Author Elizabeth Nyamayaro Reveals How a Near-Death Incident at 8 Turned Into a Life Helping Others

Elizabeth Nyamayaro recently published her memoir I Am a Girl from Africa

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro. Photo: Behind the Cause

No matter where on the globe she may be, author and humanitarian Elizabeth Nyamayaro keeps a piece of her native Africa close by way of a yellow dress.

"It reminds me of the bright, beautiful African skies I used to wake up to in my small village," she tells PEOPLE. "I remember thinking, even at a young age, if I was ever to make my own money, I was going to buy myself a beautiful yellow dress so that I could look as pretty as the African yellow sky."

Nyamayaro has come a long way since those days in the Zimbabwe village of Goromonzi, but her love for her homeland has remained fierce, even as she made her way in the world at places like the United Nations, where she worked as a senior advisor, and HeForShe, the gender equality movement she led until 2019.

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro in Times Square. Behind the Cause

As explored in her recent memoir I Am a Girl from Africa, Nyamayaro's life path wasn't always so high-profile; she tells PEOPLE that growing up, she always assumed she'd spend her life contributing to her village, and farming in the fields like the other women she knew.

But a fateful encounter with a United Nations worker that came amid a severe drought altered that path forever.

"I will never forget that day," Nyamayaro says. "A child dies from hunger every five seconds, and I almost became one of those children. A severe drought had hit our village when I turned 8 years old and suddenly, my paradise literally changed overnight and there was nothing to eat or drink."

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro visits the hut where she grew up in Zimbabwe. Behind the Cause

Nyamayaro remembers feeling so weak, she was unable to move — until a hero stepped in.

"I thought I was going to die. It just felt like there was no way of getting out of this. But then this incredible thing happens," she says. "A fellow African, who was a humanitarian with the United Nations, found me, and gave me bowl of porridge that literally saved my life."

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro. Behind the Cause

The chance encounter provided more than just life-saving nourishment — it opened the doors as to what could be possible for Nyamayaro, who immediately set her sights on working for the United Nations just like her savior.

"I thought, 'I just want to be like her so that one day I, too, can uplift the lives of others," she says. "I'm so grateful for that moment which, of course, was very devastating at the time, but it also gave my life so much meaning and purpose… [The woman] showed me what was possible. It's such an incredible thing that sometimes it just requires that one moment that can really define your entire life."

With just £250 ($353) to her name, Nyamayaro moved to London at age 25 to start making her dream a reality, and says she felt like "a fish out of water" at first. To cope, she leaned on the African phrase "ubuntu," which means "I am because we are."

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro at the United Nations headquarters. Behind the Cause

"The most jarring thing for me was realizing that all of a sudden, the color of my skin was something that I had to now constantly defend because people held these preconceived ideas and notions about what it means to be African, and about the continent that I come from," she says. "It was really through the single narrative of poverty that people thought they understood what Africa was. And so they saw me as lesser than, they saw me as inferior, and it was very painful."

"Ubuntu" served as not only a crutch to help her recognize the many things that connected her to her new surroundings, but also as an inspiration to keep fighting to make the world a better place.

Just as the United Nations worker in Zimbabwe opened her eyes to opportunities previously unknown, Nyamayaro hopes I Am a Girl from Africa can do the same for children growing up in villages just like hers, as she knows her story is not unique.

Elizabeth Nyamayaoro
Elizabeth Nyamayaro. Behind the Cause

"It's a book that says, 'Look what is possible'; that where we are born should not limit our potential to determine our dreams," she says. "My story is one of millions of girls on the African continent, and I wanted them to see what's possible for themselves and hopefully through my story, they can see that, more than anything else, being their true self is enough, being African is enough."

The idea to craft her life's story into a memoir is one that's been brewing for Nyamayaro since the mid-2000s, when life in London first tipped her off to the misconceptions people had of Africa. Her goal with the book, she says, is not only to inspire others like her, but to show the "real" Africa, where her family still lives and where she still visits each year.

"I realized that representation matters, that we need to be able to tell our own stories, and so that girls who look like us can see what's possible for themselves," she says. "I needed to share the journey, the struggles along the way, so that other people can see that it just doesn't happen overnight, and it's okay to be able to face these challenges along the way … I needed to tell the story the way it was. It's raw, it's truthful, it's sometimes painful, but it's life."

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