Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 06/04/2010

Maina Muthee, Class of 2007

Tufts University-The Fletcher School

I grew up poor in the slums of Nairobi. I remember desperately trying to cover up being sick so I would not be sent home from school – my one refuge of hope and promise. I suppose my journey to become a humanitarian relief worker started then, as an impoverished teenager, when a few teachers and NGO workers opened doors for me to excel in school and go on to University.

A few years later, I became friends with three Rwandese boys who had fled the genocide. One of the boys in particular relived the genocide by day – through telling stories of his murdered family- and by night – through violent nightmares. His torment soon become mine – and it was then that I decided to be personally involved in assisting victims of humanitarian crisis.

Soon thereafter, I was privileged to work in South Sudan during the civil war. Working in the midst of such a complicated conflict was enormously challenging, but also deeply satisfying. In July of 2002, the government suddenly announced a flight ban which left us stranded in a conflict zone. We endured many days of strafing through the night, and occasional bombardment by the infamous Antonov aircraft. Noise from heavy machine gun fire and strafing by artillery became a routine of the night, and it was then I decided to quit humanitarian work.

Thereafter I visited the Rwanda Genocide memorial center in Kigali. At the entrance bold letters proclaimed “plus jamais” (never again). I had witnessed almost unendurable human suffering and death in Sudan a few weeks before, and the irony of “plus jamais” profoundly saddened me. I reversed my decision to quit and instead decided to work in public health in emergencies. In 2004, I was very lucky to begin my masters studies in international law and diplomacy and nutrition at Tufts University.

Today I work for UNICEF as a nutrition specialist. My assignments have included addressing the nutrition of children in humanitarian emergencies, as well as the more ignored situations of extreme, chronic poverty and food insecurity in otherwise peaceful situations.  The latter work is more  “upstream” than my work years ago in South Sudan, and sometimes I miss the immediacy of direct community engagement. In working with the UN, however, I feel I am serving vulnerable children in a way that could lead to more lasting, structural change. Having the opportunity to align my work with my personal ideals and to work with others who share in this commitment is enormously rewarding.

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