“The universe is always speaking to us. … Sending us little messages, causing coincidences and serendipities, reminding us to stop, to look around, to believe in something else, something more.” – Nancy Thayer
The day that I met Barbara Karoline Hofmann, the founder of non-profit organisation ASEM (Association Pour Les Enfants de Mozambique), the universe wasn’t just talking to me, it was yelling at me with a big flashing neon sign in one hand…
It was a golden winter afternoon – 15th, December 2015 – on the final day of an exhibition that Create Hub Gallery (now Akka Project) was hosting at a beautiful outdoor restaurant in Dubai. My family and I were looking forward to a festive break in Mozambique, soaking up the sun and drenching ourselves in the turquoise waters of that stunning southern African country, although I was also planning on expanding Create Hub Gallery’s artistic talent as part of a wider plan to bring more African art to the UAE.
I stepped outside of the gallery space for just a moment to catch a breath of fresh air when I caught a snippet of a conversation between a young girl and a dark-blonde woman with friendly eyes, probably in her late forties or early fifties.
“How old are you?” the woman asked the child with an accent that I couldn’t quite place, but imagined to be French. (I later found out that Barbara is Swiss.)
“Eight,” the girl replied.
“Back home in Mozambique, I have a daughter about your age,” the woman replied, smiling.
My sixth sense bristled: what were the chances of meeting someone who lived in Mozambique – a European woman, especially – a day before I was set to journey there? My curiosity got the better of me and I went over to say hello. Introducing myself, I told Barbara about my travel plans, and she was kind enough to invite me for a coffee in Mozambique. Much obliged, I met her soon after I arrived, and had a talk that would change my life.
“So the eight-year-old daughter that I told the little girl about in Dubai is just one of hundreds of my sons and daughters,” Barbara began over a steaming cup, a twinkle in her eye. “But I’m getting ahead of myself… I was born in 1962 in Affoltern in Zurich, and I studied Business and Finance in Switzerland. In 1989, working in banking and multinational business, I found myself in Beira in Mozambique by chance – although I don’t much believe in coincidence. It was at the height of the civil war and the violence and the after effects that I was saw were incredibly disheartening, especially on the lives of the children. I made a decision to devote my life to Mozambique and it’s youth, which is what I did.”
Selling everything she owned and quitting her stable job, Barbara moved to Mozambique – a country that suffered from 30 years of civil war, ending in 1992, followed by three years of serious drought – with a dream. She opened ASEM, a non-profit organisation that aims to protect children affected by war, those in distress, in extreme poverty, affected by HIV or AIDs, or those that have been orphaned or abandoned, with the idea being to provide them with care, shelter, educational support and professional training.
“It was really tough in the beginning,” Barbara admits. “When I opened the first centre in Macurungo we only had four tents for 40 children; two tents for sleeping, one to teach the children in, and one that acted as a warehouse. I enlisted the help of the kids I was caring for to build shelters with me as the numbers grew, and while it was crowded, it was better than living on the streets. There were days where we went without food and I had to collect scraps from homes in the area to make soup, but the fear and abuse were gone. The children’s healing could finally begin.”
Since then, Barbara has helped over 20,000 children with schooling, health care, shelter, psychological support, vocational training and more, with over 700 children being assisted in rejoining their families and getting reintegrated into their community. Many of the children that Barbara helped in the nineties are now adults working at ASEM as volunteers.
“There is always something that we can do for others, and while it may be hard, it is always so worth it,” she says.
I was so moved by Barbara’s story and her incredible work, that as soon as I got back to Dubai I set to work arranging an exhibition of African artists to raise awareness about ASEM. The response was wonderful, and it soon became clear to me that positivity inspires positivity. Take a look at photos from the exhibition:
I’m so pleased I went over to say hello to Barbara that day. If you take anything from this blog, let it be this: always trust your instincts.
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March 2017, we went back to visit the children’s centre, MAJIANZA, that Barbara runs in Vilanculos and I wanted to take my family there to show them the incredible work she does. Walking through the beautiful countryside and drinking in the views of an azure coastline, I fell in love with Mozambique all over again, and – after viewing the MAJIANZA centre – I was also inspired to do more to help Barbara with her important charity work.
MAJIANZA really does incredible work for the children in its care. While Barbara is not able to register the space officially as a school – due to red tape and bureaucratic challenges – she does employ a couple of people that assist with basic education, including teaching numbers, the alphabet and art. At the moment the centre operates without electricity, so the kids are taught only during the day hours and entertained with one acoustic guitar, and other indoor and outdoor activities that feature elementary playing and learning materials. There is no running water but, fortunately, Vilanculos is blessed with natural lakes which means that water can be collected, cleaned and cooled for consumption.
Lakes also mean fish. Because Barbara has to raise money herself to provide for the centre, fish caught in the nearby lakes is sold, with the cash made being put straight back in to the organisation. The property’s resident chickens – and sometimes the eggs they lay – are also sold to raise funds.
While the centre and its facilities are basic, like Mozambique itself, the space boasts enormous potential. This is one of the reasons why my family and I have decided to spend more time helping Barbara generate awareness around her centre and, hopefully, contributing to its infrastructure and development moving forward so that it becomes self-sustaining. Situated a mere 45-minute boat ride away from the luxury holiday islands of Bazaruto, with the right support and vision I believe we will be able to draw tourists to the centre, bringing much-needed attention and support to it and – hopefully – a brighter future for the kids living there.
I am also talking to individuals and companies to bring electricity and running water, secure the property with fence, install the doors and the windows, donate to the center all the needed materiale as: art supplies, musical instruments, provide them with all the necessary to create a space in which events, classes and workshops can be held – think traditional dance or art classes for tourists coming from the Bazaruto islands – or build a sports camp for the local community. The long-term goal is to bring people in to see the great work that Barbara is doing, and to assist her with regards to finding innovative ways to finance the centre holistically and organically. The centre needs to remain open in order to continue being a beacon of hope, and to encourage the local community to become self-sustaining in to the future.
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Since the beginning or our friendship with Barbara, in the late 2015 until now, we have personally contributed to improve the life at the Majianza Center, but there is still more that can be done!
Following photos of children and projects that we have supported: