Phyllis Suter was born in a slum in Kenya. Living in a village with no electricity, she’d wake up every morning at the break, using a small kerosene lamp made of recycled tin to study. She’d dip her feet into terribly cold water just so that she could stay awake.
Phyllis would make the journey into town four kilometres away barefoot, where she’d sit on a bench in front of the bank and watch the people pass by, including the smartly-dressed women entering the bank. Phyllis decided that someday it would be her entering through those bank doors.
She was the first in her family to go to college. When she graduated, Phyllis started her long awaited job at a bank. She credits her mother for her motivation for attending school and becoming the first trained banker from her village.
The desire to succeed led her to study hard, with an innate understanding that education would be her only way to beat the monster that was poverty. This experience has cemented Phyllis’s belief that ‘send a child where they want to go and you will see their fast pace’ to success.
With her first paycheck, she gave her mother ten per cent of her earnings. She then proceeded to pay the school fees of her cousin whose parents were not able to send her to school. By her fifth check, she was supporting the education of five children from her extended family. Phyllis quickly recognised that if she did not step up, her progress would not change anything for her community.
Years later, Phyllis was a wife, mother and career woman who now lived in Switzerland. She was still supporting many children from her village; some of these children belonged to her family members who died of AIDS and whose children had no one to care for them. Often times these children were also HIV positive without medical care or any means to a full meal unless somebody intervened.
‘My motivation is that I would love to break the chain of poverty. The only way I can do that is by giving education to the children, for the next generation.’
The heavily populated slum of her youth had a high rate of HIV and AIDS contraction. Ultimately, it meant that the numbers of children needing her help were going up and up with Phyllis and her mother now supporting more than 12 children. She providing the financial support and her mother took on the caregiver responsibilities; it became clear that they could no longer cope alone.
With the financial burden becoming too much for one person, she founded the Asanti Project with three friends in 2004. Asanti means ‘thank you’ in Swahili, the project aims to build homes and schools for the underprivileged children in Phyllis’s former village. The project has now grown into two children’s homes, accommodating over a hundred children and sending many to school.
Phyllis spends the four weeks of her work holiday in Kenya working on the Asanti Project. The project provides an environment which not only creates a family support for the children but also shows the youngsters what is possible in life through their founder, to see that someone just like them can work hard and achieve a life beyond their current expectations.
When she speaks of the wonderful children that rely on the efforts of the Asanti Project’s team for their happiness and well-being, there is no doubt of the joy in her voice.
To date, the Asanti Project has produced six individuals who are currently successfully pursuing further education in Germany. An essential tool that has allowed for the success of this project so far is the understanding of challenges that the community faces, Phyllis is clear on her goals:
‘My motivation is that I would love to break the chain of poverty. The only way I can do that is by giving education to the children, for the next generation. You can’t change the world because it’s too vast and too big but you can make a difference.’
When she speaks of the wonderful children that rely on the efforts of the Asanti Project’s team for their happiness and well-being, there is no doubt of the joy in her voice. She tells of nine-year-old Talia whose five-year-old sister Tiara was only three when they were orphaned. They lost their mother to AIDS in January 2013 and their father in June 2014. If Asanti Project had not intervened it is more than likely that Talia would now be a house help for some relatives with the possibility of being married off at 15. Now these two siblings are able to grow up together.
The gifts of love, joy, family, education and belonging will impact these young people whose lives she has touched and changed tremendously. These youngsters will one day become engineers, teachers, nurses, lawyers; more importantly they will propel themselves out of poverty. ‘These children give me lots of love. When I come here the warm welcome I get from them is so satisfying.’
They set up a financial credit initiative which allowed women in the village to begin a small startup business that could afford them an income to send their children to school.
The Kenyan government is indeed trying to make some efforts in supporting communities such as these however, in her opinion, their efforts are diminutive. What she finds more disappointing is that the local powers that may be, do not do as much as they can. Whilst women are travelling five kilometres to get water and children still walk around barefoot, there are politicians enjoying luxuries that their people could never imagine.
In order to elevate the community as a whole, the Asanti Project does not just concentrate on the children. They set up a financial credit initiative which allowed women in the village to begin a small startup business that could afford them an income to send their children to school. Through their network, they managed to drill clean water in the village, meaning the women no longer needed to walk long journeys to fetch dirty water up to two times a day. This not only made life easier but it tremendously reduced waterborne diseases.
She hopes that there will come a time where the big western companies will support small initiatives like the Asanti Project. It is her hope that these small initiatives will be recognised for their impact in reaching the grassroots of the problems much quicker than UNICEF and Red Cross.
The most important lesson of this story is her appreciation and gratitude; she stresses that all her accomplishments and those of the Asanti project could not have been reached alone. The believers in her cause, her teachers, her friends, her family, the volunteers and staff, they all have played a big part by dedicating their time, energy and support.
‘When I dream alone it is a dream, but when we dream together it is a start of a reality.’
Little successes breed the self-reliance needed to be an achiever. Phyllis’s strong wishes have allowed her to dream and her faith in them have driven her to achieve – and she hasn’t looked back. These are the characteristics that we must all search for within ourselves, discover and utilise to achieve all our wants but also to contribute to our Africa. She is indeed an amazing lady who truly believes in her mantra, ‘When I dream alone it is a dream, but when we dream together it is a start of a reality.’
There are many sons and daughters of Africa who silently contribute to the prosperity of the continent. Starting with a desire to make a difference to their communities, mastering the courage to make it happen and subsequently elevating Africa, they should be appreciated and celebrated.
In her, we find a soft-spoken powerhouse, full of confidence, who is an advocate for education, the empowerment of women and the right of a child to have access to bare necessities. More important we find a woman who is proud of where she comes from and for being African.
Find out more at asantiproject.com