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Story Publication logo March 30, 2008

Hollywood Star Mena Suvari Finds Special Home in Africa

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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The scene is Kechene, Addis Ababa - one the poorest slums in Ethiopia. Mena Suvari, one of Hollywood's eminent stars, strides across a trench of sewage. She approaches a mud-walled shack where a woman is selling charcoal and heaps of green grass for the Sunday coffee ceremonies, which characterise this eastern Africa city.

This is not one of the scenes in Mena's celebrated movies. Things here are real, perhaps more real than life itself. Mena, her brother Yuri Suvari and five officials from the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) are touring the slum to see small-income-generating and water-and-sanitation projects, which the organisation has helped put up for the residents here.

I have asked to come along for an interview with Mena. While Mena has visited Egypt before, this is her fist trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

The land of the Pharaohs has a special place in her life. Mena's first name is Egyptian and comes from her godmother who is named after Mena Hotel at the base of pyramids in the North African country.


As the newly-appointed ambassador for Amref, the Hollywood star is now attached to sub-Saharan Africa for a different cause - philanthropy. She is here to see first hand the work the Nairobi-headquartered non-governmental organisation is doing with the poor and sick here.

The team rounds a bend and enters a compound bustling with activity. One woman, in a smoky hut, her brow dripping with sweat, is preparing Injera - Ethiopia's unofficial national dish.

Another woman, her body sank hip-deep on the ground, thrusts her hands back and forth, working a loom to make Gabi, an Ethiopian traditional cloth.

Children spring from different huts chorusing "you, you, you, you you, what is your name?" - to Mena and her American colleagues - as they practise their English with triumphant persistence. Mena regards them quietly, a smile lighting up on her face as she engages the children in a slow-paced English tête-à-tête.

She focuses her long-zoomed camera on them and clicks away as the children smile shyly at her clicking machine.

One of Mena's top hobbies is photography. She has worked with Echo Designs to produce scarves digitally imprinted with replicas of her own photographs of trees taken during her travels around North America. The pictures she is taking here today will be used to raise awareness and funds for Amref in a show to be held in the US.

We take another bend and sink deeper into the belly of the slum. Smell of urine and human excrement wafts in the air and hits my nose with merciless viciousness. Toilets are a rare phenomenon at Kechene.

For years, people have disposed of their waste in polythene bags, dumping off the bags in small gullies, some of them tributaries of Kabena River in Addis.

But now Amref is on the verge of completing a project which will provide the slum dwellers with toilets, washrooms and piped water.

The stately concrete structure of toilets and washrooms stands at the edge of the compound in complete juxtaposition with the mud-walled houses that lean forwards toward it as if paying homage to a deity.

Mena looks at the smelly gullies and the new structures that the residents will start using in a couple of days and nods. She looks impressed by the changes. The movie star has just turned 29.

But instead of spending her time in a body-soothing spa or sanding herself on a beach in Los Angeles, Hawaii or Florida, she chose to spend her special day here with the poorest of the poor.

With her youthful looks, the beautiful actress could be mistaken for a teenager.

It is interesting that she chose to celebrate her birthday here where the Ethiopian calendar, which just hit the millennium, would put Mena eight years younger at 21.

The previous evening, she held a press conference donning an Amref-shirt, a black pair of cargo trousers, Africa-shaped earrings and a necklace to match in Addis. She used the opportunity to shed light on her plans for the trip in the region.

"It was a request of mine to spend my birthday in Ethiopia," she said. Her itinerary was initially supposed take her to Kenya after Ethiopia, to visit the Amref headquarters.

However, the post-election violence necessitated a change in her itinerary. She therefore chose to fly to Uganda. During the meet-the-press session, the Hollywood idol narrated her struggle to find a purpose in life, even at times wanting to abandon the movies and go back to school.

"I struggled for many years with why I did what I did," she said regarding the people gathered at Edna Mall Cinema for the press conference, "when my co-star mentioned Amref to me, said they didn't have an Amref Ambassador in the US, I was over the moon." It is after this chat that Mena got in touch with the organisation.

Very emotional

Lisa Meadowcroft, the executive director for Amref USA, said that Mena started her job with the organisation in January this year.

"This is something that is very emotional to me," Mena carries on with her meet-the-press function, bursting into tears, "I've always felt a connection with Africa."

"I would like to believe that Amref was waiting for me," she says dabbing at her teary eyes. While growing up, the petite blue-eyed-blonde wanted to be an archeologist or a doctor.

Her father was a psychiatrist and her mother a nurse. It was only natural that she could dream of following in her parents' footsteps to become a medic.

However, fate took her down a different path. Born Mena Adrienne Suvari on February13, 1979, the actress was the last and the only daughter in a family of four.

The daughter of a Greek mother and an Estonian father, the actress grew up in Rhode Island in the US. She started modelling at the age of 12. She debuted her acting career at the age of 13 with a Rice-a-Roni commercial. Later, she shot into fame with television appearances on shows such as Boy Meets World, ER, Chicago Hope, among others.

But it is her 1999 back-to-back movies, American Beauty and American Pie that shot her star into the orbit and catapulted her into Hollywood fame. In 2000, the superstar married cinematographer Robert Brinkmann.

Brinkmann was 17 years older and this was instant fodder for the tabloids, which gave the couple a lot of heat due to the huge age difference. But this did not seem to bother Mena who seemed to have a thing for older men. Her father was 24 years older than her mother.

Also in two of her movies, Loser and American Beauty, Mena plays the object of an older man's passion. But Mena's marriage to Brinkmann did not last. In 2005, she filed for divorce citing irreconcilable differences.

So what is Mena's favourite of her movies? I wonder as we start the interview. "I don't particularly answer questions like that because I don't consider myself as having favourites," Mena says stepping up her talk to explain her stand, "I always find something great in what I do.

"But I worked on a film last year called The Garden of Eden, which to me, I feel is the most challenging thing that I've worked on to date," Mena says from the front cab of Amref's pick-up truck, turning face to the back cab, where I am seated conducting the interview.

We have pulled over on one of the tracks that divide different compounds here at Kechene. Besides being a challenge in acting, The Garden of Eden -- an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway's unfinished novel - created the opportunity for Mena to learn about Amref.
Her co-star Caterina Murino had been involved with Amref and had just become the French ambassador for the organisation. They were filming the movie in Spain when Murino asked Mena whether she would want to get involved.

Mena took up the challenge with much relish. Now in her new position, working with Amref to help the less fortunate of Africa, Mena says she feels like she has found her purpose in life. For Amref, having Mena on board is 'an opportunity for bigger things."

According to Meadowcroft, Amref USA is very happy and proud to have Mena Suvari as the goodwill ambassador in the US. "She has the opportunity to bring health and development issues and challenges in Africa to large audiences."

Fifteen years of acting, numerous TV appearances, and huge movie projects later, Mena had inched her way close to her childhood aspirations.

In a cyclic turn of events, fate has conspired to bring the Hollywood actress as close as possible to her childhood dreams of archeology and medicine.

By choosing to work in sub-Saharan Africa, she would experience the locales credited as birth places of humanity in Ethiopia and Kenya. By choosing to work with Amref, she would come close enough to working with the sick.

Her other charity works have also bordered on health; she has worked to sensitise people, especially women, against smoking.

Besides coming closer home to her childhood dreams, it is a homecoming for Mena, who tells me she has always considered Africa her home.

"I do believe and take pride in the fact that this is also my homeland," Mena says looking me straight in the eye, "that it's really only my white skin that separates me; that creates any kind of difference."

For now, Mena's only regret in working with Amref is the length of time it took her to know the organisation and to start her charitable causes with it.

"I feel like there was always something missing in my life, if I had known about this opportunity earlier," she says "if only I had known about this opportunity earlier," she reiterates.

Nonetheless, she is now happy to be doing the job she is doing, and with an organisation she has a lot of esteem for. Mena says that one of the things she treasures about Amref is that the aid organisation is "Africans for Africa."

The Hollywood figure says that she has taken time to educate herself about Africa and Amref.

The fact that Amref is among the respected leaders in charity is a huge bonus to her work as a philanthropist.

"And then, they are so good at what they do, and so respected," she says her eyes lighting up in a smile. "You know, I couldn't have hit the lottery any better."


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