However, Cleveland natives Ryan and Anna Carmichael have done just that, founding an organization called One Heart Africa that seeks to better the lives of people living in extreme poverty in the African country of Mozambique.
One Heart Africa is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that primarily assists the people of Mozambican village called Licilo with essential needs like clean water, food and education.
The “One Heart” in the organization’s name refers to the heart that 23-year-old Ryan and 22-year-old Anna both have for Africa, and they said they hope their mission will be able to unite other people in the Cleveland community as well.
“We’ve known each other since fifth grade,” Anna said. “Our hearts were on the same plan.”
Both attended Walker Valley High School and went their separate ways after graduation. Anna began taking classes at Lee University, and Ryan spent nine months in South Africa and Swaziland with an organization called Adventures in Missions.
The two kept in touch whenever they could, and Anna said she remembers checking her Facebook account on campus one day in 2009 to find a message from Ryan was waiting in her private message inbox.
“He messaged me and said ‘When are you coming over here?’ That’s what made me take my own trip,” Anna said.
In fall 2010, Anna took her first trip to Kenya and stayed for three months with a group from Adventures in Missions. She and Ryan took a “vision trip” to Mozambique together in January 2012 to see how they could best help the people of Licilo. While they were there, they met a significant milestone in their personal lives. They promised they would marry each other. While they were in Mozambique, Ryan decided he wanted to propose and thought he would ask her to marry him while they were there.
“I got a wooden ring from the market, since that was all I could find,” Ryan said.
They waded into a lagoon together, and Ryan got down on one knee in the water. He joked that he was secretly glad he had bought a wooden ring so it could float if he accidentally dropped the ring in the water because he was nervous. But the ring made its way safety onto Anna’s hand when she said yes.
After they left the beach, they went to a restaurant for lunch. When they mentioned that they were Americans, a man who worked at the restaurant asked them if they knew the one American man living nearby. They decided to go meet him and became fast friends. The man, however, was shocked that they had not taken any photos or made any arrangements to celebrate their engagement. He insisted they go back to the lagoon for photos and celebrated with a seafood dinner and fireworks on the man’s boat.
The two got married last August and currently live in Cleveland, making trips to Mozambique whenever possible. Ryan currently works for a hardwood flooring company in Chattanooga, and Anna is looking for a job. Anna said their goal is to move to Mozambique when they find the right timing and have saved up the financial resources to do so.
“That’s really our focus, for sure,” she said. “It’s really hard to run an organization from thousands of miles away.”
While One Heart Africa provides a variety of things to help people, Ryan said the main focus is providing people with education so they will have a better chance of being able to provide for themselves and their families. He said the main trade there is agriculture, but many families cannot afford to eat their own crops for fear of lost income. Mozambique’s official language is Portuguese, but many Licilo villagers only speak their local language. Knowing how to read and write in Portuguese could give villagers more work opportunities, Ryan said.
“Our goal is to get the school going,” Ryan said. “That is our main focus.”
Anna said Sharing Hope School of Licilo is set to start classes on Jan. 28. The school will offer a first- through third-grade class, a grades 4-8 class and a high school class. They also hope to add language classes for adults in the evenings.
When the couple first arrived in Licilo to look at the possibility of building a school, they discovered the villagers lacked basic needs like having clean water to drink. Anna said women had to walk more than a mile to get water for their families. The water itself was contaminated, looking cloudy and white instead of clear, and it smelled like fish. In addition to a school, One Heart Africa has provided the village with a well to give the community safe, clean water to drink. The organization also feeds the village a meal once a week, serving around 30 school students and “hundreds” of other villagers.
While One Heart Africa’s mission includes providing basics like food and water, Anna said another part of it is to share the Christian faith with those they serve. She said she hopes their actions will speak louder than words but that they will also have the opportunity to tell people of their faith.
Ryan describes Licilo’s understanding of religion as “a mile wide but an inch deep.” Villagers do not have a good understanding of any one religion, so they will often blend things like Catholic prayers and witchcraft-related ceremonies.
Ryan said their goal is to help locals realize they can each have a relationship with God instead of going through another person like they would a witch doctor.
While Anna said many Americans, including Christians, emphasize succeeding in a career, she believes she and her husband are called to live in a way that focuses more on others’ success than their own.
“There’s more than ourselves. We’ve been convicted that that’s not the life for us,” Anna said of their shared beliefs.
Anna said she sometimes gets asked why she wants to help people overseas when there are people living in poverty in the United States. She said that serving in Mozambique was her calling from God, in much the same way a person might be called to be a teacher, doctor or lawyer.
“I just know I’m supposed to be there,” she said.
Ryan pointed out that the poor in the United States can receive government help such as food stamps as well as help from private organizations. In Licilo, One Heart Africa is currently the only group helping with staples like food on a regular basis.
Anna said their work is not about giving people handouts but giving them opportunities to succeed through education. In addition to maintaining the school, they plan to continue maintaining the well and providing food, because staying properly nourished is necessary for success as well.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Mozambique has one of the lowest average lifespans in the world, with the average adult only living to the age of 52. The prevalence of AIDS and severe malnutrition in the area make living to an old age more difficult.
One Hope Africa hopes to give the children of Licilo a chance to live long, successful lives.
“What if the next Nelson Mandela is this kid right here? We’d never know it,” Anna said, pointing to a photo of a Mozambican little boy and referring to the 94-year-old former president of nearby country South Africa.
One Heart Africa will be taking its first-ever group trip to Mozambique in July. Ryan and Anna said they are still looking for people to travel with them and will likely have an informational meeting in February or March.
For more information about the Carmichael’s work with One Heart Africa, visit their blog, OneHeartAfrica.Blogspot.com or find the One Heart Africa page on Facebook.