“I was just listening to everything Tommy was saying, and I just think we need to all remember that we are really lucky to live where we do, and that we should try to be grateful for what we have, because we have a lot, and some people don’t.”
Year 8 student, Adelaide, June 2023.
Tommy Nyawir and I visited all six states over the course of his seven-week tour of Australia. We engaged with 19 schools, educational settings, and associated organisations across the Edmund Rice network. Our aim was to communicate about the impact of the work of Edmund Rice Foundation Australia (ERFA), and partner organisation Mirror of Hope (Nairobi, Kenya). I didn’t always have my click counter with me, but I am confident we spoke directly to over 11,000 Australians; mostly students – classrooms, year levels, and whole-of-school assemblies. We also delivered teacher training sessions, spoke with parents, and other sector stakeholders. I am now able to reflect on this process, comfortable in the knowledge that Tommy is safely back with his family and colleagues in Nairobi.
There are challenges in communicating the impact of Australian support for international development and aid. Tackling topics like sustainable development, poverty, and marginalised communities – although worthy – can sometimes fall slightly short of fascinating. There is sometimes disassociation with a context that is literally on the other side of the world. Sometimes indifference is an issue, or even ignorance. Sometimes the issue facing the listener is empathy fatigue, in the face of what can at times seem like a relentlessly complex and troubled world.
Tommy however was able to talk with absolute authority and integrity about these topics, for this is his story. Tommy grew up in one of the thousands of three by three metre shanties that form the community of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa – three square kilometres of desperate poverty and home to up to 1 million people. His life-story is fascinating and elevating – a contemporary tale of overcoming adversity, and embracing presence, compassion, and liberation. Tommy’s story does capture the audience and inspire a vital sense of hope; I should know, I’ve heard it at least 30 times. I also had ample opportunity, sitting around in airports and rental cars with my captive audience, to ask follow-up questions.
A central element of Tommy’s story, and one that seems to resonate strongly, involves his chance childhood encounter with a stranger – an older white man, wandering the Kibera slum by himself.
“Muzungu, muzungu, how are you?” I heard this call myself walking through Kibera. Unlike the stranger from Tommy’s story, I was a muzungu (white person) accompanied by capable Kenyan colleagues, who were very familiar with Kibera. I can’t imagine I would ever be brave enough to walk through Kibera by myself. The stranger in Tommy’s story not only did this, but this direct encounter with extreme poverty moved him to give a gift to a chatty teenager. This gift would change the course of the boy’s life forever. Within 24 hours of this chance encounter the boy would hold a white envelope with enough cash to pay for his entire four years of secondary school.
Despite Tommy’s best efforts, the identity of the stranger has always remained a mystery. As a consequence, Tommy hasn’t had the opportunity to thank the stranger… or has he?
A life of poverty in Kibera had denied Tommy the opportunity to attend high school. The generosity of an anonymous stranger changed Tommy’s life profoundly by providing him with an opportunity to go to school. Tommy completed high school, excelled, and was awarded a scholarship to attend University. In turn Tommy has gone on to change the course of thousands of lives in Kibera. In 2010 as a qualified professional, Tommy and his wife Judy would start Mirror of Hope. Mirror of Hope has grown and developed and now operates a number of excellent programs. The team at this community-based organisation, work tirelessly to support the vast needs of the community of Kibera, the place where it all started for Tommy.
Mirror of Hope is an organisation that ERFA is very proud to support. It is without doubt a model of best-practice international development. The Women’s Empowerment and SILC (Savings and Internal Lendings Community) project in Kenya is also supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP). This support reflects the quality of the outcomes for the participants of the program. It also demonstrates the operational integrity of Mirror of Hope in partnership with ERFA. This means Australian funds directed toward this international aid program are being monitored and evaluated to ensure money is being spent wisely and having the greatest impact.
It was my great privilege to spend time with Tommy, to share in the telling of his amazing story. Tommy delivers his message modestly, but the impact of his work is immense. Through my time with Tommy I learnt about the power of an individual and a community, to overcome, to act in justice and solidarity, and to achieve real and lasting change. Thank you Tommy for your wisdom and your humour, and your patience in enduring my occasional long-winded rant on the road. Most importantly, thank you for sharing your practical vision of a better world, and for working in partnership with ERFA to achieve this vision.
Jason Bongers, Schools and Community Engagement Manager
Edmund Rice Foundation (Australia)