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Showing user profile of Mildred K. Barya
Writer in Residence
Ms. Barya joined us in August 2007 to write a chronicle of TrustAfrica’s inception and development. As a writer, poet and organizational psychologist, she has worked in the book industry, broadcasting, and human resources consulting with NGOs, private firms and public institutions. She was previously the human resources advisor at Ernst & Young, Uganda. She studied at Makerere University, Moi University, and the International Women’s University in Hamburg. Ms. Barya recently spent nine months as a writer in residence at the Per Sesh Writing Program in Popenguine, Senegal, where she completed her first novel, What Was Left Behind. She is now taking lessons in Egyptian writing and language.
Thursday, April 9. 2009
‘We’ meaning TrustAfrica. Our new offices are on the road. No, that doesn’t sound right. What I should say is that we are now more visible since one can see us clearly from the main road, from afar, from the highway. Before, we were on the street. That is what I should clarify. Now we are on the road. It is a busy road. My office, which I share with Jeanne, is a room with a view. We have a long, narrow balcony where we stretch our eyes to the sky and Mamelle—the tallest point of Dakar, a place many people here refer to as the hill but which to me is a mound. I come from the land of rocky mountains and rolling hills. Understand when I look at the Mamelle, and it seems like I’m looking at a large anthill. My opinion doesn’t go well with the people here so out of politeness and political correctness, I also refer to the Mamelle as the hill. Mamelle stands for mammary—breast in French. I should say there are two breasts here in Senegal. One breast has a lighthouse which served as an important guide to seafarers and navigators in the ancient of days, perhaps even now. A statue of daunting height is coming up on the other breast. I can see it from our new office. I tell you it’s going to give the Mamelle the height of a mountain. From what I have heard, Koreans were hired two years ago to build the statue. Jeanne says it’s supposed to be a man and a woman with a child in between them. Family. Akwasi says it’s going to be one tall being. From the thighs and legs it looks like it will be a woman. We are all watching it from our balcony and speculating how grand it will be. How it’s taking around 45 Koreans to construct. Mark you this is Senegal, a land teeming with artists, sculptors and painters but none commissioned to do the structure. That says something about where the country’s values are, right? Sorry, I digress a lot. That is not what I intend to write about. I reserve the topic of Senegalese artists for another time. I should continue with my main subject, which is, we have moved. Oh, yes, now I know why and how I came to mention the artists. It’s because I am looking at the Mamelle right now as I write on my computer, on my table, in the office with a view.
A few minutes ago Jeanne spotted cows crossing the road, just like that. I have a camera constant in my bag so I have taken the pictures. About twenty cows walking side by side with cars, horses, donkeys and people. It is amazing. I will not be surprised if tomorrow I find out that we have new grantees. I mean, these cows can decide to come to our office. You should have seen them swinging elegantly, really, crossing the road and bypassing our office. Two cows looked up to read the sign. The TrustAfrica sign. I am telling the truth. What then will stop these cows from coming into our office for a grant or a convening of some sort, an understanding of our work if they digest what we are about? That is our new office area. Akwasi says it puts us right in contact with the world. It is so true. We have a good sense of what’s happening out there. Where we were was quiet and hidden. I almost felt like we were gods there. Away from human contact but available. Don’t misunderstand me. People used to find us. That’s how we managed to do a lot of work, to hold workshops, to give grants, and to facilitate collaborations. Our quiet neighborhood served a good purpose for the time we were there. Now we are in a place where anything is more possible than ever, where the unexpected is more likely to happen. I would like to say I miss the old place. We had cats, not cows. It was like home. Like a writers’ residence. I could write for hours uninterrupted by the world around me. But now the new place throbs with its own charm and wonders. It gives me more reason to be found looking out the window only to say in defense, “Can’t you see I am working.” I am now undecided on which place feeds me more, nourishes my creativity more.
We used to be in Mermoz Stele, near a gas station called Elton. That meant we could easily get food to snack on, from the Elton shop on the left side, while on the right we had Caesars, where we could get greasy chicken, Greek salad, and chawarma. There were two banks and a Western Union in between the banks. Where we are now, Sacré Coeur 3, we are within walking distance of Ecobank, a post office, and organizations like USAID, ActionAid, Population Council, and all kinds of set-ups, some of which are hard to define or pin down. There is a pharmacy downstairs—which makes it hard to complain of a headache and thereafter dash home for the tin of painkillers. There is also a doctor (cabinet medical) on the first floor of our building specializing in all kinds of sicknesses, judging from the paper pinned on the door. The gynecological to eye troubles, ears, skin, heart, nerves. …15 listed areas it makes me think what we have downstairs is a mini-hospital, not just a doctor’s office. There’s also a shop opposite our entry door that has ginger candies and other goodies. I should not forget to mention the proximity of a bar and restaurant called New Africa, which frankly, is the best thing on a Friday evening. Right after work our feet take us there, we have given up the idea of resistance. Well, not all of us but some of us. The nearness of New Africa blends with the rightness, the deserved cocktail and glass of wine after a heavy week’s work.
Now I am looking at the birds and aeroplanes, and the breast with the statue. I am startled to see planes almost landing on rooftops of the tall buildings. I am holding my breath and praying. It seems too real like it can happen, like the plane can miss where it’s supposed to land. Assuming I am inspired to fly out via the balcony, I would head towards the breast, past the VDN—a new highway that has swallowed good money—just like the new statue on the breast.
From time to time Akwasi comes to our office to look out the window (to look at the breast). He says he loves our office because it has the best view. He can see people, vehicles, birds, things in motion. I think this is the biggest deal about our new place. You see everything in motion. There’s a strong wind too that sweeps away our papers when we open the balcony door. We didn’t have much wind in the old place. We had a beautiful garden that created stable and secure feelings. It made me feel we were anchored. Settled. The ambience was perfect for stillness and stability. Here in our new place we have strong wind and everything moves. We see buildings coming up. Vehicles rushing to God knows where, cows stopping by to read our sign, and the Mamelle growing taller with the statue. It all gives us a sense of hurriedness, time running out, the need to attempt many things at once, to seize the day, and to embrace feelings of efficacy. This new place gives me assurance that we are right in the heart of where we are supposed to be—among the people and things. Here we have become people. In Mermoz I think we were gods. I am yet to figure out which is better, being people or being gods? One thing’s for sure, we have moved.
Wednesday, March 4. 2009
I am holding a placard to my head advocating a ban on birthday bashes. This is more necessary if the birthday baby is a politician, a leader, or an old man. Their birthday parties are a public danger and should remain a private affair outside public consumption if they must be celebrated.
President Mugabe’s 85th birthday celebration comes across as the cruelest joke of humankind. I mean, in a country where half the population are starving to death, cannot pay their medical bills, and have given up on the prayer: ‘Give us today our daily food,’ how deep is the irony that the president should spend 250,000 US dollars on his birthday cake and drinks?
Comic relief comes with the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, appealing to donors and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for aid. I think Africa’s richest humor comes from the Zimbabweans. They make the worst-case scenario look like a circus show. But the point is made. I am thinking that if so much money can be raised for a bad cause, there is more money to be raised for a good cause. Spending a fortune on the president’s birthday when millions are perishing in sickness and poverty is a huge waste. I think there should be a ban against birthdays, however well intentioned they may be.
I remember reading about good old Mandela’s 85th birthday, stolen in the name of commerce. Andile Mngxitama wrote in Pambazuka News, “Mandela’s 85th birthday was a Coca Cola affair. The multinational corporation was given full rights to throw a party for our founding father. Coke milked his name dry, everything was branded, serviettes to programme—the whole affair was televised live. This forced a friend to remark that we need another ‘Free Nelson Mandela Campaign.’ ”
Back in Zim, as the global economic crunch continues, it pays to be a friend of Mugabe at his lavish birthday party! The World Food Program recently reported that an estimated 6.9 million people without food in Zimbabwe. What remains a puzzle, however, is the love-hate syndrome that the nation’s people have for Mugabe. According to Agence France-Presse, Mugabe’s supporters helped raise money for the bash. “Crowds arrived in lorries, singing songs in praise of Mugabe, while banners proclaimed him a ‘great leader who never lets his people down.’ ” This reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s classic novella Animal Farm. The ZANU party and all the people who participated in Mugabe’s bash are like Minimus, the poetic pig who writes praise songs about Mugabe—oops, sorry, about Napoleon—and the banal patriotic song that replaces the idealistic anthem, Beasts of England.
It is unfortunate that people pay so little attention to literature, the one thing that remains true in its portrayal of human behavior. How the pigs commission praise songs for themselves and claim to deserve better than the others, their anthem-changing and amendment of the Seven Commandments not different from the constitution-changing that has become the shame of many of our political leaders allowing themselves privileges and dictatorial rule. For this reason I am holding a placard before the pigs drink all the whisky, dine at tables and relish sumptuous meals while the rest of the folks are robbed of their dignity and are dying from starvation.
Wednesday, February 11. 2009
Many of us have written off Zimbabwe. The past events and present trends have fueled our decision to erase Zimbabwe from the list of prospering nations. This hurts. This is the land that hosted some of the greatest, warmest and most beautiful international book fairs a few years ago. If you had never known the beauty of a human mind, the Zimbabwe book fair would open your eyes to it. Every year, the Zim book fair brought together beautiful and brilliant women like Michere Mugo, Patricia McFadden, Sindiwe Magona, Ama Ata Aidoo and Sapphire to fire up the audience, and these women ably did in their keynote addresses. Sapphire is the first human I’ve ever met, and the only one so far, with a single name. The woman is electrifying in every sense of the word. She is pure combustion, burning with emotional honesty and intellectual force as a performance poet, writer and astral projection expert.
As a faithful attendant of the Zim book fair, it was my greatest pleasure to lose myself in the knowledge of these women, their intensity almost exceeding the brilliance of the sun. They were explosive. A word like fireworks dimmed when you heard most of these women talking. The Zim book fair wasn’t just brains and beauty. It was balanced. It was business—books, it was entertainment, it was poetry, it was magic. With most of my writer friends the Zim book fair has become our mournful pastime. Since Mugabe’s second coming, the book fair has died, and there has not been an alternative anywhere else in Africa. God bless South Africa, but the Cape Town book fair cannot compare. Neither can the Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ugandan or Kenyan. These book fairs have long boring talks and business meetings that take life out of art.
I have a feeling deep down Zimbabwe will rise again. TrustAfrica’s 2020 vision is a prospering Africa. I don’t know if by then Zimbabwe will have dusted itself, cleaned up its act, and risen from tyranny to prosperity. My positive feeling doesn’t reveal when it will happen but only blends into facts—proof why Zimbabwe will rise. The country’s redemption is not in the political leadership but in the literary and artistic sense. It’s true Zimbabwe is going through a period of depression, oppression, repression, suppression, all the ‘ssion’s’ one can think of, but art and writing are flourishing. The starving artists are calling upon their inner resources and shining a light. Imagine my happiness when I came across the 2009 National Arts Council of Zimbabwe nominees list for the following categories:
Continue reading "Zimbabwe will rise again"
Thursday, January 22. 2009
Often I am asked to explain what TrustAfrica is, does. I guess it is natural to be expected to give a bio of where you work, what you do, only with less emphasis on how you do it. (Yet, the how is the most significant and result-oriented part.) In response to this expectation, organizations go an extra mile to hire consultants to help come up with the most catchy and memorable organization mission, role and vision.
In my understanding, Trustafrica is about trusting people, trusting the continent. And taking that step of trust forward to bring about meaningful change in the lives of the people living, loving, and yes, lying awake on the African continent. Of course founders and other pillars have more intricate and strategic things to say about TrustAfrica’s work, people, structures and processes. Mercifully, I will use my poetic license and present only two faces of TrustAfrica. The first is a trusting-people-continent-face, ‘yes we can’ which builds faith. The second is an action-packed face, ‘yes we have’ which brings about change.
Here and beyond we’ve been spellbound by Obama’s magnetism and actions of hope. Strategists are now asking; what will Obama do for Africa? Pure greed. He has already done more than he could do. He has given us hope, faith, love and peace that has restored our dignity and counterbalanced the deprecating image of us as a troubled people and disturbed continent. He is Africa risen and trusting, inspiring and restoring. It is remarkable that since his victory, electricity has reached remote parts of his father’s village. Water is now supplied regularly for the people and crops. The way progress happens! With that isolated case, we can still say change is already happening in Africa because of Obama. Millions of people on the African continent and beyond now go by ‘yes we can,’ not just as a catchy slogan but as a results-oriented motto in life and work. This is the spirit Obama has given us: to believe in our efforts, to take the step of trust, to do. To dust ourselves off and rise from the ashes. That is why at his inauguration, women in the hometown of Obama’s father in Kenya tied colorful kangas with the stunning image of Obama on the cloths so when the women shook their waists, Obama appeared to be dancing too.
Obama’s inauguration has gone down in history as a very inspirational moment for many people worldwide, but for TrustAfrica, I think, the event echoes the essence of what TrustAfrica is all about: trusting the people and the continent to bring about desired change, and putting in place transparent systems and procedures to arrive at that change. Saying yes we can, yes we have, yes we will.
I have been a firm believer in ‘l'art pour l'art’—art for art’s sake—but watching Obama take his oath changed all that. His inauguration struck me as a divine moment not because of the sacredness embedded in the oath, but because of a whole host of feelings and actions kindled as Obama took that step of trust, swearing to defend, protect, cherish, and work with all the people, believers and non-believers, in remaking the nation. A dear friend of mine, Beverley Nambozo, sent me an email saying, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.” I began to sing immediately.
I can imagine in the past months folks who had been walking back and forth the national mall in a buoyant mood, checking where ‘it was going to happen.’ The whole Obama inauguration must have seemed unreal yet real and finally happening. It is that excitement and joy which Obama has given us, that which cannot be taken away from us. We have been broken for a long time. We all needed something that gives us hope and responsibility, challenge and strength. Obama has introduced an era where beauty and substance must go hand in hand, when shapers and creators must go beyond art for art’s sake. How then can we be shallow to expect his presidency to bring investors scrambling to put new money in Africa? How can we expect more donations from the west instead of banking on transformative change in Africa to bring about satisfying political, economical and social benefits? He has given us the necessary tools to meet our challenges in his words: “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility…”
In Africa, our history as a resilient people remains. However, we must realize how messed up everything is now. Singing about Africa’s beauty and ancient glory will not save us, neither will blaming others for branding us basket case. But recalling the values that once made us great will show us the way. Mastering will and commitment, our values of trust, tolerance, persistence, honesty, hope, hard work, self reliance, aspiration, justice, and the collective effort to take on difficult tasks in the now and ahead cannot let us down. These values are universal, and you will find them in every language and culture on the African continent.
Obama has done good by awakening and commanding spirit to our values. Now we can put strength to task. We can admit that the journey of change is not all glory and miracles but hard work. We needed to hear this because in Africa we’ve been expecting miracles for a long time. Literally we spend many hours praying for miracles when a little prayer, a little smartness and hard work could do. Much prayer and no work won’t put food on the table. For this reason I love Obama. I feel he is timely for Africa, in words, in action, in texture and yes, in color.
I was particularly struck by the line in his speech, “know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity…” My instinct said, why not ‘democracy?’ But later I took this as a lesson one never learns in school, that perhaps in Africa, we may not have the kind of democratic governments preached about but if we seek “a future of peace and dignity,” all will be well, Obama’s words continuing to guide us. “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness... We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself...”
For Africa it is right to accept that we haven’t risen from this dark chapter but now we can. We simply have to take the risk, to trust ourselves, our diversity, our resources and continually focus on what enriches us. That which makes us achieve a lot when we get together for positive change, when we rise above old habits that divide us, collectively saying no to traditions that keep us bound, poor and segregated. We really shouldn’t whine about how poor and stricken we are when we have simply failed to exercise our right to think wise, smart and hard. My own country is an embarrassment. The UK oil explorer Heritage Oil and its partner, Tullow Oil, recently made a ‘world class’ oil discovery in Lake Albert Rift Basin in Uganda. The Giraffe-1 exploration indicates that this may be the largest reserve with more than 400 million barrels of oil. Heritage now has a 50% interest in the exploration licenses, with Tullow Oil holding the other 50%. What about the Ugandan people? 0%.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Obama and Africa. Everything he says places him here. Brings hope right here. We are a continent marred with chaos and disease. We are a strong people, a trustworthy people but broken. We’ve been allergic to transformative change for years, constipated with corruption and other evils. But now we have witnessed the remaking of history, the birth of change and a stunning leader. We cannot excuse ourselves to stay diseased and poor. The onus is on us to be open about the mistakes we have made, to outline what needs to be done, and to go ahead and do it ourselves. I believe strongly that ‘We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for,’ a beautiful line borrowed from the Hopi elders, used by the poet, June Jordan, the writer, Alice Walker, and the singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
So I am thinking, what can I do in my little village to make a difference? This is the time, the hour to build that protected well, a small library to serve the community, a place where little boys and girls can go to read. The work is simple once I start. I know there will be individuals willing to give a helping hand, a new book here, a used one there, a truck of sand, stones and bricks. I have a friend who has put up a school for orphans in his village. It is overwhelming how much support he has from the community and elsewhere. And how little the support but so big the difference it makes. An individual who gives a dollar a day to this school, at the end of the year will have given $365. That is school fees, uniform and food for about seven pupils a year. We don’t have to rely on a government that promises universal primary education (UPE) but does not deliver. We can create the UPE. It is at the start of the river that one traces the source. These little starts will lead to the ocean.
Back to the Hopi elders speaking, “You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we've been waiting for.”
Finally, in writing they say a good story gives you a memorable image, something that stays with you long after the story has ended. Obama has given us that, worldwide. He is the image. He stays long with us even after the delightful moment is over. He has touched deepest because he is in that rare category where one can be both the symbol and the symbolized, the image and the signified. He is a good story, a Trust Africa story.
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