Chris, Alisa and Christi are bound together not only by blood but by their affinity to a continent where they learned to love the people, the culture, and the soul of Africa. This love has passed from mother to daughter but now has expanded to friends and family around the world with Serve a Village, their NGO that supports sustainable projects to help improve the health, education, welfare and environment of needy communities throughout the world.
How did your family establish such a strong connection to Africa?
Chris: Well, Alisa and I are sisters, and Christi is my niece (Alisa’s daughter).
Alisa: Chris and I had a great uncle who went on a mission to South Africa back in the 1920s and he ended up falling in love with Africa. He also fell in love with a South African woman, and he stayed in Africa and married her. He was very entrepreneurial and convinced several of his brothers, including our grandfather, grandmother, and their five children, to come back to South Africa with him. After our mother (Kathryn Hunt) left school, she worked as a decoder in the American Embassy during the second World War and was engaged to a South African man. However, she ended up marrying an American man instead, and had six children with him. (We’re two of them!) Twenty-six years later she reconnected with the South African man, they married and I moved to South Africa with her when I was 13. (Chris had just gotten married, but she and her husband also lived in Africa for 10 years.) We moved from San Francisco—a very liberal urban area; Chris was even living in Haight-Ashbury — to apartheid South Africa where we lived on a farm. We came straight from the hippie days burn your bra and draft card, that whole thing, and we landed in South Africa where we had to come to dinner in our long dresses.
Chris: Our formal dresses.
Alisa: Formal dresses!
Chris: There was no television in South Africa for at least, how many, six, six years? Five or six years after we moved there. They didn’t have television.
Alisa: And we’d had television our whole lives. And I was sent off to a girl’s boarding school which was very archaic, old British system, with the uniforms…
Our mother lived in South Africa for over 30 years. She had to walk that fine line of keeping her husband happy, doing what her conscience told her she should do, and trying to care for the 300-400 Africans who lived on the farm. Our mom actually had a village right on her farm, and it was all the people who worked on the farm and the families of those people that worked on the farm. She built modern homes complete with electricity and running water for all who lived on her property. She also built a couple of schools in Warrenton (the newer African name is Magareng) and she was responsible for the children’s medical care.
Chris: When the babies were born she would help deliver them.
Alisa: Our mother built a couple of schools in Warrenton (Magareng) and for the rest of our lives we were very involved in helping with the schools. Whenever we came back to America, we shipped clothing and school supplies and books and backpacks and soccer equipment to the schools in South Africa. That’s what our kids grew up doing: for their eagle projects they were collecting school supplies and books for schools there.
Chris: When we came back here, that’s all we wanted to do: help the people over there because we felt so attached to them.
Alisa: When we did girl’s camp in America, for example, all of the girls at camp learned African dances and they made backpacks and painted them and filled them with school supplies and hygiene supplies.
Alisa: So, when my daughter Christi was about 13, I took my kids to South Africa for a couple of months to live with my mom so they could get to know the country. Christi, wasn’t that probably the single most impactful experience you had growing up? Didn’t it really change your whole perspective?
Christi: Yeah, I was just your average 13 year old, involved in sports and music and church and school and going along with life. And then my brave mom took all her kids on a long flight from California over to South Africa. At the time, we’d been living in San Francisco, which is very multiracial and my school had kids from all around the world, and so I was comfortable in that sense. But when I got there and I saw the disparity between the whites and the blacks, it was just a shock to me. I was at such a naïve, innocent age. I would go out and run around with the kids and play tackle with them and barefoot soccer with them, and then I would get some looks from my grandma that what I was doing wasn’t quite appropriate, that there might be some talk from the neighbors or from the other whites in the area about it. It was just really a shock to me to see that disparity and to see that all the whites had their nice homes, cars, clothes, and then a stone’s throw from their home were their maids and farm hands, living in mud huts. It’s a very impressionable age to see that, and I think I was old enough to really comprehend it, whereas some of my younger siblings were just on a trip and probably maybe didn’t even realize they were in another country. I was old enough to comprehend what I was seeing and it really had an impact on me and changed me.
Christi, did this experience spark your interest in international studies and to pursue a master’s in public health?
Christi: As I got older, I was looking for any way possible to get back to Africa. I went to BYU in International Relations with an emphasis in African studies, and then I did a Master’s in Public Health.
Alisa: She became a very independent 18-year-old who took off to Ghana to study the buruli skin disease after her freshman year of college…
Christi: Well, either I had to do college to get back there or just disobey my parents by going off with a random group of people and study a weird skin disease in the bush…. Whatever it took, I was really anxious to get back to Africa. There’s something about the land and I think anybody that goes there will tell you this, that it just gets into your blood.
Chris: Weren’t you the only white person in the whole African Dancing Troupe at BYU? Yeah, Africa draws you back. There’s something about it, you just miss it. There’s something… the smells, the sounds, and the people and just everything about it.
Alisa: It’s the people mostly, because they’re so friendly and they’re so full of life and they’re so happy even though they have so little.
Christi: Despite their difficulties, they have warm, big smiles. I love the vivid colors they use and their dancing and singing. It’s so energetic.
So after you developed this deep connection to Africa, how did Serve a Village begin?
Alisa: For so many years, we’d be engaged as a family and with friends in carrying out sustainable projects that help to improve the health, education, welfare and environment of needy communities in Africa. In 2006, we decided to incorporate our efforts, actually just prior to our mother’s passing. Serve A Village became an official non-profit in 2010. Also, Christi went over to South Africa a couple times for her Masters of Public Health (MPH) program to work in some of the townships in Cape Town and we began to see that we could do more than what we had been doing there.
Christi: We also realized there were a lot of people really interested in serving some way in Africa, people who wanted to go with us on our trips. From my personal experience and talking with others, there’s a big difference between giving money and then actually going and seeing the needs for yourself. Once you’ve been there and you’ve interacted with the people, you get Africa in your blood and it’s something that you want to be a part of for the rest of your life. So Serve a Village today plans and carries out projects for needy communities around the world, and we take volunteers with us on our trips. Most of the people we bring with us become really personally involved with all the things that are going on over there.
Talk about some of the experiences you’ve had on your service expeditions.
Alisa: In 2011, we collected and shipped 500 bicycles to Kenya. Thanks to a couple in our stake who served a mission there, we met a man who had been a bishop for six years in Nairobi and he helped us make sure the bikes were being distributed to those in need. He took me to his village about 9 hours away from Nairobi. We took every form of public transportation you could take—bike taxi, motorcycle taxi, and an 8 person van full of 25 people. We arrived late at night and I walked with him down this muddy little trail to his family home where there was no running water or electricity. I was so surprised since was he was always emailing us—I assumed he had an office! I don’t know what I was thinking after all the time I had spent in Africa. They gave me the room of honor and all their family was crowded in another room. I was awakened by chickens and cows the next morning. He gave me a tour through the banana plantations, sugarcane, and then all the different projects where we have people working— a children’s school, a clinic and an orphanage. We put together a kind of a town hall with a thousand senior citizens because he was so excited to have me tell them about the eyeglasses we were going to send them. Not a child or an adult that I saw there had eyeglasses. If they learn to read once they need glasses, they can’t read anymore, so they can’t do anything. And so that to me seemed like collecting eyeglasses is a really concrete, doable project that we’re going to work on in the future. There were no cars in this town and really the only public transportation was the bikes with the seats they rig on the back for people to sit on. He showed me the schools and the clinics where the bikes we collected were going to be distributed, one bike to each of them so they can go out to get their groceries or whatever they need to do.
Chris: These are used bikes, so we’re also setting up a small workshop where the people will be able to take their bikes to be repaired.
Alisa: Aside from the eyeglasses and bikes, the thing that had the greatest impact on me in Nairobi was Kibera—which is the largest slum in the northern half of Africa other than Soweto. There’s no pavement anywhere in Kibera. When you go, you wind through these miles of kind of really just paths, muddy paths, just trash piled up and mud on top of that and then tin or wooden shanties with just rows and rows and rows of shops. There are streams of putrid water throughout the roads and you can’t get back unless you walk back the same way; there are no cross roads. We walked for miles deep into Kibera to a birthing clinic and I asked the nurse what she does if there is an emergency and she said, “We have to take the woman out in a wheelbarrow because there’s no other way to get her out.”
You mentioned that SAV has started schools and clinics in Africa?
Alisa: We have a crèche (preschool) in Warrenton (the town where my mom lived) that we support. Most of the children are AIDS orphans.
Chris: Most of them are young, two to five years old maybe, before they start school. They have about 150 children in this school when we went there the first time. The second time we went all the windows in the whole school had been broken out. It had been an old railroad warehouse. It gets so cold there in the winter, the roof was coming down, there were no toilets and all these children were in there and it just so sad. So we got windows put in all the whole school that year. This past summer we purchased and installed playground equipment for the school. There was nothing for them to play with, and no playground equipment. There is one woman there who just keeps trying to keep this thing going and has for years now.
Alisa: Every year we go we take some school supplies. We take whatever we can. We came out to paint the school and fix the roof. I remember one night we were trying to get around the school and it was dark and all the lights in the whole place went down and it was pitch black. We should never have been there in the first place at night because you just don’t know…. Here we were, three American women in the middle of this place in the middle of Africa, but the people in the village were watching out for us. They all knew we were there and they were all trying to make sure we were okay and it was just amazing. So you know you just, you do fall in love with that kind of thing.
I can hear how you have fallen in love with the people…
Christi: I think that one of the things that has impressed me most is how gracious they are. They’ll give you the one room in their home and they’ll all go sleep in the kitchen on the floor together, all eight of them. They’ll feed you everything that they have for the next week—because you’re hungry and American—then they probably go pretty hungry for the rest of the week. It’s just so humbling. You think you’re coming there to help them and really they just do so much more for you than you do for them. Another really impressive experience that I had was in Ghana when I stayed with a very gracious family with two sons (twins) who had graduated from high school and were waiting to get into college and couldn’t get a job because the economy was poor. They were not really being very productive and they complained it was because of their poor economy and their country. I challenged them to come out with me since I was going over to these hospitals or to villages to give shots to the people and teach them how to seek treatment. Finally, I was able to talk one of them into going with me and it was just a life changing experience for him. He said he didn’t realize that his neighbors still lived in grass huts next to a creek. A bunch of them had just cleared away some of the bush and were living there and had nothing modern and didn’t know anything about modern healthcare. He was shocked but, just like for us, it totally changed his life. He’s gone on to help a lot of his friends his age realize that during this time they are waiting for college and a job, they can do something productive and effective and make a change in their country and improve it instead of sitting around complaining.
Alisa: When you mention unemployment, it reminds me of when we started in Warrenton, we became familiar with several nonprofit organizations (NGOs) that help out with unemployment. There is something like 80 percent unemployment there. For example, the lady who used to work with our mother in the house is one of the people who runs an NGO there. Although they can’t get paid jobs, the people in her NGO go out and volunteer to AIDS patients in their communities. It’s incredible that even though so many of them are unemployed, they are doing a lot to help each other.
Chris: We had another experience with a young boy who lived on my mother’s farm. Although he was shy, one day he came up to us and told us he had finished high school and was looking for work. It was a big thing for him to be able to graduate from high school and the fact that he actually came to ask for help showed it was clear he really wanted to change his life. So we got him into a local computer program and then we left to come back to America. When we returned, we found out the school didn’t have computers that ever worked and he was still struggling. Finally, we helped him get into a program for electrical engineering. We kept telling him about the Church and he starting to go to church with us. A member there took him under her wing and he joined the Church, and when he graduates he’s planning on going on a mission.
How do you prioritize your projects? You’ve expanded to service throughout the world. How do you decide which projects to take on?
Alisa: Sometimes we see a need and find a way to meet that need. Sometimes resources come to us and then we match a project to that resource. The bikes, for example. We’d been considering bikes as a project for quite a while but then the bikes became available and we had to determine which location would use them most and how would we get them there. On the other hand, when there was the horrible disaster in Haiti we were able to get a lot of people involved in collecting medical and emergency supplies and because we had someone on the ground there could distribute them quickly. So, if we have a strong person on the ground and we have a connection with the community and there’s a need, we can try to fill that need. Our hope is to expand to a lot more communities throughout the world, wherever we find people on the ground who are supportive.
How has your faith impacted your service?
Christi: It’s just part of the Mormon culture to do service and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to us. I think some may hear about what we’re doing and think, “Whoa you do all this voluntarily? You spend all that time and money doing this? Why?” Well, it’s what we do, it’s what Jesus would do, it’s how we’ve been raised. It’s the right thing to do.
Chris: As Mormon women—it’s just part of our being part of being true to what we’ve been raised with and what we believe we should be doing.
Alisa: And I think in a much more formal sense, the structure of the Church has allowed us to learn how to do it, to develop projects: Young Women projects and Relief Society projects…. About half of our volunteers for expeditions are church members.
Christi: They realize that we are serving our brothers and sisters and that we need to help as much as we can.
Alisa: We’ve always received more from them than we’ve given them. It’s that that feeling of warmth and gratitude and appreciation and I think everybody likes to feel appreciated.
Chris: I’m a nurse professionally, and I think that’s part of being a nurse too. As a nurse, you are also doing things for other people, but they’re giving you so much more appreciation back. I’m just giving them a flu shot and they thank me and it makes you feel so good. That’s how you feel when you go to Africa and it’s that spirit of give and take.
What would your message be to other Mormon Women? You all have full plates as mothers and your full time callings in the presidencies of the Relief Society or Young Women. How do you balance it all?
Christi: You get your family involved in it like we’ve done and then it becomes a domino effect. My mom got me involved, then I get someone else involved and they get their kids involved in it too.
Alisa: It comes down to priorities—you know, when you love something enough you’ll make time to do it. We’re all Heavenly Father’s children and deserving of the same blessings, and every time I go to Africa I’m reminded again of how much we have and how little some other people have. I also am reminded of how much spirit they have and sometimes how little spirit we have. It makes you wonder, why we deserve to have so much when others have so little.
I think the Lord expects us to use our God-given abilities that He gave us to help others. I believe as His servants here on this earth that we can go out and help people. He gives us these opportunities to get jobs where we can travel and we have the gospel, so now we need to serve Him by going out and helping others. Happiness and spiritual understanding don’t necessarily come from things.
How can we be more aware of the needs in the world? How can we help?
Alisa: I visualize the difference being between watching war on TV and actually being in the battlefield. You can imagine if you were the soldier on the ground and you saw those people being killed and shot, how different that would be from watching it on television. It’s the same with us telling you about Kibera and actually walking through Kibera, and you can’t come back and not be changed and not want to help.
Christi: I think that one of the best parts of our organization is that it allows for anybody to help in whatever capacity they can. Some people are great at making crafts and we’ve had ladies who’ve sewn bags and then we were able to take them over for the kids to use as schoolbags or they have sewn clothes or knitted scarves for the children in the villages
I wanted to put in a plug for moms of young children at home. I know a lot of times they feel incapacitated and it’s hard work just taking care of these little beings that need so much help. I’ve realized from my own experience going with my mom and now having little kids of my own and taking them overseas that it’s really one of the best things you can do for them because it will change their life and help them realize how much they have and how much they can give. It helps them really focus more on being Christ-like. I know a lot of moms in and out of the Church may feel like they don’t have an identity because their life is taking care of their kids. But everyone has talents and we take whatever they can provide.
At A Glance
Location: Reston, VA
Marital status: Married
Children: 2 children and 8 grandchildren
Occupation: Retired nurse
Schools Attended: Ricks, BYU, and Canada College, CA, RN from Fort Pierce JC, FL, Natal Technicon (Residential Child care diploma) Durban, South Africa.
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “The Spirit of God”
On The Web: www.serveavillage.org
Location: Great Falls, VA
Marital status: Married
Children: 4 children and 5 grandchildren
Occupation: Executive Director — Serve a Village, Flight Attendant
Schools Attended: BYU, BA Communications
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel”
On The Web: www.serveavillage.org
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Marital status: Married
Children: 3 [River (4y); Nya (2y); Soleil (4m)]
Occupation: Full time mom, part time Director of Operations of Serve a Village and Registered Nurse
Schools Attended: BYU (BA- International Relations, MPH); George Mason University (BS – RN)
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Spanish
Favorite Hymn: “Because I Have Been Given Much”
On The Web: www.serveavillage.org
Interview by Melinda Semadeni. Photos used with permission.