This is a guest post from Uchechi J. Okonmah, the Founder / Public Health Communications / WASH Instructor
In October 2015, I did something very ‘stupid’. I left my comfortable job as a marketing executive at a reputable insurance company in Abuja, and took out a loan to start a non-profit organization called PHAAE (Public Health Aid Awareness & Education Organization).
When I broke the news to my family and friends, I felt like I had paid to get ‘stupid’ inked on my forehead. ‘Why don’t you just focus on starting your floral business, run the non-profit when you are profitable’, my sister suggested. ‘You’re too young to take this on. This is Nigeria. Non-profit founders are usually over 60 and very wealthy. How will you even pay back the loan?’, a close friend asked. Even though I couldn’t logically justify my actions at the time, I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision. Their concerns were valid; stable money is important. But I couldn’t let money rule over my decision to follow my dreams and make an impact.
It’s been 2 years and 8 months since I registered PHAAE. In that time, I have learned more about myself, and how to make an impact on a shoestring budget.
I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 9 years old. Her death was especially hard on my family because she would have had a surviving chance if we could afford some form of cancer treatment. With no money to get professional medical help, my family turned solely to western and traditional religion. Unfortunately, our blend of spiritual rites and prayers did not save my mother. Her death was an even bitterer pill to swallow when news broke that a family friend who was diagnosed at the same time survived. Unlike my mom, her family could afford the treatment she needed. Today, she remains cancer free.
While I didn’t realize it in 2015, my mom’s passing planted the seeds of my motivation to start an organization focused on closing the gaps of health inequality in Nigeria. Everyone deserves a fair shot at life irrespective of their socioeconomic status. With PHAAE, I realized my life’s work.
A year after I registered PHAAE, news broke that 30 children died from a cholera outbreak in the Damagaza Community, a rural municipal in Abuja. A septic wastewater route had contaminated their only access to water. The tragedy hit home for me because PHAAE’s first project was at this warm underserved community. To support the efforts of public health officials, I rallied the PHAAE Angels (our volunteers) to figure out cost-effective solutions that would help prevent and prepare the community for any future outbreaks. With our limited resources, we decided to focus on implementing a hand hygiene program at LEA Elementary School, a public school in the community. In addition to poor knowledge on good hygiene practices, we found that the school had no running water and functional toilets.
To improve knowledge on good hygiene practices, we taught hygiene lessons implemented a ‘when kids teach kids’ hygiene education program. Handling the running water and toilet issue was more of a challenge because of our financial limitations. Struggling to help LEA Elementary School took me back to my friend’s comment on how I needed to be older and richer to run a non-profit successfully. I felt guilty that we would have to leave the students with the knowledge of good hygiene, but no tools to practice. Thankfully, after some research, we came up with the idea of building a ‘tippy tap’, a cost effective and simple hand-washing device. With sticks, ropes, and empty water bottles, we constructed a way for the school to practice good hand hygiene.
Arthur Ashe, the first African American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” The experience at Damagaza opened my eyes to the importance of using the resources you have to solve your problems. You don’t need to be a 60-something year old billionaire to make an impact. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, like I did, seek out your ‘tippy tap’ solutions using what you do have.
In the 2 years 8 months PHAAE has run, I have had challenging experiences that make me reconsider my ‘stupid’ decision. Somehow, I have stayed on the ship. After seeing the possibilities of PHAAE, my family and friends have been nothing but supportive. I have been particularly blessed with the best volunteers from different parts of the world, who commit their time to promoting PHAAE’s mission to close the gaps of health inequality in Nigeria. I am forever thankful to them.
If you made it to the end of this article, let these words from Arthur Ashe stay with you – “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
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