Esther Kalenzi is the founder of Forty Days over Forty Smiles Foundation, a local NGO that helps the needy; especially children and youth.
Helping the needy is a passion she first exhibited as a student at Aga Khan High School in Kampala when she raised funds from fellow students to pay tuition for a classmate who had missed school. She says she looked at the spending patterns of the students at the school and realised that they often had more than enough pocket money. But she had only raised Shs 100,000 when some students reported the matter to the school administrations and she was summoned. In the end, however, it turned out to well as the school administration offered the student a scholarship.
Even when she joined Uganda Christian University to pursue a course in Mass Communication, Kalenzi was among those who contributed enthusiastically in the university-promoted practice of students raising funds for needy fellow students.
Upon graduation, she landed a job but quit after just one year to pursue her passion. In 2012 she started Forty Days over Forty Smiles.
She recalls that it was at the start of Lent; the period when Christians fast in the run-up to the Easter period. Kalenzi , who is a Christian, decided to instead give alms to the poor.
“My background is partly drawn from a Muslim school, where I discovered that they are so disciplined and always give alms to the poor yet the Christian fasting is more of passive because we don’t commit,” she says.
Her focus was to help children but she did not know what kind of children. She opened up a page on Facebook and to her surprise many people subscribed although few offered to help. One colleague asked her about the whereabouts of the needy children and their needs. She researched and visited the home, made a needs assessment which she posted on the Facebook page. In the last week of lent Kalenzi had Shs3.1 million which she used to buy foodstuffs and on Good Friday, she was joined by other 30 volunteers to deliver it to children’s home in Kyebando, a Kampala city suburb.
The drive that was initially meant to be a one-off but discovering the needs of the children led Kalenzi to raise even more money for them.
“I realised that the children’s needs became my needs and I was always on the move trying to get funding for my new family,”
That is when she resigned her job in 2013 to take on charity full time. She took on more children, from the rural district of Luwero and through social media raised Shs28 million to construct a dormitory for them. In 2015 she applied for an award from the private-sector pension fund and won Shs20 million which she used to set up a library at the same home in Luwero. Today she works with children directly and engages them in reading every Friday. She is compiling Ugandan stories into a book to support literacy.
Kalenzi is a bubbly 30-year o;d woman who easily connects with people and inspires action; especially on social media. She works mainly on Facebook.
She says her urge to help was possibly nurtured by her upbringing. She says her parents; Simon and Grace Kalenzi always welcomed people into their home.
“It was constantly a full house where beds would be shared with relatives,” says Kalenzi. “It was truly an African culture which is something we grew accustomed to”.
Esther Kalenzi’s Liteside
Any three things we don’t know about you?
I started this thing as a young girl using my salary to support my dream and as a result, a lot of lives have been touched. People should therefore not see me as an accomplished woman but one who started with nothing and used other people’s money honestly to do good. Up to 99 percent of what we use to help the needy is from Uganda and only 1 percent is from Ugandans abroad.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I don’t think there is such a thing as perfect happiness because life fluctuates and there is always an oscillation. While others are lucky to find it out early, others may take longer. But to sit there and enjoy what you are doing knowing that there are people who are having a better life because of you creates happiness.
What is your greatest fear?
I am afraid of dying young so it would hurt me to leave this world before accomplishing my dreams.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I am a warrior who likes to carry everyone else’s problems and many times things may not go my way because it is not how the real world works. The past five years have really tested that quality in me but it still bothers me.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Dishonesty; I would like to know the hard truth even if it is going to hurt me.
Which living person do you most admire?
My mother is the epitome of unconditional love. Having grown up under her care and watching what she does for people, it has made me a better person. She is also very prayerful and has so much faith.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I spend less on myself and big on others. I am also one of the people who can bargain for a thing till morning.
What is the greatest thing you have ever done?
My decision to run Forty days over Forty Smiles Foundation full time; I could be earning big like my colleagues and feel like my rewards may not be coming in this world but I chose to do it for all of my life.
What is your current state of mind?
I am a bit stressed.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Celebrities especially when we judge them as doing the wrong thing. We spend too much time analyzing how they dress, feed or conduct themselves forgetting we are the same human beings. There are more useful things that we can do with such wasted time.
What does being powerful mean to you?
Using a position of influence to bring up pertinent issues; power is not just a position but what you do with that position matters more.
On what occasion do you lie?
If I know that the truth will break someone.
Which living person do you most despise?
Corrupt officials who choose to live luxurious life and leave the poor to crush.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Being true to self and others
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Being true to self and others
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Family and friends are the most important people in my life and I can’t grade who comes after the other.
When and where were you happiest?
Every day because I discovered my life’s purpose and I make a decision to do it over and over again.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I don’t dwell on things that I can’t change.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Sustaining Forty-Forty until today.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
The same person with no additions or subtractions.
Where would you most like to live?
I love Uganda because it has my people and great sceneries but I wish it could be run better.
What is your most treasured possession?
I am an addict of note books where I write most of my stories and I hope to compile and publish in a book.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Being in pain whether physical or emotional and you have no one to turn to. It is worse when you don’t believe in a higher being.
What is your favorite occupation?
I want to tell stories of those doing amazing work or their plight. I would also want to be paid to travel and write.
What do you most value in your friends?
The time they give to me is priceless.
Who are your favorite writers?
I loved poetry by the late Maya Angelou because she did so many things in her life after being defiled and you can feel her experience in all her stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing is relatable and she takes you along in her writings. I also like John Grisham and C.S Lewis’ writings.
Who is your hero of fiction?
I don’t have a special attachment to any character.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I am inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa for giving of themselves.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My mother and brother Paul Kalenzi; he was recently ordained a priest but the journey took him ten years. On top of that he started the dream when he was five years old but first accomplished regular school as an excellent performer and, after all that, he gave away all his possessions to serve the Lord. It takes a lot of patience, determination, and courage
What is your greatest regret?
I wish I had travelled more when I was younger.
How would you like to die?
In my sleep but after a short illness.
What is your motto?
Be the change you want to see in the world.