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Although the number of Ebola cases and deaths has jumped dramatically in the short time since we wrote our December Briefing on the epidemic, there are signs of hope. Ebola is slowing down in areas where there was previously high transmission, in Liberia and in Eastern Sierra Leone for example. The lesson from past Ebola epidemics is that learning and local adaptation has played a central role in controlling previous outbreaks; now in West Africa the curve of the epidemic seems to be turning as people alter their behaviour. The apparent avoidance of continued exponential growth is a relief but it is no cause for complacency.
Freetown and the North of Sierra Leone are still suffering heavily. There is likely to be ongoing transmission for some time with sporadic clusters of cases as the epidemic moves into its next phase. The message, that local people should be involved and that their perspectives and knowledge are both valid and valuable, is still essential. Now is the time to find a balance between medical interventions, emergency thinking, and more humane and localised approaches based on collaboration.
As and when the epidemic ends, there should also be no complacency about the structural violence which produced this crisis. Structural violence refers to the way institutions and practices inflict avoidable harm by impairing basic human needs. The long term view — which locates this epidemic in the context of economic, social, technical, discursive and political exclusions and injustices — needs to be at the forefront of recovery and ‘development’ post-Ebola. The stark evidence of violence, in the form of distrust, the collapse of already dysfunctional health services, the catastrophic costs of Ebola on families and countries, the unpaid salaries of nurses and burial teams, the lack of protection – whether in the form of plastic gloves or welfare nets in times of crisis – must not fade with a return to business as usual. The Ebola crisis should be a game-changer for development.
In pointing to structural violence, we aren’t talking of a single social institution, but of overlapping institutions and practices that have produced interlocking inequalities, unsustainabilities, and insecurities. Aid and development have failed to address these conditions. Sierra Leone and Liberia attract considerable foreign direct investment and record some of the world’s highest growth figures yet most of their populations live in continued or worsening poverty. The emerging field of global health emphasizes networks and shared vulnerabilities, but in practice — through disjointed programmes and a tendency towards ‘quick wins’ — has neglected dire inequalities, which mean a virus like Ebola can tear a country up due to an absence of the most fundamental public health and state capacities. These structural and related socio-cultural conditions are not quickly or easily addressed, but Ebola has highlighted how vast disparities, internationally and within countries, are not sustainable. A greater focus on inclusive institutions and economies, and on conceiving of health as a global public good, is needed in order to build trust and resilience. Achieving that will involve asking difficult questions about aid and development as practiced in this region.
Both the crisis response and efforts to address its structural underpinnings are strengthened by recognition of the complex and historically-embedded logics and relationships which shape people’s lives. The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform has been set up to network anthropologists and other social scientists across the world with fieldworkers and communities, and to provide an interface with those planning and implementing the Ebola response so that such perspectives can be integrated into the response. Complementary initiatives, like one supported by the American Anthropological Association, mean that there is now a groundswell of debate and commentary on these critical dimensions. Much of this is building on research conducted over decades of post-colonial development and post-conflict reconstruction that, with the benefit of hindsight, is revealing of the fault-lines of the Ebola epidemic. As ‘the response’ transitions into another phase of reconstruction it is critical that these lessons, and the complexities they reveal, are fully appreciated to prevent further disasters for this region.
Headline image credit: Conakry, Guinea, 2011. Photo by CDC Global. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Monica Edinger, author of “Africa is My Home, A Child of the Amistad,” is a former Peace Corps volunteer who began writing children’s books during Sierra Leone’s Civil War. “Sierra Leone and its people were being represented in the media in this really horrendous way,” Edinger said.
She felt it was important to share stories that showed there was more to Sierra Leone than conflict. “Real stories, about real people, make a big difference. But unfortunately that isn’t the standard narrative in children’s books.”
From this article celebrating the Children’s Africana Book Awards.
On this day in 1984, musical aficionados from the worlds of pop and rock came together to record the iconic ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ single for Band Aid. The single has gone down in history as an example of the power of music to help right the wrongs in the world. The song leapt to the number one spot over the Christmas of 1984, selling over a million copies in under a week and totalling sales of three million by the end of that year. The Band Aid super-group featured the cream of eighties pop, including David Bowie, Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney.
The sales target for the single was £70,000, all of which was to be donated to the African famine relief fund. With support from Radio 1 DJs and a Top of the Pops Christmas Special, sales sky-rocketed and Geldof, feeling the strength of public opinion behind him, went toe-to-toe with the conservative government in an attempt to have tax on the single waived. Margaret Thatcher initially refused the plea, but as public outcry grew, Thatcher caved-in to public demands and the tax on sales worth nearly £9 million was donated back to charity.
Bob Geldof and a host of artists old and new have re-recorded the single to help raise funds to stem the Ebola crisis. Our infographic marks the 30th anniversary of the original recording and illustrates the movers and shakers that made this monumental milestone in pop history possible.
I want to live in a country that understands Ebola. I want to live in a world that cares about those dying from this terrible disease in West Africa. Nobody should’ve had to watch me ride my bicycle out in the open as politicians fed the public false fears and misinformation. I want to live in an America that reaches out to aid workers as they return from West Africa and says, “We loved and stood by you when you were fighting this disease. We will love and stand by you now.”
I want to live in a country that understands Ebola. I want to live in a world that cares about those dying from this terrible disease in West Africa. Nobody should’ve had to watch me ride my bicycle out in the open as politicians fed the public false fears and misinformation. I want to live in an America that reaches out to aid workers as they return from West Africa and says, “We loved and stood by you when you were fighting this disease. We will love and stand by you now.”
Founded by Dara La Porte and Heidi Powell, An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation was created to promote literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the greater Washington, D.C. area by giving schools and students book and access to authors and illustrators. We excite children and teachers about reading and send every child home with a signed book.
It was a really wonderful experience. The children were eager, interested, and had wonderful questions. I was most moved by two children from El Salvador. I sign my books “Never forget your home” and one of these two children spoke with tremendous excitement of returning soon to her home of El Salvador while the other came around to tell me privately that he would not be returning to his home of El Salvador because “bad things had happened there.” I told him that his home should be wherever he felt safe and happy. It was an important reminder to me — someone who has, for different reasons, no childhood place to call home — that home is not necessarily where you originated.
Here are the books beautifully displayed before they were given out to the children.
Saturday morning I wandered the Mall for a bit, having not done so in many years. I wanted most of all to see the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
Then we were given our awards. This was incredibly moving. Each book was beautifully introduced along with the creators who were there for the ceremony. (Not all of us were able to make it for one reason or another.) You can read more about all the winning books here. We were each given a beautiful certificate and then there was a lovely ceremony when we were draped with a kente-like cloth that had been woven by the Ghanaian master weaver, Chapuchi Ahiagble.
Here I am afterwards with fellow winners Agbotadua Togbi Kumassah, Anna Cottrell (translator and reteller of Once Upon a Time in Ghana: Traditional Stories Retold in English illustrated by Kwabena Poku ), andA. G. Ford (illustrator of Desmond and the Very Mean Word written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams). Mubina Hassanali Kirmani (author of Bundle of Secrets, Savita Returns Home, illustrated by Tony Siema) was also there. There were many documenting all the events with photos, video, and interviews and when they are done and posted I will provide links.
My great thanks to all who made this such a special experience for me, especially the members of the CABA Awards Committee: Dr. Meena Khorana, Dr. Patricia Kuntz, Dr. Lesego Malepe, Dr. John Metlzer, Ms. Brenda Randolph, Dr. Anne Waliaula, and Dr. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw.
Poor old king Tut has made the news again – for all the wrong reasons, again.
In a documentary that aired on the BBC two weeks ago, scientists based at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman unveiled a frankly hideous reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s mummy, complete with buck teeth, a sway back, Kardashian-style hips, and a club foot. They based it on CT-scans of the mummy from 2005 and their own research, claiming to have identified a host of genetic disorders and physical deformities suffered by the boy-king, who died around age 19 some 3,300 years ago.
The English-language newspaper Ahram Online has aired the views of three Egyptian Egyptologists who are just as shocked by the reconstruction as many television viewers were. There are old and understandable sensitivities here: Western scientists have been poking around Egyptian mummies for more than 200 years, while the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 coincided with the birth of an independent Egyptian nation after decades of European colonialism. The ensuing tussle between excavator Howard Carter and the government authorities, over where the tomb finds would end up (Cairo won, and rightly so), highlighted deep-seated tensions about who ‘owned’ ancient Egypt, literally and figuratively. It’s safe to say that the last century has seen king Tut more involved in politics than he ever was in his own lifetime.
Most Egyptologists can readily debunk the ‘evidence’ presented by the EURAC team – if we weren’t so weary of debunking television documentaries already. (why do the ancient Romans get academic royalty like Mary Beard, while the ancient Egyptians get the guy from The Gadget Show?). What’s fascinating is how persistent – and how misguided – lurid interest in the dead bodies of ancient Egyptians is, not to mention the wild assumptions made about the skilled and stunning art this culture produced. The glorious gold mask, gilded shrines and coffins, weighty stone sarcophagus, and hundreds of other objects buried with Tutankhamun were never meant to show us a mere human, but to manifest the razzle-dazzle of a god-king.
Around the time of Tutankhamun’s reign, artists depicted the royal family and the gods with almond eyes, luscious lips, and soft, plump bodies. These were never meant to be true-to-life images, as if the pharaoh and his court were posting #nomakeupselfie snaps on Twitter. Each generation of artists developed a style that was distinctive to a specific ruler, but which also linked him to a line of ancestors, emphasizing the continuity and authority of the royal house. The works of art that surrounded Tutankhamun in life, and in death, were also deeply concerned with a king’s unique responsibilities to his people and to the gods.
All the walking sticks buried in the tomb – more than 130 of them, one of which Carter compared to Charlie Chaplin’s ubiquitous prop – emphasize the king’s status at the pinnacle of society (nothing to do with a limp). The chariots were luxury items (quite macho ones, at that), and Tutankhamun’s wardrobe was the haute couture of its day, with delicate embroidery and spangly sequins. Much of the tomb was taken up with deeply sacred objects, too: guardian statues at the doorways, magic figures bricked into the walls, and two dozen bolted shrines protecting wrapped statues of the king and various gods. Not to mention the shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins that held the royal mummy – a sacred object in itself, long before science got a hold of it.
As for the diseases and deformities Tutankhamun is said to have suffered? Allegations of inbreeding don’t add up: scholars have exhaustively combed through the existing historical sources that relate to Tutankhamun (lots and lots of rather dry inscriptions, I’m afraid), and as yet there is no way to identify his biological parents with any certainty. Don’t assume that DNA is an easy answer, either. Not only do we not know the identity of almost any of the ‘royal’ mummies that regularly do the rounds on TV programmes, but also the identification of DNA from ancient mummies is contested – it simply doesn’t survive in the quantity or quality that DNA amplification techniques require. Instead, many of the ‘abnormal’ features of Tutankhamun’s mummy, like the supposed club foot and damage to the chest and skull, resulted from the mummification process, as research on other mummies has surmised. Embalming a body to the standard required for an Egyptian king was a difficult and messy task, left to specialist priests. What mattered just as much, if not more, was the intricate linen wrapping, the ritual coating of resin, and the layering of amulets, shrouds, coffins, and shrines that Carter and his team had to work through in order to get to the fragile human remains beneath.
The famous mummy mask and spectacular coffins we can see in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo today, or in copious images online, should stop us in our tracks with their splendour and skill. That’s what they were meant to do, for those few people who saw them and for the thousands more whose lives and livelihoods depended on the king. But they should also remind us of how they got there: the invidious colonial system under which archaeology flourished in Egypt, for a start, and the thick resin that had to be hammered off so that the lids could be opened and the royal mummy laid bare. Did king Tut have buck teeth, waddle like a duck, drag race his chariot? Have a look at that mask: do you think we’ve missed the point? Like so many modern engagements with the ancient past, this latest twist in the Tutankhamun tale says more about our times than his.
Title: Imani’s Moon Written by: JaNay Brown-Wood Illustrated by: Hazel Mitchell Published by: Charlesbridge, Oct. 14th. 2014 Themes/Topics: Maasai, being little, big dreams Suitable for ages: 6-9 Fiction, 32 pages Awards: winner of the NAESP Picture Book Competition Opening: “Look at tiny Imani!” the other children … Continue reading →
At first, I wasn’t sure quite why. I get what they meant. It seems like Ebola’s everywhere! It’s constantly on the news, all over the internet, and everyone’s talking about it. It makes sense to be sick of hearing about it. We’re bound to get sick of hearing about anything that much!
But still, I couldn’t shake the discomfort that rung in my head over that status. Ebola seems far away, after all, it’s only been diagnosed four times in the US. It’s easy to tuck it away in your mind as something distant that doesn’t affect you and forget why it’s a big deal.
It’s even become a hot topic for jokes on social media:
Because so many see this very real disease as a far away concept, we find safety in our distance and it’s easy to make light of it.
4,877 deaths. 9,935 sufferers. That’s not funny. That’s not something to ask to “omg shut up.”
The idea of disease never really hit home for me until my little sister was diagnosed with cancer. Yes, Ebola and cancer are two very different things. But I know what it’s like to watch someone I love very dearly suffer. I know what it’s like to hold my sister’s hand while she cries because she can’t escape the pain or the fear that comes with her disease. I know what it’s like to cry myself to sleep begging God to take her illness away. And I can’t help but imagine a sister somewhere in Africa in a situation very similar to my own, watching her loved one suffer, hearing her cries, and begging for it to all be over- but without the blessings of medicine and technology that my sister has access to.
We are quick to throw on our pink gear for breast cancer awareness and dump ice on our head for ALS because that kind of awareness is fun and easy. I’m not trying to diminish those causes- they are great causes that deserve promotion. But I mean to make note of the fact that when another very real disease with very real consequences is brought to light and gains awareness, people groan that it’s in the news again and make jokes about it on the internet. Because Ebola doesn’t have the fun and cute promotional package, we complain and make light of it and its need for awareness and a solution.
People are suffering and dying from Ebola. Just because that suffering seems far away, doesn’t make it any less significant.
This is a guest post from my oldest daughter, Meredith. I begged her to let me post it.
One of the fun things of being friends with illustrators is getting sneak-peaks at art spreads before the book is published. I fell in love with this story back last Christmas when Hazel was busy working on the front cover, … Continue reading →
I have never agreed with the dismissal of Wikipedia as a source of information, even for students. This is because that while, yes, there are pages that are full of misinformation, others are excellent. The latter are carefully maintained by experts and highly knowledgeable people regarding the topic in question. I’d long ago read about scientists who were seeing to it that Wikipedia pages on their subjects of expertise were being properly maintained. I think that rather than teaching students NOT to use Wikipedia, we’d be better off teaching them to use it and other sources carefully and critically.
And so now with all the ever-growing hysteria about Ebola in this country (sadly reminding me like this person of the early days of AIDS), I wasn’t at all surprised to read the New York Times article “Wikipedia is Emerging as a Trusted Internet Source for Information on Ebola.” And I think those of us who have been negative about Wikipedia need to rethink our position. Here’s a good source that balances out the misinformation going on all over the place. Rather than casting it out, embrace it, help people develop skills to use it in the best way rather than not at all.
Like many this past week, our attention has been fixated on the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak: images of experts showing off the proper way to put on and take off protective gloves to avoid exposure to the virus; political pundits quarrelling over the appropriateness of travel restrictions; reassuring press conferences by the director of the Centers for Disease Control. It is an event that has received immediate and intense attention and generated compelling journalism, for sure, but does it really give us an emotional understanding of the impact of the event?
What is it like for a mother or a father to watch their child die and not to be able to touch them? What happens within a community that has experienced a major outbreak? Are people brought closer through a shared suffering or are the bonds that held the community together forever broken? There are infinite questions that we could ask of the human heart in the midst or the aftermath of such an event. Oral history with its emphasis on empathy is an effective method of asking these questions.
Hopefully the epidemic will be contained, but by the time it is, it is likely that the public’s appetite for more analysis on the outbreak will have been satiated. Journalists will be compelled to move onto the new topic of the day. Oral historians, however, can — and should — linger on this event.
For oral historians, who have increasingly worked in the aftermath of crisis over the past decade, the motivation to document is fueled by both a humanitarian impulse to respond to crisis and a scholar’s desire to inquire and understand. Times of widespread crisis have an elusive complexity which defies any attempt at meta-narrative. Aspiring to get at a comprehensive picture and the countless ways in which the epidemic is impacting so many seems unfeasible. For many researchers, the most profound way to begin is to try to appreciate how this crisis manifests itself for an individual, for a family, or for a community is oral history.
Doing oral history in West Africa in the aftermath of the epidemic will present unique challenges for interviewers. Navigating the emotional and political resonance of the Ebola outbreak will require caution, compassion, and courage, as well as flexibility in the application of oral history best practices. The outcome of this work, however, can offer insight into how the individual human heart and mind respond to the terror of an epidemic, and how an individual’s responses to fear and grief impact their communities.
The personal perspective oral history provides has so often been left out of our analysis of crisis. We are left with dry academic reports often composed by responding agencies trained to exclude emotion from their analysis. But without this emotion, without this individual perspective, we don’t understand crisis and the impact it has on those who are left to pick up the pieces of shattered lives and communities. Oral history provides a means for the people most affected by crisis or disaster to be recorded, archived, and shared, to put them, not the devastation, at the center of the story. It is an effort that often runs counter to our collective response to emergency and, for that reason alone, it offers meaningful and enduring outcomes.
Featured image: Hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where the Ebola virus samples are tested. June 2014. By Leasmhar. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
As an Africanist historian who has long been committed to reaching broader publics, I was thrilled when the research team for the BBC’s popular genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are? contacted me late last February about an episode they were working on that involved mixed race relationships in colonial Ghana. I was even more pleased when I realized that their questions about the practice and perception of intimate relationships between African women and European men in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known, were ones I had just explored in a newly published American Historical Review article, which I readily shared with them. This led to a month-long series of lengthy email exchanges, phone conversations, Skype chats, and eventually to an invitation to come to Ghana to shoot the Who Do You Think You Are? episode.
After landing in Ghana in early April, I quickly set off for the coastal town of Sekondi where I met the production team, and the episode’s subject, Reggie Yates, a remarkable young British DJ, actor, and television presenter. Reggie had come to Ghana to find out more about his West African roots, but discovered instead that his great grandfather was a British mining accountant who worked in the Gold Coast for several years. His great grandmother, Dorothy Lloyd, was a mixed-race Fante woman whose father—Reggie’s great-great grandfather—was rumored to be a British district commissioner at the turn of the century in the Gold Coast.
The episode explores the nature of the relationship between Dorothy and George, who were married by customary law around 1915 in the mining town of Broomassi, where George worked as the paymaster at the local mine. George and Dorothy set up house in Broomassi and raised their infant son, Harry, there for two years before George left the Gold Coast in 1917 for good. Although their marriage was relatively short lived, it appears that Dorothy’s family and the wider community that she lived in regarded it as a respectable union and no social stigma was attached to her or Harry after George’s departure from the coast.
George and Dorothy lived openly as man and wife in Broomassi during a time period in which publicly recognized intermarriages were almost unheard of. As a privately employed European, George was not bound by the colonial government’s directives against cohabitation between British officers and local women, but he certainly would have been aware of the informal codes of conduct that regulated colonial life. While it was an open secret that white men “kept” local women, these relationships were not to be publicly legitimated.
Precisely because George and Dorothy’s union challenged the racial prescripts of colonial life, it did not resemble the increasingly strident characterizations of interracial relationships as immoral and insalubrious in the African-owned Gold Coast press. Although not a perfect union, as George was already married to an English woman who lived in London with their children, the trajectory of their relationship suggests that George and Dorothy had a meaningful relationship while they were together, that they provided their son Harry with a loving home, and that they were recognized as a respectable married couple. No doubt this had much to do with why the wider African community seemingly embraced the couple, and why Dorothy was able to “marry well” after George left. Her marriage to Frank Vardon, a prominent Gold Coaster, would have been unlikely had she been regarded as nothing more than a discarded “whiteman’s toy,” as one Gold Coast writer mockingly called local women who casually liaised with European men. In her own right, Dorothy became an important figure in the Sekondi community where she ultimately settled and raised her son Harry, alongside the children she had with Frank Vardon.
The “white peril” commentaries that I explored in my AHR article proved to be a rhetorically powerful strategy for challenging the moral legitimacy of British colonial rule because they pointed to the gap between the civilizing mission’s moral rhetoric and the sexual immorality of white men in the colony. But rhetoric often sacrifices nuance for argumentative force and Gold Coasters’ “white peril” commentaries were no exception. Left out of view were men like George Yates, who challenged the conventions of their times, even if imperfectly, and women like Dorothy Lloyd who were not cast out of “respectable” society, but rather took their place in it.
This sense of conflict and connection and of categorical uncertainty is what I hope to have contributed to the research process, storyline development, and filming of the Reggie Yates episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The central question the show raises is how do we think about and define relationships that were so heavily circumscribed by racialized power without denying the “possibility of love?” By “endeavor[ing] to trace its imperfections, its perversions,” was Martinican philosopher and anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s answer. While I have yet to see the episode, Fanon’s insight will surely reverberate throughout it.
Scholars have written a lot about the difficulties in the study of religion generally. Those difficulties become even messier when we use the words black or African American to describe religion. The adjectives bear the burden of a difficult history that colors the way religion is practiced and understood in the United States. They register the horror of slavery and the terror of Jim Crow as well as the richly textured experiences of a captured people, for whom sorrow stands alongside joy. It is in this context, one characterized by the ever-present need to account for one’s presence in the world in the face of the dehumanizing practice of white supremacy, that African American religion takes on such significance.
To be clear, African American religious life is not reducible to those wounds. That life contains within it avenues for solace and comfort in God, answers to questions about who we take ourselves to be and about our relation to the mysteries of the universe; moreover, meaning is found, for some, in submission to God, in obedience to creed and dogma, and in ritual practice. Here evil is accounted for. And hope, at least for some, assured. In short, African American religious life is as rich and as complicated as the religious life of other groups in the United States, but African American religion emerges in the encounter between faith, in all of its complexity, and white supremacy.
I take it that if the phrase African American religion is to have any descriptive usefulness at all, it must signify something more than African Americans who are religious. African Americans practice a number of different religions. There are black people who are Buddhist, Jehovah Witness, Mormon, and Baha’i. But the fact that African Americans practice these traditions does not lead us to describe them as black Buddhism or black Mormonism. African American religion singles out something more substantive than that.
The adjective refers instead to a racial context within which religious meanings have been produced and reproduced. The history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States birthed particular religious formations among African Americans. African Americans converted to Christianity, for example, in the context of slavery. Many left predominantly white denominations to form their own in pursuit of a sense of self- determination. Some embraced a distinctive interpretation of Islam to make sense of their condition in the United States. Given that history, we can reasonably describe certain variants of Christianity and Islam as African American and mean something beyond the rather uninteresting claim that black individuals belong to these different religious traditions.
The adjective black or African American works as a marker of difference: as a way of signifying a tradition of struggle against white supremacist practices and a cultural repertoire that reflects that unique journey. The phrase calls up a particular history and culture in our efforts to understand the religious practices of a particular people. When I use the phrase, African American religion, then, I am not referring to something that can be defined substantively apart from varied practices; rather, my aim is to orient you in a particular way to the material under consideration, to call attention to a sociopolitical history, and to single out the workings of the human imagination and spirit under particular conditions.
When Howard Thurman, the great 20th century black theologian, declared that the slave dared to redeem the religion profaned in his midst, he offered a particular understanding of black Christianity: that this expression of Christianity was not the idolatrous embrace of Christian doctrine which justified the superiority of white people and the subordination of black people. Instead, black Christianity embraced the liberating power of Jesus’s example: his sense that all, no matter their station in life, were children of God. Thurman sought to orient the reader to a specific inflection of Christianity in the hands of those who lived as slaves. That difference made a difference. We need only listen to the spirituals, give attention to the way African Americans interpreted the Gospel, and to how they invoked Jesus in their lives.
We cannot deny that African American religious life has developed, for much of its history, under captured conditions. Slaves had to forge lives amid the brutal reality of their condition and imagine possibilities beyond their status as slaves. Religion offered a powerful resource in their efforts. They imagined possibilities beyond anything their circumstances suggested. As religious bricoleurs, they created, as did their children and children’s children, on the level of religious consciousness and that creativity gave African American religion its distinctive hue and timber.
African Americans drew on the cultural knowledge, however fleeting, of their African past. They selected what they found compelling and rejected what they found unacceptable in the traditions of white slaveholders. In some cases, they reached for traditions outside of the United States altogether. They took the bits and pieces of their complicated lives and created distinctive expressions of the general order of existence that anchored their efforts to live amid the pressing nastiness of life. They created what we call African American religion.
Headline image credit: Candles, by Markus Grossalber, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Grove Art Online recently updated with new content on African art and architecture. We sat down with Dr. Steven Nelson, who supervised this update, to learn more about his background and the field of African art history.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
As an undergraduate at Yale, after flirting with theater, music, and sociology, I majored in studio art and focused on bookmaking, graphic design, printmaking, and photography. Majors were required to take three art history classes. By the end of my college career, I had taken eight and had seriously thought about changing my major. Within art history, I was most attracted to modern and Japanese art, and studying the two fields had profound effects on art making. After a six-year-long stint in newspaper design, I went to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in modern art. After coursework in myriad fields, serving on a search committee for a new faculty member in African art (the search resulted in the hiring Suzanne Preston Blier), and a trip to Kenya to study medieval Swahili architecture, I changed my field to African art. My dissertation is a study of Mousgoum architecture (one of the fields covered in Grove Art Online’s African update) in Cameroon. The thesis became my first book, entitled From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Having been an artist has had a profound effect on how I encounter art objects and the built environment.
You recently served as editor for the Grove Art OnlineAfrican art update. What was your favorite part about this experience?
My favorite part of serving as editor for the Grove Art Online African art update was the opportunity to have a widely used and respected resource as a platform to reassess and to reshape the canon of African art. More to the point, Grove provided a unique opportunity to rearticulate the field’s various methods, to acknowledge shifts in scholarly focus, and to expand the subjects we consider when hearing the very term “African art.” As someone who has served at various points as an editor, I also enjoyed working with authors to produce essays that are both rich in content and accessible to a broad audience. I’m also very pleased that the authors included in the update range from very eminent art historians to graduate students with whom I closely worked.
What is your favorite work of art of all time, and why?
My favorite work of art of all time changes day-by-day. Right now Malick Sidibé’s party photographs of the 1960s, which explore a burgeoning, international youth culture in Bamako on the heels of independence, hold this title.
Which recently added African art article(s) stand out to you, and why?
While I am really happy with all of the new content, the material on African film and the essay on African modern art are particular importance for me. In African art history, broadly speaking, film has received very little attention (in full disclosure, I write on it myself). However, it is critical in understanding the complexity of modern and contemporary African art. The essay on modern African art is important in that it marks an important expansion of the field, one in which scholars are insisting on understanding modernity and how African artists engage with it with more nuance and precision.
How has your field changed in the past 20 years?
The past 20 years have witnessed a groundswell in studies of modern and contemporary African art. Alongside of this development, the past 20 years have also seen a lot of energy (for better or worse) spent on understanding the relationship between modern and contemporary and “traditional” or “classical” African art. On the one hand, some feel that the two should be considered as separate fields, with the former being a kind of offshoot of global contemporary art. On the other, some feel that the two can inform each other in exciting ways. Having done research on topics ranging from medieval Swahili architecture to contemporary art in Africa and its diasporas, I personally ascribe to the latter view. Methodologically, much has changed as well. Africanist art historians have become much more willing to incorporate poststructuralist and post-colonial scholarship into their studies, and the results have enriched how we understand the subjects of our endeavors. There has also been much welcome attention paid to the important intersections of African art and Islam as well as African art and Christianity.
How do you envision art history research being done in 20 years?
Digital humanities will no doubt have an enormous impact research on art history research. Digital tools allow for quick aggregation, and this can add rich dimensions to our research. One of the challenges, however, will be to see how — or if — the digital realm provides the means for new questions and new art historical knowledge. I helped facilitate a digital art history workshop at UCLA this past summer, and that question, one that really strikes at the place of the digital as we move forward, is one that I engage with both optimism and a healthy skepticism.
Yet again Africa is in the news as the other, as a place of horror and misery. So just a few reminders:
Ebola is not throughout Africa. You don’t need to worry when coming into contact with someone from the continent or someone who has been there recently. Africa is a big continent and Ebola is not everywhere. In fact…
Ebola is currently in three West African countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But…
Ebola is not an air-borne illness. You will not contract it by being in the same plane or auditorium or building as someone who has it or has come from one of the countries where it is prevalent. In fact…
you would need to be directly exposed to fluids from someone with the illness to be exposed. And that means that it is in the affected areas, in direct contact with those who have the illness, that you would be most at risk. And that is just not true for those of us living in the United States. So stop worrying about getting it here. Instead worry…
that those in the affected areas do not have the basic health care we in the United States take for granted. And so while there is indeed not a cure for Ebola,…
with the sort of hospital care we in the US take for granted, treating the disease in early states, many who are dying would be saved. But…
This blog is a platform I normally reserve for the important issue of fashion in Sierra Leone, but this week, I’m struggling to find a fashion angle. Unless you’ve been living on mars, you will know that West Africa is suffering the worst ever outbreak of the world’s most deadly disease – Ebola. I traveled to Kenema district last week for an assignment to write about the outbreak. I live in Freetown and before leaving, the epidemic hadn’t really kicked off here. ‘EBOLA!’ (said with a loud voice and chuckle) was something that was happening in villages, places that didn’t affect the urban folk of Sierra Leone’s capital. I knew Kenema was a district suffering huge case numbers, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard in one of Sierra Leone’s most brutally affected areas.
Today marks the 127thbirthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the first National Hero of Jamaica, and one of my spiritual ancestors.
Marcus Garvey through his life and work helped me to understand a question that has haunted me and many other Africans at home and abroad: What does it mean to be a man?
After travelling through the Americas and into the center of colonial power in the West Indies, Garvey realized that Africans at home and abroad in order to survive the brutalities of slavery had been reduced to a childish state in which they had relinquished personal and collective power. Cowed into submission, Africans at home and abroad lived in fear of outside forces over which they had no control, and even after gaining “freedom,” their existence was based on the level of servility to their former masters.
As Garvey saw it, Africans at home and abroad could either live in a reactionary state in which they only responded to crises (and once the crisis was over resume a passive, dormant existence) or take control of their lives by assuming personal and collective responsibility.
“A race without authority and power, is a race without respect,” said Garvey, and to remedy the situation, he created the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Men and nations assume responsibility for their lives. Personal and collective responsibility guided Garvey’s philosophy of manhood and nationhood, which were organized around these principles:
Redemption of Africans at home and abroad Education Self-Respect
Purpose Economics Community
Garvey set a challenge before Africans at home and abroad when he wrote in the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey: "The greatest weapon used against the Negro is disorganization.”
In the midst of Ferguson and other daily insults to Africans at home and abroad, either we can continue living in a childish, reactionary state where we do not assume responsibility for our lives or we can organize and plan accordingly.
The choice, as it was then and now, is ours.
The Coalition for the Exoneration of Marcus Garvey is petitioning President Barack Obama to exonerate Marcus Garvey:
While Ebola seems to be off the New York Times front page, the articles are still there. “If They Survive in the Ebola Ward, They Work On” features some heroic people in and around Kenema, an area I knew when I lived in Sierra Leone. (For a different sort of context, this is center Mende country where the Amistad captives of Africa is My Home were from.)
Refugee identity is often shrouded in suspicion, speculation and rumour. Of course everyone wants to protect “real” refugees, but it often seems – upon reading the papers – that the real challenge is to find them among the interlopers: the “bogus asylum seekers”, the “queue jumpers”, the “illegals”.
Yet these distinctions and definitions shatter the moment we subject them to critical scrutiny. In Syria, no one would deny a terrible refugee crisis is unfolding. Western journalists report from camps in Jordan and Turkey documenting human misery and occasionally commenting on political manoeuvring, but never doubting the refugees’ veracity.
But once these same Syrians leave the overcrowded camps to cross the Mediterranean, a spell transforms these objects of pity into objects of fear. They are no longer “refugees”, but “illegal migrants” and “terrorists”. However data on migrants rescued in the Mediterranean show that up to 80% of those intercepted by the Italian Navy are in fact deserving of asylum, not detention.
Other myths perpetuate suspicion and xenophobia. Every year in the UK, refugee charity and advocacy groups spend precious resources trying to counter tabloid images of a Britain “swamped” by itinerant swan-eaters and Islamic extremists. The truth – that Britain is home to just 1% of refugees while 86% are hosted in developing countries, including some of the poorest on earth, and that one-third of refugees in the UK hold University degrees – is simply less convenient for politicians pushing an anti-migration agenda.
We are increasingly skilled in crafting complacent fictions intended not so much to demonise refugees as exculpate our own consciences. In Australia, for instance, ever-more restrictive asylum policies – which have seen all those arriving by boat transferred off-shore and, even when granted refugee status, refused the right to settle in Australia – have been presented by supporters as merely intended to prevent the nefarious practice of “queue-jumping”. In this universe, the border patrols become the guardians ensuring “fair” asylum hearings, while asylum-seekers are condemned for cheating the system.
That the system itself now contravenes international law is forgotten. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan asylum-seeking mothers recently placed on suicide watch – threatening to kill themselves in the hope that their orphaned, Australian-born children might then be saved from detention – are judged guilty of “moral blackmail”.
Such stories foster complacency by encouraging an extraordinary degree of confidence in our ability to sort the deserving from the undeserving. The public remain convinced that “real” refugees wait in camps far beyond Europe’s borders, and that they do not take their fate into their own hands but wait to be rescued. But this “truth” too is hypocritical. It conveniently obscures the fact that the West will not resettle one-tenth of the refugees who have been identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as in need of resettlement.
In fact, only one refugee in a hundred will ever be resettled from a camp to a third country in the West. In January 2014 the UK Government announced it would offer 500 additional refugee resettlement places for the “most vulnerable” refugees as a humanitarian gesture: but it’s better understood as political rationing.
Research shows us that undue self-congratulation when it comes to “helping” refugees is no new habit. Politicians are fond of remarking that Britain has a “long and proud” tradition of welcoming refugees, and NGOs and charities reiterate the same claim in the hope of grounding asylum in British cultural values.
But while the Huguenots found sanctuary in the seventeenth century, and Russia’s dissidents sought exile in the nineteenth, closer examination exposes the extent to which asylees’ ‘warm welcome’ has long rested upon the convictions of the few prepared to defy the popular prejudices of the many.
Poor migrants fleeing oppression have always been more feared than applauded in the UK. In 1905, the British Brothers’ League agitated for legislation to restrict (primarily Jewish) immigration from Eastern Europe because of populist fears that Britain was becoming ‘the dumping ground for the scum of Europe’. Similarly, the bravery of individual campaigners who fought to secure German Jews’ visas in the 1930s must be measured against the groundswell of public anti-semitism that resisted mass refugee admissions.
British MPs in 1938 were insistent that ‘it is impossible for us to absorb any large number of refugees here’, and as late as August 1938 the Daily Mail warned against large number of German Jews ‘flooding’ the country. In the US, polls showed that 94% of Americans disapproved of Kristallnacht, 77% thought immigration quotas should not be raised to allow additional Jewish migration from Germany.
All this suggests that Western commitment after 1951 to uphold a new Refugee Convention should not be read as a marker of some innate Western generosity of spirit. Even in 1947, Britain was forcibly returning Soviet POWs to Stalin’s Russia. Many committed suicide en route rather than face the Gulags or execution. When in 1972, Idi Amin expelled Ugandan’s Asians – many of whom were British citizens – the UK government tried desperately to persuade other Commonwealth countries to admit the refugees, before begrudgingly agreeing to act as a refuge of “last resort”. If forty years on the 40,000 Ugandan Asians who settled in the UK are often pointed to as a model refugee success story, this is not because but in spite of the welcome they received.
Many refugee advocates and NGOs are nevertheless wary of picking apart the public belief that a “generous welcome” exists for “real” refugees. The public, after all, are much more likely to be flattered than chastised into donating much needed funds to care for those left destitute – sometime by the deliberate workings of the asylum system itself. But it is important to recognise the more complex and less complacent truths that researchers’ work reveals.
For if we scratch the surface of our asylum policies beneath a shiny humanitarian veneer lies the most cynical kind of politics. Myth making sustains false dichotomies between deserving “refugees” there and undeserving “illegal migrants” here – and conveniently lets us forget that both are fleeing the same wars in the same leaking boats.
Hadrian’s Wall has been in the news again recently for all the wrong reasons. Occasional wits have pondered on its significance in the Scottish Referendum, neglecting the fact that it has never marked the Anglo-Scottish border, and was certainly not constructed to keep the Scots out. Others have mistakenly insinuated that it is closed for business, following the widely reported demise of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. And then of course there is the Game of Thrones angle, best-selling writer George R R Martin has spoken of the Wall as an inspiration for the great wall of ice that features in his books.
Media coverage of both Hadrian’s Wall Trust’s demise and Game of Thrones’ rise has sometimes played upon and propagated the notion that the Hadrian’s Wall was manned by shivering Italian legionaries guarding the fringes civilisation – irrespective of the fact that the empire actually trusted the security of the frontier to its non-citizen soldiers, the auxilia rather than to its legionaries. The tendency to overemphasise the Italian aspect reflects confusion about what the Roman Empire and its British frontier was about. But Martin, who made no claims to be speaking as a historian when he spoke of how he took the idea of legionaries from Italy, North Africa, and Greece guarding the Wall as a source of inspiration, did at least get one thing right about the Romano-British frontier.
There were indeed Africans on the Wall during the Roman period. In fact, at times there were probably more North Africans than Italians and Greeks. While all these groups were outnumbered by north-west Europeans, who tend to get discussed more often, the North African community was substantial, and its stories warrant telling.
Perhaps the most remarkable tale to survive is an episode in the Historia Augusta (Life of Severus 22) concerning the inspection of the Wall by the emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor, who was himself born in Libya, was confronted by a black soldier, part of the Wall garrison and a noted practical joker. According to the account the notoriously superstitious emperor saw in the soldier’s black skin and his brandishing of a wreath of Cyprus branches, an omen of death. And his mood was not further improved when the soldier shouted the macabre double entendre iam deus esto victor (now victor/conqueror, become a god). For of course properly speaking a Roman emperor should first die before being divinized. The late Nigerian classicist, Lloyd Thompson, made a powerful point about this intriguing passage in his seminal work Romans and Blacks, ‘the whole anecdote attributes to this man a disposition to make fun of the superstitious beliefs about black strangers’. In fact we might go further, and note just how much cultural knowledge and confidence this frontier soldier needed to play the joke – he needed to be aware of Roman funerary practices, superstitions, and the indeed the practice of emperor worship itself.
Why is this illuminating episode not better known? Perhaps it is because there is something deeply uncomfortable about what could be termed Britain’s first ‘racist joke’, or perhaps the problem lies with the source itself, the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta. And yet as a properly forensic reading of this part of the text by Professor Tony Birley has shown, the detail included around the encounter is utterly credible, and we can identify places alluded to in it at the western end of the Wall. So it is quite reasonable to believe that this encounter took place.
Not only this, but according to the restoration of the text preferred by Birley and myself, there is a reference to a third African in this passage. The restoration post Maurum apud vallum missum in Britannia indicates that this episode took place after Severus has granted discharge to a soldier of the Mauri (the term from which ‘Moors’ derives). And has Birley has noted, we know that there was a unit of Moors stationed at Burgh-by-Sands on the Solway at this time.
Sadly, Burgh is one of the least explored forts on Hadrian’s Wall, but some sense of what may one day await an extensive campaign of excavation there comes from Transylvania in Romania, where investigations at the home of another Moorish regiment of the Roman army have revealed a temple dedicated to the gods of their homelands. Perhaps too, evidence of different North African legacies would emerge. The late Vivian Swann, a leading expert in the pottery of the Wall has presented an attractive case that the appearance of new forms of ceramics indicates the introduction of North African cuisine in northern Britain in the second and third centuries AD.
What is clear is that the Mauri of Burgh-by-Sands were not the only North Africans on the Wall. We have an African legionary’s tombstone from Birdoswald, and from the East Coast the glorious funerary stela set up to commemorate Victor, a freedman (former slave) by his former master, a trooper in a Spanish cavalry regiment. Victor’s monument now stands on display in Arbeia Museum at South Shields next to the fine, and rather better known, memorial to the Catuvellunian Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates from Palmyra in Syria. Together these individuals, and the many other ethnic groups commemorated on the Wall, remind us of just how cosmopolitan the people of Roman frontier society were, and of how a society that stretched from the Solway and the Tyne to the Euphrates was held together.
It wasn’t surprising that Western journalists would react with doom-and-gloom when the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. Or that the crisis would not be treated as a problem confronting all humanity — a force majeure — but as one of “those diseases” that afflict “those people” over there in Africa. Most Western media immediately fell into fear-mongering. Rarely did they tell the stories of Africans who survived Ebola, or meaningfully explore what it means to see your child or parent or other family member or friend be stricken with the disease. Where are the stories of the wrenching decisions of families forced to abandon loved ones or the bravery required to simply live as a human in conditions where everyone walks on the edge of suspicion?
And then he writes some hard truths.
Given our interconnected world, it’s no longer possible to excuse such treatment as a lack of access to the facts. So what is the explanation? To borrow the words of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”
This thinking is so deeply entrenched in the minds of people in the West that it has become a reflex. Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. [b0ld is mine] Each new crisis, it seems, offers a platform for some to exercise their prejudices.
The hysteria is also fueling racism beyond the continent. In Germany, an African woman who recently traveled to Kenya — far from the affected countries — fell ill with a stomach virus at work; the entire building was locked down. In Brussels, an African man had a simple nosebleed at a shopping mall, and the store where it happened was sterilized. In Seoul, a bar put up a sign saying, “We apologize but due to the Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment.” Here in the United States, each time I have been to a doctor’s office since the outbreak, I have noticed an anxious look on the faces of the assistants that dissipates only when I say that I haven’t been to my country recently.
For Western media, this is just another one of those stories about the “killer virus” and the “poor Africans” who must once again be saved and spoken for by Westerners. And, always, there is the most important question: Will the virus come to the United States or Europe?
If you are reading this and believe you do not think about us the ways I have described, ask yourself the following questions: When was the last time you saw, and took the time to read, a positive front-page article about an African country? Have you ever met someone from Africa and decided to tell her what you know about her country and her continent, even if you have never been there? Have you ever noticed yourself speaking slowly and using exaggerated gestures while talking to someone from Africa, assuming that he doesn’t understand English well?
Political economy is back on the centre stage of development studies. The ultimate test of its respectability is that the World Bank has realised that it is not possible to separate social and political issues such as corruption and democracy from other factors that influence the effectiveness of its investments, and started using the concept.
It predates the creation of “economics” as a discipline. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, James Mill, and a generation later Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, explored how groups or classes in society exploited each other or were exploited, and used their conclusions to create theories of change or growth.
Marx’s ideas were taken up in the 1950s by economists and sociologists of the left, such as Paul Baran (The Political Economy of Growth, 1957) and later Samir Amin (The Political Economy of the Twentieth Century, 2000) who linked it to theories of imperialism and neo-colonialism to interpret what was happening in newly independent African countries where nationalist political parties had taken power.
Marx and Engels in their early writings, and Marxist orthodoxy subsequently, espoused determinist theories in which development went through pre-determined stages – primitive forms of social organisation, feudalism, capitalism, and then socialism. But in their later writings Marx and Engels were much more open, and recognised that some pre-capitalist formations could survive, and that there was no single road to socialism. Class analysis, and exploration of the economic interests of powerful classes, and their uses of the technologies available to them, could inform a study of history, but not substitute for it.
That was how I interpreted what happened in Tanzania in the 1970s. The country was built around the economic interests of those involved, and the mistakes made, both inside Tanzania but also outside. It focussed on the choices made by those who controlled the Tanzanian state or negotiated “foreign aid” deals with Western governments—Issa Shivji’s bureaucratic bourgeoisie. These themes are still current today.
I am not alone. Michael Lofchie’s (A Political Economy of Tanzania, 2014) focuses on the difficult years of structural adjustment in the 1980s and 1990s). He argues how the salaried elite could personally benefit from an overvalued exchange rate. From 1979 on, under the influence of the charismatic President Julius Nyerere, Tanzania resisted the IMF and World Bank which urged it to devalue. But eventually, around the mid-1980s, they realised that they had the possibility of making even bigger financial gains if the country devalued and there were open markets, which would allow them to make money from trade or production. They were becoming a productive bourgeoisie.
Lofchie’s analysis can be contested. The benefits of the chaos that resulted from the extremely over-valued exchange rates of the 1980s were reaped by only a few. It is true that rapid growth followed from around 1990 to the present, but that is also due to the high price of gold on international markets and the rapid expansion of gold mining and tourism. There is still plenty of evidence of individuals making money illegitimately – corruption is ever present in the political discourse, and will continue to be so up till the Presidential elections due in October 2015.
A challenge for the ruling class in Tanzania, leaving the 1970’s, was would they be able to convert their economic strategies into meaningful growth and benefits for the population? By 2011 the challenge was even more acute, because very large reserves of gas had been discovered off the coast of Southern Tanzania, so money for investment would no longer be a binding constraint. But would those resources be used to create real assets which would create the prerequisites for rapid expansions in manufacturing, services and especially agriculture? Or would they be frittered away through imports of non-productive machinery and infrastructure (such as the non-existent electricity generators purchased through the Richmond Project in 2006 in which several leading members of the ruling political party were implicated)? Or end up in Swiss bank accounts? The jury is very much still out. To achieve the current ambition of a rapid transition to a middle income country will require much greater understanding of engineering, agricultural science, and much better contracts than have been recently achieved – and more proactive responses to the challenges of corruption. It will need to take its own political economy seriously.
Headline image credit: Tanzania – Mikumi by Marc Veraart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.