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.

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Mama’s After Thanksgiving Sale

Now that you’ve had your fill of turkey, watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and laughed at the dinner table with family and friends… its time to head over to Mama’s After-Thanksgiving sale.

It’s true, working through that list of gifts to buy can be stressful for a lot of people and it isn’t always easy to do it while living on a budget.  So, why not take a break from it all, sip some of our delicious Red Bush Tea and listen to your favorite music while browsing through the many items we have discounted (some up to 50%!)  You’ll get to avoid the crowds at the shopping mall AND you’ll be helping some great African women feed their families this holiday season.
Whether you’re getting gifts for Hanukkah, Christmas presents or putting a few things away for Kwanza… you can keep the true spirit of the holiday season because you’ll be giving gifts that give twice: Once to the person you offer them to, and again to the women who make them.  Hey wait, I almost forgot!  You’ll also be giving a built-in donation to our fabulous friends in Rwanda too!  Wow, 3 gifts in 1… who wouldn’t love that?!

 

A portion of all sales from November and December will go to assist our friends in Rwanda who are working to expand the number of women and families that they serve by adding over 500+ women to the already hundreds of women and orphans that they assist!  Although it was initially started to help genocide survivors (primarily women and children) to receive trauma counseling, job training and other forms of direct assistance; they now also help those with or (caring for those with) HIV-AIDS.  As you may know, women are most greatly affected in the HIV epidemic as they are the caretakers in a family.

Mbwira Ndumva is now working on completely renovating a small building so that they can offer additional job training, counseling and other services to those suffering from or caring for family members with HIV.

 

So, this holiday season, we respectfully ask that you remember those who really need you: the women of Rwanda.  You’ll be able to offer a great gift such as our African coffees, chocolates or a beautiful basket PLUS you’ll help a woman in need to provide a better life for herself and her family.  And let’s face it, there really is nothing that feels better than knowing you stepped up to help a woman who is working hard to help herself.  Mama is convinced that sustainable development like this job training program which will lead to more ethical trade in Africa is the only way to permanently alleviate poverty in Africa and to help African children have a better future.

 

Join us in saying “We love you.” through your order or donation.  We won’t end poverty this year; but we sure can work to alleviate it… one order at a time!

 

Our friends at Mbwira Ndumva thank you and so do I.

 

Love,

Mama

Resilient Rwandan Women Inspire Me!

Here, girls train to make traditional banana leaf fiber art

It has been a little over 10 years since I first heard from Béatrice of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda. I, like many of you, had seen the horrific and saddening images of Rwanda during the genocide in 1994.  Like most people, I wondered how life could ever return to normal for those who survived such large-scale devastation. Many of us also asked how in the world those who were lucky enough to survive would be able to find the courage to go on, much less to rebuild a nation.

But one thing is true of the Rwandan people: they did not lose hope! They almost immediately began working to move forward and build new lives. Mothers who lost their children in the genocide decided to become caretakers to orphans who lost their parents in the same tragic way. Sisters, aunts and grandmothers began taking in their young relatives. Many others showed an act of love by doing the same selfless gesture with strangers’ children. The already poor offered to make even greater sacrifices to welcome those who were in need.

For over 10 years now, the Mbwira Ndumva Initiative has been working with women day in and day out to: teach them marketable skills, help them heal both physically and psychologically, and to find the hope and the means to start rebuilding the social fabric which was torn apart during the months of mayhem and killing: the family. The women who make up the initiative are loving and hard-working women who are doing their best to ensure a better future for Rwanda’s women and children.

As the years went by, they offered hope to women and children who had lost everything. Eventually, they implemented a program (now suspended due to a lack of donors), which provided microloans to women for a period of one year. This $25 allowed beneficiaries to start new lives for themselves through training and the purchase of the necessary items to start their own businesses. Mama Afrika joins Mbwira Ndumva in praying that it is able to be launched again someday soon.

When Mama first started buying cards and donating funds to this incredible organization, their focus was on women and orphans of the 1994 genocide. Today, in addition to the 700 members that they work to support; there are now an additional 500 women with HIV or AIDS, over 40 young orphan girls and 40 very poor children who also depend on this organization for things such as education, professional training and counseling. They would love your help in caring for some of Rwanda’s women and children.

Your donation to their efforts will allow them to continue to serve the greatest number of people possible. And you can feel good about purchases made at MamaAfrika.com because Mama is going to stay with this great group of women until there are no more Rwandan women and children in need. We look forward to the day when the word “Rwanda” makes people think of prosperity, peace and an example of how empowered women make all of the difference between poverty and prosperity. In all honesty, I can imagine that day clearly and I’m sure that with your help; we’ll get there. After all, the Rwandan women we know are such hard working, creative women that with a little help… it’s inevitable!

If you make a monetary donation, you can select Mbwira Ndumva and Mama will get 100% of your donation to them so that they can continue the incredible work that they are doing!
We sell their Christmas cards  Now, we hope that, with your help, we’ll have a “Sold Out” soon!

Love,

Mama

Love is Not a Big Thing; It’s a Million Little Things

I’ve spent time on this blog talking about politics, sustainable development, women’s issues, AIDS and even recipes.  I’ve interviewed people I really respect like Freweini Ghebresadick and I’ve even interviewed world leaders like President Kagame of Rwanda.  But, today I want to talk about something simple, yet completely transformational: Love.  Without it, life can be a dark place to be.  With it, all things are possible.
Yesterday, I passed the day playing tourist with my family.  When I entered a little shop, I noticed that they sold lots of those little signs that you hang here or there which have sayings about life on them.  You know.  The ones like “Friends gather here”, “Live, laugh, love” and others like that.  But then I saw one which really caught my eye and made me think of Africa: “Love is not a big thing; it’s a million little things”.  Granted, I’m sure that the person who painted that little sign had something else in mind when they painted it; but life is about perspective, isn’t it?  And for me, it was the inspiration for this blog post.

I’m often asked why I have dedicated so many years of my life to Africa.  I have a decent education and could have done a lot of other jobs that pay a pretty good salary after all, right?  I speak a couple of languages, have traveled to a few countries and have been offered a job or two along the way.  But, why do I continue to work for virtually nothing in order to help children, most of whom I’ve never met in person?  Why have I been up burning the midnight oil worried about sales, working on new projects, creating new partnerships or praying for families in Rwanda, Ghana or Lesotho?
In short, what gives me such a deep love of Africa?  Well, love is not a big thing; it’s a million little things.  It’s the smiling faces of women and children like Janet and her son in Kampala.  It’s the pain in the hearts and voices of our cooperative members in Lesotho who have lost so many family members and friends over the years to AIDS.  It’s reading a letter from girls in Rwanda whose lives have been changed so much because their adoptive mothers could put food on the table… and knowing how much a little thing like selling a pack of their greeting cards changes for them after losing everyone in the genocide years ago.  Love is hundreds of sales made to hundreds of people who wanted to do their part after hearing about the weavers, carvers, farmers and other cooperative members we work with.
Love is Cori doing her shopping for her nieces and nephews each Christmas to help them feel tied to their father’s native country of Ghana.  It’s not a giant check for $10,000; but it is the million times she talks about fair trade with her friends and family, sips a cup of our Red Bush Tea or is sincerely excited to see what kind of Christmas ornaments our cooperative in Uganda created this year.  You see, Cori’s million little things are what will change Africa’s future.  Each seemingly small gest adds up to what matters: Love.
I used to love the saying: Love is a verb.  I still do I guess.  But, now that I’ve heard this new quote, I think I prefer it even more.  After all, how is a great romance lived if not through a million little memories which total up to a big love?  How do you raise children, except through a million little conversations, gestures, meals and acts of kindness?  In the end, they total a big experience called parenthood.  Friendships, the kinds that really matter to us, are made up of millions of small cups of tea shared and all of those many moments lost in laughter, tears, support and concern.  It isn’t because she bought you a giant gift at Hanukkah or because she lent you a lot of money when you really needed it.  Sure, those things are helpful and even memorable.  But, real friendships are built on a million little things.  Just as we look back on those little things when we reach the end of our life; just as we can’t make bread without that little pinch of salt… life is made of the small things.
I don’t love my children simply because I gave birth to them.  I love each of them because of their own “million little things”: the way #1 works so hard, yet plays so hard; the way #2 reminds me of old African storytellers and has the beauty of a Roman goddess; the way #3 is talented beyond measure and the way that little #4 has courage and strength way beyond her very young age.  I could go on listing for hours.  My love for Africa is no different.
I love Africa because of the deserts crossed regularly by the Tuareg families headed by people like Boubacar, who taught me so much about the art of leather-work and jewelry we occasionally carry.  I love Africa for because of the beauty of Zulu women like Elizabeth, when her eyes light up as she laughs. My love for Africa comes from knowing how eloquent the Ghanaian’s like Dominic are when they speak.  The style is absolutely charming every time and often makes me think of the great orators of history.  None of that rushed, hurried, get-to-the-point kind of conversation had in the West; but instead, almost prose inspired ways of saying “How are you Sister, since we last spoke?” in a way that only someone from Ghana can.  I love Africa for the incredible history in places like Lalibela, Ethiopia and the breathtaking beauty of its ancient Coptic churches. I love Africa for its diversity: of ethnicity, of cultures, of religions, of geography of foods, of people.  I love Africa for the ancient empires like that of the Great Zimbabwe as much as for the modern day Zimbabweans who grow those delicious beans in my daily cup of coffee.

Carved out of rock, then hollowed out to form a beautiful Coptic Orthodox church, Lalibela Ethiopia is one of many reasons I love Africa.

Even if there might be some “big ones” that others site, I love Africa for a million little reasons.  What are a couple of your million little reasons to love Africa?  I’d love to hear them!

Love, Mama

Its Our 10 Year Anniversary!

10 Years Later…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama

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

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!

International Women’s Day: Support or Discrimination?

There are a few questions that are posed to me often when I’m invited to speak about the women’s cooperatives that I work with.  One of these concerns the fact that we trade exclusively with women’s cooperatives.  It is asked in a myriad of ways; but its core is the same.  Why would I choose to focus on women when men are also living in poverty?  Are girl children really of more value and worth investing in more than young boys?  Why does Mama insist that at least 80% of the cooperative members are women; don’t men need work too?

First of all, I’d like to say that there is certain compassion and a sense of equality implied in the question that is both honorable and to be applauded.  But, I think that it is incredibly important to put this into its proper perspective.  Here is a quote that states the real situation for many African (and other) women on the ground:

“Six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are women who must, as the primary family caretakers and producers of food, shoulder the burden of tilling land, grinding grain, carrying water and cooking. This is no easy burden. In Kenya, women can burn up to 85 percent of their daily calorie intake just fetching water.

Yet some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. This is one reason why women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population but own only one percent of the world’s wealth,” (UN Development Program).

You see, it isn’t about competition between the sexes or putting men under women in status or importance.  For me, it is about two things in essence: leveling the playing field and giving families and communities a better chance by investing where we’ve seen that it pays off the best.  I won’t enter a discussion accusing men of this or that; frankly I don’t see the point of it.  I could begin listing statistics which talk about the rates of spousal abuse, etc.; but I don’t see what is gained in it.  After all, I am an African woman who has a son, a brother, uncles and cousins who are all wonderful, generous African men.  I don’t see that there is much benefit in painting a negative image of African men in a world where Black men in general already have certain stereotypes that I’d love to see changed.

On the other hand, anyone who knows me will tell you that I am the kind of person who believes in saying things as they are: directly and honestly (sometimes to a fault).  For ten years now, I have been working with African women’s cooperatives and other organizations (run and managed by women) which are working to improve the lives of women most in need.  I also know the fabric of African society is woven by women.  It is their ability to network, share and focus on others that makes them the group that I reach out to first.

For years now, I’ve seen African women do what they do best: cooperate for the collective good.  When people ask me why Mama doesn’t give donations to large organizations which already have programs in the countries we work in, I tell them that I prefer to work with small-women run organizations which know how to “turn a dollar into five”.  Somehow, like Jesus multiplying the loaves; African women seem able to produce miracles.

I’ve seen it with the hundreds of women in Rwanda who took in 5 or 10 orphans at a time after themselves losing their entire families in the genocide.  I’ve heard it from women like Elizabeth in South Africa who talked to me years ago about how she only has chicken bones to boil and make broth; but still shares it with the children in the village whose mothers have even less.  I know it because of the countless women who walk hours each day to collect water for their children, work in the hot African sun to grow their food, weave baskets during the dry season in Ghana to supplement their income and work hard despite the fact that they have AIDS or malaria so that their children can get an education.

Women, I’d argue are hard-wired to care for their children above themselves.  Of course there are exceptions; but as the expression goes “the exception doesn’t cancel the rule”.

I know some feel that men are marginalized in the process; but here is what I say to them: Men were once boys… and boys are raised by mothers.  Invest in women and you invest in the family.

The numbers are all there if you seek them out. Investment in women does in fact yield greater results for the whole family than investment in their male counterparts.  But, as an African woman, I don’t need the UN’s statistics to tell me what I’ve seen and known my whole life.  I have been called to work with Africa’s most impoverished in a way that helps women and children; and I cannot in good conscience do anything else.

God willing, I’ll still be here in ten years telling you that we’ve been able to make an even greater impact on thousands more women.  And with your help and support, one cup of coffee at a time, one glass of tea at a time and one basket at a time… we’ll get there.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to salute all of the beautiful, inspirational and hard-working women I’ve been blessed to know and work for over the years.  To you Janet Akii-Bua of Uganda who always has a smile, rain or shine.  To you Beatrice Mukansinga who decided to do one small thing for your fellow Rwandan women only to see it grow into a tree that provides shade to so many.  To you women who weave such beautiful baskets in the warm African sun so that your children can eat today.  To you girls and women in Lesotho who inspire me to work through adversity as you face HIV and AIDS with such courage and integrity.

To women everywhere and to the men who understand that International Women’s Day isn’t about competition with men; but about encouraging and supporting women to be better so that they can help both their daughters and sons be better in turn.

Happy International Women’s Day everyone!

Love,

Mama

Interview with President Kagame of Rwanda, Part Two

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

PART TWO:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Mama

Mama’s First Round Table Guest of 2011: H.E. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

Photo source: PaulKagame.com

As many of you know, Mama Afrika has been working with Rwandans for many years now.  In fact, I can still vividly recall the day that I first heard from Beatrice Mukansinga, the director of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda.  I was still living in France at the time and had only recently launched MamaAfrika.com.  I had a little post-it note on my make-shift desk with a short list on it titled “Top 10 countries I want to work with”.  Rwanda was on that list and for good reason.  Sure I, like most of the world, had heard of the horrible genocide in 1994.  I understood that it was a nation facing a massive challenge because of it.  Additionally, while working on my master’s thesis in university, I had selected Rwanda as one of my case studies; so I guess I knew a little more than the average person about the country.  Many years before Hotel Rwanda had come out as a film; I had read the book and it touched me profoundly.

Fast forward to the receipt of the news that I was going to at long last, be able to add Rwanda to our list of trade partners… I sang, I danced and I told my children that we were going to be able to (in our very small way) help a nation of good people rebuild their nation.

Since then, we’ve sold hundreds of beautiful cards made by some of the most incredible women you’ll ever meet.  I’ve done my best to network for them when I could.  And, we’ve sent donations in the form of funds, eye glasses and other items.  But most of all, we’ve prayed for Rwanda’s healing.

I tell you all of this because I want you to understand the immense joy it brings me to have the opportunity to have His Excellency, Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame at Mama’s Round Table today.  He is a man who needs little introduction.  Thank you Mr. President for agreeing to humble me and my readers with your time, which we understand is precious.

1. I was once told that it was important to be able to describe myself (who I am, what I do and what is important to me) in just one sentence.  I offer you the same challenge: Who are you?

I am a Rwandan who has been given the great privilege of leading Rwandans as we work to combat poverty, injustice, educate our children and take control of our own destiny; my sole wish is to do this as well as I possibly can .

2. For many people living outside of Africa, even after all of these years, Rwanda equals genocide.  When you think of Rwanda, what image first comes to your mind?

My Rwanda is a country of a dignified people who have overcome the worst and are living and working together harmoniously, to advance the national interest and transform their country into a prosperous nation.

3. Leadership comes with its own set of challenges; among them balancing pleasing one’s citizens and making decisions even when you know they won’t be popular choices.  What do you say to your opponents and critics concerning the job you’ve done so far in Rwanda?

My opponents and critics must know that my decisions are the decisions of the majority of Rwandans. I am totally committed to the wishes of the citizens of this land and what opponents and critics say only concerns me if it is in the interest of these citizens. We only do what advances the welfare and progress of Rwandans and know that no country has advanced because it followed the wishes of opponents and critics.

4. As you might already know, my passion is ethical trade and its effects on African women and children.  In many African nations, women aren’t permitted to enter the dialog and development is left to men to decide, despite the fact that women are an integral part of its implementation.  How do you explain the fact that Rwandan women have taken such a forward role in the rebuilding of your nation (49% of Rwandan MPs are women) and what factors do you attribute this to?

We consider gender equality to be a fundamental human right and, just as women fought side by side with men in the liberation of Rwanda, so too have they been central to rebuilding our country. Nation building is hard work; I have never understood why anyone would want to sabotage this important task by leaving out more than half the population. I am proud that 56% of Rwanda’s MPs are women – but we continue to work harder to ensure women have equal footing in every aspect of national life.

5. As an African woman who has lived in the Diaspora for the majority of her life, I am interested in knowing your views on the subject.  There is always a certain tension between those living “at home” and those living abroad. In an ideal world, what role would the Rwandan Diaspora play in shaping the future of your nation?

Rwandans living “at home” and those in the Diaspora are on great terms.  In fact, remittances are Rwanda’s highest foreign exchange earner.  This past December, more than 2500 people, young and old, traveled to Brussels from their homes across Europe to put their questions to me. It was a great meeting – honest, lively and inspiring. There is a minority of Rwandans living abroad that are not happy about the progress Rwanda is making today, mostly because they identify with the bad politics that led to genocide, and that Rwandans today have rejected.  But these will not derail our vision for a stable, united and prosperous Rwanda. I always tell Rwandans in the Diaspora that Rwanda belongs to all of them and that we would welcome home anyone who wanted to return, but even if theychose to stay abroad, they all have a role to play in our country’s development.

Click here for  Part Two of my interview with President Kagame…

Blessings,

Mama

10 Things You Can Do to Help Africa Today

Lots of people ask me what they can do to help Africa and Africans.  After all, the general consensus (thanks to mainstream media) is that Africa is falling apart at the seams, right?  It is my hope that at least a few of these things will help you to see that although Africans, in general, have many challenges facing them; there is also another side of Africa that is important to remember as well.

So, I’ve decided to come up with a short list of things that anyone can do to help Africa at large.  Here we go:

1-      Pray for us. I know that many people say that when they can’t come up with anything else to do in life, they pray.  I mean, it’s the way that they do something when they feel their hands are tied and they don’t feel that they can do anything else “more constructive”.  I’d argue that it’s usually the best place to start.  I am not going to give you a prayer to say or tell you how to talk to God.  Perhaps for you that is done in a temple, a church or maybe out in a field full of wild flowers sitting and appreciating nature.  I don’t think the surroundings matter much, and the words are probably a detail too.  But, spend a few quiet moments thinking about Africa and focusing on what good things you would like to come to her people.  I’m sure that if nothing else, it’ll help you remain focused and open to opportunities as they present themselves.

2-      Learn something new about the continent today.  I genuinely don’t think it matters what you learn.  This might sound odd; but I sincerely believe it.  Perhaps you are an art buff, love all things tech or are an avid gardener.  Take the time to read an article which talks about your interest as it relates to Africa.  I’m sure that a simple online search with just a few words like “potato plants in Africa” would render much more information than you expected.  This will engage you in a way that you are already interested.  Frankly, all of the heavy political reading isn’t always needed; and it isn’t interesting to everyone.  Just learn more about Africa’s diversity.  Walk a path other than the “another famine” “more civil unrest”… kind of thing.  You’ll also come very quickly to understand that knowing a little about Africa doesn’t have to feel like a chore.  There are a million different ways for you to be engaged with such a massive continent after all.  The more you know about Africa and her people; the more informed your choices will be concerning what is best to do to help later when an opportunity arises.

3-      Share what you’ve learned. Just talking to your friends, family or coworkers about Africa in a way they don’t expect is a great way to serve as an ambassador.  I think you’ll enjoy the look on their face when they realize that little bit of information they never thought of as being related to Africa.  When you step out of those keywords that are used to talk about such a diverse, dynamic continent, (namely: safari, drought, starvation, coup d’état, poverty, development); you’ll see quickly that people are really happy to hear something positive or interesting that relates to Africans.  Discussing a new artist’s debut in a gallery in Johannesburg or talking about the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed of dog might just open their eyes to another face of Africa.  People who know about our continent are more likely to find ways to act as goodwill ambassadors the next time they hear negative or untrue things being said about Africa, right?

4-      Buy African. You might be surprised to know that in simply changing your morning regime and making your cup of coffee or tea yourself can actually significantly impact the lives of African farmers.  Maybe you could switch the coffee at home or ask your coworkers to toss the $5 per day that they usually spend at that large coffee chain on the way into work into a jar that you can use to buy a pound or two of Mama’s fair trade coffees or teas?  This would allow them to enjoy some superior quality coffee each morning (they’ll never want to go back to the “other stuff” once they’ve tried our freshly roasted, fair trade coffee!)  Plus, you can make an impact which will make you proud.  Not a coffee or tea drinker?  That is OK too.  There are hundreds of other ways to help through African products such as gift baskets, clothing as well as supporting African musicians or filmmakers.  Buying African is so much better for the continent than making donations to large organizations which use too much in administration costs and too often don’t make the long-term impact you are hoping will occur.  After all, it allows Africans to feed themselves through their hard work!

5-      Visit Africa. You don’t have to want to go on a safari to find something wonderful to do in Africa.  One of the greatest newer ways to visit the richness of the continent is through environmental tourism or cultural tourism.  There are tour operators in South Africa which can take you and your family on a trip to important places in Apartheid history or to get to know more about its diverse ethnic groups and their history, culture and arts.  Or, you could go to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda or Ghana to learn more about the cultures there through the eyes of the people who have lived in the region generation after generation for thousands of years.  Talk about a living history lesson!  Of course, supporting local economies through responsible tourism allows Africans to build better communities and nations.  Sounds like a good deal for everyone involved, if you ask me!

6-      Can’t travel quite that far? Then visit Africa locally. I completely understand that international travel isn’t for everyone.  Or, maybe you would love to go; but you just don’t have the budget, health or ability to go.  I have an alternative for you: visit a museum, festival or other outlet that highlights African art or culture.  You might not be from Vienna, Austria where every October they have Africult; or you might not be living in San Francisco, New York or London, where you can visit African art galleries and museums.  But trust me, if you take the time to search “African culture” and the city closest to you; you’ll find that there are lots of opportunities for you to see art, dance, festivals and other events centered on various African cultures.  The more support groups and organizations like this may receive, the farther they can spread their message.  I am convinced that especially where children are concerned, one of them may one day be the adult that discovers, invents or creates something that makes the lives of Africans better… just because they had an experience in their youth that sparked an interest to learn more about African people, animals or culture at large.

7-      Play a game. How about playing a game online where you test your African geography?  This way, the next time you hear or read about Namibia, Guinea Bissau or Zambia; you’ll know where they are.  We all know how important geography is to current events and history.  People often are in conflict due to natural resources and borders.  And, knowing where all 53 African nations are will help you understand the people of Africa and their needs better.  Who knows, maybe it’ll prompt you to volunteer to teach local school kids more about the African continent?  Knowledge is power, right?

8-      Eat, drink and be merry.  Now here is a fun way to incorporate Africa into your daily life: food and drink.  Did you know that South Africa makes some incredible wines?  Kenya, Eritrea, Malawi, Togo and many other African countries produce some superb beers.  And whether you drink alcohol or not, you can certainly find an African restaurant near you.  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Eritrean or Ethiopian food for example (OK, so maybe I’m a little biased 😉 If you are in the Los Angeles area, the Nyala Restaurant is an excellent choice and comes very highly rated by most food critics.  And no, I don’t have any affiliation with the owners… I just love good food!  How is eating a great meal with your friends helping Africa?  Well, since a great number of Africans use their success in the West to support their families “back home”; so supporting them, often means supporting those in their native country as well.

9-      Ask a question. If you are wondering about something, be it big or small, concerning Africa… ask! I don’t know everything; but I do have a fair number of resources that I can tap to find the answers to most questions concerning Africa.  Feel free to contact me here on the blog, on Twitter, or via email.  NEVER hesitate because you think that a question is “too simple”.  Just ask and know it is my greatest pleasure to try to help you find the answer.  Besides, you can be sure that if you are wondering the answer; there are certainly many others who have the same question too.  You’ll notice on the side of my blog, there is a Questions and Answers link.  Check there and you might see an answer which inspires you to start a project, plan or movement to help Africans in one way or another.

10-   Focus on the good news: In just three clicks of the mouse: 1… 2… and 3… you can find three excellent resources for getting a daily dose of good news from Africa.  Focusing on the good news, instead of all of the challenges and obstacles is a healthy reminder that we can accomplish anything our hearts desire.  It helps us dream and without dreams, there can be no improved reality.  Dreaming is an important part of helping us to build a better future for ourselves, our villages and the generations to come.

I hope that you will try to incorporate at least a few of these ways to get to know Africa better and help her people.  I’m confident that as you learn more about this magical continent, its history, cultures and people; you will be inspired to learn even more and help in one way or another.  Remember that as much as we do need financial assistance, support with trade opportunities and advocates… we also need people who believe in our ability to build our own future.  Seeing what we have already done will inspire you to know that anything is possible in Africa.

After incorporating some of these 10 ways to learn more about and to help Africa; I recommend that you take the time to read this post which I wrote a few months ago.

I look forward to hearing any of your ideas now! How other simple ways would you recommend for people to engage Africa and Africans?

Love,

Mama