Peace Isn’t Bought, It’s Built

photos des orphelines qui etudient les metiera

I read an article yesterday concerning the World Bank’s latest promise to fix Africa through another of its spending sprees.  This latest round promises $1 billion to help build peace through development in the Great Lakes region.

Let me begin by saying that development can be a piece of the puzzle and when development projects are responsibly planned and designed to be sustainable; they are a game changer.  Health, education and economic development programs are incredibly important components in the building of nations. 

A peaceful environment clearly lends itself better to progress and a better overall result. I don’t think that many people would argue against that.  Nor, would most people disagree if told that funding is a very important part of many projects success.  Development projects are essential and funding matters.  But neither of those things creates peace.

I am a believer in two things: peace and dialog.  I think that true peace is in fact only possible through dialog, open and honest dialog.  So, here is my contribution to the dialog concerning peace building:

Rwandan people have already shown us the way, both to horror and lasting peace.  I won’t go into the reasons for, or the details of, the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  Not due to a lack of knowledge; but because I want to focus on the “after” instead of the “before”.  Some of us know the story of Rwanda before the genocide, most of us know the story during… but here is an aspect of the after that many don’t know.

One of the things that surprised me most when I learned about the work that our partner in Rwanda was doing, when I first connected with them a decade ago, was this: The cooperative members were women who had gotten together to help one another survive the aftermath of the genocide.  They were daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  They were related to offenders and survivors.  They were women who had been raped during those terrible days in April and they were those who took in young children whose parents didn’t survive.  Some were orphans with no family; some were women who took in as many as six children who had nowhere else to turn.  Some had lost everything and others knew it was because of their family members that others had lost their lives.

But most impressive was the fact that they were working together.  They weren’t living with hate and a desire for vengeance.  Not to mean that many of these women didn’t have long-lasting and incredibly deep wounds.  Let’s face it, regardless of who you were or what your particular story was in Rwanda during that period; you were dealing with severe trauma.  There was no one left unaffected.  Rwanda was in essence, a nation dealing with collective post-traumatic stress.

What was so incredibly impressive was the spirit with which the women of Rwanda faced their problems: by connecting with other women and working to find solutions together.  I cannot begin to express how honored I am to work with the women of Rwanda.  Not just because their art is beautiful or because of their ability to overcome such immense challenges; but due to their sincerity and love in helping one another move forward.

THAT my friends, is where peace is built: in the direct relationships with each other.  It isn’t created in bureaucracies or even around the table at “peace talks”.  True peace is created person to person.  It is created in learning that we are connected at our roots.  It comes from extending our hand and taking a chance on the other.  It comes from sharing and praying and seeing each other through new eyes.

Rwandans had labels like Hutu and Tutsi bastardized during colonialism.  Initially forced, they then adopted the new meanings of these words and allowed them to grow in their hearts.  They allowed themselves to feel separate, some even hate-filled.

Ultimately though, what it took were women, strong and courageous women.  These women decided to link arms with each other, weave baskets together, raise children together, go to counseling together and build a nation based on their identity as mothers, daughters and grandmothers… as Rwandans.

The politicians, NGOs and large international organizations did nothing if not let Rwanda down when it mattered most.  That is a historical fact.  But what ultimately rebuilt that nation to the point it is now is its women.  Women united in love and faith:  One basket at a time, one banana fiber card at a time, one prayer at a time and one small gesture of support at a time.

I’d ask that the next time you hear about these billion dollar deals and investments in peace, you remember the women of Rwanda.  The next time you hear about a group of men sitting around a table negotiating peace for a nation, you think of the women of Rwanda.  The next time you read about women’s rights being stripped away and their lack of inclusion in the peace building process… remember Rwandan women.  They have showed us how to create peace.  Now it’s up to us to listen and apply the lessons.

Mama Afrika is so incredibly proud to work with true peace builders.  Most of all, I am motivated and encouraged by their ability to overcome their own hardships by working with others to overcome theirs.

I am not from Rwanda.  But as a woman who highly prizes peace… I too am a Rwandan. 

Love, Mama.

The Sankofa bird and the Mossi King of Burkina Faso

One of my favorite sculptures, carved by the master carvers that we work with in the Asante kingdom of Ghana, is the Sankofa bird.  I bought one for myself and consider it one of the nicest pieces in my collection.  It is a pretty piece, no doubt.  But the reason I love it so much is that it is a piece of African wisdom.

A commonly used Adinkra symbol of the Akan people of West Africa, the Sankofa bird stands with her feet planted firmly in the present, facing the future, while collecting seeds of wisdom from the past.

Although many people say that African history was transmitted only through oral tradition, there are many cultures in which stories are told through imagery. The Sankofa bird has her feet planted firmly forward facing the future.  Her head though, is turned back as she takes something from her back: a seed of wisdom from her past, the collective past, the past of her people.  The lesson is probably already very apparent to you; but I’ll put it as succinctly as it has been explained to me.  The Sankofa bird reminds us to face the future without hesitation, while remembering the past and keeping the lessons of your past and the wisdom of your ancestors in mind.
I talk to you about the Sankofa bird because it is an essential lesson for Africa at large. We must look to our collective past and take those lessons which can help us to build a strong future.  We come from one of the largest continents on Earth and definitely one of the richest; so, our natural resources and geography are always worth mentioning.  But, for me, the richest part of Africa is our people and our cultural history and present.
Here is a small example from the small African nation of Burkina Faso:
Early every Friday morning in the capital city of Ouagadougou, leaders travel to the compound of the Moro Naba chief where they are seated in order of their rank.  The Moro Naba, king of the Mossi people,  then appears wearing red and with a horse (red is the color of a warrior).  When the cannon is fired, the most senior of the chiefs pledge allegiance and the Moro Naba leaves. Then, the chiefs wait until the Moro Naba returns wearing white, a color symbolizing peace.  Traditional beverages like beer and kola nut beverages are now served and then the Moro Naba makes decisions on issues facing his court.

Vintage postcard, circa 1910. The Moro Naba, king of the Mossi people in Ouagadougou, now in Burkina Faso. (Photo courtesy of AdireAfricanTextiles.blogspot.com)

Spectators might see a colorful ceremony with important African chiefs; but those who take the time to learn the story behind this tradition will soon understand that it is one of the most simplistic and wonderful expressions of indigenous African diplomacy there is.
Why? Why does the king wake up early each morning to face this group of leaders?  The story goes much like this: Many years ago, a rival group was said to have stolen a piece of great significance to the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso.  The Moro Naba, was prepared to go to war over the issue.  But, the local chiefs and leaders came to ask him to maintain peace despite the problem at hand.  He, as a king who respected the wishes of his people, respected their wishes and opted for a peaceful solution.  Therefore, this ceremony is a daily reminder of the king’s relationship with his people: they show respect to him by arriving daily to greet him and bring their issues to the court to be settled and he, in turn reminds them (via the change of clothes) that he is there to serve the wishes of the people in his kingdom.

Just imagine if the leader of a Western nation arrived each day to ask the people, in essence, if they wanted to acknowledge him (or her) another day to lead their nation.  Imagine the elders and respected leadership having a direct line to the head of a nation and each showing daily that they have a sustained confidence in the other.
Frankly, I think that as we all wake up tomorrow morning, we should think of the beautiful example of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and ask ourselves what we can do to create our own governmental system to reflect just a little of its truly democratic spirit.  Is it perfect?  Certainly not.  However, I think that through this colorful and beautifully simple ceremony, each day all of Africa (and the world at large) can see a glimpse of the fact that democracy, in its truest form, IS an African concept… one simply has to look and ask enough questions about the pageantry to understand it.

Dear Africa, the next time you hear that “democracy is a construct of the West”, don’t listen! Democracy is as much a part of Africa as the many other beautiful parts of our diverse cultural heritage. Let us be like the Sankofa bird and gather (and share) our seeds of wisdom from our ancestors and our collective history; so that we can use them to walk into a brilliant future.

Love,

Mama

Racism: Redefining the Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mama