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Elizabeth Mhangami

Executive Director


Elizabeth Mhangami, was born and raised in Bulawayo Zimbabwe, and moved to the US in 1999. She is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago, where she earned her Bachelors in Political Science and Women’s Studies. She is currently pursuing her Masters in International Studies with a concentration in Women and Gender Studies at DePaul University. Elizabeth’s academic and professional interests are in African post-colonial political systems, post-colonial feminisms, and gender politics. Her interests also include issues that affect the African continent, the Diaspora, and the development of the Global South as a whole.

Elizabeth is an active volunteer and activist for women’s empowerment in Zimbabwe. Elizabeth has held several board positions with The Rotaract Club of Chicago, was President of Loyola's Feminist Forum, and is a member of the Young Women’s Leadership Council.

The idea of Vanavevhu - Children of the Soil came to Elizabeth once it became clear to her that the crisis in Zimbabwe has made victims of communities that were once proud, dignified, and independent. Having grown up in Bulawayo, the main urban center in Matabeleland, Elizabeth is familiar with the challenges that the region has endured and recognizes that the current climate will only make these challenges worse, unless those who have the means respond. Vanavevhu is a response to the often-unheard victims of Zimbabwe’s downward spiral: women and girls.

John Rex-Waller Director

John is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of National Surgical Hospitals, a Chicago-based healthcare company that owns and operates specialized hospitals throughout the United States.

He was born in Lusaka, Zambia in 1953 and grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. After obtaining his undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Hertford College, Oxford. In 1981, he obtained his MBA from the University of Chicago, with a concentration in Finance and International Economics. He has been a practicing engineer, an investment banker, and has co-founded three start-up companies in the healthcare industry.

John served on the Board of Trustees of North Shore Country Day School from 1999 through 2005, the last three years as Chairman. Under his leadership, the school completed a major capital campaign to fund the new science center and increase the endowment for teacher salaries.

John is married to Carlisle Knowlton and they have two grown children, Robert and Caroline.

Lesley Blake, M.D.


Dr. Blake was born in Kenya, spent her high school years in the UK and Malta, and moved to Zimbabwe in 1970, where she obtained her medical degree in 1976. She has practiced in her special field of geriatric psychiatry in Philadelphia, Johannesburg, Chicago, and most recently in Spokane, Washington, where she is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. During her time in Chicago, Dr. Blake was Director of Geriatric Psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School.

Dr. Blake has traveled extensively and is a prominent speaker at international psychiatric symposia. She has been published widely in various psychiatric medical journals, most recently focusing on dementia and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Blake resides in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and is married to Dr. Brian Samuels, an oncologist, whom she met when they were at medical school together in Zimbabwe. They have three children.

Zanele Sibanda-Knight


Zanele Sibanda Knight, born and raised in Zimbabwe, is the Program Officer and Advocacy Coordinator for the Firelight Foundation. Firelight is California based foundation that provides grants and programming expertise to community based organizations in Southern Africa that are working to better the lives of orphans. Prior to joining Firelight, Zanele spent 18 months in Zimbabwe working with informal community groups to develop income-generating strategies and care for vulnerable children in both rural and urban settings.

In her past professional experience, Zanele has served as Director of Education and Public Policy at Chicago United, a business membership organization, that promotes access to resources for minority groups. Zanele has also worked for the Chicago Public School system and the University of Chicago affiliated Chapin Hall Center for Children. Zanele received her B.A. from Grinnell College and has undertaken graduate studies in social policy at the University of Chicago.

Zanele resides in Santa Cruz where she lives with her husband David and their son Khaya.


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Vanavevhu- Children of the Soil is registered in the United States as a 501(c)(3) Charitable organization

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