Lupita Nyongo’s mother speaks at Notre Dame College about cancer in Africa


Dorothy NyongoSOUTH EUCLID, Ohio — The mother of an Academy Award-winning actress took to the stage of the Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College, but it wasn’t the movies or the theater Dorothy Nyong’o was in South Euclid to discuss.

No, the topic of the Kenya native’s talk centered on the battle she and her professor husband, Peter, are waging on cancer in their homeland.

Nyong’o was the featured speaker Tuesday evening as part of a week-long series of events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Cleveland Heights-based International Partners in Mission.

The organization works across borders with children, women and youth to try and bring about justice, peace and hope. Since its founding, IPM has implemented 348 community-based initiatives in more than 40 countries around the world. It has offices in Kenya, El Salvador and India.

Other IPM events scheduled through Friday include a session on human trafficking, and a keynote address by PBS personality and international travel authority Rick Steves. Steves will speak Friday at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts in Cleveland on the topic of “Travel as a Political Act.”

“She and her husband, Peter, are well known in the Kenyan community,” said IPM CEO Joseph F. Cistone. “They’re well-known community leaders. Because we have an office in Nairobi, we knew of their work and asked Dorothy to speak to us for our anniversary.”

Notre Dame College hosted only Nyong’o’s talk among the IPM anniversary events, but the college’s Vice President of Academic & Student Affairs Nicholas Santilli said that a few years ago a group of NDC students went on an IPM-held “Immersion Experience” to Nicaragua. “It changed their lives,” he said of the students who took the trip.

The talk had been billed as one that would encompass both the challenges faced by women in Africa, as well as the establishment and work done by Africa Cancer Foundation, the organization the Nyong’os founded. Instead, Dorothy Nyong’o spoke only briefly about the challenges stating, “There is not one single narrative on Africa’s challenges, there are so many.”

The Nyong’os are parents of Lupita Nyong’o, now filming “Star Wars: Episode VII,” and the winner of an Oscar for actress in a supporting role this year for her part as a slave named Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.”

Again, Dorothy Nyong’o didn’t touch much on the subject of her daughter, stating only near the end of her speech, “We are the parents of Lupita Nyong’o. We thank God for her and we’re very proud of her.”

Nyong’o spoke of how her husband was diagnosed in 2011 with prostate cancer and how, through treatment in the United States, he was made better.

“What struck us most,” she said of the time after Peter’s treatment had been completed, “was that for all of our education we were almost totally ignorant about cancer. What about the rest of the citizens, the rest of Kenyans?”

The couple made it their mission to found Africa Cancer Foundation. At particular risk, Nyong’o said, are African women, who develop breast and cervical cancer at any age. Men deal mostly with esophageal cancer and prostate cancer, but prostate cancer usually develops after the age of 40.

Since founding the organization, Africa Cancer Foundation has prompted more than 6,000 people — in a country of 40 million that had little in the way of cancer awareness — to get cancer screenings. The foundation now has more than 100 volunteers; has established cancer clubs, primarily in girls schools where awareness is discussed; gives support to cancer patients and their families; and works with the government to make policy regarding the fight against cancer.

Future plans, Nyong’o said, include the desire to establish a cancer research center, and a one-step, state-of-the-art cancer center in Kenya. Nyong’o said she wants the foundation to someday encompass the entire African continent.

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