The Power of Voice: Dr Auma Obama

SLIDESHOW: “I believe all young people need support of some kind or other. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had not had support from people who believed in me” — Dr Auma Obama.

Dr Auma Obama is attempting to change the perception of aid in Africa.

As her younger brother Barack Obama’s childhood played out in Hawaii, Dr Auma Obama was growing up millions of miles away in Kenya, the birthplace of the father they shared.

As the only girl in a family of boys, Auma was struck by the unfairness of the restrictive female role in that most traditional of societies. She felt she did not have a voice. But hard work earned her a scholarship at a German University and she spent most of her adult life in Europe.

She was propelled into the spotlight when the former US president wrote about her in his best-selling memoirs, Dreams from My Father.

It was her experiences as a child combined with the sense of duty from a famous surname, that inspired her to create the Sauti Kuu foundation back in her homeland.

“I am aware as an Obama I now have a real chance to make a difference,” she says in her memoirs, And Then Life Happens. “For me, a door has been opened and I too want to open doors for others.”

The door she has opened, as she describes it at the UBS Philanthropy Forum in Hong Kong, is attempting to disrupt the way people — both donors and beneficiaries — think about aid in Africa.

“To take the old truism,” she says. “Don’t teach a man how to fish. Instead ask: Do you eat fish? That must be the foundation on which any intervention is based — a level playing field where all parties can contribute towards a solution.”

The problem, Obama continues, is that many Africans are handicapped by being stereotyped as poor and under-privileged. They internalise this perception and rather than lifting themselves out of their situation and improving their lives, they are passive and dependent on handouts.

“When I lived in Europe I was constantly having to justify why I spoke English so well, why I was so educated and so on. This is because the picture I painted was not reflected in the images of the continent and its people — a very different picture to the stereotype. Our work at my foundation, Sauti Kuu, is to ensure that our children and young people find their voice and their identity and do not define themselves through those negative images. We present them with a diverse picture of Africa and themselves, showing the wealth and cultural richness of the continent and its people.”

Seven years ago, she left her role at Care International, the US humanitarian organisation, to launch Sauti Kuu — Kiswahili for ‘Powerful Voices’. Based in Western Kenya, there are now 460 children and adolescents registered. The foundation works to empower its beneficiaries with the knowledge and skills to allow them to gain sustainable economic independence and stability.

“Sauti Kuu works to enable its beneficiaries to lead, initiate and become active participants in getting themselves out of poverty. We do not give handouts. We ensure that our beneficiaries, using locally available resources, create wealth for themselves,” says Obama.

Sauti Kuu is in the process of building a new sport, resource and vocational centre in Alego, Western Kenya, by Lake Victoria, to create a platform where children and young people from the age of four to 25 can use their potential, nurture their talent, get training and information that will help them improve their chances of future employment and a better life. We teach soft skills and life skills, technical skills masonry, tailoring, woodwork, construction, agriculture, and other vocational skills.

“Many young people get a great high-school education but then can’t get a job to put themselves through higher education. We’re teaching them that they can also work with their hands,” says Obama.

Despite being an NGO, membership to Sauti Kuu does not come for free. “A bit unusual is that we charge a registration fee of 50 shillings a year, which is approximately €0.50. It is literally peanuts, but it sends a message to the children that nothing is for free. They learn not to be dependent on handouts. It also shows commitment to participating in the Sauti Kuu programmes. That 50 shillings could buy the children a couple of sweets, some sugar cane or a mango. For them it is worth a lot,” she explains.

Obama recalls one street child from the slums that Sauti Kuu was putting through school. He dropped out at some point because he could not cope. He was asked: ‘What do you actually want to do?’ He said he enjoyed baking. He had set up a small pastry stall in the slums that was doing reasonably good business. His motivation led to Sauti Kuu finding him a sponsor who paid his fees at a culinary college in Kenya, and then took him on as an apprentice at his hotel in Austria. This young man now works as a pastry apprentice in the restaurant of a top hotel and golf club in Nairobi, says Obama.

“I believe all young people need support of some kind or other. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had not had support from people who believed in me and showed me that I could do whatever I wanted so long as I took responsibility for my life. That is why I teach children and youths that they must actively take responsibility for their lives and not just make it the responsibility of others,” she says.

In Kenya, where around half of the population is under the age of 35, the need to change the mentality of dependency is critical.

“These young people are our future leaders. They must have a future to look forward to, in particular financial stability, if they are to positively change our societies. We need to ensure that they don’t, for lack of alternative, turn to criminal and less desirable methods of earning a living and sustaining themselves. This we can stop by focusing more on our children and youth, and what needs to be done to secure their futures.”

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