Silver Spring woman focuses on aiding sub-Saharan Africans

Martha Saldinger stands by a wall hanging in her Crystal City office that was made from material she bought in Sierra Leone. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Martha Saldinger stands by a wall hanging in her Crystal City office that was made from material she bought in Sierra Leone.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

When Martha Saldinger was growing up, her parents routinely welcomed international visitors into their home, whetting her appetite to see the world.

Now 56, the Silver Spring resident has made a career of improving the lives of Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Their stories are “very compelling, very powerful,” she said. Also “really disturbing.”

Saldinger is director of education and empowerment at Winrock International in Crystal City. From her office overlooking the Potomac River and the Reagan National Airport tower, Saldinger oversees projects that help mostly young girls receive an education, even if their school happens to be under a tree.

Providing an education means more than paying for tuition and books, Saldinger said. The money she allocates also pays for kerosene so the students can do homework at night by light of lamps.

Saldinger began her career by entering the Peace Corps in 1980 after graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in economics.

“I was posted to a village with about 800 [people], six miles from a market, bank or post office,” she said of her two years in Sierra Leone. The family she lived with consisted of a man, his two wives and several young relatives who lived with them to be near a school. They had “lights some of the time, but not really.”

After her two years were up, she returned to her home in Massachusetts for a short while before moving to Washington and working at the Peace Corps headquarters, helping place health professionals in short-term volunteer positions overseas.

She later worked for the United States Agency for International Development, assisting war victims in countries that include Uganda, Viet Nam and Mozambique receive orthopedic surgery and new limbs.

A job for the nongovernmental organization, International Rescue Committee, lured her back overseas, to Côte d’Ivoire where she worked on a program to combat AIDS and also helped women set up businesses. Her husband, whom she met in the Peace Corps, and her young son, Roger, accompanied her.

Saldinger moved to Sierra Leone in 2000, to help launch the American Refugee Committee’s operations there. When she had first lived in Sierra Leone, “it was peaceful,” she said. But this time, the country was involved in civil war.

“It was such a tense time,” she said. During her Peace Corps days, “at most, you’d see a hunting rifle, and now there were road blocks everywhere and a curfew.”

She was in Sierra Leone a little more than three years, helping people who were returning to the area they had fled during the civil war. She worked on AIDS prevention programs as well as vocational programs for former combatants.

Saldinger decided to return to Washington, and in 2004 began working at Winrock, where she headed a contract involving 13 countries South Sudan, in Africa. “We helped 50,000 girls and 8,000 boys with the cost of education.” Through her work, she has been to South Sudan, “I think, 10 times in the last four years.”

It’s an extremely poor country without enough food. “People couldn’t get crops in the ground because of the fighting,” she said. Children often don’t attend school as their families move to a new location during the rainy season. And only 12 percent of the country’s teachers are educated, she said. Girls are married off at young ages so their husbands’ families can receive cattle as part of the wedding contract.

While still involved in sub-Saharan Africa, Saldinger currently oversees a project in Bangladesh that helps women start businesses of their own.

Saldinger relishes her time overseas, recalling once even conducting a Passover seder near the Nile River, which she described as “a roiling, churning body of water with crocodiles and hippos.” Her husband used barracuda to make the gefilte fish, and they baked their own matzah.

Many people might describe the places she has lived and worked as “a hell-hole,” she said, adding that no one goes there to sightsee.

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