Sunday, 8 March 2015

Power Women 232

The silver lining that has emerged from the dark cloud that is Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is the number of phenomenal women who are doing something to make the lives of victims, their carers and their affected societies better.

What better day than International Women's day to recognise the incredible work and sacrifice of one of those phenomenal women. 

Power 232 - a network of young professional women - launched a campaign in August last year aimed at recognising and rewarding the tireless and selfless efforts of healthcare workers dealing with the Ebola epidemic. Through donations from individuals and businesses, Power 232 creates care packages for healthcare workers that include essential items like soap,  toothpaste, tea, milk, and biscuits, cornflakes. They also include 'Thank You’ cards that remind these amazing carers who risk their lives each day to help others, just how much they are appreciated. 

Today, these amazing women honoured one of those healthcare professionals on their Facebook page with the following:

Dr Fanny Koroma
Meet PowerWoman Fanny Koroma, MD. We at PowerWomen232 have waited until International Women's Day 2015 to feature Fanny because she is one of the numerous unsung female Ebola heroes across Sierra Leone. A committed Christian with a passion for singing, Fanny graduated from the College of Medicine and Allied Sciences, University of Sierra Leone with an MB.Ch.B degree. With a firm belief in leadership, she served as President of the Sierra Leone Medical Students' Association (SLeMSA), which is Sierra Leone's chapter of the International Federation of Medical Students' Association (IFMSA), the only UN recognized student body with over 100 member countries, this is in addition to membership in numerous organizations including the Sierra Leone Junior Doctors' Association.
When the Ebola outbreak began in Sierra Leone, Fanny was attached to Connaught Hospital as a House Officer. She worked in the outpatient department which is the first port of call for ALL patients, doing screening and deciding who fits the case definition of Ebola. She did this on average of 3 times a week with little or no personal protective equipment (PPE). Fanny had many scary moments, each time a patient she had screened was confirmed positive for Ebola, it took an emotional and mental toll on her; compounding her mental anguish were the deaths of several outpatient department nurses who contracted the virus and subsequently died. Through all this, Fanny continued to show up for work day in and day out. She finally broke down when her immediate boss and mentor, Dr T.T. Rogers contracted the virus and died, she was placed on self observation for 21 days and those were the longest 21 days of her life.
During her 21 days of self observation, Fanny had a lot of time to think. She felt 'helpless' people were showing up at the hospital when it was too late due to fear. She wanted to do something different in the fight against Ebola. She felt she would be of better use at the community level were the problems could be arrested before escalating to the hospital. Fanny joined the World Health Organization as a Tracing Mentor/Coordinator in Kambia, Northern Sierra Leone. In her current role, she is in the field everyday, in villages and quarantined homes; following contacts and conducting case investigations to get epidemiological links/chain of transmission. She also ensures that people in quarantined homes get all the necessary food, security and communication needs to enable them to comply to the terms of the quarantine. Additionally, she ensures that contact tracers visit quarantined homes for monitoring twice a day.
Fanny is saddened by the toll Ebola has had on health care professionals in Sierra Leone, especially the more experienced doctors; she was hoping to work with them, to learn from their experiences. Many of them have died after contracting Ebola. Even more troubling to Fanny is the huge death toll of both Ebola and non-Ebola causes in such a short time span.
According to Fanny, Ebola has changed the face of medicine in Sierra Leone, for doctors, nurses, medical students and patients. “Ebola has been an expensive lesson for Sierra Leoneans,” she says “from issues like hygiene, to managing hospitals, and how to approach medicine when a majority of the population prefer to seek health care needs from traditional healers, we must do better, Sierra Leoneans deserve better.” In the midst of all this, Fanny is forward thinking, a visionary; she is looking forward to a health care system that works in Sierra Leone, one with the right policies, administration, infrastructure etc...and she is hoping to make a significant contribution to the turnaround of our healthcare system.
We at PowerWomen232 are so proud of Fanny, at a time when those in the medical profession are sacrificing their own lives in the Ebola fight, she has stepped forward, to offer her services to humanity. Dr. Fanny Koroma, on International Women's Day, we salute you, we beam with so much pride, you and countless other women ‪#‎MakeItHappen‬ in this‪#‎Ebola‬ fight. We simply say thank you for your gift to humanity, thank you for your gift to Sierra Leone.

To learn more about and to support Power 232 - please visit their Facebook page  or follow them on twitter . As the name of the campaign suggests, in order to eradicate Ebola we need "All hands on deck!"

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The more things change....

I started writing this post in the thick of the Ferguson protests and Israeli bombings of Gaza - before the body of Michael Brown was buried, before 519 Palestinian mothers buried their children. But as the French saying goes it was plus fort que moi - it was all more than I could bear. I spoke to a close friend of mine in the Netherlands and she asked me what was wrong with the world - where had our humanity gone? So the original title of this post was "To the vocal supporters and silent accomplices of murderers and mass murderers: Where is your humanity?". 

I began the post by talking about Michael Brown, an unarmed boy, gunned down by a policeman, shot no less than six times. And then asked how such a deplorable event could be met with the silence of some or even worse, words and actions in defence of his killer. Where is the humanity of such people?   

Then yesterday the grand jury decided that they would not indict Mike Brown's murderer. The man who shot an unarmed person 6 times, who pursued him and then boldly declared during his testimony that his victim looked like a demon

It has taken every effort for many of us to not despair at America, especially white America and its blatant disregard for black lives. The fact that there is no collective outrage at the jury's decision reminds me of how and why slavery flourished for as long as it did. The fact that there are some who argue about grey areas and feel ambivalent when it is crystal clear to anyone with compassion that Michael Brown was cold blood... wrongfully - is that clear enough for you? There is no debate to be had, no justification - Darren Wilson should not have fatally shot an unarmed boy! There is not a single video or picture that would make that conclusion any different so I won't even dignify the desperate arguments that have surfaced with a response. 

Like those who supported slavery and apartheid, there are people, many of them in America's police forces, who do not see Mike Brown or black people as human beings deserving of their compassion. History is far from a distant memory - we pretend things are different today because certain laws are in place that prevent us from committing the crimes we did against the innocent in the past but Ferguson and the countless other examples of Mike Browns and Trayvon Martin... all over America are reminders that little has actually changed. 

The fact that we have to remind people whose compassion is reserved for Darren Wilson who lost a job as opposed to Mike Brown's mother who has lost a child that #blacklivesmatter is an indictment on American society. 

Darren Wilson's life and the lives of white men like him are not at risk. The lives of white police men are not at risk! For all the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US, there is zero evidence of retaliation against white people or white policemen. Yet black boys and men continue to fall..... 

So I choose unapologetically to fly the banner for black lives because they are at risk in America. I choose to speak out about those lives not because I don't love humanity as a whole but because today, at least, Whites do not need my compassion. Darren Wilson and his white colleagues do not need me to raise funds for them, white men in the street do not need me to protest about society's injustices against them. Those who are privileged by virtue of the colour of their skin do not need me to speak out for them. Mike Brown, Kimani Gray, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garner - the countless black boys and men who have lost their lives because of the colour of their skin - the countless who are incarcerated because of the colour of their skin - they do! They need us to speak out and say #blacklivesmatter America #blacklivesmatter World! 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Let's bring real sexy back

I realise it's been a while...quite a while. Since I last posted in July, I've drafted several blog posts....on Ferguson, on Ebola...on Palestine...on discrimination. All quite sad or angry and none of that have given me the energy or courage or desire to complete. So here I am back on The Hibiscus Notes...writing.

Ironically this is a subject I've blogged about on numerous occasions, in various ways. It's about how we women are portrayed in the media, more specifically the way our bodies are portrayed.

The reason I decided to blog yet again about this...hopefully from another angle is because of a video I just saw - Heather Headley's video "In my mind".  As I watched Ms Headley sing her heart out about lost love - I was reminded of how sexy she is in that video...and yet she's fully clothed. The skin we see is limited to her midriff but in my humble yet objective opinion, she's still hot. It's the way she moves, the flash of a little flesh but not too much that keeps you guessing. That in and of itself I believe is sexy - the promise of more...maybe.

I contrast that to the numerous famous and not-so famous women these days who strip right down to the bare minimum - i.e their birthday suits. Whether on their videos, in magazines or on their Instagram accounts. They regale us with their butt and boob selfies - which not surprisingly have ceased to shock our sensibilities. Each time I see these half naked or very naked women, I can't help but shake my head in the manner my grandmother shook her head when I wore crop tops at age 15. Perhaps with age I've become my grandmother, prudish and judgmental but I'd like to think it's more than that.

Infact I find it almost laughable to observe one famous woman after another engage in one-upmanship - desperate to outstrip her peer - to shake that bare booty harder, faster - to shock by showing more. Although if I'm honest once we've seen you bare butt, oiled up and gyrating in music videos, we've seen your boobs in their full glory and your neatly manicured vajayjay - there's not much else left now is there? It makes me wonder what the future holds for our daughters. I wonder if when they're adults, women will take to performing sexual acts on their naked bodies in order to grab attention because let's face it, it's going to be hard to top a full frontal.

There are many people who argue that stripping down is a woman owning her sexuality... maybe for a few it is...but I highly doubt that the majority of these women are mature enough to fully grasp what that means. Most have simply been told men...that their bodies are beautiful. Either they have convinced themselves, or let others convince them, that this is all they have to offer the world. And so they put it on display.  And of course for some women, their bodies...half clothed or naked, are their money-spinner - some might even say their only discernible talent. And that's all well and good but forgive me for having a hard time celebrating the pornification of my gender.

Interestingly there's been one constant over the decades - the men.... have remain fully clothed. Poor things- how sexually repressed they must feel.

Of course no amount of me ranting or my friends and I lamenting about how we wished the world valued women for their brains more than it does for their bodies, will change the way things are. I've learnt to accept that this is our modern world. Girls will continue to imitate their idols by stripping down to take selfies, or becoming increasingly obsessed with the size of their booties.

And for my part, I will continue to shake my head and secretly pity these body-image-obsessed women. I will continue to celebrate real sexy as demonstrated by the women whose clothes flatter their figures but who prefer to leave the stripping to private sessions with their partners. And the real sexy we see in the confident female commanding everyone's attention in a meeting. Now that's worthy of a comeback.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Sierra Leone's Ebola outbreak and Nigeria's abducted girls - reminders that we need better governments

The kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria is one of the many recent tragic world events that forced me to turn my Facebook account into a tool for advocacy. Another is the tragedy taking place in Gaza - the senseless killing of innocent civilians, children included. So with the outbreak of the deadly disease, Ebola - starting in Guinea and spreading to Liberia and Sierra Leone - you would think that I'd be riled up and ready to take my position on the virtual soap box. Instead I feel powerless - as though there is not a thing I can say on Facebook that would change the present tragic situation in my country and its neighbours. 
With the loss yesterday in Sierra Leone of the leading doctor - a virologist who selflessly served his people and died doing so - that sense of powerlessness is even more pronounced. I am certainly not one for evangelical pronouncements on social media forums but I truly believe at this point that only God can save West Africa from this disease.
Yet in all my powerlessness, I am also filled with anger - anger at our governments. At the Nigerian government for waiting for weeks before looking for the Chibok girls. At the Sierra Leonean government for failing to take action early enough to stop the spread of Ebola, for not closing its borders. We only need look at our neighbours in Liberia to see how Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has dealt with the outbreak where there are considerably fewer cases and even fewer fatalities. Instead we are reminded that we have a government that is made up of "square pegs in round holes". One whose top ministers are simply not equipped, not experienced or not knowledgeable to do their jobs. These tragedies remind us of how wholly inadequate our governments are.

I recall going to Uganda a couple of years ago for a friend's wedding, this was a time when the land locked country was witnessing yet another outbreak of Ebola. There was certainly concern but overall the government did what it needed to do and the cases were few, and the fatalities even fewer. The effort was led by the Ugandan government - not its citizens.  Yet today citizens of Sierra Leone and Nigeria feel compelled to do their elected government's jobs. We are organizing ourselves to call for the return of the kidnapped schoolgirls; meeting with their parents; lobbying western governments to help. We are raising funds to help fight the Ebola outbreak; raising awareness about how to not catch the disease, and even more importantly, how to stop it from spreading. And while I recognize that concerned citizens of the world are all implicated and should all do our part, I feel compelled to point out that part of doing our part is holding our elected leaders accountable.

Shouldn't we be asking them about why they appoint people who are ill-equipped for certain key posts in their governments? Why are we not telling them, reminding them that they hold the primary responsibility for our well-being? Why are we accepting term after term their underperformance and over-rewarding? It's become commonplace for African ministers and senior officials - correction, even mid-level officials to get rich while in office, all the while doing very little to improve the countries they were elected to run or the lives of those who elected them.

I am angry but not at you, the ordinary citizen in Freetown or Lagos, London or New York, because you haven't posted something about Ebola or the Chibok girls or because you haven't donated to a fund you have no idea will make a difference to those tragic situations. I am angry at the leaders and their cohorts, the greedy, the corrupt, the lazy, the ones who think running a country is a job that can be done in between lining their pockets. I am sick and tired of us giving those fools a "get out of jail free" card so they can stick around for four or five more years to finish building that ridiculously huge mansion. Terrorism in the form Boko Haram and the outbreak of a deadly indiscriminate disease are not matters that should be taken lightly. So why are our governments not treating them with the sense of urgency they deserve? Why is the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health trying to put a positive spin on its daily updates on Ebola - when there is nothing positive about 225 confirmed deaths. More than 100 days since they were abducted, why is the Federal Government of Nigeria not doing everything within its power to find these girls? Why are both Governments acting like these catastrophes are not their's / their catastrophes, first and foremostly? When tragedies strike in parts of the Western world, we hold those government to very high, sometimes impossible standards. We expect nothing less than their absolute best and when they fail to deliver we call for their removal. When will African citizens in Africa and it's diaspora start holding their governments to the same standard? No amount of status updates, fundraising or peaceful marches will #bringbackourgirls or #kickebolaoutofsierraleone without a plan of action from those in power. We cannot do their jobs for them so let's stop trying and let's start telling them to pull their bloody fingers out!!!!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The joys and pains of Motherhood

I tend to be quite cautious about what I share on Facebook. While I don't want to come across as someone who carefully manufactures a picture-perfect Facebook life -only posting flattering holiday or family pictures where everyone is giddily happy - at the same time I would generally prefer not air my problems on social networks. The trivialities of life are fine - I'd happily tell all about my little missteps, or failings but larger, more real issues I'm afraid have to be left for person to person interaction. So when a friend did what I would ordinarily consider "overshare" today about her feelings of being unappreciated by her children and their father, I must admit that my immediate reaction was to cringe. I cringed not because I couldn't relate to what she was saying but because I thought here she was baring her soul for all one hundred and something of her so-called friends. I almost in-boxed her to ask her what was going on and if she needed to talk. But then I thought better of it and decided to respond directly to her posting my comment for other women who have similar sentiments to read.

All too often mothers are silenced by their peers, their partners, their children, by society. To speak about motherhood in a negative way can raise eyebrows and elicit whispers. Either you end up becoming the object of pity by the self-declared supermums or everyone starts walking on eggshells around you as though you're mentally unstable and could snap at any moment. Yet it is perfectly acceptable to have moments of doubt or misgivings as girlfriends or wives, so why is it unfathomable that we can experience the same thing as mothers?

From the changes our bodies undergo during pregnancy to the incomparable pain of childbirth, to the incredibly difficult post natal period where women either feel overwhelmed by the reality of having a living breathing being that requires their constant attention - to the unbearably painful and emotional early stages of breastfeeding and then the emotional rollercoaster of being all things to our children while managing our household and/or maintaining full time jobs and ensuring we look good enough to dissuade our partners/husbands from straying - women seem to bear it times stoically, at other times with outward joy. For the most part, we realise that the rewards are far greater than the agony we go through - we bear the scars of motherhood with a sense of pride - the stretch marks; the hanging tummy or mother's apron as it's aptly known. We say goodbye to the idea of wearing teeny bikinis because there is this incredible person in our lives, who loves us unconditionally and makes us laugh and smile and cry and we cannot imagine ourselves without them....even if ourselves before them were skinnier and less sleep deprived.

Yet there are times when motherhood does feel like a thankless job, when it takes all the strength and willpower to stop yourself from having the outburst, from crying, from locking yourself in the bathroom and demanding a moment's peace from everyone. There are times when we have to, we need to take a break from the running around and taking care of everyone, making sure lunch and snacks are packed, uniforms are ironed, classes are attended - when we simply need to stop and ask ourselves "who is taking care of us?" And at times the answer we come back with is terribly depressing and yet we still press on. After all, this is our calling, so we tell ourselves, so quitting is simply not an option.

But if we are going to press on as primary caregivers, as fixers of everything - psychiatrists, book keepers, drivers, lovers, cooks, teachers, which I fully accept, surely we should be allowed to scream when it all gets overwhelming. Our genuinely expressed anguish shouldn't elicit cringes from our friends who are all too familiar with the things we're complaining about. We should be able to say that we feel unappreciated without being made to feel like we are letting the 'side' down...not quite coping as expected. We shouldn't feel the need to compete with the domestic goddesses who too, more likely than not, have moments of self-doubt and angst. Most importantly we should be able to tell our children and our partners how we feel. We should be able to ask them to do better, to consider our feelings too without it being seen as emotional blackmail or worse still, that loathsome sexist put down....nagging. 

Because of my reaction today, I want to apologise to all the mothers who've ever felt dismissed by their friends and their loved ones. You are right to feel overwhelmed, angry, taken for granted, even depressed at times. Those feelings are valid given what you go through each and every day. Seeing your children grow or your partner become more successful may not be enough to appease you so my hope is that, like my friend, you will find the courage to tell those who matter in your life how you feel. I hope that they will love you enough to listen and to do something about it - to start to see you as more than just a person whose role in life is facilitate their lives. And more importantly I hope you will start seeing yourself as more than their cheerleader and recognise that you are a person in your own right - that before you were a mother or a wife, you had interests, a goal, a focus! In remembering that, hopefully as mums, we can focus more on taking care of ourselves and being our own biggest fans rather than waiting for the one day each year when the people we show love and appreciation 365 days - return the favour.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Living Single in Africa

Dubbed the African version of "Sex and the City", An African City has been greeted with a lot of buzz on the social media and beyond. The series is available on Youtube and consists of ten episodes (seven have aired so far) that give us a taster of the lives of  "Five beautiful, successful African females [who] return to their home continent and confide [in each other] about love and life in 'An African City'! "
A friend posted the pilot on Facebook before it aired and I must admit that I was intrigued - it looked both interesting and refreshing -life in one of our fascinating, colourful African cities. Also the story of the returnee is one that I'm familiar with, having lived in three countries in Africa as either a returnee or a friend of a returnee.

With episode 1, my hopes were abruptly dashed - instead of observing five exposed women for whom the African continent was not a 'foreign thing', I witnessed five condescending Americanahs.... 'Johnny-Just-Comes'; 'Summers' or 'Just-kams' as they are known depending on where in Africa you are. The first episode was so full of cliches that I cringed as I watched. The women have such conk American accents that they almost sound like caricatures. I would not have been surprised if they burst into "OMG Brittany...whatever...LOL" at any given time. All I could think in my exaggerated pan-West African accent (used for effect) is "What is dis Non-Sense?" To add insult to injury one of the silly characters lamented about not being able to get Starbucks anymore - I mean who on earth misses Starbucks in a continent that exports the best coffee on earth. To use an American expression that our five protagonists can probably relate to - "really dude....?"

Determined though not to write it off...after all on paper there was not a single reason why I shouldn't like this series...convinced I would be able to relate to some of their experiences, if not all - I decided to dig my heels in and continue watching. All I needed to do was grit my teeth and sit through seven fairly short episodes (around 20 minutes each). I discussed the series with my equally unimpressed friend who lived in Accra as a 'returnee/expatriate' for a number of years and managed to convince her that it would get had to.

So after watching all seven episodes, some more painful than others, I've decided to see the glass as neither half full nor half empty, rather than tell you what I think is wrong with An African City, I prefer instead to give you a list of its Pros and Cons. I don't want to be accused of being a "Hater" or not celebrating African Success so let's go with the list approach and I'll let you judge for yourself.

Let's start with the positives - that way if you love the series you can stop after this list and not be tainted by my negativity. Here goes:

  1. Fabulous African City - An African City is set in gorgeous, progressive Accra. What better African City to set a series that celebrates a new generation of Africans than in Accra, the poster child for the "Africa Rising" rhetoric.
  2. Beautiful Black Women - The five women featured in the series are stunning without a doubt....of different hues, shapes and sizes but each one embodies our diverse beauty in the continent and particularly in the region.
  3. African Fashion - I love how they showcase African fashion - each episode features beautifully crafted clothes - some Western but most with African fabrics. The people behind the series even provided the link for one of the designers that they use on their Youtube page. I think this aspect of the series is spot on because whether you are a "homegrown" African or a returnee, the most important relationship you'll have in any African city is the one with your tailor/dressmaker. They may frustrate you and cause you to blow up their phone when your outfit is not delivered on time but when they come through, there is no better feeling than being able to walk into a crowded room with your one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure fabulous piece of Ankara bliss.
  4. Relationship drama - The various relationship dilemmas are interwoven in each episode making for relate-able viewing no matter how old you are or what your marital status is. The reality of being single in any city produces interesting anecdotes let alone an African one where married men happily feature in your dating pool - and yes before you cry stereotype, that is is more of a reality in our continent than in say, New York, Paris or London. I recall when I first moved to Tanzania being asked on a date by a man and with my naive "Johnny Just Come" self, assuming he must have been not-married because why would a man with a wife and children at home take a woman out on a date in full view of society. Turned out he ,,was married and society was fully aware and fully accepting of his behaviour.  
  5. Women confiding in each other - Who does lunches/dinner parties/drinks better than women? For me the fact that these five women are the main feature of the series, with the various men merely serving as a backdrop - to illustrate the tales they tell - is a recipe for fascinating, eye-opening, mind-boggling exchanges. When I think back to the conversations I had about boyfriends, sexual experiences etc during my single days, I realise that if my exes had been flies on the wall during those moments they would have gasped dramatically and probably dumped me immediately afterwards. Among single women though, no topic is taboo....the size, the way it's used, the willingness or not to take the "southern route", when single women get together - it's like a multiple therapy session where everyone gets an opportunity to air their issues and offer advice, opinions, support or just a listening ear. It's both fascinating and hilarious and while married women can also produce many side-splitting female get-togethers, we tend to be a little less generous about dishing out information on our sexual experiences - a singleton can laugh about the guy she dated with the "Idris Elba face and micro-penis" but a married women would be less willing to share unflattering stories about her life partner's bedroom skills or lack thereof with a group of friends, no matter how close. 
But here is where I think the series needs serious editing/polishing/revamping before it can claim its rightful place among brilliantly executed web series like Misadventures of awkward black girl or Shuga that are embraced by both young Africans back home and in the Diaspora. Here is my list of the pitfalls of An African City...its 'Cons' if you will....

  1. Un-African Africans - after the first episode one of my girlfriends sent a message asking a group of us who had lived in Kampala as 'returnees' in our late 20s whether we were "that condescending". I immediately responded in the negative - while we bemoaned all the idiosyncrasies of living in an African city after spending decades in a Western one, we were never that disdainful. What you get in "An African City" is a bunch of self-congratulatory Americanahs (I failed to spot the British accents in all seven episodes I've seen even though at least one claims to be Brit-educated) who have a serious superiority complex. My experience in the three African cities I lived/spent time in, was of friendships that included both returnees and "home-grown" women. I remember a fabulous dreadlocked chick in Kampala who used to read poetry - she was born, studied and grew up in Uganda and I could relate to her as much as I could relate to the women who had the same Western education as me. The exchanges of the women in An African City reminds me of an expatriate dinner party I once attended in Freetown where white expatriates (oblivious of the colour of my skin and my origin) sat complaining about the locals and how hard it was to get "good help". Suffice to say that was the last time I spent time with that group of people. The women in this series are incredibly condescending and seem completely clueless about how this may come off to a "local".  In one of the episodes the main character Nana Yaa is shocked at the fact that her Ex's girlfriend spoke to her in twi...and half-heartedly regrets that she (and no doubt her friends) cannot speak a 'local language'. I mean "Are you kidding me?" (exaggerated generic West-African accent comes out again) - "are you an oyimbo/obroni/jungu/muzungu/wate-man that you cannot speak your own language?" *mcheewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww* or *tsssssssssssssst* - "Foolish gyal- you bettah go and learn". Word of warning to all you Americanahs/Europeanahs out there, if you plan to go "back home", or as you might say, back to the "motherland" I suggest you brush up on your wolof, twi, yoruba, igbo, krio, swahili, luganda, shona or whichever language applies because living in African City and not being able to speak like the "locals" is simply not an option. You may as well be a foreigner...heck as far as Africans are concerned, you may as well be Chinese.
  2. Unrecognisable African names - when I heard the name Bamidele pronounced in one of the episodes, I almost fell off my chair. It was like I had been transported to middle America and was listening some foolish girl called Tiffany mispronounce an otherwise simple Yoruba name. But I soon realised that if one of the main character's name was being butchered - "En-GO-Zee" then what hope was there for poor "Bami-Day-Lay" whose face we did not even see (again...please read in appropriate African accent). Please, a word of warning if you are going to make a series set in Africa featuring African women, getting the names pronounced properly is a basic requirement. Even the character called Makena....for many of the episodes I was convinced her name was the friends kept calling her Mak-eee-na, it was only at the end that I realised that it was infact Makena pronounced in Kenya "Ma-kay-nuh". I don't know how the Africans behind this series could miss such an obvious issue or where they so absorbed in their own American accents that they thought African viewers would be happy to see their names butchered? Every word these women utter just sounds foreign to my ears, to quote a Youtube viewer, who was clearly irritated my Nana Yaa retort to the Immigration officer who told her (rightly) to join the line for foreigners, who on earth says "I'm Gheh-Nay-An"? My reaction when I heard her was - Wha' be dis NON-SENSE? (said in a Nollywood-esque accent).
  3. Too much too quickly - as I watched episode after episode, my head went into a spin with the number of issues the girls were "dealing" with at the same time. It may be true that in real life in one sitting you and your friends talk about parents' expectations, dating, government contracts, poor infrastructure, careers, exes, red tape - but on screen, that simply does not make for good viewing. An African City comes across as an attempt to cover all the bases when it comes to living in modern day Africa but for the viewer it's simply too much, too quickly. The subjects, most of which are pertinent could have been dealt with in far more depth if they were broken down, yet there were times when it felt like we were going through the creator/director's tick list. Okay - married African men -tick; corruption -tick; poor customer service - tick. And then there is the long list of Ivy league and Oxbridge schools thrown in here there and everywhere - all of them ticked off the list. Every single one if the characters - major or minor seems to have graduated from either an Ivy League university or from Oxford or Cambridge - I almost want to shout out as I watch- it's okay if you graduated from CUNY or South Bank University ladies....really you can still return home and do well. 
  4. Juvenile on so many levels - I kept trying to refresh my memory with every episode about my late 20s, early 30s....was I this immature? Either these women are getting starry-eyed as they make ridiculous declarations about 'love' or someone being their 'soulmate' or spouting cliches like "I gave you seven years of my life". Or the creator is dedicating entire episodes to quirky but hardly common experiences that involve either men playing "Fling the soiled condom" in their girlfriend's apartment or going down there to check whether their girlfriend 'smells nice' - or taking loud bathroom breaks immediately after sex - Again I ask you - What nonsense is this? Does the creator really mean to tell us that Ghanaian men have a habit of throwing soiled condoms around an apartment to see where it lands or that they don't go down on their women before doing the fictitious "belly button test" or that they develop diarrhea immediately after sleeping with their girlfriends? Chale ah beg o! Perhaps these oddities were featured for comedic effect - a fact that was lost on me but I think the creator missed a trick because there are so many pertinent issues that could have been dealt with, with maturity. For instance the "to wear or not to wear a condom" question is real - take notes from Shuga - where a character in the Nigerian version responds to being asked to wear one "how can you eat an orange with the peel on - it's just not the same baby". This is an attitude that is still so prevalent among African men, young and old.  The idea that having a vibrator is something so foreign to Africa and Africans that a customs officer would mistake the infamous rabbit for a back massager is laughable to me - I'm wondering if the creator and director have had the privilege of visiting the Ghanaian blog . You have to sign a disclaimer before entering the site, that is how risque it is. The first time I heard about it was when a friend sent me a link which gives a whole new meaning to the term 'going native' - it blew my mind! Another issue that could have been dealt with in a more mature and relevant way is the whole "to go down or not to go down on your woman" debate. This topic is fascinating because the likelihood of a man going down on you actually varies significantly from one African city to another, ...I would even go as far as saying from one ethnicity to another - while a Munyakole man in Kampala may happily do it, a Hausa man in Lagos may not be so willing. It depends entirely on cultural taboos and this really would make for a fascinating analysis.
  5. Africa is not a country - while I think it's commendable that the creators of this series are trying to paint a Pan-African picture, I don't think it works. First thing - Stop with the "since I came back to Africa...since I came back to the continent" - Accra is not Nairobi...Nairobi is not Johannesburg....and Jo'burg is not Addis. While there are certain similarities -there are more differences than there are similarities. For instance customer service at Java's in Nairobi is excellent, yet go to Bancafe in Kampala and you'll want to throttle someone. Freetown has power and water rationing but Abidjan has no such problem. Women in Dar-es-Salaam tend to wear Westernised clothes whereas women in Ouaga will rock their African print and Dutch wax in the most elaborate styles. There are similarities but there are differences - many differences. And the attempt to create a group that represents 'the continent' - Sade being half Nigerian; Zainab - Sierra Leonean; Ngozi-Nigerian and Makena born in Kenya (I assume to Kenyan parents) simply falls flat when there is no follow through. The only thing I see from all of them are bland generic Western cultures - perhaps with the exception of Sade who has a bit of African spunk. They could be any group of women from any random city - London/New York/Paris - and no amount of pronouncements about "Ghana being the place of my birth,... my parents birth" changes that. It's odd because the creator does not have to look far to find true Afropolitans (to steal an expression coined by another Ghanaian) in African cities. There are many who in spite of being away from their country of birth or origin have maintained a connection with said African country that makes returning home relatively easy. Yes ofcourse they will bemoan the bureaucracy and inefficiencies in countries that are mostly developing, they will also discuss experiences that they may have taken for granted in the West but they wont in any way be handicapped by their Western education or upbringing. They can flip from their Oxbridge accents to a conk Ugandan one when the need arises; depending on who they're talking to they can either "chuchote à la Française" or launch into nouchi when trying to get a bargain in Cocody market. And then there are the Africans who move effortlessly from one African City to another - from Abuja to Harare to Libreville - all in a week's work and they are equally at ease in one city as the next - authentically Pan-African. Instead what we get is a group of über-Westernised women who seem to observe Africa from the outside. Watching the seven episodes, I simply can't get the image of the film White Chicks out of my head - as Nana Yaa or Sade or Ngozi speak all I can hear is "OMG Brittany...can you believe her...I was like seriously".  
Suffice to say An African City represents a start to getting interesting stories told about the continent but it's a far cry from being our answer to Sex in the City - if there is one thing we could say about the women in SATC is that they were New Yorkers through and through - our five fashionistas in An African City are neither authentically Ghanaian, nor West African, nor African for that matter. Personally I think this is a shame because as Africans back home and in the Diaspora we do have fascinating and relevant stories to tell but what makes them interesting is that our storyboards are coloured with our cultural experiences, our versatility, the languages we speak, the cultures we respect, our understanding and embracing of religion - even if its on our own terms. Perhaps the show will redeem itself in the last three episodes, perhaps the women will get accent transplants and befriend a 'local' who may not be so strange after all...until then I'll continue to enjoy the beauty, the fashion and the fabulous backdrop that is Accra.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A dinner party with five incredible women

If I could pick five incredible women to have dinner with on any given night, I can say with certainty that I would be spoilt for choice. I consider myself fortunate enough to be able to call some amazing women, mum, aunts, cousins and friends. If asked however to pick five famous women with whom I would sit around a huge dinner table drinking wine and home-made ginger beer or bissap and eating good food - I can easily think of five such women whose company I would love to share. The idea of being in one place with them and sharing ideas, experiences with hopefully lots and lots of laughter - I hope we'd be reluctant to part company because there would be so much to say.

My "famous five" - are women who based on what they say and do, I find myself thinking I would love to get to know them them, not the fame and fortune but because of what they stand for and the fact that the values they hold seem so familiar to me. These women leave me with a sense of affinity - despite the fact that I do not know them - they appear to embody the values that I see in my girlfriends and the female members of my family. They give me a sense that were we ever to find ourselves at the same dinner table, we would never run out of things to say to each other.

A few weeks ago I attended an talk at Long Island University with Edwidge Danticat - Haitian-American writer of both fiction and non-fiction. I have admired Edwidge ever since I read her novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory". My admiration comes not only from the fact that I believe her to be one of the few truly talented storytellers in modern times - whenever I read her work, from Krik Krak to the Dew Breaker, to Brother I'm dying, I get the sense that the words just flow from a natural gift; but also because she is more than just a writer, she is an activist, an advocate for human rights - a principled truth-teller.
There is something effortless about the way she tells her stories - often times when you read the works of accomplished writers, you get the sense that a great deal of research went into it - it can almost seem like a scientific exercise - where words are carefully chosen and imagery is meticulously juxtaposed with events to create a final product that is worthy of literary awards. With Edwidge, she writes as though she is your Haitian friend taking you on a journey to her beautiful country. She wants to introduce you to her people in all their glory. She wants to tell you of their resilience in spite of all the odds, in spite of natural disasters and foreign interference and corrupt governments. She is also your activist friend, refusing to turn a blind eye simply because it's politically safe to do so. In her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge invites us to a small fishing town in Haiti - she introduces us to the lives of the people who live there - rich and poor, young and old; she invites us to see their lives, their experiences, their trials and tribulations and witness the choices they make - from their perspective. When I met Edwidge, I could not pass up on the chance to ask her a question - I wanted to know what the future held for Haitian literature - were new writers coming up who would continue the work she and many others like Dany Leferriere had begun. She responded enthusiastically, listing some of the incredible writers that have emerged both from Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Afterwards as she signed my book...a book she wrote ....called "Creating dangerously", we talked about the similarities between oral traditions of storytelling in Haiti and Sierra Leone. I told her that where in Haiti, they use the call and answer "Krik" followed by "Krak" for storytelling, we use "Il" followed by "Ow" in Sierra Leone. I left the event feeling proud to have gotten to know Edwidge a little better....the mother, the writer, the activist became that little bit more familiar to me and a lot more affable.

I started listening to my second famous dinner guest, Ms. Emeli Sande in the summer of 2012 - I was travelling alone and often found myself wondering alone discovering a city in Germany. Emeli's album "Our version of the events" was my playlist on repeat. I can't put my fingers on what it is about Emeli that makes me think of her differently to many other talented artists. It goes without saying that her lyrics move me. I can listen to 'Suitcase' a thousand times, but I'm always left with the same sense of nostalgia - I can't put my finger on why she makes me think of lost moments and lost loves and perhaps a simpler era - which may or may not be in my mind only. I saw her perform suitcase in Central Park last summer and remember feeling overcome by a sense of sadness- as I listened to her sing, it feels like she is telling a story that I am familiar with or as though she's put into words all the heartache that accompanied discovering love and loss and learning to love again and again. There's also a simplicity about Emeli, the person that I love - she is all about her music - and in this fickle world that we live in today, that is a rare thing. I love that she is smart - intelligent- objectively speaking - not simply because she studied medicine (in the hopes of one day becoming a neurologist - admitting that she wanted to find out why we act the way we do) - but also because when she talks and sings and performs, you can tell that she's both engaged and engaging. She is no product of a record label's PR machinery. If you follow her on twitter (@emelisande), you'll see less of what she's wearing or how sexy she looks and more of what she's thinking or doing. Her understatedness means that what you think most about, is her music - her ability to write incredible music and play the piano beautifully . I was so moved when I saw her perform that I promised myself that I would one day pay more just to see her - the concert in the park was only $30  - part of the Summer Stage series. I found her music so inspiring that I wanted to make sure I could one day pay a fair price for benefitting from her incredible talent. Emeli is so grounded - she often talks in interviews about her English mum and Zambian father who is a school teacher - and she seems to credit them with the woman she has become today. During her performance, when she introduced "My kind of love", she mentioned that the song was inspired by cancer patients that she saw while she was studying and the strength of the love she witnessed from their families who continued to visit and show their unwavering love and support in spite of their individual situations. In relation to that particular song, Emeli's been quoted as saying that she wanted to speak of a love, other than the romantic type of love adding "It would be sad if we lost our instinct and our courage to love and protect."

I would love to share a glass with Emeli - even if that glass is full of her favourite raw juice because in my mind she embodies my kind of values - her down-to-earthedness, her strength, her principles and her inner beauty which shines through her character and her music time and time again.

My third dinner guest would be Ava Duvernay, the director of "Middle of Nowhere" . As well as loving Ava's beautiful smile and gloriously enviable locs, I love the fact that she makes films that I want to go and see. Ava defied the odds and went from being a publicist to becoming a director. Her first feature film was I will follow. She is intelligent and humble and seems to feel a sense of responsibility for making films that people like me want to watch. She runs a distribution company called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, that is dedicated to discovering and promoting films by black directors. The company has released five films in the past four years. When I saw the Middle of Nowhere which won her best director at the Sundance Film festival in 2012 (the first black woman to win this coveted prize), I remember thinking what a simple yet beautifully shot film. Having read a number of her interviews, my respect for her has grown even more since I sat in the Magic Johnson cinema in Harlem alone watching and being in awe of Ava. When asked about how she describes herself, she doesn't shy away from the label of a black film maker, instead she describes herself as a black woman film maker and says unapologetically that she has no qualms about this label because that is the lens through which she creates her art. The middle of nowhere explores the point at which we start to lose ourselves in a relationship, Ava describes this as common with women in romantic relationships where we seem to 'give up so much of ourselves'. I love that Ava is telling stories that I can relate to and that she is not afraid to defend her art and to speak candidly about what motivates her to tell one story or another. I loved that she was honoured by Essence recently at the Black Women in Hollywood event where she gave a beautiful speech saying that the story of black people "deserve to be told. Not as sociology, not as spectacle, not as a singular event that happens every so often, but regularly and purposefully as truth and as art on an ongoing basis, as do the stories of all the women [we] love.”  For me in those simple words - she captures the challenge we face as black people - in having our stories told, in all their diverse glory  and in a human relatable way. I'm often struck by how the humanitarian world, the media and countless others treat the stories of black people - we become specimens, being observed - there's an eagerness to conclude that one pattern or the other exists - to make deductions without delving very deeply. I love that Ava's words seem to reflect her actions and I love that she recognises the importance of a strong female support network- at the end of her speech at the Essence event, she noted "where there is a woman there is magic, and she can share or not share her powers." I can't wait to see her next film which is a biopic on Martin Luther King or share that moment at my dinner table with her - a girl can dream right?

In speaking about our stories, I was recently fortunate enough to be able to meet a writer who has spoken extensively about the danger of the single story. A writer whose work I love and whom I admire. A friend, who knows that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, happens to be my ultimate girl crush, wrote to me to say that she had met her in Amsterdam. I was green with envy but over the moon that she and I were now a degree of separation closer. Perhaps I subconsciously asked God to allow me to meet her too because less than a day after I learnt she had given a talk in Amsterdam, another friend told me about a similar event, a talk, here in New York that was being organised by the Aspen Institute. The format would be someone from the Aspen Institute putting questions to her and Chimamanda the cuff ofcourse . I not only rsvp'd as soon as I heard about the event, I arrived 30 minutes early - no mean feat for a'er like me; I was so excited to see her and already knew the question I would ask her when given the chance. The 'conversation' lasted for just over an hour - the moderator, a dancer and director, white and male was surprisingly able to balance his questions - touching on her writing, politics, and ofcourse her stunning hair (at that time it was in cornrows gathered in a front chignon). Chimamanda was candid, yet charismatic, gracious and hilarious. As she spoke I kept thinking of how much she sounded like my girlfriends - she would do an exaggerated American accent when mocking the fact that there was a time when she chose to speak that way or would over-emphasise the Naija (Nigerian) accent in order to make a point, usually a funny one. She talked about her piece on the anti-homosexuality law in Nigeria and why she disagreed with those who opposed the law simply because they claimed, it was a distraction from larger more important matters - she argued instead that  for her it was a call to action because the it denied the fundamental human rights of a entire group of citizens simply because of who they loved. I asked her whether this law and the pattern that seemed to be emerging in many African countries of persecuting vulnerable groups - be they homosexual or women (I mentioned Uganda's anti-pornography law which allowed men to harass women for dressing in a so-called provocative manner) made her feel ambivalent in any way about living ' back home' in Nigeria. I loved her answer which was that while she could relate to this sense of ambivalence which she knew many Africans in the Diaspora felt, leaving Nigeria simply was not an option for her - she added that as nationals of a country we need to engage - collectively. At the same time she joked about owning a house in Nigeria that she had paid for and that therefore she refused to leave - she joked "Do you know how much I paid for that house?". Again the Naija accent was over-emphasised and her words far from being a way of bragging were instead a candid way of admitting that this was a "No turning back situation". Chimamanda comes across as humble and honest - she confessed to wasting hours on the internet following Lupita Nyong'o's every fashion move. The audience - mostly black women, African, Caribbean and African-American laughed knowing full well that we too shared her guilty pleasure. Chimamanda, should you ever read this piece, I'm extending an invitation to you as my fourth guest for what promises to be a very engaging dinner party.

Last but my no means least, I am proudly joining the Lupita Nyong'o bandwagon. When I found out some weeks ago that she lives in Brooklyn, I started daydreaming of one day bumping into her at Madiba's in Fort Greene or at BAM in downtown Brooklyn or Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens. I have perhaps spent longer than is socially acceptable wondering where in Brooklyn,
Ms. Nyong'o could possibly reside. I never thought of myself as the stalky type but having created a Pinterest board with no less than 110 photos of Lupita, I think I may have to reassess my thinking. In my defence though although Lupita is the flavour of the moment for many people - from those residing in superficial Hollywood, to members of the fickle media, or opportunistic Politicians who are ready to capitalise on her success, some of us are wowed by her not only because of her Oscar winning performance and not only because of the fact that she is a joy to behold in the various couture gowns designers seem to be throwing at her. It's not even simply because every time she gives an interview or delivers a speech, her intelligence and humility shine through so much that you cannot help but root for her. For me it's the fact that even before Hollywood, this beautiful woman made choices that set her apart. She directed an incredible film giving a voice to a group that has for too long been invisible in many countries in Africa. Her documentary
"In my Genes" follows eight albino Kenyans and examines the way society views them - how they are marginalized and treated as non-citizens. But beyond depicting them as victims, Lupita documents how they overcome their challenges and her film celebrates the triumphs they experience each day, however small. It is a powerful documentary and as young as she is, (she was even younger - 26 - when the documentary was released), she seems to have a wisdom that is uncommon even in those older than her, and very rare among people in the entertainment industry.
I was also fortunate enough to watch Lupita in Shuga, an MTV produced HIV-Aids awareness web series aired in Kenya in 2009 which was hugely popular. Lupita played an ambitious and confident student in the series who lost sight of what was truly important to her in her pursuit of a career. She was as impressive in the season one of the series and although she only appeared briefly in season two, the series (still available on YouTube) was so popular that it gave rise to a Nigerian spin off. Every time I see or hear Lupita, I want to clap or pump my fists in the air - she is a serious breath of fresh air.....just what we needed in an entertainment world that seems to prostitute itself for fame and fortune on daily basis. In Lupita's speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood event in which she too was honoured alongside my girl, Ava (*chuckle*), she talked about her mother's message to her that "You can't eat doesn't sustain you". It reminds me of a similar message from my mum and aunt who tried to remind me and my cousins each day that what mattered was education, hard work and perseverance. Girls who relied on their beauty did so because they had nothing else to offer - but smart girls like us would put our abilities above everything else. If anything we were encouraged to play down that beauty - at least in the school context - the pretty girl antics could come out for the odd party or social event - but then it would be tucked away again when the week started and our futures were at stake. I admire so much about Lupita - I am fully aware that she comes from a privileged family but there are so many like her who have not demonstrated her level of understanding, humility and compassion. She is a joy to behold in every sense of the word and if I am fortunate enough to one day bump into her somewhere in Brooklyn, I hope she'll accept my invitation to share a bottle of wine or two with me and four other equally inspirational phenomenal women.