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 First Person columns here.

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’m grateful for the life I found here.

I was a die-hard Zimbabwean – a daughter of the earth – 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’s always impossible until it’s done.”

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

In Zimbabwe, every day was a struggle to provide for my family as a single mother. I was traumatized and always wondered when the Central Intelligence Organization employee who had harassed me and threatened to “disappear” would strike. The mental and emotional burden I was carrying plunged me into acute depression. To make matters worse, an abrupt break-up with a man I’d trusted made my vulnerability even greater.

My sisters Tina and Jo were concerned 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 lived.

‘That is it. You’re coming,” Tina had told me one day over the phone from Iqaluit. “I’m done hearing your stories and I’m worried I’ll 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. As I went 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 didn’t have a firm grip and that when it comes to outdoor shoes, safety is more important than looking good.

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

Mass was beautiful. I was intrigued to hear my sister and other congregation members sing the Lord’s Prayer in Inuktitut. Three months later I could sing it too. Since then I have composed my own prayer based Inuktitut and Shona song, Our relationswhich i play on my mbira.

As an extrovert, I have contacted and participated in community activities, both voluntary and paid. I remembered at home, my late mother sang 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 show, I was afraid to perform alone. I was used to being on stage with my intrepid kids. But I remembered their words: “Mom, even if you make a mistake, the audience won’t know what you’re playing. So just keep going.”

It’s great to be an educational parent. I listened and gathered courage.

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

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

I won second prize in the talent show 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 considered evil and banned by settlers, so was throat singing. It felt reassuring to know that I was not alone in rediscovering my identity and using my culture to heal intergenerational trauma.

Since moving to the Arctic, I’ve gone out on land, run two half marathons, fell off a skidoo, picked berries and fished, and played with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. I walk everywhere now. I even walked in a snow storm. I am no longer afraid of the cold.

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 being 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 to have felt supported by countless 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 an exercise I have mastered.

Today I am a mental 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’ve come a long way!

In my culture, when we are grateful, we say: the cat’s 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 – visit Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. Read more stories here.


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