Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?
I was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My twin brother and I are the last born in a family of nine children. Before Canada, I also lived in Sweden and the US. Our father was an ambassador, which allowed us the opportunity of experiencing different cultures and environments.
Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?
My father influenced my childhood the most. He instilled a strong sense of confidence, African pride, and having a strong sense of conviction in one’s views. He was also the one that introduced me to music (our family was known as the Black Von Trapp Family, like the Sound of Music). He taught me how to harmonize and arrange music.
What is your educational background?
I did a BA in Architecture/Art History at Carleton University, and studied Small Business Management at Algonquin College.
Could you describe your day job?
I work at the Tanzania High Commission in the consular department.
You are well known for your involvement with the SIFA choir. Could you tell us about its origins? What has been the highlight of this group’s history?
I started Sifa in the mid ‘80’s while I was at Carleton U. At that time, whenever there were any multicultural events on campus, I noticed that there was little to no representation of any African cultures, and I decided that I would do my version of contributing something, through music. The members of the group are of African descent, and I also wanted the members to be aware of the vastness and richness of our African cultures, given the often negative and minimal depiction of Africa in the mainstream media. Once I left Carlton U, Sifa became a year-round commitment, and has continued until today, which I am very grateful for. A personal highlight would be the day the group got to perform for Nelson Mandela at the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, in September, 1998.
Outside of your job and your role as leader of the SIFA choir, do you have any other hobbies?
All of my interests and passions have tended to be arts related. They define who I am and I view them as full commitments. I would refer to them as more than hobbies. Regarding music, other than Sifa, I have also been involved in several locally-based music groups: Malaika (a four-women a cappella singing group), Cheza (an African-inspired band), Voices of Praise (a gospel band), The Mighty Popo (a Rwandese-Canada musician), and Elage Mbaye (a Senegalese-Canadian musician). I have also performed in my own solo band (based on my name, Neema Mugala), of which I’m currently working on music to record. Other than music, I also have a strong interest in the visual arts.
You are also well known for your involvement in promoting awareness of sickle cell disease and you have personal experience with this disorder. Can you describe your activities with the sickle cell movement? From your perspective, is there any hope of finding a cure in the foreseeable future, for this debilitating disorder which affects large numbers of people of African descent?
I had my first pain episode with Sickle Cell Disease at one year old, and have lived with the disease’s symptoms throughout my whole life. My parents didn’t know about the disease until my twin brother and I were born. That was the mid-sixties when ignorance of the disease was more prevalent. It saddens me that today, fifty years later, although more have heard of the name, many have no idea if they are carriers of the disease, or not. Many parents still find out if the disease is in their family, only when their child is born. I strongly believe that for the well-being of our community, particularly our children, we have to overcome any ignorance, stigmas and shame, regarding this disease.
While I do believe that one day there will be a cure, I’m also aware that due to the disease being genetically inherited, it makes finding a cure quite complex and risky. There is still a ways to go in meeting that challenge. In the meantime, there are far too many who still need to be educated. There is still a lot to learn about how to better manage the symptoms, and how to ensure better medical care. I do my best to create awareness and provide support, through gathering with others that also have Sickle Cell Disease, going to support group meetings, and providing testimonials at conferences. It’s an ongoing feat and one that I’m still passionate about being involved in.
Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities on the one hand and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. Do you agree with this perspective and if so what can be done to remedy this divide?
I don’t see a particularly large division per se. The Black community is not a monolithic group. There are cultural and language distinctions, which of course result in certain groups interacting more with those they can relate to. Whatever negative division does occur, no matter how minimal, I attribute that to sheer ignorance. We’re still being influenced by the mainstream media’s depiction of our cultures and heritage, even at a subconscious level. There is also the residue of divide and conquer that was set forth during colonialism. Unfortunately, there are some who have self-internalized that agenda and are not curious enough to get to know the larger community on their own. They instead rely on the misconceptions. The positive is that there are many that have indeed embraced the larger community, creating an environment where we can enthusiastically learn from each other and recognize our similarities.
Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago?
Overall, in the past couple of decades, just by the mere changes in the demographics alone, it has been encouraging to witness Black people being represented in high positions within the Government and other professions; to see black businesses sprouting up; to see a more inclusive curriculum within the school system. We are still a marginalized group, however, who still have to challenge the system so that our numbers truly are fairly represented in the larger society. There are still not enough Black lawyers, doctors, teachers, judges, MPs, CEO’s, etc. There are still stories of Black people encountering racial stereotypes, thereby affecting their opportunities for advancements in life. We need each other in order to combat this system.
There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa, that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?
Wow…..this question! I do not agree with that perspective. I believe that, statistically speaking, a high majority in the Black community select their fellow Black person as a partner. So, just like other ethnicities, the majority of relationships are intraracial. At the same time, so long as there is mutual respect, I completely support whomever someone chooses for a partner. That is a personal matter. Now, as for what my views are, none-the-less, on those who only choose a partner outside of their race and never their own, I believe that speaks to that larger topic of the dominant European culture’s influence on some people’s choices, preferences, and sense of self. Either way, it would still be that individual person’s prerogative to choose whomever they prefer. A discussion of self pride and respect can still occur, outside the topic of romantic relationships.
Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenge and how do we resolve it? What are our strengths?
Because we are not a monolithic group, there will always be different view points. Not everyone will identify within the larger group and agree to a common goal. In order to exact changes that can benefit as many as possible within the community, it is always better to combat challenges as a strong united force, wherever possible, no matter how large or small the group is that you have aligned yourself with.
Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?
Learn from each other and support whenever you can. Support your local Black businesses and community organizations. Take in a show of a local Black musician and performer. Mentor and tutor our young children. In your quest to move ahead, remember to lend a hand at the same time. A community can never prosper from a “crab-bucket” mentality. Through kinship and support, everyone benefits.