Untapped Potential and Intelligence of the Extreme Poor
“Habari umeamuka?” Evans said… as he said every morning at 5:45am. I was tired and had just finished the pathetic little workout that I do these days to try and maintain some level of physical fitness. I unlocked the gate and shook Evans’ hand. “Tutaonana jioni,” (see you tonight) I said. He smiled and headed out the gate. Ironically, Evans (our nighttime security guard) knows almost as little Swahili as I do. His mother tongue is Kisii, and he is much more comfortable with that – or sometimes even English. I am always amazed at our friends’ ability here to learn 3 or 4 languages fairly well, while I try to understand about 1.3 languages at best – routinely struggling through a conversation by piecing together phrases of languages that I have tried (and failed) to learn. I work on my Swahili with everyone here, but with Evans, sometimes I need to check with Philip for accuracy. “Habari umeamuka…” Evans said these words to me every single morning as I went about the daily “changing of the guard” that involved Evans himself, a trained security guard, turning his post over to Thomas, the next-door neighbor who is one of the leading craftsman in the area for poison-tipped arrows. For whatever reason, Evans’ words stuck with me this morning as I headed back into the house in the dark to carry on with the morning. “Habari umeamuka?” literally means something along the lines of “how was your awakening?” This was Evans’ friendly attempt each morning to greet me and ask me how I had slept. “How was your awakening…” I paused as I started to duck inside. I turned and watched the sun begin coloring the sky and chasing away remaining stars that greeted me each morning as I watched under the spectacular Kenyan sky. For the first time, I began to internalize the words Evans spoke to me every morning and ponder on how they seemed to be so fitting to me of our world here now.
Awakening. Nuru has been a journey of awakening in my life. For many people, the understanding of the absolute crisis that our friends here and millions of others around the world suffer under every single day isn’t that difficult to reach. Once they see a glimpse of it, they see that the injustice of another human being just like them suffering horribly from completely preventable, unnecessary causes just isn’t right. Not only is it not right, but they feel compelled to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Not me. I would classify myself as a hard-headed, world-class idiot. I had been exposed to the issues of extreme poverty most of my life, but I would consistently turn a blind eye and say, “That’s somebody else’s problem. Those people aren’t like me.” I was so wrong. Heaven and earth would have to move to awaken me from my indifference and heartless apathy… and they did.
Combat changes things in an individual and writes stories in your heart that cannot be unwritten. The stories I lived and witnessed revealed a whole new world to me that I had refused to look at up to that point in my life. Stories of desperation born out of a basic lack of choice and opportunity… two words I had taken for granted every day. I saw mothers, fathers, and yes, children – making decisions to end life (usually their own) in the hopes that they could somehow save or give hope to the lives of those they loved so dearly. Desperation colliding with indifference breeds violent, irrational decisions. A haze in my head began to clear as I began to see a disturbing connection between the actions taken by those we were fighting and the motivation behind those actions. This reality was beaten into me time and time again until finally, I came to realize that perhaps one way to fight the enemy we waged war against was to attack the foundation of the movement. Take away the desperation, and you take away the mass recruiting population and army of individuals desperately seeking choice. Extreme poverty did not create terrorism and insurgency, but it was certainly the fuel that was enabling the movement of hatred to grow in numbers and power at such an alarming rate. This awakening propelled me to leave my old life and attempt to begin eroding that foundation that I saw just beneath the surface of the “enemy.”
Now let me tell you about a much braver awakening than the awakening that happened within me. An awakening of a potential and fire within some of the most incredible human beings I have ever encountered… the extreme poor. I have learned so many lessons these last 7 years of my life, from the day I crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border in March 2003 up until today – lessons that have taught me about bravery, selfless compassion, and perseverance in the face of absolutely insurmountable odds. Lessons that taught me what the faces of love, courage and sacrifice really look like. Who were my teachers? The extremely poor. I have been so humbled to learn from and come alongside this incredible class of individuals. These guys are braver, more resourceful, and in most cases more intelligent than I will ever be. They have survived through experiences and conditions in life that I would have completely folded under. It is these lessons that have shaped Nuru’s work and the way we view the extreme poor. The poor are not helpless children that must be coddled and pampered or led along by the hand toward a better life because they are just too ignorant or incapable to get there on their own. No. In contrast, the poor possess an incredible mountain of untapped potential and fire that, if realized, will revolutionize the way we interact as global citizens in our world today. Suddenly, there would be 1 billion new customers in the global marketplace. Imagine millions of educated, trained individuals searching for the cure for malaria or the cure for cancer. Designing better public transit systems in overcrowded cities. Becoming the entrepreneurs that will act as competitors for the West in the global marketplace – pushing innovation and design to the next level, and forming a whole new class of brilliant young leaders to create political systems and governance that push toward peace and global collaboration. We are so quick to discount the poor, but within their ranks lies the next Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Martin Luther King, and Kofi Annan. Why do we think they are so different?
I have seen this awakening here in Kuria, Kenya. I have seen the power that can result when one person regains his sense of dignity and self worth and really begins to see that there is hope and that the world does not have to be a helpless string of pathetic choices… who will eat tonight: my oldest 14 year old son or my youngest 2 year old daughter? Do I spend the money I have saved for tomorrow’s meal on transport to get my infant dying of malaria to the nearest clinic, or watch the other children crying of hunger all night for another night. These are not fun pictures. These are not fun choices to make. In fact, these are not choices at all. Things are different here now, though. I have seen a woman go from this desperate situation of no choices to now feeding her children every night of the week and paying for her oldest to go to secondary school. I have seen leaders rise up in their community and bring hope and a clear path to a better life to thousands of their own people. I have seen a people owning the solutions to their own problems and gaining speed and vision to grow those solutions to impact an entire nation.
Awakenings are powerful. Awakenings can change individuals. Awakenings can change communities. Awakenings can change countries. Awakenings can change our world – but they don’t just happen. Individuals from all walks of life – people like me, you, and my brave friends here like Philip and Milka and Eliza and Chacha, must allow ourselves to take a step in that direction. The first step of any awakening for all of us – no matter where we start from – is just to open our eyes… and see.
About Jake Harriman
Founder — Jake Harriman is a United States Naval Academy graduate and former Force Recon Marine combat veteran who became convinced that the “War on Terror” can’t be won on the battlefield alone; the contributing causes of violent extremism–specifically extreme poverty–must also be eradicated. After transitioning out of the Marine Corps, Jake enrolled in the Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International in 2007 with a mission to eradicate extreme poverty in some of the most fragile regions of the world in order to help stop the spread of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Over the next twelve years, Jake and his team grew Nuru to become one of the premier organizations at the nexus of security and development - empowering over 130,000 people with lasting meaningful choices to permanently climb out of extreme poverty in some of the toughest places in the world.Read More Stories of Hope