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

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.

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.”

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.

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

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

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

Why Africa Day Matters

Africa mapI was pleasantly surprised to see so much talk about Africa Day today (#AfricaDay is even a trending topic on Twitter).  After all, it used to be something that only people who were interested in African politics even knew existed.  One question I keep getting asked today though is: What is it and why do we need an Africa Day?  This post is my reply:

Let us begin by defining the terms.  What is Africa Day? It is not another “Black History Month”!  It is a celebration of the formation of the Organization of African Unity, (OAU), on May 25th, 1963.  Although the OAU no longer exists; it was the predecessor to the current African Union (AU).  Why should we care about the OAU you might ask?  Well, the first meeting of the OAU was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the 30 leaders of Africa’s newly independent states (all but Ethiopia had just shed the shackles of colonialism) met to set common goals.  With this meeting, Africa finally had its destiny in its own hands and our leaders decided to work collectively to accomplish the goal of prosperity for the continent.  Africa Day is at its heart, not only the celebration of the founding of the OAU; but the celebration of empowerment and unity.  Many years before the European Union existed; the African continent was already working toward common goals and with the greater African vision in mind.

Realistically, I have to admit that the OAU/AU was and is far from perfect!  The list of their errors is long and we should hold them accountable for each and every of them.  But, there is no denying that their vision is a good one: Africans united to build a better future.  It is only through cooperation both regionally and continentally that we will advance to the levels that we are capable of!  We are a rich continent both in resources and human capacity for innovation.

Though diverse in language, cultures, appearance, tradition and religion, Africans have much in common as well.  Africa Day is a reminder that we should continue to forge forward in our daily job of building a stronger, healthier, prosperous future for all of Africa’s children.  It is a reminder that we need to remember the commonality we share instead of allowing others to tell us how different we are.  It is a reminder that like members of a large, extended family, we should remember always that we are sisters and brothers before we are individuals.  Africa Day serves to push us in the direction of remembering our common roots instead of our individual preferences.

I have been African since my birth, I was born in Africa (Eritrea to be precise), I am a scholar of African politics and I’ve worked (via MamaAfrika) for African women and children in a dozen countries for 10 years now.  I think it’s fair to say that I am African in body and soul.   But, I remember that I can only as proud as I am of being an African woman because of all of the sacrifice, leadership and example of millions of other Africans throughout the continent.  It is only because of hard-working farmers in Swaziland, fisherman in Senegal, village elders in Zaire, women working their vegetable stalls in Kigali with a baby on their hip, ancient kings and queens of long-dissolved African empires and current kings like those in Ashanti lands, Rwandan kids forming IT start-ups, the vision of men like my grandfather Araya… my pride comes because of their work, their dignity, their kindness, their faith and their desire to build a stronger Africa.

My hope is that this Africa Day, like all of the other 364 days of the year; I can work to accomplish the kinds of things that make the Africans who are part of Mama Afrika’s family proud to be African because of something I’ve done, a choice I’ve made or a contribution I’ve been able to make to their lives or the lives of others on the continent.

The specific things that the African Union does or doesn’t do are not a reason to celebrate Africa Day.  Let’s face it; they are simply nothing when you count the potential (still dormant in many places) of the millions of individual African men, women and children.  I will dance and sing today because I love the idea of focusing on that potential and knowing that with the right choices… we can all do our parts to awake that sleeping potential.  When that potential is unleashed, we will be a continent like no one is even capable of imagining today: strong, unified, and blending the wisdom and traditions of our ancestors and the optimism and innovation of our children!

Africa day matters to me because Africa matters to me.

Happy Africa Day everyone!

Love,

Mama

Heroism is a More Common Trait Than You Know

April 7th is the International Day for Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.  If you read about Africa in the news, you’ll certainly find lots of reminders of the horrible events of those infamous days in 1994.  You’ll probably read a lot about tragedy, death, heartbreak and loss.  You’ll hear about generations of rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi, about past genocides and the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

I don’t want to give a history lesson here; but I think that it is important to put things into their proper perspective as well.  There is no Hutu or Tutsi.  There are Rwandan people.  These quasi-scientific terms were constructed (in their modern form) by Belgian “scientists” who tried to put simplistic labels on a complex culture.  As happened all too often in colonial history, white rulers didn’t understand (nor did they care to) local cultures, ethnic groups or indigenous systems of rule.  So, they created categories which made sense to them.  Rwandans were categorized by facial features and those who most resembled whites won.  It is as simple and sick as that.  Tutsi came to mean tall with fine features and Hutu came to mean those with more “Negro” features.

The truth of the matter is that for Rwandans, the terms had been economic in nature.  Both groups spoke the same language, had the same religions, intermarried and lived not just side by side; but together.  Hutu married Tutsi and vice-versa with no stigma attached.

It is the social Darwinist pseudo-scientists who created the hell suffered by the millions of beautiful Rwandan people so many years later.  By instituting IDs which separated the two categories of people and attaching power and status to these groupings, they decided the fate of a nation.

I want it made clear that I am not blaming the average Belgian man or woman who is sitting in Liege or Brussels today reading this blog post.  I do though think that the most important part of dialog is honesty.  It is only through honesty that we can move forward and build a strong Africa.  So, now that we have the truth on the table, I think it will help to frame the Rwanda that I know more clearly.

Over the past 10 years, I have met some of the most wonderful Rwandan women and girls.  Most of these women are genocide survivors in one way or another.  Some are girls born from rape during the genocide.  Initially, it is how I saw them: as victims.  But, they are not victims!  I don’t mean to say this in the glib “they aren’t victims, they are survivors” kind of way that we hear so often.

Let me be precise: They are not victims, they are heroines.  These women reacted to their horrible circumstances with the kind of grace, honor and integrity that most of us only read about in fairytales.  They might be poor or physically disabled; but they are beacons for the rest of the world.  Their ability to overcome such circumstances is a great feat.  But, they didn’t stop there.  They didn’t want to just survive.  They wanted to help others survive.  They didn’t want to just eat; they wanted to ensure their neighbors had food too.

Women like Béatrice Mukansinga, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Jaqueline Murekatete and thousands of others whose names we might never hear…. Each of them has played an integral role in the healing of their nation.  They have lent their voices, their homes, their hands and their courage to help other women and children rebuild their lives and their nation.

I must, as an African woman, give credit to the leadership of Paul Kagame who insisted as soon as he took power that the old labels would have to be shed, put back into the box they came from.  It is so easy to use name-calling and accusations to keep power.  We see it not only across the African continent; but throughout the world: Democrats are evil and lazy. Republicans hate the poor and are devils.  The followers of this faction are seen murdering those of another.  In the case of Rwanda, it would have been so very easy to seek vengeance above all else.  Yet, the Rwandan people instead said “No more!”   This decision was made despite receiving no help from the rest of the world, despite the fact that their nation had no infrastructure left and no courts to try offenders in and yes, despite the blood still running in the streets and the bodies still littering the towns and countryside.  Instead, they decided to return to the traditional values, ideals and courts of their common ancestors.

Rwandan people are a beacon for all of Africa.  We’ve seen genocides in many nations (Cambodia, Armenia, Darfur, and Germany are but a few examples).  We all clearly understand the potential for evil in man.  But, Rwandans are my heroes; because they showed us the beauty that humankind is capable of, even under the most horrid of circumstances.  And to the people of Rwanda, to my sisters whom I love so, I will be eternally grateful.

I know so many who work so hard against really difficult odds like post-traumatic stress syndrome, amputated limbs and broken hearts… just to build something beautiful for the children they have taken in after losing their own.  These women are my heroes.  Remember them today and please join me in taking a moment today to say a prayer for them to have the strength to continue working toward their dream of building a strong, safe and happy life for themselves and their children.

A piece of my heart belongs to the Rwandan people. God bless them!

Mama

If you want to join these courageous, heroic Rwandan women to accomplish their dreams, stop by MamaAfrika.com and learn how!

My silence explained… (via Sir Nigel’s Journey…)

Last year, Nigel was a guest at Mama’s Round Table and promised to keep us updated on his progress after moving back to Zimbabwe from the U.K.. Its been a couple of months since his move home and now he’s found the time to tell us what he’s been up to.

I found his blog post an interesting reminder that day to day life often puts politics into perspective, even if politics does greatly influence one’s daily life in the end.

Thanks Nigel! And keep the updates coming 🙂

Love, Mama

I haven’t blogged properly in almost 2 months now. And if you’re wondering why the silence – sadly and unfortunately I wasn’t kidnapped by ‘’Mugar-be’s Firing Squad’’ as reported on SKY News late last week! I simply took some time out from writing to fully appreciate and familiarise myself with my ‘new’ surroundings. I’ve moved back home now and I’ve spent the majority of my time settling in, spending time with family, networking, adjusting to my … Read More

via Sir Nigel’s Journey…