Lenana old boy at the service of world’s youth

Warria (in glasses) with former US President
Warria (in glasses) with former US President Bill Clinton. His efforts have seen him and his partners duly recognised at the highest levels. /Courtesy of Teddy Warria 

A few years ago, in a moment of inexplicable hubris, I made a bet with someone that I would meet and have a photo-op with Bill Clinton. (Don’t ask why — it was 2001 and it was a bit of a cloud-cuckoo year for me).

Well, the meeting and the photo-op haven’t happened yet (part of the reason being that I transferred my affections for American politicians to the Chosen One).

But, let’s admit it — the path that I chose for myself is rather different from that of Teddy Warria who, as is obvious from the accompanying photo, has not only met Mr Clinton but also compared shoe preferences.

Teddy is moving in rarefied company, which is no surprise for one as driven as he is. Which is a mild surprise had you met him in the mid-1990s when, as a student and choir member in Lenana School, his demeanour was reserved, hiding burning ambition and steely will behind a reticent persona (although astute people-observers such as the legendary principal S.S. Maneno recognised the potential and began encouraging his oratorical skills).

Inspiring students
Mr Warria collaborates with the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the United States, where he rubs shoulders with such luminaries as Jeffrey Sachs.


He, along with a partner named Grady Powell, founded Common Vocabulary, an initiative geared at helping the world’s youth engage with the issues of the day.

Sounds rather bland when you put it like that, and I apologise that I do not quite capture the ambition of the project.

It even sounds blander if you read some of the Common Vocabulary literature. They espouse their goals as: developing integrated global education materials; aiming at inspiring students to pursue multidisciplinary solutions; and promoting a culture of responsibility and global cooperation.

Plain it may sound, but when you think about it and dig a little deeper, the sheer imposing audacity of it hits you. Let’s put it this way — what issue of the day, by its very definition, does not affect the youth? This is in several important ways.

First, young people will be around longer than anyone else (cue the bitter joke about how Kenya’s Vision 2030 is written by old men who do not realise that they will be around in 2030); secondly, by their sheer weight of numbers, energy and drive, it is imprudent for policymakers and others to not acknowledge the impact the youth will have on the success of their decisions and policies.

So Mr Warria has decided to begin with students (and, again, the more you think about it the more obvious it becomes that this is the right target age group).

The issues of choice revolves around health, which is where Dr Sachs and his Earth Institute come in. If you remember, Jeffrey Sachs has become the global roving ambassador for developmental issues, with health rights at the centre of it.

As a matter of fact, Mr Warria acknowledges that Common Vocabulary is an intellectual offshoot of Dr Sach’s seminal book Common Wealth.

The strategy, according to Mr Warria, is simple but multidimensional. It involves “develop(ing) workshops for high schoolers” in which students are introduced to global issues and their interconnectedness.

The second part involves creating materials — the “common vocabulary”, if you will, which helps the gospel to be spread through success stories, literature, and other methods.

The third leg of the strategy is the mentoring and nurturing of what he calls Common Vocabulary Global Health Student Ambassadors, who as is implied, will be the nodes around which the Common Vocabulary programme is structured.

It is ambitious, and deeply impressive, work when seen in action, and Mr Warria’s efforts have seen him and his partners duly recognised at the highest levels.

Apart from Dr Sachs, who also serves as executive advisor (together with his wife, Dr Sonia), the work has attracted the attention of Bill Clinton as well as Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey.

Mr McConaughey was so impressed by the work being done by Mr Warria and his partners that he has insisted on keeping in touch with them, and has asked to be involved in the launch of the initiative’s programmes. As for Bill Clinton, Mr Warria had the occasion to indulge the former American President in comparing their love of cowboy boots.

He says, “I was telling Bill that he is wearing genuine leather boots and only wished I was wearing mine to give him some competition. One of my close friends is a genuine cowboy, and I have spurs written on WARRIA.”

And he has a date at the end of this month with the Clinton Global Initiative (in which, coincidentally another guest of this page – the Son of Lwala Dr Milton Ochieng is also an invited guest).

Common Vocabulary is not Teddy Warria’s first ambitious, people-changing effort, however. At the turn of the millennium, frustrated at the lack of adequate information when he was applying to universities in the United States, he and his friend Nathaniel Choge decided to put together New Horizons, what they subtitled “a practical guide to applying to universities in the United States”.

Practical it certainly is, with information and tips on everything from the requirements for admission, to financial aid, to rankings of US colleges (culled from the magazine US News and World Report, which publishes the most-closely followed rankings in the country).

The little publication has grown, and is now ready for another incarnation (which sadly Mr. Warria declined to share with me, insisting that for now it was chini ya maji ).

Maximise potential
His motivation is not hard to find, grounded as it is in helping his fellow humans maximise their potential. This is a thread one can sense strongly running through both New Horizons and Common Vocabulary.

His resume is littered with commendations from people impressed with his accomplishments and ambitions, including his citation on an award from the group Action Without Borders, in which his professor at South Plains College, Laura Graves, wrote that ‘Teddy is not afraid to dream big, nor is he afraid of big challenges.

He has used his time at SPC to further his own education while honing his philosophies and abilities to facilitate a nonprofit college success program for other Kenyan students’.

The information he gathered about US colleges, and which he now so liberally shares, was what he wishes he had had when he was getting admission into Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and later South Plains College in West Texas.

This is after high school at Lenana (where my memory fails me as to whether I bullied him or not — he was two years behind me. But no, never a fellow member of the choir!).

So I did get my photo taken with Bill Clinton within the deadline of the bet, and inasmuch as Teddy Warria stood in for me, that is one bet I vicariously won.