The Woyingi Blog

Film Review: I Sing of a Well (2009) by Leila Djansi

Posted in African Film, African Filmmakers, African Women Filmmakers, Films, Ghanaian Film by the woyingi blogger on March 30, 2011

Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)

Director: Leila Djansi

Country: Ghana

Genre: Historical Drama

The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and  narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.

In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.

I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.

Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.

After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.

I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.

The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.

There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.

Further Reading:

I Sing of a Well Website

I Sing of a Well Trailer available online

BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)

BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)

Passing for Desi: The Strange Case of Christopher Simpson

Irish Actor Christopher Simpson has made a name for himself staring a disaffected South Asian (Desi) young men in such British films as White Teeth (the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel) and most recently Brick Lane (the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel). But he isn’t South Asian. He’s actually Black, and not in the British sense where Black means everyone who isn’t White, but Black in the sense of being of Sub-Saharan African descent.

Christopher Simpson was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1975. His full name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. For someone who lives in Ottawa’s African community and so has grown familiar with various African last names Gatsinzi sets off alarm bells. Gatsinzi is a Rwandan name. The most internationally well-known Gatsinzi is Marcel Gatsinzi, an ethnic Hutu who is currently Rwanda’s Minister of Defense. Simpson is actually the son of an Irish father and a Rwandan-Greek mother.

When White Teeth was aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, a viewer inquired about Christopher’s name as follows:

Dear Masterpiece Theatre,

Why does Christopher Simpson, who played the roles of both Millat and Magid, have a white name?

“asian black”

New York, NY

According to actor Christopher Simpson:

“My name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. I was born in Dublin to a Rwandan Greek mother and an Irish father. I lived in Dublin until I was six when I moved to London, where I have been ever since. Imagine, if you will, the difficulty I have responding to the question ‘Where are you from?'”

What is a White name anyway?

It’s been impossible to find interviews where Simpson discusses his ethno-cultural background and how this relates to the fact that he has made a career portraying members of an ethno-cultural community he doesn’t belong to (If you know of any interviews like this, please let me know). However, in a 2006 interview with the Irish newspaper The Independent, I was able to learn more about Simpson’s parents. The following are excerpts from this rather amusingly frustrating interview with journalist Donal Lynch :

An innocuous question about what his father was doing in Rwanda when he met his mother is greeted with a theatrical look of horror. “I’m not that comfortable talking about all of that. You want my dad’s CV? You’ll have to ask him yourself. Does that make sense?”

I’m in the middle of trying to explain that it might be interesting for people to also learn a little bit about his background, but he’s still not sure. I don’t really care what his father does but, by now, I am truly intrigued.

I’ve hit upon something interesting. Was his father a gun-smuggler? An arms dealer? A millionaire playboy? Surely this veil of secrecy must be concealing something very exciting indeed.

“OK, he was training to be a teacher,” Chris, sorry Christopher, tells me with a withering look. I try to conceal my disappointment that his father is not James Bond. I can tell this is going to be like pulling teeth.

When I ask him whether he encountered racism while at school in England, he says: “I don’t think any country has a monopoly on racism. My recollection of school is lots of things and for sure, people will look to what is different,” and leaves it at that. I nearly leap for joy when he speaks about visiting Rwanda with his mother as a child, as this represents a quantum leap of frankness compared to the generalities he has been using up to now.

“It is a beautiful country,” he says. “Our mum gave us phrases in Rwandan so we could order things. We were on the hillside, by a brook. It was the first time I had avocado cut from a tree.”

He tells me he was “touched and saddened” by the massacres there.

Did he have relatives who died in the war?

“Inevitably if you have any relatives in Rwanda, you know of people who died.”

What age was his mother when he left Rwanda? He doesn’t know. It must have been difficult for her to cope, knowing the situation in her homeland?

“One has to live one’s life no matter how tragic the circumstances of it are.”

He tells me his mother has since died but doesn’t feel he wants to say how she died. He tosses his hair and stares out the window. More silence.

He has gleefully bored me back into talking about his career and waits out the final few minutes of the interview with a monologue on “the travesty of the colonial and imperial imperative to divide and rule”.

I personally would like to know how Simpson’s mother’s parents met. How many Rwandan Greek mixes could there possibly be?

That said, it doesn’t really surprise me that there were Greeks in Rwanda, there definitely were many in Burundi. I learned this while reading model Esther Kamatari’s memoir. Kamatari is a member of the Burundi Royal Family and Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore was assassinated by a Greek National living in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, in 1961. But why were there Greeks in Burundi? Here is blogger Douglas Muir historically-based explanation from the blog A Fistful of Euros:

History: the Greeks had been in Alexandria since forever. So, when the British came to build the Suez Canal and politely detach Egypt from the decaying Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were there to ease into place as translators, merchants, vendors and general facilitators to the new colonial overlords. And in the late 19th century, some of them followed the expanding British Empire across East Africa, down the Nile to Sudan and around the Horn of Africa to Kenya.

Now the 19th century British, being British, were of two minds about these Greeks. They were useful, but they were… well… Greek. Not quite the thing, you know.

But the Belgians — who ran the Congo and, after World War One, Rwanda and Burundi as well — were different. They were lazier than the British, and more corrupt, but they were less arrogant and much more willing to allow a hard-working Greek to make an honest franc as a factor, tax farmer, or overseer.

So in Rwanda and Burundi, the Greeks became junior partners to the Belgian colonial masters. In the interwar years, hundreds of them came from all over the Greek diaspora to settle here, trading in coffee and ivory and palm oil, taking jobs in the civil service. By World War Two there were a couple of thousand of them, and they were raising a second generation. They had their own district of the town. They built the big church, right in the middle of Bujumbura, just a little bit smaller than the Catholic cathedral that housed the Belgian bishop. They had settled down in a distant, quiet corner of the world and built a prosperous community. Things looked good.

Then: the long slow colonial withdrawal. Independence. Ethnic tension. A young government playing with the economy, experimenting with socialism, import substitution, export controls. Europeans pushed out of power, not only in politics, but in trade and business. A civil war in the 1970s; economic collapse. Dictatorship. The economy contracted to subsistence agriculture, coffee and tea exports. Another civil war in the 1990s; another collapse.

By the early 21st century most of the Greeks were gone. The community had shrunk from a couple of thousand to perhaps a hundred. Those who remained were second and third generation, and some of them were very prominent in the country’s business community — they owned export businesses, farms, urban land — and they’d managed, one way or another, to come to terms with successive Burundian governments. There aren’t enough to keep the community going much longer; their children are mostly going away to school, and not coming back. Another twenty or thirty years, and they’ll probably be just a memory, a very small footnote to colonial history.

But meanwhile there’s the Greek consulate. And the big Orthodox church, where the few remaining faithful can gather every Sunday morning. It’s closed the other six and a half days a week, but is still kept very clean.

So, most likely, one of Simpson’s grandparents was from Rwanda’s Greek communities.

Further Reading:

Homing in on Simpson no job for amateurs by Donal Lynch (2006 interview available online)

The Greeks of Burundi by Douglas Muir (2008 blog post available online)

Book Review: The Afersata by Sahle Sellassie

Posted in Ethiopian Literature, Gurage, Heinemann African Writers' Series, Novels by the woyingi blogger on March 29, 2011

The Afersata An Ethiopian Novel by Sahle Sellassie was published by Heinemann African Writers’ Series in 1969. It is unfortunately currently out of print. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father. It is quite a short novel (90 pages).

The novel begins with the hut of villager Namaga burning down due to arson. In order to discover who is the culprit, Namaga demands an Afersata. An Afersata (an Amharic word)  is a traditional form of court proceeding aimed at getting at the truth of a matter. Every male member of a village is required to participate, no matter what their social status, and is asked if he is the culprit, if he knows who the culprit is, or if he has any knowledge related to the crime. He must swear an oath on the lives of his offspring, the most valued possession of a peasant farmer. But the novel is really a reflection on the current state of tenant farming in Southern Ethiopia among the Gurage people, an ethnic minority to which the author of the novel, Sellassie, belongs. Originally written in English, the novel spends a lot of time explaining cultural customs and seems aimed at both an international audience and city dwellers from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who do not know very much about the situation of rural farming communities in general, and of ethnic minority farming communities in particular.

The cover of the book, illustrated by Portuguese artist Pedro Guedes, son of artist Pancho Guedes, portrays the opening scenes from the novel as villagers try to save Namaga’s hut and his possessions from the fire. On the page opposite the first page of the novel, there is an illustration by renowned Ethiopian artist Ale Felege-Salam, which portrays The Afersata, with the elders and villagers gathered around a large tree.

Selected passages from the novel:

In the following passage, Sellassie describes how the local tax collector or Cheka Shum often was paid writing documents for illiterate villagers-by liquor.

In the villages like those of Wudma there are no bars. But some of the village women brew local beer, mead and arake in their spare time. The stronger the liquor they brew the more they are appreciated. If no liquor is available in the villages then the official would have his mule saddles and would ride to the town where the sub-district court is located and have his fill there. Or he would simply ask a young man from the village to go and get it for him from the town. It is rare, however, that the officials spend money from their own pockets to buy liquor. They get it free of charge from those who have some pending cases to be settled. Page 9

Much of the novel is social criticism of both traditional Ethiopian social institutions and current government policies of the ruling ethnic group (the Amhara). The following passage is a criticism of the institution of dedje tenat:

The age-old institution known as dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. The institution of dedje tenat calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. Page 11

Sellassie criticizes the social structure of traditional village life. Through my reading in African Literature, I’ve found it interesting that in many traditional African communities, craftsmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, are actually seen as be amongst the lowest of the low. This is also true in the Gurage village portrayed in this novel as depicted in the following passage:

Despite the inconveniences created by the Afersata, members of the submerged class considered it a privilege to attend the meeting. As far as they were concerned it was a new step towards the recognition of their civil status. Formerly they were outcasts who lived on the fringe of village society because of the trade they practised. As wood-workers, leather-workers and metal-workers they were despised and pushed aside from all social and civil activities.

If the Ethiopian peasants could not improve their material life over the centuries it was probably because they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their labour; and if material progress stagnated it was probably because the creators of material civilization were despised. The man who carved wood, the man who tanned leather and the blacksmith who forged iron into utensils was an inferior creature by the fallacious logic of the ignorant. Page 15-16

Melesse a civil servant living in Addis Ababa and the uncle of Beshir, the suspected arsonist, is asked by his friend and fellow civil servant Tekle to visit the Gurage village. Tekle, an Amhara, has been interested in visiting a Gurage village ever since he studied them as a student of social science in Addis Ababa. Melesse is reluctant because he is worried that seeing a Gurage village will make him sad and nostalgic. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel that Sellassie was writing this novel to be read by people like Tekle, people who have lived mainly in the city or amongst the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia. As is demonstrated in this passage, these people do not know very much about the Gurage and do not think highly of them:

Tekle: I used to think that the Gurage were simply porters in Addis, shoe-shiners and pedlars. Now I see a people with a distinct culture and a respectable way of life.

Melesse: You are not the only person who has a wrong image of my folks. Half of the town dwellers have the same ideas as you had before. And besides you still don’t know much about my folks. You have so far seen only the insignificant symbols of their culture.

Before the unification and centralization of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century the Gurage lived in a stateless society. Laws were made directly by the people themselves as in the old Greek city states. The chiefs and the elders certainly played the most important role in this matter, but the assembly under the tree was open to anyone who wished to be present and give his opinion about any matter concerning society as a whole. There was no established army to defend that stateless society, but society as a whole was responsible for any crime committed by an individual. Thus, if a person murdered another, either he would be exiled from his motherland or his tribe would contribute money for him to pay the blood price. This type of collective responsiblity is still practiced elsewhere in Ethiopia. The institution of Afersata, for instance, is based on the philosophy of collective responsiblity. Pages 50-51

The position of women is also reflected on in the novel, however at no time are any of the women in the novel named, they are only referred to based on their relationship with a man, for example, Namaga’s wife, Beshir’s wife, Melesse’s mother. Women are not required to attend The Afersata, something which actually makes no sense considering that women are just as capable as men of committing crimes.

About Sahle Sellassie

According to his biography on the back of this novel:

Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam was born in 1936. He has studied at the University College in Addis Ababa, l’Universite d’Aix-Marseille and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed short stories and articles in English and Amharic to publications in Ethiopia. Shinega’s Village, a novel written in Chaha, has been published in English by the University of California Press, and Wotat Yifredew, a novel in Amharic, appeared in Addis Ababa. His historical novel Warrior King about the Emperor Teodoros will appear in 1974.

After completing his M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Sellassie returned to Ethiopia in 1964 where he worked for the British Embassy as a translator. His major work  in Amharic is Bassha Qitaw (1986), about the war with Italy (1935–41). In 1983, he has translated A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and in 1987.

I find it fascinating that Sellassie wrote a novel, Shinega’s Village: Scenes from Ethiopian Life, in Chaha, a dialect of Gurage. It was translated into English by Wolf Leslau, a Polish Jewish Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies from Haile Selassie himself . Obviously, Sellassie was trying to write something almost exclusively for his own people, as many people in Ethiopia would not have been able to read Chaha. It is clear to me that Sellassie sees one of the goals of his literary output as highlighting the experience of his people, both for themselves by writing in their own language, although as is highlighted in the novel The Afersata, many are not literate; for an international audience; but most importantly for Ethiopians from the dominant ethnic groups. I was recently asked by two Ethiopian students of Ethiopian Literature written in English what I felt the main theme of Ethiopian Literature written in English is. Frankly, I have no idea as I haven’t read all Ethiopian Literature written in English, however, I do feel that for Sellassie, writing in English meant reaching an international audience but also reaching an educated Ethiopian audience through a language that, in the Ethiopian context, put everyone on a level playing field-English. This may seem ironic for Western readers but as Ethiopia was never colonized by Britain (although there were definitely some British imperialist excursions, the most dramatic one actually precipitated the suicide of Emperor Teodoros II) English has less negative associations with it than Amharic might to someone from an Ethiopian ethnic minority like the Gurage. As many Ethiopian ethnic minorities have to learn Amharic as a second language because it is the language of the dominant ethnic group, the government, and the Church, Amharic speakers have to learn English as a second language. Therefore, as English is no one’s mother tongue, to read in it is to read on a level playing field. I would love to hear others’ reflections on this.

Further Reading:

The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)

BBC Radio Play Review: God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe

God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.

On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.

On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.

Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo  (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.

The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.

Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.

18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia

Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath  and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.

Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.

17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain

Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.

3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba

Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front.  Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation.  Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain

Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority. 

In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if  official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.

Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.

20th  July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.

Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.

10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.

10th  October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain

The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.

Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.

15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.

Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t. 

15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain

Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget. 

18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.

Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.

Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.

Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.

25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.

7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.

14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.

18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.

6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.

14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain

Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.

14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.

21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.

20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe

Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.

4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe

Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.

18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe

Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.

Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.

Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe  “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.

Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure

Personal Reflections

I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:

In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”

Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.

As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”

“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”

Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.

Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.

She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.

Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”

It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.

Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.

After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.

As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”

While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.

“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”

“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.

I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.

About Kwame Kwei-Armah

Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.

Further Reading:

Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)

Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)

Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)

Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)

House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)

Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)

Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)

Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)

When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)

Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available

Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)

Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

Black Blog Review: Vitabu Books by Lango Deen

Posted in Black Blog Review, Countries: Sierra Leone, Sierra Leonean Diaspora, Sierra Leonean Politics by the woyingi blogger on March 22, 2011

Blog: Vitabu Books

Author: Lango Deen

Vitabu Books is the personal blog of Sierra Leonean blogger Lango Deen, who is currently based in the US.

This is how she describes herself in her blog profile:

I am a Sierra Leonean living abroad. I make a living as a reporter and reading is one of my passions. When I’m not reading the day’s news, I’m enjoying books set in Africa or written by Africans. Vitabu (a Swahili word for books) is where I share my thoughts on books and the news.

I really like Deen’s blog. It is quite new, only started in January 2011. She has several reviews of contemporary African fiction, interviews with writers, and personal reflections on African current affairs.

I really like the idea that Deen has conducted her own interviews with African writers and it has inspired me to do the same if I can arrange it. Here is an excerpt from her post about the spy novel The Inverted Pyramid by Nigerian writer Emeka Dike:

Here is her description of the novel:

Azubike (Zuby) Thomas, the main character, flies in from London and lands into the arms of the Nigerian Intelligence agencies – a shadowy group of spies that change the course of history. Driven by unseen forces, Zuby sets out to investigate the power structure in Nigeria. But even before he starts to find answers to the many anomalies, he gets ensnared in a tangled web of deceit where money and sex rule. Zuby’s pursuit of an explanation about what has stymied progress in Nigeria—chronic corruption and robbery of the State—ultimately leads him down a path of intrigue, espionage, and murder. Zuby makes his mark as a rookie spy, but he doesn’t become a true leader until he meets the Oba—a “king” who holds resplendent court in a prison filled with the misery of beggars and thieves, and the triumph of a framed-up man, Nnamdi.

And here is an excerpt from her interview with Dike:

Vitabu: You dramatized “The Inverted Pyramid/Nigerian Factor” in action, was there any other information you were trying to give?

ED: I was trying to analyze and understand the socio-political make up of contemporary Nigeria. I was also trying to describe the cultural and socio-political characteristics of contemporary Nigeria.

Vitabu: Who did you write the book for?

ED: Every Nigerian/ African from 18 years and above that is literate, and particularly those who have grown up in the diaspora. The book was more therapeutic for me than anything else. I was tired of Nigerians describing their problems as if they were impossible to fathom. I wanted to break it down once and for all. We need to be honest with ourselves in Africa. Too many people are on the fence hoping that their turn will come to get a piece of the pie, hence they don’t talk; they don’t rock the boat. I wanted to rock the boat, so this is my personal way of doing it. Our so called leaders are getting away with far too much. The African intelligentsia has to wake up and take them on.

Vitabu: How?

ED: The first step is a better awareness, not by a handful of educated Africans but the middle class. If it does not exist then we have to create it with education. We take so much for granted that you and I may know but so many other educated Africans do not think of. Nigeria is a tough place in this respect; the oil money is dangled as a carrot so many look the other way.

I was particularly pleased to see her post an excerpt of William Conton’s novel The African, published in 1960. I found this novel at a used book store here in Ottawa but have found it difficult to get information online about the author or the novel, other then in Mohamed Sheriff’s article Literary Arts in Sierra Leone which states that The African is the equivalent to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for Sierra Leone (although Conton is also at times said to be Gambian).

In a post where she revisits the memoir by former Sierra Leonean child soldier Ismael Beah, A Long Way Gone, she reflects:

Baltimore, Maryland, January 2011—“Today is J6. Remember!” urged an e-mail head in my box. I opened it, but there was nothing in the body. It seemed the sender from Freetown had only found just enough time (or emotion) to type up a telegram. The short but powerful message brought back an old nightmare that’s haunted me every January since 1999: What if I’d extended my stay in Freetown from an initial 2-3 week break in October 1998 to a few months, stretching into the new year?

I was in love with an old love, and things were so deliriously good I was tempted to spend time in familiar places between Conakry and Freetown. 13 years on, I’ll never know if I would’ve survived the January 6, 1999, attack, but it doesn’t stop me wondering.

Although based in Balitmore, Deen is involved in the politics of her homeland, her other blog is devoted to the campaign of Sierra Leonean politican Kadi Sesay (who is the mother of CNN International news anchor Isha Sesay). Kadi Sesay is running for the leadership of Sierra Leone’s main opposition party the Sierra Leone People’s Party. Sesay was a professor of English Literature at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College (the oldest university college in West Africa) for twenty years before getting into politics by chairing the National Commission on Democracy and Human Rights, making her the first woman in Sierra Leone’s history to chair a national commission. According to the essay Explaining Women’s Roles in the West African Tragic Triplet: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’ Ivoire in Comparative Perspective by I. A. Badmuss :

Kadi Sesay used her office as the Chairman for the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights (NCDHR) to promote civil education, democracy, and human rights. Her democracy programme “contributed to preparing the electorate for nationwide participatory electoral democracy, which bore fruit in the massive turnout for the 1996 democratic elections.” (Mansaray, 2000: 150). Mrs. Sesay tirelessly committed herself to the institution of democracy and encouraged women to join in the political processes of the country.

I also searched for some of Lango Deen’s other writings online and found this great article about African American mathematician Etta Zuber Falconer, who was a Math and Science Professor at Spelman College, the historically Black Women’s College. Falconer was one of the first 20 Black women to get a PhD in Mathematics in the US. Falconer stated in 1995: “My entire career has been devoted to increasing the number of African American women in mathematics and mathematics-related careers.” Considering that Math is not a field that is seen to include either women or Black people, the fact that Falconer pursued this field to the level of Phd and then used her knowledge to educate other Black women to take on careers in this field is truly inspiring. I really appreciate that Deen wrote this profile of Etta Zuber Falconer.

My one recommendation to Deen would be to include more links in her posts. It is always great if readers can connect with more information directly through your blog than having to search on their own.

That said, I hope that Deen continues writing her blog as there needs to be more blogs by Africans that bring our literature to wider audiences and provide personal reflections on the continent’s current affairs.

You can also follow VitabuBooks on Twitter.

Further Reading:

Lango Deen’s Profile on the International Museum of Women Website

Etta Zuber Falconer, Ph.D. Spelman’s Legendary Math and Science Professor Passes On by Lango Deen (article available online)

Safia Ishag and Sudan’s Girifna Movement

One of my Facebook friends invited me to a demonstration on March 8th on Parliament Hill. It was to protest the assault and rape of 25-year-old Sudanese artist Safia Ishag (On a side note, Sudan has a great tradition of painting having produced such artists as Ibrahim el Salahi and Ottawa’s own Hamid Ayoub). Allegedly, Safia was raped and beaten because she was seen attending rallies and handing out leaflets criticizing the Sudanese government. I was shocked by this story and by the video of Safia Ishag describing her abduction and rape at the hands of men who accused her of being a communist. I ended up attending the demonstration which was organized by Sudanese political exiles in Ottawa. In the early 90s, this community became the focus of international media attention when one of their members, an exiled Sufi Karate Champion Hashim Mohamed, attacked Hassan al Turabi at the Ottawa airport. That’s the interesting thing about Ottawa where 1 in 4 immigrants is a refugee…you can find political exiles from almost every country.

While trying to collect information about Safia Ishag I came upon the blog The Beauty of Islam by a Sudanese American International Relations and Gender Studies Major named Riham. Riham wrote the following post about Safia on February 24th 2011:

As a human being, let alone a Sudanese woman, I am speechless after hearing Safia Ishag’s rape story. She is tremendously brave for coming out and publicly telling her story of what happened to her on that horrible day when she was raped and tortured by three Sudanese government personnel in Khartoum. Having been raised in America on the concept of freedom of speech, I can hardly imagine someone being punished for participating in a peaceful protest. I’m disgusted by the Sudanese government! They have killed, raped, and tortured far too many people and have gotten away with it. Spread her story, so that people everywhere are aware of what is going on within Hassan Al Bashir’s regime. InshAllah, through awareness we can all participate in ending this corrupt regime and putting to justice those that were involved in this inhuman crime.

I share Riham’s sentiments. The following is a translated transcript of the video Safia Ishag has made about her attack. The video of Safia’s testimonial, uploaded on February 23rd 2011, is available with subtitles in English on Youtube. Please be advised that the content may be disturbing for some readers.

I am Safia Ishag Mohamed. I am 25 years old. I graduated from the Fine Arts College of the University of Sudan. I graduated from the painting department last October, 2010. I had my bachelor degree exhibit and it was about the role of women. All the paintings were about women and their role in society. I have a mission through my art to show that other than the spoken word you can spread your message through painting and it can be a powerful message. I participated in the Youth Forum for Social Peace and we showed how to reject ethnic discrimination. I participated in the rallies of January 30 and I was a member of Girifna.

After the rallies of Jan 30 I felt that I was being watched and I even told my friends that there are people watching me. On Sunday 13 February I left the University to get some things from the bookstore on Hurriya Street. I went out to get some papers and paints. When I bought them and came back two men found me and told me: you girl wait! I tried to run away from them but they caught me. I tried to scream so they covered my mouth so I can’t scream. They put me in a small white car. They were hitting me inside the car. Until I started paying attention, in the car I wasn’t paying attention to the road but I noticed we got on the Bahri Bridge. They took me next to Shandi’s station, to a building where the car when inside. After that I came down from the car and they were still hitting me. Two people came from inside a room. They started hitting me too. Two holding me and two hitting me. I went into the room. They threw me on the ground. They were hitting me while asking me if I was a communist and what is your relationship with Girifna. They told me: we saw you handing out flyers and you are one of the participants of the rallies of Jan 30. They were verbally insulting me with bad insults. I feel too embarrassed to speak those insults. The beating continued for a long time. After that one of them…I wear my hair short…with the beating my headscarf fell from my head…so one of them told me: your hair is cut short, this is the style of the communist girls and you are not a decent girl. He asked me: have you ever had sex before. I told him no. He said: you are a liar. I want to see if you had or had not. I tried to resist as he wanted to remove my skirt. I resisted him removing my skirt. I tried to resist so he hit me and I passed out. When I awoke I found two holding my legs and a third penetrating me. I was in a lot of pain. They were 3 taking turns on me. They tied my hands with my headscarf. They removed my skirt and underwear. And they were taking turns. They would leave me for a little bit then they would hold me again and repeat the process. Three of them were involved. During this process they were hitting me. After that they told me to leave: but if we found you again the issue would escalate. They had hit me on my leg and I was not able to walk on it. I left with difficulty, I was scared. Fear made me walk a long distance. Until I found transportation and went to Souq al Arabi. I wasn’t paying attention where I was going as I was scared they would find me and repeat what I went through. I went back home. I was scared. I was very scared. I got on public transportation and got home. My mother asked me why are you late. It was 11pm. So I told her we had an exhibit, I couldn’t tell her what happened.

My leg is still suffering from the beating and I cannot walk well. I was not strong enough to say what happened to me but there were people around me. They took away some of the pain I went through. That is why I wanted to be an inspiration to other girls so they could speak out of their experience with courage. So they can out these people. These are not people. So we can out these beasts. Because seriously this is not humane. I want to send a message to any girl that got tortured. I want to tell her to be strong, to stand for the struggle. To change the situation we have to sacrifice. Things are not easy but people need to be patient. And with my art I am going to send a message. I will paint and have exhibitions about the issues important to women. I thank all the people who stood next to me and I will be strong so that things become better. I went on the rallies and handed out flyers and worked because I know that there are women being raped in Darfur and in Khartoum. They don’t have the courage to come out because this is a difficult subject for families. So I want to be courageous and show them that…that change will happen. That the situation will not continue like this.

The use of rape as a weapon of political violence is all too common around the world. The perpetrators hope that the shame of being raped will silence the activists and send a message to fellow activists that “You could be next.” What the perpetrators don’t expect is for these women to come forward with their story of rape and use it as their own political weapon. This is what Safia Ishag has done with her story; instead of taking the shame on to herself, she is putting it where it belongs, on her attackers and their supporters both in Sudan and internationally (This story has been covered both in Sudan and the Middle East). I am always inspired by the bravery of women activists in the so-called “developing” world. We have so much to learn from their strength, perseverance and ingenuity. Particularly when it comes to resisting sexual violence as a weapon of political oppression. Safia’s defiance by publicly telling her story reminds me of the “naked protests” by mothers in the state of Manipur, India in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of an alleged member of a rebel group by the Indian Army. By protesting naked, these women were saying “You can’t use sexual violence to shame us. We have no shame!” This is very powerful.

At this point, let me explain just what Girifna is, as far as I can tell. Girifna can best be described as a pro-democracy movement, led mostly by students and based in Khartoum. Girifna means “We are Fed Up” in Arabic. They started being active leading up to the Sudanese election in April 2010 (The first multi-party election since 1986). Although Sudan has a long history of political oppression that even pre-dates Bashir’s time, they also have a long history of resistance; 25 years ago they got rid of a dictator by peaceful mass uprisings (much like what we have seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt). In a 2010 interview with a Girifna activist Amjed Farid, Enough Project member Maggie Fick describes this history:

In early 1985, popular discontent with President Jaafar Nimeiri’s regime led to a coup by a group of military officers. However, Farid argued that this significant political and military change was precipitated by civil society, “not by political parties.” After the medical doctor’s union in Khartoum began a strike, their efforts were multiplied by demonstrations by university students in Khartoum and then by a public strike by some of the powerful trade unions. After people gathered in the streets, the army came to support this effort and to remove President Nimeiri from power and install a civilian government to hold elections; this sequence of events, which occurred in March and April 1985, came to be known as “the Popular Uprisings.” Farid seemed to cite this example to illustrate that when citizens get fed up and have had enough of their government, it is often the students and the young activists who build momentum at the grassroots to take action and generate change.

Girifna members started organizing with a focus on voter education in order to ensure that people got registered to vote and knew their rights. They set up a Facebook Group, a Website, a Youtube Channel and an online radio station. Text messaging and Skype help them coordinate their activities across the country. Then they moved on to election monitoring. They don’t support any one opposition party but they are vocally against the country’s ruling party. The group is supported internationally by Sudanese activists and exiles living abroad who offer financial support and technical expertise. Many of these groups key organizers are women.

Right now is a critical point in Sudan’s history as Southern Sudanese have voted to secede this past January. Then the Egyptian protests inspired young Sudanese, led by Girifna, to rally against their dictatorship (Sudan’s Bashir and Egypt’s Mubarak, although both dictators, famously loathed one another). The regime is feeling more threatened than ever before so it is no surprise that it is cracking down on organized resistance. According to Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher, there have been several rapes and reports of torture while in detention (Hassan al Turabi as well as his daughter are among those who have been detained).

It is important that we become better informed about our own governments’ involvement with Sudan and the activism of the Sudanese people so that we can support this resistance to political oppression.

I pray for Safia Ishag and the activists in Sudan.

As I left the protest for Safia on Parliament Hill, one of the older male protesters began shouting “We are all Safia Ishag”.

To give readers a glimpse of the spirit and dynamism of Sudan’s people, I am including a link to the amazing song and video B Sotak (With Your Vote) aimed at getting the April 2010 vote out. Produced by NasJota Records as part of the Sudan Votes Music Hopes Initiative and rapped in 3 languages (Arabic, Dinka and English) it shows the ethno-cultural diversity of Sudan, celebrates it, and encourages the Sudanese people to come together across religious, ethnic, and tribal lines. It is beautiful. Check out the video on Link TV. You can also learn more about the making of this video and the public education videos Girifna has made in this post on Inter-Muse’s World Music site.

Further Reading: 

On the Girifna Movement in Sudan

SUDAN: Rights groups criticize Khartoum crackdowns (2011 article available online)

In challenge to Sudanese ruling party, student activists rally for democracy by R. Hamilton (2010 article available online)

Interview (2010) with Girifna activist Amjed Farid by Maggie Fick with The Enough Project available online

Girifna’s Website

B Sotak Video available on Link TV (Amazing!!!)

Sudanese Elections: Music & the Vote with NasJota and Girifna (video on Inter-Muse World Music site)

Sudan Votes Music Hopes Website

Human Rights Watch Report: It’s an Every Day Battle: Censorship and Harassment of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Sudan (February 18, 2009) This 21-page report documents the government’s efforts to repress those who seek to report on issues it considers sensitive, including human rights, the conflict in Darfur, and the ICC’s investigation.

On Women’s Protests against rape in Manipur State, India

Women Rage Against ‘Rape’ in Northeast India by S. Z. Hussain (2004 article available online)

Interview (2008) with Manipuri Protester avaiable online

India’s Intifada by Satya Sagar (2004 article available online)

Day in the Life: Meeting Amanda Lindhout

Posted in Countries: Somalia, Day in the Life by the woyingi blogger on March 8, 2011

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet Amanda Lindhout, a young Canadian former free-lance journalist from Alberta who survived 15 months in captivity in Somalia until a ransom was paid for her release. Unfortunately, I missed most of her presentation as I had to worked but I’m glad that I came, even for the short part of the question and answer period that I was able to attend. Amanda was invited by Metropolis in association with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I was initially reluctant to attend the session when I read the following description of it:

There are few people who can claim to personally understand what drives the growing threat of terrorism in our world. Amanda Lindhout’s extraordinary experience being held hostage for 460 days by teenage militants in Somalia has given her an inside look at how international terrorist groups are recruiting and radicalizing young men in Africa. Lindhout’s chilling discoveries about the structure and motivations of these groups, including the incredible power of the internet to disseminate terrorist propaganda, are a timely resource for anyone seeking to understand the complicated world we live in. She shares her belief that poverty and oppression are contributing factors in the phenomenon of child soldiers and presents a powerful message about the important role that education plays in countering youth recruitment.

I was invited by a friend to hear Amanda speak. After reading the description of the presentation above I really didn’t want to attend this event. I don’t like to participate in events that seem to be feeding into the paranoia of the Post 9/11 world without providing any context and/or confusing the issues. Child soldiers are a phenomenon across Africa and the groups that recruit and train them are often more driven by greed than any ideology or religion.

Luckily, Amanda herself has a better grasp on the complexities of youth radicalization in the context of failed states than the organizers of this event seemed to. One of the most interesting statements she made during the question and answer period was in response to whether or not she wanted to see her captors punished. Amanda expressed a great deal of compassion for the young men who were involved in her abduction, even those who inflicted violence upon her, because she realized that violence and chaos was all they ever knew growing up in an area of Somalia that is virtually lawless. As she said in a 2010 interview with The Toronto Star:

When you see a 14-year-old boy who has never known what peace looks like for a day in his life, there’s part of you as a human being that feels some degree, you can say, compassion for the fact that these boys have known war, famine, violence and death from the day they were born.

But she had no sympathy for the men who were the leaders of these young men as these leaders had often lived outside of war-torn Somalia and received foreign education. They knew what a world without war looked like but instead of returning to their homeland to bring peace, prosperity, and stability, they were fostering chaos to make a profit and using religion to justify it.

I was disturbed to hear about how Amanda’s captors used the Koran to justify their brutal treatment of her, which included sexual abuse. As a Muslim, although there are parts of our religious text, much like the Old Testament, that would definitely be seen to violate human rights law and were revealed during a time when the ransoming of war captives and slavery was considered acceptable, her captors treatment of her couldn’t even be justified by the most fundamentalist reading of the Koran. In the end, this was about money and the exploitation of women and it sickens me that men would try to justify this using religion.

I had a chance to speak with Amanda afterwards and she expressed that she really prefers to speak about the positive work her foundation, The Global Enrichment Foundation, is doing for Somali women in Somalia and Kenya, and the strength of Somali women, than about radicalization. I was really inspired by how Amanda had turned an experience that could have made her hateful of Somalis and Muslims in general, into a passion and committment to empowering the Somali people in concrete ways. The fact that she is investing herself in this effort while also picking up the pieces of her life, recovering psychologically from torture, studying at the graduate level, and dealing with the financial repercussions of her family having to pay her ransom is amazing. Her strength and compassion is an example to us all. She and her family are in my prayers.

The mandate of The Global Enrichment Foundation is as follows:

Our work begins with women in Somalia, but the effects reach entire communities, inspiring others to become change agents for the greater good of Somalia- and the world.

When women are educated and empowered they are in a better position to become active citizens creating social and economic change, as well as advocates for their own rights.

The Global Enrichment Foundation focuses on harnessing the power of women by providing opportunities for women to reclaim their lives from the devastating effects of war. The goal of total gender equality is the foundation of all our work.

Initiatives of The Global Enrichment Foundation include the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program, a scholarship program which includes a living allowance for Somali women to enable them to attend university in Somalia (Yes, there actually are still some functioning universities in Somalia) and SHE WILL, a microfinance program for Somali women refugees living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.

There will be a fundraiser this week  for the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program in Ottawa on Thursday, March 10th from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Atrium at Carleton’s University Centre. You can visit the Facebook Page for this event for details.

The following are excerpts from interviews with Amanda Lindhout about her experience in captivity and her work with the Somali community:

In an interview with Mel James from the organization Safe World for Women, Amanda had this to say about her experience:

About the strength of Somali women:

Before I even set foot in Somalia, I admired the women of the country. I am an avid watcher of the news and it was so apparent to me that the women of the country needed education and reform.The women of the country were already beginning to demand to be heard. There’s no normal government in Somalia so the education system is already expensive and many schools just do not accept female students. The women of Somalia were already asking for change and I felt these women were so brave. I was only actually in the country for 3 days before I was kidnapped, but on the second day I visited a world food program. The women there had been waiting for hours in the heat with war around them and yet still they had such grace. They were offering to share their food with me! I was so impressed by these women. When they kidnapped me and Nigel Brennan (the male journalist whom I traveled with), there was a moment, a day, where we actually escaped. We ran to a nearby mosque and, of course, they came to recapture us. The local people tried to protect us and there was one woman that risked her own life to help me! She was so brave, and that woman had a profound effect on me. The last time I saw her she was surrounded by guns. That was the last image I had of her and I don’t know what happened to that woman after that. That stayed with me. I really wanted to honor that woman and I began thinking what would I do to make Somalia a better place. Even when I looked at my captors I saw they were teenagers who were a product of their environment. I thought: I am going to do something to make this a better place for these women and I had 15 months of being held captive to focus my energy on this.

On financing Somali women’s education:

There’s so much corruption in Somalia and there’s actually no formal banking system in the country. But it does have a money transfer system and that is how people get money in and out of Somalia. It’s actually the way that my ransom was paid and the way that ransoms are paid for other situations. Like when boats are taken through piracy. So we actually use this system and we pay the fees to the university, which are around $600 a year, but we pay the living costs to the young women directly. This is because there is so much corruption. If we send the money for living allowances to them, we can be sure that it’s going directly to the women. This is an amount of $32 a month, and while that doesn’t sounds like a lot. It’s actually a large amount in Somalia. This money ensures they aren’t hungry, can buy educational supplies and even allows them to help support their family which is so important.

In an interview in 2010 for The Toronto Star, Amanda reflects on her time in captivity:

When your reality is that you’re being abused in a multitude of ways and being starved and literally in chains in the dark, there are days that are quite hopeless and in order to survive you have to find ways to let go of the anger and bitterness that have completely taken you over. Because if you just sit with those emotions for too long, I don’t know if a person can survive that intact.

I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for what (people in Somalia) are going through, the women in particular. So it’s not as difficult as people might think to make a bridge between myself and the people of Somalia, in particular the women… I understand their suffering in a way that most other people can’t.

Further Reading:

Amanda Lindhout’s statement upon her release available online

Canadian Somalia hostage freed when taxi lights flicked (2009 article available online)

Nightmares haunt former hostage Amanda Lindhout (2010 article available online)

The Global Enrichment Foundation Website

Book Review: Some Great Thing by Lawrence Hill

Posted in Black Canadian Literature, Lawrence Hill, Novels, Winnipeg by the woyingi blogger on March 7, 2011

Black Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has won international acclaim with his novel The Book of Negroes but my review is of his first novel, Some Great Thing, first published in 1992 and reissued in 2009 by Harper Collins Canada.

I chose to read Some Great Thing while travelling by bus to Winnipeg, where the novel is set. This was my first trip to Manitoba and I had a 33 hour bus ride to survive. I easily lost myself in Some Great Thing, with its array of contrasting characters, its insights on Canadian local media, and the cultural context of Canada in the early 1980s.

The central character of the novel is 25 year old Mahatma Grafton, a light-skinned Black Canadian who has reluctantly taken a job as a journalist with The Winnipeg Herald after taking a Double Major in History and French at Laval University and a Masters in Economics at the University of Toronto. Hill describes Mahatma as:

…an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums.

Mahatma has also had to move back in with his father, Ben Grafton, a widower and a former Railroad Porter, who he hasn’t kept in touch with during his studies. It was his father who decided to name his son Mahatma, feeling that it was necessary that his son have the name of a great man.It is been who urges his son to do “Some Great Thing”, which is what African American pioneers who came to the Canadian West were urged to do.  Ben Grafton’s past as a Railroad Porter is a tribute to the Black presence in early 20th Canadian History, unlike the US, Canada has a relatively small Black population of recent origin. Black Railroad Porters, often originally from the US, worked and sometimes settled in Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. In the novel, we get to learn about Ben Grafton’s and his fellow Railroad Porters experiences of racism. The relationship between Ben and Mahatma as they rediscover each other is subtly developped throughout the novel. The novel opens with Ben and Mahatma’s first meeting. Hill writes:

His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”

On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woolen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.

The novel traces his journey from a cynical, apathetic, reluctant journalist to a passionate writer who wants to stand for something.  Many of the issues Mahatma becomes passionate about are related to Winnipeg and Canada’s history in the early 80s. For example,  Winnipeg has a significant French-Canadian population who consider themselves marginalized. French-English disputes become fodder for The Winnipeg Herald and Mahatma, who unlike many of his colleagues, is bilingual, befriends with French Language Rights activists and their community’s plight. Mahatma also covers the many triumphs and tragedies of Jack Corbett, a disabled welfare recipent who becomes a public figure through is protests against having his welfare payments cut. Mahatma also encounters a Cameroonian journalist, Yoyo, who makes a hero out of Jack Corbett in Cameroon. In an interview, Hill says that Yoyo is his favourite character in the novel:

But my favourite character in Some Great Thing is Yoyo, for his complete astonishment at the silly, inexplicable ways that we live in rich, developed nations. I like the way his being a foreign visitor to Manitoba offers the reader a fresh lens through which to see Canada and its foibles.

I particularly was fascinated with Betts, the editor of The Winnipeg Herald, and his obsession with the city’s mayor, Novak, who he believes is a communist and therefore will not be allowed to pass through the United States. This novel is set during the Cold War and the paranoia around alleged communist affliations reminds me of what we are living through now with the “War on Terror” and the media’s obsession with “Islamists and Muslim Radicalization”. This makes the novel particularly timely.

Many aspects of the novel are obviously autobiographical, as Hill says:

I could never have written Some Great Thing without having worked as a reporter in Winnipeg. The characters and their flight paths are of my invention; it is truly a work of fiction. But working in a newsroom and pursuing stories daily for two years in Winnipeg offered experiences—sad and hilarious, personal and professional—that made it possible for me to imagine the novel. After I had been away from the world of journalism for a year or two, I had enough emotional distance to look back and begin to concoct Some Great Thing.

Mahatma was urged by his father to do “some great thing” in life, and my own father certainly did the same. I stepped into the world of newspapers feeling somewhat cynical, as does Mahatma. And we both moved from that initial cynicism into a place of personal engagement with journalism. The novel does reflect my voice and its construction reveals the way my mind operates, so in the deepest sense it is autobiographical.

Hill faced obstacles in getting his first novel published because it was set in Winnipeg, but, as he states, there was no where else this story could take place:

The first time I sent the novel in draft form to a prospective agent, I was turned down and encouraged to consider setting the story in a more interesting place than Winnipeg. The argument went that if I set it in Toronto or New York, it would no longer be seen as a regional novel. To me, this was hokum. It suggested that a novel is “regional” if it is set in Winnipeg, but of global, universal reach if it is set in a big metropolis. But Winnipeg is pretty well the only city in Canada where this novel could unfold. The novel gives Winnipeg a communist mayor in the 1980s. What Canadian city, other than Winnipeg, could have had a communist mayor at that time? And the particular French-English conflict that provides the socio-political backdrop for Mahatma Grafton’s growth on the job could only have taken place in Manitoba. I do not like to think of Some Great Thing as a regional novel. I prefer to think of it as a novel set in a specific time and place— Winnipeg, in the 1980s, during a crisis over the constitutional rights of French Canadians in English Canada—that will, if it works successfully as fiction, appeal to a wide swath of readers. I love novels that are anchored in specific times and situations. This doesn’t make them regional. It makes them real.

 

Further Reading:

Lawrence Hill’s Website

Lawrence Hill Discusses Some Great Thing (interview available online)

Browse Inside Some Great Thing on the Harper Collins Canada Website

African Writer Profile: Antoine Abel

Posted in African Writer Profiles, Countries: Seychelles, Seychellois Literature by the woyingi blogger on March 6, 2011

Antoine Abel

Antoine Abel was born on November 27th 1934 in Anse Boileau on Mahe Island, the principal island of the Seychelles Archipelago. He came from a family of peasants, descendents of African slaves brought from the mainland. He had the opportunity to study in Switzerland and England and worked as an educator, eventually taking up a position at the Seychelles Teacher Training College which he held until he retired in 1986.

He is considered to be the Father of Seychelles Literature, having written novels, short stories, poetry, plays and folklore in French, English and Seychelles Creole. He was the first playwright to bring his country’s culture and Creole language to the world stage with his collection of poems Paille en queue (1969). In Paille en queue, Abel recounts his memories of childhood.

According to the Culture Department of Seychelles:

Mr. Abel was one of the most well-known and accomplished poets and writers that the country has ever produced. He was one of the pillars in the promotion of the Seychellois culture. He had a profound understanding and insight into the way of life of our people. One of the most prolific and versatile Seychellois writers and researchers working in all our national languages, he produced novels, numerous poems, plays, articles and contributed in various cultural and educational fora at both national and international level. Mr Abel was especially insightful in the use of the Seychellois cultural context in teaching, particularly the French language, being the French advisor in the Ministry of Education before joining the Ministry of Culture.

Many of Abel’s short stories feature the half-human, half-monkey Soungoula, a trickster figure popular in Seychellois folktales. He learned these folktales from the elders of his community, peasants and fishermen whose hardships he describes in his work. In 1977, Antoine became the first Seychellois writer to have works published in Europe when France’s P.J. Oswald/L’Harmattan published the novel Coco sec, Une tortue se rappelle and Contes et poèmes des Seychelles. Abel described himself as “un petit poète sans importance vivant sur une île de poésie” (English translation: A little poet without importance living on an island of poetry).

Abel’s efforts helped to inspire other Seychellois Writers by showing that their daily lives were worthy of literature. As Seychellois writer Pat Matyot writes:

I lived among lagati and cinnamon trees, but I read about oak and willow trees. I saw mynahs, tenrecs and rhinoceros beetles, but my books were about robins, squirrels and red admiral butterflies. There were no books that said anything about the Seychellois natural environment. Then came Antoine’s Paille en queue, with its forty pages of quaint little poems in French and English, many of them about fruit bats, corals, octopus, tortoises, cicadas and the southeast monsoon. Looking back at those often awkward first poems, touching in their naivety, it is not easy to explain their impact on me. But reading Antoine’s work was a milestone in my intellectual development in that it validated, so to speak, my real-life experiences. Fruit bats, octopus and sardine fishing were talked about in a book. One could write about such things. And, moreover: Seychellois, too, could write books!

After Seychelles won Independance in 1976, Creole was recognized as the national language and Abel edited over 60 titles  in the language, particularly literature for children. He wrote the first novel Montann en leokri and first play Restan kamira published in Seychellois Creole.

Abel was awarded France’s Prix Mascareignes in 1979.

Antoine Abel died in 2004 after a long illness. He was buried in Anse Boileau.

Since 2007, the Festival Kreol des Seychelles yearly awards the Prix Antoine Abel in his honour.

Unfortunately, as English has taken over as the language of education and culture in Seychelles, Abel’s works in French and Creole are read less and less.

Further Reading:

Seychelles loses Antoine Abel, poet and nature-lover by Pat Matyot (article available online)

Culture department mourns death of poet, writer Antoine Abel (article available online)

Plaidoyer pour une réhabilitation d’Antoine Abel aux Seychelles by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie (article in French available online)

Une littérature seychelloise? (article in French available online)

Antoine Abel Profile in Creole available online

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