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'!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Art of Luxurious Living

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion of luxury and what it means to us in 2009.
The global economic slow-down that has literally knocked the world sideways and while some are in recovery mode, many are still reeling the shock.

Some would say it’s almost immoral to think of luxurious living in the current climate! Of course, redundancies and pay-cuts are no joke but still, life goes on. Human beings have an inbuilt desire to live an abundant life.

So, what does luxury mean to you? Is your expression of luxurious living peppered with designer labels and hi-cost commodities?

The pundits say, that while there is much less money around, people are still spending but now purchases, especially high end indulgences, are much more – let’s say – considered.

The economic slow down is forcing the world to do just that – literally slow down! Great news for those of us who permanently live in rush/hectic/exhausted mode – or so you’d think?!

I much prefer the concept of a slow down to a crisis. An economic crisis signals blind panic and despair whereas an ‘economic slow-down’ - even just reading the words - immediately takes you into more contemplative space.

No matter what job you may have, adopting a rush-mode lifestyle always boils down to a question of choice. Put busy on pause for a minute and you might actually get to taste life itself.

Similarly, adopting an always-busy-always-buying mode is also a lifestyle choice that anaesthetises our sense of reality. So in this space, the symbols of luxurious living are often mistaken for luxury itself.

The earth shaping moment that we are experiencing as an economic slow down is an invitation to re-evaluate what‘s in our lives and what is no longer serving us.

It takes us back to the question, is your sense of luxury based on symbols rated according to a price tag or is your luxury based on one of life’s most precious resource – time?

The silver lining in the doom & gloom clouds is that the slow down is likely to be just what we need. Less of everything else and more time!

Pregnant with promise, time seems to be an increasingly scarce resource that is slipping away from our grasp. We have made it that way so we can change it.

Africa and the Diaspora countries around the world have always enjoyed a more diffused approach to time than the narrow paradigm set by our cousins in the West.

Across the African continent, time is captured in the simplest gestures like taking time to greet each other and really mean it. It’s about a soul connection and collective evolution by honouring the spirit.

So, in the quest for sustainable livelihoods and a life of higher consciousness, it’s high time we revise our definition of luxury. For, in the art of luxurious living, time is the most valuable and precious centrepiece of all.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fatherhood: A spiritual journey

As we celebrate Father’s Day in 2009, I salute the fathers featured here for their deep connectedness with their children. The joy that radiates through their every word speaks to a keen sense of kinship and bonding.

From the delivery room to the first day at university and other important steps in a child's life, the fathers featured today all mention the importance of 'being there' for their children. Not just for these milestones, but participating fully in their everyday lives. By developing rituals based on a commitment to responsibility and legacy, their voices on fatherhood will resonate for generations to come.

When days like Father's Day come around, I feel an uncomfortable shiver running down my spine. Crass commercialisation dims the evolving character of fatherhood in modern times and often shrouds the real reason for all the hype.

It will be a beautiful day when ritual celebration of our fathers is frequently expressed as tangible accents in our lives and not reserved only for special days. Today, we honour them; we listen in recognition of their soul-deep gratitude for the children in their lives.

African perspectives
TV producer and presenter, Christophe Bongo is a proud father who relates the story of how his daughter's entry into the world was one of the most poignant moments of his life.
He shines with a bitter-sweet smile as he reflects on his approach to fatherhood.
"It's about responsibility. As Africans our responsibility as fathers is so profound. It's not only about financial support; it's about relationships and full involvement in our children's lives. From the way I relate to my wife, the way I speak to my mother, I teach values through the way I behave.

"Fatherhood is also about leadership. I'm handing over the torch that I received and passing it on to the next generation," states Christophe.

Marc Gbaffou, a food technician and chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, echoes Christophe's sentiments about leadership and responsibility.

"At a young age I was taught that to be a man means assuming responsibility. Don't wait for people to do things for you, lead and show the way. I'd like to see my children being decisive and accountable for the decisions they take by seeing the way I run my life."

The notion of legacy is a golden thread that runs through Marc's dialogue on fatherhood.
"I would feel very proud seeing my children achieve things I couldn't achieve. The biggest challenge for fathers in Africa today is also the biggest opportunity, [it is] to build Africa. In teaching our children how to create resources through building communities, we will all be stronger across the African Diaspora.

"In Africa, the family is a social and divine institution," says African patriot, academic and former Senegalese Ambassador to Southern Africa, Samba Mburi Mboup.

As he describes his experience of fatherhood, Samba recalls how he bathed, massaged and sang lullabies to his children. He remembers how he also carried his children on his back. He fondly attributes his strong bond with his children to an inherited approach passed on from his late father.

"My father was a patriarch and while he didn't carry us on his back, he had a soft heart for his children. Often, we (men) make the mistake of thinking our children's education sits with their mothers. Neither one can do it alone! Both should work together in a spirit of unity and stability."
Strong relationships
When comparing his role as a father to that of his father's era, Samba states that strong relationships with children of today are more important than ever before.

He cites the works of Martiniquan philosopher Frantz Fanon as he asserts that each generation comes with its own mission. They may live up to it or betray their mission, but they have an evolved awareness that can also teach a parent who is open to learning from their children.

"Fatherhood, in my experience, is a unique privilege and spiritual journey," he says.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sisters of the soil

The title of my column in The Flair magazine (Gleaner) often intrigues people.

Fe-mail Ties, what does it mean? I'm exploring the ties that bind women across the waters, via the Internet. It's a conversation that spans our experiences, our nature, our joys and life's challenges. It's about a female bonding culture that brings us together as women, no matter where in the world we may be.

The ties that bind us also speak to an innate connection, encoded in oestrogen and travels soul deep. When strong, our female ties provide for solid, stable relationships. More than a shoulder to cry on, I mean a friend who will look you in the eye and tell you the truth you might not want to hear. I have girlfriends with whom six hours race by as we sit, face to face, drinking tea and simply bonding. We thrive as we honour and nurture our female bonding culture.

As we look across the globe, we can see communities are fragmenting more deeply than ever before. Often the divisions are based on culture - our ways of seeing, being and doing.

Issues of identity and belonging
In the African-Caribbean Diaspora communities, issues of identity and belonging are becoming even more poignant as, three generations later, migrant Diaspora communities struggle to bridge the divide between our ties to home and the place we called home.

So, in this pervasive reality, where are the female ties located? Do they still exist or are they spooling out of kilter as we attempt to grasp new dimensions of belonging?

For it is the women who typically grow and nurture a community. Of course, men and boy children play a valuable role, but as you shift from successful businesswoman to homemaker, to mother, to wife, are you doing all you can to tighten your female ties?

While pondering the question of unity during the recent Africa Day events, I explored the female dimension to this question. A few weeks back, I came across a young Ghanaian woman, Afua, who was sharing appreciation for her South African sister-in-law, Thembi.

As we sat drinking tea she described her Diaspora journey. Growing up between the United Kingdom, Tanzania and other countries across Africa, Afua had hardly spent any time in her native Ghana. Though her parents did all they could to maintain a connection to her heritage, she lamented the fact that she didn't really feel Ghanaian.

Joyfully, it was through the birth of her nephew that Afua was able to reconnect to aspects of Ghanaian culture that she had never witnessed. Though the child was born in South Africa, Thembi wanted to follow traditional Ghanaian rituals for naming her newborn child.

Affirming role
Afua glowed as she spoke of how she, affirming her role as aunt and sister, had become after she participated in the ceremonies. She was able to touch a deep part of her heritage, a gift presented through a female connection, her sister-in-law, Thembi.

Afua and Thembi now share a bond woven tighter than ever before - a bond expressed through culture but which has always been deeply ingrained in their souls. What is your female bonding culture?

Celebrate Africa

It's Africa Day today!

We've been celebrating all weekend! In Jo'burg we've enjoyed a feast of Africa-related activities and events which has nourished our souls and fed our minds.
It was on this day 45 years ago that the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) articulated a commitment to building Africa as a continent that was united, independent of colonial powers and economically stable.

Judging by the literature available, the notion of the unity in African diaspora was a key dimension of the vision. So, in a nutshell, Africa Day is for those at 'home' and abroad!
I wonder how many of Africa's sons and daughters in the diaspora see Africa Day as an opportunity to reflect on their heritage and tighten the umbilical connection to the Motherland.

From where I sit, I don't have to look too far to encounter richly diverse African diaspora communities who have settled in Jo'burg. Known as the 'cross-roads of the continent', Jo'burg city boasts African communities and cultures from all over the continent and the world.

Jo'burg's diversity
Jo'burg's heart beats to the rhythm of its diversity. Historians proudly tell of the city's migrant history which dates back to almost a century ago. This was just before the Gold Rush in 1886. People from all over the world literally rushed to cash in on her precious bounty.
Even today, the majority of newcomers to Jo'burg are people who come to cash in on the dynamic economic activity of the city.

From a Diaspora perspective, some would say it's an exciting time to be in Jo'burg. However, I've seen those who skate by on the periphery, heads low and minding their own business.
It begs the question: How significant is Africa Day for the melting-pot city of Gold? A year on from the 'xenophobic attacks' that mired many South African cities, attempts to engage communities in social cohesion come from the highest office in the land.

Important celebration
Closer to my backyard, I hear the Director for Arts, Culture and Heritage of the City of Jo'burg, Steven Sack, speak of Africa Day as a key event for the city. He and a number of partners sit at the helm of the diverse Africa Day activity programme.

He believes Africa Day is an important celebration and an opportunity to spread Africa's good news stories, profile wonderful arts and celebrate Africa's diversity in the city where all cultures meet. His ultimate vision speaks of an Africa Day programme that is able to catalyse action.
Action indeed! Clearly, there's a call for diaspora communities from Jo'burg to Jamaica to pick up the baton set out by the founding fathers of the OAU which finds itself at our feet today.
If we are able to move collectively from being sideline spectators to taking ownership and contributing to the process, that will be a good step! If we don't lift up our own voices, then who will?