Reflections on kiwanja: Four years on

Assignments in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, talks at W3C in India, the development of several new projects, work with UNEP, a Fellowship at Stanford, an increasingly popular website, new volunteers… all in a years’ work. And at the root of it all –

Despite all of this, I’m still unsure how to describe kiwanja. Ten years in the making and now almost four years old, to me it remains indefinable. I guess you could argue that it’s a company – although it won’t be for much longer – run by me, but that definition implies some degree of separation or competitiveness. There isn’t in either case. I’m not sure if there is a word to describe a person as an organisation, or a movement, or a belief come to that, but if there was then that’s probably what I’d use. Marvin, a Jamaican guy at the Digital Vision Program here at Stanford, has got as close as anyone to understanding, although he probably doesn’t realise it.

kiwanja is very public but, at the same time, very private. What it does is provide me with the vehicle to do what I’ve chosen to do with my life. Is it an alter-ego? Perhaps, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the use of that word. I’m a firm believer that the ego is more of a barrier to progress than an enabler. After all, so much more gets done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. People who know me know that I’m slightly uncomfortable describing kiwanja’s achievements as my own, which might sound slightly odd. You see, it’s no accident that, with the exception of the Blog, you won’t find a single reference to ‘I’ throughout the whole site. I’ve always believed that it doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved in the past – that time is over – and that you’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done. This is the best way of suppressing that ego, and keeping me on my toes. We should all learn to be a little more humble, I believe.

One of the beauties of kiwanja – and there are many – is that it can never be taken away. For as long as I live, work and play, it will always be with me. There’s a tendency in life to surround ourselves with physical ‘things’, all built on the back of a life of labour. Often used as a measure of how successful we’ve been, these are the very things that we shouldn’t be building our lives on. We shouldn’t forget how fickle life is, how a single twist of fate can send us spiraling downwards, how quickly we could lose what we’ve worked so hard for. Instead of building our lives around material things, we should put more effort into working hard on the things that can’t be taken away – drawing, painting, music, passion, belief, mission and religion, to mention just a few. My effort has gone into kiwanja, my thing that can’t be taken away. Don’t be a slave to the system, and don’t live unsustainably or beyond your means, however tempting that system may make it.

People should also not wait until they are effected – or touched – by something before making it their ‘mission’. So often we hear of those who, touched by a disease, loss, particular event or near-death experience suddenly dedicate their life to an associated cause, usually via a Foundation created in their own name. Of course many, many others don’t experience anything and end up doing nothing, or they only take up charitable or philanthropic activities in their later years when they realise – sometimes too late – that there’s more to life than a home full of possessions and a healthy bank balance. Maybe I was fortunate when I found my purpose relatively early on (if you call 27 ‘early on’), but whether or not that’s the case, the vital thing is to stick with it – good times or bad, famine or feast – whenever it comes and whatever it is. We all feel emotive when confronted with images of famine, war, despair, poverty, disease or environmental destruction, and in that brief moment we all feel that we ought to do something about it. Don’t let that moment pass, and don’t ever forget how it felt. Remember, a few dollars donated yesterday to an African famine won’t alleviate African famine. Either you’re in it for the long run, or you’re not really in it at all.

Also, remember that philanthropy is not just about money and not just the stuff of pop stars, and that we all have something to offer planet earth. A million acts of random kindness has far more potential as a force for good than any large-scale multi-million dollar project with all its associated overhead and waste. How are people all around the world creating positive change? Often at the grassroots level. This is where so much of the real work gets done, yet ironically we hear least about it. So this is where kiwanja deliberately focuses, supporting those who dedicate their time, and sometimes their lives, to their own particular cause and own particular calling. I’ve always maintained that I myself am not going to save lives, or a rainforest, or a particular species from extinction. But I can support someone who might. Remember how much more gets done if you don’t care who gets the credit?

As 2006 comes to a close and kiwanja enters its fifth year, I’m still no closer to working out where I’m headed than I was back in 2003 when it all began. Maybe it’s because of my belief in remaining flexible, maintaining an ability to respond to, and make the most of, opportunities whenever and wherever they arise. I would never have dreamed last Christmas, for example, that a year later I’d be a Fellow at Stanford. So who knows what’s next? All I can do is make sure I’m ready to take the challenge whenever it comes, and not become complacent in the meantime. kiwanja – whatever you define it as – has taught me a lot, not least that.