You never anticipate hitting rock bottom. No one does. You also don’t expect to go into depression as a young person. Depression isn’t something anyone willfully invites into their life. But then life happens. We find ourselves at our lowest. Lost, mostly in our thoughts. We find ourselves seeking answers to endless questions that keep us awake at night. The question all the while being, ‘why some things had to happen.’
As you grow older, you wonder if this is the kind of life you had bargained for. At the very end of your line, you may even question your own existence. You know we often do that, question if life is worth living because we’ve been pushed to our very end, our rock bottom. Then you find yourself questioning God. But God in his infinite mercy somehow, let’s you see that it has all been part of a bigger plan.
So you make a pact with Him. “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things that I can”, this becomes your lifelong prayer. Then off you go to scaling new heights in life then cross your fingers, even bite your tongue and pray that things work out. Things have a way of working out, don’t they? So they do work out.
But our past trauma can occasionally rear its ugly head whenever we try to move on to our newfound path or our new beginning. Meshack Otieno knows all too well what it means to go through the motions; trauma and depression. In seventh grade, he witnessed the traumatic post-election violence. A nation at war.
For him, it was his community at war; neighbours who had lived together as brothers, brutally killing each other. Chickens, goats and dogs had to run for cover to avoid standing in the way of humans who were at war. If he could erase this part of his life, he would. As if that trauma was not enough, he also had to endure the pain of his parent’s separation.
Mathare is and will always be home for Meshack. He says it is where he has had to face the most demons. But also, the same place that birthed his newfound love- leadership and mentorship. After his father left him, his six sisters and his mother, his ultimate goal was to become a changemaker. A change for himself and his community. But most importantly, become a better man and someday, a better father.
The first time I met Meshack, I had visited a friend at her office. He was standing outside chatting with some of her colleagues waiting to go meet my friend’s boss. As she walked me out, she asked him to say hello. Suddenly, my friend was called in by her boss. She promised to be back in a few minutes. As we stood there, Meshack started with the usual what do you do kind of questions. I shared my blog site with him and hoped he would check out some of the articles I had done. He did and it is why you are reading his story today.
I didn’t know though that he is the CEO of a very promising community organization- Awake Youth Initiative (AYI). “So you are the guy awaking the youth eeh?” I joke and we both laugh at my attempted wit. He briefly tells me what he does but is not outspoken about being the CEO. I quickly check their Facebook page and that’s when I realize he is the CEO. I request him to let me bring his story to life. He agrees and here we are.
We all know that CEO’s are very busy people and so making the most of the time we find with them, is paramount. The morning of our meeting, I walk into the office and I am ushered to the boardroom. I sit next to the window and start stealing glances at people as they walk in and out of offices. I suddenly feel thirsty but decide to push the urge of drinking water away. I don’t want to keep excusing myself just so I visit the lavatory.
After a few minutes of waiting, the man of the hour walks in. “Hello Mercy, thanks for coming. Karibu sana. My name is Meshack Otieno (he must have felt the need to re-introduce himself I guess) not the Hebrew that was cast into the fiery furnace alongside his buddies”, we both laugh at his wit. “But there are those who prefer calling me Shaddy after the other Hebrew boy. I however have refused to take up Abednego. Shaddy is fine”, we both chuckle. “I am the Founder and CEO of AYI.”
Meeting this young CEO and a youth enthusiast got me thinking a lot about leadership. If you expect to see a man dressed in a suit for them to qualify as CEO, am afraid you might be wrong. Meshack is donning a pair of black jeans with sneakers and a green jacket with Ankara prints. I need to also tell you that he is a guy who obliviously uses a lot of hand gestures while talking. Maybe this is his way of emphasizing his words.
Growing up in Mathare, Meshack says it wasn’t a walk in the path. He would come home from school and find the landlord harassing his mother because she couldn’t afford to pay the house rent which was Kes. 300/. I can imagine the little chap cursing the landlord and yelling at him to leave his mother alone! It must have been difficult for him and his siblings to adjust to the life of being raised by a single mother who did casual jobs, mostly cleaning, to provide for them. Meshack says his father leaving changed many things, including not having regular meals that they had been accustomed to.
“How do you think your upbringing shaped the man you are today?” I prod.
“When our father left us, life became tough for mum. She did the best she could to raise us. But our neighbourhood was a tough one too. I wanted to be better. Do something for our community. I didn’t wait till I was done with school for me to do that. I became a changemaker right from school.”
“So at what point did the tides change for you?”
“Well, during the post-election violence in 2007, I witnessed a lot of violence in our neighbourhood. This affected a lot of children in our community. No child should ever have to go through such trauma. It was a tough period for Kenya and especially those who lived in informal settlements. I was in grade seven by then. I was actively involved in our school’s kids club”, a phone call interrupts and Meshack reaches for his phone to check who is calling. He ignores the call then continues, “we started a peace initiative campaign as the kids club. We would go door to door raising awareness on the importance of peace and asked community members to join hands to build a peaceful community.”
“Wasn’t grade seven too young for such a responsibility?”
“It was. But I felt I needed to step up. Be the change. Little did I know that the initiative I embarked on back in primary school, would later in 2015 see the birth of what I do now, building changemakers in our community.”
Meshack was adopted by a children’s home that helped him through his studies. His peace initiative campaign unbeknownst to him opened doors to speak in conferences. Later after high school, he did leadership training at the African Leadership Institute that further connected him to Ashoka East Africa, an institution that is building changemakers across East Africa and beyond.
At Ashoka, he was trained and mentored. It was through this mentorship that saw Meshack start his own project as part of the requirement from Ashoka. This year marks six years since he started AYI. He has since been identifying, mentoring and building the next generation of changemakers. These changemakers are also mentoring others as they go along and thus creating a community of changemakers.
Meshack says that the social-innovation is a space that awaits young people to tap into. “A young person only needs to identify their space and grow in it.”
“As a young CEO, what other interests do you have?”
“Hahaha… To be honest, I am trying to build a social life. I find myself caught up with work and school. I am currently studying at USIU and juggling the two has not been easy. I used to have many friends. But as I kept growing my vision, some just disappeared. I guess those who are meant to be in your life will always stay. But I am trying to make time for swimming.”
“Your mama must be very proud.”
“She is. She has always been my source of encouragement. God bless her.”
“What you are doing for the community is amazing. You clearly changed to become the change and leader that you are. Keep building more changemakers Shaddy”, I tell Meshack.
“Hahaha. You remember that one. So long as you don’t call me Abednego”, we both chuckle.
Now I can comfortably have that glass of water now that this is done.