Letter from Mama to Mr. Mandela

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

July 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mandela,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mama Afrika

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

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

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

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

Interview with President Kagame of Rwanda, Part Two

Click here if you missed the first part of Mama’s interview with President Kagame.


6. “No man is an island.” What women in your life most shaped your world view and influenced you?

I have been influenced mostly by the injustice that I lived in my childhood and youth. There are women who worked hard in difficult circumstances – like the mothers in refugee camps who raised families in desperate conditions, and our female comrades fought beside us to liberate Rwanda. Their acts of courage and bravery are a continuing inspiration.  I greatly admire the women of Rwanda and how they have taken up the task of building a new country after total devastation – they are a big part of why Rwanda is where it is today. I also have a wonderful partner in my wife Jeannette, who works tirelessly through the Imbuto Foundation to educate and empower women and girls.

7. I would imagine that one of the biggest challenges to leading a nation which has seen the devastating effects of hate speech; is to then find a balance between freedom and restraint.  Considering Rwanda’s history, how have you walked the delicate line between respecting human rights such as freedom of speech and preventing hateful speech from again dividing your nation?

I think the answer has been in writing a comprehensive constitution. We looked at many constitutions and also involved citizens in determining what would serve them best, considering the experience they had just gone through and how they lived harmoniously together before colonial dislocation. Today we make sure that that constitution is strictly adhered to. Only those who do not understand today’s Rwanda and Rwandans, or those feel they have a right to influence how Rwanda should be governed, talk about lack of freedom of speech.

8. I’ve noticed a certain duality in your leadership style.  On the one hand, you have reached back to Rwanda’s traditions to implement solutions such as the Gacaca courts; yet you are also utilizing high-tech solutions like Twitter to communicate.  How do you think Africa in general, and Rwanda in particular, can best manage the natural conflict sometimes caused when tradition and new ideas meet?

I seek out the best of everything, in tradition and in modernity. I am relatively new to tweeting but I really like the way it allows me to talk directly to people all around the world about everything from African politics to Arsenal, my favourite football team. Similarly, the traditional Gacaca court system helped us try a huge number of genocide cases quickly but, more importantly, it also helped reconcile and unite Rwandans after an incredibly painful period in our history.

9. “Africa for Africans” is a phrase that is used by some to mean that Africa shouldn’t be “recolonized” by China.  For others, it means that Westerners shouldn’t be the ones that dictate the solutions to Africa’s problems.  Others use it to mean we should look invest in our African children in the hope that they will be our future problem solvers.  What does the phrase mean to you, Mr. President?

It means Africans determining their own destiny. We truly value the support and friendship with partner countries, including China and other countries in the West and elsewhere but ultimately, Africans alone must shape the future of this continent. By giving our children the best possible education and health facilities we are not only giving them the best start in life – but ensuring Africa’s continued dignity, development and transformation. This is the only way for us to be on equal footing with the rest of the world.

10. Please forgive me for asking such an unsophisticated question to a man of your status.  But, it has become a tradition here at Mama’s Round Table, and if you’ll allow it; I’d like to ask you the same question that I ask all of my guests: If you could wave a magic wand over Rwanda and change one thing; what would it be?

I would rid Rwanda of all poverty so that everyone, regardless of background or birth, were able to enjoy all the opportunities that this wonderful country, and our abundant continent hold.

Again, thank you so much Mr. President for your time and candor.  I am sure that no matter where people stand on the issues that we’ve discussed, they would join me in thanking you for sharing your time, views and opinions with us.  As for me, I look forward to another 10 years of work with the wonderful people of Rwanda.  May God bless your beautiful nation with a wonderful and prosperous future.

Feel free to share your views with us in the comments section below. This is a round table after all and all voices are welcome!



Lessons From My Broken Nose

I hit my nose on Sunday. OK, to be more precise I got hit in the nose on Sunday… hard enough to break it. I’d love to tell you a story about how I took up semi-professional boxing; or that I was fighting with a bear in order to save a little girl’s life. But the reality is: it was a simple case of someone bumping their head into mine, a loud cracking noise, followed by lots of pain and a nasty little concussion.

I’m sure that by now, you are wondering why on earth I’m telling you this story. After all, you come to this blog for information about Africa or food or fair trade. Why would you care (other than the fact that I’m sure you are just generally a caring soul), what the condition of my little nose is today? Well, you’ll have to follow me forward to my visit to my neighbor’s house to know. I popped into visit her yesterday morning after spending most of the morning dizzy and in bed. I casually mentioned my concussion so that she knew that I wasn’t drunk at 9am; and she said: “Wow, isn’t this your 3rd time now?!” (It is; but I won’t bore you with the details; other than to say I was caught off guard by a little girl… twice… in the past!) She continued: “Once you break your nose, you have to be really careful for life. It is incredibly easy to break again.”

This is going to sound really stupid; but I never knew that. Sure, I knew it about bones. Rather, I knew that some people “had problems” with a formerly broken ankle or knee for years afterward. That some of them call it their “weak ankle” for life. But, somehow I thought that it was something to do with the severity of the break. And besides, it’s just cartilage in your nose, right? Here I was thinking someone had put juju (voodoo) or an ancient Indian curse on my poor little nose. Nice to know it isn’t the case!

Again, what does this have to do with Africa? Well this morning, now that my head is feeling a little better, I started thinking about the parallels. Africa has been “broken”. Colonialism, slavery, apartheid, dictatorships, AIDS… the list goes on. But, what do we do now? We can sit and complain about how it isn’t fair. We can tell ourselves that someone has clearly put a magic spell or curse on our continent. We can talk about how unlucky we are and how much life “owes us” because we’ve had an undue amount of hardship. We could do any of that and many would say that we’d be completely within our right to. I though, would disagree.

I think that part of our problem in Africa (or in much of it) is that we have reacted and continue to react. We don’t plan. The problem is that reaction implies that someone else is acting. The actor, the one who makes the initial decisions, is the leader… we are the followers. Like a dance where you allow the other to lead. We are allowing ourselves to be lead into the future. And in some cases, we are like bulls with a ring in their noses (their already broken ones), with a master who holds the chain attached to that ring leading us down the path to slaughter.

We have allowed our leadership to sell off our resources (one word: China); to continue to steep us in hatred (see: Zimbabwe); or to convince us that as long as we have someone outside of the country who can send us money to eat, all is well (see: Eritrea). But all is not well. Those of our children who are becoming educated are using their new skills to build someone else’s empire be it in Oslo, London, Paris or New York. We continue our mass exoduses from countries like Ethiopia, Somalia or Senegal in order become the workforce (often illegal) of another nation. We tolerate living without democracy because our dictator du jour tells us we aren’t ready for it yet or that democracy is a Western concept. Rubbish! There has never been a more democratic place than Africa. We had chiefs selected by their communities when Europe had kings. We had participation of the people when America’s colonies were still in the planning stages of their revolution. Let us learn our histories before we were colonialized. We have known glory. We seem interested in forgetting all of our history before colonialism. That is our error.

But, I’d like to suggest a more interesting option. Let us admit our weakness and our challenges and move forward. I know now that my nose is more likely to break in the future (at least the near future). We know that Africa is still fragile and able to be broken again if we aren’t careful in our planning. Does this mean we put our hands up in the air and quit? We know that hundreds of years of colonialism have left their scars on our nations. Of course, how could it not? We know that in places like South Africa or Zimbabwe, where we only recently regained our freedom from colonial rule, the “breaks” were even more severe. But, that should mean that we plan with even greater care. It should mean that instead of putting ourselves in harm’s way out of some reactionary desire to hurt the one that “broke us”; we should plan methodically to ensure that our future’s mean we are safe and happy.

I think it is way past time for us to say “Yes, we are fragile; but we have been strong before and can do it again with careful planning.” With time, we will one day forget we were ever injured. It will just be ancient history in our great-grandchildren’s history books. And most of all, they will be proud of what we were able to build for them.