Few people, least of all me, would have expected that my experience during my field semester in Kenya would have resulted in an organization that today has reached more than 150,000 young people, and that it would so drastically change the course of my life.
In 2002, I visited Kenya with the Canadian Field Studies in Africa program—a university program with more than 70 Canadian students travelling around the country completing courses in everything from sustainable development to agro-forestry. My emotional reaction to the inequity I witnessed there was so intense that I couldn't return home and continue living my life as I had been. Charged with the desire to take action, my friend Jocelyn Land-Murphy and I decided to start The Otesha Project.
Otesha means "reason to dream" in Swahili, one of Kenya's native languages, and we chose this word because it represented our own change in consciousness and communicated our message of empowerment and hope. Together we gathered our first cycling team of 15 young people and put together a performance that combined personal storytelling, often focused on a team member's experience overseas, and a play that linked the everyday choices of a typical Canadian high-school student — such as getting dressed, eating breakfast, and travelling to school — to the impact these actions have on communities around the world. We cycled across the country for six months performing at schools, community centers, festivals, summer camps, and anywhere a group of people gathered to listen.
This was our way of translating and sharing our experience in Kenya with our peers across the country. It was also our way of connecting the poverty and inequity we experienced in Kenya to something that we could do as young people right then — to something that allowed us to have an impact. As we shared our stories and performed our play we also solidified in ourselves a commitment to walk our talk, to vote with our dollars, and to consciously consume only what we needed — all things that were inspired by realizing the connection and impact we had on the global community.
Since 2002, The Otesha Project has grown dramatically and spread to the UK, France, and Australia; led more than 30 bike tours; trained more than 500 sustainability ACT-ors; and collectively reached more than 150,000 people. It's grown far beyond what I could have ever dreamed.
But despite all this growth and everything The Otesha Project has become, I still think back to my experience in Kenya — that original kernel — and wonder what it was about that experience that made it so impactful and so different from my previous international experiences. I'm looking forward to sharing these reflections and more of my personal experience starting and running The Otesha Project with you at the NAFSA conference!
Jessica Lax is social entrepreneur in residence at the Causeway Work Centre in Ottawa and cofounder of The Otesha Project. She will be speaking on our plenary panel on international social entrepreneurship on Wednesday, June 1, at 10:45 a.m. in the ballroom at the Vancouver Convention Centre West.