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

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

I had never considered leaving Zimbabwe and my children to settle in Nunavut. But eight years ago I did exactly that, and I am grateful for the life I found here.

I was a die-hard Zimbabwean, a daughter of the land, 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 arrived 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 support my family as a single mother. I was traumatized, always wondering when the Central Intelligence Organization operative that had harassed me and threatened to “disappear” would pounce. The mental and emotional burden I was carrying plunged me into acute depression. To add insult to injury, an abrupt breakup with a man I had trusted increased my vulnerability.

My sisters Tina and Jo were 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 I lived.

“That’s it. You’re coming,” Tina had told me on the phone from Iqaluit one day. “I’m done listening to your stories and worrying about losing 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 the Christmas Eve mass. Driving to church with my sister, I reached the car door and in an instant found myself lying on a bed of ice. That was the first of many falls. I learned that the cute 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 photographed in Iqaluit in 2016. The northern climate was unpleasant at first, but now she is used to it. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

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

As an extrovert, I reached out and participated in community activities, both volunteer and paid. I remember at home, my late mother used to sing with us, “shine, shine, shine wherever you are.” I reached out to find out where I could share my culture.

When I entered a local talent competition, I was scared to perform on my own. I was used to being on stage with my intrepid children. But I remembered his words: “Mom, even when you make a mistake, the audience doesn’t know what you’re playing. So keep going.”

It’s great to be a teachable parent. I listened and steeled myself.

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

“I bring cultural diversity to Iqaluit,” I said as I sat on the stage of the Alianait Arts Festival tent in front of the Nakasuk School. The crowd applauded me and I 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 the colonizers once considered mbira evil and banned it, so was 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 moving to the Arctic, I’ve been out on the dirt, ran a half marathon twice, fell off a skidoo, went berry picking and fishing, and played with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. I walk everywhere now. I have even walked in a blizzard. I am no longer afraid of the cold.

Mandeya, left, competed in a virtual Boston Marathon with her 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 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 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, an author, and an advocate for social justice. I have founded Mothers United in Iqaluit, a social enterprise that unites mothers to change the world. I’ve come a long way!

In my culture, when we are 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 Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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