Friday, April 26, 2019

Mother's Day 2019

This Mother's Day at SHONA Congo we are celebrating community!  Because motherhood is a team sport.  

In Swahili,there are these two terms I love..."mama mukubwa" and "mama mudogo"  They mean "big mama" and "little mama".  They are generally used to refer to aunts,but the term is also extended to women who might not be actual relatives, but who have taken on this role in some way.  

We all have "big mamas" and "little mamas" in our lives.  

You know those women..they might be family members or friends or teachers or some lady at church.  They might not say much.  They might just stand quietly in a doorway and open their arms and your children go rushing off and for 5 minutes a space opens up in your brain.  And you can think again.   

When Argentine and Mapendo first arrived in Canada, Argentine's 1 year old daughter  was sick.   We went to the hospital, and I sat with Argentine and Mapendo, in this sparkling building, in a continent they had just arrived on. Perched on cots, I watched my friends trading Argentine's tiny daughter back and forth, leaving the doctors and nurses that came in to wonder which woman was the mother.  

I watched Argentine and Mapendo play this game, trying to get the little girl to take some liquid.  Argentine would offer some juice, and the little girl would protest, mouth closed, head tilted away. 

 Then Mapendo would say "Oh poor baby.  Is your mama not being nice to you?  Come to "Ma Mukubwa" (Big Mama)."  

Mapendo would craddle the 1 year old against her bosom and gently lean back her head.  In new arms, the little girl would momentarily forget her objection, drinking and relaxing into Mapendo's arms.  

  And then suddenly the little girl would jolt up, realizing she had somehow been fooled, and reach back toward Argentine.  

"Oh did Big Mama treat you badly?" Argentine would say.  "Come back me."  And then the game started all over again.

  They did this for hours, trading the little girl between the two of them, as they chatted about other things.  I never saw them exchange a wink, or mention the strategy at all.  It was as natural as the air they breathed.  As though they had been doing it all their lives.    

This Mother's Day, may we celebrate community.  May we look for the Big Mamas and Little Mamas that make our lives possible.  May we see those arms that trade our children back and forth.  This, too, is motherhood.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

Empowerment backwards

I rarely post a rant...but...this one...the more I think about it... it keeps getting under my skin. We got an email from a non-profit organization asking for permission to use this photo of Argentine, they had found, from years ago. The email said "asking your permission to use the photograph of an African lady with a sewing machine and crutches alongside in a leaflet to raise funds for ‘Empowering Women with Disabilities in East Africa’."
Props to them for finding us and asking for permission. 
Clearly they are trying to do it right. But frankly, I just don't understand. The organization has ongoing work in a number of East African countries. If they are working there, shouldn't they have photos from their own work? 
The organization has an annual income of over $800,000, I am sure they can afford to get a photo of the excellent work they are doing. And if not, perhaps they should focus on the excellent work part first.
The message leaves me asking "Don't they already know anybody with disabilities in East Africa? Haven't they already built a relationship with them? If not, how do they propose a program to "empower" them? "
I think this is actually a common mistake in the non-profit world. We are starting backwards. We propose the program first, raise the money, and then go around and look for the people to "empower". That is not empowerment, at least not for the people on the ground. Maybe it will be good work. But let's not call it empowerment.
When we see empowerment backwards, what we miss is where it starts. We come to believe that it starts from the outside, and particularly that it starts from us.
They asked for permission to use this photo of "An African lady with a sewing machine and crutches" That is what bothers me. I have never thought of that photo that way.
To me that photo has always been a photo of my friend Argentine. And I am guessing that it is to you.
I know that if I asked, you could tell me all kinds of things you know about Argentine. Where she is from, where she lives now, the way she sings, her daughter's name, her incredible smile and laughter, the tragedies she has experienced.
I think it is important to know all of that. Because it reminds us of where empowerment starts, and what this photo is all about.
As a child, Argentine never went to school because of her disability. And yet she would sit and wait for all the other kids to come home from school, and she would call them towards her with her smile and her laughter, she would tempt them towards her with her incredible personality. And then she would ask them what they learned, so she could learn it to. She was teaching herself in the only way she could. For as long as she has lived, Argentine has been using every tool in her possession to empower herself. And she is still doing so today.
That photo, you see, it isn't a photo that should raise funds. It is a photo that should raise awareness...of the talent, and dignity, and joy that belong to Argentine. She owns her own empowerment. And she owns that photo too. Let's start from there.
(photo credit to Molly Feltner who took this and many of the other beautiful photos of Argentine, Mapendo, Riziki and Solange)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Erasing a Chalkboard

It has been a little over a year since Argentine and Mapendo and their families arrived in Canada. I am forever impressed by the people of Canada, and particularly the people of Athabasca, who made it possible for them to come to Canada, to build lives in safety.

 The task is enormous when you think about it. Three adults who walk on crutches, and 6 children arrived in Canada last December. Just the reality of walking on crutches in Western Canada where the snow piles up, it is a challenge. One of the first things Argentine noted about their new home was that there were no people on the street. True, to get around in Canada, you largely need a car..there aren't crowds of people walking down the streets, pushing bicycles or selling peanuts. So countless friends have filled in for these families, who find themselves without cars or driver's licenses yet. 

Neema, Mapendo's teenage neice whom Mapendo has cared for since she was young, went back to school for the first time in 5 years. Can you imagine starting 9th grade in a new country and a new language, after 5 years without school? She's done beautifully, and is so thankful for the opportunity. 

There have been a thousand questions to be navigated. How do you work a microwave, what to do when a smoke alarm goes off, why do Canadians eat bread all the time? What kinds of clothes should teenage girl's wear? It has been a fascinating year of questions.

Adjusting to a new culture, blending the old with the new, can be a challenge.   One teenage immigrant that I know was given this advice:  "Your life is like a chalkboard.  You have to erase it first."

 "All that confusion you are experiencing in a new country... it is because you are trying to write on a surface that hasn't been erased.  It won't make any sense.  You just have to erase more thoroughly," the man said.

 As though the place she came from could be erased.

 I too, have made a similar mistake. I have been tempted to post before and after pictures of Argentine and Mapendo. To show how different their lives are now.  The photos would make a great contrast.

But what story would I be telling?   The place that they came from has not ceased to exist. It is not just a "before" picture. The place they come from is forever far away. But it is also, always, with them still. Mapendo sits in her small apartment in Canada and sews African cloth, the same work she did while in Congo and in refugee camps. Her phone sits at her side and she waits for news from her mother in Congo who is sick.

 This is the truth of the world. Home does not cease to exist, just because we leave it. It is easy to see resettled refugees, in fact immigrants of all sorts, as starting their lives anew. But who is to say where one life stops and the other life starts? Mapendo is saving money to send to her mother, so she can buy medicine and get surgery in the new year. Is that part of her "old life" or her "new life"? The line only looks clear from the outside.

 Sometimes when I visit Athabasca, I hear a newfound friend asking Argentine how to say a word in Swahili. The result is always chaos and laughter. Sometimes Argentine's younger sister, Aline, joins in. She is a teenage girl, and has learned English incredibly fast, delighting in all that a new culture has to offer.  But in this particular moment she is proudly pronouncing a word in Swahili. It gives my heart hope. The Canadian friend stumbles over the Swahili pronunciation and more laughter ensues.  Maybe we won't all learn Swahili. But maybe that is not the point.

 As these newfound friends celebrate the joy of language and laughter, I think to myself that I can almost see Aline's chalkboard full of words both old and new, somehow mixed together..  I hear the strength and the pride in her voice as she pronounces that word in Swahili and then again in English.  And I am thankful, that she has found a place for both words on her chalkboard.  And nothing has been erased. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On family separation

"My daughter was 2 the last time I saw her. She is seventeen now. "

The first time I heard these words, my heart caught in my mouth.

These particular words belonged to a middle-aged woman, working diligently to learn English in my ESL class. She came to the class after long shifts at a local restaurant, cleaning tables and serving food. I had known her for several months before I even realized she had a teenage daughter. Had she never said anything? Maybe I'd never asked.

Since that first conversation, I've learned to listen more. And I have heard this story a hundred times. In a hundred different ways.

"My son is is Mexico. I haven't seen him since he was a baby."

"My girls, they grew up with their grandmother. They call me mama but they only know me as a voice on the phone."

At some point I realized, this is not just a collection of individual stories. This is THE story of our broken immigration system.

Recently, a lot of attention in the US has been given to the horrific policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border. We are all rightly horrified. And there is something uniquely horrific about witnessing our own government officials tearing apart mothers and young children and placing them in what appear to be warehouses.

But let us also recognize that our immigration system tragically separate families in more ways than this.
In the US we have created an immigration system in which it is virtually impossible for our poor and working class neighbors to immigrate to this country legally. There is no line for them, or if it exists, it is decades long. And at the same time, the US pursues international policies that gut local economies in the interest of corporations, destabilizes governments and pursues misguided "drug wars". In effect we have made it increasingly impossible for our neighbors to lead stable and secure lives in their own countries. At the same time our economy benefits from the hard labor of workers left with the only option to kiss their children goodbye and come here "undocumented". Nobody chooses that heartbreak. Not if there are other choices.

We are all responsible. Collectively we have failed to listen to the costs of an immigration system built to force a population into undocumented existence.

I don't have any easy answers. I believe that we need to change our immigration policies and our economic policies. And that is just the start. But I believe that first we must understand the true human cost of our current situation. For that, I am thankful for the outcry at toddlers being torn from their mothers. May the horror of it startle us awake. But may we not settle too easily for the myth that these are the only children separated from their parents. May we have the courage to see the story that is not just in our news feeds but all throughout our local communities. We all have people in our communities who are separated from their families, we just have to find the courage to ask.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Top 5 things I have learned from Congolese Mothers

1.  Hit the wall.
In Congo, when a young child gets a little hurt, for example by running into a wall, the adults in the room will often offer a simple solution.  Vengeance.  Against the inanimate object of course.  The adult will say "Pardon! Pardon!" as though the wall had somehow attacked the child unfairly.  And then the adult will offer to hit the wall for the child.  Literally.  It is retribution straight up, and perhaps offers some concerning models of conflict resolution in the long term. But on the other hand, I often have witnessed tearful toddlers crack a smile at the suggestion, as though even they can see the ridiculousness of blaming the wall.  Perhaps that is a world view we could all afford to share.  

2.  Nobody has just one mama.  In Swahili, an aunt is a "mama mukubwa" (big mother) or a "mama mudogo" (little mother).  But the term is often applied generously to women friends of all sorts. And the relationship is real.  Women often take on the role of loving and carrying for and correcting eachother's children.

3.  Carry your baby on your back. 
While sewing.  And cooking.  And walking.

Or let someone else carry your baby.
While African women are often recognized for carrying their children on their backs, what is often left unsaid is that African women often ask OTHER people (particularly older girls) to carry their children on their backs.

Solange carrying Mapendo's baby.

5. Forget the stuff.  Carry a cloth.
I have rarely seen a woman in Congo carrying a diaper bag.  There aren't a lot of baby wipes, pacifiers, or dangling toys.  Children just don't come with the same collection of supplies.  But one thing that every woman has is an extra "kitenge" cloth.  It seems like no matter what has gone wrong, a Congolese woman will always have a "kitenge", quickly unwrapping one from her waist or head.  With that cloth, she can wrap a crying baby on her back, or fashion a diaper, or wipe a runny nose.

4.  Feign Seriousness.  But make a joke.
There is an approach to parenting young children that I will identify as "feigning seriousness".  Congolese women often seem to take children's dilemma's very seriously, but you can always catch a glimmer in their eyes, and the undertone of a joke running through the adults.  Sometimes, I hear myself here in the US, attempting to navigate a bedtime gone awry ("If you wiggle one more time I am going to leave!"), and I think I have lost the thread of the joke.  How serious can wiggling be?  Perhaps it is because of the communal nature of Congolese mothering, and the ever presence of multiple adults, that the jokes keep running.  Or maybe because they are a little less inclined to tie their self-worth to their children's behavior.  Whatever the reason, the undercurrent of joking definitely makes life with many children more enjoyable.

25% off all SHONA Congo bags for the next two days.  
 Discount code: mzazi at checkout. 

 Buy a SHONA Congo bag for one of your friends this Mother's Day.  These bags are great ways to connect to other women and to find strength in our shared journeys.  Each bag comes with the individual story of the woman who made that bag.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Happy Ending

I don't believe in happy endings. 

But we are a culture in love with happy endings.  And this story begs for one. 

This is the story of Argentine and Mapendo, two young women from rural villages in Eastern Congo.  They started with nothing.  Survived war and poverty.  Worked hard. And now they are about to board an airplane and arrive in Canada.

You see how it is a Cinderella story, right?

So let me say up front...I never wanted Argentine and Mapendo to leave Congo and move to Canada.  And I don't believe it is a happy ending.

I believe it is a tragedy, that these young women couldn't build safe lives in the country they are from. What does it feel like to have to travel halfway across the world, and leave everything you know, just to find a safe place to call home?

 May we never stop asking that question, and fighting for a world where 50 million people don't have to live in that reality. 

This last week, Argentine and Mapendo's family's scrounged any money they could find to buy bus tickets and visit Argentine and Mapendo one last time.  They gave Argentine and Mapendo their blessings, on this next step in their journey. 

And that it is what it is.  A next step, not an ending.  With more joys and more sorrows to come.

In 2 days I will board a plane and go to Canada.  I will meet Argentine and Mapendo in the airport and I will celebrate with them. This is a moment worth celebrating.

But I will also remember that just a few days ago Argentine's mother hugged her goodbye.


Then we will stand there in the airport in Canada and look at each other, imagining what is to come.  We will bundle up 9 refugees in more clothing than they could ever imagine.  And we will open the door and walk out into the frigid Canadian air, and see how their crutches work on ice.

Join the Journey.

Countdown: Arriving in 4 Days. Here is Jonathan, and his younger brother, Joachim after they fled Congo for the second time. They were in a refugee camp. No matter where you go, children will play. What's next for these little guys? Join The Journey.

20% off all SHONA bags for the next 48 hours. Give the gift of SHONA this holiday season and tell someone about the beautiful, handcrafted work of Jonathan and Joachim's mama. Your support has carried us so far. discount code: siku4 at the end of checkout.