I’m not writing about New York because of the infamous ‘abroad is better’ mentality. While there’s tons of reasons why countries that are ahead in development are great, the global village conversations continue to show us that many of these countries face startling issues as well.
So here I am documenting my 3 day stay in The Big Apple, where I was lucky…no, VERY lucky to have been one of the invited guests at the Bill And Melinda Gates Goalkeepers Event. From my travels to lessons learnt, I don’t remember having experienced so much in such a short amount of time. Also, God came through as always!
Let’s start from the beginning…
Up until a few days before the event, I didn’t have my ticket or accommodation sorted. I had somehow misunderstood a few things about the event and when the Goalkeepers team prompted me, with a little nudge from their networks in Kenya, I was like, “Oh, this is happening!” I’m usually more organised than that but a hectic schedule and planning for other things at home had clouded the impetus of the trip. Muthaiga Travels helped me plan this trip in 2 days. They will remain my rockstars for a long time to come!
So when I finally found the courage to kiss my son and my family goodbye (I know, how dramatic, since it’s just a few days!) I boarded Swiss Air to fly to New York via Zurich. Other than being the only black person on the flight (sorry, I noticed)!, it was pleasant and efficient. Although it was completely frustrating to land at Zurich International Airport and not find any shop or cafe open! I know it was at 7 am but…aren’t they meant to be round the clock? Folks were hungry and frustrated!
A few hours later, I landed at JFK Airport in New York. I was fatigued beyond belief (I’m a lightweight traveler!) And faced the full force of US Customs that entails a lot of shouting, a lot of confusion (from people on transit, not so much the Passport Control team), a lot of ‘why are you here’ questions and side-eye until finally, I was through! Immediately, the fast-paced life of the average New Yorker was clear. Talk fast, walk faster, don’t look and sound confused.
I navigated my way out of the airport and quickly realised that Nairobi traffic and New York traffic are two peas in a pod. Basically, it took me an hour and a half to get to my hotel when it could have taken me thirty minutes. Jet lagged and hungry, I checked in and dolled up a little to join my Help A Child Reach 5 colleague and Social Mission champion Myriam Sidibe for a networking dinner. She was in NY for the UN General Assembly, abbreviated as UNGA.
The lightweight in me didn’t even make it through the main course. I felt like a zombie. We met some great people but we both agreed it was time to get to bed. Myriam had also flown in that morning but she’s more of a pro than I am.
The next day I had grand plans! My first meeting with a team I’m working with was at 1 pm so I wanted to use that morning to get a few things done. By cab. Big mistake. The concierge at the hotel kept hinting at me to walk but I explained to them that I didn’t possess the kind of stamina I was seeing out on those streets.
But after a failed taxi ride that was keeping me too long in traffic and making me worried about being late for my meeting, I caved. I went back to concierge with my tail between my legs and asked them about navigating my way around. Its simple, because the streets are numbered so…simply follow the numbers and head east or west. I was looking for H&M, so, 33rd street on 7th avenue. I was on 54th. So I walked 20 blocks. More like ran. Everyone is in a hurry, its beyond crowded and you just have to game-face it. New York, I quickly learnt, is not for the faint hearted. But I loved it, although my feet are still recovering!
So I made it to Times Square and oh boy, didn’t I love it there, then made it back in time to change and make it for my meeting at 1. Met an incredible team of women (and one man) up until 5 pm and took the Subway (I was graciously escorted by one the people I met) back to the hotel to get ready for a Gala Dinner and I thankfully made it on time.
The Global Goals Gala Dinner
So, I wasn’t prepared for the Global Goals Awards dinner in terms of the level of inspiration and star power. I had read about the Goalkeepers event but hadn’t gone in to detail. Now, I’m a sucker for pop culture and inspiring human beings, so when I bumped into someone at the crowded reception area and looked up to give my apologies, I had bumped into Will.i.am. Yup, he of the Black Eyed Peas fame, but more importantly, his work in bringing tech and innovation to schools in what they call the US projects (informal settlements). I was like, “Oh hello! Wait, how come you’ve never come to Kenya”? He laughed a bit and said maybe someday before I got my selfie in.
I turn round and there is Naomi Campbell, but she was surrounded by a gazillion people. She’s a stunner. After running into a few of my fellow Kenyans including Larry Madowo, Paul Barclay Okari and Bina Maseno, we took our seats at our respective tables and I met some incredible people. Givers, doers, well traveled, well read, easy to talk to. My table was fun, plus we had a great view of the stage AND we were seated right next to the table that had one the hosts, Melinda Gates, alongside Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, President of Liberia, Will.i.am and Priyanka Chopra of the Quantico fame. I decided I would hold back from fan-girling at this event. It just didn’t seem right!
The evening was hosted by the producer of the event and the man behind Love Actually and Notting Hill, Richard Curtis. Several goalkeepers were awarded for their work in upholding the SDGs. Some stories were mind blowing, like those of Marieme Jamme from Senegal, a former prostitute turned IT influencer and Laura Ulloa, a Colombian who was previously held hostage by guerrillas in her country and now works to reintegrate former rebels into society. I mean, what excuse do we have, really?
Several key speakers were on hand to introduce and award these great people, including Queen Rania of Jordan and Jayden Smith, actor and son to Will Smith.
Heading home inspired beyond words, I was only too excited about the Goalkeepers 2017 main event the next day.
The Goalkeepers Event
I spent the first 30 minutes that morning in the breakfast area with Bina Maseno, the only Kenyan who took to the stage that day to share her story, someone I’ve known a few years and I’m just so proud of! (Learn about her work through her organisation Badili Africa.)
She was then whisked away to the green room. As I stood waiting to get into the event hall, Dr. Stella Bosire, Chair of the Kenya Medical Association (KMA) tapped me on the shoulder and we would spend most of that day together, along with PHD holder Dr. Esther Ngumbi. It felt good to see familiar faces from home!
One by one, the speakers and panelists came on stage, introduced and interviewed largely by Melinda Gates. Lymah Gbowee had to be my favourite of the panelists. A Nobel Peace Laureate, Liberian activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate, she has a no holds barred approach to how best we can advance the rights of women in Liberia and Africa, particularly at the grassroots level. She was humorous, passionate, bold, smart and relatable.
Tidbit: Did I mention that I ran into her in the lift as I proceeded towards the venue? I was a little shook so I managed a hello and thank you for your work and she embraced me. African woman. In stepped Stephen Fry and Richard Curtis (Google them!) in the lift and I decided to hold back my fan-girling again.
Some of my favourite speakers at the session were:
1. Bina Maseno – A young Kenyan influencer who encourages young women to play an active role in political participation. She’s only in her 20s but has wisdom and passion beyond her years!
2. Jenny Hu – She has built robots. She has built bioweapon detectors for the Navy! She displayed a new technology that helps keep vaccines from getting spoiled.
3. Astro Teller – Okay, so this man has a Phd in Artificial Intelligence…let’s start there! Think of the boldest ideas in science and technology…they stem from his Google ‘X’ docket.
4. Bill Gates – His passion in technology goes beyond the fact that he is the man behind Microsoft; it was clear to see his passion for using tech to improve the lives of those in vulnerable areas.
5. Barrack Obama – The power of young people, the power of storytelling, the power of social media. These all seem pretty obvious but President Obama made this messaging so relatable.
6. New York 7 – Please listen to this acapella group. Beautiful vocals and coordination! They were our main entertainment for the day.
Goalkeepers is the most high profile and least pretentious event I’ve ever attended. It was clear that everyone in attendance felt like they were on the same level as all other people in the room.
The last day of my stay in NY was spent capturing cliche and quintessential NY shots in Central Park, Times Square et al. With help from Cory, who had been referred to me by a friend in Nairobi, I walked more than I have in 2 years, but had a great time.
What a whirlwind but…what life lessons! I didn’t get to see the Statue of Liberty or where the Twin Towers once stood, nor see a play at Broadway. But there’s always next time because NY, you were good to me ❤
Goalkeepers, You and I
Two years ago, the United Nations (UN) spearheaded The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of 17 “Global Goals” with 169 targets between them.
Two years later and there have been some buzz worthy strides made by world citizens, entertainers and world leaders, which is where The Goalkeepers event came in to being. An initiative of the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, Goalkeepers aims to keep track of the goals, hold world leaders accountable and applaud and reward those who are playing their part in achieving these goals.
I quickly realised that all of us have our role to play, no matter how small, in identifying and working towards an SDG. A tweet, a post, a video…that’s where it can all start. An idea that can change tens of lives.
Goalkeepers, the more we are, the greater the impact. So, let’s do this!