In Uganda, where her mother is from, tradition dictates that the community give each child a pet name meant to suit his or her character. For her, Jessica Horn, the name is Akiiki.
"Does it mean something?" I ask her over Skype.
"It means like sustainer, the nurturer, the one who looks after things," she says, bursting into laughter sudden as rain.
On my computer screen she smiles broadly, a vibrant presence prepared to engage in a halfway-around-the-world conversation, her headset on, dark eyes looking into the vast cyberspace between us as though we sit just feet apart. And she has already kindly informed me that I have a little piece of spinach in my teeth.
"You were like this from the start, then?"
Another downpour of light, scattered laughter. "Ah, yes," says the 31-year-old with a mixture of delight and the resignation that comes with knowing you can't stand in the way of a force of nature.
Akiiki Consulting is the name of her Sierra Leone-based company, which works with such NGOs as Canada's Stephen Lewis Foundation on strategies to help African communities confront HIV/AIDs and sexual violence against women. Ms. Horn will be in Toronto next month as part of a roundtable event, along with Harry Belafonte and Mr. Lewis, for the foundation's Hope Rising! fundraiser on May 3.
The middle of three children, she grew up in southern Africa and the Fiji islands. Her father, a white American, taught English literature at universities. From an early age, she was interested in community initiatives.
"It was the early nineties and the HIV/AIDs epidemic had reached the Fiji islands. The secretary at my primary school was the second known case in the country. I'd always been concerned about health and about women, so I started training as a peer educator on HIV and AIDs as a teenager," she explains.
Gesticulating enthusiastically, she talks about the issues that consumed her through her years as a student at Smith College, the feminist liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, and the London School of Economics.
"I was always looking at the intersection of health and social justice," she begins, unrolling her sentences quickly and neatly.
"Why is it that people get sick? Why it is that certain people get sick and others don't? And in particular, women? And what is it about the vulnerabilities that come from social inequality that fuel ill health? I have always maintained my interest and concern in HIV/AIDs. It's one of those health phenomena that's clearly not just about health, not just about vectors of transmission and viruses and drugs. It's fundamentally about the nature of our society, and in particular … how women can or cannot decide what happens with their bodies and their sexuality."
Only a power outage or two can interrupt her enthusiasm, and when she flickers back on Skype there's always another laugh and an apology for the vagaries of Internet communication.
Four years ago, she left a London-based job as a co-ordinator of Amanitare, the African Partnership for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls, to set up Akiiki so she could follow her partner, who works in development. Ms. Horn, who is also on the board of Urgent Action Fund-Africa and volunteers for a number of organizations, travels to communities across the continent for 40 per cent of her work, serving as field rep for NGOs funding grassroots initiatives.
On those travels, she hears powerful and harrowing stories of cruelty, survival and dignity. Because the taboo of talking about sex has eased - thanks to necessity as the AIDS/HIV epidemic devastates communities - men and women are willing to address very personal issues. For African women, rape and transactional sex have carried painful stigma that devalued them in the community. Now, they're standing up and talking about what they endured for the sake of their own survival.
"They say, 'I had no choice, but this says nothing about my worth as a woman,' " Ms. Horn says, her voice vibrating with emotion. "They may have been disempowered by the act of violence, but speaking out empowers them."
From afar, it is easy to feel that Africa is a place that needs macro-level imposition of order, she acknowledges. "[But]we often underestimate people's capacity to change their own lives. People want to survive. People want to live in dignity. People don't want their children to live in appalling situations. People want their children to be safe. People want to be healthy. People want to eat food. When you support people's own capacities to survive and innovate, that's really the ticket."
Ms. Horn's academic and organizational experience may prepare her for engaging with a variety of local communities - in addition to English, she speaks French and some Swahili - but those skills could not prepare her for some of the suffering she encounters in her work.
For that, her poetry helps.
Been a long time
In these bruised bones
Long time in my rituals
Of burnt eyes
And painted smile.
- from Sista, why do you run?
A published poet, Ms. Horn reads from her work at forums and workshops, encouraging others to use creative expression as a way to deal with horrors they have witnessed.
"Some of it's very painful," she says. "There's something about bearing witness which can sometimes make you feel very helpless. Listening to people's narratives about facing things that are pretty insurmountable; intense violence, violation, situations in which people have been so dehumanized. How do you deal with that? As a human being, it can be extremely difficult."
Tickets for the Hope Rising! fundraiser are available on www.hoperising.ca.