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

This first-person column is written by Francisca Mandeya de Iqaluit. Read more about CBC North First Person columns here.

I had never considered leaving Zimbabwe and my children to settle in Nunavut. But eight years ago I did just that – and I’m grateful for the life I’ve found here.

I was a headstrong Zimbabwean – a daughter of the soil – but I landed in frozen Iqaluit on December 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 story of how an African woman arrived 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 fight to defend my family as a single mother. I was traumatized, always wondering when the Central Intelligence Organization agent who had harassed me and threatened to “disappear” me would attack. The mental and emotional burden I carried plunged me into an acute depression. To add insult to injury, an abrupt break with a man I trusted increased my vulnerability.

My sisters Tina and Jo worried 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 told me on Iqaluit’s phone one day. “I’m tired of hearing his stories and I worry I’m going to lose him to one thing or another.”

My family gave me hope for a new life.

As a Catholic, I was excited to get to Iqaluit in time for the Christmas Eve Mass. Heading to church with my sister, I reached the car door and, in the blink of an eye, found myself lying on a bed of ice. That was my first of many falls. I learned that the pretty 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 now she is used to it. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

The Mass was beautiful. I was intrigued to hear my sister and other congregants singing the Our Father in Inuktitut. Three months later, I could sing it too. Since then I have composed my own prayer-based Inuktitut and Shona song, our relationshipsthat I play on my mbira.

As an extrovert, I reached out and participated in community, volunteer, and paid activities. I remembered back home, my late mother used to sing with us, “shine, shine, shine where you are”. I reached out to find 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 kids. But I remembered his words: “Mom, even when you make a mistake, the audience doesn’t know what you’re playing. So you keep going.”

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

Mandeya sings and plays his 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 opposite Nakasuk School. The crowd cheered me on and I felt good.

I won second prize in the talent competition and won $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 colonists, so was the throat song. It was comforting to know that I was not alone in regaining my identity and using my culture to heal intergenerational trauma.

Since moving to the Arctic, I’ve been out on land, run a half marathon twice, fallen off a skidoo, gone fruit picking and fishing, and played with the Inuksuk drum dancers. I walk everywhere now. I even walked in a blizzard. I’m not afraid of the cold anymore.

Mandeya, left, competed in a virtual Boston marathon with friends Kearon Nyandoro and Sanele Chakonza, and sister Tina Mandeya, in Iqaluit. (Sent by Francesca 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 that I felt supported by several allies in Iqaluit, who marched in solidarity with us during the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020.

Focusing on gratitude helped me navigate life in Nunavut and Canada. Dealing with life’s challenges with a positive mindset is a practice I’m mastering.

Today I am a mental physical trainer and coach, author and advocate for social justice. I founded Mothers United in Iqaluit, a social enterprise that brings mothers together to change the world. I’ve come a long way!

In my culture, when grateful, we say cat faith in the heart – “A cat’s gratitude is in the heart.”


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For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from anti-black racism to success stories 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.


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