“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard ”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if these were Cynthia Nyongesa’s words? Yet still, she has done one better: Lived these words! The words of the legendary Oprah Winfrey, to whom she has been likened to by her peers.
Ms. Nyongesa works with UNICEF Kenya as a Youth Advocate. She founded the blog and brand “Cynthia Untamed” a digital partner that amplifies the stories of young changemakers, influencers, mobilizers and advocates who are using limited resources to positively impact their communities.
Did you always want to do what you are doing now (the advocacy work) from the beginning? When did this passion or interest in advocacy start?
“My interest in advocacy has evolved over the years. I’ve always wanted to work with children and youth although the space has varied over time from teaching to medicine to communication to law then back to communication. My initial interest begins from the age of 12 when we were performing skits in class back in primary school. We all assigned ourselves a role and I clearly remember wanting to tell the story of the talents my classmates were showing off”
From Julie Gichuru (Media Personality), Ambassador Macharia Kamau(Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to Nhial Deng who grew up as a refugee in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Turkana County, Kenya, Cynthia has met and/or interviewed CEOs, Gamechangers and influencers to inspire the youth:
Among them all, what story(s) stood out for you and why?
“Actually each of those stories has stood out on their own mainly because it hasn’t always been easy to access them. Each of those has taught me to be resilient. For example, hosting Gina Din, a public relations specialist was exciting mainly because she made it easy for me to reach her. I sent a request via LinkedIn and she quickly said yes. She responded to my questionnaire in a good time. That taught me to give people, especially those who are still building a life for themselves a chance.”
Clearly you’ve rubbed shoulders with the who is who in this part of the world. I am just curious, who is the most prominent/famous person in your phone contacts?
(Laughs)…” I’d give a lesson I have learned about those we consider as the who is who. They are people just like us, only that they have been given a chance to live a public life. Each of them has contributed uniquely to my life, which is why I appreciate all of them. For me, the who is who are those who have loved me, prayed for me, mentored me and listened to me no matter what their position in society is.”
At your age, you are already an inspiration to many young people including myself. What drives your passion for finding purpose in your life?
“It’s trying to achieve the highest possible and truest expression of myself. It’s not always easy but I try to be positive.”
With your determination in achieving your goals, have you faced challenges in your journey?
“I have faced so many. Most are silent struggles which I prefer to take one day at a time. However, I’ve been public about battling low self-esteem growing up. I was bullied by my peers and sometimes adults for having my hair shaven with scissors. This dragged my confidence and I constantly tried to overachieve in class. I constantly felt like I was not enough. However, that has evolved over time, which is why I use it as an opportunity to speak to other young people telling them that they are enough. I’m confident that one of the ways to achieve your goals is to be happy with who you are. I’m inspired by Kanze Dena, who is the StateHouse spokesperson because she shares a similar story.”
If you could invite anyone, living or dead for dinner, who would that be and why?
“Michelle Obama. Her story is very relatable to me. Being a girl from a normal family, working hard in school and pursuing a career that was considered right in society. Then she began to wonder if she was achieving her purpose, she chose to take a whole new path. Even now as the former first lady, you can see she is confident of who she is, put aside the career and being the wife of the former first black president of the U.S.A. It’s scary when you find yourself doing work that isn’t considered as prestigious in society. I decided to do what makes me happy first. Michelle Obama says we should always put ourselves first and that’s what I’m striving to do.”
Coronavirus has disrupted normalcy in life. How has it affected you and what have you been most proud of learning during this period?
“I’m disappointed that I can’t travel to all the places I had hoped to. I also can’t interact with young people as often as I want to.“
“However, I’m trying to learn more. Right now I am learning how to be an entrepreneur in a creative space and still be in line with my advocacy priorities.”
What do you consider to be your biggest achievement in the last 5 years?’
“Impacting the lives of young people through my digital platform, cynthiauntamed.com. People tend to judge me when I say I’m not making money out of the platform. However, this has honestly been my key to so many doors that I would never have been able to open. Amplifying the voices of youth is an honor.”
You have interacted with people from all sorts of life and backgrounds from your time as a law student and now as a youth advocate at UNICEF. Do you think people are defined by the cultures they live in, on how they see the world?
“Yes. The more I meet people, the more I realize that our perception of what children and youth need is so varied in many societies. For example, an educated parent obviously knows that their child needs to go to school. However, I’ve met parents who haven’t been educated who have to be reminded. Education is so important because it reduces poverty over generations.”
What’s the most bizarre encounter you’ve had in your life?
“Well this is a tough one. I guess it’s the times I have found myself in new countries where I can’t speak the language. It’s normally very dramatic when you are trying to communicate especially if you need directions.”
Are there milestones that you are working towards right now in your personal and professional life?
“Now that I have had a chance to learn how communication and advocacy works from different spectrums, my hope is I can find a way of deriving financial value in this and still impact lives.”
Where do you see yourself in the next few months?
“Trusting God that I will have gotten a scholarship to study at a prestigious university.”
Finally, given a time travel machine, What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I would tell her that she is enough. I would tell her not to be afraid to put herself first and to aim at making her proud of herself before thinking of everyone else.”
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”- Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir ‘Becoming’.
Cynthia is also a member of the Generation Unlimited Young People’s Action Team (YPAT), a new group of young leaders with strong and expansive grassroot networks and significant experience in policy and practice in the key areas of Generation Unlimited: education, training, skills, entrepreneurship and civic engagement.
Cynthia Nyongesa is not a shining African star just because I said it. She has been shining long before I met her and she will be shining long after. Cheers to the candle that refused to be put under the bed!