Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Strength from others' courage

In which Stephen Lewis reminds me (i) why I admire what he does and (ii) why I'm doing this Dare To Remember.

It's easy to get cynical (I do all the time) about the hype and posturing surrounding "development" and "aid". But I'm a human being, and other human beings I know -- and many I don't -- are dealing with HIV and AIDS in their families and communities. It's not so easy to sit by when we focus on it for a few minutes.

One thing I admire about Stephen Lewis is that he shines through the hype, about issues and even about himself (he's a celebrity, after all). He doesn't let anyone get away with posturing, either.

Here's a recent clip: http://watch.ctv.ca/news/top-picks/inspirational/#clip389095

Thanks for reading and listening. (More posts to come.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Defending human rights

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. This year’s theme is human rights defenders who are working to end discrimination and human rights violations.

Not coincidentally, today's post is about two human rights defenders: Jestina Mukoko and Beatrice Mtetwa.

Jestina Mukoko is a Zimbabwean human rights activist. A former broadcaster with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, she’s the Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), which monitors human rights abuses.

In 2008, during Zimbabwe's election period, Mukoko was abducted from her home by government security forces and held for 21 days before appearing before a court. She was tortured, beaten and charged with attempting to recruit people to overthrow the government. Local and international pressure helped secure her release.

Jestina Mukoko’s efforts to appeal her arrest and to bring those responsible for the violation of her human rights to justice, and her continuing work with ZPP, have led to international as well as local recognition. She received the 2009 Laureate of the City of Weimar Human Rights prize and the 2009 National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO) peace award, as well as a 2010 International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department. This past year she was the 2010 Oak Fellow at the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College in the U.S. She’s returning to Zimbabwe prior to the elections scheduled for 2011.
Beatrice Mtetwa is a Zimbabwean media and human rights lawyer. She’s defended activists, opposition politicians, and Zimbabwean and foreign journalists who have been wrongly arrested or harassed.

For this, she’s been harassed and intimidated herself. She was arrested in 2003, beaten during custody, and released without charge; she was attacked again in 2007.

I heard Beatrice Mtetwa speak at Ottawa’s Carleton University, where she’s also been an Honorary Visiting Adjunct Professor in the Institute of African Studies. In 2009 she participated in a panel at Carleton on the road to democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe. She also gave the convocation address, which includes an interesting account of how she became a lawyer "by mistake".

Mtetwa received an International Press Freedom Award in 2005 from the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2009 and an International Human Rights Award from the American Bar Association Section of Litigation in 2010.

Both Jestina Mukoko and Beatrice Mtetwa defend human rights despite enormous challenges and personal risk.

You can find more stories of human rights defenders around the world at http://www.un.org/en/events/humanrightsday/2010/index.shtml.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can’t stop now…

Believe it or not, it’s been a month since I started my Dare To Remember for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

My Dare was to create this blog and to post on it every day for a month. That was a month ago.

It’s been 31 days -- of remembering, learning about and writing about amazing people. They’re people who, if we listen to them, can change the way we perceive "Africa." The challenges that are part of the context of their lives, like HIV and AIDS, inequity and violence, exist but they aren't the sum of the continent. There's a lot more going on.

For me, this past month has also been a month of many hours in front of the computer, insufficient sleep, new skills like html, lots of coffee, and the hope that I might put words together in a way that would do justice to the people whose writing or art or activism I was writing about, and would be interesting to readers.

And sometimes it did feel like a marathon. Some days, I had an idea of who I’d write about that day. Other days, I’d be up until late at night researching possibilities, or searching for photos or one last bit of information that would clinch a post, or just finding the time to write.

But it’s also been kind of addictive. I’ve learned about and met some great people and been fascinated by what each one has done or has to say. And thanks to you who've read this blog, I haven't felt alone. I'm thrilled that dozens of people have visited this blog, from North America, the UK and Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Russia and Australia.

Some of you have also contributed financially to the Stephen Lewis Foundation through my Dare page -- and thank you for that, too. (It’s not too late to make a donation if you’re so inclined – and it would be much appreciated by the people at the Stephen Lewis Foundation and in the communities they support in Africa that are dealing with HIV and AIDS.)

Obviously, I've been thinking about what happens tomorrow. I'm somewhat relieved to see that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is continuing its A Dare To Remember campaign at least through December (so people can still run marathons or grow sideburns). So I think I’ll continue this blog for a while. I won’t post every day, out of consideration for my family and for those of you who have made valiant attempts to read the posts. But I have a few more interesting people to write about, so please stay tuned.

Until tomorrow (or maybe the next day or two),

Monday, December 6, 2010

Saying no to violence

You might have heard the statistic recently: up to 70 percent of women in the world experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetimes.

If you've heard this or numbers like it, that's because November 25-December 10 are dedicated to raising awareness about and taking action on violence against women.

November 25 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It also marked the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, incorporating International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on November 29 and ending on International Human Rights Day, December 10.

In Canada, today, December 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It commemorates the 1989 murders of 14 young women at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal.

The United Nations’ UNITE to End Violence Against Women campaign underlines that there are many forms of violence against women, and that these are not confined to a specific culture, region or country. But since this blog is about Africa, and in honour of December 6, today’s post will feature 6 groups in Sub-Saharan Africa who are working to address gender violence:

1. Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), Zimbabwe: WOZA is a civic movement advocating for Zimbabwean women and their families. It has over 75,000 members, both women and men. For WOZA, November 29 is not only International Women Human Rights Defenders Day but the date in 2006 when hundreds of its members were beaten and arrested while peacefully launching the WOZA People’s Charter. WOZA has conducted hundreds of protests since 2003 and over 3,000 of its members and leaders have been wrongfully arrested while exercising their constitutional rights.

2. Mothertongue, South Africa:  Mothertongue is an artists’ collective that supports women to tell their stories through performing, visual and literary arts and art therapies. This enables women who are victims of violence to self-heal and gain awareness of their rights. It also challenges society’s silencing of women. Mothertongue cites the example of a woman whose husband infected her with HIV and then forced her out of her home, who started legal action against him. Mothertongue, with support from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women, brought together 28 women in Khayelitsha near Cape Town who were HIV-positive and survivors of gender-based violence to develop performances based on their experiences. This helped them in their own healing and in supporting other women in the community.

3. Tisunge Ana Athu Akhazi Coalition (TAAAC) / Let’s Protect Our Girl Children, Zambia: TAAAC is a coalition of 9 organisations working to fight sexual violence against girls in Zambia. It advocates for judicial reform to stop violence against women and girls, and supports the Safe Spaces program for educating school children about their rights. Safe Spaces teaches girls about HIV and AIDS, puberty, gender stereotypes and human rights, and provides physical space for them to meet together. It also teaches boys about respect for girls, and gender roles. (Let’s Protect Our Girl Children is also a recipient of a UNIFEM Trust Fund Grant.)

4. The New Sudanese Indigenous NGO Network, Sudan: NESI-Network is one of 16 organisations and individuals that the Nobel Women’s Initiative is highlighting during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This 22-member network of organisations throughout Sudan seeks to strengthen civil society and to enhance the dignity of people regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion.

5. Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRRDOC), Nigeria: CIRRDOC supports women survivors of violence and works to halt violence and the spread of HIV through various mechanisms such as the creation of anti-violence committees headed by men, including traditional leaders:

6. Raising Voices, Uganda: Raising Voices is a project that along with the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention in Kampala aims to prevent violence against women. It uses a model of community mobilisation called SASA -- a Kiswahili word that means "now" as well as an acronym for Start, Awareness, Support, Action --  to stop violence and the spread of HIV, by raising awareness of power imbalances and how to address them:

Stopping violence against women requires action at many levels, and by all of us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The literature of Africa

Yesterday’s post featured the creative non-fiction and social and political commentary of Nigerian writer Pius Adesanmi.

Pius Adesanmi
I wanted to write a second post about Pius Adesanmi because he’s also doing some interesting work as an academic.

Adesanmi is an Associate Professor at Carleton University’s Department of English Language and Literature in Ottawa, Canada. He teaches and researches the literatures and cultures of Africa and the Black Diaspora (i.e. people of African origin living outside Africa). Adesanmi’s work encompasses both anglophone and francophone African literary traditions. He did his PhD in French Studies with a focus on African women’s fiction at the University of British Columbia, Canada, after obtaining a B.A. at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria and an M.A. in French at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Adesanmi specialises in contemporary African and Black Diaspora knowledge production in an era of globalisation. His earlier focus on literature has expanded to include the production of culture (such as language, food and aesthetics) in the Black Diaspora. For example, he's examining how dance forms such as soukous from Kinshasa evolve as they come in contact with hip-hop, Acadian and other forms in North America.

Pius Adesanmi, who is cross-appointed with Carleton University's Institute of African Studies, is also the Director and founder of the Project on New African Literatures (PONAL).  PONAL is an online resource featuring literature produced by African writers in the last 20 years, which according to Adesanmi "probably have been the best years for African literary production."

PONAL aims to make this literature more widely known. Adesanmi explains that in North America, people tend to be aware of African authors who win international prizes, and students of African literature study "classical" texts such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But North Americans aren’t aware or don’t have access to most of the literature that’s being created on the continent, particularly what's been written since the 1980s. "The continent is almost one of the most advanced hubs now of global – especially anglophone -- production in world literature. And 90 percent of these works are not known here."

PONAL will feature "third generation" writers from Africa as well as offer an online audio library, a photo gallery and a quarterly literary news magazine, Gboungboun. Through PONAL, people will be able to find new writers, reflect on critical directions in literature, or get recommendations for syllabi. Adesanmi also intends to build a collection of books of creative writing and poetry published by smaller presses in Africa that otherwise wouldn’t be available in this part of the world.

PONAL is one more of Pius Adesanmi's ways of making seldom-heard stories about Africa, as told by Africans, more visible and more recognised.

Earth from Apollo 17 / Photo courtesy NASA

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The concept of Africa

Pius Adesanmi / Photo via

If you’re trying to understand "Africa," you need to have a look at the work of Pius Adesanmi.

Pius Adesanmi is a Nigerian writer of poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic works. He teaches African literature and culture at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Adesanmi is no stranger to awards: his poetry collection The Wayfarer and Other Poems won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001. But in September 2010, he received the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the Non-Fiction category for his manuscript, You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Penguin Books
cover photo
You’re Not a Country, Africa! is a collection of essays inspired by experiences that have caused Adesanmi to reflect on what "Africa" means, after living in the West for 15 years and travelling through 35 African countries. For example, he tells the story of being in a bank in Canada while an elderly woman was chatting unhurriedly with the teller. People in line were impatient and soon Adesanmi, having been socialised to wait for elders, was the only person left behind her. He listened to her explaining that she preferred banking in person to internet banking. "She was speaking English, but I was hearing my language; I was transported back home, in my village, and listening to one of the core philosophies of Yoruba civilisation being articulated by a Canadian woman possibly in her eighties," Adesanmi recalls, referring to a Yoruba proverb that the face is the abode of human discourse. This incident led to an essay on respect for age, communication, and traits that are not so much "African" as human.

Adesanmi explains that the title You’re Not a Country, Africa! conceptualises a dilemma that arises from him living in France, the US and Canada where he’s often expected to interpret and define "Africa" for Western audiences. He says of Africa, "you do not define it; it moves on its own terms, at its own pace." The book title derives not only from a tendency of non-Africans to assume uniform cultures and politics across the continent, but from the last stanza of a poem, "The Meaning of Africa" by the Sierra Leonean poet Abioseh Nicol: "You are not a country, Africa / You are a concept / Fashioned in our minds, each to each / To hide our separate fears / ".

You’re Not a Country, Africa! will be released in June 2011. Adesanmi is working on a novel as well as a second non-fiction book with the working title of "The Habit of Underdevelopment." In it Adesanmi explores the discourse and politics of development, particularly "the aid/charity/development nexus" that fixates on providing for "lack" while ignoring cultural dynamics.

Adesanmi’s social and political commentary and creative non-fiction also appear online at The Zeleza Post, Sahara Reporters and Nigerian Village Square. See, for example, his poetic and compelling reflection in The Zeleza Post on his father and grandfather in Nigerian society.

Pius Adesanmi is someone to listen to, for his insights on identity, politics, cultures, and humanity, and his command of language. His academic work is also worth knowing about -- so I'll write about it in tomorrow's post.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Poetry and then some

I’m overwhelmed by the wealth and breadth of poetry coming out of Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s much to explore, but in today’s post I thought I’d mention the Poetry Africa festival.

Poetry Africa is an international festival that takes place annually in Durban, South Africa. It’s now in its 14th year. Two months ago (October 4-9), 20 poets from 12 countries – including South Africa, Jamaica, Palestine, Australia, India, Uruguay, Italy and Senegal – performed their poetry. Associated events were held in Cape Town, Harare (Zimbabwe) and Blantyre (Malawi).

Here are three of the South African poets who participated:

Gcina Mhlope / Photo courtesy Poetry Africa
Gcina Mhlophe: a poet, storyteller, playwright, director, author, singer, actress and activist whose work addresses themes such as apartheid and patriarchy. She also created the group Zanendaba Storytellers as a means of revitalising storytelling traditions.

Pitika Ntuli / Photo courtesy Poetry Africa
Pitika Ntuli: a poet, artist, sculptor and professor who uses myth and history in his poetry. He’s also played advisory roles on arts and culture, indigenous knowledge and traditional leadership. He’s even written his bio as a poem.

Lebo Mashile / Photo courtesy http://www.lebomashile.com/fanclub/
Lebogang Mashile: a poet, performer, actress, writer, columnist, TV presenter and producer. She sees poetry as a means of changing attitudes in post-apartheid South Africa; her website quotes her as saying, "The enemy isn’t really clear in the way it was before. It’s an incredibly sensitive, complicated struggle with many dimensions, but the site for that struggle is inside. ...The language of poetry comes from a place where that transformation has to begin, that sort of intuitive, creative, spiritual searching place that will be the fuel for any kind of transformation process." Mashile co-founded the Feel a Sistah! Spoken Word Collective, acted in the film Hotel Rwanda, and collaborated with choreographer Sylvia Glasser to create the contemporary dance performance Threads. She deals with issues that include women and violence, identity, and South African society and politics.

Here's a performance by Lebo Mashile earlier this year:

Lebo Mashile - Poet/ Writer/Producer from Thabo Thindi on Vimeo.
The Poetry Africa Festival is organised by the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts. The Centre also hosts the Time of the Writer festival, the Durban International Film Festival,  and the Jomba! Contemporary Dance Festival.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fountain of knowledge

Fountain of Knowledge, University of Nairobi
One of the people who’s had a big influence on my understanding of Africa is Kabiru Kinyanjui.

Kabiru Kinyanjui is a Kenyan education specialist, academic and consultant. He’s written and advised on politics, social policy, conflict and peace, civil society and development – among other things. He’s widely known in the region in these fields, and highly respected.

His bio is impressive: a degree in law, history and sociology from the University of East Africa (Dar es Salaam), and a masters and doctorate from Harvard. He’s authored numerous books and articles, and he taught for many years at the University of Nairobi and was Director of its Institute for Development Studies. He’s been a visiting professor at universities in North America, has served as consultant to several international organisations, and been a commentator on political issues (including for the Voice of America following President Obama’s election).
Book cover, African Perspectives on Development,
edited by Uli Himmelstrand, Kabiru Kinyanjui and Edward Mburugu
Kabiru Kinyanjui has played high-profile roles in education in Kenya, serving as the Chairman of the Public Universities Inspection Board that made recommendations on transforming higher education in Kenya, and as Chairman of the Board of the Kenya National Examinations Council. He’s also been on the boards of for-profit and social enterprises including the K-Rep Group, Juhidi Kilimo and the Family Bank.

He helped establish the Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa, and serves as Chair of its Board. The Nairobi Peace Initiative is an organisation that seeks to transform conflicts and build peace in Africa, by engaging in discussion and in mediation, reconciliation, training and strategy development in countries affected by conflict.

I worked with Kabiru Kinyanjui for several years in the 1990s, when we were both at the International Development Research Centre. He was based in Nairobi, I in Ottawa, but we collaborated frequently. He was senior to me in education and experience but always treated me like an equal.

Looking back, I see that he probably had infinite patience with me. His knowledge of the region, of the diversity of cultures, the history of countries, and the nuances of national and local politics was astonishing. Mine was, let’s say, emerging. It was a privilege to see him interact with peers, and with younger scholars in the region, who clearly looked up to him. He is one of those people whom you could truly call wise – and kind, and principled.

One day, while on a visit to projects in the region, Prof. Kinyanjui and I stopped to watch the television news between meetings. A report came on about global disease patterns and life expectancy. We watched as the life expectancies for our respective countries of birth flashed on the screen. I don’t recall the exact numbers but it was something like 80 for me and 55 for him. The realisation hit: I had about 45 years to go before I reached mine, and he would have been close to his.

The unfairness of it still gets to me. There’s no justification for such inequity. Injustice is a feature of our world, but when it hits close to home, it’s particularly hard to ignore.

But, here we are. I think about Prof. Kinyanjui’s commitment to education and to peace, and his patience, and I smile.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Photo voices

On World AIDS Day today, I’m posting the images and words of a few people who speak for themselves.

The photos below are from the exhibit Photo-Voice: HIV and AIDS Education for Young People in Africa, presented by UNESCO and the Virginio Bruni Tedeschi Foundation. The photos in Photo-Voice were taken by young people, parents and teachers from Angola, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland.

The photographers focused on two themes: students and teachers affected by HIV and AIDS, and young people, sexuality and HIV.

Here are a few of the photos, along with captions written by the photographer who took each picture. (Photos are courtesy of UNESCO.)

© UNESCO/SWANNEPHA, Welile, female student, Swaziland - This is my teacher, she is also HIV positive, like me. She made my life easier by disclosing her status to us in class. She has restored my self esteem. I just love her. She is my pillar.
© UNESCO/SWANNEPHA, Kehtsiwe, 14 years old, female student, Swaziland - I am living with HIV and have been on antiretroviral treatment since 2002. I got sick early in my childhood. At school I faced challenges of being stigmatised and discriminated against by my teacher. She told other children not to play with me and also told me in the face that she was ‘tired of teaching a sick child’. I confronted her and told her that I could not change the situation. She then accepted my situation and wrote a note to apologise to my mother. I pray that other children never get to experience such injustice. I aspire to be surgeon; I already perform operations on frogs.

© UNESCO/RNP+ Angola, Cristovao, 14 years old, male student, Angola - My parents and two of my brothers are HIV positive. Very soon, as a result of their condition, our income started to decrease and I went to study at community school. HIV and AIDS is taught and openly discussed in schools managed by NGOs which have specific activities, but now that I am in public school I don’t hear about HIV and AIDS anymore, with the exception of the biology teacher... It would be good for schools (from primary schools to universities) to speak not only about HIV and AIDS but also about other sexually transmitted diseases. I would like to join a group of activists in my school in to fight HIV.

© UNESCO/LENEPWHA, Peete, 23 years old, male student, Lesotho - Sometimes when I think back on my life for the past ten years, I realise that I did not have enough knowledge on the pandemic to take care of myself. My young friends remind me that life should be enjoyed, and yet I worry that unless they are protected from contracting HIV they will soon have the virus like me and may not enjoy life as they do now. They deserve to be happy and live life with no worries. I believe that they should be adequately prepared now at a very early age so that they will grow into young adults competent enough to take care of themselves and protect others from HIV.

Photo-Voice is part of a UNESCO project funded by the Virginio Bruni Tedeschi Foundation (created by Marisa Bruni Tedeschi in memory of her son Virginio – Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s brother – who passed away of AIDS-related complications in 2006). Photo-Voice organisers say the exhibit uses the power of images to enable participants to "to bear witness" and to raise awareness.

These photos are by African photographers -- but AIDS is a global issue. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 22 million of the 33 million people living with HIV, but HIV incidence has fallen over 25 percent in 22 Sub-Saharan African countries since 2001, while it's increasing in other parts of the world (such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia). In North America and Western Europe, an estimated 100,000 people were newly infected in 2009 compared to 97,000 in 2001. We're in this together.

HIV and AIDS is a human rights issue, and dealing with it is a joint responsibility. It doesn't call for pity; it calls for empathy, solidarity and action.