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So what's image got do with it? And I must say, I think Emeka is trying to send a lot of subliminal messages, because I'm going to keep harping on some of the issues that have come up. But I'm going to try and do something different, and try and just close the loop with some of my personal stories, and try and put a face to a lot of the issues that we've been talking about. So, Africa is a complex continent full of contradictions, as you can see. We're not the only ones.
And you know, it's amazing. I mean, we need a whole conference just devoted to telling the good stories about the continent. Just think about that, you know? And this is typically what we've been talking about, the role that the media plays in focusing just on the negative stuff. Now, why is that a problem? A typical disaster story: disease, corruption, poverty. And some of you might be standing here thinking, saying, "OK, you know, Ory, you're Harvard-educated, and all you privileged people come here, saying, 'Forget the poor people. Let's focus on business and the markets, and whatever.' " And they're all, "There's the 80 percent of Africans who really need help."
And I want to tell you that this is my story, OK? And it's the story of many of the Africans who are here. We start with poverty. I didn't grow up in the slums or anything that dire, but I know what it is to grow up without having money, or being able to support family. Euvin was talking about bellwether signs. The bellwether for whether our family was broke or not was breakfast. You know, when things were good, we had eggs and sausages. When things were bad, we had porridge. And like many African families, my parents could never save because they supported siblings, cousins, you know, their parents, and things were always dicey. Now, when I was born, they realized they had a pretty smart kid, and they didn't want me to go to the neighborhood school, which was free.
And they adopted a very interesting approach to education, which was they were going to take me to a school that they can barely afford. So they took me to a private, Catholic, elementary school, which set the foundation for what ended up being my career. And what happened was, because they could afford it sometimes, sometimes not, I got kicked out pretty much every term. You know, someone would come in with a list of the people who haven't paid school fees, and when they started getting pretty strict, you had to leave, until your school fees could be paid. And I remember thinking, I mean, why don't these guys just take me to a cheap school? Because you know, as a kid you're embarrassed and you're sensitive, and everyone knows you guys don't have money. But they kept at it, and I now understand why they did what they did.
They talk about corruption. In Kenya, we have an entrance exam to go into high school. And there's national schools, which are like the best schools, and provincial schools. My dream school at that time was Kenya High School, a national school. I missed the cutoff by one point. And I was so disappointed, and I was like, "Oh my God, you know, what am I going to do?" And my father said, "OK, listen. Let's go and try and talk to the headmistress. You know, it's just one point. I mean, maybe she'll let you in if that slot's still there." So we went to the school, and because we were nobodies, and because we didn't have privilege, and because my father didn't have the right last name, he was treated like dirt. And I sat and listened to the headmistress talk to him, saying, you know, who do you think you are? And, you know, you must be joking if you think you can get a slot. And I had gone to school with other girls, who were kids of politicians, and who had done much, much worse than I did, and they had slots there. And there's nothing worse than seeing your parent being humiliated in front of you, you know? And we left, and I swore to myself, and I was like, "I'm never, ever going to have to beg for anything in my life." They called me two weeks later, they're like, oh, yeah, you can come now. And I told them to stuff it.
Final story, and I sort of have to speak quickly. Disease. My father, who I've been talking about, died of AIDS in 1999. He never told anyone that he had AIDS, his fear of the stigma was so strong. And I'm pretty much the one who figured it out, because I was a nerd. And I was in the States at the time, and they called me. He was very sick, the first time he got sick. And he had Cryptococcal meningitis. And so I went on to Google, Cryptococcal meningitis, you know. Because of doctor-patient privilege, they couldn't really tell us what was going on. But they were like, you know, this is a long-term thing. And when I went online and looked at the infectious -- read about the disease, I pretty much realized what was going on.
The first time he got sick, he recovered. But what happened was that he had to be on medication that, at that time -- Diflucan, which in the States is used for yeast infections -- cost 30 dollars a pill. He had to be on that pill for the rest of his life. You know, so money ran out. He got sick again. And up until that time, he had a friend who used to travel to India, and he used to import, bring him, could get him a generic version of it. And that kept him going. But the money ran out. He got sick again. He got sick on a Friday. At that time, there was only one bank that had ATMs in Kenya, and we could not get cash. The family couldn't get cash for him to start the treatment until Monday. The hospital put him on a water drip for three days. And finally, we figured, well, OK, we'd better just try and take him to a public hospital. At least he'll get treated while we try to figure out the money situation. And he died when the ambulance was coming to the hospital to take him.
And, you know, now, imagine if -- and I could go on and on -- imagine if this is all you know about me. How would you look at me? With pity, you know. Sadness. And this is how you look at Africa. This is the damage it causes. You don't see the other side of me. You don't see the blogger, you don't see the Harvard-educated lawyer, the vibrant person, you know? And I just wanted to personalize that. Because we talk about it in big terms, and you wonder, you know, so what? But it's damaging. And I'm not unique, right? Imagine if all you knew about William was the fact that he grew up in a poor village. And you didn't know about the windmill, you know? And I was just moved. I was actually crying during his presentation. He was like, I try and I make. I was like Nike should hire him, you know, "Just do it!"
And this is, again, the point I'm trying to make. When you focus just on the disasters -- (Laughter) (Applause) -- we're ignoring the potential. So, what is to be done? First of all, Africans, we need to get better at telling our stories. We heard about that yesterday. We had some of them this morning. And this is an example, you know, blogging is one way of doing that. Afrigator is an aggregator of African blogs that was developed in South Africa. So we need to start getting better. If no one else will tell our stories, let's do it. And going back to the point I was trying to make, this is the Swahili Wikipedia. Swahili is spoken by about 50 million people in East Africa. It only has five contributors. Four of them are white males -- non-native speakers. The other person is -- Ndesanjo, if you're here, stand up -- is a Tanzanian, [the] first Swahili blogger. He's the only African who's contributing to this.
People, please. We can't whine and complain the West is doing this. What are we doing? Where are the rest of the Swahili speakers? Why are we not generating our own content? You know, it's not enough to complain. We need to act. Reuters now integrates African blogs into their coverage of Africa. So, that's a start, and we've heard of all their other initiatives. The cheetah generation. The aid approach, you know, is flawed. And after all the hoopla of Live 8, we're still not anywhere in the picture. No, you're not.
But the point I'm trying to make, though, is that it's not enough for us to criticize. And for those of you in the diaspora who are struggling with where should I be, should I move back, should I stay? You know, just jump. The continent needs you. And I can't emphasize that enough, you know. I walked away from a job with one of the top firms in D.C., Covington and Burling, six figures. With two paychecks, or three paychecks, I could solve a lot of my family's problems. But I walked away from that, because my passion was here, and because I wanted to do things that were fulfilling. And because I'm needed here, you know? I probably can win a prize for the most ways to use a Harvard Law School degree because of all the things I'm doing.
One is because I'm pretty aggressive, and I try and find, you know, opportunities. But there is such a need, you know? I'm a corporate lawyer most of the time for an organization called Enablis that supports entrepreneurs in South Africa. We're now moving into East Africa. And we give them business development services, as well as financing loan and equity. I've also set up a project in Kenya, and what we do is we track the performance of Kenyan MPs. My partner, M, who's a tech guru, hacked WordPress. It costs us, like, 20 dollars a month just for hosting. Everything else on there is a labor of love. We've manually entered all the data there. And you can get profiles of each MP, questions they've asked in parliament. We have a comment function, where people can ask their MPs questions. There are some MPs who participate, and come back and ask.
And basically, we started this because we were tired of complaining about our politicians. You know, I believe that accountability stems from demand. You're not just going to be accountable out of the goodness of your heart. And we as Africans need to start challenging our leaders. What are they doing? You know, they're not going to change just out of nowhere. So we need new policies, we need -- where's that coming from, you know? Another thing is that these leaders are a reflection of our society. We talk about African governments like they've been dropped from Mars, you know? They come from us. And what is it about our society that is generating leaders that we don't like? And how can we change that? So Mzalendo was one small way we thought we could start inspiring people to start holding their leaders accountable. Where do we go from here? I believe in the power of ideas. I believe in the power of sharing knowledge.
And I'd ask all of you, when you leave here, please just share, and keep the ideas that you've gotten out of here going, because it can make a difference. The other thing I want to urge you to do is take an interest in the individual. I've had lots of conversations about things I think need to be happening in Africa. People are like, "OK, if you don't do aid, I'm a bleeding heart liberal, what can I do?" And when I talk about my ideas, they're like, "BBut it's not scalable, you know. Give me something I can do with Paypal." It's not that easy, you know? And sometimes just taking an interest in the individual, in the fellows you've met, and the businesspeople you've met, it can make a huge difference, especially in Africa, because usually the individual in Africa carries a lot of people behind them. Practically. I mean, when I was a first-year student in law school, my mom's business had collapsed, so I was supporting her. My sister was struggling to get through undergrad. I was helping her pay her tuition. My cousin ran out of school fees, and she's really smart. I was paying her school fees.
A cousin of mine died of AIDS, left an orphan, so we said, well, what are we going to do with her? You know, she's now my baby sister. And because of the opportunities that were afforded to me, I am able to lift all those people. So, don't underestimate that. An example. This man changed my life. He's a professor. He's now at Vanderbilt. He's an undergrad professor, Mitchell Seligson. And because of him, I got into Harvard Law School, because he took an interest. I was taking a class of his, and he was just like, this is an overeager student, which we don't normally get in the United States, because everyone else is cynical and jaded. He called me to his office and said, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I said, "I want to be a lawyer." And he was like, "Why? You know, we don't need another lawyer in the United States." And he tried to talk me out of it, but it was like, "OK, I know nothing about applying to law school, I'm poli-sci Ph.D. But, you know, let's figure out what I need you to do, what I need to do to help you out."
It was like, "Where do you want to go?" And to me at that time university -- I was at University of Pitts for undergrad, and that was like heaven, OK, because compared to what could have been in Kenya. So I'm like, "Yeah, I'm just applying to Pitt for law school." He was like, "Why? You know, you're smart, you have all these things going for you." And I'm like, "Because I'm here and it's cheap, and you know, I kind of like Pittsburgh." Like, that's the dumbest reason I've ever heard for applying to law school. And, you know, so he took me under his wing, and he encouraged me. And he said, "Look, you can get into Harvard, you're that good, OK? And if they don't admit you, they're the ones who are messed up." And he built me up, you know? And this is just an illustration.
You can meet other individuals here. We just need a push. That's all I needed was a push to go to the next level. Basically, I want to end with my vision for Africa, you know? A gentleman spoke yesterday about the indignity of us having to leave the continent so that we can fulfill our potential. You know, my vision is that my daughter, and any other African child being born today, can be whoever they want to be here, without having to leave. And they can have the possibility of transcending the circumstances under which they were born. That's one thing you Americans take for granted, you know? That you can grow up, you know, not so good circumstances, and you can move. Just because you are born in rural Arkansas, whatever, that doesn't define who you are. For most Africans today, where you live, or where you were born, and the circumstances under which you were born, determine the rest of your life. I would like to see that change, and the change starts with us. And as Africans, we need to take responsibility for our continent. Thank you.
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Ory Okolloh tells the story of her life and her family -- and how she came to do her heroic work reporting on the doings of Kenya's parliament.
Ory Okolloh maintains the blog Mzalendo, providing an unprecedented look at the doings of Kenya's parliament -- information once unavailable to Kenyan citizens. Full bio »