Thursday, 30 September 2010

Fashion model gives back to Congo

Noella Coursaris Musunka/Maerzinger Photography

Born to a Congolese mother and a Cypriot father in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Noella Coursaris Musunka is a super model whose image graces billboards and magazine pages (Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Arena etc) all over the world and represents brands such as Agent Provocateur, Apple ipod, Virgin Mobile and Barclays.

But Noella is a model in other ways too. The 27-year-old, who started her modelling career through a competition for Agent Provocateur in London and lived there for several years (she now lives in New York), has founded a non-governmental organization to advance girls’ education in Lubumbashi,  where she was born.  She is also a human rights activist, advising the UN, politicians, celebrities and corporations on the situation in her country.

Noella is coming to London on October 2nd to host “Creatives Unite For Congo”, a fashion show in profit of a school her NGO is building in Lubumbashi.  The show will showcase work by Congolese fashion designers IJO and Modahnik, the London brand MF Couture, as well as clothes made by girls from an orphanage supported by her NGO.

Noella’s father died when she was five and her mother, who didn’t have the resources to raise her on her own, sent her to live with relatives in Belgium, then Switzerland where she studied business. The silver lining to this traumatic event was a good education and a modelling career, which allows her to travel all over the world.

When she returned to the Congo to visit her mother 13 yeas later, she felt in love with the country. “The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt at home.”  The visit changed her forever. “From that moment I said to myself that one day I will do something back for my country. Even if I didn’t have my parents, I had been fortunate to have an education. I thought the best thing to do is pass on to others the same opportunity.”

So in 2007, she set up the Georges Malaika Foundation in New York in memory of her father. “His name was George and  “Malaika” in Swahili means angel.”

Noella and her team of non-profit and private industry professionals are building a sustainable school for 300 girls outside Lubumbashi and have already sponsored 16 girls with tuition, uniforms, meals and school supplies. The design for the school was donated by Studio MDA, the architects for Madonna’s Raising Malawi school, and the first stone was laid down in February by Khaliah Ali, the daughter of Mohammed Ali.

Over the last few years, she has addressed the DRC Parliament on violence faced by women of Eastern Congo and spoken at the UN and universities across the US about the war, which as been waged there for the last 10 years and killed more than 5.5 million people, and about rape being used as a weapon of war. But she also wants to focus on the beauty of the DRC, its culture and its people.

Creatives Unite For Congo: October 2nd at 8pm at The Penthouse, 39-43 Underwood St.  N1 7LG London, for tickets or more information:  rsvp@gmfafrica.og

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Neighborhood Mosque

Here is a beautiful poem my friend the Iranian poet Majid Naficy wrote to stress the need to separate state and religion in Iran. “I have come to this realization that for me as an Iranian it is not enough to request separation of religion and state, but I should also show how this tragic fusion had taken place,” he told me.

Majid was born in the ancient city of Isfahan and became a published poet at the young age of 13. He was politically active against the Shah's regime. After the 1979 Revolution, the new regime began to suppress the opposition, and many people, including his first wife and brother were executed. He fled Iran in 1983 and settled in Los Angeles where he lives with his son. He has since published eight collections of poems, including Muddy Shoes and Father & Son.  

Here is his poem:

The Neighborhood Mosque

                  by Majid Naficy

In our neighborhood

There was a tiny mosque

Which had a dome, but no minarets,

And as a child I thought

That Ali had been stabbed there. (1)

The man who called us to prayer

Was a chubby laughing janitor

Who dyed his hair, and beards

Hands and feet with henna,

And the big toe of his right foot

Stuck out from his torn shoe.

Every day early in the morning

I awoke to his harsh bellow

From the rooftop of the mosque

And thought of the shivering boys

Who with sleep around their eyes

And copper bowls in their hands

Passed by the empty mosque

To buy brains and tongues

Ears and cheeks

From the lamb cookery

At the entrance of the alley.

The Revolution gave the mosque two tall minarets

With loudspeakers on their balconies

Blasting days and nights.

The mosque was filled with bearded men carrying rifles

And veiled women standing in line

Collecting their monthly ration carts 

From the state head of prayer

Near his pulpit or prayer niche. (2)

But the laughing muezzin had gone

And instead of him,

The son of the local lamb chef

Sat on the balcony of one of the minarets

Keeping an eye on the neighborhood.

From then on, I would cover my ears

At the sound of the call to prayer,

And never pass by the mosque again

Fearful that the bearded young men

Would jump on top of me

And butcher me in the prayer hall,

Then wash their dirty hands

AT the ablution pool

Without asking themselves:

Is it lawful to shed the blood of a "warring infidel"

In the confines of the neighborhood mosque?

          September 16, 2010

1. In 661, Ali, the first Imam of Shi'a muslims was fatally stabbed in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq.

2. Prayer niche (Mihrab) is a niche in the mecca-facing wall that marks the direction of prayer in a mosque where the leader of congregational prayer stations himself.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Barefoot Peace Walk - UN International Peace Day

On UN International Day of Peace, this Tuesday, walk for children, for the dispossessed, for peace. 

To mark the UN International Day of Peace on 21st September, the International Refugee Trust (IRT) is holding a Barefoot Peace Walk in London to draw attention to a major humanitarian crisis taking place in Central East Africa in which 20-60,000 children have been abducted by the rebel group known as the  Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

 On that day, the charity is asking people to wear white and walk through central London to raise awareness of the grim reality affecting millions of people in Central East Africa in one of the world’s worst and most neglected humanitarian crises.

Millions of civilians have suffered over the past 24 years in the struggle between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The group originated in Northern Uganda but is now spread across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. The LRA is notorious for abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers and sexual slaves. The rebels target civilians, mutilating and killing on a horrific scale.

Campaigners are urging David Cameron’s coalition to help stop Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who has been abducting children to fight in his rebel army and rescue the children still in captivity. 

In support of the walk, author and comedian Jane Bussmann will perform her award-winning show ‘Bussmann’s Holiday’ (directed by Emmy winner Sally Phillips) at a special free event to be held at the Africa Centre from 7.30pm. 

A 20-year old former LRA abductee, Juliet, visited London this July with the charity War Child to share her experiences with school students, politicians and the media. Juliet hand-delivered a personal letter to Downing Street, urging the Prime Minister “to find a way to release girls and children who are still in the bush… this is an international problem and I ask you to take international leadership to stop this injustice."  An estimated 3,000 children are still held captive.

Regional governments are struggling to protect civilians and apprehend Kony and his top commanders. Campaigners are calling for the UK, which has strong ties to commonwealth nation Uganda and which contributes substantial aid to the region (£130m committed to the DRC), to demand value for money and stop Kony from destabilising the region. They urge Cameron's coalition to take a leading role in regional and international efforts to pursue peace and secure stability.

Barefoot Peace Walk participants will meet at 6pm next to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, tomorrow and leave at 6.30pm for a 45-minute walk through London past landmarks including the Houses of Parliament. People are encouraged to dress in white and to walk barefoot, but this is not compulsory. The walk finishes at the Africa Centre, 38 King Street, near Covent Garden, where the special evening event starts at 7.30pm. All activities are free to attend. IRT’s partners in Uganda and Sudan will take part in local events on the same day.

Monday, 6 September 2010

"People are being killed for hunting a small impala" – when conservation and human rights clash.

                                                  John Antonelli

I’ve always dreamt of seeing lions, elephants and giraffes in their own habitats in the wild. And I thought that wildlife reserves were saving the environment while at the same time injecting money into local communities and providing jobs – they were win-win enterprises.

But I’ve met a woman in London a few months ago who told me it is not always the case and often the survival of endangered species is pitted against the rights of some of the world’s poorest people.  Since more and more people visit wildlife parks, I thought I’d share here some of her concerns about the situation in her own country, Swaziland.

                                                             John Antonelli
The woman, Thuli Brilliance Makama, is Swaziland's only public interest environmental lawyer. She won the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize in April for defending the rights of local communities and trying to give them a stake in protecting the environment. The $900,000 award, the world's largest prize for environmental activism, is shared between winners from six continental regions of the world.   Thuli was in London briefly, on her way to collect her award in San Francisco.

Here is what is happening in Swaziland:

Swaziland is a small landlocked country in the middle of South Africa and Mozambique, plagued by food and water shortages, overwhelming health problems and acute poverty. Yet white rhinos, elephants, lions, zebras, hippos and mamba snakes all thrive in its diverse ecosystems, and the kingdom has become a popular international destination for big game hunters and wildlife tourists.

But, in the name of conservation, local people have increasingly been forced off of their traditional lands and persecuted for continuing the hunting and gathering practices necessary for their survival. “It is near the edges of protected areas that you find the poorest of the poor. There is so much animal life there, but so little for the people,” Thuli said. Near the lush parks, local populations eke out a meagre existence through a combination of foraging and food aid (more than 600,000 of the country's one million people depend of food aid).

 With her local NGO, Yonge Nawe, she has documented the forced evictions, violence and killings of locals living in areas around conservation parks. She is calling on the Swazi government to bring the perpetrators to trial and offer compensation to local communities for lost land.

Villagers next to a big game park.                        Hosea Jemba

In Swaziland, important game protection laws are controlled by the monarch - not the government - and the king has given the administration of these laws to a private company, Big Game Parks, which operates three parks in the country and is owned by the Reilly family. In 1997, an amendment to the Game Act (not debated in Parliament) gave BGP rangers immunity from prosecution as long as they acted while "protecting game".  Yonge Nawe claims that as many as 50 local people have been killed since then.

Ted Reilly, who turned his farm into the country's first wildlife sanctuary in the 1960s and whose conservation efforts are recognized internationally, insists that without his company, Swaziland's parks would not exist and says his rangers act within the law.  In the early 1990s, there were barely any rhinos left.  It's only because he fought back and became tough with poachers that wildlife flourished back, he told Associated Press.

But Thuli maintains that many of BGP rangers' targets are just ordinary people, struggling to survive on the fringes of the parks. "These are just hunters and gatherers who need this to survive. People are being killed for hunting a small impala.”   She says she is not condoning poaching, but wants to see the poachers prosecuted instead.

 She believes that Swazi's remaining wildlife will not survive unless local people are given a stake in preserving it and can share some of its benefits.  “It can been done. Look at Kenya and Zimbabwe.”

She has recently won a landmark case to include environmental NGO representation in conservation decisions, and is now able to call on the Swazi government to repeal Section 23 of the Game Act, which gives free reins to park rangers.

I am hoping to go to Swaziland and look at the conservation vs. human rights issue from both sides.