Raphael Obonyo, Policy and Youth Specialist

The pages of several News portals are covered with the success stories of Jack Ma, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Alike Dangote and the William Sisters, just to mention a few. However, the successes recorded by these individuals came with a price. The story precedes the glory. From Kenya, we bring to you on COSMPOLITAN, the story of a Young Kenyan Diplomat who grew up in one of the notable slums in Nairobi characterized by severe scarcity.

Raphael Obongo, had a resolve to get out of poverty through Education. Today, Raphael sits on several international boards as a Diplomat, Scholar, and Policy and Youth Strategist.  From his wealth of experience, he tells Victor Gotevbe, Editor-in-Chief of Diplomatic Watch in this interview, how he used education to climb out of the dungeon of poverty and how he has been giving back to his society. Excerpt:

Growing Up

I grew up in Korogocho, the third largest slum in the Capital of Kenya, Nairobi, where people live in abject poverty.

I am the fourth born in a family of nine children, and we all lived in a single room together with our parents. My dad was a cook at the University of Nairobi. He used to walk to and from work daily to support his family.

From an early age, I knew that education would be my only route out of poverty and hence, I took my studies seriously. In school, I befriended my deputy head teacher’s son and we became study partners. The teacher, Stephen Kariuki, would buy books and other school items both for me and his son.

It was impossible to study or do homework in our home because the room was small yet the family was big and there was no enough light as we had to make do with a tiny tin lamp. Mr. Kariuki opened his home for us to study on weekends. I was always first in class and his son would be second, or vice versa.

Despite the hardships I faced, I was among the top students in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams that year. I joined Dagoretti High School.

In school I faced hardships. I was always sent home from school for nonpayment of fees that were always in arrears.

During holidays, I would walk for 10km from Korogocho to MacMillan Library in the city and back, to study. Despite all these hurdles, I performed well and was admitted to the University of Nairobi.

Becoming a Policy and Youth Specialist

After my undergraduate education, I did community work in Korogocho before clinching a Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program’s scholarship to do a Masters in Public Policy at Duke University in the United States.

Motivation for Youth Activism and Development

Having grown up in Korogocho slums, I experienced childhood poverty first-hand and knew too well what this can do to a child’s dream to pursue education. This is one of the reasons as to why I have the interest to push the youth agenda in the Kenya in matters  of unemployment, education and development at heart.

I am also giving back to my community. I have initiated various youth and community development projects in Korogocho slums. These include the Miss Koch Girls Education Initiative, Koch FM, the Youth Congress of Kenya and the Kenya Youth Media.

Notably, the Youth Congress of Kenya and Kenya Youth Media have trained many young people from Korogocho on entrepreneurship, filmmaking and journalism. After training, we help facilitate the trainees to access capital to start small businesses. The initiative is helping to improve living conditions and reduce poverty amongst the youth. As more young people earn a decent living, it is expected they are less likely to commit crimes.

Breaking out of the Poverty Cycle

Growing up in Korogocho was tough as aforementioned- a very unforgiving environment, but it made me strong mentally and prepared me for the long journey ahead.

When you have an upbringing like I had, in an area where kids joined gangs, were led to stay in drugs and were dying young, then everything is always about survival.

So when I got the opportunity to go overseas, to make a career out of the game, I was prepared for toughness. I knew what difficulty was. And when I got to the United States, the choice was simple: do you want to fail and go back to Kenya or do you want to survive?

Education was my meal ticket out of Korogocho, but it was Korogocho that taught me how to do it. I knew I had to make full use of the opportunity I had been given, and that was also what inspired me.

UN Role and Experience

When the call to present profiles for election to the position of a Special Advisor at the United Nations (UN) Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board came, I was nominated, and my profile was subjected to a global vote where it received the highest number of votes. The UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board (YAB) is two-year term board comprising 16 young people from across the world.

Raphael Addressing at an international forum.

The board members volunteer and serve three main roles; represent young people in local and international forums, advise the UN on how to engage urban youth in sustainable urbanization and development, and strengthen youth participation and advocacy in youth-led initiatives.

Through this UN position, I have managed to travel to different countries around the world, I have spoken at many forums, and I have met and shared platforms with presidents and other global leaders.

Sitting on the boards of some international bodies as an African

Currently, I sit on the Boards of international bodies such as the World Bank, the Global Diplomatic Forum, and African Leadership Institute. I have managed to bring real experiences to the discussions and influence a number of decisions. Also, I have built useful networks that have improved livelihoods in the communities.

I have worked across sectors to develop key alliances and identify innovative solutions to achieve concrete outcomes that improve people’s lives.

Writing Books

There is a great proverb-that until the lions have their own historian, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

I wanted to tell our story as young people, the way we know it – our challenges, and what we believe to be the solutions.

The book discusses the need for investment in the Kenyan youth as the country’s greatest asset. The book, which includes a foreword by the former Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, proposes innovative solutions to some of the youth challenges in the country.

Greatest Ambition

I have always described myself as a restless dreamer. My ambition is to one day serve as the Secretary General of the United Nations or the President of my country. But most importantly, I want to keep doing my best at every level, to be the best that I can ever be, and to make a difference in the world.

Advice to other young people

I always shared the story of my life journey to inspire many young men and women out there born in disadvantaged places and positions. I often urge the youth to live by the 3Ds – dream, discipline, and determination.