Seesawing in the backseat of a taxi through the rolling hills of Rwanda in the dead of night, Nancy Zeller’s true first impression of the Land of a Thousand Hills would not come until daybreak.
It was 2013, the first time the Amherst native and longtime Westmoreland resident had ever been to Africa.
A former real estate agent and self-professed introvert, Zeller was there to visit Katie Scrafford, a Keene State College graduate student who had rented a room in the historic Long Ridge Farmhouse Zeller owns with her husband, Jack, a retired Keene police officer.
While there were enough eye-popping details on the ride from the Kigali airport to the Rwandan farmhouse where she would stay with Scrafford — most notably the lines of soldiers with AK-47s on night patrol that flanked the taxi as it left the airport— only the flood of light the next morning would reveal to Zeller the dynamic character of the Rwandan people with whom she’d end up working as part of an award-winning nonprofit organization.
“In the morning, when I woke up — Katie and I were staying at the farm together — and I looked out the window, and I saw this woman, and she had one of those baskets, those thrushing baskets, and she was thrushing sorghum and singing. And I looked around, and other people were sweeping it, and they were singing!” Zeller said in her home arts studio on a rainy Thursday. “And I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in Africa.’ It was this sort of — it’s hard to explain — profound view, because I left (the U.S.) in the dark, I landed in the dark, and then all of a sudden, you’re really there.”
Once Zeller began to get her bearings, she noticed she could help with the textile production in the area, and used her expertise in applied arts and natural dyeing to help a group of 35 Rwandan genocide widows grow their business of handspun yarns. Specifically, Zeller expanded the color line of their yarns, using natural materials from around the farm — from plants and roots to insects like the cochineal — with as little water and other resources as possible.
Now the founder and president of Rwanda one4one, Zeller and her team of volunteers stateside sell boutique items such as scarves and quilts produced in Rwanda on the nonprofit organization’s website and at showings in the U.S. Those proceeds and other fundraising efforts combine to fund medical care and education for the families.
This past year, the nonprofit organization covered school tuition, books and uniform costs for 16 children, with extra funds for emergency medical issues and home repairs if needed.
Operating primarily out of the district of Musanze in the northwest of the country, Zeller has worked on fellowships, researching how to use the region’s natural materials, instead of more costly extracts, for dyes.
Yet without any prior experience on the continent or any extensive studies of the nation’s history before that first visit, Zeller’s success has come from a broad-based education and embrace of versatility she picked up in the Granite State.
Born and raised in Amherst, things got complicated for Zeller when her parents divorced. She bounced around from high school to high school, depending on the living situation of either parent, eventually graduating from Concord-Carlisle in Massachusetts.
Zeller then enrolled at Franklin Pierce in Rindge, but eventually transferred to Keene State College and fell in love with the city.
“The Monadnock Region is really, I think, an unknown treasure,” Zeller said. “People think it’s all going on in Nashua or Manchester or Concord, but this is an amazing corner of this state. I love New Hampshire, anyway; I am all over this state. I could never leave it, I don’t think. But this region, we have great people who give back, community involvement, arts, restaurants. ... This place is a gem.”
While Nancy (née Walker) met Jack in Keene, the two didn’t begin a relationship in earnest until some five years later before eventually marrying. Before getting the farm with her husband, Zeller started up Zeller Real Estate, which was sold in 1988, and she did paralegal work for Bradley, Burnett, and Kinyon in the early 1990s.
With no children of their own, the Zellers take pride in mentoring young people in the region, including renters such as Scrafford.
On Long Ridge Farm, Zeller harvests wool from a half-dozen sheep she raises, some of which ends up in her studio next to scores of brightly colored bags filled with local and Rwandan roots and bugs.
The main technique she uses with the team in Rwanda comes from a workshop in Wilmington, Vt., that Zeller came across in the mid-1980s. However, Zeller would not go into much detail about the trade secrets behind her craft, out of a desire to protect the competitive edge the Rwandan women enjoy.
Zeller said she has been floored with the philosophical outlook of her Rwandan friends, whom she keeps in touch with almost daily through WhatsApp, an alternative messaging service to texting.
“They’re so pure in a way that we are no longer,” Zeller said, especially when it comes to the role of social media in their lives, with her Rwandan friends more focused on in-person interactions.
More broadly, Zeller said she has begun to see her country and American culture from a different perspective when she returns from trips abroad.
“You see it right away when you come back. There’s a lack of thankfulness here for even the simplest things, which in Rwanda, they are thankful for everything. Even one banana, a glass of juice, a hug or a hello. You come back here, and everybody’s just doing their own thing. They’re very busy — everybody’s too busy, too busy for anything, even community and being friends and just eating and visiting.”
Also important to Zeller as an American working in Rwanda is a sense of self-awareness, especially in a country that has undergone such trauma from the genocide and its neglect internationally that salted the wound.
At the time, Zeller said she was mostly unaware of the 1994 genocide being carried out by the ethnic majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis. Perpetrated by the government and Hutu civilians, the three-month campaign resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans — approximately 70 percent of the Tutsi population.
Zeller said she makes it a priority each time she goes back to approach the work with a team-first attitude and to be aware of the privileges she enjoys as an American.
“I wanted to be (as much) on their playing field as possible, not some big wig coming in from America,” Zeller said. “I wanna eat with them and chat with them and laugh with them and dance with them. And that’s the important thing — you don’t go there to try and change them.”
In some of the more remote villages she’s been to, Zeller said locals have told her she is the first white person they’ve ever met, with some kids trying to sneak in a quick touch to see if anything strange would happen upon contact.
Zeller’s going on her 10th trip to Rwanda in March and conceded the experience is certainly not for everyone, especially Americans used to a certain level of comfort and luxury. But the reasons that make the experience uncomfortable, according to Zeller, have far more to do with the rural nature of the Rwandan economy and natural conditions, not political instability or violence.
Nevertheless, in one instance, the country’s relative delay in health care and standards of policing became an issue.
“I got hit by a car there in 2016,” Zeller said, seemingly out of the blue when talking about the experiences with the health care system the Rwandan women she knows have had. “I was coming home from dinner, and I got run into in the back by a car full of off-duty police officers, who are all drunk, and there were five of them in this minivan.”
Unaware they were officers at the time, Zeller accepted a ride from the squad to a hospital. Her left foot bore most of the damage, with fractures in five places in addition to severe nerve damage. At the end of November, Zeller will undergo surgery on the foot.
The police officers were not heard from again after they left the hospital. She took the encounter to be more revealing of the necessity to look both ways while crossing parking lots than as any particular commentary on Rwandan police.
She remembers people asking her if her husband would “let me go back,” an inquiry with which she took particular umbrage.
The anecdote brought Zeller back to her earlier point about this kind of work not being for everyone.
“If it’s not for you, you should donate instead!” she joked. “But if I’m traveling, I’m good. Give me the right clothes to wear, and just go with the flow.”
When she’s at home in Westmoreland, Zeller keeps busy outside of the studio by fundraising and organizing other logistics for the nonprofit organization through the board. Once a year, the board members convene in Westmoreland at her farm.
Lots of the work in the nonprofit sector requires grant funding. Beverly Army Williams, an author and writing professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, came on board after meeting Zeller at a textile festival. Tasked with securing funding and support for Rwanda one4one through writing grant applications, Williams said the work is made simpler with Zeller’s vision and tenacity.
“She’s tireless,” Williams said. “She is always thinking of the family that we serve and the people we serve through the organization and what more she can do for people to help, and I always just find her so inspiring because she’s so hard working.”
For Williams, Zeller’s humility, dedication and tenacity are veritable superpowers.
“She’s a bit of a Wonder Woman.”