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Dr Auma Obama: three characteristics of change makers

Community activist, sociologist, and author. It seems like nothing can hold Dr Auma Obama, founder of Kenya’s ‘Sauti Kuu’ (powerful voices) Foundation, back. But what does it take to bring about positive change? The half-sister of the 44th President of the United States presented three characteristics that game changers share at Julius Baer’s Global Young Partners Reunion.




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“Poverty is no excuse.” “Development aid has to be linked to economic development.” “Once others hear your voice loud and clear, they realise you exist.” These are only some of the convictions that Dr Auma Obama has – and she is not afraid to shout them from the rooftops. The passionate community activist was born and raised in Kenya before leaving for Germany, where she completed her doctoral degree in Philosophy at the University of Bayreuth. After returning to Kenya to work for CARE International, the half-sister of Barack Obama established the ‘Sauti Kuu’ (powerful voices) Foundation in 2010. 

Sauti Kuu Foundation

The Sauti Kuu Foundation (‘Dr Auma Obama Foundation’), operates in Kenya and Germany. It aims to help children and young adults realise that they do not have to be victims of their social background or environment through targeted training and initiatives.

At Julius Baer’s Global Young Partners Reunion, where she was a keynote speaker, she encouraged her audience to become change makers themselves.

What makes a change maker?
Dr. Auma Obama: “When did you last inspire someone? When did you last say: “I want to be a better person, I want to do greater things, I want to give my best?” Take some time to reflect on these questions because they are important. 

Wealth does not define you. Wealth does not make you a better person. Wealth does not turn you into a lioness or a lion. The formula to achieve this can only be found within yourself. You cannot be passive and complacent. You must take up every challenge that comes your way because every challenge is also an opportunity.

I frequently get invited to events to speak about myself, my foundation and my family. After I have completed my presentation, however, a lot of people approach me and ask “But what can I do? Where am I in this? I can’t achieve all of these things because I don’t have a big name behind me, I lack of something etc.” It took me a while to understand that it’s not about me. It takes a certain personality to be a change maker. How you see yourself and how you feel about yourself is crucial. In my opinion, it all boils down to three characteristics:

Change makers dream big
Most of us don’t even try to change the status quo because we are governed by fear. Change makers, on the other hand, dream big, are creative, and think critically. 

Many years ago, my brother Barack visited me in my small one-room apartment. While lying on his camp bed, he told me that he would quit community work to study law. He wanted to enter the American government because he believed that this was the only way to make a change. He was dreaming big. 

If I had told Barack at that time that he was not going to make it, he simply would have replied, “Of course I am!” The word ‘impossible’ does not exist in the vocabulary of these people.

Change makers fail – but do not give up
Confidence is another defining attribute of change makers. They tell themselves ‘I can do this, even if I’m afraid.’ They fight their fear and pick themselves up from the floor, even if they made a mistake or failed. And they fail many times in a row. The difference is that they keep on going and strive for the best. Leonardo da Vinci called this ‘stubborn application’. ‘I will do it stubbornly because I’m sure it’s going to happen anyway’ was his life motto.

Change makers are human and compassionate
Finally, yet importantly, true leaders carry humanity and compassion in their hearts. They realise that they could be the beggar in the street and never judge a book by its cover. Change makers know that they are not better than anybody else and that they could not have achieved anything without the help of others. 

From Eliud Kipchoge to Nelson Mandela
Who embodies the three characteristics of change makers? As a Kenyan, I am proud to say that Eliud Kipchoge does. He is the fastest marathon runner in the world. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, does too. Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, and Leonardo da Vinci are further examples. They have all achieved greatness and inspired people around the globe.

What shouldn’t be forgotten, however, is that these people endured a lot of pain and suffering. I always smile when people tell me that Kenyans are great runners. While it makes us proud, we know that our fastest athletes come from the Rift Valley – an intra-continental ridge that runs through Kenya from north to south. If you were born in the Rift Valley without a passion for getting up at dawn, you would probably have to run ten miles to reach your school in time. At noon, you would run the same distance twice to have lunch at home and make it back to school in only forty-five minutes. These children are constantly training, if they want to or not. This is the reason why all our outstanding runners come from the Rift Valley: Kipchoge Keino, Eliud Kipchoge, and also Brigid Kosgei, who just broke the women’s world marathon record. 

Are you a change maker?
Is this you? Do you recognise yourself? If the answer is no, you always have the opportunity to work on yourself and turn things around. If the answer is yes, I urge you to share your success with the world. Spread the word so that people know it is possible to do what you do and that they can achieve similar things. 

We never own our success alone. Maybe Eliud Kipchoge is the fastest marathon runner this year. That doesn’t mean that somebody else won’t take his place next year. And who knows, maybe it’s you?”

Making your mark

Philanthropy is on the rise. There are many ways to make your mark on the world and leave a positive legacy behind you. This article is part of the 'Making Your Mark' series, in which we explore the options available to you.

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