Happy New Year! Remember… Nothing is Impossible

Most would agree that the New Year is the best time to sell salads and gym memberships and that by late January, most promises made over champagne in the early hours of January first are slowly chipped away to leave nothing but memories of what we hoped would be.

Like you, I have read many of those tips through the years like: write it down, tell a friend, find little ways to make yourself accountable, etc. But, when it comes down to it, it really isn’t a complicated formula.

In my house, we have a little way of reasoning which has often made my children wish that I had laryngitis. When a teenager enters the room with an excuse as to why they forgot their homework and couldn’t turn it in, or an elementary school aged child tries to explain how they didn’t have time to clean their room…. The response goes a little like this: “If the house was on fire and you had to clean the room before you could leave it to save yourself from burning… you’d have gotten it done.” Or, “if I had left a $100 bill on the table next to your homework and told you that you could only have it if your homework assignment was turned in to your English teacher on time; you would have turned it in.”

Needless to say my children cringe and wish I lived on a remote deserted island when I use this line of reasoning. But, I don’t feel too badly because I often use it on myself as well.

So, as we all ring in the New Year together this year, I won’t bother you with lists of ways to keep yourself on track or bore you motivational speeches on the merits of keeping your word to yourself because you are worth it. You know all of that already. You know the whys and how’s. As my son, R, says so often: “Nothing is impossible”.

What I’d like to do instead is share a few of the things I will be doing in 2015. Not things I hope to do, want to do or will try to do. Instead, things I will do. The biggest decision has been made already: These ARE things I find worth the sacrifice to make happen. So, they will happen.

1. Become fluent in a another language and attain a basic conversational level in 1 more
2. Unveil our exciting new project in late Spring 2015
3. Add a new cooperative to our Mama Afrika family
4. Choose healthy ingredients, amazing friends and always, always… choose joy, hope and love.

I’m excited to hear what great and exciting goals you have set for yourself this next year. I’d love to hear what places you are doing to visit, what ways you will walk out of this New Year better, healthier, more successful and more well-traveled than you are entered it.

Share. Then, we can meet throughout the year for you to tell me how much fun it is along the way!
I wish you all the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous New Year that you have ever had. And yet, I hope it is only the beginning of a bunch of even better years to come.

Blessings,
Mama

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Luba Art Featured at LACMA

I love museums. Of course, it’s a pleasure to see the renowned paintings such as the Mona Lisa or famous works like those of Renoir, Picasso or van Gogh. And, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing the sculptures created by artists like Bernini, Dalí or Michaelangelo?

But, I have an equally strong desire to see what the hands of artists from other parts of the world created. Despite my sincere appreciation for Western art forms; I would be leaving out most of the planet if I stopped there… what a sad thought!

One of the things I like most about art is its uncanny ability to tell the story of the culture it comes from and the era it was created in. Much more attractive than volumes of books on anthropology and often as informative. I can afford neither the time nor the money to travel every corner of the world. But, I can afford to spend a few hours touring a museum and learning about people from Papua New Guinea (home to our coffee of the month for January 2014!) or the Tonga islands (141 islands which make up the only Pacific kingdom never to fall to foreign rule) . I might not have the resources to jet off to Niger or India whenever the mood hits me; but I can pack a picnic, hop in the car and head to see a concert, hear a speaker or see a limited exhibit at a local museum.

So, recently, I did just that: packed a light lunch and headed off to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see some art done by the Luba people of the Congo. Due to the presence of art from the Luba in both museum and private collections in the West; many of you might recognize art of the Luba without knowing its origin. Its style is appreciated by African art collectors and if you’ve visited a large collection of African art in one of the museums of major cities like New York, London or Rome; you have certainly seen a Luba piece among the art.

The reason I went to LACMA specifically though was two-part: 1- to support their new initiative to showcase more African art in Los Angeles and to see a few pieces which rarely leave Brussels. I was not disappointed!

Here is a video which highlights the exhibit. It does an excellent job; so I’ll leave you with the video and these words… If you are in the Los Angeles area, go see the exhibit (exhibit open now through May 4, 2014)! It is definitely worth your time. Also, if you have children age 17 and under, LACMA has an incredible program called “Nexgen” which allows kids in FREE, yes free! They also have the ability to take an adult with them free of charge. The program costs nothing, just ask about it at the ticket counter, or sign up by using this link.

Pack a lunch if you are short on cash and eat at the park between LACMA and the la Brea Tar Pits, or treat yourself to lunch at the museum’s café. Either way, I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of hours… or all day if you have it.

Other African art worth seeing can be found throughout the museum’s permanent collection.

Please feel free to share information about your favorite African art museums or upcoming exhibitions that include African art.

Love,
Mama

Mama to One, Mama to All… Meet a few of “my” kids in Ghana

Ghanian child with babydoll on her backI’ve received hundreds of pictures over the years from our cooperatives in Africa as well as from those we’ve helped through your support.  But there is just something about photos like these that brings tears to my eyes every single time!

I have to admit I love getting photos from our cooperatives of their training sessions, the ladies getting paid for their hard work or just sitting around together laughing while they attend training courses or work together.  But the kids… oh the kids…

The whole class

As a mama, my heart has a special warm place in it for Africa’s children.  As I often say: “Mama to one, mama to all.”  So, meet a few of “my” beautiful children enjoying a few of the recent donations that were sent to their school in northern Ghana.  And most of all, thank YOU for your purchases which made this possible yet again.**

Oh, and if you are curious as to why we sent dolls and art supplies, be sure to check out my previous blog post about Black Dolls and Dreamers

Ghana dolls Standing proud

** Mama Afrika offers fair and ethically traded products and then donates a percentage of all proceeds to small local projects across Africa which are working to improve the lives of women and children.

Mama Visits the deYoung Museum in San Francisco

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I have been a huge fan of museums for as long as I can remember.  From big, busy classic favorites like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to smaller and lesser known museums like the Dapper Museum in Paris.  I love seeing the creativity, history and culture that is displayed in all its forms.

If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you probably know already that the Dapper Museum in Paris is my all-time favorite.  This is not because its collection is the largest in the world or because there are rare treasures there.  They do have a beautiful collection of pieces from across the African continent, they do have a charming little bookstore and café; but what they have that impresses me most is information!  For me, it is a great pleasure to see people walk through and learn more about the people and cultures that created the art on display.

Although it’s true that I studied African history, politics and language from some great professors while in university; I must be honest in saying that I have learned so much more since leaving the beautiful campus behind.

I have read stacks and stacks of books, magazines and periodicals over the years; but I must admit that there are two ways that I most love learning about Africa: museums and dialog.

Frankly, dialog is my favorite.  Each person who has shared their personal story with me, each interview I’ve conducted, well, they’ve all taught me so very much about African culture and history.  It is during conversations with Romuald’s beautiful mother from Cameroon, through a question and answer session with Dominic in Ghana or from one of the elders in my own family that I learn the real history and culture of my beloved continent.

But, in the absence of smiling faces and lively discussion, museums are a close runner-up.

I remember going to a museum in Paris which will remain unnamed.  It is hailed as being one of the best in Europe; yet I couldn’t stomach remaining there for over 20 minutes.  There was a lot of art from Africa.  Yet, the vast majority of the pieces had little tags near each piece that read something like this: “Woman with basket. Wood. 19th C.” My very young daughter kept asking me, “Mom, why don’t they know that is from Ghana?”  I was insulted, and deeply so. 

I looked around that museum and counted dozens of families walking through the rooms one by one, interested and ready to learn.  These families though, would instead get an experience that taught them very little.

I guess I’m a teacher at heart.  As much teacher as I am student… lifelong student.  After all, life is about learning, right?  I was so saddened to think of these people planning a day out with their children and of all of the things they could have done, they wanted to come and experience Africa through our beautiful and varied art forms.  Only to walk through a host of rooms which failed to do much except put art on a shelf behind glass.

Now that you know my world view where art and museums are concerned let me tell you this: If you are ever in San Francisco, go visit the deYoung Museum!!  I so thoroughly enjoyed my visit last week.

As an added bonus right now, you’ll get the extra treat of seeing a portion of the Vatican Museum’s religious art on display.  Most of that section contains pieces from a host of islands from the Pacific.  But, there are a few African pieces in the mix.  And, no matter what your views are on the Vatican; you must know one thing when it comes to their art collection: it is incredibly well labeled!  I have never been anywhere and seen such consistent, detailed and thorough informational cards.  The priests, monks and others who collected them clearly knew much about the pieces and the peoples who made them. 

I really enjoyed making comparisons between some of the masks from Polynesian islands and various regions of Africa.  And of course, seeing the African pieces was a treat.

But, even if the Vatican pieces are no longer on loan to the deYoung, you really should visit.  Their collection is large, informative and beautifully displayed.  When you are done, or if you need a break, they have a lovely area to sit and enjoy a meal at the café.  Located in the Golden Gate Park, it is a great environment to take your kids for a stroll or sit alone and read a book that you’ve gotten at the museum gift shop.

Who knows, maybe you’ll run into me there?  I definitely plan on returning!

When you get there, if you see a kind Caribbean gentleman at the front checking tickets, tell him that Mama said hello!

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.

Anene_Booysen_i2e

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.”

Bloom Where You Are Planted

“Bloom where you are planted.” –Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

When I first read this quote, I had no idea that it was initially written by St. Francis de Sales.  In fact, it was a regular old day in the Paris metro, when I saw a sticker placed on the dreary grey walls of the underground tunnel leading from one metro station to the other.  It first caught my eye because it was written in English and was printed in cheerful, bright colors.  For some reason it has stuck with me all these years.

When thinking about what to write for today’s blog post, my mind kept coming back to all of those men and women who are living difficult lives and yet smiling through it.  We all know them, be they a grandmother, neighbor or friend.  We meet them on the street or in the market and we already know their circumstances: difficulty finding a job, family member battling a tough disease, suffering depression or just struggling daily to make ends meet because they make very little at the only job they could secure for themselves.  But somehow, they manage to smile when they greet us; they ask us how we are doing and seem genuinely concerned.  They are the kind of people who do what they can with what they have.   Then, instead of complaining about the missing parts, they look for solid solutions and opportunities to improve their lot.

I’d like to thank them all, wherever they may be and most of all; I’d like them to know how much they mean to me.  You see, perseverance is a form of encouragement.  Doing the right thing is a way of encouraging others to do the same.  When I see a friend or stranger who clearly lives by the principle “Bloom where you are planted”; I am inspired to try too to make the best of the conditions I have.

I don’t write this to say that it is wrong to feel discouraged.  I understand completely that there are times that we feel like we are spinning our wheels and getting absolutely nowhere.  I know what it’s like to work on a project only to see that it isn’t growing as fast as I know it needs to.  There are times that I wonder what kind of impact one person can make on issues as broad as poverty, human rights or showing others the infinite possibilities there are for a continent as rich in resources and talent as Africa is.

Sunflowers

Yet, it seems that each time I find my mind entertaining these thoughts which enter like a cloud blocking the sunlight; that little light pierces through in the form of a person who is doing it: blooming where they are planted.  And by means of their tenacity, they inspire me to do the same.  They also remind me that a field of flowers is made up of single blooms which happen to be in the same location.

So, as we work to help others, let us also remember to help each other along the way.  I know how much it has helped me to know good people like Geoff, Nigel, Freweini, Neritia and the many others who inspire me to do what I can do and understand that it might not be enough to “change the world”; but that it does have some impact, even if just to be one of the many flowers which make up a field that is in full bloom.

Blessings,

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

Celebrating the 4th of July with Alexis La Pollo at Mama’s Round Table

I am so incredibly proud to have a guest at Mama’s Round Table that I can honestly tell you I love dearly, my daughter, Alexis La Pollo. Only 18 years old, she is a self-published author, president of her graduating class and someone you will certainly be hearing more about in the years to come.
As a member of the first generation of African from our family born in the United States, it seemed fitting that she be the guest at my table this 4th of July. I am her mother, so of course, there are lots of other things I could ask her about which are fun and interesting. But, this is Mama Afrika’s table; so don’t worry, we will stay on topic.
Hello Alexis and welcome to the Round Table. I know that you have read other interviews conducted at this table and I’d like to begin by welcoming you to this space which is so important to the future of Africa: A place where all viewpoints are welcome and respectful dialog is encouraged.
So, let’s get started:
1. Who are you? Can you describe yourself in a couple of phrases?
I am a daughter, sister, friend, and leader. I am African, Italian, French and American, all at the same time.
2. What does it mean to you to be African?
It means the world to me to be African, even though I may not look African in appearance it is a big part of me. Growing up I met plenty of Africans both in the US and in Europe and the bond that Africans share, whether you are from Senegal or Madagascar or whether you now live in Sweden or China is undeniable. Africans have built a strong community and a bond worldwide and I am privileged to be a part of that.
3. What does it mean to you to be American?
America, to me, is one of the greatest countries in the world. It is a beacon of freedom and hope to many around the world for good reason, it is a nation built on hard work, equality and diversity unmatched throughout the world. I feel proud when I tell people I am American, our nation may have made mistakes in the past, but we have overcome them and set a wonderful example for the rest of the world. I am proud to live in this land of opportunity.
4. Do you think that members of the African Diaspora, especially those born abroad, have a greater allegiance to their nation of birth or the nation of their ancestors’ roots?
In many ways I feel that it greatly depends on how close the person has remained to their roots; however, I also know that no matter how detached a person becomes from Africa while living abroad they still consider Africa their home. In this way, there will always be an allegiance to Africa that runs a little deeper than the newer bond they have with their adoptive country.
5. How do you imagine your life if you’d have been born in Eritrea instead of the U.S.?
I can truthfully say that my life would not be as great as it is not. Living in Europe and the US has given me the freedom to follow my dreams and forge my own path in the world. Living under an oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea would not have allowed me to voice my opinions, continue with my education the way I wanted to or even to be able to write my book. On top of this, living in Eritrea would mean being in fear of my government instead of being able to vote and give my opinions like I can here. Just being able to take part in the political process is not something I could have done in Eritrea.
6. What are some of the things that you think any young African can do to contribute to the betterment of Africa without necessarily dedicating their life to politics or running a non-profit organization?
One of my favorite quotes, by Margaret Mead, reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” As cliché as it sounds, small thoughtful acts done by everyone could really change everything. Donating your time, talents, or funds to an organization that you can see doing good in the world is a great start. Even spreading the world to your friends about the issues facing Africa today is a great help. The more people know about an issue, the easier it is to be solved. We cannot count on the media to spread the word for us, we must do it ourselves; and in this age of media and social networking it isn’t even difficult. Share a link, like a page, re-tweet something powerful, it is as simple as that. You may never know who will see it and be able to also contribute their time, talents or funds.
7. In what ways do you feel your African heritage has driven your goals for your own future?
I think that the main driving force in my choosing to major in International Relations has been my background. Being African in particular has made me really want to make a change in Africa through the political arena. I want to see the day that all countries, especially Eritrea, see the freedoms that I had the privilege in growing up with in America and I now plan on working towards that every day.
8. If I say “tiger mom” many think of high pressure Asian mothers which push their children to attain success in all things academic. If I say to you “lion mom” what do you think of?
Immediately I think of African mothers, though Asian mothers get a lot of the attention, African mothers are just as fierce. I grew up, as I’m sure most members of the diaspora have, hearing all about family that still lived in Africa. Every time I brought home a bad grade or misbehaved in some way I heard all about this cousin or that aunt who would kill to have the opportunities that I do in the west, and how it was wrong and disrespectful to them for me to squander those opportunities. I have not met many Africans, especially in my family, who have not risen up to every challenge and met every goal they set for themselves; not just for themselves but for those back home who never could.
9. OK, my signature question: “If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change any one thing for women and children, what would it be?”
I would stage fair and just elections for all oppressed countries so that the voices of the people, the ones who really know best for the country, can finally be heard.
10. Finally, please tell us all about your book and what made you write it.
My book, Patchwork, began as a school project in my senior year and grew into something bigger than I ever thought it would be. I, and many others, struggled with my identity as a child. Where was I really from if I had so many cultures as part of me? I was filled with questions, what really makes a person American in a nation comprised of immigrants? How strongly to others feel connected to their home countries? So I set out to interview immigrants to the US from all over the world. My journey, along with their interviews are what became the foundation for my book Patchwork.
Thank you Alexis for showing us a glimpse into that shadowy space where cultures blend.

I often talk about how important our youth are and how necessary it is to invest in them if we want to see a strong Africa. I hope that today as many Americans of African heritage celebrate freedom and liberty in this nation; we are able to take a moment to think about how to create a generation of African youth who have the ability to express themselves and their vision for their respective countries in a productive way. Our children, be they in Berlin or Boston, Beijing or Bamako… all have something to contribute to the future of Africa. Let us raise those living in the Diaspora to take what is good from where they live and find a way to incorporate it into Africa’s future in a way that respects our indigenous traditions and heritage.
Happy 235th Birthday America! And thanks most of all for giving me a safe place to raise and educate my children and for having provided me with opportunities that I’ve been blessed with during my time here. The U.S. has welcomed me and despite the glitches and needed improvements I see in this nation; I must say that today, along with millions of other people of African heritage, I am also proudly American.

Its Our 10 Year Anniversary!

10 Years Later…

 

Where does the time go? Despite spending the past few months getting ready for our 10th anniversary celebration; I still can’t seem to believe that I’ve been doing this for 10 years already! It sounds completely cliché I’m sure; but it is still true: It feels like yesterday that I got my first sample of baskets in the mail from Africa! 10 years… it’s crazy!

One of the 1st cooperatives Mama started working with (Ghana)

So, where has the time gone? Well, over the years, we’ve managed to rebuild houses, invest in tree planting, pay for the training of new cooperative members, send eyeglasses, school supplies and textbooks to countries across the continent. We’ve made donations to the elderly, the sick and to many schools. We have added new product categories and made so very many new friends.

I’ve been invited to speak and teach in local schools, international festivals and to groups like the Rotary Club. I’ve hugged cooperative members and dear friends like Paul from Uganda, Elizabeth from South Africa and been blessed with the cheerful attitude of now world-renowned artist Janet Akii-Bua of Uganda.

Over the years, I have answered questions such as “What is a dictator?” and yes, even offered help to the occasional German, Canadian or American high school or college student when they were stumped on their homework. I’ve listened to people’s excitement about their recent trip to Africa and heard tales of a passing conversation about an issue related to African women.

I’ve sold our products online, in a shop, at a booth on a military base, and yes once even from the trunk of my car (desperate times call for desperate measures… and this lady was desperate for a gift!).

We’ve increased our product lines and the number of countries we trade with. We’ve sold hundreds of baskets, pounds of chocolate, dozens and dozens of carvings and you know what? We are just getting started!

I’ve learned many lessons, made many great connections and even more dear friends. Yes, 10 years seems like such a long time… but I’m in this for the long haul. One woman at a time, one product at a time… we are going to relieve poverty and increase opportunity for African families.

Join me and our cooperatives for another 10 years of smiles, great African art, coffees, teas and chocolates. I promise you that you haven’t seen anything yet! We’re just getting warmed up!

Remember we can help African women live better lives: one sale at a time!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you so very much for your support over the last 10 years,

Love,

Mama

** This post was originally written for MamaAfrika.com ‘s Grand Re-Opening.  Be sure to stop by and see what else is new on the site!

My Quest for Africa in Europe Begins

Last week, we packed up most of the family, my giant puppy and 15 pieces of luggage and headed to France for the summer.  Once at LAX, I noticed something that I rarely pay any attention to; but picked up on immediately since deciding to document a bit of the Africa-Europe connection for the blog: African faces make up a part of the truly French experience.

Here is a small snippet to help you understand better:

When we reached the Air France counter at LAX, (our 4 carts stacked high with luggage in tow), I was greeted with the huge smile of a man who says: “Bonjour Madame! Ou allez-vous avec ce petite famille et un chien si beau?”[1]  Now, to those who are not francophone or who haven’t lived in France that would have been a nice airline employee asking if he could help.  But to me, who immediately recognized the accent and knew that generally speaking, that level of engagement with strangers is a no-no in French culture… I was secretly entering the France-Afrique connection a bit early.  He asked me where I was from and I knew instinctively that he didn’t mean what part of the US.  I answered Eritrea and he smiled even bigger.  You see, it was his job to tell me what counter to check in at, period.  And had he been most (there are always exceptions!) employees of Air France- or any other large company for that matter- he’d have done just that.  But, once he told me that I was his sister from the East, I understood.  From that point on, my family and I got a little extra kindness.  He even went to get tissues to literally wipe the drool from my puppy so that he “didn’t walk around embarrassing himself in front of the other dogs”.  I felt at home. Standing in that huge airport surrounded by hundreds of people passing this way and that… I was at home.

This kind North African was so gracious to my family and my giant puppy that you would have thought he’d invited us into his home for tea.  He petted the dog each time he passed by, made faces at our youngest daughter and gave our eldest a speech about finishing her studies before she even started to think about boys.  He was more like an uncle than a man working for an airline who just happened to be on duty when the doors to Terminal 2 opened.

Many people imagine France as a land of white Europeans who walk around the streets of Paris looking chic and smoking cigarettes.  Yes, that is a part of France.  But, like all things, France is multidimensional, layered and complex.  And this kind man from North Africa is a part of the France I know and love so much.  He is part of the African face of Europe.  Not the young thug who acts like an idiot on the to the train or metro, not the terrorist who goes off to Pakistan from London to join al Qaeda, not the man who forces his wife to wear a veil… but a smiling happy and kind man who calls France home and said to my husband as we walked away after thanking him for being the one who began our journey to France with such incredible kindness: “C’est normal après tout… entre Gaulois”.[2]

This experience marked the beginning of my quest for Africa in Europe… and it happened while still on American soil.

I’ll be blogging more of my adventures; so keep in touch!


[1] Translation: “Where are you taking your little family and such a beautiful dog?”

[2] An interesting reference to the special relationship between French natives; which he clearly felt despite his African origins.  He clearly felt completely tied to French culture, not just citizenship.