When Benjamin James Parker arrived in Zambia in 1986 he had big dreams. But none of these necessarily pivoted upon uplifting entire communities.
Flying around Africa in microlights and living in the bush made him happy. It was a long way from ‘the most private of private’ schools that he attended with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Boris Johnson and Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer.
Together with his close friend, Will Ruck-Keene, he bought some land and they started building a lodge. The early architectural vision came from Will, who hated straight lines. And even after Will tragically passed away, Ben maintained this approach to the development of Tongabezi. His vision for eclectic African fusion design and a unique understanding of exclusive service would make Tongabezi an industry leader for over two decades. But we are getting ahead of our story.
Not long after Tongabezi started operating as the first accommodation on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, Ben was driving into town (Tongabezi is around 16 km from the closest town which is Livingstone) when he stopped to give a lift to a VSO volunteer.
Vanessa Saunders earned her undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from York University and a PGCE from Oxford University in teaching Secondary School mathematics before coming out to Zambia in February 1989. She also had big dreams. All revolving around service to others.
Three and a half years after she arrived in Zambia and some time after Ben gave Vanessa that lift into town, the two married in a beautiful ceremony on Tongabezi’s new satellite camp, Sindabezi Island.
Soon after the wedding Vanessa identified the need for more accessible and better pre-primary education for Ben and Will’s employee’s children and the youngsters from the Tongabezi’s remote neighbor, Simonga Village.
The Tongabezi Trust School (known as Tujatane—meaning we all hold hands together) opened on 1 May 1996 with 15 pre-school children.
Vanessa started the school on a purely voluntary basis and has continued to donate all her time over the last two plus decades. During this time Tujatane has grown steadily and today it boasts over 240 students.
Before Vanessa arrived the children of Simonga had no access to local education. Generations grew up in poverty and died, often from completely preventable diseases, with their circumstances no better than the day they were born. The most any man could hope for on any given day was a basic meal. The lives and prospects of the village’s women were far less happy.
Today, every soul in the village can determine their own future. They have access to electricity, education, food, medical attention and dreams. Their stories have been told throughout their country and they have inspired people from the other side of the world with their humor and their grit. They have managed it all without losing their history, their culture or their sense of belonging. In this, they truly have beaten every odd.
The egalitarian freedoms of the modern world have reached all the cultures of Zambia through Tujatane.
Vanessa’s impact over the last two decades is immeasurable.
She continues to work tirelessly at growing Tujatane in a sustainable way that keeps everyone’s needs in mind. You will never have heard of her because she does not advertise herself. Her head is buried in her accounts and in worrying about every tiny little detail pertaining to the school. It takes time to learn what an incredible person she is because she is very adept at hiding her achievements.
The incredible generosity of spirit that is demanded of an individual who sacrifices her entire professional life to the amelioration of the lives of one small community in the middle of nowhere in a country far from home cannot be overstated
Vanessa’s moral courage is evident every day. When you work with the vulnerable and limited resources, tough decisions are a daily staple.
Her contribution has made a very positive difference to education, empowerment and the self-determination of women and underprivileged communities throughout Zambia. Charity is rarely without pitfalls and Africa is still struggling to shake off the legacy of colonialism. There was every chance that a young British girl taking on the role of savior to an entire community of extremely marginalized people would fail.
When many stories of aid have ended in misery and failure Vanessa’s legacy is a triumph that has gone from strength to strength and is guaranteed to outlive her for generations to come. As a mathematician, she has always understood the inherent logic of poverty and she has fought against it by freeing the community from a lack of opportunity and making education inclusive. Her efforts have been focused on mobilizing one small community, empowering the disenfranchised, the excluded and the repressed. She has manufactured inclusion and given everyone a voice.
Tujatane continues to outperform everyone’s expectations, it continues to grow without ever compromising Vanessa’s vision of a charity that does not cost its sponsors money to run.
She has always insisted that every aspect of the school is sponsored, and donations range from individual child sponsorship, teacher sponsorship, help with the food and medical program to partial and complete funding of building projects. With full UK charity status Tujatane is one of the few charities that steadfastly continues to promise contributors that 100% of all donated money goes fully to the aspect they choose.
The school remains funded completely through donations (many of Tongabezi’s guests visit the school and become long term patrons) but the school has also received support from international donors such as Susan Sarandon, purely through its reputation and Vanessa’s tireless campaigning.
Her managers must fundraise their own salaries. Benefactors to the school have full control over their donations and 100% of donations directly benefit Tujatane. No money is spent on raising money or paying for marketing. This of course, means more work for Vanessa.
Tujatane now has nine classrooms, two offices, a library and a reading room, a kitchen and canteen, an amphitheater, a storeroom, a computer room with ten donated laptops, a fully equipped science laboratory and a fantastic music room with guitars and keyboards as well as local instruments such as the marimba. It continues to grow.
But Vanessa’s true service to children and women is much more than bricks and mortar.
Grace is a single mother of three who says:
‘My name is Grace and I am a single mum with 3 children. My first born is 22 years old and my second born is 17 and my last born is 12. I started working at Tujatane in 2007 as a cleaner. After 8 months I started working as an assistant in the preschool and reception class for a year. After that I started in the grade 3 class for 2 years and then grade 5. Now I am assisting in Grade 1. I am also performing arts assistant, deputy head of school tour guides and deputy head of the assistant teachers. My first born started school here in 2003. In 2009 he was on scholarship where he went to South Africa and he did very well. He has now completed Grade 12 and he is now in his final year of University studying accounting – he wants to be an accountant. My second born is in Grade 11 and she also went to Tujatane, she is at a boarding school away from Livingstone. My last born is in Grade 6, so he will be doing his exams next year. I am also studying, I have just done my Grade 9 exams, so I can do my Grade 10 next year, I am now just waiting for my results.
Thank you so much for what the school is doing for the community and the country at large. It was not going to be possible for us to take our children to school or for me to go back to school without Tujatane, it is a rare opportunity in Zambia to find such a school.’
Vanessa’s philanthropic nature has also informed many of her husband’s business decisions and she is widely acknowledged as a driving force behind Tongabezi’s excellent and exceptional reputation as a Community centered operation.
At Tongabezi Ben has created an incredible business that is a magnificent support for Tujatane but is also utterly community centered. Over time the property and the fantastic work it does spoiling guests and growing its community has become world famous.
Vanessa and Ben have managed the rare feat of negotiating an ever-changing challenge with incredible grace and uncommon success. Throughout two decades, their approach has remained steadfast and completely unwavering. Their integrity cannot be bought and their belief in the rights and the freedoms of the community they serve is immutable.
We are sure it is no accident that Tongabezi recently was the choice of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their last private holiday before their engagement.