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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anene_Booysen_i2e

Anene Booysen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celebrating the 4th of July with Alexis La Pollo at Mama’s Round Table

I am so incredibly proud to have a guest at Mama’s Round Table that I can honestly tell you I love dearly, my daughter, Alexis La Pollo. Only 18 years old, she is a self-published author, president of her graduating class and someone you will certainly be hearing more about in the years to come.
As a member of the first generation of African from our family born in the United States, it seemed fitting that she be the guest at my table this 4th of July. I am her mother, so of course, there are lots of other things I could ask her about which are fun and interesting. But, this is Mama Afrika’s table; so don’t worry, we will stay on topic.
Hello Alexis and welcome to the Round Table. I know that you have read other interviews conducted at this table and I’d like to begin by welcoming you to this space which is so important to the future of Africa: A place where all viewpoints are welcome and respectful dialog is encouraged.
So, let’s get started:
1. Who are you? Can you describe yourself in a couple of phrases?
I am a daughter, sister, friend, and leader. I am African, Italian, French and American, all at the same time.
2. What does it mean to you to be African?
It means the world to me to be African, even though I may not look African in appearance it is a big part of me. Growing up I met plenty of Africans both in the US and in Europe and the bond that Africans share, whether you are from Senegal or Madagascar or whether you now live in Sweden or China is undeniable. Africans have built a strong community and a bond worldwide and I am privileged to be a part of that.
3. What does it mean to you to be American?
America, to me, is one of the greatest countries in the world. It is a beacon of freedom and hope to many around the world for good reason, it is a nation built on hard work, equality and diversity unmatched throughout the world. I feel proud when I tell people I am American, our nation may have made mistakes in the past, but we have overcome them and set a wonderful example for the rest of the world. I am proud to live in this land of opportunity.
4. Do you think that members of the African Diaspora, especially those born abroad, have a greater allegiance to their nation of birth or the nation of their ancestors’ roots?
In many ways I feel that it greatly depends on how close the person has remained to their roots; however, I also know that no matter how detached a person becomes from Africa while living abroad they still consider Africa their home. In this way, there will always be an allegiance to Africa that runs a little deeper than the newer bond they have with their adoptive country.
5. How do you imagine your life if you’d have been born in Eritrea instead of the U.S.?
I can truthfully say that my life would not be as great as it is not. Living in Europe and the US has given me the freedom to follow my dreams and forge my own path in the world. Living under an oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea would not have allowed me to voice my opinions, continue with my education the way I wanted to or even to be able to write my book. On top of this, living in Eritrea would mean being in fear of my government instead of being able to vote and give my opinions like I can here. Just being able to take part in the political process is not something I could have done in Eritrea.
6. What are some of the things that you think any young African can do to contribute to the betterment of Africa without necessarily dedicating their life to politics or running a non-profit organization?
One of my favorite quotes, by Margaret Mead, reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” As cliché as it sounds, small thoughtful acts done by everyone could really change everything. Donating your time, talents, or funds to an organization that you can see doing good in the world is a great start. Even spreading the world to your friends about the issues facing Africa today is a great help. The more people know about an issue, the easier it is to be solved. We cannot count on the media to spread the word for us, we must do it ourselves; and in this age of media and social networking it isn’t even difficult. Share a link, like a page, re-tweet something powerful, it is as simple as that. You may never know who will see it and be able to also contribute their time, talents or funds.
7. In what ways do you feel your African heritage has driven your goals for your own future?
I think that the main driving force in my choosing to major in International Relations has been my background. Being African in particular has made me really want to make a change in Africa through the political arena. I want to see the day that all countries, especially Eritrea, see the freedoms that I had the privilege in growing up with in America and I now plan on working towards that every day.
8. If I say “tiger mom” many think of high pressure Asian mothers which push their children to attain success in all things academic. If I say to you “lion mom” what do you think of?
Immediately I think of African mothers, though Asian mothers get a lot of the attention, African mothers are just as fierce. I grew up, as I’m sure most members of the diaspora have, hearing all about family that still lived in Africa. Every time I brought home a bad grade or misbehaved in some way I heard all about this cousin or that aunt who would kill to have the opportunities that I do in the west, and how it was wrong and disrespectful to them for me to squander those opportunities. I have not met many Africans, especially in my family, who have not risen up to every challenge and met every goal they set for themselves; not just for themselves but for those back home who never could.
9. OK, my signature question: “If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change any one thing for women and children, what would it be?”
I would stage fair and just elections for all oppressed countries so that the voices of the people, the ones who really know best for the country, can finally be heard.
10. Finally, please tell us all about your book and what made you write it.
My book, Patchwork, began as a school project in my senior year and grew into something bigger than I ever thought it would be. I, and many others, struggled with my identity as a child. Where was I really from if I had so many cultures as part of me? I was filled with questions, what really makes a person American in a nation comprised of immigrants? How strongly to others feel connected to their home countries? So I set out to interview immigrants to the US from all over the world. My journey, along with their interviews are what became the foundation for my book Patchwork.
Thank you Alexis for showing us a glimpse into that shadowy space where cultures blend.

I often talk about how important our youth are and how necessary it is to invest in them if we want to see a strong Africa. I hope that today as many Americans of African heritage celebrate freedom and liberty in this nation; we are able to take a moment to think about how to create a generation of African youth who have the ability to express themselves and their vision for their respective countries in a productive way. Our children, be they in Berlin or Boston, Beijing or Bamako… all have something to contribute to the future of Africa. Let us raise those living in the Diaspora to take what is good from where they live and find a way to incorporate it into Africa’s future in a way that respects our indigenous traditions and heritage.
Happy 235th Birthday America! And thanks most of all for giving me a safe place to raise and educate my children and for having provided me with opportunities that I’ve been blessed with during my time here. The U.S. has welcomed me and despite the glitches and needed improvements I see in this nation; I must say that today, along with millions of other people of African heritage, I am also proudly American.

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

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 Round Table: Nigel Mugamu (Part 2)

Hello again everyone, and welcome back to Mama’s Round Table! I hope that you enjoyed yesterday’s portion of my interview with Zimbabwean, Nigel Mugamu.  Let’s just jump right in where we left off, shall we Nigel?

6. Here is an easy one: freedom or food?

Give me freedom any day

 

7. You are a well-educated, successful man who is doing well for himself in the West.  What has made you decide to contribute to the reversal of “brain drain” from Africa and return home to Zimbabwe?  Would you recommend the same move to other Africans living abroad?

 

Firstly home is home and I always intended on returning. Without getting too sentimental, returning home had to make sense both financially and otherwise period! Let’s be realistic here. This is very important for anyone thinking of this. It made sense for me to return home given my work experience, exposure and the direction of my own life. I have been away from home for several years now. I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Zimbabwe 5/6 years ago so I’m not jumping into the deep end without experience. Economically things were bad then – shortages and so forth. This is no longer the case. I have been home twice in the last 10 months and I am currently involved in a startup which we hope to launch once I am on the ground. So you see it makes sense to go home for me.

 

People need to realize that this plan has been in the works for 2 years now. It takes time and proper planning and even then things don’t always go according to plan. Reversing the brain drain in my opinion is a direct by-product of my decision to go home. We need to be realistic and less emotional about returning home. I recently wrote about this issue here. I asked the question of others and many people I know personally have real concerns about moving back home. I believe that Zimbabwe or Africa is not for everyone for a variety of reasons. Some are simply accustomed to certain things or a certain life. Some have children to consider and the list goes on. I completed my MBA a few years ago now, and I have to admit that it (MBA) definitely has a direct impact on the way I think and live now. I have always been very entrepreneurial in the way I think but this program pushed me over the edge and now that’s how I live. I see a challenge and opportunity to overcome and I move forward. Others might see a roadblock and simply stop. It’s all relative. Staying here for me meant employment and going home (in my head) meant employing others. So you can see why returning home made sense for someone like me. Like I said, everyone is different and our journeys are certainly not similar.

 

8. From your experiences living in the U.K., what would you like to take home as a lesson for Africans?

I am a proud African as you know. Proud of our heritage, our ability to ‘make a plan’ and move forward. One of the things I want to take home (in any unorthodox way) is to remind myself and others like me that our way of doing things in Africa isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s an African way of doing things and we should be proud in some cases. We often need to find middle ground. We also need to learn from others if we are to achieve our potential; for example learn about how some businesses in UK operate and the benefits of some strategic relationships they have whilst remembering the context. It is imperative that we acknowledge that UK businesses operate a certain way but we must, for fear of a better phrase ‘Africanize’ or localize certain business practices when I return. I firmly believe that humility on my part is key. Humility is critical in working out that something that works a certain way in the UK won’t necessarily work in Zimbabwe. Humility is important to realize that one shouldn’t force or expect employees or various stakeholders to adopt completely foreign and unnecessary business practices simply because ‘this is how the British do things’. It’s not right to patronize others – we must encourage cohesion and sharing of ideas. So to answer your question, humility is what I intend to take home with me.

 

9. The United States is often called the “land of opportunity” because it has become a place that people from all over the world go to live out “The American Dream”.  Do you envision an “African Dream”?  If so, what is it and how does it include foreigners coming to Africa as their “land of opportunity”?

I’m not too sure about the ‘The American Dream’ and I certainly don’t believe in Africa being viewed as just the ‘land of opportunity’ by foreigners. I want to discourage such practices – this is not the gold rush era. Like I mentioned earlier I believe in Africa first. Africans must be empowered both economically and otherwise. Inward investment is good and in fact encouraged but not at the expense of the local people and their livelihood. Wealth and opportunities must be distributed so that people are involved in the economic process. I would like to see a situation where certain sections of society are not marginalized. Let people become empowered to go out, work hard and achieve prosperity whatever that means to them.

From an investment destination, I see Africa as a place where partnerships via joint ventures and so forth should be sought and in fact encouraged. We need to diversify our partners. Traditionally we have partnered with Europe and the Americas but we need to look east as well. India is an interesting partner with similar challenges and population. I envisage a situation and you know this already, where our African governments are aid-free. Africa has sufficient mineral, land and other such resources to sustain ourselves. We already know that aid doesn’t work and those that push for it have other agendas.  I envisage a situation where we increase our intra-trade within Africa from its current levels of approximately 10%. Why shouldn’t we trade more with each other? We definitely need to. I envisage a situation where we borrow and work closely together in terms of resolving various challenges like electricity and so forth.

 

10. Finally, I couldn’t let you leave our Round Table without asking you what has become my signature question; so here it is.  If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change one thing; what would it be?

 

One thing only huh? What it means to be a true leadership with respect to governance related issues.

 

Thank you so much for your time Nigel!  I am sure that many will be inspired by your journey.  I wish you the very best on your ventures as you return home to our mother, Africa. May God bless and keep you on your road to success.  Since I am a mama at heart, I ask you to always keep our people in your hearts as you walk toward the realization of your own dreams; so that you can take many others with you.  Even if you never run for political office, this is what will make you part of the leadership change you said you’d be inspired to change in Africa.

Now, friends, please join the discussion via Mama’s comments section because the most important portion of our Round Table discussions isn’t our guest or me… it’s you!

Mama’s Round Table Guest: Nigel Mugamu (Part 1)

Today, I am pleased to welcome a man who is Zimbabwean; but also unmistakably African.  He doesn’t just love his nation; but his whole continent.  You’ll find out what I mean if you take a look at his blog.   We agree on some issues and disagree on others; but I always enjoy his company and am honored to have him with us at Mama’s Round Table today.  He has an entrepreneurial spirit and a real passion for open dialog concerning issues facing Africa and her people. Please welcome, Nigel Mugamu.  OK, Nigel, let’s dive right in:

 

1. Please tell us, who are you?

I am a son, a brother, a Zimbabwean, an African in short. I often laugh but I consider myself a ‘retired idealist’ who has been smacked around a few times by the reality of life to accept that I am now a full-time realist. However I tend to be optimist about things in general. I am very passionate about my continent and her development. I work as an accountant for a US based company by day and with my MBA head screwed on, I continue to work on this online travel project with my business partner by night. I blog so therefore I consider myself an aspiring columnist. Not sure about this yet, but I have recently started having dreams of pursuing a PhD. I tweet, read plenty of literature, love travel and attempt to call my sister at least once a week.

 

2.       As an African currently living in the Diaspora, what frustrates you most and what inspires you most?

The thing that frustrates me the most is probably fellow Africans who speak so negatively about Africa or indeed their own countries without proper facts or taking into account ‘context’. Context is often overlooked yet so important in conversation. I believe we need to focus on rebranding and re-educating people about what Africa is really all about. Like anywhere else we face various challenges, for example electricity in the case of Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe and yet the fellow Africans I am referring to tend to focus on the actual challenge and not on the solutions. This I find both sad and extremely frustrating. They are sharing, in my opinion 25% of the situation.

The thing I am inspired by is our resilience as Africans. Despite the challenges I just spoke about we still find some way of ‘making a plan’ (Zimbabwean saying and trait).I read a great deal especially about African entrepreneurship, development and travel. I am inspired by stories like when you consider where Rwanda is now given what happened in 1994. I am inspired by Kenya’s current political and economic journey. I could go on really. There are so many African stories to tell that inspire me.

3. I’m sure you suspected it was coming; so let’s get it out of the way.  How much do your views on development, the economy and Africa in general have to do with your (or your family’s) political affiliations in Zimbabwe?

My parents are realists who encourage us to debate and find our own answers for many of life’s interesting questions. I couldn’t honestly tell you who they voted for in the last election but we debate (heated at times) the political, historic and economic situation in Zimbabwe and indeed Africa. Thinking about Africa now, as a family we had many family road trips that usually covered South Africa and Botswana. I was always aware that Africa was massive and I always wanted to see more of this beautiful continent – I still do! This online travel project I’m working on is testament to that. I’m hoping to travel across Africa and finally see the pyramids, Lagos and spend time in Tunisia for example. Interestingly enough, I left home to attend university and it was then that I started to appreciate and discuss Africa in more depth. I met other Africans at university and gained a proper insight into what was happening in Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique or Mauritius through my new friendships. Essentially it took me leaving the continent to look back and truly appreciate what I have and what we need to work on.

I moved home 6 years ago for about a year. I continued to work and started my MBA at that point. I had studied and worked in Australia for some time by then. Going back home for a year was probably one of the most important decisions I’ve made thus far. I still call it my ‘character building year’. I bonded with my family especially with my parents whom I am very close to. We continued to exchange stories of the Zimbabwe then and I gained another insight into the country and its history. So yes my relationship with my family has had a direct impact on the way I feel and think about Africa.  I had the opportunity to assess Zimbabwe and indeed Africa having spent many years away. I fell in love with the continent all over again to be honest. We are resilient as I mentioned before and our proper story needs to be told in full.  As I prepare to return home, I now read or research more about development and what we as Africans can do for ourselves more importantly.

 

4. We are being blessed with an insider’s view through your presence at Mama’s Round Table today; so please tell me what you think of Zimbabwe’s current leadership?

 

Coalition governments in general are never easy for a number of reasons. Decisions are difficult to make due to the agreements made to form the actual government and of course individual party agendas are also at play. The leadership in Zimbabwe is only a transitional government in my opinion. Therefore it makes it extremely difficult to assess them in the truest sense. With elections supposedly in 2011, I hope to see an elected Zimbabwean government with a full mandate to govern going forward. I believe that at this junction we will be able to see how far the leadership in Zimbabwe has come.

 

5.       Despite my sincerest affection for my African fathers, brothers and sons, I feel that Africa’s future lies in the opportunities granted to African women.  Where do you, as a young man looking to build a future for himself in Zimbabwe, stand on the issue?

 

I believe it is fundamental that women are empowered in general. When you listen to statistics used in the recent Clinton Global Initiative 2010 event, Melinda Gates shared an interesting one – 70% of farming in Africa is done by women. Initially I thought this was an extremely high percentage but then I looked at my own family and really thought about it. I can now see why that percentage would make some sense now. This tells me something positive i.e. women are already involved – more than I thought perhaps? My next question is whether the same 70% are then the recipients of the revenue at harvest time. This is my main concern right now. If not, this needs to be rectified. In the same token I also hope that access to capital for women in the farming sector and others is made much easier. However, I don’t share your sentiments i.e. ‘Africa’s future lies in the opportunities granted to African women’. I’m thinking it’s broader than that. I believe that Africa’s future will be determined by a variety of factors depending on the country and their individual economic growth stage. We cannot directly compare Egypt with say Namibia.  I firmly believe that one of those important factors in determining Africa’s future lies in the informal sector as I discussed here. Some economists believe that 60% of Zimbabwe’s economy is the informal sector and we also know that this sector is a prominent feature across the continent as a whole. I also believe another aspect of Africa’s future lies in what Vijay Mahajan’s describes as ‘Africa Two’ in his book Africa Rising. This is the African middle class who are spending and sending their children to school and in return raising the new generation of cheetahs. In Zimbabwe, the finance minister broke the country into 3 economic brackets: –

  • 3% top
  • 12% middle
  • 85% bottom

 

I believe that unlocking and empowering that 85% is critical to Zimbabwe’s economic success for example. So you see, there are a variety of avenues that Africa can take going forward. Ultimately we need to recognize that the informal sector plays a crucial role in the various economies and that it is also imperative that we as Africans are empowered and participate in the economic process irrespective of gender, race and so forth. Simply put – Africa first!

 

Alright, this wraps up Part One of our interview.   We’ll see you all again tomorrow for the second and final portion of this interview with our guest, Nigel.  Thanks Nige, I look forward to continuing this discussion tomorrow.  And, I of course look forward to reading your comments in the interim everyone!

See you again very soon!

Love,

Mama

Mama’s Guest, Freweini Ghebresadick on Women, Democracy and Human Rights

Our next Round Table guest comes to us from Europe; but is as African as an African can be. By way of fair and full disclosure; she is also a relative of mine and in my heart, she is my sister. She is Eritrean by birth. But, like many other Eritreans who left during the war for independence from Ethiopia, she now lives in Europe after spending many years in the U.S. I thought that you would enjoy her perspective because she is not only a member of the much-discussed African Diaspora, she is also a staunch supporter of human rights, the rights of African women specifically and has spent most of her adult life fighting to attain democracy for some of Africa’s voiceless citizens including her own brother. Her name is Freweini Ghebresadick and I introduce her to Mama Afrika’s friends with the greatest joy in my heart.

Thank you Mama Afrika for your gracious introduction and the opportunity you afforded me to share my story with Mama’s friends; I am deeply touched. I admire your commitment to helping indigenous African women by connecting them the world through your Fair trade online business, MamaAfrika. In my view nothing gives any human being more pride and joy than to support one’s family by earning his or her own bread.

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 of complex identity and culture, Eritrean by birth, American by nationality and now residing in Germany, ever struggling to see the freedoms I enjoy in the free world realized in my country of birth.

2. I know that you are passionate about human rights globally; but more specifically in Eritrea. Please tell us why this issue is so important to you and what aspects of human rights are dearest to your heart. What has given you the passion for human rights issues?

Individual freedom is very important to me, i.e. to have the freedom to make choices as an individual. Every human being is born free and man should not control man; but forces of evil work otherwise, which unfortunately is a reality in Eritrea. And this reality did not spare my family; my brother Teklebrhan Ghebresadick, who sacrificed his youth and fought for 17 years in the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia, finds himself confined in a container in an undisclosed prison location in Eritrea. Teklebrhan was kidnapped from Kassala, Sudan by the government of Eritrea, right after independence; just when Eritreans, including me, were looking forward to reuniting with those the 30 years war spared.

That fateful day was Easter day, April 26, 1992. Teklebrhan was one of several freedom fighters in my family. It was also around that time when my family was told about the martyrdom of my younger brother and younger sister who happened to be on the government side. For my parents, it was very difficult to deal with these two contradictory plights at once. Here are parents of freedom fighters, whose children albeit in different fronts, fought for the same cause, receiving news of martyred heroes and a detained “traitor”.
Who would have thought that any Eritrean would be kidnapped in an independent Eritrea for no apparent reason, other than being in a “wrong” front! The martyrdom of the sons and daughters of Eritrea was meant to bring justice for those who survived. To add insult to injury, in those years, stones would be casted upon you by Eritreans, for disclosing incidents of kidnap, the lack of rule of law and the like. So, one cried, alone, behind closed doors; there is no way to explain the thoughts and feelings.

As difficult as it was, I could not put up with the silence for long. In addition to the enormous love and respect I have for Teklebrhan, I was convinced that to act and let my voice be heard was a responsible thing to do. Consequently, I went to Eritrea at the end of 1992 and frequented the prisons around Asmara and inquired his whereabouts. My stay in Eritrea was only a month, but towards the end I was threatened, in person, with imprisonment, if I continued inquiring about this taboo subject. I have not returned to Eritrea ever since, but continued my fight for justice with the cooperation of governments (politicians) and humanitarian organizations and finally with other Eritreans. I owed it to my brother and others like him to tell their stories. What is most unfortunate is, over the years, my family’s story has become the story of the majority of Eritreans.

3. Although Eritrea is a one-party state, which many call a dictatorship, political division within the Diaspora is rich and often very heated. What do you say to those who might accuse you of caring only about a particular political party and using it to your own gain?

To oppose exclusion or one party sate is to be inclusive. We are not fighting to simply oust the one party state government but rather to bring about a multiparty democracy. And that inclusiveness would benefit us all.

4. Many say that the term “human rights” implies women’s rights. They argue that therefore, no special status is needed for women. How do you answer them and what examples have you found in Eritrea which can serve to help explain your viewpoint?

Women’s rights are human rights; but human rights do not imply women’s rights; for there are rights which address issues specific to women. The reason is, women suffer the same human rights violation as men plus human rights violations that arise from women being discriminated against and abused on the bases of their gender. Without regard to geographical differences and level of development, throughout history women have not had equal access to resources such as education, property, legal and health services, work etc. For that reason, the historical imbalances need to be corrected; so I disagree with the notion that no special status is needed for women. Eritrean women are no different in terms of historical imbalances; however not much has been achieved to narrow the gap of inequality between men and women.

First of all, in the sense of movement, the issue of women’s rights was introduced with women joining the armed struggle and playing a double role, for the emancipation of women from an oppressive culture and male chauvinism and the liberation of Eritrea. Sadly, after independence, a combination of being demobilized from the army with no skills or resources to cope with the day to day challenges of civilian life and their male partners reverting to their old way of thinking, they were unable to ensure whatever gains were made towards women’s rights were followed.

Above all though, since human rights are not respected in Eritrea, women in Eritrea suffer indignity like the rest of the Eritrean people if not worse. Young women like their male counterparts are enrolled indefinitely so called national service. There is no independent women’s organization in Eritrea. Those few women in high positions serve the government and have nothing to do with protecting the interests of women or advancing women’s causes. As it has been said, Eritreans continue to be deprived of their basic human rights, and women’s rights demand an even more far reaching commitment.

5. Some African leaders and academics say that the concept of democracy isn’t “African” and that we should not be working towards it as a goal. They say that trying to “force democracy on Africans” is not a valid goal because it is not in our history, cultures or the desire of the heart of our people. What is your opinion on the subject?

For anyone, African or not, to want to have a say and to want to have the right to decide in matters of basic necessity is to be human. The art of governance is a very complex one; but politicians and academics seek for easy answers rather than admit to their own failures. Actually, our African forefathers use to address issues of paramount importance to their locality under the shade of giant trees, long before the scramble for Africa.

6. What do you think is the largest challenge facing African people in general and Eritrean people specifically when it comes to understanding the link between democracy and human rights?

Africans in general and Eritreans in particular continually live in a survival mode; in a siege of fear, poverty, disease and ignorance; which makes it difficult to see beyond today. The challenge is to expect politics to be so considerate and far sighted as to form the building blocks of democracy or democratic institutions. The masses will not rise for their rights unless they are aware of their right to demand them. This being the case, the elite are being called upon to lead the way to democracy and rule of law; that means the lawyer has to stand for justice, the teacher has to teach, the journalist has to report and the media has to inform, instead of being on the safe side and adorning dictators.

7. How does the fact that there is no freedom of press in Libya, no freedom of religion in Sudan, no right to discuss varying political views in Eritrea or no equal right under the law for women in Nigerian Sharia court affect a woman living in Ireland, Canada or Austria? In short: why should women living in freedom be concerned with the human rights of someone they’ve never met on the other side of the world? How does it concretely affect their daily lives?

Putting its moral aspects aside, today’s flow of immigrants should force women on the blessed side of the globe to see the dire situation under which their counter parts are living as well as the negative impact it will have on their own freedoms. It undermines what women, through years of struggle and enormous sacrifices, have achieved thus far. Displaced women will affect the standard of living as well as social status of the host countries’ women by falling victim to cheap labor and other exploitations.

Another threat to women’s cause living in freedom is that there are plenty of men in the west who make choices that lead to the undoing of what has been gained towards equal status for women. For example, in order to avoid assertive or self aware women, western men may travel to the Far East or any place where they can exploit women, such as shop for wives or use women for pastime while on vacation. All these have health implications as well. Therefore, women living in freedom should be concerned with the human rights of someone including those they’ve never met.

8. If you could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing; what would it be?

If I could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing, it would be that no man is above the law.

I would like to thank you so much for taking the time to join me at the Round Table, Freweini! It has been a pleasure talking to you about African women, human rights and democracy. I hope you will join us again soon.

If you would like to learn more about the work that Eritreans in the Diaspora are doing to bring democracy to their country, Freweini recommends that you start at the National Conference for Democratic Change.

I’d love to hear your ideas on women, human rights and democracy. It IS a Round Table after all; so now it’s your turn to talk… Dive in and tell us your views!

Question and Answer with Mama: I want to help, now what?

I recently received this question from a young man who visited MamaAfrika.com I am sharing it for two reasons. Firstly, it is an essential question: What do I do now that I want to help? For some, it’s because they saw a news story, saw a documentary or read an article. They are aware of a situation in Africa which has touched them deeply… so now what? Secondly, I know that this blog has some of the smartest readers I know. I’m sure that some of you will have excellent comments for J. Please feel free to share them.

Hello Mama,

My name is J… and I am just a regular person and trying to make a difference. Its an ironic introduction, but there it is. In the sea of modern civil and uncivil social lobbying and social activism, one kid’s perception must seem irresolute against the gale of cries for awareness, action and justice. I am traveling to Ghana and my family is helping me spend this coming year studying and volunteering there. The orphanage I hope to volunteer with is dedicated to ending child slavery in Ghana, and indeed the founder escaped child bondage, went to college and started this movement. He asked me to help raise awareness of the real danger of child bondage in the Ghanaian countryside, and to stimulate income generation with the families of freed children and of those at risk of human trafficking. The avenue that this project as followed has become the empowerment of woman by selling small hand made goods through the premise of fair trade to the United States. It seems like a long shot. I choice to be the mediator between the United States and the folks in Ghana.

The most descriptive method to describe my role in Ghana is to follow the lead of this organization and go beyond a superficial realm, resolving of the most difficult of issues facing children at risk of human trafficking. The risk for those children is the endemic cycle of poverty, disrupting education and family stability. Without those chains broken these communities threatened by slavery cannot be reached. The cycle is viscous; while poverty inhibits education and education is the key to elevate poverty. The complex will stop only when these youth are inspired with an education that provides empowerment and independence. Ghana is celebrated as a shinning example of democracy, yet underneath the hopeful outward vision, the entrapment of poverty has become profuse for many Ghanaians.

Honestly, my efforts have fallen into an overwhelm daze of fool hearty plans, and my ability to help is not materializing. It is a harsh realization that chills me to the bone. My imagery for this project has deviated far from the reality I have found. There just seems to be no doors open to help these children. It is not right for me to let these kids down. I am letting this orphanage down! I cannot afford to go to Ghana till the beginning of this coming month. I have been looking for a way to help them till I can go, and my searching came across your website.

My journey begins at the bottom of the mountain heart breaking failures. The bottom line is that there is no representation for these children in the world or even in Ghana. While, the potential is slight, my efforts are devoted to changing the livelihood and education of for this community. I have volunteered to attempt to mediate access the United States and facilitate trade for this community. My plans and dialog with my friends in Ghana are only very minimal now. Yet, still I hoped to learn about your organization and if you might have any advice. I sent this e-mail in the hopes to learn about Africa and how my efforts could be best used to help.

Thanks for your time

_____________________________________________________

Dear J,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your care and concern for Africa’s children. For, be they in Ghana or elsewhere, they are Africa’s children… therefore in some way, they are my children. I sincerely appreciate your deep desire to help them.

I have read your email a couple of times now and I am left thinking that you do have a genuine desire to help; but have made an error that I have seen many times in my years of working with Africa: a lack of planning. Unless you have left out some of the details; it seems to me that you (and perhaps even your friends or associates in Ghana) have left out the most important step in wanting to help (other than the desire to do so of course!): and that thing is very good planning.

If your family is indeed interested in helping you with your travel expenses and wants to see that money go to good use; I am sure that you also want to ensure that their money is well-spent and doesn’t go to waste. If you rush too quickly into Ghana without a concrete plan in place to help, you will soon find that your financial (and other) resources will be used up. Then, if you do come across a sincere opportunity to improve lives in a concrete way; it may no longer be possible to do so.

I tell all people (from my own children, to leaders of organizations, clubs and churches) who want to make a real change in the lives of Africans to do two things: RESEARCH and PLAN! I simply cannot overemphasize the importance of these two steps. The failure to properly do these two steps leads to countless examples of failed attempts by individuals, church missions and yes, even major non-profit organizations to make any real change in the long-term.

Make a short list of things that you would like to accomplish and make those concrete, measurable things. Do not list “make kids lives better”. List instead something like: “provide funding so that children can purchase school uniforms”. I hope that makes sense the way I am explaining it.

Additionally, please ask your friends in Africa (perhaps one way that you can help them is doing it yourself or finding someone you know who has experience in the arena) to write a business plan. It might sound overwhelming; but it is imperative.

Most of the disastrous plans and programs I have come into contact with in Africa over the years are caused by the lack of understanding of local cultures, resources, and yes even local desires. It is easy to say: everyone wants to go to school or get education. But it is not necessarily desired (or appropriate) for an organization to have the aim of all African children in a village or town to attend university either. Perhaps if you sat down and talked to the people they would tell you that it is in their tradition to farm, or herd and they simply need tools to do so. Then, your aim could instead be to ensure that children receive basic education with the option of advancing to college if they so choose; but also plan on providing agriculture-based training for those who want to farm. This is just an example from the top of my head. I hope it makes my point clearly.

I’m sure that you have heard the term “African solutions for African problems.” This isn’t said to tell Westerners (be they American, European or Australian) to get their nose out of Africa’s business. It also means, more importantly, that we must ALWAYS consult people to know what their specific needs are and then strive to help them to address those needs.

I therefore urge you to do something before deciding to go to Ghana or to move forward with your plans to help: listen, plan and pray. Listen to the “real” needs on the ground. Plan diligently before you start any program to solve them. Then pray that you’ve done the right thing and follow your intuition (which is often God’s way of speaking to us to ensure we follow the right path for ourselves and others).

If there is anything else you would like to ask or if you need assistance looking over your plans as you start to formulate them more concretely; please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Blessings,
Mama

Mama’s guest Joseph Scarantino Talks Tech in Africa

Allow me to introduce Joseph Scarantino, whom I have a lot of respect for. I’ve spent the past few months reading his tweets on Twitter (@jscarantino) and learning a lot in the process. He’s clearly passionate about Africa and technology. I’ve invited him to answer a few questions about where his passions meet each other.  Now, onto the questions:

Welcome and thanks for taking the time from your really busy schedule to answer some questions. Let’s dive right in.

1. I read on your website (JosephScarantino.com), that your passion for Africa began when you were a teen. Can you tell us more about the role that young people can play in the future of Africa? Young people are at a pivotal point in their lives where they interact with other young people on a very local and viral sense much different than adults. This gives them an advantage of getting involved in causes on a completely different level. One of the ways they can play a role in the future of Africa is by volunteering in local community or nonprofit efforts that are already making a difference in Africa. There are many groups out there doing great work that need a volunteer for an hour or two every week. Even better, young people can tell their peers about activities they are doing and open up many other people to dialogue about things that are happening in Africa. Many of the greatest efforts I’ve seen from young people happen right in their own schools when they make an effort to focus some of their school projects on Africa. This has a double impact by helping to break the cycle of misinformation about Africa that is so prevalent. Having said that, I think the burden ultimately lies on the nonprofits to get creative with young people and figure out new ways to keep them engaged.

2. Traditionally the high tech sector has been led by North America, Asia and Europe. Do you see Africa’s influence gaining ground anytime soon? I definitely do and we are already seeing signs of Africa’s influence increasing, particularly in the realm of mobile banking and the rise of technology incubators and co-working spaces such as the new iHub in Nairobi and Limbe Labs in Cameroon, among others. Technological progress in Africa is everywhere we look, but is often happening on a much more micro-level than what we are accustomed to (i.e. the Microsoft’s and Apple’s of the West) until the big breakthrough happens. An example of progress would be the number of mobile users currently using mobile banking as their primary way of trading money. In many ways Africa is leapfrogging developed countries in technology use and the innovation is everywhere on that continent from mobile to Web. Without a doubt, we will see a true technological revolution in Africa this decade.

3. In your opinion, what countries show the most promise and why? Well, the obvious technology leaders of today are often distinguished as Nigeria, Kenya & South Africa, but many smaller countries are poised to rise up and become technology leaders in the next 5-10 years such as Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and many others. My forecast is that many of these smaller countries are going to excel in technology much faster due to the very nature of their size and scale of economies. Rwanda in particular has a great opportunity pending their government’s willingness to keep the economy open and operating on a free-market. I have my eye on Rwanda but don’t let the size of these smaller countries fool you.

4. Some disagree with the view that high tech is what we should invest in. They say that it is more important to put resources into basic infrastructure such as roads, education and access to food and clean water. What is your response to their views? This argument isn’t anything new. I certainly don’t disagree that money needs to be allocated to infrastructure needs first and foremost. However, having said that, technology is undoubtedly now a part of those infrastructure needs and must be considered equally, particularly in regards to education and communication. I believe the right approach is to analyze what the needs are and go from there. It is impossible to make a generic assessment of Africa as a whole when each country has a separate set of obstacles they are facing and are at different economic crossroads. Some need technology more than others, but all can use it in areas that will benefit the bottom line. It’s more of a matter of timing and necessity. People are quickly finding out that Africa is a continent of great economic diversity, so there are a lot of things to take into consideration when facing this question. It’s not so easy to disagree with technology when it is quickly becoming the solution to many of these problems.

5. Do you think that tech (i.e.: Access to, cybercafés, cell phones, wireless internet, etc.) is a “plus” or is it an essential component in Africa’s basic development? Even if I did not work in the technology field, I would most definitely say it is a necessity to have in Africa. We need to change the mindset to think in terms of access to information, education, and human rights. Whether people are examining the human rights benefit of technology or the economic benefit of technology, having access to information through technology empowers people on multiple levels. Technology connects people, it empowers people, it increases access to information, it does all of these things and more to everyone’s benefit. Once we put information in its proper context, then we can begin to make choices that have lasting effects on society.

6. As I’m sure you know, one of my passions is women and children in Africa. I understand the role that fair trade plays in improving their lives. Would you tell me what role high tech can play in making the average rural mother’s life better? The first example that springs to mind comes from the fact that African women make up over 60 percent of the agricultural workforce. Yet there is very little data out there about their agricultural practices in regards to gender and how that yield (big or small) affects the family from a community level to a national production level. Technology is helping these women learn from each other to improve their agricultural practices as well as form farming co-ops. It is also technology that helps feed this data to entities ranging from local governments to international NGO’s so they know where the need exists and what has worked versus what has not worked. All of this can be done from a simple cell phone. More recently, the UN launched an innovative program called the Agri-Gender Statistics Toolkit that does exactly that and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples to follow. Another agriculture-related example is how mobile technology is helping women check prices of their produce throughout the region before heading to market. In the information age, data rules and the person with the most up-to-date and accurate data has the advantage. Technology is helping women all over the continent, and often in areas where we least suspect it. I’m still being surprised by how new technology is helping people in rural areas.

7. What projects are you currently working on (or hearing about) that have you most excited? I am currently pouring all of my time into the African Tech Network, a for-profit initiative to help bring benefits to Africans working in technology. The idea behind ATN is to build community among technologists, create tangible opportunities for economic benefit, and to contribute to their continuing education. It’s a three-pronged approach that is already having some positive results with members from 10 countries so far. One of my partners, Simeon Oriko, is a bright young man from Kenya who has given me much inspiration to move forward with this initiative. So far, the rest of the tech community has been very supportive and I believe some really great things are ahead of us. On a side note, I do have to say that there is never a dull moment working on tech in Africa. Constant progress is being made and the people you get to work with are truly inspiring. I wouldn’t pick any other industry to work in.

8. Finally, what is Africa Gathering and how can it improve the life of a mother or child in the poorest regions of Africa today?
Africa Gathering is an informal meet-up about people from all walks of life coming together to share innovative ideas that have Africa at the center of their focus. What I believe Africa Gathering can do is offer a forum for anyone who might have an idea that could directly benefit African mothers and their children. Whether the idea is based in technology or not, Africa Gathering is a great place to tell others about something you are doing that is having a positive impact. It doesn’t even have to be an idea, but can be a functioning nonprofit or business that you would like to share with the world. Also, the relationships you will build from any Africa Gathering meeting are priceless. I left the Washington DC Africa Gathering feeling energized and very encouraged. Many of the people I met there I had only met online, so it was much like a reunion of sorts.

I know you are a really busy guy and your willingness to come by Mama’s Round Table to chat is greatly appreciated! So, again, thanks so much for your time and most of all for sharing your viewpoint with my readers! It really means a lot to me and to them.

When Ideas Collide, Good People Keep Level Heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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