Before she was crowned a princess and recognized as an unsung hero by the Kings and Queens of the Makoni kingdom of Zimbabwe for her work empowering young women, Marie-Claire Kuja knew what it was to be an outcast.
As a young teenager in Cameroon, life was difficult. She became pregnant at the age of 13 and was shunned by the community for being an unwed mother. The verbal abuse continued throughout the pregnancy and was extended to her son after his birth. With every insult, Kuja’s self-worth was slowly chipped away.
“Life has a divine purpose and meaning and I am blessed to have found mine. Opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door. The change starts with you.”
“Having a child as a teen and out of wedlock in my culture is taboo, but not as bad as the names I earned. Every time I heard people call me or my son names, it reinforced my feelings of insecurity and shame. I was at war with myself.”
The community may not have been very understanding, but the young girl’s family was another thing altogether.
“They recognized the importance of forgiveness and were able to reach down into the trash can, pick up all the broken parts, and piece me back together.”
She was sent to away to school. Determined, she worked hard and was placed at the British College of Professional Management where she eventually earned a scholarship to study at Antioch University in Ohio. From there, Kuja applied to study nursing in New Jersey and, four years later, is still a nurse in the Bronx.
And while nursing has been a great career for the now-US-citizen, it’s not what she feels she was put here to do. For that, the 38-year-old has a plan and is working doggedly to make it a reality.
Back in her early days as a nursing assistant, Kuja started keeping a journal. What began as a simple way of dealing with her feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth quickly turned into a healing process as she filled 2-3 journals a week.
“I noticed my journals were becoming a journey, not just a simple destination. They were thick and ripe with feelings. Whenever I was down and read from my journals I felt like an angel was talking to me. My own words became an inspiration to me. I was reminded of how important it is to believe in myself and remember that we are all created unique and special.”
The journals began to have such an impact on her that Kuja wondered whether they could help others. She decided to publish the contents as a book series entitled False Labels which encourages readers not to be defined by what others think of them.
“I made a pact to share my story because I believe only shared experiences can help others. Publishing my writing was a way of reaching out to so many who are stuck in darkness and be a point of light for them. I wish there had been stories like these when I was growing up. The feedback I got from my writing assured me I was not alone and encouraged me to think how I could impact and empower more girls to have a strong inner voice.”
Kuja decided to take her books one step further and launched False Labels Global Inc., a non-profit organization that primarily seeks to provide a platform where vulnerable girls and women around the world can be inspired and equipped through self-esteem-building workshops and empowerment conferences like the one she ran this year in Cameroon, which brought together more than 600 participants. Travelling back and forth to Africa with her own funds, Kuja’s goal is to support initiatives relating to access to food, clean water, sanitation, income generation and education, but the project closest to her heart is the work she does with young women.
“Statistics show that the average school-going Cameroonian girl of menstruating age skips school for 3-5 days a month during her period. This impacts not only her self-esteem but also her academic performance. To empower girls to stay in school, I started the KujaPads Initiative to supply sanitary pads to vulnerable girls in two big orphanages in the North West region of Cameroon where girls are being displaced due to terrorist activity. In addition to the pads, we also lectured on the importance of good menstrual hygiene management, self-esteem, and ending menstrual taboos.”
Back in the US after a recent trip home, Kuja is planning diligently how she can amplify the work of her organization by launching a female-run business that manufactures and distributes low-priced, high-quality, and environmentally friendly sanitary pads in a country where they are normally quite expensive. She has done extensive research into affordable and easy-to-use technology that could be transferred to Cameroon and has sourced a machine from India that can produce 40,000 pads. She has even planned for disposal and worked out a process that smokelessly and odorlessly incinerates used pads, resulting in ashes that can be sold as fertilizer.
She has created a business plan. But the final and most daunting hurdle she faces is funding. The cost for a single pad-producing machine, including shipment to Cameroon, is almost $6000.
Yet she is undeterred.
“My entire youth was filled with self-pity because I let other people define who I was. But people can only call you names that you answer to. Life has a divine purpose and meaning and I am blessed to have found mine. By the grace of God and my own personal determination, I am going to achieve what I have set out to do and help girls reach their maximum potential. Opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door. The change starts with you.”
- Have a purpose and a passion. Be sure you care deeply about what you are doing so you can stay motivated during the highs and inevitable lows.
- Be resilient, have the capacity to bounce back and the ability to foresee challenges.
- As a leader, always be thinking of what unique skills you need to move your organization towards its goals. You must constantly be learning, reinventing, innovating and exploring new avenues.
- Grow your capacity to attract resources by creating an understanding of what you wish to achieve, how many people it will impact, and why it is imperative you do so. Most importantly, exude confidence in your ability to make lasting change.