Why Africans Should Speak Up When the Continent’s Narrative Is at Stake

I felt compelled to write a response to John Tamny’s recent book review of Crossing the Congo: over Land and Water in a Hard a Place published in RealClearMarkets on 18 May 2017 (http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2017/05/18/crossing_the_congo_is_truly_a_journey_across_hell_on_earth_102668.html). My reaction to Tamny’s review, which he used as an opportunity to voice his personal point of view about the place he refers to as “hell on earth”, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), left me feeling alarmed that a person of his stature (economist and editor) would write and publish such a poorly researched piece, full of stereotypical and potentially harmful conclusions, and remain unchecked by African readers. I advise that the purpose of my response is not to address the validity of Tamny’s examination of the DRC’s economy. I am rather concerned with the lazy approach with which both Tamny and the authors of the book chose to shape their prose, their clear misunderstanding of the DRC’s history, and the confidence with which they feel they can defame an entire country (and by extension, a continent) without Africans themselves shedding some light on the deliberate ignorance of the facts. I think Africa has had enough of such hegemonic behavior, especially from the media and those who have the power to shape modern discourse about our continent. An unbalanced, ill-researched narrative of Africa is dangerous, and perpetuates racism and misunderstanding of what is a very complex continent with a complex history. This is an invitation to fellow Africans to object when the facts about our continent are misconstrued or debauched, and an opportunity to start a dialogue- a two-way conversation with those of our Western counterparts who insist on getting it wrong.

The main characters of the story, the authors of the book, are Londoners who decide to go on a road trip across the DRC before they tie the knot. The trip apparently brought out the worst in the couple and by the time it was done, they had decided to no longer get married. I asked myself whether they had ever been to Africa before. If not, what informed their expectations of the DRC? I wonder if these were already poisoned by the unrealistic images often circulated in the Western media about Africa. If one believes in the adage that we see what it is our intention to see, then I am not surprised that the only thing the authors could report on, according to Tamny, is the worst that the DRC has to offer. Perhaps an equivalent metaphor would be me taking a trip to New York City and writing a book about the rat infestation in the city’s subways, the poverty and gang violence in the projects, rummaging through police dockets to point out cases of racial profiling, and taking notes on the low literacy rates of black children in certain public schools, and then using this as a basis to convince readers that New York City is one of the world’s worst cities in which to raise children, especially if they’re black. The lack of critical thinking displayed in Tamny’s review is unbelievable.

Tamny does say that “the authors themselves would probably admit that their recall left much of what might animate their experiences, out of the book… their journey into hell defies literary – or photographic – description.” I would advance that what made it into the book was what they ultimately wanted to show and not their full experience: the picture of “hell on earth”, with no varieties of shades and colors, no complexities, and no positivity. Their lens was set to feed sensationalist and poorly informed mindsets. Tamny, Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell’s description of the DRC as “hell” was an indication earlier on in the article that their point of view is unbalanced at best but mostly weak. Tamny does speak of the terrible lack of infrastructure in the country, unarguably a major obstacle to development. But when he uses this as a proof point to describe the entire country as “hell”, I have to ask, relative to what? What is his understanding of what makes up heaven on earth? Is it London, Brussels, Washington, D.C.? Does having paved roads automatically qualify a country as developed? What metrics is Tamny basing his argument on and do Africans generally agree with these standards? And if we do, why?

One of the issues Tamny spends quite a bit of time on is corruption. I don’t deny that there is widespread corruption in the DRC, as in many countries in Africa and around the world. What I didn’t quite understand is whether he was talking about police corruption or ineptitude, or both. If it is the latter, can we please address racial profiling in the U.S. or racism in Europe, perpetrated by the very people who are sworn in to protect all citizens – crimes that are swept under the carpet to shelter the police and maintain the status quo? Is Tammy aware of the Black Lives Matter movement at all? And since he insists on including a few words in his review about the NGO’s which litter the “good” neighborhoods of Kinshasa, can we talk about the fact that, even though most of them are mandated with improving the living standards of ordinary Congolese people, the grocery bills accrued by their representatives on a monthly basis alone could probably buy a poor Congolese family of five enough to eat for a year? Tamny thankfully admits that these NGO’s have no interest in effecting any real social impact in the DRC because this would put them out of a job. However, when they are operating with donor funds from the West and spending this money year after year knowing they won’t make a sustainable difference to Congolese lives, should we not regard their actions as corrupt as well?

Finally, I believe that any African who understands their history and takes pride in being African should vehemently protest at Tamny, Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell’s daring conclusion that the DRC was in better shape before it became independent from Belgium. The travelers state: “The DRC was now free, but it was fucked.” Tamny insists that before independence, the Belgian Congo was prosperous. However, he avoids any intelligent investigation as to why, while neglecting to attribute the same corrupt attributes he generously hands out to the Congolese, “the most corrupt people on earth”, to their colonizers. I think it would be fair to say that killing, looting, cutting off human limbs and taking people’s land by force to fulfill King Leopold’s dreams of extreme riches could be classified as corrupt. Hatch-Barnwell conveniently refers to archeological aspects of the country which prove his theory that the Belgian Congo was better off than present day DRC. What else does archeology show us about the Belgian Congo? Well, there is the looted art one can find in Belgian museums which the former colonizers took and refuse to return to the DRC even to this day.  Basic research will show that the rape and plunder of the DRC under Leopold II is one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. With over 10 million Congolese people killed, countless maimed and a population left traumatized by his brutal regime, the man-slaughtering Leopold II features nowhere near Tamny and the authors’ account of how the Congo may have come to be what they regard as “hell.” A convenient oversight, I suppose. Instead, Tamny focuses his blame on government. Fair enough, albeit confusing when he refers to Mobutu and his regime as people who “took what was not theirs”.  There seems to be little doubt in the reviewer’s mind that Mobutu was much worse than the Belgian colonizers of whom he speaks so gloriously.

Why does it matter that Africans respond to accounts of the continent that are biased, unbalanced and in some cases, utterly untrue? It is important because narrative shapes perception and the latter shapes behavior. Whether the behavior is applied to diplomatic relations, the treatment of Africans abroad or trade negotiations, the perceptions that are created of Africans in the Western media and, more importantly, in the minds of Africans themselves, directly impact how Africans are treated across the board. Therefore, articles such as Tamny’s and the depiction of an entire country as done by Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell should not be left unquestioned. We, as Africans, should ask: “Yes, you may have seen that, but what else did you see?”, “Why did you choose only to tell that part of the story when it is incomplete?” and “On what basis are you making these claims?”. The goal of questioning is not necessarily to prove the other party wrong, but to clarify a point with the intention of engaging in a constructive conversation that does not leave citizens of a country or continent feeling insulted and disregarded. It also curbs the tendency, such as that displayed in the comments section of Tamny’s article, for unfortunate racist rants.

 

 

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Overcoming Destination Addiction

I recently started writing my morning pages again, a habit I picked up then dropped a few months ago. It’s a stream of consciousness exercise that allows me to brain-dump my thoughts on paper early in the morning so that I can go through the rest of my day with less voices in my head and with more focus. I find morning pages really useful- they allow me to see the world from a perspective of gratitude and enthusiasm.

As I was about to begin writing yesterday’s morning pages, I came across a message on Facebook (social media browsing is usually not recommended before morning pages) that caught my attention. It read: “Beware of destination addiction. The idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or even with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.” This message struck a chord with me. I recognised myself in the words. I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am a destination addict.

Destination addiction creeps up on you over time. You don’t just wake up one day as a destination addict. The addiction grows slowly and often starts with one experience, probably one that you have long forgotten about, that involved a job, a lover, something your parents might have said in passing, a tiny taste of success or failure on your life journey that may have inspired or demoralised you. I can’t remember exactly when my addiction started but I know the symptoms all too well. I thought that, perhaps, by sharing them, you might recognise yourself in the words, too.

Symptoms of destination addiction:

  1. You truly believe that you will be happier than you are now as soon as something happens or someone comes into your life

Destination addiction is an addiction to happiness deferred. It is the misplaced belief that you will be much happier as soon as you reach whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. The addiction often plagues overachievers but it can happen to anyone. It is recognised by an underlying anxiety in everything you do, an uneasy feeling that something is missing. You identify with your goal as the “something” that is missing and you are convinced that as soon as you get it, you will be much happier.

  1. You don’t stop to appreciate what you have already achieved because your happiness lies in the future and not the present moment

Destination addicts often do not live in the present moment. They reflect on the past (mostly on what they could have done better instead of what they did well), and project themselves into the future, speculating on how they will reach their goals as soon as possible. They miss the present. I tried to focus on the “now” as I took a shower yesterday after my morning pages. My internal dialogue went something like this: “I better finish showering quickly so I can make lunch for the kids. I also have a Skype call I have to plan for. I wonder where it’s all going to lead. If I can convince the client to sign a contract then I will be one step closer to hiring more people to grow the company. Oh gosh, I will be so much happier once this company takes off properly. The kids will be happier, too, because I’ll be able to spend so much more time with them. It will also mean that I can spend more time with my man, whenever he shows up. I never make time; that is such a problem. I have always had that issue, too focused on work. But to be fair, they should make more of an effort, these men. I will hopefully be with someone who values quality time. I will be so much happier then.” Not for a moment did I feel the water falling on my skin or look at myself as I lathered soap onto my body. I was on autopilot and my thoughts ranged from “beating myself up about the past” to “the future will be so much better than the present”. When I caught myself thinking this way, I was able to correct it and spent the last few moments in the shower just focusing on how it felt to shampoo my hair. And it felt great!

  1. You overthink and over-analysing everything because everything has an implication on future outcomes

Because a destination addict’s happiness lies in the future, he or she is committed to protecting that future happiness by any means necessary. Living in the present for a destination addict means planning for the future. This causes anxiety and an unnecessary restlessness that they don’t even realise dominates their existence. They can’t shake it. The question: “what if?” is at the forefront of their minds most of the time. The interesting thing about destination addicts is that, sometimes, they’re not even sure what the destination they are trying to reach is. They just know that they have to get there and that once they do, things will be better, bigger, brighter, and they will be happier. It’s an illusion that they mistake for reality.

Don’t get me wrong; being a destination addict serves a purpose. Most destination addicts are self-motivated overachievers. But then who said being an overachiever is something to aspire to?

Overcoming destination addiction starts with an admission of the status quo. Once we become aware of our addiction and its negative effect on our lives, we can start the healing process. We can begin to consciously pull ourselves back into the present moment every minute of the day until it becomes second nature. And we can transition from living a somewhat fear-based experience to one that gives us, and everyone in our environment, space to breathe, conscious of every blessing life has in store for us right now.

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Inviting the SpongeBob Generation to the Archives of African History

kid watching tv

Ian, a friend and business associate, came to visit me yesterday to brainstorm a project. It was Saturday afternoon and my children were home, getting on with their weekend routine of bathing, eating, cleaning up and eventually plunging on the couch to watch TV while I prepare lunch or pack a bag for an afternoon at the park. I have trouble concentrating on work when they’re home and I usually find a secluded corner of the house where I can think clearly for a few minutes or hours, depending on the task. So I suggested that my husband (who has a great creative mind), Ian and I seek refuge in the “dungeon” (the garage) to discuss the project and plan ahead. Very soon, all three of us had diverted from our objective and what ensued was an enlightening conversation about the history of Africa and some of the eccentric leaders who have impacted the continent over the last forty years. For more than two hours, we shared insights and stories we’d heard, experienced or imagined about Nkrumah, Mugabe, Mobutu and other leaders. They were funny, scary, surprising stories that helped crystalize my understanding of how far the continent has come since the days of our newly-acquired independence. We could have continued for two more hours if the children didn’t need to be attended to.

About an hour into our conversation, I came to the sad realisation that scenarios like these are probably played out in households all across the continent, where adults engage in passionate debates about politics, economics and history on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Over a beer and a meal, people of my father’s generation and mine discuss the continent’s journey, the players who shaped it in various ways, and why, in their opinion, Africa is in the state it’s in. The sad part is that in the majority of these households, children are often left in front of the TV, watching SpongeBob Squarepants or some brain-numbing cartoon, completely excluded from these important conversations. And when they do come into the room and want to join in the storytelling, they’re hushed away as a nuisance interfering with “adult” time. I speak from experience- I was dismissed from several adult discussions growing up. The problem is that these stories, the history of our continent told over a beer and a meal at home, are not passed down to the next generation. The value of the opportunity to share is completely missed by so-called “intellectual” parents who think children probably wouldn’t understand anyway. And so our African children continue to learn about their history, about themselves, by watching TV or in school, ingesting a curriculum that does not reflect their true selves, shaped by someone else’s history. They are forced to form their belief systems around archaic ideas of inferiority of the black man/woman, belief systems that were manufactured with the sole purpose of colonising their forefathers in the first place. And so, African history is lost over generations, diluted into a few funny, scary and surprising anecdotes here and there, amongst a multitude of negative stories that make the black child feel inferior to the white child, merely because they are made to live in sheer ignorance, lacking the knowledge that would make them proud of their legacy.

As Africans, it is vital that we do not exclude our children from important conversations about our continent- the good and the bad. It is important that we make these conversations part of our routines at home, that we discuss our heritage at the dinner table. We need to do a better job at documenting our history. But more than that, in a digital age where technology is slowly but surely overruling human interaction, we need to revisit our storytelling culture, the oral tradition of passing down history from one generation to the next. Europeans have written countless volumes of literature documenting their history. They imposed their history on African classrooms. American history is well known the world over and fuels a sense of patriotism in the majority of its citizens. Most Asian children, no matter where they live in the world, are taught their indigenous languages at home and can recount the feats of key historical figures who shaped their countries’ paths. African children, from Djibouti to Cape Town, have a stronger understanding of French or British history than their own. We are failing them in this way- failing to build their self-esteem, to give them confidence in who they are and where they come from, to reassure them that their blood line is such that they were not destined to be followers but to lead. Let’s invite our children to the dinner table and share with them our history. Give them freshly squeezed orange juice instead of a beer and let them partake in the meals and discussions about Africa with us and our mates, spouses and business associates. If we do, who knows what the continent will look like when they grow up, when it’s their turn to lead? I am willing to bet anything that the continent’s future will be a lot brighter. Let’s not leave the responsibility of storytelling to SpongeBob.

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A Clash of Cultures: Africans in America

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Four stages of integration occur when two different cultures are made to co-exist.

The first stage is culture contact, when the two cultures are first introduced to each other, and they begin to become aware of each other’s differences.  The second stage is culture conflict, as the two cultures clash when they discover areas of incompatibility and mutual incoherence.  The following stage is culture conquest, as one culture establishes its superiority and sometimes forces the more vulnerable culture to surrender.  Finally, there is the cultural confusion stage, where members of the subordinate or more vulnerable culture have to choose between cultural surrender, cultural alienation or cultural revival and the resurrection of original authenticity (Mazrui, 1986).

There is also a difference between ready-to-sign, quasi-completed, and co-created cultural contracts, and black Africans in America have mostly been presented with a ready-to-sign contract by mainstream American society, that deprives them of the opportunity to negotiate their cultural worldview (which informs how one functions in society in relation to others), in a world where whiteness functions as the standard of normality and privilege (Jackson & Crawley, 2003).

 

 

 

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Impact of Unbalanced News Coverage of Africa on Africans in the US (Intro)

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A few years ago, as a student at NYU, I wrote a paper on the impact of the negative coverage of Africa in the US news media on Africans living in the US. Some things have changed since then, but much remains the same. The next few blog posts are excerpts of that paper. My hope is that we can put the conversation back on the table at this important time in Africa’s transformation and America’s re-examination of its own race issues, so that we can, as a collective (Africans and non-Africans) continue to influence the global narrative around Africa, which has political and economic implications.

“The argument may be made that the U.S. news media is generally obsessed with sensationalism and that, on average, the institution likes to focus on tragedies in all parts of the world more than victories. This is a valid point that, in the confines of this paper, can only be understood without taking into account the issue of racism in the U.S. news media’s portrayal of Africa and Africans, which is an issue that cannot be excused and that is not inherent in the coverage of other global matters.

Racism is central to the depiction of Africa and Africans in the U.S. news media and its ramifications cannot be brushed aside, because they are felt by African immigrants (and indeed, by all people of African descent) in the U.S. Although free thinking and free speech are noble ideals, they should be closely examined and criticized when they are based on racist values that are used to reinforce the disenfranchisement of a people.

This paper does not aim to discourage the U.S. news media from showing any negative developments in Africa (which exist in abundance and must be shown for the benefit of all). Rather, it should become clear that there is another side to the story that is not being shown, including Africans’ own views and opinions about their situations (which are virtually non-existent in the U.S. news media), the positive events and issues that Africans are proud of (such as the many progressive movements for political, economic, social, and ecological change), the causes of Africa’s plight (a deeper analysis of the issues), and the Western (specifically American) influence and involvement in African matters and policy.

With these missing factors in mind, the discussion must explore how the U.S. news media’s mainly negative coverage of Africans and their continent puts them at a disadvantage socially by ideologically conditioning them to endure discrimination and alienation in the U.S.”

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Jogging, sun salutations and meditation at sunrise in Senghor’s country- Dakar

2015-08-27 08.30.34 2015-08-27 08.16.23[1] Dakar kids Dakar pigeon Dakar centre Dakar hotel dakar pulman 2015-08-27 08.22.05[1]Dakar rond point

Posted in Africa, Dakar, Meditation, Morning, Senegal, Sports, Sunshine, Travel, West Africa, work, Yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

African map

Throughout my travels in Africa, I’ve seen some great places and some that left much to be desired. One place in particular in central Africa (which shall remain unnamed), struck a chord like no other. As a filmmaker all those years ago, it was a content paradise. The colours, stories of triumph and tribulation, and the dynamic energy of the place- a vibrant collection of ideas and possibilities. Awe-inspiring pictures were guaranteed wherever the camera lens pointed. But once the camera was put away, it was a completely different story. The city smelled of sweat and sewage-sanitation was at an all-time low if not non-existent. The difference between the rich and the poor was striking. The latter far outnumbered the well-off classes. The streets were full of garbage and swamped by street children as young as two years old. The potholes were as big as mansions in most of the city’s major roads. Traffic could bring one to tears. It was a depressing scene. In addition to the low general morale that such an environment can foster, what was most noticeable was the complete lack of accountability for the country’s deplorable state by the country’s leaders and- this really unnerved me- by the general population, in particular the youth. What gives me hope years later is the fact that we’re starting to wake up to the reality that we can only really count on ourselves, the people. If we don’t take action, nobody else will.

Democracy can be a beautiful thing. The majority elects a government that is empowered to solve problems on behalf of the electorate. In most parts of the world and with the right checks and balances in place, democracy works. But in some parts of Africa, democracy is sometimes used as an excuse for people not to apply themselves to finding solutions to the challenges in their environment. In the central African city of which I speak, this was certainly the case. People would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast if they could find some, and make their way to work, either by public transport (saying a prayer to arrive alive before boarding a public taxi would be considered a great idea given the state of the vehicles and the conditions of the roads) or by car, passing heaps of rubbish on their way, every day. And whenever they would get a chance, the complaining would begin and never stop. “When is the government going to do something about this city? You know, the reason we are where we are is because of colonialisation, that’s when it all started. And then the Americans, the World Bank, and the IMF came and messed everything up even more. And those people in our neighbouring country just have it in for us- when are we ever going to have a chance to rebuild our country to its former glory? And the past mayor was useless. Not to speak of the current governor. What are they doing to make sure we live in dignity?” It was endless. Every excuse in the book and every person they had ever met was to blame for the unsanitary conditions in which they lived.

The question I always asked was: “why don’t you do anything about it?” I understood that sanitation at a city or country level was a complex challenge and I didn’t want to be simplistic. But it seemed to me that at the very least, one could start in their own backyard and ensure the conditions in which one lived were of a certain standard first. We could all sweep our front yards and the space in front of our houses. A broom, a mop, maybe some detergent and the place would be better off than if nothing was done. After all, we would be the ones to pay the price (diseases and a general sense of ill-being, amongst other things) for living in such terrible conditions. So why not take responsibility for our little corner of the world? And if we did, maybe we would inspire our neighbours to do the same and there would be a ripple effect- a mass movement towards a cleaner, more beautiful city. And just maybe, the authorities would jump on the bandwagon too, if they had any hopes of being re-elected. Just an idea. Anything is better than nothing.

What I learned during my time in Mystery City is that we’re too accustomed to passing on responsibility for our happiness and well-being to people or circumstances outside of ourselves, which may or may not disappoint us. Taking full ownership for our environment, the people we love and ourselves should never be delegated. Yes, we have governments and people whose job is making sure we advance in the right direction as a collective. But ultimately, we have to start by cleaning up our own minds and changing our attitudes before we advance at all. This is not applicable to Africa only, of course. I am thrilled to see the wave of change across the continent- we are embracing new ways of thinking and steadily working towards creating a new story- one of transformation and success in many areas. I hope that this new outlook doesn’t stagnate at the top echelons of our societies (the educated few) but that it seeps into the fabric of our countries. We’ve realised that it’s time to stop looking outside of ourselves for answers and solutions. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. No more pity parties. We’re finding our wings. We’re growing up.

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Awesome Africa. I couldn’t love another continent more.

nairobi-nights_mutua-matheka_b Bridge in Lagos Nigeria Dakar1 Abidjan CI 2_ Flowering trees Jacaranda, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa_ (Photo by John)

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Dealing with our BS- Part 1

BS

“Hey Kim,

I had the most life changing day yesterday and wanted to share. A friend, whom I consider quite enlightened, told me that I have to start challenging my belief systems (BS). One of them is “you have to work hard to make money”. It’s a big one for me. One that affects every area of my life from my relationship to parenting.  Not only am I incredibly stressed as a result, I also use it as an excuse not to be available for my children, my friends and life outside of work.  It serves me to believe this. And even better that society has bought into this BS too. We’re taught from a young age that money doesn’t come easy, that you have to make sacrifices to be rich, that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and that you have to work harder than everyone else to make it.  But what if we changed the story for our children?  What if we taught them that life works with you and not against you? That your faith and belief in yourself and the universe will bring you good fortune, and that yes, you have to work but doing what you love and using your innate talent doesn’t feel like work, that there is enough for everyone, that they already have all they need to make a contribution to the world? I then had dinner with my daughter last night, just the two of us.  She asked me for the first time what I do for a living.  She also said “mom, you are always working!” What I learned was:

  1. The universe is constantly speaking to us
  2. When you are ready to learn, the teacher shows up
  3. I have to change my relationship with money and sign a new contract with life.

Have a great day!”

I recently sent this message to a friend after I had a revelation about belief systems (BS). I have been fascinated with BS ever since and I am now on an interesting journey of self-discovery. In his article “Science, Faith and Belief Systems”, Gerhard Adam wrote that BS are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of “reality” (http://www.science20.com/gerhard_adam/science_faith_and_belief_systems-82211). I want to know- what do I believe about some of life’s most fundamental concepts like love, marriage, parenting, money, friendship, work, etc.? What do I believe being a good parent means? Being a good friend, wife or colleague? What does it all look like to me? And most importantly, why? I have decided to spend the remaining half of this year exploring these concepts and answering these pressing questions.

It’s incredible how we come to believe certain things without even realising it. Our BS permeate and influence every area of our lives. And because we’ve lived with our BS for so long, they become second nature. We don’t question them. If the majority of society happens to buy into the same BS as we do, well, even better. Then we have no reason at all to question them. They are what they are and there’s nothing more to it. Take my “you have to work hard to make money” BS for instance. Don’t most people believe the harder you work, the more money you’ll make? So we jump on the treadmill of life and keep increasing the pace until we crash and burn. The number of stroke victims worldwide can attest to this. But when did we start believing that making money requires hard work?

For me, like for most people, it was in childhood that my relationship with money was defined. My parents always said “money doesn’t grow on trees,” “You have to work hard for everything you want,” “life is not easy”…so many other phrases that made up the fabric of their own lives growing up, and probably the life of their parents before them. At some point, I came to believe in the competitive nature of life. I believed that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” I fully embraced this and, at the detriment of my relationships and happiness sometimes, I lived with the BS I had inherited, and which society reinforced, never questioning it. My relationship with money became one of struggle. Instead of seeing money as a tool that would facilitate life, I saw life as a tool that facilitates the acquisition of money and things. A completely lopsided view of the world. A twist on reality that would influence many choices, generally unhealthy.

Only recently did I allow myself to think slightly differently. I still believe you have to work for money, of course. But I don’t know about working “hard”. I believe you have to find what you love, discover your natural gifts, and figure out how you can use them to serve the world in some way. Demand and supply. I also think that there are many paths to get where you want to go. Be open to the journey and don’t frown upon any opportunity. But most importantly, I believe it’s important to work smart. To have goals and a clear roadmap to achieve them, even if you have to re-route once in a while. There is so much we can achieve in twenty-four hours if we learn to use our time more efficiently.

Money definitely doesn’t grow on trees. But we don’t have to compromise our health, our relationships and our happiness to get it. We can develop processes to streamline our work flow. We can choose what’s important to us and the kind of life we want for ourselves and our families. We are free to structure our day in such a way that we stop working when our children come home from school, and ensure we fit in a few cuddles and bed time stories in the evenings. We can realise that life is not and should never be a struggle from which we only rest when we die. It all starts with facing and dealing with our BS. Everything else follows.

What BS has defined your life so far? Where did it all start?

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A Mother’s Awakening to Her Authentic Self

kumshand

I recently had a brand new baby boy and my heart is full of joy. Like with the birth of my other two children, it is dawning on me once again that with the arrival of a new-born come infinite life lessons. When a new soul arrives into our lives, we tend to be consumed with all that we want to give them-an education, advice, love, a good home, more love and more advice- the best possible chance to succeed (our definition of success is, of course, relative). We are, hopefully, ready to teach them right from wrong, to insist that an education is the way to a brighter future, to warn them against talking to strangers, to instil good manners, compassion and humility in order to ensure that their journey through life will be as smooth as possible. We are consumed by thoughts of their future in this turbulent, exciting new dimension. We are ready to let them be as authentic as possible under our adoring guidance until they can fend for themselves. We also become terribly worried about their financial outlook. We obsess over what it will take for them to get the right job or start a successful business one day- what will they do to make not just a decent living but an abundant one that will sustain them and their loved ones forever? From the second we hold them in our arms when they come out of the womb, their wellbeing becomes our priority. Elizabeth Stone once said: “making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” It can’t be any other way. We are mothers, after all. This is the way it was meant to be.

But what if, I ask myself, I tried to do things differently this time? There is no doubt that I have a lot to teach my new baby. A lifetime of experience (in terms of wisdom of course. Age is nothing but a number, right?). I have war scars. I learned the hard way, making the most of what I was given. But it occurred to me after Kumi’s birth that there are a few things he could teach me as well. His growth is not separate from mine. As we get to know each other better, we are both on a journey of discovery that will enrich us in ways we have only just begun to explore. While giving him a bath this morning, I had a few epiphanies. And here they are- the five things I believe we could learn from these little, powerful beings:

  1. Everything you need is already yours: The months before a baby’s birth are probably some of the most stressful of a parent’s life, despite the joyful anticipation we feel as we await the stork’s arrival. We are restless (at least, I was). So many questions about how we will provide for our new addition, how we will structure our time to balance work and parenthood and how we will pay for college one day. Unless we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, giving our babies the life we have always dreamed of is of the upmost importance and we worry constantly about how we will achieve this. Babies, on the other hand, could not be bothered with such details. Kumi wasn’t born with a mentality of lack. He just knew that all he would need once he arrived would be provided for. He came onto the scene with the conviction that the universe would work with him and not against him, and he believes that whatever he wants, he will get. He knows, just knows, that when he’s hungry, he will be fed. When he’s wet, he will be changed. That he will have a place to lay his head. Whatever he needs is already there. This is called faith. The deep-seated conviction that we are going to be just fine. When our faith in life’s goodness is unshakable, we start to manifest what we need and want. The principle is, ask and you shall receive. So simple. Our children know, beyond any doubt, that life was designed to serve their greater good. That they play on the same team as the angels. And that there is enough to go around for everyone, enough for all of us to be absolutely satisfied. If we learned this lesson alone, I’m convinced that we would be so much happier, as individuals and as a collective.
  2. You will always be loved no matter what: Babies have no self-esteem or self-worth issues. They’re not full of doubt and they don’t care what other people think of them. They have no fear of rejection. I can guarantee (although I’m not a mind reader) that our little ones don’t think: “OK, I’m here now. I wonder what they think of me. They may not like me much. Maybe I’m too tall, too skinny and too dark. Maybe my nose is too big, my feet are too small and my hair is too thin. Oh gosh, I hope I can make them love me.” Their attitude seems to be: “I have arrived and I am a blessing to this family. They wanted me and they are happy that I’m here. I don’t need to prove to them that they made the right decision. They love me no matter what. Not because I have a particular set of skills or because I look a certain way. They love me because…they just do. I will not try to be anything or anyone other than what and who I am. And I am enough, just the way I am.” And that’s all she wrote. Can you imagine what would happen if we thought this way, even for a day? If we could let go of the anxiety, negativity, the self-hatred and the burden of always having to prove our worth to ourselves and to others? If we stopped beating ourselves up because we have a hair out of place in certain circles? If we could see ourselves without our flaws, and we fully embraced our qualities? If we decided that from this moment on we believe we are God’s gift to humanity (which we are!)? Not in a creepy the-world-revolves-around-me kind of way but with the sort of self-love that recognises that our lives have a purpose. What would happen if we could bring ourselves to believe that we are loved no matter what? It would be a beautiful thing, no?
  3. Take it one breath at a time: In this social media obsessed era, we have the illusion of living in the moment. I know what John in England is having for breakfast as we speak. I can tell you what Tania in the DRC is buying at the market. And Mandla in Soweto has just tweeted about the new exercise bike he bought today. But in reality, we are so far removed from the “now”. Our minds work at a million miles per hour, trying to keep up with everyone else’s lives and our own. In this modern, bill-infested village we live in, we hardly have the time to catch our breath. As parents, we’re racing even harder against the clock. We need that new, bigger home to accommodate our expanding family. We have to have the latest family car. We need to save more, do more, be more for our kids to have a better future. We live in the future. And we lose touch with what’s happening right now, today. My son has taught me that planning is good but it’s not everything. I need to be still. I can’t spend my life chasing the proverbial clock. Yes, forecasting the future is necessary and recommended- the poster boards scattered in every corner of my house can attest to the fact that I am the self-proclaimed planning queen. But so is living in the present. Giving Kumi his bath while an endless list of to-do’s runs through my head is only going to leave us both frustrated. Breastfeeding while I’m thinking about the next feed, when he’ll be ready for solids, and what brand of formula I should transition him to takes away from what is supposed to be a treasured experience for both of us. He’s certainly not worried about those things. He’s enjoying the sweetness of his milk and the warmth of my arms. What happens after that? He will find out when he gets to it! Surely we can all take a cue from that? Surely it’s never that serious.
  4. Be authentic: When children are born, their character (nature) is intact, untainted by the environment and the people who receive them (nurture). I always wonder, as we raise our children, as we teach them what they should and shouldn’t do, who they should and shouldn’t be, how much of their authentic nature remains untouched. As Kumi’s father and I navigate the maze of parenthood and impart life’s protocol manual onto our son, how much of the real “him” will still be there? I hope that we will teach him to stay playful, to laugh as much as possible, to trust himself, never to lose faith in humanity and to cry when he feels the need to do so. I hope a little bit of the child in him will survive. And I hope he can teach us how to find the child in ourselves once again.
  5. Never give up: I always marvel at the efforts of a growing child as they discover the world and reach for their independence. The determination to sit, crawl and eventually walk is commendable and awe-inspiring. No matter how many times they fall, they don’t give up. They get up and try again, every time. They intrinsically know that they don’t have a choice. To succeed, they must keep stretching themselves. They have to keep it moving. Why, then, do we allow ourselves, as adults, to give up? Practice makes perfect and falling is part of the journey. There may even be a few accidents along the way, a few bumps here and there. But when we believe that what we want is really worth having, giving up should never be an option. Every little step counts and no effort goes unrewarded. We always get something out- a lesson, memories. The experience is always worth it, even when we can’t see it right away. So by all means, keep trying! Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: ““If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

Motherhood is surprising (even the third time around), challenging, scary and beautiful. There is never a dull moment. The rewards are invaluable. Even more so if we take a step back from our insanely busy daily routines to look into our little ones’ eyes and be still for a moment. There is an ocean of wisdom in those little heads and hearts. And if we can quieten down for a bit, we will grow stronger, better and more in tune with the voice of the universe, which is forever whispering: “Go for it. You can do it. You already have all it takes.

Never make any assumptions but pray for the best outcome: My baby Kumi and my other children have taught me one of the most important lessons in motherhood. Never make any assumptions about your children. When a child is born, it is never clear what challenges or obstacles you and them will encounter in the journey of life. My son, George, has been my brightest “mirror”. He has put into question everything I thought to be true about being a mom and what to expect along the way. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to tear my hair out from anxiety. Children are born with their own path already mapped out. And this path may be full of health challenges, misbehaviour, mood swings, and other attitudinal or physical “obstacles”. They key is not to see them as obstacles and the only way to do that is to remember that nothing was promised at the moment of conception. We get the kids that we get, and all of our assumptions about how we thought they would turn out go out the window. All we can do is to take them for who they are, love them deeply, do our best to teach them what they need to know, and pray daily that the path they choose will bring them  closer to fulfilling their full potential.

Someone once told me, after a bitter separation from the mother of their two children, “I feel like three quarters of me was taken away from me and I didn’t have anything to say about it.” My response was simple. Nothing can be taken away from you that never belonged to you in the first place. People do not belong to us. Not our wives, husbands, children, friends- no one. Everyone is here on their own unique life journey, to fulfil their unique purpose. And sometimes, getting there may entail “leaving” us. Our children, particularly, do not belong to us. Believing otherwise will always lead to disappointment. There is nothing wrong with feeling attached to our children and in fact, this is a natural feeling which ensures that we are able to provide, protect and guide them. But ultimately, their destiny is their own. Having said that, it is important to remember that we are all from the same source. We are the multiple fingers on one hand. We come and we go back to the same source of life. So even though we don’t belong to each other, we are in fact, one. What affects the next person affects us as a rule. That is the way life works. In this sense, we can never really “lose” anyone. We are separated at given moments in time for us to individually explore our destiny and God-given purpose. “Separation” is an illusion and a temporary one at that. So why get hung up on it? Easier said than done but certainly keeps things in perspective when we realise that not only can we not lose anybody, but that they never belonged to us in the first place.

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