“That’s where I got my first sense of community service, of looking outside my immediate world,” she said. Ms. Mhangami went much farther afield in 1999, leaving Zimbabwe to pursue her education, first in Baltimore and then in Chicago, where she studied political science and women’s studies at Loyola University.
Now 30, Ms. Mhangami lives in Bulawayo, where she serves as founder and executive director of Vanavevhu, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago and dedicated to helping Zimbabwe’s large population of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Vanavevhu, which means “children of the soil,” was born partly out of what Ms. Mhangami calls “a kind of survivors’ guilt” she felt watching the violent repercussions of Zimbabwe’s land resettlement program, and partly out of a desire to support — and reconnect with — the country she once eagerly fled.
She began to learn as much as she could about her country’s history, and in 2003 she teamed with Chicago Rotarians to send medical supplies to Bulawayo’s hospitals. The endeavor, which cost $12,000 and took 18 months, prompted soul-searching.
“You start having conversations with yourself about aid and dependency,” Ms. Mhangami said. “What was the most effective way of helping that would do the least amount of harm?”
The answer, for Ms. Mhangami, was the children.
“AIDS orphaned so many kids in Zimbabwe,” she said. Some were forced to leave school and act as parents to younger siblings, even though they were ill-equipped to provide for their families. When Vanavevhu supplied basic necessities — food, shelter, education and health care — young caregivers, freed from their adult obligations, were urged to return to school.
Ms. Mhangami also paired entrepreneurial training courses with three business models — beekeeping, candle-making and vegetable gardens. She hopes these ventures will turn a profit and provide employment and financial security.
“Elizabeth is doing selfless and incredible work, given the challenges and circumstances in Zimbabwe,” said Dr. Christopher Olopade, professor of medicine and clinical director of the Global Health Initiative at the University of Chicago. “She gives these young people confidence and hope in spite of their predicament.”
Vanavevhu, which currently supports 10 families, totaling 32 children, will celebrate its first anniversary on Wednesday with a fund-raiser at the Muse Gallery in Chicago. Ms. Mhangami is proud of its work, but said she planned to hand over her title someday.
“I don’t think anyone should head a nonprofit for more than 5 or 10 years,” she said. “Vanavevhu shouldn’t be about me; it should be about the kids and the organization.”
-New York Times