Africa Awareness Initiative conference highlights the African diaspora

The Africa Awareness Initiative’s Conference week explored the many adversities that African students within the diaspora might encounter, and brought several speakers to lead discussions on how to overcome these adversities.

The conference kicked off with a workshop led by Dora Kamau, a psychiatric nurse and meditation guide. Kamau, whose parents are Kenyan and Ghanaian, developed the workshop ‘Protect Your Crown’ to discuss the “mental illness and mental health of the African diaspora and the stigma that pervades [their] communities.”

“What sparked ‘Protect Your Crown’ is how much is not spoken about, and how much you’re expected to suffer in silence. But when it really comes down to it, [the] community is what brings healing for all,” Kamau.

Her discussion-based workshop began by distinguishing mental health from mental illness. She explained that both lie on a spectrum and that everyone had mental health, but some could be experiencing mental illness.

“What allows our mental health to fluctuate is different factors in our lives, such as racism,” said Kamau.

In smaller groups, workshop attendees discussed the significance of terms such as ‘double consciousness,’ ‘cognitive dissonance,’ and ‘micro-aggression,’ and the effects they could have on one’s mental health.

Kamau described ‘double consciousness’ as an individual whose identity is divided into several facets. “If we are confused and don’t understand who we are, then we become afraid of who we are. This leads to psychological distress,” she said.

After this, attendees shared their stories of displacement, with many having to flee from war-torn countries, or simply emigrate for a better life.

Kamau emphasized that discussion was the only way those from the African diaspora could build their communities and that this was where the healing could happen.

Later discussions examined the attendees’ experiences of systemic racism and its degenerative effects on their mental wellbeing. Kamau highlighted that “over time, things like micro-assaults are used in order to make us feel inferior to the dominant groups we are surrounded by.”

While Kamau recognized that racism and discrimination are still prevalent towards those of African descent, she believes that “it is up to us to undo that historical trauma.”

Kamau then posed the question: “How can we navigate these systems of oppression and protect our well-being?”

Ultimately, Kamau thought that the transformation starts once one is able to accept themselves, accept their situations and also take ownership of how they’ve been living. She summed this up with the terms ‘acceptance’ and ‘accountability.’

Aside from this, Kamau stressed the importance of collective healing in African cultures. She said, “the Western ways of healing values individ[ualism]. But where we’re from, as people of colour, the real healing comes from communication and community, and a sense of togetherness.”

In terms of ‘protecting one’s crown’ and taking preventive steps towards one’s mental health, Kamau suggested focusing on self-care, advocating for oneself and others, and open-mindedness.

Most importantly, Kamau advised attendees to be self-aware. “Self-awareness allows you to have clarity instead of confusion about your identity,” she said.

Attendee and second-year Faculty of Science student Afomia Haile said she’s been a part of AAI for three years.

“The whole point of this club and its events are to build awareness,” said Haile. “[The club was created] because there were black people who were misrepresented … And I think this is very important because, as [Kamau] said, we’re different.”

AAI’s Co-VP External and third-year political science student Moussa Niang said this year, the club wanted to focus not only on Africans within the continent but also those in the diaspora.

“I think one of the most important things that drove us to have this specific day was the stigma around mental health,” said Niang.

Niang also discussed the effects displacement has on the mental well-being of earlier as well as future generations. He also commented on how he thought displacement could lead to intergenerational trauma.

On the second day of AAI’s Conference Week, British-Kenyan artist Grace Ndiritu held a lecture at the Museum of Anthropology (MoA) in conversation with Dr. Nuno Porto about the goal of decolonizing museums.

“Museums have so many artefacts ... that don’t belong to them and that have been stolen … That’s basically why we have a program at MoA with student researchers that are looking at the artefacts and finding their places of origin,” said Niang.

The last day of the Conference Week brought Rhiannon Bonnott, Juliane Okot Bitek, Ruth Mojeed and Zainab Amadahy to speak about Black and Indigenous relations in Canada.

“It was really important that we don’t only speak about displacement and dispersion without bringing up the history behind the place we were dispersed to,” said Niang.