In, Out, and Back to Africa

The master’s degree thesis written by Catherine Namwezi ’17 — with its massive assemblage of theoretical jargon, statistical data and story-telling mechanisms — is, at its deepest root, a sophisticated love letter.

Though most love letters aren’t 124 pages long, this one had to be.

Nor do they have hundreds of citations, or a 13-page bibliography, but this one had to have.

To be sure, Catherine Namwezi wrote “Educated, Enterprising and Market Identities: The Case of a Ugandan Informal Labor Market” for the sake of earning her master’s degree in international development from Oxford University in May of 2019. That was a requirement, after all. Yet, her topic, her research, her writing — those were chosen, compiled and completed due to her deep affection for her home country of Uganda and its people.

For all of her travels to receive an education in Holland, Michigan; Geneva, Switzerland; Washington, D.C.; Boston, Massachusetts; and Oxford, England, Namwezi is not one to forget from whence she came. She is also not one to forget from whom she received help to get back there.

In the in-between, a worldwide village of Catherine Namwezi fans, a $100,000 GoFundMe campaign, and her mighty, unshakable persistence propelled a woman whose outward warmth and humility can mask an inward steely determination to help create the change she wants to see in her world. It’s all she’s ever wanted to do.

Catherine and her twin siblings, Charles and Mary

Catherine Namwezi grew up in “a very small village with no electricity, no running water, no paved roads six hours west of Kampala,” she says. Smart and outgoing, she became enrolled at URDT Girls School at the age of 10. “The school took in girls from poor and disadvantaged families, but many of us were talented,” she says. “We got a free education obviously, but if we hadn’t gone there, it would have been impossible for us to go on.”

At age 15, hardship steamrolled its way again into Namwezi’s life when her mother died. Orphaned (her father had passed away when she was two), grief-stricken but moored by her faith and a strong sense of familial responsibility, she took over all of her mother’s duties such as caring full-time for her younger twin siblings and her elderly grandmother.

“The honest truth is, yeah, it was difficult,” she says. “I missed my mother. It was difficult being away from school. But then the twins eventually went to boarding school, too, and I went back to URDT. I do think that my faith definitely helped me stay grounded and know that this responsibility had been given to me and I had to see it through.”

When Namwezi eventually returned to URDT, she immersed herself in her studies and in music, dance, leadership and drama, too. She was known by many as an up-and-comer, and as such was encouraged to apply for a full-ride scholarship to attend the International School of Uganda in Kampala for her last year of high school. She became the award’s first recipient.

Namwezi names “luck” as the reason for winning the competitive scholarship, but others know there were truer reasons why. “Catherine is so smart, plus for as long as I’ve known her, she has had an iron will to go after her education, go after her goals, but never in an aggressive or audacious way,” says Janna Serniak ’00, Namwezi’s English teacher at the International School of Uganda and now currently teaching at the American School of Hague. “I know this sounds cliché but it’s true: Catherine is truly an inspiration.”

It was Serniak who became Namwezi’s Hope College connection. The teacher introduced her alma mater to her student, and Namwezi became enthralled with the idea of attending college in the middle of America. With Serniak’s encouragement and assistance, Namwezi applied, but much to the two’s dismay, Namwezi was initially denied admittance. A surprise, to be sure, but not a deterrent. Not for the indefatigable Namwezi. Wanting an explanation, she reached out to the Admissions Office to know why. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that her voice found its perfect pitch in finding answers through advocacy. As it happened, there was a misunderstanding related to her application. She reapplied and was admitted, earning the Geneva Scholarship for international students who display leadership qualities in the area of human relations from a Christian perspective. That was and still is Namwezi in a nutshell.

“I really do think that God aligned everything in just that way,” she says. “In the end, the process felt very personalized. I flew in and Barbara Miller [associate director of admissions] picked me up. I was quite nervous, but the people at Hope made it a very soft landing. That’s a great characteristic of the college. Because of Hope people, I didn’t struggle as much as I thought I would.”

With each step, Namwezi laser-focused her sights on her end goal:to work for an organization in Africa thatdevelops change for the greater good of its citizens.

Phelps Scholars

Namwezi thrived, actually. She used even more of her eloquent voice as a Phelps Scholar, a Student Congress member, an admissions tour guide, and the president of Hope’s chapter of Nourish International, a student-led organization that helped support URDT Girls School. She conducted research with Dr. Virginia Beard, associate professor of political science, on media representation of political figures and identity in Kenya. She studied off campus her entire senior year, first in Geneva, Switzerland, and then Washington, D.C., interning in each influential location at agencies that advocate for the marginalized and underprivileged. She became a magna cum laude graduate with a double major in political science and international studies, as well as a business minor. With each step, Namwezi laser-focused her sights on her end goal: to work for an organization in Africa that develops change for the greater good of its citizens.

Toward that aim, Beard saw Namwezi as unwavering. “She was aware, even as a teenager, that she was receiving opportunities that given her socioeconomic status, her parents both being gone, were gifts that most people in her situation did not get. And she was like, ‘I will not squander this gift.’ She would not for the sake of getting back to where she wanted to be, doing what she wanted to do.”

And she did not. Not the gift of higher education nor the gift of her innate brilliance. By now, it should be clear that the latter illuminated the path of the former.

Another great gift was yet to come, though — one Namwezi was reticent to receive, yet acquiring it was much of her own doing. Still with dreams as big as her indomitable spirit, Namwezi aspired to earn a master’s degree in international development from Oxford University in Oxford. “I was sure Oxford was where I needed to be,” she says. “I knew a degree there was the next best thing to do. I felt called and convicted about it, but I had doubts, of course.”

Oxford University

Her biggest concern: How was she supposed to come up with $100,000 to go there? Upon her acceptance to Oxford, a scholarship was not in the offing. Then an idea: Her Hope roommate and best friend encouraged Namwezi to raise the money using the platform, GoFundMe. “I had raised funds before and knew how, but when you are raising that amount of money for yourself, it is a whole different feeling,” she explains.

She sat on that thought, intimidated by the gargantuan effort that would be required to raise six figures. Yet, she was challenged again to do so, this time by her Holland host family, the Pipples, who seeded a fifth of her goal if she could raise the rest. Even with the encouragement and a generous promise of $20,000, Namwezi couldn’t bring herself to launch the fundraising endeavor. Finally, while in Boston a couple months after graduation and interning for another non-profit group, African Food and Peace Foundation, she summoned her patent determination again, wrote a fund-raising letter in June, published it on her GoFundMe page shortly thereafter, and then…

“I became overwhelmed by people’s responses,” she recalls. So many people, many of whom she did not even know, gave. “It kind of broke me. I was so, so humbled by that,” says Namwezi.

By the end of the first summer of 2016, Namwezi had raised $60,000. Over the next two years, she met the rest of her goal. She graduated with distinction and without debt from Oxford in 2019, and her monetary and cerebral gifts go un-squandered. Today, she lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and works for Genesis Analytics making policy recommendations on how East Africa can harness the fourth industrial revolution from a human-resource perspective. And her twin siblings — Charles and Mary — are now 17 and ever in her thoughts and care. (Her grandmother passed away in 2017.)

As for her master’s thesis, the experience of writing it helped to inform much of her current work. Namwezi researched how to understand the experience of a staggering number of college-educated Ugandans who remain un- or under-employed. Interviewing multiple university graduates who worked in the Owino market in Kampala, she developed a policy recommendation. “I argued that as we think about unemployment, we ought to think about what sorts of graduates the education system produces and that the conversation around the creation of jobs must recognize that in the eyes of youth, there is such a thing as a ‘bad job’ and a ‘good job.’”

It is on the thesis’ second page, though, that Namwezi wrote the first of that which is always on her mind. From it, you can feel the love:

I dedicate this thesis to all the men and women who rallied and cheered me on as I set out to raise the money that I needed to fund my master’s at Oxford University. Without your investments, my studies here would not have been possible. THANK YOU for taking a chance on me, for believing in me and for loving me so unconditionally, always. . .

Lastly, to our late Mother Bonabana Theopista Akiiki Nalongo (also Mama Catherine), whose greatest desire in life was to see me and the twins receive an education.