Wakanyi Hoffman is an artist of life who paints the shades of each day as a storyteller, author, mother, global citizen, journalist, and keeper of indigenous wisdom. While serving in a refugee camp in Northern Kenya in her early twenties, she came to a profound insight: "Compassion is a two-way act of service. The more you give of yourself, the more you receive of someone else." Wakanyi's life is a vibrant ode in that spirit.
Wakanyi is nurturing the African Folktales Project, an ongoing open-sourced resource of indigenous wisdom and knowledge for school children. Currently based in the Netherlands, she teaches the art of oral storytelling to promote a values-based education for young children and diversify the knowledge base of global citizenship education.
A "global nomad" with strong African roots, Wakanyi and her husband have been raising their four multicultural and mixed race children across seven countries, three continents, on a mission to teach them to embrace the whole world as their home. They have called Kenya, United States, Nepal, Philippines, Ethiopia, Thailand and now the Netherlands home. Along the way, Wakanyi's educator's heart has found her initiating a children's library in Kathmandu and holding "ubuntu circles" to hold space for deepening awareness for youth.
Wakanyi recalls childhood school breaks among coffee trees in the backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kenya, listening to grandmothers share palpable folk tales while grinding corn on a hand-carved wooden mortar. Returning to school outside of Nairobi, she recollects, "During unbearably long school days, or when friendships failed, these stories transported me into a boundless world filled with unlimited possibilities."
Today, she harnesses the ancient wisdom of those cultural roots for today's globalized and internet inundated youth through African Folktales Project. “Throughout our travels, it became apparent just how little literature exists about most of the world,” she says. “In many of the schools that our children have attended so far, most of the books that they learned to love were all English or American tales, detailing lifestyles that were quite foreign to my children and to many other children that went to these international schools. As a storyteller, I am aware of how important it is to see oneself or hear familiar voices in stories, books and film.” Guided by the African Ubuntu philosophy, Wakanyi reflects on new cultural values and practices that she encounters as “an opportunity to learn about the many ways that we express being and becoming more human.”
Formerly a journalist with Kenya’s largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, Wakanyi's writings have been published in Dutch News, The Northern Times, and on the International Organization of Migration's (IOM) web blog of global migration stories. She holds a Masters in Global Education from University College London (UCL), where her thesis focused on how to embed indigenous knowledge and wisdom into formal school curriculum in Africa. She continues to actively research cross-cultural identity narratives, and their impact on global citizenship. She also sits on the board of the Kenya Education Fund, an NGO that provides gifted children from low-income backgrounds in Kenya with access to a fully-funded high school education and life skills. With her characteristic spark of creativity, in December 2020, she authored a captivating children's book set amid the vast landscapes and enchanting folktales of her birth country: The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari.
“Every human encounter that I make anywhere in the world is an encounter with my own humanity,” Wakanyi describes. Indeed, an encounter with her inevitably infuses one with a sense of possibility, a spirit of solidarity, and a heart that suddenly remembers its inextricable connection to the human spirit, of our infinite Ubuntu -- the African ethos of oneness and togetherness.Join Audrey Lin and Brian Conroy in conversation with a keeper of stories, weaver of culture, and convener of Ubuntu.
Encounters with newness. I really enjoy learning about new cultures, hearing how other people elsewhere experience life on this same planet that we call home. It has shaped my perception of what we identify with and I can honestly say that these encounters have unschooled me out of having fixated identities. I like to remind my children that any of us could've been born at an airport lounge, thus rendering us stateless! This isn't to discount our passports, or ethnic heritage, or any other strong identities that we each hold dear, but to gently remind ourselves that we are only human, and that our stories of who we think we are can change depending on events that happened before we came and others that will continue to unfold while we are here.I enjoy telling stories and also learning new languages. At the moment, I am struggling to learn how to speak Dutch. It's not a difficult language to learn, but most Dutch people I have met so far are quite happy to speak English.
When I was in college, I traveled to Dadaab refugee camp in N.Kenya under UNHCR on a short assignment to verify refugee identification. We had to sleep outside on concrete and live on a meal of boiled rice and vegetables once a day. I met young girls and their stories of living days without food, sleeping in tarpaulin tents, with the possibility of being sold off as young brides, really put me in my place. A few years later I was on a different assignment of escorting a group of refugees being repatriated to the US. One girl in particular was being reunited with her mother and sister who she hadn't seen in over 5 years. She had a heavy winter coat on and a small bag full of documents. I jokingly asked if she was prepared for the long winters coming from such a hot environment and she said, "At least I have this jacket!" Whenever we move to another country, I always remember that statement and refrain from fretting about our stuff. I have very little attachment to anything that we own.
There have been many, but this one just popped out. We were living in Kathmandu and I had just given birth to baby no.2. I was 3 weeks into recovery when our then housekeeper organized to have an old Nepali grandma come over to give me a traditional post-pregnancy massage that uses warm, mustard oil. That was an indulgent experience.I can also recall during all our moves the kindness of strangers- all the other expat moms who embrace each other instantly and become like family, and all the teachers at international schools who seem to just know instantly what it means to be an expat (third culture) kid. There are so many acts of kindness that I can retrace, enough to write a collection of short stories!
To go on a solo pilgrimage
Own your personal narrative in the way that you own your emotions and reactions to your life's joys and sorrows.