Saturday, July 14, 2012

Young African Woman of Note-July

Elizabeth Vimbai Mhangami



It is with great pleasure and a heart bursting with pride that I introduce to you Our July Young African Woman of Note.

Elizabeth happens to be my youngest sister and so writing this piece is at once easy but daunting a task. Elizabeth was born and raised in Zimbabwe. She is someone we in Zimbabwe refer to as a “born free” because she was born after the birth of Republic of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was declared an independent state in April of 1980 and Elizabeth Vimbai graced the world with her arrival in November of that year.

Vimbi as we know her did her primary and secondary school education in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and later went to the United States, where she studied political science and women’s studies at Loyola University, Chicago.

After working for a brief period in the United States, Vimbi made a decision to set up a not-for profit organization in Bulawayo in order to assist AIDS orphans. However her idea of assistance was to look at ways in which she could provide assistance without breeding aid dependency, which is a huge problem in Zimbabwe and the African continent. In her own words in an interview in the New York Times, 2011: “You start having conversations with yourself about aid and dependency what is the most effective way of helping that would do the least amount of harm?”
Catha, a child head

Vimbai works with youth as opposed to young orphans. These you are heads of households and this basically means that after the death of both parents to HIV/AIDS, these young people have the sole responsibility of taking care of their younger siblings. They are responsible for their food, clothing and school attendance. This means that they have had to drop out of school in order to generate income for their siblings to survive and also they are responsible for cooking cleaning and all the activities that come with parenting. Many of the youth were about 9-12 when they were left as child heads of households but they were in their teens when Vimbai started working with them.
A child head and her family

Vimbai is the founder and executive director of Vanavevhu, a Shona word meaning “children of the soil.” Through Vanavevhu the youth and their siblings are able to get food, shelter, basic necessities and healthcare and this has freed the youth to attend the program which Vanavevhu offers them. The program teaches entrepreneurial skills and this is paired with bee keeping, candle making and market gardening. These ventures are generating profit for the youth and a sense of financial security that they have never had.
Clearing the garden

Vanavevhu started out with ten families, supporting 32 children in total in 2010. To date another twenty families have been added bringing together over 90 children and seniors benefiting from Vanavevhu support.
In the classroom

With their teacher Vimbai

What Vimbai and her organization have given the orphaned youth in Bulawayo, beyond the obvious material and physical benefits, is to demonstrate to them that someone cares. Before Vanavevhu, many of these child heads of households were very vulnerable to exploitation in the communities they lived in. The girls were particularly vulnerable to predatory males. However having Vimbai and her team as their advocates has given them a sense of stability and security. Many of them were not moved from their communities in order to keep the siblings enrolled in school and in familiar surroundings.
Arrival of Vanavevhu chickens

Vimbai is fierce about protecting her youth and has an amazing understanding of the issues that they face. She brings to her program a very youthful vibe and they can relate to her easily because in so many ways she is one of them. Her keen perception of what typical teenagers need to go through, gives her youth space to be themselves, make mistakes and to move on. She deals with resilient young people, who in so many ways have had to grow up very quickly in order to fill the role of parents for their siblings. Many of them were vendors, selling candy cookies and matches in order to make a living. Read their amazing stories and be absolutely inspired here.
Vanavevhu dance!

When I ask Vimbai what challenges she faces with her work she talks about the fact that the youth are the forgotten ones in most of the development discourse. Her age group is not a targeted “vulnerable” population by large donor agencies and so very often she cannot apply for big grant funding for her program. She therefore works tirelessly to raise fund herself by holding speaking engagements back to back when she comes to the United States for board meetings. In a way this is to her advantage because she is not bound by donor agency rules and regulations, which are not always compatible with what she is doing on the ground. She therefore relies on the support of individuals or organizations that are at liberty to fund any program they wish to.
Vanavevhu Candles

Another challenge which she so articulately describes here is the vulnerability of young women to men who prey on them because they are wealthy. She describes the allure of the promise of clothes, a cell phone, and money and how a young 15 year old may be hard pressed to resist this and abandon the program, which offers long term benefits as opposed to short term gratification. Vimbai works hard to assist and counsel the young women into making good choices in order to spare them exchanging sex for money, so that they can avoid diseases and having to depend on a man who may at any point abandon them. As a feminist this is a very important part of her work, and she hopes to impart some of her knowledge to the young women in her program. As a feminist she works with the young men also, so that they understand the inexcusability of physical violence towards women and she insists on mutual respect and equitable allocation of chores and duties in a gender-neutral fashion.
Vanavevhu Girls

I have often questioned Vimbai on how it is that she can do what she does in such a challenging environment where there are incessant power outages, a tough political climate, isolation from family (we are all in the US and she is in Zimbabwe), lack of a vibrant cosmopolitan social life such as the one she had in Chicago, her response is simple: ‘these young people are the future of Zimbabwe. Whether we like it or not, those who can leave are leaving and probably not coming back. Those with well to do parents are all gone and what is left is these AIDS orphans who no one even thinks about. Not government or even NGOs. If we truly are serious about the future of Zimbabwe then these are the young people who will be running the country and if we do not try to at least give them basic critical thinking skills business skills and a sense of self worth, then Zimbabwe will be in even deeper trouble than it is now.’
Duncan and Brian preparing the bee smoker

The Bulawayo region in Zimbabwe is largely underserved and does not have as many opportunities for young people as does the capital city, Harare. Bulawayo is also the center of the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980’s where tens of thousands of Ndebele people were slaughtered by government forces, leaving some terrible scars and a lot of anger and resentment. Giving the youth of this town hope is one way in which Vimbai does her part to ensure that the future of this region is not so bleak.
Musa, a child head

Vimbai’s take on development work is this: “If every African /Zimbabwean in the Diaspora, would take up just one social justice issue and DO something about it, then we would see positive social change.” She is of the firm belief that while we need assistance, Africans have to take responsibility for their continent and be at the forefront of articulating our issues, prescribing solutions, and then be the leaders who implement the action plans. This ensures that there is a real positive outcome and that it is permanent and self perpetuating. She often shakes her head as she comments on how for fifty years Africa has been the recipient of donor funding but the continent seems worse off now than it was fifty years ago. “We have allowed people to commercialize our problems and to commoditize our woes and the result is that these problems will never be allowed to disappear because then someone’s paycheck will have to vanish. Therefore the problems persist because the solutions offered are designed to fail. This is what the development industry is predicated upon”

                                                                                                   Sipha, a child head

Vimbai exemplifies the term “walking the walk”. She is committed to Zimbabwe in a way that many speak of but very few have demonstrated in a tangible way. Despite the many bureaucratic obstacles and intimidation she has stood her ground and with sheer determination and courage established what has to be one of the most innovative organizations that I have ever seen. I am proud that she is my sister, but more importantly I am proud of the high standards she has set for her youth and her staff at Vanavevhu. Her insistence that things be executed properly and with due contentiousness has resulted in a group of youth and staff who are proud of themselves and what they have achieved thus far and instilled a deep sense of ownership of the program and the enterprise that ensures that it can only succeed. She does this by having high expectations of herself and this is the role model she is to the youth and all those who work with them. Her passion is infectious as is her humor and her mischief and her amazing belly-laugh! Thank you Vimbai for all you do and for the amazing human being that you are.

You are a true visionary as exemplified by this apt picture of you! Beautiful!

Vimbai can be reached on facebook as Lizzabetty Mhangami and on the Vanavevhu websiteVanavevhu

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Human Trafficking

 Modern Day Slavery

Hallo, you are welcome once again. It has become very clear to me that we have no choice other than to talk to each other and to consolidate our strength and work together. We have no choice but to do this because the task ahead is not an easy one and neither is it a simple one. You see while you and I share our womanhood in common, you share your whiteness with your men and I my blackness with my men. You would think on the surface, that this should not be a problem, but you and I know that our history together, as women on the continent of Africa and  in far flung foreign lands where we were sold as labor, was one of  mistress and servant. You were mistress and I was servant. This went on for centuries and I have often asked myself why it is that you allowed the inhumane treatment meted out to us to carry on. I guess it served you well: you had us to do your work for you while you lounged under cool breezy trees sipping cool drinks. We washed your clothes, cooked your food, cared for your children to the neglect of our own. Perhaps this easy life of leisure was promised you by your men as a way to get you to travel to Africa and to the Caribbean and to Australia and to the Americas: The life of a madam with the natives as servants.
Sure, it was not you who part took of this kind of relationship, but it was your fore mothers and what happened is that a mindset and a set of rules was put in place whereby white people enjoy a position of privilegereserved solely for them. They walk this earth with a sense of entitlement to resources and a sense of superiority to all other humans on this planet. This is manifest by the fact that being white brings with it a myriad opportunities which non white people have to struggle and fight for. This happens in your lands and in the lands that you colonized.
When a people’s soul is plundered, degraded and dehumanized, when their land is taken by force and they are made slaves in their own land, when a people is savagely uprooted and brutally subdued through the whip, the chains and the burden of the plough, they begin to believe that they are cursed. Even after they are “free” in the foreign lands to which they were taken, and they have gained ‘independence” in their own land, from colonizers, they are still exploited by white people and they are still made dependent by being forced to partake of economic systems that rob them blind all the while telling them that they are giving them assistance. White people have for centuries perfected a system where they are always at an advantage no matter what happens. Then they turn around and offer us “help”, that benevolence that masks malevolence and the real motives behind the  so called help.

You look uncomfortable, but please I am not talking to you like this to make you feel guilty. That is such a useless emotion because it solves nothing. Guilt is not what this story is about. I am recounting this story to you so that you may read with knowledge. Yes read with skepticism because the story that has been told to you in your history books is a LIE! Your televisions tells you lies as do your news papers who thrive and get sales from pedaling dark stories about Africa and Africans. They tell you of failing systems but do not bother to explain to you who and what is behind the failures. Look at how your leaders pick which countries to wage war on, or which dictators to depose. There is always something for them to gain something that involves the development of your lands to the detriment and death of our lands.

I have to tell you that they do not do this on their own. Yes that is where you and I come together: Our men have failed us. Black men have totally and utterly let black women down. We cannot sleep comfortably or be complacent in the knowledge that our men will protect us. Yes that is a truth that hurts me to admit to you, but I have no choice. Truth telling has to be on both sides if we are to form an alliance you and I. Our men steal our children and sell them off to your men. That is putting it simply. You are shocked?

 I want to show you something. This picture makes my soul howl in anguish but I have to look and so do you. This picture represents a new kind of slavery whereby thousands of women and even girls are taken by their fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and sold into slavery. The difference is that they are not bound in chains and neither are they sent over to your lands in ships. They get visas and they are well dressed and sent to Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain, Ireland Spain, Russia, and the USA, where they are sold into sexual slavery. Yes, sexual slavery because there is a market for black flesh there in your lands, a market that has always been there. The consumers are your men, the ones who you are fathering children with, lying next to at night. They have a penchant for black flesh. Yes you look horrified but like I have told you before your men are very skilled in deception and cunning. They have you believing that the life you lead is perfect and while you are preoccupied with thickening your lips with collagen and getting buttock implants, they are busy trawling the dark alley ways for places where they can access black women.

Image from Unreported World 2012, human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy

But just think about what these women have gone through. Look at them and tell me you believe you are looking at willing participants. Many of them have been lied to. They have been told they are going to nursing school, or to work as nannies so that they can send money home to help their families. They are taken from remote villages and handed over to pimps and dealers by naïve parents. These pimps tell the girls that they have to pay back the money they owe for the visa and travel and they are in bondage for a lifetime working to enrich a greedy black man with a gaping hole where his heart ought to be. On arrival to Italy, Britain, Belgium etc, they are stripped and isnpected and molested as you can see.

Black women have been deceived many times. Do you remember Sarah Bartman, the South African Khoi-San woman and a few other women who were lied to by the brother of their Dutch slave master and taken to Europe where they endured untold horrors as they were publicly displayed naked in galleries and museums all over Europe. Their genitalia were gawked at and their buttocks poked and prodded because they were “unusual”. Imagine the indignity and the dehumanization that accompanies being treated like a zoo animal of exotic origin and have people pay to view your peculiar sex organs. This was in the 17th century, and it is happening now, only employing modern methods to try to conceal it all. White people are still paying for access to Black women’s bodies as objects and commodities/consumerables.

Image from French Collection La Belle Venus

 Is it not barbaric to see the utter misery in these poor women and to continue molesting them as this white man is doing? This man is someone’s husband someone’s father and yet he will debase another’s wife, another’s daughter without a thought. That is because to white men black women are not human beings like their own women. We are sex objects. As one sick man I had the misfortune to meet once said “You are built for sex. Your breasts your buttocks those strong thighs! I just want to bite into you!”

The tenderness of lovemaking is reserved for you, while these poor black women get the brutal animalistic ravaging, because they are nothing but objects to be paid for, used and left without a backward glance. Until the next time.

Not all your men are like this but when you look at the numbers it is staggering and one cannot help but think that there are a lot of them out there who are into this. From the highest offices in your lands to the lowly construction worker, each feels superior to and therefore entitled to black flesh.  Your pastors, priests, lawyers doctors and other respected community members are all involved in this. That is the only way to explain how thousands of human beings can be moved from one continent to another and tucked away quietly to sit half naked in shop front windows displaying their bodies for sale. Armed with a few dollars in his pocket a white man can get easy access to a black woman’s body. It’s a King’s life for white men, isn’t it? But at what expense? How many more souls must howl in anguish night and day before this awful trade is stopped? Every year from Nigeria alone about 10,000 women are trafficked into prostitution every year! These women are paraded naked before brothels and inspected and then paid for based on their assets. They are forced to have sex for as little as $13 and if they want to quit the have to first pay $40,000-$78,000 to the pimps (UN estimates).

Image from  Unreported World 2012, human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy.

The manner in which black women are treated is totally deplorable. Our own men sell us off to be abused and perpetually violated by white men. There is this agreement between black men and white men that black women are chattel, domestic animals in our own lands and sex slaves in foreign lands. Tell me how do you as a white woman feel about this? I ask you because I need your help in this battle. I need to know that I can count on you to put an end to this hideous trade that robs us of our humanity. I need you to be so moved that you will do some research, snoop around your community, city town and see if you can sniff out a rat. I need you to talk to your friends about this so that you start to question the character of your legislators and those who represent you. I need you to investigate bills that have been languishing and that have not been tabled on the whole issue of human trafficking.

As for my fellow black women:  We need to wake up and refuse the lies and deceit we are fed about where we are going and what we will do when we get there. We need to vote with our eyes open and we need to start taking to the streets and refusing to be treated in this way. We need to demand that our leaders do what we voted them in to do, which is to provide stability and an economy in which we can make a living, so that we are not compelled to send our daughters to Babylon with a wish and a prayer, all because we are poor. We demand that girls be valued as much as boys so that selling them off to lands where mother has never tread becomes a taboo.  We need to fight patriarchy so that we have more say in what happens to our children and not just their fathers.

Are you not tired of seeing images of yourself such as the ones I have shown here? We need to stand in the streets rend our garments and walk stark naked if that is the only way we will be taken seriously. Believe me they is nothing more potent than a sea of angry naked women to force change. We have to do this for our daughters and ourselves. Those who are educated in cities and with resources need to help out the ones who are in the villages where most of the girls are taken from. At the very least please start talking about this problem when you visit your relatives in the villages! Tell them where their children end up! Show them images such as the one I have shared here with you.
Image from Jason Vaughn Jorgensen

I want to leave you with an image that is somewhat different and I want you to meditate on it. You see a group of white (American and European) women in a village in Nigeria doing a fertility dance with smiles on their faces. They are married in this village and treated with utmost respect. How does this make you feel when you see black men treating you with such respect, in a remote village where anything could happen to you but it does not? These women can leave if they so wish, they dance because they choose to they married into this village because they chose to. They will have sex with their husbands because they choose to. Now spare a thought to the black woman trafficked and who is forced into having sex with one strange white man after another. No dancing, no joy, ZERO respect.
Image from Hope for Nigeria

Useful Links
Trafficking of women from Nigeria to Italy
Human Trafficking- Global Report

Monday, July 2, 2012

On the Apology that Reads Like an Insult

Apology Not Acceptable


As a follow –up on the Swedish cake debacle (April 15, 2012), I would like to inform you of the sequence of events that have taken place thus far.

A group of enraged women of African descent, led by Dr. Claudette Carr, founder and executive director of the Jethro institute for Good Governance, wrote an open letter to the Minister of Culture, demanding an apology for her participation and therefore public endorsement of the highly offensive and racist cake (known as the Venus- Hottentot cake). The full story can be read here .

The open letter was then used to create a petition to which people were asked to append their signatures in protest to this piece of “performance art”. The petition was run for about 4 weeks, and during that time, a representative from our core group, along with a representative from the Afro- Swedish community was asked to participate in an interview on The Stream, a program on Al Jezeera Televison.
One of our partners, the Black women’s Blueprint also provided a platform in the United States on their blog radio show, to discuss the various ways in which the artist Makode Linde, the minister of culture and the people who participated in the performance art exhibit had acted inappropriately. That interview can be accessed here.  

. After four weeks the petition was closed and mailed to the Minister of Culture in Sweden. In the meantime, Dr. Claudette Carr and Mina Salami took part in an email conversation entitled Racism is no Joke: A Swedish minister and a Venus Hottentot Cake, to be published in a forthcoming anthology called Afro-Nordic landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe (Routeledge, 2012), edited by Professor Paul Gilroy.

We are waiting to hear from the Minister of Culture with regards to our petition/ open letter and the points we put forward as a way to make amends for the gross error in judgment that she displayed by part taking of a culturally insensitive and inappropriate spectacle, which has brought into question her publicly stated commitment as an “anti- racist”. 

In the meantime, Mashua Against FGM, an organization we partnered with for this campaign ran their own petition where they simply asked for an apology. They received the apology on June 27, 2012 and you can read it here.

After the initial happiness that an apology had been rendered, I read the apology and to my utter disbelief the apology was exactly the same as the pro- forma apology that Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth had delivered to the press. It was the same non-apology that I blogged about here.

While I am glad that Mashua for FGM is satisfied with this apology. However, I would like to make it clear that I find the apology an insult and therefore do not accept it. The fact that this is exactly the same apology rendered through the press leads me to believe that no effort has been made to grasp the scope of the problem with her involvement in the art project.

I believe I speak on behalf of the original cosignatories to the open letter, when I state that the apology is nullified by the fact that the minister places the problem with her actions squarely on the shoulders of those who were offended by saying that they misinterpreted her actions. In other words, she did not err in any way and the only thing she regrets is that people took it the wrong way. This is insulting on many levels as I have stated before in a previous blog.

We therefore disassociate ourselves from the minister’s second non- apology and look forward to a genuine apology, where it is clear that she has understood why this so called art is a mockery and a dehumanizing act that has sent waves of anger throughout the world. We look forward to an admission of error on the minister’s part,and not this defensive verbiage that insinuates that those who are offended do not understand art.

 We also look forward to a solid response to the other requests presented in the open letter. I would also like to make it clear that we will not accept to being condescended to; neither will we go away quietly. This issue is huge and it will remain an issue to be discussed and resolved for as long as it takes for the minister of culture to do the right thing and render a genuine apology. To relent now is to have failed ourselves and those for whom we speak. This would also set a bad precedent, whereby African women can be objectified and belittled with no real consequences. Now is the time to stand up and refuse to be the portrayed through negative stereotypes and oppressive, racist images which only serve to marginalize us further from mainstream discourse about our issues vis-à-vis development and empowerment. It is time that we are front- and- center of such discourse and it is imperative that we lead and direct this discourse. This issue of Swedish racism has provided us a conduit to the fore front of discussions about who we are in relation to the other women in the world and history will not look favorably on us if we “drop the ball” at this juncture.

 It is very disappointing that the minister chooses to play politics in an issue where vulnerable women are further victimized, and Black people in general have been affronted.  As I have stated before, this non-apology is reflective of and consistent with the Swedish government’s own reticence to address the pressing racial issues and race-based disparities that negatively affect the Afro-Swedish community. We stand in solidarity with the Afro- Swedish community and we stand together with all the African women and all women affected by FGM, whose dignity we seek to restore by passionately seeking redress in this degrading, racist spectacle, which got the seal of approval from a government minister, a woman for that matter. What a shame.