Few areas of the world have suffered more over the last couple of centuries than the continent of Africa. It’s been plundered for gold, diamonds and oil. Slave-trade-fueled tribal conflicts, colonialism and brutal dictatorships have successively exploited many of its countries. The population has been ravaged by malnutrition, warfare and, more recently, an unchecked AIDS epidemic. Perhaps worst of all, many of the brightest minds have left in search of a better—or at least less grim—life.
So for many citizens of developed countries, it may be a little confusing to hear someone like Christopher Keiser-Liontree talk not only about devoting his life to making things better on that troubled continent but also about moving there. Yet through Motherland International Relations—the nonprofit Keiser-Liontree launched with his Kenyan-born wife, Debra Kiliru-Liontree, in 1999—that’s precisely what he considers his calling.
“What I can say about a calling is that it’s not always something you do by choice,” notes Keiser-Liontree. “It reveals itself in you. Africa really surfaced as a calling for me. I began to see that Africa would always be a part of my life, and little by little I’ve been trying to build a bridge there.”
Working out of a tiny home office, the Liontrees have slowly built MIR into a hub for locally based, Africa-related projects. Most of them involve appropriate technology, which tends to favor simpler, cheaper, lower-tech solutions to problems in developing countries. The nonprofit has helped fund, organize and build a spring enclosure in Ethiopia, a tie-dye production facility, and fences for neem-tree farms in Ghana. Other plans, such as introducing solar-powered streetlights, are in the works.
“We also want to serve people here” via educational and cultural programs, says Keiser-Liontree. To this end, the nonprofit has served as an umbrella for a variety of like-minded groups, including an African dance troupe and one that leads educational tours of Senegal.
But those are only steps toward a broader long-term vision. “Our big goal is to support the process of those in the West who are interested in returning to Africa,” he says. “If they want to set up their homes and live there, we also want to provide resources for them. We work with folks from across the board: Muslims, Quakers, Rastas, government officials, native chiefs and preachers. We’re trying to build a bridge to Africa.”
That hasn’t always been easy. In the eight years since the Liontrees founded MIR, they’ve relocated to Asheville from Greensboro, started a family and organized a number of tours, fund-raisers and educational workshops—all while working day jobs to support themselves.
“It’s a challenge for both Debra and I to work our paid jobs while still trying to get this organization off the ground,” says Keiser-Liontree. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to put our full energy into it in upcoming years. We’d like to be able to make a living from it. Sometimes, organizations take a long time to authentically grow, and that’s what we’ve experienced.”
Although Keiser-Liontree admits that MIR “really has been operating on a shoestring budget” from the start, the group has found a surprising method of fund raising: Roller Reggae.
“Roller Reggae is a family-oriented community event with live reggae and roller skating,” he explains. “We hold them at Tarwheels Skateway (2134 U.S. Highway 70 in Swannanoa). We shut down the snack bar and bring in our own vegetarian foods. We also turn off the arcade system, which helps it have a really good vibe. We’ve traditionally had a lot of local sponsorship for these events, which helps us with the process of raising funds.”
All in all, these events have been quite successful, he says, citing a recent five-person trip to Ethiopia funded entirely by proceeds from Roller Reggae events.
But while roller skating to live reggae certainly sounds like something that could draw a crowd, if the events continue to be successful as fund-raisers, the founders may eventually be unable to attend. Because if all goes according to plan, they’ll be half a world away.
“Debra and I plan to return and live in Africa,” says Keiser-Liontree, noting the deep spiritual calling he feels for the continent. “We aren’t necessarily advocating for everyone to follow our example, but that’s part of our personal process.
“As an organization, we’re trying to support an ‘overground railroad,’ which is what we see as the next phase of the underground railroad. We’re supporting people returning to Africa. That can be physical, it can be spiritual and it can be educational.”