Reading the Africa39 anthology: “Mama’s Future” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

We are currently reading and writing about the stories in the Africa39 anthology, as well as linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. (The previous review was of “Sometime Before Maulidi” by 2014 Morland Scholar, Ndinda Kioko).

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.

This review is of “Mama’s Future” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond who was kind enough to visit our virtual offices to talk a bit about her story and what motivated her to write it.

Q: “Mama’s Future” is perhaps the most explicitly allegorical story in the Africa39 anthology. Why the use of allegory? What work did you want allegorical political narrative to do that an essay, for instance, couldn’t?

I chose allegory for “Mama’s Future” because I wanted to express and examine a range of very personal emotions I have concerning my native Ghana, and Africa as a whole. In many ways, Ghana/Africa is an old woman still muttering about the good old days even as she sits in her own squalor. But this old woman is my mother, so I can’t walk away. I am responsible for her. With “Mama’s Future”, I hoped to make Africa’s glory, bounty, and challenges similarly personal to readers, and invite them to take a stake in a better future for the continent.

I also aimed to challenge the “minority” label blacks living outside Africa are often branded with. The slave trade and voluntary migration from the continent dispersed Africans to every corner of the globe. As a result, in many of the communities we live in today, black people make up a small percentage of the whole. But according to 2014 population data, there are over 1 billion people of African descent on the planet — which amounts to a majority, second only to Asians. I wanted to imagine what could happen if Africans resident on the continent and blacks outside Africa connected, across both the petty and serious divides, to effect sustainable change to current dire conditions.

Sure, a straight essay could have detailed all of this, but story offers a more engaging portal. We’ve all heard the axiom “truth is better than fiction” — it’s also true that the narrative remove of a tale can give us fresh perspective on the truth, especially the truths we have become inured to.

Q: “Mama’s Future” seems to suggests that Africa’s hope lies in a reverse brain-drain — Mama says, “I want more than the money you give to assuage your guilt. I want you to come home and take care of me till you find the Future.” — a conscious concerted reversal of the human cost of emigration and slavery. Mama reminds her children that, “Elsewhere is for strangers.”

I don’t know how practical it is for every black person living around the world to pick up and permanently leave the communities they are now part of to return to help Africa. Nor am I sure that a reverse brain drain is the solution to quashing Africa’s problems. In “Mama’s Future”, Mama tries to emotionally manipulate her children into pledging to stay, but they refuse to make any promises. This said, I do see the difference it makes when one has a personal stake in Africa. If you have close relatives, property, or a business on the continent, news of a coup or flood or currency devaluation is no longer abstract, merely another link to share or tune out of.

Additionally, racism and the minority identity imposed on many in the diaspora have negatively impacted the self-esteem of many Africans outside Africa and impeded their progress. Blacks living outside the continent, are always being reminded overtly and subliminally that they don’t belong in their resident/natal countries. They are mostly absent from popular culture except in the most extreme representations. They experience pressure to downplay their African heritage in order to gain access to opportunities that will enable them to flourish. And they are viewed with suspicion and more harshly punished for the same crimes committed by other races.

Most Africans in the diaspora accept this reality and carry on, but as economies across Europe and America contract, while African economies are projected to grow exponentially, many diaspora Africans are taking the opportunity to re-plant roots on the continent. For these returnees, Africa offers some reprieve from the stranger syndrome that plagued their existence Abroad, however, many find that the time they spent overseas has made them “others” in Africa too.

Obviously, it’s a complicated situation, but I think it’s necessary to grapple with these issues now, and hopefully arrive at some resolutions that could benefit future generations.

Q: The metaphor/image of digging — Mama exhorts her children that, “You dig until you find it” — for your future is used to indicate what kind of work is needed to secure/rescue Africa’s future. But while “digging” itself points at tilling the land, digging to find treasure evokes the image of an uncertain search for something that may or may not be there, but which, if found would be a huge windfall. It also brings to mind the image of mining, and we recall how damaging the war for mineral resources has been in Africa. But treasure also implies the possibility of a big score than changes one’s future completely. The story seems to urge African descended peoples to take a collective leap of faith — Mama says she’s “talking about the Long Term; where I hid a reserve for all of you.” But in order to believe in the Long Term, a leap of faith, rather than a strict cost-benefit analysis (which is what economic or developmental models would propound) is required. What, beyond cultural self-belief, should inspire this faith?

The answer to this question differs for different people.

For some on the continent, frustration with inept and corrupt governments, and a resultant poor quality of life, might be all it takes to inspire action toward a better future. For some in the diaspora, the experience of being marginalized in the countries they live in could be the proverbial straw.

We all have to evaluate the situation as it is in Africa and weigh the cost of allowing things to go on as they are against the risk of pursuing something better, uncertain as the outcome might be. Throughout history, change has come when people reach their tipping point with respect to the condition they find themselves in and start to organize toward improvement.

Q: The story opens with the death of Mama Africa. By the end of the story it seems clear that Mama’s death is certain, that she can’t be saved from dying, but that a future for her children lies beyond her death. Indeed, it seems as though her death is necessary. What exactly is dying when Mama dies? Do you feel that it is necessary for a certain image/vision of Africa to die in order for the future to be found?

I chose to open the story with Mama on her deathbed because I think, in many ways, Africa is treated as a comatose patient—talked over, theorized about, and made to submit to endless tests and experiments she might not have chosen if she were in better health. Her power of attorney seems non-existent, signed away in multiple aid deals and agreements. And then are the realities of poverty, poor infrastructure, corruption, war, coup, disease, and terrorism that prevent many Africans resident on the continent from actualizing their full potential, and cause many to emigrate to foreign countries. My hope and prayer is that this period in the continent’s ongoing story will die as the older generation yields to the next.

To be clear, I see this period as a phase, albeit a long one, in Africa’s winding story. I think we often forget what Africa was — the wealthiest place in the world — before slavery and colonialism attempted to strip it bare. Even today, in spite of centuries of exploitation and its current challenges, Africa is rich in resources, both human and material.

Q: Why “Mama” and not “Baba”/”Papa”? Why did you choose to figure Africa as a woman?

I suppose I was influenced to portray Africa as a mother because of the term “Mama Africa” which so many people are familiar with. I was trying to inspire a personal connection to Africa with the reader and I can’t think of an individual more personal to somebody than his or her mother/mother figure.

Mothers represent a tangle of conflicting emotions. For example, children don’t ask to be born, but every child owes their existence to their mother; entitlement, resentment, guilt, and deep love emanate from there. With “Mama’s Future” I wanted to consider this: If Africa is our mother — where we come from — what do we owe her? What does she owe us?

Q: What is your vision for the African woman in Africa’s future? Are you a feminist? If so, what does it mean to you to be feminist and African?

I look forward to a future that will give rise to more Jamila Abasses, Akindele Abiolas, Duro-Aina Adebolas, Farida Bedweis, Bello Eniolas, Linda Kwambokas, Susan Oguyas, Faleke Oluwatoyins, and Lorna Ruttos.

These women and girls are just a few of the many African females creating apps, repurposing waste, manufacturing alternative energy sources, and solving other problems in their localities that everyone can benefit from. But the reality is, many African families believe their girls are less valuable if they are off in school acquiring the skills to create these solutions. They would rather the girls sell at the market, or help tend the other children in the house, or fetch an income as a housegirl for a wealthy employer, or marry a local suitor with means to pay a dowry and take care of the family.

According to findings from the International Center for Research on Women, 30% of girls in the developing world are married before they are 18, with the highest prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa. ICRW’s statistics show that these child brides are more likely to contract HIV and experience domestic violence, among other complications. Conversely, educated girls are less likely to marry before they reach adulthood.

This being the case, it just makes sense that everyone would want a better outcome than vulnerability to disease and abuse for their daughters, sisters, cousins, aunties, and mothers. To paraphrase the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s popular TEDx talk-turned-book, shouldn’t we all be feminists?

Q: Where do you see Africa fitting in the world now, politically? What does “Africa rising” mean to you, or to the young African, the diasporic African, now.

We are at an interesting and familiar point in the rotating cycle of history. Just as western economies launched the slave trade and colonialism when they found they needed to tap foreign resources to survive, today, individuals and corporations from Europe and America are leaving the shrinking and recession economies of their countries and setting up shop in Africa.

Economists project exponential growth on the continent over the next 30 years. The question is, will history repeat itself? Will Africa yield to a new incarnation of captivity and exploitation? For Africa to truly rise, Africans must rise too, not just the continent’s privileged elites.

Q: What does “Afropolitan” mean to you?

Africa39 author, Taiye Selasi, described “the Afropolitan” in her article, “Bye-Bye Babar”, as a “cultural mutt” whose values, style of speech, and fashion sense, among other things, are informed by multiple international references due to upbringing and/or exposure. I certainly fit this description, but I prefer to call myself “African”.

People have coopted the Afropolitan concept and stripped it from the questions of identity Selasi initially raised. Now, it seems to be a euphemism for privileged Africans with American or European accents, grossly out of touch with the continent’s concerns.

There is value in speaking honestly about the feelings these micro-identities raise. As an African who is a cultural mutt, my authenticity as an African is often called into question by Africans born/resident on the continent. There is a lot of tension between Africans in Africa and those in the diaspora. And I understand it to some extent.

Many Africans at home feel that the diaspora should not be able to swoop in and out with their dollars/euros/pounds to implement their ideas now that Africa is “rising” when they were missing in action during periods of famine, coup, and/or war. And even as diasporans fly to Africa for vacation or to live and work, they can form exclusionist circles closed to those who can’t share stories of trips and life Abroad.

Conversely, Africans in the diaspora contribute $40 Billion every year to Africa in remittances and have schools, businesses, charities, and other initiatives on the continent that benefit the people. They want to help, yet they are often blocked by Africans who refuse to help them navigate the system. After a few months or years knocking against this opposition, many leave frustrated and take their resources to other markets that will benefit.

We have to work through these very real issues and come together to work toward the betterment of Africa. I loved the way Africans at home and Abroad came together to make #BringBackOurGirls a global rallying cry (Africa39 author, Chibundu Onuzo is one amongst many who has been consistently, vociferously bringing attention to the plight of these girls as well as Nigeria’s broader political situation). We need one another and we work well together.

“Powder Necklace” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond.

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