Q&A with Author and Humanitarian Elizabeth Nyamayaro

Author and humanitarian Elizabeth Nyamayaro is partnering with BFA to donate a copy of her book for every copy preordered, now until April 20th! Elizabeth took some time to do a Q&A with us to share more about her background and the role books play for her and others.

You were raised in a village in Zimbabwe that was hit by drought, HIV and famine, and where you did not attend school, and now you’re a celebrated author, Senior Advisor to the UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, and the head of the HeForShe Movement. What was the pivotal moment that set you on your path?

Yes, I was raised by my Gogo, my grandmother, in a small African village in Zimbabwe. I had a beautiful childhood because we all took care of each other in our community. However, our lives were turned up-side-down when I turned eight. A severe drought hit our village leaving us with nothing to eat or drink. One day I was so weak from hunger that I was unable to move. In fact, in my young mind, I thought I was going to die. But then a miracle happened -- an aid worker with the United Nations found me. She gave me a bowl of porridge that literally saved my life. This moment sparked my dream to become a humanitarian so that hopefully one day I too could save the lives of others, just as my life had been saved. Thankfully that dream came true, and I have now been working as a humanitarian for more than two decades.

How has being a member of the African diaspora influenced your choices in education and working with major international organizations like the UN?

When I was young, my Gogo taught me what it meant to dream as a child of the African soil. She explained that a dream is a shared, inclusive vision for all, rather than just an individual ambition or desire -- that my dream needed to be big enough for all Africans. So, as a diaspora I pursued studies in International Relations which I knew would enable me to pursue a humanitarian career. I knew that as an African I needed to do my part to contribute towards my continent’s sustainable development, because ‘what is done for us, without us, is not for us.’

Your book, I Am a Girl from Africa, chronicles your life story in pursuit of your dream. Why was it important to you to write it?

There are several reasons, one of which is to shift the misperceptions of my beloved African continent. In my 20s, I left the African continent for the very first time and arrived in London in pursuit of my dream to become a humanitarian. Suddenly I had this ‘fish out of water’ moment where everything felt and looked different -- the weather, the culture, and most importantly, the perception of who I am and where I am from, which had always been a source of pride my entire life, strangely became something I constantly had to defend. I often found that people held preconceived ideas about the African continent and our people, which were in complete contradiction to who we truly are. It was jarring to see Africa depicted as a country and through a single narrative of poverty in charity aid television commercials – and heartbreaking to see our people portrayed as helpless, waiting to be saved, and never as protagonists of our own stories. And I know that when I told people that I am African, that they didn’t see the beauty of my village, or the generous and hard-working nature of the people who raised me – instead they saw me as inferior, as less than. But as painful as this was, I also realized at some point that this judgment didn’t always come from a place of hate, but rather from misinformation and learned bias. And so, I thought to myself, perhaps one day I can be part of shifting this narrative -- perhaps I could write a book to create a better understanding of my beloved Africa and tell the world about this incredibly vibrant and culturally diverse continent -- home to more than 1.2 billion people, living across 55 countries, speaking more than 2,000 languages. And now I have.

Why are books important, in your opinion? Do you have a favorite book to recommend?

Books enable us to broaden our horizon, to dream bigger, to gain new knowledge and understanding about places and other people’s cultures and values. It’s hard for me to pinpoint just one book, but for anyone looking for an entry point into African literature, I definitely recommend any of Chinua Achebe’s books.

You were the head of the HeForShe movement. Where do books and reading fit into the gender equality movement?

Long before I launched HeForShe -- one of the world’s largest solidarity movement for gender equality -- I used books to deepen my understanding of the different kinds of feminist literary theory. I devoured everything from Buchi Emecheta to Margaret Atwood, from Flora Nwapa to Gloria Steinem, from Ama Ata Aidoo to Bell Hooks, and many others -- and their writings made me challenge the relationships amongst genders, in particular why men continue to hold the majority of power across all levels of society. It became so clear to me that if we were to achieve true gender equality, then we needed an inclusive movement that engaged men as part of the solution -- and this became the impetus for HeForShe.

You opted to partner with Books For Africa, donating one book for every copy of your book pre-ordered. What led you to this partnership and how is it meaningful to you? What impact would you like these books to have on Africans who read them?

One of my greatest hopes in writing my memoir was to inspire young girls/boys who come from humble backgrounds such as mine, especially on my beloved African continent to see what it possible when we dream big. Growing up I yearned for stories about people who looked like me - because when we can picture ourselves in the stories we read, it enables us to see what is possible for ourselves. So, this partnership with Books For Africa is really a dream come true and I hope that through my story we can remind young girls/boys that their dreams should not be diminished by where they are born, nor their potential be limited by their current circumstances.

You can preorder a copy of Elizabeth's book "I Am a Girl from Africa," here! For every copy you preorder before April 20th, a copy will be donated to Books For Africa.