Eddie Gacheru Oketch, 21, is a global speaker who has shared the stage with great world leaders. He is also the founder of Peace for Africa and Economic Development and a student. Joan Barsulai found out how his difficult childhood inspired his life
Tell us about your background; where you grew up, schooled and what your childhood was like?
My background is a story of the most disadvantaged lots in Kenya who have had their fair share of life’s struggles. I was born seventh in a struggling family of eight siblings. Most of my elder siblings were forced to drop out of school with dismal basic education. Growing up in my underdeveloped village of Mang’ong’o in Migori District was not easy, especially after the demise of my mother. I became a street child at some point and my primary school education was nomadic. I was adopted by a number of well-wisher families as I went along. I did my primary education partly in my village in Kiamichael slums then in Migori town and lastly in Kuria District before passing my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams and getting admission into Friends School Kamusinga.
My childhood was tough and I was always in identity crisis because of being raised by different families. Many times I found myself playing the role of a breadwinner as I tried to make ends meet for my father and siblings. I missed the first term of high school because I couldn’t get school fees.
How did this tough upbringing affect your childhood?
My family’s survival literally depended on me, so my aspirations and desires were never straight and certain like other children’s were; children whom I read about in novels, from remnants of newspapers that I picked from garbage or children I observed from better off families in my community. To survive, I had to work on people’s tobacco farms, backstreet canteens as a dish-washer and shoddy garbage collections in towns in what is commonly known as kurata in the slung of street children.
When did things start looking up?
I embarked on a journey to change the world for the better as a primary dropout child in the village. My peers and I started a community drama club to sensitise our people through self-written productions on reproductive health, communal living and other aspects of life; an avenue that not only shaped our community, but also served as a talents promotion and a source of income to other children who had dropped out of school in our village.
While in Class Eight in Kuria District, we championed the girl child empowerment project in partnership with ActionAid International that aimed to eradicate female genital mutilation and other chauvinist practices that denied young girls’ education. The project saw many Kuria girls go back to school and ActionAid recognised me as one of the most promising youngest activists in the district then.
I am mainly involved with Peace for Africa and Economic Development, commonly know as Pad, an organisation I founded, as well as the G47 Trust that seeks to champion leadership transformation in Kenya.
Where did you go after high school?
In September 2008, I left Friends School Kamusinga in Form Three for South Africa after I got selected into the inaugural Class of African Leadership Academy (Ala) with a full scholarship. I graduated in June 2010 with a diploma in African Leadership, African Studies and Entrepreneurship. Usually, when students graduate from Ala in June, they go to universities immediately in September. However, while I got admissions in various universities in the US, I decided to take a year off to give back to my community the incredible experience I had gained in Ala. I worked with Equity Bank as a loan and marketing officer in Kisumu and then spent eleven months working with the Pad team in youth projects, especially in Nairobi, Rift Valley and Western Kenya. I am now in second year at the Prestigious Trinity College Hartford pursuing a Bachelor of Sciences in Math and Economics. Trinity College Hartford is a small Ivy League private school located in Connecticut, USA and the second oldest university in the State of Connecticut after Yale University.
Indulge us in the details of your projects?
I founded Pad in 2008 while I was a Form Three student in Friends School Kamusinga. The project sought to address the root causes of Kenya’s post-election violence, especially where the youth were involved.
Working with both school dropouts and unemployed young people aged between 18 and 35, Pad identifies youth’s passions and talents and nurtures them to generate income. The project has reached about 250,000 youth since its inception.
What inspired you to get involved in peace initiatives?
The difficulties in my childhood were my fundamental motivations. Occurrences like the post-election violence also encouraged me to do something. During the violence, my peers and I were hacked with machetes as we tried to defend members of different ethnic communities from tribal aggression. I am driven by a great passion that enables me to sacrifice a lot without individual returns and I am willing to continue.
What was your childhood dream?
My childhood dream shifted many times according to challenges and opportunities I faced. As a child, I wanted to become a pilot, but when my mother died after succumbing to a simple, treatable disease, my passion shifted to becoming a doctor. But as I grew older and my life experiences became harder, I learnt more about the significance of other underlying causes such as the distance we were from the hospital. My passion shifted to areas of community development and public policies that would allow me to solve these puzzles at a larger scale. Hence, I am now studying Economics and Math as participate in projects that champion community development through Pad.
What have been the great successes of your personal and professional life?
First is seeing my organisation grow and impact many young people in the community. I have also had the opportunity to consult for the MasterCard Foundation’s head leadership in Toronto, Canada on youth engagement strategy. I was in the team of established regional business leaders in the Canadian Prime Minister’s and CEOs’ roundtable that wrote recommendations on the 2010 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report.
I am part of the team of British Council Global Change Makers that is headquartered in Bern, Switzerland. I have been a speaker and panel discussion leader in global forums such the World Economic Forum on Africa, the 2012 G8 Summit Symposium with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the just concluded Washington DC Kenya Diaspora conference.
What are some of the awards and recognitions you have received for your work?
I am a recipient of 2009 Africa Award and Pad received the 2012 Kenya Diaspora Award that recognised the work we are doing with the youth in Kenya.
Who are some of the prominent personalities you have interacted with?
I have met President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique who invited my Pad team to Maputo, Mozambique; Prof Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, President Jakaya Kikwete, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai and Madam Graca Michel, just to mention a few.
What advice do you have for young men like yourself as far as making a difference in the society is concerned?
First of all, identify and be sure about your passion. Then ask yourself: Is it just about you or about other people as well? Then, what is it that you want to live for regardless of how well off or poor you are? What is your fundamental motivation for this?
What inspires you to do what you do every day?
Seeing the difference in people’s living standards, especially outside my country. This inspires me to do what I do every day so that some day, our people will enjoy the same living standards.
Who do you look up to and why?
I have come this far because of many people who hugely contributed to my life. I owe my life and look up to my family, foster families and friends for their selflessness and sacrifice.
How can the youth in this country get past violence, especially now that we are going into another election?
Through being economically independent and ideologically (politically) independent. I have worked with youths affected by the previous violence such as internally displaced people and the outlawed sects such as Mungiki and Taliban and they all express willingness to earn for their upkeep.