Just weeks after being named the 2022 CNN Hero of the Year, Nelly Cheboi traveled more than 7,000 miles to bring her award home. Far from the lights, cameras, and celebrities who surrounded her at the gala event in New York City, Cheboi was greeted by her own heroes: the students she serves in rural Mogotio, Kenya.
“I felt a lot of hope just bringing the award to the kids,” Cheboi said. “For me, and for the community here, it really means a lot to be celebrated, to be seen.”
Like many of her students, Cheboi grew up in poverty, without access to education and proper nutrition. Her single mother was often unable to afford school fees.
“One of the hardest things about growing up in poverty is hopelessness. You think of yourself as less than,” Cheboi said. “I wanted to turn that into, ‘This can happen for you, too.’”
Cheboi’s nonprofit, TechLit Africa – which is short for Technologically Literate Africa – brings computer science to students using refurbished computers. Many of the children she serves had never used a computer before participating in Cheboi’s program.
“Digital skills provide global opportunities,” Cheboi said. “These kids are doing so much. They have Zoom calls with NASA. They are so worldly.”
Growing up, Cheboi watched her single mother work tirelessly so Cheboi and her siblings could attend school. She saw education as a means to end her own poverty and in 2012, Cheboi received a full scholarship to Augustana College in Illinois and began her studies with almost no computer experience.
“The only tool I had at the time was education,” Cheboi said. “I was able to rewrite my story within years.”
Cheboi credits computer literacy with opening doors. She’s found job opportunities and has brought professional, academic, and financial support to her community in Africa. She also credits her mother, Christina, for her success. Cheboi chose her mother as her guest to accompany her at “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” in New York. It was her mom’s first time on a plane.
“I’m constantly looking for opportunities to show people this is Christina Cheboi and she happened to have four daughters, she’s worked really hard to educate them.”
And when Cheboi’s name was announced as CNN Hero of the Year, the first face she saw from the stage was that familiar one.
“I looked at the audience, it was my mom screaming back at me,” Cheboi said. “This was someone who had no idea that all her hard work is going to amount to something. … I don’t think it can get any bigger than that.”
Cheboi not only won the award and a cash prize to continue her life-changing work, but she also received global accolades from people and places she never dreamed.
The president of Kenya congratulated her the next day, and her alma matter, Augustana College, where her passion for computers started, created a Nelly Cheboi Endowment Fund and has invited Cheboi to be this year’s commencement speaker.
“The coolest thing about being the CNN Hero of the Year was being the beacon of hope. There is hope. Poverty has an expiration date. This is all temporary,” she said.
Now in 15 schools, Cheboi’s goal for the year is to set up computer labs and TechLit Africa programs in 100 schools in rural Africa.
“I see a future in Kenya and in the rest of the continent where kids are becoming really tech literate. And then, in turn, becoming global citizens,” Cheboi said. “It’s a ripple effect. Some of them will help us in solving one of so many big challenges we have in the world today.”