Merry Christmas to Africa … and beyond!

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Mama would like to wish Christmas blessings to all of our friends celebrating this beautiful holiday from places like Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia to Russia. Armenia or Georgia!

Yes, I said Merry Christmas.  Many people in the West have no idea that after everyone has boxed up their decorations and put their Christmas trees on the curb; millions of people in Russia, Greece and East Africa are celebrating Christmas.

Technically, the two churches both celebrate Christmas on December 25th; the difference is in the calendars they use.  When many switched to the Gregorian calendar, some parts of the world decided instead to keep the Julian calendar, which explains the 13 day difference between the commonly accepted December 25th date and January 7th.

So, for many Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is Christmas day!  The day will be filled with incense burning in churches, big meals shared with family and friends, the exchange of gifts and lots of good cheer.

If you would like to tell us more about your Christmas traditions, we’d love to hear more in our comments section below.

Melkam Gena to those in Ethiopia, Rhus Be’al Ldetn Hadsh Ametn to our friends in Eritrea and to our Egypian friends: أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة

Again, Merry Christmas to all of you celebrating today, wherever you may be!

Love,

Mama

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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

Love is Not a Big Thing; It’s a Million Little Things

I’ve spent time on this blog talking about politics, sustainable development, women’s issues, AIDS and even recipes.  I’ve interviewed people I really respect like Freweini Ghebresadick and I’ve even interviewed world leaders like President Kagame of Rwanda.  But, today I want to talk about something simple, yet completely transformational: Love.  Without it, life can be a dark place to be.  With it, all things are possible.
Yesterday, I passed the day playing tourist with my family.  When I entered a little shop, I noticed that they sold lots of those little signs that you hang here or there which have sayings about life on them.  You know.  The ones like “Friends gather here”, “Live, laugh, love” and others like that.  But then I saw one which really caught my eye and made me think of Africa: “Love is not a big thing; it’s a million little things”.  Granted, I’m sure that the person who painted that little sign had something else in mind when they painted it; but life is about perspective, isn’t it?  And for me, it was the inspiration for this blog post.

I’m often asked why I have dedicated so many years of my life to Africa.  I have a decent education and could have done a lot of other jobs that pay a pretty good salary after all, right?  I speak a couple of languages, have traveled to a few countries and have been offered a job or two along the way.  But, why do I continue to work for virtually nothing in order to help children, most of whom I’ve never met in person?  Why have I been up burning the midnight oil worried about sales, working on new projects, creating new partnerships or praying for families in Rwanda, Ghana or Lesotho?
In short, what gives me such a deep love of Africa?  Well, love is not a big thing; it’s a million little things.  It’s the smiling faces of women and children like Janet and her son in Kampala.  It’s the pain in the hearts and voices of our cooperative members in Lesotho who have lost so many family members and friends over the years to AIDS.  It’s reading a letter from girls in Rwanda whose lives have been changed so much because their adoptive mothers could put food on the table… and knowing how much a little thing like selling a pack of their greeting cards changes for them after losing everyone in the genocide years ago.  Love is hundreds of sales made to hundreds of people who wanted to do their part after hearing about the weavers, carvers, farmers and other cooperative members we work with.
Love is Cori doing her shopping for her nieces and nephews each Christmas to help them feel tied to their father’s native country of Ghana.  It’s not a giant check for $10,000; but it is the million times she talks about fair trade with her friends and family, sips a cup of our Red Bush Tea or is sincerely excited to see what kind of Christmas ornaments our cooperative in Uganda created this year.  You see, Cori’s million little things are what will change Africa’s future.  Each seemingly small gest adds up to what matters: Love.
I used to love the saying: Love is a verb.  I still do I guess.  But, now that I’ve heard this new quote, I think I prefer it even more.  After all, how is a great romance lived if not through a million little memories which total up to a big love?  How do you raise children, except through a million little conversations, gestures, meals and acts of kindness?  In the end, they total a big experience called parenthood.  Friendships, the kinds that really matter to us, are made up of millions of small cups of tea shared and all of those many moments lost in laughter, tears, support and concern.  It isn’t because she bought you a giant gift at Hanukkah or because she lent you a lot of money when you really needed it.  Sure, those things are helpful and even memorable.  But, real friendships are built on a million little things.  Just as we look back on those little things when we reach the end of our life; just as we can’t make bread without that little pinch of salt… life is made of the small things.
I don’t love my children simply because I gave birth to them.  I love each of them because of their own “million little things”: the way #1 works so hard, yet plays so hard; the way #2 reminds me of old African storytellers and has the beauty of a Roman goddess; the way #3 is talented beyond measure and the way that little #4 has courage and strength way beyond her very young age.  I could go on listing for hours.  My love for Africa is no different.
I love Africa because of the deserts crossed regularly by the Tuareg families headed by people like Boubacar, who taught me so much about the art of leather-work and jewelry we occasionally carry.  I love Africa for because of the beauty of Zulu women like Elizabeth, when her eyes light up as she laughs. My love for Africa comes from knowing how eloquent the Ghanaian’s like Dominic are when they speak.  The style is absolutely charming every time and often makes me think of the great orators of history.  None of that rushed, hurried, get-to-the-point kind of conversation had in the West; but instead, almost prose inspired ways of saying “How are you Sister, since we last spoke?” in a way that only someone from Ghana can.  I love Africa for the incredible history in places like Lalibela, Ethiopia and the breathtaking beauty of its ancient Coptic churches. I love Africa for its diversity: of ethnicity, of cultures, of religions, of geography of foods, of people.  I love Africa for the ancient empires like that of the Great Zimbabwe as much as for the modern day Zimbabweans who grow those delicious beans in my daily cup of coffee.

Carved out of rock, then hollowed out to form a beautiful Coptic Orthodox church, Lalibela Ethiopia is one of many reasons I love Africa.

Even if there might be some “big ones” that others site, I love Africa for a million little reasons.  What are a couple of your million little reasons to love Africa?  I’d love to hear them!

Love, Mama

Mama’s Math: How to Upgrade to Delicious African (fair trade) Coffee and Save Lots of Money

Coffee is one of my favorite indulgences. I begin every morning with my coffee ritual and I know full well that I’m not alone. Many of you also look forward to that cup of coffee that starts your day.

But, every few months we hear yet again how much we’re spending and how that money could add up to a vacation or home over the years. “Skip that $5 latté and save hundreds”. Listen, I am the last person you’ll meet who will tell you to skip the pleasure that comes with a great cup of coffee! But, as for skipping the daily trip to the coffee shop; well, the math makes sense. Let’s do a simple problem to see:

I’m using a conservative estimate of $4 per cup of latté or other gourmet coffee (many run more than $4). At that price though, your daily cup costs you $1460 per year! Once you have caught your breath, join me for the rest of my math homework… don’t worry, the rest is so much easier to swallow!

Making coffee at home on the other hand costs less than 1/4 the price:

  • Coffee grinder: $15-$20
  • Coffee maker: $30-50
  • Incredible tasting fair trade coffee for a year: $312

_____________
$382 (using highest estimates)

So, you want a fancy latté or mocha? Add the following to your totals:

 

  • Hand-held frother: $12-$15 (FREE if you sign up for our 6 month or 1 year coffee of the month club)
  • Omanhene cocoa: $7.50 (per tin)

At the end of the day, your coffee cost stays the same annually and you only have to “invest” in the grinder, coffee maker and hand-held frother once.

Is it great to save so much money? Of course it is! But, money isn’t everything is it? Sure, it’s great that it only takes about 10 minutes a day (less than the time it takes to wait in line for your coffee). The best part of it all is: FLAVOR!! You will wonder why you waited so long.

Most companies have huge mark-ups on coffee and farmers see very little of the price that you pay. But, since all of our coffees are fair trade, you’ll have the bonus of knowing that you are supporting farmers who are being paid a fair price for their beans. Additionally, you’ll be helping African women and children through the donations that are made to the organizations we work with (a portion of all sales on MamaAfrika.com).

So here are my Top 3 reasons to join Mama’s Coffee of the Month Club:

  1. High quality fresh-roasted coffees (mailed only days after roasting!).
  2. Fair trade (and your built-in donation) means helping the poor live better lives.
  3. You’ll save enough money to treat yourself to something else wonderful (a plane ticket, a couple of incredible dinners or whatever else makes you smile)

Our coop members will thank you (and so will your wallet!)

The Root Causes of Famine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Mama

10 Steps to a Great Cup of Coffee

Many of my friends already know how much I love coffee, African coffee in particular.  The thing is: I used to like coffee; but only a little.  I always thought coffee was OK and I never really felt that “kick” that many people drink it for.  So, it was a beverage like any other.  Honestly, it didn’t even rank in the top 3 for me.  I was never able to understand when people spoke of how dreary their day was because they hadn’t had their morning cup of Joe. I used to meet friends at the local (or large chain) coffee shop and sit and sip a latté.  But it was the experience, not the drink that made me truly happy.  I didn’t need the caffeine and could even have a cup immediately before going to bed with no real effect.  I had purchased those expensive whole bean coffees, bought an espresso machine, dealt with cleaning the blasted thing and still I couldn’t identify with those “coffee snobs” who talked about what was in their cup the way some people describe wine or expensive Cuban cigars (No, I’m not recommending you start smoking!). Terms like: bold, fruity, notes of chocolate… Frankly, they meant nothing to me.  Man, have times changed!

You see, ever since I starting selling fair trade (and often organic) African coffees… I fell in love. I had no earthly idea what I was missing all of those years! Once I learned “the basics” from my coffee roaster, my life was changed.  I’m talking night and day here!  I still remember that first shipment of freshly roasted African coffee: I didn’t even have to open the box to smell it: incredible to the senses!  I ground a batch immediately and put it into my regular old Mr. Coffee, adjusting the setting to “strong”.  With those few little bits of advice from our roaster… my life transformed.

I still don’t feel that “eyes wide open” feeling that many of you get from coffee.  But, I smile a little bit less in the morning when I don’t have my “cup of Africa” as we call it in my house.  You see, I am in love with African coffees now.  In love with the deep rich flavor that comes with freshly ground beans that wree roasted just days before.  I’m going to share with you the tips that I’ve learned over the years.  Some seem elementary; but if you are used to that “other stuff”; many of these steps aren’t worth the time they take.  After all, if you are using coffee that was ground months ago… the type of water might not make much difference!  Try these steps though… all of them… and you might just find out what I did: Coffee is magical. It’s a way to enjoy travel: Every morning, I feel like I’m sitting with a dear friend in Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia or Zimbabwe and drinking in the sounds and sights of Africa while sipping that simple pleasure called coffee.  Join me!

10 Steps to a Great Cup of Coffee

  1. Believe it or not, you really don’t need an expensive espresso machine to make a great cup of coffee.
  2. Always use freshly roasted beans.  Coffee loses flavor over time; so freshly roasted beans are always your best bet.
  3. Clean your grinder and coffee brewer regularly to prevent build-up of oils which can alter the flavor of your coffee and eventually give it a rancid flavor.
  4. Grind your coffee beans immediately before brewing. Exposure to air slowly makes coffee grounds taste stale.
  5. Use the right setting on your grinder (depending on your brew method).
  6. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes: start with 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water.  Adjust based on your personal taste.
  7. The higher the quality of the water, the better the quality of your coffee.
  8. When making drip coffee, it is best to stir or swirl the pot when finished to thoroughly mix the coffee because the coffee toward the bottom will be stronger since it was brewed first.
  9. If you are making your coffee in advance; don’t leave your coffee on the burner or warmer or it can scorch and change the flavor.  Use a thermos instead.
  10. If you want to remember only one phrase I’ve written, make it this one: Freshly roasted, freshly ground, freshly brewed… and fair trade of course! 😉

Racism: Redefining the Terms

I am going to talk about something now that isn’t often addressed without impassioned difference of opinion and often even some name-calling: “racism”.  I’d like to begin by defining the terms.  You know how important dialog is to me and one of the things I notice in discussions is the way that people often overlook language.  We’ve all heard two people in a heated argument only to realize that what they are arguing is the same point, using different terms.  Once they calm down and actually hear one another (or more often, once someone acts as intermediary and helps them to hear one another); they calm their tone and try to save face as they come to the conclusion that they do in fact agree.

So, I’ll start by discussing the terms.  I don’t buy into “racism”.  It is only logical, since I don’t buy into the concept of race.  I don’t say this in that politically correct way; but I only believe in the human race.  I am bright enough to understand distinctions in ethnicity, culture and even skin color or other physical attributes.  Is the skin of an ethnic Yoruba darker than that of a native Austrian whose roots are Germanic?  Of course!  Yet, given the fact that they can have children together, donate body organs to each other, etc.  The differences are really only on the surface.  In my view, the visual is so much less important than ethnicity: language, culture and yes, even food.

We are one race; but we have many ethnic and cultural groupings.  After hundreds of years of staying (relatively) within our own regions; or after specific migrations or conquests which have added to our ethnic make-up… we look a certain way. Lighter skin, darker hair, brown or blue eyes, broader or thinner noses.  But we are wholly and completely human.  All God’s children, regardless of the way we speak, if we are literate or not, if we eat kangaroo or chicken in our stew.

Race is an outdated term which breaks all of humankind down into 5 groups, none of which have anything to do with skin color; but instead bone structure.  For example, Ethiopians and Eritreans are both considered “Caucasoid” under this system, which has since been re-termed “White”.  Although I do have a great-grandmother who was “white” where skin color is concerned; the vast majority of Eritreans are not so light. Race is now commonly used to mean ethnicity, skin color, hair texture, religion… the list seems endless.  But, until we use the correct terms, we can’t have serious dialog. If we want to debate the merits (or risks) of a religious belief, the cultural practices that put women at risk, our preference for narrow noses over wide ones… let’s do so.  But for goodness sake, let’s do so honestly, openly and without throwing the term “racist” at everyone who disagrees with us.

Incorrect concepts and terms like “race” are in part what caused things like the genocide in Rwanda, Hitler’s murder of millions and the belief that Africans are not intelligent simply because they “look more like monkeys than Europeans do”.  Race is no longer discussed outside of a small portion of physical anthropology.  Thus, it seems only right to leave the term behind us.  Let’s talk about ethnicity, culture, language, immigration, xenophobia, clan warfare, national pride… whatever the term, let’s choose the right one.

So, I am willing to have the dialog of ethnic strife.  I am also willing to discuss the problems caused by xenophobia or hatred some have toward people who look different from them.  But, I will not discuss racism because I find that the very term divides us in ways that are false.  If we are wise enough to coin different (and more accurate) terms; we will make a giant leap toward the solution to the very problems that we discuss.

This is not to say that the problems don’t exist.  I am a dreamer.  I’d love to see a day when we judge one another on our actions and choices as opposed to what village we are from, what shade of brown we are, etc.  But, I am realistic enough to know that there are some major and life-altering problems throughout the world today that act as major barriers to us dealing with our real problems: poverty, access to clean water, education, etc.

But, for me, it is dishonest to begin with terms that aren’t true.  We will be better suited to have honest, direct dialog even when it hurts us to do so.  Then, we can find the similarities in issues that we thus far don’t see as being related.

For example, I overheard a discussion many years ago where a member of my (in-law) family said that he wished my husband hadn’t “brought a nigger into the family”.  I was insulted and as the years passed, this person has never taken the time to know me, who I am or what I stand for.  In the end, it is easy to say that it’s “his loss”.  But, the most ridiculous part of it all is that he’s gone out of his way to make things so uncomfortable (never knowing that I ever heard his words) and distantly cold that he never will know me.  He’s instead opted to view me from his little closed corner of the world: where even my best and kindest of actions towards others are viewed through suspicious glasses.

But, if I am to be honest, I must say that I’ve had equally hateful things said by family members on the other side. Once, I was cornered by two female cousins and told that I was a sell-out to my Eritrean culture because I married a Frenchman. They quickly added: I guess it isn’t your fault though; after all, you are just like your mother (who married an Italian-American).  These same two women went on to tell me that they would not only marry Eritreans; but would marry someone from the village if at all possible.

At the end of the day, they don’t see who I am either.  I am an African.  I love Africa and have spent the past 10 years working to help improve the lives of my sisters across the continent.  I am an Eritrean who has gone to great lengths to be open and honest about the pride I have for my birth-nation.  But, above all, I have also been an advocate for what Africa can be… should be.  Mine is not blind pride because of skin color or blood.  It is a sincere desire that any African girl born today have the same chance and opportunity in life that I had as a child.

At the end of the day, I know that skin color means nothing. My father was a dark-haired Mediterranean looking man of Italian heritage.  And I can still remember seeing tears in his eyes when he spoke of Eritrea.  He spent years hoping that peace would come so that he could retire and buy a little bar in Massawa. He loved Africa more than many of my African brothers who have the blood; but don’t have the passion.

I know that 90% of those who have purchased a basket, only drink our fair trade African coffee, or stop their day to say a prayer for our coop members have white skin and have never been to Africa.  For some, I am the first African they have ever met.  Their hearts though, are like many of you: open to the world around them and ready to do what they can.

Every group has its good and it’s bad.  Every culture has its faults and its strongpoints.  I cannot be honest about the dialog if I refuse to use the right terms.  There is as much corruption and evil in the heart of Africa as there is in the West.  Let us not forget that slavery existed because WE sold one another. It existed later on such a grand scale because the Portuguese learned the tricks of the trade from the Arab slave traders.  But, because they aren’t part of the West, we don’t even discuss it.

Power has a tendency to corrupt, it’s true.  But those who hold power and wield it without responsibility are no more the representatives of the average European country, than that ignorant mean man was the representative of my husband’s family.  He might have been the most vocal initially.  But, if I’d judged the whole group on his behavior; I’d have missed out on knowing some of the most loving, kind and generous of spirit people I’ve ever been proud enough to include in my family.

And the reverse is also true: If someone had overheard those two cousins of mine talking; they would certainly have come to the wrong conclusion.  You see, my father was loved by everyone and respected highly.  He learned to cook our traditional dishes (not very common for men to do in our culture; much less a “foreigner”!). He showed me through example that love comes above all; color is a detail.

I’ve lived on 3 continents, both coasts of the U.S and I can tell you one thing with complete certainty: Life boils down to just a few important things regardless of who you are: family and friends, the ability to earn a living and sharing great food… ethnicity, language nor the color of your skin have anything to do with any of that at all.

Love one another and search to find the common ground through open, honest dialog. And always… always… find the words that fit.

Mama

Ancient History of Eritrea

Hello again everyone,

I found this SUPER interesting video (actually a 3 part series) today and want to share it with you all.  It mentions some things that many people don’t know about Eritrean history… especially the ancient history of both the nation and the region.  Best of all, it cites all of its sources in each slide so that you can either confirm the information or decide to dig deeper if you read something of particular interest.

I must admit that its a little clunky as videos go (not always enough time between slides to read and digest all of the information).  But I found that over all, it was definitely worth the patience needed. I was interested to learn some more details concerning the Eritrea-Europe connection.  We often hear much about the colonial period (both Italian and later English influences); but learning more concerning the connection to ancient empires such as Greece, Rome and the more recent Russian link were fascinating.

Click through to Part Two and Part Three

Love,

Mama

Temperance and Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama

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