Resilient Rwandan Women Inspire Me!

Here, girls train to make traditional banana leaf fiber art

It has been a little over 10 years since I first heard from Béatrice of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda. I, like many of you, had seen the horrific and saddening images of Rwanda during the genocide in 1994.  Like most people, I wondered how life could ever return to normal for those who survived such large-scale devastation. Many of us also asked how in the world those who were lucky enough to survive would be able to find the courage to go on, much less to rebuild a nation.

But one thing is true of the Rwandan people: they did not lose hope! They almost immediately began working to move forward and build new lives. Mothers who lost their children in the genocide decided to become caretakers to orphans who lost their parents in the same tragic way. Sisters, aunts and grandmothers began taking in their young relatives. Many others showed an act of love by doing the same selfless gesture with strangers’ children. The already poor offered to make even greater sacrifices to welcome those who were in need.

For over 10 years now, the Mbwira Ndumva Initiative has been working with women day in and day out to: teach them marketable skills, help them heal both physically and psychologically, and to find the hope and the means to start rebuilding the social fabric which was torn apart during the months of mayhem and killing: the family. The women who make up the initiative are loving and hard-working women who are doing their best to ensure a better future for Rwanda’s women and children.

As the years went by, they offered hope to women and children who had lost everything. Eventually, they implemented a program (now suspended due to a lack of donors), which provided microloans to women for a period of one year. This $25 allowed beneficiaries to start new lives for themselves through training and the purchase of the necessary items to start their own businesses. Mama Afrika joins Mbwira Ndumva in praying that it is able to be launched again someday soon.

When Mama first started buying cards and donating funds to this incredible organization, their focus was on women and orphans of the 1994 genocide. Today, in addition to the 700 members that they work to support; there are now an additional 500 women with HIV or AIDS, over 40 young orphan girls and 40 very poor children who also depend on this organization for things such as education, professional training and counseling. They would love your help in caring for some of Rwanda’s women and children.

Your donation to their efforts will allow them to continue to serve the greatest number of people possible. And you can feel good about purchases made at MamaAfrika.com because Mama is going to stay with this great group of women until there are no more Rwandan women and children in need. We look forward to the day when the word “Rwanda” makes people think of prosperity, peace and an example of how empowered women make all of the difference between poverty and prosperity. In all honesty, I can imagine that day clearly and I’m sure that with your help; we’ll get there. After all, the Rwandan women we know are such hard working, creative women that with a little help… it’s inevitable!

If you make a monetary donation, you can select Mbwira Ndumva and Mama will get 100% of your donation to them so that they can continue the incredible work that they are doing!
We sell their Christmas cards  Now, we hope that, with your help, we’ll have a “Sold Out” soon!

Love,

Mama

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Welcome to our Seven Billionth Family Member

One of those strange events in life is on the horizon… a baby will be born somewhere and without anyone knowing it, they will become the 7 billionth member of our collective family.

If you told that to a child, they’d expect some big party for the new tiny member of our family.  They’d probably envision balloons and cake or perhaps dancing and singing.  But, no; this child will instead enter the world without any special fanfare or cheering.  In fact, most of us won’t even know who they are.  The only real thing that can be guaranteed is that a woman will give birth in order for it to happen.

Beyond that, there is nothing that even assures that this baby will be welcomed with open arms into its own family, nor healthy, nor destined to be a world leader or cure cancer.  When all’s said and done, it will be another baby with the same potential as the others.

But for us, it will also be another chance.  You see, this child will be another chance for us to get it right.  Although this tiny boy or girl might be born on the other side of the world, you are connected to their happiness and success in life.  If it’s a girl child who will face discrimination, genital mutilation or other abuses during her lifetime because we didn’t act to ensure human rights; are we not partly to blame?  If it is a boy who will grow up watching his mother struggle to provide even the most basic needs for him or if he grows up without the most basic rights; are we not partially to blame?

At the end of the day though, this little one is no more or less precious than all of the other babies which will be born before or after her.  Being the 7 billionth doesn’t make them of any more or less inherent value than all of God’s children.  Your babies or mine, a Fulani child or a Quebecois child, they all deserve the same health, safety and freedoms.

So, as the news coverage begins in full swing about this little one’s birth turning our population figures from six billion to seven… remember all of those babies being born, no matter where they are and think of what future they will face at least in part due to our daily choices.

As for me, I will continue to speak the truth when and as I see it.  I will continue to be the voice of those little girls in India or China who might not survive their mother’s womb because they aren’t as desired as a little baby boy.  I will continue to speak out for freedom of speech so that children can one day grow up and speak from their hearts instead of speaking out of fear.  I’ll keep working each day so that mothers across the world can support African mothers as they try to provide food, education opportunities and basic care to their children.  Why don’t you join the fight for this 7 billionth baby’s future and for the future of those babies born both before and after him?

And as for you little one, wherever you are born, to whomever you are born… Mama Afrika loves you!

International Women’s Day: Support or Discrimination?

There are a few questions that are posed to me often when I’m invited to speak about the women’s cooperatives that I work with.  One of these concerns the fact that we trade exclusively with women’s cooperatives.  It is asked in a myriad of ways; but its core is the same.  Why would I choose to focus on women when men are also living in poverty?  Are girl children really of more value and worth investing in more than young boys?  Why does Mama insist that at least 80% of the cooperative members are women; don’t men need work too?

First of all, I’d like to say that there is certain compassion and a sense of equality implied in the question that is both honorable and to be applauded.  But, I think that it is incredibly important to put this into its proper perspective.  Here is a quote that states the real situation for many African (and other) women on the ground:

“Six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are women who must, as the primary family caretakers and producers of food, shoulder the burden of tilling land, grinding grain, carrying water and cooking. This is no easy burden. In Kenya, women can burn up to 85 percent of their daily calorie intake just fetching water.

Yet some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. This is one reason why women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population but own only one percent of the world’s wealth,” (UN Development Program).

You see, it isn’t about competition between the sexes or putting men under women in status or importance.  For me, it is about two things in essence: leveling the playing field and giving families and communities a better chance by investing where we’ve seen that it pays off the best.  I won’t enter a discussion accusing men of this or that; frankly I don’t see the point of it.  I could begin listing statistics which talk about the rates of spousal abuse, etc.; but I don’t see what is gained in it.  After all, I am an African woman who has a son, a brother, uncles and cousins who are all wonderful, generous African men.  I don’t see that there is much benefit in painting a negative image of African men in a world where Black men in general already have certain stereotypes that I’d love to see changed.

On the other hand, anyone who knows me will tell you that I am the kind of person who believes in saying things as they are: directly and honestly (sometimes to a fault).  For ten years now, I have been working with African women’s cooperatives and other organizations (run and managed by women) which are working to improve the lives of women most in need.  I also know the fabric of African society is woven by women.  It is their ability to network, share and focus on others that makes them the group that I reach out to first.

For years now, I’ve seen African women do what they do best: cooperate for the collective good.  When people ask me why Mama doesn’t give donations to large organizations which already have programs in the countries we work in, I tell them that I prefer to work with small-women run organizations which know how to “turn a dollar into five”.  Somehow, like Jesus multiplying the loaves; African women seem able to produce miracles.

I’ve seen it with the hundreds of women in Rwanda who took in 5 or 10 orphans at a time after themselves losing their entire families in the genocide.  I’ve heard it from women like Elizabeth in South Africa who talked to me years ago about how she only has chicken bones to boil and make broth; but still shares it with the children in the village whose mothers have even less.  I know it because of the countless women who walk hours each day to collect water for their children, work in the hot African sun to grow their food, weave baskets during the dry season in Ghana to supplement their income and work hard despite the fact that they have AIDS or malaria so that their children can get an education.

Women, I’d argue are hard-wired to care for their children above themselves.  Of course there are exceptions; but as the expression goes “the exception doesn’t cancel the rule”.

I know some feel that men are marginalized in the process; but here is what I say to them: Men were once boys… and boys are raised by mothers.  Invest in women and you invest in the family.

The numbers are all there if you seek them out. Investment in women does in fact yield greater results for the whole family than investment in their male counterparts.  But, as an African woman, I don’t need the UN’s statistics to tell me what I’ve seen and known my whole life.  I have been called to work with Africa’s most impoverished in a way that helps women and children; and I cannot in good conscience do anything else.

God willing, I’ll still be here in ten years telling you that we’ve been able to make an even greater impact on thousands more women.  And with your help and support, one cup of coffee at a time, one glass of tea at a time and one basket at a time… we’ll get there.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to salute all of the beautiful, inspirational and hard-working women I’ve been blessed to know and work for over the years.  To you Janet Akii-Bua of Uganda who always has a smile, rain or shine.  To you Beatrice Mukansinga who decided to do one small thing for your fellow Rwandan women only to see it grow into a tree that provides shade to so many.  To you women who weave such beautiful baskets in the warm African sun so that your children can eat today.  To you girls and women in Lesotho who inspire me to work through adversity as you face HIV and AIDS with such courage and integrity.

To women everywhere and to the men who understand that International Women’s Day isn’t about competition with men; but about encouraging and supporting women to be better so that they can help both their daughters and sons be better in turn.

Happy International Women’s Day everyone!

Love,

Mama

Mama’s Round Table: Nigel Mugamu (Part 2)

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

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

Give me freedom any day

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

1. Please tell us, who are you?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

See you again very soon!

Love,

Mama

All that glitters… isn’t gold!

There is a lot of debate as to “how to fix Africa”.  First of all, I’m not sure that it’s broken.  The media would have us believe that corruption, famine, HIV-AIDS and constant human suffering are the faces of Africa.  And, when that becomes boring or overwhelmingly depressing; they switch gears and show us the bright, beautiful (white) faces of rock stars, Hollywood movie stars and whatever other stars they can pluck from the sky who tell us how they are saving Africans through their latest causes-du-jour.  After all, stars matter right?  So, if they are in Africa buying children (say what you will, Madonna, it’s the case!) or improving their public relations as their publicists all recommend then we’d all better follow suit!  They are smarter simply because they are rich and on television or have been given the gift of a melodious voice.  And well, all that glitters must be gold.

Here’s the thing: I may have an incredibly sarcastic tone here; but it’s for one good reason.  I am so very tired of hearing about this or that European, American or other westerner who has come in on a white horse to save Africa!  Sick and tired of hearing how those who are more educated than the women that I deal with on a daily basis have the solutions for them.  I do not agree that it makes more sense somehow (though I’m still unable to follow the logic personally!) to have other people solve the problems for us.  What can a poorly educated woman in Mali or Uganda know about what she needs?  She hasn’t ever flown to Italy, read the latest literature on sustainable development, chatted up rich donors at an NGO conference… she’s probably so backward that she has never even left her village to visit her own capital city.  Why on earth turn to her for solutions, right?

For almost a decade now, I have been working with men and women, African people who are interested in building a life for themselves and for their children.  They have told me what I’ve already known: Africans want to EARN a living; not be handed one.  If those jetting in to refugee camps for photo ops had the slightest inkling of our history, our cultures and who we are as people; they’d seek other solutions.  African women are proud women and they want the same things that most women want: a fair chance to build something for themselves.  Given the choice between having a hand-out and sleeping in a house with no roof; I’ve seen African women choose no roof.  This might sound nuts to many of you, admittedly.  But, if you go to most parts of the world (including the US or Europe 50 years ago) the same would have been true for most people.  Pride wasn’t something negative.  It was the gut feeling you had that you don’t take something for nothing and that it was better to be poor and have your dignity than to receive hand-outs and live without it.

I’d even argue that if you asked someone in many rural parts of the world today they’d tell you that hard work is what people should be respected for, not what they own.  At some point in America (and more recently, other parts of western culture), it became a feat to get as much as is possible while doing as little as is possible.  We aren’t there yet in Africa (most of us anyway) and it is my sincere prayer that we don’t ever want to be.

Ask a grandmother, any grandmother… Korean, Indian, Kenyan, American, Icelandic (or one from any other part of the globe) and she’ll probably tell you the same thing: People want opportunity.  They don’t want to sit at home or in a refugee tent waiting for someone they don’t know to decide their future… no, even if it’s a “good future”.  Just because some people feel good after handing out charity doesn’t mean that it is something that makes both parties feel good.

Those of you who visit this blog often know that I believe that most issues are not black and white.  The same truth applies to this one.  Yes, punctual charity is sometimes the right thing to do.  There is no way around assistance after a major natural disaster for example.  Even the wealthiest countries need aid in times like these.  But, it is equally important to allow governments (and even to require) that they be prepared through long-term planning to do as much as is possible for their own people in disasters.  If governments know that they can depend on hand-outs, what incentive do they have to do what others do: planning?  If we train our young African children that living off of hand-outs is normal; what kind of future will they be inspired to build for our continent?

I’ve heard a lot of talk from some, even name-calling and mud-slinging whenever someone says “Africa needs to become self-sufficient”.  Often, people are called racist hate mongers for merely pronouncing what has become a dirty word: accountability.

Here is the thing: I am a mother. I am actually a relatively strict one judging by modern Western standards.  But, children seem to enjoy being in my home.  I have asked them why and it’s because they know that in this home, there are two things: expectations and opportunities.  We expect the best behavior; help when it’s asked for (taking out the trash, etc) and basic respect.  On the other hand, we offer opportunities: to share your feelings, views and opinions for example.  We listen to what you might need and do what we can to increase your opportunities to earn it.  We don’t give charity; we give you an opportunity to earn it.  Want to come to study every night and have dinner with us?  You are welcome to; but you’ll be expected to do the dishes.  Kids know they aren’t imposing because we treat them like a member of the family.


Sustainable employment is what will help African women; not charity.

So, I ask you to think about this the next time you are deciding what to do with your time, your money or your prayer: Consider, are you offering opportunity with expectations?  Support ethical trade, not handouts.

Because if you are just putting some cash in the till of an organization which will “fix Africa’s problems”, you might just find that in the end, they are actually making things worse for the average African woman or child.  Opportunity might not be as shiny and pretty a gift as something marked “FREE gift from charity X”; but then again… not all that glitters is gold.

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

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

Hello Mama,

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your time

_____________________________________________________

Dear J,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,
Mama

Victimhood: One of Our Greatest Enemies

Many years ago, I was convinced that the majority of Africa’s problems stemmed from colonialism. I was completely persuaded that we would have been light years ahead of the rest of the world if only we’d been left to continue our own traditions and progress at our pace.

I’d like to clarify one thing before I say anything else: Colonialism did change the landscape of Africa, permanently, irrevocably and deeply. There is no doubt about that. We need to ensure that our children learn this and understand it. But what I want to talk about is the “What now?” aspect of it all.

There are many who have a tendency to get lost in our victim-hood.  People who love Africa are often trapped in these muddy waters while diving deeply into our past and are then unable to see clearly.  When they exit the water and start to discuss planning for our collective future; they seem to still have that muddy water clouding their vision.  Although I respect their dedication to Africa, I think that they do us more harm than good in the end.  Here, is why:

If you ask any scholar of history, he will tell you that there isn’t a single region on earth without a turbulent history. Rome once controlled a large part of Europe and most of North Africa; thus forcing local populations into a second-class status, if not into slavery. Native Americans lost their territories to each other; and then, eventually lost most of their land to the early American government. In Brazil, many native ethnic groups in the Amazon are still being persecuted and having their lands stolen.

My point here is that everyone has known suffering, abuse and victimization. There is no point in trying to play the “who has suffered more” game. Power comes from how we face adversity.

European powers did set Africa up for failure, no doubt about it. Our borders were drawn arbitrarily at best; with “divide and conquer” in mind at worst. But we are not alone in this either, ask the former Yugoslavia.

Queen Nzinga, who defended Angolans against the Slave Trade © Every Generation Media http://www.whenweruled.com

So now, my sweet Africa, let us move forward. Let us find the positive aspects of our past as quickly and passionately as we find the negative. Let us remember our kings, our queens and our chiefs who led well and with fairness. I grew up hearing about how our grandfathers shared their food with anyone in need. I am sure that all of you would hear the same if you asked your grandmothers. We are now missing that sense of solidarity.

We have the borders we have. Let’s work to create strong, inclusive societies within them. We are diverse like no other continent: from the desert in Sudan to Lesotho’s snow-capped mountains; from Mali’s camel-back nomads to those working in skyscrapers in South Africa; from farmers who plant in the hot Ghanaian sun to doctor’s working in hospitals in Angola. We speak hundreds of languages and have thousands of ethnic groups, each with their unique history and culture. This doesn’t begin to touch on the fact that we have the world’s largest reserve of natural resources: minerals, biodiversity (both plant and animal) and human capital (hard-working, bright and energetic).

Let us leave the labels behind.  We are not “poor”.  We are under-developed economically. We are not “backward”.  We are under-educated.  We are not “aid recipients” or “refugees”. We are people who need to focus on freedom, peace, solidarity and building our own future and destiny.  Enough with buying into the shackles of our past.  Enough with feeling that we need the West or China for hand-outs.  Let us walk forward on our own terms and pick up where our grandparents left off.  It is time to take off the label of victim and proudly wear the label African.

It is my hope and prayer that in leaving our victim status behind and boldly claiming our future on our terms… that being African for our children and grandchildren, will mean being the current generation in a long line of successful people who showed the world that from little, much can be built; as long as the focus is “us”, not “me” or “them”.

From “Street Kid” to Dream Builder:

Our next Round Table guest hails from Pretoria, South Africa. His name is Tendai Sean Joe he and describes himself as a: former street kid, Trail of Hope Foundation founder and director, friend, activist, youth leader and writer.

1. You are a self-described former “street kid”; can you please tell us what inspired the positive change in your life?

Well firstly, I use that term not to let people feel sorry for me, but to inspire! Being a street child was not a choice, so neither was it going to determine my destiny. Life in the streets was always filled by hopelessness. As I was there with other children, including my brother, in the public eye we were like the social outcasts. I was still young and confused, but I could not stand the abuse and poverty in the streets. At home there was poverty and so was home. Sometimes the police brutalized us, sometimes it was the public. Our major source of food was two chain stores: TM and OK. At OK they would throw away perishables like meat, polony, sausages, fruits and other foodstuffs. But they would make sure that they poured petrol on the food and burned it; so that we could not eat it (we ate the food anyway and we were never sick). Worse thing is, we were street children in a town without a Soup Kitchen. Seeing other children in uniform was painful for me. I told myself that to be able to tell my story, I had to get an education, no matter the challenges.

Tendai Joe as a child

2. When many people imagine girls living on the streets, they think of how their misery is compounded by sexual abuse. What can you teach us about the subject?

Yah I think that’s so wrong for people to think that way. Selective attention is not a sustainable solution to the social problems that children face in the streets. Pedophiles are not that selective. Both young girls and boys are vulnerable to abuse. If girls are raped, young boys can be sodomized. So no child has to be in the streets. However young girls are more vulnerable, as they are easy targets.
3. Youth. They are clearly near and dear to your heart. What are you hearing in your interactions with them that they want us to know? What topics are most important to them in your part of the continent?

Interesting subject, children and youths are the future. I chose to invest most of my time to them, as I am quite sure that my efforts will not go to waste. There is so much we talk about and share, having built a very close relationship with many of them. There are a varied issues affecting youths; but the most touching ones are Sexual Abuse and Poverty. In a country like South Africa, the chances of young women falling victim to abuse are very high and that insecurity affects many in the planning their future.

4.  Alright, let us widen our focus. I have heard you discuss a wide variety of issues facing Africa. What would you say are the top three problems that we Africans need to address immediately? In other words, what 3 things are most urgent in your opinion?

Sustainable Development, Education and the Empowerment of Women. With vast resources and donor investment in Africa, I think if we refocus our attention to the three elements I have mentioned; ironically they are also part of the MDGs that need to be achieved by 2015. The use of renewable energy is out of the question, we need that. Climate Change is impacting on the Third World countries more than other country; we cannot keep on contributing more carbon, when we have alternative resources. It’s time we started having Eco-Villages in Africa, where everything is run by green energy, where children could come and learn more on green living. Teach-1-Teach-All (giving education to many) will give us an educated, self-motivated and innovative continent. Hopefully we would not have many armed conflicts; we will be able to negotiate in boardrooms. Women are the primary caregivers, so educating them compliments the fight against a variety of issues including nutrition, Child-Health and other diseases that affect many people in Africa. Besides, mothers will most likely support their children to attain an education.
5. Tell me about your passion for Africa.

Its cultural and historical diversity. Having blood from different countries (Mozambique and Zimbabwe), it is easy for me to connect and identify with many African cultures and traditions. It is in Africa where I see the uniqueness of God’s creations. Besides, wherever I am in Africa, I am at home. When someone asks me who I am and where I come from, I say: I am Tendai Joe, I am an African!

6. What specific types of programs is your Trail of Hope Foundation implementing on the ground and what kind of results are you getting? What projects are you most proud of or excited about?

Trail of Hope Foundation’s pillars are: Advocacy, Partnership, Outreach, Empowerment and Leadership. Trail of Hope Foundation is a platform that highlights the desperate struggles which orphaned and vulnerable children face in order to survive against poverty, trafficking, abuse, crime, institutionalization, disease and recruitment into military conflicts. Thus, the international community can effect change. We are running different projects including e-Learning for the girls at an Orphanage. Due to challenges in funding, we have not yet achieved what we really dream to achieve; so there is not that much to write about. At the moment, we run empowerment projects that do not need any financial input. However we have projects like Dream Leaders Conference (is a leadership program developed by Dreams for Kids (Chicago, U.S.A) to celebrate and enhance the unique ability in every child by giving them opportunities of service while working alongside children of diverse backgrounds. Dream Leaders teaches middle school and high school students how they can use their struggles as motivation to help others. Dream Leaders gives teenagers the tools to see their challenges such as living in poverty, having a disability, facing discrimination, losing a loved one, or whatever else life has thrown at them, not as a limitation but as a guiding force in their journey to make positive change in the world.). All in all, we have six projects.

Tendai works vigilantly against the trafficking of women and children in the sex trade

7. What is your one wish for African children today?

I wish to see a non-politicized sustainable solution to Child’s issues. UNICEF does a great job; but that’s not enough, because they cannot help on all Issues. I look forward to an Africa with a collective stance on Children’s policy that will protect all of our children from harm and create a world conducive for all child to learn and play safely.

Well, that wraps up my questions for today.  TJ, I’d like to thank you again for joining me at the Round Table. It was a great pleasure getting to learn more about your childhood and your projects for the future. You are an inspirational man with a lot of care and concern for Africa’s children. They are lucky to have you on their side!  It was also nice to hear that kids in the US are able to reach out to their African peers and affect positive change. Finally, it was also of great interest to me to hear the connection you make between the importance of empowering Africa’s women and building a good future for their children.  I’ve always believed that the two issues are intertwined.

I now invite our readers (whom I consider important members of our Round Table talks) to share their thoughts with us so that we can continue this discussion about the future of Africa’s youth…

Mama’s guest Joseph Scarantino Talks Tech in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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