The BBC has named Kenyan international student Sophie Umazi Mvurya ’16 as one of the Top Ten Teens who Changed the World, according to an hour-long special broadcast in late October. Interviewed alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Umazi was honored for her national peacekeeping efforts through the I Am Kenyan campaign.
Umazi started the I Am Kenyan campaign in late 2012 as Kenya geared up for a contentious democratic election between opposing religious factions. It began inauspiciously as a social media campaign: Umazi started a Facebook group and posted a picture of herself with the hashtag #IamKenyan. “I thought, maybe, one or two of my friends would do it,” Umazi says. The group went viral in four days. “People began questioning—why are you telling us you’re Kenyan? It started a dialogue around the issue of nationality and patriotism; what it means to be Kenyan.”
Since the country’s decolonization in 1963, Kenya’s elections have been fraught and often violent. Umazi experienced this violence firsthand during the 2007 election, and feared its return in the 2013 election. She was studying in South Africa at the time, but she worried about her home. “I was very far from home, and if anything happened, I would feel guilty for not having done something for my country,” she says.
The I Am Kenyan campaign quickly grew beyond social media. “We took the message to peace workshops, peace forums, concerts,” Umazi recalls. “We had peace marches where we would go into the streets and explain to people what we were doing.” Umazi wanted to promote a culture of mutual understanding; among the rich and poor and among diverse ethnic groups. “We must consider ourselves Kenyans first before looking at our ethnic groups. We must appreciate diversity, rather than just tolerate it,” she says. Her campaign caught on in other countries, inspiring similar movements including #IamNigerian and #IAmUkrainian.
Umazi says her experience at Oberlin has had a profound effect on her current implementation of I Am Kenyan. “It’s been refreshing to be with people who think like me,” she explains. “I’ve been challenged a lot at Oberlin.”
Most recently, Umazi has thrown her entrepreneurial energy into a new project, Suzifit. When Umazi first came to Oberlin, she found it difficult to schedule in time to exercise. With the help of her friends, she designed fitness plans to stay in shape while busy with school. Later, she and her friends developed Suzifit, a service that provides personalized dieting and fitness regimens designed to accommodate a busy life. “We’re not talking about you getting skinny or anything,” explains Umazi. “We’re talking about how to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. Because that’s what your body needs. Your body is not created to be dormant. Your body is created to be active.”
Since its inception, Suzifit has grown rapidly, and social media has been essential to its success. “People are sharing it with their friends,” says Umazi. “People are signing up pretty much everywhere, from Dubai, to South Africa, to Kenya; students from other campuses in the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s a global thing.”
Meanwhile, at Oberlin, Umazi pursues degrees in politics, law and society, and economics. She also organizes a yearly African Diasporic fashion show, which she performs in with her friends. In all of her endeavors, Umazi thinks globally. “I want to understand how the world works,” she says, and she’s well on her way. Whether she’s in Kenya or rural Ohio, she always seems to find a way to connect with and change the lives of people across hemispheres.