Welcome. Welcome to the story of a relentless fighter. I met Cynthia Muhonja a little more than a year ago in Ghana, West Africa. My first memory of her is a slim girl walking into a conference room in a long blue sequin gown, a rich magenta lip, expensive braids, and shiny jewelry. We exchanged cursory smiles and spoke for all of twenty minutes before she invited me to stay with her on my last two days in Ghana. The invite felt strange; touched and tempted by curiosity, I took a chance and said yes!
When the day came, we walked roughly a mile on a muddy road, lugging my suitcase in the Sun, and to my surprise, she said we’d reached when we spotted eight horses running around in the middle of nowhere. What had I signed up for? We walked some more across the horse field to the stables, and behind the stables was a dormitory. Cynthia lived in this dorm on the days’ school was closed, and had invited her fun Indian friend (me) to share it. During the course of my stay the girl kept surprising me – she taught me how to skateboard, she loved my ‘Garam masala’ spaghetti, and most important of all, one night she revealed to me her life story, which shocked me, impressed me, overwhelmed me and inspired me all the same.
It’s thirteen months later, and here you are, about to experience parts of that same late night dorm-room conversation that took place by a horse stable in outer Accra.
Settle in, small roller coaster ahead.
Tell me a little bit about where you were born, or what a typical Kenyan’s childhood is like…
My childhood was far from typical. I don’t know for sure, but I think I was born in a small village called Kamimei in Nandi County, Kenya. I wasn’t born with a supportive family in the room. The first memories I have of my life are chasing a pickup truck my mother was driving away in. I was left with my maternal grandparents during infancy and I’m presuming my parents were divorced by then. Again, I can’t say for sure, because I didn’t know them well enough. And my grandparents (who were small-scale farmers) were having trouble putting together some square meals, so clearly we weren’t the type of family that had a lot of time for sentiments. My mother had also remarried and had other children of her own, so there was a lot of confusion. I didn’t have much of an identity. I have an own sibling, Collins, and two other step-siblings, one of who died as a baby. I remember two incidents where I saw mom very clearly. The first one, was when I was nine, I remember coming home to see my mom driving away – it was pouring, my cousin was around, I was crying, and running. There was a lot of crying and running. Barefoot I chased her car until it disappeared from my sight. The next time I saw my mom was when we brought her home to nurse her. She had taken very suddenly, and very severely ill, and the rumors had started by then.
There seems to be so much ambiguity in your memories of your childhood. But even just to remember it, do you keep pictures? Or try to find out more? For example, what about your birth certificate? Shouldn’t that tell you something about your dad?
(smirks and laughs) What memories? I think I didn’t know a camera until I grew up and saw friends using one.
And birth certificate? I only procured one recently. My birth certificate states my grandfather as my father. My birth father was never in the picture. Never. We didn’t have his ID to provide for the birth certificate, and he didn’t care either. I know he exists, and I wish him well wherever he is, but he was never present.
That must’ve been a lot to process. I won’t push you to talk about someone who’s never been present. What about your grandparents? And the rumors you mentioned?
My maternal grandparents have been considerably nice to me. There are so many inconsistencies in my story, and I’ve never really said it out loud before so there will be gaps. Let me tell you what I remember. My mother didn’t remarry for a few years after my birth, but soon after she had my step-siblings, she started falling ill. I remember around September 2005 she moved back in with my grandparents and me, and by March we’d lost her. People said a lot of things. Some said she died of Typhoid, some said HIV AIDS – they started spinning stories and it all spiraled from there.
I never asked. Never once did I try to find out how my mother died. I was so terribly afraid of the truth. To this day, I’ve not dug up the guts to question anyone about it.
My mother’s sudden passing away pushed me into a lull I’d never known before. Everyday I felt more and more robotic, less and less alive. Although I didn’t know my mother very well, for the first time I felt orphaned. And nothing, and I truly mean nothing is worse than feeling unwanted. My maternal grandparents were finding it hard to sustain us, and what happened next was the worst possible thing that could have happened.
In my culture, when both parents of a child aren’t around anymore, the child’s paternal grandparents automatically become its guardians. This meant Collins and I would inevitably be sent away to live with my father’s step-mother. I’d heard that my father had remarried a few more times by then and was working in Nairobi, and his step-mother didn’t care for us. There had been some talk that she would come to collect us and he would send her some money for our education and living expenses. The money never came. But my step-grandmother did – on the day of my mother’s funeral. She hated my mother and didn’t care for us.
I remember she didn’t wait for the funeral to finish. She arrived out of the blue, dragged us out of the Church and as they lowered my mum into the ground, she dragged us away, plonked us in her car and started driving. I remember being grabbed, pushed and shoved into the car. It all happened so fast. I didn’t get to say bye to my mom. I didn’t even get to say bye.
From the day I moved into my paternal house, I was ill-treated. Food was a luxury. Today when people tell me how skinny I am, it doesn’t translate into a compliment. It takes me back to the days when I went to bed starving. She’d make us clean dung, make some room in the shed and sleep there. One morning we asked for some soap to clean ourselves before breakfast and this woman said our father hadn’t sent her money to give us soap. Her exact words ring in my ears even today.
No money, no soap.
I would work day and night, do the dishes, clean the house, deliver milk, pick tea, and find a few hours a week to attend the local public school. A distant cousin who would visit us sexually abused me. I would shudder and hide. It was almost too difficult to even breathe without being reprimanded in that house. A year passed. I think it’s true that things have to hit rock bottom before getting better because that’s what happened to me. One night, Collins broke something by mistake. He was five. He was thrashed and sent to sleep outside the house. When I argued, I was thrashed too. This was an everyday occurrence but on that day something flipped.
I didn’t own a bag. I found a big plastic bag, dumped all my clothes in that bag, grabbed Collins and we ran away. We ran and ran for a while, and somehow in bated breath, I could feel the bad times coming to an end.
We had a long night ahead of us. We walked all the way back to my maternal grandparents’ house, and at the crack of dawn, they welcomed us in. I was all of ten or twelve years old, and I knew when those doors opened that they were temporary too. I would have to find a way to sustain myself soon.
I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like. Liberating? Empowering? Or did you feel helpless and afraid of the future? What changed after moving back to your maternal house?
To be honest, I was just glad we had food and shelter. My maternal family nursed us back to good health, and admitted us into the best school they could afford in the local neighborhood. There were many days I was sent home from school – either because I was unkempt, or we’d not paid the fees and so on. The two years after that changed me completely. While other kids in school were just being kids, I was trying to actually ‘learn’ for the first time in my life. Every new word I understood, every new math problem I solved, every historic revolution I read about or every scientific phenomenon I was introduced to made me feel so incredibly powerful. The simple idea that there was science and logic, math and medicine, language and history, so much to learn, so much to see, so much to do…
For the first time ever I felt in control. In control of who I would become if I just did well in school. I was ready.
Although I struggled quite a bit, I performed excellently in my year before high school and I secured a spot at one of the best schools in Kenya. The Kenya High School, easily the oldest and most esteemed High School in Kenya would obviously require me to be much more than just a good student. I had to groom myself, I had to make a conscious effort to fit in and never let my past show. Once again, I struggled. My grandparents were growing concerned about the high fee which was close to a 1000USD per semester. My paternal family was passing comments like ‘Oh! We’ll see how she manages Kenya High’ and I was determined to find a way to excel. Poverty was probably written all over my face and I tried very hard to not let it show.
At this point, Cynthia’s tears had stopped. As she said the words above, she went completely quiet, almost as though lost in reminiscence. After about a minute, I decided to interject…
The saving grace that came soon after is something I’m thankful for to this day. Akili Dada – remember this name. A non-profit organization with the motto, ‘African. Women. Lead’, Akili Dada is a leadership incubator that nurtures underprivileged African girls and transforms them into capable, bright young women. My counselor at Kenya High got me an interview at Akili Dada and I spent months preparing for it. The first attempt – I failed. But I didn’t waste time and tried again soon. And during my second time, what happened on the day of the interview shocked me to my very being.
I walked in, sat down, began explaining my upbringing, my little education, and financial situation. Akili Dada usually conducts multiple rounds, and the recruitment takes weeks. In my case, ten minutes into our conversation, I had become one of them. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Ten minutes of conversation – and I went from an underprivileged girl to a rich, educated unstoppable young woman. That day I was born again.
Akili Dada became home. They paid for school, food, books, and even for fun things like shopping and entertainment. I made friends with so many young girls like me. I met young women the network had transformed entirely. At Akili Dada, your past simply did not matter. Your lineage did not matter. Your poverty did not matter. All that mattered was how hard you were willing to work, and the world’s best opportunities ranging from international University admits, full scholarships, grants for projects, connections with leading African women around the world – everything was at your disposal. I was living a dream, often pinching myself to make sure it was true. Somedays the joy would quite literally leave me out of breath and I’d just say a small prayer and go on about my day.
Now it was my turn to cry. When Cynthia spoke of Akili Dada, her eyes lit up. She truly was born again there, and I couldn’t hold back my tears as she continued.
I did so well on my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam (our equivalent of SATs) that I was called to Ashesi University in Ghana for my undergraduate studies. Not only that, but I also secured a MasterCard Scholarship to fully sponsor my UG and PG studies. From my flight ticket to the clothes on my back, everything was taken care of.
Wait, what? You’re a MasterCard Millennium Fellow too? You slipped that in like it’s nothing. How did the transition to Ashesi happen?
Soon after my exams, I founded three organizations. I founded Life Lifters Organisation in Kenya, and to this day we incubate many young girls like myself and try to connect them to life-changing opportunities. Shortly after, I co-founded the Agbogblo.Shine Initiative with Awuah-Darko, a friend in Ghana and the startup focussed on turning toxic e-waste into reusable art. I was featured on the Global Fund for Women program, and also secured a She’s The First Impact fellowship. She’s the First fights gender inequality in education and sponsors and supports young impact-makers. And just like you Ashi, I also became a Melton Fellow and together, people like you and I, we forward the concept of Global Citizenship.
Cynthia was simply counting these achievements on her fingertips as she narrated them to me. And I watched her in awe, thinking of the blood, sweat, and nerve that lay between each of those counts.
So once I actually moved to Ashesi, I thought I was done! But no, then came MasterCard. There’s actually only one explanation for how I became a MasterCard Fellow. There’s actually only one explanation for everything that’s happened so far, really.
(She closes her eyes and whispers to me)
Do you believe in miracles?
Cynthia’s story is nothing short of a whirlwind miracle. But it taught me that miracles take work too. Founder – CEO, Fellow of four reputed organizations, delegate at many international conferences, multiple prestigious scholarships and she’s all of twenty-three years of age. And she is not done yet. What do we take away from this?
The importance of education? Of course. The importance of hard work? Certainly. The importance of self-belief? Definitely. But the most important lesson – to keep fighting. I asked her what her message to other young people would be, and she simply said, ‘Love yourself first, and then save some for the world too.’ Not only did Cynthia fight to make her own life right, she still continues to fight for many young girls like herself.
Cynthia’s found her fire. Cynthia’s fighting the good fight.