When Arikana was a little girl growing up in Zimbabwe, her mother would place her on her lap and tell her bedtime stories.
“All of the stories started the same way: ‘In the beginning …'”
Arikana still remembers her mother’s stories and how each story was full of challenges and adventures, but in the end, each story ended in victory, “if you rise above the situations.”
Now, years later, Arikana has grown up to become a wife, a mother of five children, a medical doctor, a successful businesswoman and a philanthropist. Ask her, and she will tell you plenty stories about her challenges, adventures, and victories.
One of her most recent victories took place a few months ago when she became the permanent representative to the United States for the African Union (AU), the largest continental collective body of African countries in the world. Founded in 2002 as the Organization of African Unity, AU is dedicated to encouraging economic development and political stability through increased cooperation between its 55 member states.
“I am deeply honored to represent not one, not two, but all 55 countries of the African Union to the United States,” she said. “It is a responsibility I do not take lightly and given the world in which we live today, Africa’s growth, prosperity and unmatched potential has never been as high on every nation’s priority as it is today. Now, more than ever, people are taking notice of Africa.”
Indeed, people are taking notice as evidenced when Arikana, now Ambassador Dr. , recently was invited to the White House.
“It was quite obvious her [Chihombori-Quao] presence and Africa’s importance got plenty of attention,” one observer said.
Look around the world and there is ample evidence of Africa’s elevated priority. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently launched a worldwide infrastructure initiative. It is reported that China plans to spend an unprecedented $1 trillion on infrastructure projects around the world and figuring prominently in this huge economic and geopolitical plan is Africa. In fact, an early project of China included the $200 million construction of the African Union headquarters building in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. The building, fully Chinese-funded and built, is 20 stories tall — the tallest building in Ethiopia. Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, reported AU headquarters “is not only a new landmark in Addis Ababa but also the latest landmark in the long friendship between China and Africa.”
Chihombori-Quao said besides the obvious potential wealth generation and strategic political reason behind the world’s focus on Africa, there is another reason, an innate one.
“Mother Africa is the birthplace and the root of all humanity. I may have been born in Africa, you may have been born in the U.S. or China or Russia, but we are all African. Science tells us that every single person alive today, and every single person who ever lived, is African. You’re not an African because you were born in Africa. You’re an African because Africa was born in you.”
Soon after graduating from high school in Zimbabwe, Chihombori-Quao migrated to the United States where she attended Fisk University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) located in Nashville. She obtained an undergraduate and a master’s degree General in Chemistry, Organic Chemistry. Later, she attended another HBCU, Meharry Medical College, where she received a Doctor of Medicine Degree in 1986.
Chihombori-Quao did her residency in general surgery at State University of New York (SUNY) in Brooklyn and another residency in family medicine at Meharry. She is a member of the American Medical Association and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Before coming to Washington, Chihombori-Quao and her husband, Dr. Nii Saban Quao, who is also a doctor and an attorney, ran four medical clinics in Tennessee. They also opened a hospital in Africa. With her duo passion for health and Africa, and again, long before taking on her new role as ambassador, Chihombori-Quao established and became chair of the African Union-African Diaspora Health Initiative (AU-ADHI) and International Chair for the African Union-Diaspora African Forum Americas (AU-DAF). Her primary objectives are to mobilize African diaspora health professionals to assist in addressing the health care crisis on the African continent and to galvanize Africans and friends of Africa into actively participating in the development of their countries of origin in Africa.
Many would think being a busy doctor with thriving medical practices and health care businesses in the United States and Africa would be enough, but 2003 Chihombori-Quao’s drive and passion extended beyond health care and into hospitality and real estate with the purchase of what is now the Durban Manor Hotel and Conference Centre.
A holdover from colonial English rule in South Africa, the building is over 150 years old. It had been a “Gentleman’s Club.” No women nor people of color were allowed. The membership was white male only and it is said the hotel was the site of the decision-making process that established apartheid, a policy, and system of entrenched segregation that lasted for decades in South Africa.
“When my husband and I bought the facility, we erased that legacy of racial and gender discrimination. We changed the club’s name Durban Club Hotel to Durban Manor Hotel and Conference Center thereby changing a majestic property of a bygone era from an apartheid haven to the people’s home away from home,” said Chihombori-Quao who is now president and CEO of the property. Chihombori-Quao and her husband consider erasing legacies of racial and gender discrimination a real personal quest, not a quixotic one. In 2010, they turned their attention to the U.S. when the ambassador purchased a former slave plantation.
Located in the rolling hills of Tennessee, overlooking the Cumberland River,”Clearing Plantation,” since 1799, sat on hundreds of acres of land staunchly dedicated to slavery and, later, to the Confederacy.
Now, thanks to Chihombori-Quao’s efforts, a building once dedicated to preserving America’s”vile institution has become a place that honors our enslaved ancestors” and the land of their birth.
“We call it ‘Africa House’ and I have used it to host dignitaries, leading journalists and business people from around the globe, especially Africa and the diaspora,” said Chihombori-Quao.”We have had enumerable discussions on pivotal issues affecting the African continent and ways to enhance its development.” In its August 2013 issue, Essence magazine noted the transformation,”From slave plantation to Africa House” as one of the top 10 things people were talking about. At a luncheon several years ago, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) was hosted at Africa House.
Along with being a medical doctor, and a social entrepreneur, Chihombori-Quao is involved in philanthropy, especially when it comes to improving health care systems, and promoting women’s rights globally
“At a conference about 20 years ago, Presidents Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe presented me with a philanthropy award,” she said.”It was my first award and it showed me how money combined with will is a power tool. I shall never forget it. I am confident we can promote understanding and bring the world together.”
Her other awards include: Bridge Builders Award, African Communications Agency, Lilongwe, Malawi; Renaissance Award, Planet Africa-Toronto Canada; The Axel C Hansen, MD, Distinguished Physician Award, Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tennessee; Fisk University Society of Philanthropist Award, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee; Gold Circle Plus Award, Meharry Medical College; African Personality of the Year and many others.
Chihombori-Quao’s speeches have garnered her much attention, too. She was one of four women who represented Africa at the International Conference on Women’s Rights, hosted by the government of Argentina in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. She delivered a moving speech on the topic,”Violence against Women and its Worldwide Effects.” At this conference, she shared the stage with two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Recognized for her global work and a commitment to Africa and the AU, former AU Commission Chairperson Dr. Dlamini Zuma appointed Chihombori-Quao AU Permanent Representative to the U.S.
“My roots are African, just like all of humanity,” Ambassador Dr. Chihombori-Quao said.”I see my job as that of ‘connector.’ I want to connect the African diaspora, especially those in North America, South America and the Caribbean, back to Mother Africa in such a way that it moves the entire world forward.”
Only about 4 months on the job and Chihombori-Quao has already initiated the planning stages for several new programs and initiatives. For example, she wants to engage America’s tourism sector to create tours highlighting Africa from”Cape Town to Cairo” with a focus on the diaspora and friends of Africa. Currently, the ambassador is in discussions with supporters regarding programs ranging from using drone technology to deliver vital medicine to hard-to-reach areas in Africa to launching an Internet radio and, later,”AUTV” which will both bring inclusive dialogue, information and a vitally-needed global platform that focuses on”all of the good news” coming out of Africa, all while connecting with the diaspora.
“The diaspora shares with Africa the same struggle against racism, colonialism and slavery,” she said, speaking at the opening session of AU’s Pan African Parliament’s 4th Ordinary Session in South Africa where she read an official letter from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that communicated thanks, praise and commitment.
Chihombori-Quao said world events are propelling Africa faster and faster into the center of”where problems can be solved” and she believes the best way to do that is to bring the world together.
“We have ignored our diaspora too long and it’s time to begin conversations that matter, conversations that in essence allow, and encourage, all of Africa’s children — the diaspora, friends of Africa and everyone — to come back home, come back to Africa,” she said.
“I still remember my mother’s stories. I know the world is facing challenges, leading us to adventures, good and bad. But humanity we will be victorious because we will rise above the situations.”