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Dr. Auma Obama on Dispelling Victim Mentality and Redefining Poverty

Dr. Obama is  also a published author, having released her memoir “And Then Life Happens” in both German and English.

In 2010 Dr. Auma Obama founded the Sauti Kuu Foundation which seeks to give a voice to financially and socially disadvantaged children.

We talked about sustainable economic growth and supporting children holistically from the age of 4 to 25. We also discussed a strategy for everyday people who want to engage in philanthropy and what steps to get started. The focus of the interview, however, was victim mentality. How do we get away from it and redefine the notion poverty?

You can get in touch with Dr. Obama on Twitter @aumaobama and find out more about the Sauti Kuu Foundation and how to make a donation at

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:  (00:00)

Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to have on today’s show an award winning humanitarian and hugely popular international speaker on sustainable economic growth. Dr. Auma Obama lived in, worked in Germany and the UK for several years before returning to Kenya. In 2010, Dr. Obama founded the Sauti Kuu Foundation, which seeks to give a voice to disadvantaged children. Dr. Obama is a published author, having recently released her memoir “And Then Life Happens” in both German and English. We talked about sustainable economic growth, supporting children holistically from the age of four to 25, dispelling the victim mentality, and redefining the notion of poverty. We also discussed the strategy for everyday people who want to engage in philanthropy, and we touched on Auma’s famous brother a tiny bit, so let’s get into it. Auma, it is such a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here on When Women Win.


Auma Obama:  (01:07)

Thank you for having me.


Rana Nawas:  (01:09)

What was your first job out of college when you finished in Germany? You did your master’s and then your PHD or did you work in between?


Auma Obama:  (01:15)

Actually, I worked in between because in school in the holidays you could get jobs at, I studied in Heidelberg in Germany and one of my first jobs wasn’t such a good job. I probably worked in a hospital in the kitchen, you know, serving food to the patients. So yeah, part of it being because at the time when I was going to school in Germany, it was very difficult as a foreigner to get certain types of jobs. So the most jobs didn’t require you to speak the language strangely enough because actually we were there to learn the language and that was part of my course. So the very first job I had wasn’t a job that I would have liked to have stayed in. So when I moved to England, when I got married and I moved to England, I was like, okay, what do I do? And the problem is that the film scene, the television scene is all in London and I didn’t live in London and I had a little daughter by then. So I decided, okay, I’m going to have to look for a way to earn my money. First time I had to think that way instead of thinking what I wanted to do creatively, changing the world and I ended up working as a project manager for a telemarketing company that was actually working on selling products around IT, you know, so it was quite completely different than what I did originally and I was actually not very happy doing that. But eventually I found my niche because I started working with kids on a voluntary basis while I was still in England and ended up in the children’s services properly employed and that’s when my path changed and I started moving toward seeing how I can work with children and young people to impact and change society through empowering them.


Rana Nawas:  (03:00)

And eventually you moved back to Kenya to do just that and joined Care International where you worked on sport for social change. What, can you tell us about that initiative? What was it’s objective and what was it’s impact?


Auma Obama:  (03:01)

In a nutshell, what we did was we used sport as a vehicle to engage children and young people, disadvantaged children, young people, usually financially disadvantaged children, young people, and help them to start having positive behavior patterns and enable them to integrate into society and improve their lives. But we use sport again because sport is really quite a great at doing that because it’s a repetition activity, so they keep coming back, you don’t lose them, they enjoy themselves, they discover themselves without being forced into looking at themselves initially and eventually when they open up are able to be more confident, have a better sense of self worth. They actually then become very active and change their lives. So that’s what we did using sport, you know, as a vehicle and we focus mainly on girls in the work we did because girls tend to step back and when they’re in a situation where they’re active where boys or young people are, they tend to sit back and let the boys go ahead. So the idea was to work with both genders but always to make sure that girls don’t get left behind.


Rana Nawas:  (04:09)

Oh, what ages did you observe that the girls were stepping back?


Auma Obama:  (04:12)

Girls in general because obviously I’m still working with children, young people from a very young age, very, very young age. I mean you find, we work now which children from the ages of four to 25 and I would say that when you’re looking at a child that is about six years old, they’re already stepping back, you know, because a four year old doesn’t know any better and a four year old is pretty selfish. You know, gender neutral selfish. But when you’re getting to be 6 years old and you, because you’re also hearing all the time and you’re seeing how your brother or your sister is being treated. So you start fitting in and getting in line with whatever it is that is expected of you and that’s where we noticed that the young girls tend to step back and let the boys push ahead and the boys take it because they take it for granted because nobody’s telling them don’t. So we try to tell them, no, wait a minute, don’t leave the girls behind and the girls also don’t get left behind.


Rana Nawas:  (05:00)

So I have two thoughts on that. First your observations are exactly in line with a report that Princeton University released earlier this year. I don’t know if you read that.


Auma Obama:  (05:10)

Oh, so I’m not just a pretty face, right? No, I haven’t. I just noticed from my own observation.


Rana Nawas:  (05:16)

That’s incredible and this is actually something that I might work on as I leave GE and move into the next phase, an entrepreneurial venture. This might be the problem that I’m going to look at solving, which is at the age of five, girls and boys have the same level of confidence. By the age of six, girls already are significantly less confident. Both girls and boys by the age of six believe that boys are smarter and stronger.


Auma Obama:  (05:41)

So I’m really, really happy to hear you say that because everybody kind of goes, huh? When I tell them I work with children from the ages of four to 25, they always sound like, why are you doing that? No, I mean like it’s too early and I really, I feel and I know that is why it’s necessary to start that young and another reason I work with them until they’re 25, it’s necessary to finish that later because they have to be on a path whereby you know that they’re going to succeed. You have to hold their hand even after they’re finished, whatever the educational studies, whatever the skills are that they’ve learned because they are maneuvering a space that is new to them and they need that person walking the walk with them to a little extent and I always call it like passing on the baton in a relay race, you know, you will run together at some point, you pass it on and let them run on their own. But the first few stages they need to have us running with them in order for them to win the race.


Rana Nawas:  (06:36)

Yeah, I agree and the second thought that I had on that was was actually that team sports significantly increased girls’ confidence. Maybe not girls, even. I mean anyone who does team sports appears to be significantly more confident than those that do individual sports. Have you observed something like that?


Auma Obama:  (06:57)

I think even more so than that, they become confident. They’re more thoughtful because there’s, it’s a certain confidence that has to also do with humility because if you’re playing a single alone sport where you alone play on your own, be tennis, you know, even golf or one of these other sports, your focus is on yourself, but with a team sport, your focus is on yourself and the rest of the team. You are part of a whole and what you do is just as important as what the other person does and it can affect. It can make or break your team and that knowledge kind of humbles you as well. So it’s not, you can’t be because there’s a level of confidence that becomes overconfidence and become selfishness and what we turn to we say no, you’re part of a group. You’re part of a group that makes a whole and all of you play a part and all of you are important at whatever part you play, you know. Even the person sitting in the bleachers cheering is equally important if that person is from your team. So this is what sport does and it does it in a way that is not strenuous. It’s not difficult, especially for kids. It’s not difficult for them to do that. It’s not difficult for them to raise their voice, you know, they don’t even realize they’re doing it until they’ve done it and then they’re looking at the, oh, was that me? And that, you know, and that aha moment of I exist. Me, the me in all of it is so, so important because we try and that’s why we say the gender part comes into play, but more importantly is who are you as a human being, as a person. That must be really, really strong.


Rana Nawas:  (08:22)

So in 2010 you set up the Sauti Kuu Foundation. Why?


Auma Obama:  (08:28)

Well, I set it up because I was working in the NGO world, but mainstream and I was rather frustrated. Reason being because I worked in a big organization and in this big organization I had a sense that the work I was doing on paper had a lot of significance. But on the ground, the actual work being done was institutionalized. What I mean by that is that it was about numbers very much so, and it was about the idea of what we were doing and this is, you know, we’re doing sports for social change, empowering in particular girls, but when you looked at it and said, okay, what happens to the individual girl? How far can we take this girl? It wasn’t very far in my opinion because we’re donor driven. Because the classic form of aid is donor driven. That donor is so to speak, the God. I respect the donor, no doubt about it, but if they are giving funds and donating, the expertise must be within the organization. That means the donor needs to be informed how best their money can impact to achieve what it is that they want to put their money towards and the trouble with most of our organizations is that we’re doing it different to the extent where we say, okay, the donor wants to give us money for three years and they’re putting their money into this particular basket of our many baskets and in three years we have to have a certain results for them. So we push to make things happen so that we satisfy the donor and after three years the donor may be satisfied and say, okay, I’ll give you another three years or I’ll give you another year and we work toward that. But if the donor decides, okay, now I want to give money to not for girls but for cats or for whatever, you know, growing trees, then they move on and at that moment the program, the project stops everything. The people who are employed have to look for another job. If they’re local, the ones who are international go and join another organization and the kids are left Willy Nilly and my feeling is that if you’re working with children and you have a child who is eight years old and your program and you have managers for three years, that child is going to be, what, 11 years old when you’re done, that child is not ready. You have not made it. You have not impacted that child because if nothing else happens, the most formative years in terms of being a young adult will be time when they have nothing. They’re from the slums. They have, they’re despairing. So it needs to be a program or one needs to work, in my opinion and that’s why I started my own foundation, in that we work with children and young people, they are there for the long run. So when we started with our four year old, we are anticipating that that four year old will be with us till they’re 25. Now, in terms of the funding, we try to educate our donors so that they realize that in order to work holistically, we are only done with that four year old when that four year old is an young adult who is financially independent. Which means that any funding that we get, I call it back office, the young people or our beneficiaries must never know the impact of us having no money, so we need to organize ourselves as an organization in such a way that even if the funds are only for three years, they overlap with other funds that make it for the children at the forefront seamless and that is something that most organizations do not consider and it is really dramatic. It is actually traumatic for these children who we are working with who then end up having nothing because the organization has stopped because there’s no more funding. You hear that constantly and that used to really, really disturb me because I worked with grassroots organizations. That’s the network that I build and they spent at least 60 percent of the time running off to funds, chasing after donors, looking for money and only 40 percent actually doing the program and to work like that for me is not sustainable. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not realistic. We need to change the way we work with organizations. It has to be like a business, it has to make, it has to be feasible and that’s why I said I’m going to look for a model that works on these young people can be accompanied throughout the period that they need in order to be at a place where they are financially independent and that’s what my foundation does.


Rana Nawas:  (12:25)

Well, I mean, how is Sauti Kuu different in terms of your funding, how you raise funds? Is it kind of just that you, you still go to private donors and you ensure that they’ve overlapped?


Auma Obama:  (12:37)

We go to different donors, so as of now we’re 60. 60, sorry. I wish, we’re six years old going into our seventh year and what we’ve done is we’ve had private funding that we get through different organizations, different people. We get funding also from the private sector, corporate, and they are interested in what we do. They are interested in our work, our vision, what then happens with the way we work, and I can do that because they’re much smaller and I’m the founder, I create a relationship with all the people who donate to Sauti Kuu. I take the time, we talked about time earlier, it takes time. Not just money. I take the time to get to know them personally and I take the time to explain what we do to them and I take the time to draw them into what we do. So it’s not just about them giving money, they must give of themselves and giving up themselves mean that, means that they have to be aware of what we’re doing. If not even participate. They need to at some point visit us and see what we do and, on top of that, because of the way we work with them, the funding may end in terms of the money they give us, but because we continued the conversation, they’re aware when the money ends at the program, the activities continue, they can then sign posters to others who then give us money. So what ends up happening is that I’ve created a network of supporters who, if I’m not getting money from this group now, they will point and say, hey, you know what, there’s this organization. Let me sign post you and they will vouch for us. So through that we’ve created a network that is quite stable. We don’t, we never have enough funds so we’re always looking fo a bigger network, but what then happens is that it then happens at the fund’s overlap because they’ve been, recommended us to another organization that can fund us and then it goes all the way around to a point when they are getting ready to fund us. For example, we had a gala that was done by one of our supporters. This is the second time she’s done it and this time we raise double as much as we raised before. So it goes around because I maintain the relationship, I educate them and tell them the work we do is about reaching these children at every level of their lives. Not just about putting a ball in the mix, not just about putting the girls in school, not just about giving the parents a possibly to do to grow kitchen garden. All of it links up because the parent growing the kitchen garden that then puts food on the table and takes food to market is going to make enough money to take over and start paying the school fees so you we don’t have to do that because we’ve empowered the parent to do that. The child that does well in school also at the same time has to learn a skill and the skill that they learn is going to be not just the hard skills, the technical skills, they also need to learn soft skills. That is why we do the sports. So we link it all up and they realiz that holistically, everything counts. So I’m lucky that way that I actually end up getting unrestricted funding because restricted funding is also a problem because if it’s restricted, you cannot use it for anything else and then it stops.


Rana Nawas:  (15:28)

Unrestricted meaning not earmarked for a certain.


Auma Obama:  (15:30)

It’s not earmarked because they believe in the whole program as it is but there’s a lot of work involved with that. I don’t call it sacrifice, but I use a lot of time. I’m seldom at home because I’m constantly traveling. I’m constantly talking to people, explaining what I do. So I really, I am the walking, talking, marketing vehicle and fought, fought, fought for this model that I have, I’ve created and this model is not just for me, as Sauti Kuu, is not just for the region I’m working in, in western Kenya. It’s a pilot because I honestly believe that this is the model that works and the best part of it is that the way the model works is we don’t give anything for free. We don’t, we even, you know, there was this saying, oh, well we’ll give you, we’ll take your kids to school because you’re poor or this. You come to our training, we’ll give you money for come to the training. Like I told you, poverty is no excuse. So what we tell the families is that you have resources. We will show you. Be it land, be it your intellect and with the resources that you have, we will show you how to make your own money so they end up making their own money, saving their own money, and we facilitate that through creating the platform, physical and mental in terms of the headspace, and also in terms of the knowhow. We bring people who can train them, who can show them, who can walk the walk with them and who can then partner with them so they end up achieving the goal of being able to be independent financially. So all of the work we do, and actually the interesting thing about our work apart from working with kids from the age of four, is that all of them pay a small membership fee.


Rana Nawas:  (17:00)

Oh, wow.


Auma Obama:  (17:00)

The membership fee is very little. It’s only fifty cents a year, which is peanuts really in the normal sense of the word. But for a child it means, oh my God, I paid. Look, this belongs to me and the parents even just pay fifty cents. So they know that they’ve got really value for their little bit of money that they put in. But they own it so they can never, even, they wouldn’t even let it, they won’t destroy it, they won’t. They will value it. They take it really, really seriously because they see from where it takes them to where it brings them, but on their own strength, on the work that they do, we just support them. We accompany them and we show them the most simplest ways to get to the places where they already want to go themselves. We get into their heads and try and find out what do they want to do and how can they get to being from a position of being a victim to a position of being somebody who is really, in their own right, able to take care of their own lives.


Rana Nawas:  (17:55)

And it sounds like you get there by looking holistically, not just at the child at every age, but also at their community because you’re talking about their parents and how you educate the parents. Because all of this needs to be influenced at home too.


Auma Obama:  (18:10)

Yes. In fact, what we do, which is also another unique part of what we do, is that we only work with the parents or the children who are in our program and we told the parents because we’ve had adults come and say, oh, we want to be part of it, and we say unfortunately, unless your child is in our program, we won’t take you on because the idea is that we’re actually working on the child. We’re trying to change the mindset of the child from being a victim, from thinking they’re poor, all these negative, you know, development aid type character, stereotyping type of person. We want to move them away from that. So as a child we’re working with, but in the process of working with a child, we know that they go home to their parents. We know that their parents have to buy into what we’re doing in order to give them that space to grow, the growth that we’re trying to create in them and what ends up happening is that we started a project, just to give you an example, how we bring the parents in is initially that children would come to us and they were always hungry. They didn’t get enough to eat, so we knew we were going to involve the parents at some point, but we hadn’t really figured out when exactly. So I, you know, I sat with my staff and colleagues and I told them, we cannot be feeding these children because we have a demonstration garden, to show what is possible to grow there. So they have no excuse, again, no excuse. Poverty is no excuse, so they have no excuse. We grew indigenous vegetables, indigenous crops, cereals, fruit, etcetera. So they would come and ask if they could take something from the garden, the children and they say, oh mom said, can we ask? And the lady was in charge of that. She was, she has a big heart for the kids. So she’d be giving them and I said, we have to stop this because the same land we are growing this food on is the land they have and we have big compounds in this community in western Kenya where the homestead is very big and it’s just grass. They don’t grow anything there. So I said, we are going to start kitchen gardens and it’s going to be called Grow to Eat, the project, so that they can actually literally in their little hut, which is a kitchen, they can grow their vegetables, they can grow fruit, passion fruit. They can grow a bit of cereal so they have a full meal, you know, they can have their beans for their protein that they can put on the table straight from their garden. So they started doing that, but obviously because they have more land, they grew a little bit too much and from what they were going to put on the table, they started sending it to market, taking it to market. In fact, the market came to them because the neighbors started coming to us to have some vegetables and then they would sell to them. So they started making money, which we then started a project called Grow to Earn and with the money that they made, these are the parents, we then told them, now that you have money because you always think when you’re poor, you can’t save. We’re going to start a savings scheme and the saving scheme is called table banking. Very simple on the table. They put every two weeks a certain amount of money based on the group’s lowest common denominator. The one who can give the least. That’s what everybody saves for two weeks. So nobody has an excuse. Again, no excuses. So they save. Every two weeks they save this money, but it’s table banking, which means the money should not stay in the bank i.e. on the table. So they borrow from each other to do different things, to pay for school fees, buy school books, to take the kids to the hospital to pay for school fees and that money is given back with a small interest. But they keep doing this every two weeks. So every and the idea is to let the money go out, out, out, out. It needs to be spent and but it has to be back by the end of the year. So at the end of the year, they all put the money back. Now you imagine all these women, 14 women or so because we have three different groups about that number or put that money in the end of the year. They get it back. So whatever you are saving, be it 100 euros in this case, let’s use that as an example. 100 Kenyan shillings every two weeks. By the end of the year, you’re getting that money back with interest. So at the end of the year, every one of these women has enough money to maybe pay school fees for the next two terms. To pay for college for a child. To pay to repair their home to put instead of the, you know, hey put corrugated steel iron roof for themselves. So they were able to do all these things which had before, if you’d asked them before they joined the scheme, we’re too poor we can’t do anything and then what we tell them is, but look, it’s your own money. It’s from the crop that you grew and the only thing we give them is a starter pack of seeds that has seeds that are protein, seeds for fruit that is your vitamins, seeds for fruit that is your cereal, you know. So all this is just a small little plate that has a startup pack for your kitchen garden and that way we’ve got them onboard. They’re earning their own money and what we tell and what the best part of it is that because we work with the kids, it’s not us who goes and tell the parents, tells the parents or the grandparents to come and join us and start the kitchen garden project. It’s the kids who go and say, mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, come and and join because we can then do this at home. So the kids are bringing their children and this is also another way of looking at things because I will say adults, youth need to listen to kids. So now the kids are telling them this is what you need to do because we need to eat and this is a way we can eat. So the children are bringing their parents on board and the minute that children do that, we have them.


Rana Nawas:  (23:00)

For life.


Auma Obama:  (23:00)

All of the work that we do, we have them. We have the parents as well and the children have taught the parents and the children because they’ve done it. That’s what they’re going to do. Hopefully, you know, in their life.


Rana Nawas:  (23:10)

So I want to come back to something that you’ve mentioned a few times now. I’ve heard it’s said that, you know, Africans didn’t know they were poor until the aid agencies went and told them so. Right? And you often say poverty is not an excuse. Could you expand on that?


Auma Obama:  (23:27)

Well, one of the things is before I even go to saying poverty is no excuse. I try to define what the people I work with think is poor. What does it mean to be poor? Because I believe that word needs to be redefined. Like you said, the aid agencies came and told us we were poor and why did they say were poor? Because we live in mud huts. We don’t have running water. We don’t have electricity. That’s not a reason to be poor and I tell the kids, I tell them, you know what? If you go to the Nordic countries in Europe, you’ll be up in some cabin where there’s no running water, where there’s no electricity, and you have a pit latrine and you’re paying a lot of money to be able to go on holiday and return to nature. We have it already.


Rana Nawas:  (24:06)

Yeah, you’re right.


Auma Obama:  (24:06)

So, you know, because of that I say you’re not necessarily poor and if you really think you’re poor, we think that thought being poor because if you look around you, our local resources, which we don’t use, which in most cases the aid agency didn’t tell us to use because why are you assisting people and saying their poor. We need to help them. We need to get them out of poverty, when actually they have learned that is the biggest wealth possible. The biggest asset that anybody can have, arable land, that anybody can have, and this is what we do. We tell them, look around you. You actually are wealthier than me because you have all this land. We’re working on one acre where our site at Sauti Kuu is, but you have all this land and you’re not using it. You’re not growing it. It is valuable valuable land and we try to show them that so don’t think you’re poor before you’ve actually done everything you can to enriching yourself and it doesn’t work. But before you’ve done anything and you let yourself be defined as poor, that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense and that’s why I say poverty is no excuse because actually, where you might think you’re poor, you’re not poor at all, you know and that’s why we really work on redefining what poverty means and if you were to come to where we are at Sauti Kuu in western Kenya, you would see that apart from having, you know, building days of brick and mortar. We also have huts. We’ve built huts on purpose to show how beautiful these huts are. The hey, the most coolest place on the whole side is when you go into the hut because it doesn’t get so heated up like the corrugated iron roofs and actually if you wanted to be a little bit sophisticated, we actually put a cement floor and we ran wires and we now have electricity in there. So the young people can actually go in there, one of the huts is our library where they actually have a light which they can switch on and get electricity and they sit in this, the coolest place on the whole site and they can study and read and learn. So it’s really relative and they need to realize that because we need to regain our dignity by realizing that how we were defined isn’t necessarily how we really are. You know, for thousands of years we sustained ourselves, thousands of years. Looked after the land, you know, fed ourselves, lived well, were bright, intelligent and all of a sudden, in the last hundred years, 70, even less, you know, in my country, where suddenly we were being redefined and being told, we can’t look after ourselves. We’re too poor. We have to wait for something to come from outside or someone to come from outside to save us from the misery of our lives, you know, that doesn’t make sense.


Rana Nawas:  (26:34)

There’s something happening in the world now, I feel this Zeit Geist where we’re redefining what poor is and redefining what rich is. So I was talking to Ida earlier and it’s interesting because her definition of rich is not just money.


Auma Obama:  (26:47)

That’s very, very true. That’s what I say because you know there’s a standard of living and then there’s just being rich and I say it just like that. There’s just being rich, there’s just having money. But it doesn’t mean it improves your standard, your quality of life, actually. That’s what it is. You need the quality of life there’s a lot more than just having money and that’s why I think it’s very important to redefine what one thing’s poverty is and for me, for my work, it’s important that the people I work with start with redefining what they think poverty is for them and what it isn’t. Because for us, we’re in the cities, in the urban areas. A bit of money is really quite important to go with it because we have expanded. We have overheads. We have to pay for rent, etcetera, etcetera. But in the countryside, when you own your land, you’re living in your own heart. I can guarantee that the people I work with, when we get to the stage in the work that we’re doing, you can get to a point where you can actually feed your family using minimal money because even oil to fry your food, when you grow peanuts, you can make oil. You can make the oil to fry your food with your onions and whatever, you know. Salt. There’s so many, there’s so much you can do and that’s what excites me about this prospect of what happens at Sauti Kuu because we’re still able to do it and that’s why I have a sense of urgency because in Africa you still have so many places where we’re not so far away from that time when we knew how to look after the land, where we knew how to feed ourselves. We still have our indigenous crops. We still have our indigenous trees, our indigenous fruit, so we must, must, must now as a matter of urgency, recognize that and start growing our own crops that are sustainable. That are so nutritious. Moringa tree, the Moringa tree, which is the biggest rave in Europe and the West as a whole now that cures a multiple number of diseases and boost immune system is so expensive to buy in Europe, actually in Kenya as well because nobody’s actually really, you know, producing it and using it that much, but it grows like a weed. If you grow it where, so that’s another industry just waiting to be tapped into. So, you know, the potential is amazing.


Rana Nawas:  (28:56)

It sounds like it. Now obviously there is potential, but also you’re really focused on sustainability. So can you talk a little bit about sustainable socioeconomic development? Tell our listeners a bit about that and also how we can, as everyday corporate women, be involved in building a more sustainable world.


Auma Obama:  (29:17)

Yeah. Well, what we talk about is sustainable economic growth. Sustainable for one thing, because it has to not only continuity, but it has to be solid. So it becomes something real and whatever we’re doing doesn’t become a white elephant. So that’s the first part of the sustainable. It has to be something that will will last beyond Sauti, beyond myself. You’re not, economic part of it is very, very important for me and especially in connection with the term development aid because when you talk about development aid, development aid is about help very many times. That’s what the first thing that comes to mind. The second thing that comes to mind is philanthropy. Meaning that I help because I care, because I’m a giving sort of person. So there’s a level of benevolence in there. There’s a level of generosity in there. There’s a level of I want to in there. So the problem with that is that it is random. Let me try and be so fresh as to say it’s random. Because if you really want to do something for young girls and you’re doing it because you want to, because you feel for it, you are benevolent and you’re generous. The day you decid you’re only interested in girls, you’re going to do something else. So it’s not sustainable because you can’t count on it. So when I say don’t talk about development, swap the word of development, use economic development if at all, using the word development. It means that you’re talking about something, there’s substance to it because what is development. Development from what to what. It means not, it’s just like sustainability when you don’t have a word connecting. I’m a linguist, so development just means an activity, an activity from what to what. So that’s why it’s not yet fully defined and part of the problem with talking about just development aid as opposed to talking about economic development, if you’re going to use the word development, is that when you talk about relationships with China and America or wherever else, you talk about bilateral trade agreements. When you talk about the so called developing world, Africa and other parts that are less developed in terms of development, you talk about development aid. But actually what you’re trying to do is make sure that there’s a situation where the people you work with a financially stable, that means they have to be part of the economic value chain. How can you become part of the economic value chain when one is just talking about you as being a development age, you know, a case as opposed to being somebody who becomes a consumer, a contributor, you know, an employable person? So that’s why I don’t talk about development. I talk about economic growth and economic growth because you don’t find the people not having something already happening for them. They’re not a Tabula Rasa where you’re going to start developing something new. You’re going to bring something in and put it there and make it work for them. We get the people where they already are. Already something is happening with them and that which is happening with them, we work with that to grow it and that’s why in our case we talk of sustainable economic growth. We don’t talk about development aid in the work that we do.


Rana Nawas:  (32:12)



Auma Obama:  (32:12)

And what you can do.


Rana Nawas:  (32:14)

What can we do? Yeah, give us an action, please, all of these listeners are keen to act.


Auma Obama:  (32:18)

Okay, I mean. First of all, what I did, I can share that, is that I felt very strongly that from my position with all of what I have and with all of my exposure and all of the doors that can be open to me, I’m able to contribute towards helping others or supporting others in improving their lives. Because to me it, the formula is so, so simple. You just create the right spaces for people and also you just need to want to. I tell people, they say they want to do some and say, first of all, find your passion. Find what is important to you, what you would like to change in a positive way in the world that you live in, in the environment that you live in and then find out where you want to do it because many people are like, well, I’d rather do it at home, in my own backyard. Others want to do it elsewhere and then when you find out what your true, passionate, what you really, really feel strongly about wanting to improve on and where you want it to be done, then go for it. Do your research because that’s the trouble with many people want to help. The people who say, Oh, just give 20 pounds here or 20 US dollars there and they’ll be fine and I get a good feeling in my stomach. It’s not enough because many people keep saying, well I, and this is the worst question ever, well if I give 20 euros here or there, do you think it’ll get there? Will it, you know, really arrive at the source and I think this question is really a difficult one and for me, I would say really irritating because the thing, the 20 euros that you’re giving, if you’re really serious and you’ve done your research, then you know the cause you’re giving toward, then stand by that cause. Then believe it’s going to get it because otherwise don’t give it because then you’re just trying to satisfy yourself and when you do give that money, if you’re really serious, and if you add a few zeros to it and maybe you are giving 20,000, then follow your money. Go see what is happening there. Because I’ve had people ask me that question and I say, well, just go and see what they’re doing. Oh well, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. Maybe it’s not so safe or, you know, I don’t feel I can and then I think, well, you know, then you’re just throwing your money out eventually and hoping it lands in the right place. You must really do your homework. Giving is not as simple as it seems. Participating is not as simple as it seems. You must do the legwork. You must do the homework around it.


Rana Nawas:  (34:20)

You do. But in my personal experience, also the organizations you donate to have a responsibility to communicate effectively. I mean, I have been donating to Amnesty International quarterly for the last, I think 20 years since I was at university and they do a great job of keeping me up to date on their campaigns and what’s going on, etcetera and that’s really important to me because I had another case where I donated regularly and I just didn’t hear from them, couldn’t see the impact, stopped.


Auma Obama:  (34:53)

Yeah, that is true. That’s really, really important. In fact, an important word that you’ve used is impact. First of all, the keeping your donors informed is very, very critical. Very important. I mean, that’s why I told you that when I was saying the hard work that I have to do is the communication with my donors and our partners, letting them know that they’re involved. Letting them know that I appreciate them and I’m having the conversation with them constantly. That’s really, really important. No doubt about that. There’s a lot that still has to be changed on the side of the organizations that run these humanitarian organization. There’s a lot that we need to do and that’s why I say with us, we were a pilot. We’re trying to get it right. We don’t always get it right, but we’re working on it because even on our part, as the recipients of the support, we also have our duty towards the donor, the partner, etcetera. But in terms of the impact, that’s another component with regards to if you want to make a difference is when you’re looking for who to sponsor, who to work with, who to donate to is asking yourself what impact are they going to have? I am passionate about this thing, but what kind of impact do I expect them to have? And then looking at what they’re doing. I mean that’s what you know with the kind of work we do people will ask me what’s the impact of what you’re doing? And I say at the end of the day, what we try to do is I’m trying to show, because when I started, I sat with 10, 12 young people under a tree in this local area where we work, which is my backyard practically because it is Obama country, where I come from originally and I asked them, what are your challenges? What are your successes? What is it that would would make you want to stay in this area? Because you all leave and everybody when I come here everybody’s begging, they believe themselves poor and it’s not changing because you’re all leaving, so how are you going to change it? What needs to happen to make you all stay? And they answered me and said, well, we need this. We need to have access to reading. We need to have a place where we can entertain ourselves. We need to have access to sport. They gave a whole list of different things that they needed and I said, okay, let’s work on it together. It was a difficult long journey. One and a half years. We just sort of sat opposite each other staring while I waited for them to give me an answer and they actually didn’t until we started the sport so they could use their voice, but what ended up happening is that I realized that to impact, to make an impact, I would need to create spaces where they would be able to see their upcountry, which is the rural area, as an option and this option means that not only do they want to stay there as a possibility and not go to Nairobi, to the city, to the urban area, but also maybe not leave the country. Europe and the Americas and everywhere else is worried that all these refugees are going to their countries and they’re going to be millions of them there and what we’re seeing is if we can concentrate on making the environment for these young people conducive to being able to earn a good living, financially secure, they wouldn’t want to go to Europe because nobody wants to leave their home. Nobody leaves their home voluntarily. Everybody wants to be in their own countries. Everybody’s yearning to be in their own culture. But if they have no choices, no options, no perspective, they’re going to leave. So that’s what we try to do. We try to make them have options, perspective, a perspective and also to be able to have alternatives to running away, to leaving, to going abroad.


Rana Nawas:  (37:58)

I think that’s incredibly, incredibly important to reverse the brain drain by giving hope and creating that stable climate of opportunity. I’m half palestinian, half lebanese, and on both sides, you know, that’s it. You know, the smart ones that have means to leave, will leave.


Auma Obama:  (38:16)

And that’s the key word, the smart ones are leaving and you can’t even blame them because we have to create opportunity locally and that’s exactly what’s Sauti does. We try to create opportunity and treat options and it has to make sense and it has to be realistic because it doesn’t make sense and we want to give examples through the work we do with the families and the young people and the children. We want to show families that are making it in the rural area and are saying, we have no reason to go to the urban area. We’re great here. We’re actually earning more money and we also have an environment because we also have a, we’ve created a center where there’s sports facilities. There’s a youth center. There’s a camping site. There’s a library. There’s an IT lab and there’s accommodation, you know. We’re creating an environment where the kids have recreational opportunities as well as resource information, resource opportunities as well as vocational training. So we’re creating a space where in the rural area, all of the things they’re going to crave in the, oh, we have electricity and running water, you know, all of the things that are going to crave in the urban area or even further field they can get in there very close environment without having to go away and the quality of life is much, much, much higher.


Rana Nawas:  (39:24)

So let’s shift gears. You have a brother called Barack Obama, two time president of the United States. Some of our listeners may have heard of him and I understand that you supported President Obama’s 2008 campaign in Iowa and South Carolina. Well, what did that involve and what was that experience like?


Auma Obama:  (39:43)

I supported him all along, just to correct the records including the second run for presidency. The most amazing thing about the first campaign was that I was able to experience an America that was going through an amazing change. There was an energy in the whole country. That was something that really blew my mind because what ended up happening is I was confronted with people who are not even american, who had come to campaign for him, who were having sleepless nights, you know, making calls and the different locations, the campaign locations. We met people who were just, you know, working towards making sure my brother who was for them really a symbol of hope and change in America, would get elected. So for me, I was very, very humbled by the experience because I’m his sister. I was doing it because it’s, you know, I love him. We’re family. You help each other, you support each other. But the level of support I got to experience, the level of, you know, of commitment to the cause was for me really, really amazing. I mean, I really, at that point I gained hundreds and hundreds of friends and people who I really felt I could call family because they really were treating my brother as one of them and really honoring all of what he represented and what he was trying to do. So for me, it was a really amazing, at the same time, very humbling experience.


Rana Nawas:  (41:10)

Wow and has this inspired you to move into politics at sometime in the future?


Auma Obama:  (41:15)

Not at all. Not at all. I am so not a politician. I am not PC for one and I think I work better from the grassroots level because to me I really believe that my role is because that’s my strength is to impact individuals so that they, if they want to move into politics that’s great, but I think it gives me in the space that I’m working, it gives me more flexibility to be more direct, to be more flexible in the way I work, to really be more honest about the way I work. Not to say that politicians are not honest.


Rana Nawas:  (41:52)

It’s too late.


Auma Obama:  (41:52)

Yup, yeah. So, you know, it’s just a scenario where I know that I’m working with real people. I can actually tackle real problems immediately and I can impact in a way that it’s not about me because really I’m in the background. What we do is, like I said, we create spaces, we facilitate the growth of these young people within this community and what my hope is that we will get to a stage where they grow to an extent where they become responsible, contributing financially stable young adults who then make the right choices around politics including, you know, not just around their own lives and how they live their lives, but also their political, you know, understanding of how their country works. Because really when we complain about our leaders, that our leaders are the choices we make. At the end of the day, if you’re talking about a democracy, our leaders are the choices we make and we have to make the right choices and for my time with my 29 years, as I always say, maybe it’s a little bit on the late side, but for the young people, I think for the young people there is still a great opportunity to be able to realize their collective strength when they make the right choices and that’s what I’m trying to contribute toward.


Rana Nawas:  (43:10)

Oh, that’s wonderful. I don’t often meet people who have written memoirs, Auma. So we’re going to touch on that. What was that process like for you? How is it to write your memoirs? How long does it take? Is it a real pain? Is a really hard work or is it just light and cathartic?


Auma Obama:  (43:29)

Oh, well for me it was interesting because I’d always scribbled a little bit on the side because my family is rather complex and I was living in Germany and when I tried to explain my family people were always like, huh, what do you mean? What do you mean? Who is that? And how does that connect? Because we have the extended family and we really believe in it and we’re all quite close as an extended family. Not like the small nuclear family in the west. So already a while before I was able to write my memoirs, I’d always thought about I’d love to write it and also actually one of the reasons I would have liked to write it was also because when I go to know my brother, who I got to know as an adult, I had to explain to him the family and how it all connects and for me was like, oh, I could just write it all, you know, and actually when I tried some years before, you know, he even went into politics, I wrote little bits and pieces if I was writing to him and explaining to him the family. So the initial, as you can hear idea was to write about my family and explain who we are and where we’re coming from, etc. But when he became president I was getting offers left, right, and center, you know, t write. I think I got up to seven or more offers and it was, but the problem was it was all about, you know, washing your dirty linen in public and I was like, I’m really not interested in doing that. First of all, we don’t have any dirty linen and secondly I’m only interested in that kind of writing and it was just actually one publishing house that I said to them, you know, if you don’t let me write what I want to write about my story, which I think is interesting as well. I must admit we went for a dinner with the owner of the publishing house and I pitched it because he said, okay, I want to meet you and I want to hear what you’re going to write about it and I actually had to read the content because I had a clear idea about what I wanted to write. So I sat with him and I just said, this is what the book will have in it. So are you interested or not? And he was like, yeah, I like it. So and it was his own publishing house and thank god he was a big publishing house in Germany. So he said, yeah, go ahead, we’ll take it as it is. So that’s how I got the chance to write and to answer the next question about whether it was difficult or easy because in my head there’d always been a story there and because like I said, when I pitched it, I already even had the content. It didn’t take me that long. It took me a year to write it while working, but really because a lot of, what was it, what is in the book was already were, was really in my head and I’d already thought about it many, many times over because I deal with different kind of issues in my life as a young person, as a child. My parents separatIng, growing up with a wild stepmother and all these issues that had always been in my head and somewhat troubling at times, confusing, needing answers. So in the book I write it in such a way that I’m kind of having conversations almost with myself and the characters that are involved in that context and explaining to them myself why or trying to give a background, kind of like this is why this maybe happened this way. So the book is written somewhat reflective, cathartic, definitely, and also a great relief because I was able to then kind of play with, you know, my life and put it down and put in the fun bits as well because I try to make it so much humerus so it’s not so dry and oh god, how boring. So it was, it was a fun experience. I really enjoyed it. Everybody should do it. Everybody should write. We owe it to our families and friends to write about ourselves.


Rana Nawas:  (46:44)

Wow, that’s an interesting sort of idea. I’ll doodle that one and what’s your book called?


Auma Obama:  (46:50)

It’s called “And Then Life Happens.”


Rana Nawas:  (46:51)

“And Then Life Happens.” Thank you. Well listen, thank you so much for your time and everything you do at Sauti Kuu is incredible and we’d like to support any way we can. So if any of the listeners want to get in touch, how best to do that?


Auma Obama:  (47:04)

The best way to get in touch with us is on our website. It is So, Sauti spelled SautiKuu.


Rana Nawas:  (47:16)

And we’ll stick that in the show notes.


Auma Obama:  (47:19)

Yeah, exactly.


Rana Nawas:  (47:19)

We’ll stick it in the show notes, don’t worry about it.


Auma Obama:  (47:21)

And otherwise, to get information just in general, it’s


Rana Nawas:  (47:28)

Super, Auma. Thank you so much for your time. This has been such a pleasure, so much fun. Thank you.


Auma Obama:  (47:32)

Thank you.


Rana Nawas:  (47:34)

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at or search When Women Win on Itunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on instagram at @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day.



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