Yrneh Gabon Brown Joins Mama at the Round Table

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A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of being in L.A. and headed to the CAAM (California African American Museum). By chance, it was the final day of an exhibit called Visibly Invisible, by artist Yrneh Gabon Brown. As it turned out, Yrneh was there talking to visitors and greeting some acquaintances with a big smile on his face and a charming Jamaican accent.  After taking the time to move through the exhibit, which was brilliantly designed, I went over to say hello and tell him how much we’d enjoyed the artwork. The pieces were so varied, from multimedia incorporated in sculptures to bronze pieces that made me think of the amazing ancient bronze work of Benin. This piece, called Out Cry, is something I’ve quite literally dreamt about since the show…

The art was beautiful; but what I found most memorable, was the message it conveyed. Subjects like this one make people want to turn and run rather than face it head on. After all, it is depressing to think about the fact that such atrocities can happen. Facing the details of the torture, abuse and maiming of people suffering from albinism in Tanzania are so difficult to discuss. Who wants to come out on a sunny day and bring their children to encounter what could be such heavy information to digest?

You might be expecting me to say something about how the suffering of others ultimately affects us because we are all human. The thing is, you already know that; so I won’t insult you by giving speeches and standing on a soapbox.

What I will say is this: Yrneh’s work has certainly inspired many conversations. His sophisticated, yet simple ability to tell the story of so many through his art was moving. The pieces are done in a way that cause people to do what matters most: Dialog.

It is my prayer that museums worldwide will see the merit in inviting Yrneh to exhibit his work in their cities and nations. Because just as we see albinism in species of plants and animals; so too do we see it in peoples of every nation and culture on Earth. Perhaps (and fortunately) most don’t face the prospect of being hunted, abducted and killed like in Tanzania. But, many face discrimination and ill treatment due to their lack of pigment; as if facing the physical and economic challenges of the disorder aren’t already enough to bear.

If we trace our roots back far enough, we are all Africans. The fact that our skin is black, white, yellow or red is simply a detail. So, to all of my brothers and sisters across the world, no matter what your quantity of melanin… be safe, be well and be blessed.

Your comments are welcome below. After all, the motto of Mama’s Round Table is “Dialog matters!” So, let’s talk…

To learn more about the Endangered White project, follow the link at the end of our interview.

If you’d like to learn more about the Visibly Invisible exhibit, I highly recommend the catalog which you can buy on Amazon or heading over to see a video of the exhibit

You can support Yrneh’s efforts in another way, by helping him continue his training and research by funding him on GoFundMe.

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Ms. Prosy Nabwami, Master Artisan and Weaver

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Ms. Prosy Nabwami is the current group secretary and a master artisan in the Balikyewunya Women’s Group and the district at large. She is an active mobiliser and trainer with a passion of seeing her fellow artisans develop and improve their standards of living. She also runs the group’s store/showroom in one room on her house.

The group makes a number of natural fiber based products which mainly include:

– Fruits Baskets, Hats, Placements
– Shopping Baskets
– Assorted house accents

Recently, Ms. Prosy Nabwami was one of the first recipients of our “Light Up Their Lives!” project to provide solar kits to our cooperative members in Uganda. We have put much thought into our process and will be distributing kits based on how many children they household has, followed by their level of participation in our cooperatives. Thus, based on her long-term and important level of participation as a master weaver, trainer and group secretary; coupled with the number of children in her household; Ms. Nabwami was among the first on the list.

We forwarded some questions along with the solar kit and Ms. Prosy was kind enough to take the time to reply to them. Here, then, is our (remote) interview with her:

“We are very pleased to receive the solar kit; this is a catalyst in our development” said Prosy.

1. What is the greatest advantage you will see from having this solar kit?

– Better light for everyone in my house to do their work by at least 2-3 hours in the night. During this time, our children and grandchildren will be reading their books.
– For me, I will be able to add some working hours to my craft work/ especially weaving.
– Apart from my immediate family, 6 members of the group in the neighborhood work from my home for some hours in the evening, they charge their phone during the day.

– For my children and grandchildren, they will be able to do read their books/do their school homework in better light.
-I also used to pay UGX 500 (about $0.20 US) each time I took my phone for charging and have to charge it 3 times a week; I now save this money.

2. How many people will benefit from using the solar kit?

– Six (6)members of the group who are close to my house will be able to meet at my house in the evening from 7-9pm as we work on our products.
– During the day we are able to charge our telephones at my house instead of walking a distance and paying charging fees.

3. What will you now be able to do that you couldn’t do before owning the kit?

– It was not possible to weave/ make crafts after sun set. With light of the solar kit our working time is extended.
4. How much time, energy or resources will you save because you now have a kit?

– I have been walking at a distance of ½ Km to take my phone for charging and I pay UGX. 500 ($0.20 US) per charging; It stays there for almost one full day then I collect it. In total I have walked two km and unable to receive calls when charging. With an old phone like mine, I have to charge it twice a week.

5. If you have children, how will owning the solar kit specifically make their lives easier or better?

– Reading light is far better and each individual is reached in the house. Children no longer have to gather around one kerosene lamp to read their books.
– Because of better light, they will now read their books a little longer without headaches or worries that the fuel is soon running out.
– Solar lighting is brighter than kerosene lamps. I couldn’t afford to buy several lanterns so children have to congregate around one lamp and read their book. They complain about headaches and pain in the eyes from time to time. I think over exposure to the kerosene lamps could be one of the causes.

6. What one thing do you want people who are considering making a donation to know?

– The Solar lamp is a key catalyst in development of our grassroots communities. The benefit of enabling us work longer, in better light is unmatchable.
-The initial cost of a Solar Kit is high for most people but again using kerosene lamps for light is expensive in the long term for example I use Uganda shilling 1,000 (about $0.35 US) for kerosene per night (6:30pm till 10:00pm).
– Most of us cannot afford to buy solar because the initial cost is high. We end-up using kerosene lamps but these too are expensive in the long run. I spend Uganda Shilling 1,000 per day on kerosene for one lamp, (approximately US$ 0.35).

If you want to help in an even bigger way, buy a product that is made by women like Ms Prosy over at our website. This is an amazing way to help us sell the baskets being woven by the very women in Uganda that you are proving light to. You’ll be giving twice!  For every Ugandan basket ordered in 2015, Mama pledges we will donate a part of the proceeds to our Light Up Their Futures! campaign.

Happy New Year! Remember… Nothing is Impossible

Most would agree that the New Year is the best time to sell salads and gym memberships and that by late January, most promises made over champagne in the early hours of January first are slowly chipped away to leave nothing but memories of what we hoped would be.

Like you, I have read many of those tips through the years like: write it down, tell a friend, find little ways to make yourself accountable, etc. But, when it comes down to it, it really isn’t a complicated formula.

In my house, we have a little way of reasoning which has often made my children wish that I had laryngitis. When a teenager enters the room with an excuse as to why they forgot their homework and couldn’t turn it in, or an elementary school aged child tries to explain how they didn’t have time to clean their room…. The response goes a little like this: “If the house was on fire and you had to clean the room before you could leave it to save yourself from burning… you’d have gotten it done.” Or, “if I had left a $100 bill on the table next to your homework and told you that you could only have it if your homework assignment was turned in to your English teacher on time; you would have turned it in.”

Needless to say my children cringe and wish I lived on a remote deserted island when I use this line of reasoning. But, I don’t feel too badly because I often use it on myself as well.

So, as we all ring in the New Year together this year, I won’t bother you with lists of ways to keep yourself on track or bore you motivational speeches on the merits of keeping your word to yourself because you are worth it. You know all of that already. You know the whys and how’s. As my son, R, says so often: “Nothing is impossible”.

What I’d like to do instead is share a few of the things I will be doing in 2015. Not things I hope to do, want to do or will try to do. Instead, things I will do. The biggest decision has been made already: These ARE things I find worth the sacrifice to make happen. So, they will happen.

1. Become fluent in a another language and attain a basic conversational level in 1 more
2. Unveil our exciting new project in late Spring 2015
3. Add a new cooperative to our Mama Afrika family
4. Choose healthy ingredients, amazing friends and always, always… choose joy, hope and love.

I’m excited to hear what great and exciting goals you have set for yourself this next year. I’d love to hear what places you are doing to visit, what ways you will walk out of this New Year better, healthier, more successful and more well-traveled than you are entered it.

Share. Then, we can meet throughout the year for you to tell me how much fun it is along the way!
I wish you all the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous New Year that you have ever had. And yet, I hope it is only the beginning of a bunch of even better years to come.

Blessings,
Mama

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

Playing Games in the Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama

The Crossroads Between Eritrea and Greece

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo property of MamaAfrika.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Love,

Mama

Peace Isn’t Bought, It’s Built

photos des orphelines qui etudient les metiera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Mama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anene_Booysen_i2e

Anene Booysen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloom Where You Are Planted

“Bloom where you are planted.” –Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

When I first read this quote, I had no idea that it was initially written by St. Francis de Sales.  In fact, it was a regular old day in the Paris metro, when I saw a sticker placed on the dreary grey walls of the underground tunnel leading from one metro station to the other.  It first caught my eye because it was written in English and was printed in cheerful, bright colors.  For some reason it has stuck with me all these years.

When thinking about what to write for today’s blog post, my mind kept coming back to all of those men and women who are living difficult lives and yet smiling through it.  We all know them, be they a grandmother, neighbor or friend.  We meet them on the street or in the market and we already know their circumstances: difficulty finding a job, family member battling a tough disease, suffering depression or just struggling daily to make ends meet because they make very little at the only job they could secure for themselves.  But somehow, they manage to smile when they greet us; they ask us how we are doing and seem genuinely concerned.  They are the kind of people who do what they can with what they have.   Then, instead of complaining about the missing parts, they look for solid solutions and opportunities to improve their lot.

I’d like to thank them all, wherever they may be and most of all; I’d like them to know how much they mean to me.  You see, perseverance is a form of encouragement.  Doing the right thing is a way of encouraging others to do the same.  When I see a friend or stranger who clearly lives by the principle “Bloom where you are planted”; I am inspired to try too to make the best of the conditions I have.

I don’t write this to say that it is wrong to feel discouraged.  I understand completely that there are times that we feel like we are spinning our wheels and getting absolutely nowhere.  I know what it’s like to work on a project only to see that it isn’t growing as fast as I know it needs to.  There are times that I wonder what kind of impact one person can make on issues as broad as poverty, human rights or showing others the infinite possibilities there are for a continent as rich in resources and talent as Africa is.

Sunflowers

Yet, it seems that each time I find my mind entertaining these thoughts which enter like a cloud blocking the sunlight; that little light pierces through in the form of a person who is doing it: blooming where they are planted.  And by means of their tenacity, they inspire me to do the same.  They also remind me that a field of flowers is made up of single blooms which happen to be in the same location.

So, as we work to help others, let us also remember to help each other along the way.  I know how much it has helped me to know good people like Geoff, Nigel, Freweini, Neritia and the many others who inspire me to do what I can do and understand that it might not be enough to “change the world”; but that it does have some impact, even if just to be one of the many flowers which make up a field that is in full bloom.

Blessings,

Mama

Lent: It’s Not What You Give Up

Photo source: CatholicFreePress.org

Photo source: Catholic Free Press

While talking to a friend of mine recently, he asked: “What is it that you say to people on Ash Wednesday? I mean, is it Happy Ash Wednesday? Nah, probably not, right?  After all, it’s when you have to give something up… probably not so happy.”  I found the question an interesting one as well as a great reminder of the Joy of the Lenten season.  You see, most people tend to focus on the sacrifice and absence of things that they give up.

If you aren’t Catholic or Orthodox Christian (Copt, Russian or Greek Orthodox, etc.); you might be interested in knowing that Lent is not just about sacrifice.  It is composed of 3 parts in essence: 1- sacrifice, 2- prayer and 3- charity.  Some could read this to mean: 1- quit eating chocolate and have fish sandwiches each Friday 2- go to church on Sundays and 3- drop a few dollars in a donation can for <fill in the blank> charity the next time you see one.  Those people couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I’ll skip over the obvious spiritual argument as to why that line of thinking leads you nowhere.  After all, I’m no religious scholar and each person’s faith is their own.  But, it is also clearly flawed logic for another reason: it does what I think we can agree is a silly mistake to make in life: missed opportunity.  Regardless of whom you are and what you believe: this is a 40 day long opportunity to be better and to help others live better in the process.  To dig down deep and do those things we say we’ll eventually get around to, you know?

So, I have been wondering a lot over the past couple of weeks how I could turn this Lenten season into something that benefits Africa.  You see, each year when my children are young, I explain to them that there are really two purposes to the Lenten season.  The first of these is a sense of preparing ourselves through cleansing, prayer and fasting for the great celebration of Easter.  But the second is a matter of using this wonderful opportunity to improve ourselves, our families and our world by creating new habits that we will ultimately make permanent.  Lent offers us an extra chance to create good habits while mutually supporting each other as we do so.  It is always easier to accomplish goals when others are routing for you.

Thus, let’s use this blog as a way to keep a dialog going.  Whether you are Buddhist, Jewish, Agnostic or Baptist… take up the 40 day challenge and let’s talk a bit each day about how we can (each at our own level and in our own way) help Africans live better lives.  I’ll pop in each day to give you a suggestion and to hear what ways you add to the list.  And you can do the same.  Let’s challenge each other, support each other and share our ideas as to what little (or big) things we can do each day… whether those be one-time ways to help or new habits to make… share them here!

After all, Lent isn’t about what you give up… it’s just about what you give, be it prayer, time or talent.  What will YOU give to Africa these 40 days?  What talent do you have that could be of use?  How will you use a few minutes of your time to change a life for the better?  How will you use your resources to bring focus to an area of Africa’s development, challenges or beauty?
I’m really looking forward to your ideas.  And, now that the first day is almost over… just 39 left to go!

Blessings,
Mama