“I made this call to my mom and I was like, I’m coming back….no, I don’t have a job but maybe I need to be back home for the job to find me”

160825114255-cnn-hero-umra-omar-profile-pkg-00000520-super-169Umra Omar, a native of Lamu, Kenya, works to provide access to healthcare to some of the most marginalized communities in Kenya. Her group, Safari Doctors, offers life-saving medical services to people that would have otherwise have had none.  It is also often targetted by the terrorist group, Al Shabaab.

Does she have any regrets leaving her comfortable life in the USA to do this?

“I have absolutely zero regrets for taking the leap of faith. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Watch more…

http://edition.cnn.com/video/api/embed.html#/video/world/2016/08/25/cnn-hero-umra-omar-profile-pkg.cnn

(photo credits: CNN)

Cameras,coastal humans, and chicken: The Making of Ahmed Juma Bhalo

 

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Ahmed Juma Bhalo is a Kiswahili anchor and reporter at K24 TV in Kenya.  A rising star in the Kenya news business and highly regarded as the next Ahmed Darwesh (deceased), Ahmed reveals that his success didn’t come to him overnight. Here is his story.

 

 

You are a natural in front of the camera and it almost seems that you were born to be an anchor.  How did you get started in broadcasting and what influenced your love for media?

Throughout school, my teachers and classmates would always compliment me on my reading. I was that kid who was chosen every day to read the set books in front of the class while my classmates and teachers listened on.  I remember when I was in Form 2 in Khamis High School (Mombasa), I got a bit too confident and volunteered to present the sports news in front of the entire school.  It was a tormenting experience for me.

That’s a scary experience for most kids.  You must have been shaking quite badly.

Yes, I thought I wouldn’t make it through the presentation.

How long did you do that for? How long did you present sports to the school?

Fortunately, I did it only once. I transferred to Rasul High School a year later.  At Rasul, my schoolmates used to report incidents to me,  and I would record myself reporting the incidents on my camera.  I think that’s when my love of journalism developed.  After I graduated from high school, I used to wear a borrowed suit from my neighbour, hold a pretend microphone against my chest and imitate newscasters.  I really did it for the laughs. The people in my neighbourhood loved my performances.  I also had a Youtube Channel where I uploaded my “anchoring” videos purely for entertainment’s sake.

Your first stint as a professional anchorman was at K24 TV.

Yes. I also did field reporting.

How was your first job like?

K24 actually hired me as a trainee when I was still a student at the University of Nairobi. That was on December 22, 2011.  One week later, I anchoring live on air.  It was excited but I was also very nervous.

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Ahmed in his early anchoring days

 

How long did you do this for?

I worked at K24 for two years before being laid off during a mass retrenchment on August 8th,  2013.

That must have been devastating.  How did the redundancy affect you?

It affected me both financially and psychologically.  My faith, however, helped tremendously during this difficult time; I was always taught to be grateful for all circumstances, both good and bad. Everything happens according to God’s will and my redundancy was what was fated for me.  Deep in my heart, I knew that losing my job was not the end of the world. Nikajiamsha, nikapangusa magoti (I got up and dusted my knees).  I knew that this was all part of a journey and that  being jobless wasn’t my final destination.

That’s an amazing attitude.

Alhamdulillah (Thanks be to God)

During this difficult time of uncertainty, did you reach out to any support system? What were your coping strategies?

I just shook off that feeling of despair and refused to let my employment status define me.  I was young and I wanted to earn a halal living.  When I relocated back to Mombasa, I became a small business owner selling and delivering chicken to local residents.  Those were my Kuku Pap days.

 

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Delivering chicken to a customer

 

That’s one thing I admire about you. You didn’t think that selling chicken was beneath you.  You made a living selling chicken and you did it with a smile on your face.  I saw your Facebook adverts.  Your work ethic earned you many supporters and admirers along the way.

Yes, I did get a lot of support from a lot of people. Some of them would come from as far away as Nyali to come buy chicken from me in town.  That’s almost a 45-minute commute.  There were many butcheries along the way but what they wanted was to support me and my business. I felt appreciated.  I will never forget that feeling.

I sold chicken but I kept my passions alive through citizen journalism.

Are you referring to your wildly popular Kiswahili Facebook series, Viumbe vya Mombasa?

Yes. A lot of people followed it. It was similar to the ‘Humans of New York’ blog, but I interviewed the people on the streets of Mombasa.

 

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During a ‘Viumbe vya Mombasa’ interview

 

Who was your most memorable kiumbe (human)?

I’ll never forget Mzee Abdallah Alwy Al Ahdaly.    He was a 68 year old man who used to sell labania, a local sweet.  Many men of his age in Mombasa are usually self-retired. They sit at home all day and get taken care of their children.  Mzee rejected this lifestyle- he chose to keep on working. He was proud of himself.  There are thousands of young men and women in Mombasa who are jobless but they are extremely picky with their jobs.  They’d rather waste their lives idling at home all day than sell on the streets.  Mzee al Ahdaly’s personal philosophy was to always earn his own money using his own labour. He insisted that the youth need to develop a less picky mentality towards work.

Did you sell chicken for a long time?

No.  A few months after my relocation to Mombasa, I was offered a job at KBC as a Kiswahili reporter. I did that for a year and then moved back to K24 to serve as a Kiswahili news anchor.

 You are persistent with your dreams.  What does persistence mean to you?

It’s about being focused and knowing what you want.

I love this.

 Tell me more about your family dynamic.  You come from a family of cultural and academic giants. How did your family’s fame affect you?

I come from an interesting family.  Some of my uncles were journalists, ambassadors, and historians.  My father, Juma Bhalo, was a taarab musician who was world famous for his singing.  My love for KiSwahili was greatly influenced by him. When I first started my TV job, I used to call myself Ahmed Bhalo. Before long I changed it to Ahmed Juma Bhalo, it was an issue of reclaiming my father-son identity.  I wanted to be known as the son of THE Juma Bhalo.

I was also greatly inspired by my uncle, the great poet Ustadh Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo.  He was the composer for most of my father’s songs; his command of the Kiswahili language is profound.

In what way did your parents inspire you? What’s the most important thing that they have contributed to your success?

My mom is, and will always be my number one fan. She has always been supportive of my career choice. Initially, my dad was against me pursuing journalism.  He wanted me to be an advocate for reasons I have never understood. However I stood my ground and insisted on journalism, and he eventually supported my career dreams.  He supported me financially and paid for my university education. I am where I am today because of what he sacrificed for me.   Alhamdulillah, I am a proud son of two beautiful souls.

You obviously enjoy doing your current job.  Where would you want to be in 5 years time?

I am going back to school for my Masters, InshaAllah. There are other plans in the works but wouldn’t want to reveal them now. Tukutane (let’s meet) in 5 years.

 I can’t wait.

What advice would you give to youngsters wanting to do what you do?

Journalism is a passion and a calling. If you have the passion for it, just soldier on. It is a great profession, I am living my dream.

Journalism is self-made. Would you agree with that statement? You have to go after the stories and create your own brand…isn’t it?

You are what you mould yourself to be.  Your brand is in your hands.

Absolutely. Here’s one last question to conclude this interview: What is your definition of success?

Success to me is about having three things: peace of mind, a family that supports each other; and a good relationship with your Creator.

 

THANK YOU, AHMED!

 

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With co-host, Mwanaisha Chidzuga

 

You can find Ahmed on TV every weekend hosting the Kiswahili news at K24 or follow him on Facebook.

(All photos were used by permission from Ahmed’s Facebook page)

Sometimes courage rides a bike

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Courage isn’t always the macho man on the battlefield with hot spurts of adrenaline pumping through his veins. His tools are not always a sword, gun or some high-tech machinery that paints fear on the faces of men. Courage sometimes isn’t even the even necessarily the loudest voice amongst us, the one that is always champion when it comes to the war of wits and words. Sometimes courage is that determined body riding on a bicycle delivering crisp radishes to the doorsteps of Mombasa.

He goes by ‘Muhammud bin Donge’, a nickname probably coined in fond reference to his ties to the popular Mombasa community based group, Donge La Mombasa Welfare Group. There are some pretty amazing individuals in Donge, but what really sets this guy apart is his determination to make a living for himself and his young family in the face of impossibilities. Mombasa’s economy is bad. A lot of young people are either finishing up high school, entering college, or handing out CV’s. Those that aren’t employed tend to sit at home and wait for something to come up. What does Bin Donge do? He grabs a bike and delivers the popular white radish to homes across Mombasa. I honestly would have never thought of venturing into a radish delivery business. This is, after all Mombasa, a city with its own metropolis chaos: crazy traffic jams, hot tarmac steaming in the midday sun, dusty exhaust fumes spewing in the air. Cycling can be a challenge here but doing it during Ramadhan (the holy Islamic month of fasting) is not for the faint of heart. It takes the strong of heart.

By the way, Muhammad is also an active volunteer in Donge. Every Sunday, he’s out with young wife and child, and the rest of the group visiting the needy and handing out vital food rations. If he’s not the living definition of a community role model, I don’t know what is.

Often times the people who leave me with the strongest impression are those that radiate joy when all the opportunities for depression are present; those who do not let their humble circumstances determine their outlook in life. They inspire others to the greater good not just through their words, but through their actions. And rather than complain about their misery and wait for someone to make their lives better, they take charge and do what it takes to provide for their families. They take charge and do what it takes to make their communities stronger. The world needs more men like Muhammad.

If you are in the Mombasa area and would like to have some delicious radishes delivered to you, call Muhammad:
Tel: 0721609921

When you give, you receive: The Kikoneni Experience

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Every Muslim has to give in charity.” The people then asked: “(But what) if someone has nothing to give, what should he do?” The Prophet replied: “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and also give in charity (from what he earns).” The people further asked: “If he cannot find even that?” He replied: “He should help the needy who appeal for help.” Then the people asked: “If he cannot do (even) that?” The Prophet said finally: “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from evil deeds, and that will be regarded as charitable deeds.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 524

For the past one month, Donge La Mombasa Welfare Group (a CBO based in Mombasa, Kenya, that I am involved in) has been collecting donations in what is officially called the ‘Ramadhan Iftar Donation Appeal’. Set up as a special Ramadhan charity event, the purpose of the donation appeal is to donate food to local orphans and impoverished residents of Mombasa and its surrounding villages during this holy month. Our financial expectations were modest (expecting to receive enough to feed a village one weekend), so we were pleasantly surprised to find that after just few weeks we had collected enough money to feed a village each weekend of the month. Kikoneni, a small and impoverished rural community in Kwale district, was selected to be the first recipient of the Iftar drive. After supplies were purchased (bales of flour, rice, legumes, and oil), Donge members made their way to the remote village. Once there, they were met by the village elders and residents who welcomed them warmly into their community. One by one, the pre-packaged Iftar packages were unloaded and delivered to the doorsteps of the Kikoneni residents.

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The local children were also treated to kid-friendly treats such as biscuits and sweets…..

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After a long day carrying and distributing heavy packages under the hot equatorial sun, the Donge pickup truck was finally empty. Exhausted and disheveled but humbled nonetheless, Donge members bid the Kikoneni villagers goodbye and made their way back to Mombasa.

For the volunteers at Kikoneni, the day turned out to be one that they would not forget in a long time. The feedback that we got back from them was overwhelmingly positive:

“The best experience of my life!”
“I had so much fun; it didn’t feel like work. I also met new people and have established new friendships”
“This was the first time I feel that I spent my pre-Ramadhan celebration (mfungo) wisely…The smiles on people’s faces made me feel like I had accomplished something great”
“Volunteering made me feel grateful for what I already have”
“I hope I have many more opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life”

Donge volunteers lent their hands to help people that could probably never pay them back, but what they got back was infinitely more than what they gave. Kikoneni gave them a sense of joy-a spiritual, mental, and emotional high-that only comes when you dedicate your time, energy, and financial resources to those who are less fortunate than yourself.

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DLMWG has a lot more work to do this Ramadhan, and we hope that the proceeding charity events will be better than the last. About twenty people were present at the last event; we hope the number will double in the next event. If you are interested in making a financial donation or in volunteering your time to feed the needy in Mombasa, please let us know by following the link provided below:
http://anubillu.wix.com/dongelamombasa#!get_involved/c8k2

Strengthening Our Swahili Communities: When Words Are No Longer Enough

I have noticed lately that there seems to be a rise in religious overzealousness without much practical applications to fundamental religious teachings of being a responsible citizen of the community.  While I have derived my observations specifically from my interactions with fellow Muslims from my East African community via social media sites, this trend seems to be more pronounced among social circles that identify themselves as fairly conservative and traditional.  Before I go any further, I would like to state that I am pro-democracy and free speech, and I believe that each person is entitled to living her/his personal philosophy as long as it doesn’t harm others.  The problem I have is that there are plenty of ‘proud to be Muslim/Islam is the best’ declarations without much practice to them.  The old adage “Talk is cheap” has not survived this long for no reason-people tend to say a lot without necessarily doing a lot.

One of the key characteristics that separates humans from other organisms is self-determination.  Non-human lives are largely determined by environmental factors and their actions are basically driven by individual primal survival needs. Their day is generally summarized as ‘today I will either be the hunter or the hunted’.   Humans on the other hand have higher and more complex social brains; the evolution of our intelligence has allowed us to constantly push physical boundaries so much so that the saying ‘the sky is the limit’ today sounds rather old-fashioned.  Our social intelligence however sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. While we are at a point where we are exploring life on Mars, we tend to be Neanderthals when dealing with each other. It’s no wonder we are constantly bashing each other back into the proverbial Stone Age.

ImageAlbert Einstein is quoted as saying “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.  Our community today is ridden with poverty, corruption, and poor education standards; factors that contribute to the underdevelopment of our society.  Every Mpwani is talking about our Swahili towns being taken over by non-indigenous folk.  There is real fear of our once proud and indestructible culture dwindling to extinction.  Things need to change in order to stop our towns from going in a downward spiral.  To talk of positive change is good, but in order to ensure long lasting and sustainable improvements, the very nucleus of our social DNA has to be altered.  We need to think on a micro scale rather than a macro scale.

There is a verse in the Quran that states:

“And indeed Allah does not change a peoples’ condition unless they change what is in themselves” (13:11).

I honestly feel that changing the world doesn’t start with complicated legislations, high-tech machinery, or performing social welfare stunts that would rival Superman’s physical feats. Often times, the greatest impact for global change starts with our own personal conviction to be that change. And before you can start telling me that ‘mateso yetu ni majaliwa’ (our problems are pre-destined), I challenge you to think of problems as opportunities for growth rather than decline. Think of human beings as balls in a pool table; our individual movements have a direct impact on other balls as well.  The way we come into contact with other balls will determine how those other balls roll, eventually determining if that winning ball will fall into the hole or not.  If you were a ball, would you give a winning ‘hit’ to other balls? In your daily life, will you grumble about how life is unfair or will you be the one that makes someone else’s day better? Will you give a smile rather than waiting for one? Will you build yourself up economically rather than wait for government handouts (that are dwindling every day anyhow).  Will you be the one that inspires others to serve the common good?

Mombasa, Lamu, and the rest of the Coast have what it takes be a key player in Kenya’s development.   Consequently, our increased participation in activities that promote self-reliance will also ensure that our standard of living will improve as a whole.  In the popular song ‘Azimio la Arusha’, taarab legend Juma Bhalo extols the virtues of self-reliance:

“Ni jambo lenye fakhari-mtu kujitegemeya,

Humwepuka kila shari,-na balaa za duniya,

Kwa uwezo wa Qahari- mambo yote hutengeya” 

Translation:

(Self reliance is a virtuous attribute, one to take pride in,

Through self reliance, (social and economic) calamities of life are detracted away from you,

By God’s will, a lot of success goes in your favor)

In the end, perhaps it is common human decency that will end up being our saving grace.  The concept of do unto others what you would wish to be done to you has to be the social norm in order for us to be successful as a group.  Declarations of religious pride don’t elevate a community. Actions do.