Marching for positive change

Saturday August 8 2009

Miriam Otieno. Photo/JOHN MAKENI

Miriam Otieno. Photo/JOHN MAKENI 


As she travels the world promoting activities of the Girl Guides movement, Miriam Otieno, 26, knows she is meeting her life goal: to change the world for the better.

When she was 14, she was selected to travel to United Kingdom for Flame 98, an international scouting camp; it was an experience that remains engraved in her memory.

“It made me feel part of the world, not just Kenya, and the way the hosts took care of me was inspiring,” she said. “It also challenged me to offer a Girl Guide from Europe a similar opportunity in Africa,” says Ms Otieno, a youth leader and a member of the Girl Guide movement’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Live in a hut

She recalled that the girl, who lived in Britain, thought she would come to Africa and live in a hut but was surprised that life was not so different from in the UK; and Miriam was happy to give someone an opportunity to see Africa from a different perspective.

Ms Otieno is a programme assistant at Ufadhili Trust, but she still makes time to volunteer with the Kenya Girl Guides movement. Nothing makes her happier than to volunteer her services to help improve the lives of people in places like India, France, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Asked what it was like to volunteer, she said that if you only think of it in monetary terms, “it limits your opportunity to discover your potential, and you won’t think outside the box. I have been given the opportunity to meet and create a network with people.”

Three months ago, she was named by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to be one of two young women to attend the 53rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on the status of women, an experience she calls “an eye-opener”.

She always dreamt of becoming a Girl Guide and joined the movement at the age of nine, intrigued by the brown uniform.

The group’s flag-raising ceremony not only gave the young girl a sense of responsibility but also the courage to sing Kenya’s national anthem and serve the community.

“As a Girl Guide, I didn’t think of myself as a young police woman but as a person contributing to development,” she said.

Ms Otieno stands five feet two inches tall. What she lacks in height she makes up for high ambition.

“Many youth think that there are no opportunities out there. If you don’t go out and experience, you won’t know about the opportunities available,” she said. “Today the youth have a voice because many people have realised they need the youth.”

Girl Guides

She said when she joined the Girl Guides movement, they were known mainly for marching, flag-raising and weekend camping. But today, the movement is involved in many activities, including tree planting and counselling services for young people on issues like HIV/Aids.

An experience two years ago in France brought home to her the isolation in which many people in Europe live. While walking in a park one evening, she came across a young woman in tears.

The 21-year-old Russian, looking miserable, told Ms Otieno her parents had divorced. Ms Otieno said she reminded her that she was not alone in this world and consoled her.

“People in Europe tend to mind their own business and often don’t share their fears. We have a role to help each other whenever we can,” said the holder of a degree in youth development sciences.

A keen gardener, Ms Otieno also likes to clean house and often goes out with her friends when she is not volunteering with the Girl Guides.

She is content with what she calls a typical youthful lifestyle and rarely has disagreements with her parents. She doesn’t feel obliged to go clubbing and prefers dinner out in a restaurant.

She is amused by her father’s caution about the intentions of men who may just want to “waste her time”.

She is disappointed how girls her age act as though men are responsible for their well-being, including paying for everything on dates.

So, what is her secret to being a successful young woman?

“Believing in yourself and appreciating what you have. Don’t think you have to be like others. Don’t be uncomfortable as a young person,” she said.