Life was a struggle in Zimbabwe; moving to Canada gave me a hope

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By Francisca Mandeya for CBC First Person ·

I had never considered the possibility of ever leaving Zimbabwe and my children to settle in Nunavut. But eight years ago I did just that — and I am grateful for the life I found here.

I was a die-hard Zimbabwean — a daughter of the soil —  but I landed in frozen Iqaluit on Dec. 24, 2014. I had nothing but two suitcases and my mbira [an African folk instrument].

Nelson Mandela once said, “it is always impossible until it is done.”

The backstory of how an African woman got to be in the Canadian Arctic is a cocktail of political, social and economic circumstances that led to serious mental health challenges.

In Zimbabwe, every day was a struggle fending for my family as a single mother. I was traumatized, always wondering when the Central Intelligence Organisation operative that had harassed and threatened to “disappear” me would pounce. The mental and emotional burden I carried plunged me into acute depression. To add insult to injury, an abrupt break up with a man I had trusted increased my vulnerability.

My sisters Tina and Jo worried that I might have 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 was living.

“That is it. you are coming,” Tina had told me over the phone from Iqaluit one day. “I am done hearing your stories and worrying I will lose you to one thing or another.”

My family gave me hope for a new life.

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

Mass was beautiful. I was intrigued to hear my sister and other congregants singing 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, Attatavut, which I play on my mbira.

As an extrovert, I’ve 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 entered a local talent competition, I was afraid to perform on my own. I was used to being on stage with my fearless children. But I remembered their words: “Mom, even when you make a mistake, the audience don’t know what you are playing. So you just continue.”

It is great to be a teachable parent. I listened and gathered courage.

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


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

I won second prize in the talent competition and got $600. Joshua Haulli, a 16-year-old Inuk, won first prize. As we shared our experiences, I learned that just as mbira was once deemed evil and banned by colonizers, so too was throat singing. It felt reassuring to know that I was not alone in reclaiming my identity and using my culture to heal intergenerational trauma.

Since moving to the Arctic, I have gone out on the land, run a half marathon twice, fallen off a skidoo, gone berry picking and fishing, and played with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. I walk everywhere now. I have even walked in a blizzard. I am not scared of the cold anymore.

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

It is not always easy to be an immigrant from Africa. I have experienced both community and systemic racism in Iqaluit, and realized that anti-African racism is a global phenomenon. But I am grateful that I have felt supported by numerous 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 Canada. Dealing with life’s challenges with a positive mindset is a practice I am mastering.

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

In my culture, when thankful, we say kutenda kwakitsi kuri mumoyo — “the gratitude of a cat is in the heart.”