The Woyingi Blog

Day in the Life: July 1 2011 The Accident of Birth

Posted in Countries: Canada, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on August 8, 2011

July 1 is Canada Day. the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the British North America Act (today called the Constitution Act, 1867), which united three British colonies into a single country, called Canada, within the British Empire. It was originally called Dominion Day until 1982.

This year, it was an extra-special occasion because Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and his new bride Kate Middleton were in Ottawa. Canada used to be a colony of Great Britain and many Canadians still feel nostalgic about the monarchy. Technically, the Queen of England is still our head of state and new citizens still have to pledge their allegiance to the Queen. The Governor General of Canada represents the Queen in Canada and has the final authority on whether or not our parliament can be prorogued.

On CBC Radio, listeners were able to share their thoughts on the Royal Visit. One listener stated that he felt that it made no sense to be in awe of people who were only important because of the accident of birth.

This made me think about how my being born as a Canadian, with all the access to resources and opportunities that this provides, was simply an accident and how unfair it is that other people don’t have access to these resources, through no fault of their own. There is no personal merit involved in being born a Canadian but immigrants and refugees have to earn their right to stay in our country.

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Day in the Life: May 7th 2011 Receiving Leading Women Building Communities Award

Posted in Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on May 15, 2011

On May 7th 2011, I had a lot going on. At 1pm I had to be at the Old Ottawa South Fire Hall on 260 Sunnyside, in order to receive the Leading Women Building Communities Award from Yasir Naqvi, MPP, on behalf of the Government of Ontario. I was nominated by Albanian Canadian  Shano Bejkosalaj and Palvashah Durrani. According to the later I received informing me of my award: “The Award was designed of honour women and girls who have made a real difference in their communities-females who have gone above and beyond to make the world a better place for everyone.”

The Award was originally launched on International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2006 by Sandra Pupatello, Provincial Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues.

Moji and Shola Agoro, daughters of Abiola Agoro who helped me find my father were also honoured with this award earlier this year.

I was able to take two youth who I’ve been mentoring to the award reception.

I didn’t really know what to wear. I never have any fancy clothes. I borrowed a traditional Sudanese form of attire for women, called a thobe. It is similar to a sari in that it is a large piece of cloth wrapped around the body. I don’t think I wore it well.

Yasir Naqvi, Sabrina, Myself, Khalid, Palvashah Durrani, Shano Bejkosalaj

I was one of about 20 recipients. Other women who received the award along with me included: Manjit Basi, Dr. Alia Dakroury, Faye Brunning, Marlene Floyd, Josephine Palumbo, and Jo-Ann Poirier

Day in the Life: Meeting Amanda Lindhout

Posted in Countries: Somalia, Day in the Life by the woyingi blogger on March 8, 2011

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet Amanda Lindhout, a young Canadian former free-lance journalist from Alberta who survived 15 months in captivity in Somalia until a ransom was paid for her release. Unfortunately, I missed most of her presentation as I had to worked but I’m glad that I came, even for the short part of the question and answer period that I was able to attend. Amanda was invited by Metropolis in association with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I was initially reluctant to attend the session when I read the following description of it:

There are few people who can claim to personally understand what drives the growing threat of terrorism in our world. Amanda Lindhout’s extraordinary experience being held hostage for 460 days by teenage militants in Somalia has given her an inside look at how international terrorist groups are recruiting and radicalizing young men in Africa. Lindhout’s chilling discoveries about the structure and motivations of these groups, including the incredible power of the internet to disseminate terrorist propaganda, are a timely resource for anyone seeking to understand the complicated world we live in. She shares her belief that poverty and oppression are contributing factors in the phenomenon of child soldiers and presents a powerful message about the important role that education plays in countering youth recruitment.

I was invited by a friend to hear Amanda speak. After reading the description of the presentation above I really didn’t want to attend this event. I don’t like to participate in events that seem to be feeding into the paranoia of the Post 9/11 world without providing any context and/or confusing the issues. Child soldiers are a phenomenon across Africa and the groups that recruit and train them are often more driven by greed than any ideology or religion.

Luckily, Amanda herself has a better grasp on the complexities of youth radicalization in the context of failed states than the organizers of this event seemed to. One of the most interesting statements she made during the question and answer period was in response to whether or not she wanted to see her captors punished. Amanda expressed a great deal of compassion for the young men who were involved in her abduction, even those who inflicted violence upon her, because she realized that violence and chaos was all they ever knew growing up in an area of Somalia that is virtually lawless. As she said in a 2010 interview with The Toronto Star:

When you see a 14-year-old boy who has never known what peace looks like for a day in his life, there’s part of you as a human being that feels some degree, you can say, compassion for the fact that these boys have known war, famine, violence and death from the day they were born.

But she had no sympathy for the men who were the leaders of these young men as these leaders had often lived outside of war-torn Somalia and received foreign education. They knew what a world without war looked like but instead of returning to their homeland to bring peace, prosperity, and stability, they were fostering chaos to make a profit and using religion to justify it.

I was disturbed to hear about how Amanda’s captors used the Koran to justify their brutal treatment of her, which included sexual abuse. As a Muslim, although there are parts of our religious text, much like the Old Testament, that would definitely be seen to violate human rights law and were revealed during a time when the ransoming of war captives and slavery was considered acceptable, her captors treatment of her couldn’t even be justified by the most fundamentalist reading of the Koran. In the end, this was about money and the exploitation of women and it sickens me that men would try to justify this using religion.

I had a chance to speak with Amanda afterwards and she expressed that she really prefers to speak about the positive work her foundation, The Global Enrichment Foundation, is doing for Somali women in Somalia and Kenya, and the strength of Somali women, than about radicalization. I was really inspired by how Amanda had turned an experience that could have made her hateful of Somalis and Muslims in general, into a passion and committment to empowering the Somali people in concrete ways. The fact that she is investing herself in this effort while also picking up the pieces of her life, recovering psychologically from torture, studying at the graduate level, and dealing with the financial repercussions of her family having to pay her ransom is amazing. Her strength and compassion is an example to us all. She and her family are in my prayers.

The mandate of The Global Enrichment Foundation is as follows:

Our work begins with women in Somalia, but the effects reach entire communities, inspiring others to become change agents for the greater good of Somalia- and the world.

When women are educated and empowered they are in a better position to become active citizens creating social and economic change, as well as advocates for their own rights.

The Global Enrichment Foundation focuses on harnessing the power of women by providing opportunities for women to reclaim their lives from the devastating effects of war. The goal of total gender equality is the foundation of all our work.

Initiatives of The Global Enrichment Foundation include the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program, a scholarship program which includes a living allowance for Somali women to enable them to attend university in Somalia (Yes, there actually are still some functioning universities in Somalia) and SHE WILL, a microfinance program for Somali women refugees living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.

There will be a fundraiser this week  for the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program in Ottawa on Thursday, March 10th from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Atrium at Carleton’s University Centre. You can visit the Facebook Page for this event for details.

The following are excerpts from interviews with Amanda Lindhout about her experience in captivity and her work with the Somali community:

In an interview with Mel James from the organization Safe World for Women, Amanda had this to say about her experience:

About the strength of Somali women:

Before I even set foot in Somalia, I admired the women of the country. I am an avid watcher of the news and it was so apparent to me that the women of the country needed education and reform.The women of the country were already beginning to demand to be heard. There’s no normal government in Somalia so the education system is already expensive and many schools just do not accept female students. The women of Somalia were already asking for change and I felt these women were so brave. I was only actually in the country for 3 days before I was kidnapped, but on the second day I visited a world food program. The women there had been waiting for hours in the heat with war around them and yet still they had such grace. They were offering to share their food with me! I was so impressed by these women. When they kidnapped me and Nigel Brennan (the male journalist whom I traveled with), there was a moment, a day, where we actually escaped. We ran to a nearby mosque and, of course, they came to recapture us. The local people tried to protect us and there was one woman that risked her own life to help me! She was so brave, and that woman had a profound effect on me. The last time I saw her she was surrounded by guns. That was the last image I had of her and I don’t know what happened to that woman after that. That stayed with me. I really wanted to honor that woman and I began thinking what would I do to make Somalia a better place. Even when I looked at my captors I saw they were teenagers who were a product of their environment. I thought: I am going to do something to make this a better place for these women and I had 15 months of being held captive to focus my energy on this.

On financing Somali women’s education:

There’s so much corruption in Somalia and there’s actually no formal banking system in the country. But it does have a money transfer system and that is how people get money in and out of Somalia. It’s actually the way that my ransom was paid and the way that ransoms are paid for other situations. Like when boats are taken through piracy. So we actually use this system and we pay the fees to the university, which are around $600 a year, but we pay the living costs to the young women directly. This is because there is so much corruption. If we send the money for living allowances to them, we can be sure that it’s going directly to the women. This is an amount of $32 a month, and while that doesn’t sounds like a lot. It’s actually a large amount in Somalia. This money ensures they aren’t hungry, can buy educational supplies and even allows them to help support their family which is so important.

In an interview in 2010 for The Toronto Star, Amanda reflects on her time in captivity:

When your reality is that you’re being abused in a multitude of ways and being starved and literally in chains in the dark, there are days that are quite hopeless and in order to survive you have to find ways to let go of the anger and bitterness that have completely taken you over. Because if you just sit with those emotions for too long, I don’t know if a person can survive that intact.

I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for what (people in Somalia) are going through, the women in particular. So it’s not as difficult as people might think to make a bridge between myself and the people of Somalia, in particular the women… I understand their suffering in a way that most other people can’t.

Further Reading:

Amanda Lindhout’s statement upon her release available online

Canadian Somalia hostage freed when taxi lights flicked (2009 article available online)

Nightmares haunt former hostage Amanda Lindhout (2010 article available online)

The Global Enrichment Foundation Website

Day in the Life: A Peck on the Cheek from the GG

Posted in Countries: Canada, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 29, 2010

At the beginning of August I received the following e-mail:

Hello,

On behalf of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, we are pleased to extend an invitation to you to attend the Governor General’s Youth Dialogue “Can We Talk” in Ottawa.

Kindly refer to the invitation attached.

Please find below additional information on the event:

YOUTH DIALOGUE

DATE: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TIME: 5:00 p.m. (Please arrive by 4:30 p.m.)

(This portion of the event finishes approximately at 7:00 p.m.)

LOCATION: Rideau Hall, 1 Sussex Drive, Ottawa

A dinner reception at Rideau Hall and the National Capital Commission’s Sound and Light show Mosaika on Parliament Hill will follow. (Note: participants will be given VIP passes for the sound and light show).

My first response was “Why was I invited to this?” “Who is behind this?” I still don’t know; I’m guessing it was the Governor-General’s advisor on Youth Affairs, Peter Flegel, but other than a brief conversation after a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, and being his Facebook Friend, I don’t think Peter really knows me well, and certainly he can’t know much about the work I do with youth. Then I wondered if those who invited me actually thought I was a youth? I guess I am depending on what definition you use but really, I’m too old to be considered a youth by youth the youth I work with but I’m young enough to not be perceived as being like their parents.

But what work have I done to make be deserve to be invite to the GG’s Residence. Well, I have run an after-school program for like about 7 years in my subsidized housing community, I also run a program for immigrant and visible minority girls each day during the school year at six different high schools, and I did come up with the idea to have 15 week workshops facilitated by local Spoken Word artists for at risk (at risk of awesomeness that is) immigrant and visible minority youth. I then wrote proposal and got funding from the City of Ottawa and Crime Prevention Ottawa (There were four streams: An All Girls Stream, and All Boys Stream, and ESL Stream, and a Francophone Stream). So, I’ve done some stuff…but other people have done more…and in less time.

Shopping with an African Muslim Fashionista

So, I was invited to meet the Governor-General. What was I going to wear? My friend/auntie Semira, an Eritrean-Canadian who can’t help to be something of a Fashionista, due to her country’s colonization by Italy and a long stint in African communities in Montreal, where women know how to dress in style, with flair, and on a budget. She was excited for me of course as meeting any Canadian Governor General would be an honour but she couldn’ help but ask which one I was going to be meeting. I assured her that it was Michaelle Jean, who wouldn’t be leaving her post as GG until the end of September. This, of course added to her excitement and desire to help me find something to wear, something that could be described as “smart casual” as the invitation advised.

The Woyingi Blogger at the Mic, this is the GG's Hair! Photo by Ben Powless

For years, Semira has been advising me to develop a more elegant and more African style of dress, something that could distinguish me from other people when I attend conferences or am asked to MC functions.

I don’t care about clothing. As long as something is clean, I’ll wear it. Most of my clothes are hand-me downs from Arab, African, and South Asian friends and aunties. I seldom buy clothes. Why? A combination of poverty and a real inability to shop well. After I shop for clothes, I am seldom satisfied by what I buy so I really try to avoid the experience.

Semira knows how to dress stylishly on a budget. She is always so colour-coordinated from her veils to her shoes. The Muslim African Fashionista is a godsend to the bland streets of Ottawa, and a broke and frumpy Black Girl like me.

Semira drove me to Pennington’s in Barrhaven and picked out some clothes for me to were. We were helped out but a lovely sales associate. Semira picked out a lovely purple scarf that I could wear as a hijab that matched the long empire-waisted shirt I had chosen.  This purple scarf and be seen on the cover of Metro Ottawa, in which the Governor-General is clearly laughing at myself and a young local poet and activist. Why she is laughing at us will be explained further on:

Michaelle Jean and Ottawa’s Lack of Awesomeness

to be continued

Day in the Life: Seeing The Hijabi Monologues

Posted in Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 29, 2010

Hijabi Monologue Performers at the Kennedy Center

On Tuesday evening, I went to a performance of The Hijabi Monologues that was hosted by the US Embassy. It was a great experience as I had been following the project for the last few years. The project grew out of conversations between friends Sahar Ullah, Zeenat Rahman, and Dan Morrison in 2006 who were  students at the University of Chicago at the time. All the stories shared in each monologues, which currently runs about about 12, are based on true stories. Ten were written by Ullah, and two have been recently added in order to better portray the generational and ethno-cultural diversity of America’s Muslim community.

According to The Hijabi Monologues Facebook Group:

The Hijabi Monologues is about the power of storytelling.

It is about creating a space for American Muslim women to share their voices; a space to breathe as they are; a space that does not claim to tell every story and speak for every voice.

Through the power of storytelling, generalizations and categories are challenged. Through stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, the story-teller and listener are humanized.

Hijabi Monologues: Our stories. Our words.

Here in Ottawa, not all of the pieces were performed and there were only two performers. Los Angels-based activist May Al Hassan and Kamilah Pickett, who is now based in Washington D.C., performed about six pieces, including one written by Kamilah Pickett herself.

Pickett summarized the intent of the monologues as follows:

The inverse of Eve Ensler’s the Vagina Monlogues. Where Ensler takes something private and personfies it by giving it a voice and puts it in your figurative faces, we’ve taken something (headscarf) public, something everyone seems to have an opinion about and push it out of your figurative faces by giving the entire woman a voice.

Kamilah Pickett’s monologue, entitled “Ten Things About Me”, was one of the monologues recently added. It is written from the perspective of an African American Muslim woman who wears hijab. In an interview, she said:

I figure that my viewpoint would be different than the other stories simply because I am African American, so there is a different perception that goes along with that,” Pickett said, explaining that most Americans see the hijab as a foreign concept. “As an African-American who wears a hijab, I kind of turn that whole viewpoint on its head.

In her own words:

Kamilah was born in Detroit, raised in Atlanta, and has lived in DC for the past six years. She’s had some really cool jobs and gotten a few really cool degrees along the way, most recently a Juris Doctor. And she’s twice the G she appears to be – don’t let the hijab fool you.

Kamilah is smart and “sassy” and a wonderful performer but like most of the other performers of the Hijabi Monologues, she is an amateur actor and a volunteer. She is currently studying to be a lawyer in Washington D.C. I really enjoyed Kamilah’s performance of her own monologue as well as of the others she performed. She is a natural comedian. During the question and answer period after the performance, she was asked about her experiences performing the Monologues to an “indigenous” African American community member. She said she hadn’t really thought about this experience but then shared her predicament as an Black Muslim woman who wears hijab and therefore is subject to discrimination on two fronts. I can relate to this and speak of it often in my Being Black, Being Muslim pieces.

All the monologues struck me as being very genuine. The fact that they included swearing, which although it is not something Muslim women who wear hijab are expected to do, we often do do, was refreshing. One of the stories, performed by May Al Hassan, was about a young woman who grew up being bullied because she was overweight. She ends up getting into a romantic relationship with an older neighbour who she is drawn to because he actually finds her attractive. This leads to an unwanted pregnancy. She hoped that her neighbour would marry her, as she had been expecting, but instead he doesn’t return her phone calls. After telling her best friend about her plight, this friend then goes and tells the whole school. Eventually, this young woman’s parents find out. Her father can’t handle it and goes back to his home country for several months. Her mother stands by her but the young woman still ends up running away from home and eventually has a traumatic miscarriage. It’s a brutal story but it rings true and I was really glad to see that the writers and performers didn’t shy away from discussing taboo  subjects like pre-marital sex. It happens, just like in any other community.

Another dialogue, Knock on the Door, came from the real life experience of Leena al Arian, sister of freelance jounalist and producer for Al Jazeera English Laila al Arian, and the daughter of Palestinian American Sami Al-Arian, who is still under house arrest as an accused terrorist supporter. The story of how her father was taken one morning is both poignant and illuminating of the impact of the war on terror on people’s daily lives.

I am glad that the US Embassy brought the Hijabi Monologues to Ottawa but it would be great to see a Canadian version of the Hijabi Monologues that could be performed more regularly as it is a great way to open up dialogue within the Muslim community on various topics as well as shatter stereotypes about Muslim women who wear hijab in North American society.

Further Reading:

Interview (2008) of Hijabi Monologues creator and writer Sahar Ullah available online

Video Clip of the monologue My Son’s Wedding Feast available on Youtube

Re-narration of Muslim-Western Experiences (article available online)

To learn more about the case of Sami al Arian and the impact on his family visit the website of the documentary USA vs Al-Arian and the website Free Sami al Arian.

Day in the Life: What does being Black Canadian mean to me?

Posted in Black African Diaspora Literature, Day in the Life, Poems, Reflections, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on February 21, 2010

I was asked to present a one-minute testimonial about what being a Black Canadian means to me at the launch of Black History Month in Ottawa on January 31st at the National Library and Archives. The event was organized by Black History Ottawa.

The truth is there is no way I could answer this question in a minute. Actually, this blog is my attempt at answering this question.

What I decided to do was write a poem. I don’t presume to be a poet but I feel that poetry can often convey complex ideas and emotions more effectively than plain speech in a short period of time. It took me about 5 minutes to write the poem. Here it is:

Before I was a year old

My father was deported

Transported back across an ocean

To his homeland Nigeria

Never again to return to Canada

I grew up Black in Ottawa

Uncertain of my African roots

But aware that I was here and he was there

And so many others were there who wanted to be here

And it’s unfair

So I was burdened with a sense of guilt for being on the plus side

Of the Haves and Have Nots

I saw every opportunity Canada granted me

As a luxury it wasn’t my right to afford

But as I grew older I realized that punishing myself for the sins of a system

I did not create helps no one

So I now grab every opportunity this country offers me

In the hope that I can make equality a reality for those here and there

The Haves and Have Nots

So that these opportunities do not become simply luxuries

For those who can afford them

And this struggle against adversity

Is what being a Black Canadian has come to mean to me

Gerard Etienne

My testimonial was right before the testimonial of a certain Gerard Etienne and we were seated together to wait for our cue to go on stage. I was struck by the name as it is the same as the Haitian novelist Gerard Etienne.

Gerard Etienne fled Haiti in 1964 after spending time in prison under the Duvalier Dictatorship. He taught in Acadia and is still credited for having an impact on Acadian society. Etienne, who is best known for his novel Le nègre crucifié, also is a convert to Judaism. In 2011, there will be a colloquium dedicated to his life and work in Israel.

However, the Gerard Etienne I was sitting beside looked far too young to be the same person. While conversing in French, I mentioned that he had the same name as the famous Haitian novelist. “He is my father.” What a small world! However, I was sad to learn that his father had passed away in 2008. It was obvious that Gerard Etienne fils was still deeply grieved by this loss. We didn’t have much time to chat aside from Etienne explaining that he went into a career in Economics, quite different from his father’s artistic path. We exchanged contact information and I hope to someday discuss his father’s life and work in more depth with him.

Ottawa is interesting in that way, there are a lot of connections with great minds from the entire Black diaspora hiding away in this city. A lot of people complain about how boring and unengaged the Black community in Ottawa is. But, as this is my home town, I have always felt that Ottawa was small enough but diverse enough to really begin to understand just what it means to be part of the Black African Diaspora. Everyone is here, you just have to take the time to find them.

Day in the Life: Wole Soyinka Meets The Woyingi Blogger

Posted in Countries: Nigeria, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on June 3, 2009

About two years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, author of the novel The Interpreters (1965) and the memoir Ake (1981), speak at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Nigerian Writer Wole Soyinka

Nigerian Writer Wole Soyinka

 During the talk, Soyinka stated that “Hijab Sucks.” I think he was quoting Salman Rushdie. As I was the only one wearing hijab in the room, I was determined at that moment to go up to the mike during question period and ask a question. Sadly, sometimes I feel obligated to prove to large crowds of people that women who wear hijab are intelligent and articulate. Obviously, I was trying to be impressive but things didn’t turn out as planned, although I did manage to capture the audience’s attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

I asked him a question and he made me repeat it about four times. After all that, he still couldn’t understand what I was saying so he asked a white Canadian to translate my words for him.

Soyinka: (gasping in exasperation and shaking his head) You…you have a very thick Canadian accent. I cannot understand a word you are saying.

The Woyingi Blogger: (straight into the mike with a very high-pitched Valley Girl voice) I have an accent?!

Soyinka: Yes, yes… you have an accent. A very thick Canadian accent.

Random Nigerians in the audience: (shouting and clapping) You tell her! You tell her she has an accent! Not only Africans have accents!

The Woyingi Blogger: Oh, sorry, my bad. I know I talk too fast.

Random Nigerians in the audience: No! You have an accent!

But when he finally understood my question after it had been translated to him in less accented English he thought it was a good one.

What was my question? I ask him if he felt that much of the religious conflict currently happening in Nigeria was due to an overall identity crisis in Nigerian society as communities try to define themselves as purely Muslim, purely Christian, or purely animist. In the end, people are always hybrids and never purely anything. I felt that it seemed that older Nigerians, from my father’s generation, were more comfortable with this hybrid identity. My father is a Lutheran Christian but he celebrates Muslim Eids with his Muslim friends and he consults with the priests of the Ijaw spirit of justice and retribution Egebesu. He is navigating these contradictions and in the end, it helps him be a better Nigerian because he can live with and respect the diversity of all Nigerians. He doesn’t feel it makes him any less of a believer in God.

Soyinka agreed with me and discussed how his parents, despite being Christians, would always expect to get food offered to them during Eid and they would always offer food to their Muslim friends and neighbors during Christmas and other Christian feast days. To not accept food offered during other communities’ religious holidays would have been considered really rude and to not offer one’s food to other religious communities during one’s own religious holidays would have been considered really rude.

After the lecture, during the reception, many Nigerians came up to me to tell me how awful my Canadian accent was and how I needed to go to Nigeria to learn how to speak proper English. This was said with that discomforting mixture of contempt and affection which I have come to accept from my Nigerian elders.

Occasionally, at different cultural events or while idly walking the streets of Ottawa minding my own business I will be spotted by Nigerians who had attended the lecture. Sometimes they shout: “Hey You! You are the girl with the thick Canadian accent!” Laughter ensues.