This post originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cynthia McCormick Hibbert.
When Northeastern University graduate Joseph Schmitt visited a village school for impoverished children in Zambia while on a Fulbright scholarship, he expected to spend a pleasant day with teachers and students before resuming his study of ecotourism in the landlocked African country.
Instead, Schmitt ended up spending a year shadowing the school's founder, a young adoptive mother named Dora Moono Nyambe, and writing a book chronicling her experiences, called “Under a Zambian Tree.”
“I'm trying to amplify her voice, but I couldn't fathom accomplishing or even trying to accomplish what she's done,” Schmitt says. “She's incredible.”
Nyambe, now 30, overcame nearly incredible odds to establish the school and development organization, called Footprints of Hope.
Thanks to the power of social media, she has 4 million followers and a network of donors who come from everyday walks of life.
But none of that was in sight when Nyambe first visited the village of Mapapa to see a friend in 2019.
A teacher and adoptive mother of five, including three teenagers, Nyambe was distressed by the poverty, malnutrition and lack of educational opportunity she witnessed in the small village, where many girls were forced into early marriage because their families could not afford to support them.
“By the second or third day, I was asking, ‘Why aren't these kids in school?'” Nyambe told Northeastern Global News during a recent book tour in Boston.
She decided to move to the village and open a school under the shade of a tall mpundu tree next to a mud hut where she lived with her two younger adopted children.
If Nyambe, who grew up in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, had been looking for harbingers of failure, they weren't hard to find.
The mud hut was destroyed by termites.
Villagers who didn't understand her mission circled threateningly at night.
Six months worth of savings from Nyambe's job as a school teacher in a more urban area were fast running out.
Then one of her daughters introduced her to TikTok, which prompted her to post a video about her educational and charitable organization, Footprints of Hope.
In a steady series of posts the photogenic Nyambe makes witty and poignant arguments against child marriage, shows children playing, studying and napping at the school, and demonstrates how to use a cloth to carry a baby, in this case her 13th adopted child, a 2-month-old girl.
The TikTok posts have attracted 4 million followers, generated a GoFundMe campaign and led an explosion of opportunity for children in and around Mapapa.
Footprints of Hope has gone from five students and no schoolhouse to a campus of 350 students—including 150 boarders—with dormitories, classroom buildings, a library and dining hall that serves three meals a day.
Most of the donations have come from TikTok viewers who give whatever small amounts they can afford, which makes the funding of Footprints of Hope unique, Schmitt says.
“Lots of TikTok users are young. I think they relate to me, also as a woman who is Black,” Nyambe says.
Nyambe makes it clear in her social media posts that she pursues criminal prosecution against abusers.
But she says instead of showing sad-eyed children—the image used by many charities—she shows hope and the good that comes with proper nutrition, education, care and love.