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The Right Connections

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“The world needs a lot of help,” sighs Lilian Ajayi-Ore at the other end of the line in New York the Friday evening we speak to her from Johannesburg.

“If we are being completely candid, we have to sacrifice personal moments to do some of the things we all want to,” says Ajayi-Ore, founder of the Global Connections for Women Foundation (GC4W), a recipient of the Best of Manhattan Charity award for three years.

As she speaks, you can hear Ajayi-Ore’s year-old son Alexander Emmanuel in the background.

“As a mom, you never get an off day,” she laughs. “But he is the youngest of all the people I support.”

READ MORE: Highly Adaptable And Totally Indestructible

You can sense the adulation in her voice, both for her son and her other “priorities” – the young people she trains and the women and girls she creates opportunities for through her foundation, which has a reach of 3.5 million people worldwide.

“I am a women and girls global advocate, who believes in the importance of creating programs that provide a unique opportunity to assist them in succeeding in life. I am also a believer in partnerships and collaborations that will essentially create more open doors for women and girls to succeed,” says the 34-year-old go-getter from New York, originally from Nigeria.

The reason for these belief-systems could be her upbringing by a strong mother who was a single parent. She says her mother, Chief Temitope Ajayi – and her contributions to her community – was the inspiration for GC4W.

“She is also known as ‘Mama Diaspora’,” says Ajayi-Ore on her mother, who connects and creates job opportunities for the youth in Nigeria. “I could go on and on about her.”

READ MORE: Shea’s A Force

Currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, Ajayi-Ore is also a Harvard graduate and professor at New York University, School of Professional Studies.

More recently, she says she created and designed “the very first ‘Teach Gender Equality’ course and ‘Planet 50/50’ project on Microsoft”.

“This is to enable a global collaboration that fosters an environment where students can play a role in creating solutions for promoting gender equality and women empowerment,” states Ajayi-Ore.

She previously worked at the United Nations (UN) in New York, representing the Mission of Nigeria. She also spoke to people in the NGO space to see where she fit in.

That’s when she had an epiphany and decided to create a global connection and work to create solutions where inequalities lay. Ajayi-Ore visits Nigeria twice a year and also has plans for programs in Africa.

More Africans In The Diaspora

Iman is a supermodel and entrepreneur from Somalia. One of her country’s most famous exports, when she first arrived in America, people assumed she was “African royalty”. She also started her own line of cosmetics. The combination of her successful business and modeling career has made her very famous and respected.

Lupita Nyong’o is a multi-talented actress best known for her role in the Hollywood hit 12 Years a Slave. Born in Mexico, she was eventually able to move to Kenya. Early in her career, Nyong’o hit lead roles in film productions and movies, taking several awards home, including an Oscar. She is also a film director, having written and produced several of her own works.

Eunice Cofie is an entrepreneur, originally from Ghana, who combines the use of traditional African medicine with modern science to create a brand of products. Using her knowledge in chemistry/molecular biology, and her wits, she founded Nuekie, an innovative health and beauty company for people of color. She was the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader in 2012.

Rebecca Enonchong is a technology entrepreneur who founded the company AppsTech. Originally from Cameroon, she moved to the US in her youth. Her career grew quickly. In 1999, she founded AppsTech serving over 40 countries.

Adiat Disu, honoree of the 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa 2014 on forbes.com, is an entrepreneur and fashion designer born in Nigeria. Also the founder of Africa Fashion Week New York, as a brand strategist, one of Disu’s goals is to spread and promote African brands and culture to the world. Disu believes helping other entrepreneurs achieve their own dreams is just as important as reaching her own.

 – Compiled by Arvind K Pillai

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Opinion

Enabling Healing For Rape Survivors

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On this day in 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1820 declaring that rape and other forms of sexual violence could constitute “a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to Genocide”. For countries such as Rwanda, which have experienced conflict and its devastating consequences, this was a major step forward.

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi saw over 1,000,000 men, women and children slaughtered in a 100 days. Of those who survived, many endured torture and public humiliation, often in the form of rape and sexual assault.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were systematically raped, with the additional intent to infect them with HIV. The result was, approximately 67 percent diagnosed as HIV+, and an estimated 20,000 children born of these mass rapes.

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Twenty-five years later Rwandans have worked hard to pick up the pieces, and continue efforts to build a country its citizens can be proud of. A healthy foundation is now in place, upon which future generations will stand, to shape an increasingly secure, peaceful and prosperous nation. Slowly but surely, Rwanda is healing.  

For survivors of rape, who in many ways carry a double burden, the journey of healing is more complex, filled with pain that most struggle to keep buried and forgotten.

Beyond the physical damage they suffered, these women and girls – and in some cases, men and boys – continue to suffer from severe mental wounds that stripped them of their dignity, leaving them feeling like lesser human beings.

For true healing to occur, we must create and promote a conducive environment where survivors can live dignified lives, unbound by crippling thoughts and the helplessness brought about by their ordeals.

Efforts must be pooled from the highest levels of leadership to the grassroots, to establish safe spaces that allow each victim and survivor of rape to heal, reconnect and reintegrate with the right support and at their own pace.

Even more so, as survivors have to live next to perpetrators, as many of them remained in their original communities; while the most notorious, will soon be returning to their homes, after serving their sentence.

In my experience working with survivors of rape in Rwanda, I have seen first-hand the miracles that can occur when survivors’ individual healing journeys are not brushed away, forced or ridiculed, but simply enabled.

One particular story stands out in my mind, is that of Suzanne, a woman I met through my work with ABASA, an association of genocide and rape survivors.

READ MORE | Young women in Soweto, South Africa, say healthy living is hard. Here’s why

During the Genocide against the Tutsi, Suzanne, who was 58 years of age, was raped for several days by militia, some of whom were her neighbours. Suzanne suffered severe injuries, both physical and mental. When I first met her, she had no control of her bodily functions, let alone her life.  She had been in and out of hospitals, with no lasting solution to her medical problems.

My organisation, Imbuto Foundation, supports the women of ABASA by facilitating their access to HIV treatment and providing psychosocial and financial support. We ensured that Suzanne received quality treatment and surgery at a reputable hospital, and stayed close to her throughout her recovery. As result, she is now a strong and healthy citizen, whose experience of the Genocide is no longer a physical mark, left for all to see.

Every individual story like Suzanne’s, and that of thousands of Rwandan women raped publicly, and taken to what was known as ‘Maison des Femmes’ only to be abused by countless men, underline the vital importance of recognising rape in conflicts as a weapon of destruction.

More than that, it is a call to the international community to:

  • take bold steps by bringing to justice those who are still on the run;
  • mobilise solidarity, responsibility and resources to enable the healing and reintegration of rape victims.

For Rwanda, especially during this Kwibuka (Genocide Commemoration), a quarter of a century later, it is a call to acknowledge survivors of rape as true heroines and heroes of our history, and to strip rape of its cruel power.

For all of us, men and women, it is a call to become part of the solution.

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This is an opinion piece by First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, looking at the importance of enabling healing for rape victims and survivors, in line with the anniversary (19 June 2019) of UN Security Council Resolution 1820, recognising rape as a war crime.

First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame. Picture: Supplied

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Arts

‘There Will Always Be A Need For Live Art’

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South African dancer Mamela Nyamza revived a 30-year-old dance festival to help local artists connect with the rest of the world.


An eight-year-old graces the pulpit of her hometown church capturing the attention of the congregants with her nimble dance moves. Little do they know she would go on to dazzle audiences on some of the world’s most prolific stages.

As the deputy artistic director of the South African State Theatre, it all still feels like a dream for the award-winning contemporary dancer who never imagined her passion for dance would lead her here.

Mamela Nyamza owes it all to her childhood.

Your upbringing will always find a way back to your artistic life.

From running in the rain to dance classes, with a leotard packed into a plastic bag, to curating one of the biggest dance festivals in South Africa, Nyamza is hoping to transform the art form in Africa.

Sitting in her office in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, she understands the responsibility of her position.  

“I know how important it is for people to come and showcase their work in this theater because I came from a space where doors were not opened for me. The space I come from has taught me a lot as an artist and it has actually made me the artist I am today because everything I do will always reflect  that life,” she says.

She hopes to merge the line between art and life by curating the Dance Umbrella Africa Festival.

The festival, formally known as Dance Umbrella Johannesburg, which downed its curtains in 2018 due to lack of funding, has been revived by Nyamza to incorporate a continental approach towards contemporary dancers.

She took it upon herself to revive the program that gave her an opportunity at the start of her career.

“I cannot sit back and watch a festival that groomed many artists in this country close in front of me while I am watching. If it was not for Dance Umbrella, I would have never performed internationally,” she says.

For Nyamza, the festival brought programs to South Africa which opened a gateway for artists to connect with the rest of the world, allowing them to showcase their body of work on international stages.

Institutions that support the dance community are needed to assist both aspiring and established dancers, she says.

Do I Look Pretty by Chandré Bo, a dance theatre production that explore the notion of ‘pretty’. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“You cannot do it alone; you need these structures to help you help others. Our role here is to serve the patron, the audience, the artists and everybody.”

The position seemed daunting to her, at first, but she soon realized it was time for change in the industry.

An office job has not tethered the artist’s free spirit.

 “I was not going to leave the industry; it is all about leading the industry. I still go out there and work, I still practice my art and I feel, as an artist, I have done Mamela a lot. So why am I still holding on to me? It is time to give back. Right now, being here, I feel like there is a reason for being here. I feel like this is a calling.”

Heeding the call to make a difference, Nyamza, who is dressed in African print, recollects the challenges she faced when she turned her hobby into a profession.

As a black woman, taking it on as a career was the hardest part, thus turning a love into a strange relationship.

Being the only black woman in her dance classes made her feel like “the other” at all times.

“It [ballet] was not accepting me as a black woman. It made me  interrogate [ballet] as an artist. Hence, most of my work will always go back to ballet,” she says.

“I was deconstructing something that I know. I was not just talking about ballet, I was deconstructing something that did not accept me as a black woman or did not accept my body.”

This interrogation is reflected in most of her work.

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Surprised by the high number of artists in their early 20s who showcase their work at the State Theatre, Nyamza applauds the transformation that has made these spaces accessible since her early 20s.

A kind of access she had to fight for. 

“Right now, my son does not know that we used to walk while it was raining to go to ballet classes. We were not dropped off in cars. It was not easy, it was something you did for love and that is when passion is created. Because of the different times that we come from, it took me years to even put my work at the Artscape [Theatre Centre in Cape Town]. You always look at these differences and not that you are against them, you always just say ‘wow, this is great’.” 

As much as there has been the incorporation of digital innovation to ease access to dance and performance, the need for live theater will always be imperative for her.

“There will always be a need for live art because it touches different parts [of us]. When something is live, you remember the liveness of it, the body of it. With technology, you can see it [a performance] there and also have it here, it is easy access but a live body is not easy access and that is what people forget. You have to go out there, pay money, support and watch it live because that live memory stays with you,” she says.

“As artists, it is hard for us to say, ‘here’s my DVD’ and as artists who perform outside of the country, people ask ‘can you show me something online?’. I tell them that they can see me online but it is not the same. It is never the same. It is all about liveness and experiencing it live.”

The upside is that it opens the window of opportunity for African artists on international stages, which, at times, may pose cultural barriers.

“By being a solo artist, it has been easy for international people to get the whole history of South Africa from one artist and you don’t have to bring the whole [cast of] 80 people to talk about the story. It is easy because you are in South Africa, you are South African. Your work is South African. How you do it is up to you because you are an artist and as an artist, you can interpret your work in any way.

“When showing your work, there is already the assumption that you are from Africa and you need to do celebratory work or ceremonial work and if you don’t do that, there is a question of, ‘I did not accept that from an African woman’. There are so many ways people engage with us as artists coming from Africa,” Nyamza says.

At times, it was easier for men to succeed in the industry, she says.

“When we came as women, we didn’t entertain too much. There was an element of [not all men, some], ‘we are men showing six packs and the body’ and actually giving exactly what the other wants to see. With women, we came with issues that needed to be interrogated and debated. We provoked things and sparked some conversations that will stay with people. We were talking about things that are happening in our country and became the window to our country.”

Do I Look Pretty by Chandré Bo at the State Theatre. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

But back home, the locals are still grappling to understand the art industry, leaving artists like Nyamza with a greater popularity beyond African shores. Locally, she feels the audiences are not as supportive and open to attending live shows.

“At home we don’t have that culture of knowing what is good and understanding our own artists. It is not something our people have grown up with. Much like me studying dance was questioned as ‘what else do you do?’ Nobody will know that I am an international artist. They know us internationally but at home they will ask ‘who is Mamela?’ Not that I want them to know. I am an artist, I just do my work and it speaks for itself.” 

Looking at the growing interest for ballet-dancing among black people in South Africa, Nyamza argues that ballet is moving away from the traditional format of only wearing pink tutus and has become more accessible, thus allowing locals to make their own interpretations of the artform. However, the lack of continuity concerns her.

“I always see young black kids doing ballet and then later on there are none. Where are they? What happened to them? But then again, I think this situation is because we don’t have many black female dance teachers who these kids can relate to and aspire to be.” It is a fact most artists and art managers agree on.

The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative managing and artistic director PJ Sabbagha says the arts are socially marginalized but it is the artist’s responsibility to change the way it is viewed. Through exposure in his community-based work in Mpumalanga, Sabbagha has realized that an appreciation for the arts is increasing.

6×7 Feet Dimension, named after Nelson Mandela’s prison and the size of the bedroom in Winnie Mandela’s house, is a play about the love letter they wrote to each other. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“The art is very alive in communities and so is dance, in various forms. We still live in a world where people don’t view the arts as being real. They view it as a hobby or part-time activity. It partly has to do with the way art has positioned itself and also the way society views the arts, it has, basically, never really been seen as a real economic driver with potential for social change.

“The older generation doesn’t see how people’s lives are impacted through the arts. They can earn an income and that it can be a meaningful career or that it can benefit society. Although, things have changed, the economy in the country does not help; there is less investment in the arts because we need to save failing infrastructure,” Sabbagha says.

These are nagging concerns to answer. Because the work of many unknown artists is based on personal impact and interpretation, it becomes challenging to assess what art in small pockets of the world mean to those viewing it. Perhaps, the greater question is, what can be done to get people interested enough to attend an art show? Should it all lay at the feet of artists or should people be more proactive about who and what they view?

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Health

Young women in Soweto, South Africa, say healthy living is hard. Here’s why

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Data from South Africa has shown that over two thirds of young women are overweight and obese. This predisposes them to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Most women are not exercising enough, and consumption of processed and calorie-dense foods and high amounts of sugar is common.

It was this knowledge that sparked the establishment of the Health Life Trajectories Initiative. It’s being run in South Africa, India, China and Canada and aims to provide interventions that can help young women stay healthy before, during and after pregnancy.

In South Africa, this randomised controlled trial will provide one-on-one support as well as peer group sessions to over 6000 young women. The idea is provide them with information, and to help them set and maintain goals for healthier lifestyles.

Researchers from the Medical Research Council and Wits University’s Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit are running the South African arm of the study. We wanted to start by better understanding our target population – that is, young women aged between 18 and 24 living in Soweto.

READ MORE | Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

Soweto is a large, densely populated urban township which comprises one third of Johannesburg’s population. Soweto is becoming rapidly urbanised, but the majority of people are still very poor and struggle to provide food for their families.

We conducted a series of focus group discussions and in depth interviews to unravel health behaviours, barriers and facilitators to wellbeing and health with young women from Soweto who had not yet had a child. We also asked them about what sorts of interventions they’d prefer to support and guide them.

The women offered important insights that showed it’s not enough to simply promote healthy eating and exercise without considering the very real environmental and structural constraints present in South Africa.

Barriers to healthy choices

The 29 participants spoke about many different facets of health. These included happiness and mental wellbeing, faith, social support, body image, and lifestyle behaviours.

They identified many barriers to healthy eating, among them the cost of and access to healthy food options. Some women also said they had little access to exercise facilities such as gyms and were afraid to exercise on the streets because they feared being assaulted or harassed. One woman said:

No, I don’t feel safe because we have drug addicts, traffic, women trafficking: it’s not safe for us to walk in the streets.

The women we interviewed painted a picture of an environment in which healthy behaviours are difficult to implement or sustain. One said:

Small businesses that are opening up in my community and they all sell fries, literally they just all sell fries…

Women told us that cheap and unhealthy fast foods are on every street corner: “bunny chow” – hollowed out bread stuffed with curry – vetkoek (a fried dough bread stuffed with different fillings) and fried chips are affordable and available within a few steps of most houses. As a result, women did not want to go out of their way to purchase healthier, more expensive foods.

Our interviewees also didn’t feel able to demand that healthier food be bought for their homes, because many were not contributing financially and were therefore not in a position to control food purchases. Women reported being financially dependant on relatives and male partners.

READ MORE | New Ways Of Thinking On Health, Arts And Humanities Are Emerging In Africa

Exercise

They also said that opportunities for physical activity were neither provided nor prioritised for women in Soweto. Some women said that a lack of facilities made it difficult for them to participate in any exercise, as they did not have access to gyms or fields to exercise.

Other women told us that there were gyms, sports grounds, parks, and even free aerobics classes at community halls in their area. However these facilities often get vandalised quickly, and can no longer be used. More importantly, they didn’t feel safe enough to exercise on the streets, perhaps by jogging or running. They also felt unsafe walking around in leggings or tights. Women were fearful of human trafficking, sexual assault, and violence – very real issues in this community.

Crucially, our research found that young women did not see obesity as a sufficient reason to change their behaviour. But they said they would be motivated to exercise and eat better if they were diagnosed with a non-communicable disease like diabetes.

This suggests that obesity has become normalised in South Africa – and this needs to be addressed.

Policy interventions

These findings are now being worked into our interventions, and we are cognisant of the contextual realities that may affect young women’s ability to change their lifestyles. We hope that this research, along with whatever findings emerge from our interventions, will inform policy makers and motivate them to implement necessary changes in this community.

Women in Soweto and in South Africa in general need support to live healthier lifestyles. This support needs to come from policy makers. If South Africa does not step up and support young women by providing them with access to safe spaces and affordable healthier foods, and by controlling the oversupply of unhealthy options, the country may not be able to curb its ever increasing rise in obesity and related non-communicable diseases.

-Alessandra Prioreschi: Associate Director and Researcher at the Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU), University of the Witwatersrand

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