The Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees of Huntington Beach aims to transform the time-honored African proverb about teaching a person to fish so he can feed himself for a lifetime.

“Africans already know how to fish; it’s time to go to the next step,” said Voorhees, whose nonprofit agency Building Africa has already taken that next step toward creating sustainable communities in rural Africa.

The five-year-old nonprofit agency is raising funds to build a community center in eastern Swaziland. The multi-purpose community center will include a kitchen, preschool, health clinic and gathering space. The goal is to replicate the model throughout rural African areas, adapting it to fit specific needs for each community, she said.

A new model for aid

The company grew out of Voorhees’ love for Africa and informal visits over the years, according to her husband, Bob Voorhees, who was master of ceremonies at an Oct. 3 fundraiser attended by about 100 people at the Mozambique Restaurant in Laguna Beach.

“Building Africa was born through an evolutionary process in 2007,” he told guests. “We quickly realized that the traditional form of aid to Africa has been tried for about 60 years now and there’s not been a dramatic difference.” The time has come to change the methods and the conversation about aid for Africa, he said.

Guest of honor at the event was Prince Chief Gija II Shadrack George B. Dlamini, who donated six parcels of land for construction of Building Africa’s prototype community center in his village in eastern Swaziland.

“My village is very much looking forward to this project,” Dlamini told the gathering. The village’s remote location makes access to health care difficult; the center is an answer to prayer, he said.

“Swaziland is a country fighting a war, but the war is not fought by guns or spears; we are fighting a war against poverty, against HIV/AIDS and a war against climate change,” he said. “In all these things, I’m not proud to say, the victims are women, children and the elderly.

“Most of the strong men are working in South African mines,” he added. Those left behind exist on subsistence agriculture.

“This center will provide a place for counseling people with HIV/AIDS, for educating people against HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, like diabetes. It will also help us in the distribution of medicines. It will bring services to the people.”

‘Engines of change’

Dr. Richard Matthew, professor of international and environmental politics in the Schools of Social Ecology and Social Science at the University of California at Irvine, and founding director of the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs, told guests Building Africa’s efforts to provide infrastructure and education have the potential to become “engines of change.”

“I am excited about what Building Africa is doing,” said Matthew, who has served on United Nations peacekeeping missions in Rwanda, the Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. His area of focus includes climate change and adaptation in conflict and post-conflict societies.

Although violence has historically provoked social change “the world doesn’t have to change through violence,” he said. “When we get involved, we develop skills to deal with problems when they do arise and help our younger generation to develop skills they need to survive and to be confident in a world that’s extremely complex,” he said.

Citing U.S. history, he recalled that the United States “was founded in conditions of tremendous adversity. The smart people in Europe said, this is going to fail, give it a few years. No way these people can make democracy work, especially in a place with no infrastructure ­— it’s impossible. If our founding forefathers had said, ‘yeah, they’re right. Let’s not have great aspirations,’ we would never have become the country we are.”
Besides, aiding struggling countries in need is the right thing to do, he said.

“We have the ability to do something, and in this country never, never has a people had so much capacity as we do, technical capacity, intellectual capacity. We are the wealthiest generation of all time,” he said. “We have the capacity to address our own challenges but we also have the capacity to help other people address their challenges.”

He added, “There is no reason a person’s fate should be determined by where they’re born on this planet — Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland — [that it] should determine your life process.

“Those of us with the capacity to make a difference, to create platforms, education, infrastructure that allow people to flourish and develop, should use them. We all know that’s our responsibility and we need to use that capacity to make the world a better place.”

Matthew said he has visited Africa at least 25 times. “Africa is a remarkable, remarkable place,” he said. “What we are doing is helping to liberate people to take care of the challenges they face.”

A leap into the 21st century

Building Africa recently launched a new website and video, “Africa’s Moment Has Come,” describing the agency’s mission to “promote growth and sustainability where people can learn to build their own sustainable lives,” said Cindy Voorhees.

Construction of another, project, an orphanage for 160 children in Moshi, Tanzania, is slated to begin in the spring of 2013.

The agency is also planning a group visit to Swaziland in April 2013.

Projects like the Swaziland can be replicated throughout Africa and beyond, Voorhees said.

“The project is going to be solar, and wind-driven,” she said. “It will be turbine and generator and natural gas and it will be off the grid.”

With its rich natural resources, young population and growing middle class, “Africa can possibly leapfrog into the 21st century and skip 20th century technology altogether,” she said.

And it needn’t end there. “This is applicable anywhere, in any developing country, like Haiti, for instance,” Voorhees said. “The story is they need infrastructure and that’s what our organization’s about.”