For Tsitsi Mhende, the Afro-Heritage Association (AHA) of Sudbury is a chance not only to enjoy her culture and language from her homeland of Zimbabwe, but to give the gift of it to her two children.
“My children were both born and raised here,” said Mhende. “But I love for them to know more about Zimbabwe and through AHA, we try to teach them that, and also show them how to navigate both worlds seamlessly.”
Mhende came to Canada in 2001, though she did not originally end up in Sudbury. Rather, she ended up much further North and because of her work with the grocery and retail chain The North West Company, she lived in many different areas.
Winnipeg was her first Canadian city and after five years there she lived in Fond du Lac in northern Saskatchewan. Her now 15-year-old son was born in Yellowknife and then the family moved to Stanley Mission, “near” Saskatoon. “But by near,” she said, “I mean about 700 kilometres north of.”
In 2007, she’d had enough of the travel — especially with a little one — and settled in Sudbury. “Sudbury has been home for myself and my children for 13 years now.”
At first, Mhende felt somewhat alone. “I remember when I first came to Sudbury there were not as many Black people,” she said. “My children were the only Black kids in their classes and when I’d go to shops and saw a Black person, we would be so excited that we’d stop and chat and ask each other about our backgrounds.”
It was this need to see familiar faces that led Mhende to the AHA and her desire to encourage the next generation that has kept her there.
“Working with like-minded people who speak the same ‘language’ is very refreshing,” said Mhende. “I believe my 20-year journey has given me experience to talk to new immigrants. I love helping people and this is my way of giving back to society and Canada.”
She can use her experience to help others find their way in Sudbury, settling here and offering a support system, as well as letting them know an important lesson she learned in her journey. “Sudbury AHA is there to help people realise that their heritage is important and moving to Canada doesn’t mean you have to lose who you are.”
Since 2005, the Afro-Heritage Association of Sudbury has assisted newcomers to Sudbury in finding a place for themselves in their new home, while still celebrating their history, their culture and passing that knowledge to their growing families. They offer employment support mentorship with immigrants who have lived in Sudbury for some time, and most of all, a connection to community.
Mhende is a five-year executive member of the AFA and says that her volunteer work is intentionally aimed at the younger members. “I like to bring awareness to the school children,” said Mhende. “I am like the voice constantly whispering to them that they should not feel like they are alone, and we are here to help them if they ever need anything.”
She is perfectly suited to this role. She is a teacher, after all.
And not just a teacher, but a single mother who completed her concurrent Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Bachelor of Education degrees from Laurentian University and a Master of Professional Education — with a specialization in International Education — from Western University.
Not only does she work daily to encourage new attitudes and knowledge about Black people in Canada, but she is also “the self-appointed voice of Black History Month in the school boards.”
“I find February a really good month for me to share who I am as a Black person,” said Mhende. “When students discuss and share what they know about Black people, it is a learning and teaching opportunity for me as I listen and learn what they know and, also, teach them what I know.”
While she has had some bad experiences here in Sudbury, there haven’t been many, and not direct — more of the yelling horrific words from a passing car variety. But even so, she must teach her children that they will be treated differently here, even unknowingly.
“What I tell my kids,” she said, “is that we have to work extra hard to get things that come easily to others. What I mean is, as Black people, we have to ‘prove’ ourselves. There will always be that element of doing more as a Black person to show that you are qualified, and you do have experience.”
There are also many who speak to Mhende as if they have already offended her, clearly uncomfortable and worried about saying the wrong thing.
“People are too careful of what they say to me,” she said. “Everything we encounter is a learning opportunity, so do not engage someone with guilt in your head, because then you have projected how I should feel when I meet you. I do not feel any type of way when I see a white person and therefore, I would like to encourage all people to freely have conversations with Black people without worrying how they should feel or sound.”
She adds with a laugh, “Oh, and no, it’s not my real hair. My hair doesn’t grow past my shoulders.”
Though she loves her home and the work she does, she knows that there is more to be done to ensure that anyone of Afro-heritage coming to Sudbury can settle here successfully. Additionally, she hopes it is time to move beyond that into an idea she has seen in other regions – a Black business initiative.
“With the Black population increasing in Sudbury,” she said, “I feel there should be more opportunities for Black people to excel and also show what they can achieve if given the opportunity.”
If you would like to find out more about the Afro-Heritage Association of Sudbury, you can visit their website at Afro-Heritage.org.
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Reporter at Sudbury.com, covering issues in the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities. She is also a freelance writer and voice actor.