CHANGING THE WORLD ONE PERSON AT A TIME WITH 4-H AFRICA MD SHINGI NYAMWANZA
A good bit of time has passed since we first shared our interview with inspirational 4-H Africa MD Shingi Nyamwanza. A friend to the Quintessential F mission, we are thankful that she allowed us the opportunity to share her story on making impactful change through Africa’s youth. We had to share again simply because well…a great testimony never gets old. Introducing Shingi Nyamwanza…
Shingi Nyamwanza. Who is she and what is her quest in life?
I’m God’s daughter first. I came to know Him late in life (early 20’s) but can’t imagine walking this journey without Him. I tried that whole “superwoman I can do everything on my own” and a lot of times just ended up falling flat on my face. Next, I’m a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend and a friend. I’m an idealist, surprisingly, an introvert, pretty private and more sensitive than people realize. Now that I’m settled in who I am, I’m on a quest to leave this world a little better than when I entered it. I want people, especially in Africa to know that you can do some powerful development work in the nonprofit space without being and looking broke and beat down. Community impact does not equal a poverty mentality.
You were born in Germany, raised in Zimbabwe, and spent a significant portion of your adult life in the United States and are now resident on our beloved continent. What did you learn about yourself during your tenure out west that you believe has made you into the woman you are today?
I learned about God, and really that means I, learned about who I am. Not sure I have it all the way figured out but I’m enjoying the ride. I learned that you don’t have to be perfect or pretend to be. And it’s okay if you don’t always fit in. Life is less painful when you’re just yourself.
I learned that family and close friends are important to me. I can’t live anywhere where I’m not in close proximity to both- yes 14 years in the diaspora to figure that one out.
I love a challenge, especially in unchartered territory – new projects, new roles etc. They always seem to find me. From running my Uni’s first ever freshman residential program, to being my orgs first international hire. When you’re in the diaspora and trying to find your way, you end up doing things you never knew you had the strength or courage to do. At the time I wished for a simpler, more defined and structured life like my fellow American classmates, but now I thank God that my life took so many twists, turns and dips. It’s made me more open-minded, resilient, spontaneous and adventurous. I guess looking back, I really walked the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. God, through my experiences, has made me bolder and more confident in who He created me to be. My former CEO used to tell me “the world is waiting for you to seize the brass ring. Don’t miss it because it will be awhile before it comes back around”. When I finally trusted myself to grab it, the world just opened up.
What called you back to the motherland?
God’s calling which manifested as a determined commitment to helping shape what happens to my momma Africa. I always used to say that there are plenty of intelligent women shaping and growing N. America. They don’t really need me and probably wouldn’t miss me but Africa does (well I’d like to think so) . More specifically, after I really wrapped my mind around the 4-H model in the US, it ignited a commitment and belief in the power of Africa’s young people. Countries like China and the US have succeeded in some part by investing in and education young people. Also, there’s something about the beauty and complexity that is momma Africa that just sucks you in. We are such a rich continent ,not just in terms of natural resources, but in terms of human spirit and opportunities. The sooner we start to see ourselves with that lens the faster and higher we’ll rise. Secondly, my point above about family and friends. I so deeply longed for my family and my “clique” while I was away. Not to say I didn’t make some of the most amazing friends while I was abroad but there’s something about doing life with your ‘tribe’ (I don’t mean that literally) and your ‘people’. If gives you that extra fire in your belly.
At what point in your life were you enticed by the notion of giving back to the community through working with today’s youth?
I’ve always been a softy at heart. I just don’t always come off that way. I wish I had one of those ah ha moment stories where I can say I just knew that this was my passion and calling. To be honest, I love what I do but I’m still not 100% sure I know what my calling/passion is. In fact, I got here because I knew what I didn’t like more than I knew what I liked and wanted to do. I had no clue what I wanted to do after business school. I knew I wanted to do something that involved social impact but that was only after spending 2 years in the corporate world – I knew that pure undiluted corporate life wasn’t for me. When I had this realization, I was working for GE and doing pretty well. My contract was coming to an end and I remember interviewing with Merrill Lynch and telling the MD that money didn’t motivate me. Imagine the look of horror on this man’s face, lol! Here I was interviewing for a sales role within his investment portfolio and I had the nerve to say, “money doesn’t motivate me”. And I remember saying it with such conviction! Still not sure why he offered me that job. I asked him to give me a few weeks to think about it and he obliged. Must have been a slow hiring year lol. That week I prayed that God would come down with a booming voice and tell me what to do. Yeah, we know how that played out… One day I was searching online and I came across a job in resource development for a nonprofit that I’d never heard of (assisting senior fundraisers in convincing fortune 500 partners to invest in America’s young people). They offered me half of what Merrill Lynch was offering but I took a leap of faith (not sure I knew that that’s what I was doing), accepted the offer and drove cross country to the big city – DC. My friends all thought I was loco. What MBA leaves GE, turns down an offer from Merrill Lynch and goes to work for a relatively unknown nonprofit focused on children?! As you can imagine the calls and emails from the parents didn’t stop that year. They too thought their child was going through a major life crisis.
I wish I could say that at that moment the sun got brighter, the birds started singing, the angels broke out in song and all was right in my world. It was tough going at first. I was asked to do a lot of writing – which I hated at the time. I had to learn the ways of nonprofit life and for a while I thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I remember thinking and even telling my then boss that, I’ll probably do 3 years here at most. God had other plans, as He always does. As I learned more about this organization that empowers young people to change communities, countries and economies I started to see a bigger role for 4-H in Africa. God certainly gave me that vision because to drive the point home, my CEO at the time wasn’t only God fearing but shared my vision for 4-H making an impact in Africa. He just happened to have been raised in Ghana and we just happened to just get along and still have a strong mentor/mentee relationship that goes both ways. At the time we didn’t have a global strategy let alone a globally focused staff. They’d done away with that in the 80’s or 90’s. But it just felt right. He’d come into my office, prop his feet up and we’d go on and on about Africa. It was then that I started to feel alive. I took on extra projects for him. I remember doing work that an MBA “technically shouldn’t do”, like book travel and meetings but it connected me back to my motherland so I gave it my all. It was then that I discovered my passion for Africa, youth and the power our young people possess to change and accelerate our continents trajectory.
As a young woman holding such a high ranking position in a multinational organization, how do you feel you have carved a place for yourself where a vast majority of society believes such positions should be held by our male counterparts?
It’s just a fancy title ;-). The real work is done by our country partners but I am very grateful and humbled to have gotten an opportunity to do important work, on a continent I love, and with some amazing youth workers across the continent.
It’s pretty simple, I can’t be anyone but me. My dad taught me a long time ago, that I am just as smart, just as capable and just as worthy as any boy sitting next to me. So I don’t try to be like a man or make a point that I’m a woman, I just do me. God created me in His perfect image and created this path for me so I let Him lead and I follow where He takes me. There have been many occasions where I have walked into meetings and people ask me where my boss is. I just laugh it off and get to work. Usually what I bring to the table in terms of ideas and hard work “levels the playing field” in their eyes. No need to get mad or prove a point.
What do you think from your experiences and interactions, are some of the toughest challenges that today’s young people battle with?
It still amazes me that we don’t give young people the voice they deserve in Africa. I was on a panel at an AU agriculture (AG) focused conference and after my comments, a more mature gentleman calmly put his hand up and said “you young people need to learn from us and not just think you have all the answers”. Ag is still an ‘older’ profession in Africa (average age of a farmer is 65) so I shouldn’t be too surprised at his comments. Caught me unawares especially because nowhere in my comments did I allude to the fact that we (young people) had all the answers or that I didn’t respect or appreciate the lessons learned and roads travelled by the more mature people in the room. What that made me realize is that in a society where jobs and opportunities seem limited, young people are always seen as a threat as opposed to part of the economic development solution. One thing I admire about the 4-H model and how it was a part of America’s transformation, is that young people were and still are given leadership roles and a voice amongst pretty senior corporate and/or government officials to express their needs and ideas. Innovation and ideas don’t just come from the ‘mature’ or tenured. Some of the most brilliant ideas and innovations come from young people in the most remote locations. I’ve seen it myself in rural Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and others. We have got to do better by our young people by creating a platform for us to not only voice our ideas but create opportunities to bring those ideas to life through incubation hubs, business mentors, youth funds etc. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are many models to learn from around the world.
You were not so long ago appointed as the Managing Director of 4-H Africa. Please share with our audience what 4-H is and how this opportunity has impacted your life?
So I’m actually the MD, Africa for Global Clover Network (GCN), a wholly owned subsidiary of National 4-H Council. National 4-H Council is the nonprofit partner of 4-H headquartered in USDA. GCN is tasked with supporting independent country lead 4-H partners around the world. 4-H is actually a US Government (USDA) organization that dates back to President Abraham Lincoln. The Smith Lever Act of 1862 gave each state a piece of land (grant) to build a university (Land Grant Universities). Think Cornell, Ohio State, Michigan State, Tuskegee etc. As part of this grant, each university had to establish an extension arm to deliver research from the university into the community. There’s a youth component of that extension work called 4-H. The story goes, that 4-H was part of the engine that moved the US from being an agrarian society to an industrialized one. Young boys would adopt new technologies of farming from their 4-H clubs, teach their parents and communities, increase production, and as a result people could engage in other areas of the economy further up the value chain. I’m always impressed by the vision and foresight President Abraham Lincoln had to think of such an intricate system to educate communities. Today, 4-H is found in every country and state in the US. This idea, like any good idea, began spreading around the world some 60 years ago. The unique thing about 4-H is that it defines youth from 5 years old right up to 18 and some countries 25. Basically, we start them early in taking an ownership of the development of their community. All done in partnership with a caring adult, while mastering a skill and taking on leadership roles within the club and community. What I like about 4-H is that it’s not a US planted organization or model. Local community volunteers around the world who are passionate about young people normally adapt it from information they find on the web, from development workers (many who are former 4-H’ers), extension workers that travel abroad, or their own visits to the US. I love it because it’s an organic model that’s spread on its own and is always adapted to the local culture and norms. My job is to work with those local independent, country-led 4-H organizations across Africa to create sustainable strategies to engage more young people. The impact on my life has been huge! I’ve met and shared stories with people from all works of life across the world. From presidents to local super hero teachers to young boys and girls working hard to improve the ecosystem that they are a part of. We all want the same thing – To create a better life for ourselves and our families. Collectively, that’s powerful! I see God at work in what I do.
Given the current socio-economic challenges of your home country Zimbabwe, if you could facilitate a social change initiative for youth and young adults in Zimbabwe, what would your platform or area of concentration be?
That’s easy – agriculture. I NEVER thought I’d end up in this sector but over the last 5 years, I’ve seen such amazing opportunities for young people. I’ve seen 15 and 16 year olds feed entire schools from their 4-H produce and sales. I’ve seen the same 4-H’ers adopt HIV orphans and pay for school fees also from their 4-H businesses. One of my colleagues likes to say “no farmer no nation”. Zimbabwe has to go back to being the breadbasket of Africa. There is no excuse BUT let’s not stop at production, let’s get young people engaged all along the value chain. The truth is we all need food, and the world needs food. So as a country and as a continent we need to step up to the plate to help feed ourselves, the world and to create jobs in this vital sector. And then as we develop we do as others in the US, Canada, Europe have done – add programs in science, engineering, technology and math, healthy living, citizenship etc. The list is endless!
Which of your fondest memories come to mind when you hear our continent’s name AFRICA?
Definitely, growing up in Zimbabwe. I would argue that we had the best upbringing. Great schools, safe neighborhoods and just general good living. I always say that when I have kids, I would love for them to grow up in the Zimbabwe I grew up in.
Share with our readers a day in the life of Shingi?
I wish there was such a thing. I can safely say no 2 days are the same. It’s the joys of working for a nonprofit in development and working remotely from my home office with partners scattered across Africa and colleagues in Washington DC. It takes a lot of discipline and commitment that’s for sure. It varies, from conferences, to donor engagement to conference calls in my home office, to car rides to the most remote parts of our beautiful continent tp 4-H club meetings. But each day is littered with a gym session (working on making those daily), chats with my Abba, my love, whatsapping with my girlfriends and my family. I don’t have normal office hours. That doesn’t happen when you have colleagues and partners scattered across multiple time zones.
Who is GOD in your life and how do you feel your relationship with him has shaped your life?
Where to start? Father, Provider, Way Maker, Miracle Producer, Lover, Fear Destroyer, Motivator… Basically He’s life. As I said earlier I wasn’t raised in the church so coming to Christ was a late-in-life conscience decision. I was one of those that thought that as soon as I said that magical salvation prayer, life would all be roses and butterflies. I’ve had some “Job” moments especially during my Uni years but I wouldn’t take back a single one because they all brought me so much closer to my Father and shaped the woman I am today. Now that I’m learning that this is a journey, the focus is not about how many times I go to church, what fancy “religious sayings” I can rattle off. it’s a personal, loving and living relationship. Each day is a another opportunity to get to know Him by a different name.
Have you ever had a really difficult season in your life wherein you almost felt like throwing the towel in; and if so – how did you forge through the murky waters?
Haven’t we all? Joys of growing up. I always say, that I wish someone would have given me a step by step manual with very specific instructions. Should have started reading the Bible sooner :-). I’ve never been a quitter. Guess my parents named me appropriately. To be honest, it’s all just a lot of prayer, waking up each day and choosing to put one foot in front of the other and reminding myself that ‘trouble don’t last always. Joy comes in the morning.” And I’ve learned that it always does. Sermons, my favorite gospel songs and encouragement from my family, my love and my girls definitely help me when the going gets really tough.
Let’s put you on the spot here for a little bit. Who are the most important people in your life and why?
My Babi (dad) – he’s the most loving man I know. He gave me a healthy sense of how a man should treat a woman. My mom used to say, “You need to be realistic, you’re not going to find a man like your babi.” I think she was wrong ;-).My mom – we used to fight like cats and dogs when I was growing up, like most moms and daughters do, but now we’re besties. We are so similar in terms of our strong will. She is a pillar of strength. She always knows the right amount of tough love and encouragement to dish out. My lil sister aka bugga. She is my inspiration in a lot of areas of life – God, love and family
If you could embark on a road trip from Cape to Cairo – which 3 people would you want to enjoy the ride with and why…and yes, you can only take 3 people along!
Goodness! I’d actually only take one. My love. He is a laugh a minute and always down for some fun! He’s also my taskmaster, motivator and an earthly manifestation of how much God loves me. Who needs 3 people when you have all that in one? 😉
If your career was not in youth development, which one of your passions would you pursue?
Something in health. I was convinced I was going to be a doctor but then I realized I don’t do mucus, pus, and blood. So maybe health policy. I’m not one of those people with a distinct passion(s).I used to think there was something wrong with me but the older and I get and the more honest I am with my friends, the more I realize there are a few of us none “specific passionate” people out there
Defining moment for 2014?
Trusting God and moving to SA. It’s been one miracle after another. The last 10 months have been everything I’ve prayed and hoped for – He’s done exceedingly abundantly, above all I could ask or think
Three items on your bucket list?
Getting married, having babies and… Let me get back to you 🙂
What does Shingi do to relax?
Watch mindless TV or read
Favorite read of all time?
That’s a tough one because I read a lot. Don’t think I have just one favorite.
Part of QFs mission is emphasizing to women the beauty of pursuing ones goals and living out their purpose on earth as best they can. On pursuing our goals and chasing our dreams as women, what practical advice do you have for QFs out there?
Trust yourself! As women we are stronger and more resilient that we give ourselves credit for. Take the leap and do what God has called you to do. And if you don’t know what that is yet, that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes He reveals the pieces of the puzzle as we walk with Him. In fact, I believe that’s how it happens for most of us. He’s just asking us to take the first step. The journey will reveal so many things about who you are and what’s important to you. Take a step at a time, enjoy each day/moment and learn from it all. One day, you’ll look up and realize you are exactly where you’ve always wanted to be. At least I did. Grab that brass ring and enjoy the ride. Your future self will thank you…
Final words from Shingi?
Do the best and be the best you can be. No one owes you anything. Work hard, do your best, and trust that God has a perfect plan. I know all too well from my own dark moments and valleys that some days it doesn’t feel that way but if you trust God and yourself and work the plan, the world has endless opportunities just waiting for you to step up, do and be all you have been called to do and be…