By Kye Makyeli

“Be the change that you would wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi.

Esther Kalenzi is the brain behind the 40 days over 40 smiles Foundation. From fundraising for the construction of a dormitory to ‘pimping’ a children’s playground, Kalenzi and a team of equally motivated youth are dedicated to instilling social change by providing for children in need in order to help give them a better life through the foundation. She agreed to take some time out of her schedule to share her insights about the foundation and its impact on the community.

Tell us about the ’40 days over 40 Smiles Foundation.’ 

It is an organisation that I run, made up of youths who are passionate about positive social change. We support orphans and vulnerable children by improving their livelihoods. It started with a facebook group that I opened on February 27th. The idea was that for the 40 days of lent, my friends and family would cut down on their luxuries so that the surplus can be given to children who had no families that Easter. At the end of the 40 days, I had collected 3.1 mlllion UGX in cash and two truckloads of books, toys, clothes, shoes that were given to two orphanages. I also got a chef who cooked for these children and my friends and I spent that Easter weekend with the children. It was an amazing experience. Once the fun was done, we realized there was a need for us to do more and be relevant beyond one nice meal at Easter. It is this conviction that propelled  us to keep at it and last year we registered the organisation.

What fueled you to involve yourself in charity work?

There is so much satisfaction that I get from giving back. It was something I always knew I would do ‘behind the scenes.’ I certainly didn’t imagine I would be at the forefront. Everyone needs someone. More so if you are a child who has been abandoned, orphaned or suffering a chronic disease. These are situations you have no control over but having someone to love and take care of you can lighten the load a great deal. I wanted to be that someone to these children. Having a team to do it with me is a huge plus! I am definitely driven by the desire to create an impact no matter how small. I believe we should all give back in whatever way we can regardless of our past or social status. When I started 40-40, every bit of me came alive. I realised I was more excited to spend time with the children than I was waking up to go and sit in an office or ‘have fun.’ I finally decided that this is how I wanted to spend my life and here we are.

The #4040 hashtag is one of the most influential Ugandan social media tags. Did you ever think that this platform would create such profound awareness for this good cause?

No one is quite surprised as I am that this is still happening. When we began, we were pretty clueless. We knew what we wanted to do but not necessarily how. We are still figuring it all out to date. The support has been immense though, it is pretty scary sometimes. People have been so supportive and to be honest that is what has kept us going. It is exciting. We used these avenues because they were affordable, accessible and reached our target audience. The response has shown us that although social media was an almost effortless choice; its effectiveness has been responsible for our success to a large extent. We have certainly been blessed in ways we could never have imagined!

Esther with friends and fans, at the Uganda Social Media Awards

Esther with friends and fans, at the Uganda Social Media Awards

What impact would you like the 40 Days 40 Smiles Foundation to make in society?

First and foremost, I would love for the children we work with to have a great childhood worth looking back on. Whether it is because we provided a playground for them or a place for them to sleep, I would love for us to have played a positive role in their life’s journey. I am also desperate for Uganda’s youth to be engaged in community development at whatever level. If music is your drug, then infect us all with your positive messages. I would like a society in which we constantly ask ourselves “What more can I do?” as opposed to pointing fingers and claiming everything is everyone’s responsibility but ours. I look forward to young people being inspired to follow their dreams. I envision an avalanche of Ugandan change makers who are not afraid to venture into unchartered territory, to start something crazy and unimaginable. After all, it is the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world that do. Steve Jobs thought so. I tend to agree.

Which mentors or successful people have you looked up to on your life journey so far?

I am tempted to mention a few iconic figures but although they might be ‘successful, I can’t exactly say they have influenced me the way someone I get to see and talk to often has. For that reason, I shall go with my very own mother. I have looked up to her a whole lot and I still do. She is strong even when she is weak, compassionate and full of laughter. She works harder than she should, takes nothing for granted and blesses everyone she meets effortlessly. Even if she did not understand the reasons why I chose this path, she believes in me like her life depends on it and has been my biggest fan from the very beginning. Her love and support have shaped me into the woman I am today.

What does Esther Kalenzi do when she’s not volunteering to help children in need?

It is difficult to explain but 40-40 is pretty much my life style. There is no other way I can put it to words. I do other things though, sing off key, write, dance, laugh hysterically. I am also currently pursuing a distance learning Master’s Degree.

How do you envision a true African woman?

This is a tricky one, but let me give it a shot.

A true African woman is strong. She knows when to cry and when to pick herself up and keep moving. Her scars are merely a symbol of battles won or lost, and lessons learnt. She is comfortable in her skin, not constantly defining herself by what others think but who she truly is – the embodiment of beauty that is skin deep. She is humble but knows her worth- constantly blossoming into a better version of herself. She is passionate, follows her dreams and does not settle for less. She works hard, values her family and provides for it at all costs. She is simply a beautiful imperfection.

Three things you cannot leave the house without?

Notebook (I have too many and still can’t stop myself), my phone and a handkerchief.

Biggest pet peeve?

Currently, it is people (especially whom I am not close to) who start conversations without so much as a greeting/salutation. It is 8.00 a.m. you need something from me and your message begins “What is Linda’s phone number?” Using ‘K’ for okay is almost as annoying, maybe more.

Celebrity crush?

Chrissy Teigen (John Legend’s wife) is so lucky! *swoon*

John Legend’s music has spoken to me for years. It is the simplicity and depth of his lyrics coupled with the soul in his voice. I have a long list of ‘lookers’ but John Legend will stand alone on this podium.

Favorite quote?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” I loved it since I was a teen. Not surprisingly, it is now 40-40’s tagline. It is what I endeavour to be every day.

Most played song on your playlist is?

Imela by Nethanie Bassey. It is my ringtone.

Since it’s conception, the 40 Days over 40 Smiles Foundation has received a great deal of recognition and support, as well as garnering numerous accolades including Best Social Media Campaign at the first ever Social Media Awards held in Kampala last year.