Fiona Eberts combined the traditional role of a mother and wife of a successful man with a radical volunteer career in Africa helping to educate some of the poorest women in the world. She was married for 44 years to the late Jake Eberts, the Canadian film producer, and the couple used their international resources and influence for a number of causes.
In 2001, Ms. Eberts read about an African charity, Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed. Its goal is to educate young women in rural Africa, because few of them have the opportunity to go to school, a privilege often reserved for their brothers. Ms. Eberts was living in Paris at the time and took a train to London, then to Cambridge, to meet Ann Cotton, who founded Camfed in 1993.
“Soon Fiona was travelling with me to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia,” said Ms. Cotton from her home in Cambridge, England. “She was very adventurous. I remember travelling in southern Africa and our plane made an emergency landing. We didn’t know what country we were in. Fiona walked into a nearby building and was soon chatting with some local women and turned up with toasties for us to eat.”
Camfed does not expect to find instant solutions to rural poverty in Africa. Its objective is to find long-term solutions and it sponsors mostly girls – and some boys – through primary and secondary school and, in some cases, on to university. The organization also teaches women how to start and run their own small businesses and arrange grants and loans.
“Fiona was a great storyteller and she taught me a lot about storytelling,” said Ms. Cotton, who uses interesting stories about the work Camfed is doing to raise money in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. “She saw stories everywhere.”
Ms. Eberts, who died in Albany, N.Y., on July 20 at the age of 67, became chair of Camfed in 2004 and used her connections to raise money and awareness for the charity. Her husband had been an early backer of Jeffrey Skoll, the founder of eBay, who soon became a major donor to Camfed through his own foundation.
“She had a generous and spontaneous heart that infused the way she lived,” Ms. Cotton said. “I remember we were in Tanzania talking to a woman whose granddaughter we were educating. She indicated she admired the colourful scarf Fiona was wearing, and Fiona took it off straight away and gave it to her.”
Ms. Eberts also became involved in other projects in Africa, including helping to start a plantation in northeastern Ghana to grow moringa trees, whose leaves are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. That project combined two of her interests: alleviating poverty in rural Africa and alternative medicine.
“She wanted to encourage independence for the women growing the plant, and she believed it was nutritious and had medicinal qualities,” said her son, Alexander Eberts. “The experience of working with Ann Cotton in Africa changed her life.”
Fiona Louise Leckie was born on Oct. 30, 1946, in Weybridge, a suburb of London, soon after her parents returned from spending more than three years in Japanese internment camps in China and Burma (now Myanmar). Her father, John Leckie, worked for a British insurance company in Singapore; when the war began, he enlisted in the British army. He was captured when the Japanese overwhelmed British forces in Southeast Asia in December, 1941. Her mother, Mary-Lou Newman, was captured in Singapore and interned in a camp in China.
After the war, John wrote a letter to Mary-Lou, whom he had met in Singapore, proposing marriage and asking her to meet him in Sydney, Australia. She managed to get there via tramp steamers and they were married in late 1945. They returned to England, where Fiona was born, but were soon back in Asia.
Alexander Eberts recalls that his grandparents were never bitter about their time in the Japanese camps. “They never had any animosity and I think that attitude percolated through to my mother,” said Mr. Eberts from the family home in North Hatley, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where his parents spent several months every year.
Fiona’s childhood was spent in Hong Kong and Manila, where her father worked. As a young girl she was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland.
She was working in Brussels when friends set her up with a young Canadian banker, Jake Eberts. When he was offered a transfer to New York, his employer said it would pay to move his wife but not his girlfriend, and the two married in 1968.
Mr. Eberts was working in finance, raising money through stock-and-bond issues, when he was approached to finance a movie about rabbits. His employer at the time wasn’t interested, but he was told to go ahead and try it on his own, if he liked. He did, and the 1978 film Watership Down was a huge success.
Mr. Eberts soon founded a production company, Goldcrest Films, with backing from the Pearson Group – a British publishing and education conglomerate. He went on to produce about 50 films, including Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982), and won 37 Oscars.
Ms. Eberts never worked in the film business, although she had strong opinions about the value of her husband’s work, and was critical of Hollywood focusing on movies for young audiences. “As a result there is so little to see or rent for so many of us,” she told the Montreal Gazette. She said her husband made films for grown-ups that won awards and audiences.
Neither she nor her husband were Hollywood people and never lived in Los Angeles. They divided their time between Europe; Sundance, Utah; and North Hatley.
Ms. Eberts’s main focus was on raising her children – sons Alexander and David and daughter Lindsay – and running a busy household. Although the
antithesis of the type, she jokingly referred to herself as a poule de luxe, the French expression for a spoiled woman. As the children grew older she expanded her volunteer work and wrote articles for publications such as The Daily Telegraph on subjects ranging from her parents’ experiences in the Japanese camps to arranged marriages in India.
One of her great passions was alternative medicine. She did not abandon traditional medicine, but believed in such things as the medicinal benefits of the moringa trees that she helped grow in Ghana. She joined the board of Colorado-based National Foundation of Alternative and Integrated Medicine. Because of her interest in alternative medicine she was asked to speak at a TED Women conference a few years ago.
“Her range of interests were well researched and her positions fiercely advocated,” said her brother-in-law, Tony Stikeman. “She had strong views on Iraq, for example.”
When her husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer, Ms. Eberts nursed him at home until his death in late 2012.
She had recently moved back to North Hatley permanently. While visiting friends in Albany in July, she lay down on a couch and never woke up. In addition to her children, she leaves her mother and siblings Lucian, Kirsten and Sandy Salguero and their families.
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