Having 150 kids who call me ‘Mum’ at age 25 isn’t something I had ever imagined, but life is full of twists and turns and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My story began when I was 18 and left England to travel the world on money my granddad had left me in his will. At my first stop, Malawi, I got seriously ill with a bowel complication, and was rushed to hospital, unconscious. There was only one doctor, but a queue of around 300 Malawians, many infected with HIV. The doctor told the friend I was travelling with that they needed to operate but there was a high chance I would be infected with HIV. He said the only other option was to find a car to drive me to a hospital a few hours away, but risk me dying on route. My friend took that risk and ultimately saved my life.
I heard later that people in the queue had sacrificed their places in line so that I could be seen ahead of them. Chances are people died while I was being treated. From this moment I knew I owed these Malawians my life and I would make it my mission to help them.
At 21, I visited Malawi again and came across a group of street children who were in desperate need. I promised I would help them, so when I returned to the UK I set up a charity called Sparkle Malawi. With the help of friends and family I raised about Dh250,000 through sponsorships and fundraising. I then returned to Malawi in 2012 to set up the Sparkle Malawi Orphan Centre.
I wanted to make as much money as possible to continue to fund the project so I moved to Dubai where I could work as a PR and earn a tax-free salary. I sent money to Malawi as and when I could.
In November last year, when I visited the orphanage again, I realised I would need to be more involved in the project. I employed eight people from the local community to staff it and I began funding it monthly. Then in June this year I decided I wanted to be on the ground full time to oversee things.
Anxieties and ambitions
I am nervous about how I am going to cope with the emotional side of things; each month I get a list of children who need a place at Sparkle and I have to go through it and select which ones we can take. It is hard enough making that selection from a computer screen, I can’t even imagine what it will be like seeing the children with my own eyes and having to say no.
But I am looking forward to a simple existence. I live life at 100mph in Dubai, but in Malawi, without WiFi or even lights in the evening, it really takes you back to basics and your outlook changes. You appreciate the smallest of things.
I will miss my friends, food and shower facilities most! I will be covered in dirt 24/7 and at the end of the day will have to walk 10 minutes with a bucket to get water to shower, but it will all be part of the experience.
My ultimate aim is to make the centre self-sustainable within two years and then just oversee it. To do this I have gathered an amazing group of people in the UAE to form The Sparkle Foundation. We hope to have similar projects in other parts of the world too.
The team is mixed in terms of nationality and includes an Emirati, a Syrian, two Irishmen, an Egyptian, and a half-Syrian-half-Algerian. I am a strong believer that if we can bring together people from different backgrounds but with the same passion, then we can actually see a positive change happen in the world.