Roofs over their heads
Chico woman creates an international organization to build classrooms in West African villages
Natalie Huberman and her husband, Robert, are world travelers with a particular interest in developing nations. The Hubermans, who live in Chico, have journeyed to China, India and Southeast Asia and even spent a week with the shamanistic Mentawai tribe deep in the jungle of Siberut Island, off the coast of Sumatra.
Only when they visited West Africa, though, did Natalie Huberman discover the cause she now says she will be pursuing for the rest of her life. “It hit me like a ton of bricks” is how she describes the moment when she understood her new purpose. “It wasn’t until I got to West Africa that my heart was slammed.”
The result, many months later, is a new international philanthropic organization, LeapingStone, based in Chico and with her as president.
Huberman had witnessed poverty before, but nowhere had she seen it in tandem with such desire for better lives. Unlike the Mentawai, who though poor were happy and wanted to preserve their traditional way of life by avoiding modern society, the people of West Africa craved development.
The Hubermans went to Togo as part of a small tour group that also traveled to the two countries that border it: Ghana on the west and Benin on the east. Togo, which has 6 million people in an area slightly smaller than West Virginia, is a long, thin country whose capital, Lomé, is on the coast, in the far south. The official language is French, but in rural areas people speak a variety of tribal languages.
Their guide was Paul Agboglo, a college-educated man and former teacher of German who worked for the government’s cultural sector. One of eight children, he’d grown up in a village near Tsévié, a regional center about 40 kilometers north of Lomé.
He took them to Dédéké—a “pretty little village,” as Huberman describes it, also near Tsévié. Like virtually all rural Togolese, the several hundred people of Dédéké are subsistence farmers, growing yams and tomatoes and other crops and raising pigs, goats and chickens. The village has no electricity and no source of drinking water. Villagers must walk seven miles to the nearest clean well. The nearest medical clinic is in Tsévié, 10 kilometers away.
The village does have a primary school. There are three teachers, one for each of the three open-air, thatched-roof classrooms. Children who complete the primary grades can attend secondary school in Tsévié, though getting there isn’t easy.
At one point during the tour, Agboglo told the Hubermans about an American woman who had visited the village and the classrooms. When she got home to Atlanta, she raised $1,000 by baking and selling chicken biscuits and sent the money to the school. It paid for a year’s worth of books, uniforms, pens and paper for the 42 students.
Seeing the deep desire of the villagers for a better life, Natalie Huberman began asking them what they wanted. Several things, including better transportation and a new well, were important, they said, but most of all they wanted new classrooms that didn’t leak during the rainy season.
That’s when the “ton of bricks” landed on her. She would do something to help the people of Dédéké get their new classrooms. But what?
The question loomed even larger when the Hubermans returned to Chico, where their comfortable lives—she’s a Pilates instructor; he’s a radiologist—are a world away from subsistence farming in West Africa. They and their three dogs reside in a spacious custom home on two acres that is filled with beautiful artifacts—African masks, Buddha figures, Chinese embroideries—collected during their travels.
Huberman knows how fortunate she is and wants to give back. “I’ve had a blessed life,” she said. “I have a lovely home, a husband who earns a good living, and something I do myself that I enjoy doing.”
At first she tried to contact the Atlanta woman, thinking to augment her bake-sale effort, but she had no success. Then, by chance while vacationing in Yosemite, she and her husband met a man whose business card described him as a “neophyte philanthropist.” They got to talking, and he urged—and later helped—her to form a nonprofit corporation.
Since then she’s put together a board of directors and a Web site (www.leapingstone.org) and obtained nonprofit status for the group. She’s also gone on the Internet and located an association, called Ametoco, representing the 300,000 Togolese living in the United States and Canada. “They’re very excited about LeapingStone and what we’re doing,” Huberman said—to the point of putting the group’s icon on the Ametoco Web site home page (www.ametoco.org) as a link.
Two men she met by Googling “Togolese Americans” proved helpful in connecting her to important people in the country. The most valuable of them has been Eléonore D’Almeida, a Lomé-based banker and consultant. When Huberman, along with two of her board members, returned to Togo in December, D’Almeida had arranged for them to meet with several influential people, including U.S. Ambassador Patricia Hawkings.
“She was very happy to see us and very generous with her time,” Huberman said, adding that Hawkings spent a full 90 minutes with them. LeapingStone, Hawkings told them, was the first grassroots American aid agency in Togo.
The group’s mission is simple enough: “Providing quality, sustainable primary education for girls and boys in West Africa.” Huberman has no intention of stopping at Dédéké. She wants to build schools throughout West Africa—and put in water wells, too.
She’s been in touch with Ron Reed, the Chico attorney who is personally funding a project to dig some 40 wells in Tanzania and, just as important, set up a system that trains and pays for workers to maintain the wells. Huberman says she hopes to work with him in the future.
She and her board members, aware that building classrooms is pointless if the buildings aren’t maintained, have incorporated similar sustainability efforts in their proposal.
Their immediate goal is to have the buildings up by the end of this year. With Dédéké residents providing much of the labor, construction will cost $30,000 to $40,000, “not that much, really,” as Huberman says. In an effort to acquaint Chicoans with her project and drum up donations, she gave a slide presentation during the King Day ceremony on Jan. 18 at Trinity United Methodist Church, and she continues to talk to various groups to enlist their support.
It’s a big job. She says she spends at least four hours a day on it. Her husband, she says, is very supportive, though she likes to joke that it’s all his fault, since he was the person who led her to explore such places as West Africa.
In poor countries, she says, “education is the only answer. … For me, it’s just a matter of giving back to the people I’ve known over the years who have given me so much. I don’t think it’s enough to go through life without giving back.”