Driving around Joburg these last few weeks, I found myself wishing for a Springtime for my soul. It is late October and the jacarandas are in full bloom, large purple blossoms, sprouting from trees, hanging over the streets, piling like purple snow on the curbs. A beautiful lushness highlighted from time to time by an iridescent purple bougainvillea tree mixing with the lavender. The softness of the hue, colouring the horizon, harbinger of warmth, long days, braais and relaxation. Last year, I missed the jacarandas completely, never saw Spring at all.
I was struck, over and over again, about how much I needed that fresh beginning. Its been over a year but I’m still recovering from the trauma of losing the vision in my one eye. I’m not quite steady on my feet, stumble on stairs, feel fluttery inside, have panic attacks sometimes. I’m struggling with dependence and loss of spontaneity, with the endless anxiety of an artist, the constant grind of poverty. Yes, I wanted my life to start again and repeatedly I’d ask the Universe to bring a Spring to me.
Then I got the invitation to Ghana to participate in the AWDF’s 10th Anniversary Celebrations. I hadn’t given my best to the organization as our two-year relationship stalled and dragged, stopped completely when I was down with my eye and only had just picked up again. My job had been to open the office, get the organization registered and open a bank account. It still isn’t totally complete, even now. A recent visit by staff, board members and friends of the organization to launch the new, regional office was a huge outlay of energy and I’d lost momentum again. But my colleague there, Abigail, saw the value in my participation and had somehow pulled off what seemed like a miracle to me.
In a flurry of activity, I got my visa, got my yellow fever shot, printed out my e-ticket, got mosquito repellent and made some clothing purchases I’d put off for years. Somewhere in there, I had a wisdom tooth removed in a three-hour ordeal that left the Big Hole in my mouth. I packed light, didn’t need the laptop or my cell phone. I was off to Accra and excited.
Stepping out of the airport was like walking into an oven. Over the five days I was there, I was hotter than I’d ever been in my life. Heat and humidity equals sweat and sweat and more sweat. My skin and hair loved it but it was definitely a challenge. Still, I was in a five star hotel, with decent food, in a chalet overlooking the sea with fan and air conditioner, perfect for relaxing and tuning in – what more could a girl want?!!
Women from everywhere fanned out across the lobby, chatted in restaurants, napped under the trees. Several groups of Americans had come over, the AWDF-USA was made up of sisters who’d been supporting the organization for years. The Diaspora, Presente! The Minnesota Women’s Funds and International Women’s Fund were also participating. It was good to connect to those sisters who had traveled so far to understand the realities of our lives and support us in changing our circumstances “in Africa”. Funny to connect with the US in that way, from another lifetime when I worked for The San Francisco Women’s Foundation in the early days of women’s philanthropy.
Then there was the actual content of the celebrations – visits to projects, panel presentations, lectures, exhibitions, receptions. The highlight for me was hearing the Anniversary Lecture by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman president on the African Continent. When she came in, I couldn’t stop the tears flowing in awe and respect for this courageous humble leader. I was also moved by the strength and bravery of the Vice President of Malawi, Joyce Banda and the parliamentarian from Zimbabwe, Margaret Dongo, who’d fought Uncle Bob from an independent woman’s party.
Entering the hall on the night of the Purple Ball was like walking into a dream. Lights twinkled across purple banners, draping the hall in lavenders, mauves, violets, lilacs and plums. And women dressed in every style – fancy dresses, chic minis, flowing kaftans, business suits, wraps and traditional. Black women are beautiful, absolutely! The flash of a purple silk tie, a satin shirt, patterned waistcoat; the brothers joined in. All in our finery.
It was an amazing awards celebration, I clapped and cheered for women changing the lives of women – HIV/AIDS activists organizing support groups and programmes for orphaned children; women soldiers from warring nations seeking public office; women demanding peace so their countries can develop; women creating care protocols for pregnant women to save women’s lives in childbirth, women defending the rights of women against rape and sexual violence; women in business creating wealth beyond money (as we were reminded during the fundraising pitch.) Yes, there were more honorees covering women leaders in all the sectors that AWDF supports. I felt such pride for the organization and all the passionate, courageous women being recognized.
The Purple Ball was such a joyous occasion. It also recognized the departure of the much loved ED of AWDF, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, to become first lady of the Nigerian State, Ekite. After a hard fight at the polls, her husband had just won a four year court battle to take office. Speaker after speaker laughed proudly as they stumbled over the “her excellencies” and the “honorables” who used to be “just my best friend.” Women were there from Ekite State, with metallic purple head wraps, singing and dancing whenever their leaders spoke. I will always remember her husband, a tall robed smiling man, singing along with Yvonne Chaka Chaka, “you make me feel like a natural woman.” Sisters gave big ups to the feminist men in their lives.
Much attention and honour was given to the three women who’s vision and tenacity created the organization, two older women (my age mates) and their middle aged buddy, all proudly African feminist – Hilda Tadria, Joana Foster and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi. It strengthened me to be amongst women of that caliber and that much determination and commitment. True role models and absolutely warm, humble, generous, and thoughtful women.
The women of AWDF truly worked hard to provide everyone with such an inspiring and multifaceted set of activities. Sisters were on their feet for hours (usually in heels), making sure something or another was done. As an organizer of many events, this was truly a feat – the preparation, all the programmes, the transport, the accommodation. And everybody remained kind and friendly. I know they were glad to see our backs.
Upon reflection, the Purple Ball was more than an awards dinner or even a celebration for me. It was a coming together of many parts of myself as I chatted amongst the American donor group, found two long- lost friends, greeted husbands, hugged activists. Music brought me to my feet, dancing and sweating, smiling and smiling. Ghana pulled me out of myself. And I shopped and went to the WEB DuBois Memorial and had some dresses made. Sadly, I arrived too late for the trip to the Cape Coast, the final departure point for my African ancestors from their homeland. Clearly I must return for this pilgrimage to honour the suffering and resilience of my people.
(Yes, I had an epiphany moment of truly, deeply, in my gut understanding who I really am, where I really come from. There can be no doubt that African Americans originate from Ghana, mostly we are a West African people. I could see it on the bodies, in the facial structure, in the tonality of speech and laughter. That’s another story for another time.)
Only now have I realized how the Universe answered my call. Ghana was my blessing. Spring did come in the jacaranda purple that blossomed everywhere at The Purple Ball, renewed my soul with the vision of my sisters committed to the development of African women. And suddenly I have new energy to give back and join in.
Spring did come and I feel more than I was dreaming of, I feel alive again.
In the last ten years, the African Women’s Development Fund has provided over 850 women’s organizations in 42 African countries with $15 million in monetary support.
It supports projects in the thematic areas of: Women’s Human Rights, Economic Empowerment, Political Participation, Peace Building, Health and Reproductive Rights and HIV/AIDS. Based in Accra, Ghana and with a staff of 20, the organization is a leader and cofounder of the African Grantmakers movement and the African Feminist Forum . This year it opened a Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg and will launch the East Africa Office in Kampala in 2011.