As we approach the Humanitarian Forum and Fair 2019 on 1st June 2019, we end our series of conversations with our speakers with Gabriel Teo, Founder of Tana River Life Foundation, who will be one of the speakers at this year's forum.
Leaving behind a promising future in the accounting profession, Gabriel ventured into the faraway unknowns of the Tana Delta in Kenya. Gabriel’s work involves building individual lives, and thereby entire communities through Tana River Life Foundation, a local NGO he founded.
We asked him some questions about his experiences and thoughts regarding his journey - if you would like to hear more from Gabriel, come down for HFF 2019! For more information, please go to www.charis-singapore.org/hff2019 !
Gabriel with Solomon Dulu and Kingston Bisiko from Kenya, while on an educational trip in 2018.
1) Tell us about your first trip to Kenya.
I first traveled to Kenya in 1988. I was still 22 and had just completed my final exams at NTU. I had a job offer and I wanted a short holiday before embarking on my career as a Tax Accountant. My elder brother Francis, who is now a priest, was at that time living in a remote village in Turkana, a semi-desert region in the northeastern desert of Kenya. I went for a holiday in Europe with my parents and from there flew to Kenya to visit my brother. While there, I met up with some medical nurses from the Claraeulalias Community and witnessed the way they served the marginalized and needy, attending to their basic medical needs. I also realized for the first time in my life that life was extremely difficult for so many people and that there was a much bigger world outside my window. I was young and this discovery made a deep impression on me.
2) What prompted you to leave a promising career to start a life in Kenya?
I returned to Singapore in December 1988 and started work in January 1989. In the five years I remained here, I made another three trips to Kenya and one trip to Bolivia. There were just so many questions in my mind and my heart, and I was prompted to seek answers. I also volunteered time with the Vietnamese boat people in Sembawang, and also participated in a mentorship programme for problem teens. At the end of the day, after five years, with a career moving on very well, I knew that there were questions still to be answered about my life and my vocation, and I knew I needed to find the answers, so I resigned, sold my car to the then Archbishop of Singapore, gave away my furniture to the Good Shepherd sisters, withdrew my savings and left for Kenya since it was there where these questions first arose.
3) What was your biggest challenge upon returning to Kenya?
My world came crashing down. My world of good intentions, philanthropy, personal sacrifice, and changing lives, bringing solutions, and all that revealed itself as nothing. Within less than a year, the euphoria ended, and I faced an emptiness like I was in a desert. This was a very difficult time. I also know now that that time in the desert was also life-changing and life-giving. I understood in a very small way for the first time that I was not the main character in the story. It was a humbling experience, and difficult at first.
4) What were your priorities when setting up Tana River Life Foundation? How did you sustain yourself (emotionally, spiritually, financially) when the going got tough?
I knew at that time that we were called to build, especially where there was little hope and seemingly little potential. The time in the desert was strengthening and taught me to rely less on myself and more on God.
5) It has been almost 15 years since you set up Tana River Life Foundation. What continues to drives you to serve?
I live by faith.
To hear more from Gabriel and other inspiring speakers, register at www.charis-singapore.org/hff2019 !