Going… Going… Gone.

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get easily attached to material things, but this was a little different. Since my second month at Stanford – way back in October 2006 – this particular “material thing” has been my home, kiwanja’s North American HQ and my Sunday morning ride to Trader Joes, Peets Coffee and the laundrette. Until today, that is.

I decided soon after arriving in California to get a VW camper, not just because it was going to work out better on my finances but because I felt that living the simple life in the complex Stanford environment would keep me focussed and “real”. It became apparent after my first few days here that it would be very easy to get caught up in a place like this, very easy to lose focus and forget why I was here, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I blogged about my thoughts last summer, as my Fellowship came to an end and many of my friends returned to their own particular corners of the globe.

Now, with just two weeks left here at Stanford myself, it was time to move on. The van had to go. I didn’t realise it, but last night literally was my last night.

This was the van I retired to late at night after a long day working on my – and the other Fellows – projects. It was the van which kept me warm during one of the coldest winters in California for a century, and the van in which I read numerous Africa and technology books, strategising my future direction. It was the van that brought me NPR radio and an hour of the BBC World Service each evening, and the van in which I lay while I edited and re-edited my proposal for the new FrontlineSMS. It was my home when I got my first ever grant, from the MacArthur Foundation last summer, and pretty-much the only home I have known since moving here.

This old van has been very much a part of my life here as have the people, the places, the coffee and the Fellowship. I had dreams of keeping it, storing it away somewhere and coming back for it some day, or shipping it over to England. But none of this was ever really that sensible, because at the end of the day this van was only really meant to keep me real, right?

Job done, I’d say.

Walking the walk

“It’ll never work…”
“What a fantastic idea!”
“Masterstroke – we should all do that”
“You’ll freeze”
“I wouldn’t admit to doing that, if I were you…”

So it was, back in late October 2006, that I moved out of my $750-a-month rented room in Los Altos into a 1983 VW Westfalia Camper Van. Swapping a very comfortable room in a million dollar-plus home for a small van, as winter approached, could have ranked anywhere between “Crazy” and “Masterstroke”, but it was something I felt I had to do. I never really intended talking about it, but I’ve been prompted by many friends and a Knight Fellow who decided to write about it for a Brazilian newspaper.

So, as I enter my ninth month in the van (and my final week at Stanford), now seems a good-a-time as any to explain myself. And for someone who’s generally not short of words this has been a surprisingly difficult blog entry to write.

The initial catalyst for the move was purely financial, something few of us can ever escape. Each of the Fellows on my Program were required to fund their own living expenses, estimated at somewhere around $20,000 over the nine months. I was never going to let a lack of money stop me from taking up this huge opportunity, but when it became clear in early October that funds might become tight, using my hard-earned cash to acquire an asset (rather than paying off someone else’s mortgage) made sense. I could then sell it at the end and live almost rent-free. A search through Craigslist followed by a highly eventful bank holiday weekend drive down to Long Beach, California – the subject of another Blog entry sometime – turned my vision into reality. I handed in notice to my landlord the Sunday morning I left to collect the van, and lead a double-life for three weeks before finally moving out later that month.

The second reason – and part of the third, come to that – are a little less clear-cut, and maybe trickier to explain or understand because of it. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley or Stanford campus, it is a place of extreme privilege. It’s clean, everything works, it’s all fantastically resourced, everything seems new, the architecture is stunning, the place is awash with amazingly clever people, and it looks rich. And why shouldn’t it? Last year they managed to raise close to a billion dollars and it ranks among one of the top universities in the world. It’s a real privilege to be here among only a couple of hundred Visiting Fellows, make no mistake. But when you put it all together it makes for something which doesn’t quite seem real to me at all. Just as I’ve always found it difficult discussing third world development issues in posh five-star hotels and conference rooms, coming to a place like this can easily make you lose focus. I didn’t want to. My way of keeping it real was to live a more basic, lean existence. It’s important to remember why you’re in a place like this, what got you here, and who and what it is you’re ultimately working to achieve. It’s not about how comfortable I can make my life, after all. Rightly or wrongly I struggle with rich pop stars banging on about the immorality of world poverty when they simply head back to hill-top mansions in their chauffeur driven cars when they’re done. kiwanja has made many fans over the past year, and I strongly believe this is because of its down-to-earth philosophy. Actions speak louder than words, and people can relate to what I believe in and what I do, and how I do it.

At the same time – and this is part of the third and final reason – I also wanted to show that anything is possible if you remain true to your vision, focus, passion and goals. That you don’t necessarily need tens of thousands of dollars to make a place like this work for you, or a privileged upbringing, or friends in high places. Why, you can even choose not to conform and still make it. Doors which seem shut are usually just ajar. A little confident nudge is often all it takes. But first you have to find the door.

I’ve always maintained that true change in the world will come through the collective action of the masses, driven not by high profile international charities, or film stars, or musicians or politicians but by everyday people themselves. I’ve blogged about this in the past. People just need to know that things are possible. Interviews with the BBC, industry award nominations, invitations to speak at conferences, specialist panel invitations and a major MacArthur grant.

Yes, anything is possible.