Vivian Onano: Where you come from does not determine your power

vivian onano

One year ago, in front of the entire UN General Assembly, the then 24-year-old Vivian Onano gave her first keynote speech. Not many 24 year olds can claim such an achievement, neither can they say they dined with FLOTUS, hung out with Bill Clinton or met all living American presidents, Jimmy Carter excluded.

Coming from a small village in Nyanza province, Kenya, Vivian has grown into one of Africa’s most passionate youth advocates with credentials that have earned her a seat at the table with the greats of the world.

Diana Odero, our SLA contributor, had a candid chat with the young powerhouse about how her life has changed significantly since then and why she will not stop fighting for the rights the youth deserve.

Tell us, who is Vivian really? Minus all the accolades, jet setting and changing the world, tell us about the girl -Vivian Onano?

Well, Vivian the girl is a very shy person believe it or not. I’m very shy and I think it’s my demeanor that makes people think I’m not. I consider myself an introvert because as much as I’m out there doing all these things, I always feel drained after an event or two. I always need some space and time to myself just to re-energize for the next day or the next thing I need to do.

I’m very down to earth and that’s something else that is also wrongly perceived by those on the outside looking in. I love dancing and being around happy people who are also very focused.

I keep my circle very small, around people who give me the positive energy I need to get things done. It’s really helpful to have such focused and enthusiastic people around you.

That aside, I’d like to add that I’m very approachable guys! There’s been incidences when some journalists have been scared to approach me just based on the straight-faced look I usually have —please don’t judge me by my face, I’m always willing and happy to talk to people.  

How did you get started on this activism journey?

My mum and my grandmother raised me, and my grandmother is a woman with a very giving heart. I grew up on so little but even with the little we had she would call all the neighbours and their kids to share with them when they didn’t have much.

So, it all started from my family who taught me the importance of giving despite having so little. I remember I used to help my classmates with homework back in primary school and I was always that kid who would stand up for others, particularly my fellow girls.

I’ve been a student leader from kindergarten all the way to college and I think that’s where all the self-confidence came from as well. It’s part and parcel of my DNA.

Vivian, who has been a major part of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, is seen here in NYC protesting in solidarity with fellow women the kidnapping of the young Nigerian girls by Boko Haram.

The field you are in currently must bring lots of challenges and difficult tasks to take on. How do you handle such situations? How do you deal with conflict?

It’s true that my field is a very difficult space to be in and I think it’s even more difficult being as young as I am. I always find myself in spaces with people of the older generation and mostly just men.

It’s great exposure and it’s helped me build great networks but I always have to rise up to the challenge of knowing I’m still a young person who has to be an adult at the same time. I’m representing the voices of African youth and I want to be taken seriously but the kid in me still wants to be a kid. Juggling both worlds is quite the task.

Whenever I go to conferences, people are always like ‘When I read your bio I thought you would be much older…’ Others expect to see a 40 year old woman so it forces me to rise up to the maturity level of a 40 year old woman while giving a presentation/talk yet I’m only 25.

I still keep it very authentic and stay true to myself but I always hope my presentation matches what they are expecting to see. Whenever I’m speaking on a panel for example, I never want my age to be used as an excuse for the type of contribution I give to the topic at hand.

I always want to deliver it the same way an accomplished older person would as well and attain the same respect, that way making room for future young people like me to get the same opportunity.

As for dealing with conflicts, it’s always best to be diplomatic i.e. be very honest but also very respectful at the same time. I’ve come to realize that people think some spaces should only be for the older generation. Being mindful of that, I try and remain as authentic as I can be but respectful of where they’re coming from so as to avoid anything escalating out of proportion.

Vivian at the Women Deliver Global Conference earlier this year. Photo by Birgitta Lund

You are a self-proclaimed feminist. What does the word feminist mean to you and why do you think it is still frowned upon today?

Being a feminist in my opinion is giving everybody an equal opportunity to maximize on his or her God-given human abilities. The reason why it’s still frowned upon is because it’s seen as a sort of label for angry women.

As a feminist, I don’t look at it that way. I engage with men just the same way I engage with women when it comes to feminism, gender equality, women’s empowerment etc.

I actually think I’m much tougher on men as I try to make them understand the importance of gender equality, the importance of everyone having equal rights and opportunities and maximize on their talents.

You have sat in the same room with some of the most prominent people in the world including President Obama and first lady Michelle. If you were to have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

I’m going to be very honest with you and say my grandmother. I love her so much and it saddens me that I don’t really get much time to spend with her. My grandmother is such a big-hearted person and I think I’ve really taken after her.

Her confidence, her generosity, her humility, her openness and candidness… all that is she and I in a nutshell. I last saw her in May and I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who knows me better than she does.

I know people expect me to run for the big names and what have you but truly, if there were anyone I could have dinner with right now, it would definitely be her.