Monday, February 5, 2018

From Gibraltar to Kenya

Meenal Viz
Meenal Viz will tell you that she is in medical school, training to be a doctor, when you ask her what she does. It’s only when you speak to her for some time that you realize that she’s much more than that: she runs the AltCricket Foundation, which is working towards building an orphanage in Kenya, while supporting the well-being and needs of twelve children in the country;  she plays table tennis for Gibraltar, she volunteers her time as a teacher in a school every Wednesday in Prague and nurses the ambition of working in the domain of social medicine some day. Here’s a chat with the young woman herself.

I grew up in Gibraltar, and had a very privileged life. My father had grown up in a rather poor part of Delhi, and his is the typical story of a turn of the tide from poverty to a regular life through hard work. When I was eighteen, I went to a village in Mozambique for six months, where I lived with a family there. I learned a lot in that time – the family made did with life while dealing with a lot of obstacles. They had no power, and no water. They would have to ration out the opportunity for their children to study – if they had three children, one child would go to school this year and drop out the next, so the next child would get to go. It made me realize how privileged I was, and how much I take for granted. It also made me realize that my father’s childhood and growing years were like that. I found myself introspecting: why is it that I had all these privileges, when there were so many in the world that grew up without them? It really got under my skin.

When you’re eighteen, you think you know everything and you’re sure you want to change the world. I knew at the time that I was going to med school, but I really wanted to do something to make a difference. After I got into med school, truly, it felt like the universe was bringing everything together. I am into sports, and ran a half-marathon in April 2014, when I saw a bunch of people from Kenya. I went over to speak to them, and was drawn to speaking to one of them, with Wambugu. We had to run all of three laps to finish the half-marathon, and I was as slow as he was fast – so he was in lap three when I was puffing through lap one. He told me that he had come to run to win the amount so he could go back and support the twelve orphans he was taking care of. He would run a couple of marathons and collect the prize money from them all, and when that amount was converted into Kenyan currency, it went a long way. Wambugu and I didn’t speak too much at the marathon, but exchanged numbers and stayed in touch.

With more and more time I spent talking to him, I was sure I wanted to do something to support them, and decided I would build an orphanage. I reached out to a friend of mine, Nishant Joshi,  who was running a Twitter handle at the time called @AltCricket, and we had decided that we would ground all our work in the organizational identity of AltCricket because it had a good amount of following.

When I began, there was a lot of resistance. My parents told me that it was time to focus on my studies, but I insisted that I could handle my studies, this, and play table tennis all the same. I started with a small fundraiser in University, innocently labouring under the assumption that people would all be willing to give, especially to the cause of supporting young children in Kenya. I started with a bake sale, and learned a rather difficult lesson – people would come up to me, pick up the product they needed and tell me they would pay later, only to leave it hanging. But since then, though, we’ve been able to host a few fundraisers that did support us sufficiently. There were also misconceptions sent my way to the effect of whether I could trust Wambugu – because I was giving him money. But I am always inclined towards seeing the good in people, and I trusted him – it turned out just fine. Along the way, my partner, Aakash, joined in. He had reached out to the founder of AltCricket on Twitter, and then got in touch with me, and has helped me since. Thanks to him, I’ve come a long way – and now have a website and a successful few fundraisers!

The journey hasn’t been without challenges. When I started, I had to get all my paperwork done. It used to take forty days at a time, and the office would let me know with an email and tell me that a line was wrongly written or a tiny error had crept in – and then I would have to wait another forty days to get things done! I approached a lawyer in the hope that I would be able to get pro bono support, but they quoted $2,000. Nevertheless, I did manage to get it done.  I went into it thinking that my goal was to build an orphanage, but I realized that we also did have to provide for the basic necessities for the children, and had to start with that. They needed food, only after which would any thought of education or other things come to mind. At some point, say about two or three years ago, we were actually in debt, to the point that we couldn’t even buy milk for the kids. But thankfully, now, though, we are better off. The children had a Christmas party last month, and our last few fundraisers have been able to offer support for the next six or seven months.

Our current goal is to build the orphanage for the children. Wambugu was housing the children in a house that he built – except that the house was not in line with governmental regulations. The good thing, though, is that we don’t have to buy any land or worry about leveling it or laying cables. All that’s been done. We’ve decided to work on it in phases – by building an orphanage for six kids at first, which roughly costs about $13,000. This isn’t the money that a bake sale can bring in, but I’m hoping to seek corporate donations to support us. All money we raise goes entirely into the cause – save for the inevitable loss in transfer fees and conversion rates.

I’ve never met the kids personally, but Wambugu sends me videos of them going about their day. Carol, one of the kids, wants to be a lawyer to help kids like her. One of the other kids wants to be a pilot. It’s beautiful to see them all dreaming big despite facing so many challenges. These kids don’t know what it is to use a phone, and have never experienced watching videos or getting online. When we are low or finding ourselves in a fix, we find motivational talks online and pep ourselves up – but these kids don’t have any of that, and yet find the hope, vision and ambition in their hearts. That’s what makes it doubly powerful – because it comes from the heart, and it’s incredibly real and authentic. And that hope inspires me, to keep going.