The Clever Farmer, an African Fable

One day a farmer decided to take his cow to the market to be sold. When he met the merchant, he greeted him and told him he had a cow he wished to sell. The merchant asked how much he wanted for his cow, to which the farmer replied “Fifty measures of grain”. The merchant began to laugh and said that the farmer must be a fool to ask such a price since the cow was only worth a single measure of grain.

The two began to barter the price and their tempers rose as the argument continued. A crowd began to gather around the two men. Then the farmer said that he wasn’t a fool; because no fool could know where the center of the earth was or how many stars there were in the heavens.

The merchant got very angry and tried to punch him. At this point a few men in the crowd took both of the men to the judge so that he could decide.

The judge heard the version of both men then turned to the farmer to ask “If you are able to tell us the number of stars in the sky and where the center of the earth is; then here is your chance.” The farmer paused and reached for his cane which he lifted and plunged deep into the ground. “This is the center of the earth”, he said, “and anyone who can prove the contrary is welcome to do so now.

He then reached down and took a handful of dust from the ground. “The number of stars in the heavens is equal to the number of dust particles in my hand and anyone who can prove me wrong is welcome to speak now.”

The judge understood that he was dealing with a very clever man. So he ordered the merchant to pay the clever farmer fifty measures of grain for his cow.

Eritrean Fable: Even the Flies and Spiders

“Mother, I hate spiders and flies!” said the prince. The queen replied wisely, “There is a purpose for everything God made.”

Although he knew his mother was a wise woman, he doubted her words this time. After all, what purpose could either of those annoying creatures serve? He continued his day, giving it no more thought.

A month passed and something very horrible happened. There was a rebellion in the kingdom and the king’s family was killed. The only one to escape was the young prince. He knew that his enemies were not far behind him and that they would never let him escape. Having the prince alive would mean that he could one day gather an army to take the king’s place and rule the land.
He decided to go and live with an uncle who lived far away. He traveled only at night and through the countryside so that he would not be seen. But he soon learned that they were close behind. If only he could make it through one more day of travel, he would reach the safety of his uncle’s home.

On the last day he reached an open place with a small water hole where he could rest and take a drink. The long days of travel had made him quite tired; so soon he was asleep leaning comfortably against a tree.

A few hours passed and a fly landed on his face. He shooed it away; but it came back again and again. Finally, annoyed by the fly he opened his eyes and saw his enemies approaching in the distance. He had been sleeping so well that he didn’t hear them coming.

So, he jumped up and made his way into the hills as quickly as he could. There were many caves in the hills; so he chose one and made his way inside. He went deep into the cave and hid himself as best he could. Time passed and he heard his enemies talking outside of the cave.

One said to the other in a loud angry voice, “Don’t bother checking that one, can’t you see that there is a spider’s web? He could not have entered without disturbing the web and as you can see that the web isn’t broken! Let us leave and check the next cave!” So, they left and went to check the other caves.

As it turns out, just after he had entered the cave, a big spider had come to weave her web just at the cave’s opening. Since she was so large, it didn’t take her long to have a large web which covered most of the small opening.

As the prince escaped safely the next morning to his uncle’s home, he remembered the wise words of his mother. He wept remembering what she said each time that he had complained as a child saying he hated flies and spiders: “My dear son, there is a purpose for every creature God made… even the flies and the spiders.”

African Fable: How the Desert Came to Be

Kweku Ananse and his friend Akwasi were known to everyone to be very good farmers. They had such large farms that people came from all over to buy everything from them. As time passed they became rich.

Yet one year, everything turned bad as the rains stopped falling. Ananse and Akwasi didn’t know what to do. All the streams and rivers had dried up and people quit coming since there was nothing left to buy.

Akwasi decided to go to Nana Nyankopon, the creator of the universe, to solicit his help. So one morning, he called on Nana Nyankopon and said to him, “Nana, there has not been rain for a long time; so all the rivers and streams are dry. All the crops on my farm have dried up and wilted. Please, let me have some rain.”

God was touched and said to him, “I have delegated some of my work to people, because I get so tired of small requests all day long. I have given the chore of wind to Paa Kwesi, the chore of sunshine to Yeboah and the chore of rain to Nsiah, the hunchback. If you want rain, go and see Nsiah the hunchback and ask him to give you some rain.”

Akwasi was very happy and thanked Nyankopon. He went off to look for Nsiah, the hunchback. Eventually, he came across him sitting under a tree resting from the weighty task which God had given to him. Akwasi said hello then told him that God had sent him to ask the hunchback for rain. “If it is God who sent you, I cannot refuse. Take a small stick and beat my back” he said.
Aswasi picked two small sticks and gently tapped Nsiah’s back two times, thanked him and went home. In the morning, he went to his farm and sure enough, there had been a heavy spell of rain. All the plants were standing upright and green.

Ananse passed Akwasi’s farm the next morning and was so happy that he jumped up and down with joy. He punched the air and yelled “Yippee!” He thought the rain had fallen on his farm, too. But unfortunately when he got to his farm, he realized with shock that the rains had stopped at the boundary. There had not been any on his farm. But why had rains fallen on Akwasi’s farm? Surely, there must be an answer. He became suspicious of his friend and decided to go and ask him how on earth he got rains on his farm.

Akwasi did not want to tell Ananse about God’s rainmaker because of Ananse’s sly nature. But later he changed his mind, so he told Ananse about God’s rainmaker.
As soon as Ananse heard this, he too decided to go and look for the rainmaker. He combed the forest for many hours and at long last came upon him sitting under a tree taking a rest from the heavy task God had given him. As soon as Ananse saw him, he picked up a big stick and hit the hunchback’s back with all his might. The hunchback cried in pain. But Ananse continued hitting him at the back with all his might with the heavy club. The hunchback fell down panting, but still Ananse continued hitting him with brute force. After continuous beating, the hunchback lay still, not moving. Ananse called out to the hunchback, but there was no response. Ananse had killed the rainmaker. He had killed God’s rainmaker. He became frightened. “Oh dear, what have I done? I have killed God’s rainmaker.” He wanted to run, but realized that if he ran away he would put himself in difficult position. Because his friend Akwasi would know he had killed the rainmaker.
Ananse was so cunning though that, it wasn’t long before he came up with a solution. He picked up the dead body and went to hide it in the middle of a mango tree.
He then went to call on Akwasi and told him that he had seen a mango tree which was full of ripe mangoes. He told Akwasi that they should go and pick the mangoes. Akwasi liked mangoes very much but he was reluctant to go, because he didn’t trust Ananse. He later changed his mind and went with Ananse. When they got to the mango tree, Ananse told Akwasi to climb up the mango tree and shake it. So Akwasi climbed the mango tree and when he got to the top, started shaking it vigorously. Suddenly, there was a big crash. The body of God’s rainmaker had fallen from the tree top when Akwasi shook the tree. Ananse started shouting and wailing. “Akwasi, see what you have done. You have killed God’s rainmaker. He must have been hiding in the tree taking a rest from the heavy task that God had given him. See what you have done now, you have killed him. What will God say now?” Akwasi became confused; he didn’t know what to do.
He quietly got down from the tree; but then as he was getting down, his mind worked like lightening. He pretended to be shocked and said he was going to see God about it. Then, he went away. Ananse was very happy and jumped and clapped his hands. “Fool, I have put you into trouble. God will really punish you.” Little did Kwaku Ananse know that his friend Akwasi had gone to make a plan to teach Ananse that he wasn’t a fool after all.

Before long, Akwasi Owusu came back with some people and told Ananse that there was no problem at all. God was happy that the rainmaker was dead because he had been lazy at times and refused to work. “I am going to reward you for killing him” God said. Then Akwasi started singing and dancing happily. He said again that he had come with God’s messengers to carry the dead body to God. Ananse immediately became furious when he heard this. He said angrily “Look, Akwasi, don’t try to be too clever. I killed him! I was afraid God was going to punish me, that is why I hid the body in the tree. I am going to claim the reward.” So he carried the body on his shoulders and quickly went to God’s Palace to tell him that he had killed the hunchback and that he should be rewarded.

But when God heard the news He was so angry that he punished Ananse by never allowing rain to fall on his farm again. Ananse’s farm was where the desert is now.

Abu Nuwasi Sells His House, an African Fable

Abu Nuwasi built a two-story house for himself. He decided to live in the bottom and sold the top story to a merchant. After some years, he made the decision to move out of his house and live in a far-a-way town.

His hope was that the merchant who rented the upper story of his house would agree to buy the lower half so that Abu would have the means to build a new home elsewhere. But the greedy merchant refused Abu Nuwasi’s offer. The merchant hoped that if Abu could not find a buyer, he would simply leave anyway and the merchant would get the entire house for free.
After trying again to talk the merchant into buying the house with no success, Abu went to town. He returned with a dozen men whom he left outside and then went upstairs to talk to the merchant. “I have come to inform you that since I was unable to sell my part of the house I have hired some men to help me destroy it. I just wanted to let you know so that you could do what is needed to save your part.”

Needless to say, the greedy merchant changed his mind and decided to purchase the lower story from Abu Nuwasi at his original asking price and Abu was able to leave the town as planned.

Happy 4th of July! Now, Let’s Talk Leadership

There never was a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.   –Benjamin Franklin

Happy4thToday is the 4th of July and Independence Day celebrations will soon be taking place throughout the United States and by Americans living across the world. I could give you a lesson in U.S. history or talk about the founding forefathers. Instead, I’d rather discuss what was important to those who guided their people down a road that lead to independence from one of the world’s strongest nations of the time: freedom.

We could begin a debate here about politics and political parties and go back and forth about voting booths and the like. Or, we could discuss the fact that slavery was still legal and women didn’t yet have the right to vote in that era of American history. But, I’d like to go to the root of what most Americans today hold dear: freedom. How laws are made, what forms of government we have and even the role of women in society… well those are all relevant and important topics. But, it is impossible to get to that point without the first essential step to the process: freedom of expression. Be it George Washington or Patrice Lumumba, all truly great historical leaders understood that dialog matters and that we can build nothing great until tyranny is removed and the freedom to speak one’s ideas is respected.

Whether they are born to be kings or queens, come up through the ranks unexpectedly, are generals of large armies, are destined to take over a multi-billion dollar business empire or are president of their local high school junior class; great leaders have always understood that they must always be people of integrity first.

I spend most mornings brushing up on what is going on in that vast continent most of us hold so dear: Africa. The news seems filled with tales of corruption, mismanagement, short-term planning and the like. I’m sure that these stories are (sadly) true. But, I’m interested in hearing about true African leaders. Not those people we call minister or president or MP.

I am talking about real, everyday people like my aunt who died last week, (May God rest and keep her soul). She was a leader, a peacemaker and a quiet revolutionary. She didn’t call attention to herself and none of you will even know her name. But, she led a struggle quietly to see her son freed from prison in Eritrea. He is most probably in one of that nation’s secret prisons as I write this today. She did all that she could and spoke her truth regardless of the risks. She did what it is unsafe to do: exercise her freedom: freedom to think, to speak, to believe. In her old age, she never shied away from using all that she had, her voice; not to incite people to violence or hatred; but to spark dialog. She understood what all great leaders do: that we can build nothing of substance without discourse. It triggers a process that makes us creative, challenges our views and makes us better, stronger families, communities and nations.

She taught us by example and her words were taken to heart by her phenomenal daughter, Freweini. If one day, I was able to be one-tenth the woman she was, I would call my life a success. For, you see, true leadership isn’t about how much money you earn or how many people have to listen to you and follow your orders. It is instead about how many people want to listen and follow your example.

 

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

I am sure that all of you have examples of true leadership in your families. I would like you to share those examples with us here. Because, my aunt is your aunt. If we both create our family trees and trace them back far enough, we will find that our branches inevitably connect at some point. After all, we all started from the same first people. Whether you, like me, call them Adam and Eve; or you have some other creation story that your culture uses instead… we are all related ultimately. And just as my aunt is your aunt and you have ownership of her greatness; well, we too share in the communal heritage that is your family.

So, take a few minutes away from grilling hot dogs or after the fireworks show is over and honor your ancestors here. Tell us a few lines about what examples of excellent leadership they have shown for you, and for all of us.

Why? Because dialog matters! And thankfully, there are still a few places on earth where freedom of expression and opinions is still respected so that we can do just that: talk.

 

Love,

Mama

Luba Art Featured at LACMA

I love museums. Of course, it’s a pleasure to see the renowned paintings such as the Mona Lisa or famous works like those of Renoir, Picasso or van Gogh. And, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing the sculptures created by artists like Bernini, Dalí or Michaelangelo?

But, I have an equally strong desire to see what the hands of artists from other parts of the world created. Despite my sincere appreciation for Western art forms; I would be leaving out most of the planet if I stopped there… what a sad thought!

One of the things I like most about art is its uncanny ability to tell the story of the culture it comes from and the era it was created in. Much more attractive than volumes of books on anthropology and often as informative. I can afford neither the time nor the money to travel every corner of the world. But, I can afford to spend a few hours touring a museum and learning about people from Papua New Guinea (home to our coffee of the month for January 2014!) or the Tonga islands (141 islands which make up the only Pacific kingdom never to fall to foreign rule) . I might not have the resources to jet off to Niger or India whenever the mood hits me; but I can pack a picnic, hop in the car and head to see a concert, hear a speaker or see a limited exhibit at a local museum.

So, recently, I did just that: packed a light lunch and headed off to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see some art done by the Luba people of the Congo. Due to the presence of art from the Luba in both museum and private collections in the West; many of you might recognize art of the Luba without knowing its origin. Its style is appreciated by African art collectors and if you’ve visited a large collection of African art in one of the museums of major cities like New York, London or Rome; you have certainly seen a Luba piece among the art.

The reason I went to LACMA specifically though was two-part: 1- to support their new initiative to showcase more African art in Los Angeles and to see a few pieces which rarely leave Brussels. I was not disappointed!

Here is a video which highlights the exhibit. It does an excellent job; so I’ll leave you with the video and these words… If you are in the Los Angeles area, go see the exhibit (exhibit open now through May 4, 2014)! It is definitely worth your time. Also, if you have children age 17 and under, LACMA has an incredible program called “Nexgen” which allows kids in FREE, yes free! They also have the ability to take an adult with them free of charge. The program costs nothing, just ask about it at the ticket counter, or sign up by using this link.

Pack a lunch if you are short on cash and eat at the park between LACMA and the la Brea Tar Pits, or treat yourself to lunch at the museum’s café. Either way, I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of hours… or all day if you have it.

Other African art worth seeing can be found throughout the museum’s permanent collection.

Please feel free to share information about your favorite African art museums or upcoming exhibitions that include African art.

Love,
Mama

Merry Christmas to Africa … and beyond!

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Mama would like to wish Christmas blessings to all of our friends celebrating this beautiful holiday from places like Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia to Russia. Armenia or Georgia!

Yes, I said Merry Christmas.  Many people in the West have no idea that after everyone has boxed up their decorations and put their Christmas trees on the curb; millions of people in Russia, Greece and East Africa are celebrating Christmas.

Technically, the two churches both celebrate Christmas on December 25th; the difference is in the calendars they use.  When many switched to the Gregorian calendar, some parts of the world decided instead to keep the Julian calendar, which explains the 13 day difference between the commonly accepted December 25th date and January 7th.

So, for many Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is Christmas day!  The day will be filled with incense burning in churches, big meals shared with family and friends, the exchange of gifts and lots of good cheer.

If you would like to tell us more about your Christmas traditions, we’d love to hear more in our comments section below.

Melkam Gena to those in Ethiopia, Rhus Be’al Ldetn Hadsh Ametn to our friends in Eritrea and to our Egypian friends: أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة

Again, Merry Christmas to all of you celebrating today, wherever you may be!

Love,

Mama

Playing Games in the Sand

There are hundreds of names for this game. Our carvers in Ghana call it awale or oware; but many of you know it as mancala.

There are hundreds of names for this game. Our carvers in Ghana call it awale or oware; but many of you know it as mancala.

One of the things I really love about culture is the fact that each group of people has a flavor, if you will.  Yet, it isn’t necessarily that we are so different; but more about the different way that we combine ways that we are alike.  We are much like a group of recipes which include almost the same ingredients; but produce a different finished dish.  After all, we are all people and there are only so many sounds we can make, foods we can eat and types of art that we can use to express ourselves.

In essence, we are all variations of one another.  Please don’t misunderstand this to mean that we are the same or that all cultures are identical or equal… that couldn’t be farther from the truth! But, as I like to tell my children: “If you sit two people next to one another and they decide upon open honest dialog, they will discover that they have more in common than differences.”  The more I travel, the more I learn the truth in this statement.  Sitting at a table in Eritrea with friends or family means eating spicy foods, sharing a common dish, and eating with your hands while drinking homemade beer called “soowa”.  In Korea, being invited to share a meal with friends at their home means roughly the same thing: shared dishes, spicy food and homemade beer or wine… only you’ll get chopsticks and a spoon.  Your meals will have been prepared with the same love.  And yes, if you are in the countryside, you can know that the meat was probably a sacrifice to add to the meal.  The ingredients vary and the preparation might not be the same; but the experiences will be similar.

Many years ago, I was at a park and walked over to see an African woman stooped down playing a game with two Korean ladies.  I was amazed at the fact that they didn’t speak the same language; but were playing together while laughing.  I asked the African woman how she knew the game’s rules.  Her reply: “We have this game in my home country too, it’s called gebetta.  As children, we dig holes in the dirt, find small stones and play it.  When I saw them playing it, I watched to see how their rules were different and I just walked over to play.  I think that they were wondering how I knew a game from their country as much as I was wondering how they knew one from mine.”

It is dozens of moments like this that remind me how our lives aren’t so different after all.

So, the next time you are seated watching your television or reading the news about those far off places called Kenya or North Korea or Zimbabwe; remember that you are connected in ways you haven’t even imagined to the people who are suffering.  Had you been raised in a different nation, their story might just be yours.

Love,

Mama

The Crossroads Between Eritrea and Greece

Papa Cristo's in Los Angeles is where Greece intersects with Eritrea and Ethiopia

Papa Cristo’s in Los Angeles is where Greece intersects with Eritrea and Ethiopia (Photo property of MamaAfrika.com)

I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and while there, visited one of my favorite little places to shop.  Since you probably already know that I’m a real food lover (I still feel odd saying “foodie”), of course it’s related to where I can buy what I love most: cooking ingredients!

 Since I happened to be in LA on some other business; I took the occasion to make my way down to Papa Cristos Greek restaurant.  So, why on earth, you are certainly asking yourself, would I find myself so excited to go to a Greek place?  Well, because I do love Greek wines, baklava and Eritrean food.  Yes, I said it: Eritrea is (almost) in Greece. 

 Now, to try to turn that into something that makes sense: in LA, as in most large cities, there are ethnic neighborhoods.  Ethnic neighborhoods tend to blend, as opposed to having a clear line.  I’m sure that if I were to return to my childhood memory of New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy with a clearer view; I’d have realized that they too blended. But, that is a story for another time…

 

Photo property of MamaAfrika.com

Dinner at the Nyala Restaurant in L.A. (Photo property of MamaAfrika.com)

So, let’s return to LA:  There is a section of Los Angeles called “Little Ethiopia”. It is home to many Eritreans and the largest population of Ethiopians in the United States.   It is a great stop if you want to have a taste of Ethiopian or Eritrean cuisine.  I highly recommend the Nyala Restaurant on Pico if you decide to pop into the area.  They are famous for their lunch buffet.

But back to how Greece meets Eritrea… You see, the first time I realized that the connection isn’t automatic for a lot of people is when I first took a friend with me to Papa Cristo’s to pick up some injera (a soft sourdough “pancake” of sorts that is used to eat most Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes with).  She looked at me completely perplexed when we entered the place and asked the obvious question: “WHY on earth would this Greek guy sell African foods?”  I then had to explain to her that we were related in many ways.  Eritrea used to be a part of the Greek sphere of influence, we have traded for centuries and our foods reflect that, (as I’m sure would our DNA, if anyone bothered to check).  Eritrea’s name comes from the Greek name for the Red Sea coastline “Erythra Thalassa”. 

Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was from the Ptolemy family of Greece, not a woman of African or Arab descent, as many tend to imagine her.  And, since the Nile River flows north to Egypt, much trade was done in both directions.  Thus, ancient Greek archeological sites can be found in both Eritrea and Ethiopia.  This river has connected the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea to those in the Horn of Africa for ages.  After all, where there is water, there is commerce.  And, where there is commerce, there is an exchange of ideas, cultures and faiths. 

 Let’s compare cultures for a moment: Greece: Greek Orthodox Church, Eritrea: Coptic (Orthodox) Church.  Greek food has a particular flavor profile which uses: fenugreek, oregano, ginger, cumin, turmeric… Then you come to Eritrean food where you meet those same flavors again.  It’s all about the way in which they are blended and in what proportions.  Lamb?  Yes, we both eat it.  At the end of the day, the climates are the same and so are many aspects of the cultures.  Where food is concerned, Eritreans have much more in common with Greeks than we do with Senegalese or Namibians.  And Greeks have more in common with an Ethiopian Copt where faith is concerned than they do with fellow Europeans in Norway or even Catholics in Ireland.

 So, for me to walk into Papa Cristo’s store, it makes complete sense that he’d have incense burners, tiny coffee cups for our coffee ceremony, containers stacked high of spices we use for cooking and yes, even injera made by a local Ethiopian lady who runs a business from home.  Greece and Eritrea have always felt like cousins to me.  We might speak a different language and look a little different; but even that isn’t always the case.  But for my friend, as well as many others that I’ve had conversations with in the past… it is a healthy reminder that European influence in Africa didn’t start with colonization.  We’ve been trading together, praying together and eating together for eons before that nasty turn of events.  And, I have faith that with good will and a clear understanding of history, which is then put in its proper context… we’ll be working together to create a mutually beneficial experience for a long time to come.  Not because of politicians or debates in the United Nations.  But because of good hearted people who reach out to each other with sincere interest and good will.

 Papa Cristo is a man who is short in stature, but big in heart and personality! His father founded the store over 60 years ago with the idea of bringing a little of his homeland to Southern California. Considering his proximity to the Little Ethiopia neighborhood, they slowly added Eritrean and Ethiopian products to their list of wares.  It was a brilliant move considering there is so much cross-over of flavors.  If you think of Greek cuisine, you think of a few different spices and herbs off of the bat: Cumin, turmeric, fenugreek… all of which are also used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

Greece is tied to both of my cultures, Italian and Eritrean with a pretty tight knot.  Thus, it isn’t surprising that I feel at home among the olive oil jars, baklava and loud voices greeting one another as people come through the door. It is so typically Mediterranean and despite Eritrea lying on the Red Sea, it is a nation with a large Mediterranean influence and feel, due to decades of influence from Greece and Italy.

Caracalla, African born Roman emperor (215-217).  Image courtesy of British Museum

Caracalla, African born Roman emperor (215-217). Image courtesy of British Museum

 

It’s amazing how many people think of Africa as a dark continent first discovered by colonists in the late 1800’s.  When, in fact, we have had a rich common heritage for centuries before that.  We’ve shared queens, spices and art for ages.  We’ve been sending our vessels over the seas to trade, we’ve intermarried and yes there were even African rulers of the Roman Empire.

 

Africa and Europe, especially southern Europe have a common history that dates way before the Portuguese mimicked and greatly expanded the Arab method of slave trade.  And I suspect that our futures are tied as well.  So, the next time you hear people oversimplify the relationship between the evil white Europeans and the poor African victims… remember me sitting among the Greeks and buying freshly made injera, remember Cleopatra of Egypt- by way of Greece, remember the Roman emperors and generals who were of African heritage.

My mantra here on the blog is “Dialog matters”.  Well, honest, open dialog about our cultures and history is a part of what matters most.  Often, we find that as often as it opens the door to discussions about our past and current wounds… it also reminds us of our commonality.  So, let’s use this space as a place to keep the dialog going!  I anxiously await your comments.

Love,

Mama

Wordless Wednesday: Ghana Helps Me Carry My Bounty

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