Executive Director Tiffany Cheng Nyaggah's Story
In 2007, I was working at Harvard University with amazing professors who had invited me to be a part of their research team. Seeking to understand the implications of leadership on complex challenges, I spent time in schools and communities learning about social innovations. It was a tremendous privilege capturing stories of women and men inspiring change in communities that had once been defined by crime and hopelessness. While it was rewarding to be a part of this work, I soon realized that I had in effect, relegated myself to the sidelines.
That's when I decided to join my friend Bobby on a summer trek to Kenya's capital.
Walking in the muddy, trash-strewn alleys through one of Nairobi's oldest informal settlements (slums), I was completely overwhelmed. Children in tattered clothes played near open sewers. Flying toilets and other waste added to the unmistakable smell of feces. The dense, crowded homes were made of the same, rusting iron sheets. As guests of a local church, we visited a few homes to understand how the AIDS pandemic and poverty affected lives. Stepping out of the bright, equatorial sun and into the near darkness of one home, we met a mother and father. Though unable to afford basic goods, they still lit their kerosene lamp in honor of our visit. I listened to the mother describe how her husband could no longer walk because of severe swelling in his joints. Work was not an option. She had parted with their three children weeks earlier, sending them to a distant relative in a rural village because the daily wages she earned washing clothes were not enough to put food on the table or shelter over their heads. But rather than dwell on their battles with HIV and poverty, she told us about the hopes they shared for their children: that they would be educated for a better life. Sitting next to the husband, I wept. Faced with compounded difficulties, these people insisted that they would press on. Pray. Persevere.
Visiting other homes, I began to understand how 1.2 billion people live in the face of "poverty" and "injustice". But other ideas, like "resilience," "strength," and "dignity" resonated with a clarity I had never known before.
Though we had brought sugar and flour as acts of charity, I started to wonder if I couldn't do more. What of my talents, training, and skills could I bring? Just then, the local pastor- known to many as "Father" over the thirty years he served in love for this community- took me by my hands and told me this:
It is time for you and your generation to step into our shoes and continue walking.
His words instilled a sense of courage in me. Over the next two weeks, I continued to be inspired by people I had the honor of meeting in Kenya. Over and over, they told me that what they wanted most for their children was education. Others, like community leader Steve Kariithi, reflected on his love for the slums and its dwellers. "Yes, it may smell, there is trash everywhere, and surely, there are some who see this place as if there is no hope. But when I look out there, I see buried treasure: people with talent and so much potential." Treasures, indeed.
For me, starting Dignitas Project was a way to get in the game. There are those who look at my decision to leave the "ivory tower" for the slums of Kenya and other impoverished communities around the world with incredulity. But it's very simple. We all have something to give. This is my response.
I'm still learning, but this time, I'm in the community, working alongside local leaders so that we expand people's abilities to shape their own future. Free of disease. Access to clean water, toilets, healthcare and schools. I'm not sure what we'll be up to in ten years but I am certain that our work will be led and in the hands of communities willing to stand for freedom and dignity.
-Tiffany Cheng, Executive Director / Co-Founder