In Swahili, the word “vitendo” means action. And taking action is what Geoffrey Soyiantet had in mind when he founded Vitendo4Africa in St. Louis 10 years ago: action to help connect and empower African immigrants in Missouri, action to preserve their culture.
A native of Kenya, Soyiantet moved to St. Louis 16 years ago after graduating from college in Nairobi. Now he works full time as Vitendo4Africa’s executive director, seeking to provide the support and community he wishes he had been able to find as a newcomer to the Midwest.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Soyiantet explained that he initially struggled. “It was a big challenge,” he said. Even language was a barrier, as Soyiantet was proficient in English, but had learned to speak in the British way.
“I always tell my people, ‘When I grew up, I thought I was speaking English until I came to St. Louis,’” he recalled. “You go to a McDonald’s, and you’re trying to place your order in the drive-thru, and you’re stuck there for hours, trying to explain to them what you’re trying to say. … When I came to St. Louis, I wish I had an orientation. Somebody to sit down with me and say, ‘This is exactly what you’re going to face, and this is how you’re going to deal with it.”
Through Vitendo4Africa, he now provides just that. Soyiantet estimates he’s helped 2,000 fellow immigrants, with orientation classes and assistance with everything from getting a driver’s license to learning how to format a résumé the American way.
The Riverfront Times recently explored Vitendo4Africa in a cover story. Journalist Mike Fitzgerald explained that he learned about the group due to its unique partnership with the St. Louis Zoo. The group is involved with the zoo’s plans to develop a north St. Louis County campus.
Fitzgerald said he was impressed by the members’ resilience, something he believes other St. Louisans could learn from during the ongoing pandemic.
“These immigrants, they are the best of us,” he said. “The people who support the attacks on immigrants don’t understand that immigrants are our future. They bring optimism, they bring grit, they bring resilience. These are all things that we native-born people need to [learn] now, in the greatest crisis of our lifetimes.”
The show also included remarks from Pastor Paul Macharia of Christ Covenant Church in Florissant. Macharia, himself an immigrant from Africa, described how the coronavirus had created challenges for his flock.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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