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Interview with Winfred Buya Mukonzo of The Empower HER Initiative

This year, the ‘Wacha niKwambie’ blog embarked on a yearlong theme dubbed, ‘Giving Back: I will be my brother’s and sister’s keeper’ a clarion call to all the readers of this blog to reach out to their communities and ‘give back’ and inevitably leave this world a better place than we found it.

This month of February we are blessed to interview a young Kenyan lady, Winfred Buya who will share with us her personal story on Giving Back. Giving Back you will agree with us is no respecter to age, nationality, gender, religion, social or economic status in life, we all have something to Give Back. How much more should we all Give Back in this universal month of love, hope you all enjoy this read as much as we did the interview. Wishing all our esteemed readers a month of love, laughter, joy and happiness. And a great thank you to Buya for indulging us with her experience, a toast to The Empower Her Initiative, Kenya.

Who is Winfred Buya?
Buya is the short form of my middle name ‘Abuyabo’. It came to life in Form 1 in Bush (Alliance Girls’High School, Kenya) during my introduction and has stuck to date. I am happiness, kindness, excitement and love. I have been in the world for 23 years and always excited to see what life has in store for me. My life has been unfolding itself in ways bigger, better and at times more disappointing than I could ever imagine. It’s a cocktail of all that therefore, I’ve learnt to enjoy great times, face my challenges head on and most importantly give thanks in all things as I have come to understand that that is the will of God concerning my life.

I am a Public Health Practitioner. I hold a BSc in Public Health, graduated in 2017, worked for a year and a couple of months and currently
pursuing an MSc Public Health.

They say every Kenyan has a side hustle. Mine is in a small enterprise ‘En- Arikino Afryka’ that deals with production of African print bags and accessories. It is two months old now, so far so good. I have a whole lot of passion for leadership and politics by extension, I served in the Student Council of my University as the Organising Secretary 2015/2016 and I would like to get into National politics someday. During my term I received ‘An Exemplary Student Leader Award ‘ from African Youth Leadership Forum for Service with Integrity.

Finally ,I am the Founder and ( Happiness Lead )- if such a thing exists of Empower HER Initiative an award winning organization that empowers women and girls to become agents of Social and Economic change .

What drives you in life?
I think I am driven by different things at different seasons. Sometimes passion, other times curiosity and adventure or pity or let’s see how this turns out and at times anger! Like, ‘Hey we can’t be doing this the way it’s been done before if we ain’t getting results.’ And all this is with an aim to leave something better than I found it. So this is the drive : Leaving it better . The constant question in my mind has always been ‘What else can I do ? ‘ Leadership is my gift, it comes naturally. I’ve been in Leadership from Nursery School to University. Like from ABCD to Comrades Power! And throughout my excitement in Leadership was access to the staffroom and supervision, like I didn’t have to clean as others did, mine was to supervise – that kind of thing. But looking back I see God’s blessings and footprints every step of the way!

Liz, leadership puts you in a position where you can easily identify problems, or problems literally come looking for you. When people entrust you with their issues you don’t just sit back, you help create solutions. What do you think about “Giving Back” to ones community?
I wonder what the feeling of not giving back is like. When I was a little girl, I would occasionally accompany my mother to Barclays Bank in Eldoret (which is still in the same space to date). I was about 6 years old then . Outside the bank , there used to be a crippled beggar.
I had made it a habit to ask for a little money to put in his container. That’s the first beggar I had seen one on one and I used to think he was
the only one.

One day, having done her transactions in the bank and religiously given me my little money for my begger, my mum had some errands to run at the Central Police station right opposite Barclays across the road. On crossing, at the pavement near the entrance I noted a lot more beggars and I would ask for cash for each. Then my mum went like ‘Ni wengi sana hii town, hauwezi maliza kupeana ‘ Labda tuvunje hii noti
ndio ugawe kwa hawa, lakini bado kuna wengi sana . Saidia yule unaweza. (Translation: There are too many beggars in this town, you
cannot help them all). I thought to myself, we are from the bank , and of course the bank has money! ( A child’s mind you know ) I decided that when I grow up, I would find a job, and build a house for them , feed them and help all of them.

It must be my fondest memory of making that decision. The satisfaction that comes from giving back is indescribable, it’s priceless ! You have to experience it to know it . It doesn’t have to be in cash. You can share your time or skills or whatever else you have with those who aren’t as fortunate as you are. Not necessarily in children’s homes and streets . Simple decisions like offering to help clear school fees for your  neighbors kid who’s been sent home because of school fees arrears(If you are able ). Or making hot water for the night guard at your place, there are so many ways to do it .My Bible says “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers ,that you do unto me!”

Tell us more about The Empower HER Initiative
Empower HER is an initiative that mentors women and girls to become agents of social and economic change. It was founded to challenge women and girls to do more. Since its inception, we have expanded our scope of reach to other counties such as Vihiga, Kisumu and nowBungoma and Kakamega.

We began in 2014 as Saidia (Help) Students Initiative but was rebranded to Empower HER Initiative. We wanted to not only give help to the
students but also give them power in various aspects of campus life because when empowered women and girls can do anything!

We do this through;
1. The student mum program; a program that acts as a bridge between expectant students, student mothers and the administration. Our goal is to provide a platform for their voices to be heard and to enable them to strike a balance between being a student and pursuing their academic and career goals while still maintaining their responsibilities as mothers.
2. Mentorship to school going girls around the environs which also enables the speakers who are majorly students to mentor the young
girls as they also build on their public speaking skills.
3.We also train the women on campus by equipping them with hands-on entrepreneurial skills such as mat weaving, braiding hair and nail art so that they can have financial independence and make extra income for themselves.
4. There is also leadership training to groom those who wish to vie for student leadership posts. This we do in partnership with NGOs and the
aim is to tremendously increase female representation in the elective student council positions.

What inspired you to begin this initiative?
As a first year student, I paid little attention to expectant students in our university. It is not until my friend’s baby suffered severe burns after an accident having been left alone in a campus room with a stove that was on, that I took notice. I came to learn that the university policy in relation to pregnant students demanded they leave the campus accommodation facilities as soon as the pregnancy began to show.
Private hostels are expensive and after birth, the students found that hiring a nanny to babysit for them as they attended their lectures was
equally expensive. Many opted to defer their studies or drop out all together. Those who stayed on often left their babies unattended in
their rooms and and checked on them during breaks.

In response to this problem, we started Empower HER Initiative to offer practical solutions to their problems. Which involves a rotational peer-to-peer baby sitting service by students to offer daycare facilities for each other while their colleagues attend classes. We also trains student mums with income generating skills so that they can earn some income to fend for their babies and also provides counselling and psychosocial support.

What are the future plans for The Empower HER Initiative?
Reaching out to all the Universities. We’ve done three this far but we are looking forward to growing.

What are some of the successes you have had in this initiative?
I love that we have stirred conversations around Pregnant and Parenting Students in campus. And we have had University administrations
looking into them for the first time and holding each other accountable. For example, what can the school do to make a parent/ pregnant
student comfortable and in turn what can one do for oneself to excel in ones studies.

We now have increased female student participation in University Student Leadership through our trainings. And a number of Recognitions and Awards,
Zuri Innovation Award 2017
Top 10 bold for change champions in Africa 2017
Ambitious 254 Award 2018
All these for our contribution in empowering women and girls.

What are some of the challenges you have faced Giving Back?
At times I feel like creating a solution with my approach though the beneficiary sees it differently. My mind is always on sustainability. I used
to explain this unsuccessfully. I give based on what would work for them. My blessing is on my giving and that’s it.

Then , there are many times we are misunderstood ! “if you are providing that kind of environment to student mothers, don’t you think
you are encouraging more girls to get pregnant?” I have learnt to reason out with those who care to listen and understand and shut my ears from all the other noise. Truth is some people will never understand and they don’t have to, it’s your purpose and not theirs.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to Give Back?
Do it!

Are there ways others can plug in and support The Empower HER Initiative?
Yes .
We constantly look for mentors for the leadership forum in Universities. And diapers for babies, donations and basic stuff for student mothers, including baby cloths and toys. Refreshments during the forums

© Winfred Buya
February 2019.