a platter by the US, when it hurriedly withdrew its troops out of Bagram airport, with no apparent handover and no declared plan for governance.

The Western misadventure is but a repetition of the history of Afghanistan. No foreign invader has ever been able to hold Afghanistan for long or maintain governments of their liking for any length of time. In the 13th Century the mighty army of Genghis Khan was massacred by the Afghans. In the 19th century, in the heyday of the Empire, the British sent a garrison to Kabul and each and every soldier except one, was slaughtered. In the 20th Century, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and were defeated in no uncertain terms, despite their weaponry and might.

There is a saying that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The US did not learn from what happened to the Russians or from their own experience in Vietnam. At a time when the TV footage is showing the desperation of the Afghans, the efforts made by the US government to justify their hasty departure and declare to the world that their mission in Afghanistan was a success rings hollow and indicates a cynical disregard for the horrific ground situation. Subsequently the US announced that it would help Afghans who worked for them, to seek refuge in the US.

Now, as things evolve, whatever working arrangements are agreed with the previous administration and other stakeholders, the reality is that the Taliban is back in power and seem to be determined to recreate their “Emirate”, characterised by the strict imposition of Sharia Law. The Taliban has declared repeatedly that they would allow female education this time round, indicating a softening of their stance. However, the news from the areas under their control, indicate that their rhetoric is at variance with the ground realities in some places. When questioned on this, the Taliban spokesman said that all such incidents would be investigated.

I served with UNICEF in Afghanistan, in the years 1997 to 2001, both in Jalalabad and Kabul and am therefore very familiar with the draconian regulations of the Taliban.

The Taliban brand of Sharia Law imposed during their time in office, which was from 1996 to 2001, was particularly geared towards the ruthless limitation of women’s freedom and rights. Women were debarred from working and girls’ education was banned. Women were restricted to domestic work in their own compounds. When going out, they were forced to wear a “burka” that covered them from head to foot. At the time I was there, they passed the Maharam Edict, which dictated that women could not walk alone on the streets. A woman had to be accompanied by a “Maharam” meaning husband, brother or son or a very close male relative.

Failure to do so resulted in getting beaten on the roadside. The Beard Law, meant that all men had to grow beards. Men were prohibited from even trimming their beards. Both men and women were beaten in public if they flouted these regulations. Even some of our own staff members were flogged in public for trimming their beards. The Taliban brand of justice was meted out on the streets, by their vice squads, who beat you first and asked questions later.

Music was prohibited. All musical instruments were destroyed. Music playing in vehicles was banned. TV, films, entertainment, gatherings of men and women together were prohibited.

Under the Taliban regime, at the time, people had to pray five times a day regardless of any consideration. At prayer time people had to stop whatever they were doing and turn towards Mecca and go down on their knees or be beaten even on the road-side. The penalty for theft was the amputation of limbs and the punishment for adultery was stoning to death. The football stadium in Kabul was an arena where these horrific acts were performed in front of an audience. There was no judicial system and no due process. An accusation was regarded as sufficient evidence of having committed a crime.

Games including card games and board games were prohibited. Iconography, art, photographs and images were destroyed. Priceless artefacts in the Kabul Museum were smashed to smithereens and we are all too aware of what happened to the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which were priceless treasures and a wonder of the ancient world.

When I first went to Afghanistan in 1997, as the UNICEF Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad, the Taliban refused to look at me, as I happened to belong to the female gender. At meetings, which were all male events, they would look away from me with an expression of total disgust and would keep their heads turned away from me, when speaking to me. They clearly indicated that meeting with a woman was abhorrent to them. One Mullah even went to the extent of covering his own face when he had to pass by me. I found this utterly amusing and did not let it bother me.

After a couple of months of this icy reception, which I considered to be a farcical comedy, they gradually thawed and even shook my hand and became friendly. The Mayor of Jalalabad, who earlier covered his face, became particularly friendly and had many conversations with me, in English, declaring that he did not oppose girls’ education. I learned that he was educated to degree level. I said to my staff that I thought that perhaps the Taliban thought that I had turned into a man! As time passed, many Taliban officials and heads of departments, said that they regarded me as a sister.

After the closure of girls’ schools when female teachers lost their jobs, Home Schools were started by them in their own compounds, which UNICEF supported. As the Home Schools progressed, and grew by the day, I began to think that perhaps even the Taliban sent their daughters to those schools.

It was evident that some of the educated Taliban knew the value of education. Most of their foot soldiers however have only been to a Madrassa [Islamic school], where the curriculum consists of memorising the Quran, studying Arabic and learning the art of guerrilla warfare. However, the educated Taliban realise that it is important to address economic, social, health and educational issues, in addition to implementing their draconian version of Sharia Law.

Since I had to work with the Taliban government on a daily basis, I thought to myself that the Taliban are after all human beings and I decided even before I took up my assignment, that I will simply deal with them as one human being to another. Therefore, I accorded them the due respect they were entitled to on account of the office they held and regarded them as fellow citizens of the world. I followed the dictum that one has to give respect to get respect. This formula was effective and very soon they cooperated with me and my colleagues on all the programmes UNICEF had to implement, including our efforts to promote maternal and child health, and the inclusion of women in some of the activities.

However, each activity which involved the participation of women, was implemented with due consideration and in a very low-key manner. I was guided by my Afghan colleagues who knew exactly how to approach this problem. The Taliban departmental heads also gave tacit approval for the participation of women in our programmes, as the women had to be paid through a government department, as per UN regulations.

Towards the end of my tenure, when the Bamiyan Buddha statues were blown up, and I was devastated, one senior Taliban minister apologised to me, as he knew that I was a Buddhist. He said to me that many people in the Taliban government opposed this action, implying that the Bamiyan Buddhas were a part of their own heritage, which they respected. The Afghans reported that the Buddha statues were not destroyed by the Taliban, but by the Al Qaeda, who were Arabs. They cried and said to me, “the Taliban has destroyed our future and now they have destroyed our past, we have nothing left”.

In the present context, following the fall of Kabul, the only hope for the future is that the Taliban will take a more enlightened approach and modify their agenda. This will be important for them, in gaining international recognition and much-needed aid.

In my opinion it would be a mistake on the part of the international community to impose sanctions as that would only hurt the poor and vulnerable. To regard the Taliban regime as a pariah state would also not be fruitful as that will only make them even more adamant in pursing inhuman practices. It is only through engagement and genuine dialogue that the international community will be able to help Afghanistan and influence the Taliban to be more responsible and mature in their approach.

At the time of writing this article, following the press conference and interview given by their spokesman in Kabul, all indications are that the Taliban have indeed changed and matured and wish to form an inclusive government and have softened their stance on the rights of women. The spokesman repeated that everything will be done within the bounds of Sharia Law. I hope that since they were last in power, which was 20 years ago, that they have gained greater wisdom in their interpretation of Sharia Law.

It is imperative upon the international community to now step up on their humanitarian assistance and ensure that starvation, destitution and a colossal human tragedy is averted and that the displaced are assisted to return to their homes. Already more than 50% of Afghans are in need of food aid, on account of the severe drought that has hit the country. Childhood malnutrition has increased and Covid is on the rise. UNCEF, WFP and the other UN humanitarian agencies are in place and are working round the clock.

The UN Secretary General has already made an appeal to donor countries to increase their assistance. The US and its allies who spent billions in weaponry and military hardware, need to now genuinely engage with the Taliban and help in developing and funding a workable plan for the development of Afghanistan, with the participation of the UN agencies, so that a sincere attempt is made at long last, to improve the lives of all Afghans. This is the best safeguard against the country descending once again into civil war and becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.

On reflection, the famous saying that “In wars there are no winners, there are only losers” is indeed true. The Taliban has lost thousands of fighters: no statistics are available. There would be hundreds with severe wounds and injuries. In fact, some of the Taliban leaders during the time I was there had serious war injuries and suffered from the resulting disabilities. On the side of the Western Alliance, large numbers of soldiers have died and some are left with lifelong injuries and disabilities and are suffering every day.

Many American and British soldiers who served in Afghanistan experienced severe forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders [PTSD], that led to a number of suicides, after their return home. The BBC quoted in a Panorama programme that in 2012, more British soldiers took their own lives after their return from combat duty in Afghanistan, than the number killed on the battle field. These suicides were caused by PTSD and depression. Taliban soldiers who are the poorest of the poor, too have suffered enormously. What support is there for them? Do we even know how many of them were killed or injured?

It is up to the world to now help Afghanistan, and not turn its back on it. The Afghans need maximum help and support to recover from this unspeakable tragedy. The Islamic countries in particular, that helped the Taliban to wage war, now need to come to their aid, to build peace. ‘Islam’ in Arabic means peace. Therefore, the Islamic world needs to exert influence on the Taliban and support them to evolve from ruthless fighters into a group of leaders, who can govern with compassion and wisdom and bring about long-lasting peace and stability to that beautiful country – Afghanistan.

Anoja Wijeyesekera

[former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Kabul from 1999 – 2001

and former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Jalalabad from 1997 – 1999]

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75th Independence Day of Pakistan celebrated in Sri Lanka

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The High Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistani community in Sri Lanka celebrated 75th Independence Day “The Diamond Jubilee” with traditional fervor and resolve to make Pakistan a strong, dynamic, progressive, tolerant and democratic Islamic welfare state.

The women were in all their splendour in mostly green to represent Pakistan flag colour.

The High Commissoner in the opening remarks, highlighted the achievement of the government in the spheres of security, economy and culture.

The High Commissioner Maj. Gen (Retd) Muhammad Saad Khattak hoisted the national flag of Pakistan in vibrant and colorful ceremony at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo.

Ms. Ayesha Abu Bakr Fahad, Second Secretary (Political) read out the message of the President of Pakistan, H. E. Dr Arif Alvi, quoting, “Pakistanis are a brilliant and brave nation, that has made tremendous successes in various fields making the country distinguished from other nations.

The message of the Prime Minister of Pakistan was read out for the audience by Ms. Asmma Kamal, Commercial Secretary. The message included: “As we hoist our national flag to mark Independence Day, we must reiterate the firm resolve to uphold our national values of unity, faith and discipline as envisioned by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We have surmounted monumental challenges during the course of our history to emerge as a united, peaceful and resilient nation. Even today, the changing regional dynamics along with some domestic issues continue to test our resolve. Like each time, we will also overcome these obstacles with our characteristic determination and come out stronger as a nation”.

In his remarks, the High Commissioner of Pakistan, paid tribute to the forefathers of the nation who faced insurmountable challenges and gave unparalleled sacrifices for achieving the dream of Pakistan.

On Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations, the High Commissioner said that Pakistan attaches great importance to its relations with Sri Lanka, based on mutual respect, understanding and close cooperation. He further said that Pakistan has always extended unconditional support to Sri Lanka at all fora and will always continue to do so.

The event was well-attended by a good number of participants including members of the Pakistani community, officials and families of the High Commission, local dignitaries, journalists and friends of Pakistan.

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Every style in every size

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Shyamalie Wijegunawardena of Spring and Summer, co-founder of this brand was recognised as number female entrepreneur in the large business category at the International Conference of Women’s Entrepreneurship (ICSE). The fashion industry be it in Sri Lanka or globally, presents exotic, melodramatic or glamorous silhouettes, cuts, patterns and diverse designs majorly curetted to quench the fashion hungry population apparently being women. However, today, the fashion world is witnessing a reformation not merely in the kind of fashion, seeping in but with women designers stealing the ramp with their unique silhouettes that are creating a magnitude of ripples in the fashion world. Shyamalee Wijeyagunawardena with her creative instincts have made a benchmark in this competitive business

by Zanita Careem

How you started your journey?

I always had a liking for fashion, beauty and cosmetics. The desire to make a career out of these elements was something that was certainly in my heart for a long time. While I was a student in university, I remember taking many minor courses in such disciplines. However, my light bulb moment happened after the birth of my second son. I wanted to get engaged with something that would financially contribute to the household. Following my sister’s guidance, I decided to supply to Salu Sala – Sri Lanka’s state-owned fashion retail enterprise at the time. This decision changed my life completely. I was lucky to get a shop in Borella in 1995 even though it was just 300sq ft. I was content. I had a good customer base that kept coming to my store.

Lessons along the way?

a. Family first

b. Always treat your employees like your own family and most of all be a mother to them with all your heart

c. Build a good team that is loyal and they will give their blood and sweat to the company

d. Build a capital by saving. Always spend money wisely by knowing what you can actually spend

Was it different to be a female entrepreneur?

My main challenge is the same as all women face in Sri Lanka, be it at the grassroots or at the top echelons – balancing family and work. In my case because of the supportive network we had built with our employees, I was able to fulfill both my responsibilities and that is how we empower our female staff too to enjoy a stable work-life balance.

How did you manage as a mother?

As a women entrepreneur, we must be willing to break any barriers, which confines us to limit ourselves. For me, my priorities were a wife and mother and looking after the wellbeing of my family. I firmly believe that without my husbands and family’s support and love, I would not have been successful. Fundamentally, entrepreneurs should never forget that the wellbeing of their families should be their first and foremost priority.

How involved is your family now?

Spring & Summer is a business where the warmth and support of the family has led to success. I have the support of not just my sons, who have pursued their higher education, but also the support of their spouses.

Can you tell us a little about your company?

Spring & Summer commenced operations in 1995 with the opening of their first outlet in Borella. Now almost 25 years later, Spring & Summer has grown to become a leading retailer in Sri Lanka with six major outlets in Nugegoda, Maharagama, Wattala, Panadura, Bambalapitiya and Colpetty. As well as these locations, Spring & Summer’s online store caters to customers in every corner of the island. I am the entrepreneur and brainchild behind the brand, building the business from my operations.

We have expanded to employ over 400 staff members. We see the business as a family and aim to care for all our employees like family members. This level of care is passed on to customers, which contributes to a great shopping experience.

Our constant improvements, research and keeping up to date with latest fashion trends have always kept us one step ahead than most of the other local clothing stores. Unlike most of these stores, we do not give priority to imported garments. I can say 85 percent of the clothes we sell at our stores has been designed and stitched locally. It is important to keep up to date with international trends and modern manufacturing practices. It is a must to be creative and innovative to be a success in this industry.

Also, we always look at the contemporary fashion and latest trends in the country and provide the most desired designs with the highest quality. We take care of each other and we take care of our clients. This is the way we will continue to succeed.

What do you consider as your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was developing a business without a capital. So we had to rely on our friends and family who were very helpful. Also we had to save every penny that we earned from our business to reinvest and expand it.

What leadership characteristics are your strengths and weakness?

Empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Courage – Doing the right thing

Some times empathy can be taken advantage of hence it would become a weakness but in the overall scheme of things it’s not because things done with good intensions are always rewarded.

Memorable experience? Make or break moment in your career?

I am proud to say Spring & Summer was the first to introduce a dedicated White Section on the shop floor. This is one of the turning points in our business because If anyone wants something in white, we were known as the place to offer that. Our popularity started to grow exponentially in the market due to this.

Your favourite thing to do in your free time?

Spending time with my five grandkids. I also like to read books and watch movies.

Your inspiration?

For me, my family is my greatest inspiration. Entrepreneurs should never forget that the wellbeing of their families should be their first and foremost priority.

It is important to know what your passion is and also what drives you to better yourself. This passion within the entrepreneur is what gives strength to the business which then translates to customer attraction. Personally, my family is my first priority and as a result of that, massive financial gain has never been a driving force for me.

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