Fombah Kanneh poses with some of the children he is helping with his startup Gift 2 Change. (Courtesy of Fombah Kanneh)Fombah Kanneh grew up in a makeshift house in the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, during the country’s civil war. As in many other cities, slum life in Monrovia is notoriously hard — plagued by drugs, poverty, hunger and peer pressure to engage in destructive behavior.
Speaking with the State Department’s Macon Phillips in a YALI Voices podcast, Kanneh said that, due to his circumstances, he faced “one solid wall” barring a successful future. But thanks to his mother’s sacrifices and determination, he also had “one narrow, slim opportunity” to improve his chances: education.
Kanneh, a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow, founded the startup Gift 2 Change as a way to give back to his community by supporting single mothers and children who are facing the same challenges he did.
“It’s my responsibility to get somebody from somewhere, especially in the rural areas, in a slum community, to this stage, that one day too, they can have the opportunity to explain their success story,” he said.
“They are not just kids today. But they are the future leaders of tomorrow,” he said.
Gift 2 Change combines environmental sustainability with community building and education projects. Kanneh mobilizes young people from the streets to help him collect scrap materials, compost, bottles and other waste to sell to a friend who runs a recycling center. He uses the money to provide clothing, books, educational materials and training to Liberia’s most marginalized children.
Listen to the full podcast to learn how Kanneh found the inspiration to dedicate himself to his community, and like former South African President Nelson Mandela, has come to believe that education “is the most powerful weapon we can use to transform the world.”
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BUREAU OF INTERNATIONAL INFORMATION PROGRAMS (IIP)
“YALI Voices Podcast: Fombah Kanneh”
[MUSIC: GRACE JERRY, “E GO HAPPEN”]
MACON PHILLIPS: Welcome, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices podcast, a place to share some of the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Macon Phillips, and I’m so glad you’ve joined us today. Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast, and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.
When speaking about having achieved success, people often claim that they started from the bottom. My guest for the edition of YALI Voices, Fombah Kanneh, really did. He grew up in the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, during the civil war. Fombah and his mother were forced to live day to day, often not knowing where they’d sleep, or what they’d eat.
It would have been easy for Fombah to fall in with the wrong crowd. But early on his mother stressed the value of an education. Fombah embraced education as the narrow opportunity he had to escape poverty and violence. After graduating university, he decided he would dedicate his life to helping lift children and single mothers out of poverty.
Now let’s jump right into my interview with Fombah Kanneh.
[MUSIC: GRACE JERRY, “E GO HAPPEN”]
Fombah Kanneh, it’s great to have you here, and I hope you have had a nice trip from Liberia, and a productive time here. I’m looking forward to talking to you today.
MR. KANNEH: It’s an honor to be on YALI Network. Thank you.
MR. PHILLIPS: Absolutely. So we like to, in these conversations, just kind of get a sense of where you’re coming from, and what you’re working on these days, and look ahead to some of the challenges that are facing us. So let’s start by kind of asking the simple question. When you meet somebody for the first time, and they say, hey it’s great to meet you, what do you do? How do you answer that question?
MR. KANNEH: I said, thank you, it’s an honor to meet you. My name is Fombah Lasana Kanneh. I’m from Liberia. I basically aim to children-related issues, supporting kids in rural Liberia, and in urban slum communities as well, and kids that can’t afford. Because once upon a time, I was just like those kids in rural Liberia, especially on the streets of Monrovia. So I have to give back to them. Just summarizing what I do.
MR. PHILLIPS: I think that’s an experience that not a lot of people can understand, what it’s like to be a kid on the streets in Liberia. So paint a picture of what life was like for you when you were really young.
MR. KANNEH: Well, terrible. Again, born in poverty as a child was not a decision I made, but to get out of poverty as an adult was a decision I consciously made. Because life, it’s not about where you’re coming from, it’s about where you are going. Yes, I was born in poverty. Yes, my dad passed on. So I grew up with a single mother.
And in the slums of Monrovia, things are really hard, tough. So to some extent, my mom searched up coal or firewood to send me to school during the crisis, the Liberian civil crisis, at the time. So I have one solid wall, and one narrow, slim opportunity.
This solid wall — poverty, corruption, growing up in a violent community — indeed, was really painful. But the slimmest of opportunities I had, at the time, was to go to school. That was the narrow slims of opportunity. It was not deep, it was narrow.
Because you know the time, you want to go to school, your mom is sending you to school, when you’re coming back to a community, you have peer pressure. Your friends you play with, today, they’re not in school. They want you to just join them. So growing up in the slums of Monrovia was really painful, terrible.
Sometimes you don’t even have a square meal. And if you have a square meal, you never know where next you will sleep. If you know where next you’ll sleep, you don’t know what next activities you guys will do. There was nothing planned. Because your shadow, your clothing, was just at a time where it could come off anytime, because of the crisis.
MR. PHILLIPS: So you’re living day to day. You’re living in poverty. There’s a lot of children that grow up in that situation. I’m sure you have friends and people you know from when you were younger. What was different about you? Why do you think you made some of the right choices, and took advantage of that slim opportunity that education offered?
MR. KANNEH: Thanks to my mother, and thanks to all single mothers out there, you know. Mom encouraged me a lot to go to school. At the time, I told her that it was not really a good stuff to go to school. Like people would say, why do you want to force your son to learn Western education, for example. And unfortunately, my mom is not an educated lady. She doesn’t know how to read and write.
But she had a sense that she must send us to school. So I was forced to go to school, to some extent. Until I realized the importance of education, when I graduated from high school, and I started to support myself in college.
But what I do, with the question of what I do, especially giving back to kids in slum communities in rural Liberia. Because a few years ago, I was in that same situation. So I deem it necessary now to give back. I’m talking to you, Macon and the rest, because somebody somewhere, along with my mom, gave me the light, which is education.
So that’s why I’m here. So indeed now, it’s my responsibility to get somebody from somewhere, especially in the rural areas, in a slum community, to this stage, that one day too, they can have the opportunity to explain their success story.
MR. PHILLIPS: And that’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, why you put together Gift 2 Change.
MR. KANNEH: Yeah.
MR. PHILLIPS: Why don’t you tell us a little about that? That’s the project you’re working on right now. And I know that was heavily influenced by your respect for your mother, and sort of came from that. So tell us a little about what that project’s all about.
MR. KANNEH: What Gift 2 Change is social entrepreneur startup for sustainability [INAUDIBLE]. Now, thanks to the YALI Network, online, I met this guy. He was a 2014 Fellow, and he also encouraged me a lot to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship, through his mentorship, through the YALI online network, I got close to him.
Coming to my project Gift 2 Change — so say he ran a big company, a recycling company. Not really a huge one. So I help collect bags with the young people, from the streets of Monrovia, to give to his company, called Green Cities Incorporated, where he manufactures these into large production. For me, I’m just mobilizing young people, getting my team on the streets, and sent it to him.
So what I would get from this selling of those scrap materials — blocks today, bottles, compost materials — it was to sustain my vision of giving back to impoverished kids, with that campaign called Leave No Child Behind. And I learned that campaign, in many ways, through my fellowship. There’s a campaign called Leave No Child Behind. So I said, OK, at least we can take this back home. Especially to my village, my country, then we can run it through Africa.
So that to sustain our vision of giving by whatever I sell to him, sustain myself, and give back.
MR. PHILLIPS: Now in addition to that, you’re also teaching classes some. I know that you have used the YALILearns platform, and the classes from that. Can you talk a little about your experience using the resources on that, and from the standpoint of other people who might be listening right now, who might be considering that, how did you find it useful?
MR. KANNEH: Well, it is a library. It is a huge resource center. It’s not just the video that you watch for entertainment. It’s a video that you watch to inspire you. What are you into? Civil society, for example. What if you’re into business and entrepreneurship, or civil leadership? It helps to generate the kind of person you want to see.
So yes, I’ve benefited from it. So others want to be like me, a role model, right? Or have opportunity at the same time. So what I do with the materials I got through YALI online, through the internet, or through flat disks — so I share it through to PowerPoint presentations.
Soon, for example, we have free and popular speaking. And the lady will come on display, the YALILearns materials from the video presentation, they all watch it, university students. And people from local communities who watch those videos. If they can’t understand the American way of speaking, maybe they see it as serious or standard English, they find it difficult.
We have to come — as someone who has participated in a YALI program — and break it down to their level, to the simplest form, so at least communication can flow. So that it can get a message, and be the leader that we all can be, in Africa, in the world at large.
MR. PHILLIPS: So now you’re in Liberia, you’ve got these initiatives, you’re teaching these classes. Tell me what the future looks like for you. What are some of the big projects that you’re planning to take on?
MR. KANNEH: The future looks bright. But it’s only for prepared people. Getting a lot of their materials from YALI online, been a Mandela Washington Fellow, going to the U.S., coming back. It’s easy. You can set up bridges virtually. But it’s not a point to celebrate here, until you can liberate somebody through education. Like Mandela said, education is the most powerful weapon we can use to transform the world. And as someone that benefited from education, and is still benefiting, I think it is a responsibility, and a driven passion to help kids in rural and slum communities.
In terms of how the future looks bright, we can do it together, by sharing and helping others. It’s easier for us to sit in this room and criticize. It’s easier for us to lament the years I was born in poverty. So what? Yes, I don’t have resources. And so what? Who cares?
I’m thinking right, I’ve been taking one step. If you can’t say, ‘I am,’ no one will say you are. So you have to, especially young people across the world, in Africa, if you can’t be the change that you want to see, and rise up to the occasion, then no one will be. But if you just sit there and don’t do nothing to build your future, you become an instrument of violence.
Especially as to what is going on in West Africa. Extremism is all over.
MR. PHILLIPS: Well, let me ask you a question on that. Because I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think you would agree that breaking through, sometimes, to people, particularly kids, can be really difficult. In particular, when they’re in poverty, or they’re not in a good education system. And they kind of turn it off. And you have to break through to them.
For all the people listening today that are focused on similar issues, that are focused on children, that are trying to break through, what have you learned, both from your own experience growing up in poverty, and now doing work focused on children? What are some pieces of advice you could give to those who are trying to pierce through that, and help people understand that they need to stop making excuses and take that initiative?
MR. KANNEH: Well, growing up as a kid in a slum community, and those experiences that I had, personally, I think if we all can just take one single action, it starts in your home. It starts with your own family. Then you can take it out. You have to sacrifice, yes. The challenges ahead of sharing those training materials with kids are very sharp and difficult. I can tell you that it is bread-and-butter stuff.
Well, again, if you don’t do it, who will do it? If you can’t rise up to change that mention, no one will do it. We all seem to be busy because we want to make profit. Yes, it’s good. But the initiative of giving back to kids, you learn to be more tolerant, you learn to be more patient-mannered. You try to understand that you’re not doing it because this is the kids of Liberia, but you’re doing it for kids. They are the future.
Not just Liberia, but Africa. Not just Africa, but the world. So in order to fill the gap, especially in Africa, we have to educate the kids. You run a program on YALI online called Africa for All. That’s a great initiative. And where people are signing, or encouraging people to stand up for women’s rights, no violence against women, now having a large campaign around electorate issues. Those are great initiatives.
But if I can recommend an appeal, which of course you already started. We can say Africa for Kids. Stand up for kids. Those campaigns, you know — you may just sit in D.C. and just send messages, you’re all OK. But you don’t know the impact that you made, except you meet the Fellows interacting with them.
YALI Go Green. We all want to go green, now. We all want to wear green shirts, and sensitize others. Well, if we can all just rise up, Africa stand up for kids. Stand up for kids against violence. Stand up for kids with education. Social injustices, kids suffer from social injustices.
We have a lot of juveniles in prison across Africa. Maybe they can’t afford, besides education, dozens of children I earn go to school every day, but go to school hungry. So if we can just start running those campaigns, and we don’t have to sit for mark on the rest of the stuff for YALI online to do it — but if you’re listening to me, wherever you find yourself, we can create those online platforms, especially through social media, and sell the idea that we need to stand up for kids.
They are not just kids today. But they are the future leaders of tomorrow.
MR. PHILLIPS: Totally agree with you, and I know we’ve done some work already on climate change, done some work already on women’s empowerment. I really appreciate your point that people shouldn’t wait around for people in D.C. to come up with this stuff. You’re already working on this. So tell me a little bit, something, about you that might surprise most people.
MR. KANNEH: Well, like African youths, we love soccer. And if I’m really down, well, I gain inspiration from soccer. If I can gain inspiration from soccer, and I just look and sit, and see people that don’t have anything I have, and they still appreciate themselves. So what does that mean? I have something. So those are the two areas I really get inspiration from.
If you want to give up, and you say, OK, I’m this, I’m that, just look at someone around. They don’t have eyes to see. They don’t even have feet to walk. What’s about you? You have five senses. Beautiful ideas. But just wake up and take something positive.
Like many youths, what stops us from achieving our full potential is the fear factor. When I started, especially when I came out of university with this campaign, Leave No Child Behind, people would say, you’re not going to make it. You’ll fail. Come on, we’ll have a job here for you. You can do this one five hours a day, earn this.
I said no, this is my dream. You don’t believe in my dream, then compared to you, I believe in my dream. If my dream of helping one kid to be successful, I can do it.
And lastly, through the YALI online, I’m sharing this vision to a Fellow from Tanzania. So Leave No Child Behind, now, is not just in Liberia, now, but it’s crossing borders. From Tanzania, now Fellows from Sierra Leone want to repeat the ideas, because they’ve been inspired.
Even Alieu Jallow, from The Gambia, have all been inspired. If Fombah can do it, we all can do it.
MR. PHILLIPS: That sounds like the kind of thing you want spreading. You know, sounds like a great thing to grow.
MR. KANNEH: If it can grow, then we all would make an impact.
MR. PHILLIPS: So my next question, this is just a little bit more specific, maybe a personal question. Which is would you consider yourself a morning person or someone who does better late at night?
MR. KANNEH: I think in the morning.
MR. PHILLIPS: You wake up early and get started.
MR. KANNEH: Yes.
MR. PHILLIPS: Do you have any routines or anything that you feel like you do every day or every week that helps you be more organized, and focused?
MR. KANNEH: I’m more focused on building my mind, then focus on taking exercise and building my own body. We need to balance work, with fun, with exercises. But if we balance our mental capacity, which of course is the mindset. The mind, for me, I believe, is the most powerful weapon.
So when I wake up in the morning, for me, before going to bed, the first thing I do is to have an agenda for the next day. If I wake up, where do I start my day from the start? My agenda is already set. When I wake up, I’m strictly into it. Start work at like 5 o’clock in the morning, check a few emails, and follow my daily activities.
From 5 in the morning till 12 are my productive hours, because anything after 12 it would just be a bonus. That’s exactly what I focus on.
MR. PHILLIPS: Yeah, I’m hearing that from a lot of people I talk to. It’s just get it done in the morning, that’s when you’re most productive.
OK a final thing is you’ve been answering a lot of questions. I appreciate it, but if you could ask a question of President Obama, what would your question be?
MR. KANNEH: See if I had the opportunity, I’d say, Mr. President, thousands of kids in Africa don’t have the opportunity to go to school. What you can do, in your own weak way, as president of the free world, as a fighter, to help kids in Africa? Kids in the world? Not just limited to Africa. Giving an education.
MR. PHILLIPS: OK, great. Well, I really appreciate it. We’ve had a great conversation with Fombah, and wish you the best of luck back in Liberia.
What a great conversation that was with Fombah. It’s hard not to be inspired by his story and his commitment to help others facing similar situations. He figured out, early on, that education unlocks the key to a better life. Thank you, Fombah, for taking the time to chat with us.
If you’d like to get in contact with Fombah, you can find him and his organization on Facebook under Gift 2 Change. That’s gift, the number two, and change. Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
Join the YALI Network at https://yali.state.gov and be part of something bigger. Our theme music is “E Go Happen,” by Grace Jerry, produced by the presidential precinct. The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Government. Thanks for listening, everyone.