Sunday, May 9, 2010

The best Mother's Day present ever

Back in October, I read a Daily Nation article that forever embedded an image in my mind: an overly pregnant 30 year old woman on the corner of a muddy, plastic polluted street in the slums of Nairobi sitting with extended legs giving birth to her first born child. With the nearest hospital or maternity clinic over 30 minutes away and without access to an ambulance, this commuting mother was unexpectedly forced to introduce her son immediately to the painful reality of life in poverty.

Given that there were (miraculously) no complications during her road side delivery, this new mother will be one of the billions celebrating Mother's Day today. Tragically, however, there are millions a year that aren't able to celebrate, as more than 500,000 would be mothers die each year during pregnancy. Perhaps the true tragedy, however, is that over 95% of these deaths occur in developing countries and are largely preventable.  

Here's the good news though: for the nearly 1 million mothers in East Africa's slums that give birth each year, next year might bring a new reason to celebrate, as a new social venture called Jacaranda Health is seeking to transform the way maternity care is provided in these informal communities. Founded by a former colleague of mine from Acumen Fund, Nick Pearson, this social enterprise will be combining business and clinical innovations to create a fully self-sustaining and scalable chain of clinics that provide reproductive health services to poor urban women. Specifically, Jacaranda's strategy centers around two core services: mobile vans/ambulances and maternity clinics, and the plan is to pilot the model in Nairobi and then to scale up to 30 clinics within the next 5 years.

And here's more good news: you can become involved. Out of over 300 applicants, Jacaranda has made it into the top 10 finalist for Ashoka's Changemakers competition, and if they are voted into the top 3, they will receive up to $30,000 in grant funding. The winners are chosen by popular vote, so Jacaranda needs as many as possible to log in and vote (you can do so here). The process takes a few minutes (you have to register first) and has to be done before Tuesday, but it's definitely worth the small effort!

In the words of Ashoka: Everyone has a mother. Everyone is a changemaker. Join us and change the world so that all women can give life.

And of course, a Mother's Day post would be far from complete without a Happy Mother's Day shout out to my own Mom, who not coincidentally is the source of my passion for social enterprise, human justice, equality and basically everything pure and beautiful. Thanks for everything Mom I still haven't figured out how you do it! 

Mom and the Williams football squad!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How hip hop is remixing South Africa, America and freedom

On April 27, 1994, millions of blacks throughout South Africa entered polling stations for the first time, exercising their political freedom now that the evil chains of apartheid had finally been broken. After more than three centuries of rule by the minority, power was handed over to the majority, and the country's future looked promising. During his Presidential Victory Speech, Nelson Mandela – South Africa's first black president – connected this historic day with the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.: And now the joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops – Free at last! Free at last!

Just as Dr. King claimed the Emancipation Proclamation in the US came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, Mandela considered April 27 as one of the most important moments in the life of our country. So in celebration of this historic day – now a national holiday called Freedom Day – I journeyed to downtown Joburg to a hip hop festival in the often-forgotten industrial area of Newtown.
Underneath the Henry Nxumalo Street overpass, graffiti danced across each inch of the 50 foot vertical concrete columns, as artists freestyled history lessons about oppression, segregation and inequality to hundreds of waving hands and camera phones, while breakdancers twirled to the beats of Grand Master Flash and hundreds of bobbing heads and video cameras.

During the final break dance competition (video below), it was as if every back spin, head slide, hand stand and shoulder drop was a silent reverb of Mandela's victorious words from his Free at Last speech. I half expected the final song to be from Afrika Bambaataa, the New York DJ and "Godfather" of hip hop who founded the Zulu Nation and often sampled Dr. King speeches in his break beats.
And yet, as is often the case with hip hop (and life), the story behind the celebration was much deeper than it first appeared.

The irony that Freedom Day was being commemorated via hip hop – a culture that originated in a neglected neighbourhood in the South Bronx as a form of resistance and revolution – was not happenstance. Given the social context of the time, hip hop emerged as a language for the oppressed and a voice for the marginalized, two categories with which black South Africans are more than familiar.

Nasir Jones – a revolutionary hip hop artist from the Queensbridge Projects in NY – once rapped about the American Thanksgiving holiday: I call your holiday hell-day, cause I'm from poverty, neglected by the wealthy. As the DJ played a song by this same artist, I began to realize that this festival was more of a rally for justice, equality and dignity, and the cry for a true freedom day, not an UnFreedom Day, as thousands have begun to call it.
Unfortunately, this title seems much more appropriate, as the Sowetan newspaper – a South African publication with a readership of 2 million – shared a number of reasons why it has gained popularity:
Yesterday – April 27 – should have been the happiest and most celebrated day in the history of South Africa. But at least 58 percent of our compatriots were lucky to be able to share a loaf of bread. Some had nothing to eat for the whole day. Countless others shivered through the cold night in makeshift homes… More and more people are falling into this web of hopelessness. Like during apartheid days, colour circumscribes the geography of our lives. Blacks live in unkept townships; the area in which a school is situated determines if your child is going to pass or fail; and whites still carry the money bags.

Both in the US and in South Africa, it's clear that political freedom and economic freedom are two very different destinations, and that much needs to change in order for true freedom to be reached. Just as the Negro live[d] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Mandela has recognized how much still needs to be done in order for Dr. King's dream to truly be realized and a Freedom Day to be celebrated by all:

The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.