In the Footsteps of Empress Menen of Ethiopia

The most important events in my life feel very private. They usually overwhelm me and prompt me to hold the experiences close and near to my heart. Often I have hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of photos and videos that document these most precious times. For example, there is a Women’s Retreat I attend every year, and each year I take so many pictures that they call me PAPARAZZI. But no one has seen the photos beside the few I share with the retreat host.

Additionally, I have been to South Africa three times and have hardly shared any photos at all outside of close family and friends. The last time we visited our family there, we had a traditional Zulu wedding that was SO AMAZING… Yet it has been over a year and I have only shared a couple of photos. I am promising myself that I will share the experience next month for our 25th wedding anniversary, because there are so many that ask about it and others that would appreciate sharing  in the blessing of making and connecting with family on the continent, so look out for that.

I am not sure why I hold these most cherished experiences so dearly. Perhaps I am a bit ‘old school’ in that way and longing for the days when we kept physical photo albums where we kept our most important photos to share with those who visited our home. I also think I want to make sure that whatever images I put out are portraying the messages that I intend and those that will work to my highest good. But perhaps there is a part of me that acknowledges that in the current age of social media, putting sacred, personal things out there leaves opportunity for them to be defiled by others who don’t hold them in the same in high regard.

With this blog post, I am doing something different… I am going to SHARE, primarily because I want those who presented me with this AMAZING AWARD to know how meaningful the entire night’s experience was for me and because there are so many other people of African descent need to know about Empress Menen.

In honor of Empress Menen

The award I am referring to was presented to me by the Rastafari Council of Chicago in honor of Empress Menen Asfaw, the co-regent of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last Emperor of Ethiopia of the Solomonic Dynasty. If you are a woman of African descent and you don’t know about Empress Menen and her legacy, you should. I would take the time to try to describe who she was, but Dr. Asantewaa Oppong Wadie already explained it so well on that Saturday evening, so I will share her dynamic words with you.

By the time it was time to receive my honor, which followed Dr. Wadie’s presentation on Empress Menen, I was overcome with gratitude for the legacy that this amazing woman had left behind for us to follow. She saw the world clearly and positioned herself in it to help her people. Not only was she a powerful African woman lived so close to my lifetime, but she was also as a co-regent with her husband who understood the importance of wielding her influence effectively in order to help, heal and save her people.

For the first time, I heard my bio in a different light. As I listened, I felt a heavier weight of responsibility.

This evening turned out to be so much more special than I had anticipated. What made the honor so special? Well, after hearing Dr. Wadie’s presentation on Empress Menen, I understood even more clearly how honoring it was to be associated with such a woman on the day that her legacy was being celebrated. All of a sudden, there seemed to be very dynamic shoes to be filled. And as I listened to the life and work of Empress Menen and how she used her influence to “come to the rescue” of her people with her knowledge, skills and expertise, I knew I was being charged to continue to creatively use my influence to do the same. Dr. Wadie made such an appealing case for the need to celebrate the life and legacy of this amazing woman, that I have purposed to make sure that I continue to do so.

It was also special because of the four other dynamic women who were being the honored that night along side me, namely:

Bernadict Quarles, an educator who has developed a Black Diaspora Curriculum, was the co-founder of a charter school and the founder of the Black National Honors Society with scholarships awarded of over $80,000.

Barbara Allen, an Emmy Award winning filmmaker who is known throughout Chicago, the nation, and the world for her work that highlights the untold stories of Black people and their persistence that showed greatness in the face of adversity.

Martine Caverl, the co-founder of Ujimaa Medics (UMedics), a volunteer based Black-health collective developed to address the health disparities that follow trauma in Chicago’s Black communities.

Queen Mother Helen Sinclair, a 98 year old elder who continues almost 75 years of service in prison ministry.

But most of all, this honor was precious to me because it was given to me by MY OWN PEOPLE. I can hardly describe the feeling of being applauded for my work by a room full of people where our greatest commonality lies in that almost all were people of African descent. The appreciation for one another that was tangible in the room was so different than what most prefer to showcase when diverse Diasporic African people are gathered together, so I will show you.

I know some may not understand why being honored by other Black people is so significant to me. I liken it to the teenager who trains and works really hard to excel at a sport. The crowd is usually full of admirers affiliated with her school and perhaps those cheering for her success because of the love they have for her sport. Nonetheless, when she looks toward the bleachers, the faces she looks for and desires to see the most are those of her family… her kin.

On April 13, 2019, FAMILY celebrated the work that I am doing to support Black women’s abilities to help, heal and save ourselves. I am most grateful and appreciative for the recognition. It is a blessing to be seen.

Wait… What connection between South Africa and Africans of the Diaspora…?!

With all of the conversation surrounding the relationship between Diasporic Africans and Continental Africans, I think it is the perfect time to share a unique connection between Africans of the Diaspora and Black South Africans that I had never heard before.

Khwezi with Alfred and Nosipho in February 2015 

I first met Alfred in 2015 during my first visit to Clermont, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I had spent the entire day before watching his wife Nosipho cook meal after meal (she was the umpheki) as the rest of us chopped and chopped and chopped the different vegetables for each meal. I honestly had never seen cooking pots so big, but they were necessary to accommodate the steady stream of people who were coming during umsebenzi In preparation for the funeral and celebration of the life of the loved one that would occur over the next few days.


I have not talked much about that experience… perhaps I will some day. It was there in Clermont that I noticed the many similarities to what I had experienced during the summers at my grandparents house in rural Alabama throughout my childhood. So many things felt familiar… Perhaps I will share more about that some time.

Anyway, I first met and had an opportunity to speak with Alfred after the funeral. I was excited to see both Alfred and Nosipho last month during our traditional Zulu wedding celebration. After all of the greetings and introduction to my husband, he told me that he had something he wanted to say to African Americans. I was curious about what he would say. And once I heard his message, I promised I would share it.

“My name is Afred Mandlakayise Ziqubu. I’m from Umlazi. Umlazi is South of Durban. This… Clermont being west of Durban. I want to say something about YOU coming here to South Africa to have the ceremony… the wedding ceremony. People don’t know what African Americans are. Most of African Americans went to America as slaves, our forefathers, but the difference between South Africa, KZN which is KwaZulu-Natal, the difference is that people were sent by King Shaka to go and learn the wisdom of Americans in America. Which makes you, when you are coming here, you are coming to your home… your real home… this is your roots, so YOU ARE WELCOMED.”

Oh… and I will add this for good measure. African peoples have always honored greatly mouth-to-ear, spoken history. All (yes, I said ALL) of those who retain a connection to their family lineage know their family name(s) for many previous generations. (I have taught 13 year olds who knew.) This knowledge is most likely not given to them in a book or on a piece of paper, but it is written on their hearts through the sharing of oral histories. It is from that place and sense of knowing that this message is shared.

Let the unpacking begin…

“Being intentional” about building traditions

As home schooling parents, it was always important for our sons to understand historical context and the meanings behind places, things, and ideas. We have spent many years answering our sons’ WHY questions, and there are few times of the year that those questions are as intense as they are at holidays/holy days.

Some of the greatest discoveries have been made, cures have been found, and ideas that led to resolutions have been developed because individuals have been willing not only to ask WHY, but also WHY NOT. We encourage our sons to be critical thinkers and to ask questions about whatever does not seem to make sense to them. If we do not know the answer or have an answer that quenches their curiosity then we explore those topics together.

We came to one of those moments during this year’s Passover/Resurrection/Easter time.

The emergence of Spring overlaps various traditions to create a composite of celebrations. It is similar during the Winter holiday season when Jewish Hanukkah, Christian Christmas, and [pagan] Winter Solstice coincide. (Note: Pagan is used by some to refer to any religious practices and beliefs that are not a part of the world’s main religions).

At Passover/Resurrection/Easter, there are remembrances for the Jewish Passover that commemorates the Israelites’ emancipation from the Egyptians; the Christian Death/Burial/Resurrection of Christ; and [pagan] Easter celebrations named after Eostre/Eastre/Oestre, the Goddess of Spring representing fertility and new birth during Spring Solstice. Our family had a really interesting conversation about how the bunny rabbit became a part of the festivities. You can read about that here. The author offers this summary:

Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, the dawn that arrives with resurrection of life, and the celebration of spring all serve to remind us of the cycle of rebirth and the need for renewal in our lives. In the history of Easter, Christian and pagan traditions are gracefully interwoven.

A Facebook friend mentioned attending church last Sunday where they would emphasize all three observances. Some churches observe Passover and have Easter egg hunts with a bunny rabbit and take pictures with the kids in their brand new outfits carrying Easter baskets full of candy. To each his or her own. It’s all so interesting…

I have been thinking about the diverse interpretations of these traditions. I said to myself again (just as I had done during the Winter holidays), “Drea, people are just kinda celebrating whatever they feel like… however they feel like. What will the Little Masons be doing this year?” Gene and I have been considering the legacy we are leaving to our sons around beliefs and traditions. We want to make sure that our family’s observances are intentional and serve a purpose toward our larger goals for legacy with our sons.

So we went to the labyrinth in our city.

Labyrinths are pretty amazing. They have been used to symbolize the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ since well before the 5th century BC when the Greek historian, Herodotus, gave an eye witness account of the Egyptian labyrinth of Pharaoh Amenemhet III from the 19th century BC. Though this site has met the fate of many other locations that have been pillaged and plundered across the primogenitor continent, it was described as being a structure whose wonder eclipsed that of the Pyramids at Giza.

Our local labyrinth is located outside of a church in our city, but that morning it was not an ideal situation. When we got to the labyrinth, we saw there were areas that were flooded. The guys had on gym shoes, but I had not worn shoes equipped to handle water. We could not NOT do it just because there was water though, right? I decided I would try to walk where I could and walk on the stones when the water became too high. Eventually, I took my shoes off to maneuver the labyrinth more easily.

Labyrinths are fun to make on paper, walls… anywhere…

Most often, the labyrinth is intended to be a place of quiet contemplation, meditation, and prayer. It was that for us, but it was so much more. It became a teaching time about life… Understanding the challenges involved in making a journey and the triumph that comes with completing it; how we can feel like we are close to God, but still have to journey to connect at the Source; how we can feel so far away from the Divine, while being only a few steps away…

Our journey through the labyrinth wasn’t quiet. There were moments when we were sharing our thoughts or encouraging each other. At one point Andreu said to me (I was the last to approach the center of the labyrinth), “Keep going, Mom, you are almost there.” All I could manage was, “I am? Thank you, Andreu… I was starting to wonder when I would get there…”  I told him that was exactly what I do for women as a birth mentor and doula as they are journeying into motherhood through birth.

Personally, I was at a place where I had begun to regret my suggestion to walk through the waterlogged labyrinth and was irritated that it was not as AMAZING as I had fantasized it would be when we planned it.

The guys all seemed to be getting “revelations” about the water. Gene mentioned how our perspective about the water would shape whether we saw it as a challenge or something that provided the opportunity for cleansing or renewal. All of them had something “insightful” to say about the water… But I was not impressed, because they all had on gym shoes… I was walking with bare feet.

At a certain point, I told Gene, “I keep hearing one of our songs, ‘When you go through the water, and through the flood you will not drown, when you go through the fire, remember I’ll always be with you…'” I started singing it as I walked… As I got closer to Gene I heard music for I Will Be With You. He had found the song on iTunes and handed his phone off to me with a quiet cheer, “Go, Momma, Go…” as he walked away.

Was it that obvious to my guys that I needed some inspiration and encouragement? I continued to walk, avoiding the water when I could… I mean, you never know what’s in the water, right?  As that thought and others like it were rolling through my mind, I heard a question that turned into a rebuke from within:

What has happened to you? You are the little girl who ran around with bare feet on red dirt roads in Alabama. You all walked those roads at night without fear of anything. You swam in a lake with frogs, lily pads, and dragonflies for a swimming pool during your summers. You are the woman who was not scared to do something different and stand out, even when you stood alone. You resigned from your job to home school your children even when on lookers suggested you were not being a helpful wife because you were not using your education to “help” your husband support the family financially. When people said you would surely cause damage to your sons by not allowing them to experience “real life” as black boys you continued to follow your inner promptings. You followed your intuition even when there was no road map laid out for you or tangible proof of your actions leading to inevitable success in the future. You have always been willing to take the plunge and step out into deep situations into the unknown. And look at how I have taken care of you. Look how you have been sustained. Why are you so afraid now? Get off the stones and walk through the water…”

The song was still playing in my ear and I was in tears… My fear of the water was reflecting internal fears I have been dealing with about other situations in my life.

Andreu had already finished and exited the labyrinth, but asked if he could take his shoes off and walk the rest of the way with me. His intuitive soul and keen spirit reminded me of ME and was inspiration for the rest of my journey through the labyrinth.

Gene always admonishes people to “be intentional.” We have such gratitude for the sons we have been blessed to steward and nurture toward adulthood. We are always humbled by the work involved in parenting and preparing them for the world they will have to navigate. It was fulfilling to hear their thoughts about our newest family experience.