Monday, September 14, 2009

Of cocoa tea and cappucino

You've often heard me talk about my favourite matriarch. We are not related but she co-occupies that precious space in my heart reserved for the lineage of female wisdom keepers in our family.

She's an elder, yes, but neither aunty nor grandma would suit her, for being a matriarch is not measured by age alone. Grandmothers are warm and fuzzy and smell of cornmeal porridge and coco tea (mine did - may they rest in peace).

Matriarchs are all of that and then some! I use the term matriarch because it bestows a certain status which could be overlooked if they are slotted into the 'warm and fuzzy' recesses of our minds.

In truth, there are many matriarchs around me, including my mother. I feel a connection between my matriarchs and my inner being - a link which is commonly experienced but rarely articulated among women. The title matriarch speaks of understated grandeur. The notion of a matriarch is a ranking that has lost currency in our current day experience of womanhood.

The matrilineal society is now almost mythical, except for a few far flung places. In such communities, women hold the axis of power. Theirs was a community-based power accorded through lineage and inheritance. Much like the king or queen status, but not as individuals for there can be many matriarchs in one community.

My journey to the zone of matriarchy has helped me understand and appreciate our female elders more. Being the urban nomad that I am, my grandmothers were mostly a nostalgic reverie. As first-generation JA-Brits who grew up between the United Kingdom and Africa, our holidays 'back home' provided the all-too-rare chance to huddle up close to grandma's bosom.

The magic of her serenity and the way in which she just always knew what we needed on that deep soul level preserved grandma's image as a deliciously warming comfort.
Now, as a grown woman, scanning the contested ground of women's liberation, women's rights and issues of so-called equality, I seek the matriarch's voice. Not only as a voice of reason but as an anchor to the modern mindset.

Hers could tell us, remind us, of who women were back in the day. For now, as we navigate corridors of power in a corporate jungle, the steaming coco tea has been replaced by cappuccino.

No longer relevant
Does it mean that now we're all grown up and working, the world of our matriarchs and their deep well of wisdom are no longer relevant to our reality?

I wonder what our matriarchs would say to us and how we'd reshape our world on the backbone of their life stories? For, as we are constantly evolving and redefining our world, they, our matriarchs, could hold the keys we need to unlock our future.

Build it now!

A few days ago, my heart skipped a beat when I heard the world renowned South African hornman, Bra Hugh Masekela express his desire for the new generation to hold on tightly to their heritage. It was a bitter-sweet moment when during an interview, he said: “I’m scared that when my grandchildren grow up, they will say to each other – they say we used to be Africans”.

His familiar wry laugh was ironic as it was startling. As much as his comment drew much mirth, I certainly felt a tinge of sadness.

Bra Hugh and other South African music icons are celebrating 70 years on this planet this year. Bra Hugh, a veteran activist is more aggressive than ever as he launches his latest project – 100 years. Still in development, the project is a musical which traces the migration of peoples across and into South Africa through music over the past 100 years.

His is a beautiful vision, which is proving quite difficult to sell to potential sponsors in South Africa’s private sector. Maybe they just don’t get it! Music – the universal language – tells our stories in multi-dimensional texture, it ignites our soulfyah as it roots memories of those who walked before us.

Pandora's box
In shaping the past 100 years, Bra Hugh is thinking of those coming in front of us and preparing a Pandora’s Box of treasures that remind us of who we are.

Stories of migration and the memories passed from one generation to another are a valuable and in many cases diminishing heritage. As I imagine Bra Hugh’s grandchild, I think of my children and how their children will identify themselves. For their heritage, like most across the Caribbean is a glorious tapestry – I choose to affirm my enriched heritage status - of an ancestry that criss-crosses the globe.

The Afropolitan
What Bra Hugh’s commentary is probing is the vexed question of how one generation after another shapes its cultural identity in the journey of evolution. As we easily slip from one cultural expression to another, is it true to say we’re losing our culture. On this side of the world, the it-generation, upwardly mobile, accessorized to the hilt and worldly-wise, are branding themselves the Afropolitan.

Converging an African heritage rooted in a cosmopolitan – read European/other world – mélange which carries with it an underlying message saying: ‘now we’re really making it. We’re connected across the globe, we’re influential but make no mistake, we’reAfrican! So, if we follow the Afropolitan principle then perhaps we are on a slippery slope heading to non-distinct identity and hazy cultural expression.

A vexed question indeed with no easy answers! For, as we ponder the cultural integrity of our grandchildren’s world view, we, like Bra Hugh would do well to build on the foundation stones of those who came before us. Whatever ‘politan space you may inhabit, how will your footprints shape the future?

View from the top

Women and their role in socio-economic development is a hot topic on the African continent. With the 2015 deadline for the actualisation of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming, there is much talk about the slow rate of progress.

The UN MDG framework, created in response to the world's main development challenges, called private and public sector and civil societies together in partnership to eradicate poverty, ensure the safety of children, create gender equity and the like. Most would agree that in principle, the approach makes sense. Trying to wade through the slew of reports, campaigns and projects to grasp just how far we have come is an arduous task.

The MDG 3, which focuses on women and calls for the 'promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women', is the pertinent focus for Women's Month in South Africa this year. Like the MDGs, shaping fresh approaches to the 24/7/365 challenge of creating equal spaces for women is a lofty goal. After all, the quest for equality has been a perennial quest spoken of for my lifetime and for those who came before me.

Access to education
Scrolling through the data, major advances in specific areas such as increased access to education for girls in Africa are revealed. Clearly, there is still much work to be done and the 2015 timeline is a daunting challenge.

As with most development initiatives there is a focus on rural communities. Given that rural communities make up the majority of the population in most countries across Africa, the emphasis on rural development is clearly necessary, but it also results in a skewed picture of development.

Muted voices
Glaringly muted are the voices of women themselves, especially those who have made it out of the grips of the poverty trap and are languishing in positions of influence, access to resources and choice. Where are their empowered voices?

The empowered woman's voice is strikingly absent in the MDG discourse and project activity. As we read about targets to 'enhance women's participation at all levels of government and other decision making positions', the question remains what happens when they get there?
Is there an assumption that women in urban areas are already so advanced in terms of access to resources and education that they are automatically empowered and by implication do not need further 'developmental' support?

Development issues
The glossy sheen of the luxe vehicles and high life covers up the real story and development issues among women in urban spaces. The stories I hear in my daily interactions with urban women in powerful corporate positions, influential political spaces, accomplished homemakers, entrepreneurs and the like, often tell a tale of disenchanted solitude. It is lonely at the top!

So, in addressing the gender equity development imperative, we need to ensure the views from the hot-seat are shared, distilled and the lessons heeded. Let's make our voices heard in the development debate. For as we strive to upskill, upgrade and upscale our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that our 'empowered' spaces are adequately receptive to growth, nurturing and sustainable transformation for women across the urban and rural divide.

In pole position

Ever since the first democratic elections in South Africa, principles of empowerment have been enshrined in the constitution which governs the new South Africa.

With Mandela at the presidential helm, images of the rainbow nation blurred at the edges in a neat picture frame of an ideal society where the priority was to re-balance inequities in race, gender, cultural and economic status among the black population of South Africa.
Following 50-plus decades of an apartheid government, trans-formation and empowerment became the buzz words of the day after the elections in 1994.

Women's Day
Women's Day in South Africa commemorates the day in 1956 when women from all races and walks of life marched to the Union Buildings in mass protest against oppressive apartheid laws. It was a historic march that became a turning point in the history of women's role in the struggle for a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.

This courageous act, fuelled by the injustices of the apartheid government, was a public demonstration of women united in a cause and determined to make their voices heard. Their accomplish-ment continues to ignite the flame for women's empowerment today.

The theme for Women's Month 2009, 'Together Empowering Women for Development and Gender Equality', is a big one to unpack. The newly created Ministry for Women, Children and People with Disabilities signals interesting developments ahead. However, translating empowerment policies into a tangible reality continues to be a challenge.

Activities have been remarkably muted this year. Possibly, reduced budgets from the economic crunch meant the money simply wasn't there for a fanfare! No doubt, the buzz ebbs at a lower frequency. For many, the public holiday was an opportunity for a road trip over the long weekend.

Refreshingly, some (mainly men) told me Women's Day was every day, so what was the fuss about? Even fewer told me about how the day wasn't of any significance to them as women or men who love women and the word empowerment were, let's say, off the radar.

Pole dancing
As one of the more popularly celebrated public holiday months, Women's Month programmes are hosted by government, private-sector institutions and organisations in every sector imaginable. From the more serious, usually government-led activities to a special employee treat at the spa and pole dancing lessons, interpretations of what empowerment means is somewhat elastic.

Now, when pole dancing becomes a measure of empowerment, something is clearly amiss. I'm sure wrapping one's body around a pole in lewd, semi-acrobatic positions could be fun for some and, at best, a good workout, but empowering?

So what of the women who marched back in 1956? In our relatively cushy mod-con, empowered lives, how are we picking up the baton and ensuring that we follow in their footsteps? Sure, empowerment is a matter of interpretation and clearly we have a long road to walk.

Goddess Arise: M - (R)evolution II

The M (r)evolution caused quite a stir last week. Not surprisingly you may say! Apart from the novelty of the menstruation cup, the ructions were more about the M-word itself!

It strikes me that much female talk about menstruation is usually in reference to PMT, fertility issues or at the other end of the spectrum - menopausal hormone challenges. All real, no doubt, but often tinged with a backdrop of pejorative notions and sensibilities around our sacred time – menstruation.

I’ll never forget the look of pain and regret when a 40something Johannesburg mother, Ntombi, told me about how sorry she was that she ‘missed’ her daughter’s first period. She was travelling on business and received a call to say that her daughter had seen her menarche. Ntombi efficiently organised some sanitary towels and told her daughter they would talk when she returned home.

Tears welled as Ntombi recalled her own menarche remembering how her mother and aunts joyously honoured her in the rite of passage from girl-child into womanhood. She told me about a special ceremony, the words of wisdom and the empowerment boost she felt as she was welcomed to a new world of female accomplishment.

Her lament that day, was not only her absence but she confessed that even if she were at home, she wouldn’t know what to do. The matriarchs who had birthed her evolution into womanhood were no longer around.

Ntombi felt she had failed her daughter and as we spoke, she became even more angst-filled as she acknowledged that she had underestimated the value, beauty and power that her matriarchs were celebrating at her menarche ceremony.

As she spoke my mind flashed back to my matriarchal circle and how during a family holiday, my aunts recalled their introduction to womanhood. Light years away from Ntombi’s ceremony, theirs was closer to her daughter’s experience. They told me of the indignity they felt for years as each month, they hung their seven pieces of cloth, duly scrubbed lily white, on a line in the yard against the backdrop of the green hills of Trelawny, Jamaica.

Some of my aunts were in the midst of their own private summers (read: menopausal hot flushes) and so theirs was a tale of at least forty years of nestling shame around their menstrual period.

As I learn more about the rituals in menarche ceremonies across the world and the folklore, mysticism and sanctity linked to our menstrual cycle, I’m stunned at how detached we’ve become from the potency of our menstrual time.

Rites of passage
There are many reasons why ancient cultures in Africa and around the world honoured the menache (the first menstrual period) as a rite of passage. Many still do.

So what of our contemporary culture? Our monthly gift which the sages tell us augurs new life, prosperity and blessings has been relegated to a biological function spoken about in hushed voices. Ntombi’s story, a short generation ago, illustrates a diminishing heritage of female-centric power that we will lose at our peril.

We may not all have access to indigenous knowledge of time-honoured rituals but we can all create space for revivication each month as we renew the goddess within.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The M (R)evolution

What is it about the M word – menstruation – that sparks fear and even shame amongst so many women? I’m talking about menstruation. It’s that special and spiritual time every month, when our spectacular female reproductive machinery cleanses and restores our internal incubator ready to nurture life.

The life force was in full flow last week as masses of women gathered at an expo designed to celebrate all things womanly. The annual Women’s Show in Joburg promised a fuschia-pink oasis of female-centric products, candid talks, and the latest innovations to super-size women to be even more phenomenal.

They delivered on their promise and more as an eye-opening experience that was tagged onto the fuschia-pink extravaganza revealed.

This year, the organisers tagged on a mini-expo called the Natural & Organic show. Much the same set up, but the invitation was different. The recycled shopping bags they gave out said: ‘Go Natural & Organic or go home!’ – tongue- in-cheek maybe, but the witty branding speaks to a deeper connection that we are all aware of but often hide behind.

Women are a powerful life-force! The major earth shift that have manifested as a global ‘economic melt-down’ is a clarion call to men and women of the world to return to source – and fast!

So, as I moved through the tempting array of organic beauty soaps and healing products, I met the most amazing people. The hard sell typical of such expos was replaced by invigorating conversations about farming, plants, superfoods, solar energy and more. We crossed a bridge forging the life force connection between earth, choices and guess who – women!

Quietly nestling amongst the recycled packaging was an unassuming product called the menstrual cup. Made from silicone, it’s an alternative sanitary product that allows women to do away with tampons and pads and replace them with a menstrual cup that gently collects the monthly flow.

Statistics reveal that over 160 million tampons are thrown away in South Africa alone every month! When I consider the environmental impact of packaging and producing pads and tampons, not to mention the landfill sites, I’m compelled to connect with the life enhancing option offered by the menstrual cup.

We’ve been duped by messages of ‘convenience’ and modernity from disposable sanitary wear manufacturers for too long! Amongst the two m-cup products available in South Africa at the moment, I believe the Mpower menstrual cup captures the essence that women seem to continually strive for – power! It’s within us!

The life force in the earth was created by the ultimate power. In making empowering life choices, we can embrace the life force that flows through us as women and honour menstruation with grace and dignity. It is high time for the M (r)evolution!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Not my daughter! ARISE Africa Fashion Week

I'm just recovering from the emotional charge of the ARISE Africa Fashion Week that rocked Joburg over the past two weeks. It was eight days of glossy pouts, big hair, funky catwalk struts and all the glamour of the fashion theatre.

As with all fashion weeks, the designers on show presented a myriad of inspired statements. What was so endearing about the ARISE Africa Fashion Week, was the promise of a creative volcano presented by over 50 'elite African designers'.

This was Africa's story of contemporary, mostly female expression, told through fashion, to the world. Predictably, some of the characters were a literal cut and paste from fairytales of the West. Joyously, some designers 'dared' to reignite African folk tales, bringing recognisable cultural motifs and silhouettes to the stage.

Dresses were all the rage. All styles, shapes and lengths. From Alphadi's sultry, flowing kaftans to African Mosaique's take on a micro-short rouched kaftan, they were all ultra-feminine, asserting a female sensibility of gentle but powerful grace.

One dress from Egyptian-based Tunisian designer Soucha, sparked much controversy. All lace and not much of it at that, as the model set out on the ramp, her naked form became the talk of the AFW. Without so much as a leaf to cover her modesty, her total exposure was nothing short of gratuitous.

At that point, many who were loving the collection, wrote him off as a sensation-seeking misogynist, disrespecting the very women he claims to adore. As the storm brewed, I asked Soucha who he is designing for. With a breezy smile, he told me that women who wear his clothes are 'sexy, modern and free'.

Well, one thing Soucha definitely did do is strike a match against one of the key issues that fashion designers this side of the world are grappling with. African values and identity, versus commercial appeal are perennial challenges.

One outraged veteran fashion designer, Sonwabile Ndamase, couldn't understand why the crop of the 'elite' African fashion designers on show were so shy about expressing their roots. For him, the problem was deeper than creative inspiration for a collection. He said Soucha's decision to parade a nude model in lace was "as if he is forgetting that models are people and that she is someone's daughter!"

Leaders and pioneers
Clearly, modernity offers the new generation of Africa's fashion vanguard the opportunity to be just that - leaders and pioneers in a world renowned for its fickle nature. However fickle, no matter what era or world space you look at, fashion is always a pulse indicator for a nation's head space. So, where do questions of morals, ethics and values stand in the heady crucible of Africa's fashion visionaries?

At the ARISE Africa Fashion Week, the hosts created a continental fashion week on the wings of Obama's rise to the White House and other landmark achievements for black people that they cite as Africa's big moment. Clearly, emotions are riding high as we proudly embrace our Africanism. What we need as a parallel process are spaces where we can dialogue and debate what kinds of dresses we will make for our daughters in the new world order. As they say in Nigeria, 'who no know go know'!