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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The Root Causes of Famine

Regularly, there they are… those same images.  Sure the faces change and occasionally, so do the names of the countries affected.  But at the end of the day, it’s the same story: millions of people starving to death.  As someone who has been working to alleviate poverty for years now; I can tell you that many of the root causes are the same.

This is the first time that the international community has used the term “famine” since almost a million Ethiopians died of starvation in 1984.  And, as with that situation, we could see the lead-up and it was clearly predictable.

One issue is rarely discussed during the “panic stage” of the immediate crisis is bad land policy and goodness knows there is enough to talk about where that subject is concerned!  With better land policy, many governments could avoid facing the cyclical problem of starvation, food aid, starvation…  Instead, so many are content to defend the redistribution (forcibly) of the land of small family-owned farms giving millions of acres to foreign governments instead of investing in local farmers who will produce food not only for their own families; but for the nation at large.

The biggest losers in this continually bad decision making process are women and children.  Women produce 80% to 90% of Africa’s food and that means that no one eats if African women aren’t given the tools that they need to be successful.  Land is the most basic of those needs.  Unfortunately, only 5% of all titled land belongs to women in Africa and the same percentage applies to women in training and extended services.  So, the numbers are simply turned on their heads: 90% of food production by women; yet more than 90% of the time, they are not who governments look to help.  This is bad math, plain and simple.

So, understanding that women are the backbone of domestic food production, one wonders why there is little or no technical support for these women farmers.  It is even more worrisome once you learn that in places where women are targeted through even small pilot programs which encourage (and train) women to have small plots of land called “city gardens”; food production increases.  This is a huge benefit for their children who then have access to more nutrition.  Many of us who work in development in Africa can tell you that investing in women produces real and lasting results.  It is a sad shame that so many international organizations and government don’t seem to get the point!

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject; but I think that the most important things to address if we really want to solve the problem in the long-term are these:

  • Women must have independent access to land if we want to eradicate poverty.  With ownership, they will gain the ability to make decisions and get loans among other things.
  • Lack of human rights, women’s rights among them, is an issue that might not come to mind immediately when thinking about famine; but it is certainly a relevant topic.  Consider the following:
    • Currently, even amid one of the worst famines in decades, the Islamist group, Al-Shabaab of Somalia is refusing to allow food to be delivered to the starving, considering aid agencies as “infidels”.  Many governmental organizations (in the U.S. and elsewhere) are concerned (legitimately, in my view)
    • Flashback to the past:  This problem isn’t anything new or original.  Using the poor as a weapon is done more often than you may know.  During the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government refused to allow aid through to Eritrea (before Eritrea got independence.) arguing that it could fall into the hands of “the enemy”.
    • Acts such as burning trees, crops, etc. in order to prevent people from supporting rebel or government forces is an all too common “weapon” used during conflicts.  Act such as these can even cause or exacerbate famine, even more so if there is a drought.
  • It is simply not possible to have food security without general security.  How can we expect crop returns to matter in areas where people are fleeing from conflict or being chased out of their homes and villages? The lists of countries is a long one; but one need look no further than the Horn of Africa for starters.  But the same has been true in many parts of the continent.
  • The lack of long-term planning creates strong, powerful “aid” agencies.  But, who is ultimately being aided?  It seems a fair assessment to state that the creation of hundreds of high-paying jobs in the humanitarian sector is not what will aid the development of Africa and improve the lives of women or their families.
  • Rural credit access must be available to women as well as training and information concerning markets, etc.
  • High global food prices are making (and will continue to make) buying food aid even more difficult.  We keep hearing about this; but isn’t it even more important to ask ourselves why on earth food aid is being brought in from countries like the United States when there are African countries able to export food instead?  It seems like a pretty common sense solution after all: Let the women of one African nation provide food for others who need it.  Even in urgent situations where food aid is needed; why aren’t international organizations supporting regional African farmers so that they can further prevent poverty for Africans?
  • Development policies which consider the specific needs of women (versus men).  Policies crafted around men’s needs are not always the most efficient or helpful for women; so why aren’t women being consulted at local, national and international levels when policy is being developed?

 

This is an old problem and we are in need of new thinking.  We must stop repeating the errors of the past and expected new results.  That is after all, the very definition of insanity, right?

OK, so now is the most important part: Tell me YOUR viewpoint!  As I always say: “Everyone has something to add to the discussion! Let us talk, then, get to work on the long-term solutions”
Love,

Mama

Heroism is a More Common Trait Than You Know

April 7th is the International Day for Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.  If you read about Africa in the news, you’ll certainly find lots of reminders of the horrible events of those infamous days in 1994.  You’ll probably read a lot about tragedy, death, heartbreak and loss.  You’ll hear about generations of rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi, about past genocides and the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

I don’t want to give a history lesson here; but I think that it is important to put things into their proper perspective as well.  There is no Hutu or Tutsi.  There are Rwandan people.  These quasi-scientific terms were constructed (in their modern form) by Belgian “scientists” who tried to put simplistic labels on a complex culture.  As happened all too often in colonial history, white rulers didn’t understand (nor did they care to) local cultures, ethnic groups or indigenous systems of rule.  So, they created categories which made sense to them.  Rwandans were categorized by facial features and those who most resembled whites won.  It is as simple and sick as that.  Tutsi came to mean tall with fine features and Hutu came to mean those with more “Negro” features.

The truth of the matter is that for Rwandans, the terms had been economic in nature.  Both groups spoke the same language, had the same religions, intermarried and lived not just side by side; but together.  Hutu married Tutsi and vice-versa with no stigma attached.

It is the social Darwinist pseudo-scientists who created the hell suffered by the millions of beautiful Rwandan people so many years later.  By instituting IDs which separated the two categories of people and attaching power and status to these groupings, they decided the fate of a nation.

I want it made clear that I am not blaming the average Belgian man or woman who is sitting in Liege or Brussels today reading this blog post.  I do though think that the most important part of dialog is honesty.  It is only through honesty that we can move forward and build a strong Africa.  So, now that we have the truth on the table, I think it will help to frame the Rwanda that I know more clearly.

Over the past 10 years, I have met some of the most wonderful Rwandan women and girls.  Most of these women are genocide survivors in one way or another.  Some are girls born from rape during the genocide.  Initially, it is how I saw them: as victims.  But, they are not victims!  I don’t mean to say this in the glib “they aren’t victims, they are survivors” kind of way that we hear so often.

Let me be precise: They are not victims, they are heroines.  These women reacted to their horrible circumstances with the kind of grace, honor and integrity that most of us only read about in fairytales.  They might be poor or physically disabled; but they are beacons for the rest of the world.  Their ability to overcome such circumstances is a great feat.  But, they didn’t stop there.  They didn’t want to just survive.  They wanted to help others survive.  They didn’t want to just eat; they wanted to ensure their neighbors had food too.

Women like Béatrice Mukansinga, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Jaqueline Murekatete and thousands of others whose names we might never hear…. Each of them has played an integral role in the healing of their nation.  They have lent their voices, their homes, their hands and their courage to help other women and children rebuild their lives and their nation.

I must, as an African woman, give credit to the leadership of Paul Kagame who insisted as soon as he took power that the old labels would have to be shed, put back into the box they came from.  It is so easy to use name-calling and accusations to keep power.  We see it not only across the African continent; but throughout the world: Democrats are evil and lazy. Republicans hate the poor and are devils.  The followers of this faction are seen murdering those of another.  In the case of Rwanda, it would have been so very easy to seek vengeance above all else.  Yet, the Rwandan people instead said “No more!”   This decision was made despite receiving no help from the rest of the world, despite the fact that their nation had no infrastructure left and no courts to try offenders in and yes, despite the blood still running in the streets and the bodies still littering the towns and countryside.  Instead, they decided to return to the traditional values, ideals and courts of their common ancestors.

Rwandan people are a beacon for all of Africa.  We’ve seen genocides in many nations (Cambodia, Armenia, Darfur, and Germany are but a few examples).  We all clearly understand the potential for evil in man.  But, Rwandans are my heroes; because they showed us the beauty that humankind is capable of, even under the most horrid of circumstances.  And to the people of Rwanda, to my sisters whom I love so, I will be eternally grateful.

I know so many who work so hard against really difficult odds like post-traumatic stress syndrome, amputated limbs and broken hearts… just to build something beautiful for the children they have taken in after losing their own.  These women are my heroes.  Remember them today and please join me in taking a moment today to say a prayer for them to have the strength to continue working toward their dream of building a strong, safe and happy life for themselves and their children.

A piece of my heart belongs to the Rwandan people. God bless them!

Mama

If you want to join these courageous, heroic Rwandan women to accomplish their dreams, stop by MamaAfrika.com and learn how!

Temperance and Hope

The words revolution and uprising seem to be flooding the airwaves, newspapers and social networking sites lately.  It feels a little like a tidal wave.  There is an overwhelming sense of jubilation at the fact that Africans are finally empowered to decide their own futures.  If one believed everything he read; he would be convinced that the average man had been given a voice and a magic wand.  Now, all of those “evil men” will be dealt with at long last and Africans will have the freedoms and opportunities we’ve long deserved.

I’m far from being the kind of person who is convinced that she knows the answers, much less “the truth”.  But, I’d like to inject a new word to the dialog.  This will certainly not be the word that is welcome; but I’m convinced it is necessary.  You see, it isn’t the kind of word that rallies already elated masses or stirs up excited protesters.  But, as an African mother, I find it my duty to utter the word even if it means I risk name-calling or dissent.  That word: temperance. Despite our enthusiasm, we owe it to ourselves not to allow emotion to overwhelm our clarity of thought in moments as important as these.

We should always be happy when we encounter hope.  Hope is what defines Africa.  It is what keeps us from diving into despair and giving up, (thus sealing our fate).  It is what keeps mothers and grandmothers going day after day as they struggle to provide opportunities for the next generation sometimes knowing that their own lives might never change.  But, hope without planning is false. Our rallies and cheers may in fact be so premature that it borders on criminal.  Here is my reasoning:

About 50 years ago, all over Africa, we heard the same chants and songs of revolution that we heard this week on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Libreville and Khartoum.

Many Africans though, ten or twenty years later, found themselves in the same positions as they were when they dreamt about freedom from those European countries which had colonized their lands.  This time, instead of a colonial power, it was one of their own that they wanted to eject.  And for millions of Africans, that cycle has never stopped.  Ask someone from Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo… the list goes on.  Even worse, for those Africans who gained independence as late as the 1980s or 1990s (like Zimbabwe and Eritrea), who clearly had the added benefit of being able to learn through their neighbor’s mistakes; it made little or no difference.

I want freedom for all African people.  I want my sisters and brothers across the continent to have the same basic rights that I do.  I understand clearly and completely that the freedoms held in most Western countries are not just important; but essential to building strong and successful nations and futures.  Nonetheless, I feel it my duty to remind my brothers and sisters of that word again: temperance.  Because hope without planning is a dangerous thing.  Creating a vacuum means that the vacuum will be filled.  It is a basic law of physics isn’t it?  So, before we start to create vacuums, let us decide what to fill them with. Change for the sake of change has already proven itself as false hope.  With each time that the revolving door of dictators turns, we lose a little more and dream a little more about true freedom.

If we continue to have revolution after revolution without addressing how we will then temper what borders on reverence for the group or individual we credit with the latest coup; we stand no chance of building lasting change.

Let us not be like frustrated teenagers who want rebellion without understanding the end result.  But instead, let’s act as our wise elders who understand the gravity of the situation and the incredible responsibility of knowing our children’s futures are more important than our own.

Statistically speaking, coups d’état don’t work in the long term.  Choosing charismatic leaders and giving them superhero status doesn’t work either.  For like it or not, they show themselves to be human beings in the end.  We wake up months later and wonder why our youth were out in the streets risking their lives when we’ve seen little change.  I could list the country names, dates or names of leaders we held as Supermen… along with the dates their citizens finally said “enough”.  But, I suspect you already know them well enough.

Please understand what I’m saying: It is absolutely past time that men, women and children in Africa have democratically elected governments which respect basic human rights.  Africans deserve that no less than anyone else born anywhere else on the planet.  I’d love to think that these revolutions du jour will be the thing that creates that across the continent.  But as a woman who understands that temperance is important… I understand that there simply is no magic pill.  We need to look to those places on our continent that work and ask ourselves how we can emulate them in a way that works for our own culture, nation and people.  We DO have success stories in Africa.  They rarely make the headlines and aren’t talked about much by those obsessed with militancy.  Perhaps we should spend more time focusing on our success stories so that we can learn how to bring those ideas to our own villages and nations.

Revolution is a great idea; but there is nothing revolutionary about the cycle of that bad leader out, this bad leader in… it’s frankly a story that I wish we could make ancient African history.  Our children deserve more.  Let us learn how to make peaceful transitions, respect the rights of women and children and put each other first instead of only thinking of how we can assist in others grabbing power.

Tonight, like all nights, I pray for my beloved Africa.

Love,

Mama

PS: A note to our youth: Great leaders search to avoid the bloodshed (even that of their enemies) when they can.  Distinguished leaders respect the right of others to be heard.  Ideal leaders care more for their people than for themselves.  Strive to be that kind of leader in your family, village, town or city… it will spill over into the greatness of your nation. That is the kind of revolution we need and deserve.

When Ideas Collide, Good People Keep Level Heads

In the spirit of Mama’s Round Table, I’ve decided to invite a few guest writers to add their thoughts to the discussions. In a world where people seem more and more polarized on the issues, I’d like to offer a space which shows that we aren’t so different after all. Most times, we just want to approach the same problem from different angles. Sure, sometimes there are people of ill will who really don’t care about having clean oceans or who aren’t the least bit concerned if African children starve to death. But let’s face it; most people don’t fit in that category. Most people, I believe, really do want to do what’s right. They simply disagree on what that means to use to get to that goal.

Let me propose this example: If you had to make just one purchase at the store tomorrow, which would it be: a fair trade product, an organic product or a locally produced/grown product? Each clearly has its advantages. But which means more to you? If you opt for a fair trade basket, made in Uganda, do you consider it “green” because it was made by renewable plant fibers and dyes? Or, do you say “No, I’m not buying a product which was transported half-way across the planet using fossil fuels! I’ll buy local and get a product which supports the local economy, and protects the planet because it cuts down on the need for long-distance transport of goods. Or, are you instead passionate about organic and remain focused on the importance of not using pesticides to grow the cotton in your t-shirt. After all, it also protects farmers and those living around them because there is no dangerous run-off polluting local water supplies, etc.

I sincerely believe that regardless of which view you hold, your end goal is the same: healthy people, healthy planet and sustainable living. You might not be able to understand why a local farmer says it is better not to buy organic if it is farmed in Peru and shipped to London. But, it is important to ask questions, listen attentively and yes… to believe that the farmer is as sincere in his beliefs as you are in yours. You do NOT have to agree in the end; but the dialog is paramount!

This is just one example of why I think it is so important to start this discussion arena. I have many things that I am passionate about; but I am also a woman who loves learning. As my sage father used to say “I know enough to know I don’t know everything”.

So, if you have expertise in an issue which is facing Africa, please feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to feature your point of view here. Anything goes really: economics, development, technology, ethics, fair trade, sustainable development, local solutions versus foreign aid, and yes, even those tough to talk about issues like: “Can whites really be African?” or “Should we respect tradition or the western idea of human rights where female genital mutilation is concerned?”

I have a few people in mind for our first few subjects and I’ll have their posts up here as soon as they agree to participate. So keep an eye on this space! I encourage everyone to contribute their opinions and views; but the discussions here will be moderated. Take this to mean exactly what it does: moderated for vulgar, openly disrespectful or hateful speech. NOT selected in or out based on opinion or viewpoint. I sincerely believe in free speech. I believe it is important to hear even what is difficult or uncomfortable to hear. I think that even when the opinion is tough to tolerate, we learn from it. On the other hand, there are respectful ways to make any point. I want this to be a place that any member of the Mama Afrika family can come to learn and talk; thus, no vulgarities will be tolerated in any form… period.

OK, now its your turn: tell me what you’d like to hear more about by emailing me at: Mama@MamaAfrika.com and be sure to tell me if you have anyone in mind that I should interview or invite to lead a discussion here. I love learning about new subjects and meeting new people who are interested in topics facing Africa!