Five years after exiting the plane, Aby and Stephen Nelms still can describe the first few steps they took on the tarmac outside the airport in the Republic of Zambia.
Stephen, a minister and the head of international training and development for local organization Gospel Inc., most remembers “the smell of burning grass.”
“[It’s] a very distinctive smell when you go there,” he said. “… We were greeted by a large group of pastors and singing women. It was very interesting.”
The Nelms, who recently moved to Lynchburg with their five kids, can tell their fair share of stories about adapting to life in a third-world country quite colorfully.
“Everything from cooking over an open fire to moving into a little house that was flooded and having no furniture, no kitchen, no fridge, no car. And two babies in cloth diapers,” Stephen, 35, said. “Those are definitely some vivid memories for sure.”
The couple moved to Africa in 2010 on a mission trip and spent almost five years in the village of Chongwe.
“We were at a place where we really wanted to experience the gospel outside of the walls of the church,” Stephen said.
In Zambia, the couple created the Give Life Project, an initiative they started through Gospel Inc, the organization Stephen’s father founded in 1998.
According to Stephen, Gospel Inc., which operates out of Wyndhurst, works to be a global link for local churches around the world.
The family’s time there also inspired Aby to start the business Five Arrows Market, through which she now sells handcrafted, African-inspired kitchen décor, upon their return to the U.S.
Stephen and Aby said they chose the Republic of Zambia partly because of the ties Stephen had to the country through his father’s organization. From 2003 to 2010, he visited several times, spending what accumulated to several months in the village.
With two young children, they were looking for a safe environment where they could raise a family. The villagers spoke English, and Stephen and Aby already knew people and had the footholds there.
“You figure you’re going to go change the world, but you get there, and you see the needs unfolding differently than what you thought,” Aby, 33, said. “We had such a vision for community development … and about a year into us living there, we saw the doors fling wide open for education.”
That happened after Stephen met the leader of a small village, who took the couple to a nearby school.
“They had mud bricks with a thatched-grass roof and when you stepped inside, there [were] maybe about 35 extremely dirty children sitting on small mud benches, little bricks covered by mud,” he said. “The teachers, they had no supplies, no equipment and, come to find out, they had no education. They’d never even graduated high school.”
Despite not having a background as educators, the Nelms established two fully self-sustaining schools: one in the nearby village of Chishiko, which the community maintains, and Nyezima (meaning to sparkle or shine), a preschool that has 75 students enrolled.
“Our whole vision was to partner with the village,” said Aby. “That’s true community development, we thought, when the people feel like they are developing themselves. You’re not doing it for them. They’re part of the building and teaching and everything.”
In addition to establishing the two schools, they sent two young women, who would become teachers there, to college and paid for their entire education.
Aby also organized a sewing co-op through which group members sold their products, and helped her friend, Alice Simpokolwe, establish a sewing business where she taught other women to sew in order to make a living.
“When … you leave, you do question, ‘What did we accomplish?’” Stephen said. “You look back at it and you realize we were able to accomplish things there that were really spectacular. We had a lot of opportunities that maybe people won’t have usually.
“We took a huge risk moving into a third-world country and living in a small village, but it was a beautiful thing in many ways. … You realize you really can do anything if you set your mind to it and you give yourself over to the leading of God. You really can do some crazy things.”
After five years, the family, which had more than doubled in size with the addition of three children, returned to the U.S. The Nelms lived in Florida before moving to Lynchburg in August so Stephen could be closer to Gospel Inc.
In April, Aby created Five Arrows Market on Etsy, where she sells placemats, wooden bowls and serving spoons.
“I wanted to have a creative space where I could express my interest and share about my experiences as a mother, traveler, artist, and so on,” said Aby, who moved to the U.S. from Venezuela as a child and began taking mission trips in her early teens. “I also wanted to have a way for people to get involved with various opportunities to help others.”
She chose the number five to represent each of her children.
“Arrows are something that you propel forward,” she said, “They have to always go backward in order to go forward. … So it has to do with family and direction and purpose.”
Part of the money from every purchase of a Five Arrows Market product goes to Nyezima Preschool and the women’s co-op, to help bring in supplies they cannot find in Africa.
“When you look at the developing world, much of that is a survival mentality. There’s a saying, ‘You don’t plant a tree,’” said Stephen. “That’s the way a lot of people look at life: It’s about today. … Five Arrows does come out of the idea of using art and the senses and creation in order to promote, in order to bring awareness and bring opportunity. The heart of Five Arrows comes out of that.”
Simpokolwe and Aby made the brightly colored, graphic placemats currently in the Five Arrows Market line while Aby still lived in Africa; they’re made from traditional fabrics called chitenge using an old-school sewing machine, the kind a person pumps with his or her foot.
“They use [the chitenge] for everything from baby carriers to rolling them and using them as a support to carry things on their heads, to sitting on or using [them] as a bag and so many other things,” said Aby.
The line also includes intricately hand-carved wooden bowls and serving spoons designed by the locals at Kabwata Cultural Market, with whom the couple became close during their time there.
“I immediately was drawn to them. I so appreciate the beauty of the woods, so rustic and practical,” Aby said. “I am usually one to pick out vintage and worn items that have either a history or just an interesting story. I definitely had a collection of my own. Some of my favorites were the small giraffe spoons I used for serving different things.”
Starting next year, Five Arrows Market also will include a photography business and blog, which plays into Aby’s strengths as a professional photographer.
She said she has considered expanding into more fabric products, like purses, aprons and baby bibs, using fabrics from other locales around the world such as Indonesia and the Middle East.
But Africa will always stay in the line.
“Africa’s my heart because that’s where I lived, but I’ve traveled to all kinds of places all the time,” she said. “I have in my heart and my mind all of these experiences from the past that definitely influence everything that I do.”