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Friday, August 24, 2007

Who is Talking About Our Health?


As the wheels of American politics continue to spin, moving at an accelerated speed as we get closer to 2008, it is undisputed the role that soon to be First Ladies are playing in the upcoming elections. They advocate, campaign and curry much attention, and at times sympathy, for their President-elect spouses. Just very recently, for example, it became known in the news that Ann Romney wife to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has multiple sclerosis. Elizabeth Edwards, wife to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, has battled and continues to battle cancer. Michelle Obama, wife to Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama, speaks openly about her father dealing with multiple sclerosis which caused his untimely death. Of course when Al Gore ran for office, we became privy to his wife Tipper Gore’s battle with depression and her strong advocacy on mental health issues.

The recent news about Ann Romney, in particular, caught my attention and also got me thinking about us. Who is talking about our health? By “our,” I mean African women in Europe and the USA? Are we, ourselves, engaging in dialogues and activism on our emotional, physical, spiritual and mental health? When I hear talks about the African woman’s health, it is usually from the angle of AIDs, malaria and sickle cell. These health issues are significant and need continued attention and innovative ways to resolve them. Indeed, I have personal friends who are Africans and battle, for example, sickle cell on a daily basis.

In addition, my cousin, God bless his heart, also battles this in the worse way. A totally gorgeous guy with features more like Boris Kodjoe, he is constantly in the hospital for one sickle cell crisis after another. One cannot even begin to understand what it means to go through that. Nevertheless, or more appropriately, alongside the above types of health issues which our sisters, especially those in the continent face, what about the challenges we face when it comes to our health in the West. STOP. This is something very important to reflect on. In fact, let us get real as real gets. I think we, Today’s African women in the West, are in a particularly unique position. Like our American counterparts Black or White, we have adapted to our very modern environment. Our reality reflects a very hectic and fast paced lifestyle in which we forget to just STOP and BREATHE. Busy work hours, travel schedules, fast food drive thrus, computers, laptops and innovative technologies such as blackberries has us on lock down 24/7.

While we wrestle and straddle the fences of two cultures and value systems, one value we wholeheartedly embrace is that as modern women, we simply have no business in the kitchen. For us, it is particularly painful as we relieve memories of watching our mothers put up with crap like cheating, and/ abusive husbands yet maintain the kitchen front. We are career minded, hard working and when it comes to food and feeding ourselves or families, a lot of us subscribe to the world of packaged foods, just like our American counterparts. However, such lifestyles come with the same issues our White/Black sisters face. Like them, we too battle depression, cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and more.

Unlike them, however, we have a culture of silence. We laugh at attempts at health promotion. We think it silly when we discuss health empowerment especially when the nutrition and cooking part comes into play. Does health empowerment mean we return to the kitchen? Heaven forbid! Right? I think it does mean we return to the kitchen, not from the angle of being slaves to men. Please don’t get it twisted. It is from the angle that taking care of ourselves is the most important thing ever. I personally did not realize the importance of proper nutrition and diet until I suffered from the effects. I was not interested in cooking--it was a major sign of rebellion for me.

Today, I now cook. I am not perfect but I am making the efforts for I now realize nutrition is the most important thing because our outlook on life whether physical, mental and spiritual is determined by what we put into our bodies. There is a wise saying that, “you are what you eat.” My sisters understand this quote so well, they will not eat my food even if you paid them 1,000 bucks. LOL! Don’t worry I’ll get it right and who knows I might be on Rachel Ray or Oprah talking about my latest cook book. LOL! Sure. Baby steps first. Back to getting real, our culture of silence has its benefits.

We all have our issues so we don’t want to be bogged down with too much about each other’s health drama. Say it, stay positive, informed and then get on with life. At times, some of our sisters in the West can dissect, marinate and cook their illness making it a pity party for not living a fulfilling life. There is a time to grief and then a time to say, what am I going to do about this? Nevertheless, for those of us on the opposite spectrum, there has to be a balance. It is not okay to encourage a culture of silence to the point where it is detrimental to us—our health. The stigma that we give to those who suffer from health issues MUST also stop! We stigmatize and judge each other so much the impact can be so strong it prevents those in our communities that really need help to seek and get it. I am no saint when it comes to the stigma part. I recall a friend letting me know he had depression similar to bi-polar. He was African. Boy, did I freak out! My head was filled with images from childhood.

The many movies on local Nigerian stations which said and showed if you had a mental health issue such as depression, you were psycho. Images of crazy naked men and women with dirty dreadlocks perambulating the streets in search of food came to mind. The many witchcraft images where “juju” or some secret medicine was made by the “babalawo” [native doctor] to make the unruly daughter/mother in-law/greedy step-son go mad sprang to mind. I have a very vivid imagination. My reaction was not cool, at all.

I had to catch myself and get a mental and attitude adjustment as I educated myself on his illness. Getting rid of stigma/shame we associate with illnesses in our communities starts with our generation. We must begin the dialogue about our health. The health practitioners among us must not be content with servicing only their immediate clientele. They should help educate us. Where are our nutritionist, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, fitness trainers and spiritual women leaders that can help educate us on balancing mind, body and soul? Seriously, who is talking about our health? Are you?

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