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Dr Lydia Bosire: I owe it all to the singing bird and lucky events

Dr Lydia Kemunto Bosire. [Courtesy]

In 1976, renowned Kenyan artiste Elkana Nyongesa carved a soapstone sculpture of a ‘birdman’ of sorts.

The piece was given away to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) by the government as a gift; and the artiste is set to be rewarded. It is called the singing bird, or enyamuchera in Kisii, from where Nyongesa hails.

“Every time I am in Paris, I get to see my enyamuchera atop the Unesco headquarters in Paris. I feel very proud,” Nyongesa said in a 2015 interview.

In carving that piece, Nyongesa had some artist friends help out. These friends got to be part of a life-changing experience that opened their eyes to the limitless possibilities for them internationally.

Dr Lydia Kemunto Bosire’s father was among these artiste friends, and it showed him that perhaps he could build a bigger life than the one he had begun to curve in Kisii with his young family.

“When I started working at the UN, that very first job, he told me, ‘you know, in the late 70s, I was part of the team that worked on enyamuchera, it was taken to the UN. I have never seen the thing. If you see it, please take a picture for me,” Dr Bosire tells the Sunday Standard.

We are meeting her at a Nairobi hotel.

Dressed casually in a long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, we quickly learn that there is nothing casual about her. Her hair is styled in a neat afro and her lips are glossy, and she wears no makeup. She is petite but her voice is big and firm.

She peppers us with questions as we sit, wondering out loud what drives us and if we are content with our passions.

She dives in to describe herself - and says that she has always been ambitious and driven. Of course, she does not have to say so. One glance at her Linked In profile and work experience says it all. 

Dr Bosire has four degrees, a Masters and a PhD. Her career has been all about travelling the world. From the UK, Paris, and the US, she has walked into important rooms and mingled with the leaders of our modern world.

She says that she is almost the luckiest girl in the world and that serendipity best describes her story.

“My singular goal as a young person was to work at the World Bank or the UN. Because growing up in Kenya, the people who seemed to have power were the ones who worked at global organisations,” she says, explaining how she grew from a young girl finishing secondary school at Loreto Limuru to working at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), United Nations and World Health Organisation.

She has also dived into entrepreneurship, founding 8B Education Investments.

But we digress. Dr Bosire does not want to be described as an entrepreneur, or put in any box.

“I am something like a diplomat turned entrepreneur, using all the rules and tools in the game that I learned in the multilateral system and academic training. I am using these different seasons of experience into solving a very particular problem about what doors are open for Africans in the world,” she says.

Speaking about how she managed to break away from Kisii and Kenya, by extension, to chase an ambitious career, Dr Bosire says that the sheer luck involved would be disheartening for anyone seeking a similar path.

She says that it is a generational problem for Africans, as they do not have access to global education.

“This problem cuts across the African continent because every African I speak to who did not come from wealth in their family has a battle wound about how they financed their global education. Having both experienced it and seen it as a serious problem, it refuses to leave me alone and I want to solve it with all the tools in my toolkit,” she says.

After working with Nyongesa on the enyamuchera, her father had once pondered on the thought that perhaps he too could go abroad, study and work there. But he never did.

“How I got my first scholarship was a series of accidents. It happened that I struck a conversation with a girl who was the sister of a girl who graduated the same year as me in high school,” she says.

“Turns out that her sister was in the UK on a fully paid scholarship. First forward a few months, I am in our home in Kisii, at my friend’s house. They used to have the newspaper every day. I happened to open the classified section and it had an advertisement for the United World Colleges, the same programme the girl’s sister was in. I applied, was longlisted, then shortlisted, and got selected as one of the only two full scholarship offers that year.”

Opening up about how she built her career, Dr Bosire says that maintaining relationships everywhere one works is crucial.

“I worked in the ICTJ in capacity building for young professionals in conflict-afflicted countries. Then at the UNPFSA doing global women movement creation and support as well as advocacy for victims of war.”

“I also worked at the WHO in Geneva on a global health strategy. I got an offer with full funding to Oxford for a Master’s programme and I took it, then went on to do my doctorate at Oxford.”

Dr Bosire says that her former boss at the WHO then called her about an opportunity in New York, which she happily took.

“The moves I made were often through personal relationships, someone saying, ‘this is coming up, do you think you can do it?’ and I took opportunities,” she says.

Speaking about 8B Education Investments, which she founded in 2017, Dr Bosire explains that leaving her job was “the culmination of feeling like ‘I am doing this but is this the highest calling that I have?’”

“Getting my first scholarship was a series of accidents. One of the things that 8B sets out to do is to remove those accidents. You should not find out an opportunity exists by virtue of who you know, what newspaper you happen to open on that day,  or landing on the right ad on Google,” she says as she defined what the organisation does.

“What 8B does is connect African students with information about global universities. Not just some universities with which we have relationships, which is what agents do. We are not an agent. It is a platform that does not charge students, and one that they can use to find useful information about where to apply and how to make a good application.”

As we conclude our interview, Dr Bosire reflects on how she finally saw the enyamuchera that her father helped sculpt.

It was another series of lucky events that guided her to finally see the art piece.

“At the UN in New York, I looked around the art collection and never saw it there. After the UNPFA I worked at the WHO in Geneva Switzerland, I went to the UN headquarters there, looked through their whole collection and it was not there.”

She adds: “Then fast forward, I am doing some consulting work for the UN to pay for my PhD. I go to a meeting in Paris at the Unesco building. And so I am telling them ‘I need to see this thing and take a picture of it, my father worked on it!’”

“Finally the guard at the door guided us to the Unesco annexe building, and when I dashed across the town there… lo and behold, there is the singing bird, at the centre of the driveway at that big office. I took pictures, and it was spraying, there were tulips around; it was beautiful.”