Walking in Their Shoes
Kristin Davis Goes The Distance for Africa, A Cause Close to Her Heart
by Dann Dulin
This place is so Sex and the City. Kristin Davis asked me to meet her here for lunch at this upscale funky Asian fusion restaurant. It’s located in her Brentwood neighborhood in Los Angeles. I’m a tad early and eagerly await her arrival. Right on time, Kristin whisks through the front door wearing a smart, shimmering tie-dyed silver-brown Prada dress and a simple thin grey sweater. A large white bag is draped over her arm. She’s friendly, talkative, and disarming, traits she so skillfully imbued into her Sex and the City character, Charlotte.
She snuggles down into the plump leather seats, arranging her skirt to fit beneath the low-rise table. The enclosed booth is cozy and private, and yet so large that it could also fit the entire Sex and the City entourage. Kristin has been on the road for several months promoting Sex and the City 2 and is very happy to be home. “It can be exhausting at times,” she admits. Enthusiastic about this restaurant, she asks if I’ve been here before. I haven’t. “Omigosh…!” she roars with gusto. “Let’s order!” The waitress arrives and Kristin takes charge. “How about getting the crispies…the rice with the tuna on top?” She’s eager to have me try her favorite dishes and wants my first time here to be memorable.
Since 2006, Kristin has focused this effusive energy and compassion on her role as Global Ambassador for Oxfam International, an organization formed in 1995 by a group of NGOs to reduce poverty and injustice. It is a global expansion of the idea of the original Oxfam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief). Founded in Britain in 1942, Oxfam’s members campaigned for food relief on behalf of starving women and children in Nazi-occupied Greece. Oxfam International is committed to carrying on the work of its predecessor, and Kristin’s work focuses on Africa and the issues of gender, poverty, and the environment.
The devastating impact of AIDS in Africa fueled her desire to take a hands-on approach in the areas with the greatest needs. AIDS first touched Kristin’s life during her theater studies at Rutgers in New Jersey in the late eighties. “Teachers of mine died!” she says horrifically as if it just happened. “We knew people who were sick and there was a weekly update about who tested positive. One day they called a special meeting of the whole theater department. Doctors came to talk to us about the epidemic. That’s how worried people were,” she recalls. When Kristin moved to Los Angeles, she studied with acting coach Roy London. “He was so vibrant, such a force of life!” she exclaims, raising both brows that slightly scrunch her forehead. Roy got a cold and in two weeks he was dead. “He never told anyone that he was ill. He was directing a show at the time and it could have jeopardized his career. AIDS was so stigmatized back then.”
The appetizers arrive. We take a bite. “Good, right?” she inquires, digging in. “This place is fully addictive. I just want to warn you. Mmmmmm…,” Kristin hums, savoring the food and then returns to the subject at hand. “I love to travel. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to go on an African safari.” After she was cast in Sex and the City, she had enough money to travel to Tanzania and Kenya by herself. “Everyone told me I was crazy,” she remembers. “I’m saying, ‘W-w-why not? I’m traveling with Abercrombie & Kent, the best traveling company in the world. I’ll be fine. Get over it.’ I did not understand how strange it was in African cultures to see a woman traveling alone. But I was completely safe.
“Each country in Africa has its own unique qualities,” she explains, moving her bouncy brown hair behind her left ear and then flipping it off her shoulders.
At the start of the pandemic, “Uganda was more successful with their AIDS program because they recognized early on that they needed to deal with the stigma of the disease. South Africa has had a devastating rate of infection and no helpful [government] programs. The work has been very challenging because you’re sometimes working against the government. Now it’s better with South Africa’s President Zuma, knock wood.”
Traveling in Tanzania, Kristin noticed gaunt men walking on the street, but her Tanzanian guide was reluctant to discuss AIDS. “I saw flyers promoting a ‘Free HIV Testing Day.’ I asked my guide, ‘Do people go?’ He answered, ‘Not so much because they don’t want others to know.’ I recall thinking, ‘My first trip and…wow!…have my eyes been opened!’ I knew I’d have to travel with an organization the next time,” she says. “That’s how my journey began with Oxfam.”
Kristin hooked up with Oxfam while attending George Clooney’s Oscar night party benefitting Oxfam. She was already familiar with the organization. After the Indonesia Tsunami, she learned that the Red Cross was handling the short-term care for the victims. But she was more interested in finding out who was providing long-term care—who would be there to rebuild lives, homes, and businesses. It was Oxfam.
While at Clooney’s party, Kristin met Claire Lewis, who is Oxfam’s Global Ambassador program manager. Kristin told her about her trip to Tanzania and Kenya and of her interest in the problems in these countries. Claire invited her to come on a trip with Oxfam. Kristin asked, “Where are you going?” Claire responded, “Where do you want to go? Oxfam is pretty much everywhere.” Kristin committed to a trip to Africa.
Her first trip was to Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony where twenty tribal languages are still spoken. “It was such a fascinating tropical country,” she remarks. “We’d be up in a village and we discovered that the people needed just seven dollars for a bus ticket to the medical clinic. Like a typical American I said, ‘Let’s get them drugs, let’s get them….’ The Oxfam team told me to slow down. One step at a time.” She learned the bigger challenge was to provide people with a hot meal so that they could take their medications. Next, they needed to teach the people job skills. Most of the women are illiterate and unskilled, and their men either leave or die.
Kristin’s visit coincided with the popularity of the cockamamie belief that one can be cured of AIDS by eating potato soup, or some other concoction. “You can’t act surprised,” she explains. “You have to say, ‘Okay, let’s talk facts.’ You try and tell them the facts and they’d say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t believe that.’ We learned that the best way to deal with this ignorance was to look directly into their eyes and say, ‘We’ve known people in America and England and we have seen their recovery with the ARVs [antiretrovirals].’ There’s so much cynicism there about the drug companies. That’s why The Lazarus Effect was so important,” she says of the documentary film which follows the lives of several HIV-positive Africans and their miraculous transformation after taking ARVs.
Kristin explains that there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion in Mozambique and there’s heavy stigma attached to AIDS. “It’s not really to their benefit to even get tested,” she points out. “Let’s say you get tested and you’re HIV-positive. There’s almost nothing you can do to help yourself, plus, you may be pushed out of your village.” Thus, Kristin and her team teach women a new skill so that they can be self-sustaining.
One popular skill is raising chickens. Near the border of Zimbabwe there was political unrest and the government had stopped sending aid to people in some areas because they didn’t want it to be taken by the rebels. Oxfam made a concerted effort to push through a big project called Chicken Raising. They gathered ten women together and explained their plan. Oxfam would build a chicken coop and the women, in exchange, had to make sure that the temperature was correct and that the chickens were fed. The chickens would later be sold at market. Other women wanted to participate, but their husbands flatly refused. “When I think about the social inequity it makes me angry,” she says, shaking her head. She adds, “So many things we take for granted.”
When the women sold their chickens at market, they made twenty dollars each! “Now, these are women who are used to living on less than a dollar a day and poverty is defined as living on two dollars a day. Not surprisingly, the women gained their husbands’ support.” Kristin takes a bite of the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño. “The day I arrived they were singing,” she says reminiscing, noting that she took photographs of the event. “They were wearing their HIV-positive shirts and holding big heads of lettuce that they had grown in their organic gardens—bigger than both our heads put together! Even though it’s hard farm terrain, we call this area Shangri-La because of its beautiful lush mountains.”
When Kristin asked one of the women what she did with the money she earned, the woman told her that she had bought soap. Another woman bought pencils and stationery. “We asked her why she bought stationery and she said that her son could now go to school because the school could not furnish supplies. The school is a tree. The children sit under a tree. So with this one successful project, the boy was able to attend school.” The women were asked what they needed next and they replied, “More chickens.” Kristin’s team then offered to construct another coop, but the women wanted to build it themselves. “They take pride in their work. They want to work,” boasts Kristin.
Later in her trip, Kristin met women who had left Mozambique to earn their law degrees and then returned to help other women. Until land laws were changed a few years ago, if a woman’s husband died, she would lose the land and the house. She and her children would be cast out. The only way a widow could stay in her house was to marry a brother of her husband. Thanks to the women lawyers, the law was changed. But since most women are illiterate, it was difficult to enforce the new law. Everybody, however, listens to the radio and so a group of women started a radio station to inform listeners about the new law and the rights of widows.
To further broadcast the news about the law change, a women’s theater troupe was formed. Kristin attended one of their performances in a rural village along the Mozambique border. The play was about AIDS. “We thought, ‘Oh, okay, it’s going to be a serious play.’ But as the show went on, it was more like vaudeville, with the women dressing up like men,” she says. “They were really funny.” In one scene, the widow says to her husband’s brother, “I have no formula to feed my baby. I don’t want to give my baby AIDS by nursing it.” Since her husband died from AIDS, the woman is concerned that she might have it as well. The only way to get any money is to marry the brother. At that point, a performer enters and reads the new law which frees women from a forced marriage. “It was hard for the audience to believe it,” Kristin emphasizes, twirling the tuna in soy sauce with her chopsticks.
All of a sudden Kristin starts moving her food and herself, sliding deeper into the corner of the booth. “I’m just going to move in a little bit because there’s a group of young girls staring at me,” she says. “They’re very cute and polite, but they’re just all staring at me.” She moves down. I check to see if it’s okay now. “Yeah. They’ve giggled and it’s all good,” she says with her own giggle. “They’re very well behaved.”
Where does Kristin get the motivation to volunteer? “From my parents,” she says. “The whole time I was growing up, my mom volunteered for Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters. Both my parents were politically aware. It was just a part of my life.” Kristin reclines back against the cushion and leans on her elbow. “All my Sex and the City friends are super-supportive of my work. Sarah’s been working for UNICEF since she was twenty, but she’s not able to travel much. And Cynthia and Kim work tirelessly for their causes.”
For the premiere of the first Sex and the City movie, Kristin had a pair of tickets auctioned off to benefit Oxfam. “This unbelievable Chinese woman who was living in Japan and was flying through England saw an advertisement for the auction in Us Weekly. The woman paid $52,000 directly to Oxfam and she and her boyfriend attended the New York premiere.”
Through her travels, Kristin discovered that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was very active in Ethiopia. “It was way beyond impressive,” she says, taking a bite of the kobe teppanyaki. “Sometimes you hear about different charities here [in America] and then when you travel abroad you never see any evidence of that charity. There’s this one charity—I’m not going to name them—and people think they’re fantastic, maybe because they have a soft and squishy name. The only evidence I’ve ever seen of their presence abroad are these really ornate plaques embossed with their name.” Kristin asked one shopkeeper what he had done to obtain the plaque that hung in his store. He replied that someone had simply dropped off the plaque. She leans in, places her chin on her fist, and continues. “I’m really not into religious-based care because I feel like you shouldn’t have to have a religion to get cared for. But having said that, when I was in Uganda, I saw that the Catholic Church was very present in AIDS charities. That’s great,” affirms Kristin.
The waitress appears and asks if we are ready for dessert. I decline and instead order green tea. Kristin says, with a twinkle in her eyes, “I want the green tea mochi ice cream. It’s so good!” When Kristin is passionate about something, like her charity work, her brownish-green eyes illuminate and the veins in her neck become prominent. This afternoon she is perky, centered, and direct.
Kristin recalls her visit to a Johannesburg suburb where she met Mama Grace, who founded a soup kitchen for kids with HIV. “These kids have no parents but they don’t call them orphans. They call them ‘heads of households’ because even a nine-year-old can be the head of the household and they usually have a number of siblings,” she explains. “These kids are so amazing when you meet them, so well behaved.” In the beginning, Mama Grace could only cook one meal a week for the kids, but that expanded to two hot meals a day and feeding two hundred and fifty kids.
“I was new to this soup kitchen and one day this boy raised his hand and told me that he had not received a juice box. I gave him one and walked away. Then I heard, ‘Miss, Miss.’ I returned and the boy’s friend said, ‘He lied.’ The [guilty] boy then gave me back the juice box. It was so cute,” says Kristin. “Knowing that each child gets one juice box, I wondered why several of the kids would come back with these Tupperware containers for more food. Later I learned it was because they have siblings at home who are too little to come to the soup kitchen.”
Kristin was overwhelmed by the high number of orphans in many African countries. “When I hear people criticize others for adopting kids from other countries it’s really stunning [to me]. How could that be bad?” she asserts in a disturbed tone. “People can be so cynical. That upsets me.” She twists a strand of her hair, briefly looking off into the distance. “Many governments don’t even live up to their promises and no one really holds them accountable. But America is a generous nation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to educate everyone in the world about what is going on.”
Kristin finishes up her mochi dessert, reaches in her bag and applies clear gloss to her lips. I reach for the check, but Kristin beats me to it, saying, “No, no it’s on me. Look at what you do. Thank you. It’s my pleasure.”
In addition to her work with Oxfam, Kristin is a board member on the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and works with The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
“I get so much from my work with Oxfam and other groups,” she sincerely declares. “The whole fame thing would just be too awful without it. No offense. Sorry, everybody,” she apologizes in an off-the-cuff low voice. “If I’m having a bad day and people are following me in New York or wherever, I say to myself, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. At some point I’ll get to talk about my other work.’ That helps me get through those rough moments.”
This roll-up-your-sleeves kind of girl puts her credit card away, tosses her bag onto her arm, and sums it all up, “I enjoy educating others about what is going on in the world.”
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.