Yrneh Gabon Brown Joins Mama at the Round Table

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A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of being in L.A. and headed to the CAAM (California African American Museum). By chance, it was the final day of an exhibit called Visibly Invisible, by artist Yrneh Gabon Brown. As it turned out, Yrneh was there talking to visitors and greeting some acquaintances with a big smile on his face and a charming Jamaican accent.  After taking the time to move through the exhibit, which was brilliantly designed, I went over to say hello and tell him how much we’d enjoyed the artwork. The pieces were so varied, from multimedia incorporated in sculptures to bronze pieces that made me think of the amazing ancient bronze work of Benin. This piece, called Out Cry, is something I’ve quite literally dreamt about since the show…

The art was beautiful; but what I found most memorable, was the message it conveyed. Subjects like this one make people want to turn and run rather than face it head on. After all, it is depressing to think about the fact that such atrocities can happen. Facing the details of the torture, abuse and maiming of people suffering from albinism in Tanzania are so difficult to discuss. Who wants to come out on a sunny day and bring their children to encounter what could be such heavy information to digest?

You might be expecting me to say something about how the suffering of others ultimately affects us because we are all human. The thing is, you already know that; so I won’t insult you by giving speeches and standing on a soapbox.

What I will say is this: Yrneh’s work has certainly inspired many conversations. His sophisticated, yet simple ability to tell the story of so many through his art was moving. The pieces are done in a way that cause people to do what matters most: Dialog.

It is my prayer that museums worldwide will see the merit in inviting Yrneh to exhibit his work in their cities and nations. Because just as we see albinism in species of plants and animals; so too do we see it in peoples of every nation and culture on Earth. Perhaps (and fortunately) most don’t face the prospect of being hunted, abducted and killed like in Tanzania. But, many face discrimination and ill treatment due to their lack of pigment; as if facing the physical and economic challenges of the disorder aren’t already enough to bear.

If we trace our roots back far enough, we are all Africans. The fact that our skin is black, white, yellow or red is simply a detail. So, to all of my brothers and sisters across the world, no matter what your quantity of melanin… be safe, be well and be blessed.

Your comments are welcome below. After all, the motto of Mama’s Round Table is “Dialog matters!” So, let’s talk…

To learn more about the Endangered White project, follow the link at the end of our interview.

If you’d like to learn more about the Visibly Invisible exhibit, I highly recommend the catalog which you can buy on Amazon or heading over to see a video of the exhibit

You can support Yrneh’s efforts in another way, by helping him continue his training and research by funding him on GoFundMe.

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Ms. Prosy Nabwami, Master Artisan and Weaver

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Ms. Prosy Nabwami is the current group secretary and a master artisan in the Balikyewunya Women’s Group and the district at large. She is an active mobiliser and trainer with a passion of seeing her fellow artisans develop and improve their standards of living. She also runs the group’s store/showroom in one room on her house.

The group makes a number of natural fiber based products which mainly include:

– Fruits Baskets, Hats, Placements
– Shopping Baskets
– Assorted house accents

Recently, Ms. Prosy Nabwami was one of the first recipients of our “Light Up Their Lives!” project to provide solar kits to our cooperative members in Uganda. We have put much thought into our process and will be distributing kits based on how many children they household has, followed by their level of participation in our cooperatives. Thus, based on her long-term and important level of participation as a master weaver, trainer and group secretary; coupled with the number of children in her household; Ms. Nabwami was among the first on the list.

We forwarded some questions along with the solar kit and Ms. Prosy was kind enough to take the time to reply to them. Here, then, is our (remote) interview with her:

“We are very pleased to receive the solar kit; this is a catalyst in our development” said Prosy.

1. What is the greatest advantage you will see from having this solar kit?

– Better light for everyone in my house to do their work by at least 2-3 hours in the night. During this time, our children and grandchildren will be reading their books.
– For me, I will be able to add some working hours to my craft work/ especially weaving.
– Apart from my immediate family, 6 members of the group in the neighborhood work from my home for some hours in the evening, they charge their phone during the day.

– For my children and grandchildren, they will be able to do read their books/do their school homework in better light.
-I also used to pay UGX 500 (about $0.20 US) each time I took my phone for charging and have to charge it 3 times a week; I now save this money.

2. How many people will benefit from using the solar kit?

– Six (6)members of the group who are close to my house will be able to meet at my house in the evening from 7-9pm as we work on our products.
– During the day we are able to charge our telephones at my house instead of walking a distance and paying charging fees.

3. What will you now be able to do that you couldn’t do before owning the kit?

– It was not possible to weave/ make crafts after sun set. With light of the solar kit our working time is extended.
4. How much time, energy or resources will you save because you now have a kit?

– I have been walking at a distance of ½ Km to take my phone for charging and I pay UGX. 500 ($0.20 US) per charging; It stays there for almost one full day then I collect it. In total I have walked two km and unable to receive calls when charging. With an old phone like mine, I have to charge it twice a week.

5. If you have children, how will owning the solar kit specifically make their lives easier or better?

– Reading light is far better and each individual is reached in the house. Children no longer have to gather around one kerosene lamp to read their books.
– Because of better light, they will now read their books a little longer without headaches or worries that the fuel is soon running out.
– Solar lighting is brighter than kerosene lamps. I couldn’t afford to buy several lanterns so children have to congregate around one lamp and read their book. They complain about headaches and pain in the eyes from time to time. I think over exposure to the kerosene lamps could be one of the causes.

6. What one thing do you want people who are considering making a donation to know?

– The Solar lamp is a key catalyst in development of our grassroots communities. The benefit of enabling us work longer, in better light is unmatchable.
-The initial cost of a Solar Kit is high for most people but again using kerosene lamps for light is expensive in the long term for example I use Uganda shilling 1,000 (about $0.35 US) for kerosene per night (6:30pm till 10:00pm).
– Most of us cannot afford to buy solar because the initial cost is high. We end-up using kerosene lamps but these too are expensive in the long run. I spend Uganda Shilling 1,000 per day on kerosene for one lamp, (approximately US$ 0.35).

If you want to help in an even bigger way, buy a product that is made by women like Ms Prosy over at our website. This is an amazing way to help us sell the baskets being woven by the very women in Uganda that you are proving light to. You’ll be giving twice!  For every Ugandan basket ordered in 2015, Mama pledges we will donate a part of the proceeds to our Light Up Their Futures! campaign.

Light Up Their Futures!

ProsyNabwamiLast autumn, we made a decision to start a new and exciting project in Uganda at the suggestion of one of our favorite people around… thank you Paul!  One of these days, we are really going to have to invite him to talk to us at the Round Table. He really is an amazing guy.

For decades now, I’ve watched as well-intentioned people trek off to Africa giving donations of things they deem important or helpful. The intention is definitely right; but the actions are often misguided and uninformed; thus rarely truly helpful in the long run. So, each year, we ask our cooperatives to tell us what we can do to make their lives easier, what projects they are working on, etc.

And at the end of 2014, we heard something that we got really enthusiastic about: solar power for our cooperative members’ homes. We’ve always known that fair and ethical trade should be tied to much more than just fair prices and working conditions. It is about a sustainable lifestyle for us and most issues are linked.

We have always understood that the way we do business might not always make sense to a “numbers guy”; but it will always resonate with someone with lots of heart. And, this is one project which did just that: it touched our hearts. Maybe donating part of our proceeds to projects like this one reduces our “bottom line”; but for us the real “bottom line” is treating people ethically and making the world just a little bit better. We’ve done so since day one and we’ll do it long into the future, with your continued support.

After some discussion, my family decided to forego most of our gift exchange last holiday season and do what we thought the season is really about: giving. We informed our friends and relatives that they wouldn’t be getting gifts this year and told them that instead, we’d be putting our Christmas shopping budget towards purchasing solar kits for some of our cooperative members in Uganda instead. The kits would allow them to work later in the evening and would give their children the chance to study once the sun went down. Of course, they all reacted with the grace and kindness we expected. A couple even decided to follow suit! To our personal donation, we added a portion of the proceeds from sales at the holiday season and here is the result:

Light Up Their Futures, the first round of lights are delivered and photos have arrived!!

Soon, we will be posting an interview with Ms. Prosy Nabwami, detailing her experience with her new solar kit and how it is already improving her life and the lives of others in her community.
We expected, due to our years of experience working with African women and their families, that there would be some extended benefits for the communities we sent the kits to; but wow! As we have known for a long time, each woman (and some men) tends to support more than just their immediate family. Generally speaking, every African breadwinner supports an average of 10 people. Those who have share, it’s a simple as that. But, we had no idea that the positive effects of a single solar kit would reach quite so many people.

Here is a quick overview of our project and we are really hoping that you will join us with a small donation to help us continue to Light Up Their Futures!

Solar kit initial cost: $120. Reoccurring costs per kit: ($5.50 for replacement bulbs (bulbs last for approximately 8-12 months) and 35 cents for replacement batteries (lasting 3-5 years each). We have invested in high quality solar kits which are expected to last 20-25 years.

Benefits we expected and are seeing:
• Safer, cheaper and cleaner burning than kerosene lamps. Simply put, more sustainable and environmentally safe
• Allows weavers, etc. to work at least 2-3 hours later each night, thus increasing potential for income
• Allows children to do homework after daylight hours, thus reducing dropout rates
• Phone charging ability reduces cost and time spent traveling to/from charging stations
• Ability to have any light at all after dark for those who couldn’t even afford kerosene lamps
• Light is easier on the eyes than the light given off by kerosene lamps
• 100% renewable source of energy without the pollution

Added benefits we are seeing that we didn’t anticipate:
• Increases sociability as women now gather in their homes with friends 7 neighbors to work using the lamps instead of working alone
• More flexibility to do housework in the evenings allowing for more free time during the daylight hours
• Increased quality in work done because solar lights are brighter and clearer than kerosene lamps previously used
• Children now have increased ability to read for pleasure because there is still light available after homework is completed
• Ability to use cell phones 2-3 days more per week
• Women no longer have to leave their old phones at charging stations 2-3 times per week
• Savings of time and effort for those who used to walk 2 miles each time they charged their phones
• Over a dozen people directly gaining from use of each kit.

For those of you who are interested, you can either donate the $120 for a kit or you can give a portion of the cost, which will then be added to the funds given by other donors. Hey, if those women can work so well together, why can’t we, right? You could get together with a dozen friends and each donate just $10. Your group of 12 people will, in essence, allow 12 Ugandan women to weave a better future for their kids who are studying by the very light you donated. Beautiful, right?

We will continue to use part of the proceeds from all online sales to fund our Light Up Their Futures! campaign.

And, if you want to really help out in an even bigger way, buy a product that is made in Uganda over at our site. This is an amazing way to help us sell the baskets being woven by the very women that you are proving light to. You’ll be giving twice!  For every Ugandan basket ordered in 2015, Mama pledges to ensure that the usual donation we set aside goes directly to our Light Up Their Futures! campaign.

If your coworkers, classmates, friends or church want to make a larger donation or sponsor a few kits; please do so here, or contact Mama directly.
Blessings to you and yours. May your life be filled with… light!

Love,
Mama

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.

Peace Isn’t Bought, It’s Built

photos des orphelines qui etudient les metiera

I read an article yesterday concerning the World Bank’s latest promise to fix Africa through another of its spending sprees.  This latest round promises $1 billion to help build peace through development in the Great Lakes region.

Let me begin by saying that development can be a piece of the puzzle and when development projects are responsibly planned and designed to be sustainable; they are a game changer.  Health, education and economic development programs are incredibly important components in the building of nations. 

A peaceful environment clearly lends itself better to progress and a better overall result. I don’t think that many people would argue against that.  Nor, would most people disagree if told that funding is a very important part of many projects success.  Development projects are essential and funding matters.  But neither of those things creates peace.

I am a believer in two things: peace and dialog.  I think that true peace is in fact only possible through dialog, open and honest dialog.  So, here is my contribution to the dialog concerning peace building:

Rwandan people have already shown us the way, both to horror and lasting peace.  I won’t go into the reasons for, or the details of, the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  Not due to a lack of knowledge; but because I want to focus on the “after” instead of the “before”.  Some of us know the story of Rwanda before the genocide, most of us know the story during… but here is an aspect of the after that many don’t know.

One of the things that surprised me most when I learned about the work that our partner in Rwanda was doing, when I first connected with them a decade ago, was this: The cooperative members were women who had gotten together to help one another survive the aftermath of the genocide.  They were daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  They were related to offenders and survivors.  They were women who had been raped during those terrible days in April and they were those who took in young children whose parents didn’t survive.  Some were orphans with no family; some were women who took in as many as six children who had nowhere else to turn.  Some had lost everything and others knew it was because of their family members that others had lost their lives.

But most impressive was the fact that they were working together.  They weren’t living with hate and a desire for vengeance.  Not to mean that many of these women didn’t have long-lasting and incredibly deep wounds.  Let’s face it, regardless of who you were or what your particular story was in Rwanda during that period; you were dealing with severe trauma.  There was no one left unaffected.  Rwanda was in essence, a nation dealing with collective post-traumatic stress.

What was so incredibly impressive was the spirit with which the women of Rwanda faced their problems: by connecting with other women and working to find solutions together.  I cannot begin to express how honored I am to work with the women of Rwanda.  Not just because their art is beautiful or because of their ability to overcome such immense challenges; but due to their sincerity and love in helping one another move forward.

THAT my friends, is where peace is built: in the direct relationships with each other.  It isn’t created in bureaucracies or even around the table at “peace talks”.  True peace is created person to person.  It is created in learning that we are connected at our roots.  It comes from extending our hand and taking a chance on the other.  It comes from sharing and praying and seeing each other through new eyes.

Rwandans had labels like Hutu and Tutsi bastardized during colonialism.  Initially forced, they then adopted the new meanings of these words and allowed them to grow in their hearts.  They allowed themselves to feel separate, some even hate-filled.

Ultimately though, what it took were women, strong and courageous women.  These women decided to link arms with each other, weave baskets together, raise children together, go to counseling together and build a nation based on their identity as mothers, daughters and grandmothers… as Rwandans.

The politicians, NGOs and large international organizations did nothing if not let Rwanda down when it mattered most.  That is a historical fact.  But what ultimately rebuilt that nation to the point it is now is its women.  Women united in love and faith:  One basket at a time, one banana fiber card at a time, one prayer at a time and one small gesture of support at a time.

I’d ask that the next time you hear about these billion dollar deals and investments in peace, you remember the women of Rwanda.  The next time you hear about a group of men sitting around a table negotiating peace for a nation, you think of the women of Rwanda.  The next time you read about women’s rights being stripped away and their lack of inclusion in the peace building process… remember Rwandan women.  They have showed us how to create peace.  Now it’s up to us to listen and apply the lessons.

Mama Afrika is so incredibly proud to work with true peace builders.  Most of all, I am motivated and encouraged by their ability to overcome their own hardships by working with others to overcome theirs.

I am not from Rwanda.  But as a woman who highly prizes peace… I too am a Rwandan. 

Love, Mama.

Mama to One, Mama to All… Meet a few of “my” kids in Ghana

Ghanian child with babydoll on her backI’ve received hundreds of pictures over the years from our cooperatives in Africa as well as from those we’ve helped through your support.  But there is just something about photos like these that brings tears to my eyes every single time!

I have to admit I love getting photos from our cooperatives of their training sessions, the ladies getting paid for their hard work or just sitting around together laughing while they attend training courses or work together.  But the kids… oh the kids…

The whole class

As a mama, my heart has a special warm place in it for Africa’s children.  As I often say: “Mama to one, mama to all.”  So, meet a few of “my” beautiful children enjoying a few of the recent donations that were sent to their school in northern Ghana.  And most of all, thank YOU for your purchases which made this possible yet again.**

Oh, and if you are curious as to why we sent dolls and art supplies, be sure to check out my previous blog post about Black Dolls and Dreamers

Ghana dolls Standing proud

** Mama Afrika offers fair and ethically traded products and then donates a percentage of all proceeds to small local projects across Africa which are working to improve the lives of women and children.

Mama Welcomes Neritia to the Round Table: Dialog with an Unexpected African Woman

 Images of Africa often include some basics: elephants and lions, jeeps with their tops off taking people on safari, the open savanna and African people with their skin the color of dark chocolate.

Although all of those images do describe Africa in part; there is much greater diversity to Africa and Africans.  My guest today is someone I’d describe as unexpected in more ways than one.

NeritiaYou are probably wondering, quite naturally, what I mean by “unexpected”.   She is a woman and not afraid at all of using her voice.  She is African; but doesn’t have the face many first imagine.  She looks sweet (and is); but talks tough (when needed).  As the quote she uses on her Twitter account says: “ Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.” -DH Lawrence.  I look forward to hearing her “say it hot”.  So, here we go:

Neritia is a proud South African woman.  I’ve invited her to the Round Table to discuss a few things that are in the minds and hearts of many South African women: women’s rights, employment, China and of course that word you know I dislike so: “race”.

Welcome to the Round Table, Neritia.  I know that you’ve been here before to sit in on other interviews from time to time.  I’m really happy that you are here, especially because I’ve really wanted to invite you for a while.  So now that you have your cup of Red Bush tea, let’s settle in for a few questions:

1.       How do you identify yourself… who are you?  I’d also like to follow up on that question.   As a person of mixed heritage, I am always interested in how people identify themselves.  :  What matters most to you, your: ethnicity, culture or nationality?

I am Neritia.  I laugh, love, cry and work hard and loud!  I am woman, wife, sister, daughter and friend.  Injustice will probably be the end of me – but I have an enormous amount of hope that’s a constant in my life.

My nationality matters most to me! I am South African and I am African  – my skin colour might tell you a different story – but the drumbeat of this continent is what continuously shapes and challenges me to grow into someone who can rise above the history of our country!

2. What is your biggest daily challenge living as a woman in South Africa?

My biggest challenge is both self-inflicted and part of my history.

I need to continuously remind myself that being a woman does not equate to being less than a man.

 

3.       “As the Nigerian proverb goes: it takes a village to raise a child.” With this in mind, what do you think is the most important lesson that we should teach “our” children?

We need to teach our children that all people are equal and our differences should be celebrated.  This will allow children to grow into balanced adults who understand their own value as well as that of other!

4.       China.  For some Africans, the name is almost synonymous with opportunity?  For others, it brings to mind the new face of colonialism.  Where do you stand on the issue?

This question is both interesting and scary!  To me it looks a lot like the years when colonialism was widespread in Africa.  It is my opinion that Africa is treading on dangerous ground when believing that the billions of dollars China “invests” in Africa through funding is for the benefit of Africa and her people.  China has the money…and they play the fiddle.

The funding goes to African Governments – and although I hope I am wrong – the people and not those in Government will be the ones who will suffer the most when China starts to pressurize countries who cannot meet their debt repayment or when they have exhausted our resources. China’s need for resources is insatiable and they will be the only true beneficiaries of their largess.

I don’t think we (me) realize the magnitude of Chinese involvement in South Africa and Africa.  Forget about the pressure on resources – just think about what it does to local employment.  In South Africa, where unemployment is constantly on the rise – Chinese involvement and the fact that they bring their own laborers are putting huge strain on job opportunities.

I believe that we Africans need to start looking out for our own future and we need to realize that not all “aid” is good.

 

5.       1994 was an incredibly important year for South Africans. Can you tell me what you first think of when you hear “1994”?

I think of long queues of people – sitting and standing in the sun.  I think of colour – a true reflection of our country.  I think of the excitement, the exhilaration, the hope and the noise!  It was absolutely divine!

 
6. I am still struck by a comment made by a professor while I was a young student in university: “The only two countries that require people to be classified by ‘race’ on official forms are South Africa and the United States.” How do you feel about the word and its importance or relevance in South Africa today?

I still cringe when I think about the role apartheid played in engraving race into the soul of our country. We might be in our 19th year of post-apartheid, but it doesn’t’ change the fact that decades of segregation still have us reeling from the after-effect. The journey towards racial healing is long and needs to be addressed with utmost care.

We can never forget the importance of the word ”race” – it shaped South Africa and her people much more than most care to acknowledge.

 
Our Government is making the word relevant. There are days when I am shocked by how deep-seated the classification of people still is. I am also tired of the word…it feels to me as though we’re just not moving forward!

 
7. Policy and reality are often miles apart. Many of my readers know about changes that have been made in government policy in South Africa concerning ownership of land, businesses and other programs intended to encourage equality between ethnic groups. How have you seen things actually play out on the ground?

 
Yes Mama – in South Africa policy and reality can sometimes be as far removed as the east from the west!

On paper we have excellent policies in place…but in reality it’s not aiding the people that it was designed to help.

I do feel the need to boast a little though! Finally it looks like our policies on HIV/AIDS are starting to reap fruit – and I am cautiously optimistic about the fact that we are starting to win the war against this horrific plague. The positive results we’re receiving through our HIV/AIDS policies just proves that where there’s a will there’s a way – and if we could apply the same sense of urgency to other critical policies in South Africa I am sure we’d be able to eventually eradicate corruption too.

 
8. I know that you take women’s rights seriously. For years, the discussion of rape and violence against women in South Africa has been vigorous and animated. How do you think the current Reeva Steenkamp case is changing the face of spousal abuse from that of poor Black men to something more generally prevalent? Do you expect it to polarize or broaden the national dialog on the issue of women’s rights?

I am so glad that you’re asking me this question!

I believe that rape, violence against women and spousal abuse cuts across socioeconomic, ethnic and religious groups. It happens in affluent homes in upmarket neighbourhoods, it happens in the workplace, it happens in schools and it happens in poor communities. It’s an issue that should unite women across South Africa, Africa and the world – irrespective of identity.

You know, I often wonder whether we compartmentalize these issues and the abusers in order to cope with the staggering and horrific assault of facts and violence on our hearts and minds. Life without the bewildering stats that a woman is raped every four minutes in South Africa would be sublime! If you’re in the fortunate position to not be part of the statistics, it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t affect you or that which you identify yourself with. When you are one of the millions who make up the statistics and depending on whom your abuser is, you almost effortlessly slip into the “comfort” of categorizing! It’s extremely hard for the abused to not categorize. It’s hard for family and friends of the abused to not categorize. It becomes a coping mechanism for some!

You need to keep in mind that violence in South Africa is nothing new. The lack of respect for women was as rife prior to 1994 as it is now. Growing up as a white, Afrikaner, attending the Dutch Reformed Church and being called privileged did not protect me from seeing and experiencing rape, violence or spousal abuse…the difference however is that no one spoke about it.

Post 1994 and with the explosion of Internet in Africa women have become more vocal about abuse and their lack of rights. I think the anonymity of the Internet made it easier for women to share their stories and to discover that there are other women going through the same thing and dialog, sharing and sisterhood grew from it. The world became smaller and the average South African woman now has access to resources (information and people) she never dreamed of having before. The borders of South Africa enlarged in a virtual world.

My heart would like to believe that what happened to Reeva Steenkamp will broaden national dialog on the issue of women’s rights, but unfortunately I am not convinced that it will. Although this case is a high profile case, with much international interest, the fact remains that the attention the case receives has much more to do with the man who held the gun than the woman who lost her life.

Anene_Booysen_i2e

Anene Booysen

The recent gang rape, mutilation and murder of Anene Booysen’s is but one example of what happens to dialog in South Africa. Friday, 15 February 2013 became Black Friday for Rape Awareness in her remembrance of her – but the story of Reeva and Oscar overshadowed Anene’s death. Dialog did not stop completely, but it’s not receiving the attention it deserves.

 
9. “Corrective” rape, rape to cure AIDS, gang rape and spousal abuse? With issues as important as these on the table; where and how do you find hope? What concrete steps can we take to ensure that our continent’s daughters and granddaughters discuss statistics like “every 46 seconds a woman is raped” as figures from their distant past?

You know how people always say your body has a muscle memory – well I think my body has a “hope memory”. My relationship with God gives me hope. Conversations with women give me hope. My girlfriends give me hope. Good deeds of individuals, a solitary voice rising above the noise and women rising above their circumstances – these are the things that fill me with hope. We’re a resilient nation Mama – we’ve overcome much – and we will rise above and beyond this too.

I believe that each and every woman in Africa should be actively involved in eradicating all forms of rape and spousal abuse. We’re all aware of the fact that education is of utmost importance. We know that we need better policing, more convictions and harsher punishment – but I would like to address other social issues here.

Women raise the men who rape…and every rapist is born to a woman. Can you imagine how different the world might be if women and men were treated the same. In being treated the same there should be less reason for men to want to dominate women through acts of violence!

We need to educate our daughters and mothers need to educate their sons. We need to use storytelling and role models as a tool to create awareness of the wrongs of any form of violence against women. It needs to start at home, it needs to be carried through at school and it needs to be in the media on a daily basis! Every communicative resource needs to be applied in fighting this war against women!

Men need to be involved in raising children and fathers need to teach their sons what masculinity is. I don’t believe that boys are born violent – we make them violent! Men need to understand that dominance and aggression is not what defines “manhood”.

Through the collective actions of individuals who are prepared to safeguard the daughters of our continents social change will ensue!
When girls realize they are not objects they will flourish!

 
10. I ask this next question of all of my guests, presidents and farmers alike. Now, I will ask it of you: If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change just one thing, what would it be?

That all people in Africa can learn to respect themselves, which will ultimately lead to respecting others!

Neritia, I love your blog and have always enjoyed dialog with you. We’ve talked about everything from politics to faith, from women’s issues to work and I have to say that despite that, I hesitated, just a little, to pose a couple of these questions. After all, color is a touchy subject in South Africa and tends to instantly create a heated dialog. In my youth, I’ll be honest in saying I wasn’t sure what role (if any) Whites had to play in South Africa’s future. I was blinded by the injustice of it all. After all, apartheid was such a dirty way of dealing with your fellow man. I feel a need to not only “confess” this to you; but to thank you. It is in part through our friendship and via our discussions that I learned that we do, in fact, have a very similar vision for our beloved continent. Your openness and frankness have allowed me to evolve my view of the world, and for that I sincerely thank you. I am proud to call you “sister”. Keep fighting the fight for African women and women everywhere.

 
If you have any questions or comments that you would like to add… please do so in our comments section below. After all, you know what I say so often “Dialog matters, without it no lasting solutions or friendships are found.”