This article was published as part of #GivingTuesday's #WomenWhoGive series, which celebrates women who give back in their communities.
Wendee Nicole is the Founder & Director of Redemption Song Foundation, a community based organization working with indigenous Batwa pygmies in southwest Uganda. She also leads a nonprofit organization registered in Frisco, Texas, US. Read the full interview below with Wendee to learn more about what inspires her to give.
Q1: How do you give back?
I’ve devoted the last 3 years of my life to running my organization, Redemption Song Foundation, in Uganda empowering the Batwa in one very impoverished village. I first visited Uganda on a journalism grant in January 2014. I’d seen poverty on every continent but nothing like I saw with the indigenous Batwa tribe. The tribe had been evicted from their ancestral forest homeland in 1991 when the country created Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to save endangered mountain gorillas, but the Batwa - hunter-gatherers who lived in the forest - received no land or money in compensation and today still live in desperate poverty. After returning to Texas, I knew in my heart I must help. So I sold my house and 90% of my belongings, formed Redemption Song Foundation, and moved to Uganda in September 2014.
As one of my board members told me, what inspired her to serve on our board is that I dove in 100% and give with my whole self. “That takes guts, vision, and a hopeful belief in humanity,” she said. I am persistent, and fight for the environmental justice of these disenfranchised people in the best way I know how. After learning what they want and need, we started a fair trade artisan coop that sells their handmade baskets in the U.S. and funds come back to help develop their community in a sustainable, healthy manner. We seek donations to sponsor the kids in school and run a weekly Educational Soup Kitchen for Batwa kids. This is a village rife with alcoholism, prostitution, HIV, domestic and child abuse, and the pain they carry from the loss of their culture and homeland. I just try to love them unconditionally as best as I can, and to "slowly by slowly” show them hope for the future. We recently raised money for a clean water system, installing a storage tank and two clean water taps in their village, so they don’t die of preventable waterborne diseases that plague the area.
Q2: What inspired you to start giving?
I had travelled the world, but the Batwa captured my heart, and the deep, grave injustices they were served inspired me to give back. Even though I myself had a father who was on welfare and used food stamps, and we lived in a log cabin with no running water, an outhouse, and a wood stove, when I saw the tiny shacks and huts the Batwa lived in, I knew my “poor American" log cabin would have been a palace to them. Today, the Batwa have little political clout, are actively discriminated against, and unfortunately still give away more of their power by staying stuck in unhealthy patterns like alcoholism and unprotected sex, which leads to HIV/AIDS deaths. I don¹t know why I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog, but this particular village was neglected even by other organizations who were helping other Batwa communities in the region. I just knew I could help in some small way, and I do believe we have made a big difference. I provide holistic love and care for one whole village of Batwa and their kids.
Q3: What does giving mean to you? Why do you continue to give your time, talents, money, or more to your community?
My father, the one who still lives in a log cabin, worked at a food bank most of his life, and my life and career were inspired by his passion for giving back. I raised two kids as a single mother, and when they went off to college, I was ready to move beyond my small life in Texas to something bigger, and my first visit to Uganda arose at the right time. My kids were about to leave for college, and I had the freedom to move. Can you believe that mountain gorillas had actually been my favorite animal since I was 13 years old? There are no coincidences. Last but not least, I am a Christian and believe that we need more who heed the words of Jesus about caring for the poor, widows and orphans in Matthew 25, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me.”