When Divinity Matovu chose Kenya as her study abroad destination during her senior year in USC College, she had no idea that this one decision would dramatically alter countless lives in addition to her own.
Just three years later, at the age of 24, Matovu has been recognized for co-founding Ugandan nonprofit Amagezi Gemaanyi Youth Association by Glamour magazine, which selected the Wisconsin native as one of “20 Amazing Young Women Who Are Already Changing the World.”
Matovu studied abroad in Kenya because the program there emphasized postcolonial and political history in East Africa, which aligned with her academic interests. When she arrived, Matovu was confronted with the harsh world of poverty and a generation of young people with great potential but few opportunities.
“I had always been active on campus with volunteering and other activities, but I didn’t have a global outlook until I went to Africa,” Matovu said.
After she graduated with a degree in political science and African American studies in May 2008, Matovu returned to volunteer with a nonprofit in Uganda. Within a few weeks, however, she realized she had her own vision: to create an organization for young people, managed by young people.
To make her dream a reality, Matovu, along with fellow volunteer and now-husband Abraham Matovu, co-founded AGYA in Kampala, Uganda. Together, they created a free community center where youth from the densely populated slums surrounding Kampala can gather in a nurturing and educational environment. There, Matovu, her husband and a team of Ugandan youth volunteers offer a free lunch program, an after-school program, and a girls program.
For the youth in the community, hunger is a very real problem — one that drives them to drastic measures. “One of the main issues here is drug abuse,” Matovu said. “Kids are sniffing glue and petrol to get high because it makes them not feel as hungry. This is one of the reasons we decided to start the free lunch program.”
Any youth who is active in the center’s programs is provided a free meal and clean drinking water, the latter of which has cut down on the impact of water-borne illnesses that often plague the community, Matovu said.
The organization’s after-school program offers innovative classes for youth, including textile design, art, computer skills, creative writing and dance. With support from the Clinton Global Initiative University, AGYA received funding for a recording studio where youth can learn how to record and produce their own music. One youth learned to use a computer and blogging software to create his own Web site, where he sells his artwork internationally.
AGYA’s full name means “knowledge is power” in the Ugandan national language Luganda, and Matovu’s goal is to help the youth become empowered by their newfound skills and creativity.
“We want to let kids know that they don’t have to limit themselves,” Matovu said. “They can be entrepreneurs. They can come up with their own ideas and create their own market.”
The center partnered with the Century City Alumnae Chapter of the sorority Delta Sigma Theta to create the girls program, which provides academic scholarships to local high school girls to keep them in school and reduce the rate of early marriages and teen pregnancy. In addition to providing funds for scholarships, Delta Sigma Theta members also serve as e-mail pen pals for the girls, creating an open forum where they discuss self-esteem, standards of beauty, and other topics relevant to teenage girls.
Overall, Matovu estimates that about 800 children and young men and women participate in AGYA’s programs. In the next year, her goal is to expand her reach to more youth and open another community center in Gulu in northern Uganda.
“I would love if we had 15 community centers in the next 20 years,” Matovu said. “But the most immediate need is in Gulu. There are so many kids there with nothing to do.”
She would also like to open a children’s village in the next few years, a place where Matovu and volunteers can take care of kids who have been abandoned, or who have lost parents to illness. The idea was inspired by a boy Matovu met when she and Abraham first started AGYA.
“His name is Shafik, and we’d see him walking through the slums with no shoes, a dirty t-shirt, and nothing on his bottom. He was abandoned by his mother as an infant, and he was in really bad condition,” Matovu said.
Bright and charismatic, Shafik charmed Matovu and her husband, who fell in love with the child and adopted him. Although she recognizes she can’t adopt all of the abandoned children she meets, Matovu hopes that her efforts in a future children’s village, and in AGYA’s center, will give youth a new family community.
For Matovu, the future holds years of hard work and dedication to her vision. “There are times when I feel like this is so difficult, and maybe I’m not the right person to do this,” she said. “Some of these tasks are so daunting, and all of these kids are looking at you as the person who’s going to help them escape the cycle of poverty.”
Matovu was honored at Glamour magazine’s 20th annual Women of the Year Award Ceremony at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 8. After meeting her fellow 19 honorees and standing in the presence other powerful women including President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Oprah Winfrey, and Queen Rania of Jordan, Matovu flew back to Uganda the following day with renewed energy.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if not for the experiences I had at USC,” Matovu said. She noted that several of her political science professors still stay in touch with her, making donations to AGYA and offering advice.
“I’m so proud to be affiliated with USC,” she said. “And I’m trying to make USC proud too, with the work I do.”
Because the majority of donations to AGYA are directed towards the purchase of food and supplies, Matovu’s organization relies on both local and international volunteers to run programs and teach classes. AGYA has partnered with USC student organization RAYSE (The Rise of African Youth Through Self-Empowerment) to offer an alternative summer break to USC students. Undergraduates and graduates have the opportunity to spend four weeks at AGYA’s center teaching classes to youth. Student interested in volunteering should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
To learn more about AGYA and how to help, visit amagezigemaanyi.blogspot.com.