Heroes award: Before-After

It is exactly one month since I won the ‘Heroine of the Year award’ as a young achiever.

I decided to wait this long before I could recount the details so that I could give an honest description of the event sans being blurred by excitement. Additionally, I needed to ‘feel’ the difference it would come with so here goes.


Support; I had some members of my family and 40-40 in the audience. Even if I could not make eye contact, especially during the speech, knowing they were out there somewhere gave me great comfort.

Other nominees: Although my category was not ‘competitive,’ I was particularly humbled by other winners that night. The first one was Phiona Mutesi who is a chess champion from the slums of Katwe.

She has competed internationally and I was lucky to have watched her story on a documentary earlier in the year. I later did research. I was blown away the more I read about her beating the odds to play chess with a past that didn’t seem to hint she would have such amazing potential. She is the role model Ugandan children and teenagers need a true fighter.

Seeing her accept her award left me in awe. She was shy, clumsy but most of all, real.

Although Addmaya( Peter Mukiibi and Arthur Nakkaka) had been nominated for the Business Entrepreneurship award for their work in film and graphics, they did not win until the night was coming to an end. They were clearly excited by their ‘overall achiever’ award and it was evident on their cheerful faces.

Peter openly wept for a few minutes as his business partner; Arthur mustered the courage to speak for them both. Peter later picked himself up later and gave an emotional speech that warmed our hearts.

I didn’t trip! : So, all week I had been having dreams in which I tripped on stage and after picking myself up, I started to stammer before finally accepting defeat. None of this happened. It was one dream I was happy did not come true!

Spirit filled speech: I have a slight addiction to notebooks and writing anything and everything so it was difficult to pick which notebook would ‘attend’ the awards. Kidding!

I struggled to come up with a speech for D-day especially given the calibre of guests I would be addressing. It wasn’t so much the content as the pressure to rightly deliver and give them a reason to remember 40-40 long after that night. I did not feel prepared and the pressure was even more because as opposed to other winners, I wasn’t just there to ‘thank the world,’ I needed to also solicit support and make use of the platform like my life depended on it.

The MC kept telling winners to keep it to less than five minutes, some took even one minute.

I finally decided I would ignore the time factor and speak my heart out.

According to my plan, I was going to start with a brief history of where we have come from and then trying to ‘sell’ our future plans. I was caught off guard when Awel, team leader at YAA called me up and read a profile that left me shaking. The whole time I was torn between two trains of thought. “Is that really me he is talking about and what in the world am I going to say after that?”

Well, I somehow managed to speak. The spirit took over and left ‘Estar fierce’ to speak as the real me took a back seat.

I honestly did not think much of the speech at the moment. I just needed to get safely back to my seat. It was the other speakers’ remarks that followed  which left me speechless.

From glowing remarks about our organisation’s work to speaker’s observations on my oratory skills, I had to pinch myself to confirm it had really happened.

I got onto the social media and was humbled my friends and strangers alike. Phew! The hard part was over and I somehow overcame it. Winning!


Several speakers pledged to support our cause shortly after I spoke. One passed me a note as the function came to an end. It was all really exciting. Knowing a new year was fast approaching, these new partnerships would help build our networks and take us to the next level.


After the do, I simply stood close to the entrance. From familiar to new faces, I shook hands and hugged tonnes of people. Dignitaries, business men+ women, old school friends, everyone was there.

It was all new to me. I had grown accustomed to introducing myself, describing what 40-40 does and waiting for the positive or negative feedback. In this moment though, it wasn’t a struggle. They all knew who we were, sort of.

Oh the business cards I exchanged and received! The promises, compliments and ‘I will call you(s).’ Hehe, I did not care if they were lies. I did not know when this would next happen in my lifetime. I tried to relish it all.

Who stood out?

The little boy, 7-8 years old who walked over to me and handed me 5,000sh is small notes. His mum(I am assuming) brought him and said he had something to say. He told me it was his contribution and walked away. I followed him and gave him the tightest hug of the night.

The Makerere college head girl who had the widest smile ever. She was excited about having been present to listen to my speech and needed to know how to join us. It pleased me greatly since we aim to impact as many young people as possible.

Yes, I met politicians and other ‘important’ people but those were the two whose encounter still means something to me a month later.

What does it all mean?

People like successful people. Among the people who were excited to ‘meet’ me included individuals I had previously approached to support our cause and they could not care less. One of them, I even spoke to at the cocktail half an hour before the event, but I was ‘suddenly’ impressive at the end of the night. It is what it is.

Human beings like to be ‘seen’ and associated with good will whether or not they actually get involved. Several people were probably ‘pressured’ to offer contributions or show interest because it looked good. In reality though, they could not care less. How do I know? Let us just say one month is enough time for follow up and reflection.

Attention. I understand that the nature of my work requires me to get out of my comfort zone. With all the ‘begging’ ( read fundraising)  I do, it is difficult to hide even if I tried.  People want to put a face to this story and I am more than proud to be associated with the cause and my amazing team members. However, there are people who are using it to pounce and cloud what is meant to be a good thing. The attention is a necessary evil. Must find the lighter side to it though, working on it.

Same ol’ G (G for girl in this case)

Like everyone who has been in the limelight before, I know that it comes and goes. Lucky for me I am not in a ‘business’ that requires I keep up with trends and demands from the public- not directly anyway.  The team and I shall remain relevant by constantly doing what we do, only better.

Fortunately, I have embraced everything that came with this one night.  I know some relationships shall materialise months from now and others shall prove unfavourable. All the same, I am ready.

At the end of the day, you are who you are whether you have hundreds of medals or just one child who thinks you are his superhero.  Passion is meant to be seen so I will wear it with pride.

Perhaps the most outstanding memory of the Heroes Award was its timing. 2013 had been a year so trying I lost myself in many ways and had to find myself all over, sometimes daily. It was difficult for the organisation and for me as an individual too, yet work had to go on. In a period of one month and a half, we had three awards literally from ‘nowhere’ and it left me baffled by God’s ways.

As this year began, many people laced their new year messages with ‘2013 was your year,’ I laughed! It had been quite the opposite, most of it anyway. They had a point though, it was my year of learning and growth no doubt. This year though, lessons must be put into practice.

To infinity and beyond 🙂

“When we focus on leading a passionate, meaningful life, we are also inadvertently creating a spectacular ripple effect of inspiration in the lives around us.  When one person follows a dream, tries something new, or takes a daring leap, everyone nearby feels their passionate energy; and before too long, they are making their own daring leaps while simultaneously inspiring others.”

YAA pic


Charity; is it really worth it?

It is almost two years since the birth of 40 days over 40 smiles. Last night a few thoughts kept me awake and they shall consequently form the content of this blog post.

The journey we embarked on is designed in such a way that we meet people from diverse backgrounds; rich, poor, vulnerable, deliberately vulnerable, middle class etc.  Assorted characters; humble, conceited, selfish, hypocritical, selfless, devious, you name it.

I shall try to break this down using real life examples so that you understand what I mean.

What is your end game?

Many people have contemplated this, a few have articulated it. Even these ones are in different categories, the ones that want to tell you what to do because they have your ‘best’ interests at heart, and those who will make up a story for you simply because they have failed to comprehend what could drive you so much.

  • One of the beneficiaries from our programmes explained that I was providing assistance because I came from a wealthy family and this was some sort of relief so I wouldn’t feel guilty about all the wealth we had amassed. Funny, right? As if it wasn’t enough, another one mentioned that the car I sometimes drove had been purchased by the funds I raised for ‘her children.’ When they spoke to me though, they were so full of praises. Isn’t charity work just great?
  • A ‘concerned’ mature spectator also informed me that the more I looked after children that didn’t belong to me, the more impossible it would be to get my own. After all, I was only becoming pitiable myself. Her quick solution was for me to drop my work and find a husband. If I had any trouble, she would gladly help. How thoughtful :0

Do you know who I am?

Last year, at one of our fundraisers (Hoops4Grace) a popular basketball player turned up. He refused to pay the entrance fee of a measly 3,000UGX claiming he was there on invite. It was explained to him that everyone present had been invited and they still had to pay a small fee as it was a charity fundraiser.

He did not heed, said he would ‘help us’ and buy our alcohol as if he has ever gotten into a concert and said “Hey, your tickets are 20,000 but I shall drink whisky worth 100,000sh instead.”

We did not cause a scene but it sure said a lot about the ‘man’ that he is. (I shall not blame upbringing because at this age surely….*&^%”>#$*)

In semi related news another ‘celebrity’ agreed to perform at another of our events. He showed up two hours late. When he arrived, he saw the crowd of about 200 and said it was too small. He went on to explain to me that he had grown a brand for himself and could not be associated with ‘few’ people like the ones I presented. Before he drove off, he made it a point to remind me “FYI, it is not like I was being paid or anything.”  This particular one was so sad it became funny.

As if to tempt me, for the next few days I was bombarded by tweets and conversations in which he came up. I put on my best poker face and moved on.

Call me, let us work together

This one used to get me so excited. The likelihood of a new partner, hope for a beautiful fresh relationship.  One who has come to us and not the other way round- great prospects, right? Well, one in ten of these particular promises turn out into something else, i.e 10% chance of it materialising.

For the past two weeks, I have been trying to track down this particular C.E.O after he asked that I get in touch. From calls to texts and emails, most of them ignored, it has started to feel like I am trying to get a date with a guy who is just not that into me.

There are other situations where there is a middle man, this can get worse. You are not sure if he is acting on his own or it is with orders from the actual ‘boss.’

Also the stalking look isn’t quite fabulous, but I shall perfect it :D.

Hey, let me tell you about 40-40

Yesterday, two members of my team had a scheduled meeting with another corporate.

He asked them to get to the hotel and then call so he could let them know the meeting room.

A few ignored calls and an hour later, this meeting did not happen.

What is the protocol exactly after this incident?

He had an opportunity not to accept but he agreed and provided the time and venue.

You are doing it all wrong

One gentleman sat me down and told me all the ways in which our approach was wrong, how we were young people who could do better things with our lives. When he realised I was relentless, his ‘professional’ advice was on how to turn the charity into a business so that ‘everyone benefits.’ mmmhhh….

It was my idea

Someone I know, let’s call him James, came to a few of our events. Fun, energetic, your average guy really.

A few months later (because Kampala is so small) James was trying to get this girl. As he listed all the things he had done with his young life, he added that he started 40-40. Poor girl, this was the point she was meant to realise that he was compassionate and therefore  Mr.right?. Seriously though, in this age of social media and information sharing-really?

Recently, another lady twice my age or more wanted to know how I managed to ‘steal’ her idea and grow it this much. Hilarious! 😀

These are just a few examples that could be interchanged with any other profession.

A young musician whose parents wonder why he can’t continue pursuing medicine instead of such a poorly paying ‘hobby,’ a business man who follows all the rules when he could make so much more if he only used the ‘back door’ a little bit; It could be a creative rookie who shares his ideas with an ad agency only for them to ‘steal’ his concept, switch it up a bit and then make a fortune out of it.

Fundraising for a cause is no easy feat, especially when you believe in it and need to break all potential barriers to pursue it.

Lucky for us, we have managed to achieve a certain amount of success without necessarily relying on organisations or wealthy individuals.

Our friends and their networks have been incredibly supportive and this has helped grow both our confidence and organisation’s brand.

However, growth comes with responsibility and thus the need to spread our wings.

40-40 did try to work with corporate organisations for a while in the past. When we realised they weren’t keen on joining hands, my friends and I became creative and came up with a few exciting and involving fundraising events that worked out great.  (Every cloud has a silver lining)

A little push can definitely go a long way and we thought it timely to branch out again.

It hasn’t turned out to be an easy ride but I guess nothing worth having comes without a price as we have learnt over and over again.

One or two things still baffle me, especially when people feel they should remind you that they are helping you or better still imply it.

Corporate Social Responsibility ensures that whatever aid is provided is mutually beneficial. If a company has 10 media houses present as they open a classroom in a community school, so be it. They get the coverage and attention they desire and the kids get a class. Everyone is happy.

As 40-40, we are more than glad to deliver a service to vulnerable groups of people and will use all the possible avenues to do this while maintaining our level of integrity.

It makes no sense at all to organise a meeting you won’t attend and have no courtesy to cancel, whether it is with a millionaire or peasant for that matter. People don’t see this too. Their mentality is still lacking as they believe that by supporting a noble cause, they suddenly should be treated like royalty.

Regrettably, we have been exposed to the wrath of several such individuals and organisations breaking promises they were not forced to make in the first place. My guess is that this is just the beginning.

Life is such a wonderful teacher and although the old adage is ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ this is one battle I don’t think I will join.

Instead, I am going to buckle up because what we are doing is worth much more than all the disappointments we have encountered.

#Star ta fa 🙂


Stranger at home

Yesterday I was reading the Sunday Papers( Yeah, I am one of those people) when I turned to read http://apenyo.com/finding-tracy-tears-and-wine/ , a beautiful piece by Mildred Apenyo  that opened my mind to so many thoughts and memories. 
Growing up, it did not occur to me that I was ‘different’ in any way.
At home we spoke English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Luganda. None of it seemed out of the ordinary really. Some of these languages were best articulated when you did something wrong, others were for normal conversation.
I started school when the time for it came  and made friends. Everywhere I went I made friends and went about my business like an ordinary child, without putting much thought to where they came from.
When teachers made fun of the name ‘Kalenzi,’I simply smiled but later got irritated. How is it that everyone who heard my name for the first time had to say ‘Kalenzi-Ka-boy’ or ‘Kalenzi, why not Kawala?’ Were they that un-creative? I needed a new joke so I could laugh as hard as they did, but it never did come.
Before I even turned ten,a kid around my age walked up to me and said “You must be from Rwanda. Mum says your dead bodies are all over Lake Victoria and we can’t eat fish anymore.”
Never mind that the Rwandan genocide had ended three or so years before this conversation. I stared at him. Dumbfounded.
This was the beginning.
I don’t remember ever asking my parents about it, but it was the first time I started to feel like I did not belong. I didn’t know much about my ancestry but all my relatives were in Uganda. I am one of those lucky ones that did not lose any close relations in the genocide. I had something to think about.
 After a while, our body features became more pronounced as adolescents and I started to realise that my body was often given as an example.
Needless to say, there were females endowed far more than I ever would be, but I was an easier target I guess. The hips were for people from ‘that side.’ As a teen, these are not issues you want to deal with. As if the new ‘baggage’ isn’t enough, now you have teachers bringing it up too? 
Somehow, I survived this phase.
Before long I was in Secondary School and something incredible happened. Suddenly it was cool to have ‘Nyaru’ blood. Girls started tracing their family trees to Rwanda as far as their grand mother’s mum. They would tell me how they are sure we are ‘related.’ The only thought that crossed my mind was, “Why now?”
 After knowing only Uganda as my home, it became increasingly difficult to explain why my village was in Masaka or how come I spoke better Swahili than Kinyarwanda or French.
Like all fads, this ‘being a Munyarwanda is cool’ phase came to and end. The ‘loud whispers’ soon began like they never left.
I soon moved to an institution where teachers, matrons and even the Headteacher based their attitude towards me on my origin. I did not tell anyone. I was not about to worry my family or seek pity from friends whom I wasn’t sure shared these sentiments. I pretended it was ‘okay’ and went on about my business despite the prejudice that surrounded me almost everyday.
I was more exposed after High School. When I walked alongside other people, the taxi touts hurled insults at only me. It was ‘normal.’ Whether or not I wore the most decent of clothes to cover up my body shape, a remark would be made in my direction. I later discovered my facial features had also been classified. What was I going to do, wear a mask?
The moment I hit down town Kampala and other crowded areas, I ceased to be Esther. I was the intruder.
I remember one afternoon a few years ago when I got into a taxi in the New park,I took a seat by the window and waited for it to fill as always. Hardly had the journey started when one of the passengers began “Naye abanyarwanda bano batwagaza ki?” ( Loosely translated- What do these Banyarwanda want from us?) I didn’t pay much attention till at least 9 of the passengers joined in and argued, insulted, cursed Banyarwanda in my presence. To be honest, there was no ‘real’ message being shared but they were emotional and this scared me even more.Could they hurt me in broad day light? Weren’t their words hurtful enough?
None of them was on ‘the other side.’ I cringed.I wanted to break down, to jump through the window, anything but be in there.
If I didn’t know better, I would think it was orchestrated for my ‘benefit.’
I was mad. Why me? What had I done to deserve it? Did they know who I really was? Would they condone such behaviour against their daughter,sister or friend? Did they care? Why couldn’t humans just get along? There were no answers.
I decided against jumping out of the taxi and waited for my stage.
I got home with a heavy heart  that evening and when my mum heard this story she said to me, “For as long as I am around, you shall not use a taxi ever again.”
I nodded, while suppressing tears but knew deep down, it was impossible and that it was no solution to this prejudice.
On my way from work last year, a guy selling apples in Wandegeya came to the car I was in amidst traffic jam. After he laid eyes on me he yelled, “I can’t sell to you, you are a Munyankole” and he stormed off. I was too shocked to react.
Speaking of traffic and cars, as soon as I learnt to drive, a can or huge colourful worms was opened!
When they noticed I was in the driver’s seat, it only emphasises how ‘we were stealing their money.’ Never mind that no car I have ever driven belongs to me.
These incidents have become so common I have grown accustomed to the ‘treatment.’
I am whoever they choose to think I am because of what I look alike and at that point, it does not matter what my beliefs are or who I am on the inside, because these people want to turn me into a victim yet I know, I am worth more than that.
Last year when the Lukwago madness ensued, I told the boda guy I had taken not to use the Kisekka route. I could foresee trouble. He obliged but later connected to it any way.
While riding through there, the not so gentlemen kept shouting how ‘my people’ had destroyed the country and how they were going to come for me. They assured me I needed to be careful.
If it wasn’t so sad, it would have been funny. I have worked for government institutions before that opened my eyes to filth I live each day trying to fight, but here I was being blamed for what, the Kampala mayor’s problems? Ha-ha.
Writing this is a reminder of how far we are from achieving equality.
Most nations that wage way based on ethnicity deal with at least two ethnic groups. Uganda on the other hand has over 40 tribes. The constitution recognises all of them, including Banyarwanda who like some other tribes are constantly reminded that they ‘don’t belong .’
What is even more disheartening is that some of these people who are happy to denounce certain tribes, have strong ties to them in reality. You might very well find they changed their names to avoid prejudice against them but are happy to inflict it in ‘their own.’ This reminder alone is revolting!!
I consider myself lucky, to be able to share some of these tales ‘lightly.’ These incidents had the power to break me but I  didn’t let them. What distresses me is that they are not over yet.
I can think of many others I left out and know other Ugandans out there who have been preyed on by their own or people who thought themselves better, more equal.
Mildred suffered for being Luo as if she had anything to do with the family she was born in.
Is this really the kind of example we are willing to set for our children and their children, in the 21st century? Have we learnt nothing from History? 
I remain baffled but I hope that if we begin discussions around such ‘silent evils that are crippling development, we can create a much better society for those yet to come.