Fit for Battle
Trained in Generosity, Suzanne “Africa” Engo Bolts Onto the Frontlines of AIDS to Conquer Ignorance
by Dann Dulin
She hit the ground running. At the spry age of six, Suzanne “Africa” Engo spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations on World Children’s Day as junior ambassador for Cameroon—her activist spirit in full throttle. In 2008, at the age of twenty-nine, she once again spoke to the United Nations and confessed, “I am dying of activism.” Her sharply focused energy over two decades to promote AIDS awareness helped cause the stress that led her to swell from 130 pounds to 250 pounds. Did she rest? No. She announced that she’d lose 100 pounds by running over 1,000 miles from New York to Chicago.
Before the run, she was inspired by music mogul Russell Simmons and Oprah’s trainer, Bob Greene, to adopt a raw vegan foodstyle and a full fitness program that included yoga, Pilates, and dance. She dropped over ninety pounds in seven months. Her head coach was Daniel Giel and she declares, “I wouldn’t have made it without him!” Suzanne began her journey at the United Nations in New York and ended it on her thirtieth birthday at Harpo Studios in Chicago where Oprah congratulated her. Suzanne and her mother attended The Oprah Show, and Suzanne was brought up on stage so that Oprah could publicly acknowledge her achievement. Suzanne named the sixty-two-day journey across America, Africa 101 Project.
Less than two years later she was on the run again. In May–July 2010, Suzanne ran across parts of Europe and Africa, continuing to spread the message of AIDS awareness. Timed to coincide with the FIFA World Cup, she named this run, I Love Africa. Part of her itinerary in Africa included Cameroon, the country of her birth. (Her parents moved to America when she was six.) Ironically, right before she embarked on the trip her father died. She attended his memorial in her native country. “I had to run…bury my dad…run some more. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I held back my tears and used that emotion to make a change. Many children have been orphaned by AIDS so in some way losing a parent made me really understand that better. Imagine being three years-old when a parent dies….This is why I had to keep running. I ran for the three-year-old.”
As Suzanne jogged through the piazza in Turin, enthusiastic kids ran alongside her to show their support. In Cannes she attended the amfAR Cinema Against AIDS event and was surprised at the turnout. “I was moved to see how much people care,” she recalls. “Harvey Weinstein attended and, until that evening, I didn’t realize just how committed he was. And something silly happened,” she smiles, exposing her trademark front tooth gap. “Giorgio Armani accidentally stepped on my gown! I don’t think anyone was ever so happy as when that happened to me. I’m such a fan and with his [Armani] RED; he too, is dedicated.”
For the I Love Africa pre-event in Manhattan, singer/songwriter Cassie hosted a send-off dinner. “I am running again because until this is over we must continue, we must fight, we must stay the long distance course till we win the fight against AIDS,” she said at the time, urging people to contribute. Proceeds of I Love Africa went to the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, a global grantmaking organization that distributes funds to young people involved in HIV/AIDS awareness. All along her trek, Suzanne blogged on the MTV international Web site and endorsed other charities such as Bobby Shriver’s [A&U, May 2007] and Bono’s (Product)RED, Russell Simmons’ Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF), and African Action on AIDS (AAA). On the last leg of her run in Johannesburg, she paid a visit to the DEF and Staying Alive facilities.
I Love Africa and Africa 101 Project were turned into a documentary film called I Love Africa, which will be released later this year. “To change the world you must first change yourself. This is the film’s message,” she explains, ecstatic over the recent completion of the film’s editing. “I was an AIDS activist all my life and in a four-year period I gained 120 pounds and so I had no energy to continue. I had to save myself first—Africa, the girl—before I could continue to empower my continent Africa to a healthful place.”
Dividing her time between Manhattan, New Jersey, and Cameroon, Suzanne knows how to use the media for social change! A significant inspiration that amplified her participation “in the fight” and the use of “film as a tool” was seeing the movie Philadelphia in 1993. A decade later, she founded the New York AIDS Film Festival, which hosts a series of HIV/AIDS-related films with accompanying panel discussions and special events. Launched at the United Nations, it is the first HIV/AIDS film festival in the world. The event was sponsored by WHO, UNAIDS, and the M•A•C Cosmetics AIDS Fund. In 2005 MTV chose the festival for the premiere of Transit, a film that follows four individuals across the world.
Several years ago Suzanne was named one of the Top 40 Youth AIDS Activists by MTV and was also honored for her work in AIDS and cinema with a Golden Graal Award, an international tribute bestowed by Italian students in film, theater, or music. When did this über-ambitious passion for helping others begin? The simple answer is—from the start of her life. As a child in Cameroon, Suzanne would distribute her Christmas gifts to poor children. When she came to America, she spoke in front of the United Nations. Dressed in native African garb, Suzanne strongly held onto the microphone and read her speech; caring and commitment evident in her six-year-old voice. (The video can be found on YouTube.) I’m sure her parents, the late U.N. Ambassador Judge Paul Bamela Engo, and a former Olympic athlete (he represented Nigeria in triple jump in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne), and Dr. Ruth Bamela Engo, president of African Action on AIDS and Special Adviser on Africa to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, were very proud of their daughter that day.
“My mum was an activist and told me about AIDS. She kept me in the loop on global issues from a young age, always asking me, ‘What will you do about it?….’” she pauses, laughs, then adds, “I’m serious!” She laughs again. “My late father sometimes used to ask my mum to please read softer stories about flowers, in addition to the U.N. briefings of global crisis to me before bedtime. But to his credit, in the morning, he’d always empower any idea I came up with. Then mum would help me shape it.”
Suzanne spoke at the United Nations every year until she was eleven. At age twelve, she and several women co-founded African Action on AIDS (AAA). To help raise funds, she created “Jeans Day” at her uniform-regulated school, charging her peers one dollar for permission to wear denims. Originally, AAA focused on sending African AIDS orphans to local schools. Since 2008, AAA has been a consultant with the United Nations, providing educational and health services to HIV/AIDS-affected youth throughout Africa.
AIDS has affected Suzanne on a personal level, too. Among others, her dance teacher and her nanny succumbed to the disease. “Globally, so many, so many to count…,” she stops, ponders, and continues, “I am African. My beautiful people; so many girls…It’s like the African girl may be extinct soon. For me I take every loss from AIDS, from Rock Hudson to a child in Soweto, very personally. I am affected deeply and equally.”
As a kid, her nickname was “Africa.” “At times I didn’t accept it,” she admits. “My mum always used to say, ‘You are Africa. You are an ambassador of Africa.’ She would even say this before I went to the playground. Can you imagine being an ambassador of Africa on the swing set?!” She laughs good-naturedly. It wasn’t till about five years ago that she decided to own it.
“AIDS is where I began my real activism career,” she notes, “but I think all of this is about humanity and life. [For example,] people need clean water. What will someone with HIV/AIDS swallow their pills with? Everyone should have access to the drugs and clean water. While we fight for the cure we have to think about a human being’s quality of life, their access to health, nutrition, education, and opportunity,” stresses Suzanne. “I would dare to say that if you find a lack of these elements somewhere you might find AIDS infection on the rise.”
“I am about life. You cannot speak about AIDS without speaking about the environment, or hunger, or the greatest cause of all—love!”
What’s next for this global activist? “I hope that I am not too agenda-driven and can go moment to moment.” Briefly she acknowledges that the last few years have been such a challenge, she deserves a rest. Then with predictable measured cadence, she quickly changes her position. “I am one hundred pounds lighter and now I have the energy to carry on. Sadly, as long as I can remember there has been AIDS. I am thirty-two, AIDS is thirty.
“I am a soldier in the fight against AIDS,” she casually states with pride. Indeed. Like Charlemagne suiting up in his armor for battle, Suzanne’s arm is tattooed with the amfAR logo. She added an “i” in front of it—iamfAR—and a small red AIDS ribbon dots the “i.” “When you shake my hand, you know my agenda immediately.” Other tatts include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” and the U.N. emblem. Suzanne sums up and drops one last pearl from her arsenal: “My mum always says AIDS stands for: ‘Am I Doing Something?’ Are you?”
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.