In life there are those who view things at face value, those who conform, those who settle for whatever is on the table, those whose aims and aspirations are limited to the societal expectations of what they should be or do. Then there are the visionaries, those who dare to not only dream but to also see their dreams through to their accomplishment, no matter how grand or unconventional. These are the people who peer far much beyond the horizon, and eventually trigger a badly needed change in the society.
Do you recall for instance what you did after your KCSE examinations? Sped off to look for a casual job perhaps? (like I did?) And don’t judge me, I was fleeing from the farm work, which was in an unusual abundance the moment I went back home. Or did you go off wallowing in your new-found ‘freedom’ and excitement about finally ‘finishing school’? Well, whereas the rest of us ordinary mortals were busy serving our short-lived self-interests, an extra-ordinary young lady back at a village in Kisumu was busy making a mark through her humanitarian efforts geared at helping unfortunate children acquire basic human decency and dignity.
Ms. Sheila Awuor together with her cousin founded the Jabulani Youths for Transformation in 2013 just after finishing her High School studies. Their mission was to gear efforts towards helping the less privileged children in their neighborhood. This was no ordinary endeavor. All they had was the will, the determination and their compassion. Zero resources. They embarked on mobilization of people to contribute towards their cause, and soon they were joined by like-minded youths who were ready to walk the journey. When I say ‘soon’, it might underscore the uphill task she and her cousin embarked on to get people to think their way; knocking on doors to get them to donate food stuffs, clothes, reading materials and dedicating their time to inspire and mentor children in orphanages, children’s homes and rescue centers. And this was just the beginning…
Fast forward to 2017. At the age of 22 years, Ms. Sheila is set to become arguably the youngest person to be admitted to the Mandela Washington Fellowship, thanks to her humanitarian efforts. Okay, let me inject a little perspective. The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders begun in 2014, a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. The initiative is a deliberate effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders, and was set in motion by America’s 44th President Barack Obama back in 2010.
The initiative embodies the hope of spurring growth and prosperity, strengthening democratic governance, and enhancing peace and security across Sub-Saharan Africa. The Mandela Washington Fellowship annually seeks out, through a rigorous selection process, young outstanding Africans between the age of 25-35 and provide them with an opportunity to hone their skills in their respective areas of interest at a United States University or College. The opportunity provides the Fellows with a chance to interact with other young people from across the continent, world leaders, entrepreneurs and an intensive training on three main platforms; Business and Entrepreneurship, Civic Leadership and Public Management.
At the time of her application for the fellowship, Sheila was just 21 years old. Matter of fact a friend, who knew her age would sieve her out told her of the opportunity, not for her to apply, but so she could pass it on to someone who would qualify. And pass it on she did, but she didn’t stop there. So how did she make it, and why did she apply nonetheless knowing the first age requirement would weed her out? ‘I saw the age gap and I knew I had no chance of qualifying, but I also decided I had nothing to lose from applying nonetheless,’ quips Sheila.
The more interesting bit is that she never expected to be picked. To her, this was just a practice, a test run for when she’d eventually meet the age requirement and make her ‘qualified’ application. ‘To me it was a learning experience, and I’m naturally curious, so I thought I’d lose nothing from exploring.’ And after several essays, a rigorous application process and intensive interview sessions later, she is set to join other selected young Africans in Washington D.C next month.
Sheila credits her unexpected twist of fortune to the selfless work she set out to do four years ago. At the epicenter of the Fellowship’s selection criteria is a search for an indication that an applicant has set out to do something to impact their communities, and Sheila did more than fit the bill, her age notwithstanding. Her take? Quite simple. Your age is not an excuse for not making an impact. “Young people can be change agents. They can do small things but that will impact our communities in a big way. You don’t have to hold a position or be of particular age to become a change agent…”
Currently in her final semester of Food Science and Technology, Sheila says that her drive in life stems from the desire to give her best to people, to serve humanity. Other than exploiting the Fellowship opportunity by extensive networking and benchmarking, she will be researching on ways to make the Jabulani Youths for Transformation initiative bigger and better. Her designation at the Fellowship will be on Public Management, which will kick start with an intensive 6-week training at Howard University.
If Sheila’s story doesn’t inspire you to do more, to become more, to aspire for more, then perhaps you need to read again. I can even throw a thousand quotes at you to steer your thinking. I could remind you that it is a denial of justice not to stretch out a helping hand to the fallen, that a man’s true wealth is the good he does in this world, or as the great Mandela opined, that poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.
Or better still, I could paste into you Sheila’s thinking and belief; that diversity is important, and that you can choose to be different and stand out in your way. One day it will have an impact on someone.