This is a First Person column by Robel Ng’ong’a, who lives in Edmonton. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, see the FAQ.
My 18-year-old cousin and I had set off on foot to a local market deep within rural Kenya to buy greens and potatoes for our family meal that evening. It was during one of our annual visits to my parents’ childhood home to spend Christmas with my grandparents and extended family.
At that time, I was the head boy at a highly ranked international school in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya; in a few years, I would move by myself to Canada to become a student at the University of Alberta.
I was privileged to grow up in Nairobi, where I was exposed to what the modern world had to offer. Electricity, tap water, access to amenities were all readily available. But life in rural Kenya couldn’t have been more different.
My cousin lived in a setting similar to where my parents and many uncles and aunties were raised. Most families relied on kerosene lamps or battery-powered torches to light up their homes. Tap water was something people would only find at the town centre or hear about on the radio. Most families would have someone wake up early to run down to the stream with buckets to fetch water that would be used by the entire homestead for all purposes, from taking baths to cooking meals.
The local market was roughly four kilometres away from our homestead. My cousin and I walked because we only had one bicycle available. Our conversation focused on hardships that youth like him faced. One part that stuck with me was his eagerness to have an education but his hands were tied by his obligations to help care for his family. Instead of spending money on an education and a dream of a better tomorrow, he would have to settle for jobs that put food on the table today.
As I heard his words, I was filled with sadness. I was hurt by how unfair life could be, especially due to factors no one could control, like what family you are born into.
My journeys and what I’ve learned
When I was 18, I flew halfway across the globe to a new land, thanks to my parents and a number of scholarships. When I reached the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, located in the small central Alberta city of Camrose, I found myself in classrooms surrounded by a multitude of people from all different backgrounds.
I vividly remember taking an entrepreneurship course in my fourth year at the Alberta School of Business where I interacted with classmates and saw how passionate they were about doing the right thing — whether in health care or sustainable fashion. It was inspiring — and it opened up my eyes to the fact that nothing is impossible when approached with determination.
Thanks to my parents, I was able to live my dreams. I was able to attend good schools and never lacked whatsoever. Those annual Christmas visits to our family home in rural Kenya not only helped make me grateful for what I had, they also ignited an urge to do something with my life that would make a difference to others.
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The new friends I made during those visits spoke Luo as their first language, while I spoke mostly English. Despite a slight communication barrier, we played together and, through immersion, I learned how to speak my ancestral language. I also learned how to do some of the things my parents did growing up, such as taking cattle to graze and drink water by the river or fetching water from the stream.
Every time I went back to the village, I came out much more learned, with skills I would not be able to pick up anywhere else. As I grew older, I saw these children grow and tackle life head-on. It became apparent that our different upbringings meant we faced different challenges.
I could easily feel bad for them and wish them well but I will never forget that they took me in and taught me invaluable lessons when I was young. It was a firm reminder of the African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Now it’s time for them to learn
I am fortunate to be where I am today — a young African man with a degree from one of the world’s best universities. But that’s not enough. My real mission is to make sure I am not the last to have such an opportunity. There are lots of deserving youth in rural Africa who deserve a chance, and I will do my best to empower them.
My time as a university student in Canada played a significant role in showing me what was possible. It still pushes me to want to do more.
That’s why I hope to establish a non-profit organization that will help young people in rural Africa access affordable education. I have begun to pitch my business plan to potential partners and have registered my organization with the government of Kenya.
My cousin has the potential to be amazing. All my young village mates have the potential to be amazing.
Many have always referred to the African continent as a sleeping giant. I am on a mission to help it wake up to a bright new future.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.