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

This column was written by Francesca Mandia of Iqaluit. Read more about the CBC North First Person columns here.

I never thought about the possibility of 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 hardcore Zimbabwean – daughter of soil – but landed in frozen Iqaluit on December 24, 2014. I only had two bags and a mbira [an African folk instrument].

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

The dramatic story of how an African woman found herself in the Canadian Arctic is a combination of political, social and economic conditions that have led to serious mental health challenges.

In Zimbabwe, every day was a struggle to support my family as a single mother. I was traumatized, always wondering when the CIA agent who harassed me and threatened to “disappear” would pounce on me. The mental and emotional burden I was carrying plunged me into a severe depression. To make matters worse, a sudden breakup with a guy I trusted only made my vulnerability worse.

My sisters Tina and Joe worried that I might have chosen to die by suicide. I think they were right.

Tina 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 the phone from Iqaluit one day. “I’m done hearing your stories and I’m afraid to lose you for 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 Christmas Eve mass. Heading to church with my sister, I made it to the car door, and in a flash found myself lying on a bed of ice. This was my first fall. I learned that the cute suede shoes I wore didn’t have a firm grip and that when it came to outdoor shoes, safety was more important than looking good.

Francesca Mandia is pictured in Iqaluit in 2016. The climate in the north was noisy at first but she’s getting used to it now. (Sima Sahar Al-Zurahi/CBC)

The liturgy was beautiful. I was fascinated to hear my sister and the other devotees sing the Lord’s Prayer in Inktitot. Three months later, I can sing it too. Since then I have composed the Inuktitut and Shona prayer based song, our relationshipswhich I play on my mbira.

As an extrovert, I have reached out and been involved in community activities, whether voluntary or paid. I remembered at home, my late mother singing with us, “Shine, shine, shine wherever you are.” I reached out to find out where I can share my culture.

When I entered a local talent competition, I was afraid to perform on my own. I used to be on stage with my brave kids. But I remembered their words: “Mom, even when you make a mistake, the audience doesn’t know what you’re playing. So you have to keep going.”

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

Mendia sings and plays her role in Iqaluit. (M. Bucci/CBC)

“Bring cultural diversity to Iqaluit,” I said as I sat on stage in the Alyanite Arts Festival tent in front of Nkasuk School. The crowd applauded me and I was relieved.

I won the second prize in the talent contest and got 600 dollars. Joshua Hawley, a 16-year-old ENOC, won first prize. As we shared our experiences, I learned that just as the mbira was once seen as evil and prohibited by colonists, it was also throat singing. I was reassured to know that I was not alone in reclaiming my identity and using my culture to heal intergenerational trauma.

Since I moved to the North Pole, I’ve landed, run a half marathon twice, fallen off a skateboard, gone berry picking 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.

Mandia, left, competed in a virtual Boston Marathon with her friends Kieron Nyandoro and Saniel Chacunza, and her sister, Tina Mandia, in Iqaluit. (Provided by Francesca Mandia)

It is not always easy to be an immigrant from Africa. I experienced societal and systemic racism in Iqaluit, and realized that anti-African racism is a global phenomenon. But I am grateful to have felt the support of many allies in Iqaluit, who demonstrated 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’ve mastered.

Today I am a mental fitness trainer, coach, author, and social justice advocate. I founded Mothers United in Iqaluit, a social enterprise that brings mothers together to change the world. Long way to go!

In my culture, when we thank, we say The cat’s faith in the heart – “The cat’s heart’s gratitude.”


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For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences – from anti-black racism to success stories within the black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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