By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Previous published accounts show Tesfai coming from a middle-class family. Her close friend Dorothy Huebel refers to Tesfai’s many brothers and sisters, most of whom live in Texas or California, as “cosmopolitan.” In Lo Presti’s recorded version, Tesfai once scaled 22 mountains without shoes or supplies on her way to a refugee camp. Published versions show her crossing a desert as well.
In September, Lo Presti says, she invited Tesfai to see her perform at the Joint, a nightclub on Pico Boulevard. According to Lo Presti, Tesfai came to the show with her two sons, and while backstage listened to Lo Presti’s standard introduction to “22 Mountains.” “She said, ‘Yes, that’s it,’ and it was all the affirmation I needed to go out and perform,” Lo Presti says. “You wouldn’t believe how many e-mails I get because of this song. People lean on it.”
Tesfai says she does not remember the encounter or having heard of “22 Mountains.” Her résumé, posted on ACRC’s Web site, contains clues as to why she might resist scrutiny. For starters, it says in 1981 she earned a master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University in Houston. It also states that she earned a master’s in family counseling from Southern Coast University in Florida, in 1984; a master’s in social work from California Coast University, in 1989; and a doctorate in humanities from Southern Eastern University, also in Florida, in 1997.
However, the registrar at Texas Southern has no record under Tesfai’s names. Likewise, California Coast University, a distance-learning center, has no record of Tesfai. When contacted, neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Florida Distance Learning Consortium had heard of Southern Coast University or Southern Eastern University. There is a Southern Eastern University founded in London and incorporated in Arkansas by a Count Daniel de Grimaldi, but that’s news to Arkansas education officials, and that’s where a previously unexamined aspect of Tesfai’s life starts to come into focus.
Grimaldi represents himself as a member of Monaco’s royal family, a member of the American Bar Association and an international barrister. The ABA has no record of Grimaldi. According to news accounts from London, Grimaldi’s real name is Daniel Swann, and he is neither descended from Monaco royals nor an international barrister. Rather, he is described as an East London crook, sentenced in 1999 to three years in prison for stealing disability and income-support benefits. Swann (whose United Kingdom passport reads Swann-Grimaldi) could not be reached for comment.
Tesfai has no recollection of California Coast or Southern Coast. The name Daniel rings a bell, she says, but the name Grimaldi draws a puzzled look from her.
To her believers, the brutal realities of the lives of Tesfai’s clientele and the realpolitik of humanitarianism render biographical scrutiny of her trivial and mean-spirited. “With all the things going on in the world, to pick on someone like Nikki is very bad,” Irene Borger says.
One name that registers with Tesfai is Dr. F. Arthur Bogaerts, who appears to have elevated her international humanitarian ambitions. Bogaerts, an African Community Resource Center advisory board member, is a physician and international gadabout from Belgium and the president and CEO of the Albert Schweitzer Society USA International Inc. Over the years, he and Tesfai have collaborated on relief projects while Tesfai has aspired to gain acceptance at the nongovernmental organization, or NGO, section of the United Nations — a status Bogaerts gained a couple of decades ago. But Tesfai’s reliance on Bogaerts, and his international Albert Schweitzer organization, is less than inspiring. In retrospect, she says it was mostly just talk. (According to news reports from London, Grimaldi’s alleged reliance on Bogaerts’ name and identity as a doctor to justify phony disability payments had consequences: It landed him in jail.)
In the world of humanitarianism, the name Albert Schweitzer may be among the most revered — and the most abused. There is but one Albert Schweitzer Fellowship approved in 1940 by Schweitzer himself, according to Lachlan Forrow, fellowship president and director of ethics and palliative care at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. And there are three sanctioned sister organizations, Forrow says. But Bogaerts’ is not one of them. “Some are simply an embarrassment,” he says, pointing to the Dayton, Ohio–based Albert Schweitzer Society USA Inc., which lists Bogaerts as chief executive officer from 1998 to 2000.
As domestic and international affiliates, the two Albert Schweitzer societies are often confused with each another. But as far as Forrow is concerned, any distinctions are irrelevant. Two unseemly events stand out, he says, and possibly reflect on the company Tesfai keeps, particularly in East Africa, where she and Bogaerts have at times resembled hapless adventurers.
On October 7, 1998, Bogaerts agreed with a man named Prosper Ndabishuriye to form an association whereby the international Albert Schweitzer society could claim credit for the rebuilding of homes that were lost during the social and economic devastation in Burundi in the early 1990s. In exchange, Bogaerts would provide the building materials. After Ndabishuriye fronted the costs of the project, however, Bogaerts disappeared from sight, and his domestic affiliate was left to answer for him. Unable to pay his creditors, Ndabishuriye lost most of his personal property, was jailed repeatedly in debtors’ prison and forced to send his family to Kenya. He filed suit against Bogaerts’ domestic affiliate in 2001. On November 7, a federal judge in Ohio awarded him $477,000.