How a 17-year-old girl from Mumbai became a brand ambassador of an African nation

Dec 03, 2017, 14:04 IST | Anju Maskeri

How did a 17-year-old from Mumbai become the brand ambassador of an African nation? Neysa Sanghavi takes us behind the scenes

Last September, when 17-year-old Neysa Sanghavi landed in Rwanda with her mother, Dr Sejal, she was surprised to see how developed the country was, what with major retail outlets dotting the streets. "I had a different perception of the place. When I called up my friend from the airport, she I asked me if there were people walking around in traditional outfits and carrying spears," she laughs. Sanghavi's interest in the country took root in one of her English classes where the discussion was around the novel, Things Fall Apart written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and the different communities in Africa. It was further intensified after conversations with her mother, who had practised homeopathy in Rwanda.

Neysa Sanghavi with Burundian refugee kids at the Nyanza camp run by NGO Avega Agahozo
Neysa Sanghavi with Burundian refugee kids at the Nyanza camp run by NGO Avega Agahozo 

So, she decided to embark on a week-long trip to the country in order to understand the place better. She enrolled with Avega Agahozo (Rwanda Genocide Widows Association), which was created to help survivors of the 1994 genocide. Today, the student of Singapore International School, Dahisar, has been named Rwanda's brand ambassador in India by the African country's high commission in India, for her work among its refugees and genocide survivors over the past one year. "It still hasn't sunk in," she tells us, going on to narrate how her mother woke her up at midnight to break the news.

"I did a fair amount of research before my first trip, which lasted seven days. On that trip I focused only on the historical aspect. In my second trip I wanted to look into the refugee crisis," she says. Being a minor, getting access to camps proved to be a roadblock, but that's when her mother's connections helped. Their family friend, Clarence Fernandes, a travel agent in Rwanda, contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to inform them of an Indian student who wanted to volunteer at a camp for refugees. "I got permissions so long as I was accompanied by my mother," she says.

Sanghavi's second trip in June was to the Mahama camp, on the border of Tanzania, where those who escaped from Burundi reside. The camp opened in April 2015 and is home to 50,000 refugees. "I realised the refugees living there are average people like you and me, who can't practice their profession because they aren't citizens of that country," says Sanghavi who interacted with doctors and lawyers at the camp. Together with her mother, they came up with business models to generate livelihood. Being a student of biotechnology, she decided to create organic fertilisers by tapping into resources like bananas and red soil. During this time, she realised how rampant malaria was, with over 50 per cent of the refugees being diagnosed with it, due to the large swamp near the camp. "The issue was not just health related, but even cultural. They don't see it as a problem because they have normalised it. It was a challenge to help them realise it's a problem that needs to be eliminated."  Sanghavi's next challenge is her Std XII exams. She wants to wrap this up and work on her next project in Rwanda. "I've made friends there and can't wait to go back," she smiles

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