Sunday, 28 November 2021

From Mango-Selling Girl To U.S. President of Rotary Club in Pentagon

By Paul Shalala

Dr. Grace Mukupa
She grew up in a poor family in Mwanamangala Village in what is now Shibuyunji District of Central Zambia. 

Following the realignments done after the 2011 general elections, Mumbwa District was split into two to create Shubuyunji which was the eastern part of the older district. 

Grace Mukupa was an average village girl who saw poverty with her own eyes and had to do many of those gender roles assigned to girls and women. 

In the morning, her job was to help her grandmother and aunties prepare food for her siblings who would have gone in the field to plough the field with cattle. 

She would then deliver the food to the ‘tired’ siblings and join them in finishing up the work. Later in the day, Grace would pack a dozen or mangoes in a bucket and walk a kilometer to the Lusaka-Mongu road to go and sale to passersby. 

“I would rush to every bus that stopped at Susu Bus Stop and plead with passengers to buy,” said Grace. School was another hustle, she would walk kilometers on foot, and most times without shoes. 

But that did not stop her resolve to become a strong, independent minded individual she has always wanted to be. 

That experience taught her hardwork at a tender age, a lesson she has cherished for the rest of her life. 

Today, that village girl is now the first black person, or as Americans call it the first female woman of color president of the Crystal City Pentagon Rotary Club in the USA. 

Rotary International’s 1.4 million members worldwide seek to improve youth education, peacebuilding, and the elimination of polio. 

Grace’s particular club is located less than 5 miles from the White House and the U.S. Capitol Hill in Washington DC. 

Many events in Grace’s life brought her to where she is today. 

When she wasn’t engaging in the community, Grace enjoyed the company of her grandfather, who assumed the role of her only father figure. 

“My grandfather embodied both compassion and the best kind of pride. It was his deep compassion that drove his spirit of service. 

These were the core values he worked to instill in me and for all those who know me, there is no doubt that I carry his spirit inside of her,” she said in an interview with the author. 

One of the successes Grace scored in the family was to become a cattle herder, a role mostly played by boys due to their lack of fear. 

However, Grace changed that narrative at a tender age. 

After learning how to plow the fields, Grace was appointed the “cowgirl” of the family, a badge of honor which young Grace wore proudly. 

When asked about this Grace said, “I enjoyed looking after the cows more than doing things that girls were supposed to do because I appreciated the beauty of nature and fresh air. I loved to sit on a hill that allowed me to see all the animals and read.” 

A significant turning point in Grace’s life was when she left the mango trees of Zambia to the skyscrapers of Japan with her aunt and diplomat mother. 

While it was certainly different from the village, Grace carved herself out a place in this new world. 

In high school she found her passion for writing, reading, and most of all service. 

She even managed to merge these interests. For instance, after winning a poetry competition, she donated 100% of the funds to Magoye Clinic in Mazabuka District of Southern Province by purchasing beds, bicycles, and equipment to help in the effort to eradicate HIV/AIDs. 

“Some were disappointed in my decision to donate to the clinic rather than directly to impoverished individuals. However, the grant stipulations prohibited me from giving to a single person and I wanted my collections to benefit all the people the clinic served, including my own family back home. I felt that my actions would allow many families to continue benefiting from the clinic.” 

Two years later, Grace visited the clinic, and the Zambian Minister of Health in 1998 attended the gathering. 

The combination of a good education, and a constant desire to read and volunteer, led Grace to attend college in the United States. 

Unfortunately, not long after moving to the U.S., she lost both her beloved aunt and mother. 

With no one to pay for her school, Grace resorted to whatever jobs she could get on campus. 

These jobs included painting, catering, and being a concierge. 

Though after all this, Grace still had no option but to transfer from a private institution to a public university in Connecticut. 

Here she continued to persevere through challenges, and eventually earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and Journalism. 

She then went on to earn a Master of Business Administration degree and a Doctoral Degree in International Development. 

Throughout her journey, Grace faced many obstacles, including homelessness which meant relying on her creativity and ingenuity to survive. 

Even while attending several school conferences she had no option but to sleep in her car, a hotel simply wasn’t affordable. 

Despite facing adversity, in 2012, Grace received the Fulbright Fellowship from the University of New York at Buffalo. She was the only Masters graduate to do so. 

During her fellowship, Grace researched food security and gender studies in Tajikistan. 

And after leaving Tajikistan, she went on to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in North Macedonia. Following her Peace Corps service, Grace settled in Washington, D.C. and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“A year after arriving in DC, I became a victim of identity theft, an event that occurred 17 years earlier in 2001, but was about to impact every aspect of my current life. As a result of the theft, that once mango-selling little girl from Zambia, being thrust into a battle for her livelihood against the most powerful nation in the world - the United States of America, the very place I called home. The fight against the U.S. government to regain my identity took over three and a half years,” she disclosed. 

With an incredible amount of legal fees stacking up along the way, she found herself having to beg friends and family for help. Some stood by her side but after her life had been completely flipped upside down, she contemplated ending it all and taking her own life. She remembers frequently crying throughout the fight as she feared the tragedy would never end.
Grace with fellow Rotarians at one of the 
charity events in Arlington, Virginia.

But through all of this, she never stopped volunteering and giving back to the community. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Grace volunteered as an emergency respondent while also working virtually and presenting her work via technology, including to Zambian youth. 

Her hard work and dedication led to Grace being elected president of her Rotary club in July of 2021. 

Although the youngest in her club, she has vowed to add new initiatives and recruit more talented people. 

Thus far, several programs under her leadership, includes funding a school in Senegal, organizing food drives during the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (the terrorist attack in New York City and the Pentagon), providing funds for COVID-19 relief in India, working with local high schools, and reviving the Rotary women voices gatherings. 

She has also invited guests from Malawi and Rwanda to participate in the club activities. 

Asked why she volunteers, Grace responds with: "Service above self matters, and I know what it means to have nothing." 

Her future calling is to amplify youth voices in education in Zambia and empower rural women globally in agriculture. 

She takes her call to action very seriously and leads an ongoing campaign to serve as an example and light the path for others to follow. 

In August 2020, she helped found HERZ in the USA, an international NGO supporting girls' menstrual pads in Mufulira. 

HERZ has a girls ambassador program in which she serves as a mentor and was the keynote speaker at the girl's graduation ceremony on September 11, 2021. 

The Ambassadorship program saw the graduation of 20 young African women who were empowered with the skills and resources to make a holistic change in their communities as advocates for Menstrual Health Hygiene Management in Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia. 

“Since 2017, I have been a pro bono consultant for the Matala Women Farmers Association in Mumbwa and we work in areas such as education, health, gender empowerment, and farming. 

I also researche and review grant application documents for associations,” said Grace. Two weeks ago when I briefly posted on my social media accounts that I will be profiling Grace on my blog, I got reactions from several sectors. 

One of them is from the Rotary Club in Zambia. 

“Perhaps, the achievements of Rotarian Grace Mukupa marks the ideals of a true Changemaker. We are proud to see a Rotarian from Zambia breaking the moulds far away," said Victor Mensah, the Governor of District 9210 which oversees Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

Mr Mensah further congratulated Grace saying: “We look forward to more fellowship and collaborations between Rotary Club of Crystal City-Pentagon and clubs in Zambia.” 

Back in America, fellow Rotarians have nice reviews of how Grace has been leading the Rotary Club of Crystal City-Pentagon since election recently. 

In emailed statements, this is what they said. 

“Grace is a breath of fresh and vivacious air for Rotary. She is a tireless worker, a uniter and a fighter for what is right. She embodies all of the best of Rotary and is exceptional at bringing to light what is missing or simply outdated. We are so very, very lucky to have her as our leader,” said Susan Sheets, the Club’s Secretary. 

Marta Pentassuglia a Rotarian from Italy and who deputies Grace, had all the praises for her. 

“Despite the trying times due to the pandemic crisis, using her talents, expertise, style, smile, joy, and, last but not least, leadership, Grace has been and still is a gift to our Club and to the world. She embodies the soul of Rotary: transforming the lives of others, turning dreams into reality, and having fun,” said Marta. 

John Mason, a retired US military veteran had this to say: “Dr. Grace Mukupa is a very good friend of my family and has become an "Aunty" to our 9 year old daughter. I joined the Pentagon City Rotary club as she became the President knowing that her leadership and her strong desire to involve the Rotary Club in charitable events would make my membership worthwhile.” 

John adds: “She is a wonderful role-model for my daughter both in her role as Rotary club president and as a member and active participant in our Church. I know my daughter pays attention seeing Grace perform as Lectern, Choir Member, Children's time presenter, and as a Lecturer to a group of High School children. She is known as "Amazing Grace" for her rare combination of faith in our Lord, compassion and concern for others above herself, work ethic, and self-determination to succeed.” 

But to us who know her from the old Mumbwa, we know he as a village girl, one who left the poverty of Mwanamangala Village to pursue her dream. 

My late father who is now 10 months old in Grave, was Headmaster at Chabota Primary School upto 1989, a school where Grace did her Primary studies. 

It was during those years when I knew Grace, though she was older than me and was much closer to my older sister Nawa and older brother Sepiso, they still keep in touch to this day.

Grace inspires us who grew up in villages, those of us who did not have the luxury of going through pre-school, those of us who did not have three meals per day. 

Her success in the USA is an example to every struggling child in Sikongo, Senga Hill, Mugubudu, Mapanza and Rufunsa that there is a better day if you apply your potential fully.

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