Passion Points: Giving Back
For Anne Wells, Tanzania was love at first sight. “I adored everything: the vast landscape; the huge canopy sky; the scents and smells; the red earth; the stampeding wildlife; and most of all, the people,” says the mother of three girls who is based in Connecticut. “In Tanzania, I felt connected in a way that I have never felt anywhere else. It was like coming home.” As she explored the country, invited into locals’ homes and making connections and friendships, Wells became determined to launch an initiative that would give back to the place that had such a profound effect on her.
The idea behind her 2010-launched UNITE (www.unitetnz.org) is straightforward: identify local grass-roots organizations and support them through both remote fundraising and local training. Her interest in fashion and style also led to the founding of Ashé, an online marketplace for a diverse collection of designers, artists and craftspeople living and working in creative havens like Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. One of the collection’s bestsellers, a hand-painted weekender bag, can be purchased on the Indagare Souk (www.indagare.com/souk).
A trained journalist and marketing executive who has worked in non-profits for more than a decade, Wells is particularly interested in women connecting and helping each other across cultures and geography. Like New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, she also ascribes to the notion that in a huge opportunity of lasting, real change lies in educating girls, especially in the Third World. “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is mandatory reading in my world,” says Wells of the bestseller Kristof co-wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.
Wells spoke to Indagare about her vision for Unite, about her favorite pieces of the Ashé Collection and about the places she loves the most in eastern Africa.
What inspired you to launch UNITE?
Unite was born out of a conversation I had with my dear friend Father Dennis Mnyanyi, from Central Tanzania. It was January 2008 and Dennis, who was studying in the United States, was visiting me and my family in Connecticut. I kept him up night after night peppering him with endless questions about how “normal” people like me (a 30-something-year-old working wife and mother of three young daughters) could truly be of impactful service in Africa and support real solutions to the so many seemingly insurmountable challenges. His response? ‘Come back to Tanzania Anne.’ (I had spent many months living there in the early 1990s.) ‘Find the off-grid, grassroots, Tanzanian-led organizations that really “work,” and support them to the best of your ability.’ A few months later my husband and I left for Tanzania to do just that. We identified a handful of small non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that demonstrated sustainable, demand-driven programs, and soon thereafter incorporated UNITE The World With Africa to support them.
UNITE’s mission is to advance women’s health, education and microfinance programs in Tanzania. We do this through fundraising, advocacy and hands-on training work. UNITE is a portal through which Americans can be of impactful service in Tanzania, sharing of their time, treasure and unique talents in meaningful ways.
How is your trade/aid concept different from others out there?
UNITE’s work is to serve the needs of our partner communities in Tanzania as they are presented to us. While our training workshops focus on community health, women’s health and business/microfinance; our fundraising efforts respond to the most pressing needs of the day. For example, over the past few years we have delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in famine relief, medicines, bed nets, seedlings, solar lights, school supplies, teacher training materials, generators, student scholarships, microloans, village bank funding, sports equipment, uniforms, and more. We overlay extensive needs assessments with what we feel is most feasible and possible, and do our best.
We also work to send as many Americans as possible into the field to visit UNITE’s partner communities as part of an effort to build our “army of ambassadors.” These visitors often end up hosting fundraisers on their own and become long-term friends of UNITE and our Tanzanian partners. Our online store, Ashé Collection (Ashé means thank you in the language of the Maasai), was created to grow jobs for local artisans as well as to raise funds for UNITE’s partner communities. Like every aspect of UNITE, the Ashé Collection is a 100% philanthropic endeavor.
Can you share a moment where you felt like UNITE was making a difference?
In June 2010 we brought a group of seventeen Americans to a remote rural school in Nganjoni, Tanzania, near the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. We were met by hundreds of Tanzanians of all ages. Everyone was singing and dancing and waving huge palm leaves in the air. It was chaos as we climbed the hillside to the school structure. As I made my way above the crowd, I watched as my team of Americans laughed and cried in a sea of Tanzanians. Not a hand was empty. Hand in hand, arm in arm, seats on shoulders. Our skin color was different, we spoke different languages, we came from different worlds, and yet we embraced with love and laughter. This moment to me was UNITE. It was experiencing firsthand that we are all connected, that what we do with our lives matter, that we can either be part of the problem or part of the solution, and that with each moment of each day, wherever we may be, the choice is ours.
Can you talk about the Ashé products and how and where they are made?
Ashé Collection is a compilation of unique artistry sourced from various individuals and organizations across East Africa. The lines are chosen as much for their quality and style as for their commitment to community service and enriching the lives of local people and artisans. With the Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art project, Italian designer Francesca Torri-Soldini visits Tanzania a few times each year to work with TMWA director Tati Oliver and the Maasai women on the creation of a new lines. Together they combine traditional Maasai artistry and craftsmanship with Italian elegance and style to come up with unique jewelry pieces that are alluring and practical for Western women.
What are some of your personal favorite pieces?
I find myself most often wearing the Clara earrings, the Emonyorit necklace (which was recently featured in Allure magazine), and the Engotoo and Kipepeo bracelets. I’ve worn them with everything from jeans and T-shirts to cocktail and black tie dresses. Everywhere I go, I receive compliments on the jewelry.
As the mother of three girls, how important is the advancement and growth of girls, especially in Third World countries?
A few years ago, with the support of local friends, I launched a youth group called Global Girls UNITE (GGU) to get our daughters more actively involved in this work. It has since evolved into an active – and growing – group for middle- and high-school age girls. We have chapters in Connecticut and increasing interest from across the country. The mission of the group is three-fold: Education, connection and creative fundraising. We want our GGU girls to experience their personal power as global change agents. In the past two years GGU has raised funds for more than 500 bed nets for a village in the Kilimanjaro district and to send 100 girls from the Sega School in Central Tanzania on a field trip to the coast for their first time ever. Currently, we are planning a GGU service trip to Tanzania for the summer of 2013.
What are some of your favorite places in Tanzania and what should no first-time visitor miss?
I love the Northern District: Moshi, Arusha, Karatu. Of course the most famous parks – the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and Tarangiri – are not to be missed. The coast is beautiful, too, and the spice tour on Zanzibar is worth the trip. But for me, my favorite places to be in Tanzania are in the villages with my friends. From Morogoro and Berega to Nganjoni, Monduli and Mvuleni… to me, these are the places the real beauty lies. This is why I work with so many Americans to ensure that their safaris are not limited to the parks and traditional tourist destinations alone. Everyone I have either brought or sent tells me that their favorite part of the Tanzanian experience was always their time spent in the villages working alongside the people.
What are your major goals in 2012?
Our goals for 2012 are many, including growing the Ashé Collection through the addition of new product as well as through increased collaborations and partnerships here in the United States. We also want to execute our Summer 2012 Community Health training tour led by UNITE’s Community Health Director Meg Domino, Ph.D. and bringing over our first team of midwives under the leadership of UNITE’s medical director Teresa Knight, M.D. We also want to launch our new series of “Share Your Passion” Service safaris to empower more people to serve in unique and targeted ways that are important to them, for example business mentoring; sports, music and the arts; yoga & riding; and more.
What are some other places in Africa you are still dying to visit and why?
I would love to explore more areas of Tanzania, like the Selous, the entire coastline, Gombe to see the chimps, Mwanza. I would like to visit my friends with Ali Lamu off the coast of Kenya. Rwanda, not only for the gorillas but also to witness a country in such a state of rapid change and evolution. Botswana to see a friend and discuss how we may evolve UNITE’s work in that region. Ghana, as I did some work there with PepsiCo and Safe Water Network’s water programs. Really, there isn’t a spot in Africa I would not love to visit, at least once. But I believe my heart will always bring me home to Tanzania.
Shop for Ashe’s Love Bag on the Indagare Souk.
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