From the slums to conquering the world

Raphael Obonyo wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in Korogocho, Nairobi. Yet today, he sits in the UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board, is an international youth activist and has several community projects. His brother, Geoffrey Obonyo, tell us more

Harriet James

Many know Obonyo as a member of the UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board. Tell us more about him.

He is God-fearing, humble, dedicated, trustworthy and a go-getter. Having been brought up in  Korogocho slums, Nairobi, he is a role model and an inspiration to many who were born and brought up in the slums. He champions the rights of youths and is a voice to the voiceless.

How was it growing up with Obonyo?

I am the eldest though we are almost age mates. Once in a while we would quarrel, but above all, we’ve lived like twins. We’ve always loved, valued, and respected each other.

How was life in the slums?

Life was miserable and pathetic—it’s survival of the fittest. There were just so many challenges. We were 10 siblings and shared one room. We were in and out of school frequently for lack of school fees, we had no electricity—the Koroboi
lamp was what our parents could afford and that’s what we used for our studies at night. Drugs, alcoholism, early marriages among others are the order of the day in the ghettos. Many youths, out of poverty and frustrations, engaged in crime and we lost so many of them. Our dedication to God saw us through a lot of challenges, not to forget discipline and hard work. I’m grateful to God we lived to tell the story.

What kept him focused?

His determination to liberate himself from poverty kept him focused on his studies despite numerous challenges. Bursaries and support from well-wishers helped him to go through school. He went to Baba Dogo Primary School before proceeding to Dagoretti High School where he sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 1999. He then went to the University of Nairobi for his Bachelor of Commerce and graduated in 2005. He then did community work in the slums before he got Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme’s scholarship in 2011 to do a Masters in Public Policy at Duke University in the United States.

How did Obonyo land his UN job?

We saw the hand of God. He submitted his profile when the call to present them for elections came in 2010. He was nominated by young people from Korogocho. We really campaigned for him, we urged youths to vote for him en masse. We went door to door, we approached youth groups and our campaign strategy worked in our favour. He got the position to sit in the UN Habitat Youth Advisory Board. Then he had to battle it out with other nominees across the globe. In May 2012, the UN officially confirmed him as a special envoy.

And what does it entail?

He travels around the world speaking in international platforms with global leaders as well as presidents to ensure inclusion of youth and their voices in policy and decision-making and development programmes at different levels; local, national and international.

He is also involved in several other projects such as Miss Koch Initiative and Obonyo Foundation.

In 1999, he started the Miss Koch Girls Initiative to assist young girls in Korogocho slums.  In 2006, he co-founded Koch FM, a community radio station that educates Korogocho residents on human rights, harmonious co-existence, and the importance of education. In 2007, he started the Youth Congress. To widen education opportunities for needy, but brilliant students, he began the Obonyo Foundation in 2008. He has also delivered a number of Ted talks that have been featured in a number of TV channels.

What spurs his passion for young people?

He believes that the youths are the backbone of every society. If given growth opportunities, the society enjoys the results.

What are his future plans?

He is a relentless dreamer who believes that all dreams are valid. He wants to one day be the Secretary General of the UN!

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