Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow.

Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis. I’m my own worse critic, always challenging and never allowing myself the opportunity to feel comfortable, or develop any sense of achievement in what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously driven and, because of that, tend to see the glass half empty most of the time, reflecting on things I’m yet to do rather than the things I’ve done. There’s never been room for complacency in my life. There’s always more to be done.

In the twenty-three years I feel I’ve actually ‘lived’ a life I’ve certainly crammed a lot in, even if it doesn’t always feel like enough. Living and working across eight African countries, getting a degree, building out one of the more successful mobile messaging platforms, speaking all over the world, winning numerous prizes and awards, publishing two books and building out my spiritual home on the web — kiwanja.net — into a well established social innovation/development site. And none of that includes the more recent addition of a young family — something I thought I’d never have given all the time that had passed me by.

If anything, having children has had the effect of driving me even harder, if that were at all possible. What I see happening to other families around the world compared to the peace and stability of life at home tears me up in ways I struggle to describe. Life is cruel. The refugee crisis is a bigger reason as any to not become complacent. There is plenty more to be done.

Uganda 1995: A photo which would face much derision today given the growing ‘white savior complex’ debate. Yes, I have made some mistakes along the way.

Birthdays with significant numbers also put more of a spotlight on legacy, but in this case not mine — more the people who have been instrumental in shaping the last twenty-three years of my own life. People like Freddie Cooper, who let me tear into his Commodore PET computers in the early 1980s, an act not as destructive as it sounds but one that built the foundations of all my later technology-based work. Or Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks, who called me up from my sick bed in the autumn of 2002 offering me the chance to explore an emerging technology — mobile phones — and their potential for development.

And, of course, there was my mother, who encouraged and supported me the whole way, and who thankfully lived long enough to realize, as my work took off, that all her efforts and sacrifice were worth it. Sadly she never got to meet Henry, our first child, who was born four months after she died. She would have made a brilliant grandmother.

In an early school report I was described as ‘too sensitive’ and, if I’m honest, a vast majority of the things I choose to do are a reaction to that oversensitivity. Empathy, something that seems to be lacking in many, exists in abundance and I have no problem identifying with the suffering of others, whatever and wherever it may be. One of my favourite films of all time is The Green Mile, and one of the stand-out quotes from John Coffey, the central character, resonates for that very reason:

I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

Figuring out how we might use technology to raise levels of empathy, compassion and understanding is close to the top of the list of things I’m yet to do. It’s one of those ideas that’s been gently burning away in the background for years, but now feels like a good time to focus on it a little more. This weekend I started reading a new book.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a way of working which allows me to write, speak, consult and earn money and then use excess funds to subsidise many of my own personal projects. In each case I’ve done most of the work myself to keep costs down, and used WordPress to develop the websites. Ideas I’ve managed to work on the past couple of years or so include two books, Donors Charter and Everyday Problems. Right now I’m working on a new mobile giving app called altruly, another app with a working title of For My Children, and a wider thought-leadership piece going by the name of Hacking Development.

It’s for others to judge how significant, meaningful or impactful my work has been but, whatever the outcome, I’ll continue on as I have for the past twenty-three years. I still have a distant dream of opening a community cafe, but am saving that for the end.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be knowing when that is.

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