Striving Toward Change

Posted by Anthony Wald

Give Us Wings is celebrating its 10-year anniversary of humanitarian work in Kenya and Uganda. This grassroots organization’s success hinges on the relationship that it has developed with the people of Kenya and Uganda. From listening to people describe their lives and their needs, GUW evolved into an organization that restores and builds houses, started a clinic, and helps provide 20,000 people with clean water. Impressive accomplishments for an organization that grew out of listening to stories of struggle.

The events that led to its founding began in 1998 when Mary Steiner, now the director of Give Us Wings, volunteered in eastern Africa. After completing her volunteer commitment, Mary stayed in Africa to develop a book about behavior guidance for school-age children in the US. The story shifted when a local boy, Abdul, asked what she was writing about. She told him, and he said, “Why not write about children here?” Mary responded, “I don’t know anything about children here, but write me your story and maybe I will.” Upon reading Abdul’s story she was struck by his directness. She says, “Bam it hit me—this is what poverty looks like.”

Mary decided to compile a book of narratives about living with poverty. She explains, “The intense need and poverty in Africa can be overwhelming, but once people hear these stories, they’ll get it, they’ll respond.” Finding people willing to tell their stories was easy. “I just started doing this trust dance with people. Letting them know I was collecting stories,” she says. “I had no money to give them, and people just started lining up.”

When the stories stored in Mary’s computer crashed, another twist of fate was revealed. A young man named Elijah accompanied Mary into Mombasa, Kenya, to get her computer fixed. In the city, Elijah noticed when Mary gave some shillings (coins) to a local child. He said, “It is nice to give us some shillings once in a while, but what we need is access to education and information, we need someone to give us wings.” Elijah’s remark spoke Give Us Wings into existence.

After six months, Mary came home with a collection of stories and an acute understanding of poverty in Africa. “I could have spent 20 years getting three doctorates and not gotten the education that these stories told me,” she explains with a determined expression.

Just as the people of Kenya and Uganda shared their stories with Mary, Mary shared her travel stories with friends and family. A small group of people who were interested in her stories threw a fundraiser and raised an amazing 6,000 dollars.

Mary returned to Kenya with the money. “We got even better at listening,” she says. She asked people about their dreams and their goals. “We started helping people unveil within themselves the belief that they can have some power in overcoming the effects of poverty. And that they know what they need more than we know what they need.” Her insistence that people build self-reliance and take ownership of their community’s future sparked the focus on sustainable change that Give Us Wings has maintained.

Mary continues going back to Uganda and Kenya to learn what people need. The trust that she has earned makes Give Us Wings unique. Funding given by the organization creates opportunities for growth and change. Mary is the first to point out that the inception and accomplishments of Give Us Wings is not her story, but belongs to the people. “The clinic, the programs, everything, belongs to them.”

Upon leaving the Give Us Wings office, I asked Mary if she ever feels overwhelmed. She says that sometimes, “I do wake up in the morning overwhelmed, but that’s an act of privilege. People we are working with can’t stop. It would be an abuse of my privileges to just go onto something else.”

Give Us Wings

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