Just as an intro in case anyone didn’t know, I founded Double Up Drive, a nonprofit that fundraises for other charities. At the time of this writing, we have raised about $25 Million(!). But this blog is just my personal thoughts and observations during my recent trip to visit one of the charities I’ve fundraised for through Double Up Drive, StrongMinds. It is not indicative of any Double Up Drive positions.
StrongMinds provides group therapy for women in Africa (currently Zambia and Uganda). These groups have been ~75-80% effective at treating conditions like depression at a very reasonable cost. Women who complete StrongMind’s 8-12 week therapy program often go on to lead therapy groups of their own, which ultimately means the program continues to scale quite nicely. Often, these groups continue to meet informally even after the program ends. There are an estimated 66 million women who struggle with depression in Sub-Saharan Africa… StrongMinds has treated 140,000 women so far.
For a long time, StrongMinds’ CEO & Founder Sean Mayberry has wanted me to make the journey out to Africa to see the facility and observe some sessions. In February I finally took Sean up on his invitation. And since I was looking at a~30 hour flight with two connections), I elected to make a two-week trip out of it. (FYI: if you’re ever flying from JFK, the Emirates flight that goes from JFK to Lusaka by way of Dubai is a smooth enough trip, with a relatively short layover.)
I started with a few days in Dubai, spent 3 days in Lusaka with StrongMinds, and then went on a week-long animal safari.
Something on a personal note I’m going to take away from this… if there’s something you want to do that’s a big commitment, just lock it down on the calendar. Otherwise, something always comes up. Had I waited, I likely would have been very tempted by EPT Monaco and Triton Madrid, and possibly tried to watch Nadal win on clay courts in Paris. I will be mindful of this in the future, next time I really want to do something, I’ll just book it so that backing out would be more of a process.
I’m going to go through the trip chronologically.
Dubai– I thought starting with a few days in Dubai would help break up the flight and get a head start on jet lag. I went to the beach, saw the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), went to Ferrari World (fastest roller coaster in the world), and the Dubai Aquarium (it was awesome). But I imagine there’s a lot of similarly interesting stuff you could do. With more time, I would have jumped out of a plane (the really tall buildings are supposed to be very scenic) and gone indoor scuba diving. I could see spending a few days here any time I was flying somewhere that would result in a tough layover.
On the way to Dubai, I had breakfast with a friend, who asked me, “Why StrongMinds?” I didn’t have an answer ready then, but after further reflection, I suppose the best answer I have is… because it works.
Zambia (Lusaka) (days 4-7)
Zambia is one of the most impoverished places in the world. More than 58% of Zambia lives on less than $2 per day. The average of Zambia’s economy has been going up over the recent years… but it isn’t really indicative of changing economic conditions, as I believe most of those economic gains are at the top, and I don’t believe that the median hasn’t gotten that much better.
In Lusaka, 80% of the population lives in large group slums called compounds. There are ten slums throughout Lusaka, each which seemed to have its own culture despite only being a few hundred years away from the next compound.
Sean and I spent two days walking through the compounds, talking to the locals, and attending therapy sessions, which someone from StrongMind’s team would translate.
It sounds obvious but seeing this kind of poverty in person was very impactful. What struck out to me… was just how human everything felt. I kind of imagined life would be entirely unfathomable, but it really did feel… real. It was wild to be in such a poor place, be entirely safe, even as an outsider. Obviously in many parts of the world, heading to the poorest parts of their major cities would not be a smart idea. And I feel the need to point out that being an affluent white person in a resource-poor African country had me thinking about racial disparities a lot, though I don’t have the experience or the nuance to discuss it. Children in Lusaka would follow me around calling me Mozuganue (white person), giving me fist bumps while giggling. It was funny and adorable.
The locals were very welcoming, eager to chat, and even opened their homes to us. It was challenging to see such dire poverty, but I’m happy that I did. I think almost anyone would find it very impactful to see and experience this firsthand. How could you not want to help?
The therapy sessions were even more impactful. The women were really dealing with some difficult issues. Some examples that stood out to me:
1) Commonly being treated poorly (to put it lightly) by their husbands
2) Not having enough money to pay for their child’s school fees
3) Feeling too weak/depressed after the death of a loved one to consider working
4) People being sick and not getting sufficient help from the clinic
These are obviously remarkably heavy, and hard to deal with, problems. But they were giving each other good practical advice, such as not being too proud to rely on loved ones for support, trying to focus on the good, various breathing exercises they learned, etc. In one session, the participants were asked to compare this week’s emotional state to last week’s, and it was nice to hear the participants discuss the positive effect the sessions were having.
When our group was leaving the compound, the neighborhood “watchmen” stopped us and asked what we were doing there. When Sean explained who he was, the man said “God bless you” and shook his hand. While I knew we were making a difference in these women’s lives, I was surprised that it was apparent enough that men who were not directly involved would recognize it.
It was nice to get to meet the SM Zambia team. It was very clear to me how truly passionate the entire team is, and what a well-run operation they have going on.
On the last day of the trip, former SM therapy members, who now lead groups of their own, shared stories of overcoming their own adversity, which was touching to see. It also was just a truly eye-opening experience to a world I knew almost nothing about.
StrongMinds is doing a similar trip in Uganda, and I’m told any friends of mine would be welcome to join if you are interested!
Lastly, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk up another Strongmind’s project. Building on their successes in Africa, StrongMinds plans to pilot their model in the United States in 2022 to democratize access to mental health care among marginalized and underserved communities. The pilot will focus on supporting BIPOC youth in New Jersey. It would be fascinating, and potentially hugely impactful to see if the same models which were so hugely successful in Africa could work in the US. Efficient charities on mental health are hard to find, so to me this is an exciting proposition.
To book the safari, I reached out to a travel agency named safarifrank. I told them dates I was available, stressed that proximity to Lusaka was the key for me, and they sorted it out. I gave them a (very loose) budget, and they made travel as easy as possible for me.
We spent 3 days at Chiawa Camp, had a travel day, and spent 4 days at Puku Ridge.
FWIW the Safari came to $8000 per person for everything, but that included 3 sets of flights (including two seats on an almost private jet!), pickups to the airport, all activities, and meals. It really was insanely cushy. The food and wine were delicious… we were not roughing it in the slightest. I did really enjoy the format of it, though I am very confident you could do an awesome and cushy trip for half, and almost certainly less per person. And fwiw, if you dislike the act of planning as much as I do, I’d feel great about blindly copying this itinerary. If you enjoy any aspects of traveling, I think this would be super fun.
We spent the first few days at the Chiawa Camp. Then we boarded a tiny four person plane on the Jeki Airstrip and flew to Piku Ridge.
From here we took a 20 minute jeep ride, to a boat, finally to our camp. I didn’t really take many photos, but the website mentions them, and if you look, it’s insane luxury.
The structure at both camps was pretty similar. You wake up, generally just before sunrise. They will wake you up with coffee if you ask.
Each day, you generally do two activities — one just after sunrise, one in the early evening, with a small break to enjoy sunset with a “sundowner,” a cocktail you drink while you watch the sunset (a phrase I am absolutely adding to my arsenal) before driving home.
You have a few hours to yourself in the early afternoon. The first couple days of the trip I was swinging the kettlebell around. The last several days this turned into wine and a nap.
Activity options: game walk (interestingly, game walks involve a person carrying a gun, just), game drives, boat cruise to see the animals from land, and canoeing through the channel.
The obvious draws to the safari are the big cats (lions, leopards etc), the hippos, etc. For me some of the more surprising favorites were the giraffes, baboons, and dwarf mongoose.
Going on the safari also seemed to be a great filter for people. And people seemed to fall in love with Zambia. On her first visit, one decided to move to Zambia, and still lived there 15 years later. Another example, our driving companions at Puku Ridge, Steve and Sylvia. They have ventured from Canada 10 times(!) over the years, absolutely fallen in love with it.
Steve (who insisted I refer to him as a crazy old Canuck) brings a few garbage bags full of leftover soccer gear every time he visits. His hometown would have thrown the old soccer balls/cleats/jerseys away, and instead he brings them to Zambia. Deeds that are super easy, cost nothing, and are easy and efficient ways to do good are awesome to observe.
They also volunteer at Project Luangwa, which is a coffee shop and arts and crafts store which donates the proceeds to a number of good causes in the community including women’s rights and education.
Fred, our guide, grew up in the nearby town of Mfuwe. He talked about how heartbreaking it is that many locals have never even been inside the park. Aside from the fact that bringing joy to people is obviously wonderful, Fred believes the parks help younger generations to appreciate the beauty of nature. Poaching is a major problem in many parts of Africa. If someone is hungry, and has never seen an elephant before, well, I imagine that makes it much harder to feel any remorse for setting up a snare.
For $100, you can load up a truck with a guide, and gas, and a bunch of kids for a one-day tour. My intention will be to do this once per month. And if anyone cares to join along on this mission, our great hosts at the Puku Ridge resort said they will help coordinate this.
This blog post is already longer than intended, but I will finish by just listing a few of my favorite moments. There is going to be some variance in which animals you see on the journey. But in typical fashion, I had tremendous luck
- Going canoeing through the channel. 5 minutes in, the instructions were “paddle in between the hippos on the right and the giant crocodile on the left” I remember thinking “Is this guy serious?!?” But the canoe was a wonderful way to see animals from a totally different perspective.
- Our first night, we saw a leopard (already a fortunate event). We waited for a bit to see if he did anything and he killed a baboon. Some hyenas showed up, in typical fashion, to try to steak the kill of another predator. There was a long standoff, but then the leopard brought the kill up the tree to safety.
- We saw elephants trumpeting at lions to get them away from their turf. It was cool to see how meticulous elephants were about always keeping the babies as safe as possible, huddled in the middle of herd.
- My hot take is that the big cats are a bit overrated. Compared to say baboons, which are always doing something silly, lions like to sleep.
- There’s a pack of 21 (very endangered) wild African Dogs near Puku Ridge. They look like they could be German Shepards, and when not hunting can be seen playing or begging each other for food… but will also coordinate and hunt.
- We saw a giraffe try to lower its body into the water. Basically any time the giraffe does something, they look ridiculous.
- I found out when a male elephant is angry, he will make his penis erect to scare you off. This fella was not impressed with us.
- Impala and baboons often hang out together in fields. Impala have a good sense of hearing, while baboons see well. They collaborate to detect predators.
- Male impalas will sometimes make the “danger” call, just to attract female impala to get closer to them.
I’ll wrap this up by just saying what a special trip this was. My eyes were opened to parts of the world I had rarely thought about. I witnessed a level of poverty I’d only read about, but I also saw firsthand the incredible work StrongMinds does and that Double Up Drive helps support — not to mention some amazing wildlife! I left Zambia with a great sense of optimism, and the trip was smooth enough that I would feel great about recommending it all to a tee! And I will dump a few more photos here, just because.
Thanks for reading,