From Spreadsheets to Blogging

I believe everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of the circumstances they were born into. I believe all people have the right to access the basic resources needed to get there.

Oh boy ... the nerves were picking up. I had just hit print on a word document detailing my resignation and indicating after nearly 10 years working as an accountant at a hedge fund, my last day on the job would be April 28. My hand shook as I signed my name. Is this real? Am I really leaving my job to become a Global Advocate and move to East Africa for 3 months? How did I end up blogging on a Tuesday morning instead of calculating monthly net returns in an excel spreadsheet?

I have fond memories of growing up. My friends and I ruled the streets on our bikes, built tree forts in the backyard, and terrorized the mailman by putting empty popsicle wrappers in the mail box (we thought it was really funny, but now realize it was probably a federal crime…). There wasn’t much to worry about. I spent many summer days with my grandma making muffins and working in the garden, or with my grandpa sneaking in an ice cream cone before dinner. I was a weird kid, but a happy kid. I didn’t know there were childhoods that weren’t like this. Like any child, I was stuck in my own little world, and took my comfortable stability and availability of basic resources for granted.

A young and weird me in my favorite leotard

I was fortunate enough to attend a reputable private school in St. Paul, Minnesota and was working towards a degree in Business Economics with a minor in Photography. On paper, everything was great. But, I was extremely shy and falling into a person that I knew I wasn’t intended to be. Feelings of discontent and the need to wander lingered. So, I decided to force myself well outside of my comfort zone, and study abroad in Florence, Italy intending to conquer this crippling shyness and get back on track. For someone who was at times uneasy ordering a cup of coffee, moving across the world to a continent where I didn’t know a soul was terrifying. But I knew I had to do it. I had the choice to do it. Soon after, I found myself striking up conversations in Italian with fellow passengers on trains returning from adventures around the country.

My world was opening up. I became immersed in international human rights issues, continuously feeling enraged and surprised at what was happening in the world. Different cultures intrigued me to no end and the pull to experience them first-hand was strong. I eagerly invested time learning about Africa, diving into documentaries, movies, books and soaking up every story I could about the diverse cultures inhabiting the continent. There was something pulling me to Africa. Soon enough, simply reading about it didn’t suffice.

So, one snowy January night, I purchased a ticket to Nairobi to spend 3 weeks living and learning from the Kenyan people. Through mutual connections, I was embarking on a journey off the beaten path, spending the first half in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and the latter half in rural Awasi. I didn’t want to ride a tour bus past the culture, I wanted to live within it and see the real Kenya.

Kibera is one of the largest slums in Africa, home to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million people, according to locals. As most Westerners, I went to Kibera expecting utter devastation and sadness. What I found was a tight-knit community bursting with life and laughter.

I had the pleasure of partnering with Monica Akinyi during my time in Kenya. Monica is one of those people that leaves a lasting impression. The type whose laugh you can’t forget. Known as “Mama” to hundreds in Kibera, Monica founded Miracle and Victory Children’s Center (MVCC) in the heart of the slum, offering education and a meal to children who would otherwise go without. MVCC started as a feeding program in Monica’s home in Kibera, quite similar to the grass-roots beginnings of Queen Elizabeth Academy, and grew into a school offering education to over 250 children.

As I approached the school for the first time, 10 or so excited kids ran to greet us, taking our hands and pulling us towards the singing and dancing to the beating drum. That tin shack next to the railroad tracks, a classroom for eager minds, was shaking with energy and will forever be the place that changed my world forever. They had prepared songs and dance for us, and had practiced for days. Their joy was infectious, I could have listened to their singing and danced with them forever.

Dancing with the students of Miracle and Victory Children’s Center in Kibera

My days were spent walking the streets , dancing with the kids at MVCC, eating with locals proud to serve us lunch in their homes in the depths of the slum, and exploring hidden alleyways dodging chickens and clothes lines. I had read articles and blogs about Kibera in preparation for my trip and found their experiences focused on the trash and poverty. I saw a different side of Kibera. The streets smelled of delicious street food, not trash. The air was filled with lively music, not cries. The people were bursting with potential, but lacked access to basic resources that we take for granted, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Stereotypes were destroyed. I began to see the similarities in our beautifully different cultures and realized we are all citizens of the same home.

The Kenyan people taught me a lot about life’s struggles and joys. I met women like Janet Awino who taught me what it means to be courageous, resilient, innovative, gracious and kind. Janet was Monica’s best friend and the respected teacher of baby class at MVCC. She was a widowed mother of four, and placed a high value on education, working hard to provide for her children. One afternoon, Janet invited us to her home in Kibera for lunch. I’ll never forget how she worked quietly and patiently behind a curtain in the room that doubled as both her bedroom and kitchen to cook ugali; stirring for what seemed like an eternity.

The beautiful and incredible Janet Awino cooking us a delicious meal of ugali and sukuma wiki in her home in Kibera.

During my short stay, I learned of her hopes and dreams and that her days began before sunrise and ended well after sunset. None of it was for her own gain, the only thing she ever expressed wanting was a bright future for her children. Unfortunately, Janet passed away almost exactly one year after I said goodbye to her on the dusty streets of Kibera. She died from malaria and typhoid, both treatable and preventable diseases. When I heard the news, I was devastated. I felt helpless, hopeless and voiceless. It crushed me knowing I couldn’t do anything that could help her children in a sustainable way and that this tragedy was even a reality in our world.

Janet’s son Dixon entertaining us before lunch (left) / Monica and Janet on a Sunday morning in Kibera (right)

I returned home from Kenya and went back to work. Reverse culture shock is a funny thing, but eventually things go back to normal… for the most part. The people I met were constantly in the back of my mind. My cube walls were covered in pictures of the kids, like the one below. When things got tough, I would look to those smiling little faces for courage. The 5 year olds I met were light years braver than I was and they gave me strength.

Kids of Miracle and Victory Children’s Center blowing kisses outside of the school.

I tried to go back to being an Accountant. Tried to fill the uneasy gap left behind with child sponsorships. But I wanted to be a part of something more, something that would impact communities such as Kibera in a sustainable way. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to help one another as global citizens, as brothers and sisters living across oceans. I could no longer fight the silent conflict of living in such abundance knowing how easily accessed resources for us means tragedy and heartache for others. The fear of not doing anything was far greater than the fear of the life-changing decision that lingered. So, after 10 years working at a hedge fund, I decided to leave my job to become a Global Advocate with Mama Hope, whose manifesto begins by stating “we believe in creating a world where each individual has access to the resources they need to live happy & healthy lives.”

My intention is to continue learning from the inspiring, resilient and innovative international community. I hope the skills and knowledge developed through my experience as a Global Advocate will provide me with the tools needed to give back to communities such as Kibera in the future. Contrary to our initial presumptions, people living in urban Kenya or rural Tanzania are quite similar to us, while beautifully different at the same time. Cultural differences should be celebrated, and seen as an invitation to collaborate and partner with the global community, working together towards building the world we all want to live in through a mutual exchange.

On one of my last days in Kenya, a little boy touched my face and looked into my eyes saying, “You can’t leave, you are happy here.” I had found a new level of happiness and joy in a place news stories and stereotypes often associate with sadness. The people I met in Kenya were culturally rich, and introduced me to a generous, joyful and relational way of life that left me feeling full. They have much to teach us.

It makes my soul smile knowing I have the opportunity to partner with an incredible school like Queen Elizabeth Academy working towards providing quality education for all children in the community including those that would otherwise be unable to attend school. These kids have big dreams, just like you and me, and reaching these dreams begins with an education. I have never felt more confident and content in my journey and know this is what I was intended to do. Let’s work together towards a world where everyone has the choice and opportunity to do what they are intended to do. Join me, and be a part of the story.

If you would like to contribute towards the expansion of Queen Elizabeth Academy aiming to provide quality education for all, please click the donate button below!

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