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Born and raised in Antigua, Marie-Elena John wasn’t considering a writing career when she left her Caribbean island for New York’s City College.  There, thanks to a semester spent at the University of Nigeria, she became fascinated by the intertwined cultural commonality of the Continent, the Caribbean, and the African-American experiences.  After graduating as CCNY’s first Black woman valedictorian, she went on to earn a Masters degree from Columbia University, focusing on culture and development in Africa.  From a Washington D.C. base throughout the 1990s, she worked with non-profit organizations, traveling throughout Africa, first in support of grassroots development efforts, later working with pro-democracy and human rights movements, and eventually becoming best known in her field for her pioneering work on the denial of women’s inheritance rights in Africa.  Recently, though, she has been channeling her vast knowledge of and passion for the African Diaspora into her dazzling literary debut, Unburnable – a multi-generational novel that powerfully brings online forex trade together Caribbean history, African customs, and African-American sensibilities, published by HarperCollin’s Amistad in April 2006.

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That's the short version. For the details of my work in Africa and especially on Women's Inheritance Rights, please keep scrolling down....

Click here for links to websites of organizations working on Women’s Inheritance Rights.


BIOGRAPHY – The Extended Version

A few of the interviews posted here – especially the Island Where one – give an idea of the process leading to my career in Africa development; this Long Version of my bio tries to go a bit deeper into the process, to give a sense of what I did before turning to writing.

Even before getting my Masters degree in Third World Development and starting firmly down that path, I was drawn to the Continent because of the cultural similarities between the Caribbean and West Africa.  Following six months as an exchange student in Nigeria, I spent a few summers of my early 20’s wandering around West Africa doing “cultural research.”

With My Girls outside our dorms, way back in the day at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. 
To the right is one of my closest friends and godmother to my son, Huguette Njemanze Fafunwa. 
Chinyere is to the left with her classic Look and Stella had just woken up and didn’t have on her make-up.

What that means is that I sought out every wine-carrying, naming ceremony, funeral, and yam festival being held anywhere a bush taxi, overcrowded bus, lorry, or open-backed pick-up truck would carry me; once a friend and I hitched a ride with a Nigerian military aircraft.  I kid you not.  We sat on the floor; it wasn’t the kind of plane with seats and I remember being deaf for several days, partly due to the noise of the engine and partly due to the un-pressurized cabin. 

I also traveled by catching rides with Peace Corps volunteers (motorbikes), UN development workers (much more comfortable: 4-wheel drive vehicles with strong air conditioning, and no getting out at gunpoint at the hundreds of military checkpoints or borders along the way).  Not to mention rides from strangers, some of whom remain my friends to this day.  I never once stayed in a hotel, and would show up at the homes or  businesses of friends of people I’d just met, or people I knew back in New York, sometime with a note of introduction, usually just saying “so-and-so told me to come.”

Looking back, I’m stunned at how presumptuous I was about the thing we call “African hospitality” – which runs much deeper than those words indicate and have to do with a cultural obligation to take care of strangers.  And I also reflect that indeed God does take care of fools and babies – at that time, I qualified for both categories.

When I was a fool and baby.

Geneva and Jean

In between college and grad school, I worked in Geneva, Switzerland with the World Council of Churches, first as an intern with the communications department, and then with the Programme to Combat Racism (PRC).  I seem to have had things “placed in my path”in terms of the course my life would take:  I ended up in Switzerland because my Aunt Doreen Boyd, who was head of Development at the World YWCA headquarters there, had heard from someone at the WCC that the communications department was trying to get applications from a wider geographical to offset the preponderance of applications from European countries (if you were wondering, I believe in affirmative action).  She sent me an application form, I applied, and found myself – almost miraculously -- at the World Council of Churches. 

This was in the mid-eighties, when South Africa and Namibia dominated the global social justice agenda, and my grounding in these issues is thanks to my departed mentor, an activist of amazing capacity, Dr. Jean Sindab.  Jean passed away too young, at barely 51, in early 1996, but not without giving everything she had to The Struggle, and not without mentoring a whole FLEET of young people who, without her influence, would probably have turned out quite differently.  Me included.   Please take a moment to read about Jean, whose life is briefly chronicled in the cover story of this Sojourner magazine issue.

Labors of Love: The courage and compassion of Jean Sindab.
by Martha F. Andujar, Nadine R. Gartrell, and Deborah K. King
Click here to read more

To read about The Jean Sindab Project for Breast Cancer Research, established in her name in 2005 with a  gift of over 2 million dollars click here.

The African Development Foundation

Much as I wanted to stay on with the Programme to Combat Racism under Jean’s mentorship, Geneva was killing the 25-year old me; it was a cultural wasteland.  Encouraged by Jean to get at least a masters degree, I went back to New York and got my MIA from Columbia University.  I began working with the African Development Foundation in D.C., in 1991, where I had The Boss From Heaven, Dr. Cherri Waters (a close friend of Jean’s from Yale), who believed in finding intelligent people who worked hard, giving them responsibility, and allowing them to rise to the occasion.

It would take pages and pages to write about what a stimulating, exhilarating experience that was -- working with African researchers as they tried to find solutions to various development-related problems by involving the affected communities in the research.  I met people like Madame Koubakouenda in Congo, who’d noticed out that the fish in the river pools where women soaked their cassava were huge – and wanted to show women how to “kill two birds with one stone” with no-cost, no-labor fish farming.  People like Dr. Kiwuwa in Uganda, encouraging small farmers to rear rabbits as a protein source, since all the livestock had been decimated during the Amin regime and the aftermath.  I funded ideas for reducing malaria and schistosomiasis, innovations in food processing – credit schemes, you name it.  Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to write about these projects in detail.  For now, though, I’ll just direct you to the website of The African Development Foundation, www.adf.gov, whose mandate remains much the same as when I worked there.

I stayed with ADF for four years, and might still have been there to this day if the Republicans hadn’t taken over Congress back in 1995, and cut the Foundation’s funding by almost fifty percent – accompanied by a fifty percent staff cut.  As one of the few non-U.S. citizens working for a federal agency by special dispensation, I was first on the list of the Reduction in Force (maybe that’s why I felt personally vindicated when the Democrats finally got it back in 2006 – about time.)

Global Rights: Partners for Justice (“The Law Group”)

Two years later – now with a husband and two children, babies, in fact – I went back to work with the International Human Rights Law Group, now called Global Rights: Partners for Justice, www.globalrights.org.  A human rights organization with a development approach, as their website will explain, it was a unique, exciting, and challenging environment to spend the next five years of my life (1996 – 2002). 

I began at the Law Group, as it was called by insiders, just as Mobutu was falling and Zaire was becoming the Congo once again.  Much of my early work was coordinating and developing programs of support for the nascent human rights organizations there; and as funding for the organization increased and more staff came on board, I worked more with Nigerian pro-democracy organizations in a time of such heavy military repression that we had to meet in Ghana, with the attendees crossing the boarder by road disguised as orange traders, because they would have been recognized and arrested if they tried to board a plane. 

That Nigeria program was conceptualized by the then-director of Global Rights, Gay McDougall, who had been a leader in the U.S. anti-apartheid front, and brought together South Africans with expertise in organizing under heavy repression, to share their techniques with the Nigerians, whose repressive military regime rivaled that of South Africa.  At one of those clandestine meetings in Ghana, the Nigerians infiltrated anyway, but they were too late to do anything except try—unsuccessfully --  to take the South African trainers off the plane as they were leaving Ghana.   

I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have been given the chance to work with these kinds of people, people who put their lives at risk on a daily basis for their commitment to justice --  and even more fortunate to have seen the situation in Nigeria turn around: the next meeting we had with the same group of people was inside Nigeria, under a democratically elected government; and instead of training on how to organize underground, we were training on techniques for NGOs to lobby an elected government to bring about progressive laws.

A Balancing Act

As the challenges of balancing my desire to spend time with my children against my desire to continue with my work grew, I began to work part-time.  In an arrangement for which I’m ever grateful to my then-employers, I worked full days from Mondays to Wednesdays (the days my children were in pre-school); and then had Thursdays, Fridays, and the weekend with the kids. 

It was also only possible with the goodwill of all of my colleagues at Global Rights – and in particular, the dedication and skill of two young women who worked as “my” assistants (they were really departmental assistants): first Abby Richardson; and when she went on to law school, Eileen Pastora.  Looking back I can see Jean’s influence in how I related to Abby and Eileen, seeing their potential, appreciating their intelligence and drive, and giving them ownership of their work, so that their commitment to was no less than mine.  I can say that I literally would not have been able to do that work without them.

Of course, part-time work meant working from home on those “off” days, something I was happy to do.  There was many a conference call from my special spot on the playground – just far enough away from the slides and swings so that the playground screaming of children wouldn’t be heard through the cell phone.  Later, when Trey and Elyse went to school daily, I also went to work every day, but still part-time, organizing my hours so that I could pick them up on time.

The Denial of Women’s Inheritance Rights in Africa

Working part-time also meant that I eventually reduced the scope of my work until I mainly worked on the issue I had “brought” to the Law Group – the denial of women’s inheritance rights in Africa.  I’d first heard about it at the African Development Foundation, where a Ugandan woman was seeking an “information dissemination grant” -- funding to let women widowed by HIV/AIDS know that their right to inherit was protected by statutory law.  Her proposal explained how, in the HIV/AIDS era, women were becoming widowed much younger than even a decade earlier; and girl children orphaned by AIDS were becoming heads of households.  Without the right to inherit their land and homes, a social and economic catastrophe was in the making. 

When I was being interviewed by Global Rights, I was asked to give an example of a human rights issue I thought was important.  I told my interviewers about the denial of inheritance rights in Africa, and I requested and received permission to develop it as a new Global Rights program.

I kicked off the program, The Women’s Inheritance Rights Initiative, in 1999 with a meeting in Accra, Ghana bringing together women from around the continent who had been working largely in isolation.   When I left Global Rights in 2002, the Women’s Inheritance Rights Initiative had grown into a large network of mostly women’s Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa, and significant strides had been made towards getting a higher profile for the issue at the international level; getting more awareness of the need for protective laws at the level of the individual African countries; and at the grassroots level, in terms of training and awareness-raising.

(Left) - My final inheritance rights training in Ghana before leaving the Law Group in 2002 -- women working on inheritance rights came from all over Africa to discuss the different levels at which the struggle was being launched; and to undergo intensive training on working at the local level.
- Nigerian Global Rights Program Officer Anne Ikpeme breaks it all down

If I could write pages about my work at the African Development Foundation, I could write a book about my work on inheritance rights at Global Rights; but for the moment, I’ll just direct you to the three links below, which not only will describe the problem and its significance, but it will show you that a small group of committed individuals and organizations can indeed take an unrecognized problem out of obscurity and bring it to the attention of the world.  Step by step, from the first meeting in 1999, through countless email campaigns, Days of Action, trainings, and lobbying, we kept going until The New York Times “broke the story” with an editorial in 2004, followed by an in-depth article in early 2005.

The New York Times Editorial on Africa’s Homeless Widows

The 2004 New York Times editorial on “Africa’s Homeless Widows” is of greatest significance to me, and is all the evidence I need to prove that the work we did on inheritance rights succeeded in bring the attention of the world to an issue that had remained below the radar for too long: 

Back in mid-2004, I was in Antigua, deep into writing Unburnable, when I got a call from a woman who writes editorials for the New York Times, Tina Rosenberg.  She’d seen an article written by Abby Richardson (my former assistant, mentioned above) in Human Rights Brief, published by the American University Washington College of Law, where Abby was then a second-year student.  Immediately before starting law school at American University, Abby had designed and undertaken a six-month, five-country inheritance rights assessment mission.  Her brief, Women’s Inheritance Rights in Africa: The Need to Integrate Cultural Understanding and Legal Reform, had caught Ms. Rosenberg’s attention, and she wanted to write something for the New York Times about it.  Although others had written elsewhere about the denial of women’s inheritance rights in Africa, I see this editorial was the most important step thus far in bring the issue into a wider discourse – the cultural importance of the New York Times needs no elaboration. 
And by February of the next year, 2005, the New York Times had followed up the editorial by running a substantial article outlining the connection between inheritance rights and HIV/AIDS – a connection that had been the cornerstone of our awareness-raising campaigns.    

Here is the first New York Times editorial, written with information provided primarily by Abby Richardson:

Africa's Homeless Widows

June 16, 2004

Women feed Africa. They grow 80 percent of the continent's food, yet the land they cultivate is not theirs. Women own only 1 percent of the land in sub-Saharan Africa. Tradition says that when a man dies, his property passes to his adult sons or brothers. The widow and her children are often
evicted and left destitute. Click to read full article

And this is the February, 2005 New York Times follow-up to that editorial, which describes what happens to women and children in harrowing detail.

AIDS and Custom Leave African Families Nothing


Published: February 18, 2005

BLANTYRE, Malawi - There are two reasons why 11-year-old Chikumbutso Zuze never sees his three sisters, why he seldom has a full belly, why he sleeps packed sardinelike with six cousins on the dirt floor of his aunt's thatched mud hut.

One is AIDS, which claimed his father in 2000 and his mother in 2001. The other is his father's nephew, a tall, light-complexioned man whom Chikumbutso knows only as Mr. Sululu.

It was Mr. Sululu who came to his village five years ago, after his father died, and commandeered all of the family's belongings - mattresses, chairs and, most important, the family's green Toyota pickup, an almost unimaginable luxury in this, one of the poorest nations on earth. And it was Mr. Sululu who rejected the pleas of the boy's mother, herself dying of AIDS, to leave the truck so that her children would have an inheritance to sustain them after her death.

Instead, Chikumbutso said, he left behind a battery-powered transistor radio

Click here to read more


And finally, below is an interview from one of my trips to Nigeria, for a Day of Action on Women’s Inheritance Rights in 2001, carried on a California-based on-line public news station.

Women's Inheritance Rights in West Africa

Click here for links to websites of organizations working on Women’s Inheritance Rights.

NCM Online, By Donal Brown, August 31, 2001

Women are organizing in West Africa to establish a right taken for granted in the United States -- a woman's right to inherit property from her
husband. As it stands now, the practice of denying widows inheritance rights contributes significantly to poverty in Africa. In a village forty miles from Enugu, Nigeria, a mother of five girls, two married and three in secondary school, had taken care of her husband when he was sick and dying. She was the husband's third wife.

Before he died, in recognition of her hard work and devotion, the husband gave the woman the four plots she had always planted with cassava, a
staple crop in Nigeria. When she tried to harvest her crop this year, the sons of her co-wives barred the way.

And when she tried to return to the plots, she was chased, beaten and had a tooth knocked out. Her husband's sons harvested the cassava and the
mother could no longer afford to send her three daughters to school.

The mother told her story during a day of testimony last week sponsored by a Washington, D.C.-based organization, International Human Rights Law Group with offices throughout Africa.

(Left) - Widow tells story during day of action testimonies.
- Day of action participants leave the workshop to petition on behalf of the disinherited widow.

In a telephone interview from Enugu, the group's Coordinator for African Programs, Marie-Elena John Smith, said that the first step in mobilizing people to fight for these rights was to hear these women's stories.

Women from Togo, Ghana, the Cameroon, and the Congo joined Nigerian women in telling their stories. The women ranged from the very young to the very old and from the poor and illiterate to lawyers and businesswomen. The common thread in their stories was that they were denied
housing and land although some were denied access to bank accounts and to businesses they had built with their husbands.

John Smith thinks it is important to consider the problem as one of oppression rather than tradition and culture. That way they can view it in terms of competition for scarce resources and see that power is used unjustly to oppress the weak and realize that the problem is one with solutions.

She said some people are responding to the injustice but that there are limits to what can be accomplished right now. A traditional ruler did try to intervene for the Nigerian mother. He even violated local custom by going to the home of the husband's sons to break kola nuts with them -- a ritual gesture of peace, friendship and hospitality -- and argue the mother's case, but the sons rejected his views.

John Smith believes that good laws help the cause. She said a local legislator was introducing a widowhood bill concerning some issues such as
fetish oaths requiring wives to drink water used to bathe their dead husbands. She praised him for his bill but when she asked him to consider
the inheritance problem, he said that was where he drew the line.

As with most other African countries, Ghana has laws in place but still has a lot to accomplish. The Ghanaian Constitution guarantees that a woman
can inherit her husband's property, and the Intestate Succession Law passed in 1985 bolsters the Constitution. In many places, law systems co-exist -- religious, customary and statutory. Customary law often prevails to prevent women from gaining inheritance. Illiterate women in poor villages are also most often unaware of their rights and subject to violence and other forms of intimidation.

In Togo, for a woman to inherit her husband's estate, the husband must renounce customary law and make public his wish that modern law be
applied. His widow can then inherit 25 percent of his estate. The remaining 75 percent goes to his children.

This denial of inheritance rights for women in Africa is a pervasive problem, exacerbated today by the AIDS epidemic. It is common now for a
husband to die of AIDS at a young age with perhaps three wives and numerous children. These wives become heads of households but find themselves impoverished without a wage-earning husband or inheritance. A recent survey in eight African countries showed that denying widows
inheritance resulted in extreme poverty in 54 percent of the cases.

Armed with the testimony, John Smith is returning to the United States to help raise money for the next step which is to help non-government
organizations in West Africa to begin grassroots movements.

The organizations will train supporters to work with key groups in the community such as traditional rulers who often act as mediators and groups of women vested with authority over widowhood rites.

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The decision to move to Antigua and to write full-time was one that I made believing that it would be in the best interest of my children.  Yet it was still a very difficult one,  because I knew it would mean suspending this work.  In my interview with Island Where, I describe how I did try to incorporate inheritance rights into one of  Unburnable’s sub-plots – unsuccessfully; and how I plan to ensure that it will be highlighted in my next novel.  My ultimate goal, my fervent hope, is that I’ll be able to use my writing – my next novel in particular – to re-engage with my previous work.

Click here to view Island Where interview


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