Thursday, 28 August 2014

And, I am an African.

Over the years, I have taken up a new identity. I have embraced a wide and broad title. A title which sometimes feels bigger than I am, but one which nonetheless I am carrying with the utmost pride and dignity. Now, I am African.
At first, I was amused when people referred to me as an African. It was both exasperating and infuriating when I saw how some struggle to pronounce correctly, the name of my country of birth or sometimes even question its existence. Then, I’d get mildly irritated when non-Africans assumed that there is actually a country called Africa, when they talk about Africa and Africans as if they have no individual presence.  
As a matter of fact, there are people who don’t know where my country is, and even though it is sometimes still extremely annoying, instead of wasting time explaining where I am from, it has become convenient to simply say that I am African. So, now, I am simply, "African".
The fact that I am accepting this broad identity delightfully and humorously does not in any way excuse or justify the ignorance that has informed it. The act of acknowledging this identity does not excuse the off-handedness with which non Africans reach the sweeping conclusion that I am just "African". 
I still call a French French, an Italian Italian, an Irish Irish, etc, before I call them European. Actually, unless I am referring to the European Union, or to the continent in general, I do not use the term "European". I understand individual identities and people's right to them. But then, I am an African.

So, I’ve come to accept and embrace the fact that I am, in fact, African, not minding the fact that it is a continent of about 54 countries of which I know only a few. I am wearing the badge of "an Africa" and very proudly so, not minding the fact that I have spent a good part of my life outside Africa. 

And, I am African.

As I laid claim to my new insignia, I got curious and started reading everything I could lay my hands on about Africa and Africans. I started watching documentaries, even You-tube videos and the variety of information are as mind-blowing as some of them are bogus. In the process, I have discovered things and I am still discovering more...

So, now, I am African. And, I have never felt prouder. Not a conceited and uninformed pride. I am just simply proud of an identity that has, over the years,  proved impossible to describe and defied all tags. 
I have therefore become proud of a supposedly inexistent status. Because, I found that Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist, was probably right when he said in his book “Shadow of the Sun” that Africa does not in fact exist.

Then I ask, who really is an African? What is Africa? How do you begin to describe or define this phenomenon?
For, Africa is indeed a phenomenon. An amazing continent, the hearth to humanity, home to over a billion people. Covering all four hemispheres, with oceans, highlands, mountains, jungles, deserts and even a glacier. 
Africa is a place of superlatives, a continent of such extraordinary diversity that almost anything you say about it collectively is both true and untrue, depending on where you stand literally and figuratively.
However, one thing is common to all of Africa: it is subject to entirely different rules. What is true in Europe and indeed in the rest of the world will probably not hold waters in Africa; and what is an article of faith in Africa will be totally incomprehensible for the rest of the world.

Africa is different and Africans are different. They seem to operate by a different set of rules. For an African, time is not, in the European sense, a master to which one is enslaved. On the contrary, time only exists when things happen. Thus a bus will leave a terminal when it is full, a ceremony will take place when everybody turns up. A meeting will be declared open when the participants arrive. You might criticise this notion all you want, but it is Africa. Not necessary right or wrong. It just is what it is.
Hospitality means different things to different people at different times, but the door of an African will be permanently open to the stranger, not minding the time of the day, when mostly the rest of the world is hospitable only when it's convenient (and I'm not in the least saying this wrong).
Marriage and family life is different and the confines are as wide as the excesses that abound. Every child you see in African is your own and you see people being generous with food as well as with instructional discipline towards every child they encounter.

Most people who have visited Africa are overwhelmed by both the beauty and the squalor of the continent, and puzzled both by its generosity and its extremes.
Some are fascinated by the states of mind, the essential beliefs, of the myriad people called Africans: some have obsessions with ancestors, others with portents, others with cattles and some with religions and spirits. 

There are some people who are stuck with their ideas of Africa as a place of darkness, poverty, sickness, hunger and evil.

I am African, and I stand tall and proud.
I'm neither poor nor wretched. 
I have a good education. 
I wear shoes and I wear clothes. 
I might not yet claim to be a millionaire in monetary terms, but I have a full and very rich life and I have enough to take care of myself and my own
My life is so full of love and miracles and I feel both grateful and blown away. 
I have the heritage of a rich and diverse culture.  
I do not have HIV nor Ebola.
And, I am African.

When people write about Africa, they depict it as a place and a people to be pitied, abhorred or dominated. There seems to be an unwritten agreement between most authors and writers, and indeed most media houses when it comes to writing about Africa. An agreement to make Africa a place of gloom, of barbaric people and of untold hardship.
I have personally felt enormous pity for Africa as I devoured books and articles. I have also been engulfed by an anger, rage, and indignation as I perused some of these write ups. I have gone from exasperation to a feeling of forlornness as I saw the picture that is still being painted of Africa. But, I am African.

As a non-African, as you explore information, all sorts of emotions will be stirred up in you every time you hear about Africa. You will be made to cringe in both horror and embarrassment. You might be appalled and mystified by the bizarre and outlandish ways. 
But, if you ever get to visit Africa, you will be taken-aback by the smiles on the faces of most African. You will be witness to the joy they express in simple things. The happiness and a sense of contentment they still posses. You will be blown away and astounded at not only the beautiful sunset, but also the warmth from the heart of the African. 
Undeniably, there will be lots of sentiments about Africa. 
But, I find that, no matter how strong or fleeting they are, these feelings and emotions are usually only half-informed. They never tell the whole story. 
Because, nobody has been able to describe in words what or who Africa and Africans really are. 
The diversity and the richness of Africa easily shatters all stereotypes about the continent. Its landscapes, its cultures and its people makes it absolutely impossible to put this beautiful continent and its countries in a tag.

And today, as I lay claim to this identity, as I accept the bold title of "an African" I am aware that when people refer to me as an Africa, it is with equal ease that they concede the same citizenship to leopards, and lions and elephants and the black mamba and the mosquito and recently also the Ebola virus. 
But, I am not fazed. Because, you see, I am African.

Being an African qualifies me to define for myself what I want to be. 
So, I constantly chose my own identity. 
And I rise above the negativity, the condescending attitude from others, the patronising and complaisant way some people look at me. 
And, I stand tall. Like the eagle, and I wear the badge with pride. 
I am proud of Africa and I am proud to be an African.
I am, indeed an African.

Monday, 25 August 2014

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Thursday, 21 August 2014

What Matters Most.

One of life's magic rule is to be always clear about our priorities and to focus always on the things that truly matter.

In a world where society imposes norms and conventions and expectations, we tend to lose sight of our own individual sense of things of value and importance.
The truth is that with each passing day, I find that  I am continually defining and redefining them. In defining my priorities, my guiding principle has always been the Bible verse that says: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Today, I'm singing Barbra Streisand's song, "What Matters Most" and again, and as always, I have that now-familiar feeling of thankfulness welling up inside me.

I am thankful for the gift of love, in all its shades. I am grateful for the grace to love and the testimony of being loved in return.

"What Matters Most"
(D. Grusin / Marilyn Bergman, Alan Bergman)

It's not how long we held each other's hand
What matters is how well we loved each other
It's not how far we travelled on our way
Or what we found to say
It's not the spring you see, but all the shades of green
It's not how long I held you in my arms
What matters is how sweet the years together
It's not how many summertimes we had to give to fall
The early morning smiles we tearfully recall
What matters most is that we loved at all.
It's not how many summertimes we had to give to fall
The early morning smiles we tearfully recall
What matters most is that we loved at all.
What matters most is that we loved at all.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The many shades of Racism.

So, the WHO has declared the recent Ebola outbreak an international health concern and the whole world is worried. Ebola is not only a threat to lives and generations, but it has also become another point of reference and a racist weapon for those who have convinced themselves that it is another African malady.

A dear friend of mine who is Spanish has been advised by someone to stay away from me, because, according to the adviser, "you never know, there is the risk of contacting Ebola..." Seeing as I'm from "Africa".

Few months ago, I worked as a coordinator in a language camp for young learners. An experience I enjoyed tremendously. Two day after the end of camp, one of my supervisors called me to say that one of the Mums had called to complain that her son, Miguel, had lice. I was concerned and tried to figure out which of the kids might have had lice during camp, then my supervisor told me apologetically that the mum suspected it must have been from me. Seeing as I'm from "Africa".

People who know me know that I love kids, and the little free time I have when I get home from work I sometimes spend with a charming and beautiful young man called Alejandro. He is aged seven and he lives in my neighbourhood. Some months ago, his Mum had some medical problems with her stomach. Nobody knew what it was. After a while, the doctors said it might be an amoeba related infection, seeing as she and her husband had been to Africa some 12 years previously.
She then went ahead and asked that she wanted the son to be tested and told her husband to ask me to stop spending time with Alejandro. Seeing as I'm from "Africa".

Miguel, a six-year old boy told his mum that the lice couldn't have come from me because he noticed that I took a shower twice everyday and that my hair always smelt clean.
Alejandro saw me one day in the garden, ran to me and gave a big hug, then he apologised for not being able to spend time with me like before. He then explained that it was his mum's fault, but that his mum doesn't know what she was talking about.
My friend obviously didn't heed the advice.

Let me point out that wherever I go, I have been opportuned to meet really wonderful, kind hearted and such generous people who have opened both their hearts and lives to me, regardless of age, race or colour, and I feel highly blessed to know all of them. I have known people who have lovingly "envied" me my permanent "tan". I have met people who doesn't see the colour of my skin as something negative and people who doesn't immediately conclude that I am a poor, wretched, hungry and disease-infected being from "Africa".

My dear friend, May, told me of a conversation that took place in her office. May (also from "Africa") works in an International Liaison office for Arab countries and international NGOs. One of her colleagues expressed concern about how "these immigrants" are flooding what she termed "her country", and taking their jobs. This colleague went further to say that it is unfair that with the ongoing economic crisis, her country has to worry about taking care of the immigrants when they the nationals are suffering. As May, a highly skilled professional schooled in different parts of the world, with an intimidating curriculum vitae, shared the story with me, I could sense the irritation in her voice.
There is a lot of things that could be said to counter that argument, but, why bother? The likes of that colleague won't change their minds.

One of my friends, Marcus, had an interesting argument with me and told me plainly that in his opinion, people from his country were not racists at all. To buttress his point, he mentioned that there are now more immigrants in every city and town and that they mostly seem to be happy and well integrated. I couldn't help but laugh at his naivety. About two weeks after that conversation, I got into a bus with him, and after swiping my transport card, I moved on to find a seat. Before I got to my seat, the driver called out to me and said I had not swiped the card. I told him that I was sure I did. But, he didn't believe me and was almost creating a scene. I went back swiped the card and it didn't work, he stopped the bus, brought out a machine to confirm that I had earlier swiped the card barely 5 minutes earlier. It happened that there was another girl directly before me who actually didn't swipe her card. It was just an oversight. An honest mistake on her part. She was white.
Marcus was livid and went off on the poor driver. As realisation dawned on him, he kept apologising. And I kept telling him that it was really not his fault, since I was almost used to things like that (that's if one can ever get used to it). The driver of that bus had seen two young women pass and had noticed that only one person swiped her card, it was logical to conclude that the one who didn't must have been me. Seeing as I am an immigrant.

I get very irked when I hear some people say that they can't possibly be "racists", because they are friends with someone from a different race. Someone actually said to me the other day, "You know Jane, I am not a racist, my son is very close friends with a black boy in his class".
My response? None. I just walked away. But then, I am an immigrant.

I could go on and and, but when I think about the negative things, and I've only mentioned just a few out of many outrageous situations, my heart is warmed by the responses like that of Miguel and a million others like them. I am humbled and softened by the hugs of my Alejandros. I feel vindicated by the tenacity of my Marcuses.
But, there are times when the thought of people who still directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously treat people from Africa differently just for being Africans makes me want to punch them in the face.
Then I remind myself that they are just very narrow-minded folks. And the word "narrow-minded" is not used here to insult of demean, it is just a statement of fact, because any one who chooses to see others as only one thing, be it colour, race, age or gender, is, in my opinion, indeed very narrow minded.

Racism is said to be dying down, and there are people who act shocked when the topic comes up, but there are still a million and one ways we still see it in the society today. I am blessed and I am strong and I know I will always rise above it and all the negativity it brings. I am not bothered because I have a very clear idea of who I am and my place in life and in the world, and nobody, no matter what you think about the colour of my skin or the country or continent of my birth, can convince me otherwise or limit me to a place or a tag that 

Monday, 18 August 2014

As shared by a divorced man

I am curios about relationships. I am looking at marriages. I am learning from marriages. Both the making of it and the breaking up of it. And, it seems to me that a lot of people keep making the same mistakes and getting similar results. It appears that a lot of people prefer to stay stuck in their definitions of rights and wrongs and no one wants to find out what might work better or worse.  It scares me to think of the growing number of failed marriages. 
The world is constantly changing and evolving, and people accept the changes and even possibly enjoy it. People change with it, most people generally except and demand more from people around them, but they appear to be unwilling to accept that change in their spouses neither do they give in equal proportion. 
And as I reflect on these things, I say a little prayer for everyone in a relationship.
"May love always be kindled in our hearts towards the people in our lives.
May we find the strength to forgive every unkind word or deed.
May we never take the people in our lives for granted.
May we accept change when it comes, be it positive or negative, and may we receive the grace to deal with it wisely.
May we learn not to judge the ones we profess to love.
May we all learn to know what truly matters and when we do, may we never cease to learn to make it better.
May we learn from our mistakes and that of other and thus cut the circle of pain, hurt and bitterness that threatens a relationship."

Some months ago, these words went viral, as shared by a man whose marriage failed. A man who is determined not to repeat the same mistake. A man who hopes that other men will learn from the things he didn't do right. And so, he said:

"1) Never stop courting. Never stop dating. NEVER EVER take that woman for granted. When you asked her to marry you, you promised to be that man that would OWN HER HEART and to fiercely protect it. This is the most important and sacred treasure you will ever be entrusted with. SHE CHOSE YOU. Never forget that, and NEVER GET LAZY in your love.

2) PROTECT YOUR OWN HEART. Just as you committed to being the protector of her heart, you must guard your own with the same vigilance. Love yourself fully, love the world openly, but there is a special place in your heart where no one must enter except for your wife. Keep that space always ready to receive her and invite her in, and refuse to let anyone or anything else enter there.

3) FALL IN LOVE OVER and OVER and OVER again. You will constantly change. You’re not the same people you were when you got married, and in five years you will not be the same person you are today. Change will come, and in that you have to re-choose each other everyday. SHE DOESN’T HAVE TO STAY WITH YOU, and if you don’t take care of her heart, she may give that heart to someone else or seal you out completely, and you may never be able to get it back. Always fight to win her love just as you did when you were courting her.

4) ALWAYS SEE THE BEST in her. Focus only on what you love. What you focus on will expand. If you focus on what bugs you, all you will see is reasons to be bugged. If you focus on what you love, you can’t help but be consumed by love. Focus to the point where you can no longer see anything but love, and you know without a doubt that you are the luckiest man on earth to be have this woman as your wife.

5) IT’S NOT YOUR JOB TO CHANGE OR FIX HER… your job is to love her as she is with no expectation of her ever changing. And if she changes, love what she becomes, whether it’s what you wanted or not.

6) TAKE FULL ACCOUNTABILITY for your own emotions: It’s not your wife’s job to make you happy, and she CAN’T make you sad. You are responsible for finding your own happiness, and through that your joy will spill over into your relationship and your love.

7) NEVER BLAME your wife If YOU get frustrated or angry at her, it is only because it is triggering something inside of YOU. They are YOUR emotions, and your responsibility. When you feel those feelings take time to get present and to look within and understand what it is inside of YOU that is asking to be healed. You were attracted to this woman because she was the person best suited to trigger all of your childhood wounds in the most painful way so that you could heal them… when you heal yourself, you will no longer be triggered by her, and you will wonder why you ever were.

8) Allow your woman to JUST BE. When she’s sad or upset, it’s not your job to fix it, it’s your job to HOLD HER and let her know it’s ok. Let her know that you hear her, and that she’s important and that you are that pillar on which she can always lean. The feminine spirit is about change and emotion and like a storm her emotions will roll in and out, and as you remain strong and unjudging she will trust you and open her soul to you… DON’T RUN-AWAY WHEN SHE’S UPSET. Stand present and strong and let her know you aren’t going anywhere. Listen to what she is really saying behind the words and emotion.

9) BE SILLY… don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Laugh. And make her laugh. Laughter makes everything else easier.

To be continued...

And for the men. I eavesdropped.

Mum was among other things, a marriage counsellor and among our many "crimes" was eavesdropping.

Many a times, we overheard conversation she had with couples who came to see her, together or alone. We heard their complains and most times we heard her say nothing. She just listened, offered a listening ear, a warm and understanding smile or a sympathetic nodding of the head. Sometimes, she just prayed with the couples. But other times, we heard her recommendations, I have written a piece about what she said to the women, and which she also told me before she passed on. If you missed it, read it here. Now, I'll share some of tips she kindly offered to the men. Some of them came in forms of admonishment, others in form of encouragement and some of them were just simple observations. The words you're about to read were hers... And I hope you can share some of your own tips after reading.

She'd say:

"No price is too much to make your wife happy, for you see, if your wife is happy with her life with you, a lot of things will work better for you. Women are that powerful"

"If your wife is happy with you, your prayers will get to God faster, for you see, God has a special love for women and he answers them quicker, I'm sure you know women can cry a lot and even nag. They do the same with God. And I always get the feeling that a woman's tears is not something God wants to have to put up with"

"You should realise that your wife has both the power and the ability to set or change the course and direction of your entire life"

"Your wife should come before all else, be it work, business or pleasure"

"Why not buy her some jewellery? Why not offer to do something for her? Why not surprise her with something you know she wants? Why not spend money on her?"
"A woman is fertile ground, whatever you put in will come back to you in a greater fold. Be careful what you sow."

"Suggest she gets a domestic help or assistant, and if you can't afford it or you are strongly against the idea, offer to do the cooking or the dishes or the laundry or to watch the kids sometimes"

"When things don't work out for you, never ever blame your wife. And when things go well, give her some of the credit, thank her, even if you think she had nothing to do with it"

"In decision-makings, ask for her opinion, then listen to her and try to heed her words"

"Never you call your wife stupid or dumb, you know what they say, "birds of the same feathers.."

"If you disrespect your wife in public, others will do the same, and then she will take it out on you. Do yourself a favour, never call her names or disrespect her, anywhere, but especially in public"

"Sometimes, your wife just wants to feel like you understand her. And, sometimes, you might have to pretend that you do (I'm sure you won't), but a gentle nodding or shaking of the head while you hold her hands and look into her eyes might do the trick of convincing her."

"To keep bringing up issues about what your wife might have done in the past is not loving like Christ did"

"Stop shouting at your wife, she is not deaf"

"Please, leave your family out of your marriage. She didn't marry your father, so she's not your mum's co-wife nor her housemaid"

"Unless your mum is Mother Theresa, never complain to your mum about something your wife did"

"Your mum and your wife are the two single most important and influential people in your life, They both have the power to change your destiny. In your best interest, help them to be friends"

"Never assume you know what your wife is thinking or what she's going to do"

"When you think you've come to know your wife, get ready for the next chapter. She's a book you will never finish till the day you both die. And it's better this way, it adds some spice. So quit complaining about it"

"Brag about your wife (I'm sure there must be something nice about her) and let her hear you"

"If you find yourself arguing with someone, or angry about something, let your wife be the person who can calm you down. And let her see it"

"Never be bitter against your wife, you will only hinder yourself"

To be cont'd.

Please, feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The trouble with judging people: Sonna 2

As soon as I made up my mind about Sonna, I was quick to decide not to be bothered by anything she does or doesn't do. I kept a straight face whenever I ran into her in the elevator, which luckily for me became difficult.

Two weeks ago, another client who ad previously worked directly with her shared her story.

"Sonna has cancer, terminal cancer", she said.
I was shocked. She doesn't really look ill to me, I was about to say. Then I realised that I had never really taken a proper look at her. I only met her the previous year, so I couldn't really tell.

Paula went on to explain that Sonna had been fighting the cancer for almost 10 years. She has 2 children who were very young when she was diagnosed and given that she herself had lost her Mum at a very young age to cancer as well, she decided to fight, to hold on to life for as long as she could, just so her kids wouldn't have to go through all that she went through.
 I was also informed that her sister also had cancer.
She has had a number of Chemotherapy and a lot of surgeries. She has to go to the hospital every morning at 5:00am to get an injection that will help her throughout the day. She prefers to do that early in the morning so that she can be able to make it to work. She has decided to continue working working till her last breath because that is how she wants her children to remember her. She carries her medication around with her everywhere because  from time to time, she has a crisis and it's important that that someone around should know what to do.
She is determined to maintain her job, and in the company, because, she has somehow acquired a comfortable and flexible schedule which allows her time to go to hospitals, take days off if need be or just not stress herself too much.

There were lots of other things I was told about Sonna, her situation and her struggle.
There and then, I not only felt sorry for her, I also felt terribly ashamed of myself for ever having judged her.

There are some who told me that her situation and difficulties does not excuse her poor behaviour, but then I thought, neither does her poor behaviour justify my own.

I am not a judgemental person. I usually don't judge, and I try to consciously make the required effort never to find myself judging other.
Nonetheless, sometimes we all find ourselves in situations that stretches our common sense and we make the mistake of reacting in ways that are inexcusable to say the least.