Nine years ago, I came to Kenya for the first time to do paintings of members of the Masaai, Pokot, Turkana, and Samburu communities. Subsequently, I got involved in giving art classes in their schools.
Art teaching, I discovered, is limited in Kenya. I established the ‘Mobile Art School in Kenya’ (now ‘MASK School for Creativity and Innovation’) to try fill the gap, and began travelling miles from school to school along the Rift Valley.
MASK began working in several schools in a village in West Laikipia. In one of the schools after a workshop, a student approached me and volunteered to work with me. This was Hellen, a beautiful, delicate, soft-spoken 16-year-old girl. She was the fourth-born daughter of a schoolteacher.
She stayed with the MASK training programme for three years. After which she became one of our facilitators, running the creativity club at a local school for the deaf.
After a year, Hellen went to college to study analytical chemistry. I remember meeting her in second year. She told me she designed a new drug, a pest-control substance, using a local plant. Tests showed the invention was effective and her college intended to patent it to sell to manufacturers.
“MASK developed my habit of innovating,” Hellen told me. “I want to innovate everything now!” I was thrilled for Hellen and excited for MASK as it enabled Hellen to develop ‘creative character and skills’, exactly what we hope to instil in our students.
Immediately after graduating, Hellen found a job at a major pharmaceutical company in Nairobi. Within four months Hellen, 22 at the time, was ‘supervising a team of men who have been in the company for years’. She credited her success to her creativity: “Coming to my new job, I suggested more effective ways to manage some aspects of the job. I got noticed.”
In another few months, Hellen was headhunted to an even larger pharmaceutical company and offered a higher salary. Two years in, she wrote to me, saying: “I am doing very well at work. I was recently made an auditor responsible for the research and design of new analysis procedures. I have my own office. I have also joined a local land investment group, and tendered for a contract to supply laboratory reagents to a pest control firm. I am happy!”
Employers need people like Hellen. For example, 72 per cent of chief executives in the US say that hiring creative employees is a primary concern. Successful business leaders know that creative people are the ones who will increase their profit and competitiveness.
Academic qualifications are necessary but no longer enough. Alarmingly, if creativity is not fostered, it deteriorates. Research shows that 98 per cent of five-year-old children are highly creative (although their ideas might not always be practical), but only two per cent of people aged 25, are creative. In effect, if you don’t continuously strengthen your creativity while at school, you most likely lose the ability to generate new ideas by the time you begin building your professional life. And, ‘without good ideas people have little use to anyone’, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola said.
Now, think of this: only two per cent of Kenyan schools offer meaningful elements of education that foster creativity. Not surprisingly, 75 per cent of Africa-based companies say they can’t hire creative ‘talent’, and this poses a serious threat to their company’s growth, according to the Business Council for Africa.
Hellen is still involved in MASK work. Every year, she takes a day off and helps us during an awards ceremony for the MASK Prize, a national creativity competition, in Nairobi. Recently, Hellen asked me whether she could give a short talk at our next ceremony. She said: “MASK has taught me to think outside the box, to innovate, to develop entrepreneurial skills. I wish to share this with the fellow artists at the ceremony.”
Creative people are leaders. They make a difference! Hellen is a leader. We in MASK say ‘people don’t follow people, people follow ideas’.
“Thank YOU, Hellen, for showing us the way to success.