Sometime last year, a friend invited me to one of Jacqueline Novogratz’s talks in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums. He described her as a cool woman who had written a book on poverty. I declined the invite.
I was so broke, and feeling so poor that I was not ready to have yet another author come tell me what poverty is like. He later offered me a copy of The Blue Sweater, which despite my love for books, I refused to read. I was in a place where just any book on poverty wouldn’t do, unless it was a certified manual on how to get out of it.
Weeks later, I was sitting in a friend’s office and there on the table I saw The Blue Sweater. I picked it up to pass the time, but it took only a few minutes to realize I was wrong about the book and the author. I read it earnestly, and reflected on its wisdom. One quote in particular stuck out to me: “Poverty won’t let you to raise your head, but dignity won’t let you bow it either.”
This was the second time I had an “Aha moment” due to the word dignity. This time around it was much deeper; it was dignity in relation to poverty, something I could relate to just too well. I noted the quote in my journal, appended it to my email signature and promised myself two things: first, that I would live by this mantra, and second, that I would one day meet this woman, give her a hug, and apologize for blowing off a chance to meet her in Kibera.
Later I learned about the Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program. The Program is a platform to actualize dreams of building a better East Africa through investing in a new type of leader. While I am usually reserved and shy, I thought that if I linked myself with people doing remarkable things, like the Acumen Fund Global Fellows featured on their website and the characters I read about in The Blue Sweater, then I would have the guts to do something amazing too. And of course it did present a chance to meet Jacqueline. I did not dare mention this second reason in my application as I couldn’t take the risk of having the application marked as fan mail.
Fast forward to today – I was selected as an Acumen Fund East Africa Fellow for my work with the Living in Shanty Towns (LIST) Initiative, and I got my chance to meet Jacqueline, give her a hug, and apologize for blowing her off. The past couple of months of the Fellowship have been incredible. There have been moments of learning, courageous conversations, and reflections with self, with each other, and with the great, historical writers and thinkers that we read and discussed during the “Good Society” seminar. There have been moments getting off the dance floor and into the balcony for a critical look at ourselves and our projects.
It is truly an amazing cohort with an extraordinary diversity of experiences. As one of the other East Africa Fellows, Johnson Kithendu, said: “Some of us have hands that haven’t touched poverty – went to some of the best schools in the World and had secure jobs, but quit to commit to social change – and some have touched and seen poverty and lived it first hand – yet all have the same urgency to lead a life of service and to create a better society.” We share a promise of upholding the dignity of the world’s poorest by providing clean energy to off-grid communities, asset finance to small holder farmers, affordable irrigation pumps, effective micro credit, and by helping farmers add value to their products and create a sustainable life based on farming. Here we have all dared to try to make a better East Africa – and while some may fail in the process, we hope we will have the courage to pick ourselves up and try again.
I was born and bred in Kibera, and like many other “slum dwellers” (I so hate this phrase), I have been a beneficiary of many youth empowerment and poverty alleviation programs. Sadly, most of them have not had a real impact on our lives – and at times – they have left us worse off. One such project remains ingrained in my mind. It was a youth empowerment project with enough resources, lots of good will, and a near-perfect design. The beauty of this particular effort was that unlike other aid projects, it was scalable and had the potential of impacting hundreds of slum dwellers by way of creating jobs and low cost housing.
Despite great promise, much of this didn’t happen. But, we did get chauffeured around, have good food, interact with different people, and dreamed a bit about an escape from the drudgery of slum life for a while. I am not saying this break was a wholly negative experience; it meant a lot to many of us. But from hundreds of such projects, all that the people in need seem to get is a time out from poverty, and not a real chance to break out of poverty. In most cases the time out lasts to the end of the project cycle.
Why didn’t this project work? I can’t really tell. To the outside world, the project has been featured as a successful one. I do know the 300 beneficiaries gave it their all too, but our lives haven’t changed much as a result.
I am now working in the aid industry, a matter of choice, implementing a Youth Empowerment Project targeting 1,200 youths. A third of these youth will be drawn from my home neighborhood. The organization funding it and employing me to implement it is credible, and has been working with poor communities for forty years and counting. Yet, deep down I fear this project, like so many others, may not have a real impact. This fear has motivated me to call for courageous conversations, to become accountable, and to look hard at the impact we can show for so many long hours of work.
Despite the many failed efforts by poverty alleviation projects, I earnestly believe there is another way in which we can create a world beyond poverty – a world in which every human being lives a dignified life. Poverty assaults that dignity, and it beckons the good will of others to help those in need to not bow their heads down. I will keep my head lifted, and though I may not yet be sure of how to break the cycle of poverty yet, I am sure that I can’t take any more time outs from it.
Pauline Wanja is an Acumen Fund East Africa Fellow in the Class of 2011-12. Pauline is the Co- Founder & Executive Director of the LIST (Living In Shanty Towns) Initiative, which aims to unify young people living in informal settlements and prepare them for a productive and dignified adulthood and together work toward personal, social, economic and political justice.
The Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program is made possible through the sponsorship of KCB Foundation and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations.