The Woyingi Blog

Do Black Votes Matter? A Young Black Woman’s Reflections on Ottawa’s Municipal Election

I will be voting on Monday but frankly, I am not even sure it matters. I feel awful saying this as someone who works at encouraging members of my low-income housing project to become more civically engaged. But as a young Black woman, I really don’t think my vote matters to politicians and despite the fact that I come from one of the largest visible minority communities in Ottawa, I also come from one of the poorest and throughout this election I have heard politicians talking to those with wealth, those who own houses, those who earn enough disposable income to invest in their campaigns. Not people like me. But one positive aspect of this election has been the number of Black candidates who are running.

Read the rest of my post on rabble.ca

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What happened to the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association?

Posted in African Women, Countries: Ethiopia, Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence, Ethiopian Women by the woyingi blogger on October 11, 2010

I was recently searching for the website of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association (EWLA). I wanted to add it to my African Links Page. I had first learned about the EWLA when its Director Mahdere Paulos came to Ottawa on a tour of the Canadian produced documentary It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence in 2008. I had a chance to speak with Mahdere Paulos and even still have her business card. But through trawling the internet I was surprised to discover that the EWLA website is no longer online and according to Ethiopian bloggers Paulos has fled Ethiopia. What’s happened?

First, let me describe the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association and its work:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is an organisation that has been working since 1995 to raise awareness of women’s legal rights in Ethiopia using diverse media such as newsletters and the internet. ELWA aims to influence the drawing up of laws, ensuring that gender is taken into account, and to put in place practical measures to help economically poor women access legal services. The organisation hopes to put women’s rights on the government agenda, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all forms of legally and traditionally sanctioned discrimination against women.

EWLA uses newsletters, the media, and the internet to get its message across. For example, EWLA also has a 10-minute educational radio programme that airs once a week on the national Radio Service (Saturday mornings from 8:40am to 8:50am). The association also has a documentation centre that provides reading materials on women’s issues and other related matters to students and individual researchers. These communication tools are meant to ensure that EWLA’s research on the social, economic and political impact of discrimination against women reaches key people in government and throughout civil society.

Interpersonal approaches also characterise ELWA’s work. The organisation has an ongoing public education training programme for women on women’s rights, assertiveness and reproductive health and rights. The objective of the training is to enhance awareness on women’s rights among female students and women workers.

Mahdere Paulos, Former Director of EWLA

The documentary It’s Time is part of a larger project undertaken by the Law Courts Education Society of British Columbia (now Justice Education Society) in partnership with organizations in Ethiopia and South Africa to develop training for all levels of the criminal justice system, such as police, prosecutors and judges to work together to combat domestic violence in these countries.  British Columbia’s own justice system’s experience with integrating their criminal justice system’s handling of domestic violence is the basis for this training. According to a 2009 Law Now article:

In the early 1980s, British Columbia’s justice system lacked an integrated plan amongst police, prosecutors, and victim service workers that dealt with domestic violence. These stakeholders were united in 1985 by a training program created by the Victim Services and Crime Prevention Division. The program defined domestic violence, identified the stakeholders’ roles, and emphasized strong communication between those stakeholders.

Since 1989, the Law Courts Education Society (LCES) has been dedicated to improving access to the legal system through hands-on, targeted, two-way education between the public and those working in the justice system. As a non-profit organization with ongoing public and private sector financial and volunteer support, the LCES is able to offer a unique and comprehensive collection of justice-related educational services and work effectively towards creating a justice system that is accessible to all.

Ethiopia only began addressing women’s rights at the legislative level in 1995. In 2005, the country revised its penal code to outlaw domestic violence, however, it was apparent to organizations like EWLA that Ethiopian authorities needed training on how to address domestic violence. EWLA’s Director Paulos led the way on developing a project to get training from the Law Courts Education Society in Ethiopia. According to the 2009 Law Now article:

The project would face many obstacles including an existing lack of trust in the justice system. In addition to early marriage, prevalent cultural practices included rape, abduction, and female genital mutilation. Traditionally, domestic violence was considered a crime only if it resulted in serious injury. Police did not feel compelled to get involved in these family issues, thus allowing the practice of a husband beating his wife to root itself in Ethiopian society.

The following are comments from members of the Ethiopian police force who participated in these trainings:

I had no idea about domestic violence previously. During this training I called my wife to apologize for what has happened during our married life.

We also need to address gaps in the law for women who are abducted, raped and then forced to marry the rapist. Other men often facilitate the rape. No one will marry her so she is forced to marry the rapist and then expected to take him food in jail several times a day. It is double victimization.

When I met Paulos in 2008, I had no indication that the work of her organization was in jeopardy, although it did face obstacles financial obstacles like most NGOs. However, it appears that something has gone very wrong.

It seems that this is not the first time EWLA has had trouble. In 2001, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice place a suspension on EWLA that was eventually lifted subsequent to the international response from activists and women’s organizations from around the world. During this suspension, EWLA’s bank accounts were frozen. At the time of this suspension it appears that the Ethiopian government did not give any clear reason why they wanted EWLA shut down but activists suspected that is was part of an overall effort on the part of the government to suppress independent civil society organizations.

But recently in 2009, Ethiopian blogs began reporting that EWLA’s Director, Paulos, had fled to Kenya in July of that year after resigning from EWLA. I haven’t found anything on the internet to confirm or deny this. However, I did confirm that Paulos is no longer the Director of EWLA and that in March of 2010, Paulos made a presentation in the United States to the Ethiopian Lawyers Association of North America about her work with EWLA. What really happened and why?

Mahdere Paulos is quite an accomplished women. According to the It’s Time website:

Mahdere Paulos holds a law degree from Addis Ababa University. At 23 she was a high-court judge in Addis Ababa. She has practiced law since 1996, and has worked with EWLA in a variety of capacities including legal aid officer, paralegal trainer, and board member. She has been Executive Director of EWLA since April 2005. Recognized internationally for her advocacy and public education initiatives on gender-based violence and child marriage, Ms. Paulos has presented at numerous African and international conferences, including the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence in Dublin, Ireland, December 2007. In 2006 the International Centre for Research on Women hosted a series of speaking appearances by Ms Paulos on child marriage in cities across the US, including Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. She has met with government officials in the U.S. State Department, USAID, and Congress, as well as with international nongovernmental organizations, partner organizations, and the press to raise awareness about the problem of child marriage. Ms Paulos is the Chairperson of the Kembatta Women Self-Help Center, and the Network of Ethiopian Women Association. She is an advisory board member of the Initiative Africa Organization.

I found an article online that alleged that EWLA had to let go of 70% of its staff as of May 2010 due to a shortage of funds. According to the article:

Zenaye Tadesse, Managing Director of the association, told The Reporter that the shortage of money came about after the association re-registered as a local Non-Profit Organization (NGO) as per the new Charities and Societies Proclamation, which mandates 90 percent of its funds to be raised from local donors.

According to Zenaye, aside from cutting jobs, the association has been forced to stop its various activities and has been limited to providing free legal consultations in Addis Ababa and six regional states through volunteers. Among the activities that have been cut back are undertaking researches, awareness creation and trainings, and publication and dissemination of informational materials.

The association used to get as much as 11 million birr from various international rights groups, donors as well as contributions from its members. EWLA, which claims to have helped close to 80,000 women since its inception, needs as much as 8 million birr a year to implement its goals. Zenaye added that the association needs 1,200,000 birr a year just to provide free legal consultation service.

This new Charities and Societies Proclamation also affected activities of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Bar Association. I wonder why there is this new law that seems to be deliberately trying to cut off the funding that would allow Ethiopian civil society organizations to be fully independent and thus able to criticize government policies. According to an Expert Brief from the Council on Foreign Relations by B. E. Bruton, the United States increased reliance on Ethiopia to police the Horn of Africa in the War on Terror has actually exacerbated conflict in this region and allowed for the entrenchment of an authoritarian political regime in the country:

Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia’s conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia’s extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.

Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.

This Expert Brief also poses the following question:

Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.

Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported–or legitimized–by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.

I am planning on contacting the EWLA’s Facebook Group in order to learn more about its cuts in funding and what may have happened to Mahdere Paulos. If you have any information, please pass it along.

Update: October 21, 2010. I have been able to correspond with Mahdere Paulos. She really has fled Ethiopia due to fear of government retaliation. According to her, the government interpreted her outspokenness against the Charities and Societies Proclamation as opposition. She says that she and the EWLA were also accused of giving false information about the government that ended up in the US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. This is quite troubling news.

Further Reading:

It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence Documentary Website

Joining hands to stop domestic violence in Africa by Kevin Smith in LawNow July-August 2009 (article available online)

Amnesty International: Ethiopian Parliment Adopts Repressive New NGO Law (January 8, 2009)

Human Rights Watch: Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation in its Draft Form

Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO Law) by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa by B. E. Bruton 2009 Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief available online

Human Rights Watch: Ethiopia Donor Aid Supports Repression (October 19th 2010)

Human Rights Watch: Yoseph Mulugeta, former Secretary General of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (October 8th 2010)

Black Canadian Profile: Fil Fraser

Fil Fraser is a broadcaster, journalist, biographer, television program director, human rights activist and a radio, television and feature film producer. His career has spanned over half a century. He is the first Black Canadian broadcaster. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1991 for his contributions to Canadian broadcasting and journalism. He is currently based out of Edmonton.

Fil Fraser

Born to Caribbean parents in a French Canadian community in the East End of Montreal in 1932. Fraser experienced racism as a child growing up. He was called a maudit négre and often had to fight his way home from school. However, he believes that he learned coping skills that allowed him to feel comfortable within in mainstream (white) Canadian society.

Fraser began his career in Canadian broadcasting as a teenager when he hosted the afteroon teen program Club 800 on Radio CJAD. He went on to work for Foster Hewitt’s CKFH in Toronto in 1951. He later worked in radio in Timmins and Barrie, Ontario.

In 1958, Fraser headed west. He moved to Regina in 1958, and worked in public relations in both government and private sectors before founding and publishing, in 1960, the Regina Weekly Mirror, which chronicled the introduction of Medicare by the Tommy Douglas Government. Between 1963 and 1969, Fraser began working in the field of public education on the issue of addictions. He was the Director of Education at the Saskatchewan Bureau on Alcoholism, and in 1965, he moved to Edmonton to work in the same capacity with the Division of Alcoholism of the Alberta Department of Health, now known as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC).

But Fraser continued to work in media. In 1969, he became the program director of Canada’s first educational television station, the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (MEETA), forerunner of Alberta’s ACCESS TV NETWORK, which went on the air in March, 1970. He was the “co-anchor” for CBC Edmonton’s supper hour news and public affairs program from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Fraser got to host his own show, the Fil Fraser Show, on ITV Television.  During that same year, he founded the Alberta Film Festival, now known as the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA) awards. he same period, he formed his own production company and wrote, produced and directed several educational films for television. After founding his own production company and writing, directing and producing several educational films for television, Fraser produced one of Canada’s most successful feature films, Why Shoot the Teacher? starring Bud Cort (Harold and Maude). In 1979, Fraser founded the Banff International Television Festival.

Fraser rarely experienced racism in his career. As he explains:

Being Black was rarely an issue in my career. There were only two occasions on which I faced overt racism, and I didn’t know about the first until long after it happened. I was working at CKBB, a radio station in Barrie, Ontario in the 1950s as the Sports Director and Assistant News Editor, doing the play-by-play for the Barrie Flyers hockey games. Apparently one of the sponsors didn’t like the idea of a “Black boy” doing his commercials and told Ralph Snelgrove, who owned the station, to get rid of me. It was years later, when I was being inducted into the quarter century club of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, that Snelgrove told me about the incident. He told the sponsor to take his business elsewhere – and never mentioned it to me.

I was in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, publishing the Regina Weekly Mirror, when a landlord refused to rent an apartment to me because of my colour. I called up the province’s attorney general, who had just passed a fair accommodation practices act and told him about it. The case was the first to be prosecuted by the legislation. The company offered me an apartment, which I declined.

However, Fraser has fought against racism within Canadian society. He was appointed in August 1987, to the Canadian Multiculturalism Council by the then Honourable David Crombie, and was Chair of the Council’s media committee. On behalf of the Federal Minister for Multiculturalism, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, Fraser organized and chaired a National Forum on Broadcasting and Multiculturalism, “Reflections in the Electronic Mirror”, which took place in Toronto in May, 1988. Fraser served as the Chief Commissionar of the Alberta Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 2002. As he writes:

But I have always been keenly aware of the subtle racism than animates so much of Canadian society, and I have very good radar to detect it. When I saw racism in my own life, I simply refused to tolerate what I perceived and volubly identified as ignorance on the part of the perpetrators. At the same time I was angered by the racism faced by other members of the Black community, and, as a journalist and later as Chief Commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, spoke out against it.

In 1990, Fraser was appointed to sit as a member on The Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, a Federal Royal Commission also known as the “Spicer” Commission, named after its chairperson, Keith Spicer. Established on the advice of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the commission was a response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. Its goal was to discuss the future of Canada in the face of linguistic and regional divisions with Canadian citizens across the country in town-hall style meetings. The commission’s report was released in June 1991. Some of the reports recommendations influenced the subsequent Charlottetown Accord. Also in 1991, Fraser was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada by the then Govenor General of Canada, Ramon Hnatyshyn.

From 1995 to 2000, Fraser was President and Chief Executive Officer of Vision TV, a multifaith, multicultural cable channel. In 2001, Fraser gave the inaugural lecture of “The Fil Fraser Lecture Series”, presented annually by The Canadian Association of Black Journalists. The series was created to focus on the important role that cultural and social diversity can and should play in the Canadian media. Fraser was also director for a time at CBC Newsworld and Telefilm Canada.

Fraser was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University or Alberta in 2007. Fraser currently teaches a graduate course on film policy at Athabasca University, Canada’s pioneering distance learning institution.

Fraser is also a prolific writer. His books include:

How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)

Across the country and throughout time, Blacks have played pivotal roles in the unfolding of Canadian history. Woven into the fabric of the country itself, they have made serious contributions to this great nation.

In the early 1600s, African navigator Mathieu De Costa used his knowledge of Mi’kmaq languages to enable communication between the Europeans and Aboriginals. Arriving in 1605, he was the first Black to come to what would become Canada.

Over two centuries later, Sir James Douglas recruited 800 former American slaves and freemen to settle in Victoria, BC, where they staved off the threat from an America that would gobble up land and stretch up the west coast from California to Alaska.

Josiah Henson escaped half a lifetime of slavery and came to Dresden, Ontario through the underground railway. He established a highly successful business, met Queen Victoria, had dinner with the prime minister and became friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also an unofficial ambassador for Canada.

And, more currently, Blacks have made great strides in Canadian sports, entertainment and politics, as well as business, academia, the judiciary and a broad range of public service. So take a seat and discover the surprising and satisfying history that is finally making it in the mainstream.

Running Uphill: the Fast, Short Life of Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)

Harry Jerome was among the greatest runners the world has ever seen. He battled serious injuries, racism and periodically a hostile domestic press as he smashed numerous world records and represented Canada at the Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan-American Games through the 1960s. Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Harry Jerome is the first biography ever published of this important Canadian, who stands as a genuine hero for Canada’s Black community.

Fraser has also written a memoir about Alberta in the 1970s entitled Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)

This memoir is a personal view of an extraordinary period in the life of Alberta, and of a time in my own life that still astonishes me. When I look back through the lens of the political and economic realities of the early twenty-first century, it is hard for me to believe that for a decade and a half, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Alberta supported culture in ways unmatched, with the possible exception of Quebec, anywhere, anytime in Canada. Premier Peter Lougheed, with the active encouragement of his wife Jeanne, supported the arts with strongly positive attitudes and with generous, well-placed funding. The government treated culture as if it really mattered. And, in the proc-ess, it changed the way that many Albertans, myself included, saw themselves and their communities.

According to Fraser, the role of the writer is effective communication. He writes that:

“We communicate more and more in cliches, which mean different things to different people and nothing to a lot of people. We need to find a new way to communicate across gender, the ethnic, cultural and age divides that separate us. That is the role of the writer.

Further Reading:

Fil Fraser’s Website

The Participation of Aboriginals and Other Cultural Minorities in Cultural Development  by Fil Fraser (1994 Article available online)

Fil Fraser: Alberta Culture Vignette (Video available online)

Books by Fil Fraser:

How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)

Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)

Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)

Black Canadian Profile: Hamdi Mohamed

Hamdi Mohamed is currently the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). She is also a historian, feminist, mother, and “institution” here in the City of Ottawa.

But Hamdi, like so many of her generation, was raised to be a leader within the elite of her homeland of Somalia. At 24, Hamdi had graduated from the Somali National University with an Honours Degree in Education. However, as a refugee in Ottawa, Canada Hamdi had to struggle not only with the trauma of a civil war that tore apart so many extended Somali families as well as the country, she also had to take on rebuilding a sense of community and belonging within the Somali Diaspora in the West. While studying for her Masters Degree in International Diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, Hamdi, along with a group of other hardworking and talented women and men, began the difficult task of helping their fellow Somalis resettle in Canada while contending with a country that had never seen such large numbers of African refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, and a city that was, at the time, not very multicultural.

Hamdi was up for the task. She worked with several local community health centres and organizations and was involved in founding the now defunct Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Development. At the height of this centre’s achievements, Hamdi became a key spokesperson for the Somali community in Ottawa. While Program Manager at the Somali Centre, Hamdi spoke out against the Federal Government’s proposal to stop recognizing the Somali passport as legal identification. In a 1999 Ottawa Citizen interview, Hamdi stated“From the community perspective, this is a very racist piece of legislation and we think it’s the way of curbing Somalis from coming into the country.”

When Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky, writer and director of the film Family Motel,  decided that she wanted to look at the issue of homelessness among Ottawa’s Somali community, she went to Hamdi. According to Klowdawsky:

Hamdi Mohamed was our first contact in the community. She’s a brilliant woman and her contribution has been vital. Hamdi posed a number of key questions. Who owns this story? she wanted to know. And I really appreciated that discussion. It helped to focus the story. She also insisted that our protagonist not be presented as victim, that she be a resilient and resourceful character.

Hamdi refuses to be a victim. During an event on Parliment Hill for diverse high school students to which Hamdi was invited by Sentator Vivienne Poy, Hamdi gave this advice to the students:

I learned that you are never a victim unless you accept victimization. You always have the power to choose the path for your life. While I have experienced the legacies of colonialism and have been victimized by sexism, racism etc throughout my life, I never thought of myself as a victim.

Hamdi Mohamed, Photo by Julie Oliver for the Ottawa Citizen

Hamdi went on to complete her Ph.D in History at the University of Ottawa and lectured on human rights issues at the School of Social Work and the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University for five years. She served as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre where she gave priority to developping the organization’s cultural competency.

In 2000, Hamdi became the proud mother of a son, Adam. In a 2009 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Hamdi admitted that although feeling that life was good at the time, she became overwhelmed with saddness a few days after her son’s birth. She said:

I suddenly became consciously aware of the fact that I couldn’t show my son where I had lived, the trees I had climbed, the sand I had played in, the friends I had had. I wanted to share these things with my son and I couldn’t.

This is the plight of the exile who finds herself in a foreign land and who has no choice but to make a new home for her children. Hamdi is committed to making her new home a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants. She is now the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). In this capacity, she has focused on expanding Ottawa’s oldest newcomer serving agency’s mission. According to the Ottawa Citizen:

…since she took the job four years ago, Mohamed and her team have been crafting an expanded mission, one that reflects what they see every day: building a new life means more than finding a job and getting a roof over your head, it means feeling accepted in a new home while having the freedom to mourn the old.

Hamdi believes that immigrant issues should not be just a concern of the immigration sector but of the entire community. According to Hamdi:

…in Ottawa, the notion of being diverse is still new. We’re generally kind and generous people but when it comes to difference, we hesitate. But now, the numbers are pushing us to ask, ‘Who are we now?’

Further Reading:

Profile of Hamdi Mohamed available online

Resistance strategies: Somali women’s struggles to reconstruct their lives in Canada by Hamdi Mohamed (essay available online)

“The Somali refugee women’s experience in Kenyan refugee camps and their plight in Canada.” by Hamdi Mohamed In Mending rips in the sky : options for Somali communities in the 21st centry, ed. by Hussein M. Adam and Richard Ford (1997)

Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization’s Website

My Father is Older than Nigeria: Nigeria at 50

Posted in All About My Nigerian Father, Countries: Nigeria, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on October 1, 2010

On October 1, 1960, Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain. Today marks Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day. Some Nigerians in Nigeria and in Diaspora will be celebrating. Other will be continuing the debate which has raged long before Nigeria gained independence: Is Nigeria a real state or just a geographical expression created by colonialists?  Others will be asking a recent but related question; is Nigeria a failed state?

I can’t answer any of these questions. I’ve never even been to Nigeria. But the country has shaped me because that’s where my father lives and where I long to visit and see him.

My father is older than Nigeria. He’s in his sixties. Nigeria’s only 50.

When I think about my father, his potential, and how things fell apart for him I see parallels with Nigeria, all its potential, and how so much of it has been wasted and has left its citizens, including its youth, so bitter and disappointed. But I like to think that my father has made the best of a bad situation. He is loved by his neighbours, who respect him as an elder and call upon him for advice and to mediate disputes. These people took him to the hospital when he had a stroke two years ago, paid his medical bills, and called upon a traditional Ijaw healer to speed up his recovery. I am grateful to them for all this.

Nigeria is its people, who are diverse and divided. But this is only to be expected in a country with possibly about 514 different languages. Nigerians, even the poorest, like my father’s neighbours, know how to make the best out of bad situations. And I believe, although I am only an outsider, that Nigerians can make the most of the bad situation that is the Federal Republic of Nigeria, despite how badly things have fallen apart.

Further Reading:

BBC Nigeria Country Profile available online

Nigeria at 50 BBC News Special Report

How Nigeria Has Affected the Rest of Africa (BBC NEWS article available online)

Languages of Nigeria

Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

“Auf Wiedersehen”….”Auf Wiederhoeren”: Phone Calls From My Father

Posted in All About My Nigerian Father, Countries: Nigeria, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on October 1, 2010

My father calls me on a weekly basis. He asks me if I am alright, then if my mother is alright. He might share news about the progress of the Ijaw, his ethnic group that is seeking a fair share of Nigeria’s oil wealth. My father is very happy that Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijaw, is now Nigeria’s President. It’s kind of like the equivalent of Barack Obama for the Ijaws. They never thought that an ethnic minority from the Niger Delta could become President. My father is grateful that he lived to see this happen. But more than anything, he wants to see me come to Lagos. He was deported when I was just a baby and has only seen me in pictures since.

My father and I speak German. Often, we end our phone calls with German Farewells. My father says Auf Wiedersehen, which means until we see each other again. I say Auf Wiederhoeren which means until we speak to each other again. This is indicative of my ambivalence about meeting my father in person.

Recently, my father contacted the Nigerian High Commission Employee who helped me find him. He was crying and asking her to convince me to visit Nigeria as soon as possible. She called me and demanded to know why I haven’t been saving up for the last six years to go see my father. I explained that my income has been precarious and I have to support my disabled mother, who really can’t be left alone, particularly since she ended up in the hospital at the beginning of this year. The odds seem to be stacked against me ever seeing my father. At this point in time, I cannot afford to buy a plane ticket to Nigeria. I also don’t know who would take care of my mother is I had to go to Nigeria to see my father. But even if these two huge issues were resolved, I still don’t know if I would go.

I want to visit Nigeria but I am really wary. Actually I’m downright terrified. This isn’t simply the fault of Western media. I can blame books, mostly written by Nigerians, like Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria. I can also blame Nigerians and other Africans for telling me horror stories:  I have been told that if I go to Nigeria I might catch malaria, be kidnapped and held for ransom by area boys, be kidnapped and sold into slavery, be robbed and killed, be cursed by evil witches, or become a human sacrifice for cult members. This all seems pretty extreme but considering that I don’t know anyone in Nigeria other than my father who is poor by Nigerian standards, I don’t know anyone with the means to guide or protect me if I travelled there. And this is where the troubles of Nigeria directly affect me.  I would feel much safer travelling to other African countries. If my father lived in Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, or Ethiopia I wouldn’t be so afraid because these countries regularly receive Western tourists and their citizens don’t have an international reputation for being liars and inherently corrupt.

But, I would still love to go to Nigeria. Lagos which has a vibrant arts scene. I dream of going to Lagos, seeing my father for the first, and probably last time, and hanging out with musicians, painters, playwrights, poets and novelists while visiting NGOs working on human rights, ecological rehabilitation, and literacy. Nigeria might have a reputation for corruption but it is also one of the most artistically creative nations south of the Sahara. I would love to see this, and be part of this.

The truth is, I think what I fear the most about going to Nigeria is seeing the poverty. I grew up poor by Canadian Urban standards but that doesn’t compare to the poverty my father lives in. I worry about being devastated by guilt. I’m not to blame for my father’s or Nigeria’s poverty. It’s not my fault. But I still can’t get my head around the fact that just because I was born here I have access to so much, clean water, free education, reliable electricity, waste disposal, safe roads, so many things that I take for granted. It’s all so unfair. And if my father had not been deported he would have had access to these things to…and I would have probably gone back to Nigeria long ago, in the company of my father, protected.

If I want to ever see him in person, I need to go soon. I am hardly in a financial situation to go as I support my disabled mother and have no post-secondary education but where there is a will there is a way. If only I could feel safe going and not worry about coming back somehow less than I was when I left. If only I was confident that this would be a positive experience that would not destabilize me but strengthen me.