Happy Birthday to Africa’s Greatest Elder, Mr. Mandela

There is much that could be said about Madiba (his Xhosa clan name), or “Tata” (Father) as South Africa’s youth call him. But, I think that the best of his qualities is that he led by example. In my opinion, we have never had a more upstanding “village elder” in Africa. He stood by his principles, sacrificed to bring them to reality, then did what most African leaders of our time refuse to do: left office in order to be equally productive in other domains outside of politics.

Instead of celebrating his birthday as we do many other historical leaders around the world, Mr Mandela asks South Africans to give 67 minutes (the number of years of service he gave to his nation) serving others. I think that its a beautiful legacy that all of us could take to heart. So, what will YOU incorporate as your personal or family tradition each July 18th to celebrate Africa’s greatest elder? Please share with us, inspire each other and join me in wishing Mr Nelson Mandela a very happy 95th birthday!

Here is my wish for each of us:

Dear African leaders, follow his footsteps.

Dear African citizens, require that your leaders follow his footsteps, or simply refuse to let them lead. Integrity is essential, always.

Dear African children, know that THIS is the kind of elder that has come before you to show you how it is done. Become future leaders that lead with honor, respect for your fellow man, long-term vision and an understanding that you are but one member of a team that makes great things possible.

Love, Mama

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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.”

100th Blog Post and Some Big News

I’m certainly no numerologist, but I do know that the number 100 has significance in many cultures. And even if I’m not a Korean mother preparing to celebrate her baby’s “100 days”, nor a biblical scholar counting the chapters in the Epistle of Paul; it has significance to me. Because this, my friends, is my 100th blog post!
I was tempted to do what you probably expect I would have done: become nostalgic and write about how much I’ve enjoyed blogging, been inspired by those who have joined me at Mama’s Round Table and loved getting to know my readers better through our contact via comments left on the blog or social media like Twitter or Facebook. Of course, I feel all of those things. But, I’m not going to write about them.
Instead, I’m using my 100th post to introduce an alter-ego of sorts: Mama Europa. This is where you’ll find me blogging about France, Italy and beyond…
Don’t think for a moment that it means I’ll be posting here less, because I won’t. Africa is my priority, and will always remain so. I am still absolutely dedicated to doing what I can to improve the lives of African women and children: from Ghana to Eritrea, from Tunisia to South Africa.
I wrote a few blogs last summer about a few of the connections between Europe and Africa. But, if you are a history buff, you already know that the ancient Greeks and Romans have strong ties to Northern Africa. If you love to cook, you know that spices and recipes have crossed the Mediterranean for ages and that the culinary influence between the two continents is strong.
The Roman Empire had a black African Caesar, Egypt’s strongest, wisest leader, Cleopatra was Greek… the historical connections are endless. And, they aren’t just about Europe colonizing Africa either. Yes, there are still negative effects of that terrible period. It is undoubtedly a subject worth covering; but I feel that the subject matter is already well covered.
I would like to focus on the positive connections without overlooking the negative effects. Not only because of dear friends like Tomás, clearly a European with a love and passion for Africa that is absolutely undeniable. But also because I think that all peoples have a story that is worth hearing.
We now live in a world where we are as likely to have a friend in Kenya as in Korea, where people travel across the planet for business or pleasure and where we can log onto our computers and talk to our grandmother or cousin nine time zones away while seeing their beautiful smile. I’m looking forward to the adventures ahead with my new blog; but I’m equally excited about the next 100 blog posts here at Mama Afrika’s World.  I’m working on a few really interesting posts and have some great interviews lined up, one of which is a follow-up with a guest many people have asked about, Nigel Mugamu. Thanks to everyone for your support and interest!
You know my mantra: “Dialog matters”.  So, I am really looking forward to continuing the dialog here while my new blog will be a place where I hope to begin many conversations with you about France, Italy and beyond…
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

Letter from Mama to Mr. Mandela

There will inevitably be a thousand blog posts today wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 94th birthday.  I, of course, join them in their happy birthday song.  But, more importantly, I would like to write a thank you letter from the bottom of my heart:

July 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mandela,

We’ve never met, although I feel like you are part of my family.  Being from Eritrea, there are a lot of my family members I’ve never met, or can hardly remember because it has been so long since I saw them last. With a 30-plus year fight for independence and now a dictatorship that I feel obligated to speak out against… I don’t think I’ll be seeing my home soil anytime soon.  But, I know their names and their characters through those stories told to me by the family elders.  Like my aunt who worked so hard to raise her children, and later her grandchildren.  Like my grandfather who was chief of our village and who taught my mother to always give to the poor, even if it meant cutting her last piece of bread in two.  Like the dozens who died in the struggle for independence and those who have been imprisoned since simply for their desire for real open dialog in our nation.

We might not have been born into the same family; but I have heard stories of your life, your sacrifice for others and your desire for us to learn from your example.  I remember learning that you were going to leave your seat as president to the next person, peacefully, respectfully and with the hope that it would teach Africa’s children what democracy was about… what it was really about… that even the greatest leaders were intended to just be passing through.

I wish that all of Africa’s leaders followed your example.  I wish that we all, as individual Africans wherever we might live, thought of others before ourselves.  If all of us had just a little of you in our hearts, our continent would certainly have already reached part of its potential sooner.

I would like to thank you for lighting the road ahead that sometimes seems dark and long.  I would like to thank you for being someone who took his position as a future elder seriously.  We are all future elders; it’s just that some seem to know it even in their youth, like you.

Let’s face it; you are not just an African hero.  You are a super-hero and the only thing you lack is a cape.  But what makes you such an incredible family member to be proud of is your humility.  Yes, you know what role you played.  Yes, you know you come from a part of the world where it is so easy to abuse that fame and power in order to glorify yourself in the end.  But you walked, and continue to walk, the high road.  You decided instead to be an example that shines so brightly that it lights the way for Africa’s children, grandchildren and beyond.

I am just an African woman who tries to help in her own tiny way.  I see your example and know that I’ll probably never reach the number of people that you do or have the impact that you have.  But, I thank you from the bottom of my heart as a woman, as a mother and as a fellow African.  Thank you for giving me hope that one day, all of Africa’s children will look to your example as a formula for success:  “Make every day a Mandela day” is the perfect way to build our cities and villages to represent the Africa of our elders.

Thank you for being my elder and loving my children enough to show them by example.

Love,

Mama Afrika

PS: Here is a short note from a couple of your many granddaughters,

“Dear Mr. Mandela. How are you doing? You did very well by saving South Africa. Today, I am going to make thank you cards for the police officers and firefighters because they keep us safe.  Love, A-” (Age: 5)

“Dear Mr. Mandela, I think what you did was very brave and courageous.  You stood by your beliefs and it paid off.  Thank you for thinking of others who can’t help themselves. I am going to do something today to help others… “ (A.R., age 12)

In honor of his 67 years spent fighting Apartheid, Mr. Mandela asks us to give 67 minutes (in lieu of a birthday gift)… 67 minutes spent doing something to make the world a better place. So, what are YOU doing to make a difference this Mandela Day?

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!

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

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

Becoming an African Ambassador:

I am a member of the African Diaspora.  For the majority of my life I have lived in either Europe or the United States and I have enjoyed the privileges that many people don’t even think about: access to clean water, a free education, a safe place to raise my children without being concerned that they will be abducted to serve as slaves in a mine or cocoa field or be forced into military service at the age of 15.

I happen to have been born in a small country that most people I meet don’t even know exists.  They certainly can’t be expected then to know its history or culture; much less what its people need today.  How then could I expect people to care about my homeland, or Africa at large, if they can’t identify the average African nation on the map?

During a dinner party a few months ago, I was speaking to a good friend from Cameroon.  He and I were exchanging stories about the questions we have been asked by complete strangers.  Now, I don’t include questions I’m asked sometimes while travelling on business or when I’m invited to speak at an event.  Frankly, I think that in those situations, people feel safer to ask questions that they might otherwise think would be ridiculed.  After all, I’m fairly approachable (or at least I try to be!)  But I digress.  That evening, my friend and I were talking about those things that people have completely unexpectedly said to us or asked.

One of the reasons I love this friend of mine so much is that he is a natural teacher.  He has no formal training; but he does have what counts: a passion for his people and for Africa in general.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he is a pan-African at heart.  He moved to America as an adult and felt an immediate kinship with Black Americans.  We often discuss the similarities between the two cultures.  He’s travelled a bit and he has met many people.  But like me, he is still occasionally surprised by the regularly displayed lack of basic knowledge about Africa.  Rather early on in the discussion, we both learned that we’d been asked those basic questions like “Do you speak ‘African’?” “Are you glad that you get to wear clothes now?” or “Was it weird the first time you put shoes on?”  And before you let your imagination run away with you, these questions weren’t asked by people who were trying to be rude or racist.  You could tell in the moment that they were asked that it was sincere.

I don’t mention these questions because I want to make fun of those people who asked them.  On the contrary, I appreciate the fact that they dared to ask.  Some of my friends are offended by such questions or become irritated; if not with the people asking, then with the image that they have Africa and Africans.  The fact that the media’s images tend towards coups d’état, famine and diseases like malaria doesn’t help the issue.  That is a given.  But what of us: the Diaspora?  What role do we play?

I know that it isn’t our role to act as educators per se.  Sure, one could point to the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in cities like Washington DC, London and Los Angeles (many of which are owned by Eritreans who opt to hang signs that say “Ethiopian” in order to identify themselves to potential customers).  Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply explain the fact that the foods are incredibly similar in flavor and style so that people could learn more about Eritrean culture and heritage? What is the balance between trying to make a living successfully and our obligation to teach the world about our continent?  I choose this example mostly because I love food and think of it often 😉   I could just as easily have mentioned another profession, another age-group or situation.  It applies to each of us in our own way: we are individuals as well as Africans after all.

To answer the question before it is asked, “Yes, members of the Diaspora clearly have the right to live and exist as individuals.  We are more than our nationality.  We are more than African.”  But, I would like to also argue that we should find a certain balance between whom we are as individuals and whom we are as Africans.  After all, we are able to be many things and wear many hats.  You may be a daughter, a mother, a businesswoman and at the same time; yet, you are also the president of the parent-teacher association at your child’s school, a member of your church choir, an English citizen and an Angolan by birth or culture.  Isn’t it important that people know that the latter plays no less a role in who you are and why you want to serve your community while running a race to raise money for cancer research?  We are like stews, every ingredient plays a vital role in our flavor, in why people love us (or not).  I am only asking that once we leave Africa, we remember that core part of us which links us to our perspective “home”.

I have often told children and young adults to remember that they are ambassadors.  Be it young North Africans acting loud and obnoxious on the train outside of Paris or my own children out for the day with me.  “Remember,” I tell them, “that you might be the only African that some of these people will meet.  So, for the sake of others that they won’t meet… be respectful, intelligent and hard-working.  Show them not only who you are; but what Africa is.”

It might sound like a lot of responsibility for one person to take on.  After all, most of us living in the Diaspora are reminded on a daily basis of our individual rights; since the vast majority of us live in Western cultures now.  We are reminded of our freedom to choose who we are and for many of our youth, how tough it is to get ahead when one feels they are an outsider.  There is certainly discrimination on some fronts. Yet, when I see our children burning cars in France, signing up for jihad training in the Middle East or disrespecting elders at the grocery store simply because they are not their own grandmothers; I ask myself who is to blame?  Where has the disconnect come from? We must remain Africans, even when outside of Africa.

African culture is diverse; there is no doubt about that.  But, I think that most of us would agree that there are also many commonalities.  Respect for elders, a deep desire to maximize opportunities in education and striving to pull up your family and community when you attain success individually.  We have a common thread that runs between us regardless of language or region.  I know this is true because I can see it when I meet a woman from Ghana or Uganda and we instinctively call each other “sister”.  I know it because of the hundreds of tales I’ve heard of Africans travelling in other regions who were met with such hospitality and kindness.

I had a conversation with a woman from Mali once who told me of a visit she had made to her uncle in Ghana.  It was her first time visiting that country and when she asked the local bus driver what stop was closest to her uncle’s address; he replied with a smile: “This man exits daily at the same stop, he will show you how to get there”.  That alone didn’t impress her (although she found it to be a kind gesture).  Her face lit up though when she told me of how that stranger walked for quite a distance out of his normal route to not only take her to the doorstep… but that he wouldn’t leave until her until he saw her uncle personally greet her.  He didn’t want to leave her there alone in case they weren’t at home.  That, my friends, is African kindness.  That is the Africa that I want my American neighbors to know.  That is the Africa that I want them to think of when they meet someone from Burundi or Tanzania.  And one day at a time, I’ll build that image of Africa… will you?  I hope so; because each member of the African Diaspora, whether in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Vienna or New York is an ambassador for Africa.  Like it or not, you already have the job.  I challenge you all to make our ancestors proud in the way you do that job, one day at a time.

Blessings,

Mama

Victimhood: One of Our Greatest Enemies

Many years ago, I was convinced that the majority of Africa’s problems stemmed from colonialism. I was completely persuaded that we would have been light years ahead of the rest of the world if only we’d been left to continue our own traditions and progress at our pace.

I’d like to clarify one thing before I say anything else: Colonialism did change the landscape of Africa, permanently, irrevocably and deeply. There is no doubt about that. We need to ensure that our children learn this and understand it. But what I want to talk about is the “What now?” aspect of it all.

There are many who have a tendency to get lost in our victim-hood.  People who love Africa are often trapped in these muddy waters while diving deeply into our past and are then unable to see clearly.  When they exit the water and start to discuss planning for our collective future; they seem to still have that muddy water clouding their vision.  Although I respect their dedication to Africa, I think that they do us more harm than good in the end.  Here, is why:

If you ask any scholar of history, he will tell you that there isn’t a single region on earth without a turbulent history. Rome once controlled a large part of Europe and most of North Africa; thus forcing local populations into a second-class status, if not into slavery. Native Americans lost their territories to each other; and then, eventually lost most of their land to the early American government. In Brazil, many native ethnic groups in the Amazon are still being persecuted and having their lands stolen.

My point here is that everyone has known suffering, abuse and victimization. There is no point in trying to play the “who has suffered more” game. Power comes from how we face adversity.

European powers did set Africa up for failure, no doubt about it. Our borders were drawn arbitrarily at best; with “divide and conquer” in mind at worst. But we are not alone in this either, ask the former Yugoslavia.

Queen Nzinga, who defended Angolans against the Slave Trade © Every Generation Media http://www.whenweruled.com

So now, my sweet Africa, let us move forward. Let us find the positive aspects of our past as quickly and passionately as we find the negative. Let us remember our kings, our queens and our chiefs who led well and with fairness. I grew up hearing about how our grandfathers shared their food with anyone in need. I am sure that all of you would hear the same if you asked your grandmothers. We are now missing that sense of solidarity.

We have the borders we have. Let’s work to create strong, inclusive societies within them. We are diverse like no other continent: from the desert in Sudan to Lesotho’s snow-capped mountains; from Mali’s camel-back nomads to those working in skyscrapers in South Africa; from farmers who plant in the hot Ghanaian sun to doctor’s working in hospitals in Angola. We speak hundreds of languages and have thousands of ethnic groups, each with their unique history and culture. This doesn’t begin to touch on the fact that we have the world’s largest reserve of natural resources: minerals, biodiversity (both plant and animal) and human capital (hard-working, bright and energetic).

Let us leave the labels behind.  We are not “poor”.  We are under-developed economically. We are not “backward”.  We are under-educated.  We are not “aid recipients” or “refugees”. We are people who need to focus on freedom, peace, solidarity and building our own future and destiny.  Enough with buying into the shackles of our past.  Enough with feeling that we need the West or China for hand-outs.  Let us walk forward on our own terms and pick up where our grandparents left off.  It is time to take off the label of victim and proudly wear the label African.

It is my hope and prayer that in leaving our victim status behind and boldly claiming our future on our terms… that being African for our children and grandchildren, will mean being the current generation in a long line of successful people who showed the world that from little, much can be built; as long as the focus is “us”, not “me” or “them”.