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What Africa Teaches Us About Canada

In conversation with Senator Jaffer and Clement Apaak.

Chris Tenove 10 Nov

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see

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When we think about Vancouver's prominent immigrant communities, Chinese and Indo-Canadians come to mind. Or maybe the Greek-Canadians, whose influence is still seen in parts of Kitsilano. Or the Latino-Canadians, whose flavour wafts through Commercial Drive.

But what about African-Canadians? They belong to a much newer community, and a comparatively small one, and have few readily identifiable leaders. They do exist, however, and The Tyee spoke to two of them: Senator Mobina Jaffer and Clement Apaak.

Senator Mobina Jaffer

Mobina Jaffer was born in Uganda to a family of Indian descent. As a young adult, she fled the rule of the murderous dictator Idi Amin and arrived in Canada in 1975. In 2001, she became the first African and the first Muslim woman in Canada's senate. She is now Canada's Special Envoy to the Peace Process in Sudan and she frequently travels throughout Africa.

The Tyee spoke to Senator Jaffer in her office on Kingsway Avenue, in a room filled with Ghanaian cuttings, native Canadian artwork and shelves of law texts. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Not understanding Africa

"I'm very worried that people don't understand Africa. My mother always used to say: 'The people who give, get tired, but the people who receive still need to eat every day.' My fear is that if people don't understand Africa, one day they will say 'We gave to Africa yesterday and the problems are still there, so let's move on to another continent."

"What is at the root of problems in Africa? I think there are four things.

"First, there's the way the continent was divided. Take Sudan. In the south, the Acholi people are split between Sudan and Uganda. In the east, the Zaghawa are split between Sudan and Chad. And so on. These divided populations cause problems within countries and between countries.

"Second, there's the legacy of colonialism.

"Third, Africa's resources are exploited by the rest of the world. African countries are donor countries. Raw materials come from there and then other countries do the manufacturing and make the real money off of them. I think Canadians can relate to this.

"And fourth, they lack stability. To put this in context for Canadians I say, 'Think of how we were shaken up after the referendum in Quebec.' It caused a lot of tension and cost a lot of money. But it was just a little blip; our schools functioned, our hospitals functioned. So think about how devastating real instability would be.

The disease of loneliness

"Africans and aboriginal Canadians share many problems. Both know the legacy of colonialism. Both are treated in a very patronizing way. We decide what is best for them, and when you make decisions for others, you disempower them and make them dependant. And we forget we can learn a lot of things from aboriginal communities or from Africa.

"One of the most important lessons coming from Africa is the truth and reconciliation process, like we saw in South Africa. Our court systems are great. But they're scissors. The reconciliation process is a needle: it sews up and helps to heal. Because after you get your pound of flesh in court, then what? You still have to live with your neighbour.

"Also, Africans can teach us how to live in communities. Whenever I go to Africa, I see that in many ways they are richer than us. They have little, but they live the real core of life. There is a real community spirit. We suffer from the disease of loneliness here. I don't think they have much of that in Africa.

Don't let politicians 'cherry pick'

"People ask me, 'Why Canada should play a role in Africa?' Well, I'm absolutely convinced that Canadians do things differently. It sounds corny, but we really have a different approach due to our value system and experiences. We have a lot to give to the world.

"What can British Columbians do? They can do a lot. Most importantly, I think they should work on developing the policies that our government should adopt on Africa. They need to tell the government what to do. Otherwise the government will cherry pick, and often that's not good enough.

"We are doing great things in Tanzania. We are also doing a good job in Ethiopia and Egypt. I'm biased, but I think we're doing an amazing job in Sudan.

"Canada is doing good work in Sudan now because the prime minister got 1000 letters from concerned Canadians. That's all it took. My biggest nightmare every morning is that our prime minister will lose interest in Sudan and move on. That could happen soon. There are so many conflicts.

Canada's criminal stinginess

"We need to have those benchmarks [foreign aid levels of 0.7 percent GNP]. The government says, "We don't want to agree to them because we might not meet them." That's a cop-out. My mother always said, If you don't have a goal you will certainly not meet it."

"It's a very achievable goal, especially with our budgetary surplus. It is criminal, absolutely criminal, that we don't give more.

"We have an election coming, and elections are wonderful opportunities to ask for new commitments."

Clement Apaak

Last winter, Clement Abas Apaak traced the path of the millennia-old salt trade in regions of Ethiopia, collecting data for his doctoral thesis in archaeology. He returned to Simon Fraser University just three days before the student society election and won the presidency.

Apaak, 35, is originally from Ghana, and he has the booming voice and extravagant gestures that are common in West Africa. What follows are excerpts from his conversation with The Tyee.

"When I was growing up, most of our discussions around the dinner table were about politics. At school I recognized that I had an ability. So I was a class prefect in primary school and I've had some student government position all the way from then until now.

"Do I like campaigning? Yes! I'm never tired of campaigning!

"I like it because I like people and I like talking, especially when I feel passionate about something. Campaigning offers a chance to speak about what you believe and try to convince other people to follow your ideas. I truly live for that.

"One of my main projects right now is Canadian Students for Darfur. Through our organization, we've sent the prime minister probably 4000 postcards. He keeps getting them every day.

"And I know these things work. I'm a politician myself, and when people write to me about an issue, I act on it. So we'll keep sending them until peace is restored in Darfur and Sudan.

The duties of the diaspora

"The African diaspora have always played an important role on the continent. In the independence movements, almost all of the leaders were trained abroad or by members of the diaspora.

"People listen to us, because we have gone away to another place to study and we know what is happening in other parts of the world. And the trust we are given comes with responsibility.

"I think Western countries would do themselves a real favour if they took into account those of us Africans who are here. We can help bridge the gap.

"One day I would like to create an organization for the African diaspora in Canada. I would call it the 'New African Foundation.' It would be a think-tank that offers non-partisan, non-ideological advice and guidance on issues related to social, political and economic development in Africa.

The 'New African'

"I think a lot about the concept of the 'New African.'

"It is important for a New African to recognize that Africans are partly responsible for the problems plaguing the continent and to commit to work in a genuine way to help solve them.

"So yes, colonialism played a role. But what about the African leaders who are stealing development money and stashing it in Swiss banks? How can you blame colonialism when you are still doing that today?

"And how can you blame colonialism when you are oppressing your own country and people? When you say that your own daughters and mothers are not capable of contributing, so you banish them to the kitchen and never give them opportunities to go to school?

"It's important to keep our culture strong, but there are certain cultural practices that stifle development and progress and we have to change them. It's not enough to hide behind culture. When you begin to nail certain African leaders on something, they will say, 'Oh, we can't change that, it's a cultural tradition.' That's BS. They only say that when they have no other way to justify something.

Living in two worlds

"I think it is freeing for me to be away from Africa. I can escape many of the inhibitions there. I don't have to worry about offending some potbellied African official and I can say what I want.

"But when I go back, I will have to find a middle way. I don't want to visit my family in Ghana and wear a suit and tie, or refuse to eat the local food.

"People in the diaspora have to bridge the gap between traditional and modern, because we are both.

Chris Tenove is a frequent contributor to The Tyee and the guest editor of the Africa: Making the Connections series.

Thanks to Tides Canada Foundation for sponsoring our Making the Connections series. Tides Canada is a national public foundation that offers professional giving services to donors who share a concern for social justice and environmental issues - locally, nationally and internationally.


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