So why would one want to go about trying to fix the world?
To answer that I have to take you back to my time in Zimbabwe. It was 2002 and I was invited to Zim as a guest of my daughter and her business partner, to visit a small rural village near Victoria Falls to meet the amazing wood-carving artists who live there. The small team that sold the village artisans’ unique one-of-a-kind carvings throughout the US were all gathered. My role was designated videographer. What I experienced on that trip would forever change me.
Maybe it was jet lag from that first 48-hour flight. Immediately after exiting the plane, everything seemed different. Every sense was heightened. The villagers greeted us as if we were royalty, with singing and dancing choreographed just for us. I’d been told in advance about the impending economic crisis that would destroy the carver’s livelihood and eventually take down the whole country. I was also aware that the growing AIDS crisis was stealing a generation of Zim parents, leaving a large crop of small children to be raised by the remaining old gogos (grandmas) … or no one at all. The average life expectancy had dropped to just 37 years. After a day or two of receptions and meetings in the dirt-poor rural homesteads, I began to notice the tragic impacts of a country in crisis and it was deeply disturbing. Of all the hard times I’d seen in America, I’d never seen lives teetering so precariously on the razor-thin edge of death. The closest I’d ever witnessed prior that that was a late-night infomercial appeal from ‘save the children.’ You know the one; starving babies surrounded by hungry flies.
These scenes were slightly different: these villagers possessed a natural outpouring of joy and spontaneous laughter. Every one of them was very proud and clever despite the dark secret of their own impending doom.
In stark contrast, I lived in a world of undeniable privilege and still managed to feel pretty miserable most days. Folks I knew laughed far too little and pure joy was reserved for special occasions. I silently swore to myself that if I had the power to use the more fortunate circumstance of my life to help one of these admirable villagers survive the unfortunate circumstance of their birth; I would. This vacation was the beginning of a much longer journey to save a life. And I was pretty sure it was mine.
How to save a life.
(Just a heads up: no matter how much you care about something, starting a non-profit in the USA is a huge undertaking. By comparison, being a Peace Corps volunteer was a piece of cake. There was no Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, one of the poorest and least Western-friendly counties in Africa.)
Though my intentions to help were honorable, I was not qualified to do much on my own. To be successful, I needed to surround myself with volunteers much smarter and more qualified than I. Upon arriving back on US soil, my daughter and I teamed up, put together a video and began selling the vision for ‘carving a brighter future.’ I won’t speculate as to what it is that motivates others to volunteer to be of service on the other side of the world, but some of the most amazing women of talent and prestige generously said “Yes.” Our small but dynamic crew worked tirelessly for four years just to secure our 501.c.3 status which enabled Ndebele Art Project to legally ask other people for money.
“Never underestimate the power of a small group to change the world, it is the only thing way it ever has,” Margaret Mead.
From volunteer to fundraiser.
It’s one thing to assemble a great team and define a mission, but the real difficulty is finding ways to pay for everything. “Water is life” was the first urgent request that needed to be addressed. Our initial water project was a $20,000 mission to install a new borehole powered by windmill. After that, we funded a village pre-school, followed by stipends for teachers, HIV meds, and funding for a community garden as a desperately needed food source. The list of needs was endless, but the money was not. Raising awareness and funding for a small village on an unseen side of the world was a constant struggle, especially since I insisted our marketing materials display only dignified, talented, smiling villagers. I firmly refused to resort to the theatrics of images of babies and flies.
“Why go all the way over there when people need help here?” was the number one question a potential donor would ask. I never tried to convince anyone we don’t have problems of poverty in America, we do – just not as soul crushing. Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries on earth and until you’ve seen it and met the proud folks behind the broad smiles, the victims of circumstance, you may not understand it. Lucky for NAP, enough caring, generous folks did. Most of these visionary supporters will remain trusted friends for the rest of my life.
The fun stuff.
We were able to find an amazing local liaison (shout out to Sydney Ncube) to manage projects year-round on the ground. Board members and volunteers visited the village once a year; bringing tons of donated books, clothes, toys and medical supplies, even as US travel warnings were raised. This was still the fun stuff; watching kids faces light up, hosting annual life-affirming celebrations. More importantly, there were our hosted life-saving health clinics and life-saving malaria nets. Supporters loved to donate items for our visits. It was hugely satisfying for all concerned. For those that made the trip, it was like being real-life elves. It kept village and volunteer morale high because the rest of the year was filled with hard work to get the less fun but more sustainable projects done.
What most prepared me for Peace Corps.
In 2010, before I was deemed a widow, my husband was living with Parkinson’s disease. When he was forced to leave his work, I left my 20-year career in arts marketing to spend more time with him – in Vic Falls, Zimbabwe. We rented out our condo in the States and moved. We were warmly welcomed in the small, comfortable Pamusha lodge, where I was able to seek resources and get a better understanding of the local culture. My husband had 24-hour attention and was given unwavering respect by everyone in or out of the village. I thought this might be the perfect place for him as his disease progressed. After about eight months, the answer became clear. No. Turned out Lewy-body dementia became a more relevant problem. Increasingly, his needs superseded the villagers and my role as project manager shifted. After about a year in country, we returned to the US, where I spent the next two years as his full-time care-giver. I had already seen death over and over. Funerals in Zim are the most common social occasion. Zimbabwe gave me the gift of appreciating life on life’s terms, while it’s still available. My husband died peacefully at home 2 years later. After the initial grief, I reassessed my options and realized I was still very much alive and was not done being of service. However, because my ‘financial portfolio’ had significantly changed, I would have to find a new way. The amazing women of NAP went on to finish their work for six more years without me. I had my first interview with Peace Corps recruitment office about six months later.