into africa

My family runs A is for Africa, a small, non-profit organization aimed at improving education and future opportunities for students at a rural school in Tanzania, Matim. 

The organization was started by my sister Molly and is run day-to-day by my dad Rick (or baba-Molly/Molly’s dad as the Matim students call him (snapshots from his recent trip last week are above.)

The history on how this came to be is a classic tale with a twisty ending. Girl travels, girl has moving experience making her aware of a great need, and girl comes home wanting to “do something.” The twist here at the end was that she actually did. She did do something.

That ending became the beginning of a whole new story about creating an organization from a blank sheet of paper, a new story about the hard, sometimes awkward task of raising money, and a new story about working with family (not for ninnies).

There are oodles of strategy, communication, and organizational lessons that I observed from the sidelines over the years on the stand-up of A is for Africa. Maybe in future posts I’ll share a few but today’s post is about a single and important point that struck me during a recent fundraiser.

Things happen to spark ideas. The possibilities flash across your mind and can burn for hours (or sometimes days) creating details in your imagination. The problem? There is a short window of opportunity to seize that heat and to start. It is carpe diem applied to ideas.

The Latin phrase carpe diem is defined as an urging to make the most of the present time and give little thought to the future. The concept of act now without concern for what comes next is important- especially when you sense you’re onto something. The heat generated at the beginning is usually short-lived and will fan out without some immediate action.

You might delay taking the first step because you don’t know how to take steps 2 to infinity. You worry that you don’t have a flushed out plan, don’t have the money in hand, or (argh!) don’t have catchy name. When the future work anticipated to bring the idea to fruition feels overwhelming, the very potential that makes the idea so exciting can unceremoniously crush it. You think, “how could I possibly get from here: tired and dirty but fired-up (and ogled at the top of the world by some old guy?) to there:  gorgeous and gracefully introducing a line-up of notable speakers while raising thousands of dollars?

 Wait, what?

Wait, what?

Ok, a quick step back in time…

In 2007, Molly went to Tanzania to hike Mount Kilimanjaro and do a site-seeing safari. This wasn’t her first trip to Africa but it was the most physically ambitious. She intentionally selected an outfitter that had an excellent rating for safety AND a track-record for fair compensation for their guide staff. The 10-day package included the hike support, photo safari, and a visit to a local school for some to be determined community project—in that order which became important to how this story played out.

The first part was the hike. The climb was crazy hard. In some dark, scary, and digestively uncomfortable moments, her Tanzanian guide helped. He helped in the way that you’re forever grateful for the skill and kindness presented at precisely the moment when you needed it.

The second part was the safari. The ride was filled with immense natural beauty and thankfully some wine.

The last part was school. The project provided an emotional and economic peek into the lives rural Tanzanian children and the devoted few trying to create the biggest opportunity possible out of a scarce few resources. Think a couple of paper scraps, one pen, no books. Think no bathroom walls to graffiti, no stinky locker rooms, no little round seats fixed to little rectangle folding tables for lunch. No lunch.

Any one of these experiences might be inspiring but the combination of the three was killer. She was set up.

The hike showed her the people, the safari showed the potential, and the school showed the need.

She wanted to help the kids on the ground in return for the guides who’d helped her at 20,000 feet—a kind of circle of life-y, karmic repayment plan.

So what Molly did after coming home from her 2007 Kili hike was to take a handful of small steps on a new journey.

  1. The first thing was to not wait until she came home. Paying by the minute in packed internet café with other anxious travelers looking over her shoulder, she sent an email saying that a) she’d successfully finished the hike and b) she wanted to do something to give back to the amazing community of people she’d met along the way.
  2. The second thing was to direct that email went to my parents. A pair who had an obvious interest in her well-being but there’s more. For Molly (and for the rest of us “kids”), our parents do all the normal parent-y things from hosting Thanksgiving to telling random stories, multiple times. And maybe one of the biggest things they do is hold us accountable for both our actions and pursuit of our dreams. Tell them you’re going to do something and they’ll follow-up incessantly until it happens. People like this in our lives might vary-- parents, spouses, friends, or bosses—but regardless of official title, they should be kept close.
  3. Once home, she reached out to all of the people who’d said anything like “oh wow, you’re hiking Kilimanjaro?  I’ve always wanted to do that.”  Her message back?  You can, you should, and when you’re done let me know. Now seven years later, she’s been connected to more than a dozen people who’ve gone and had a similar experience who were easy allies in achieving the A is for Africa mission.
  4. And then she did a bunch of administrative stuff like set up the 501 (c) (3), craft the website, and create a bank account. Altogether, this probably took about two days of work spread over two weeks. This “infrastructure” provided the mechanism for collecting funds as they started to trickle in and is still in place today.

What’s remarkable is not that they were particularly strategic but that they were done- a series of very do-able steps down a path that we all might follow when similarly inspired.

Between 2007 and today, organizationally a lot has changed.  Molly transitioned day-to-day operations of A is for Africa to my dad. This happened not coincidentally after he completed his own Kili summit hike and retired from his 60 hour+/week federal job. The leadership team has expanded to include my mom, MaryAnne, and sister, Anna. These two are important engines driving progress on many of today’s top priority projects, maintaining communications with the growing donor community, conducting oversight, and providing a running hilarious, insightful commentary on the challenges of both fulfilling the A is for Africa mission and working with family.

With more than $100,000 gathered and spent on priority projects (A is for Africa applies no overhead to donated funds), the impact has been amazing. Matim has earned a significant jump in the national school ranking on improved standardized test scores. Specific initiatives completed include an electrified computer lab, thriving after-school clubs, 900 lunches served every day, and perhaps most importantly, smiling faces turning up each morning ready to learn.

The lesson I take away from Molly and A is for Africa is not to let the future overwhelm great ideas. Carpe diem and make something happen.


If you'd like to learn more about A is for Africa's mission and work at Matim, please visit the website aisforafrica.org. Oh, and buying my book Flock helps too! All of the proceeds go to A is for Africa-- just thought I'd mention that!