Orange County

Amina’s Gifts builds Chapel Hill-to-Zimbabwe art connection to give families hope

Amina was 17, frail and HIV positive from birth when Terrence Brayboy met her on a trip to Tengenenge Village in Zimbabwe.

“We had taken a bunch of clothes to give away, and I saw a young girl there,” Brayboy said. “She was very sick and she couldn’t come and get something, so I had one of the guys take her a pair of yellow sandals. She was just so grateful, because people had been ignoring her, because she was so sick.”

Although the local clinic offered free medicine, Amina didn’t have a way to get there, he said. Although they helped her get to the clinic, she died a few days later.

It’s a common story in Zimbabwe, where UNAIDS reported roughly 40,000 new infections, about 30,000 AIDS-related deaths and 1.3 million people living with HIV in 2016.

The experience moved Brayboy to start Amina’s Gifts, a nonprofit that buys and sells Zimbabwean sculpture and crafts, supporting jobs for the people of that nation and raising money to provide their children with food, clothing and other basic needs. The nonprofit’s five-member board includes four Chapel Hill and Raleigh residents.

“I just decided at that point that we needed to make sure the kids were looked after,” Brayboy said, “and the best way to do that was to make sure that they went to school, had their school fees paid, and that they could get to the clinic if they needed to go.”

The UNC alumnus and emergency physician at Wake Emergency Physicians in Raleigh will hold a public sale Saturday at his home on Dogwood Acres Drive, near Southern Village. The sale will feature African bead sculptures and crafts, along with baked items, with proceeds to benefit Amina’s Gifts.

Complicated history

It’s an ironic twist of history that Brayboy, who comes from a long line of Native Americans from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina in Robeson County, has filled his post-antebellum home to bursting with African art. The home’s original owner, John Carswell, was a Chapel Hill businessman with a complicated history in the local black community.

Carswell operated Colonial Drug Store from 1951 to 1996 at 450 W. Franklin St. – the current location of the West End Wine Bar. While he was appreciated in the black community for selling medications to them, even when the store was closed, Carswell became a target for his segregationist stance at the lunch counter.

Black students from the nearby all-black Lincoln High School launched the town’s first sit-in at Colonial Drug Store on Feb. 28, 1960. The next day, roughly a hundred students picketed the drugstore and other businesses. Carswell refused to bend to protests and boycotts until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted on July 2, 1964.

In a 1974 interview for Duke University’s Oral History Program, Carswell said he thought the protests were organized by outsiders and did not reflect how the local black population felt. He said he “resented the fact that they would turn against me ... the one that had been good to them.”

Neighbors hinted at the home’s history after Brayboy bought it, he recalled. He met Carswell many times as a UNC student stopping by the store for its well-known Big O orange drink, he said.

“I knew he was very much a segregationist and probably a racist, so to have African art all through the yard and through the house, it’s just kind of (ironic),” he said. “I’m sure he’d be furious, because I think the house was something that he was very proud of and spent a lot of time creating.”

Hope for change

Steven Joseph, whose family lives across the street, said neighbors weren’t sure what to think about the home’s new owner when more and more stone sculptures appeared. His family started asking about the sculptures, bought some and traveled to Africa with Brayboy. They now sponsor a young sculptor through Amina’s Gift, he said, and are hoping that two other artists will be able to get U.S. visas and maybe teach some local workshops.

“It’s very exciting for my wife and my son and I, because we haven’t really been involved in a way that we would like in helping others out,” Joseph said. “For us, it’s been very meaningful, because we met a lot of the people that benefit from Amina’s Gift.”

Zimbabweans collect the sculpting stones – some as tall as 6 feet – from the mines and also are known for their basket-weaving. Brayboy developed his passion for the country and its art after his first trip to Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in 2011. He travels there regularly now.

Tengenenge Village map
This Google map shows the location of Tengenenge Village in the landlocked southeastern African nation of Zimbabwe.

Tengenenge Village is one of the largest stone-sculpting communities, with over a hundred resident artists. It was founded by South African tobacco farmer Tom Blomfield in 1966, in a remote area about 93 miles north of the Zimbabwean capital Harare — then named Salisbury, the capital of white-ruled Southern Rhodesia at the time — and created a lucrative profession for many until the mid-2000s economic crash.

Today, roughly 72 percent of Zimbabwe’s people live in chronic poverty, making the $20 tuition fee for three months of primary school or the $50 secondary school fee a hardship for many families. Amina’s Gifts helps with those costs and also provides bicycles so the students can get to school. He would like to bring wireless internet to them one day, Brayboy said.

The military coup that forced President Robert Mugabe to resign on Tuesday after 37 years in power also has created hope for “a new Zimbabwe,” said Brayboy, who was visiting friends in South Africa last weekend. It will be important to see whether the military pulls back now and allows the two major parties to run the country, he said.

“Right now, economically, Zimbabwe is having a very, very difficult time,” he said. “People are very poor, they are hungry, they don’t have any income, and watching this change and the jubilation on the faces of so many people, it’s going to be nice to see how this plays out. I think it’s going to be for the good.”

In America, Brayboy hopes to bring Zimbabwean art to more people. He now has over a thousand pieces in and around his home, and as many more waiting to be shipped from Africa. It’s hard to choose a favorite and challenging to find a place for them all, he said.

“I’m hoping at some point to be able to purchase a piece of land and create a sculpture garden ... so people can come and enjoy it, whether they buy or not,” Brayboy said. “That’s not important. What’s important is for people to come see it.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

If you go

The African Sculpture and Craft Sale/Fundraiser for African children will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, at 52 Dogwood Acres Drive in Chapel Hill. Contact Kaity Granda at 919-624-1344 or for more information.