One of the best things that ever happened to me was having my heart opened to the needs of the people of Africa by President and Mrs. Bush. During the administration, I travelled to Africa and learned more about their passion and policy advocacy. Seeing the problems — from health, hunger, education, and empowerment – changed me.
After leaving the White House in 2009, I went back to Africa with my husband to see the countryside and to volunteer at a PEPFAR- funded site called Living Hope in Fish Hoek, South Africa. PEPFAR is the acronym for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Just five years ago, AIDS was still a death sentence. But since then, thanks to America’s generosity and sense of purpose in the world, a lot of progress has been made to help people live with the disease and manage it with anti-retroviral drugs.
During my first day at Living Hope, I sat with a woman and I encountered an obstacle I could not overcome — I could not speak the local language, Khosa. I could only understand her mannerisms and gestures. One thing she kept doing was looking at her fingernails and then at mine. I realized she wanted her nails done. This experience reaffirmed my belief that women speak a universal language – we get it on all sorts of levels. I left my post at the hospice and got my husband to take me to the nearest market. I purchased several bottles of nail polish and emery boards. When I got back to the clinic, I sat cross-legged on the patients’ single beds and painted their nails. One woman wanted a different color on each finger. I obliged – they got whatever they wanted.
I learned from that experience that we all have an obligation to help each other where we can, and one of my passions is the health and wellbeing of people who need our help.
There is a lot to be concerned about in Africa, but there are some very hopeful signs — there’s measured economic growth, more entrepreneurs funded through micro-financing, and increased job training. Technology is starting to take hold. All of a sudden, Africa is a frontier bursting with opportunities. These positive developments can only succeed if women and girls are encouraged to participate. They need to be aided in being healthy and educated, and given opportunities to start a business.
When it comes to building healthy, sustainable communities, everything is intertwined. Health, education, electricity, agriculture, child marriage–nothing exists in isolation when it comes to sustainable economic growth.
I am honored to be a curator of this web site for the ONE campaign’s Girls and Women initiative. Please engage in a conversation with us with your thoughts and ideas for how we can work together to help alleviate poverty and improve maternal health and early childhood development.
I am grateful for the generosity of the volunteers, advocates, and donors who have made this possible. You are making a difference, and you are appreciated.