CALEB \c(a)-leb\ as a boy’s name is pronounced KAY-leb. The meaning of Caleb is “faith, devotion, whole-hearted”. Noted for astute powers of observation and fearlessness in the face of overwhelming odds.
Once upon a time there was a 12 year old kid that borrowed a book from the school library. It was called “No Easy Walk to Freedom” about some man called Nelson Mandela. Being raised in a predominantly Caucasian French-Irish-Scottish town, this kid named Holly (me) had never really heard of this man called Nelson Mandela. He lived in a country called South Africa. I at least knew where this was because my class studied the entire continent of Africa and being a super proud geek I memorized the entire map. Although apartheid was mentioned, the class focus was more on slavery in North America than anything. I had no idea why I was drawn to this book or the man, but I read it from cover to cover. I remember so vividly watching the news coverage of the first non-racial election in South Africa at my Aunt Lorna’s house after school. The year was 1994. 1994, people! That’s crazy. It was mind-blowing to me. The lines for voters went on for what seemed miles. I remember seeing little old ladies in line and thinking what the heck was their life like. I think that moment in time was the tipping point for me. It solidified this deeply personal yet inexplicable fascination with a continent so incredibly misunderstood by most western cultures.
Fast forward to adult-hood: In 2006, while volunteering with Rose Charities – an organization that works in Indonesia – I found encouragement to explore NGO territory in Africa. Or rather, I asked if I could launch a program there under their banner. In the end I decided to do it on my own even though I had no clue how to do that. It took a very long time to figure out where in Africa I would actually go. In 2007 I decided on the northern region of Uganda and soon after wrapping on what would be the final season of a Canadian television series, I hopped on a plane to Kenya instead (it’s a long story for another time).
I volunteered at Happy Life Children’s Home in Roysambu, Kenya in August 2007. The change of pace from being on set every day (and let’s face it, having my every whim catered to) to mopping floors and changing dirty diapers in an orphanage was a welcomed and overwhelming change. I met a little 4 year old boy named Caleb. Little did I know this one boy would completely change my life forever. When I wasn’t in Roysambu, I spent time in two of Nairobi’s informal settlements: Kibera – the largest slum in Africa made famous by “The Constant Gardener” – and Lunga Lunga.
Let’s just say I got my a— handed to me. There’s no other way to say it. I saw a lot of beautiful things but also a lot of ugly things. I quickly learned there is a lot of ignorance, racism, and condescension in humanitarian aid. It felt like colonialism was still alive and well in Africa. This ‘aid’ all seemed on the surface like good intentions but it was pure poison. What’s that saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Most Westerners didn’t (and still don’t) know anything about Africa and I was one of them. The thought of even trying to start an NGO felt ridiculous! Who was I to decide where I should go in Africa and grace someone with my presence so I can help them. Seriously?! Although I had good intentions, I was coming at it from the wrong angle. I knew I was in way over my head. I had no idea what I was doing. But I chose to figure it out and do it anyway….even though the ‘it’ part wasn’t all that clear.
In February of 2008, I returned to East Africa with somewhat of a plan. It made sense at the time but in hindsight was a bit exhausting, but hey go big or go home I say: I climbed the western breach of Kilimanjaro choosing the hardest route possible (which is now closed!) by choice because I ‘wanted a challenge’ – because climbing the highest free-standing mountain in the world wasn’t challenging enough. What? Step 2 of the brilliant plan was to live in Kibera, Nairobi for some time during the upheaval of political riots. And then step 3 of the plan involved taking a long sweaty bus ride to Gulu, N. Uganda.
By the time I got to Gulu I was a crazy hot mess. The plan was to meet a man by the name of Oneka Richard so we could talk about starting an NGO. I had never met Richard before and found his name through a bunch of aid workers I had also never met before. So it was either going to be awesome or a total bust. Thankfully, it was awesome. One month later, in March of 2008, Caleb’s Hope was founded. As newbies in the NGO world, the course of the next several years was a massive learning curve for me and the entire CH team. However, a few burn-outs and malaria episodes later, Caleb’s Hope started to find its roots. Over the years, we’ve experienced many ups and downs – the familiar ‘trial and error’ phases any new NGO experiences. The past few years have been a testament to what a small group of dedicated people can achieve. A big personal lesson for me is that it doesn’t matter what your background or education is, everyone can do something to make a difference if he/she is willing to see others with open eyes, an open heart, and an open mind. The Caleb’s Hope family is made up of dynamic passionate committed people from various walks of life and very different backgrounds. Through the work of building Caleb’s Hope what it is today, we’ve learned so much together, we’ve cried together, laughed together and celebrated every success big and small together.
Today, the Caleb’s Hope family proudly serves the women and Acholi community in Atiak, Northern Uganda and we look forward to expanding our reach to serve even more incredible women and children around the globe. Everything we do is for the community. The community in Atiak, and the community of inspired do-gooders around the world.
It is my personal wish that every woman and girl facing adversity, oppression and suffering knows that she matters. I have dedicated this lifetime to the empowerment of women and children by working directly with them and also by making sure others know their stories and are so compelled to act that the thought of doing nothing is simply no longer acceptable.
And if you’re wondering what happened to Caleb: in the fall of 2007 he turned 5 and got the best birthday gift a kid could ask for: parents! He was adopted by a local Kenyan couple and has been thriving ever since.
– Holly Elissa