Life was a struggle in Zimbabwe. Moving to Nunavut gave me hope

This first-person column is written by Francisca Mandeya of Iqaluit. Learn more about CBC North’s first-person chronicles here.

I had never considered the possibility of leaving Zimbabwe and my children to settle in Nunavut. But eight years ago, that’s exactly what I did – and I’m grateful for the life I found here.

I was a die-hard Zimbabwean – a girl from the ground – but landed in freezing Iqaluit on December 24, 2014. I only had two suitcases and my mbira [an African folk instrument].

Nelson Mandela once said, “It’s always impossible until it’s done”.

The story of how one African woman ended up in the Canadian Arctic is a cocktail of political, social and economic circumstances that resulted in serious mental health issues.

In Zimbabwe, every day was a struggle to support my family as a single mother. I was traumatized, still wondering when the Central Intelligence Organization agent who had harassed me and threatened to “disappear” was going to pounce. The mental and emotional burden I was carrying plunged me into severe depression. To add insult to injury, a sudden breakup with a man I trusted increased my vulnerability.

My sisters Tina and Jo feared that I had chosen to die by suicide. I think they were right.

Tina had moved to Canada 21 years ago and bought me a ticket to Nunavut where she lived.

” That’s it. you’re coming,” Tina had told me one day on the phone from Iqaluit. “I’m done hearing your stories and I’m worried about losing you to one thing or another.”

My family gave me hope for a new life.

As a Catholic, I was thrilled to arrive in Iqaluit in time for Christmas Eve Mass. On my way to church with my sister, I reached the car door and, in a flash, I found myself lying on a bed of ice. This was my first of many falls. I learned that the nice suede boots I wore didn’t have a firm grip and that when it comes to outdoor footwear, being safe is more important than looking good.

Francisca Mandeya pictured in Iqaluit in 2016. The northern climate was shocking at first, but she is used to it now. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

The mass was beautiful. I was intrigued to hear my sister and other congregants sing the Lord’s Prayer in Inuktitut. Three months later, I could sing it too. I have since composed my own prayer-based Inuktitut and Shona song, Attatavutthat I play on my mbira.

As an extrovert, I have reached out and participated in community activities, both voluntary and paid. I remembered back home, my late mother used to sing with us, “shine, shine, shine where you are.” I reached out to find out where I could share my culture.

When I participated in a local talent contest, I was afraid to perform alone. I used to be on stage with my fearless kids. But I remembered their words: “Mom, even when you make a mistake, the public does not know what you are playing. So you continue.”

It’s great to be a teachable parent. I listened and gathered my courage.

Mandeya sings and plays his mbira in Iqaluit. (M. Pucci/CBC)

“I bring cultural diversity to Iqaluit,” I said as I sat on the stage in the Alianait Arts Festival tent in front of Nakasuk School. The public applauded me and it feels good.

I won second prize in the talent contest and got $600. Joshua Haulli, a 16-year-old Inuk, won first prize. By sharing our experiences, I learned that just as the mbira was once considered evil and banned by the colonizers, so was throat singing. It was reassuring to know that I was not the only one reclaiming my identity and using my culture to heal intergenerational trauma.

Since moving to the Arctic, I’ve been on dry land, run a half marathon twice, fell off a snowmobile, been berry picking and fishing and have performed with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. I walk everywhere now. I even walked in a blizzard. I am no longer afraid of the cold.

Mandeya, left, ran a virtual Boston Marathon with friends Kearon Nyandoro and Sanele Chakonza, and sister Tina Mandeya, in Iqaluit. (Submitted by Francisca Mandeya)

It is not always easy to be an immigrant from Africa. I experienced community and systemic racism in Iqaluit and realized that anti-African racism is a global phenomenon. But I am grateful to have felt supported by many allies in Iqaluit, who marched in solidarity with us during the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020.

Focusing on gratitude has helped me navigate life in Nunavut and in Canada. Facing life’s challenges with a positive mindset is a practice I’ve mastered.

Today, I’m a fitness coach and trainer, author, and social justice advocate. I founded Mothers United in Iqaluit, a social enterprise that brings mothers together to change the world. I have come a long way!

In my culture, when you’re grateful, you say kutenda kwakitsi kuri mumoyo — “A cat’s gratitude is in the heart.”

Qujannamik.


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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(Radio Canada)

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