Placing Hope in the Right Hands: An Interview with Mama Hope’s Founder

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

~ Margaret Mead

When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a charity, non-profit or NGO that said “Stop the Pity”? Wait, what…you have never seen one like that? Well neither had I, that is, until someone shared a video produced by MamaHope.org with me:

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Mama Hope is a new breed of charity operating on the old-fashioned sensibility of helping others to help themselves. The root of their organization’s philosophy harkens back to one of the original meanings of the word charity:  A kindly and lenient attitude towards people, and Love of one’s fellow men.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Nyla Rodgers, the founder and director of MamaHope.org. I came away with a tremendous amount of respect for her, the organization, and its team both here and overseas. Mama Hope promoes new ways of facilitating change in developing countries by partnering with the local communities and helping them to develop solutions based on their own ideas.  I love their motto: “Stop the Pity. Unlock the potential”. As you learn more about the spirit behind these words, I believe that you will too.

MI:  Nyla, what was your primary inspiration for starting MamaHope: 

NR/MamaHope:   My primary inspiration was a trip to Africa that I took to meet a child my mother had been sponsoring in Kenya. She began sponsoring him when I went away to college. Over the years, he really became like a part of our family. While I was away at school, I would share with my mother how I was struggling in one class or another and she would mention what Bernard was studying, just as if he were her own child. I learned as time went on that the relationship she and Bernard had was truly symbiotic. Being an only child, when I lost my mother to cancer, I felt like I had lost my entire family. This is what inspired me to want to meet Bernard.

I found out years after I had started Mama Hope that she had told the community she had been helping in Kenya that she was dying. She also told them “I have a daughter, she will not abandon you.” So when I went to Africa, I went without knowing that she had said or shared any of this. Once there I was met with an overwhelming reception which made me feel very special. Anastasia, a woman who is founder of “Our Lady of Perpetual Support,” which is one of the organizations we work with, told me that the women in the community were praying for me to come to them. They thought I was just a child, they had no idea that I was an adult. I called her out of the blue when I arrived in Kenya, I told her I was going to be in the area and really wanted to meet Bernard. When I arrived, there was a HUGE ceremony, honoring my mother and welcoming me! I had no idea they had been praying for me. By serendipity, I was placed in his community to complete a project. I found out that my mother had donated $1,000 to them. Working together with the community, I was impressed by just how much they were able to accomplish working together.

MI: Was the name Mama Hope chosen as a way of honoring your mother’s memory?                          

NR:  It was chosen as a way of honoring both my mother and the many mothers we work with in Africa. They are the advocates of their communities. We are inspired by them.  MamaHope helps by giving people a space to nurture their own communities as they see fit, and they are more than able to do so. There is a pervasive myth that Africans are not capable of taking care of themselves. This is simply not true. When I am there, I see a people with tremendous potential. I am inspired to take part in the solutions they already have. It isn’t that they lack the ability to solve the challenges they face, it’s that no one has asked them to come to the table on behalf of their own development.

MI: I really like the tagline “Stop the Pity.” What emotional impetus do you try to inspire potential supporters to feel instead of pity?

NR:  A lot of organizations feel it’s an easier way to motivate people to give if they market a message that tugs on the pity chords. We want people to be inspired to become partners making greater change possible. We feel that people should see there has been progress made:  Immortality rates for children are down.  The millennial generation over there has great hope for their countries and their continent. My adopted brother, Bernard, is the boy in the video, those are his friends. When you give people the tools to take care of themselves, they can make great strides. We need to tell the stories of the ordinary people who are making it despite all the challenges. What we say at Mama Hope is that in order for the potential for real progress to occur, the pity has to stop. Through this campaign, we are calling on other organizations like ours that know progress has been and continues to be made, to show these images to their donors. Many have the evidence, but choose not to share it. The majority of what I have seen on my ten trips there is not doom and gloom at all. What I see is people who are figuring out how take to care of themselves despite the marketing to the contrary implied by the media, Hollywood and the marketing campaigns of many non-profits.

The people in Africa are figuring out how to overcome the obstacles to basic necessities.  The only way that the “stop the pity” message will have any impact is if donors begin to demand more proof from the non-profits they support that inroads are being made.

Marketing is a choice. There is a difference between “marketing a difference” and “making a difference.” Our marketing follows this philosophy:  When we work together in partnership with communities in Africa, we are making a difference. We want our videos, photos, and other communications to reflect this.

I feel that we are at a point right now in human history where there can be a shift. We can show a different, more positive side of the communities we serve and still raise awareness and donations. It’s up to the donors to open their eyes, their minds and their hearts to a greater truth:  Pity doesn’t solve anything. It most definitely won’t lead to long term solutions. We are challenging other non-profits to follow our lead by showing the footage of progress that they already have.  They aren’t helping by putting out the “white savior” message. It only feeds the ego of donors who need to believe that they are “here to save the day!” It also doesn’t contribute to a belief that things are ever going to change in Africa.  Our message is this: People in many African communities already know how to save themselves, they just need the opportunities, resources and support to do so.

This concludes part one of a two-part interview.