WRITTEN BY FAITH ONEYA

Marie Ojiambo first came into the limelight when she was crowned Miss Kenya USA 2013 and the People’s Princess Miss Africa USA 2013. She entered the pageant because she saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap in knowledge and understanding of sickle cell disease. She has gone ahead to do exactly that.

Q: Tell us more about your background, Marie.

A: I am 27 years old and the second born in a family of four children. I am the daughter of a single mother. I was born and raised in Nairobi- went to Loreto Convent Valley road, from where I moved onto pursue her ‘A’ levels at the Millenium academy and later on got my Bachelors degree at the University of Nairobi’s School of Pharmacy.

Q: Really? Are you a practicing doctor?

A: (Smiling) Yes! I am a Doctor of Pharmacy based in Queens, New York. I am also currently pursuing a full time masters in Industrial Pharmacy. I am a drug research and development major studying drug formulation sciences.

I also consider myself a sickle cell warrior and a very pro active sickle cell awareness advocate. I am an ambassador for those suffering Sickle cell disease in my home country of Kenya.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a doctor?

A: Indeed, I have. I initially wanted to apply to school of medicine but with guidance from my mother and backed by my empathetic character and academic strengths, I found myself better placed in Pharmacy.
Q: Who are your role models?
A: When it comes to role models, I believe my path and progress cannot be pinned or credited to emulating one particular person. More than role models, I have Influencers. These are people who have edified and enriched my social, spiritual upbringing, my career focuses, my education and my work in social responsibility.

My mother has been and still is one of these people. I have watched her nurture my siblings and I and give us direction while still succeeding in her own career pursuits irrespective of the hardships that come with being a single parent.

As the current Deputy Secretary General of the Common Wealth overseeing political affairs, I hope I can one day be half the woman my formidable mother is.

My motivation however comes mostly from my peers, young men and women who have had access to similar opportunities as I have but are stepping out, defying stereotypes and breaking the status quo. These individuals are trail blazers in their own rights, carving out outstanding niches for themselves in business, medicine, finance,  IR/PR/Diplomacy and social responsibility.

Photo by Nxt Lvl Photography
Photo by Nxt Lvl Photography

Some of my influencers include Sitawa Wafula, an award winning mental health and epilepsy crusader, former beauty queen and Tanzanian model Flaviana Matata, philanthropist and champion of children’s rights to education in Tanzania, Laura Akunga, CEO of Benchmark companies, a corporate branding and communications company with bases in east and central Africa, Marvin Kiragu, an associate in corporate and investment banking with Citi group. At 26 years of age, Mr. Kiragu may be the youngest Kenyan on Wall Street. With his proven track record, he is forecasted to be up for promotion to VP position within the next two years.
I am a work in progress. With a lot of prayer and hard work, I look to influencers like these to motivate and counsel me as I grow in all walks of life.

Q: You are also a beauty queen. Tell us more about that?

A: I ran for the Miss Africa USA title in the year 2013. During my first year in NY, I fell sick with sickle cell crisis and was hospitalised. During my stay in hospital I realised how little people knew about this disease I was suffering from and this includes even the medical personnel.

There was a gap in knowledge and understanding of sickle cell disease and so I wanted to look for a platform to help me bridge that gap. I prayed about it and after days in prayer and reflection I received divine direction on this.

I am not your typical pageant girl, standing at 5ft 7”, I felt less than confident running for this internationally acclaimed and coveted title. I however ended up doing very well and exceeding my and other people’s expectations.

During my run, I was named Miss Kenya USA 2013 and the People’s Princess Miss Africa USA 2013. Although I wasn’t overall winner of the Miss Africa USA title, coming in 6th, I used the publicity I gained from my titles to raise awareness around sickle cell disease which was my humanitarian platform.

The qualifications one had to have to vie for the title were well achievable with restrictions only in age and a requirement to have a humanitarian based platform which is what first drew me to this pageant.

Q: Any words of advice or encouragement for patients suffering from sickle cell disease? For those affected by the disease?

A: Words of advice to patients suffering sickle cell disease are that you should strive to lift and emancipate yourself from the mental bondage that sickle cell disease may bring to your life. Gain a positive attitude as this is half your healing. Take care of your body. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Be proactive about your health and educate those around you who may not understand you. You are not alone, many suffer like you, fight with you and pray for you. Be encouraged.

For parents who are raising sickle cell warriors, be positive and stay positive. A diagnosis of Sickle Cell disease is not the end of your child’s life, as evidenced in many of us. No man can put a tag on your children’s lives. Speak life into your children and gain knowledge about how you can help your child manage the disease. For the general public, get educated. Know sickle cell disease and how it affects your society. Do not stigmatize those who suffer the condition but instead encourage them. Go for genetic counseling especially if you live or come from a malaria/ sickle cell endemic area.

Q: What projects are you currently undertaking in Kenya on the same?

A: Projects that my initiative is currently undertaking include The “Adopt a sickler” program, an online based platform that the Sickle Strong initiative is planning to host. It is a platform whereby a financially needy patient is randomly coupled to a sponsor.

The sponsor will provide a monthly stipend that will go into taking care of the out-patient expenses and daily drugs that the patient requires for management of the condition.

I am looking to partner with the Kenyatta National Hospital and the National Hospital Insurance Fund to see this program through.

My initiative will first conduct a pilot program to determine the feasibility of such a system. This program will help instill confidence in the patients in their health care systems and institutions. It will also provide a health care plan for patients in need and give the society a chance to give back in their own little way.

We are also in the process of planning a support group meeting for patients and their families/ support systems within Nairobi and its environs. These meetings will be done in association with other advocacy groups and organisations and will be held once a month. Medical camps are also going to be held in different parts of the country with a focus on the endemic regions. Finally, in collaboration with Dennis Awich Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, we are planning to host the first ever sickle cell awareness walk in Kenya,  tentatively slated for September 2015 which is sickle cell awareness month. It will be a public awareness 10 K walk.

Q: Do you have a special man in your life?

A: No. I am making myself the better woman for the better man. It will all fall into place in good time. God speed.

Q: Okay, one last question. As a beauty queen, who are your fashion icons?

A: I can’t really say I have a particular fashion icon. Women and our generation in particular are becoming very creative and savvy with their get up.

I like to shop at independent retail outlets because I can get cloths that are not mass produced and that I can mix and match up to my liking. I love brands like Zara, Micheal Korrs and Bebe. But I love to support my own as well, so I also buy into our local brand names such as Achie Otigo, Wambui Mukenyi, Nick Ondu and Ndula Kenya just to name a few.

Q: What should we expect from you in future?

A: My near future plans are to graduate within the next 6 months my masters degree and break into main stream corporate pharmaceutical America. I want to gain some experience in my processional field and invest my knowledge and expertise in building the Industrial Pharmaceutical sector in Kenya. For my charity, the Sickle Strong Initiative, I am striving to make the organization a bigger, better, self sustaining foundation that will benefit all sickle cell warriors as well as their families living in Kenya. I am looking to engage government to dialogue on better treatment plans and medical interventions for patients suffering the disease. I eventually want to be a mother and to live in a suburban home. I dream of a day that I will watch my kids play in the sun out in the backyard.

Q: Parting shot?

A: Life is good. Do not ever think otherwise. Never regret a moment, an obstacle or a mistake made. Never belittle a lesson, advise or life’s little victories. It’s a beautiful journey, savour it and trust the process.

NOTE FROM MARIE

The burden of Sickle cell disease in our society today is a growing concern with many losing their lives to this otherwise manageable disease.

Last year my charity, Sickle Strong Initiative in conjunction with Dennis Awich Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation organised the very first Sickle Cell awareness event in Kenya dubbed “Ongea!”. We used this event as a platform for sickle cell warriors and their families to come out and speak about the condition so as to raise public awareness on the disease.

Last year’s event was a success and due to demand and great feedback, we have felt the need to make Ongea an annual Sickle Cell Awareness event.
This year’s event is set to run on the 20th of June, 2015 in commemoration of World Sickle Cell Awareness Day.

It will be held at Safaricom’s Michael Joseph Center from 10.00 am to 2.00 pm.