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

vivian onano

Did you ever see your life turning out this way while growing up back in Kenya?

Things have happened so fast that sometimes I sit back and just cry. I have moments when I cry a lot as I think about my life and how everything has surpassed even the biggest of dreams that I had growing up.

I always imagined myself in global spaces and doing something for not only my village and country, but also on a global level, helping others. I knew it would take a while, probably I’d achieve what I want in my 40s, 50s but not in my 20s.

I’m not complaining at all though, I’m very grateful that God has opened all these doors now, so sometimes, I sit back and cry because it’s hard to believe it is actually happening. I get messages from my friends asking – ‘Were we at all in the same class? I can’t believe we were desk mates, I can’t believe we had biology class together…’ and I never know what to say.

When the feature written on me in Forbes Africa came out, it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me until people started talking about it. I only got excited when my mum said she wanted to read it.

It didn’t sink in until then and people were reaching out to me from all over the world asking how I felt being featured in such a prestigious publication.

Stuff like that makes me sit back and thank God even more and I look at where I’ve come from and marvel at it. There’s no one else I know from there who has been able to achieve all this in such a short period and looking back at how my mum struggled to raise my siblings and I, it didn’t occur to me that any of this would happen.

vivian onano
Vivian was a proud recipient of a MORE Impact Award in 2015, a luncheon award ceremony presided over by the FLOTUS, Michelle Obama.

Tell SLA about a life-changing moment you may have experienced. How is it significant to your life today?

My first life-changing moment was when I graduated from college because it was a big milestone, not only for me but also for my family and my community. Fast forward two years later, now my ultimate life changing moment was when I spoke at the UN General Assembly last year.

I don’t know if there will be anything that will ever beat that. That moment showed me how education can change the life of an African girl. I was there because of the exposure my education gave me. If I was still at home in my small village in Uyoma, I don’t think anyone would have come there to invite me to speak at the UN General Assembly.

That opportunity to speak in front of so many prominent men and women was mind blowing. The minute I said my name and where I am from the whole room went quiet. I had every single person’s attention and that was a scary yet incredible feeling.

It reminded me that where you come from does not determine your power; if God has given it to you you have it. When I was done, I of course started crying and this reverts back to your previous question —yes I had envisioned myself at a global stage but I never knew it would happen at the age of 24 or at the UN General Assembly either.

It made me realize the power I have within me to have an impact and make a change not only in my village, not only in my country but also in the world.

vivian onano
Vivian gave a powerful keynote speech on the youth and equality at the 2015 UN General Assembly.

Here at SLA, we aim to help young women achieve success in their respective fields and provide an empowering network to assist the women who visit our platform. How important is a good support system to you?

A good support system is everything and it starts from your family. It goes on to your mentors, your friends, your sponsors and your network. If you don’t have a good support system within your family alone, it’s really hard to breakthrough.

As a young girl, my mother and grandmother would always tell me that ‘You are beautiful, you are smart, and you are a leader.’ As a kid I never took it seriously but now I see that those words helped build my self-confidence.

I never sit and think about whether I’m beautiful or not because it’s already ingrained in my head that I am. Many young girls today with so much potential lose themselves thinking about the measure of their beauty because they’ve not been told enough that they are beautiful and worthy enough. So, I do think a family support system is very important.

Your mentor is another vital part of your support system. Having someone that is more exposed than say your parents, like in my case will assist you in navigating your way through the world much better than you would have without their guidance.

Lastly, my network. Without the various connections I have made in the recent years, I would not have the opportunities that I keep getting even today.

A good support system, especially for young women, is what will get us from point A to point B and help us flourish and let the world know who we are.

What is your mantra in life?

Do good and go your way.

I believe in service and doing good, but most of the time we are always waiting for appreciation for what we do. I believe your good deeds will speak for you whether it’s 10 or 20 years from now. Just do good and go your way. Don’t wait for people’s approval.

vivian onano
Photo by Birgitta Lund

Last but not least… You have achieved so much at such a young age, what do see for your future?

Oh my goodness… I don’t think I’ve achieved everything I would have liked to in all honesty. We still have 66 million girls who are out of school, 32 million in Africa alone, so we still have a lot of work to do.

We still have gender violence cases on the rise and I cannot do this alone so I just have to be realistic and do the small part that I can do which is to continue creating spaces for us to have such discussions.

I have to keep lobbying government leaders to make these issues a priority so in the coming years this will continue to be my main focus. Other things on my agenda include girl’s education, women empowerment, eradicating gender violence and also continue to create opportunities for young people to thrive.

I’m also planning to pursue my Masters next year and get an MBA. Even while back in school, I know I will continue with my activism work as that is my biggest goal in life.

Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

About Diana Odero

Diana Odero is a contributing writer and editor for SLA. She is a journalist, a travel lover and an avid reader. She writes on all things culture and lifestyle and is passionate about seeing her fellow women succeed. She runs a personal blog and when she's not busy typing away or checking into a new destination, she can be found indulging in one of her favourite pastimes - baking cupcakes.

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