Name: Cynthia Muhonja
Hometown: Nandi County, Kenya
Where do you live? Accra, Ghana
What does it mean to have a voice? To have a voice means to be liberated. This essentially means that you can easily express yourself. You feel free to talk about your values, dreams, aspirations and passions without any fear.
How did you find your voice? I found my voice after my problems liberated me. I got tired of being afraid, of being treated as a second-class being, of being hurt, and decided to speak up. It was scary in the beginning but later on, I got used to the challenges that came with it.
What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?
I grew up in Kamimei, a small rural community in Nandi County, Kenya. My experiences as a young girl living and studying in this community initially silenced my voice. One of the disadvantages of losing a parent is that you lose someone who protects and fights for you. How can a young girl fight adults? How do you approach your step-grandmother who doesn’t like you? How do you tell her that your cousin attempted to rape you? Would she even believe you? How do you tell your teacher that you can’t come to school because your guardian wants you to go the farm instead? How do you tell them you were late for school because you had to fetch water, sweep, clean utensils, milk the cows, and go and sell the milk? How do you explain the awful smell on your body because your guardian refused to give you soap because your father didn’t send money? Rather than fight, I instead chose silence. I learnt to tolerate. I chose to ignore and fit into my problems. I have yet to find my voice entirely, but I started to express my voice at the age of 15. My journey to finding my voice has been a long and tedious one that is filled with stages and substages. There were several times I found my voice in something, lost it in others and then found it again.
Tell me about when you finally found your voice.
I remember when I first found my voice. I had been denied the opportunity to further my education even though I performed really well in my primary school examinations. My guardians at the time said nothing about my education. They instead wanted me to travel to another city to reside with my aunt and fend for myself. No one spoke about furthering my education. I knew I was running out of time, so I told my step-grandmother that I was leaving to go and find a way to get more education. I remember my uncle hurling insults at me. He spoke about how I will never go to my dream school, how I will never succeed and how helpless I would be. But I didn’t care. Truth is, at the time, I only knew that I wanted to go to school. After I left, I was able to find help from my teachers, my maternal-grandparents and well-wishers. My voice got me an education.
Someone who knew me then would say I was a hopeless case. I had lost my mom a few years back, lost my sister and my younger brother. My father didn’t care about the welfare of my other brother and I. My brother and I were tossed around between two families (my maternal-grandparents and paternal-grandparents) without any form of security or care. My voice today is more powerful because I know how it feels to not have one. I know the pain of wanting to scream but knowing only silence instead. Finding my voice then meant everything. It inspired the person I am today. I feel like I can stand up to anyone and call them on their “bullshit.”
Define “voice” and why is it important?
Voice is the magic that connects and liberates human beings. It’s a small thing that connects people to their destinies and helps liberate others through leadership. Without voice there would be no leaders, no activists — no great men and women like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey or any other leaders in the world. Voice liberated South Africa from apartheid. Voice liberated slaves. Voice liberated women and now they can dream, go to school and become leaders themselves. To me, a voice is more than just an important “thing,” it’s a necessity.
My voice liberates, inspires and challenges other people in my community. I come from a very small village where women and girls are affected by diverse issues ranging from female genital mutilation, which is currently at 86%, to early marriage and violence. Through my voice, I teach women and girls about human rights and how they can use entrepreneurship and education as a means of liberating themselves. My voice inspires girls to dream beyond their current circumstances.
An example of my voice liberating and inspiring others happened this past October. I shared my story at the She’s the First-Anniversary Bash in New York. Standing on that stage, I felt like my community, my country, and my family was represented. After my speech, a young lady walked up to me and said that my speech had impacted her. Like me, she suffered abuse and the thought that my voice had reached her humbled me. I never expected the reception I received. I never expected that a girl like me could be honored by amazing women like Imaan Hammam, Ezine Kwubiru, Tammy Tibbetts and Christen Brandt. The joy of having strong women support my work truly humbles me.
What advice do you have for someone trying to find their voice?
The journey to finding your voice is worth it. It will connect you to your destiny and even when it gets hard, keep pushing, keep talking about your dreams and continue to learn. Find a “power group,” find those who believe in you and will support your journey no matter what the struggles come your way. Your power group will remind you as to who you are when you are lost and encourage you to keep going.
Cynthia is a changemaker and a women’s rights activist. She is the founder of Life Lifters Kenya, a girls’ mentorship incubator that seeks to build the next generation of economically empowered women in Africa. She is a graduate of Ashesi University with a Bachelor’s in Management Information Systems, a 2016 Melton Foundation Fellow, a United Nations Millennium Fellow and a proud She’s the First Community Impact fellow for 2018. Her passions revolve around human rights and entrepreneurship.