We are all-too-familiar with the idea of ‘wearing hats’. Not the large straw-and-ribbon creations that adorn many women’s heads, but the hats that represent various roles one must play. To her role as daughter, colleague, employer, entrepreneur and mother, Ory Okolloh added “patriot” and “witness”.
The Kenyan mother of three is an activist, lawyer and blogger and the founder of revolutionary platforms, Mzalendo and Ushahidi that have changed the way ordinary citizens hold their governments accountable around the world. While many entrepreneurs and businesswomen acknowledge the difficulty of achieving business success in a corrupt economy, Okolloh has gone after tackling it.
Okolloh received a bachelor’s degree in political science from University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, USA and went on to study law at Harvard University, graduating in 2005. Okolloh’s personal blog, Kenyan Pundit, offers intelligent commentary and opinion pieces on political issues particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. As a lawyer trained abroad, Okolloh says that many assume that Africa’s issues are not personal to her. However, her life contains several personal experiences with disease, corruption and poverty.
In a TED Talk, she recalled that her family struggled regularly to save money because they tried to provide for extended family members. Okolloh’s parents, wanting to provide her with an education that matched her brightness, put her through private elementary school they could barely afford and she remembers the embarrassment of being asked to leave school premises, term-after-term for failing to pay fees on time. She thought to herself, “Why don’t these guys just take me to a cheap school – it’s embarrassing.” Eventually, she made it through. Her next step into secondary school was no less eventful. She fell short of the entrance exam cut-off mark and went with her father to seek an exemption from the school’s headmistress. As she says, although other girls with powerful fathers were granted exemptions, “because we were nobodies, because my father didn’t have the right last name, we were treated like dirt. And there’s nothing worse than seeing your parent being humiliated in front of you.” Okolloh resolved to never beg for anything in her life and chose to reject the reluctant acceptance letter she later received from the secondary school.
Okolloh lost her father to AIDS in 1999; her father suffered in silence, “he never told anyone about the disease – he was worried about the stigma of the disease.” By researching her father’s infection, a form of meningitis, Okolloh figured out that it was an opportunistic infection associated with AIDS. For a little while, the family managed to get him the expensive medications he needed to stay alive, but when the money ran out, he got sick again. Her father eventually died on a weekend; the family could not get money from an ATM to pay for more treatments. Despite the hardships she has endured, Ory Okolloh went on to become a successful lawyer and activist, receiving some of the best training in the world. For her, the issues affecting Kenyans and Africans are deeply personal and very political. As an activist, Ory Okolloh has not held back from promoting integrity in government using technology.
In 2003, she co-founded Mzalendo.com, meaning “patriot” in Swahili, with Conrad Akunga, as a platform to encourage public participation in politics. Mzalendo’s mission was to keep an eye on the activities of the Kenyan parliament, including the activities of National Assemblies, Members of Parliament and political aspirants, which it has done with success. However, politics can turn violent and in 2008, after the Kenyan presidential elections, ethno-political violence erupted in parts of the country. Okolloh saw the need for citizenship journalism through technology to cultivate unity among the different tribal groupings.
Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was developed as a website which allowed ordinary citizens to send in and map reports of violence and peace efforts throughout Kenya by using mobile phones and the web. The original website had over 45,000 users in Kenya and became recognised as a valuable technology that could be adapted to other purposes. Ushahidi has since developed from one website into a non-profit technology company that develops open-source platforms to encourage citizenship journalism. The crowd mapping platform has since been adapted to various activities for other organisations including humanitarian work and monitoring elections.
Okolloh served as the Executive Director for Ushahidi until 2010 when she stepped out of the role to assume a new position as Google’s Policy Manager for Africa. For Okolloh, her new role presents the chance to engage with government leaders, policymakers and industry groups in order to develop web technology in Africa, “it is a huge opportunity to bring Google’s resources to bear as far as the growth and development of the internet in Africa.”
Ory Okolloh is a regular speaker on youth activism, technology in Africa and citizenship journalism and has presented at numerous conferences such as TED, Mobile Web Africa and World Economic Forum. She was previously a summer associate at Covington and Burling, Washington DC, USA and a Chayes Fellow at the World Bank, Department of Institutional Integrity. Ory’s work combining technology and politics reveals her fundamental belief in “the power of ideas, the power of sharing knowledge.” For her, it is this power that is capable of transforming the Africa of today into a place where her children can find their futures. “Right now, the circumstances under which you are born determine your life – I want to see that change. As Africans, we need to take responsibility for the future of the continent.”
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