"I'm ready to talk"
By Esther Kwaku, Founder and CEO of Nerve
I feel moved to write this because it means I’m really having to put myself out there. Yikes.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I love telling stories. Long stories and short. Funny, entertaining stories. I'm prone to digressing sometimes too, because I like to go ahead and back in time, describe in detail the colour, the feel and the taste of things. I always want to take someone to a place I’ve been to as if they were there themselves.
I’m not a massive ‘send to all’ type of person. I do like doing videos though admittedly I haven’t posted enough. What I really like is to connect with people one-on-one. So, if truth be told, this journey of launching Nerve has been an intense one – “what...you mean, launch my business so everyone can see?? Like, everyone?? But that’s soooo many conversations and I want to have them all!”
It fires me up when I can read your eyes and watch your face as I tell you about Margaret or Dorothy from Uganda – because they are two of my favourite people, ever. I tell their stories to anyone who’ll listen – to the Uber driver; the person who bought something from me off eBay; or the lady in 57F who’s a bit nervous about take-off and needs to talk. It genuinely thrills me…and sometimes it’s the only way I can really get across why I started Nerve in the first place.
So as you read stuff and your phone is pinging, vibrating and flashing, try and stay with your attention to something when you know it matters. As wonderful and powerful as tech is – apps, social platforms all that jazz - deep attention these days is becoming rare. Stay with the person you’re speaking to and make eye contact so they get - and feel - that what they’re saying to you at this particular moment, matters. No interruptions. Just you and them.
A journey of attention
I started doing humanitarian work in 2005 – on my first field trip I was sent to south Sudan to make a film for an emergency relief charity I worked with at the time. Water and sanitation projects, schools, nutrition centres and the like. Since then I’ve been all over Africa and parts of Asia – I was one of the fortunate fundraisers who got to go places and gather the stories.
After almost 10 years of this though something changed. I became tired. Of writing the same appeals over and over again. I’m a fundraising & marketing professional at this stage, quite proficient at writing a tear-jerking story, campaign letter or TV ad script. Off I’d go to out to the back of yonder with pen, pad and dictaphone, too distracted by taking down all the facts to see into this mother’s eyes, that she was terrified of whether or not her newborn baby, who she was clutching, would make it through the next week.
Luckily I had good mentors along the way, here I’ll mention amazing women like Lyndall Stein and Sarah Rowse, both from previous charities who I’ve travelled with …and from whom I learnt the power of making eye contact and ‘coming down’. What do I mean by that? I can’t think of any other way to describe it than getting down to eye level with people. Face-to-face. When speaking to a local, a mother, a farmer, Lyndall would always direct questions in first person and look directly at them even though she had a translator. And Sarah – gosh the kids loved her - she would always crouch down so she was looking right into their faces…and she’d soften her voice, almost to a whisper. It may sound obvious, but for a rookie story-gatherer they were mesmerising to watch. And if you’re a girl in the DR Congo, where it’s not always your place, or right, to speak out…and you’re about to be married off to an old man, or be sold for cow, simple human interactions like this can mean everything.
It was in fact my trip to DR Congo that changed my world and views on international development work. We’d gone up to the high plateau region of Eastern DRC, an 11-hour uphill drive on mostly dirt track, to discover a whole ecosystem and way of life that I didn’t know existed. Fresh water lakes, beautiful mountains. And peace. Even amongst the conflict. People here were completely cut off from the city systems and administration. I was travelling with a group of teachers and colleagues from a brilliant charity I worked for at that time, Children in Crisis. They help children get back to school; build and rehabilitate schools; and train teachers – all through their local partner who they fund.
We had finally arrived and set up camp when one of the teachers, Caleb, asked me if I’d like to see his village and stay for a night. He said it was just over the hills and since he worked down in the city he wanted to go home and see his family. So of course I said yes. Who gets the chance to do that??
We trekked for 4 hours across rolling, undulating hills and passed villagers from the surrounding compounds along the way. The Congolese are striking people. Tall, slender and dark…with marbled eyes from the fires they burn in their houses. The colonial Belgian influence still present – most of the men wore smart, pinstriped suits, almost oversized for their slim, angular frames…Fedora hats with the tops pushed out and walking stick in hand. The women, not so much. They were almost always swathed in vivid, colourful prints and bright, jelly shoes. All of them. Very striking.
We arrive at Caleb’s house and word gets round that he’s brought a visitor. I settle myself in and take a seat on the wooden couch in his tiny living family room. Darkness fell and one by one visitors come to say hello – the village chief, pastors, their wives, a head teacher and of course Caleb’s family. At one point I looked around and the room was packed. I took a seat up against a corner of the room and as darkness continued to fall, the oil lamp came out and – this is my favourite part – they forgot that I was there.
I love the part of a field visit when they forget that I’m there.
I watched their interactions as they started to debate. I realised as they were pounding fists on the table that they were debating politics, economics and education. From the little Swahili and French I could glean I could hear that these people knew what was going on. They were savvy. They were expressing what they wanted, their opinions, plans for the village and the like. And I sat there thinking “well, hmm, this is not what I’ve been briefed to gather” – this is so real and so raw. How can I write a tear-jerking appeal letter from this?
It really ruffled me.
The next morning, after a tour of the village, I had to give a talk to everyone in the village about what I was doing in DRC. Hundreds of them, gathered under the trees. I told them I was a fundraiser and I’d come to gather stories and raise money to build and repair schools. A bold woman who was sat in the crowd stood up, Siteri was her name …and I’ll never forget it because it means Esther in Swahili. She stood up, thanked me for my talk and then proceeded to tell me that she and her group of women were also doing the same. Every day, they make a trip across the mountain, 7-hours to the other side and back, carrying – on their heads - corrugated roof sheets, bricks, tools and materials to build a school right here in this village.
At this point I was also still standing...and now shuffling rather awkwardly. The translator continued to relay the remarkable feat these women make to try and make progress happen for their children. Let’s say it was a humbling experience.
When that ended I was invited to a church sermon, again, very awkwardly attending as I can’t say I’m religious. But it was spectacular. That singing…! The way those voices rose up to fill the arches of the church roof. It was beautiful and I was moved to tears.
When the collection basket came out, I was observing the front row and one woman in particular who, as she passed the basket, nudged a friend next to her as if to say “is that it? Come on, cough up, I know you’re good for more!” – hah!!! I was in pieces. Brilliant.
It was then that I had an epiphany.
"We’re the same! They’re just like us! This community…they are marketers and fundraisers…they are crowdfunding, crowdsourcing just like we all are in the UK or wherever in the world trying to make change happen. Ahhhhh I get it. So that’s the story you need to tell!”
IT was the ball of twine that I picked at and it’s been unravelling wonderfully ever since.
I’ve had a couple of epiphanies along the way since then, very notably during my Uganda trip. DRC changed my thinking but Uganda was the trigger that got me to take action and make the brave step to start Nerve. But that's a story for another time. What I want to get across through this is that I am now on a mission to tell the raw, authentic truth of people, the efforts they already make and life the way they actually live it. To share what they tirelessly do for themselves in a world saturated by ‘flies in eyes’ adverts designed to make us feel sorry for them. Terrible, awful tragedies are happening in the world and there are incredible people and organisations fighting to change it. I’ve been there and I still believe there is merit to tugging at people's heartstrings because everyone has different reactions and are moved in different ways. Through Nerve I’ve decided that I want to tell a different story…one that I’d be proud to share with the Congolese women, which holds them up, not pities them. Which says to them – you’re brilliant, how can we help elevate you? Not - here’s what we’ve decided you need and here’s how we’ll portray you.
I created Nerve because I wanted to ‘come down’ to eye level, connect with people to see who they truly are, what they can do and what they want. And supercharge them the best way I know how. The best way we can.
And with that, let’s talk.