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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

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

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

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

 

Love,

Mama

Luba Art Featured at LACMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Mama

The Crossroads Between Eritrea and Greece

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo property of MamaAfrika.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Love,

Mama

Happy Birthday to Africa’s Greatest Elder, Mr. Mandela

There is much that could be said about Madiba (his Xhosa clan name), or “Tata” (Father) as South Africa’s youth call him. But, I think that the best of his qualities is that he led by example. In my opinion, we have never had a more upstanding “village elder” in Africa. He stood by his principles, sacrificed to bring them to reality, then did what most African leaders of our time refuse to do: left office in order to be equally productive in other domains outside of politics.

Instead of celebrating his birthday as we do many other historical leaders around the world, Mr Mandela asks South Africans to give 67 minutes (the number of years of service he gave to his nation) serving others. I think that its a beautiful legacy that all of us could take to heart. So, what will YOU incorporate as your personal or family tradition each July 18th to celebrate Africa’s greatest elder? Please share with us, inspire each other and join me in wishing Mr Nelson Mandela a very happy 95th birthday!

Here is my wish for each of us:

Dear African leaders, follow his footsteps.

Dear African citizens, require that your leaders follow his footsteps, or simply refuse to let them lead. Integrity is essential, always.

Dear African children, know that THIS is the kind of elder that has come before you to show you how it is done. Become future leaders that lead with honor, respect for your fellow man, long-term vision and an understanding that you are but one member of a team that makes great things possible.

Love, Mama

Mama Visits the deYoung Museum in San Francisco

Image

I have been a huge fan of museums for as long as I can remember.  From big, busy classic favorites like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to smaller and lesser known museums like the Dapper Museum in Paris.  I love seeing the creativity, history and culture that is displayed in all its forms.

If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you probably know already that the Dapper Museum in Paris is my all-time favorite.  This is not because its collection is the largest in the world or because there are rare treasures there.  They do have a beautiful collection of pieces from across the African continent, they do have a charming little bookstore and café; but what they have that impresses me most is information!  For me, it is a great pleasure to see people walk through and learn more about the people and cultures that created the art on display.

Although it’s true that I studied African history, politics and language from some great professors while in university; I must be honest in saying that I have learned so much more since leaving the beautiful campus behind.

I have read stacks and stacks of books, magazines and periodicals over the years; but I must admit that there are two ways that I most love learning about Africa: museums and dialog.

Frankly, dialog is my favorite.  Each person who has shared their personal story with me, each interview I’ve conducted, well, they’ve all taught me so very much about African culture and history.  It is during conversations with Romuald’s beautiful mother from Cameroon, through a question and answer session with Dominic in Ghana or from one of the elders in my own family that I learn the real history and culture of my beloved continent.

But, in the absence of smiling faces and lively discussion, museums are a close runner-up.

I remember going to a museum in Paris which will remain unnamed.  It is hailed as being one of the best in Europe; yet I couldn’t stomach remaining there for over 20 minutes.  There was a lot of art from Africa.  Yet, the vast majority of the pieces had little tags near each piece that read something like this: “Woman with basket. Wood. 19th C.” My very young daughter kept asking me, “Mom, why don’t they know that is from Ghana?”  I was insulted, and deeply so. 

I looked around that museum and counted dozens of families walking through the rooms one by one, interested and ready to learn.  These families though, would instead get an experience that taught them very little.

I guess I’m a teacher at heart.  As much teacher as I am student… lifelong student.  After all, life is about learning, right?  I was so saddened to think of these people planning a day out with their children and of all of the things they could have done, they wanted to come and experience Africa through our beautiful and varied art forms.  Only to walk through a host of rooms which failed to do much except put art on a shelf behind glass.

Now that you know my world view where art and museums are concerned let me tell you this: If you are ever in San Francisco, go visit the deYoung Museum!!  I so thoroughly enjoyed my visit last week.

As an added bonus right now, you’ll get the extra treat of seeing a portion of the Vatican Museum’s religious art on display.  Most of that section contains pieces from a host of islands from the Pacific.  But, there are a few African pieces in the mix.  And, no matter what your views are on the Vatican; you must know one thing when it comes to their art collection: it is incredibly well labeled!  I have never been anywhere and seen such consistent, detailed and thorough informational cards.  The priests, monks and others who collected them clearly knew much about the pieces and the peoples who made them. 

I really enjoyed making comparisons between some of the masks from Polynesian islands and various regions of Africa.  And of course, seeing the African pieces was a treat.

But, even if the Vatican pieces are no longer on loan to the deYoung, you really should visit.  Their collection is large, informative and beautifully displayed.  When you are done, or if you need a break, they have a lovely area to sit and enjoy a meal at the café.  Located in the Golden Gate Park, it is a great environment to take your kids for a stroll or sit alone and read a book that you’ve gotten at the museum gift shop.

Who knows, maybe you’ll run into me there?  I definitely plan on returning!

When you get there, if you see a kind Caribbean gentleman at the front checking tickets, tell him that Mama said hello!

Resilient Rwandan Women Inspire Me!

Here, girls train to make traditional banana leaf fiber art

It has been a little over 10 years since I first heard from Béatrice of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda. I, like many of you, had seen the horrific and saddening images of Rwanda during the genocide in 1994.  Like most people, I wondered how life could ever return to normal for those who survived such large-scale devastation. Many of us also asked how in the world those who were lucky enough to survive would be able to find the courage to go on, much less to rebuild a nation.

But one thing is true of the Rwandan people: they did not lose hope! They almost immediately began working to move forward and build new lives. Mothers who lost their children in the genocide decided to become caretakers to orphans who lost their parents in the same tragic way. Sisters, aunts and grandmothers began taking in their young relatives. Many others showed an act of love by doing the same selfless gesture with strangers’ children. The already poor offered to make even greater sacrifices to welcome those who were in need.

For over 10 years now, the Mbwira Ndumva Initiative has been working with women day in and day out to: teach them marketable skills, help them heal both physically and psychologically, and to find the hope and the means to start rebuilding the social fabric which was torn apart during the months of mayhem and killing: the family. The women who make up the initiative are loving and hard-working women who are doing their best to ensure a better future for Rwanda’s women and children.

As the years went by, they offered hope to women and children who had lost everything. Eventually, they implemented a program (now suspended due to a lack of donors), which provided microloans to women for a period of one year. This $25 allowed beneficiaries to start new lives for themselves through training and the purchase of the necessary items to start their own businesses. Mama Afrika joins Mbwira Ndumva in praying that it is able to be launched again someday soon.

When Mama first started buying cards and donating funds to this incredible organization, their focus was on women and orphans of the 1994 genocide. Today, in addition to the 700 members that they work to support; there are now an additional 500 women with HIV or AIDS, over 40 young orphan girls and 40 very poor children who also depend on this organization for things such as education, professional training and counseling. They would love your help in caring for some of Rwanda’s women and children.

Your donation to their efforts will allow them to continue to serve the greatest number of people possible. And you can feel good about purchases made at MamaAfrika.com because Mama is going to stay with this great group of women until there are no more Rwandan women and children in need. We look forward to the day when the word “Rwanda” makes people think of prosperity, peace and an example of how empowered women make all of the difference between poverty and prosperity. In all honesty, I can imagine that day clearly and I’m sure that with your help; we’ll get there. After all, the Rwandan women we know are such hard working, creative women that with a little help… it’s inevitable!

If you make a monetary donation, you can select Mbwira Ndumva and Mama will get 100% of your donation to them so that they can continue the incredible work that they are doing!
We sell their Christmas cards  Now, we hope that, with your help, we’ll have a “Sold Out” soon!

Love,

Mama

The Sankofa bird and the Mossi King of Burkina Faso

One of my favorite sculptures, carved by the master carvers that we work with in the Asante kingdom of Ghana, is the Sankofa bird.  I bought one for myself and consider it one of the nicest pieces in my collection.  It is a pretty piece, no doubt.  But the reason I love it so much is that it is a piece of African wisdom.

A commonly used Adinkra symbol of the Akan people of West Africa, the Sankofa bird stands with her feet planted firmly in the present, facing the future, while collecting seeds of wisdom from the past.

Although many people say that African history was transmitted only through oral tradition, there are many cultures in which stories are told through imagery. The Sankofa bird has her feet planted firmly forward facing the future.  Her head though, is turned back as she takes something from her back: a seed of wisdom from her past, the collective past, the past of her people.  The lesson is probably already very apparent to you; but I’ll put it as succinctly as it has been explained to me.  The Sankofa bird reminds us to face the future without hesitation, while remembering the past and keeping the lessons of your past and the wisdom of your ancestors in mind.
I talk to you about the Sankofa bird because it is an essential lesson for Africa at large. We must look to our collective past and take those lessons which can help us to build a strong future.  We come from one of the largest continents on Earth and definitely one of the richest; so, our natural resources and geography are always worth mentioning.  But, for me, the richest part of Africa is our people and our cultural history and present.
Here is a small example from the small African nation of Burkina Faso:
Early every Friday morning in the capital city of Ouagadougou, leaders travel to the compound of the Moro Naba chief where they are seated in order of their rank.  The Moro Naba, king of the Mossi people,  then appears wearing red and with a horse (red is the color of a warrior).  When the cannon is fired, the most senior of the chiefs pledge allegiance and the Moro Naba leaves. Then, the chiefs wait until the Moro Naba returns wearing white, a color symbolizing peace.  Traditional beverages like beer and kola nut beverages are now served and then the Moro Naba makes decisions on issues facing his court.

Vintage postcard, circa 1910. The Moro Naba, king of the Mossi people in Ouagadougou, now in Burkina Faso. (Photo courtesy of AdireAfricanTextiles.blogspot.com)

Spectators might see a colorful ceremony with important African chiefs; but those who take the time to learn the story behind this tradition will soon understand that it is one of the most simplistic and wonderful expressions of indigenous African diplomacy there is.
Why? Why does the king wake up early each morning to face this group of leaders?  The story goes much like this: Many years ago, a rival group was said to have stolen a piece of great significance to the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso.  The Moro Naba, was prepared to go to war over the issue.  But, the local chiefs and leaders came to ask him to maintain peace despite the problem at hand.  He, as a king who respected the wishes of his people, respected their wishes and opted for a peaceful solution.  Therefore, this ceremony is a daily reminder of the king’s relationship with his people: they show respect to him by arriving daily to greet him and bring their issues to the court to be settled and he, in turn reminds them (via the change of clothes) that he is there to serve the wishes of the people in his kingdom.

Just imagine if the leader of a Western nation arrived each day to ask the people, in essence, if they wanted to acknowledge him (or her) another day to lead their nation.  Imagine the elders and respected leadership having a direct line to the head of a nation and each showing daily that they have a sustained confidence in the other.
Frankly, I think that as we all wake up tomorrow morning, we should think of the beautiful example of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and ask ourselves what we can do to create our own governmental system to reflect just a little of its truly democratic spirit.  Is it perfect?  Certainly not.  However, I think that through this colorful and beautifully simple ceremony, each day all of Africa (and the world at large) can see a glimpse of the fact that democracy, in its truest form, IS an African concept… one simply has to look and ask enough questions about the pageantry to understand it.

Dear Africa, the next time you hear that “democracy is a construct of the West”, don’t listen! Democracy is as much a part of Africa as the many other beautiful parts of our diverse cultural heritage. Let us be like the Sankofa bird and gather (and share) our seeds of wisdom from our ancestors and our collective history; so that we can use them to walk into a brilliant future.

Love,

Mama

Ancient History of Eritrea

Hello again everyone,

I found this SUPER interesting video (actually a 3 part series) today and want to share it with you all.  It mentions some things that many people don’t know about Eritrean history… especially the ancient history of both the nation and the region.  Best of all, it cites all of its sources in each slide so that you can either confirm the information or decide to dig deeper if you read something of particular interest.

I must admit that its a little clunky as videos go (not always enough time between slides to read and digest all of the information).  But I found that over all, it was definitely worth the patience needed. I was interested to learn some more details concerning the Eritrea-Europe connection.  We often hear much about the colonial period (both Italian and later English influences); but learning more concerning the connection to ancient empires such as Greece, Rome and the more recent Russian link were fascinating.

Click through to Part Two and Part Three

Love,

Mama

Africa – Europe Connection: Africa in Barcelona

When most of us think of Africa in Europe, Spain isn’t the first country to pop into mind.  True, those who have a fair knowledge of Africa know about their early colonization of what is now the Western Sahara, Equatorial Guinea and part of Morocco. But, there is so much more to Spain’s connection with Africa; sometimes direct, sometimes less so.

Spain’s connection with Africa started way before colonialism.  In fact, as early as the 7th century, there were “close ties between Africa and the Iberian peninsula. Many African monks fleeing the wars or the persecutions traveled to Spain with their manuscripts, where they organized centers of monastic learning, which were important for intellectual activity in the kingdom of the Visigoths. Africa contributed much to the preservation of ancient learning, even though the region itself was seized early from the people of the West.” (Manuel pratique de latin médiéval by Dag Norberg, Paris, 1980, English translation by R.H.Johnson).

Another lesser known connection between the region of Catalonia and Africa comes through Peter Claver , born in 1581 who later became known as “Slave of the Blacks” and “Slave of the Slaves.” A farmer’s son from Verdu in Catalonia, Claver studied at the University of Barcelona and at age 20, he became a Jesuit priest. Claver went to South America as a missionary where he ministered to African slaves physically and spiritually when they arrived in Cartegena, Colombia. It is estimated by some that Claver converted 300,000 African slaves to Christianity. For 40 years he worked for humane treatment on the plantations. Claver organized charitable societies among the Spanish in America.  Claver said of the slaves, “We must speak to them with our hands by giving before we try to speak to them with our lips.” (http://home.snu.edu/~HCULBERT/black.htm)

Now, let’s move on to today’s Barcelona:

I only spent part of the day in Barcelona; but I thought you might like to share what I saw during my visit:

My major point of interest in Barcelona was the Sagrada Familia, an immense cathedral that was designed “in 1877 by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar who also led the construction which has been in progress since 1882.  Just a year later, Antoni Gaudí, (born June 25, 1852), took over as the lead architect and drastically changed the original neo gothic style. The neo gothic style made way for Gaudí’s trademark modernist style, which was based on forms found in nature. When he died in 1926 only one facade (the nativity facade), one tower, the apse and the crypt were finished. Because Gaudí was constantly improvising and changing the design while construction was going on, he left few designs and models. And most of these were destroyed during the civil war in 1936.” (AViewonCities.com)

Gaudí dedicated the last 12 years of his life totally to the construction of the Sagrada Familia. In his personal life he seems to turn his back more and more on the earthly world and turns more to the spiritual world which is clearly visible in the building activities at the cathedral. On June, 7th 1926, he died and the work on the cathedral is still ongoing based in large part on his vision and sketches.

Even for me, an amateur of architecture, it was apparent that Gaudí, like many of his contemporaries (of the modernist period), was heavily influenced by African art. From the Moorish influence in the interior to the pivot-like towers, Africa is present in the incredible architecture of the Sagrada Familia.  I also learned that that in 1892 Gaudí made a design for the catholic mission at Tanger where the pivot-like towers appear for the first time.  Yes, another African connection.

But, Barcelona is more than the Sagrada Familia (even if a major focus of tourism in the city). What about day to day life in Spain today?  I have some Spanish friends who return home regularly from the United States.  Over the years, I have heard more and more about the influx of immigrants from former colonies in South America and their influence on modern Spanish culture.  But, I didn’t hear much about African immigrants to the country.  In previous visits to Spain, we’ve spent more time in the countryside than in the city and that is probably why I was so surprised to see so many African faces in Barcelona.

 

From the metro to the city streets, there were young African faces everywhere.

While entering the metro, I saw a group of young African men carrying large plastic bags of items that they were selling on the street somewhere.  I instantly got the images of young men with similar faces doing the same thing in cities like New York, Paris and Vienna…

When driving to find a parking space, I spotted two young African men crossing the street.  One of them noticed me looking with a smile and stopped to wave hello.  He was almost hit by a car, which he rapidly proceeded to hit the top of and yell something in Spanish to.  I couldn’t help but laugh and think of the fact that it’s often the same wherever I travel: When two Africans spot one another in a place they don’t expect to… we often smile and communicate to each other, without speaking a single word… how happy we are to have found “family” among the crowd of passers-by.  It is something I’ve noticed in every country I’ve ever visited, large city or small town alike.  My French husband says that it’s the advantage of being able to so easily recognize one’s own people.  I think he’s right.

 

So, whether you are heading to Spain on vacation or you are interested in teaching your children about African influences on European culture… know that Spain in general and Barcelona in particular is a great place to look for clues about the historical and current Africa-Europe connection.

 

¡Viva España! And may God bless Africa!

Why Africa Day Matters

Africa mapI was pleasantly surprised to see so much talk about Africa Day today (#AfricaDay is even a trending topic on Twitter).  After all, it used to be something that only people who were interested in African politics even knew existed.  One question I keep getting asked today though is: What is it and why do we need an Africa Day?  This post is my reply:

Let us begin by defining the terms.  What is Africa Day? It is not another “Black History Month”!  It is a celebration of the formation of the Organization of African Unity, (OAU), on May 25th, 1963.  Although the OAU no longer exists; it was the predecessor to the current African Union (AU).  Why should we care about the OAU you might ask?  Well, the first meeting of the OAU was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the 30 leaders of Africa’s newly independent states (all but Ethiopia had just shed the shackles of colonialism) met to set common goals.  With this meeting, Africa finally had its destiny in its own hands and our leaders decided to work collectively to accomplish the goal of prosperity for the continent.  Africa Day is at its heart, not only the celebration of the founding of the OAU; but the celebration of empowerment and unity.  Many years before the European Union existed; the African continent was already working toward common goals and with the greater African vision in mind.

Realistically, I have to admit that the OAU/AU was and is far from perfect!  The list of their errors is long and we should hold them accountable for each and every of them.  But, there is no denying that their vision is a good one: Africans united to build a better future.  It is only through cooperation both regionally and continentally that we will advance to the levels that we are capable of!  We are a rich continent both in resources and human capacity for innovation.

Though diverse in language, cultures, appearance, tradition and religion, Africans have much in common as well.  Africa Day is a reminder that we should continue to forge forward in our daily job of building a stronger, healthier, prosperous future for all of Africa’s children.  It is a reminder that we need to remember the commonality we share instead of allowing others to tell us how different we are.  It is a reminder that like members of a large, extended family, we should remember always that we are sisters and brothers before we are individuals.  Africa Day serves to push us in the direction of remembering our common roots instead of our individual preferences.

I have been African since my birth, I was born in Africa (Eritrea to be precise), I am a scholar of African politics and I’ve worked (via MamaAfrika) for African women and children in a dozen countries for 10 years now.  I think it’s fair to say that I am African in body and soul.   But, I remember that I can only as proud as I am of being an African woman because of all of the sacrifice, leadership and example of millions of other Africans throughout the continent.  It is only because of hard-working farmers in Swaziland, fisherman in Senegal, village elders in Zaire, women working their vegetable stalls in Kigali with a baby on their hip, ancient kings and queens of long-dissolved African empires and current kings like those in Ashanti lands, Rwandan kids forming IT start-ups, the vision of men like my grandfather Araya… my pride comes because of their work, their dignity, their kindness, their faith and their desire to build a stronger Africa.

My hope is that this Africa Day, like all of the other 364 days of the year; I can work to accomplish the kinds of things that make the Africans who are part of Mama Afrika’s family proud to be African because of something I’ve done, a choice I’ve made or a contribution I’ve been able to make to their lives or the lives of others on the continent.

The specific things that the African Union does or doesn’t do are not a reason to celebrate Africa Day.  Let’s face it; they are simply nothing when you count the potential (still dormant in many places) of the millions of individual African men, women and children.  I will dance and sing today because I love the idea of focusing on that potential and knowing that with the right choices… we can all do our parts to awake that sleeping potential.  When that potential is unleashed, we will be a continent like no one is even capable of imagining today: strong, unified, and blending the wisdom and traditions of our ancestors and the optimism and innovation of our children!

Africa day matters to me because Africa matters to me.

Happy Africa Day everyone!

Love,

Mama