I was brought up in the Mbeere South area in rural Kenya, one of the poorest and driest parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Growing up as one of 10 children, life was hard. But despite the hardship, my parents encouraged us to work hard in school in order to get a good education, as they believed that the only way to get out of poverty was to have a good education.
In those days, girls were more likely to drop out of school to work as house help or sex workers, to support their family financially.
I was lucky to have parents who saw the value of educating a girl, so my siblings and I were able to get a good education. However, I have seen, witnessed and experienced poverty at first hand.
I have seen my friends drop out of school and marry at a young age as they had no choice. I have seen my neighbour’s children go without food and walk miles to fetch water. I have seen many women friends die of diseases at an early age, leaving their children orphaned and under the care of elderly grandparents.
I live in the UK now, but this early life experience prompted me to start a not-for-profit organisation, so in 2004, my charity 'Make a Difference UK’ was founded and registered in the United Kingdom.
Initially my main focus was education by sponsoring disadvantaged high achieving girls in the village where I was born to acquire secondary school education by paying their fees. I am passionate about education and believe that every young person deserves a good education.
However, in September 2015, I was diagnosed with stage 2/3 breast cancer.
I underwent chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiotherapy, and am now undergoing targeted hormonal therapy (tamoxifen), which I have to take for 10 years.
My diagnosis of breast cancer turned my world and my family's world upside down. But after 2 years of intensive treatment, I made up my mind to learn more about the illness, and to become an activist in matters related to breast cancer.
Consequently, we changed the charity's name to the Mama Melissa Foundation, and we refocused it on education and breast cancer support.
Impact Of Breast Cancer
Having experienced breast cancer first hand, I know the aftermath of the disease. When the catastrophe of breast cancer strikes, two very human questions are:
Why did this happen to me?
How can I protect my family?
Sadly, my story has become all too common among many women all over the world.
Currently in Kenya, breast cancer is the second most common cause of mortality among women.
And the women who have survived and are living with breast cancer face many difficulties, from psychological to physical, to experiencing extreme financial problems.
Therefore, these women need support in various ways, and through my charity, I am committed to supporting these women and their families.
I have a BSc in social work and applied science, and I also have an MSc in Public Health. I have specialised in programmes which promote education among the disadvantaged population especially girls and relief of poverty.
I have also specialised in public health programmes and am currently participating in health promotion and prevention.
I'm addressing the stigma of many illnesses, but in particular cancer, which is currently a taboo especially in African countries, by providing psychosocial care and enabling community empowerment through education programmes.
As a social worker and a public health practitioner, I approach problems from a wide angle. I look for possible influencing factors, trying to identify problem root causes and consequences that might not be obvious at first sight.
This requires critical thinking to identify the core problems and creativity across all disciplines to solve them, which is useful everywhere.
As a breast cancer survivor and activist, I am committed to supporting issues related to breast cancer especially promoting breast cancer awareness and early detection programmes.
Making a Difference
By starting the Mama Melissa Foundation, it was a way of appreciating where I come from, my heritage and also giving back to the community which raised me, as well as the universe at large.
I am determined to make a difference to the community I grew up in. As they say in Africa, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
We are a relatively small charity, but that gives us advantages. We can make quick decisions when the need arises, lines of communication are short, and we are close to the projects we partner.
Within the UK, the Mama Melissa Foundation is run by a group of volunteers who combine their different skills, knowledge and experiences in running the charity and publicising the needs in Kenya.