I became an orphan when I was eleven when my mom died of AIDS. My dad left years before that. Losing my mom was overwhelming. I had to take care of my younger brother. I felt completely alone and confused about where to turn.
We moved in with my grandparents in a small village called Nandi. I wanted an education and a career but I struggled to get any support. I’d often miss school because of my responsibilities at home.
Sometimes I wouldn’t even have time to eat it. I’d just cook it, put it on the table, and run to school.
My grandparents would tell me to stay home and do housework because I’m a girl and education doesn’t matter for me. Kenyan society doesn’t really value girls. So I’d wake up in the mornings, sweep the house, wash the dishes, and cook breakfast. Sometimes I wouldn’t even have time to eat it. I’d just cook it, put it on the table, and run to school.
Through all this I managed to pass my primary school national and was admitted to the Kenya High School, one of the best schools in Kenya. I was a smart student but poverty did not allow me to stay in school. I was constantly sent home for school fees. This had a great toll on performance and made me almost give up my education. It was at this point that I met Akili Dada, a nonprofit that supports girls’ education. They granted me a four-year scholarship. The scholarship changed my life and gave me a new focus in life. This organization not only focused on educating me, but also building me as a person. For the first time I felt empowered to focus on my schooling and appreciate the person I was. Akili Dada provided me with mentors and training in leadership. It taught me to believe in myself as a woman. I went from the bottom of the class to being a top student, and I finished high school with an A- average.
For the first time I felt empowered to focus on my schooling and appreciate the person I was.
I’m now headed toward the career of my dreams. In 2015, I got a MasterCard scholarship to study at Ashesi University in Ghana. Currently, I am a sophomore studying Management Information Systems, a course that combines business administration and computer science. I hope to work toward a PhD on an international course that will expose me to the global market. Ultimately I’d like to work for the United Nations.
Apart from being a student I am also a fellow for the Melton Foundation, a global organisation that brings together youth from different parts of the world to discuss issues such as equality, sustainability, and diversity. Through this organisation I have gotten a chance to travel to places like Germany and talk about issues that affect the entire world.
I believe that to succeed, we need powerful role models. I didn’t have any when I was growing up in Nandi. The village had no lawyers or doctors. To fill the gap, I created a youth empowerment program called Life Lifters, that hopes to empower the youth in my area to be innovative, create change, and see value in education. I bring inspiring and successful individuals from places like Nairobi and encourage them to share their stories with young minds in Nandi. I also tell my own story to inspire them.
I am the first generation in my village to study abroad and my hope is that my successes will inspire the youth in my area to focus on education and create wealth for themselves. I also plan to scale up Life Lifters to ensure that these young people have access to different resources such as computers, mentors, and entrepreneurship trainers, My hope is that this will help reduce youth poverty.
My volunteer experience at a local hospital in 2014 taught me a lot and even though I am far from home now the experience I had there is still with me. When I first went to the hospital I was dismayed to see so many teenage girls pregnant and this was and is still an inspiration behind my project Life Lifters. Through Life Lifters we mentor girls and educate them on the importance of staying in school. So far I have been able to reach to over two hundred females. We share stories and I use myself as an example to show them that anything is possible. The fact that I do not have a child at my age is an inspiration to them and even those who have a child, as we encourage them to be innovative and start small businesses.
My greatest joy is in talking to people and getting to know them. I feel empowered by hearing other people’s stories, and by sharing my own.
I fervently believe in the power of education for women and girls. If women understand their rights and work for them, then we can grow a society where the same value is placed on all genders. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl—you are a human being.
I love the fact that right now I know who I am and at least can help other people. I particularly pass my regards to Akili Dada for teaching me how to be a strong woman and most importantly to be an agent of change. The values they instilled in me have carried me to a global level and my hope is that in the end I will be a resource to women, and the world in general.
Born and raised in Kenya, Cynthia Muhonja became an advocate for women’s equality through Akili Dada’s scholarship and leadership program. Akili Dada is a leadership incubator cultivating transformative leadership among young African women, and is a grantee partner of Global Fund for Women. Today, Cynthia is a university student and hopes to one day work for the United Nations.