Letter from Mama to Mr. Mandela

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

July 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mandela,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mama Afrika

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

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

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

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

Becoming an African Ambassador:

I am a member of the African Diaspora.  For the majority of my life I have lived in either Europe or the United States and I have enjoyed the privileges that many people don’t even think about: access to clean water, a free education, a safe place to raise my children without being concerned that they will be abducted to serve as slaves in a mine or cocoa field or be forced into military service at the age of 15.

I happen to have been born in a small country that most people I meet don’t even know exists.  They certainly can’t be expected then to know its history or culture; much less what its people need today.  How then could I expect people to care about my homeland, or Africa at large, if they can’t identify the average African nation on the map?

During a dinner party a few months ago, I was speaking to a good friend from Cameroon.  He and I were exchanging stories about the questions we have been asked by complete strangers.  Now, I don’t include questions I’m asked sometimes while travelling on business or when I’m invited to speak at an event.  Frankly, I think that in those situations, people feel safer to ask questions that they might otherwise think would be ridiculed.  After all, I’m fairly approachable (or at least I try to be!)  But I digress.  That evening, my friend and I were talking about those things that people have completely unexpectedly said to us or asked.

One of the reasons I love this friend of mine so much is that he is a natural teacher.  He has no formal training; but he does have what counts: a passion for his people and for Africa in general.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he is a pan-African at heart.  He moved to America as an adult and felt an immediate kinship with Black Americans.  We often discuss the similarities between the two cultures.  He’s travelled a bit and he has met many people.  But like me, he is still occasionally surprised by the regularly displayed lack of basic knowledge about Africa.  Rather early on in the discussion, we both learned that we’d been asked those basic questions like “Do you speak ‘African’?” “Are you glad that you get to wear clothes now?” or “Was it weird the first time you put shoes on?”  And before you let your imagination run away with you, these questions weren’t asked by people who were trying to be rude or racist.  You could tell in the moment that they were asked that it was sincere.

I don’t mention these questions because I want to make fun of those people who asked them.  On the contrary, I appreciate the fact that they dared to ask.  Some of my friends are offended by such questions or become irritated; if not with the people asking, then with the image that they have Africa and Africans.  The fact that the media’s images tend towards coups d’état, famine and diseases like malaria doesn’t help the issue.  That is a given.  But what of us: the Diaspora?  What role do we play?

I know that it isn’t our role to act as educators per se.  Sure, one could point to the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in cities like Washington DC, London and Los Angeles (many of which are owned by Eritreans who opt to hang signs that say “Ethiopian” in order to identify themselves to potential customers).  Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply explain the fact that the foods are incredibly similar in flavor and style so that people could learn more about Eritrean culture and heritage? What is the balance between trying to make a living successfully and our obligation to teach the world about our continent?  I choose this example mostly because I love food and think of it often 😉   I could just as easily have mentioned another profession, another age-group or situation.  It applies to each of us in our own way: we are individuals as well as Africans after all.

To answer the question before it is asked, “Yes, members of the Diaspora clearly have the right to live and exist as individuals.  We are more than our nationality.  We are more than African.”  But, I would like to also argue that we should find a certain balance between whom we are as individuals and whom we are as Africans.  After all, we are able to be many things and wear many hats.  You may be a daughter, a mother, a businesswoman and at the same time; yet, you are also the president of the parent-teacher association at your child’s school, a member of your church choir, an English citizen and an Angolan by birth or culture.  Isn’t it important that people know that the latter plays no less a role in who you are and why you want to serve your community while running a race to raise money for cancer research?  We are like stews, every ingredient plays a vital role in our flavor, in why people love us (or not).  I am only asking that once we leave Africa, we remember that core part of us which links us to our perspective “home”.

I have often told children and young adults to remember that they are ambassadors.  Be it young North Africans acting loud and obnoxious on the train outside of Paris or my own children out for the day with me.  “Remember,” I tell them, “that you might be the only African that some of these people will meet.  So, for the sake of others that they won’t meet… be respectful, intelligent and hard-working.  Show them not only who you are; but what Africa is.”

It might sound like a lot of responsibility for one person to take on.  After all, most of us living in the Diaspora are reminded on a daily basis of our individual rights; since the vast majority of us live in Western cultures now.  We are reminded of our freedom to choose who we are and for many of our youth, how tough it is to get ahead when one feels they are an outsider.  There is certainly discrimination on some fronts. Yet, when I see our children burning cars in France, signing up for jihad training in the Middle East or disrespecting elders at the grocery store simply because they are not their own grandmothers; I ask myself who is to blame?  Where has the disconnect come from? We must remain Africans, even when outside of Africa.

African culture is diverse; there is no doubt about that.  But, I think that most of us would agree that there are also many commonalities.  Respect for elders, a deep desire to maximize opportunities in education and striving to pull up your family and community when you attain success individually.  We have a common thread that runs between us regardless of language or region.  I know this is true because I can see it when I meet a woman from Ghana or Uganda and we instinctively call each other “sister”.  I know it because of the hundreds of tales I’ve heard of Africans travelling in other regions who were met with such hospitality and kindness.

I had a conversation with a woman from Mali once who told me of a visit she had made to her uncle in Ghana.  It was her first time visiting that country and when she asked the local bus driver what stop was closest to her uncle’s address; he replied with a smile: “This man exits daily at the same stop, he will show you how to get there”.  That alone didn’t impress her (although she found it to be a kind gesture).  Her face lit up though when she told me of how that stranger walked for quite a distance out of his normal route to not only take her to the doorstep… but that he wouldn’t leave until her until he saw her uncle personally greet her.  He didn’t want to leave her there alone in case they weren’t at home.  That, my friends, is African kindness.  That is the Africa that I want my American neighbors to know.  That is the Africa that I want them to think of when they meet someone from Burundi or Tanzania.  And one day at a time, I’ll build that image of Africa… will you?  I hope so; because each member of the African Diaspora, whether in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Vienna or New York is an ambassador for Africa.  Like it or not, you already have the job.  I challenge you all to make our ancestors proud in the way you do that job, one day at a time.