A “profound and soul-nourishing memoir” (Oprah Daily) from an African girl whose near-death experience sparked a lifelong dedication to humanitarian work that helps bring change across the world.
When severe drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, then only eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life’s purpose. Unable to move from hunger and malnourishment, she encountered a United Nations aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life—a transformative moment that inspired Elizabeth to dedicate herself to giving back to her community, her continent, and the world.
In the decades that have followed, Elizabeth has been instrumental in creating change and uplifting the lives of others: by fighting global inequalities, advancing social justice for vulnerable communities, and challenging the status quo to accelerate women’s rights around the world. She has served as a senior advisor at the United Nations, where she launched HeForShe, one of the world’s largest global solidarity movements for gender equality. In I Am a Girl from Africa, she charts this “journey of perseverance” (Entertainment Weekly) from her small village of Goromonzi to Harare, Zimbabwe; London; New York; and beyond, always grounded by the African concept of ubuntu—“I am because we are”—taught to her by her beloved grandmother.
This “victorious” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir brings to vivid life one extraordinary woman’s story of persevering through incredible odds and finding her true calling—while delivering an important message of hope, empowerment, community support, and interdependence.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for I Am a Girl from Africa includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this “profound and soul-nourishing memoir” (Oprah Daily), Elizabeth Nyamayaro tells the story of her life, from when she nearly starved after a drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, to founding HeForShe, one of the world’s largest movements for gender equality. Grounded by the African concept of ubuntu— “I am because we are”—I Am a Girl from Africa charts Elizabeth’s quest in pursuit of her dream from the small village of Goromonzi to Harare, Zimbabwe; London; and New York, where she eventually became a senior advisor at the United Nations. For over two decades, Elizabeth has been instrumental in creating change in communities all around the world, uplifting the lives of others, just as her life was once saved by a UN worker. The memoir brings to vivid life one extraordinary woman’s story of persevering through incredible odds and finding her true calling, all while delivering an important message of hope and empowerment: you, too, can fight for equality and equity in your community.
1. On page 11, Elizabeth has just landed in London and reflects, “I immediately felt anxious, remembering that I had no friends or family in the UK, and only two hundred and fifty pounds to last me until I got a job.” What did she do next? Can you imagine what you might have done in that situation?
2. What qualifications can you find online for an entry-level job at the United Nations? Do you think that Elizabeth would still have pursued this dream job if she had known at the start how hard it would be to get?
3. Elizabeth refers to her faith many times in her memoir. In what ways does she practice her religion? How do you think it helps her to continue her work—particularly when she’s new in London and trying to get a job at the UN?
4. On page 45, Elizabeth meets her amai, her mother, for the first time. She says to her grandmother, Gogo, “How could she [amai] send me away [when I was young]? What did I do wrong?” Gogo responds, “You have a special shinga—strength—that will always protect you. Me, I think that when God created us Africans, he knew that life wasn’t always going to be easy, so he gave us all this special shinga.” What do you understand shinga to be? What are other instances in the book where Elizabeth draws on this special strength?
5. On page 80, Elizabeth is cruelly bullied by another girl at school and is so distressed that she develops a stutter. When her Uncle Sam sees that she is upset, he says, “You should never let anyone make you feel ashamed of who you are or feel embarrassed of where you are from.” How do you think this experience affected Elizabeth’s view of herself?
6. Starting on page 95, Elizabeth has an interview with the United Nations project office in London. She understands the interview to be a “pity” interview, and sees that Dr. Julia Cleeves is done with her, but, instead of leaving, she finds a way in. Have you done something similar for a dream job? Did it work?
7. Dr. Cleeves says, “When everyone is involved, everyone will be invested” when talking about community approaches to the AIDS epidemic on page 102. How do you think that philosophy impacts Elizabeth’s approach to her later work? Can you give an example?
8. Elizabeth experiences the death of several important people in her life. How does this affect her? How do these special people continue to inspire her?
9. The structure of I Am a Girl from Africa weaves between scenes in Elizabeth’s past and her present. How does this narrative structure provide deeper insight into her life?
10. Starting on page 142, Elizabeth writes the stories of people she meets in her work with the World Health Organization, from Chicago to the Republic of the Congo. Many of these people have lost someone because of lack of access to healthcare. How has your understanding of healthcare inequity grown since the Covid-19 pandemic, and what do you think would be some effective ways to combat the dysfunction in America’s healthcare system?
11. List a few of the occasions in I Am a Girl from Africa when Elizabeth could have simply quit. What do you think kept her motivated?
12. On page 157, Elizabeth ponders, “Why is it that despite all the progress made by the women’s rights movement, no country or company or institution in the world can yet claim to have achieved gender equality?” What do you think the answer to that is in your own country, workplace, and community? What do you think will need to change in order for the spaces you occupy to achieve gender equality?
13. Elizabeth experiences backlash against HeForShe from the broader public, after she already had to fight to get it approved in the UN. Why do you think people are upset, and do you understand or sympathize with some of their fears?
14. On page 242, we find out how much Gogo sacrificed to help Elizabeth get to London, even when Elizabeth didn’t have a very detailed plan. How do Gogo’s sacrifices affect Elizabeth’s relationship with her work?
Book Club Activities:
1. Gogo and Elizabeth’s life together is centered in the small village of Goromonzi in Zimbabwe. As a group, research Goromonzi. How hard is it to travel to? How many people live there? What are the main industries or occupations?
2. In Chapter 2, Gogo tells Elizabeth the story of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation (also called the Second Chimurenga). Research these events as a group and discuss how involvement in this liberation struggle would have affected Gogo’s perspective on life.
3. As a group, watch Elizabeth’s TED Talk “An invitation for men who want a better world for women” and discuss.
Elizabeth Nyamayaro is an award-winning humanitarian and Special Advisor for United Nations World Food Programme. Born in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth has worked at the forefront of global development for over two decades improving the lives of underserved populations and has held leadership roles at the World Bank, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and UN Women. I Am a Girl from Africa is her first book.
"Nyamayaro’s writing is particularly moving when describing personal tragedies like the losses of her beloved grandmother, Gogo, of her uncle, of her various mentors in the field. And Africa is ever the source of its own solutions ... victorious." —New York Times Book Review
"Nyamayaro explores this transformative moment in her childhood and how it drove her to become an activist and fierce advocate for change. She shares personal stories of perseverance as she reflects on what it took to make it to the U.N. herself as a Senior Advisor, where she went on to launch the HeForShe campaign." —TIME
"HeForShe founder Elizabeth Nyamayaro tells her story for the first time in I Am a Girl from Africa, which traces her childhood in Zimbabwe, her journey as a humanitarian, and her work as a United Nations Senior Advisor." —Bustle
"[A] stirring memoir." —Good Morning America
"A childhood near-death experience caused by severe drought in her village in Zimbabwe — and a lifesaving intervention by a U.N. worker — spawns Nyamayaro’s lifelong dedication to humanitarian work; she writes about her journey of perseverance and path to becoming a senior advisor at the U.N. in her memoir." —Entertainment Weekly
"In her stirring memoir I Am a Girl From Africa, the humanitarian, who grew up in a small village in rural Zimbabwe, recounts the day a U.N. aid worker rescued her from famine—and how that lifesaving encounter inspired her to become a living embodiment of the Nguni Bantu word 'ubuntu,' which means 'I am because we are.'" —Essence magazine
"Nyamayaro's journey has given her unique perspective and incredible wisdom that make this book an inspiring call to action for anyone hoping to make the world a better place." —Town and Country
"Nyamayaro’s heartwarming and inspirational story is symbolic of the faith, community uplift, and interdependence a girl from anywhere needs to soar." —Oprah Daily
"Elizabeth Nyamayaro's I Am a Girl from Africa tells the story of the former United Nations senior advisor's inspiring full-circle journey after a UN aid worker saved her life when she was eight years old. Later in her life, she would go on to launch the HeForShe campaign and help bring change across the globe." —Marie Claire,25 Great 2021 Memoirs to Pre-Order Now
"A moving account of a determined young woman’s journey from poverty to humanitarian activism ... Throughout this memorable account of her impressive life, the author recalls 'the central, definitive African value and philosophy of ubuntu: that when we uplift others, we are ourselves uplifted.' An inspiring narrative that will be especially valuable to young people seeking to work for humanitarian causes." —Kirkus
"The striking title of this memoir establishes the very foundation of who the author, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, is. As the content is built upon this base, readers will find that they are occupying the story of a truly exceptional human being ... A deeply personal and richly inspirational self-portrait." —Booklist
"Nyamayaro’s steadfast pursuit of her goals is mirrored by steady narrative pacing; readers will cheer on her uncompromising commitment. Her life example provides a beacon for ambitious change-makers." —Publishers Weekly
"Elizabeth Nyamayaro has written a wonderfully accessible and moving memoir that masterfully weaves her own story into the contemporary fight for global gender equity. Traveling with Nyamayaro — from Tblisi to Montevideo — is both inspiring and maddening, seeing all that has been accomplished and all that’s left to do. Somehow, through it all, she manages to maintain an unwavering optimism — and a belief in the power of NGOs, education, collaboration, and even (gasp) globalism — that buoys the soul and reminds us that there’s no progress without progressives, no light without the torch-bearers." – Dave Eggers, author of The Parade and The Captain and the Glory
"From the first page to the last, I could not put down this book. I Am a Girl from Africa is a story that can uplift and inspire every girl and boy from every part of the world. Beautifully told, and beautifully lived." – Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
“More than a heartwarming and uplifting memoir, I Am a Girl from Africa is a story of millions of girls around the world – and a true testament of what is possible when girls are given an equal right to quality education. Through Elizabeth’s remarkable story, we are reminded that education remains a closest thing to a silver bullet when it comes to gender equality.” – Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, UN Women