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On Africa Day, a thought for the Saharawi, the forgotten people

On Africa Day, a thought for the Saharawi, the forgotten people

As we celebrate Africa month and honour a continent that has nurtured us, we embrace the rich diversity, culture and heritage that we share as a people of Africa. It is our responsibility to know our continent and understand her people. Our calling is to strive to maintain a liberated, united and prosperous Africa. In my quest to achieve these objectives I have had the privilege of learning about a people, a land and a forgotten story of our very own continent.


 

Everyday life happens, we go about our daily routine, and then as if from nowhere a story finds you, you don’t see it, you don’t expect it, but it’s there and it reshapes your perspective. A paradigm shift takes place and your view point is changed forever.

Six months ago I had no idea that a nation known as the Saharawi, and a country called the Western Sahara even existed, no less than on our own continent, Africa. I had no idea that there were human atrocities happening in North West Africa that in South Africa we know nothing of, it is not spoken of, and knowledge of this is very difficult to acquire.

The Western Sahara; commonly referred to as the last frontier of Africa, has been under the illegal occupation of Morocco, in accordance to international law. In 1963 the Western Sahara was added to the United Nations list of non-self governing territories and it was only in 1975 that the Western Sahara saw the departure of their coloniser Spain. The Spanish left and Madrid ceded control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries claiming sovereignty over the territory this triggered an armed conflict with the Polisario Front, the liberation movement; that the UN considers as the legitimate representation of the Saharawi people. This conflict marked the beginning of a refugee crisis that has become an ongoing and forgotten conflict.  Africa can never, ever be free until those across our continent have their basic human rights, self determination and an opportunity to live freely!

Four decades have passed since the Saharawi refugee crisis began; today these people are still living in exile, while their families are back home, in the occupied territory, those that stayed behind are subjected to inhumane conditions. 40 years on, how do a people keep hope alive? This is a subject that is tabled and included on the agenda of the UN Security Council each year, this is as a result of the groundwork done by the African Union; yet generations later children are being born in a refugee camp, with no idea as to the world outside of the camps.

In 1975 the Saharawi were forced to flee their land and found refuge in south-west Algeria, with the expectation that one day they would return to their home. Traditionally a nomadic people, they have been forced to settle in an arid desert environment with no opportunity to be self-sufficient or productive. A camp set up in the midst of the desert, exposed to extreme heat that reaches 55’celcius, harsh sandstorms, constant drought and infrequent but hostile torrential rains.

These are a people that have been denied their home, their independence and their human rights! I know all of this now, because I had the opportunity to visit, learn and engage with these forgotten people. I was invited by the Saharawi Women Organization to join them at a refugee camp just outside Tindouf in Algeria, in a camp called Smara. There was much debate and discussion before my decision was made to embark on this journey. A journey, that would take me to a far corner of the African continent and would see me live with refugees, in refugee conditions. For seven days I committed to living with the exiled Saharawi, an urban being in the desert, with no running water, no electricity, no arable land, no food, no basics; I would get to come home after my time in the camp, but the families there would not go home, and they would not have something different tomorrow, they live day to day. They survive only on the basket of dried goods that is air-dropped every month by the World Food Programme (WFP). These people do not get to go home: this is the only home that they now know...

When this story found me, I was faced by many questions, where was this, what were the logistics involved, what were the security challenges, what were the health risks, the ultimate question, “Could people on our continent be living without the right of self governance, and self determination?” I was challenged to step from the known into the unknown, so as to see, hear and know what truth lay behind this story. I was compelled to seek information and to create an awareness of the human rights issue of the #SaharawiPeople.

I stand in solidarity with a people who have fought for 40 years to be independent and have the right to self determination and decolonisation. I now ask the question, “Are the Saharawi a forgotten people of the world, or is it just easier to turn a blind eye to an illegal occupation?” The total population of the Saharawi is approximately one million people. The Western Sahara is a land rich in mineral resources, oil, gold, the world’s largest deposits of phosphates and a rich fishing coastline to name but a few of the natural resources, these resources should be the right of the Saharawi people, this should be what they could have built their economy on, and yet they can-not go home and they live a meagre existence in a refugee camp.

It was 23h30, I had been travelling for 18 hours; the last flight had been by military plane into an army base two hours away from the refugee camps. No business class, no luggage conveyor, a cold, war like structure. A seasoned traveller, this was somewhat different; used to gliding through snow white clouds and blue skies. The military aircraft ploughed through the sky, with much noise and movement, there was a feeling of displacement in the air, my journey was happening. On arrival at the camps the darkness was intriguing. It was as if a thick blanket concealed the story I would uncover in the days ahead. My eyes began to adjust I could see these little tents peering through, dwellings scattered across a vastness of nothing, this was the desert. No markings or indication as to where we were, or where we were going.

Some of the tents and small structures had a gentle shine which I was told was the only light source which was emitted from a solar powered battery, candle light or a rechargeable lamp. The shadow of light carried an ambiance of hope and comfort. Bumedian, my new friend and expert desert driver, explained to me, “It is easier to drive at night as your bearings lie in the stars and constellations.” I was mesmerised by the light of the moon and the soft glow that fell across the camp that allowed me a glimpse of what I would see when day arrived.

The warm embrace of Shabba and Miriam, two sisters from the family that I stayed with, was overwhelming and emotional. Language was a huge barrier, as no English is spoken by the majority of Saharawi people, who all speak a dialect of Arabic, and a small group also speak French. We made our way into the family tent, where we were asked to leave our shoes outside. Mutha, an English student and the protocol officer, stayed with me.

         

As day broke, the tender sound of the Muazzin was heard across the camp, and the women of the family I stayed with started their first prayers for the day. Breakfast was a humble helping of dry bread, jam and milk coffee, there is no running water, long life milk is all that is available, and it is considered a luxury for those that do have it. I quickly learnt that water is very scarce and used for washing before prayers and refreshing rinses at the hottest times of the day. The basic routine of bathing in the morning, washing your teeth and other ‘daily rituals’ were somewhat of a luxury. This family had no toiletry bag filled with the items we take for granted, toothpaste and toothbrushes were not available.

I stepped out of the family tent, and was struck by the bright light and the vast naked desert. As far as my eye could see, in every direction, tiny dwellings and tents covered the landscape. I paused to get my bearings, as reality and shock started to become reality. Slowly the gentle laughter of children filled the crisp morning air and started to permeate the harsh reality that I could see around me. These children do not know anything other than this camp; they are playful, happy and content. The desert sand is their playground; nothing grows here, not a shrub, not a blade of grass and not a tree to be found, there is no vegetation of any kind. I quickly realised that there is no oasis in this desert. A ‘lilo’ like plastic is placed alongside each tent, which is filled with rationed water for each family; the water truck comes every few weeks. My family were insistent that I use as much water as I needed, but I humbly acknowledged that I would get to go home and I would leave these beautiful people here in the Sahara, still with no running water or electricity.

As I lay my head on the floor that night, I closed my eyes and I knew that tomorrow would never be the same, I would never be the same; I was a different person... I thought that poverty was what we had to fight, but this surpassed poverty, here there was nothing. I knew that I could not mistake the soft light, the amazing heavens, the smiles the children shared, their willingness to share love with me, did not mean that all was well. These are people that, 40 years on, still have a packed bag in their tent, so that when they are called, they will be ready to go home.

I ask that people support my call; support their call, to bring about international action, in order to bring about the change that the Saharawi people have been waiting for; they must be given their rights as a people.

A refugee camp is a place of loneliness and nothingness, yet one could easily be mistaken that the bright and colourful material worn by the women of the Western Sahara is what brings light and colour to this bare landscape. However, you would be sorely mistaken as the light in the camp comes from the power of the human spirit within these people. These people are proof that even under such harsh conditions, despite a lack of human rights and a call for action for them to return home, I could feel that #HopeLivesHere.

We need to stand against the existence of such; we need to demand the right of self determination, self governance and human rights for all people. It saddens my very fibre that people must wait for a monthly food basket composed of nine dry commodities; that never change, there is no variation, it always remains the same, and it is all that there is.

There is a will power, a strength of mind and a community built by the determination and strength of women who play the most crucial role in pushing this movement forward! The human spirit LIVES, it lives in these camps, in those tents and in the heart of all who pass through that place!

CATHERINE CONSTANTINIDES
@ChangeAgentSA

Catherine Constantinides is a 2013 Tutu Fellow.

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1st Tutu Fellowship Programme Workshop of 2015 under way

1st Tutu Fellowship Programme Workshop of 2015 under way

The first Tutu Fellowship Leadership Programme Workshop of 2015 is under way in Cape Town, where 23 participants from all over Africa are honing their leadership skills, building their network and discovering new approaches to solving the problems the continent faces. The young leaders were selected from more than 250 nominees from more than 30 African countries and range from 29 to 40 years of age. The participants at this workshop represent the wealth and breadth of the talent Africa has to offer among its young leaders.

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Tutu Fellows statement on Afrophobic attacks in South Africa

Tutu Fellows statement on Afrophobic attacks in South Africa

We, the Archbishop Tutu Fellows, unequivocally condemn the Afrophobic violence that has erupted in different places in South Africa. We condemn these episodes of violence as much as we condemn the violence experienced by the students and people of Garissa, Kenya; as much as we condemn the violent abduction of the girls in Chibok, Nigeria over a year ago; as much as we condemn war-related rape towards women in different war-torn parts of Africa; and as much as we condemn the violence into which young children are forced to become child soldiers.

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Class of 2015 Tutu Fellows announced

Class of 2015 Tutu Fellows announced

10 African countries represented among 23 programme participants

The African Leadership Institute (AFLI) is proud to announce the 2015 intake of selected candidates for the prestigious Tutu Leadership Fellowship. Among more than 250 nominees from 32 African countries, 23 of Africa’s highest potential young leaders were selected to take part in the programme. Spanning more than 15 industries, representing 10 African countries, and ranging from 29 to 40 years of age, the selected candidates demonstrate the wealth and breadth of leadership talent that exists in Africa’s youth.

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Ross Garland discusses impact of YouTube on local film industry

Ross Garland discusses impact of YouTube on local film industry

Tutu Fellow Ross Garland is the founder and owner of Rogue Star Films, responsible for producing hit movies including the award-winning U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and Confessions of a Gambler. Now with three successful Spud movies under his belt, he’s well placed to reflect on the changing face of filmmaking trends.

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Tutu Fellow Victor Ochen Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Tutu Fellow Victor Ochen Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Ugandan-born activist the youngest African to be nominated


Tutu Fellow Victor Ochen (33), founder and director of the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET) has been nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. A 2011 graduate of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme, Victor has dedicated his life to rehabilitating victims of war by providing psycho-social support and life-saving healthcare.

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Explaining the African Leadership Institute - Promo Video 9"

Explaining the African Leadership Institute - Promo Video 9"

Founded in 2004 with the support of Oxford University, the African Leadership Institute (AFLI) is the continent’s premier leadership programme. Since the creation of its flagship programme – the Tutu Leadership Fellowship – which welcomes an elite group of leaders from across Africa and includes a strong focus on the values and ethics of leadership, more than 200 Tutu Fellows have been selected to complete the programme. These individuals represent a powerful network of exceptional leaders from a wide range of sectors who work with one another to extend the benefit of their learning and experiences to the broader community.  This video explains how the Institute works and why it is using leadership as a vehicle for change.

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Explaining the African Leadership Institute - Promo Video 3"

Explaining the African Leadership Institute - Promo Video 3"

Founded in 2004 with the support of Oxford University, the African Leadership Institute (AFLI) is the continent’s premier leadership programme. Since the creation of its flagship programme – the Tutu Leadership Fellowship – which welcomes an elite group of leaders from across Africa and includes a strong focus on the values and ethics of leadership, more than 200 Tutu Fellows have been selected to complete the programme. These individuals represent a powerful network of exceptional leaders from a wide range of sectors who work with one another to extend the benefit of their learning and experiences to the broader community. This video explains how the Institute works and why it is using leadership as a vehicle for change.

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Sam Mensah – Global Fashion Mogul

Sam Mensah – Global Fashion Mogul

An entrepreneur who left his career in investment and private banking, Sam Mensah has gone on to create Kisua.com – an international e-tailer of contemporary African fashions and accessories for women. He shares his journey as a businessman following a passion and lessons learned as a leader taking an African brand global: “It’s one thing to have an ‘a-ha’ moment, but it’s quite another thing to give up the comfort of a good job.” His advice: get comfortable with the possibility of failure.

Artist Name - tutu_fellows_28_jan_sam_mensah_2014_tutu_fellow_medium.mp3

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Sam Mensah - Global Fashion Mogul

Sam Mensah - Global Fashion Mogul

An entrepreneur who left his career in investment and private banking, Sam Mensah has gone on to create Kisua.com - an international e-tailer of contemporary African fashions and accessories for women. He shares his journey as a businessman following a passion and lessons learned as a leader taking an African brand global: "It's one thing to have an 'a-ha' moment, but it's quite another thing to give up the comfort of a good job." His advice: get comfortable with the possibility of failure.

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Academic activist authors anti-corruption book for children

Academic activist authors anti-corruption book for children

A Liberian academic, activist and author with a transnational mindset, Robtel claims that she “exists and thrives on three continents simultaneously.” She shares her story about growing up in Washington D.C. and a project to raise awareness among children about the scourge of corruption on the African continent.

In this interview, she explains how corruption awareness needs to be taught early:

Artist Name - tutu_fellows_27_jan_dr_robtel_neajai_pailey_2010_tutu_fellow_medium.mp3

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Nominations for 2015 Archbishop Tutu Fellowships close 15 December 2014

Nominations for 2015 Archbishop Tutu Fellowships close 15 December 2014

The selection process for the 2015 Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowships has commenced. The process is underway to identify the “movers and shakers” in the age range 25-39 across the continent who have demonstrated they have the potential to become the future leaders of Africa in government, business and civil society.

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Mandela, the Unifier

Mandela, the Unifier

“Madiba taught us how to come together and to believe in ourselves and each other. A unifier from the moment he walked out of prison. He taught us extraordinarily practical lessons about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation.” The day he awarded South Africa’s national rugby team with the World Cup trophy wearing a Springbok jersey with the captain’s number on it was “…worth more than all the sermons we could preach about reconciliation.”

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James Mwangi - 2009 Tutu Fellow (Kenya)

James Mwangi is a Partner with Dalberg Global Development Advisors and the Executive Director of the Dalberg Group, a collection of impact-driven businesses that seek to champion inclusive and sustainable growth around the world.  James founded and built up Dalberg’s presence in Africa, beginning with the Johannesburg office in 2007, Nairobi in 2008, and Dakar in 2009, and served as Global Managing Partner from 2010 to 2014.

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Aidan Eyakuze - 2006 Tutu Fellow (Tanzania)

Aidan Eyakuze - 2006 Tutu Fellow (Tanzania)

Aidan Eyakuze, an economist, is a founding director of Serengeti Advisers Limited, a Tanzania-based regional advisory firm in economic and public policy, corporate finance and media analysis. He nurtures a keen intellectual and professional interest in economic policy, financial markets and emerging trends in information and communications technologies and their impact on society. He is also the Associate Regional Director of the Society for International Development (SID).

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