‘As Africans We Must Uplift Each Other’: A Memoir of Humanitarianism

A Memoir
By Elizabeth Nyamayaro

It wouldn’t be wrong to suspect that “I Am a Girl From Africa” brandishes the anonymity in its title deliberately, since it’s written by someone whose bona fides in the world of global humanitarianism are so public. The goal of this memoir is to replace the dismissive “just” that might otherwise precede this description (“just a girl from Africa”) with a pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps triumphalism that fuels this narrative, and its author.

Elizabeth Nyamayaro is a Zimbabwean-born political scientist and former senior adviser at the United Nations who founded the influential HeForShe initiative to advance gender equality. This book tells the story of how its title becomes a declaration, not just for the author’s tale of remarkable challenges and achievements, but also for a continent suffering from ills ranging from misogyny and masculinism to pessimism about its ability to heal its own wounds.

The mission statement is made early. On the cusp of starvation because of chronic drought, an 8-year-old Nyamayaro is saved by a Black woman “not from our village,” who is “wearing a uniform as blue and as pretty as the brilliant sky.” This woman works for UNICEF, and our plucky heroine decides to become just like this older “sisi” who tells her: “As Africans we must uplift each other.”

Tracing her path from the barren fields of her small village to Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, to immigrant life and higher education in London, Nyamayaro tells the rich story of building a career in the dizzying world of international NGOs. Far beyond the life she imagined as a woman in that blue uniform, Nyamayaro spends as much time in remote places engaging with real people and their real struggles as she does in boardrooms with foreign dignitaries and celebrities.

The UNICEF worker’s emphasis on self-reliance is key to the book’s rejection of what Teju Cole called “the White Savior Industrial Complex.” For Nyamayaro, when it comes to hunger, gender inequality and the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic, the only hope is “solutions by Africans for Africans.” Examples throughout the book of such insight and agency on the continent are empowering; however, they are still filtered through the very same global complex.

Her humanitarian accomplishments are so many that the memoir often reads as an elaborate commercial for the U.N., the W.H.O. and UNICEF, but the narrative isn’t all about triumphs. Nyamayaro’s writing is particularly moving when describing personal tragedies like the losses of her beloved grandmother, Gogo, of her uncle, of her various mentors in the field. And Africa is ever the source of its own solutions: Each chapter is introduced by a pithy African proverb, and features Nyamayaro facing personal or political challenges somewhere in the world. These scenes are interwoven with flashbacks to her home village of Goromonzi, and provide some Indigenous concept or bit of folk wisdom to guide her path forward.

When Nyamayaro is a child, Gogo tells her about the concept of ubuntu, the only word used more frequently in the text than “uplift.” It is “the essence of who we are as Africans,” Gogo says, “a lesson we learned from our ancestors, who understood that we are all part of one human family. We need each other, and we are responsible for each other.” Nyamayaro’s worldview has been shaped as much by ubuntu as by that industrial complex. It is to her credit that she presents the two as complementary, though for cynics that might be harder to accept.

“I Am a Girl From Africa,” however, is not a book for cynics. Even though it’s rooted in the colonial and postcolonial history of Zimbabwe, the name Robert Mugabe isn’t mentioned once. Nyamayaro is as uninterested in political contradictions as her prose is in subtlety. She is instead adamantly committed to inspiration, and in that, the memoir is victorious.

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