During her three years in Ethiopia, Nancy Russell achieved celebrity status in Addis Ababa’s farenji world. Her ex-pat, aid worker stats made her out to be nothing less than typical: a single, mature woman with more rings than fingers and a pint-sized dog that yapped at strangers.
However, Nancy Russell was anything but typical. She devoted herself to women’s empowerment and protecting the less fortunate. She entertained her friends and loved ones with tidbits of wisdom, folly, and a lifetime of hilarious stories of triumph and failure.
She woke up every day at 430am to drink a liter of coffee to stoke the creative genius needed for her ideas to flow uninterrupted. In her free time, she filled dozens of canvasses with the scenes she witnessed on the streets of Addis Ababa and was convinced that the minutiae of a woman’s jewelry far outweighed the ostentation of her shoes and handbags.
Ethiopians referred to her as ‘mother,’ showed her reverence and always cleared the way for this white-haired chimera who every morning walked to and from work with too many bags and her white-haired dog Nefsi swinging back and forth on a leash that barely reached the ground.
I met Nancy at the monthly NGO Bazaar, a small craft fair where local organizations and vendors display and sell their arts and crafts at inflated prices. The proceeds of the Bazaar benefit both well-intentioned outfits of philanthropy and the conscience of ferenjis with too much money.
The NGO Bazaar was a mainstay on Nancy’s calendar of social engagements, and every vendor knew her by her white hair and ring-laden hands. She was particularly popular at the game-hen stand, where over three years of NGO Bazaar visits, she had amassed enough clay chickens to fill an aid-worker container. Still, every week, she bought another chicken because “you can never have too many chickens,” she would say.
We were introduced by an optimistic Canadian who spoke the words ‘absolutely wonderful’ in every sentence. Nancy asked me what I was doing. I said I was a journalist. She said her organization needed a writer and that we were going to be good friends. I had my doubts though I still had no job and no real reason for being in Ethiopia.
Back then, in June 2010, I was unable to perceive the actual dimension of the relationship that I would forge with Nancy. Her persona appeared to embody the stereotype of an eccentric old lady, but in reality, it had more in common with the words creative, hilarious & endearing.
“My best quality is my ability to laugh at myself. When I worked at a pizza parlor, my husband always reminded me that I was the one who served a customer the band aid salad and everybody knew about the band aid salad. Some people can be scarred by those types of things if you don’t know how to take it.”
When Nancy hosted a dinner party, dull moments were rare. Her life’s experiences were usually enough to keep guests entertained way past midnight.
“One day I got my hair caught in an electric sander on the patio table. I couldn’t get it untangled so I laid down on the couch with the sander on my head until my husband came home. We were new in the neighborhood, so I couldn’t ask the neighbors for help,” she might randomly say.
Over the past year, I’ve been privy to numerous Nancy stories. Every time I heard one, I told her somebody needed to write them down and we joked about me writing her success story, the job she had employed me to do for the NGO she was managing.
So around the time Nancy was finally leaving Ethiopia for good, I sat down to write the history of this unique woman. I had the opportunity to work alongside her, but more importantly, to become somewhat of a son-she-never-had during her final year or so in Ethiopia. I hope this piece will both entertain those who knew her as well as enlighten those who did not. I can only admire this woman who has lived more in her first 63 years than most of us could do in five lifetimes. Thank you.
September is a month of change for Nancy Russell. The ninth month is where two ends come together, where the cyclical machinations of nature are exhausted and the new ones begin. It is the end of a season, a time when perennials extinguish their grip on life, and the flower blooms slide into the slumber of autumn. But September is also a time of new beginnings, when another societal cycle begins, a semester of school, the autumn fashion line, and TV networks big opportunity to wow viewers with fresh, new programs.
September is at the same time both a farewell and an awakening.
“I’m always wary of September. It can be both good and bad.” In her lifetime of ups and downs, Nancy and September have been connected through a marriage, a divorce, the death of several family members, a new career start, and last but not least, a perfect time to pick up house and move to another continent, in another direction.
Thus, it came as no surprise to Nancy, when fate revealed that she was going to move from Ethiopia back to California on September 8th, 2011. And as she would tell me, September is not always bad, it’s just that time of year when the teeter totter of life sways from one direction to another.
TALL & AWKWARD WITH CURLY, RED HAIR
Nancy was born in the state of Washington in 1948. Truman was President, and her father had just survived the horrors of a Philippine death march and months in the bowels of a Japanese prison ship. He was eventually rescued when a US warship sunk the floating prison camp, but only 200 of the 1400 prisoners on board survived the rescue attempt. Nancy’s mother was a housewife who managed the family’s internal disputes while her impassive father— probably suffering post-traumatic stress disorder— longed for day-to-day order, stability, and the irrefutable proof of a happy, American family.
As the oldest sibling of five, Nancy was controlling and generally made life for her two brothers and one sister unpleasant. On family vacations, her parents made her sit in the front of the station wagon to keep her from fighting with her siblings.
Imagine a tall, slinky girl with deep red, curly hair that became lighter and lighter with each passing year. Had you met her walking down the street of her middle class, white, suburban neighborhood with her corrective boots counting the cracks in the sidewalk and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer would’ve been a simple “married”.
“I didn’t attract boys. In high school, there was a guy who would always stand me up. He finally asked me to the senior prom and everybody thought he would stand me up and he didn’t…however, he didn’t take me to dinner either. I had a bad relationship with men.”
At that point, Nancy hadn’t a clue that it was the exact opposite of being married that she truly longed for. However, as a teenager, it was impossible to perceive a future as a successful social worker, a rabid community mobilizer, an ardent fundraiser, and finally as a highly creative international development aid worker.
In America’s fertile land of goal-getting and individualism, her stalwart father and subordinate mother never hoped Nancy would end up changing the lives of underprivileged people in the third world. In the Russell household, hope took the form of a bride.
After an illustrious high school career as a student body leader famous for her campaign slogan “Hustle Your Bustle, Vote for Russell”, Nancy went to the nearby college to study art education. At her mother’s behest, she joined a sorority and when her sisters donned the blue uniforms of the ROTC’s Angel Flight Crew to support America’s war effort in Vietnam, Nancy really wanted to be a member, but mostly because her sorority sister Bunny was already a member.
“When the ROTC interviewed me to join the Angels, I was taking a current events class and learning about the war. At the end of the interview, they asked me who I admired the most in the world. I said Ho Chi Min because I had just finished a paper about him and he was fascinating. I guess it wasn’t the right response.”
ABROAD & THEN MARRIED
In 1968, her father borrowed $1000 from his sister and gave Nancy the money to study abroad in the Northern Italian city of Pavia. “I remember the freedom and the culture. It was almost 20 years after the war. It was very provincial, and it was all so new to me. I had never even seen spaghetti sauce, casseroles or gelato.”
During her studies, Nancy—intoxicated on freedom and culture—tripped over a cobblestone and tore the ACL in her right knee. She spent the rest of her study abroad in an Italian hospital, while her classmates used the “visit Nancy in the hospital” excuse to cut classes and smoke marijuana.
After the dream had ended, Nancy returned to life as a pizza waitress in Portland. In 1970 she met Steve, the pizza cook, and her mother’s wishes finally came true. “We got married in September, and my parents were finally happy.”
THE SOCIAL ARTIST
Following her desire to help people, Nancy began her self-proclaimed career as a “social artist”, working for several senior citizen programs created by the Carter administration. Thanks to a strong bond to her grandmother, Nancy was especially endearing with the elderly, and that experience provided her the strength in the future to become the sole caretaker of two of her aunts.
Nancy was on a mission to make life better, one person at a time. When a dilapidated building in downtown Portland evicted all of its tenants, it was Nancy who took the bag ladies, the hoarders and hermits by the hand. Nancy drove them to the supermarket. Nancy cooked them TV dinners and gave the world’s forgotten at least a semblance of family and an undercurrent of unconditional love.
Her budding career as a social worker came to an abrupt halt in September 1981 when both her mother and father were killed in a car accident near Mount Hood. The loss of her parents so strongly jolted her reality that three years later, Nancy and Steve were divorced. It was September again.
Single, Nancy moved to the Bay area. She moved in with an aunt who lived in a small beach house in Moss Landing, two hours south of San Francisco. “At the age of 36, I got a job at the Pebble Beach golf course”, she says. A mid life crisis ensued, and she began placing personal ads in the local gazette that said things like: I love men with beards and burritos but not men with burritos in their beards.
Her break came and she moved to San Francisco with a temporary contract at the YWCA. Later she worked for a covert lesbian organization called Options for Women over 40. At a gay and lesbian freedom parade, Nancy told her lesbian cohorts that San Francisco was crawling with vegetarians and the organization should sell salads.
“At the end of the day, I had to take this enormous bag of salad to the homeless shelter. The lesbians lost faith in me. They thought I knew what straight people liked.”
Despite the unsuccessful salads, Nancy had already begun making a difference in the lives of San Francisco’s poor. At her next job, with a coalition dedicated to keeping the residents living in the Tenderloin—SF’s gritty downtown district— in the Tenderloin, Nancy was not only a neighborhood activist, but a resident. In true development spirit, she moved to the belly of the beast.
“I became really good at raising money, and we did a lot of creative stuff. I led a campaign against Gallo Winery and their Thunderbird wine, which sold for less than a dollar. It was so cheap and full of sugar that all the guys on skid row were suffering more than just alcoholism. The people hated me and called me the blond bitch. My red hair was fading.”
Working in the Tenderloin allowed Nancy to transform herself from a service-provider to a citizen’s advocate on a higher level. She worked directly with local politicians and solicited grants and donations from high-dollar donors.
“One day the mayor of San Francisco showed up to one of my events in the Tenderloin. He gave me a plaque and said today is Nancy Russell Day, a plaque that really rewarded me for driving him crazy.” Nancy Russell Day was September 23rd. Still she longed to leave the US and battle poverty on a different scale.
NEPAL AND BEYOND
Nancy’s move to Nepal started in the Grand Canyon and detoured through Central America. She took the Green Tortoise bus to Arizona to see if she could still travel. Among a busload of twenty-something college students, Nancy sat in the corner. They nicknamed her the Librarian because she read the entire trip.
Then, on a mission to learn Spanish in Guatemala, she got a postcard from a friend in Nepal. “She said she found the perfect country for me: tons of poor people and lots of jewelry.” At 42 years old, she liquidated her belongings and moved halfway around the world to an unknown culture speaking an unknown language.
“Every day I cried. I knew no one, had no radio and ended up losing a lot of weight because I couldn’t recognize what people were actually eating,” Nancy tells. She volunteered at a street children house and eventually got a paid gig from a USAID sponsored program. “I was terrified of the interview with USAID, but she liked me because she recognized me as the lady who walked the streets with the street children.”
Nancy worked on a women’s literacy program, published a book of women’s true life stories and started a series of tin-trunk libraries that toured Nepal to provide reading material for literate women. “We saw that the women were taught to read, but they had nothing to read.”
Nancy led a HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the western mountains of Nepal, where men migrated to the lowlands of India to work for half of the year, bringing home with them infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. In one village, they crowned a Condom King and Queen who wore condoms in their costumes.
“In Nepal you felt like if you belonged there, almost anything would work. And every time it almost fell apart, it came together again. It was magical for me.”
When she returned to the US after six years in Nepal, she knew she wanted to be abroad again. She knew she had more to offer the development world besides managing programs from behind a desk in DC.
Nonetheless, like many aid workers, she ended up in Washington DC, moving from place to place for months, sometimes weeks at a time. Her international career took her to Tanzania and Afghanistan, back to DC as well as to New York. “I missed the simplicity of the development world and the value of people. I felt that working from DC doing development from afar was a wholly different experience where people weren’t connected to reality.”
WHERE THE MOSS SLOWLY GROWS
Living in the US, Nancy spent a lot of time back in Moss Landing, the small town south of San Francisco where her aunt had taken her in over a decade earlier. In 2002, when her Aunt Dorothy fell ill, her aunt Cathy moved in. Two years later, Nancy had to travel to Moss Landing to be with her aunts to ease the process of death. During several years, Nancy was caring for both aunts. They died within a two years of each other.
“They were my role models. They were inspiring women with master degrees from Colombia and Berkley from the late thirties. They were odd and I adored them. My aunt Dorothy came to visit me in Nepal when she was 78 years old. They were extremely generous and always wore the same clothes.”
It was Aunt Dorothy, however, that left the little house in Moss Landing to Nancy before she died. Dorothy had originally willed the house to a woman named Mo who suffered schizophrenia and lived in the garage for over twenty years. However, Nancy’s compassion and love for her aunts landed her a spot in the will.
“I always had this vision that I might end up living there, but I couldn’t really imagine it until this year. Now, it seems like the right place, where I want to return and have memories. I don’t usually go back to my past, but this is a home and a special place.”
Nancy told me how her aunt Dorothy always kept a twenty dollar bill under the radio to keep Mo going. And while I never felt like a schizophrenic woman living in Nancy’s garage, I did feel Nancy was leaving proverbial twenty dollar bills all over Ethiopia, for me, for her adopted taxi driver Abel, and for so many of her staff working at the Urban Gardens Program.
Nancy spent three years in Ethiopia working as the director of the Urban Gardens Program, a non-profit that places group and school gardens in urban areas throughout the country to benefit women and children affected by HIV/AIDS. Under her guidance, the program has become one of the most successful, sustainable, popular and respected development programs in Ethiopia.
Unbelievably, in all of her travels to these gardens, back and forth, to and from, Nancy never filed one expense report. She never demanded one per diem. Rather, she always paid her own way, out of unselfish generosity, for three years straight.
Some will remember Nancy most for her collection of necklaces and rings. Others will catch a ride with Abel the taxi driver in Addis Ababa, and her name will come up. Many will remember Nancy as the woman who bought too many clay chickens at the NGO Bazaar. I will remember her as a friend, a mother, a woman who constantly reminded me to get a haircut, to never turn down an invitation and to stay past the bad parts, because it always gets better.