This is a blog about me and the things that make me laugh, smile, hurt or cry!

Monday, November 11, 2013

God Bless America... I mean Zambia!


I took this picture in June 2011 at the Iwo Jima Memorial
(officially known as The Marine Corp War Memorial)
just outside the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
This sculpture is massive and took several years to complete.

Two years ago, as we always do, the world and his dog followed the election in the United States closely. One of the things that fascinates me about America is that they seem overly enamoured with themselves, election or none. While it is shocking to observe how much they hate each other politically and that the health of the economy and welfare of human beings is inconsequential to one’s party coming out on top, in one thing, they are steadfastly united: they believe in the idea of America. They may disagree on how this ideal should be applied in different areas, and boy oh boy do they disagree, but they love their country. A good example is to observe the behaviour of Zambians versus Americans when they are at a function and hear the familiar tune of their national anthem. This is how Zambians react - with indifference. It is tedious to have to sing it and usually a child or school choir or lone muggins is given the chore of singing the national anthem while the rest of us a quarter-heartedly (half-heartedly is too generous) mumble a phrase or two. Contrast this with our friends across the Atlantic. I attended a ceremony a few years ago and witnessed the American colleagues singing the their national anthem while bursting with pride, standing ramrod straight and with their hands on their hearts because they meant it.

"My Country Tis of Thee..."

I know a lady that was invited to attend the dedication of the ‘new’ US Embassy building in 2011. She came back bemused that the dedicating prayer took 45 minutes. Forty-five Minutes to pray over a building. Why? Because it is not just a building to them, it is a small part of their nation right here in Lusaka. Last year or whenever it was that Whitney Houston died (my apologies to the fans), a lot was said about her performance of the national anthem at the 1992 Superbowl. I watched the video and then I decided to read the words of the national anthem. I felt that I kind of understood something about what they were going through. The song or poem or hymn is about the flag – the star spangled banner. It is about what it represents. It talks about the fact that in the morning after the bombs had burst throughout the night, he looks for the flag and it is still there as a symbol of hope.

Barack's Crib, aka The White House


So is this only an American thing? No. I have an Aunt married to a Tanzanian. Over Christmas she visited with my cousins. The youngest about two years old, was always singing a song whose main lyrics were Tanzania over and over. I asked my aunt if this was the national anthem and she said no. It is a patriotic song that is taught in pre-schools. Now I am not saying that this automatically makes people care about their country, but have you noticed how countries that systematically indoctrinate their citizens behave toward their country and the idea of their nation? Anyone who has studied in China or Japan or Cuba can attest to this. Similarly, anyone with friends or relatives with children in the US will tell you how disconcerting the indoctrination is, it begins at pre-school. How many people in Zambia can recite the US Declaration of Independence just because you have heard it countless times in movies and TV shows? You probably don’t even realise that you know the words.

This thing is huge!

Read what prompted this reflection on 'Amrika' here.

Honouring Our Heroes - the Fallen and Living

The National War Memorial in Lusaka

Today, the 11th Day of November is what the UK and Commonwealth nations call Remembrance Day (formerly Armistice Day). All week leading up to this people wear red poppies to remember those who gave their lives in military service. Americans call today Veteran’s Day. In America, Remembrance Day is actually commemorated on Memorial Day (in May) which is for those who died while serving, whereas Veterans Day is about appreciating the service of all military personnel, not just those who died. On the Internet, on Twitter and on Facebook, we have been inundated with gratitude directed toward US men and women in uniform being thanked for their service to their country and to protecting its freedoms. Many people will share the reaction of seeing how men and women in uniform are greeted in the US. People stop to shake their hands and to thank them for their service. It is quite remarkable to behold. Now to those of us well aware that many of these military incursions are not motivated by the greater good but control of oil and other resources it may seem baffling that they are so highly regarded. But I think I get it and I admire it.

The Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia - USA

'Our nation's most sacred site' - Arlington National Cemetery 

Veterans and freedom fighters do not get half the recognition that they deserve. My own grandfather fought in the Second World War in Fiji. Like many other young and bewildered Africans, he was carted off to a distant land to wage war in a battle he had absolutely no clue about and then was barely recognised for his service. The struggle for our independence is one that many of us now take for granted. Hindsight is 20/20 and we are fond of applying today’s insights and broad view to events of yesteryear. I think this is unfair because people did what they had to do at that time and so while independence didn’t work out all roses in the end, the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to wrest control of our country from foreign invaders should not be dismissed. These feelings came as a result of witnessing this reverence for military veterans on a visit to Washington DC a few years ago. I was fascinated by the memorials and cemeteries and general solemn acknowledgment of and gratitude toward those who put themselves forward for military service and more so for those who sadly perished. Once back home, the inevitable contrast ensued. That year (2010 or 2011), I watched the November 11th commemorations opposite Cabinet Office with interest. How many people know that pillar or whatever across from Cabinet Office is a war memorial? Visit the Ex-Servicemen's League of Zambia on Facebook to find out more.

The tomb of the 'Unknown American Soldier'. A comfort to families of those whose
bodies were never found or recovered.

The sacrifices of the past are one thing, but our attitude toward our current military is very different from that in the United States. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The military in Zambia are heavily subsidised and generally given a free ride in almost everything, resulting in a sense of entitlement that manifests itself in persistent bad behaviour and indiscipline (if peace keeping reports are to be believed). Add to that the fact that (apart from officer level), it is the less educated and not so academically gifted who often found their way into military ranks and you have an inferiority complex armed with a gun in an environment where civil liberties are restricted. Our attitude toward the military is not pride or gratitude but fear. This is unfortunate because by God’s grace we have so far survived without outright military conflict. Yes the army are deployed to support the ruling party and control large crowds, but that is about all they do. The recent terror attacks in Kenya’s Westlands Mall show that even peace loving nations are vulnerable. The enemy comes in many guises these days. I doubt if as a country we have the first clue of what to do or how to react were something like that to occur here (God forbid). The 2012 Afcon victory celebrations and 2011 Presidential inauguration are two recent examples of just how poor planners we are and underscore the woeful inadequacy of our preparations.

There are always dozens of tourists arriving to pay their respects every minute

But being in a military or law enforcement job means that it is not like being a teacher. Nursing and teaching are both noble professions and those who hold such positions make many sacrifices, but rarely would they be called upon to sacrifice their own lives for the good of others. Of course, even in America you often hear complaints that once their tour is over, veterans are just dumped back home without the proper support needed to re-integrate into society and make a meaningful life for them. No longer in uniform, the gratitude dries up and remains empty words. Because I have American friends whose children and loved ones are fighting in Afghanistan and other places, I have developed a deeper respect for what families go through waiting for a son or daughter to return safely. All the while worrying that should they come back alive, how different will they be.

JFK's memorial. Contrast this dignified memorial with the ostentatious one
for the late President Chiluba

So on this Remembrance Day, my thoughts turn to our fallen men and women. I remember my grandfather and his friends, but I can’t think of anyone beyond those long departed veterans. I don’t know whether or not to call them heroes because I don’t really know anything about how or why they died or even who they are. We commemorate Remembrance Day because it was instituted after WWI and we were part of the 'British Empire', so had to commemorate it too. And yet it didn’t really have much significance or relevance for us as being young nations, our Independence is what meant more to us and still does. So in this regard, Independence Day is much easier because I know, understand and am grateful for the sacrifice of our Freedom Fighters.

But still, I remember...

Courtesy of Facebook



p.s. These pictures were all taken by the author. Please email to ask before you use them.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Breast Cancer is Curable, Early Treatment is Key - So Says My Mum

All over the world, we mark October as Breast Cancer awareness month. In January 2011, this campaign became very real for me when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately had to undergo a mastectomy.

Mrs Gertrude Kuvangu Mushipi Mutenda - My Mum

This week, on Thursday 17th October 2013, my mum was featured in the Zambia Daily Mail talking about her experience. You can access the article link directly here. I have also reproduced the text below (the accompanying picture is the one above) and then added my own thoughts at the end:

Women should check for cancer – Mutenda

By MWAPE MWENYA
“WHEN two lumps were removed from my daughter`s breast, nothing about breast cancer crossed my mind. My niece also had a lump removed from her breast but their lumps were not cancerous.
Unfortunately for me, the lump that was discovered in my breast was cancerous; I did not think one could survive cancer, until it happened to me.
I remember the doctor telling me that at least I was aware of what was going to cause my death,” says Getrude Mushipi Mutenda of Chingola who has survived breast cancer.
Ms Mutenda, 55, a trained English and Art teacher from Nkrumah Teachers Training College says breast cancer screening is vital for survival and prevention of the tumour spreading to other parts of the body.
A mother of four, Ms Mutenda is concerned that more women could be suffering from cancer in silence due to lack of knowledge and myths that may surround the illness.
“In the past, breast cancer was sometimes linked to witchcraft due to lack of knowledge, she says.
She points out that now that people have knowledge about breast cancer it is important to take screening, diagnosis and treatment seriously to avoid losing body parts and lives.
Ms Mutenda who is also chairperson for Young Women Christian Association in Chingola first discovered a lump in her right breast in December 2010.
She did not experience any pain and there was nothing peculiar about the breast that could have compelled her to seek medical attention early enough.
The fact that her niece and daughter had their lumps removed from their breasts without any side effects, she thought having lumps in the breasts was probably normal.
Meanwhile, the persistence painless lump prompted the energetic woman to seek medical attention.
Medical experts told her she had to have the lump in her breast removed.
In 2011, Ms Mutenda was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer, the cancer had spread to other parts of the body.
Following the diagnosis of stage two breast cancer she was subsequently put on medication.
“I did not have so much fear because I thought the lump was just a thick tissue in my breast,”
“I left everything to God,” she said.
She recalls that the doctor gave her two options to choose between mastectomy (removal of breast) or start chemotherapy.
She chose mastectomy because she feared that in case of failure to respond to chemotherapy, the breast was still going to be removed.
A successful operation was conducted on Ms Mutenda to have her right breast removed in March 2011.
And that was the first time she ever experienced pain from the wound and her upper right hand.
After the operation, it was revealed that the cancer had already spread to the lymph nodes and the liver.
Some medical personnel suggested palliative care as the possibilities of her survival were minimal.
Palliative care is medical care provided by physicians, nurses and social workers that specializes in the relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.
Meanwhile, several medical examinations at Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH) in Lusaka were conducted on Ms Mutenda which revealed that she was eligible to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
She underwent chemotherapy at CDH and was later put on radiation. Her after-effects with chemotherapy like other patients included nausea, loss of hair and loss of appetite, while with radiation she experienced none.
She says cancer treatment at CDH was administered for free expect for a few things such as of testing blood at the laboratory which she says did not cost a lot of money.
“Before I started treatment at CDH there were speculations that I will not manage because it is expensive, but with what I experienced, one would say  it costs nearly nothing and even vulnerable women with low or no income are managing to receive treatment,” she says.
She has called on Government to expedite the expansion programme for the CDH phase II which will be admitting patients.
This, she said will help cut costs on those who have to travel to and from outside Lusaka to receive treatment.
As a breast cancer survival Ms Mutenda has called on women movements to encompass breast cancer awareness campaigns in the activities to sensitize women about the disease across the country.
She says breast cancer is curable and does not spread if diagnosed early with the right treatment.
She has urged women to avoid traditional medication to address the problem of cancer, adding that traditional remedies only end up prolonging the problem.

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There is a lot wrong with this country and with our health system, but as she mentions in this article, my mum has spent almost nothing in the fight to beat this disease. People come all the way from Malawi and Tanzania to get treatment at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka. It is nowhere near adequate and they could do a lot better, but boy oh boy are we grateful that this facility even exists.

What is inspiring about my Mum is how she has taken this cancer personally, grabbing it by the horns and taking it on. These last few years I have understood what they say that beating cancer is a fight. It is so much more than health, but an emotional and mental exercise as well. My mum has fought this one tenaciously, refusing to accept death without a fight, while exercising deep faith and spiritual maturity in the knowledge that while God is able to heal us, it is His will to choose not to and we still praise and glorify Him for His sovereignty. Like the righteous and upright Job, we accept all that God gives and takes away, whether it is good or bad.

My mother is a stage two breast cancer survivor who has undergone a mastectomy, radiotherapy and two bouts of chemotherapy after the cancer later spread to her lungs. By God's grace, the cancer is in now remission and we pray it stays that way. Next review is on 11th December 2013.

To God be the Glory!

Every woman aged 35 years and above should have a mammogram annually. And let us not forget cervical cancer - the biggest killer of women in this country. Every adult woman should get a pap smear regularly.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When Things Fall Apart – Fare Thee Well Chinua Achebe




Many times, we wonder how the death of someone famous will affect us. What role in our lives does a celebrity or personality hold? We admire them and keep track of professional and personal life achievements, but do they really mean anything to us? After all, we don’t know them.

The other week, I read the news of Chinua Achebe’s death and was shocked when genuine tears began to flow down my face. I was driving and had to slow down as they continued to flow freely. I wondered why I was so affected and began to think back to ask myself what Chinua Achebe, perhaps the greatest of African authors had meant to me, that I should be weeping over the loss of a man I had never met.

Source


The story begins and ends with his seminal work, Things Fall Apart. I always planned to, but never got around to reading any of his other works (I still do). I read articles and essays that he wrote, as well as followed interviews he gave to various publications and outlets.

I was a latecomer to the Things Fall Apart party.

Growing up in the UK, I never had the privilege of reading any African writers at school. I was introduced to reading at home, where I developed a lifelong respect for the written word. At a mission primary boarding school in Zambia, we had story time in the afternoon as well as a weekly book reading for the whole school of a more serious literary work. I first ‘read’ The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien during these read-aloud sessions at school. By Grade 3 we were required to submit a weekly book report based on what we read. I was hooked and have never looked back. It is for this reason that I still have a love for children’s books and young adult fiction.

I spent my High School years living in South Wales with my family, where English Literature was one of my favourite subjects. For our GCSEs, we read Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (both in my top 5 favourite books), while the plays were Macbeth and Hobson's Choice. During my weekly trips to the council library, I came across Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and immediately fell in love. She remains my favourite author and her most famous book occupies the top (No. 1) spot on my Best Books Ever list.

The books I read as a young child and adolescent contributed to moulding me into the woman that I am today. Titles and authors that come to mind are:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; Watership Down; The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier; The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis; The Magic Faraway Tree, Mallory Towers, Amelia Jane and St Clare books by Enid Blyton; The Animals of Farthing Wood; numerous books by seasoned YA fiction writers Robert Leeson, Lynne Reid Banks and Jan Mark; Liz Berry and the forbidden world of Easy Connections; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Superfudge and of course, Forever by Judy Blume; The Shoe books by Noel Streatfield; almost all of Roald Dahl’s works; so many books by Christian children’s author Patricia St John; Charlotte’s Web; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairytales; The Chalet School series; My naughty Little Sister Ramona and other classics by Beverly Clearly and last but not least, an honourable mention to the Sweet Valley High books by Francine Pascal. All these make up a part of who I am.

Why have I taken so much time to give this background to my literary past? In order to give you an indication of how much of a revolution reading Things Fall Apart was at the ripe old age of 27. My family returned to Zambia in the autumn (fall) of 1995. I enrolled in Evelyn Hone College to study Journalism before switching to the University of Zambia to study Mass Communication. I was drawn to my social science studies to the extent that I almost changed majors to Development Studies. I was passionate about what I was learning about poverty, economics, political history, and development. I came to understand some of the reasons why Africa had some of the difficulties I saw around me. At the same time, I was also being inducted into appreciating my black identity. It may appear strange to some people, but I was unfamiliar with RnB music and most African American music artists. I was comfortable with my Brit Pop and soft rock because I had no idea other genres of music existed. However, even though I got interested in African music, food, dress and hair, I never got around to reading any of the African writers my friends mentioned reading in high school.

When I came up with the idea of starting a book club in 2005, it was initially a Jane Austen Book Club, but since she only wrote six books, it soon morphed into a regular book club. Despite having run the Lusaka Book Club for a number of years, no one had ever picked a title by an African writer. So when someone finally did in 2007, it was something that I looked forward to immensely. Unlike others in the group, I wasn’t revisiting a beloved (or hated) high school classic as was the case when we read Jane Eyre; I was being baptised into African literature for the first time. And oh what a baptismal it was!

From the very first page, I was transfixed. As a social science student who had studied development and politics and for someone who worked in a development context, I was so often fed a single and skewed narrative of Africa, such that one scarcely recalls that there is more to our people than poverty, corruption and disease. Having had a western education throughout my life, it was at that moment I realised just how biased it was.

When I first started my blog about natural African hair care, www.ZedHair.com, I shared about some of the events that motivated me to cut off my chemically straightened hair. In my inaugural post, I wrote:

“In September 2004, I had just spent three months in Holland doing a course in development and was full of righteous activist fire. From Holland, I spent a month in Bermuda where my visit coincided with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery... I was an angry black woman of 25 years and I felt the need to do something radical… I felt a need to reject what I termed 'western concepts of beauty'. A friend later pointed out the flawed nature of the second point, seeing as I still wore western clothes and ate western food. Still, at the time, I didn't want to quibble about such details since I was bent on making a political statement.”

That was me and my oh-so-young self (almost a decade ago). But, it was the beginning of my exploring my African identity and I went about it in the most obvious (if not superficial way). My work in the development sector led me to question why as Africans we couldn’t seem to get our act together. I don’t have the answer to that question yet and it is not really the focus of my discussion here.

Being invited into Okonkwo’s world was a major revelation. Finally, I felt that my identity as an African was validated. I existed before the white man came and I had a history and a culture that was rich and diverse. It was not primitive, backward or unsophisticated; in fact, it was intricate and complex and it worked. Okonkwo’s genuine struggles with reconciling the old way with that of the newly arrived white man is something many Africans still face today. Especially given the influence of Christianity on our cultural traditions and way of life and how many of the early missionaries took the ‘everything you are and represent is evil’ strategy.  I think this doctrine was transferred to so much more than just religion. With missionaries as agents of colonialism brought with it the plunder of resources and a political and administrative system that was unfamiliar. Add in to that trade, commerce and globalisation and Okonkwo’s world was gone forever.

On this foundation, the African independence struggle was formed and in the midst of this wind of change across the continent, Things Fall Apart was published. In it, Chinua Achebe for me, represented why it is so important for us to tell our own stories and our own history in our own voices, from our own perspective as Africans and on our own terms. Yes the victors write history, but Africa’s story is not over yet.

Fare thee well Mr Achebe...

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The Guardian’s obituary brought on fresh tears. Read it here.

There is a wonderful interview with Mr Achebe also published in The Guardian in 2010, that they have re-released. Read it here.


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