My friend, Anne Wells, whom I’ve known for nearly four years, is one of the most purposeful, passionate and down-to-earth moms I know. She is the founder and Executive Director of UNITE the World with Africa and The Ashe Collection, and she is also a writer for Africa.com. On one of our recent Starbucks-fueled power walks, I set out to discover how this 40 year-old mother of three is transforming lives in East Africa—one person and connection at a time.
What are the most significant socio-economic challenges facing the women and children of Tanzania today? In my experience, the biggest challenges facing women and children—and really most all people living in poverty in East Africa—are the lack of access to adequate nutrition, education, portable water, sanitation, healthcare and jobs. People are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, and they need a leg up to begin the long climb out.
In the case of women and children, basic human rights are also an issue. Tanzania has more than 120 tribes, in which norms vary (and, of course life is different for those living in rural areas compared to those in urban areas), but a widespread problem is the low social status of girls and women who are considered possessions of their husbands and/or fathers. The belief system that teaches that girls and women are “lesser” is hardwired from birth. For example, at one primary school we work with, located in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the little boys will not even stand near the girls because they consider them untouchable. Our partner organizations are working on changing these beliefs; however, it will likely take generations. For the most part, girls and women are condemned to lives of servitude: collecting firewood, hauling water, building and repairing homes, birthing and raising the children (of which there are many because birth control is almost completely unavailable), cooking, cleaning, farming…and of course they must service the men. Teenage pregnancy is rampant, as rape and sexual abuse is sadly quite common.
What shocks you the most about the living conditions there? Of course I will never be comfortable with witnessing extreme poverty and the suffering that comes with it. Disintegrating mud homes, hungry children sleeping on dirt/rock floors, clothed in rags, women and children hauling impossible loads…it is heartbreaking.
However, the psychological suffering is what “shocks” me the most. Especially that of the women and girls who are overworked, underfed, undereducated, and abused. In the case of the Maasai tribe—a semi nomadic pastoralist, polygamous people with whom UNITE works—women truly have no rights and are often valued less than a goat or cow. A man can “give” any of his wives to any visiting morani (warriors). Also, many girls are promised to marry Maasai elders while still in their mother’s wombs. They have no voice, no say in the course of their lives. This is why UNITE focuses on the empowerment of women and girls (along with entire communities). There’s a big focus with our partners to teach families that educating their girls, rather than marrying them off at 14 or 15, or even younger, will pay off more for them in the long run.
What is UNITE’s role? UNITE is a portal of service through which Americans can become part of the solution, specifically in the advancement of women’s health, education and microfinance programs. No one person or organization can do this alone. There is a role for—and a need for—everyone. UNITE is here to mobilize, inspire and build an army of ambassadors who are committed to the fight against extreme poverty. While this sounds lofty, I know, we do have tangible ways in which we help.
- Anne with her sister, Kim
First, we have UNITE Tours through which we send Americans to East Africa on safaris that combine traditional wildlife safaris with field visits. We are working with some of the best safari outfitters in all of East Africa, including the Tanzania Safari Company, JorAfrica and Dorobo Safaris, and we are also partnered now with more than 20 non-profit organizations across Tanzania. On either end of their safari days, our UNITE Tour clients are placed in the field and matched to UNITE’s partners according to their interests and talents, which empowers them to share of themselves and their expertise in personal ways, versus just sharing of their treasure. My sister Kim Merriman and I also lead annual service tours that enable a deeper level of sharing and discovery with partners.
Second, we have The Ashe Collection, an online store of African artistry. 100% of sales support UNITE’s work with our partners in the field. Our thought is that not everyone can travel to Tanzania and work in the villages, but they can shop wisely, purchasing elegant and unique jewelry, bags, sandals, belts and more made by local women whose livelihoods and children’s futures depends on these sales.
Third, we have Skype training programs through which we respond to specific requests with the training of trainers across the ocean through the use of modern technology. Topics include public health, obstetric health, business development and more. This is really exciting, though also very challenging as connectivity is scarce over there.
Lastly we have our youth groups, Global Girls and Global Guys UNITE (GGU), through which we empower our young people here in America to embrace their roles as global change agents. The program includes education, connection (with their peers in Africa) and fundraising campaigns that are designed and led by the students themselves.
Who are some of UNITE’s partners? UNITE is now partnered with more than 20 non-profit organizations across Tanzania, and in January we will expand into Rwanda. These groups include primary and secondary schools, orphanages, women’s microfinance programs, income-generation programs for the Maasai and Tanzanians living with disabilities as well as health clinics and hospitals. We have a personal relationship with each of these groups and have experienced first-hand the great impact they are having on their local communities while also being honest and transparent in their work.
One of our partners is the Sega School for Girls in Morogoro (central Tanzania). Sega is a secondary boarding school that is educating girls who are either orphaned or highly at risk for such things as prostitution, domestic servitude and/or trafficking. Last year our youth group GGU raised enough funds to send Sega’s 100 girls 700 miles east to the coast where they swam in the Indian ocean for the first time and visited national parks. This was a huge gift for girls who had, for the most part, never left their home villages.
As you know, I’m a huge fan of The Ashe Collection. How does purchasing jewelry and merchandise from the collection benefit the families of Tanzania? Ashe (pronounced ash-ay) is our online store that features African artistry from across East Africa. We source from local organizations that are empowering the artisans through these income-generation programs as well as education and training. Also, 100% of the profits we make goes back into UNITE work to advance women’s health, education and microfinance programs in Africa. We believe that each piece of jewelry, each bag, pair of sandals or wall art is a “seed” of awareness in the universe that will prayerfully move more people to get involved… even if just by shopping purposely. So Ashe is really a win/win/win for all.
How did Ashe get started? We kind of stumbled on it really. When my sister Kim and I came back from a service tour in 2010, we brought suitcases filled with Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art jewelry. We sold $9,000 of merchandise in an afternoon and thought, “hmm, we may be on to something!” Shortly thereafter my dear friends Joe Sequenzia and Kelly Coveny offered to build us an online store with their brand development agency MilkSono in South Norwalk…and they did! They have been wildly generous and supportive of UNITE and, of course, Ashe!
We chose the name Ashe because it means “thank you” in the language of the Maasai, and we want to always be reminded to stay in a space of gratitude, remembering how lucky we are for this opportunity to be something bigger than ourselves.
What is the intention of UNITE? This work is about transforming lives and raising consciousness. This path is about discovery—inside and out. It’s a discovery of human nature, of what we human beings are capable of. We experience all kind of extremes… from remarkable kindness and generosity to wild suffering, fear and ego-driven behavior…from devastating poverty to extreme wealth. It’s all there.
I believe that we have so much to learn from the Tanzanian people whose biggest gifts come in the form of spirit, hope, community, friendship and love. When a person has nothing (materially), but gives you his or her heart and truth (and last cup of rice)…it’s a totally different level of generosity than what Americans are used to and what we call forth and expect of ourselves.
And that’s what draws you there? Yes, of course…and I’ve had a deep, inexplicable love of Africa even since I was a little girl. I always dreamed of the land, the wildlife, the people. In college, I declared my major as anthropology because it was the only department that would send me there. I spent a semester studying wildlife and human cultural management, fell in love, and have been hooked ever since!
As a wife and mother of three, how do you balance caring for your family with your calling to serve the people of Tanzania? The truth is, I don’t have very good balance…I tend to push myself very hard and then get overtired and fall down. It’s like running a marathon and then collapsing. And then I get up and do it all over again. It’s not a healthy pattern, and I am working on finding a better way. I am still in my infancy in so many ways.
As for my family…we are all in this together. My girls are always with me (except when I travel). They get dragged around a bit, but they love the excitement, especially when we get to have Tanzanian visitors in our home. Last month, when Bishop Glorious Shoo of the New Life Foundation in Moshi was visiting here at our house, the girls and the dogs went to wake him up each morning. They get live a cross-cultural experience right HERE in Darien, and that’s really a gift for us all. In fact today we have another Tanzanian partner arriving…in just a few hours!
My husband is also extremely supportive. He happily hosts all of our visitors, actively supports all of our UNITE and Ashe events, and even travels with me when he can. In fact, we’re headed to Tanzania and Rwanda in January to scout out our next trip and assess new partners.
What are you planning for the Summer 2013 trip? Next summer is our big parent-student service tour. I am really so excited about it. Our itinerary is extraordinary. We will work with many of our partners throughout Moshi, Arusha and Karatu, and we will also get to visit with the Maasai as well as the Hadzabe tribespeople. The Hadzabe are one of the last hunter-gatherer people on the planet, so it is a very rare opportunity. And, of course, we will safari in a few of the great national parks, including the 8th wonder of the world: the Ngorongoro Crater.
Sounds amazing! Yes. I’m fired up. Next school year we will prepare by sending letters and Skyping back and forth, enabling the students to know one another a bit before our arrival, educating our traveling team about Tanzania and the partners with whom we will work, and of course, fundraising to help meet their local needs. Some of our fundraising targets include raising money to purchase livestock (cows, goats, chickens—one egg-laying chicken is just $5!), bed nets, mattresses (many of the children we work with either share dirty mattresses with 4-6 others or sleep on dirt floors), bee hives (for honey-making programs), school supplies, food stuff, and much more.
How can my readers and I experience Africa and support UNITE’s efforts? Come with me or travel over on a UNITE Tour safari!!! However, I do know that getting to Africa is a luxury available to precious few, so we also have much that can be done here.
* Get involved with our youth groups (GGU). We are always looking to establish new school-to-school partnerships.
* Help us network. Connect UNITE to your church, club, hospital, library, business. We are a bridge through which everyone can be of service and we are always looking for introductions and networking opportunities.
* Shop Ashe (ashecollection.com), or host an Ashe party/trunk show at your home. 100% of the money goes back.
* Intern with UNITE. Join our team! Everyone is welcome!
* Make a donation. The needs are endless and there are never enough funds.
Call me at 314-239-3997. We will put you to work!
UNITE was created as a result of your vision and imagination. What advice would you give a mom who has the vision of what she wants to create, but is struggling with how to manifest it? Put yourself out there and be very bold about your vision. If you can see it and tell people what it looks like, they will get behind you. Clarity is key, and so is confidence in expression.
Start having coffee with everyone you know, and ask them for help—and to give you the names of five more people you should talk to. Then call each and every one of those. One out of every 50 people may stick. Try not to get too discouraged.
This path has not been an easy one for me…I have oftentimes felt tired, sick, scared, and discouraged…but the Tanzanians and endless others around the world with whom I am so blessed to work inspire me with their faith, courage and commitment and they help me to move forward.
Know that not everyone will get behind you and your vision, not even some of your closest friends or even family, and that will be hard. But stay focused and try not to take anything too personally. For me, it’s a journey of faith and an expression of self and truth.
To learn more about Anne Wells, or UNITE’s tours, educational programs and recent news, visit unitetnz.org.
To find out more about education for at-risk girls in Tanzania, go to: www.africa.com.