Messenger of hope

Through the MacArthur Foundation, Oak Parker finds light on the dark continent

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By TOM HOLMES

If you set out to find a positive story on Africa, you may have to wait until your grandchildren have grown old.

So predicted an op-ed piece that African Business magazine ran in 2004. As of the year before, though, Elizabeth Chadri was starting to know better. Through her work with the MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Park mom of three, not even a grandmother yet, has since been rounding up good headlines from the dark continent.

Take Rwanda, for example. It's not genocide that Chadri first mentions talking about the central African nation. It's mountain gorillas.

"Conservation of mountain gorillas," says Chadri: "a wonderful story."

As a program officer in Conservation and Sustainable Development for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chadri makes grant recommendations, drafts strategies for funding and then monitors the progress of programs she's helped fund.

Her territory is eastern Africa and Madagascar. Her well of support is one of the nation's richest philanthropies.

In Rwanda, she's helped park workers ¡ª wardens and their staff ¡ª who guard the protected areas of forest near Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a habitat for mountain gorillas that's also a fight zone for warring militias. So committed are park workers to shielding the endangered animals for which they're responsible, they risk getting shot to shield the gorillas.

The mountain gorillas are surviving. And support for them is uniting the community.

Chadri's journey from her native Kenya to an office in the Loop where she can give back to Africa is a long one.

A student of botany, zoology and education, her first job out of college in Kenya was teaching biology. After getting a master's degree from Kenyatta University, she worked for the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. She earned another master's degree in the United Kingdom while working for an agency that also focused on environmental education. From there she joined the African Wildlife Foundation, juggling assignments in Nairobi, South Africa and Uganda.

It was in that role that she first made contact with the MacArthur Foundation, which was funding one of her group's projects. She joined MacArthur in November 2003, moving her work life to an office on S. Dearborn in Chicago and her family to Oak Park. From her 12th floor office in the storied Marquette Building, she commands $4 million a year in grant money.

"When I tell people what I do," she says, laughing, "they think it's easy giving money away. In reality, it's a lot of work. There are so many people doing such good work. How do you say ¡®no'? How do you choose between people?"

That makes February a tough month for her at work. Letters of inquiry come in then. She spends the rest of the winter researching and evaluating proposals.

"Many of the organizations we support consist of smart people who know what they're doing. We're just able to provide a little bit of extra support," Chadri says.

The rebirth of Rwandan society is happening, Chadri says, because government officials who have integrity are working with citizens who have hope. She attributes a good deal of the Rwandan success story to the leadership of Paul Kagame, president since 2000.

"He's visionary in many ways," says Chadri. "There is a can-do spirit in many government officials. They look for ways to make things happen instead of blocking you, as in some other countries. You get a sense of dynamism."

Chadri says that she's met many people in Rwanda who are determined to move on. What especially impressed her as a woman was how safe she felt in a country that easily could be sliding into a downward spiral of vengeful violence. "You are able to do whatever you want to do at any time of the day or night. There aren't a lot of countries in which you can do that and feel safe."

What puts a twinkle in Chadri's eyes is her report that not only does she have easy access to government officials in Rwanda, but that they're eager to do what they can to help. "Does that surprise you?" she asks. "Since the genocide, people carry all sorts of perceptions when they go there. But when they arrive, they are surprised at the peace there is in the country."

Among Chadri's good-news stories from Africa are reports of projects her foundation is funding in Rwanda's neighbor to the north, Uganda. Oil and gas have been discovered in the Albertine Rift portion of Uganda, which includes some protected areas. According to Chadri, the MacArthur Foundation has granted $300,000 to a nongovernmental group called Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment. The grant is in support of an attempt to monitor exploration of oil and gas deposits in the national parks and efforts to reduce the environmental impact of exploration and production.

In addition to keeping an eye on corporations and the government, Chadri says, ACODE is monitoring the social impact that the explorations are having on people who live close to the protected areas. The group is trying to reconcile the neighbors' rights to make a living with policies that conserve natural resources.

Specifics of project success stories gush from Chadri, but general references to a continental spirit also punctuate reminiscences of Africa by this proud native.

"We have close ties, close extended family ties, close social ties ¡ª so important for navigating the stresses of day-to-day life. When major stresses occur, like the current economic crisis, this is very important. And I miss it a lot."

 

Chadri's sense of mission continues when she gets home from the office. In addition to being there for her two sons still in school in Oak Park ¡ª Isaac at OPRF and Samuel at Brooks Middle School ¡ª and for her husband, Charles, a teacher at Hyde Park High School, Chadri is a mentor with a program in Austin.

She invests a lot of her time making sure her boys stay on top of their school work and watching them play sports. Sammy plays soccer; Isaac wrestles and plays football. A son away at college plays rugby, a sport that doesn't worry her as much as football. For all the pads and helmets in this American sport, Chadri still sweats the violent collisions, she says.

She's also helping to get a small nonprofit, Nile Care Corp., up and running. Nile Care supports education and water projects in the West Nile region of Uganda, her husband's land of birth. It also helps Ugandans who have immigrated to the United States.

Beyond coaching for overwhelming layers of paperwork and bureaucracy, orientation to the cultural differences is a concern for Chadri.

"This society is more individualistic than in Africa, where people tend to be more communal," she says. "We think about ourselves more as a group. You don't want to stick out as an individual."

And then, of course, there's the matter of finding food that's familiar.

"It was exciting for us to find that the food is here," she says. "It's here, but you have to look for it."

To buy chicken and goat meat flown in from Africa, she'll travel as far as Devon Avenue on Chicago's North Side. There, Chadri boasts, she can also find particular kinds of rice, cassava, millet flour and sweet potatoes ¡ª "as we know them."

 

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