Growing up, Vivian Onano didn’t have it easy. Yet despite facing gender discrimination and poverty, Vivian was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to Starehe Girls, one of Kenya’s top high schools. In the midst of her successes, Vivian has never forgotten her community. Today, as a youth advisor to the UN Women Global Civil Society Group and a consultant at Africa 2.0, Vivian is an outspoken advocate for women and youth across Africa. In 2015, she was invited to give a keynote address at the General Assembly in front of world leaders such as Ban Ki Moon. Inspired by Vivian’s passion for development, Ayiba’s Joy Mwaniki spoke with Vivian to learn more about her journey to the remarkable woman she is today.


What was it like growing up in Kisumu?

I think it was one of my best experiences in life. The reason I say that is because I draw a lot of inspiration from my background, where I grew up, everything I saw growing up. Yes, it was tough coming from a disadvantaged family, but I think that prepared me for life ahead. It strengthened me as an individual to be a leader and to appreciate life as it is and to have an impact and give back.

When did you think your activism first began?

I consider myself as being an activist from birth. Even in nursery and primary school, I was always that one that stood up for the others and who spoke the truth as it was. My first experience as an activist started with my family. Watching my cousins in school, and insisting that they had to have an education, and seeing how poverty played a role in them dropping out of school.

What motivated your focus on women and youth issues?

I focused on women because of where I came from, and seeing the struggle that they go through, even today: lack of access to education, lack of economic empowerment, gender-based violence, early marriage, not having a voice, not being empowered, these motivated me to focus on women. I am fortunate, I have an education, I have a voice, I am empowered. I stand up for the issues that I strongly believe in. For youth issues, I am a young person and the world is very youthful. Young people are often ignored when it comes to addressing their issues, yet, when it comes to numbers, they are misused. Someone will say that in Africa, sixty percent of the population is made up of young people below the age of thirty-five and that they are a great resource and assets. But then, what next? They are just used as a statistic. Nothing more is being done. Nobody is addressing youth employment, lack of education or civil engagement. The fact is that I have been fortunate enough to find myself in these spaces where I can speak out and address this issue, many more who are just as talented and smart do not have the same space or the opportunity to do the same. This motivates me. They may not be my real brothers or sisters but I still consider them to be so. I cannot be successful as an individual. I can only be successful if all of us are working together.

Image Source: Vivian Onano

Image Source: Vivian Onano

How do you reconcile your successes thus far with the challenges that your family continues to face back in Kenya?

First of all, I do not consider myself successful. I am the person I am because of where I came from and the people who made me: my mum , my grandparents, my teachers, and my friends. I still have a personal touch with them and with the reality on the ground. Nothing much has changed when it comes to that. It is hard to come from New York and go home to see everything happening there—lack of electricity or running water—it is difficult. But then again, that is the reality, and that’s why I am committed to this cause so that I can see change in the community. It is a way of encouraging and motivating me. We are still far from achieving what we want to achieve, there’s more work to be done and more people we need to bring on board.

How well do you think women’s voices are represented in Kenyan society?

In my opinion, women are not as respected or as valued as they should be in Kenyan society. Compared to ten or twenty years ago, yes, we do have more women in leadership, and more young women who are interested in leadership, whether at the community, national, regional, or global levels. When it comes to political representation, we cannot keep nominating, we have to make sure that they have the capability to deliver. Because we haven’t showcased women as leaders in Kenya, when it comes to elections, it’s really hard to get the votes. I think that’s what we need to do more, give women a platform , tell their stories, people like Eunice Mathu, Mary Okello, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rottenberg, Peggy Mativo, Sitawa Wafula, Dr. Susan Mboya, these are stories we need to tell. It doesn’t have to be political. I feel so sad that ten years down the line, no one will know about Dr. Professor Wangari Maathai—not because she died, but because we are not telling her story the way we should. We should tell her story, showcasing her to young women who can use that as inspiration. The media has a very big role to play, we can’t just continue showcasing socialites. We have women leaders in several respectable positions, whose stories we need to share. Our women can have inspiration from different angles and different sides.

Image Source: Vivian Onano

Image Source: Vivian Onano

What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges to (and needs of) women in Africa?

Access to education, child marriage, lack of economic empowerment, access to water and sanitation, access to reproductive health care, gender based violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and the list goes on. But those are the critical issues that need to be addressed.

How did you get involved with UN Women? How do you remain connected to the women on the ground?

I was appointed to UN Women last year. Three of us were appointed, including a lady from Libya (Ms. Alaa Murabit), and a guy from Sri Lanka (Mr. Dakshitha Wickremarathne). So, that is how I got involved with UN Women.

As I said, I have friends who are part of a statistic, so I know the challenges that are on the ground. I know them even through my family. I have a twelve year old cousin who recently got a baby, so these are realities that I see, not only outside, but also inside my family. So I feel like I am connected to the women on the ground and I totally understand the issues from when I go back home.

How did you feel when the president of the General Assembly invited you to give the keynote speech?

[Laughs] That remains to be the best day of my life. I believe that I have done a lot of things worth talking about, but I think that that was definitely the best moment of my life. I was excited, nervous, happy, and a little bit confused! [Laughs] I had a lot of emotions going on at the same time.

Image Source: Vivian Onano

Image Source: Vivian Onano

What challenges, and rewards, have you faced being an activist?

In terms of rewards, I have developed as a person and I have understood the issues in depth. I’ve developed self- confidence and the ability to articulate issues in front of world leaders and ask them to take action. I’ve also earned respect among my peers. I don’t remember a time when I have been judged for being a woman. However, to be honest, it’s very lonely. As a young person, sometimes you get very lonely.

Which women inspire you? Why?

My grandmother is my biggest source of inspiration. She is a very tough woman but she has a very big heart, literally, a heart for everybody. She is very generous, hardworking, and very outspoken. She says it as it is, whether you like it or not. She is very supportive, like my mum who is very supportive, too.

Many other women inspire me. The women that I see struggling to make ends meet and to make a difference with the little they have. It inspires me. Once you leave the country and go to somewhere like the US, people are very privileged, even those who consider themselves poor are relatively privileged. You don’t see them taking the advantage and going the extra mile. Compare them to women in the village, who face struggles on a daily basis but can still afford a smile, and to be generous and to be kind. What more could you ask from them?

How can young women find and cultivate relationships with mentors?

Mentorship is very key. I’ve had and still have mentors in my life, up till now, and they have played a major role in building me into the person that I am. For young girls, I would advise that you find someone who, regardless of their career, you can call at any one point and will be there for you. Not someone who will show up once a year and go brag about being a mentor and being a part of your achievements. There are people like that. Find a lot of similarities between you and the person. You have to know if the person has the time. It is a commitment, and a very tough commitment at that, because it involves time. It involves investing in another person’s life. It isn’t always about the money. When it comes to mentorship, I value people’s time a lot. If I can have that time with somebody, it means a lot to me. Look for that person you can connect with. Somebody who can relate to your story or to your vision. Have that personal relationship; it’s only going to work if you have that personal relationship. If you don’t have that relationship, it’s going to be tough, because then you’ll choose what to tell and what not to tell them, and in the long run, it’s not going to help you. That’s what has really helped me with my mentors, because I can have an open conversation with them. I can relate to them and they can relate to my life and we can easily connect. Let it not just be about you. Let it also be about your mentor; what’s going on with their job, family, what are some of the big projects they are working on. Everyone needs to be encouraged. I know we think that someone like Chris Kirubi needs encouragement. Have those kinds of conversations. Let the person know that you are also interested in their life, it’s not always about you. Mentorship is two-way, it’s never one-way, and I think that is where we get it wrong.

When do you see yourself returning to Kenya?

I love Kenya! I’m only here because of the assignments and everything that I have to do, but Kenya will always be my home, my heart, and my everything. When I talk about making a difference, it will definitely start with Kenya.

What advice do you have for young women hoping to work in development?

First of all, you have to do your research. You have to know exactly which areas of development, as development is very broad. So you have to know what exactly you are interested in. Are you interested in economic empowerment of women, youth and employment, early marriage, sexual reproductive health, or sustainable development? It’s very broad so you have to do your research and know what exactly you are passionate about. Then, reach out to people, including experts in the field. Most of the time, we think that everything is in our books but that is not true. There is so much knowledge that is with people and not in books. So reach out to people, create relationships, learn from them, have mentors in the areas that you are interested in. Make it a habit to continue learning and learning as much as you can. Be vocal; make sure people know what you stand for. Don’t be all over the place till we can’t relate you to anything. Don’t be in a rush to make everything happen in a day. It’s not going to happen and if it happens, it’s not going to be sustainable. Be realistic about the goals you have for yourself and work towards achieving them. But dream big—if you don’t get there, you’ll almost be there. And have fun! There’s a lot of fun.

Who are African women?

African women are powerful, resourceful, and have great potential. Given the opportunity, they are the force behind achieving prosperity in Africa. I really do believe so.