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

While Sipping My Cup of Fairtrade Zimbabwe AA Coffee

Here I sit, sipping a cup of Zimbabwe’s finest AA coffee as I do many mornings.  Frankly, our Zimbabwean coffee is one of my favorites (shhh… don’t tell the others!)  But this week, its meant a lot to me to start my day with the taste of Zimbabwe and a special thought and prayer for them as they led up to their elections.  I take a moment thinking about the farmer and his famiIy.  I take a few minutes to think about all of the women and children in Zimbabwe and the possible effects that this election might have on their future.  I pray that God allows their voices to be heard and counted.

Like many of you I suspect, I start most days browsing the news.  In the process, I found this video which reminded me of how fortunate I am to live in a nation where despite occasional hiccups and technical errors… something this blatant and direct is simply unimaginable.

I’ll make no comments as to election results, whatever they turn out to be.  But, I have to say that there is something inherently wrong with a system where people might ever believe that this kind of behavior hurts anyone but themselves in the long-run.  NO single man, whoever he might be is worth selling your integrity for… ever.

My dearest Africa, we have a past that shows us that we are capable of more.  We should now dig deep and start working toward a future that will make our children as proud of us as we are of our own ancestors.  Long-term planning, carried out with a sincere selfless desire to push our nations forward is our only hope.

As for me, I will continue to put my faith in weavers, farmers, carvers and mothers before I put it into ANY man that is in politics.  If you don’t want to come, lead and then go home to a real job… I don’t trust you much, sorry.  Politics shouldn’t be a profession; it should be a temporary public service (with a major emphasis on “temporary”).

And, I will choose to wake up each morning and do what I can do for the people of Zimbabwe, use my voice to promote human rights and support fair trade products in order to stimulate Zimbabwe’s economy in ways that I believe in.  As to the rest, its up to the people of Zimbabwe to one again build a nation that rivals their nation’s great historical civilizations.  I know a few Zimbabweans; so I know its possible!

Love, 

Mama

Peace Isn’t Bought, It’s Built

photos des orphelines qui etudient les metiera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Mama.

Mama 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.”

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

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!

My silence explained… (via Sir Nigel’s Journey…)

Last year, Nigel was a guest at Mama’s Round Table and promised to keep us updated on his progress after moving back to Zimbabwe from the U.K.. Its been a couple of months since his move home and now he’s found the time to tell us what he’s been up to.

I found his blog post an interesting reminder that day to day life often puts politics into perspective, even if politics does greatly influence one’s daily life in the end.

Thanks Nigel! And keep the updates coming 🙂

Love, Mama

I haven’t blogged properly in almost 2 months now. And if you’re wondering why the silence – sadly and unfortunately I wasn’t kidnapped by ‘’Mugar-be’s Firing Squad’’ as reported on SKY News late last week! I simply took some time out from writing to fully appreciate and familiarise myself with my ‘new’ surroundings. I’ve moved back home now and I’ve spent the majority of my time settling in, spending time with family, networking, adjusting to my … Read More

via Sir Nigel’s Journey…

Interview with President Kagame of Rwanda, Part Two

Click here if you missed the first part of Mama’s interview with President Kagame.

PART TWO:

6. “No man is an island.” What women in your life most shaped your world view and influenced you?

I have been influenced mostly by the injustice that I lived in my childhood and youth. There are women who worked hard in difficult circumstances – like the mothers in refugee camps who raised families in desperate conditions, and our female comrades fought beside us to liberate Rwanda. Their acts of courage and bravery are a continuing inspiration.  I greatly admire the women of Rwanda and how they have taken up the task of building a new country after total devastation – they are a big part of why Rwanda is where it is today. I also have a wonderful partner in my wife Jeannette, who works tirelessly through the Imbuto Foundation to educate and empower women and girls.

7. I would imagine that one of the biggest challenges to leading a nation which has seen the devastating effects of hate speech; is to then find a balance between freedom and restraint.  Considering Rwanda’s history, how have you walked the delicate line between respecting human rights such as freedom of speech and preventing hateful speech from again dividing your nation?

I think the answer has been in writing a comprehensive constitution. We looked at many constitutions and also involved citizens in determining what would serve them best, considering the experience they had just gone through and how they lived harmoniously together before colonial dislocation. Today we make sure that that constitution is strictly adhered to. Only those who do not understand today’s Rwanda and Rwandans, or those feel they have a right to influence how Rwanda should be governed, talk about lack of freedom of speech.

8. I’ve noticed a certain duality in your leadership style.  On the one hand, you have reached back to Rwanda’s traditions to implement solutions such as the Gacaca courts; yet you are also utilizing high-tech solutions like Twitter to communicate.  How do you think Africa in general, and Rwanda in particular, can best manage the natural conflict sometimes caused when tradition and new ideas meet?

I seek out the best of everything, in tradition and in modernity. I am relatively new to tweeting but I really like the way it allows me to talk directly to people all around the world about everything from African politics to Arsenal, my favourite football team. Similarly, the traditional Gacaca court system helped us try a huge number of genocide cases quickly but, more importantly, it also helped reconcile and unite Rwandans after an incredibly painful period in our history.

9. “Africa for Africans” is a phrase that is used by some to mean that Africa shouldn’t be “recolonized” by China.  For others, it means that Westerners shouldn’t be the ones that dictate the solutions to Africa’s problems.  Others use it to mean we should look invest in our African children in the hope that they will be our future problem solvers.  What does the phrase mean to you, Mr. President?

It means Africans determining their own destiny. We truly value the support and friendship with partner countries, including China and other countries in the West and elsewhere but ultimately, Africans alone must shape the future of this continent. By giving our children the best possible education and health facilities we are not only giving them the best start in life – but ensuring Africa’s continued dignity, development and transformation. This is the only way for us to be on equal footing with the rest of the world.

10. Please forgive me for asking such an unsophisticated question to a man of your status.  But, it has become a tradition here at Mama’s Round Table, and if you’ll allow it; I’d like to ask you the same question that I ask all of my guests: If you could wave a magic wand over Rwanda and change one thing; what would it be?

I would rid Rwanda of all poverty so that everyone, regardless of background or birth, were able to enjoy all the opportunities that this wonderful country, and our abundant continent hold.

Again, thank you so much Mr. President for your time and candor.  I am sure that no matter where people stand on the issues that we’ve discussed, they would join me in thanking you for sharing your time, views and opinions with us.  As for me, I look forward to another 10 years of work with the wonderful people of Rwanda.  May God bless your beautiful nation with a wonderful and prosperous future.

Feel free to share your views with us in the comments section below. This is a round table after all and all voices are welcome!

Blessings,

Mama

Mama’s First Round Table Guest of 2011: H.E. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

Photo source: PaulKagame.com

As many of you know, Mama Afrika has been working with Rwandans for many years now.  In fact, I can still vividly recall the day that I first heard from Beatrice Mukansinga, the director of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda.  I was still living in France at the time and had only recently launched MamaAfrika.com.  I had a little post-it note on my make-shift desk with a short list on it titled “Top 10 countries I want to work with”.  Rwanda was on that list and for good reason.  Sure I, like most of the world, had heard of the horrible genocide in 1994.  I understood that it was a nation facing a massive challenge because of it.  Additionally, while working on my master’s thesis in university, I had selected Rwanda as one of my case studies; so I guess I knew a little more than the average person about the country.  Many years before Hotel Rwanda had come out as a film; I had read the book and it touched me profoundly.

Fast forward to the receipt of the news that I was going to at long last, be able to add Rwanda to our list of trade partners… I sang, I danced and I told my children that we were going to be able to (in our very small way) help a nation of good people rebuild their nation.

Since then, we’ve sold hundreds of beautiful cards made by some of the most incredible women you’ll ever meet.  I’ve done my best to network for them when I could.  And, we’ve sent donations in the form of funds, eye glasses and other items.  But most of all, we’ve prayed for Rwanda’s healing.

I tell you all of this because I want you to understand the immense joy it brings me to have the opportunity to have His Excellency, Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame at Mama’s Round Table today.  He is a man who needs little introduction.  Thank you Mr. President for agreeing to humble me and my readers with your time, which we understand is precious.

1. I was once told that it was important to be able to describe myself (who I am, what I do and what is important to me) in just one sentence.  I offer you the same challenge: Who are you?

I am a Rwandan who has been given the great privilege of leading Rwandans as we work to combat poverty, injustice, educate our children and take control of our own destiny; my sole wish is to do this as well as I possibly can .

2. For many people living outside of Africa, even after all of these years, Rwanda equals genocide.  When you think of Rwanda, what image first comes to your mind?

My Rwanda is a country of a dignified people who have overcome the worst and are living and working together harmoniously, to advance the national interest and transform their country into a prosperous nation.

3. Leadership comes with its own set of challenges; among them balancing pleasing one’s citizens and making decisions even when you know they won’t be popular choices.  What do you say to your opponents and critics concerning the job you’ve done so far in Rwanda?

My opponents and critics must know that my decisions are the decisions of the majority of Rwandans. I am totally committed to the wishes of the citizens of this land and what opponents and critics say only concerns me if it is in the interest of these citizens. We only do what advances the welfare and progress of Rwandans and know that no country has advanced because it followed the wishes of opponents and critics.

4. As you might already know, my passion is ethical trade and its effects on African women and children.  In many African nations, women aren’t permitted to enter the dialog and development is left to men to decide, despite the fact that women are an integral part of its implementation.  How do you explain the fact that Rwandan women have taken such a forward role in the rebuilding of your nation (49% of Rwandan MPs are women) and what factors do you attribute this to?

We consider gender equality to be a fundamental human right and, just as women fought side by side with men in the liberation of Rwanda, so too have they been central to rebuilding our country. Nation building is hard work; I have never understood why anyone would want to sabotage this important task by leaving out more than half the population. I am proud that 56% of Rwanda’s MPs are women – but we continue to work harder to ensure women have equal footing in every aspect of national life.

5. As an African woman who has lived in the Diaspora for the majority of her life, I am interested in knowing your views on the subject.  There is always a certain tension between those living “at home” and those living abroad. In an ideal world, what role would the Rwandan Diaspora play in shaping the future of your nation?

Rwandans living “at home” and those in the Diaspora are on great terms.  In fact, remittances are Rwanda’s highest foreign exchange earner.  This past December, more than 2500 people, young and old, traveled to Brussels from their homes across Europe to put their questions to me. It was a great meeting – honest, lively and inspiring. There is a minority of Rwandans living abroad that are not happy about the progress Rwanda is making today, mostly because they identify with the bad politics that led to genocide, and that Rwandans today have rejected.  But these will not derail our vision for a stable, united and prosperous Rwanda. I always tell Rwandans in the Diaspora that Rwanda belongs to all of them and that we would welcome home anyone who wanted to return, but even if theychose to stay abroad, they all have a role to play in our country’s development.

Click here for  Part Two of my interview with President Kagame…

Blessings,

Mama

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.