Saturday, April 28, 2012

Welcome- Please, leave your shoes at the door.

Hallo. How are you? I am well if you are well too. You are welcome to my home. Please do come in. Eh, but please leave your shoes at the door. Yes like that. Thank you. And while you are at it please leave your hat of  pity, your coat of condescension, your walking stick of superiority as well as your purse right there on that bench outside. Don’t worry, they will be safe. No one will steal them. The youth around here have no use for that purse if they must take the hat, coat and stick. Too burdensome they say. You can pick them up on your way out. That is if you still need them. I just need to you come inside as you are so that we can talk a little. Thank you.

No, no, please. Come and sit next to me on my mat. I know that last time I gave you that chair, but just for today, I want us to sit together on my mat. Thank you. I know you will understand. You see I would offer you that seat, the only seat in the house as my guest. That is our custom. The guest must be more comfortable than the host. But you see, doing that has made some people feel like they are better than the host. Some even walk away believing that the host himself thinks that he is inferior to his guest. But this is not so. That is a big misunderstanding. And it is our fault really. We should have explained better the real meaning of this custom of hospitality, which many of your people mistake for stupidity. Today we will sit down on my mat together, so that I am not looking up at you from my mat, and you are not looking down at me from the seat. That is the best way to talk to one another. When you go back you can explain to them.

Now we are seated, I greet you formally and welcome you once again. I am glad you have come to see me bearing gifts. But before we do anything else, allow me to speak to you today. Yes, I know you think that you know all you need to know about me, and I also understand that you think you know how best you can help me. But today I just want you to listen only. Don’t interrupt me. In fact, in here you have no mouth, but you have two wide open ears leading to an even more open heart. I am glad there are no men here today, because I want to talk to you as my fellow woman. I know our educated people call you many things, over there; neo liberal, liberal with a white- savior- complex. I will not call you any such names because in this land, names are potent and I do not want to invoke the things that those names describe.

Our people say that tears are best dried with one’s own hand. Please allow me to dry my own tears because I know whence they come. Hand me a cloth to do it, Put an arm over my shoulder to comfort me, but let me do it myself, so that I may not be ashamed and humiliated in front of the children, that a grown woman like me needed a hand to wipe her tears.

There is something you do not know about me. I think a lot, about many different things. Our women here have been thinking and thinking for centuries before your people came here with the Bible and guns. Perhaps you do not know this because your elders did not teach you, but before your people even existed, our people were there. Many of the things you claim as your inventions and enjoy over there on your side of the world, have their roots right here in this land. So when you look at me in this condition, do not be fooled by what you think you see.

That I am poor, does not mean my mind and spirit are impoverished. That I am feeble from hunger does not mean that I am weak of will. That my children are naked does not mean they are not clothed in pride and dignity. That I am uneducated by your standards and using your books does not mean I am lacking in wisdom.  That I carry many burdens whose source you know nothing about does not mean I am powerless.

Do you know that every time you come here and bring me your help, I am left feeling diminished? I am left with the kind of feeling I imagine I would have if I bared my nakedness in the market square. You look confused. Let me explain. It is not the help that is the problem, but it is the manner in which you help me. You assume that you know better than me what I need. In fact, you never ask me what I want, or how I feel about the help you bring. Then you leave, sometimes without saying goodbye, or waiting to see if I am doing any better after the help.

Sometimes I am relieved when you leave because then I can use my mind again to get on with my life. How is it that help can feel like a burden? It should bring relief, no? Yet I sometimes feel as though this help comes at such a heavy price, a price I would sooner not pay. I have lived in this land all my life, as have my great grandmothers and my mothers and millions of women before them. All of us have lived, raised children and laughed, loved, cried, worked, sang, danced and died in this land long before your people came. We understand this land, its hardships and challenges better than you or anyone from outside can. It is tough here, and as a woman most of the burden of life falls on you.

Did you know that, from the time I was aware that I was a female, I knew what that meant for me? I knew that I would have to fight intelligently, wisely, cunningly with a barely perceptible razor sharp tenacity for the things I wanted. I also knew from an early age that there would be times when I would have to bow, so as not to be broken, and there would be times when I would have to stand firm and shout, so as not to die. I learnt how to decipher the changing winds, the changing seasons so that I knew when to push and when to pull, when to be still and when to move, when to talk and when to be silent. That is how I wielded my power, by discerning which battles were worth fighting. The women in my family are very strong and I learned to empower myself through them. I learnt to be like the wind: we don’t see it and we cannot touch it, but we see its effects, trees swaying and ripples on river. We see its power in sturdy baobab trees uprooted and sent flying across fields like twigs in the breeze and waves that heave and vomit over entire cities, grinding everything into fine sand.

I don’t mean to sound rude but that is why your empowerment talk is senseless to me. How do you empower an empowered woman? Just because you do not understand my empowerment does not mean it does not exist. It is the same ridiculous way your people have spoken about this land, as though it came into existence the minute they set eyes on it, or the way they would say there were no people, only savage natives. Do you see the problem? You have inherited the belief that we here in this land are savages who need to be civilized so that we become more like you. Is that not so? Yet you are the same ones who have proved that all human beings originated in this land. You have proved it with your science, but you do not believe it in your hearts. If you believed it, then you would not see me as a lesser being than you. You would appreciate that my different color, approach, culture and language, songs and stories were as important to me as yours are to you, and you would respect that. You would let me tell my stories and sing my songs as you do your own. However you continue to see me as lesser, as needy so that you can bring your help and you walk away feeling very good. You walk away feeling as though you have accomplished something to go back to your land and report to your bosses that you helped the African woman. You take pictures of me, horrible pictures when I am at my worst. How many times have you ever said: go and change, rub some oil on your body and smile. You don’t even ask me where I want my picture taken. Instead you want it taken at the water pump or with me nursing a sick baby or with my lips cracked and parched from hunger. Then you parade these pictures in your land telling them to donate money to this poor African woman so she can feed her children. You do not even know my name; you call me Lilian because you fear you will swallow your tongue if you try to say the name my parents gave me. You don’t even try. You give me a name that makes you feel comfortable just like the help you give; to you ease your mind so you can sleep better at night.

Tell me, has this ever been about me? Be honest with yourself because the answer to that question has deeper consequences for you than for me. I am familiar with the ways of your ancestors, and I know what they did. Everyone here knows this, and while we do not dwell on it every day, these ancient trees, rivers, mountains and caves bore witness and tell the story day after day, year after year. The issue is: do you know the true story or the one you listened to at your mother’s breast? It is that story you need to probe, to dissect and to turn inside out, in order to answer the question I asked you. You have to do this if you really want to be of help, but you also have to accept that you need to be helped. This new world requires us to help each other, and that can only happen when you come to the realization that your knowledge about me is deficient, and your ideas about me are flawed at best and false at worst. You need to accept that the narrative you have been fed over and over again about me is told from the perspective of your people, in whose best interests it was to tell it that way. They had to justify their treatment of my ancestors by telling those back home that we were inept and unable to function save as servants to them and they in turn would administer our lands and all the wealth they discovered in the ground. They had to justify mass killings and forced removal of my people to your lands where they were slaves on plantations, if they made it across the temperamental sea. Seriously, look at me: Am I as helpless as you think? Ask yourself how I survive in your absence, or even before you came here.

You look worn out. I think that is enough for today. Just remember that the world is ever changing and to question all you read about me, even that which is written by my own people because some of our own have motives that are less than honorable. That is the way it is. You never know, we are the same age, you and I, and maybe our great grandchildren will run into each other. Think about what their interaction will be, if we do not rewrite the narrative. Think of how our meeting may be an opportunity for cultural exchanges that will be the yarn we use to weave a different story which we will tell our grandchildren. What that history will be is in our hands, but first you have to listen and hear me when I speak and allow me to see, not pity, but the power that is mine reflected in your eyes.

You have done well by stopping by. Excuse my manners, I did not even offer you water to drink. But I think today, what happened here was more important than following custom.  Yes, you are right; sometimes we make progress by breaking with tradition. Travel well and see you when you come back. By the way, if you still have a hard time calling me by my name, then just call me Mama Afrika.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


On why the Swedish minister’s Apology is really a non-apology

"I am sincerely sorry if anyone has misinterpreted my participation," the
minister said in a statement.

"While the symbolism in the piece is despicable, it is unfortunate and highly regrettable that the presentation has been interpreted as an expression of racism by some. The artistic intent was the exact opposite."

Firstly there are many things wrong with what the minister believes is an apology. It makes an excuse for her participation in the whole project. This is why she is being challenged; not because people are misinterpreting her participation, but that she should not have participated at all once she realized what she was expected to do. As a national leader it is her responsibility to ensure that she does not in any way tarnish her office through dubious or in this case outrageous associations. It is also her responsibility to ensure that all the constituents she represents are treated with equity under the law. The idea that she participated because she had been asked to talk about “freedom of expression and the right to offend”, is no excuse for her involvement in what was a mockery of African women by depicting them as a grotesque caricature. In this day and age, 2012, global village, social media and all that, her gross failure in judgment has left her probably one of the most controversial women around the globe at this time. She has demonstrated a total lack of cultural competence, a lack of awareness that in this day and age it is racist and egregious to use imagery that evokes the despicable era of black slavery and colonialism, evils that the whole world has condemned. The black woman cake is highly offensive and evokes haunting and degrading images of the Minstrel shows in which white actors painted themselves black and performed degrading stereotypes of African Americans and Africans in Europe as stupid, lazy and less than human beings. The African Community in Sweden has, understandably, no faith that this Minister can ever represent them, because her participation in this project placed her squarely on the side of those who believe that racism is not a problem in Sweden. She has placed herself on the side of those who think black people who are offended by this caricature of black womanhood are “too sensitive”, therefore trivializing their genuine hurt and anger.

Secondly it is not the symbolism of this cake that is despicable it is the actual cake itself! What is truly despicable is the enactment of cutting the genital area by the Minister and the accompanying screams by the artist Makode Linde, who then goes on to face book and writes:  “This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Before cutting me up she whispered ‘Your life will be better after this’ in my ear.” This is really a mockery of women who have undergone Female genital cutting, an issue that this project was supposed to highlight. How do you justify mocking and degrading a group of people as a way of raising awareness? So you highlighted the serious and devastating issue of female genital cutting by cutting an ugly cake, while laughing and drinking and taking pictures? The outcry from women who have had experienced genital cutting and women who work for the eradication of this cultural/ public health problem has been enormous.

Thirdly, an apology that contains ‘mis’ words is always suspect.  The phrase “ Anyone who misinterpreted”, apportions blame on those who feel slighted. It insinuates that they are the ones who got it wrong and who do not have the intellectual capacity to understand the artists’ intent. The minister adds more insult to injury with this “non-apology”.

In the light of this global outcry, the minister’s apology rings hollow because she refuses to take ownership of the huge public relations and political blunder that she has made. This renders her less respectable and unfit for the post she holds. The point is that people are angry and people feel insulted. Any politician worth their salt would rush to do damage control instead of uttering patronizing statements in the name of apology.

In the same vein, the Swedish government has been silent about this issue, an issue which has the potential to have political fallout and to tarnish the image of Sweden. It is obvious that they do not care, just the same way that they do not care about the Africans who live and work and pay taxes in Sweden who are subjected to racism but are told again and again that “there is no racism in Sweden”.

In 2011, Jallow Momodou reported to the police that students were having a party in which they were painted black with slave chains around their necks.

“Apart from threats against me and my family, a manipulated picture of me as a slave in shackles was made into posters bearing the words, in Swedish: "This is our runaway nigger slave and he answers to the name Jallow Momodou. If you should find him please call this number." These were put up in several different spots around my workplace, Malmö University. But hey, “there is no racism in Sweden”.

In 2010 a white Swedish man went on a shooting spree in Malmo, shooting more than 20 people of color and killing one. The killer was officially considered to be an isolated case with psychological issues, but not a terrorist with racist motives. This man has still not been prosecuted, and “there is no racism in Sweden”.

In early 2012,  there was uproar over a sex education film in which a black man was having sex with a white girl.  There were over half a million comments by Swedes who were appalled and disgusted that a white girl would degrade herself by sleeping with a black man. Others were lamenting the contamination of the pure Swedish gene pool. Once again, there was no comment about the blatant racist comments by any political leader, because ‘there is no racism in Sweden.”

WAKE UP SWEDEN! Being silent about this issue and denying the existence of a serious human rights violation only means one thing, that you are giving racism a seal of approval, something which goes against the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (September 2001). States were required to sign their commitment to combating contemporary forms of racism against Blacks, Muslims, xenophobia, negrophobia and anti-Semitism. Sweden is a signatory to the Durban Declaration. Honor your commitment SWEDEN!

Sweden is not an island and the context is the global village.

Barbara Mhangami

Dr. Claudette Carr –Director of the Jethrow Institute for Good Governance

 Samantha Asamandu –Black Feminists UK

Minna Salami

Black Women’s Blueprint

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On eating Black Women

On World Art Day, April 15 and how they celebrated in Sweden

The social networks are abuzz with the latest sensational story of how the Minister of Culture in Sweden, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, took part in an art event which was supposed to highlight the issue of Female genital mutilation (FGM). The event was held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the capital's museum of modern art.

In the photographs and video footage making the rounds on the internet, the minister is seen cutting a cake which is in the shape of the torso of a black woman. The cake, which is of a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, was created by a black artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman, is seen with a blackened face and he screams each time a guest cuts a slice of the black woman (er, cake). The minister is laughing and she cuts off the genital area (clitoris) of the black woman (er, cake), and artist Makode screams.

Here is the video.

No doubt this footage has infuriated many people and accusations of racism have been leveled at the project. Indeed, there have been calls by the African- Swedish Association for the resignation of the minister for culture for having taken part in what they describe as a “racist spectacle”.

However the fury that I have seen particularly from African women has to do with the fact that this project was supposed to bring awareness of the very painful and complex issue of genital cutting. This is no laughing matter for any sane human being but certainly not for African women. The idea that someone who holds a position of authority and power, and who is a woman as well would take part in what is a humiliating, degrading and offensive project in the name of “raising awareness” shows a disconnect between herself and the women who have to deal with FGM.  That her sensibilities were not assaulted by the callousness of this project signifies a huge gap between African women and their issues and western women. This project is in my view no different from the” Hottentot Venus” Sara Baartman and other African women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in Europe in the 19th Century.Sara Baartman was tricked into going to Europe, where she and other African women were paraded naked in museums and public squares and gawked at by all and sundry, for their “huge buttocks and peculiar genitalia”. The objectification of African women’s bodies by the west is rife in the pornography industry and there at least one can argue that the women who participate do so willingly. However when this happens in the context of a serious issue such as FGM and it is done in the name of “art”, then there needs to be a strong unequivocal response against such an unacceptable, ugly and insensitive “art”.

The fact that the artist is black does not in any way diminish the gravity of this racist and demeaning project. The black artist who created this may be accused of being a dim witted misogynist, but the racial over tones of this project cannot be denied. His blackness does not legitimize anything done here and the message about the seriousness of FGM is totally crowded out by the hideous manner in which that message has been conveyed. One does not need to watch an ugly cake in the form a black woman having its clitoris cut off to the sound of screaming, while a crowd watches, drinks in hand with smiles on their faces to bring awareness of FGM. This says a lot about the people who were present and who applauded and actually saw nothing wrong with the whole scenario. Gosh that they could even eat the black woman (er, cake) is sobering.

The humiliation and dehumanization that comes with patronage is a huge price that Africans pay in order that their helpers might feel good about themselves. This is one occasion where I question whether many of those who seek to help Africans to solve their myriad problems do so out of a genuine empathetic desire to see an end to debilitating conditions or whether it really is about a thorough ego massage and the kudos that come with “doing good”.

However as long as we Africans continue to have problems for which we are not doing enough to bring solutions, as long as our governments continue to focus on looting and clinging to power, as long as our elite human resources continue to walk away without a backward glance, as long as our intellectuals continue to complain but do nothing, there will be more humiliation, mockery and dehumanization coming our way, and black women (er, cakes) will be eaten in Sweden and other places where African women are exotica. If we as Africans are serious about being viewed as human beings capable of thinking and acting in our own best interests, until we demonstrate that we are our own best advocates, we will continue to be spectators of our own destiny and to be seen as nothing more than strange children who are in a perpetual state of arrested development, disabled beings who don’t know what they want or need. We are treated the way we allow people to treat us. Disrespect of the kind demonstrated in this event is not acceptable in 2012. Only we can put a stop to this debilitating imagery of ourselves.

Since this blog was written I have joined hands with other women and organizations to write an open letter to the Minister of culture in Sweden. The link is below, please sign it and forward this blog to your friends and contacts. Fell free to google this issue and you will become aware of the widespread rage and consternation at this vile project.