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.