“I’m so happy about where God has brought me, and I know there are many other children going through what I went through,” said Antony, now 24 years old. “I want to assist them so we can be empowered together.”
On a hot, cloudless September day, outside the rural village of Thiraka, Kenya, four Zoe Empowers groups gathered at M.C.K. Karwamba Church to kickoff of a two-month initiative, self-organized amongst the groups, to fundraise together, with the intention of giving the money back to Zoe Empowers to fund another empowerment group in Africa.
As the groups made their way around the collection basket, giving what they could that day, one recent Zoe Empowers graduate came forward, in a proud but humble fashion, to drop in his $100 donation, the highest single donation of all the children gathered to celebrate.
The donor’s name was Antony.
Today, judging by his outward appearance and pleasant demeanor, no one would guess Antony’s past included all the collective forces that keep children and adults worldwide trapped in the cycle of poverty: lack of food and regular income, inadequate shelter, recurring illness and, ultimately, the absence of hope and dignity.
Just a few years ago Antony hated life as he knew it. After the death of his mother, his father suffered a debilitating stroke, causing Antony, 16, to become head of his household, which included caring for two younger sisters, ages 14 and 11.
Antony struggled to provide for his family. He and his sisters dropped out of school to spend their days finding cash labor jobs to earn a meal. On days they couldn’t find work, they would sift through garbage cans to find leftover food scraps. The family even tried their hand at growing their own food, but without knowledge of farming techniques and use of poor quality seeds, their harvests didn’t yield enough to sustain them.
Growing angry and frustrated, Antony sold the sole chicken he owned in exchange for $1.50 to buy a one-way bus ticket to Meru Town. “I thought I’d be able to start a better life there,” he said. “I arrived that morning with only the clothes on my back. No money. I searched all day for cash labor work but couldn’t find anything, so I slept on the street that night.”
It didn’t take long for Antony to find himself befriending other street children to survive. Stealing and taking stimulants to numb himself of the violate situations he participated in was a regular occurrence that went on for two years.
One day, while out in Meru Town, Antony bumped into a pastor who recognized him from Gatunga, his home community. The pastor expressed his concern for the way Antony was living his life and offered to take him back to Gatunga. Antony obliged.
Upon returning to Gatunga and his family, who was relieved to see him alive, Antony began working as a masonry on construction sites, carrying heavy loads of materials for $2 a day. On days he couldn’t get a masonry job, he cultivated land for farmers, working roughly five plots a day at the rate of .10 per 10-foot by 10-foot plot.
Although he was getting cash labor jobs, he and his family still struggled because Antony’s average income was only enough for a daily meal, typically consisting of dried corn and beans, and never allowed them to invest in and improve other areas of their life, such as fixing their dilapidated home or paying school fees for his siblings.
Despite feeling abandoned by God, Antony still prayed that one day, help would find him. Two years following his return to Gatunga, his prayers were answered. Antony was 20 years old when he and his siblings were accepted into the Zoe Empowers program and what would become known as the Joystar Gatunga group.
Soon after group formation, Zoe Empowers coordinated for outside farming experts to come to Gatunga to teach the Joystar group how to cultivate healthy crops. Children then received high-quality seeds and planting tools to apply the training methods, and they were encouraged to collaborate during all stages of planting and to harvest their crops.
In the highly communal Kenyan culture, community members tend only to acknowledge those who have money to contribute to their society. As an orphan living in poverty, Antony usually felt isolated, ashamed and belittled by his community. Working side-by-side, growing authentic relationships through shared experiences and hardships, with his Zoe Empowers group members evoked a sense of camaraderie and belonging that he’d never known before.
Instruction was also given on how to properly store the food for later consumption and how to care for unused seeds so they could be used for the next planting season. Antony chose to concentrate his efforts on planting green grams, a high protein bean known for good profit at the market. His personal yield on his family’s land, along with the consistent returns from the Joystar group, laid the foundation for food security that he could build on throughout his years in the Zoe Empowers program.
Each group member was also responsible for choosing an occupation to earn an income. Given Antony’s experience on construction sites, he chose to become a mason. As a materials handler, he made $2 a day, at most, but as a builder, his earning potential more than doubled. Antony put together a business plan to start his own masonry business; his group accepted the proposal, and as a result, Antony was provided with additional masonry training and tools.
“The first thing I did when I started earning more money was save enough for a cell phone ($8 value),” explained Antony. “When you have a phone number for customers to reach you, you become more valuable and can charge more.”
Antony’s masonry business allowed him to save $3 per day, a personal goal he’d set for himself, and invest back into his family. He was able to pay school fees so both of his sisters could be re-enrolled in school. New clothing, food for three nutritious meals a day and upgraded doors for his home are just a few examples of improvements he was able to afford.
After a couple of years running his masonry business and saving income, Antony trained another young orphan in his community and one of his Joystar group-mates to be masons to continue his business so that he could shift his focus to new ideas. Utilizing the market analysis skills he’d acquired through Zoe Empowers, he realized his community could benefit greatly from a butchery and restaurant.
“Being a butcher gives me more independence, because my payment isn’t influenced by someone else’s schedule,” Antony said. “I get to do the majority of cutting in the morning, and most of my meat is sold by 4pm, which leaves me more time with my family at night and increased income security.”
On average, Antony’s daily income has grown to $20, save for market days where he earns upwards of $60. He’s used his earnings to hire one full-time butcher and expand his farming activities by buying 11 goats, 10 chickens and two cows. Beyond providing milk, eggs, meat and manure for his farmland, these animals also serve as a liquid form of savings and a visible status symbol in the community.
On a personal level, Antony admits it was ZOE’s health and hygiene training that had the most impact on him. Before ZOE’s program, Antony and his family didn’t understand the importance of personal grooming and home hygiene and its impact on recurring illnesses. After completing training and cleaning up around their home, Antony received a water tank to store sanitized water and mosquito nets (from ZOE) to decrease the chance of contracting malaria.
“My lifestyle is so different now. Staying clean is important to me and gives me a lot of dignity. Before Zoe Empowers, I never had a mattress to sleep on or was able to take a shower each day, so that was new and different,” explained Antony.
Antony’s ability to develop and maintain personal relationships has also drastically improved. Being taught how to relate to and respect people, especially girls, in the Joystar group was a strange concept to him at first because of his rough past.
“My biggest challenge then [upon joining ZOE] was that I didn’t know how to interact with others who were not like me. I remember getting angry and hitting people for no reason,” Antony recalled. “If anyone insulted me, I’d become very violent.” This aggressive mentality derived out of his years on the streets where attacking others was normal protocol. “When I got to Zoe Empowers, it was different because the people were kind, which helped me learn to be kind and relate more to others.”
When he graduated from Zoe Empowers at the end of 2017, Antony was not only confident in his businesses, but in the life he’d built for himself and his family. The Joystar group had become an extension of his family, providing encouragement and a safety net for him to try new ventures. Through shared prayer and devotions, his group gave him the hope and connection he, just like all children living in poverty, once craved.
“I now know that when the pastor found me on the streets of Meru Town, that was God’s intervention. Before [ZOE] I was so obsessed with survival and finding food, that I didn’t have time to think about God,” Antony shared. “When I started going to church with my Zoe Empowers group, I started to feel like He no longer abandoned me.” Antony was baptized after his first year in the Zoe Empowers program and continues to be eager to share his faith with others.
As a young man whose life today is unrecognizably different compared to the one he was living not long ago, Antony feels a deep sense of obligation to help others who are still suffering and desperately need the anonymous support he received. His love for God and gratitude for the ZOE’s program is what ultimately led him to the Thanksgiving gathering at M.C.K. Karwamba Church in September to donate $100 to the organization.
“I’m so happy about where Zoe Empowers has gotten me, and I know there are many other children going through what I went through,” said Antony, now 25 years old. “I want to assist them so we can be empowered together.”
Today, we’re asking you to join Antony. $100 empowers 12 orphans for one month.
380 million children living in extreme poverty will rely on charity forever.
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