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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Africa's Struggle

Dear Friends of Alaffia,
It is my sincere wish this note finds you and your family in good health. On behalf of our entire Alaffia team in the US and in West Africa, I wish you a healthy and peaceful 2015.  May this year be the one where all the citizens of this world foster peace and reduce the environmental destruction of our planet.

In celebration of African American history month in February and to honor those that have given their lives for social justice, I feel I must share with you my reflections on where we Africans are today and to pose the question whether we are moving our communities forward.  From studying the past and through my travels and observations throughout West Africa, it pains me to conclude  the state of current African societies is far from the just and fair goal for which many before have sacrificed their lives. From the late 1800s through the civil rights era, almost all the African nations fought and won independence from European colonial control. During this time, many thought  since we were no longer under direct European rule, we would be able to create and establish just societies, but after 60 years of decolonization, the majority of African states do not have true democracy, and the economic situation is still worsening . Even sadder, the hope for African unity that many believed would be realized never came. In fact, we are more divided today than ever. 
Examples of Africa’s  struggle to move forward can be seen in the lives and experiences of two of our great musicians. Miriam Makeba was exiled from her beloved South Africa for 30 years for speaking out against the atrocities in her own country and expressing her beliefs in African unity. When she was finally allowed to return home, she was happy to be back with her family, but she was also disappointed the African unity she had worked so hard for had never come.  Similarly, Boubacar Traoré, singer and songwriter from Mali, sang of the new hope and optimism in the 60s for Mali’s independence.  Today, Mali is one of the poorest nations on Earth and is in danger of losing its great historical legacies, such as the oldest university in Timbuktu, to religious extremism. 
The future of Africa is utterly bleak without unity. While there is no guarantee  a “just society” will not be eventually brought down by others, unity allows us to see our similarities and our differences as a positive element rather than a point of contention. For instance, the mass genocide of Tutsi by the Hutu in Rwanda may not have occurred had the two sides focused on their similarities and moved forward together to resolve economic and social hardships.  Unity also prevents general societal collapse and ongoing colonization. Today, China is economically colonizing many of our nations, taking advantage of existing weaknesses and divisions among African nations. Furthermore, a sense of unity leads to positive feelings towards  cultural heritage, which creates self-worth and allows each individual to reach his or her full potential. Therefore, unity is absolutely essential to a peaceful and functional society.
While  we Africans and the African diaspora are not united as people and communities, we must not give up. Those of us who are fortunate to see the disconnects must take steps to further togetherness by providing economic opportunities and ultimately reduce poverty in our communities. As my mother often says, “One can never be defeated as long as there is hope.” We cannot concede the struggle for unity and justice. Together, we can build on the struggles and accomplishments of those before us and strive  for a peaceful and fair world.

Peacefully yours,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Human Rights & Trafficking in Africa

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

It is my sincere wish this note finds you and your family in good health. I hope that you are enjoying the last few remaining days of 2014. Throughout 2014, I have written to share with you what Alaffia has been up to and my own personal thoughts and reflections on the course of humanity towards justice for all. While some of my reflections are of a sad nature, they have and continue to propel me to continue the Alaffia journey. One thing both the Alaffia updates and my personal notes have centered on is the profound desire for basic human rights for all.  Since this is the end of the year, I wanted to discuss with you one of the human rights abuses that persist in our society, and as we jump to a new year, we shall use this information to continue to create justice. As you know, there are many aspects of human rights, but my note will focus on one flaw I continue to witness in our West African societies. This is the trafficking of young ladies, which is an area of injustice that is very personal to me, as I have witnessed it first-hand.

Three years ago, while in Togo, my step sister was put in the local jail in our home town of Kaboli. It happened I was in Togo at the time, and I received a phone call that I must send money to Kaboli right away to bail my sister out. She had been jailed for trafficking a young girl of our neighborhood to Benin for domestic servitude. This created an extreme dilemma for me. I felt disgusted a member of my family would participate in such a trade. On the other hand, my refusal to help her financially would lead my family to see me as a cold person and my inactivity would bring shame on the entire family. The longer she remained in jail, the more time there was for the town to learn about it and create even greater strain on the family. Even though my sister’s actions went directly against my primary core values, I agreed to send funds to bail her out. I did this because she was the only one who knew where the girl had been sent and the only one who could help get the girl returned to her family. In exchange for the bail, my sister agreed to bring the young woman back to her family.

Since that day, I decided to learn more through my sister on how this trade works. As she explained, it begins when women like my sister will receive an “order” from a contact, who has a network of wealthy clients in cities in Benin or Nigeria looking for house servants. Through this network, he will put in his order for young women and girls to traffickers like my sister.  The traffickers begin their search by identifying extremely poor families with many children. These are families that barely have enough food to make it through the day or have undergone some tragedy, such as losing the mother or father, leaving young women under 20. The traffickers take advantage of the family situation and convince the young ladies that this is their chance for a better life, that after three years of helping rich families she will have her own money. The trafficker then smuggles the girls through the town and passes them on to the contact, who has connections with cross border bus drivers.  When the girls reach the city, a message is sent through the same bus driver telling the girl’s family she has gone to Cotounou (or other city) to work for a family and not to worry.  This way the family will stop searching for her. While the family knows which city their daughter is in, they don’t know the address or even the neighborhood.  The young girl leaves her family behind, and is treated a house servant for up to three years. During this time, the family she works for pays the contact approximately $10 each month, but the girl does not see any money until her three year term is up, at which time she only receives a small portion of her earnings. Traffickers are given up to 20% of the girls’ anticipated earnings when they deliver the girls to the contact. This upfront payment is the primary motivator for traffickers like my sister.

What I have shared with you is just a bare sketch of the complexity and totality of this human rights violation.  As my sister related to me, at least half of the young women end up in prostitution or get pregnant, in which case they are sent back to their already impoverished parents. According to UNICEF, 80 percent or more of domestic workers in West Africa are girls, the majority of which are rural girls relocated to urban areas.

Today, a quarter of all the women that participate in Alaffia’s maternal health program are young girls that have been trafficked and returned with unwanted pregnancies. While Alaffia is supporting these women, it does not resolve this injustice. As I have alluded already, the root cause of this is poverty. And, while poverty does not justify such inhumanity, as I have seen over and over, when people are in deep poverty, morality is deflected and decisions are made that keep individuals and communities in poverty or prevent chance of a better life in the future. I see how entrenched this practice in in our society, but remain hopeful that the creation of economic opportunities for these girls and their families will put an end to it.

As for my sister, I gave her a small loan, and she now trades agricultural good, grains and yams, in Kaboli and surrounding villages. She no longer participates in human trafficking. As for me, my decision to pay for her bail continues to bring internal conflict but affirms my dedication to continue to mitigate these practices in our societies.  Since the day I bailed out my sister, I have been working harder than ever to reduce this practice in my country through providing economic opportunities and social empowerment to reduce poverty in our communities.

During this holiday season, I plead to you to improve something in your neighborhood that you see as morally wrong. We as a human family cannot and should not allow for such practices that make our fellow sisters be treated in such a manner. Those of us who do not live under poverty conditions must do everything we can to reduce the pain of the lives of our sisters. The only way we can reduce this suffering is if each and everyone one of us, regardless of geographical location, does something.
Finally, please accept my deepest gratitude for all that you have done in supporting Alaffia to enable us to continue our dedications in Togo. I wish you a very joyous and peaceful holiday.

In peace,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala

Friday, October 31, 2014

Olowo-n'djo's Update: Labor Equality for All

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

It is my sincere wish this letter finds you and your family in good health.  The month of October is dedicated to fair trade, during which we as people celebrate the efforts and achievements of this movement. While I am in a celebrating spirit, I cannot help but think of the magnitude of the task before us in creating a just world for all, regardless of our geographical location or birth origin. The task is great because fair trade is in direct competition with free trade.  While fair trade is a social movement with the goal of producers receiving a bigger piece of the price paid by consumers, free trade is defined as international trade unhindered by tariffs and quotas.  It is an unsettling fact that free trade is taking over Africa today, and this is why I cannot completely celebrate our achievements. 

By 2015, seven out of the ten fastest growing economies will be in Africa, yet it is impossible to see how this economic growth is raising my people out of poverty.  In fact, it is making the conditions almost worse, as the new wealth is concentrated on the top, and the capital gains are funneled out of the continent leaving little or nothing for the people at the bottom.  For instance, in Togo, the poverty rate for rural women is 74%, making education for our children unattainable.  The resulting lack of education and opportunity leads to human trafficking and child slavery. Additionally, our women produce 66% of the continent’s food, but only earn 1% of the total income. Such disparity clearly leads to gender inequality.

Selifa Ganiou
Cooperative member, Sokodé, Togo
When I think of these numbers, I see the women behind them and their pain. To me, it means the movement for fair trade of our resources must carry on and we must fight harder.  Otherwise, what does it mean to be human if we can’t ensure full human rights and dignity for all?  The stories and realities of our cooperative members are further proof this fight must continue.  One of our cooperative members, Selifa Ganiou, once shared her own experience with me: “Before my integration into the Alaffia cooperative, I moved to Benin to work in the capitol city and was without my children and my husband.  Now, since I’ve been with the cooperative for the last year, I find it possible to support the needs of my family. For example, I was able to save the life of my older brother thanks to the money that I make.  I have seven children; four are presently in school.  When the other three were school age, I was not able to live with them and did not have the means to keep them in school.  I would like to thank everyone who supports our cooperative and encourage them to take a strong hand to live happily with their families, like I am able to now that I am with the cooperative and no longer have to travel to find work.” Narratives such as these prove to me that a fair opportunity extended to one person can positively impact many more.

While the pictures and the real situations of our people on the ground may be unpleasant, we cannot and must not yield this fight. We must not be discouraged or intimidated. We must continue to dedicate our efforts toward the equality of all members of our human family.  As a result of this absolute commitment, our future generations shall rise from poverty and live in peace.  Most important to remember is that each and every one of us has the power to employ positive change upon one another.

I thank you for your continued caring and support, and believe together we can create justice on earth.

Humbly Yours,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala