Fall 2013: Simon Okelo’s Response to “Simple Living” Essay Winners

Simon Okelo, author of "Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff," and founder of One Vibe Africa responds to essay winners of the Fall 2013 "Simple Living" writing competition.

Hi Sana, Nick, Spencer, and Annika,

It’s truly a privilege to write to you about your amazing essays.

Sana, reading your piece was an awakening process for me. I felt as if you were there in the room reading it aloud to the audience. Your introduction was really captivating; it made me read the whole piece over and over. I love your flow, and how you transition from one angle of your story to the next. For example when you described how your closet was filled up with wanted, but not needed clothes.

I agree with your thoughts about food. I have been thinking about food a lot lately as well. I think when you have too much of it you slowly become inclined to trying to swallow more than you can chew. For some reason you find yourself eating a lot because your fridge is full. Thankfully, when you intentionally teach yourself to have less in the fridge, you also find yourself eating less and being more disciplined. I also concur that when you take small steps it looks insignificant, but when you step back and see what we have done as a collective, the results could be world-changing.

Your proposal at the end of your essay is superb. Sometime being too advanced makes us miss small opportunities like studying how animals live with zero waste. For example, if we observe a leopard after it captures its prey, we see that it only eats enough, and leaves the rest. It has no fridge to store the leftover parts. What it leaves feeds the hyena that can’t run fast enough to hunt down its prey, and a few days later, the same leftovers feed the vultures. If we step back and take a look at the environment around us, and how it’s behaving, then we can borrow some patterns from it, and use those patterns to live fulfilling lives with different forms of abundance. The spirit of your essay reminds me of how a little felt like so much when I was younger and living in Manyatta.


Nick, I love the soft introduction of your essay, and how you posed, “It makes me wonder what it would be like without my iPhone or Lucas, my faithful dog.” I think you have a natural way of expressing difficult topics and making them sound smoother. I also think you are an amazing storyteller.  You talk about your iPhone and give it life, purpose, and character yet you still find a way to express hope and optimism after admitting how being without your iPhone would simplify but make your life boring.

I truly enjoyed reading about your relationship with Lucas. It reminded me of my relationship with Ziggy, my little black dog. When you described how you like petting Lucas’ back, I realized how fond I have become of Ziggy. I have learnt how to relate to dogs differently since I met Ziggy, and I agree that even though life could be simpler without Lucas, a special piece from your heart would be missing.

I think your proposal at the end of your essay is fantastic. I think what I learnt from your essay is that we can actually simplify our lives by relating differently with the things that we love or own. For example, we could simplify our lives and still own our iPhone by not getting hooked to it, particularly when we are required to pay attention to our teachers, or listen to our parents.


Spencer, I love the strength of the first sentence in your essay. That’s what drew me to find out why most of what surrounds us is unnecessary. You have an amazing level of creativity, which is evident by how you connected my experience in Manyatta, and the difference between wealth and happiness. I think that in developed countries like the United States, the definition of happiness has been hijacked by the idea that we don’t have enough stuff and we need more. I think that is because the happiness that many of us living in the United States aspire to have exists only in the movies and reality TV shows. In a place like Manyatta, the movies and TV shows we had were our surroundings, families, and friends. This made it easy for us to be oriented to sharing whatever little we had instead of everyone wanting to have it all for him or herself—like it can feel when you live in a place of abundance.

I agree that finding balance is not the same for all people. Yet, we all live in the same world, so I think that we need to learn from each other, and from our environment. When we lose the idea that the actions of any human being on earth can affect the conditions under which other people live, then we are only looking at things from one perspective and not all possible perspectives.

I also agree that we have so much stuff that it is detrimental to our own happiness. I think your article and the way you think provoke conversations about alternative ways of owning stuff. Like the factory workers you mentioned who are subject to horrible working conditions, there are youths working in mines with even worse working conditions. Wars are being fought for control of those mines that supply parts for our phones. When we realize how our actions affect people, we will find happiness.

You have profound maturity in delivering your ideas, and that is evident in your last two paragraphs. I felt slowed down, and given a chance to reflect when I read the sentence, “change starts slowly.” The questions you pose are hard ones for all of us, but I agree that listening to others’ perspectives, and answering the kinds of questions you are asking can make us more conscious of our actions. To me, this is the first step towards happiness.


Annika, your essay brings the facts to the surface. Your level of awareness is great because of how you relate the desire for goodie bags to U.S. population figures, world population data, and where the plastic in goodie bag trinkets comes from and ends up when these toys are tossed in the garbage. I think your simplicity is your gift in this essay. You brilliantly explained that change comes slowly. I am learning that it begins with being conscious of our actions, like choosing to think about the usefulness of stuff before allowing yourself to get lured into buying it because it’s cheap.

It’s one thing to gather facts that support your argument or position, but it’s another thing to have the skill to use these facts to teach your readers a powerful lesson. I agree with your thought that as a society we need to change the tradition of handing out cheap plastic toys at birthday parties. I can relate it to a Swahili saying that states, “Usipo ziba ufa, uta jenga ukuta,” which means, “If you don’t fix a crack in your wall, you will end up building the whole wall.” The more we show our children that having many goodie bags every year is okay, the more we are making them teenagers that want to have all video games, wear all nice clothes, and drive a nice car without having the ability to say no or maybe. We also prepare them to become adults that want to have everything, only to realize when they are too old to enjoy life that everything is nothing.

You’re right that we need to communicate to our parents about the gifts we don’t really need and that put toxic chemicals into the environment. Our parents are not perfect, and I think the more we share our experiences with them, the better we will help them to make our world a better place. Everything starts from a conversation, and I am quite inspired that you are willing to speak with your parents. You know, I agree that our generation needs to consume less—a lot less. I also think there is abundance in consuming less. The more you amass for yourself, the less you see, and the less you have, the more you see.






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