One of the first things anyone notices about Chef Ahmed Obo is his smile: it’s warm, sincere and frequent. His beaming goes beyond charm and optimism, however. It reflects his heartfelt desire to give of himself: everything and anything he can.
As a child in Lamu, Kenya, his teacher told him, “Even if you don’t have money to give, you can give a smile, you can give your time. You always have something to give.” It’s a message he clearly internalized, judging from the generosity of spirit that defines him and his life. But schoolhouse lessons aren’t the only factor that has shaped Ahmed into the person he is today. His innately selfless character was forged in a crucible of hardship. He knows what it is like to struggle for the basics: as a child, he recalls poverty and adversity. Medical care in Lamu was lacking, there wasn’t always enough food, and “Going to school was hard because my family was poor,” he says, “Just for my parents to keep the kids clothed was difficult.”
As the oldest child, Ahmed felt a duty to help. At age 12, he left school to work and earn money for his family, first carrying bags for tourists and later by giving tours on a dhow boat he found and fixed up using the money he’d earned. Leaving school is a loss that he plainly grieves but does not regret. There’s no trace of bitterness about his early life or the choices he had to make, there’s only concern for others who endure similar struggles. After sacrificing his own education, Ahmed was determined that his siblings would not have to do the same. He strove to provide enough income for the family so that each of his brothers and sisters could pursue their education as far as they wanted. “I knew that education was important. I lost it, but my siblings will have it,” he says, and he’s succeeded in providing them with the opportunities he missed. All of his siblings were able to complete high school and a few of his brothers, sisters and cousins have even been able to pursue higher education thanks to Ahmed.
It’s a theme throughout his life. Rather than complain about his own deprivation, he works determinedly to spare others the same difficulties.
When asked how and why he could make this sacrifice as a young child, Ahmed explains, “It was just something inside of me. I had a choice, and I decided not to be selfish, to leave school and just go for it—to work as hard as I can.” He had seen other families scatter in search of jobs and income and he didn’t want that to happen to his family. Knowing that his mother was an orphan, Ahmed wanted to help her build the family she never had. It worked. His family stayed together, and by the time the last of his ten siblings came into the world, young Ahmed was earning enough money to provide a stable, secure life for everyone.
A lot of people would have stopped there. But Ahmed, it seems, is never content to do a good deed and call it a day. Instead, his entire life is imbued with a desire to help others. It permeates his being and every aspect of his day, rippling out to touch many lives. You can see it in his face, hear it in his voice, and taste it in his food. He believes all humans share a fundamental “responsibility to care for one another” and he carried that belief with him when he came to the U.S. in 1999 and began working as a cook at Zia Diner, and when he opened Jambo in 2009.
It seems fitting that he became a chef. What act is more basic and elemental than feeding another person? “We all do our part, and my part is with food. That is my gift, it’s what I can give.” Even Ahmed’s motivations to open Jambo were rooted in altruism. “Spiritually, my journey is to continue helping others, and opening a restaurant allows me to do more,” Ahmed says.
As Jambo Cafe grew and thrived, Ahmed started to think about extending his mission to serve others beyond his family. He began working with charitable organizations in Santa Fe, including Food Depot, Angels Night Out, Souper Bowl, Cooking with Kids, Hungry Mouth, Girard’s House and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“I’m open to help anyone who needs help,” Ahmed says, “especially children. They are the future. We need to raise them healthy and make sure they don’t experience suffering.”
Although he was involved with children’s charities locally, it wasn’t until a few years ago that he felt a calling to get involved with children’s health in Lamu. He took a trip back to his childhood home and saw a lot of the same problems that existed when he was growing up. In particular, he was troubled by a continued lack of quality healthcare for Lamu residents: inadequate equipment, medicine and personnel. It was the same privation he had endured years ago; in fact, he still bears the physical scars from improperly treated childhood wounds. Yet again, rather than lament his past circumstances, he set out to make sure others did not suffer the same injustice.
He began by donating land and a building to house a free medical clinic. He formed the Jambo Kids Foundation, a 501(c)(3) to support the clinic, and began to hold fundraisers to raise the initial funds. Soon, all the pieces starting falling into place. His cousin Barke, who had pursued a medical degree with Ahmed’s financial support, came on board to help set up the clinic. More and more people began to pitch in and help make the clinic a reality.
Finally, in November 2013, he opened the Jambo Kids Clinic, and it now serves 15 to 30 children each day. It is staffed with a physician’s assistant, a nurse and a lab technician, and there’s a lab and pharmacy right in the clinic, as well as a two-bed hospital for overnight care. A portion of Jambo Cafe’s profits are donated to support Jambo Kids Clinic, making the project sustainable long-term.
Ahmed shows no sign of slowing down. In December of 2013, he opened Jambo Imports, a store that sells spices, jewelry, masks, fabrics and art, to further expand his mission. A percentage of the store’s proceeds supports Jambo Kids, while it simultaneously supports local artists in Kenya and bolsters the Kenyan economy. As the restuarant and Jambo Imports grow, Ahmed plans to expand the Jambo Kids Clinic to include a prenatal and maternity center. This extension will help combat Lamu’s shockingly high infant and maternal mortality rate. The Jambo Kids Foundation is in the process of selecting a site for this critical addition to the Lamu community, and has plans to hold a fundraiser for the obstetrics center in 2015.
Running a successful restaurant and a retail store, giving his time to local charities and building a charitable foundation—to say Ahmed has a lot on his plate is putting it mildly. When asked how he manages to do it all, Ahmed is characteristically modest once again. He credits other people, saying, “I have relationships with family and friends that help me.” He also recognizes his employees and the trust he’s able to place in them, saying, “I have a great waitstaff and kitchen staff that make all of this possible, so I can travel and do other things without stress. I don’t have to worry about leaving. Everybody here takes pride in their work and supports our mission.”
Like many of this world’s most generous souls, he doesn’t pontificate on why he does what he does. He doesn’t need a reason: it’s as natural to him as breathing. He believes it’s his purpose in life. In fact, rather than discuss what he’s given back, he’s most focused on what he’s gotten, and eager to express gratitude for a community that’s welcomed him and for a life that seems to have exceeded his expectations.
“I am so grateful to the community here. I cannot ask for a better place to live,” Ahmed says. After twenty years in Santa Fe, he considers it his home, saying, “I think I’m in the right place to carry on my dream.”
He reflects on Jambo’s recent five-year anniversary celebration, when chefs from other restaurants came and celebrated by cooking some food. “I could really see the love of Santa Fe,” he says, “and I adore this community. There is no way to explain how much.”
There is no doubt that Santa Fe has embraced him, and it’s no wonder: Ahmed’s genuine kindness radiates from him, affecting others in ways both large and small. “That’s why we’re here,” he says, “We have to feed our souls by giving to one another.”
Jambo is located at 2010 Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe. 505.473.1269. jambocafe.net.
Story by Melyssa Holik