Yrneh Gabon Brown Joins Mama at the Round Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

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

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

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

 

Love,

Mama

Happy Birthday to Africa’s Greatest Elder, Mr. Mandela

There is much that could be said about Madiba (his Xhosa clan name), or “Tata” (Father) as South Africa’s youth call him. But, I think that the best of his qualities is that he led by example. In my opinion, we have never had a more upstanding “village elder” in Africa. He stood by his principles, sacrificed to bring them to reality, then did what most African leaders of our time refuse to do: left office in order to be equally productive in other domains outside of politics.

Instead of celebrating his birthday as we do many other historical leaders around the world, Mr Mandela asks South Africans to give 67 minutes (the number of years of service he gave to his nation) serving others. I think that its a beautiful legacy that all of us could take to heart. So, what will YOU incorporate as your personal or family tradition each July 18th to celebrate Africa’s greatest elder? Please share with us, inspire each other and join me in wishing Mr Nelson Mandela a very happy 95th birthday!

Here is my wish for each of us:

Dear African leaders, follow his footsteps.

Dear African citizens, require that your leaders follow his footsteps, or simply refuse to let them lead. Integrity is essential, always.

Dear African children, know that THIS is the kind of elder that has come before you to show you how it is done. Become future leaders that lead with honor, respect for your fellow man, long-term vision and an understanding that you are but one member of a team that makes great things possible.

Love, Mama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anene Booysen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Open Letter to the African Child

Dear African child,

On the one hand, I know you down to the most intimate of details.  You see, I have a few of you whom I’ve carried in my own womb.  I’ve fed you, cared for you when you were sick, worried when you were worried, cheered you on from the sidelines, comforted you, held you in my arms, taught you about God and loved you with my whole heart.  I’ve helped you with your homework, helped you plan for your future and dreamed the biggest dreams for you.  I’ve taught you to work hard, pray hard and play hard.

On the other hand, I know I haven’t done enough.  I’ve tried you know?  But I’ve also failed more than I’ve succeeded.  To you, the child I never held, I’m sorry.  My arms are open wide; but I can’t seem to reach you from where I stand.  To you son, who I haven’t given the opportunity to dream because you were too sad or lonely while your other parents abandoned you; I am so remorseful.  I want to be your “real” mother, after all mothering is an action, not a definition of bloodlines. I want to show you that your future is full of possibilities and hope.

To you my daughter, whom I never talked to… you know that talk I’ve wanted to have where I tell you how much you mean to me and to the world, that talk where you learn that you can be anything, say anything and do anything regardless of what those lying men in your culture tell you.  My dearest daughter, you are indeed worth everything to your Creator and to me.  I have always wanted to sit down with a cup of Red Bush tea and tell you how much the world needs your special skills, talents and abilities, that we are depending on your beautiful hands to build a new nation and a new world full of love and compassion… that only your hands and others like them can do it.  I want you to know that anyone who tells you that you should be held back, that you are worthless, that you are only put here to please men, that you are worth less than your male counterparts… well, the truth is, they are lying out of fear of what you might become: empowered to fulfill your destiny.

Every one of you, my dear children are valuable to me and to all of us.  You are the ones who can do better with our resources.  You are the ones who can show your elders what they were capable of doing.  You are precious to me and I will find you, one by one, and show you.

I might not get to hug you or kiss you or look you in the eyes.  But please know, that you are mine and you are treasured.  Know that I think of you, I pray for you and I love you deeply.

Know too, that I will work today and tomorrow to ensure that you know you mean as much to me as do those who I carried for 9 months and raised with my own hands.

Love,
(your) Mama Afrika

 

PS: To those children who are already living in the homes of my brothers and sisters who are treating you so lovingly, supporting you so well and teaching you to nurture your dreams… please find your siblings, lift them up and care for them as well as your mothers across the continent care for you. Every gesture matters and each of you can do little things to make your parents so proud.

Ooops, No End of The World…. (again!)

So, here we are, facing the end of the world (again).  What to do?

I will avoid the jokes about those who have stockpiled food, joined cults who convinced them that they were the only way to avoid sudden death, or those who hiked to far off mountain tops in France or Peru hoping to meet aliens who would sweep them off to a planet where all would be well… After all, I’m sure there are lots of people who have dedicated their entire day to making others laugh with punch lines they’ve worked long and hard on.

Luckily, the Mayans were right on one count: the world didn’t end today (—yes, most people miscalculated).  I am hoping though that instead of worrying ourselves silly about what the exact date is for the end of time; we will instead focus on what matters: HOW we are living each of those days that we wake up and have opportunity.

Look, none of us know when the world is going to end.  But, I suspect we’ll have a little better clue than a pretty, round calendar which even the Mayan people says doesn’t mean the end of the world; but the end of an era.  To be honest though, even as a Christian woman, I hope that the Mayan prediction is right.  I hope this will be a new era.  One in which we think of others before we think of ourselves.  One in which we think about the impact of our actions and choices before we decide even the simple things.  I hope that we have used this opportunity to think about the fact that anyone can die at any time.  For some, it is a tragic accident or disease that no one can cure.  But for others, it is ultimately poverty that causes their death.  Whether they cannot afford to eat healthy food, have access to clean water or pay for medications which would be readily available (and sometimes free) if they lived in another part of the world.  Some will die because they had the misfortune of being born a girl in a land where women aren’t respected.  Others will be killed for their religious beliefs, their desire to speak the truth or because they hold hands or kiss someone before they are married.  And yes, many will be killed before they are born because they have the misfortune of being a girl child in a nation or culture which has a preference for boys.  Still others will live, only to be denied the most basic of human rights.

Well, today you and I are given an opportunity, as we have been given every day thus far: We have the opportunity to make this day matter.  Whether by a gesture, a donation, or just the way that we choose what gift to offer to a friend, what food to feed our own children or what words we speak… we have a great opportunity to become the “New era” that people are talking about in the Mayan culture.  Ultimately you see, we are all people and we could all use a new era: One in which we put others before ourselves.  Not in that awkward “New Age” mumbo jumbo kind of way which implies we all have to dress like hippies or risk being called hate mongers.  But, rather in a concrete manner which creates, choice by choice, word by word, a new lifestyle.  One where we enjoy life every day and work toward helping others enjoy their lives too.

I’m not talking about religion or telling you to change your belief system.  I’m saying this: There were millions of people discussing this latest round of doomsday predictions.  Heck, I think that in 2011-2012, the world “ended” 20 or more times, right?  Well, I can’t help but think that if just half of those people talking about it decided to instead spend the same amount of time living as if it might actually be true every day of their lives… there would be a lot less suffering in the world.  At times like this, I keep coming back to the tune that so many of you already know:

Some of you might know that country song by Tim McGraw called “Live like you were dying”

I’m going to spend today like I spend most of my days: Living like I were dying… and like I am able to prevent someone else from dying through my choices.  I’m dropping off a couple of Christmas gifts to friends that are gift baskets full of organic and fair trade items that they can enjoy with their families.  I’ll touch base with the cooperatives that I work with and see if I can be of service to them today.  I’ll talk to a lady I know who is having a tough time this holiday season because she is alone.  I’ll drink another cup of fair trade coffee from Zimbabwe and pray for the farmer’s hands who picked the beans.  I’ll connect with friends on Twitter and Facebook and I’ll thank God that I’m here another day to do it all.  Then, tonight, I’ll hug my family members and tell them how grateful I am for their love and support.

Then, if the sky really is falling: I won’t care.  Because worse than death, is regret.  And I won’t have any of that to freak me out. I’m really far from perfect; but I’m trying to live a life based in love for others and appreciation for what blessings I have.

If you are celebrating Christmas soon, I wish you a very merry Christmas.  If you are instead Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist or of another faith… I wish you the very brightest and best New Year to come.  And I sure am happy to know that we have the opportunity to build a new era together.  I am sure we can do it, one kind gesture, one loving word and one responsible decision at a time.

Blessings,

Mama

Letter from Mama to Mr. Mandela

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

July 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mandela,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama Afrika

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

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

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

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

The 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

Mama Afrika’s Round Table 2011

After a great year of dialog with some fascinating guests like Freweini Ghebresadick,  Tendai Joe, Josef Scarantino and Nigel Mugamu; I am really looking forward to a great year ahead at Mama’s Round Table!  I have a dream list of some captivating and influential people that I am hoping will accept my invitation to meet with us here.  Wish me luck!

A big thank you to last year’s guests!  They are much appreciated and I think we’d agree that they’ve opened our eyes to some interesting issues including tech, aid, human rights and the role of the Diaspora in rebuilding Africa.  Thanks to your input, through comments on the blog, we’ve been able to have civilized, respectful dialog on a host of issues and I hope that you’ll stay with me (and maybe even invite a friend or two to join you) as we continue down the path of dialog.

I want Mama Afrika’s World to be a world like no other: a world where you and I can feel safe to talk about ALL things facing Africa and Africans.

In a world where things have gotten more and more politically correct (my two least favorite letters are now P and C because of it!)… Welcome to a safe space to come and dialog:  Mama Afrika’s Round Table.

This year, I’ll invite people to come and sit with me to talk.  I will be inviting “experts” from time to time; but all in all, I want this to be a place of equals: you and me.

Dialog is what has been lost in recent times.  We communicate with less than 140 characters on Twitter, the political scene is more and more divisive regardless of what country you live in, name-calling and accusations have become substitutes for honest disagreement or fair and open discussion.  To this, I say “STOP!”  Let’s take the time to listen, form our own opinions and share them politely and with respect.

If you are interested in the usual “anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot!” kind of thing… there are thousands of blogs, organizations and places you should be instead.  Leave now… and take your attitude with you.  It simply isn’t welcome in Mama’s house, or at my table.

If you would like to discuss anything here or if you have a guest that you’d like Mama to invite to the Round Table; please leave a comment here or contact Mama on Twitter  or via email.  Either way works just fine.  I’m open to any subject, whether it is my specialty or not.  I love to learn; not just teach.

OK, grab your favorite cup of African fair trade coffee, some Red Bush tea, or maybe a glass of red wine… and let’s start talking!

** ALL interviews conducted at Mama’s Round Table are posted unedited.  I NEVER alter answers given to my interview questions. To do so would violate the principle that dialog at this table remains open and honest. Occasionally, slight grammatical errors may be corrected; but only with the interviewee’s permission.

Mama’s Guest, Freweini Ghebresadick on Women, Democracy and Human Rights

Our next Round Table guest comes to us from Europe; but is as African as an African can be. By way of fair and full disclosure; she is also a relative of mine and in my heart, she is my sister. She is Eritrean by birth. But, like many other Eritreans who left during the war for independence from Ethiopia, she now lives in Europe after spending many years in the U.S. I thought that you would enjoy her perspective because she is not only a member of the much-discussed African Diaspora, she is also a staunch supporter of human rights, the rights of African women specifically and has spent most of her adult life fighting to attain democracy for some of Africa’s voiceless citizens including her own brother. Her name is Freweini Ghebresadick and I introduce her to Mama Afrika’s friends with the greatest joy in my heart.

Thank you Mama Afrika for your gracious introduction and the opportunity you afforded me to share my story with Mama’s friends; I am deeply touched. I admire your commitment to helping indigenous African women by connecting them the world through your Fair trade online business, MamaAfrika. In my view nothing gives any human being more pride and joy than to support one’s family by earning his or her own bread.

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

I am of complex identity and culture, Eritrean by birth, American by nationality and now residing in Germany, ever struggling to see the freedoms I enjoy in the free world realized in my country of birth.

2. I know that you are passionate about human rights globally; but more specifically in Eritrea. Please tell us why this issue is so important to you and what aspects of human rights are dearest to your heart. What has given you the passion for human rights issues?

Individual freedom is very important to me, i.e. to have the freedom to make choices as an individual. Every human being is born free and man should not control man; but forces of evil work otherwise, which unfortunately is a reality in Eritrea. And this reality did not spare my family; my brother Teklebrhan Ghebresadick, who sacrificed his youth and fought for 17 years in the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia, finds himself confined in a container in an undisclosed prison location in Eritrea. Teklebrhan was kidnapped from Kassala, Sudan by the government of Eritrea, right after independence; just when Eritreans, including me, were looking forward to reuniting with those the 30 years war spared.

That fateful day was Easter day, April 26, 1992. Teklebrhan was one of several freedom fighters in my family. It was also around that time when my family was told about the martyrdom of my younger brother and younger sister who happened to be on the government side. For my parents, it was very difficult to deal with these two contradictory plights at once. Here are parents of freedom fighters, whose children albeit in different fronts, fought for the same cause, receiving news of martyred heroes and a detained “traitor”.
Who would have thought that any Eritrean would be kidnapped in an independent Eritrea for no apparent reason, other than being in a “wrong” front! The martyrdom of the sons and daughters of Eritrea was meant to bring justice for those who survived. To add insult to injury, in those years, stones would be casted upon you by Eritreans, for disclosing incidents of kidnap, the lack of rule of law and the like. So, one cried, alone, behind closed doors; there is no way to explain the thoughts and feelings.

As difficult as it was, I could not put up with the silence for long. In addition to the enormous love and respect I have for Teklebrhan, I was convinced that to act and let my voice be heard was a responsible thing to do. Consequently, I went to Eritrea at the end of 1992 and frequented the prisons around Asmara and inquired his whereabouts. My stay in Eritrea was only a month, but towards the end I was threatened, in person, with imprisonment, if I continued inquiring about this taboo subject. I have not returned to Eritrea ever since, but continued my fight for justice with the cooperation of governments (politicians) and humanitarian organizations and finally with other Eritreans. I owed it to my brother and others like him to tell their stories. What is most unfortunate is, over the years, my family’s story has become the story of the majority of Eritreans.

3. Although Eritrea is a one-party state, which many call a dictatorship, political division within the Diaspora is rich and often very heated. What do you say to those who might accuse you of caring only about a particular political party and using it to your own gain?

To oppose exclusion or one party sate is to be inclusive. We are not fighting to simply oust the one party state government but rather to bring about a multiparty democracy. And that inclusiveness would benefit us all.

4. Many say that the term “human rights” implies women’s rights. They argue that therefore, no special status is needed for women. How do you answer them and what examples have you found in Eritrea which can serve to help explain your viewpoint?

Women’s rights are human rights; but human rights do not imply women’s rights; for there are rights which address issues specific to women. The reason is, women suffer the same human rights violation as men plus human rights violations that arise from women being discriminated against and abused on the bases of their gender. Without regard to geographical differences and level of development, throughout history women have not had equal access to resources such as education, property, legal and health services, work etc. For that reason, the historical imbalances need to be corrected; so I disagree with the notion that no special status is needed for women. Eritrean women are no different in terms of historical imbalances; however not much has been achieved to narrow the gap of inequality between men and women.

First of all, in the sense of movement, the issue of women’s rights was introduced with women joining the armed struggle and playing a double role, for the emancipation of women from an oppressive culture and male chauvinism and the liberation of Eritrea. Sadly, after independence, a combination of being demobilized from the army with no skills or resources to cope with the day to day challenges of civilian life and their male partners reverting to their old way of thinking, they were unable to ensure whatever gains were made towards women’s rights were followed.

Above all though, since human rights are not respected in Eritrea, women in Eritrea suffer indignity like the rest of the Eritrean people if not worse. Young women like their male counterparts are enrolled indefinitely so called national service. There is no independent women’s organization in Eritrea. Those few women in high positions serve the government and have nothing to do with protecting the interests of women or advancing women’s causes. As it has been said, Eritreans continue to be deprived of their basic human rights, and women’s rights demand an even more far reaching commitment.

5. Some African leaders and academics say that the concept of democracy isn’t “African” and that we should not be working towards it as a goal. They say that trying to “force democracy on Africans” is not a valid goal because it is not in our history, cultures or the desire of the heart of our people. What is your opinion on the subject?

For anyone, African or not, to want to have a say and to want to have the right to decide in matters of basic necessity is to be human. The art of governance is a very complex one; but politicians and academics seek for easy answers rather than admit to their own failures. Actually, our African forefathers use to address issues of paramount importance to their locality under the shade of giant trees, long before the scramble for Africa.

6. What do you think is the largest challenge facing African people in general and Eritrean people specifically when it comes to understanding the link between democracy and human rights?

Africans in general and Eritreans in particular continually live in a survival mode; in a siege of fear, poverty, disease and ignorance; which makes it difficult to see beyond today. The challenge is to expect politics to be so considerate and far sighted as to form the building blocks of democracy or democratic institutions. The masses will not rise for their rights unless they are aware of their right to demand them. This being the case, the elite are being called upon to lead the way to democracy and rule of law; that means the lawyer has to stand for justice, the teacher has to teach, the journalist has to report and the media has to inform, instead of being on the safe side and adorning dictators.

7. How does the fact that there is no freedom of press in Libya, no freedom of religion in Sudan, no right to discuss varying political views in Eritrea or no equal right under the law for women in Nigerian Sharia court affect a woman living in Ireland, Canada or Austria? In short: why should women living in freedom be concerned with the human rights of someone they’ve never met on the other side of the world? How does it concretely affect their daily lives?

Putting its moral aspects aside, today’s flow of immigrants should force women on the blessed side of the globe to see the dire situation under which their counter parts are living as well as the negative impact it will have on their own freedoms. It undermines what women, through years of struggle and enormous sacrifices, have achieved thus far. Displaced women will affect the standard of living as well as social status of the host countries’ women by falling victim to cheap labor and other exploitations.

Another threat to women’s cause living in freedom is that there are plenty of men in the west who make choices that lead to the undoing of what has been gained towards equal status for women. For example, in order to avoid assertive or self aware women, western men may travel to the Far East or any place where they can exploit women, such as shop for wives or use women for pastime while on vacation. All these have health implications as well. Therefore, women living in freedom should be concerned with the human rights of someone including those they’ve never met.

8. If you could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing; what would it be?

If I could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing, it would be that no man is above the law.

I would like to thank you so much for taking the time to join me at the Round Table, Freweini! It has been a pleasure talking to you about African women, human rights and democracy. I hope you will join us again soon.

If you would like to learn more about the work that Eritreans in the Diaspora are doing to bring democracy to their country, Freweini recommends that you start at the National Conference for Democratic Change.

I’d love to hear your ideas on women, human rights and democracy. It IS a Round Table after all; so now it’s your turn to talk… Dive in and tell us your views!