14 May 2017

Africa: Tasha Vasconcelos - Beauty With a Kind Heart for the Poor

Photo: Tasha Vasconcelos/Facebook
Mozambique-born Anglo-Portuguese model, actress and humanitarian ambassador Tasha Vasconcelos.
opinion

As an international supermodel, Tasha Vasconcelos is used to travelling the world in luxury. But these days she travels in relatively low-key style.

Born in 1966 in Beira, Mozambique to a Portuguese father and British mother, Tasha's family fled to Zimbabwe and then to Canada to escape civil war in those countries.

"I have suffered under very difficult situations and I think that that part of my life has never left me," said Tasha during her recent visit to Kenya. It was in Canada that she was spotted by a modelling agency at the age of 19, setting off a successful career as an international supermodel.

She could have chosen to live a comfortable life in the West, but underneath the beauty and glamour, her heart was in Africa. She now uses her international stature to help communities in need.

In 2016, Tasha was appointed UN Women's Global Champion for Planet 50-50 by 2030 by the United Nations.

The beginning

Through a chance meeting in 2005 with a Canadian doctor who had worked in Malawi, Tasha became aware of the health and medical problems bedevilling Malawi, a country with one of the highest maternal death rates and mother-to-child HIV transmission.

In 2006 she founded AMOR (Aide Mondiale Orphelins Réconfort, translated as Global Aid and Help for Orphans), a charity that works to improve maternal and child health, and to empower women. Although she had no experience in humanitarian work, using her contacts with people of power and money, AMOR built a maternity hospital in Malawi.

The AMOR Kasese Maternity Hospital opened in 2009 in central Malawi. Today, the maternal HIV transmission rate in that part of the country has dropped to 11 per cent from 25 per cent.

In 10 years, AMOR has established three more hospitals, mobile clinics and two schools through, "learning about the culture, working with governments, and being the bridge between the communities and well wishers," says Tasha. AMOR's work has been supported by former Malawian presidents Bingu Mutharika and Joyce Banda.

Celebrity humanitarians have sometimes been criticised for double standards in their lives that are at odds with their philanthropic work, so Tasha says, "I would never fly by private jet to do charity work. It's actually an insult to the communities you are helping."

She adds, "My beauty is not important. Getting the job done is. The work has to speak for itself." Tasha also believes that orphans are best supported in their home countries instead of being adopted into families overseas. AMOR supports orphanages in Mozambique and South Africa.

"Say No" campaign

About 94 per cent of AMOR funds go straight into projects and the organisation has no offices or employees, but has a board of five people. "I don't want to employ people to sit in an office creating a bureaucratic situation. I would rather put the funds and the workforce on the ground."

Working with Malawi's first lady Gertrude Mutharika, AMOR started the "Say No" campaign to keep girls in school by empowering them to reject cultural practices that encourage early marriages, teenage pregnancies and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

"We are slowly beginning to give women and girls a voice. This is part of what the United Nations has asked me to do," Tasha said, referring to her work as the UN's Global Champion.

After a decade of humanitarian work in Southern Africa, AMOR is spreading to other countries, and this is what brought Tasha to Kenya recently. Her tour included visits to potential projects around the country. She is also interested in the maternal-child healthcare initiative of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.

"There are needs everywhere. I have been empowered because of living through two revolutions, and then I became a supermodel," says Tasha. "It's a great responsibility, it's what makes me wake up in the morning."

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