The one question that I get asked most often is:
Why did you do it?
This is usually accompanied by an incredulous gaze. Even a lifting of the eyebrows.
The “it” refers to my life as a Vogue editor in Paris covering the fashion collections, dining with designers, shooting famous models and celebrities, and of course being showered with gifts from Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, and all those mythical haute couture firms. Yes, that was me: hair done, nails done, and a car waiting outside. Perching on a tiny gilded chair at the cat walk shows right next to Anna Wintour, my former boss, who gave my career an amazing jump-start by promoting me to Photo Editor at British Vogue when I was just 19 years old. By the time I was thirty or so, I had written 13 books on fashion photography and interior design, and had travelled the world—business class.
But there was something else—and a big something, at that. In 1990, I had fostered a gorgeous five-year-old girl named Sabrina. She had long skinny legs, a huge smile, and a fantastic appetite for life. She also had a dysfunctional family who abused and manipulated her after the death of her biological mother.
When Sabrina was 12 years old, I was finally granted full adoption. I fled my golden life in Paris to go and live with her in my hometown of Barcelona, Spain. My priority was to remove her from her previous twisted environment. But the damage had been done. Sabrina was soon thrown out of school, and began seriously acting out.
After seeking professional help, the prognosis was clear: “Take her to volunteer,” a professional told me. “She needs to cultivate her empathy, see how bad life can really be for abandoned children.”
So that summer of 2002, when she was 17 and I was 35 and full of good intentions, we flew off to Ghana to volunteer in an orphanage.
What I found there was worse than you can possibly imagine: child labor on the vast farms, children removed from school so they could work for the orphanage, teenage pregnancy, children deprived of food with mandatory fasts, corporal punishment at the slightest provocation, flies everywhere, untreated sickness, unexpected disappearances, unexplained deaths…
I felt that I had to right these wrongs. Acutely sensitive to children because of what I had experienced with Sabrina, I was filled with rage at these appalling abuses. Because of what my own child had gone through, I felt the pain of all these children.
I started my charity, OAfrica, a few months later, and moved to Ghana a few months after that. I have lived there for over 12 years now in a tiny mud-hut village. My charity works closely with the government to rescue children from illegal orphanages and resettle them with their extended family. A census revealed that 96% of 149 orphanages were illegal. We also discovered that most of the children were not orphans at all, but in fact had been separated from their families. 80% of the children could be resettled in their own communities. (You can read more on OAfrica.org)
It is uplifting work, but it is also a difficult existence. There are the obvious reasons like being far from family and friends, the unrelenting heat and humidity, and the malaria and other tropical diseases; the unfamiliar food, the snakes, and the giant insects. More serious challenges have included death threats, arson, and an armed attack. But to offset all that, every day I wake up and feel that I am part of the solution. Thousands of lives are being transformed as OAfrica’s advocacy leads to families being reunited, kids going to school, and teens even attending college.
One of the most serious problems that we face in Africa is the funding of abusive and illegal orphanages by well-meaning foreigners. I spend a lot of time spreading awareness of this issue. Research proves that for every three months spent in an orphanage, a baby loses a month of cognitive ability—and that is not reversible. It is important to get kids out of these unregulated “holding pens” and into families as soon as possible.
I love the transformational aspect of what I do. Last year, on Valentine’s Day I began to write a memoir called Who Knows Tomorrow to document that process. The act of writing forced me to ask myself that persistent question: Why did you do it?
Through writing my book, I realized that I was consumed by a passion for equal rights, for justice, for fairness, for righting wrongs. I found my true essence: that of the warrior. And I found the answer.
The answer is love.
Please join me as we resettle children in their families and give them the life chances they deserve.
Lisa Lovatt-Smith began her career in magazine publishing at the age of eighteen working for British Vogue. At nineteen she became the youngest photo editor in Condé Nast history. In 2002, Lisa left everything behind to work with orphaned children in Ghana. Today Lisa lives in a mud hut in Ghana, where she runs the organization she founded, OAfrica. The Charity is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that is an implementing partner of the Government of Ghana National Plan Of Action for Orphans and Vulnerable Children. The goal is to ensure that orphans and vulnerable children in Ghana grow up in safe and permanent family settings with appropriate care and protection. To learn more about Lisa and OAfrica visit: , www.oafrica.org or by following Lisa on Twitter @OAfricaorg.
Who Knows Tomorrow, her memoir about her work, love and life is available now online and wherever books are sold. A percentage of all books sold will support OAfrica.
This post was provided with support from Weinstein Books.