Archive for March, 2012

Herstory: Trayvon Martin, Racism, Reverse Racism, Franz Fanon, MLK & my Dad

March 30, 2012

Asked by my sister Spectra Speaks about reverse racism I decide to spend my sick day in bed thinking a bit deeper about race.

My father told me white people were evil. I found that hard to understand. He married a white woman didn’t he? He told me how they came to Africa and took away the peoples land Enslaved the black man. Made sovereign nation states their colonies.

He never spoke like a man colonized. He simply spoke like a man dominated and occupied by a stronger foe. There was always a sense of ‘we’re taking our country back’. Taking our rights as people back. Taking our humanity back.

I was traumatised seeing pictures of black people tossed off slave ships at 9. The chain gangs of slaves walking through the jungle to waiting ships. The whipping. The cruelty. The dehumanization. I cried even though I didn’t have the language for what I felt. Or saw.

I got more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance walking the myriad pathways of my fathers little village in the jungles of west Africa. Replaying history. Imaging the people I lived with running from slave raiders. In chains.

My great grand father escaped being sold into slavery. Its all part of the epic family saga. King Jaja of Opobo was a former slave sold from Amaigbo next village. He became head of a mighty household. Then the White Man deposed him and sent him into exile. His kingdom was extinguished. His wealth looted.

Young men in antiquity trained in jungle guerilla warfare. They had sign languages and codes. As part of their initiation they camped out alone in the jungle for days. To make them fearless. And self sufficient. And strong. They could ambush an enemy or escape one. Unseen. My father told me a story of continuous resistance.

My father was a racist. He abhorred white people as a group but had no problem engaging with individuals and could be quite charming when it suited him. He respected a few for their intellect. His engagement was combative and predatory. He believed himself the White Man’s superior.

White people were to be used and exploited. I can well imagine him in his prime gleefully slaughtering white people, friends and neighbours alike in a racial war. He was that kind of man. Ferocious. Candid. Militant. I can imagine what he would say about the Trayvon Martin’s killing.

My father didn’t treat the White Man with reverence. He confronted him. Challenged him. Probed him. My father was a proud black man perpetually alert to white oppression. White oppression included any religion that wasn’t African. My father believed in the superiority of what Zik called the ‘pristine knowledge’ of our forebears. After all they successfully occupied the land 6000 years before the White Man came.

When I was 4 we lived in Denmark. My father had Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches on those old vinyl discs. He played them over and over and over again till I could recite them from memory. I couldn’t speak English yet but I could recite ‘I Have A Dream’. In English.

My father was fiery more like Malcolm X. Fidel Castro. Che Gueverra. Mondale in Mozambique. Machel in Angola. Ojukwu in Nigeria. He wanted revolution. He believed it was inevitable. He studied Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung obsessively. When his kins men refused to capitulate to his superior knowledge he dismissed them as illiterate ‘natives’.

It didn’t take me long to find out that the local slave raiders and traders were black. I visited Arochukwu the home of the diety Chukwu father of Eziokwu, diety in my fathers village. I went to the home of Obidimma now a museum or shrine. I couldn’t tell. Inside I found the pots and pans that he traded for human beings.

Before Eziokwu came to dwell with my fathers ancestors they had no osu or ritual slaves in their community. The village besieged by raids went to Chukwu of Arochukwu for protection. The price was a steady supply of flesh for the merchant ships on the coast. The villagers dedicated whole families to the deity and called them osu.

I had a friend once. I liked him a lot. We used to to sit and talk and laugh and have a mighty good time. My father said I couldn’t see him anymore because he was osu.

‘But papa. That’s wrong. Its the same kind of discrimination that black people faced during slavery. All discrimination is wrong.’

‘No my daughter. Some things the White Man does not have an answer to. Our native ways are more than the White Man can understand.’

I didn’t understand either. Were some people more equal than others? Or were all people equal? My Aunt T, my fathers brothers wife, answered the question for me when I was 10.

‘Some people were born to eat at the table and some people were born to eat on the floor.’

She invited me to eat at the table. I was expected to feel grateful and privileged. I felt neither grateful nor privileged. I was scandalized. After that I always sat at the table first without an invitation. In case someone should deny me my ‘right’.

My notion of ‘rights’ caused much consternation in my fathers village and with his family. There is no notion of ‘human rights’ in Igbo ideology. You have no rights until you earn them. Through age and achievement. Children have no rights. You’re told to be grateful your mother didn’t drop you on your head when you were born. Grateful you’re being fed and sheltered.

I told my cousin (from a different ‘poor’ uncle and in the worse type of domestic servitude I had seen outside a book)who was made to sit on the floor to sit at the table. She declined. It didn’t occur to me to sit on the floor with her in solidarity either. People sit at table to eat. No, wait a minute. Not everyone sits at a table to eat.

So we discriminate against people that don’t sit at a table to eat? Aunt T explains they’re natives. Still backward. They’re also poor. ‘Ogbenye’. Poor person. It sounds like a curse. Forsaken by the gods and their personal chi. Rejects. Their aspirations and efforts at a better life ignored. Disdained by the higher powers that decide fame and fortune. Or worse still just too lazy to make it.

Igbo-Nigerians believe only the lazy die poor. Like Onuko in Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart.’ The Lazy Dreamer. Fortune and all the good things that come with it are for the bold, the brave, the strong, the audacious. The hard working. They’re not the only ones of course.

White cops kill a black boy in America for being black. Black cops kill a black boy in Nigeria for being black. When was the last time you heard of a black cop shooting a white boy in Africa? Exactly. For all the trouble they usually get up to in Africa? They have money to pay off the cops. Race or money? Or both?

I have to tell my sons shit like ‘if you get to a check point don’t argue with the cops just give them what they want’ after I spent a life time ‘fighting’ impudent cops at check points. Because they will shoot a young black man. I was just a troublesome young ‘white woman’.

I often wonder. The tin on the Jos plateau was strip mined. The ecology destroyed. Cursed be the rapacious evil White Man. The Niger Delta is being decimated. Led by the rapacious evil Black Man (sorry Woman). Should I leave my fight here to go fight there?

When told by religious gurus that I have to fight unseen forces and principalities I reply that I am too busy fighting the evil I meet each day in human and material form to worry about the demons I don’t see yet. They have to wait their turn.

There is no tap root of evil that if we can just dig it up everything will be okay. Slay Lucifer! Evil isn’t a single personification. Its a choice. An action. A dynamic event that has consequences.. We choose to be evil or to be good moment by moment everyday.

Racism isn’t only white people hating on black people. Its about black people hating on black people too. And white people hating white people. And yellow people and purple people. Its about rich people hating on poor people. It just people hating people and looking for company to do so.

Dr. King said we have to be motivated by love even while we resist racist hate, injustice and oppression. I get that. I get that now. We must root our work in love, not anger.

Next time I eat with my cousin I’ll sit on the floor with her. Does it even matter whether we sit eating at a table or on the floor? Just so long as we’re together. And that kid is still my friend.

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Herstory: Health Care, Self Care, Prayer, Miracles, Animists & Atheists

March 28, 2012

I have been sick the past few days. I’m in bed and can therefore afford to indulge in the luxury of a long rambling post. I hope you can indulge in the luxury of reading a rather long rambling post. Sickness makes me feel vulnerable on so many levels.

If you have a job you and your family have health care. If you don’t have a job you have to buy you own. The cheapest reliable individual health insurance plan is NGN100,000. Per annum. Is there any really good coverage for NGN50,000?
I wonder what happens if you have a pre-existing condition?

Anyway good health care is bloody expensive in Nigeria and you can’t get it in a public hospital. I can’t remember the last time I was at a public hospital. For treatment that is. I was at the National Hospital the day the UN Building in Abuja was bombed with Lola and Elnathan. .

In my fathers village they say only the dying go to the big hospitals. The pall of death was everywhere that day. Emergency vehicles rushing in and out. Distressed relatives looking for kith and kin. I could imagine dying of self pity in such a miserable unkempt depressing place. All the staff were surly too.

The UN evacuated ALL their injured staff to SA within a couple days. An indictment on health care facilities here. Can’t blame them of course. They were probably treated by Nigerian doctors in SA the best of who have all left the country.

One of my biggest regrets was not continuing the health plan I had with Ashoka. They let me choose my plan. When I joined Oxfam they imposed their plan and provider. I lost 3 years of insurance history. Now I got no coverage again. I wonder can I pick up my old plan?

And I’m one of the ‘privileged’ top 10% percentile! My old plan included air ambulance evacuation. Just in case I’m in a car accident. My friends dad was put in a mortuary after a road accident. He woke up 2 days later. He was a retired Ambassador. Privilege doesn’t always protect.

An Ashoka fellow is paraplegic because it took 3 days for the National Hospital to figure out she had a spinal cord injury. She’s a nurse. She was eventually flown to Ghana. National Hospital are immune from prosecution or something. So don’t call me paranoid.

And stop asking why we pray a lot in Nigeria. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t have a God and a church and a priest or pastor to reassure us that we will make it through the night? The nights in Nigeria are pretty dark and scary. You’re never sure whether that light is the end of the tunnel or an on coming train.

Give me Jesus for my peace of mind! Without him most of us wouldn’t be able to step out of the door in the morning. We don’t pray because we’re good. We pray cause we bad. Really really bad. And we know our selves.

I wonder what that young man over there would say?

‘You mean there is no Jesus?’

‘Nope.’

‘And there is no God?’

‘Nope.’

‘And there is no heaven?’

‘Nope!’

‘And no hell?’

‘That’s right!’

‘You’re sure?’

‘Yep!’

Slap!!!

‘What you do that for?’

‘Because I can.’

‘Well I don’t have to turn the other cheek! Come here!’

You must be a privileged white man to remain an atheist in Nigeria. Not only are we surviving against the most incredible odds. Population is booming! We’re all supposed to be dead already. Everyday past the day you were born is a miracle in Nigeria!

And you know what? We do get a whole lot of miracles too. Its a miracle the maternal mortality isn’t higher than it is. As a kid in my fathers village I regularly met women in their 70s who had 10 children and lost 9 in infancy. We’re down to losing 2 out of 10. In 50 years. That’s progress.

Even if the people don’t actually need religion how else can the elite keep the people from rising up and bitch slapping them across the room for their bad leadership and provocative displays of ill gotten wealth?

In the rural villages the only folks that look well fed and healthy are the priests and the folks that work for the church. I wonder why? They’re always wining and dining with the rich and famous. And bitch slapping the natives! On camera!

I was born in Moscow during the Soviet Era. So I wasn’t baptized. In the US Lilia took me to Orthodox mass sometimes. I like Russian Orthodox churches. The iconic art.. The priests medieval garb. The candles. The incense. The hushed tones. Its a time warp. A cocoon. A haven. I had no idea what they said but I felt it deeply.

In my fathers village in the 70s the Catholic Church reigned supreme before the rise of the evangelical churches. The parish priest came to lunch every Sunday after talking hours and hours during sermon to debate its finer points with my father and uncle. I listened.

My father got Nile River fever when I was 12. He relied on traditional health care. I’m not sure it helped but he had more confidence in it than in western medicine. Unlike me. I’m at the hospital demanding an MRI and CAT scan if I have a headache. It could be a tumour. Why do you think our life expectancy is so low?

I read the Bible when I was 8, I thought it had cool stories and I started a search for a personal God. The Pope kept getting in the way though. Always had something ill informed to say about family planning, condoms, marriage, divorce and premarital sex. The Bible explained all about hypocrites.

My father died at the age of 72 without health insurance of complications caused by diabetes after serving his state and his beloved ‘people’ for over 25 years. The Catholic priest said he wouldn’t officiate his burial because he hadn’t paid church dues in over 25 years.

Mind you its not only the arbitrary violence of nature to our health and wealth we pray against. This is Africa. Nigeria. Every body is into some dark voodoo shit and you got to protect yourself from the forces and principalities of the Dark Lord too. The squeamish go to church instead of a shrine.

If only we taxed the church we could list prayer warriors as our next biggest export earner after oil. The western conservatives seem to like our particular brand of fire and brimstone. I wonder why? It reminds me of the Inquisition.

Many attempts were made to exorcise me of the many witches and demons I was told afflicted me by bogus shamans and prophets. There was the demon of the river, the demon of the forest, the demon of single women, and the demon of talking back at your elders, the demon of stubbornness.

At 14 I watched The Exorcist. I thought I might end up like that poor little girl. I was terrified of the Catholic church, God, Beelzebub and Lucifer for a long time after that. I ran away screaming when ever the prayer warriors came near me. They said it confirmed I was possessed. (And I think some of them still think I’m possessed)

My father did try to protect me from the worst of the natives ignorance. But when someone told me when I was expecting my last child that if its a girl child they would circumcise her without my knowledge I prayed and prayed for another son. I got another son.

I’ve been to the hospital. Resting at home now. Feeling better already. I’m not going to die just yet. Saved once again by modern medicine. Or was it? My son Eddy took away my laptop to help me rest. He’s into yoga, meditation and mind over matter. When he tried to pry away my Black Berry I growled ferociously and he let it be.

I’m getting better at self care. It takes on a whole new relevance in Naija. You don’t want to rely on the health care system. Even the best and most expensive is unreliable. Why else would a Vice President travel abroad for a sprained ankle. Or was it his knee? Pity it wasn’t his neck.

I’ve got all these little self care rituals going on. Like twitter free Sunday, TV free Monday, morning yoga, evening walks, chillaxing days, no work days, long and short travel getaways. Even God was in need of rest on the seventh day who am I not to take a day off? I’m a type A personality. Self care is tough. And vital.

So were you wondering? Did I find a personal relationship with God? That is so personal! I rather be judged by what I do than whether I believe in a God or not and what name I might be calling her. Or him.

I dare you to be sick in the presense of a playful, joyful puppy! Its a miracle! I am healed!

I dare you to be sick in the presense of a playful, joyful puppy! Its a miracle! I am healed!

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Adopted or Abducted? Dan Rather Reports on Treatment of Unwed Mothers in Dark Ages of 20th C

March 27, 2012

What can I say? I can’t help draw analogy’s between how unwed mothers were treated in the West in the 50s and 60s and how we treat unwed mothers in Nigeria today.

In the past year alone there have been more than 6 reports of baby factories in Nigeria. Young women are held in coercive conditions till they deliver and forced to hand over their babies for unregulated ‘adoption’.

No one is asking them how they feel having their babies taken from them with no informed choice on their part. Its become part of the punishment for getting pregnant before marriage. I could have been reading a story out of today’s Nigeria.

Punishment for being a ‘slut’. My brethren would argue the mother stands a better chance of survival without the baby. Probably true in Nigeria where there are no single parent benefits and no population crisis.

If you have a baby you are on your own in Naija. You alone are responsible for it. A long cry from the village raising children. Its urban living some will say. Others will call it western influence.

Because the responsibility falls on families they are left unmonitored to decide the best course of action for their daughters. Many of the girls in these baby factories were sent their by well intentioned if poor and ignorant parents.

I’ve met several ‘social mothers’ as the Catholic Church likes to call them from middle class homes too. They’re hidden away till after the birth to protect the family honour. The condition they stay in is irrelevant. They brought shame. They deserve to be punished. Right?

Wrong. They are children that need our protection, understanding and guidance. We can’t make it right increasing their trauma or exposing their babies to an uncertain future.

http://m.yahoo.com/w/news_america/forced-adoptions-for-unwed-mothers-around-the-globe.html?orig_host_hdr=news.yahoo.com&.intl=us&.lang=en-us

Herstory Reflections : Introduction to Politics in the Jungle 101

March 27, 2012

1979. Ihioma. A small village in the jungles of south east Nigeria. Their only claim to fame is the girls secondary school. Its the only feature of the local economy. Other than farming. Of course. The villagers supply all the goods and services to the school.

There is excitement in the air. Elections are holding soon. The first since the coup and the ensuing civil war. Civilians are coming back to power. The military is bad? First time I hear it. I thought they were part of the revolution.

The prefects and teachers make us stand in line. I’ve already concluded that the entire school leadership are unreasonable. Students are literally bullied into unquestioning conformity on principle. That’s how the system runs.

When I get to the table I tell the man registering voters in long hand

‘I’m 13’ well expecting him to turn me away.

‘It doesn’t matter’ he says.

The teachers and the prefects stare me down.
Do I walk away? Refuse to cooperate? Launch into another lecture on democracy and governance? Wait to become head prefect in 2 years time?

This is all too much for the only white kid in an all black high school in the middle of the fucking African jungle. This isn’t my battle. I give them my name and details, collect the voters card and walk away.

‘Fucking natives’ I think to myself. ‘They can’t do anything right can they?’

There is nothing for them to gain from not manipulating the elections. That’s what you do. Manipulate elections. Even the Americans do it they insist and reassure me.

Like the Americans did so glaringly prove in 2000 in the race between GWBush and AlGore. I was mortified. Disappointed. Betrayed even. How could you let us down this way? Did you scramble for a new role model too?

But the natives aren’t stupid. They’re really smart. They’re really really smart. I learn a lot when I start listening to them. Instead of judging them. Or pretending to act for them in paternalistic leadership.

My confidence in the electoral systems and institutions may be a bit more difficult to restore but I’m glad to know that some really great people are all over it too. (:Hi Gbenga! Well done o!)

It is our battle.

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Herstory Reflections: Letter to My Mother

March 26, 2012

Beloved Mother. Goddess. Before you I kneel. Before you I prostate. I worship the blessed vessel that concealed the mystery of my creation. Great Mother. Before you I am humble.

Forgive your daughter for not writing you these past many years. 25 years. I could not face the reality of your demise. The reality of my loss. How could you leave me? I could not bear more than a shallow conventional relationship.

All these years. I could not feel your love. I longed to remember your voice, your touch, the smell of your hair. Your arms around me. Yet you watched over me. My Guardian Angel Great Goddess. Your love was everywhere around me. Light in my darkness.

Forgive my self absorption Mother. It took me a while to see your pain beyond my own, to see my anguish reflecting your own. Is it too late for us to have a relationship? Do I have to speak Russian?

There is so much to tell you. Don’t be sad anymore Mother. I’m not sad anymore. I’ve had a really great life. I was protected from the malicious spiteful racism that you and father endured for your love.

Instead I was extremely privileged to grow up with a proud and noble old family in rural Africa. They’re local royalty usurped by white racist colonialists. It was a safe place to grow up. In the US they had put me in a black foster home in down town DC for awhile.

I’ve been shielded from the sort of racism that killed a young black man in America recently. His name is Trayon Martins. He was shot 9 yards from his house. I’ve been shielded from the sort of fear you faced each time my brother stepped out the door in Soviet Era Moscow.

That is till recently. Now I face fear each time my sons go to church or out on Friday night. You feared racist white people. I fear racist black people. They wouldn’t call themselves racist but as mothers its all the same to us isn’t it? Fear for the lives of our children.

I’ve travelled a lot Mother. I went to South Africa some years ago. I went to the Apartheid Museum. They had a photo display of the Soweto Riots in the 70s. Black and white pictures of cops and dogs attacking children. What if those had been mine sons? How did the mothers of South Africa cope with the daily fear?

Indeed I have been well protected from white racism. Yet I fear the cops here in Nigeria might shoot one of my sons because he doesn’t give them NGN50. It seems to be only a racist outrage when white people do it to black people or people of color. Don’t we all have a little bit of color?

I went to America during the current Presidents campaign. He’s black. His father was an African much like my father. My boss asked me what I thought of a black man running for their Presidency. I thought – black men run for President everyday where I come from. So what?

Yet everyday I spent in America I noticed the absence of black people in decision making. As glaring as the absence of women in decision making here. They were labourers and menial workers. A few in middle management.

I went to Brazil. The same thing. Black men were in positions I was used to seeing black women in. So Barack Obama (that’s the US President’s name) is a Big Deal. Just like a woman President still is anywhere in the world.

None of this should make you sad though. I’m a ‘white woman’. That gives me privilege in Nigeria. In my fathers village they always treat me like a goddess. A bit tedious when going to the market but I know its love.

Even in the anonymity of urban living I am treated well. I have travelled Africa extensively, I was protected by your magic. The magic of your DNA. The magic of your love.

When I grow up I wish to be like you Goddess Mother. Strong. Brave. Nurturing. Caring. Wise. Cosmopolitan. I am in awe of your resilience, your courage, your open minded all embracing love.

There is so much I want to tell you. About life. And love. And death. I will write. Again. And again. And again. And often. I know you write back. It is your voice I hear. In the morning bird song. In the sound of trees growing. In the yelp of a puppy. I am listening Beloved Mother.

I send love, hugs and kisses.

J’ai t’adore. A bien tout Maman.

Beloved Mother

Beloved Mother

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Writing Women’s History Month; Writing Herstory Reflections. The Personal is Very Political

March 25, 2012

The post about my experience with sexual assault really took the stuffing out of me. As I guess it well should really. I don’t appreciate the full impact on me. I feel distant from my emotions right now. I’m privileging my analytical/masculine self again.

A dear friend reminded me the other day the difference between the masculine and the feminine. She described herself as intuitive. I remember how feminism empowered me to trust in my feminine self and my intuition.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ in ‘Women That Run With Wolves’ wrote how social restrictions and hypocrisy silence a woman’s soul song. She shows women how to return to their ‘wild woman’ self; intuitive, protective and fierce. Like a wolf. I think I’ll add her to my reading list for the year.

I learnt from my study of feminism we can organize a different type of system that doesn’t privilege logic, analysis, profits and a paternalistic hierarchy. There are a growing number of models. Most of them social enterprises.

In the male dominated professional and business world ‘intuition’ is subject to analysis. There must be evidence even while there is a growing recognition that the intuitive, the subconscious, and the subliminal drive innovation.

Freemind Leadership Training by Tom Fortes Mayer’ is one of a few really innovative leaderahip programs that actually help you tap into the subconscious and intuitive thoughts. He’s shared some great tools. Time to reacquaint myself with them too.

(This staying in touch with your emotions is indeed a process and hard work!)

I’m having a a very productive time with this mini memoir/herstory I been writing. There is just 5 more days to the end of Women’s History Month. I’ll going to post everyday to conclude this exercise.

I’ve written about my family, my relationships and my work and how these have contributed to my feminism and to my politics. The remaining posts will reflect on some of the key socio-political issues that have .shaped my feminism and my values. Like race. Religion. And politics.

I read Catherine the Great’s Memoir in January. She wrote 3 different versions when she was in 20s. 40s and 60s. Same events. Three different perspectives. Some folks questioned the credibility of her memoir as a result.

Muhammed Ali said that if your point of view is the same at 50 as it was at 20 you’ve wasted 30 years of your life. I agree. Twenty eight year old Catherine and sixty something year old Catherine can’t be the same.

I think words are like snapshots. They really only tell a story in time and space. Capture a moment. We are all Becoming. Something. Other than what we are. I’m curious to see how I’ll view the same events in a few years time.

I’m also going to vary the narrative styles, voice and point of view of my posts for the next few days. Writing exercise. So expect something new. Your comments on what you think are welcome. As always.

The process of writing has been very personal and self reflective. I’ve used the exercises to focus on myself in a therapeutic way. I’m re-discovering my soul song. Thank you for reading so far. I hope its been mildly entertaining and informative for you.

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A Herstory Reflection: Life Teaches You Risk Management or Risk Aversion. Choose One for Success

March 22, 2012

I’m five. We been in the US a couple months. Finally moved into our own apartment. I start kindergarten. My parents are students at Penn State, State College. I understand English. We speak only Russian at home.

First day back from kindergarten. Home alone. Parents won’t be back for three hours. I go out. Explore.
There is a swimming pool nearby. I get my swimming suit. Jump into the deep end. I can’t swim.

I don’t drown. I don’t require rescue. No one notices me flailing around and I eventually stop gulping water. Stay afloat. Dive. How long will I be able to hold my breath at the bottom? I check my not water proof Mickey Mouse watch.

Sums up my approach to life and business. Jump into the deep end of the pool or the swift part of the river two feet first if it ‘feels’ right. Ignore fear. Conquer terror. Flail around, get a hang of it. Test capacity. Master situation. Sinking is not an option. Veni. Vidi. Vici!

I’m 26. Its Sunday. Lagos. Family day at the beach. I’m watching my boys splash around in the surf a little bit ahead of me. I see the tide sweeping my first son away. He’s six. He’s gulping water. I know I can’t reach him in time. I freeze. An older kid in front of him stops him. Brings him to me.

We all start swimming lessons the next day. Life is like an ocean. E strong pass you. Its stronger than you. E big pass you. Its bigger than you. And swimming lessons help avert pain, disaster and tragedy.

I’m still a risk taker but I’ve gotten damn good at risk management. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is no shortage of risk in Nigeria. Makes a woman feel quite vulnerable sometimes but here we are.

Veni. Vidi. Vici!

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International Development and Sexual Harassment of Local Female Hires in Africa

March 20, 2012

October 2009.  I’m the new country director for Oxfam GB in Nigeria.

August 2010. I’ve been with Oxfam GB 10 months. I finally go to Oxford for Orientation. Its my first time in the UK.  Almost 60 CD’s from all over the world are in Oxford. There is a 3 day CD convention after the week of orientation.

I’m in the hotel lounge with the other CD’s from English West Africa talking shop. Our line manager joins us. He just arrived. We’re talking shop, programs and development. He refers to a document he wants me to see several times. It’s in his room he says. ‘I’ll pick it up on my way up to my room.’

It occurs to me going to his room may be a bad idea for all those reasons your momma ever told you. I dismiss the thought. We’re professionals. He’s my boss. He has never shown any inappropriate interest in me. Or vice versa. If I were a man I would go without hesitation. I go.

In his room he brings out the document, it’s a concept map. I don’t sit down; we discuss it briefly. I don’t want to stay long. A woman’s ability is always in doubt.  I don’t want my work to be devalued by rumors I may have been closer to the boss than appropriate. If I were a man I would stay. I go.

I walk towards the door. Turn to say good night. He grabs me. Pushes his tongue in my mouth. Pulls me back into the room, pushes me onto the bed. Grabs and fiddles with my belt buckle with one hand. My heart is pounding. My head is reeling. I clasp my teeth shut. Try to push him away. ‘No, no, no!’ Not strong enough but the space I create between us gives room for his hands to unbuckle my belt.

So I pull him closer. Relax. Play dead for a minute. For a split second it occurs to me that giving in would be easier. Let him have his way. Keep my job. Keep good working relationships. He’s lying on top of me. His smell fills my nostrils. This is not what I want. I rally all my strength and push him off.

‘How are we supposed to work together after this? I met your wife! What have you done? Why?” I rush out of the room. Downstairs. Sit in the cold outside. Smoke a cigarette. Try to compose myself. My thoughts race frantically. Not again. Not now. I thought I had outgrown this. I worry about my job. Not myself. Not yet.

I’m a Nigerian. Lived and worked in Nigeria all my adult life. It’s hard enough to report and prove a rape. An attempted rape? I don’t even think about it. My job is at risk. How do I protect my job? If I report how will I work with the West Africa team? Almost 90% of senior staff are male. I’m the only female CD in the English speaking countries. Only one female CD in the French speaking countries. Only 2 women on the regional management team.

Eventually I calm down and go to sleep. I see him at breakfast the next day. I shudder, I gag, I can’t eat. I note my reaction with some surprise and curiosity. I avoid him for the rest of the day. For the rest of the trip. I hear Oxfam GB has a head shrink for staff. I go see the shrink the next day. He calls in HR. I tell her my story.

‘Do you want to file a formal complaint?’ she asks.

‘I’m worried it will affect my working relationships in West Africa.’

‘Have you spoken to him? Told him how you feel?’

Huh? Lady I can barely look at him without a violent reaction.

‘Did you tell him ‘no’?

Huh? Didn’t I say that already?

‘Does he know his action was not welcome?’

Huh? Are you suggesting I led him on?

‘We handled a complaint recently. Two employees that had an affair that went bad.’

Huh? Are you suggesting this is an affair gone bad?

Is this a preview of a formal hearing?

‘Look. I don’t know what I want to do right now but I want you to know in case he tries to victimize me.’

’You should talk to him. Tell him how you feel.’

But I can’t. Not yet.

In September I finally call him and follow up with an email. He takes my call but ignores my email. I go to regional office in October, try to act normal. I’m still communicating with HR in Oxford, still looking for a way past this. Still worried, still confused, still devastated. I still have flash backs.

On the 23rd  of November he arrives Abuja from Dakar after closing hours, hands me a letter terminating my contract. I have two days to clear out of the office. Transitions plans already in place. Reason given? An online ad to fill the positions of the troublesome program staff. One was sacked the other resigned rather than answer a query. But the ads weren’t authorized by me and I withdrew them.

I lose my appeal. Oxfam GB says he acted within Nigerian law. Says there is no corroboration to my allegations of sexual assault. What of my report to the shrink? To the HR? What of my email to the accused? He admits I came to his room but denies the events, says I hit on him, that he ‘sent me away’. That my email ‘baffled him.’ They believe him not me. What corroboration is there for his version?

I hear stories from other women that worked in international development. Similar stories. From West Africa. From East Africa. From South Africa. Randy expatriate boss. Getting away with things he wouldn’t even try in his home country. The local women always lose their jobs.  One is still in court 5 years later, her savings exhausted.

I eventually I do make a report to the Thames Valley Police. They believe me, record a crime, investigate, don’t find enough evidence for a trial. They consider extraditing him for questioning. He resigns abruptly.  I feel a bit better but how to fix the bigger problem? What are my chances fighting a cash rich behemoth like Oxfam GB in court?

 

Chasing my Dreams.

March 19, 2012

I’m passionate about writing but I dream of building a successful socially responsible enterprise not winning the Caine Prize. It doesn’t matter what it does. It just has to be a successful model of a social enterprise.

I’m 14. I love flipping through the travel mags. Day dream of far away places. I love the luxury hotels. I apply to the London School of Tourism & Hotel Management. I will build the world’s greatest chain of luxury hotels. Father won’t have it. ‘You will stay here. In Nigeria.’

Hotel management isn’t on the JAMB form. I choose Law. The only course available to me with my mix of O Level subjects anyway. All science but no maths. I’m in a hurry. Won’t retake my O level exams. I chose Unijos, my father chooses IMSU.

I’m in a hurry to matriculate, graduate, serve and start MY life. Take charge of me. I’ll build the biggest law firm in Africa employ dozens of lawyers and introduce innovative legal services to help thousands of clients and citizens.

After 5 years in Lagos as a worker I move to Abuja shortly after Abacha takes over and open a law firm. Lagos is chaotic. Crime is worse. New robbery reports and rumours everyday. I’m robbed three times at home. Mugged several times on the street. I feel paranoid. Time to leave.

Abuja seems peaceful and calm. Little crime. Discreet poverty. Street lights work. Water in the plumbing. Regular power supply. When Abacha’s infamous GMC vans drive by or park I feel safe not threatened. Some of his BG’s are friends. We drink together after work. Their vans parked outside.

I’m upset because my proposals are constantly being hijacked. Only a favoured few get jobs from this administration. Other lawyers get fat selling and re-selling over priced properties.

Its 1997. Abuja Agams-Nikova & Associates Ltd started out as a law firm but now designs social innovation projects for public and private sector clients. I’m the architect. I draw the elevation and the floor plan. I let others do structural or electrical but I understand the concepts. .

My enterprise proposals are innovative and cutting edge. I design social innovation models for Nigerian Railway Corporation, Nigerian National Parks Service African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs and several private sector organisations.

The workload is growing fast. Need capital to expand. Raising capital is hard. Do I borrow it? Steal it? Or Marry it? (or fuck it?) I try to borrow. ‘Do you have collateral?’. The banks aren’t lending. There is another banking crisis. CBN mops up. Liquidity tightens. Clients can’t pay on schedule.

I start all over again. Park the enterprise building and the dreams a little bit. Learn some structural and electrical engineering so to speak. I painstakingly build a small non profit project in rural south east Nigeria. Pay attention to the detail. Penance.

I read prevalence and incidence rates for domestic violence DV in Owerri are almost 90% while volunteering at the FIDA Family Law Centre in Abuja. Personally and professionally its a hard decision but the right one.

Obasanjo is sworn in as President after 14 years of military rule. I’m encouraged Nigeria is a democracy again. Maybe I can become that most despicable of things – a politician. Start at the grass roots since I’m in Imo State. They shoot a local politician. He was a vocal reformer. Like me.

Its 2006. I’m a ‘serial social entrepreneur’ according to Ashoka my new employer. I meet lots of other SE’s. There is a name for what afflicts me! Others have it too! I’m relieved and empowered. I help some great SE’s emerge, evolve, and flourish.

We’re all looking for capital to grow. There is very little available to invest in great new ideas. I use my position to talk to banks and private equity firms. Banks are risk averse, private equity is expensive. public funds don’t meet our needs.

A number of focused social venture funds are emerging in the west but they only invest in projects already worth $1 million or more. The SE’s I work with in the region are no where near that value but have outgrown microfinance. .

At the 2008 global HIV/AIDS Conference world leaders announce they’ll commit $16 billion to continue the war against the disease. I meet a doctor in Owerri who tells me how patients receiving free ARV drugs sell them so they can eat and feed their families.

Why won’t world leaders set up an economic fund with $16 billion instead? Help SME’s start up and flourish in the Third World? Why won’t national leaders? The media still reports stories of Abacha’s family suing the Swiss banks for giving us back our money.

I dream of an accessible social venture fund that makes small and medium size investments in African SE’s. I dream of innovative enterprising African SE’s building local economies, adding value and creating wealth.

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A Herstory Reflection; The Making of an Activist

March 17, 2012

The year is 2001. Aba. Appolonia is taking a nap in the airy yard behind her home after a long day of hard unrelenting labour. Her 26 year marriage has been one long nightmare of childbirth, manual labour, beatings and abuse. She has five or seven sons. I wish I could remember. She does it to be a good Christian mother.

Her husband sends all the young men out on errands. He is alone in the homestead with Appolonia. The youngest aged 20 comes back just in time to see his father crack his mother’s skull open with a machete where she sleeps. Even the hospitals think she’s dead.

I am seven. We have a female visitor from Denmark. She’s touring the US visiting old friends. There is a storm brewing between Lilia and my father. I take our visitor to the local shopping mall, a short stroll away.

We return to the apartment an hour later. My father is calmly mopping blood off the floor. Lilia is a blood soaked mess panting on the bed. I’m sent to my room. I day dream. No one is looking I sneak out and just keep walking. Its summer.

Agnes tells me he first hit her shortly after the wedding. They don’t speak for days. Eventually he apologises. Says it wouldn’t happen again. Is really nice for the next few weeks. Almost like a honeymoon. Until he hits her again.

Agnes is expecting their 7th child. She looks older than her 35 years. The beautiful woman in her wedding pictures is gone. One night I come back from lectures to find them fighting. I try to take her to my house. She pushes him inside theirs screaming ‘You must kill me today.’ Locks the door.

I feel myself flying across the room. I bounce off a wall. Land on the concrete floor. It occurs to me as if its happening to someone else that I’m getting the shit beat out of me. I don’t feel any pain. Just the impact of the violence to my body, senses reel, shock, disbelief. My body crumpling.

Its like a bad dream. This can’t be happening. I avoid the abusive type. The ones that remind me of my father. Or do I? When I see the blood on the floor I wonder if I’m going to die and mentally check who knows I’m here. I limp for months.

What else can I possibly do but try to stop or mitigate domestic violence? Then after seven years working with DV victims one day I realise I’m not happy anymore when a woman walks into the centre for help. I’m exhausted. I droop.

Compassion fatigue they say. Symptoms similar to PTSD. Flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, hypochondria. The result of working with trauma victims. I need a break. I need to remember a time when men and women were happy. When I was happy. I re-assign my cases.

A brief career in international development works wonders. I support promising young social entrepreneurs, travel, build my skills, meet wonderful people and generally have a great time. I am witness to lots of beautiful healthy relationships.

But there’s no feeling like I get when a woman looks at me and her eyes speak volumes of her gratitude for saving her life. I’m saving lives again. With the very personal and immediate gratification that I thrive on.

I’m learning to manage the emotional burden of sharing other peoples trauma. I’m learning to manage my own trauma. I’m considering a degree in psychology. I think it would improve my effectiveness as a family lawyer and as a writer. Make me a better person.

I am five. In kindergarten they ask us what we want to be when we grow up and why. I say I want to be a doctor so I can ‘fix broken people’. I didn’t become a doctor because I can’t stand the sight of blood and gore.

I guess a lawyer/writer with a psychology degree can still do something to ‘fix broken people.’ And a social entrepreneur could fix the systems that breaks them. The future looks bright after all.

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