For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by stories. When I was a little girl, the highlight of every evening for my siblings and I was being bundled up in one bed and listening to my parents tell us bed-time stories in a highly animated and musical manner! Stories about the goat tricked by the hyena, the boy who always told a lie and was eventually eaten by a fox, the woman who turned into a tree. Every night there was a different story…and with each story there was a lesson to be learnt- respect your elders, tell the truth, don’t trust strangers, always help where you can, stand tall!
My quest for stories continued beyond my childhood as I discovered new ones! Great stories of men and women who changed the world. Stories of Mohatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Stories of Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere and Wangari Maathai. Stories of heroes, of legends, remarkable people whose lives stood out. With all of them, I found common descriptions. Persistent. Determined. A fighting spirit. Will of steel. Selfless. Courageous. Conviction in what they believed in. They may have been as simple as they come but when they discovered what they were born to do, they were like an unstoppable train. Charged on. Fought to the very end and driven by their passions!
For the longest time I didn’t think I had a story! Growing up in church there was always the “testimony” segment that always intrigued me- as these were people’s stories! The stories often had a before and after. Rags to Riches. Struggle to redemption. Freedom from past transgressions. A sinner to a saint narrative. None of which I felt I had! For the most part of my life I have had it pretty good. I grew up in a middle class family, my parents dotted over me, I went to the best of schools, had great friends and my mother was my Sunday school teacher! I was safe and cushioned all through!
However despite having “a lot” I always knew that because much was given to me, much was required of me.
My story began at an airport! I was 21, just graduated from university and moving back home not really sure what my next steps were. As I was waiting for my flight, there on the TV screen was a CNN documentary on the drought in Kenya and it being the worst the East African region had experienced. I was completely moved to tears- here I was armed with a degree and I had been asking God to give me a sense of direction and suddenly I strongly felt I wanted to help those people. My flight was delayed and I decided to go to the airport computers and google “drought in Kenya”. The first article that opened up was an article from UNICEF, a humanitarian organization, and at the bottom was a byline of the author. I emailed her and wrote, “I’ve just watched the documentary, I am on my way home, and I want to help in any way!” I got a response right away saying “ Please come see me as soon as you arrive”. Needless to say, that’s how I landed my first job. At the UN. With no experience and with no interview. I did hit the ground running – one week I would be at a refugee camp working with those highly affected by the drought and the next in a hospital watching children on the brink of death from starvation. During my time working there, I heard young girls narrate to me their experiences of rape; consoled with women who had lost their babies during child birth because they could not afford to go to hospital, spent time with children who had watched HIV and AIDS slowly and painfully take their parents away from them; saw men crawl towards the border of Kenya and Somalia having lost their families along the way and not having any more living strength left; and worked in the IDP camps where I listened to children barely 5 years old tell me how they watched their parents hacked to death during the election violence.
These were stories I had to tell to the rest of the world as part of my job. But it always went beyond just a job for me. I was genuinely interested and would go out of my way to find some solutions and suggest these to my colleagues and bosses who often (surprisingly) listened and followed through. With each story I heard, there was a silver lining, sometimes very distant but when I really looked for it, I would see it. Stories of men and women who took in 10 orphaned children at a time and took care of them as their very own. Stories of girls who had been kicked out of their communities for making a stand on their right to education and saying no to female genital mutilation; Stories of children who had taken responsibility of their siblings after being orphaned by HIV and AIDS. Stories of men who had managed to calm those in displacement camps and led them to forgiveness and reconciliation. To me these amazing and resilient people have become my heroes. People who are unheard of. No one will write a story on them or praise them for their efforts. They don’t even know they are heroes themselves or of the difference they have made.
So my love for stories continues…but what I am realizing as well is telling these stories is indeed part of my story. God has always led me to places that were beyond me- places I never felt qualified for- and truly wasn’t. I identify a lot with Moses in the bible who came up with excuses on why he didn’t think he was right for the job! But really, it has never been about me. My steps have been ordained all along- and when God leads you, he provides the grace to open the right doors for you and sustain you. My gift has put me before kings. I remember once been called upon to accompany Michelle Obama to meet children under a program she was interested in during her visit to Kenya and years later asked to support writing a speech for former President Obamas during the recent GES summit as part of my job (Real Kings I tell you). I desire to remain Gods hands and feet. I constantly ask God to allow me to see others as he does- to use me to give faith to humanity. To challenge those close to me not to roll up their windows when someone they consider ‘poor’ knocks on them. Because perhaps God has placed their resources in your hands. I pray I can encourage those close to me to see others as God sees them, to be interested in their stories and want to be part of them. I believe we can make a difference- and its closer than we think. It could be your househelp, your watchman, your driver…..stop and hear their story- their solution may just be in your hands.
Julie Mwabe-Balongo and this is My Story…