Luba Art Featured at LACMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Mama

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

Ooops, No End of The World…. (again!)

So, here we are, facing the end of the world (again).  What to do?

I will avoid the jokes about those who have stockpiled food, joined cults who convinced them that they were the only way to avoid sudden death, or those who hiked to far off mountain tops in France or Peru hoping to meet aliens who would sweep them off to a planet where all would be well… After all, I’m sure there are lots of people who have dedicated their entire day to making others laugh with punch lines they’ve worked long and hard on.

Luckily, the Mayans were right on one count: the world didn’t end today (—yes, most people miscalculated).  I am hoping though that instead of worrying ourselves silly about what the exact date is for the end of time; we will instead focus on what matters: HOW we are living each of those days that we wake up and have opportunity.

Look, none of us know when the world is going to end.  But, I suspect we’ll have a little better clue than a pretty, round calendar which even the Mayan people says doesn’t mean the end of the world; but the end of an era.  To be honest though, even as a Christian woman, I hope that the Mayan prediction is right.  I hope this will be a new era.  One in which we think of others before we think of ourselves.  One in which we think about the impact of our actions and choices before we decide even the simple things.  I hope that we have used this opportunity to think about the fact that anyone can die at any time.  For some, it is a tragic accident or disease that no one can cure.  But for others, it is ultimately poverty that causes their death.  Whether they cannot afford to eat healthy food, have access to clean water or pay for medications which would be readily available (and sometimes free) if they lived in another part of the world.  Some will die because they had the misfortune of being born a girl in a land where women aren’t respected.  Others will be killed for their religious beliefs, their desire to speak the truth or because they hold hands or kiss someone before they are married.  And yes, many will be killed before they are born because they have the misfortune of being a girl child in a nation or culture which has a preference for boys.  Still others will live, only to be denied the most basic of human rights.

Well, today you and I are given an opportunity, as we have been given every day thus far: We have the opportunity to make this day matter.  Whether by a gesture, a donation, or just the way that we choose what gift to offer to a friend, what food to feed our own children or what words we speak… we have a great opportunity to become the “New era” that people are talking about in the Mayan culture.  Ultimately you see, we are all people and we could all use a new era: One in which we put others before ourselves.  Not in that awkward “New Age” mumbo jumbo kind of way which implies we all have to dress like hippies or risk being called hate mongers.  But, rather in a concrete manner which creates, choice by choice, word by word, a new lifestyle.  One where we enjoy life every day and work toward helping others enjoy their lives too.

I’m not talking about religion or telling you to change your belief system.  I’m saying this: There were millions of people discussing this latest round of doomsday predictions.  Heck, I think that in 2011-2012, the world “ended” 20 or more times, right?  Well, I can’t help but think that if just half of those people talking about it decided to instead spend the same amount of time living as if it might actually be true every day of their lives… there would be a lot less suffering in the world.  At times like this, I keep coming back to the tune that so many of you already know:

Some of you might know that country song by Tim McGraw called “Live like you were dying”

I’m going to spend today like I spend most of my days: Living like I were dying… and like I am able to prevent someone else from dying through my choices.  I’m dropping off a couple of Christmas gifts to friends that are gift baskets full of organic and fair trade items that they can enjoy with their families.  I’ll touch base with the cooperatives that I work with and see if I can be of service to them today.  I’ll talk to a lady I know who is having a tough time this holiday season because she is alone.  I’ll drink another cup of fair trade coffee from Zimbabwe and pray for the farmer’s hands who picked the beans.  I’ll connect with friends on Twitter and Facebook and I’ll thank God that I’m here another day to do it all.  Then, tonight, I’ll hug my family members and tell them how grateful I am for their love and support.

Then, if the sky really is falling: I won’t care.  Because worse than death, is regret.  And I won’t have any of that to freak me out. I’m really far from perfect; but I’m trying to live a life based in love for others and appreciation for what blessings I have.

If you are celebrating Christmas soon, I wish you a very merry Christmas.  If you are instead Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist or of another faith… I wish you the very brightest and best New Year to come.  And I sure am happy to know that we have the opportunity to build a new era together.  I am sure we can do it, one kind gesture, one loving word and one responsible decision at a time.

Blessings,

Mama

The Root Causes of Famine

Regularly, there they are… those same images.  Sure the faces change and occasionally, so do the names of the countries affected.  But at the end of the day, it’s the same story: millions of people starving to death.  As someone who has been working to alleviate poverty for years now; I can tell you that many of the root causes are the same.

This is the first time that the international community has used the term “famine” since almost a million Ethiopians died of starvation in 1984.  And, as with that situation, we could see the lead-up and it was clearly predictable.

One issue is rarely discussed during the “panic stage” of the immediate crisis is bad land policy and goodness knows there is enough to talk about where that subject is concerned!  With better land policy, many governments could avoid facing the cyclical problem of starvation, food aid, starvation…  Instead, so many are content to defend the redistribution (forcibly) of the land of small family-owned farms giving millions of acres to foreign governments instead of investing in local farmers who will produce food not only for their own families; but for the nation at large.

The biggest losers in this continually bad decision making process are women and children.  Women produce 80% to 90% of Africa’s food and that means that no one eats if African women aren’t given the tools that they need to be successful.  Land is the most basic of those needs.  Unfortunately, only 5% of all titled land belongs to women in Africa and the same percentage applies to women in training and extended services.  So, the numbers are simply turned on their heads: 90% of food production by women; yet more than 90% of the time, they are not who governments look to help.  This is bad math, plain and simple.

So, understanding that women are the backbone of domestic food production, one wonders why there is little or no technical support for these women farmers.  It is even more worrisome once you learn that in places where women are targeted through even small pilot programs which encourage (and train) women to have small plots of land called “city gardens”; food production increases.  This is a huge benefit for their children who then have access to more nutrition.  Many of us who work in development in Africa can tell you that investing in women produces real and lasting results.  It is a sad shame that so many international organizations and government don’t seem to get the point!

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject; but I think that the most important things to address if we really want to solve the problem in the long-term are these:

  • Women must have independent access to land if we want to eradicate poverty.  With ownership, they will gain the ability to make decisions and get loans among other things.
  • Lack of human rights, women’s rights among them, is an issue that might not come to mind immediately when thinking about famine; but it is certainly a relevant topic.  Consider the following:
    • Currently, even amid one of the worst famines in decades, the Islamist group, Al-Shabaab of Somalia is refusing to allow food to be delivered to the starving, considering aid agencies as “infidels”.  Many governmental organizations (in the U.S. and elsewhere) are concerned (legitimately, in my view)
    • Flashback to the past:  This problem isn’t anything new or original.  Using the poor as a weapon is done more often than you may know.  During the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government refused to allow aid through to Eritrea (before Eritrea got independence.) arguing that it could fall into the hands of “the enemy”.
    • Acts such as burning trees, crops, etc. in order to prevent people from supporting rebel or government forces is an all too common “weapon” used during conflicts.  Act such as these can even cause or exacerbate famine, even more so if there is a drought.
  • It is simply not possible to have food security without general security.  How can we expect crop returns to matter in areas where people are fleeing from conflict or being chased out of their homes and villages? The lists of countries is a long one; but one need look no further than the Horn of Africa for starters.  But the same has been true in many parts of the continent.
  • The lack of long-term planning creates strong, powerful “aid” agencies.  But, who is ultimately being aided?  It seems a fair assessment to state that the creation of hundreds of high-paying jobs in the humanitarian sector is not what will aid the development of Africa and improve the lives of women or their families.
  • Rural credit access must be available to women as well as training and information concerning markets, etc.
  • High global food prices are making (and will continue to make) buying food aid even more difficult.  We keep hearing about this; but isn’t it even more important to ask ourselves why on earth food aid is being brought in from countries like the United States when there are African countries able to export food instead?  It seems like a pretty common sense solution after all: Let the women of one African nation provide food for others who need it.  Even in urgent situations where food aid is needed; why aren’t international organizations supporting regional African farmers so that they can further prevent poverty for Africans?
  • Development policies which consider the specific needs of women (versus men).  Policies crafted around men’s needs are not always the most efficient or helpful for women; so why aren’t women being consulted at local, national and international levels when policy is being developed?

 

This is an old problem and we are in need of new thinking.  We must stop repeating the errors of the past and expected new results.  That is after all, the very definition of insanity, right?

OK, so now is the most important part: Tell me YOUR viewpoint!  As I always say: “Everyone has something to add to the discussion! Let us talk, then, get to work on the long-term solutions”
Love,

Mama

Its Our 10 Year Anniversary!

10 Years Later…

 

Where does the time go? Despite spending the past few months getting ready for our 10th anniversary celebration; I still can’t seem to believe that I’ve been doing this for 10 years already! It sounds completely cliché I’m sure; but it is still true: It feels like yesterday that I got my first sample of baskets in the mail from Africa! 10 years… it’s crazy!

One of the 1st cooperatives Mama started working with (Ghana)

So, where has the time gone? Well, over the years, we’ve managed to rebuild houses, invest in tree planting, pay for the training of new cooperative members, send eyeglasses, school supplies and textbooks to countries across the continent. We’ve made donations to the elderly, the sick and to many schools. We have added new product categories and made so very many new friends.

I’ve been invited to speak and teach in local schools, international festivals and to groups like the Rotary Club. I’ve hugged cooperative members and dear friends like Paul from Uganda, Elizabeth from South Africa and been blessed with the cheerful attitude of now world-renowned artist Janet Akii-Bua of Uganda.

Over the years, I have answered questions such as “What is a dictator?” and yes, even offered help to the occasional German, Canadian or American high school or college student when they were stumped on their homework. I’ve listened to people’s excitement about their recent trip to Africa and heard tales of a passing conversation about an issue related to African women.

I’ve sold our products online, in a shop, at a booth on a military base, and yes once even from the trunk of my car (desperate times call for desperate measures… and this lady was desperate for a gift!).

We’ve increased our product lines and the number of countries we trade with. We’ve sold hundreds of baskets, pounds of chocolate, dozens and dozens of carvings and you know what? We are just getting started!

I’ve learned many lessons, made many great connections and even more dear friends. Yes, 10 years seems like such a long time… but I’m in this for the long haul. One woman at a time, one product at a time… we are going to relieve poverty and increase opportunity for African families.

Join me and our cooperatives for another 10 years of smiles, great African art, coffees, teas and chocolates. I promise you that you haven’t seen anything yet! We’re just getting warmed up!

Remember we can help African women live better lives: one sale at a time!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you so very much for your support over the last 10 years,

Love,

Mama

** This post was originally written for MamaAfrika.com ‘s Grand Re-Opening.  Be sure to stop by and see what else is new on the site!

Why Africa Day Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa day matters to me because Africa matters to me.

Happy Africa Day everyone!

Love,

Mama

Heroism is a More Common Trait Than You Know

April 7th is the International Day for Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.  If you read about Africa in the news, you’ll certainly find lots of reminders of the horrible events of those infamous days in 1994.  You’ll probably read a lot about tragedy, death, heartbreak and loss.  You’ll hear about generations of rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi, about past genocides and the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

I don’t want to give a history lesson here; but I think that it is important to put things into their proper perspective as well.  There is no Hutu or Tutsi.  There are Rwandan people.  These quasi-scientific terms were constructed (in their modern form) by Belgian “scientists” who tried to put simplistic labels on a complex culture.  As happened all too often in colonial history, white rulers didn’t understand (nor did they care to) local cultures, ethnic groups or indigenous systems of rule.  So, they created categories which made sense to them.  Rwandans were categorized by facial features and those who most resembled whites won.  It is as simple and sick as that.  Tutsi came to mean tall with fine features and Hutu came to mean those with more “Negro” features.

The truth of the matter is that for Rwandans, the terms had been economic in nature.  Both groups spoke the same language, had the same religions, intermarried and lived not just side by side; but together.  Hutu married Tutsi and vice-versa with no stigma attached.

It is the social Darwinist pseudo-scientists who created the hell suffered by the millions of beautiful Rwandan people so many years later.  By instituting IDs which separated the two categories of people and attaching power and status to these groupings, they decided the fate of a nation.

I want it made clear that I am not blaming the average Belgian man or woman who is sitting in Liege or Brussels today reading this blog post.  I do though think that the most important part of dialog is honesty.  It is only through honesty that we can move forward and build a strong Africa.  So, now that we have the truth on the table, I think it will help to frame the Rwanda that I know more clearly.

Over the past 10 years, I have met some of the most wonderful Rwandan women and girls.  Most of these women are genocide survivors in one way or another.  Some are girls born from rape during the genocide.  Initially, it is how I saw them: as victims.  But, they are not victims!  I don’t mean to say this in the glib “they aren’t victims, they are survivors” kind of way that we hear so often.

Let me be precise: They are not victims, they are heroines.  These women reacted to their horrible circumstances with the kind of grace, honor and integrity that most of us only read about in fairytales.  They might be poor or physically disabled; but they are beacons for the rest of the world.  Their ability to overcome such circumstances is a great feat.  But, they didn’t stop there.  They didn’t want to just survive.  They wanted to help others survive.  They didn’t want to just eat; they wanted to ensure their neighbors had food too.

Women like Béatrice Mukansinga, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Jaqueline Murekatete and thousands of others whose names we might never hear…. Each of them has played an integral role in the healing of their nation.  They have lent their voices, their homes, their hands and their courage to help other women and children rebuild their lives and their nation.

I must, as an African woman, give credit to the leadership of Paul Kagame who insisted as soon as he took power that the old labels would have to be shed, put back into the box they came from.  It is so easy to use name-calling and accusations to keep power.  We see it not only across the African continent; but throughout the world: Democrats are evil and lazy. Republicans hate the poor and are devils.  The followers of this faction are seen murdering those of another.  In the case of Rwanda, it would have been so very easy to seek vengeance above all else.  Yet, the Rwandan people instead said “No more!”   This decision was made despite receiving no help from the rest of the world, despite the fact that their nation had no infrastructure left and no courts to try offenders in and yes, despite the blood still running in the streets and the bodies still littering the towns and countryside.  Instead, they decided to return to the traditional values, ideals and courts of their common ancestors.

Rwandan people are a beacon for all of Africa.  We’ve seen genocides in many nations (Cambodia, Armenia, Darfur, and Germany are but a few examples).  We all clearly understand the potential for evil in man.  But, Rwandans are my heroes; because they showed us the beauty that humankind is capable of, even under the most horrid of circumstances.  And to the people of Rwanda, to my sisters whom I love so, I will be eternally grateful.

I know so many who work so hard against really difficult odds like post-traumatic stress syndrome, amputated limbs and broken hearts… just to build something beautiful for the children they have taken in after losing their own.  These women are my heroes.  Remember them today and please join me in taking a moment today to say a prayer for them to have the strength to continue working toward their dream of building a strong, safe and happy life for themselves and their children.

A piece of my heart belongs to the Rwandan people. God bless them!

Mama

If you want to join these courageous, heroic Rwandan women to accomplish their dreams, stop by MamaAfrika.com and learn how!

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

Photo source: PaulKagame.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Mama

10 Things You Can Do to Help Africa Today

Lots of people ask me what they can do to help Africa and Africans.  After all, the general consensus (thanks to mainstream media) is that Africa is falling apart at the seams, right?  It is my hope that at least a few of these things will help you to see that although Africans, in general, have many challenges facing them; there is also another side of Africa that is important to remember as well.

So, I’ve decided to come up with a short list of things that anyone can do to help Africa at large.  Here we go:

1-      Pray for us. I know that many people say that when they can’t come up with anything else to do in life, they pray.  I mean, it’s the way that they do something when they feel their hands are tied and they don’t feel that they can do anything else “more constructive”.  I’d argue that it’s usually the best place to start.  I am not going to give you a prayer to say or tell you how to talk to God.  Perhaps for you that is done in a temple, a church or maybe out in a field full of wild flowers sitting and appreciating nature.  I don’t think the surroundings matter much, and the words are probably a detail too.  But, spend a few quiet moments thinking about Africa and focusing on what good things you would like to come to her people.  I’m sure that if nothing else, it’ll help you remain focused and open to opportunities as they present themselves.

2-      Learn something new about the continent today.  I genuinely don’t think it matters what you learn.  This might sound odd; but I sincerely believe it.  Perhaps you are an art buff, love all things tech or are an avid gardener.  Take the time to read an article which talks about your interest as it relates to Africa.  I’m sure that a simple online search with just a few words like “potato plants in Africa” would render much more information than you expected.  This will engage you in a way that you are already interested.  Frankly, all of the heavy political reading isn’t always needed; and it isn’t interesting to everyone.  Just learn more about Africa’s diversity.  Walk a path other than the “another famine” “more civil unrest”… kind of thing.  You’ll also come very quickly to understand that knowing a little about Africa doesn’t have to feel like a chore.  There are a million different ways for you to be engaged with such a massive continent after all.  The more you know about Africa and her people; the more informed your choices will be concerning what is best to do to help later when an opportunity arises.

3-      Share what you’ve learned. Just talking to your friends, family or coworkers about Africa in a way they don’t expect is a great way to serve as an ambassador.  I think you’ll enjoy the look on their face when they realize that little bit of information they never thought of as being related to Africa.  When you step out of those keywords that are used to talk about such a diverse, dynamic continent, (namely: safari, drought, starvation, coup d’état, poverty, development); you’ll see quickly that people are really happy to hear something positive or interesting that relates to Africans.  Discussing a new artist’s debut in a gallery in Johannesburg or talking about the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed of dog might just open their eyes to another face of Africa.  People who know about our continent are more likely to find ways to act as goodwill ambassadors the next time they hear negative or untrue things being said about Africa, right?

4-      Buy African. You might be surprised to know that in simply changing your morning regime and making your cup of coffee or tea yourself can actually significantly impact the lives of African farmers.  Maybe you could switch the coffee at home or ask your coworkers to toss the $5 per day that they usually spend at that large coffee chain on the way into work into a jar that you can use to buy a pound or two of Mama’s fair trade coffees or teas?  This would allow them to enjoy some superior quality coffee each morning (they’ll never want to go back to the “other stuff” once they’ve tried our freshly roasted, fair trade coffee!)  Plus, you can make an impact which will make you proud.  Not a coffee or tea drinker?  That is OK too.  There are hundreds of other ways to help through African products such as gift baskets, clothing as well as supporting African musicians or filmmakers.  Buying African is so much better for the continent than making donations to large organizations which use too much in administration costs and too often don’t make the long-term impact you are hoping will occur.  After all, it allows Africans to feed themselves through their hard work!

5-      Visit Africa. You don’t have to want to go on a safari to find something wonderful to do in Africa.  One of the greatest newer ways to visit the richness of the continent is through environmental tourism or cultural tourism.  There are tour operators in South Africa which can take you and your family on a trip to important places in Apartheid history or to get to know more about its diverse ethnic groups and their history, culture and arts.  Or, you could go to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda or Ghana to learn more about the cultures there through the eyes of the people who have lived in the region generation after generation for thousands of years.  Talk about a living history lesson!  Of course, supporting local economies through responsible tourism allows Africans to build better communities and nations.  Sounds like a good deal for everyone involved, if you ask me!

6-      Can’t travel quite that far? Then visit Africa locally. I completely understand that international travel isn’t for everyone.  Or, maybe you would love to go; but you just don’t have the budget, health or ability to go.  I have an alternative for you: visit a museum, festival or other outlet that highlights African art or culture.  You might not be from Vienna, Austria where every October they have Africult; or you might not be living in San Francisco, New York or London, where you can visit African art galleries and museums.  But trust me, if you take the time to search “African culture” and the city closest to you; you’ll find that there are lots of opportunities for you to see art, dance, festivals and other events centered on various African cultures.  The more support groups and organizations like this may receive, the farther they can spread their message.  I am convinced that especially where children are concerned, one of them may one day be the adult that discovers, invents or creates something that makes the lives of Africans better… just because they had an experience in their youth that sparked an interest to learn more about African people, animals or culture at large.

7-      Play a game. How about playing a game online where you test your African geography?  This way, the next time you hear or read about Namibia, Guinea Bissau or Zambia; you’ll know where they are.  We all know how important geography is to current events and history.  People often are in conflict due to natural resources and borders.  And, knowing where all 53 African nations are will help you understand the people of Africa and their needs better.  Who knows, maybe it’ll prompt you to volunteer to teach local school kids more about the African continent?  Knowledge is power, right?

8-      Eat, drink and be merry.  Now here is a fun way to incorporate Africa into your daily life: food and drink.  Did you know that South Africa makes some incredible wines?  Kenya, Eritrea, Malawi, Togo and many other African countries produce some superb beers.  And whether you drink alcohol or not, you can certainly find an African restaurant near you.  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Eritrean or Ethiopian food for example (OK, so maybe I’m a little biased 😉 If you are in the Los Angeles area, the Nyala Restaurant is an excellent choice and comes very highly rated by most food critics.  And no, I don’t have any affiliation with the owners… I just love good food!  How is eating a great meal with your friends helping Africa?  Well, since a great number of Africans use their success in the West to support their families “back home”; so supporting them, often means supporting those in their native country as well.

9-      Ask a question. If you are wondering about something, be it big or small, concerning Africa… ask! I don’t know everything; but I do have a fair number of resources that I can tap to find the answers to most questions concerning Africa.  Feel free to contact me here on the blog, on Twitter, or via email.  NEVER hesitate because you think that a question is “too simple”.  Just ask and know it is my greatest pleasure to try to help you find the answer.  Besides, you can be sure that if you are wondering the answer; there are certainly many others who have the same question too.  You’ll notice on the side of my blog, there is a Questions and Answers link.  Check there and you might see an answer which inspires you to start a project, plan or movement to help Africans in one way or another.

10-   Focus on the good news: In just three clicks of the mouse: 1… 2… and 3… you can find three excellent resources for getting a daily dose of good news from Africa.  Focusing on the good news, instead of all of the challenges and obstacles is a healthy reminder that we can accomplish anything our hearts desire.  It helps us dream and without dreams, there can be no improved reality.  Dreaming is an important part of helping us to build a better future for ourselves, our villages and the generations to come.

I hope that you will try to incorporate at least a few of these ways to get to know Africa better and help her people.  I’m confident that as you learn more about this magical continent, its history, cultures and people; you will be inspired to learn even more and help in one way or another.  Remember that as much as we do need financial assistance, support with trade opportunities and advocates… we also need people who believe in our ability to build our own future.  Seeing what we have already done will inspire you to know that anything is possible in Africa.

After incorporating some of these 10 ways to learn more about and to help Africa; I recommend that you take the time to read this post which I wrote a few months ago.

I look forward to hearing any of your ideas now! How other simple ways would you recommend for people to engage Africa and Africans?

Love,

Mama