When Derreck Kayongo came to the United States more than 20 years ago from Kenya, he was surprised to find in his hotel bathroom three small bars of soap – one for the hands, one for the face and one for the body.
“I didn’t know why you needed all three of those to clean up,” he said.
Kayongo, who spent part of his childhood in refugee camps after his family fled war-torn Uganda under the reign of Idi Amin, used one of the bars and put the other two in his bag to save for later. But when he returned to his room, he found three new bars.
A conversation with a hotel employee revealed to the surprised Kayongo that the unused soap was simply thrown away. This fact, combined with Kayongo’s experience as a refugee and his father’s knowledge of soapmaking coalesced to form the idea that in 2009 would become the Global Soap Project, which has provided nearly 1 million bars of recycled soap to people in 28 countries.
“I would have to be an idiot not to see … the connecting of the dots there,” Kayongo told a crowd of more than 80 students, faculty and guests in the Great Room of Marietta College’s Andrews Hall Monday evening.
Kayongo was the speaker for the first Global Palate event of the semester for the college. The events features speakers – and a menu – from different cultures around the world.
Soap and clean water can reduce by more than 40 percent preventable deaths around the world caused by diarrheal and upper respiratory disease, according to the group’s website, www.globalsoap.org/.
Kayongo said his organization not only provides soap but education about how to properly use it. They do not provide soap to areas in need in perpetuity, but work to cut down the disease rate and make the people understand how important it is to use soap, so they will spend the necessary amount from their meager wages to buy it.
“Most people can’t afford the soap because they make about a dollar a day,” he said. “These are the poorest of the poor.”
Combining humor with weighty subject matter, Kayongo, 42, told students how it took him nearly a decade to make his idea a reality. He prepared for it by working for major nonprofit organizations, building networks and learning when he fell short – or as he said, fell forward.
“Be very, very clear on the function of failure in your life,” he said. “You make mistakes that matter.”
Kayongo said he found it interesting to be speaking on both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the day of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. King’s civil rights victories and Obama’s election and re-election four decades later, he said, show how America learned from failures in its past and moved forward.
“It is not enough for us to just have these victories,” said Kayongo, who became an American citizen seven years ago. “What is important for us as citizens is to understand that these miracles still happen. I am carrying the message that says America still functions in the way that … our fathers of the nation intended it to function, which is to afford opportunity to everyone, regardless of who they are.”
Kayongo encouraged the students listening to make the most of their time in college, occasionally failing forward, to make a difference in the world.
“Success is not out of reach, if you spend time to think through it,” he said.
The message resonated with senior Taylor Landrie, of Fredricksburg, Va., who said she came to the event expecting a “neat cultural experience.”
“I’m walking away feeling like I can do anything,” she said.