Merry Christmas to Africa … and beyond!

IMG_20140107_034004_1

Mama would like to wish Christmas blessings to all of our friends celebrating this beautiful holiday from places like Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia to Russia. Armenia or Georgia!

Yes, I said Merry Christmas.  Many people in the West have no idea that after everyone has boxed up their decorations and put their Christmas trees on the curb; millions of people in Russia, Greece and East Africa are celebrating Christmas.

Technically, the two churches both celebrate Christmas on December 25th; the difference is in the calendars they use.  When many switched to the Gregorian calendar, some parts of the world decided instead to keep the Julian calendar, which explains the 13 day difference between the commonly accepted December 25th date and January 7th.

So, for many Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is Christmas day!  The day will be filled with incense burning in churches, big meals shared with family and friends, the exchange of gifts and lots of good cheer.

If you would like to tell us more about your Christmas traditions, we’d love to hear more in our comments section below.

Melkam Gena to those in Ethiopia, Rhus Be’al Ldetn Hadsh Ametn to our friends in Eritrea and to our Egypian friends: أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة

Again, Merry Christmas to all of you celebrating today, wherever you may be!

Love,

Mama

Playing Games in the Sand

There are hundreds of names for this game. Our carvers in Ghana call it awale or oware; but many of you know it as mancala.

There are hundreds of names for this game. Our carvers in Ghana call it awale or oware; but many of you know it as mancala.

One of the things I really love about culture is the fact that each group of people has a flavor, if you will.  Yet, it isn’t necessarily that we are so different; but more about the different way that we combine ways that we are alike.  We are much like a group of recipes which include almost the same ingredients; but produce a different finished dish.  After all, we are all people and there are only so many sounds we can make, foods we can eat and types of art that we can use to express ourselves.

In essence, we are all variations of one another.  Please don’t misunderstand this to mean that we are the same or that all cultures are identical or equal… that couldn’t be farther from the truth! But, as I like to tell my children: “If you sit two people next to one another and they decide upon open honest dialog, they will discover that they have more in common than differences.”  The more I travel, the more I learn the truth in this statement.  Sitting at a table in Eritrea with friends or family means eating spicy foods, sharing a common dish, and eating with your hands while drinking homemade beer called “soowa”.  In Korea, being invited to share a meal with friends at their home means roughly the same thing: shared dishes, spicy food and homemade beer or wine… only you’ll get chopsticks and a spoon.  Your meals will have been prepared with the same love.  And yes, if you are in the countryside, you can know that the meat was probably a sacrifice to add to the meal.  The ingredients vary and the preparation might not be the same; but the experiences will be similar.

Many years ago, I was at a park and walked over to see an African woman stooped down playing a game with two Korean ladies.  I was amazed at the fact that they didn’t speak the same language; but were playing together while laughing.  I asked the African woman how she knew the game’s rules.  Her reply: “We have this game in my home country too, it’s called gebetta.  As children, we dig holes in the dirt, find small stones and play it.  When I saw them playing it, I watched to see how their rules were different and I just walked over to play.  I think that they were wondering how I knew a game from their country as much as I was wondering how they knew one from mine.”

It is dozens of moments like this that remind me how our lives aren’t so different after all.

So, the next time you are seated watching your television or reading the news about those far off places called Kenya or North Korea or Zimbabwe; remember that you are connected in ways you haven’t even imagined to the people who are suffering.  Had you been raised in a different nation, their story might just be yours.

Love,

Mama

The Crossroads Between Eritrea and Greece

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo property of MamaAfrika.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Love,

Mama

Wordless Wednesday: Ghana Helps Me Carry My Bounty

???????????????????????????????

Photo Friday: Macaron au chocolat

Macaron au chocolat

Just another delicious way to support fair trade: French style macarons made with our Omanhene cocao powder and filled with a chocolate ganache made with our 80% dark chocolate… ethical trade never tasted so good!

The Full recipe can be found over at Mama Europa’s blog.

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

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

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

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

Here is my wish for each of us:

Dear African leaders, follow his footsteps.

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

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

Love, Mama

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 to One, Mama to All… Meet a few of “my” kids in Ghana

Ghanian child with babydoll on her backI’ve received hundreds of pictures over the years from our cooperatives in Africa as well as from those we’ve helped through your support.  But there is just something about photos like these that brings tears to my eyes every single time!

I have to admit I love getting photos from our cooperatives of their training sessions, the ladies getting paid for their hard work or just sitting around together laughing while they attend training courses or work together.  But the kids… oh the kids…

The whole class

As a mama, my heart has a special warm place in it for Africa’s children.  As I often say: “Mama to one, mama to all.”  So, meet a few of “my” beautiful children enjoying a few of the recent donations that were sent to their school in northern Ghana.  And most of all, thank YOU for your purchases which made this possible yet again.**

Oh, and if you are curious as to why we sent dolls and art supplies, be sure to check out my previous blog post about Black Dolls and Dreamers

Ghana dolls Standing proud

** Mama Afrika offers fair and ethically traded products and then donates a percentage of all proceeds to small local projects across Africa which are working to improve the lives of women and children.

Mama Visits the deYoung Museum in San Francisco

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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