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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

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

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

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

 

Love,

Mama

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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

Letter from Mama to Mr. Mandela

There will inevitably be a thousand blog posts today wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 94th birthday.  I, of course, join them in their happy birthday song.  But, more importantly, I would like to write a thank you letter from the bottom of my heart:

July 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mandela,

We’ve never met, although I feel like you are part of my family.  Being from Eritrea, there are a lot of my family members I’ve never met, or can hardly remember because it has been so long since I saw them last. With a 30-plus year fight for independence and now a dictatorship that I feel obligated to speak out against… I don’t think I’ll be seeing my home soil anytime soon.  But, I know their names and their characters through those stories told to me by the family elders.  Like my aunt who worked so hard to raise her children, and later her grandchildren.  Like my grandfather who was chief of our village and who taught my mother to always give to the poor, even if it meant cutting her last piece of bread in two.  Like the dozens who died in the struggle for independence and those who have been imprisoned since simply for their desire for real open dialog in our nation.

We might not have been born into the same family; but I have heard stories of your life, your sacrifice for others and your desire for us to learn from your example.  I remember learning that you were going to leave your seat as president to the next person, peacefully, respectfully and with the hope that it would teach Africa’s children what democracy was about… what it was really about… that even the greatest leaders were intended to just be passing through.

I wish that all of Africa’s leaders followed your example.  I wish that we all, as individual Africans wherever we might live, thought of others before ourselves.  If all of us had just a little of you in our hearts, our continent would certainly have already reached part of its potential sooner.

I would like to thank you for lighting the road ahead that sometimes seems dark and long.  I would like to thank you for being someone who took his position as a future elder seriously.  We are all future elders; it’s just that some seem to know it even in their youth, like you.

Let’s face it; you are not just an African hero.  You are a super-hero and the only thing you lack is a cape.  But what makes you such an incredible family member to be proud of is your humility.  Yes, you know what role you played.  Yes, you know you come from a part of the world where it is so easy to abuse that fame and power in order to glorify yourself in the end.  But you walked, and continue to walk, the high road.  You decided instead to be an example that shines so brightly that it lights the way for Africa’s children, grandchildren and beyond.

I am just an African woman who tries to help in her own tiny way.  I see your example and know that I’ll probably never reach the number of people that you do or have the impact that you have.  But, I thank you from the bottom of my heart as a woman, as a mother and as a fellow African.  Thank you for giving me hope that one day, all of Africa’s children will look to your example as a formula for success:  “Make every day a Mandela day” is the perfect way to build our cities and villages to represent the Africa of our elders.

Thank you for being my elder and loving my children enough to show them by example.

Love,

Mama Afrika

PS: Here is a short note from a couple of your many granddaughters,

“Dear Mr. Mandela. How are you doing? You did very well by saving South Africa. Today, I am going to make thank you cards for the police officers and firefighters because they keep us safe.  Love, A-” (Age: 5)

“Dear Mr. Mandela, I think what you did was very brave and courageous.  You stood by your beliefs and it paid off.  Thank you for thinking of others who can’t help themselves. I am going to do something today to help others… “ (A.R., age 12)

In honor of his 67 years spent fighting Apartheid, Mr. Mandela asks us to give 67 minutes (in lieu of a birthday gift)… 67 minutes spent doing something to make the world a better place. So, what are YOU doing to make a difference this Mandela Day?

The Sankofa bird and the Mossi King of Burkina Faso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama

Interview with President Kagame of Rwanda, Part Two

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

PART TWO:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Mama

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

Photo source: PaulKagame.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Mama

Temperance and Hope

The words revolution and uprising seem to be flooding the airwaves, newspapers and social networking sites lately.  It feels a little like a tidal wave.  There is an overwhelming sense of jubilation at the fact that Africans are finally empowered to decide their own futures.  If one believed everything he read; he would be convinced that the average man had been given a voice and a magic wand.  Now, all of those “evil men” will be dealt with at long last and Africans will have the freedoms and opportunities we’ve long deserved.

I’m far from being the kind of person who is convinced that she knows the answers, much less “the truth”.  But, I’d like to inject a new word to the dialog.  This will certainly not be the word that is welcome; but I’m convinced it is necessary.  You see, it isn’t the kind of word that rallies already elated masses or stirs up excited protesters.  But, as an African mother, I find it my duty to utter the word even if it means I risk name-calling or dissent.  That word: temperance. Despite our enthusiasm, we owe it to ourselves not to allow emotion to overwhelm our clarity of thought in moments as important as these.

We should always be happy when we encounter hope.  Hope is what defines Africa.  It is what keeps us from diving into despair and giving up, (thus sealing our fate).  It is what keeps mothers and grandmothers going day after day as they struggle to provide opportunities for the next generation sometimes knowing that their own lives might never change.  But, hope without planning is false. Our rallies and cheers may in fact be so premature that it borders on criminal.  Here is my reasoning:

About 50 years ago, all over Africa, we heard the same chants and songs of revolution that we heard this week on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Libreville and Khartoum.

Many Africans though, ten or twenty years later, found themselves in the same positions as they were when they dreamt about freedom from those European countries which had colonized their lands.  This time, instead of a colonial power, it was one of their own that they wanted to eject.  And for millions of Africans, that cycle has never stopped.  Ask someone from Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo… the list goes on.  Even worse, for those Africans who gained independence as late as the 1980s or 1990s (like Zimbabwe and Eritrea), who clearly had the added benefit of being able to learn through their neighbor’s mistakes; it made little or no difference.

I want freedom for all African people.  I want my sisters and brothers across the continent to have the same basic rights that I do.  I understand clearly and completely that the freedoms held in most Western countries are not just important; but essential to building strong and successful nations and futures.  Nonetheless, I feel it my duty to remind my brothers and sisters of that word again: temperance.  Because hope without planning is a dangerous thing.  Creating a vacuum means that the vacuum will be filled.  It is a basic law of physics isn’t it?  So, before we start to create vacuums, let us decide what to fill them with. Change for the sake of change has already proven itself as false hope.  With each time that the revolving door of dictators turns, we lose a little more and dream a little more about true freedom.

If we continue to have revolution after revolution without addressing how we will then temper what borders on reverence for the group or individual we credit with the latest coup; we stand no chance of building lasting change.

Let us not be like frustrated teenagers who want rebellion without understanding the end result.  But instead, let’s act as our wise elders who understand the gravity of the situation and the incredible responsibility of knowing our children’s futures are more important than our own.

Statistically speaking, coups d’état don’t work in the long term.  Choosing charismatic leaders and giving them superhero status doesn’t work either.  For like it or not, they show themselves to be human beings in the end.  We wake up months later and wonder why our youth were out in the streets risking their lives when we’ve seen little change.  I could list the country names, dates or names of leaders we held as Supermen… along with the dates their citizens finally said “enough”.  But, I suspect you already know them well enough.

Please understand what I’m saying: It is absolutely past time that men, women and children in Africa have democratically elected governments which respect basic human rights.  Africans deserve that no less than anyone else born anywhere else on the planet.  I’d love to think that these revolutions du jour will be the thing that creates that across the continent.  But as a woman who understands that temperance is important… I understand that there simply is no magic pill.  We need to look to those places on our continent that work and ask ourselves how we can emulate them in a way that works for our own culture, nation and people.  We DO have success stories in Africa.  They rarely make the headlines and aren’t talked about much by those obsessed with militancy.  Perhaps we should spend more time focusing on our success stories so that we can learn how to bring those ideas to our own villages and nations.

Revolution is a great idea; but there is nothing revolutionary about the cycle of that bad leader out, this bad leader in… it’s frankly a story that I wish we could make ancient African history.  Our children deserve more.  Let us learn how to make peaceful transitions, respect the rights of women and children and put each other first instead of only thinking of how we can assist in others grabbing power.

Tonight, like all nights, I pray for my beloved Africa.

Love,

Mama

PS: A note to our youth: Great leaders search to avoid the bloodshed (even that of their enemies) when they can.  Distinguished leaders respect the right of others to be heard.  Ideal leaders care more for their people than for themselves.  Strive to be that kind of leader in your family, village, town or city… it will spill over into the greatness of your nation. That is the kind of revolution we need and deserve.

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!

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!