Christine Asiko, Founder & CEO Strive International

Words of wisdom: “My sisters, I urge you to define yourselves. Think who you are and what your values are. How it affects you, your family and your community.” – Christine Asiko

Christine’s conscious-contribution™ is in both education and philanthropy through the Strive International Foundation.

Interview with Chrsitine Asiko, Founder and CEO Strive International; Kenya, United Kingdom

Conscious-Contribution™ – Passing education laws

What you will learn:
1. How persistence and creativity can affect education reform.
2. How to push your edge to be heard.

Expertise – DYSLEXIA – how to identify it

What you will learn:
1. How to know if someone has it?
2. As a parent, how you can help?
3. As an individual, what can you do?
4. As a teacher, what to look for?

Leadership Lessons – Provide a platform for you, your daughter and others to thrive

What you will learn:
1. Provide a platform for you, your daughter and others to thrive.
2. Surround yourself with people who are different from you.
3. Separate yourself emotionally from the issues.

Christine Asiko, Founder & CEO Strive International

Strive International (registered Charity No:1135439) aims to build awareness of DYSLEXIA in Africa and support discussion to increase the number of learners with specific learning difficulties succeeding in education. It also addresses issues that transform the perception and delivery of education and in so doing prevent the marginalization of students. Until July 2011, Christine was the Principal of Strive Consulting, a United Kingdom based consultancy, a United Kingdom based independent consultancy that provided Education departments and learning institutions with tools to create learning opportunities for learners with specific learning difficulties. Strive Consulting sought to change the face of teaching through the combination of leading edge teaching strategies that transcend the barriers of language, tailored for various learning preferences to ensure that all learners are included in mainstream classrooms.

Winner of The International Alliance for Women(TIAW) World of Difference 100 Award in 2013

The TIAW World of Difference 100 Award recognizes amazing individuals whose efforts have advanced the economic empowerment of women locally, regionally or worldwide.

Christine Asiko, Founder & CEO Strive International

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly edited for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the video version We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.


What started this movement to educate children with Dyslexia?

I’m a teacher. I worked at a school that selected the ‘cream’ of Kenya; boys that did very well, although they came from disadvantage backgrounds. After working there for seven years, I went from being a government teacher to a private teacher.

I went to a new school where I came across this beautiful human being named Maria. What fascinated me about Maria, is she always had a huge novel with her. Yet, when I asked her to read she wouldn’t.

The first time I tried it, she pushed back. Then I tried again, she burst into tears. I knew something was not quite right, but I didn’t know what it was. When I later became her English teacher and she had to write a composition, I couldn’t believe how many spelling mistakes there were. So much so that it wasn’t the norm.

I was moved enough that I did not mark all the errors as wrong. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I asked Maria to read her own composition. Her stories became the ones all the other students wanted to listen to.

The next year, Maria wasn’t able to study to German and French, because according to another teacher, she doesn’t writing English well enough to take another language. The teacher requested that during my free period I work with Maria on her spelling. The following week she would forget them.

Eventually, it became exhausting for both us to correct her, so I started talking to her about her. One day her mom comes in to see me and says: “Thank you, you have changed Maria. Now she talks to us about what is going on. Her mother told me that Maria has Dyslexia.

I had never heard of Dyslexia, and her mother brought me a book about it.

Is this what lead to starting a not-for-profit focusing on Dyslexia?

Not quite, the trigger was my husband, William, was being transferred to the UK. The company that hired him said they would find me a job, or provide me with some training.

I saw this was my opportunity. Someday I will go back to Kenya and there will be no space for me in teaching unless I can do something different.

So I did some research and found the best school in United Kingdom to teach teachers how to teach people with Dyslexia. My husband’s company was going to pay for it.

Did dyslexia appeal to you beyond your experience with Maria?

Yes, but in hindsight. I’ve been intrigued with language, poetry, the use of words; but also by people’s minds. That combination spoke to dyslexia. People who have dyslexia have a mind that works differently and have an issue around language.

I couldn’t loose more Marias.

I’m always intrigued when someone starts an initiative where they are not the direct beneficiary. Often people start things because a family member or friend went through some tragedy. Do you even know where Maria is?

No I don’t. I feel bad because I speak about her so often and I don’t know where she is.

For me it is about my desire not to conform. A child that wasn’t conforming was being shunned and it was decided by a teacher that she wasn’t going to learn other languages. If you don’t conform you fall out.

Is it not the case in Kenya, and for that matter a lot of the countries in Africa, that the Kenya education system it is all about conformity. It is not producing creative thinking. The focus is on the right answer?

Absolutely correct. If the answer is not in the marketing scheme, it is not good enough.

Something else that is bothering me, it is happening in Kenya and other parts of the world. Children at the age of six are being assessed if they are good enough to go to the school or not. Then they are tested for secondary school. They are constantly being tested.

You are constantly working against a system waiting to say that you are not good enough. It really bothers me. The whole education system is systematically stripping children of their self esteem.

What is also interesting, that if you do well in school you are celebrated, to the point of being on the front cover of the newspaper. You see people striving for that acknowledgement. They are encouraging and rewarding conformity. Long-term this approach can perpetuate poverty.

Absolutely. Poverty, leadership… all conformity.

All because we don’t encourage people to think differently.

What are you doing to ensure you can continue to support your initiative?

The model has been knocking on doors and gaining donors. This approach is being exhausted. We had a recent project in Johannesburg, and I had to go back to the same friends and family to help me finance the project.

We do need to look into a sustainable model. One that generates some income so it can go back into the work we are doing. That is something I’m looking at this year.

What are people funding you to do?

We sign them up for a particular project.

  1. In Kenya we have a school project, which stalled with the new constitution. The Kenyan education act has changed. We have a resource center to make teachers aware that there is a new education act and the legal implications for them.
  • The new education act passed in 2013 states that every child to free and compulsory basic education up to the age 15.
  1. In South Africa we have an annual conference and we have a few workshops at that conference.
    • So when we have a project in Johannesburg, I reach out to people there. If we have something in Kenya, I reach out to people in Kenya.
  2. We are thinking this year of having roadshow in the UK. There are more and more children in London that do not speak English as their first language. The niche is growing bigger.

Are you saying that people that don’t speak English have a higher percentage of dyslexia?

No, but they have a higher percentage of falling through the nets. A child or adult who doesn’t speak English as a first language and they are making the errors they are making when they write, people assume it is a language difficulty rather then a learning difficulty. A learning difficulty has further implications. Because if they can’t spell, perhaps they can’t remember. The challenges can be endless.

If is language difficulty, once the language is in place, it is no longer a difficulty.

The kids that have a learning issue rather then a language issue continuously fall through the cracks.

If I’m a parent what should I be looking for to see if my child has dyslexia?

First thing, listen to a mother. She is paying attention. So if I tell my child to:

  1. Go up stairs
  2. Tidy up your room
  3. Turn off the music.

And he comes back and he has only turned off the music. Pay attention to this. The mother becomes aware. Trust yourself what you observe.

Dyslexia is a language processing disorder and some of the things as a parent you may observe from a dyslexia child are:

  1. If there is too much information coming in, they cannot process it. There attention cannot hang on to it. It often looks like they are day-dreaming.
  2. Visual – kids will describe to you a beautiful story, however if you ask them to write what they said they can’t remember it. So it affects their memory.
  3. Resistance to reading
  4. Not being able to rhyme words.
  5. Telephone numbers
  6. Telling time. They have no notion of what 10 minutes feels like. So these individuals are constantly late. They tend to get into trouble for not doing their homework.
  7. Tying up shoelaces can be a challenge.

There are different levels of how to help that child. Lets move from what a parent can do, to what an ultimately you as someone who teaches teachers to deal with children with dyslexia.

So as a parent…

  1. Talk to their teacher. Let them know you have a concern.
  2. Teacher will be aware and keep an eye on anything that may be out of the ordinary. These teachers will often not notice anything out of the ordinary if they are not told to look for it. In Kenya there could be 80 children in the class, so it would be difficult to notice.
  3. Only when there is a seed planted in a teachers mind they might look out for something that is out of the ordinary.

I encourage parents to go into the school and talk to the teachers to share your insight.

Sometimes depending on the culture, and I would imagine Kenya would be a little like this, that parents don’t want to impose themselves. What do you think a parent can do at home to help that child?

I’m a little weary about telling a parent what to do, other then be patient. The thing about dyslexia is that each child will show its dyslexia very differently.

Really listen to the child.

Some of my best teaching methods come from my students. They tell me what works.

Parents have to be advocates. These children have often been so battered, and they are constantly wrong. So parents really need to be patient and support them.

If there is open communication, the child will become very deflated by continuously reporting back that “I didn’t get this wright again” Or “I got this wrong again.”

Can you also bring the child that you suspect has dyslexia to a specialist? Is that available in South Africa or Kenya where you work?

Often I have people sending me messages asking me if I know a specialist that can help. I will have to search my network to find someone, but how effective it is to date… I’m not really sure.

I have a lot of work to do to provide a more targeted solution.

As it stands, a teacher may help a child with dyslexia, however, they are using the same teaching methods as they would in the classroom, which haven’t worked.

The teacher may not be recognizing that the child may look really tired or perhaps lazy, but tomorrow she may be better, and vice versa. People often accuse people with dyslexics as being temperamental because they have so much going on in their minds. They are physically tired, and then the next day they are not.

There are teachers that will really want to make the difference, like I did when I would sit with Maria trying to help her read at 2:00 everyday. The truth is very few of us know what we are doing.

Helping the child to focus on one thing, would that help their ability to function?

Is there anything a parent can do to help create an environment for success for their child?

  1. We need teachers, parents, and specialist to speak. In order for them to do that, they need a common language which means we use labels i.e. ADD (Attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, or dyspraxia), the bottom line is, these children are processing information differently and they need a different teach style.
  2. Regarding focus, we need to provide children with structures. For example, if a child needs to be up at 6:30am they may need signpost to help them be ready on time. If he needs to shower and brush his teeth between 6:30 – 6:40 then you may want to play music and say when this music ends you should be done. Remember that each child is different and there is a different severity of dyslexia, however in this case you could help this child understand what 10 minutes looks like by playing music.

The more structure they have the more they can thrive in that environment. That is for all of us. The structure, however, has to come from me, the dyslexic, not someone else.

  1. A mom or dad should sit down and have a conversation with the child, and find a solution that the child will own and act on. For example, if you want the child to make the bus at a certain time, ask them what they think they can do to be on time for the bus?

If the structure is from within, it will work. If the structure is dictated, it will have less of an effect. This is where I have a problem with schools as they impose a structure.

What you are saying hold true in my specialty of influential communications. I work with organizations, with leaders and sales team and we discuss telling an employee or a client what to do will not gain buy-in. If they, however, tell you how they would liked to proceed you will have a lot more success in moving the discussion forward.

What are some of the consequences of children having dyslexia?

  • Because they have difficulty putting their thoughts on paper.
    They are misunderstood.
  • They don’t get the education that everyone wants for them.
  • Because there is this creativity and intelligence it gets channeled into the wrong places.
  • In prisons there are loads of dyslexia people. In England they are doing work to help these individuals.
  • We have children that get depressed, even children that have taken their lives.

The saddest thing, as if it can get any worse, these children become adults. You have this closet dyslexic that is extremely unhappy simply because they are extremely intelligent and creative, not all of them, but the majority are out of the box thinkers. They don’t understand that they can see a solution to a problem that we are all rallying around and no one will listen simply because they don’t have the degree or education.

We have lots of adults that can run organizations such as the Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Norman Foster all are Dyslexic.

They are big picture people and great problem solvers. They look at a situation and they know where they should be. They may have the idea, but they can’t get it down on paper. You have this person who doesn’t get promoted because they have it in their brain, but they can’t translate it to paper.

The entrepreneurs that have done extremely well have done it their way by starting their own businesses and leading their own way.

Winston Churchill was dyslexic and he lead by going into the factories, talking to people, and he found out what the problem was and then he would have a solution.

There are ways of dealing with this, however it is a dyslexic adult who has dared to start their own business.

I guess their needs to be support, determination and a lot of patients along the way.

In Africa context, a girl or women are already working against so many issue, so if you can’t read and write society says “big deal, just go and be someone wife.” African girl child has an extra battle.

There are different degrees of dyslexia as you said, and many people wouldn’t know that you have dyslexia.

Correct, people wouldn’t know. It is interesting how there was a man who was running a multi national organization asked to be assessed and after the assessment, he asked the assessor, on a scale of one to 10 where would you put me? She responded – three. He was really upset. He felt 11 or 12. Over the years he had learnt to compensate, and he looked less dyslexic then he truly was.

He was a frustrated to continue to execute the strategy that people do not know he has it.

Dyslexia is identified in a number of ways, but one of the common identifiers is how people write?

Yes, you would see it in how people spell.

You are doing a lot of work with teachers, what exactly are you doing to help teachers to deal with children with dyslexia?

We have three phases. We are in phase one right now.

  1. This phase includes telling the stories of dyslexics. Depending on where I am in Africa, for example, I was in a rural area in Uganda I chose not to use the words:

You would create a mind block for these people. Instead I described the child:

The boy that you would put forward to describe the school to someone else, and yet that same boy is doing so poorly in school, that he can’t write or read. I asked do you ‘teacher’ have that boy?”

The teacher will recognize this person. In one case a headmaster mentioned they had this boy and they couldn’t understand the discrepancy, so they sent him to a witch doctor.

They believe the child is bewitched.

So Awareness is stage one with teachers and parents.

  1. Building knowledge with the teachers. We will provide workshops. We will need much more funding for this phase. Then we will have these teachers go out and educating more teachers.
  2. We will be developing products and assessment. The current assessments that exists are in English, and although we speak English in Kenya there are nuances.

When I came to England I learnt there are six words for water. Such as: Water, ice, sleet, frost, snow… I never heard of those words before. I had never seen snow. You give a test and ask a Kenyan what sleet is, well they wouldn’t know. So if you are going to mark my I.Q. based on something that I wouldn’t even be aware of, it will be misleading.

When someone suspects that their child may have a learning disorder, where can they go besides you?

There are one or two people that can help in Kenya. These people charge a lot of money. It is exurbanite amount for Kenyan standards, which doesn’t make it all that accessible.

The challenge is, even is someone gets assessed, then what? It is like telling someone the have HIV/AIDS and then not giving them a solution, such as medication to deal with the diagnosis.

Is there help with counseling… so we are at the stage of helping with a solution and then making that vary solution accessible to the masses.

I would start not with assessments, but getting Teachers to use their five senses to teach… not the two. Find other resources. If a child is looking like they are board, write a note so the child has permission to take a breather.

Somewhere along the line we will assessment.

First start with, can we make life easier for every student in class? Then somewhere a long the line we will develop an assessment.

How long have you been pursuing Strive International?

This is our forth year. It is very special that we are receiving an award in the very month we started four years later.

Do you have any advise of how to fill a niche in a community or country, as you are dyslexia in Kenya?

  1. Don’t ask for money first. That puts people off. Start with talking to who ever you want to help, and ask them what they think they need. If you want to help dyslexics, ask them what they think will help them. We have to remember Dyslexics are very intelligent people. We are not dealing with mentally challenged individuals; we are dealing with very smart people. If you have the courage to ask the questions and start the work you will gain a lot of insight.
  2. Form connections and start the work, don’t wait for people to help you. Follow your instincts.

I like that you said not to ask form money, because I believe you first need to demonstrate that you will put your own money behind something, as you and I have done.

Conscious Contribution™

What has been the most significant impact that you think you have made in your career to date?

When there was a new constitution in Kenya, the education component needed to be revamped. There was a task force created to make proposals of what needed to be done for a year. They produced a report. Then the Ministry of Education then realized that they should check with various stakeholders what their perspective is on the reform. Quickly, I took my own money and set-up a workshop to invite people to attend.

In Kenya when anyone attends a conference they expect to be paid… this absolutely riles me. The philosophy is, ‘sure I’m going to learn, but you will give me some pocket money while I’m learning.’

So we had one of these sessions and got ideas, and put them in a folder, now the question becomes: How do we get these insights to the right people, the key influencers?

A lot of our recommendations did go into the education act as it sits today. For me, this is HUGE.

I think that is why I’m getting this award, because we were able to make a national contribution.

You struck on my pet peeve, to be paid to participate. This is such a foreign concept to me. Many African women we have interview for Wisdom Exchange TV have shared a similar message: ‘Pay for your own path to success.’ When it is your dime, you are committed to the outcome.

If there is one thing you would attribute your success to, what would it be?

I don’t think through things. Because I don’t over think and analyze, I just do things. That is the one thing that gets me to start. I do think a lot more logical people think through the entire idea as a result, they may over think it and the idea ceases to exist.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?

My personal growth in my career. I have had to dig deep into who I am what really matters and why.

In terms of external rewards, people coming up to me telling me you demystified me. You helped relieve a burden I have been caring for years of feeling like I’m foolish or lazy. That there is a condition, and I’m ok.

What is the most significant decision you have made in your career?

Going for it, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

For example, the fact that we did get our recommendations into the Kenya act is amazing, but it is interesting that at that particular time I had gone for meeting in Nairobi, just prior I was speaking with my Father who is also in education. We speak often about the system, and he mentioned to me we missed an opportunity to discuss the task forces work for the education act. We wrote a report but we missed the opportunity to present it.

I go to the conference, and they don’t let me in, as they have no idea who I am. I charm my way in and there are heavy-weights sitting in the room. I have this report and no one knows me, what can I do?

I ask for a microphone, so what do I do.? I stand and I say: “My name is Christine and I’m representing the Diaspora from South Africa.”

That is of interest to them. I commit them to taking my report on the spot. They couldn’t say no as I asked in public. There were three copies. I gave them all out: one to the Minister and one to the chairman of the task force.

That sort of thing I do. I don’t over thinking it. I just doing it.

What is the biggest challenge you have overcome, personally or professionally?

Myself. It is so easy for us to have a dream and get in the way of realizing that dream. We want to conform. We don’t want to look silly. That was me.

Now to come to Washington, to fly here, go to a conference … I’m all alone. At age 20 I couldn’t even walk into a restaurant on my own. It would have been demeaning … only prostitutes would do that (that is the kind of information I was given). If you went in for tea, it was perceived that you were waiting to be picked up.

I have had such a transformation. From someone who couldn’t go into a burger house, to being someone who can sit in front of you to conduct an interview, two completely different people.

My greatest achievement is getting out of the way to do the work I need to do is my greatest achievement.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself discovered when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

It is making a promise to people, committing to change the education system. Half the time I’m sitting there wondering, how am I going to do this?

Where am I going to get the funding?

The edgeness is I can’t look back. Half the time I don’t have clue where I am going. I just know I can’t look back. This is uncomfortable. The more logical people will question: ‘Why am I wasting our time?”

I have faced rejection many times when I present, because it is not their agenda. For me it doesn’t matter how scared I am, I will show up.

If there is one thing you would differently, what would that be?

I want to say I would rally more people, although I don’t think that is realistic, as someone needs to test the waters.

Your point is valid, because dyslexia is not new to much of the world, it is just perhaps not understood in Kenya or other African countries. Perhaps rallying people in the west who have an interest in Kenya would have been helpful. There is a difference in what people appreciate and what people will support.

Absolutely… it is your agenda, not theirs.

I guess what I’m saying, is when you are a visionary you need to pull everyone along even when they don’t know where you are going. Usually the ones you are pulling along, are the ones kicking and screaming. When you get it wrong, even though you see the light at the end of the tunnel while you are in the tunnel, you face mental abuse. Things that pull down the vision.

What does success mean to you?

I’m aware redefining education may not happen in my lifetime. Success for me is having the structures in place.

There are three areas I want to work on:

  1. Awareness
  2. Knowledge building
  3. Developing products

If I don’t see the greatest product at the end of the day, but I have put in structures to create that product, I will be fine with that achievement. It is about putting firm structures and people in place that can carry on when I’m gone.

Leadership Lessons

How would you define leadership?

Provide a platform for other leaders to thrive. Each one of us has potential. A great leader serves other leaders by laying out a platform and giving others a voice. Which is how I see myself when it comes to dyslexia.

It is really not about the person, but it is about the people.

It is really not a choice; it’s a calling.

What pieces of leadership advice would provide to others who are leading a team or project?

  1. One should keep distance emotionally from the issue. You need to have an objective view.
  2. Keep people around you that think differently. Your connections should be wide. If I’m not tied emotionally to my perspective, I can hear everyone else’s opinions.
  3. Self-belief. This thing that nags you and keeps you awake at night is worth pursing. Someone someday will buy into it.

Is there someone who you admire, that you look up to?

There are many, but the one I will mention is the one that got me to start the work, stop waiting for someone to help, and just start – The late Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace prize winner.

When she and her husband fell out, he said he wanted his name back, so she gave it to him. She just added an extra ‘a’ and it became her name. She resolved issues in a simple way so she could focus on the big things and get back to the work.

If there is something that you could do, the world is your oyster, what would you like to do?

I would like to address the world. Conforming is not getting us anywhere. Can we revisit these structures, or can we let go of them?

Reflective Realizations

What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?

It is OK to be different. It is OK to have an issue about how one person is speaking to anther. It is OK for you to have an issue when you see one woman slogging in the kitchen over Christmas, and men wouldn’t even get up to wash their hands… the girls had to bring the water to them. I tell her, that OK to have an opinion.

What do you wish you were told at that age?

I wish I wasn’t laughed at when I discussed certain heavy topics. That pulled away at my confidence, and then soon you stop saying stuff.

Words of Wisdom for African women

“My sisters, I urge you to define yourselves. Think who you are and what your values are. How it affects you, your family and your community. African women have multiple identities. They are scripts that have been written for them. It is so easy to loose yourself in those scripts. Making decisions becomes very difficult to do.”

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