Rock Star Squad: Divinity Matovu

12 Jun


The latest member of my Rock Star Squad is Divinity Matovu, who is living her purpose through AGYA, the non-profit organization she founded that provides support and resources to youth in Uganda. I am still amazed at all that Divinity has accomplished – and she’s only 24! I guarantee you’ll be super inspired by her story. Plus she offers great detail for anyone who is thinking of starting their own non-profit organization.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Divinity Matovu and I am a 24-year old social entrepreneur and social activist. I graduated from the University of Southern California in 2008. I am pursuing a Master’s Degree in Women and Gender Studies with a focus on International Development and Microfinance at Makerere University in Uganda. On May 1, 2010, I married my soul-mate, business partner, and best friend, Abraham Matovu in beautiful Hawaii. We have an adopted son, three-year old Shafik Arafat. I am the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Amagezi Gemaanyi Youth Association (AGYA), a non-profit organization based in Uganda. Using a grassroots, youth-centric approach to international development, AGYA operates a community learning center that serves as a safe learning environment where Ugandan youth can develop leadership skills and express themselves creatively. I love to read, travel and write poetry, and I’m passionate about women’s issues, education, youth empowerment, and African culture.

Did you go through a quarter life crisis? How was your transition into the “real world?”

My transition into the “real world” happened when I went to study abroad in Kenya and Tanzania during my Senior year of college. I was 21 years old, I had just received my first Passport in the mail, and I was about to set off on an incredible, life-changing journey that radically altered my definition of self, my philosophy on life, and my global outlook. Among the many images of poverty I saw were: piles of garbage and human feces, malnourished children walking barefoot through the streets of Nairobi begging for a five shilling coin, filthy trenches filled with black sewage water, and idle, unemployed youth who had resorted to petty theft, preying on tourists rather than developing their natural talents or continuing their education.

My quarter-life crisis took place when I returned to Los Angeles after being in East Africa for almost five months. I was disillusioned with the excess level of consumption that I saw on a daily basis. I would see a girl on campus with a Louis Vuitton bag, and think, I wonder if she knows, or even cares, how many children in Kenya could be sent to school for the price of her purse. I would see my friends cutting class, and think about all the youth in Tanzania who would give their lives for the opportunity to attend a prestigious university like USC. I was consumed by these thoughts constantly from December 2007 until May 2008.

How did you overcome your 20-something crisis?

After months of inner-turmoil, prayer, fasting, and meditation, I decided that the only way I could live a balanced life was to return to East Africa. Upon my arrival in Uganda, I met Abraham who is now my husband. Abraham and I shared an intense passion and love for youth empowerment and development work. We connected with many urban youth who expressed their desire to have a “home away from home,” a place where they could go freely to express themselves without being judged for where they come from, what they believe in, how they look, etc. After hearing the same thoughts from hundreds of youth, Abraham and I decided to co-found AGYA, an organization that would serve as a safe haven and beacon of hope for youth from the urban slums. In June 2009 during Month 6 of AGYA’s work, one of our most promising young leaders, a 17 year old boy, came to our Community Center seeking guidance from me just moments after learning that his brother had been murdered during a knife fight in a neighboring slum. He cried on my shoulder and told me that, if it was not for the love and support of his AGYA family and the lessons he’d learned at our Center, he would have led a group of other young men from the slums to exact revenge against the person responsible for his brother’s death. The fact that he sought refuge at our Center during such a traumatic time confirmed for me that AGYA had achieved our goal of being a safe space for Ugandan youth. Even more so, I was amazed by his level of maturity. In the weeks after the loss of his brother, the AGYA leadership team helped this young man channel all of his energy into art classes at our Center including painting, poetry and song-writing.  This experience not only let me know that my 20-something crisis was officially over, but it also confirmed for me that AGYA was truly making a difference.

You are obviously very passionate about education and youth – how did you discover this passion? What steps did you take to launch your non-profit?

I discovered my passion for education and youth during my Freshman year of college at USC when I joined an organization called Rites of Sisterhood (ROS). With the core tenets of self-empowerment, self-responsibility, and self-determination, ROS focused on mentoring teenage girls from South Los Angeles. It was a wonderful organization that brought college women and high-school girls together in the spirit of sisterhood. I served as the President of ROS for two years, and I was mentor for three years, only leaving when I went to study abroad in East Africa during my Senior year of college, which is when my passion for education and youth connected with my love for Africa.

In Africa, I met so many young people who, because of poverty, did not have the opportunities and resources to make meaningful contributions to their communities which catalyzed my transformation into a more well-rounded and independent thinker, and galvanized me to take action.

When I started AGYA with Abraham, the first step was to conduct outreach and ask the youth, our target group, what they wanted. We listened, which was an act of empowerment for those youth because they are not used to people listening, actually listening, to their viewpoints and opinions. So, as far as crafting the Mission Statement, Core Programs, and overall Vision, we just did exactly what the youth told us to do. Logistically, I knew I wanted AGYA to be based in Uganda. However, since most of our donors were in the United States, I immediately sought a fiscal agent who would be able to partner with us and accept tax-deductible donations on our behalf.

Since 2008, the African Millennium Foundation has served as an awesome fiscal agent for AGYA. We were able to launch a grassroots fundraising effort that brought in enough money to secure our 1st Community Center, which was a 6 room house in the middle of a slum called Nabulagala.

Since then, my focus has been on developing a strategic fundraising plan that is sustainable, recruiting and retaining an excellent team, creating and implementing a knock-out curriculum, and establishing key partnerships. I’ve learned is that partnership and teamwork are essential elements to long-term success. Although individuals are often highlighted as the superstars of a cause or organization, there is always a dedicated team of committed people behind every great leader.  By building, nurturing, and maintaining partnerships, AGYA expands our pool of funding, resource, and networking options. Our partners are essential to our ability to successfully grow our initiative because they provide logistical support and invaluable human capital. AGYA has four key partners:

  1. African Millennium Foundation – U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organization committed to the social and economic empowerment of the people of Africa, especially women. AMF provides logistical and fundraising support to AGYA, so U.S. donors can support our educational and arts initiatives.
  2. Point Youth Media – Canadian youth-run grassroots organization that works to make a difference in the way youth are viewed in the global community through the use of fine art and media programming. In 2010, PYM is sending 7 student volunteers to teach workshops with AGYA.
  3. USC Rise of African Youth through Self Empowerment (RAYSE) – Student organization at the University of Southern California that is dedicated to empowering, educating, and enriching the lives of African youth by organizing volunteer trips in African countries. Currently, RAYSE sends 8 student volunteers to Uganda every summer to teach workshops with AGYA.
  4. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Century City Alumnae Chapter – African-American sorority that focuses on women’s health, education, political involvement, and international awareness. Members of Delta Sigma Theta serve as mentors and pen pals to girls in Uganda while also advocating for education for the girl-child and raising scholarship funds. This program features a dynamic curriculum and weekly e-communication that promote creative self-expression and critical thinking on topics ranging from healthy relationships to beauty standards to education to women’s rights. 

Without the support of our partners, AGYA would not have been able to develop as rapidly and as successfully as we have. Additionally, we have a team of amazing, dynamic, multi-talented youth leaders in Uganda who maintain our field programs, our facility, and our outreach and advocacy efforts. I am always searching for new partnership opportunities, so anybody out there thinks there is a way we can collaborate should feel free to e-mail me.

How are you now living life on your own terms?

My entire life is integrated. My family, my relationships, my work with AGYA, my spirituality, everything! I love AGYA. Everything else I do is somehow connected to the growth and development of AGYA. I am very clear about who I am, and I try to maintain positive energy at all times. I no longer try to accommodate people or do things that do not align with who I am because I realized that this is a futile effort. Anything that does not fit into my definition of self must not be allowed to enter my universe. Period.

What’s the hardest part about following your dream? What was the easiest?

The hardest part about following my dream has been a lack of funding. It is amazing that we have been able to have such a high level of impact when we have only raised about $20,000 over the last two years. We have impacted more than 1,000 people living in urban poverty with only $20,000. That is amazing!

Abraham and I have put a lot of our own personal funds into AGYA to keep certain programs running. We postponed our wedding twice because we decided to put the money that was supposed to cover wedding costs towards AGYA. Neither of us earn an income from AGYA, and that is very, very hard. I stay afloat financially by working a full-time job at The Dorton Firm, a law firm in Beverly Hills. I have a great boss/mentor at the law firm who supports the work of AGYA 100%. I have been so blessed to have a boss is very understanding and supportive whenever I need time off to go to Uganda or just take a day off to finish a grant or proposal. In all honesty, I wish I could live comfortably while only working full-time for AGYA. I know this day is coming, so in the meantime, I have to sacrifice for what I love.

The easiest part about following my dream is the pure joy and happiness that fills my soul when I see the kids and youth do something amazing. Whether it is seeing my 3-year old son, Shafik, count to 10 or seeing a teenage girl break the culture of silence among girls/women by standing up in front of 100 people to lead AGYA’s weekly community meeting. Whether it is witnessing the AGYA break-dancers performing in front of 5,000 people at an event in Kampala or looking on proudly as one of our youth leaders, Kenny Mulinde, is elected as President of his High-School Student Body! These things make me happy. These things make following my dream worth it.

Do you have any advice for anyone trying to conquer a quarter life crisis?

Spirituality is very important to me. I believe that the Creator of the Universe has given every human being the power to take control over the lives. I don’t care what you call the Creator; God, Jah, Allah, Yahweh, whatever! My advice is this: know that the Creator has already given you the power to conquer any adversity or challenge that may come your way, quarter life crisis included.

Despite having confidence that returning to Africa was the right thing to do, I still had a lot of doubts, but my faith quieted those doubts and gave me the courage to step outside of my box of American privilege and return to the Motherland, not as a study abroad student who had an itinerary for every day of my trip, but rather as a soul in search of the people who would join me to start a grassroots movement in Uganda, and then all of Africa. Thanks to the power and blessings bestowed upon me by the Creator, I was able to conquer my quarter life crisis…and I found my husband, a son, and my life purpose too! We all have this power; what we do with it is our choice.

Anything else?

This quote changed the way I think about the world:  

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing” -Albert Einstein.

My personal philosophy centers on ridding the world of one less person who is content with “looking on and doing nothing.”

Finally, I’d like to invite anyone who would like to get involved with AGYA to check us out. We offer several ways that people can connect with AGYA whether that is through a donation, advocating for us on Facebook, or travelling to Uganda to teach through AGYA’s International Volunteer Program.

Wow. Thank you Divinity for sharing your incredible story. And thank you for being such an inspiration for other women struggling with their own 20-something crisis. Be sure to check out Divinity and her team at AGYA, there are tons of ways – both big and small – for each of us to make a difference. You can also catch her on Twitter, shoot her an email or check her out on YouTube for more info.

Are you taking your life by the reins and living on your own terms? Then I want to feature YOU! Email me – nblades[at]gmail[dot]com – if you’d like to be the next Rock Star in our Squad



4 Responses to “Rock Star Squad: Divinity Matovu”

  1. Kiana June 17, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    This is great! D kinda makes me want to quit my job and move to Uganda.

  2. Nailah June 17, 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Kiana – yeah isn’t her story amazing? I love it!

  3. Angela June 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    What an inspiring profile! I am impressed by Divinity’s courage to leave traditional post-college expectations behind and follow her heart. And $20,000 is still a very impressive sum, especially given the economy of the past two years.Thanks for sharing, Nailah!

  4. Nailah June 23, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Angela – Thanks for the comment. Divinity’s courage does shine through. It is incredible all that she has been able to accomplish at such a young age. I know that she has and will continue to touch many lives through her organization.

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