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.”

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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.

Facing Our Fears

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot to my family and friends about fear.  I don’t mean those fears we all have as children of things which are under the bed at night waiting to get us.  I mean the fears that we are all called to face from time to time when we are looking something in the face that might hurt us, even gravely.  I mean the fears that come with knowing that no matter which decision we make, something will be lost.

It is in those moments that we have the real opportunities to grow, inspire others and create our futures.  It is the decisions we make in those moments which create heroes, legends and saints.  It is also in those moments that we create our own future regrets, sadness and suffering.

Until now, my words might sound a little theoretical or dreamy.  After all, we aren’t all intended to risk our lives trying to save a lady from a burning building right?  I mean, the fact that we call these people heroes means that we elevate them above ourselves.  They are like fleeting superheroes, wearing capes for an hour, or only for a moment.  But these people… they are not us.

Let us leave the concept of super-people for a moment.  Let’s not focus on people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Joan of Arc … Let us instead discuss every-day heroes.  After all, we can open a newspaper and read about them all the time.  Just this morning, during a 10 minute period of browsing the Internet, I came across stories a family who decided to donate their house to a charity which helps children suffering from cancer, a high school girl who decided to start a foundation to put water wells in for poor African villages, a man who decided to be the whistle-blower on corrupt government officials… the stories are endless.

Given that so many people do these things, the things that 50 years ago we might have found normal to do; why is it that we hear so much more about the negative?  After all, no matter your place on the planet, no matter your religion, or ethnicity or nation there were certain basic codes to live by: fairness, dignity, and honor.  It seems to me, that the good news wasn’t headline news because it was expected.  The corruption, lying, cheating, etc; well, that stuff was interesting because it was rare.  Now, it seems we’ve swung in the opposite direction.  We think that good deeds are rare and that the negative garbage that we see (held almost on a pedestal) is what is normal and usual.

I spent a period of my life, like most people, looking at all of the things that go wrong, that are abusive and hurtful to others.  After “bathing in” that sub-culture for a while, I can see why so many people tell me that it’s overwhelming. But in the end, it’s simple.  It comes down to choices, individual choices which add up to build a family, a culture, a society.  These are the choices that build our reputations, our character and our lives.

Do we donate to a cause because we want to do something to help; or do we go the extra step to research what the organization actually does on the ground with the money?  Do we send money home to our family in Africa; or do we work to pool our resources with others so that we can build something larger which will benefit those who don’t have family living abroad?  Further still, do we help those most in need, even if they are from a different ethnic group, region or country?  Do we upgrade our car or keep the old one and use the difference to put a water well in a remote village because we know that it will serve a greater good?  Do we opt to keep our mouth shut so that we can remain on good terms with our home governments or do we give up the ability to buy land, build a home or even visit our home nation… because that is the price of speaking out for the basic human rights of those who live “back home” without a voice.

We can publicly pretend to not know there is abuse of power, corruption and fraud.  We can tell our Western friends and neighbors that Africa is not only filled with dictators and corruption.  But we know, at night in the silence of our bedrooms… at that moment that we place our heads on our pillows and pray to God to bless us… if we are doing what we can to ensure that there is less corruption, less polarization, more opportunity, more hope.  We know in our hearts if we are a part of Africa’s solutions or if we are living in fear of speaking out because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be ostracized within our own communities in the Diaspora or out of sheer pride.  We know if fear rules us, or if we walk through it like our ancestors did.  We know if we are too afraid to walk against the grain.  We know and God knows, even if no other soul has a clue.

As a woman who was born in Africa, I love my continent as most Africans do.  I am not special.  But as an honest and fair woman, I must take the road of facing my fears.  It isn’t popular to tell people that they are supporting corruption for their own political or financial gain.  It is natural to hesitate anxiously before saying “The leadership is selling off our natural resources to China with little hope of the poor gaining anything from it.”  It is no easier for me than it is for anyone else to risk being misunderstood, pointed at or called names.  But I invite you to join me in the dialog.  We’ll agree on some things, we’ll certainly disagree upon many others.  But, if we sit in our corners in fear of the exchange… all of Africa loses.  Maybe we won’t get permission to build our vacation house in Nigeria or Eritrea; maybe our cousin will tell us that we are crazy for airing our national “dirty laundry”.  But in the end, I promise you that there is such joy in knowing that we have answered the call of our consciences…. Come what may.

I look forward to hearing your views!

Love,

Mama

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!