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Memoir Looks Back On When Nyamayaro's Life Was Set On A Path

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth Nyamayaro can point to a moment when her life was saved and set on a path. The worldwide humanitarian has advised the United Nations on gender equality, been a leader in the World Bank and World Health Organization. Her memoir - "I Am A Girl From Africa." Elizabeth Nyamayaro joins us now from Los Angeles. And thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH NYAMAYARO: So delighted to be here, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And can you tell us about that moment when you were 8 years old and a woman in blue appeared?

NYAMAYARO: I grew up in a small African village in Zimbabwe, and I had a wonderful childhood because we lived off our land. We grew an abundance of food. And we never wanted for anything. But then when I turned 8 years old, a severe drought hit our village and left us with nothing to eat or drink. I remember one day feeling so weak from hunger that I was unable to move, and I literally collapsed on the ground. But then this incredible thing happened. A girl in a blue uniform who happened to be an aid worker with the United Nations found me. She gave me a bowl of porridge and literally saved my life.

SIMON: And it imbued you with a desire to one day work for the United Nations.

NYAMAYARO: It did.

SIMON: And you came to London as a young student from Zimbabwe to fulfill your dream of working for the U.N....

NYAMAYARO: Yeah.

SIMON: ...But alas had neglected one small thing.

NYAMAYARO: (Laughter) Indeed. The U.N. did not have an office in London, even though there was an organization called the United Nations Association, which I had assumed was one of the U.N. entities. So I literally get off the plane at Heathrow Airport one morning.

SIMON: Yeah.

NYAMAYARO: I have 250 pounds to my name. And I'm just there, determined to work for the United Nations because, indeed, as you said, the moment this girl saves my life, a light bulb went in my head and I thought, I want to be just like her so that one day I can save the lives of others. But as you said, at last, I arrive in London, and the U.N. isn't there. And everything literally falls apart.

SIMON: Now we will explain. You wound up getting a master's degree at London School of Economics, and you've gone to work all over the world. You have grown to see the presence of gender inequality as being wound through so many of the urgent issues we confront in this world - HIV/AIDS transmission, hunger, democracy. Explain to us the vision that you have now.

NYAMAYARO: So I realized early on that there is a gender dimension to pretty much all of the inequalities in the world. I mean, a very simple and concrete example - I grew up in a small African village. The men make all the decisions. They make the decision in terms of who goes to school. Men decide who owns the land. It is mostly men who own the land, and women are left with nothing. When you look in the workplace, it is men who decide who gets paid what. It's those in power of position who make the decisions that end up impacting all of society.

SIMON: You commend Rwanda for that nation's gains in gender equality. Let me ask you first what you've seen there.

NYAMAYARO: So Rwanda went through a horrific genocide, but what has been remarkable with Rwanda as well was that they were able to rebuild. And a lot of that also had to do with lots of colonial policies that - you know, I grew up in Zimbabwe, and we were colonized by Britain. And one of the device that was used to control the massive population was to split us - you know, split us into different groups, give us different rights so that whilst we fought amongst ourselves, you know, those in power would continue to rule over all of us. But one of the things that I am glad to see in Rwanda was that they were able to really rebuild. And Rwanda right now has the highest number of female in their Parliament of any country in the world. And that's quite remarkable because we still don't have that here in the U.S.

SIMON: I have to tell you, Ms. Nyamayaro - you're undoubtedly aware of this - that human rights groups have - well, they don't commend Rwanda at all. Human Rights Watch...

NYAMAYARO: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Talks about arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, torture. That's part of Rwanda, too, though, isn't it?

NYAMAYARO: I mean, I'm not blind to the challenges that my continent and, indeed, the rest of the world has with regard to leadership. But this is what also inspired me to write my book, to be able to share a different narrative that isn't the sort of single narrative of Africa through the lens of poverty and civil war. In this book, as a gender expert, I really wanted to focus on celebrating what is, indeed, truly a remarkable gain by an African country. But I also do make a case that not just Africa, but globally, we do need to have more women in positions of power, women making decisions that benefit women and ultimately benefit all of us.

SIMON: Elizabeth Nyamayaro - her memoir, "I Am A Girl From Africa" - thank you so much for being with us.

NYAMAYARO: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.