She is beautiful inside and out. Her Charisma is one to reckon, how she manages to get awesome young people to follow her cause is still a mystery to many. Meet Esther Kalenzi the brain behind 40days over 40 smiles
Who is Esther Kalenzi?
Well, what you see is pretty much what you get with me. I am a believer who chases her dreams at all costs. I did a degree in Mass Communications at Uganda Christian University (UCU). I have done work in PR, Marketing and business development in the past. My hobbies include dancing, sipping tea at any time of the day and listening/telling stories. I am always happy to listen to people’s stories whether i am close to them or will never see them again. There is always something to learn or simply laugh/cry about.
What is and why 40 days Over 40 smiles?
It is a youth led charity organisation that supports orphans and vulnerable children. It started with a Facebook group I opened on February 27, 2012 with the aim of giving back to the less fortunate in society. The plan was to use the 40 days of lent to collect food stuffs, toys, clothes, beddings, books and other material that I would then give back to children and hopefully create more than 40 smiles. In 2013,we got registered. The name is a bit of a mouthful but it has a story so we decided to keep it.
What is this kind of charity that you and your awesome people do?
Hahaha, my awesome people are indeed awesome. The simplest way I can put it is that we make children smile. Our target is those children that society often forgets, whom life has dealt some pretty hard blows. If a playground will make them happy, we shall put up one. If they need a roof over their heads for those cold nights, that is where we come in. There are several issues affecting children in Uganda and more-so those ones who come from poor backgrounds or have no parent. We come in to ensure they have a childhood that is memorable despite their conditions.
At your age, most young people are concerned with personal happiness and dreaming about having big houses. Where did all this begin from?
I would also love a big house , maybe two? There are a few things I am passionate about that came together to create this lovely blend that is now 40-40 People- I connect with people and try to keep in touch to the best of my ability. I have friends and acquaintances whom I never knew would one day be part of this big dream Children- I have always loved children. They literally light up my days. Knowing that one or even several of them are suffering means that someone has to do something. I can be that someone, so can you Positive change: Our tagline “Be the change you want to see” was borrowed from Mahatma Ghandi. From the time I read it as a teen, it became my silent mantra. I am convinced that each of us has a purpose in this world. We may recognise it at 18 or 61. I am lucky that I saw mine by the age of 24. It was the conviction within myself to do more using available resources that gave birth to this dream, along with those factors I just mentioned that sort of fell in place.
Wow that is lovely. Are your parents happy and supportive now that you’re not a journalist but into charity?
They are. I was never really a rebellious child, neither was I a saint, but I always tried to listen to them. I actually failed to get work as a journalist after I graduated. I always thought I would be a features’ writer, bringing stories of change to the public or at least writing and producing a successful show. When I realised this was not happening, I looked for ‘any job’ that I could do. I worked for a business development firm when the 4040 idea came to mind. I made good friends while there and had an intelligent boss who challenged us on a daily. When I decided to quit, I did not tell my parents because I knew they would talk me out of it. Today, they are the ones who call me when an article about us has been featured in a newspaper or if we are on television. I think they have embraced it and I will keep doing my best to make them proud.
What are your biggest accomplishments ever since you started 40 Days over 40 Smiles?
Uhm, that we are still here three years later?! To tell you the truth, we have done some things I never thought we could pull off and have received recognition from some really credible authorities but I am most amazed that this little dream is still here amidst everything. In terms of ‘tangible’ outcomes, the dormitory we built in Luweero stands out and I think will do for a very long time to come. It isn’t that it is grand but the story behind it represents a true reflection of hope, faith, love and dreams coming true We were presented with a budget of 28 million Uganda Shillings for the dormitory and it was pretty much a ‘laugh out loud’ situation. “Are these people crazy, we can’t pull this off,” we said. We agreed to TRY and raise half with so much doubt. Along the way, something happened that I can only describe as a miracle. The support from our networks and strangers alike was overwhelming and this momentum pushed my team to do more. Our first fundraiser was okay, the second one better and then the #BuyABrick campaign just shoot through the roof. We raised 8 million Ugx in 10 days with just a hashtag. At this point, we were unstoppable. We would do whatever it took to get the balance. As I speak, a dormitory with capacity to house 210 children proudly stands at Happy Times Junior School Luweero and I tell you, it is the most beautiful thing you will ever see (heavily biased opinion)
We know this kind of charity deals with kids who are going through hell. Any story of these little kids that has touched you?
I would like to point out that most of the children we work with are happier than the average Ugandan youth. If they are not, at least we ensure they have what it takes to get them there. See, they don’t need much to be satisfied, a quality many of us can learn. Let me tell you about my special friend Ronald whom I met in 2012. He was an extremely shy boy with whom I had a special bond. He would see me coming and run excitedly then say nothing. I had to earn his trust. Before long, I found out he lived on the streets and each time he felt like, he left this particular orphanage to go back to the life he ‘knew.’ The caretaker said he was a ‘gone case.’ I asked him to promise me he would always be there when I came and he did. Last year he ran away (again) and although we lost touch, I thought about him and many of the other children and prayed for them. A month or so ago, I received a phone call. It was Ronald! He told me he had gone back to the street and been picked by a lady who had also visited him at the home around the same time as us. We talked about his new school and ‘new’ family and I was stiffling sobs the whole time.
Did it affect you personally? As in deep in your heart?
I generally like to do my best to give 100% and it can be a blessing and a curse. I grew attached to Ronald and so many of the children we worked with. He wrote me a letter thanking me for keeping him off the street 3 years ago and I still have it to date. I think I have an inexplicable attraction to seemingly lost causes and as such, I felt like it was my responsibility to help him believe in himself and realise that he has as great a chance as any other child to be whatever he chooses. I would love to see him and all the children we have worked with as adults, running businesses, singing, treating patients, raising their families- what a heartwarming sight that will be!
Do you still follow up these activities after a successful campaign?
We certainly do. I will give a few examples; We visited Luweero two months ago even if the dormitory was completed a while back. Other partners came in and bought beds for the children. A borehole has been constructed at the school yet the kids used to walk long distances to fetch water. The children who sat for PLE last year did well too. We are in touch on phone and visit when we can. We worked with Akiba last year and completed our project but are still in touch. The caretaker was at 5 aside last weekend and has invited us for their 5 year celebrations. It is only right that we stay in touch and continue to support each other in whichever way possible.
Well, it seems you are here to stay! Where do you see 40 Days over 40 smiles six years from now?
This question is one of the most difficult for me to answer because if you had asked me 6 years ago where I would be today, I would probably have given an extremely inaccurate response. I will tell you a few of the things we hope to accomplish though. We would love to work on issues from the grassroots i.e find out why mothers throw their children in the first place, what can be done to change this? These caretakers of orphanages who have given their life to children whom they are not related to, how can we empower them? We shall have an advocacy arm and sit with policy makers (better still have some of our members as policy makers) so that we can safeguard the future of Uganda’s children. I see us inspiring young people within Uganda and beyond to take their future into their own hands. Being ‘young’ can no longer be an excuse to act stupid or waste ones’ life but rather create an avenue to start laying foundations early and create a legacy that generations to come will emulate.
Charity takes great courage and commitment. What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?
This type of work can be emotionally draining in ways I can’t even explain. It gets insane from time to time but nothing worth having is ever easy. I am mostly amused by the people who tell me stories about 4040’s process that even I don’t know about. Each time we appear n the media, some people imagine we paid for it. They are not ashamed to make this allegations without even asking. If this was true, then we shouldn’t have wasted those millions in airtime and space. We would have built at least 10 dormitories by now. One even told me congratulations upon the line of hostels I had built. In my mind I was thinking, how about I first buy a bicycle? People actually believe these ridiculous stories because they are looking for a label, something, anything to explain why we do what we do. Others want to know what it takes to start an NGO because 4040 seems to be minting a lot of money. It is this kind of myopic thinking that keeps us underdeveloped and then we still look for someone to blame. It used to hurt but now it is mostly hilarious. The real challenges come in different forms,whether it is an angry volunteer, a sick child, an arrogant caretaker or a stubborn service provider. Sometimes all these forces are spewing negative energy at the same time and you fill like a minor heart attack isn’t entirely out of the question. Having several volunteers who must attend to their 8-5 jobs makes it difficult to achieve some goals in a timely manner. Schedule clashes occur often and the partners may not always understand this. Additionally, some organisations undermine 4040 simply because they are better established and that can be quite disheartening when you know your worth. Others have failed to master the art of saying no so instead they make promises that they will never keep. You make plans revolving around these pledges and end up realising they were a myth a bit too late. Nonetheless, each challenge comes with a lesson and I am positive the future is bright so sometimes you just say ‘C’est la vie’ and keep on keeping on.
Any worst moments or regrets?
I have lost some friends along this journey and I am bound to lose more. It is those moments that remind you what growing up is about, it won’t always be a walk in the park. I do believe that people are indeed in our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. This realisation gives me comfort, knowing that 4040 is bigger than me or my relationships. At the end of the day, I am positive the God who started this good work will carry it on to completion,
Are you planning to do charity for the rest of your life or time will come and say “Yeah i have played my part”?
I am at my best when I am doing what I do. This is my purpose and that isn’t something one gets tired of and says ‘Hey, please hand me another one, in purple please..’ Even when I hand over the mantle of team leader to someone else, I know I will be involved in charity work for as long as my strength allows.
Lets talk about the activities you do. From social media campaigns to fun activities(which are awesome by the way), what made you adopt this strategy?
Thank you. We have surely been blessed. Since I started by adding my friends to the facebook group, somehow, communication just continued on facebook. All it took was a few minutes and the message had reached hundreds of people (and the numbers continued to grow) We then extended to twitter and tried to use all the popular social media platforms. This mode of communication is affordable and has the power to reach may people at once. Our target group was the youth who spend a lot of time on social media. For the activities, we still thought of those that would engage young people. We settled on music and poetry plus sports. These fundraising events have been growing. Our first soccer match was between two teams and had 30 or so people, raising about 400,000. Last weekend we had over 1,000 people and we raised about 6 million Ugx. We have dedicated time, precision and a whole lot of hard work into this but it would all mean nothing without our supporters. They have pushed us to do more and given us reason to keep trying even the going gets tough. Would we really be holding these fundraisers if no one shared our posts or showed up? I think not.
Have you received any rewards or accolades ever since you begun?
We have and I must say almost all of them came unexpectedly. Let me try to put them in order – Vocational Service award, rotaract, Kampala city -Best Campaign, Social media awards (2013) -Heroine of the year award, Young Achievers -Best pitch -Tumaini award, first place, health category -Vocational service, Kyambogo rotaract club -Fearless award, Mavuno Kampala -Social Justice award (2015) -Our first internantional recognition came recently; Finalist, commonwealth Youth Development awards (There were 2 Ugandans chosen out of the 4 Africans, that is/was such an honour!) Eh, I feel like I have made up some but yes, that is the recognition 4040 has got and we take none of it for granted.
Am sure this started as a passion for social justice. But now that you’re getting recognition, does it still remain driven by passion?
Haha, what?? Of course! The awards and recognition are nice but take them all away and 40-40 will still be here for many years to come. I actually hate the attention that it comes with although I have to remind myself that it comes with the territory. The lives that are changing and encouraging people to do more for their society, that is what really matters at the end of the day.
Behind your inspirational leadership and the name of your foundation, there are other people who help you be who you are. Do you mind mentioning at least ten of them?
I may not mention them all but I have an amazing team that holds the fort and ensures that work is done. They have sacrificed a lot for 40-40. Some of them have been there from the very start, others joined recently and I can’t even remember a time when they were not there. They all have different backgrounds and personalities but they bleed 40-40 and are the reason we are where we are today. Is this where I send greetings? 🙂
Then outside 40-40, which partners have been helpful to you in your charity campaigns?
We have had several partners but I think I will mention the ones whom we have worked with on more than one project although we appreciate all of them. Cipher 256, D and J audio, Fit Clique Africa, Xfm, Sms media, The baby store Ug.
Let’s talk about personal inspiration. Which people inspire you in everything you do?
I am inspired by my mother. I am not quite sure how her big heart fits in her body. I do not know how she manages to take care of everyone, including people she does not really know. I am in awe of her strength, her faith and power to forgive. She inspires me to become a better version of myself. Did I add she is my biggest fan? Yes. It is mostly embarrassing, in a good way.
If you had a chance to meet Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), what would you tell him?
Hahaha. You have also noticed I stalk him? The man came to Uganda and we didn’t meet? How shall I explain this to my children? Jokes aside… I even sent him an email, although he probably gets millions of those. I think I would do more listening than talking. I admire him, his courage and patience and can relate to his work to a small extent. Like us, he runs a facebook page that has allowed him to meet millions of people and change lives. All he wanted to do was take portraits of New Yorkers and he ended up travelling the world with the UN sharing some of the best, most heart-wrenching photographs I have ever seen. Of course the stories people share need special recognition. He is such a beautiful human being, doing a great job and I would let him know that countless times.
If you also had a chance to meet policy makers in the Ugandan government for example the president or parliament, what would you tell them?
I am pretty sure this space is not enough for the things I want to say. Several things in this country need an overhaul, including but not limited to our education and health sector. Many of these problems are ‘man made’ and therefore, it is in our power to turn them around. We need to do more for our children, quality education over quantity, incentives for teachers who essentially spend the most time with our children ,involvement of parents and the community in children’s education and well being, the list goes on. “The True Measure of Any Society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” – Ghandi My focus would be on children (especially vulnerable ones) and the potential of youth. Bottom line is we can do more, they can do more, they should do more and so should we. When the policy makers slack, we should hold them accountable to the best of our ability and by this I mean, we should go beyond passive activism.
At the end of the day, they say judge a person by the works of his or her hands. How do you want to be remembered?
When you have a relationship with someone whether as a sibling, spouse, parent or friend, your actions will always speak louder than your words. It does not matter how often you tell them you love them if you can’t go out of your way to show it. I try to let my values speak for themselves. I would love for my life to be its own testimony. If a few people can be inspired or if I can change a life or two along the way, that will be enough for me.
This Is Uganda wants to tell the world that Uganda is not about Idi Amin or Kony but about beautiful people like you making a difference. Imagine if a white is reading this interview and they are touched, where can they contribute to your cause?
Hehe, but really, why white….? Anyone and everyone is welcome to be part of this movement. 🙂 our website is 40daysover40smiles.org Facebook Like 40 days over 40 smiles Foundation and follow us on Twitter @40days_40smiles They can find more information there.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be like you?
Haha, no one should want to be like me. They should aspire to be themselves 🙂 I am convinced that when you want something bad enough, for the ‘right’ reasons, the universe will conspire to help you get it. Most of my success has been a result of trial and error so as long as one is willing to fail several times, eventually they will succeed.
Any remarks you want you make to appeal to the people?
You know that thing that keeps you up at night, the dream you are trying to stifle because you are not sure it will work? Start it now. The worst thing that can happen is it not working out but how will you know it won’t work if you can’t even try?
Lastly, do you mind sharing with us pictures telling your success story to our readers?
Here are some of them*
A collage of 40-40: Photo used with permission