Alex Sungubi is one of the founding members of the Blue Sweater Book Club in Nairobi. Pictured here, he's walking through Kibera with a donated copy of Seth Godin's book Tribes.
I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya as we work to build what will be the first in a series of leadership development initiatives around the world. In the next ten years, we plan to invest in thousands of leaders who are building and driving groundbreaking social change initiatives as entrepreneurs and also as intra-preneurs within businesses, public sector organizations, and leading NGOs. We believe that by connecting and investing in these individuals, we will create an interconnected web of global leaders who share values, are driving change, and have a deep commitment to building a more inclusive economy and social system. My current trip to Nairobi has been one of listening and learning from Kenyan perspectives on leadership and development so that we build a program that will have real and lasting impact. The journey has been rich with stories, but I wanted to share one.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet two fantastic individuals who reminded me of the power of the human spirit at work. The first is Jessica – young, fearless, resourceful, and completely and utterly resilient (my favorite qualities in a social sector leader). This young woman is a recent graduate of Wesleyan College and is doing some incredible work in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, with her partner Kennedy (both Echoing Green Fellows). They have built an all-girls school in the heart of Kibera and while the school is free, they’ve developed a model that ensures repayment in other ways. The parents must commit 5 weeks of work to the school each year and run services around the school they charge for like: pay per use toilets, a community center, and a health center.
I met Jessica at a fancy shopping mall, which is where I thought we would hold our meeting. So of course I showed up in white pants, a nice silk shirt, long flowing scarf, gold bangles, and before I know it she whisks me away from the comfort of the mega mall to a nearby mutatu (small local bus transport) which we crammed into for the ride to the slums. As I sat there smushed between two people – body odor filling the bus, only to be over powered by the smell of burning garbage – in an instant I was back in Senegal (where I lived at 20-years-old) taking the local road, the hard road everywhere, at any cost. We exited the mutatu, I looked down at my already dirt and grease stained white pants, and jumped onto the red dusty road that leads into Kibera. We walked together, followed by groups of shouting kids who were dying to hold my hand, touch my leg, and just be noticed. Honestly, I had almost forgotten what that was like since my last few trips have been focused on meetings with business executives and government leaders.
As we walked down the road, Jessica buzzed with energy to tell me what she was doing, so inspired, proud and accomplished for a young woman. When we finally arrived at the school, I met Kennedy, one of those people who just radiates energy and wisdom beyond his years. He stood in front of their community site in a rainbow-colored tiedye shirt and jeans, with a huge Kenyan smile. They told their story, and I shared mine, and as Kennedy told me he admired me because I was “way up there” but also “way down here” I sat there thinking, “How can this young man admire me?”
After our conversation, Kennedy walked me down the long winding road out of Kibera. We passed many men yelling in Swahili, ”Who is the white woman with you?” (Kennedy translated). He stopped to chat with a man who was making wooden bed frames. They exchanged greetings and we were off. Kennedy told me how about 4 years ago he had raised 2000 Shillings ($25) and invested it in 20 businesses in Kibera. For his small investment he asked that the borrowers not pay him back, but instead pay it forward. The man selling the bed frames was doing quite well and now had the ability to pay it forward and also pay Kennedy back. I felt a tinge of guilt flow through my body as I thought about the last thing I did with $25.
Kennedy was born in Kibera to a girl of 15; he never knew his father. At the age of 9 he was living on the streets and was angry at the world, but then at 12 he met a priest who helped to educate him. Kennedy told me he was determined to learn English so he could speak to the “white people.” He’s currently in his second year at Wesleyan in Connecticut.
As he shared with me his story, I looked around and was so intensely reminded of the pain and sadness that exists and has existed in the world. In a world with such injustice, such poverty, how do people not live with constant anger, frustration and sadness? How can those of us who have been given so much live right next to it and allow it to exist? I wonder if there ever will be a point when we can find a place where we are all truly given the opportunity to realize our potential as individuals and as a world. Acknowledgment and forgiveness are such hard things to achieve.
And then there are people like Kennedy and Jessica, who remind us that there is hope and that things can change. As we work to build this new initiative for Acumen and develop the next generation of leaders around the world, we plan to invest in more individuals that can show the world positive change is not only possible, but it is already happening.
Blair Miller is Talent Manager for Acumen Fund and runs the Acumen Fellows Program. She just returned to New York from three weeks in East Africa where she was working to develop Acumen’s Fellows Program globally.