I was only eight years old when Father called us into the living room for a family meeting. He was not bearing good news. My parents walked in, Mother crying uncontrollably, Father comforting her. And my newborn brother laying still in my mother’s arms, making no sound.
“He can only survive three months. He has Tetralogy of Fallot – a hole in the heart.”
I was a child. I was not sure if this was one of my father’s failed attempts at cracking a joke. But it could not be, as I looked at my mother, weak and helpless from weeping. We had just received this bundle of joy into the world, only three months since Sam was born, and now we only had three months left with him.
So, the journey began, with my parents knocking on doctors’ offices every day, crying in hospitals, searching for anybody who might help us. We searched for hospitals all over the world, looking for one we could afford, but every day, the same narrative: no hope, no way out.
One day, we found our relief. A fully paid surgery, at the University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center, to whom we remain indebted and deeply grateful. Today Sam is fourteen; a healthy, multi-talented and ambitious young man who is the foundation of my dreams and goals for Africa.
After this experience, the only question on my mind is, “what if?”
It’s a deadly question that we are advised not to ask. But “what if” is also a question that has the power to inspire a vision and a course of future actions. I did not ask myself, “what if Sam had died?” It was not a “what if” of regret or fear. Rather, it was a “what if” full of empathy, the seeds of a vision and a quest for solutions.
“What if we did not live in the city, and had no access to internet?”
“What if my parents were not educated and had no knowledge of where to look for help?”
“What if we were not fortunate to get a miracle from UAB hospital?”
“What if, what if, what if?”
“What if we in Kenya and Africa had better access to health care?”
I knew that I had to do something about this last “what if.” I knew that I had to fight for better health care in Kenya and in Africa, especially in rural areas where most resources are unavailable. This became my driving force. My vision. The one thing that drove me to seek out a scholarship that has enabled me to study biomedical engineering, which will enable me to contribute greatly towards the health system.
This vision also inspired me to found LifeDeserved, an online Facebook-based organization geared towards allowing people to see that they have permission to be whoever they want to be in life and give hope to those who need encouragement to get ahead.
Growing up, we are often put in boxes by our parents, our peers, our teachers, our circumstances, you name it. In most African homes, we are often told that to be commendable and successful, we should be doctors, lawyers, engineers or possibly teachers. We are taught not to look beyond what is around us, to settle and not think of being greater than who we are or what the people around us are.
I believe the growth and development of Africa lies in bringing up a generation of young people who are not afraid to hope, who are not afraid to dream and who are not afraid to act on those dreams. A dreaming population is a fired-up population that will not only inspire those who come up behind us, but who will also realize this continent’s greatest potential and sustain its development for everybody.
Why then don’t we young Africans dream? Simple: we are born dreamers, but we are conditioned to stop dreaming. In school, we have been made slaves to grades. If one does not achieve an A grade in everything, then they are not good enough. We also suffer from an ‘epidemic’ of comparison. Judging ourselves based on other people’s achievement and defining success based on where other people are in their journeys.
In those ways, the education system creates young people who are afraid to acknowledge when they do not know something, because asking questions is ‘foolish,’ driving education by punishment rather than a desire to impart knowledge and enlighten, robbing us of the desire to learn in the process.
Consequently, we become uninterested students and we only think within the boundaries of what is in the books, what is rote. What we dream seems impossible and totally out of reach. So, we give up, we stop dreaming, we stop desiring more. It is a system that births greed, corruption, oppression of the less fortunate and transforms us into adults who work to maintain the status quo.
Consider an environment of dreamers, a place where everybody desires to see everyone else rise to their potential. An environment where everyone is committed to improving their own lives, as well as the lives of their communities. One that is, as Abraham Lincoln said in honour of soldiers who had given their lives for the sake of their nation, ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’ That is, every individual should make the development of their communities their mandate. From the development of communities, to towns, to cities, to countries and finally the continent.
That is what Africa needs to move forward. Leaders that will be committed to ending poverty, provide basic needs and improve the well-being of all citizens. An education system that builds dreamers, not timid individuals who are swayed by the motions of society. A generation of innovative thinkers with unbounded imagination and no fear of acting on ideas.
With dreams come an endless pool of internal motivations, as well as unmatchable courage to fight to achieve. As young African leaders, we must discover and act on our dreams, because eventually, a dream-filled Africa is a growing Africa.
Shinina Muthiora is a Mastercard Foundation Scholar pursuing her studies in biomedical engineering (electrical and computer engineering) at the University of British Columbia. Shinina is one of a number of Canada-based Scholars who submitted essays for The Walrus Talks: Africa’s Next Generation, a collaboration with The Walrus Foundation, taking place in Toronto and Ottawa in September 2017.