In Elizabeth’s village in southern Africa, when food was running out, and, in what she mentions, “Satan’s punishing heat” started killing everyone in the drought plaguing the continent, a God-sent woman places “a blue plastic bowl of porridge” next to her.
In such a scenario, what are the odds of survival? In a grim situation like this, would you dare to dream big, to think of changing the world? Elizabeth Nyamayaro did, and she documents her growing up years and beyond in her memoir I Am a Girl from Africa published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., in 2021.
Even in its Anglophonic utterance, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, political scientist, head of the HeForShe movement and former senior advisor to Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director for UN Women, writes as if she is telling you her story in her Shona language. In a way, in the hyphenated mentions—“white-white teeth” and “yellow tuk-tuk”, her prose would ring true with any Hindi-speaking reader, as if it was written for them. In more ways than one, this book resembles that of an Indian upbringing. Her relationship with her grandmother Gogo, their closeness, and their collective struggles, would remind you of Khushwant Singh’s short story A Portrait of a Lady.
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Gogo, who was like her mother, instilled in Elizabeth a sense of “community, and that if one of us is unwell, then none of us is well.” She accepted this as a guiding principle in her life, exhibiting warmth and empathy even in impossible scenarios, such as bullying in school, when rich students played a prank by offering “a package of feces” as a gift.
There was one more influence on Elizabeth Nyamayaro: her aunt Jane, who helped cure HIV/AIDS—in Africa “Satan’s illness”—patients. One of her uncles, Sekuru Henzi, also contracts HIV/AIDS. Even at the age of fifteen, Elizabeth understood that to “successfully address the taboos and stigma” associated with the disease, it was important to stop the “misinformation that leads to unnecessary suffering and increased infection rates.”
Elizabeth Nyamayaro’s writing is emotive yet devoid of any attempts to seek sympathy. The 45-year-old’s exhibition of vulnerability is a testimony of the strength of her character, a demonstration of her abilities to chart out her life in unthinkable circumstances. One such scenario is when she finds herself in London to work for the United Nations, at a time when the international organisation did not yet have an office in the city. Having understood that she was betrayed, Elizabeth was now determined to work her way out. She stayed in dire conditions, managing hand to mouth, surviving each day as it came to her.
Elizabeth Nyamayaro never gave up and went on to work with organisations such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and the World Bank, to name a few. She partnered with the UN Women to bring actress and activist Emma Watson on board as the ambassador of the HeForShe movement.
In the book, she also recounts how she and many others like her were discriminated against because of institutionalised racism. “Tina, a young college student, explained in Chicago how her mother in the emergency room died because no one paid heed,” she recalls. Tina’s mother was also told to ‘control’ herself when she cried in pain, Elizabeth Nyamayaro recounts. Though she recalls the stories of discrimination, she refuses to accept how Africa is represented, a continent that always requires the ‘support’ of the ‘developed’ countries.
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In grit and determination, Elizabeth writes: “In bustling restaurants in Harlem, a neighborhood rich with black history, we share stories from back home and celebrate all that is great about our African continent: how it now has the largest mobile phone market in the world; how communities in Kenya pioneered the development of financial technology (fintech), which is now used for mobile banking globally, including in the US; how our remittances, the money that we members of the African diaspora send back home to support our families, continue to be greater every year than the total amount of aid money our continent receives from all Western donors combine, a fact that is rarely ever reported.”
It is remarkable how Elizabeth Nyamayaro’s I Am a Girl from Africa reads not only as a personal and intimate portrayal of a forthright woman, trying to find her feet, to realise her dreams and makes a place for herself, it is also a story of the continent itself. And it is this force of collective history backing her up, which makes her write that she will “not fail.”