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Auma Obama: Youth, Empathy, and Sports for Social Change

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A selection from Changemakers’ interview with Dr. Auma Obama, CARE USA’s Sports for Social Change Initiative Program Technical Advisor:


Changemakers: The first step in “change-making” is becoming aware—becoming frustrated with the status quo and inspired to see that a different world is possible. How did you develop such awareness?
Auma Obama: When I asked why I was tasked with chores my older brother would never do, the response was always the same: “Because you’re a girl.” Because I was a girl? That answer was never good enough for me. I refused to be categorized, to be put into a box. So by the time I was eight-years-old, I began challenging the gender inequalities in my male-dominated household, and by extension the patriarchal Luo culture I was raised in. 


How did you grow in confidence to give yourself permission to care and to act?
I developed very early a sense of fairness and what is right and wrong, regardless of gender. It was important to me to be able to defend my position and act on my sense of justice. This was not just in relation to me, but also towards other people as well. I guess that must have laid the foundation for the humanitarian work I am doing now. It was, however, difficult to be heard as a girl and it was only after I was enrolled in an all-girls high school when I was thirteen that I really started to find my voice. 


There I had the benefit of a feminine peer group and faculty who challenged me to dream bigger and achieve more than I could have ever imagined on my own. I could study math, sciences or whatever I wanted without fear of ridicule. It no longer mattered that I was a girl, because, well, everyone was a girl. Their confidence empowered me with a strong sense of identity and purpose, in addition to the will to succeed. 


What kept you moving forward? What were your next steps?
After high school I knew that I needed to find my own space—a space where my actions were not dictated or restrained by my gender. So when I succeeded in getting a scholarship to study in Germany, I convinced my mother to help me move to there without telling my father. I was afraid to ask him for permission. I assumed he would stop me. When months later he came to see me, it was a bittersweet moment. All fear dissolved as he stood before me. He was no longer the intimidating authoritarian figure I had perceived him to be, but a wounded father who wasn’t quite sure how to behave in front of his grown-up daughter. Letting go of the little girl he had known for so long was difficult, but he shared words of pride and encouragement, promising a new beginning. But before our relationship could truly begin, we were already saying goodbye. My father passed away shortly after that meeting.


So many things happen when you are passionate and determined. Striving for social change can often be painful, unpredictable and awkward. Important is to know that every moment is precious. The key is to learn from your mistakes and work to create a better future. These are the life experiences I bring to CARE Sports for Social Change Initiative (SSCI). I listen to young people, try to help them overcome feelings of insecurity and move toward their goals with conviction.


Sport is the perfect platform for girls to change their attitudes and build self esteem. When girls get to play – even by just participating—they stop feeling that cloying sense of vulnerability, and begin to be active participants in their communities. And by having their accomplishments highlighted, they gain the confidence to take on larger challenges.

You see sports as a vehicle to help girls develop empathy and engagement with their communities. Does this lead to an enthusiasm for social change?
Absolutely. There is a great sense of belonging in teamwork that is vital for building self confidence. No matter how the odds are stacked against them, girls must first embrace who they are before they can take responsibility for who they might become tomorrow. The hope is to engage all potential changemakers, even those standing idle on the sideline, to include them in their vision for a better world. Many times society overlooks the smallest changemakers, for the more obvious, prominent changemakers. This is however wrong, because every one starts of small; as the saying goes, a big shot is a small shot who never stopped shooting. Collaboration and engagement allow for individuals, teams, and even countries to join their collective hearts and minds in the pursuit of the same goal. But in sports, as in life, you cannot win if you don’t play.

The various positions Dr. Obama holds in different capacities in the sport for development arena—including sitting on the board of Women Win and Jacobs Foundation, and acting as an Ambassador for Beyond Sport—give her access to a wide range of NGOs and CBOs to make the greatest difference in the lives of underprivileged children and youth.

Originally published on Changemakers

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