Never Lose Leadership Dreams to Unmarked Graves.

I have learnt to embrace rejection, that when I received an acceptance mail from Emerging Leaders Foundation, I decided to make the most of this fellowship.

An eighteen-year-old girl goes to the clinic, accompanied by her first boyfriend, to treat what seemed like an STI. Nothing could have prepared her from the revelation. I tested positive for pregnancy, had an STI and turned out to be HIV positive. My dreams of pursuing education went down the drain. I remember going to the University of Nairobi to apply for the joint admissions board, given that I had scored a B-; and stood a chance of getting into the system. I never followed it through. I had a lot going on.

Life in Nairobi’s City carton slum did not make things any easier. I decided to settle for hairdressing instead. I am someone who hides in work to forget the pain I might be going through. I was the best hairdresser, as I processed the fact that I would soon be a teenage mother. I delivered in the cold of the night, outside, because I didn’t have money to go to the hospital, despite saving every cent that I worked for so that I could go to the hospital. I didn’t know what I had was labour pains, so I never took the money I had worked for. (Story for another day). I lost my beautiful baby boy to pneumonia, at five months. We buried him in an unmarked grave in Langata cemetery.

By 19, I had opened a salon business. I was slowly picking myself up, despite keeping my HIV status a secret. After five months, I suffered a stroke that left me incapacitated. My right side became paralyzed, I closed my salon and stayed home for a year wallowing in a pity party. I tried selling second-hand clothes, charcoal, beans, even sweet potatoes, to get pocket money. Just like other dreams, I buried my entrepreneurship in an unmarked grave.

During this time, I came across the Kenya Network of Women with Aids (KENWA). This is how my volunteering started. I decided to volunteer my time as a community health worker, at a drop-in centre in Kiambiu slum. I saw people who had more tragic stories than myself. I used to share my story with the guests who visited the drop-in centre. This is how I met a US-based organization, Population Action International (PAI). They featured me in a documentary, Abstaining from Reality in 2006.

2007 started on a high note for me. I got my first job as a volunteer in Behaviour Change Communication Advocate with PSI- APHIA II. My job was using my story to educate the community on HIV prevention. On women ’s day, I spoke in London parliament, during the launch of the documentary. May, I spoke in Ottawa at the Canadian parliament building, during the American launch of the documentary. October, I went back to Canada to co-facilitate a workshop at the College of the Rockies, with a friend I met at KENWA.

Throughout these high-level meetings, I met networks which I wasted. I didn’t have a mentor to advise me on using my networks to my advantage. I was just a girl from the slum, with a tainted past. This is the problem with a victim mentality. You never see past your experiences. Without good mentors, you can be stuck in the same spot, despite carrying great potential.

I picked up my dream of going to university, and through fundraising initiated by a friend I met at PAI, I enrolled at Daystar University for a diploma in communication. I had to embrace rejections even when applying for internships, and jobs. After my graduation in 2011, I went back for my degree in 2012. A self-sponsored student, volunteering as a church administrator, with a loan of 30 thousand shillings from the church Sacco -talk of faith in action. God provided the scholarships to take me through and in 2015, I graduated. To top it up, I received the creativity award for Nairobi campus.

I got my first formal job at 31, proving that despite the many rejections, you will find someone who will believe in you. I built my parents a semi-permanent house in Kisumu and relocated them from the slum. I still knew I had leadership in me, and just wanted to get guidance on how to develop my leadership skills.

Still applying for several leadership programs, and receiving rejections from all of them, I did not give up. I knew I had leadership skills in me which needed to be nurtured. I kept on trying. My target was to get into a leadership program before hitting 35. Every application came back with the same regret mail. I even stopped trying. I remember last October, on my 35th birthday, just reflecting on how I have been trying for opportunities and facing rejection.

Then I saw the advert for ELF Cohort 6 in November last year. I applied for it on my phone. This was a paid mentorship program, but that did not stop me from trying it. I went for the interview and presented myself, my story. I remember encouraging my fellow interviewees to be themselves during the interview. I was accepted for cohort six when I had buried my dreams of being part of a leadership program in another unmarked grave.

The sessions at ELF just proved that my journey was preparing me for a higher purpose. The sessions were informative, like self-awareness, storytelling, life maps, letters to self, communication, transformational vs transactional leadership, and even good governance. We were given tools to assess our talents and leadership strengths and weaknesses. My convictions were proven by scientific talent assessment tools. I have been a leader all along. I honestly think ELF is the best investment I made in myself.

This was the first time I vied for an elective position. I have always been comfortable with working on the background, and not putting myself out there. I stood and campaigned with others. Although I lost the election, that bold step of allowing myself to try something new gave me such fulfillment.

All fellows were paired to mentors who would help us achieve our goals. My mentor is a lady who runs a social enterprise improving the lives of the community through health programs. I aspire to run a social enterprise educating young people on Teen sexuality and reproductive health. With the rising cases of teenage pregnancies and HIV infections among the youth, someone must educate our young people. I have a resolve to dig out my dream of leadership from the unmarked grave. I am the one I have been waiting for to make a difference.

Juliet Awuor writes at mwanadada.com
You can also connect with her on Twitter , LinkedIn and Facebook .

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