Twilight of a brilliant career

Published November 1, 2002

… at a farewell dinner on her last official trip to Africa.


She has shed her Africa clothes, leaving them behind in Johannesburg. Her final trip reports are in the works and Charlotte Maxwell is ready to retire.

It?s been 22 years since Ms. Maxwell, 65, came to work for the Primate?s World Relief and Development Fund, on a one-year contract. She retires Nov. 30.

Normally allergic to sentimentality, she recently sat gamely through farewell dinners and tributes during a last official trip to Africa, which took her to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa.

Friends and partners presented her with plaques, paintings, cottons, an exquisite sculpture of a crache, and warm farewells.

Everyone who knows her asks what she will do in retirement. ?Nothing.?

This alarms those who fear doing ?nothing? is impossible for someone with her drive. Still, she relishes the thought of waking up each morning not knowing what she will be doing for the next nine hours, the next week, the next three years.

She hopes to study philosophy, but her schedule is open. She will also likely write her memoirs, but would intend them only for her granddaughter.

Charlotte Maxwell came to work for the Anglican Church of Canada in 1980.

The route to 600 Jarvis St., the national office of the church and home to PWRDF (now separately incorporated), may have been predictable. Before then, she had been a public health nurse in downtown Toronto, a fundraiser and board member for a secular development organization, then a rabble rouser, writer and publisher of a newsletter raising awareness on the political situation in South Africa in the late 1970s.

She had volunteered with the development group Oxfam in the late ?60s, eventually serving as chair of its Ontario board and on the national executive, then as chief fundraiser for Oxfam Ontario.

In 1979, she traveled to Africa for the first time, and gained an instant passion for the continent and its people.

She had had a long-time interest in the political situation of African countries, but had never been there. Feeling burnt out from a difficult year fundraising for Oxfam, she needed a break. Her husband suggested she go to Africa, since she had been working on African issues for years.

She left two weeks later.

Shortly after that trip, in 1980, the Primate?s Fund offered her a one-year contract to do promotion and fundraising and produce educational resources. The work agreed with her ? she was able to return to Africa to document and photograph some of the work the organization was involved in ? and she stuck around. Her fundraising efforts for PWRDF brought more donations.

Then came the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-?80s and the world suddenly began to notice Africa.

?Our income nearly doubled in one year because of the Ethiopia crisis,? she recalls.

By 1986, Ms. Maxwell had moved to PWRDF?s new regional desk for Africa. At the time, the Africa desk was receiving considerable funding from the federal government, which would not channel development funds directly to South Africa because of that country?s apartheid policies. The government did, however, recognize the churches? role in supporting the pro-democracy movement and it supported the Primate?s Fund and its work with the South African Council of Churches.

The budget for the Africa desk in 1989-1990 was between $1.5 and $2 million.

Today, when more Anglicans worship in Swahili than any other language, PWRDF covers the continent through Ms. Maxwell, who is responsible for eastern and southern Africa, and Rob Shropshire who covers the Horn of Africa and francophone countries, such as Burundi, Zaire and Rwanda.

Around 1987, the Primate?s Fund participated in consultations with African churches and made more deliberate efforts at true partnerships rather than just writing cheques.

Part of those partnerships involved helping African churches in what is known locally as capacity building ? developing skills at the provincial, diocesan and parish level to carry out the work of the church.

Those skills range from training AIDS or health care workers in Tanzania to go to villages to teach disease prevention and compassion for the sick, to teaching conflict resolution to peace and human rights workers in Uganda.

Ms. Maxwell?s three children were in their teens when she began traveling regularly to Africa. One year she made five separate visits.

?That was a crazy time,? she says. In practical terms, she was going around the world every six weeks, with an average of 18 takeoffs and landings per trip, with all the customs and immigration forms and waiting for luggage at each stop.

It can still be crazy, but now she moves around Africa with the confidence and ease of a long-time resident. Nothing fazes her. In Entebbe on her last trip an attendant announced the flight was leaving early. She laughed. And we ran.

She has traveled enough to request certain rooms at hotels and convents.

Her children, John, Georgia and Julia are grown now. The family welcomed a baby granddaughter earlier this year ? Audrey, now 10 months, delights her grandma with a greeting of a clenched power-to-the-people fist.

Ms. Maxwell is also guardian for her older sister, Liz, who is in a Toronto nursing home following complications from asthma.

She is married to Bill Maxwell, a lawyer who supposedly retired four years ago, but who still works a few hours a day. She and her husband share a passion for travel and art. None of her family has ever accompanied her to Africa.

Still, they could not help but worry about her safety in countries where nothing is certain. She is careful, never carrying a camera in public, appearing as little like a tourist as she can. She has been shot at (?only once,? she says blithely) and a bout with malaria nearly killed her.

That was in 1998 and it was due to an oversight: she left her anti-malarial medication in South Africa (where it is not needed) and traveled to Mozambique (where it is). Two days after coming home she cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 16 people; seven days later she was nearly dead.

Her condition was misdiagnosed and for days, she was treated with the wrong medication ? she had cerebral malaria, the most deadly of the disease?s strains. She spent two weeks in the hospital, much of that in intensive care on a respirator. Many of her organs ceased functioning and her heart was damaged.

A month later, she was back at work.

Such is the thrill and the danger of working in Africa.

During another visit in the early ?80s, she and some partners driving in northern Africa had to turn tail and flee from grenade launchers trained at them by Karimojong rebels, a northern tribe notorious in Uganda. ?They?re terrible shots,? Ms. Maxwell laughs.

Africa was a different place when she began traveling there in 1981. That year, she visited Uganda for the first time. The country was still coping with the aftermath of despotic Idi Amin, who fled the country in 1979, and with a series of coups.

Then, Ms. Maxwell recalls, Kampala was like a ghost town, the looted shell of a once-thriving city. Its infrastructure had disintegrated. There was no running water, no working toilets, little food. The streets ? now teeming with cars, motorcycles, hawkers and women doing their shopping ? were empty.

Two decades later, what really drives Ms. Maxwell is policy work, strategic planning and partnership. After an 11-hour meeting discussing issues like globalization, gender, peace and human rights, she likes nothing better than to spark up a cigarette and argue into the night with African partners and colleagues.

She was educated in boarding school, then studied nursing, then economics in university. She was a Toronto public health nurse for about two years in the 1960s before leaving to have her children. She got her economics degree while her children were still young.

Her experience in public health informs her work in the Primate?s Fund to this day. ?Who else would get excited about a well-built pit latrine?? she laughs.

The nursing background has also helped her understanding that health is fundamental to development. Her ears perk up when she hears about church initiatives in health and wellness, like the Tanzanian church?s promotion of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, which reportedly slash by 25 per cent mortality rates for children under 5.

She has watched AIDS become an all-encompassing health and development issue in many African countries, responsible for the growing disintegration of basic infrastructures in some countries. In Uganda on any given day, up to a third of the work force is absent due to illness or attending funerals.

Issues faced by African partners are rarely simple. Food, health, conflict, peace, gender ? the church cannot afford not to examine all of them when it talks of development issues. Ms. Maxwell sees the big picture.

She is as respectful as she can be while still remaining frank when discussing difficult subjects with church partners. At farewell parties in Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, partners spoke of her willingness to be honest ? even when it hurt.

?We met in November 2000,? Rev. Mwita Akiri, acting general secretary of the Anglican Church of Tanzania, told a farewell tribute on the last evening of the meeting of the church?s development partnership working group.

Turning to Ms. Maxwell, he said: ?What struck me was the courage you had to disagree and share your views; that you could go beyond being a Canadian and take part in discussions with us.?

Archbishop Donald Mtetemela, the recently elected primate of the Tanzanian church, said Ms. Maxwell?s criticisms were always constructive. ?You don?t just say something to please us. … More than a friend, you have served as an example of partnership … we see the whole Anglican Church of Canada behind you, for us.?

Ms. Maxwell says that it is only because she has worked in Africa for so long and has developed committed relationships with partners that she feels free to speak honestly.

?I could not have said those things in my first few years.?

Working with partners with whom she shares philosophical and institutional differences can be a challenge. Some African partners have vastly different positions from many North Americans on gender, homosexuality and the role of youth and gay people in the church. Still, she hammers away at themes that both she and PWRDF have identified as being key.

Ms. Maxwell simply states the Canadian church?s position and quite often, her own. She likes to think of this as planting a seed, creating the kernel of an idea.

?All you can do is remain in the partnership. You don?t walk away because of differences.?

While some who know her cannot believe that Ms. Maxwell will retire, there was a definite finality to her latest trip. Meetings found her reminding partners of reporting procedures and of the themes that PWRDF works under. She collected email addresses. And she left behind much of her Africa wardrobe ? light cottons that she wore only during her travels. The clothes were easy to abandon; the work less so.


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