Monday, July 2, 2012

The Two Madibas

“We started because we had to,” explains Bryan Dyer, co-founder of Madiba Children’s Outreach. It’s a sentiment that has been shared by all the philanthropists and freedom fighters since the beginning of civilization, one that refuses the status quo and seeks something better. Whenever the question of struggle arises, it is always necessity that supersedes it. He continues telling me about his work with MCO. “We have a stubbornness to never give up,” he tells me.

Bryan started his non-profit career in 2006, assisting charities during his travels throughout West Africa when help was needed. And, help was indeed needed. Far too often, Bryan witnessed what he refers to as “donor’s fatigue,” the malaise that sets in after years of struggling against an economic regime that refuses to fall. When so many are needy, it becomes far too easy to not put forth the energy needed to take care of so many people. Too many charities and non-profit organizations were not providing all the assistance necessary to their beneficiaries. While helping as many as he could, it was clear that another solution needed to be found. That’s when something more needed to be done, something that could supply children with all of the crucial supplies and education that is required for their success. “That’s when I started thinking about starting a charity,” Bryan says.

Nelson Mandela is a name known the world over. His was a struggle spanning generations, and one that seemed almost impossible to succeed. To topple an oppressive government, he spoke out, took up arms, become incarcerated, and lost decades of his life. To the casual observer, the life of Mandela and the non-profit organization of MCO would have very little in common, but such is not the case. Like Mandela’s mission, there is no room for “fatigue” of any kind in charity work. In both cases, innocent lives and livelihoods are at stake. And, of course, both MCO and Mandela are facing an aggressive system designed to keep people down. In Mandela’s case, it was the reprehensible apartheid regime. With MCO, it is the oppressive economic system that keeps so many in Ethiopia underfed and uneducated. Both of these systems are seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but, as Mandela himself put it, “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

The situation in Ethiopia, where MCO is based, is dire. “It’s kind of difficult for me to explain the life condition of people in this country,” writes Beruk Amare, co-founder of MCO and native Ethiopian, “I cannot say ‘poor’ because it’s way worse than that.” According to a study conducted by UNICEF, 38% of children under the age of five in Ethiopia are underfed, and well below half of all children finish primary school. Children being the most vulnerable members of society, require the most assistance when unfair and unnecessary situations attempt to stymie their growth. It is here that stubbornness to help is most necessary.

During his first day in Ethiopia teaching English, Bryan went out to celebrate his arrival and found himself in Beruk’s bar. The two became fast friends while Bryan began to start a life in Ethiopia, and Beruk continued his business ventures. During this time, Lauren Slade, third and final co-founder of MCO, was working at a local private school and eventually made the acquaintance of Bryan and Beruk. Lauren had just finished working with the Peace Corps, and would later go on to an internship in India.

“I have always wanted to do something meaningful,” writes Beruk. “Something that makes sense.” At the beginning of 2011, Beruk found himself accompanying Bryan to visit children who had become victims of “donor’s fatigue”. “They were a lot skinnier,” says Bryan. On that trip, Bryan and Beruk provided food supplies and dropped off several children at school. “When I saw the children, I knew I wanted to participate,” writes Beruk. “It felt so right.” It was through a series of conversations between Bryan and Beruk when they began seriously discussing the possibility of creating a charity that fills the gap that others left behind.

Lauren was completing a graduate degree in Conflict and Development back in the United States while Bryan and Beruk were planning the nascent stages of MCO. In a conversation with Beruk, she heard about the plans to start a non-profit organization. “I really loved the idea of being part of a new, local, grassroots organization so I came back to Ethiopia,” she writes.

Of course, during this time of planning and preparing to help MCO take root, life was busy happening. On February 16th, 2011, Bryan and his wife Tg welcomed into the world their first child, a baby boy. It was decided that the charity would be named after Bryan’s newly born son. “I wanted him to feel a connection to a strong role model,” says Bryan, and for his son, he chose the name Madiba, after the internationally famous freedom fighter and former head-of-state of South Africa – or, as he is more commonly known, Nelson Mandela.

“Starting an NGO, I knew was going to be really difficult, but weighing the benefits and thinking about the beneficiaries I knew it was a no-brainer,” explains Lauren. “I’m most proud of MCO and our child sponsorship program because I believe we look at our beneficiaries lives in a holistic approach. Meaning, even though we are considered an educational assistance program, I’m proud that we not only consider the obvious (school fees, uniforms, supplies) but also look at the other factors that make children’s lives more conducive to learning (food support and health care support)."

“MCO is about giving hope to children,” writes Beruk. “It’s about giving life. It’s about giving a responsible educated human resource for the country…I love my country. I was a soldier and fought a war for my country. Now, my country is fighting poverty. To contribute in producing skilled labor in this country makes me feel like I’m doing something.”

“We know what it’s like to struggle. We know what it’s like for NGO’s to start out,” says Bryan. “We founded MCO knowing how incredibly difficult it would be. We have optimism, and confidence that we know the challenges ahead of us. We have anticipated every obstacle, and we have strategies.”

The obstacles facing any nascent NGO are prodigious, to say the least. It requires the planning and knowledge that years of experience provide, the need to make the world a better place. It will take that stubbornness, that refusal to give in to fatigue to succeed and change the status quo for the better. There are many obstacles, but they can be overcome. Or, as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible, until…”

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