Divinity was honored as one of Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women at the 2010 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Read about the other honorees here.
Year in school and school:
Graduated from the University of Southern California in 2008.
Your email address:
Your “claim to fame” – aka why you were part of Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women!:
I co-founded a grassroots non-profit organization called AGYA (Amagezi Gemaanyi Youth Association). We operate a Community Center that serves more than 1,000 people from Uganda’s urban slums.
What are you doing to change the world?
I am increasing access to education, for girls specifically, providing clean drinking water and nutritious meals to children living in poverty, and creating opportunities that can economically, sustainably, and artistically empower Ugandan youth.
This year, A.G.Y.A. has successfully implemented a girls scholarship program that connects teenage Ugandan girls with positive role models and mentors, educational facilities and resources that will allow them to become successful female leaders in their communities. We have provided nutritious meals and clean drinking water to more than 300 children and youth through our Free Lunch Program. Our After-School program provides a nurturing learning environment featuring tutoring and innovative arts and educational classes including computer skills, language training, textiles and fashion design, jewelry-making, poetry and creative writing, art, dance and music, photography, film and media. By participating in the After-School Program, youth have improved their English writing and communication skills, expanded their vocabulary, understood advanced grammatical concepts, and significantly improve their reading comprehension skills and computer proficiency, and elevated their level of cultural awareness through networking with our international volunteers.
What was your inspiration for this?
I was inspired to take action while travelling abroad to study for a semester in Kenya. It was my first time leaving the United States, and I was suddenly confronted with the harsh reality that some people in the world who live in abject poverty lack access to basic resources like food, water, and schooling. One of my most vivid memories centers on a girl I met and befriended named Fatuma. She was only 1 year older than me, but had dropped out of secondary school so that she could get married. When I met her in 2007, Fatuma had already given birth to one child and was pregnant with another. She had just learned that she was infected with HIV, a disease passed on to her by her young husband. The saddest part of Fatuma’s story was that she did not marry because she was in love; her decision was economically motivated because she saw marriage as an escape out of poverty. I realized that the only thing separating me from Fatuma was the conditions in which we were born. I was fortunate and blessed to be able to seize opportunities, pursue my education, and develop my talents despite my humble beginnings as the daughter of a single mother who struggled to support me and my five siblings on welfare. Fatuma’s options were much more limited than mine.
Meeting so many young people like Fatuma catalyzed my transformation into a more well-rounded and independent thinker, and galvanized me to take action. In 2008 after I graduated from college, I returned to East Africa and co-founded the Amagezi Gemaanyi Youth Association.
Amagezi Gemaanyi means knowledge is power, and the organization creates safe, supportive, sustainable learning environment where Ugandan youth can develop leadership skills and express themselves creatively. Based on even the most conservative estimates, at least 15 million of Uganda’s 27 million people (or 55%) are under the age of 20, so it is vital for young people, especially those who are living in Uganda’s urban slums, to have safe spaces where they can express themselves artistically and develop skills that will help them evolve as effective community leaders. With little to look forward to, Ugandan youth living in urban poverty are particularly vulnerable to drug and substance abuse, sexual and labour exploitation, domestic violence, gang involvement and HIV/AIDS.
I am passionate about my work, and have committed myself to implementing sustainable projects that can be fully managed by Ugandan youth. My vision is that, one day, AGYA will break the cycle of poverty in Uganda by providing young people with a reliable source of income and opportunities for professional advancement.
What is a quotation or message that drives you?
“The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein
What has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
My greatest accomplishment thus far was acquiring AGYA’s first grant, which came from Save Africa’s Children, a U.S.-based foundation. I had no prior grant-writing experience, so receiving this grant was a major milestone for me and AGYA. The grant was used to fund AGYA’s Free Lunch Program, which alleviates the burden facing families in the slums of urban Uganda by providing nutritious meals and clean drinking water to children and youth who participate in classes and workshops at AGYA’s Community Center. We increased our impact by 400%, we provided more than 500 kg of food and 76 gallons of clean drinking water to children and youth living in Uganda’s urban slums, and we are currently feeding more than 300 children.
At what one point did you really feel like you’d made an impact?
In June 2009, one of AGYA’s most promising young leaders, a 17 year old boy, came to our Learning Center seeking guidance from me just moments after hearing that his brother had been murdered during a knife fight in a neighboring slum. He cried on my shoulder and told me that, if it was not for the love and support of his AGYA family and the lessons he’d learned at our Center, he would have led a group of other young men to exact revenge against the person responsible for his brother’s death.
The fact that he sought refuge at our Learning Center during such a traumatic time confirmed for me that AGYA had achieved our goal of being a safe space for Ugandan youth. Even more so, I was amazed by his level of maturity. In the weeks after the loss of his brother, the AGYA leadership team helped this young man channel all of his energy into art classes at our Center including painting, poetry and song-writing. This experience re-energized me and let me know that we were truly making a difference.
What would you say was the “coolest” moment in your life thus far?
May 15, 2008 because it was the day I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. I was selected as the Valedictorian of Black Graduation for the University of Southern California, and I graduated with High Honors in Political Science. It was a beautiful day in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by family and friends, and I was awarded for my academic achievements. Definitely the “coolest” moment in my life thus far!
What is a challenge you’ve faced while trying to achieve your goals?
When I came to Uganda, I had $800.00 in my savings account, no plan for generating income, no idea how long I would be in the country, and a dream that inspired me but was not fully developed. My closest confidantes urged me to be rational, take a corporate job, or apply to graduate school, solidify myself financially and then follow my dream. Getting AGYA off the ground was not easy in the early months. For five weeks in early 2009, me and my husband ate stale bread with avocado spread because we poured all of our savings, including our wedding money, into the organization. We had no money for food; we were broke, frustrated, and considered giving up. But, I knew deep down in my heart I could not abandon my dream and the kids who believed in me and were starting to truly believe in themselves. The support of my husband gave me the strength I needed to press forward in spite of the challenges. I took a big risk by deciding not to delay my dream, and I am so proud of AGYA’s accomplishments, the lives that have been touched, and our plans for the future.
If someone gave you a million dollars to benefit your cause (or your research, your company, etc.) what would you use it for?
We would invest this money into buying properties where we can build new community centers throughout East Africa; including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.
In 10 years I hope…
In the future, AGYA hopes to use our program model to expand to other communities in Uganda and the East African region. By opening community centers, AGYA hopes to empower, educate, and enrich the lives of African youth so they can live healthy, productive lives, pursue their dreams, develop their talents and leadership skills, and evolve as socially active, responsible citizens to build a better Africa and a better world.
By 2020, AGYA plans to open 5 new urban community centers in Africa that will train and mobilize 10,000 youth to use performing and media arts as a platform to advocate for education, economic development and social change in their communities.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I cannot imagine doing anything else. I was destined for this work.
What 3 adjectives would people use to describe you?
Dynamic, confident, authentic
What is your biggest weakness?
My biggest weakness is not being able to deliver a succinct elevator pitch about AGYA’s work. It is difficult for me to sum up our work in 90 seconds because I get so excited when discussing AGYA. I could talk about AGYA all day long if I had an audience who would listen!
Who is your hero and why?
Nelson Mandela is my hero because he is a great leader who fought to end apartheid in South Africa. He exemplifies the best qualities that all leaders should have.
Who is your biggest cheerleader, supporting you every step of the way?
My husband Abraham Matovu is my biggest cheerleader. We founded AGYA together in 2008, we share a love for African affairs and a passion for the development of Uganda. His unwavering love and support has given me the strength I need to press on in the face of adversity.
Describe your idea of a perfect day.
My perfect day would be a day without access to email or my phone. I’d spend the day at AGYA’s Community Center observing the programs and enjoying the company of all the children and youth who make my heart beat!
What do you like to do outside of your work?
I love to spend time with my husband and my son, listen to music, cook, read, and travel.
Which of this year’s Glamour WOTY award winners would you most like to meet and why?
I’d love to meet President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf because she represents the best of what young girls in Africa can achieve if given access to the right resources. I would like to talk to her about her childhood, her inspiration, her challenges, and her plan for moving her nation forward. I would also ask for her advice and recommendations regarding my plan for AGYA.
What was your favorite part of Glamour’s WOTY Awards?
My favorite part of the awards was the section where Dr. Hawa Abdi and her daughters were honored for their courageous work in Somalia. They looked fearless, strong, and glamorous despite the tremendous obstacles that they have, and will continue to face as they advocate for peace in Somalia. Their work is so inspirational.
What did you wear to Glamour’s WOTY Awards?
I wore a Magenta dress with gold accents, pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, and pearl-colored shoes.
Who did you bring as your guest to Glamour’s WOTY Awards?
I brought my good friend, June Kaeswith aka Jumakae. June is an artist and activist who is passionate about so many causes; everything from arts education to cyclist’s rights to ending human trafficking in her homeland Cambodia and Thailand. June has been one of the most supportive girlfriends in my inner circle. She is always encouraging me to press forward, plus she is really fun to be around. I knew she would be the perfect guest for WOTY!
Who do you think should win a Glamour WOTY Award next year?
Taraji Henson because she is a great actress who is a positive role model for young girls.
What is your favorite thing about Glamour magazine?
Glamour encompasses more than just the physical beauty that women possess. WOTY showed me that Glamour is committed to highlighting a woman’s inner beauty and strength; that is where the real power lies.
What does “glamour” mean to you?
“Glamour” means being authentically you, loving yourself, embracing your inner and outer beauty, and using your talents and skills to help others.
How does it feel to be honored as one of Glamour Magazine’s 20 young women who are already changing the world?
It feels incredible! It is a humbling experience to be in the same category as the other 19 young women who are fighting for causes across a broad spectrum of communities throughout the world. I left the WOTY Awards feeling re-invigorated and inspired to continue my journey full throttle.
What advice would you give to our college women readers?
My advice to college women readers is to always believe in yourself and to always love yourself, no matter what.