The year was 2015. A university student with a recurring brain tumour, Emmanuel Otieno aka Jadudi, reached out to Zawadi Nyong’o when he was preparing to go to India for his second brain surgery. Through the Africa Cancer Foundation platform, and with the help of blogger Jackson Biko, Zawadi launched the ‘1MilliForJadudi’ campaign to raise funds for Jadudi.
The campaign brought Kenyans together and more than Sh7 million was raised. Everything went well until someone questioned where the funds were.
“It started with some nondescript woman with like 200 followers questioning the use of funds and it blew out of control. What hurt me the most is that my integrity was questioned and reputation damaged. I lost work because of it,” Zawadi says.
She says there was a point in her life she did not want to face the world.
“I felt so low about myself and just wanted to hide. Given the fact that my family is in the public eye, this was really difficult. But I learnt a lot about myself through this personal journey. I had to dig really deep and connect with myself,” Zawadi says.
After the campaign, Zawadi started a digital conscious drive called Digital Ubuntu Africa.
“Being a victim of cyber violence, I know what it feels to have people attack you and ruin your reputation. I started Ubuntu to call people to be conscious about how they behave online.”
Zawadi says cyber violence got so bad that at one point she thought of committing “twitticide” – quitting social media. “But I thought that is ridiculous. I was giving away my power and leaving what I am passionate about because some people are bored and have nothing to do other than ride on whatever is trending,” she says.
“I come from an ancestry of rebels. My grandfather, who started the Nyong’o name, was a rebel and I believe my grandmother is a feminist. I was born a feminist and I’m a nonconformist,” Zawadi says.
Born on September 23, 1980, Zawadi is the first-born of six children. “I was born on my maternal grandfather’s birthday and being the first grandchild, I was named Zawadi (gift).”
For the first year of her life, Zawadi grew up in Kenya, until the attempted coup in 1982. This forced Zawadi’s father, politician Anyang’ Nyong’o, to seek political exile in Mexico. Zawadi and her mother stayed in Kenya, until they found an exit to Mexico where Zawadi says she felt special. “I received tonnes of attention because I was the only African child around. People were fascinated by this black girl who could speak Spanish.”
In 1984, Zawadi’s mother wanted to move back to Kenya. “It was still not safe for my dad to return, so we went ahead of him.”
When she came back to Kenya, Zawadi says she didn’t feel special anymore. “I couldn’t communicate in English. I only knew Spanish and Dholuo. This was the first I struggle with self expression. This is a theme that has shaped much of my life – the need to be heard. You could say this was the root of my activism,” she says.
She says her activism continued to take shape when she was in standard four at Loreto Convent Msongari.
“I remember my mathematics teacher insisting on calling me Nyong’o when he was reading out the class roster, while he used first names for all the other children. One day I stood up in front of the entire class and said I would not respond to his call until he called me by my name – Zawadi. I wasn’t going to live in anyone’s shadow,” she says.
“Yes I love my father, yes he is an amazing person, but I have my own identity.”
Zawadi says this is why she gets irritated when people refer to her as ‘Lupita’s sister’. Her sister is a Hollywood actress. “I am all about sisterhood, but I am my own person.”
“I cannot live forever being referenced to as someone else’s sister, someone else’s daughter. Then when I get married, someone else’s wife. As a feminist, individuality is important,” Zawadi says.
For her university education, Zawadi went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, US. She switched from environmental to African and women studies.
She graduated and in 2004 worked in the US for a year. This was the beginning of her work in raising funds for causes.
“I did a project on anti-racism organising in collaboration with Hampshire College. I asked myself – what project do I want to do, how much will that cost, and how do I raise the amount required.”
Zawadi organised a two-day summit on how to stop racism in the region. “So by the time I am doing the ‘One Million for Jadudi’ initiative, I have had a decade-worth of crowdsourcing experience. People think I just woke up one day and raised funds, but there has been a history of me doing this.”
Where is my tribe?
In 2006, Zawadi moved back to Kenya, but says she felt out of place. “I came from a society filled with queer, liberal people who were accepting. I was like, where is my tribe (a group of people you share interests with and can relate with, not related to ethnicity)?”
Because she had built professional networks, Zawadi was able to get work with NGO Urgent Action Fund Africa.
After working at the NGO for some time, she was headhunted by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).
“Although I loved working at Urgent Fund, the AWID opportunity was too good to pass up. It is an international NGO and I would get to travel the world.” Zawadi had the option of working in Mexico or Cape Town or Toronto. “I went back to where I spent my first years – Mexico.”
Be careful what you wish for
Zawadi says the job was a “baptism by fire”. “It was a stressful job and I didn’t have a support system in Mexico. I had burnt out by the eighth month.”
She returned to Kenya in December 2007 during leave. “That was the time there was post-election violence. I hit a low. I’m the kind of person who takes on not only my pain, but also other people’s pain. It hurt me to see what was happening in the country.”
Zawadi extended her leave, returned to work for a little while, and then quit her job.
“I didn’t have a plan, but I decided to do consulting until I find my tribe.” Zawadi did independent consulting on sexual and reproductive health rights and helped set up a LGBTI sex rights fund for East Africa – Uhai-Eashri. “Again, you see I have a history in crowd sourcing. I helped the group funds.”
In 2010, Zawadi started using social media strategically. “I attended a social media talk at the iHub and Beth Kanter was there. At the time she was on the iHub board. She spoke about how nonprofits use social media to raise funds. That changed my whole outlook on using social media.”
Before the talk, Zawadi was using Facebook just like everyone else. “On Twitter, I had just 100 followers and didn’t think I could say much in 140 characters, until the Beth’s session. It was an aha! moment for me.”
Later, she organised a campaign to celebrate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers marked on December 17.
“That was my first social media campaign. We had 700 sex workers walking down streets, 300 of them carrying red umbrellas. We went from no one talking about sex workers’ rights, to people talking about the decriminalisation of sex work.”
After seeing the impact of the social media campaign, Zawadi never turned back. She decided to use it to bring positive change.
Zawadi has written a book highlighting the stories of five sex workers from Uganda and Kenya titled ‘When I dare to be powerful’. It is available online. She is also the CEO of a PR digital media agency - 7th Sense Communications. “I don’t just take on any client. It has to be a firm focused on bringing change, like social entrepreneurs.”
On January 7, this year, Zawadi teamed up with deep-soul worker, addiction therapist and spiritual coach Amyra Mah to launch a meditation guide – the Vessel of Power.