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Telling African Stories Part One: ‘A Man of Good Hope’


leslie marmon silko on Story

Last night I went to watch a stong and beautifully sang performance based on the book.”A Man of Good Hope”. I was excited to watch an African story, told by an African cast (although the writer and director are not African) because this is the time. On the weekend I had watched ‘Mbuzeni’ by Koleka Putuma. A beautiful piece performed by 4 incredibly talented actresses. Although I do not understand isiXhosa, I got the gist of the story, and the audience was riveted. The story was a sad one, but there was a lot of humour, and love, and care in the story and the telling of it. So different from the stories the media tells. So I went with hope and great expectation.

The piece opens with a beautiful overture played by a marimba orchestra. The cast members are also the orchestra and they move seamlessly between their roles. The story is complex, and right from the start they give context. They introduce the main character and his family lineage which is important in Somali, and many other African cultures. And then go on to give a brief history of Africa – very creatively giving context – and then back to the young man’s story.Throughout it all they sing. The first time the full chorus sings their voices soar and we were washed in this rich and beautiful harmony. Their voices are strong. The soloists too are wonderful. And they narrate the story with conviction.

As the story unfolded I started to feel a little uncomfortable. The main character is Somali. He is Moslem. It is his story. And yet most of the songs, at important moments in his story, were in South African languages, mainly isiXhosa. And the dancing very South African. This did not sit well with me.It perpetuated the belief that Africa is a country, and that we all speak and sing ‘African’! It pointed to an artistic laziness – or South African arrogance – or maybe an African resignation to not being represented in all our fullness. With such a large Somali community in Cape Town, in South Africa; with the internet and the ease of getting things from other cultures something of the Somali culture should have been integrated into the musical score. It should have been a strong and central motif. Especially since, in the scene where they tell the story of the scramble for Africa, they represent the British with very ‘english’ singing, and in the story of the Russian occupation of Ethiopia the Russians are represented with ‘russian-style’ dancing and marching. How can we know so much about Europe, and not try to do the same about our own?

The story of the xenophobia, and the juxtaposing of the Somali shopkeepers with the beliefs of the South Africans was done very powerfully, and created a beautiful way to begin conversations around xenophobia. What might have been missing was the voices of those South Africans who helped the foreigners.

At the end of the show I wanted to cry because … if I stripped away the beauty of the music and the dance  and the strong acting – I felt cheated. This is supposed to be the story of resilience and hope. As a storyteller I felt that the story was incomplete – the pain was amplified, told and retold like the media does and not sufficiently balanced with what gave this man hope, what made him so resilient, what stopped him from running mad because anybody else would have. I think it was the  piece in the second half, with the character Death that really destroyed the rest of the story. It was not necessary. We understood. I did give a standing ovation for the performance because the music, the SINGING,  the conviction of the artists was strong, but I wanted to cry.

As an audience member I was distraught. As an African I was angry, pained, that a story that is potentially so rich, which could have been told in a more nuanced way, focused on what the media would. Some of the audience said that this is because I AM NOT THE INTENDED AUDIENCE. That the story is told highlighting what the audiences in England and Europe – where the play is going – expect and respond to: pain, gore, and a disinterest in which language is used, because at least the cast speak ‘African’. And the music covers everything else. REALLY?!!!!!

I woke up this morning with these questions: What gave him hope? Why do we tell African stories like that, when we know that is not the whole picture? What is our intention when we are telling these stories? What do we want to achieve? Why do we tell the story we think the West wants to hear, instead of telling OUR story? Are we not the first audience?

The Call


There are gashes that cut through

generations gone and generations coming

no amount of scars and scabs can hide

for we have not yet wept.

 

Pain seared deep

lulling us into a numbness

that forgot the rituals

the rituals that bring healing

that laid things to rest

And now the pain bleeds rage

and hate and a forgetfulness

of who we are, of who we were

of who we can be.

So we walk around in this

grotesque form of who we could be

contorted in pain yet

thinking we walk upright…

Still spat on and chained.

 

Let us now stand still

and listen

Let us let the pain break us

yes, break away the brittle numbness

that lulls our hearts into forgetfulness

Let us stand still and let the

water of tears

long-held back

wash over us,

sweep us off our feet

wash everything away

for we do not yet stand on solid ground

Let us shake away the skeletons

that cling to us

Let our mouths open wide

and let us sound that grief

Wooiee, wooiee, wooiee.

Beat the drums my brother

let us dance away the grief,

let us not stop until

the wounds are clear

no more pus, no more pain

Let us dance again

until our children, my grandchildren, and their great-great-grandchildren

carry in their bones this healing dance

until all those who came before us know

that we have heard, and seen and honoured their pain

Wooiee, wooiee, wooiee…

Then wrap us in love

and let us sleep the deep sleep

of restoration

so that tomorrow our dance will be a dance of hope

that will vibrate across generations gone and generations

to come

Wrap us in love

let deep sleep restore these tired bones

breathe wholeness back

breathe back wholeness

wholly breathe

Holy breath.

namutebi 1 June 2015

The power of gentleness


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In most of the cities I have been too there is a clear distinction between where the middle class live, and where the working class and the poor live.  And the middle class is often afraid to walk alone in the areas where the poor and working class live.  They carry many assumptions about safety and ‘otherness’.  This is not so in Addis.  Right next to the palace is a shanty town.  Right opposite the Jupiter International Hotel we are staying in (next to the Raddison Blu) is a shanty town.  The people of Addis live side by side in harmony – the geography of the city dictates that.  There is no sense of fear as one walks down the streets, not really.  Except maybe that conditioned sense of ‘I must take care’ that is born out of living in large cities like Cape Town.  In crowded places one must be aware of are pickpockets, the beggars who are very persistent and  the con men who hang around the hotels.

The other evening I was with two of my colleagues waiting for the rest of the team to come.  We were standing across the road from the hotel, close to some shacks, next to the minibus taxi we were all going to use to go to a Jazz concert.  It was dark.  A man with very beautifully twisted dreadlocks came up to my colleagues and started to speak to them.  At first they ignored him, then they said they were not interested.  He was pushy so we decided at that moment to wait inside the minibus.  He followed us, and wanted to open the door and get in but the taxi driver sent him away. Someone said ‘He is just trying to con you guys.”  And we left it at that.

He walked away, and then came back, and tried to come in again.  We all started to get a bit agitated.  Did he not understand that we did not want to talk to him.  I could feel my own inner security bells going.  I wanted to tell him, “Go away.”  The American lady, being closest to the door, then raised her voice slightly and speaking very firmly asked him to leave.  She was holding the door closed.  He became angry. He walked to the passenger door and tried to open it.   Another colleague sitting in that seat held that door closed.  We were all starting to get angry, and to speak.  And then one of our Ethiopian colleagues, a petit young woman leaned out of the taxi and spoke to him in the calmest, kindest voice.  And he backed away, said it was all well, and left.

I later said, “You handled that so well.  You were so kind.”  She smiled and said, “That’s how it is here.  You just need to speak to someone nicely and they will understand.”  So I asked her what did you say?  And she said, “I explained that you guys were not from here and you did not know how things worked, that you just wanted to be left alone. And he said okay.  Just tell them to talk to me nicely.”  And that was that.

The course I am on is about using art to build peace within the community.  It is really about seeing and listening to people, and helping them see each other, see themselves, see possibility.  My Ethiopian colleague really demonstrated how communication and gentleness are sometimes the most powerful tools we may have.

 

Werewere Liking – Cameroon /Ivory Coast


I am fighting for African youth. … I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually. I want them to be aware that each and every one of them is capable of changing the world, changing themselves to begin with. Each time one of us improves, s/he improves the world. And only through the improvement of humanity, inside of us, can the world be improved. – Werewere Liking

Werewere Liking was born in Cameroon in 1950 and has been living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast since 1978.  She is a poet, novelist, painter, choreographer, performer, educator and social activist.  I have not met her or gone to her cultural arts centre in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Ki-Yi Mbock Village (which means ultimate universal knowledge in Bassa, her mother tongue)  but over the past few years I have read about her, and seen a documentary about her work and I am inspired.

She is deeply committed to African tradition, to the Arts, to community, to developing the youth – and has been successful in her work, despite having left home at a very early age.  She says when she wants to do something she tries it, even if there is no funding, she tries to make it happen – and she has had amazing success (and many failures, I am sure).  She has a very clear vision and has worked hard to put it into practice.  The cultural centre is intentionally called a village because it is about community.  At her centre she works with people of all ages and they explore all the arts – writing, poetry, music, art, dance, puppetry… and the those things that support the arts – sound engineering, costume design, stagecraft…  And if any of the ‘artists’ living, learning and working there can’t read, they get literacy lessons too, in French.

I recently found an interview presented in an article published by the Barnard Centre for Research on Women. For those of you who speak French, it has video clips of the interview (with English translations in the text of the article) of her speaking about her work.  I have pulled out some quotes of her views on Pan-Africanism, the Youth and Women.  For the full article click on this link: Werewere Liking | S&F Online | Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies.

Werewere Liking on Pan-Africanism

For me, the label “Pan-African” implies that we take into account not only Africa, but also its diasporas. Because the term, “Pan-African” itself was conceived by Africans from the diaspora. So, it means including all the worlds born out of Africa. So, we claim them, but also offer them all we have.   …. it’s a view that’s a conviction for me, that Africa is rich in its entirety as a continent only in its diversity. Africa’s primary riches are its different cultures, its peoples. … Well, because, as you can see, these very borders render spaces extremely small. They reduce Africa. They weaken it. They prevent the circulation of vital energies. Consequently, they are a handicap for the development of this continent.

I love and believe what she says – that Africa is rich because of its diversity.  It is true and yet for the last few centuries – and more importantly the last 50+ years since we started the post-colonial period we made that diversity the reason for war, coups and everything that goes with it.  We forget that a tapestry, a beautiful piece of cloth, is beautiful because of all the different threads that are woven together to make it one.

She has a passion for young people whom she takes in to live and learn at her center, and she has this to say about  her work with young people:

I am fighting for African youth. I am fighting for children’s brains to work better. When I take charge of them, I try to help them use their brain. I force them to use their left hand because we have an entire part of our brain that does not work properly because we use only one part of the body, so there is a side of the brain that is less effective. There are many exercises that I have them do. I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually.

… My battle is for little things and I see myself as a little ant, you know? The tiniest of ants can lift up crumbs ten times its own weight. However, because it [the ant] is so tiny, these are still small achievements. So be it! From my position, what I try to do is to try to lift ten times my own weight. That’s it.

On feminism and being a woman:

Because feminism, as it appeared at a time (in the 60s and 70s) —but I think it must have improved since—but the way it appeared at a time, it consisted mainly of lots of demands, lots of demonstrations, and I think this is a trap. Truly, when you look at it, we don’t need to demonstrate our womanhood. It’s like music for the heart. We know that we have things to do. We must do them, attain our goals, but without losing our nature. Our nature, our charm, our beauty, our gentleness. This is a totally different thing. This is not contradictory. To be a woman means to have it all. It’s to be all. Because for me God is a woman. So, it’s to be a creator, to be the source of life and consequently to privilege life above all. (my italics)

I first heard about her in 2008 when a someone in a workshop that I was facilitating spoke to me about her.  And then I saw the documentary about her – she spoke about her life dreams, her challenges, how she built up her cultural arts centre.  Her passion, drive, creativity, vision and resilience inspire me!!  She has through following her passion with conviction made an impact, not only in Ivory Coast, but internationally.  I would love to meet her.

Here are some links about her:

The African Women’s Decade – 2010 – 2020


I did not know that the African Union had made 2010 – 2020 the African Women’s decade – but they did!  Was there any media hype about it? Did I miss it, in the noise and media overload of this century?  Or was I just too tied up in taking care of my little 6 month old, who was just coming out of his premature stage and becoming stronger?  I don’t know, and I don’t think that really matters – not really… it’s just that the concept of the  ‘African Women’s Decade’ gives me a sense of excitement and possibility, and a sense of deja-vu.  It takes me back to Nairobi in July 1985 when Kenya hosted the U.N.’s 3rd World Conference on Women to ‘review and appraise the achievement of the UN Decade for Women’ (1975 – 85).   I was 21 years old and through some luck my friend Irene was able to get us to work as volunteers at the NGO Forum – see my badge!!! 😉 (P.A. Barlow)  It felt like such a privilege.

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To be honest I do not remember much about that time – except that it was very exciting, and the Forum was based around the National Theatre.  There were so many women in Nairobi – and the men, who had been excited about the prospect of being surrounded by many women ended up frustrated because all the women were interested in was Women’s issues!!!   Another thing  I remember that a group of us, young black women went to the Hilton Hotel (unaccompanied by any man) and they did not treat us like we were hookers, AND we had quick service!!! And all the street children disappeared from the streets of Nairobi for a time.

A lot was achieved, I am sure, – and a lot of decisions and strategies developed in the UN, Development agencies, Governments etc – but I want to know what impact it had on the ordinary woman.  Conferences often frustrate me because you spend most of you time listening to people talking AT you, and the most interesting encounters, for me, are the conversations you have over tea, or lunch, or when you are looking at the displays, and accidentally bump into someone.  I wish there were more spaces for people to engage – not just to ask questions of the speakers, but to sit and really engage, dream, plan, listen to each others stories, understand the different contexts….

You see I am more interested in the impact on people, rather than policy, and so on.  Policy creates an enabling environment, but if no one acts then its just words on paper.  I fight for women, but sometimes hard-nosed feminists turn me off.  I get frustrated when they paint all men with one brush (evil, pulling women down) and I reflect and realise that my mother would not have gone to University in the 1950s if it had not been for the foresight of her father.  Or when I can identify a number of women who pulled me back, and men who encouraged me.  I get frustrated when they speak of the patriarchical society, and then go on to behave in exactly the same way that they say men do – and thus silence all the women they are claiming to empower! Women, like men, are just human beings with strengths and weaknesses.

So while the idea of a women’s decade excites me, I want to approach it differently from the way it seems to come up in the mainstream.  I would like to be more awake than I was at 21, and, in some small way make this decade count in more than just words – or policies or projects  looking for funders (all of which are absolutely important – I know that).  The question I am asking myself, and you, is ‘What are you going to do to make  this decade of the African Women more than just words on paper – or people shouting in the political arena about what is not happening?  What mark will we leave – beyond the rhetoric and the hype – even if it touches just one person?

  • How will we define (or re-define) power, and powerful women?   Will it be all about money and business, or being senior in government?  Or will we recognise all the ways in which women support the continent?
  • What, in your deepest heart of hearts, do you want to be the legacy of this decade?  How can you contribute, in a new and innovative way – beyond the tried and tested ‘recipes’ that often do not touch the ordinary woman?
  • Who are we going to celebrate?  Whose stories will we share?  Will we celebrate that woman who makes sure (on her meagre earnings) her children have a safe place to sleep, a roof over their heads, and get an education as well as that woman who goes out and fights for policies and infrastructure, or who makes an impact in the field of Education, or in the Economy?  Or we going to focus on the ‘celebrities’?
  • Will we be able to go beyond the traditions that trap women, and recognise, also the ways in which women make those traditions work for them (check out this video – http://www.ted.com/talks/kavita_ramdas_radical_women_embracing_tradition.html)

How about starting by recognising your 10 most inspiring /powerful/amazing African women?  Lets talk about them! Send me a short email, and a photo, if you have one, and I will add them all to my blog.

As a starting point (and before I put my 10 most inspiring African women down) let me share this with you :

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/12/06/the-20-youngest-power-women-in-africa-2012/

William Kamkwamba – Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans


Today I salute William Kamkwamba of Malawi – and reflect on some of the beliefs we carry about development, education and poverty. There is often a belief that the people to be ‘developed’ (usually poor, lacking formal education, and in rural areas, or slums or townships) do not know what they want, and because of lack of education and poverty are unable to make a difference.  There is often a belief that if we do not ‘bring development’ to them, they will not be able to make a difference in their own lives.  And a belief that because they do not speak English very well they are not very bright.  William Kamkwamba tells a different story.

   kamkwamba_0001     kamkwamba

In 2010 I was going through the Schiphol airport in the Netherlands when my eye landed on this book.  The title is what attracted me first because it sounded like a myth or legend – and when I read the back of the book I knew I had to buy it – and what an inspiring read (I must also say it is a slow start – but picks up as you go along).

William Kamkwamba was  born in 1987 and grew up in rural Malawi.  When he was about 13, he started taking apart old radios, and putting them back together again, with a friend.  They later began to fix people’s radios for them, and because there was no electricity they would collect old discarded batteries to power the radios.  William was fascinated by how things worked and this led him to discover that the dynamo on a bicycle made electricity to power the light, and he could use it to power a radio (although the pedalling was tiring).   This triggered his desire to create electricity for his home and family – a dream he forgot and then re-discovered later.  In 2000, the year he finished primary school there were floods and a drought, and crops failed.  The villages further away were hit first by the famine and later  spread across the country.  Food became scarce, and very expensive. His father was a farmer, and like many other farmers in that period he lost all his crops.  And his family barely survived the famine.

The following year William learnt that he had passed his primary school exams well enough to go to secondary school.  He started school but had to drop out because his parents did not have the money to pay fees.  They were trying to recover from the damage of the famine.  William was upset about this, but his desire to learn was so strong, he continued to go to the library of a local primary school to read.  There he found a book, ‘Using Energy’, which had pictures of windmills on the cover.  This reawakened his dream to make electricity, and although he could not read very well, he understood the pictures in the book, and used this to guide his project.  In 2002, in spite of all the village thinking he had gone mad, William finished his windmill (using scrap material, and getting favours from people), and it created electricity for his home.

His story, by some strange fate ended up in the national newspapers, and on someone’s blog, and this led to exposure on the TED Africa, and TED Global front.  He was later sponsored, and went back to school – in Malawi, then in Johannesburg.

William is now 24 years old, and studying environmental studies with a minor in engineering at Dartmouth College in the USA. He has, through the help of others, made a water pump for his family (and village), so his father can harvest twice a year, regardless of whether the rains come or not.  He has started an NGO to support primary school he went to in Wimbe, Malawi, has built two more windmills and has dreams of returning to Malawi to continue his work.

Maybe, when we are engaging in the practice of development we need to LOOK more carefully and LISTEN more closely in order to understand what is really going on, and then SUPPORT those people who, in spite of everything around them, are already making a difference!!!

SOME LINKS FOR INFORMATION ON WILLIAM KAMKWAMBA

Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans – Building our Nations


This year I am telling the ‘other’ stories – loudly and without apology! I am talking those things  that dont make the mainstream news often, except when people die.  I want to write about them. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at a TED event  (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) speaks of ‘the danger of a single story’ – that story that presents a person, place or thing as one-dimensional.  We all have them – we speak about people of a certain tribe/race/gender/profession in a particular way, respond to them in a particular way because ‘they are like that’.  We have very particular expectations of certain people or certain roles – and are surprised or suspicious if they turn out to be different.  We have a single story that we tell of ourselves as Africans even when we know that it is not the only story we can tell.     Well I am tired of the single story about Africa and Africans (often told by Africans)  that focuses on that which does not work; that  spotlights only those who fail, or steal, or destroy.  I am fed up of those conversations that cut people’s dreams into little pieces, that seem to say ‘the status quo cannot change;  those conversations that perpetuate the negative, make us believe, at a very subliminal level, that as Africans are unable to run un-corrupt governments, have great economies,  create anything new or do anything good!  These stories are too simple, they are an easy cop-out – and they are silent on the rest of the picture – the many other stories of people who enable, create new realities, make a difference everyday.   I want to tell the other stories.

This year I will recognise and celebrate those Africans, who make or have made a difference.  For some the contribution is small, and very personal or local; and for others, the impact is felt, immediately, by many, and sometimes over a very long period of time.  I want to focus on HOPE,  BELIEF, LOVE, POSSIBILITY, CREATIVITY, LOYALTY AND RESILIENCE – because that is what brings about change.  We can only build on what is there, on what is working, on what is not broken.  But if we do not recognise what is working, if we do not see or tap into our potential, how then can we change?  I want to focus on that which is working, that has potential, that we can build on – and on those who have, in some way supported, or enabled.

MY INSPIRATION?   My mother and father, who were great nation builders.  Throughout my life, and even after their passing, I have seen or heard about how they supported people, challenged people and stepped into difficult situations boldly because it was the right thing to do.  They did their best for the family (immediate and extended) and Uganda at large. Here is one small story:

We were 5 children, and the two who came before me had cerebral palsy.  My parents believed in education and when they realised that Fay and Chris would not be able to go to normal schools they got together with 6 other parents, and a few other people they started the Kampala School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped.  They started out in a store-room at Mengo Primary School (Mrs. Wambuzi was the headmistress) and later the school moved to its current premises, land which was given them by the Kabaka.  Many children who would otherwise not have gone to school, or who would have remained hidden, as a curse, got an opportunity to have an education, and parents got support.  I remember taking Fay and Chris to school there, and just loving the way the other children loved them.  The children had access to physical therapy and occupational therapy at Mengo Hospital – and then, as Amin’s regime progressed this fizzled out.  Soon, it became obvious that the school did not have the staff trained to support Fay and Chris, and they stopped going to school.  The name of the school dropped the ‘mentally handicapped’ because there were not enough staff to support them.  But my parents remained involved in the school for a very long time!  They helped develop a vocational education wing, which the current headmistress has developed into an amazing centre.

When my father passed away in 2006, the first people to put an orbituary in the papers, even before we as a family did, were the Old boys and Girls Association of the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped.  And at my mother’s funeral last year, one of the old boys came and spoke.  On the side he told us that his disability was a result of an accident as a child, and his family disowned him, and left him at the school.  He said my mother supported him, encouraged him to go to secondary school after he passed his P7, encouraged him to do his tertiary education, and he is now an accountant, drives a car, and supports the family that rejected him.

The school lives on, over 40 years later, and many who go there do not know my parents, or the other people involved in the starting of the school.  For me, though, this school teaches me something – that in addressing a personal challenge it is possible to help others beyond your life time!

For a long time I have wanted to find a way to honour them and I think that collecting stories of people who make a difference is one way of doing this.

I am inspired everyday by ordinary people who quietly get on with life, not complaining, but actively making a difference in one life, or 100 lives, inspiring others, believing in others, standing up for others, inventing, creating and actively making a difference.  Like the woman in Khayelitsha (a township in Cape Town) whose daughter had cerebral palsy, and died young, but she went on, with nothing, to create a school to support other children and parents with the same challenges.

I am also inspired by the book the  Vision Group in Uganda published to celebrate 50 years of independence – reminding us of the people who stood up and made a difference.  Stories of 148 people (a small number) of people who made a difference.  And while the vision book focused on those who had contributed positively and negatively, I would like to focus on those that inspire.

I commit to write about someone at least once a fortnight;  to share a story about an African making a difference.   Some will be people who are well-known, and some will be little known – and doing what seems like something very small and insignificant, but they will, in my opinion, be making a difference.

JUST SO THAT YOU KNOW:   I will, without apology, write about people who I know, who may even be related to me as well as those who I do not personally know, because bold, inspiring, courageous acts  happen everyday, in big and small ways, and often the contributions of those closest to us go unnoticed.  I want to acknowledge all those who I think are making a difference in one way or another.

My INVITATION to you:  If you have a story you want to share, please send me an email at namutebi@mweb.co.za

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