Jill Lester, Africa Prize 2008 Keynote Address

October 18, 2008
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Watch video of Jill's remarks.

There is an Irish proverb that perfectly expresses how I feel being with all of you tonight: "There are no strangers here, just friends who haven't met."

Thank you, Peter, for your generous introduction.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honor for me to be here, this evening, with you. And I truly appreciate your warm welcome.

For me, this Africa Prize gala dinner is not simply an event. For me, and I hope for you as well, it is an experience. It is the experience of being with one another, the experience of being inspired by our Africa Prize laureates. It is taking the time to feel pride in The Hunger Project's work, and pride in who we are as global citizens.

Tonight is our opportunity to together feel the pure and unbridled joy of a celebration at one of our African epicenters. It is an experience unlike any other, a time of real joy.

If you have never been to an African epicenter, let me tell you what it is like. First, you have travelled for two or three hours through the countryside, as it becomes more and more remote. Then, as you approach the epicenter, you begin to hear the faint sounds of drum beats. As you get closer, you see a beautiful banner, painted by the ommunity, welcoming you to the celebration. Throngs of women, men and children are all dressed in their finest. They are exuberant. They are dancing and singing. Everyone is excited to welcome the visitors and show them around their epicenter - joyful to share what they have accomplished.

And it is then that you realize that this is not just a significant moment for yourself. This is an important and affirming moment for the entire epicenter community. They are very, very proud. And you experience that pride as members of the community walk you through their epicenter; as you are shown a simple and clean health clinic, the first they have ever had; as the women walk you through their bank and tell you of the small businesses started with their loans.

When you see the girls and boys learning in the nursery school - well, as a mother, I understood the pride in their parents' eyes, so pleased that their children have the chance at something they never had.

You see that pride as members of the food committee show you the epicenter's food bank overflowing with the harvest. Given this year's food crisis, can you imagine the immense significance of this?

Indeed, one of the most valuable, and most precious gifts I have ever received was a huge bushel of grain from the women at the Kiruhura Epicenter in Uganda. People, who so recently were facing chronic life-long hunger, were sharing with me the gift of food. And it was wrapped in the most wonderful and colorful cloth woven by the village women. It was such a treasured gift and it was given with such pride, generosity and gratitude.

This year, as I have visited epicenters in Ghana and Uganda, I have been filled with joy, pride, optimism and confidence-confidence that The Hunger Project is not just making a difference, it is truly helping people to move to a new place for their life's journey.

It is my hope that tonight we are all experiencing some of that same joy, pride and optimism, as we celebrate together, as we honor civil society leadership, as we reflect on the amazing results being produced.

It is true that we are facing some big challenges-meeting the Millennium Development Goals, climate change, a world economy in crisis (which, as it always does, will have its worst impact on the poorest of the poor). Now, I don't want to underplay these, but we should always remember no winter lasts forever, no spring misses its turn.

Be assured that The Hunger Project is poised for a great future, where we will have greater impact, more influence, improved visibility.

Be confident that we will achieve this. And we'll do it with our new strategic direction. This will be a roadmap for us all to share. I will speak more on this, and in greater detail, tomorrow. For now, let me just say that one key aspect of this strategic direction will be partnerships.

Partnerships have always been valued within The Hunger Project, but as we look towards our future, we want to build alliances, collaborations, partnerships with many like-minded organizations.

So, our Africa Prize this year which honors civil society leadership for the empowerment of women is doubly important. Not only are we rightfully celebrating the enormous contribution these often unsung leaders are making for the people of Africa. We are also affirming The Hunger Project's mission: to empower rural women and men to end their own hunger and poverty.

Since 1987, The Hunger Project has honored African leadership in its many dimensions. We have celebrated grassroots leaders, such as the millions of African women food farmers who feed the continent. We have honored political leaders, heads of state, like the first woman ever elected president of an African country, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

And, this year, with the Africa Prize, we put the spotlight on those at the forefront of working with grassroots people. These are risk-takers - people who make great sacrifices, sometimes even at their own peril. Pioneers, motivated by their goal, by a belief, often with little or no support, but armed with their creativity, resourcefulness and passion. Tonight, we are specifically honoring path breakers, who have dedicated their lives to supporting Africa's women; trailblazers, who embody what Kofi Annan has said so beautifully: "the best way for Africa to thrive is to ensure that its women have the freedom power and knowledge to make decisions affecting their own lives and those of their families and communities."

Yet too many of Africa's women have no voice.

And so tonight, we celebrate the leaders who are listening to what women have to say, and then amplifying their voices so they begin to be heard, mobilizing them to become a force to be reckoned with. And sometimes, just sometimes, political leaders hear what is important, hear what is needed and respond.

Dear friends, that is why tonight we honor civil society leaders on the frontlines of empowering Africa's women.

Please join with me in celebrating these magnificent leaders - these passionate, courageous, visionary leaders!

And just as these women and these men are leading the charge in creating a peaceful and prosperous Africa, you, our Hunger Project investors, are in the vanguard of demonstrating what it truly means to be a global citizen.

You are at the forefront of demonstrating, in very tangible ways, how the world's financial resources should and can be shared to ensure that every woman, man and child will lead a life of self-reliance and dignity.

You have recognized that when people do not need to worry about their own, and their children's, hunger they are free to unleash their creativity.

I saw a great example of this at the Wakiso Epicenter in Uganda. It was there that I met a woman named Sophie.

Now just imagine, it is a few short years ago, and you are Sophie. Imagine what life was like. Imagine sitting over an open fire, everyday, breathing in unhealthy smoke. This is after you have been up since dawn, feeding the children, working in the field, collecting and carrying firewood. This was Sophie's life, day after day, year after year.

That is, until she found she no longer had to concentrate all her energies on scraping together barely enough to survive.

You see it was then that Sophie became an inventor. She has invented an oven, an oven that emits less unhealthy smoke and cooks with less fuel. Now Sophie is an entrepreneur. With a loan from the microfinance program, she is selling her invention to other women. Her oven is better for the environment; it's healthier for the women; and it reduces their drudgery.

And all this is possible because of your continued partnership.

Above all you have realized, as so many have not, that an integrated approach to development is the only way to go. And it is for this, and for all these reasons, that I want to personally thank you.

It is your leadership, as Hunger Project investors, that has brought us to this place, this time, this moment.

As you know, throughout Africa, people, mostly women, walk for miles carrying monstrously heavy loads on their heads. We wonder, "how can they do that?"

And when we ask, we're told that it's done with the help of a simple piece of cloth. They place a small ring of cloth on top of their heads, which gives just the right support, to balance that heavy load.

In Ghana, some of our partners in the villages say that The Hunger Project is just like that small piece of fabric, and they themselves are the basket.

In it they see themselves. They accept that they are the ones who carry the responsibility, the capacity and ultimately the solution for creating their new future. They know this. They want this.

And, the fabric is The Hunger Project made up of threads, literally millions of threads - all our partners around the world, our Board, our staff, and you, our Hunger Project investors. All these many threads are woven together to make a fabric that is indestructible.

When I first joined this wonderful organization, I came across a graceful, simple, yet powerful African proverb that summed up all my thoughts: "If you want to travel fast travel alone. But if you want to travel far, travel together."

We, The Hunger Project, will continue to travel far since we are resolved to travel together. We have an ambitious goal, but it is a goal we will reach because we believe we can.

One person who understood ambitious goals was Helen Keller. She said "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."

Together we are moving along our chosen path to a future where all women, men and children live lives of self-reliance and dignity.

In many ways, tonight is the joyful, magnificent, unforgettable celebration of an epicenter inauguration. This evening, just as during an epicenter inauguration, we honor African leadership. We honor women and men of the developing world who are ending their own hunger and poverty.

Tonight is a celebration of how far we have come.

Tonight is a celebration of the distance we intend to travel.

Dear friends, tonight, together, we inaugurate our future.