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.”

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