Amy Wendel is wispy and soft-spoken and earnest, not the kind you can easily picture staring down a band of shakedown artists in Africa.
Yet that was where she was last January in Tanzania, bargaining with government officials who had gotten wind there was an American with cash she could probably be relieved of. Officially, they informed her that she had entered the country — which she happens to adore — on the wrong kind of visa. And that the proper visa could be had, but for a sum she had no intention of paying.
In the end, they met in the middle. “I had to pay people off,” she said.
Wendel is the founder and guiding force of a Boston-based charity you probably don’t know about, but ought to. Project MEMA, which she founded in 2010, is helping to bring education to impoverished children in Moshi, Tanzania, a town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Poverty in Moshi is unlike anything we know in America. Many families live on as little as $500 a year, while schooling costs around $300. Wendel’s charity, which she runs without pay while she works a 9-to-5 office job, has helped finance and refurbish two nursery schools, whose needs could hardly be more basic.
Wendel, who’s 31, grew up in New Jersey and moved to Boston for college, where she earned an undergraduate degree at Northeastern and a master’s in art history at Harvard. She doesn’t really know what ignited her passion for Africa.
“I just always was drawn to Africa,” she said in an interview. “I don’t know what it was. It sounds totally weird for a white girl. But I just had to go there. When I finished my thesis, this thing in Tanzania was really percolating. When I got there, it sort of switched from loving the environment to loving the people, specifically the people at Magareza nursery school.”
She first visited as a volunteer for a charity, then formed a group and soon began to raise money and launch Project MEMA. The name is an acronym for Making Education in Moshi Accessible. “But mema also means ‘good’ in Swahili, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Project MEMA helps about 150 families afford nursery school. Classrooms have been built, and new furniture has replaced decrepit benches. Such steps, she believes, are the seeds of opportunity.
She’s greatly aided in all this by volunteers, including one with the fabulous name of Living Kiwelu. He sends progress reports and pictures every few days . Project MEMA has also begun working with the Knox Foundation on a project to make school accessible for teenage girls.
The group’s small — well, shoestring — budget comes from modest fund-raisers.
Eric Borthwick, a board member, marvels at her focus. “You see her in Boston and she's this dainty well-put-together woman who starts talking about kids and she’s ready to cry,” he said. “In Tanzania, she’s a different person. . . . It’s almost impossible to get anything done in Tanzania, and she’s totally able to navigate that.”
She’ll be back in a few months, and clearly believes she is just getting started.
“I can’t wait to get back and see everything that’s gone on,” she said.