Friday, May 25, 2012

African Unity

Africa. When I bring up the name of the mother of all continents with students in my classroom, or in conversations with average everyday people, I can already predict the type of commentary I’ll receive: “poor people, war, primitive, disease, wild animals”, and so forth. Even if we dismiss the attitudes spawned out of bigotry or ignorance held by the international community (which we cannot), at the very least the perception of Africa is a pessimistic one. Why does it appear to so many people as if no good can ever come out of Africa? Why does it seem like the media only reports on the failure and depravity of African nations? How can the richest and most ancient continent on Earth have the poorest people? As a Rastaman and a teacher, I do my best to address the negative attitudes about Africa. Yes, the continent still suffers very much, but now more than ever in modern times there are some wonderful things to say about Mama Africa as she moves toward a renaissance. We celebrate African Liberation Day, or Africa Day, as the beginning of a new independent Africa and the harbinger of good things that are yet to come.

On this day, May 25th, 1963, the charter for the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was signed by 32 independent African nations, just a few short years after they gained independence from their colonial European powers. Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia presided over the formation of the OAU (now the African Union) along with other revolutionary African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana with the goal of urging the African nations to unite on common ground. While some leaders were in favor of more gradual efforts to unify, others like Nkrumah who held socialist and Pan-Africanist ideas, looked to create a strong federation, a United States of Africa. This was a manifestation of the dreams held by the Pan-African Congress first organized by W.E.B. Du Bois, and the efforts of so many other freedom-fighters from Africa and the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and America seeking to eradicate colonialism. The OAU was the foundation for African solidarity, for having a collective voice, for building a real economic and political future, to defend human rights and raise the living standards of Africans at home and abroad. However, political self-determination came with many challenges for the newly independent nations and for those nations still to be liberated. Remember, Britain did not decolonize Zimbabwe until 1980, and an apartheid government existed in South Africa until 1994.

For centuries, Africa, with all of its wealth and its once proud trade empires of ancient and medieval times, had been exploited of its natural and human resources, damaged and segmented by the slave trade and colonialism brought by both the Arab and European world. After so many years of darkness, a swift strengthening and healing could not be possible for these vulnerable nations. Borders were drawn across the African continent, leaving nations with diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and religions that became the catalysts for conflict and control. During the Cold War the United States and USSR competed for influence in independent Africa, seeking resources and strategic locations. Since independence, political turmoil has resulted in frequent military coups, and true democracy is frequently stifled by one-party systems and eventually dictatorships. Natural resources have been exploited by either imperialist economies or warlords seeking regional control. Furthermore, foreign assistance largely ceased along with the Cold War and many African nations were left in debt to the IMF and the World Bank, beholden to foreign governments and businesses, the people of these countries have suffered through poverty and the other problems that spawn from it. 

In the midst of all the chaos and crisis, some heroes of the African independence movement were ousted from power by rivals or became despotic rulers. Kwame Nkrumah, the father of my wife’s native country Ghana, the leader who proclaimed “self-government now”, was one of those. When he became the first president of Ghana, some of his political tactics were considered to be authoritarian, and in efforts to modernize the country, the nation fell into debt which eventually led to him being overthrown (some say with the help of the CIA). Now decades later, many Ghanaians regard Nkrumah as a hero who tried to build up the nation and who promoted the liberation and unification of the whole African continent. Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya was another founding African statesman and the first president of his country who had also been criticized during his reign and yet has been regarded as a hero. Along with Kwame Nkrumah, Kenyatta was one of the first African leaders to get involved and collaborate with W.E.B. DuBois and the Pan-Africanist Congress. Before Kenya’s independence he was imprisoned by the British for allegedly aiding the Mau Mau rebellion. He was also the inspiration of reggae’s Burning Spear. Finally, there is the father of African unity, H.I.M. Haile Selassie I who was overthrown by the Communist Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam after famine caused distress amongst the people. Yet, Emperor Selassie I had modernized Ethiopia, promoted education, made the ancient monarchy a constitutional one, and helped lay the foundation for the OAU (and now the African Union), in his own capital of Addis Ababa. Critics who claimed that H.I.M. was an autocrat used fraudulent reasons to take power. Derg supporters and foreign journalists like Ryszard Kapuściński (who was a Communist and sympathetic to Mariam) spread and wrote deceitful things about Haile Selassie I and ignored the arrests and executions of university students, intellectuals and politicians and the forceful exile of the royal family by the military coup. Why can’t the world honor these men and their achievements without discrediting them?

I do not advocate totalitarianism, corruption, or the violation of human rights... but let’s be honest. Many of the same things that African leaders, past and present, have been blamed for are things that go unnoticed or whitewashed in the politics of the Western world.  Particularly in regard to Emperor Haile Selassie I, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jomo Kenyatta, where no violence or terrible infringements of human rights have ever been honestly attributed to them. These great men were liberators and sought the unification of the entire African continent and to say that their leadership needs to be measured against the example of American or Western democracy is unsuited and unfair especially when examples of good governance were absent even during colonial rule (besides Ethiopia). There are many perspectives and authors to history. Some of these views are right and some are wrong... and more often than not, there is a blending of both. Ultimately the Truth does reveal itself, and I believe it will favor those who fought for the rights and dignity of the oppressed by any means necessary. Of course there have been dictators in the truest sense of the word like Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, and others who have used torture, murder, war, and political manipulation to keep power. Fortunately, over the years the citizens of many of these African countries have forced dictatorships to hold elections and transition to some form of democracy. 

Over the past few months the news stories coming out of Africa have been bleak, as usual... and underreported, as usual. The military Islamist organization called Boko Haram is still terrorizing Nigeria with violence, ethnic attacks and a coup d’état took place in Mali, battles in the new country of South Sudan, political commotion in Senegal, and continued problems in the Congo and Somalia. Oh, and of course you had the flash-in-the-pan that was “Kony 2012”, a YouTube popularity contest to find Uganda warlord, Joseph Kony, whom people have known about for over 20 years. In fact there are existing documentaries about Kony and the LRA that are at least 10 years old now. What have been the real actual fruits of this campaign besides a few sensationalized news stories aired for a couple of weeks in April? Not to take anything away from the terrible amounts of suffering that people endure in these war-torn and unstable areas, but this is the image of Africa that we are left with: a helpless, despaired, “dark continent”... unable to rise on its own without the help of some well-intended Western college students, missionaries, and celebrities. It perpetuates the notion that Africa is unable to help itself and become great again. However, on the flip-side is plenty of evidence that Africa is on the rise.

There are many hopeful signs that point to a good future for Africa. Africa is in the midst of a population explosion, middle classes are emerging, business entrepreneurship is evolving, urbanization is spreading, and economies are growing with the help of new foreign investment, particularly from China. There is more freedom from Western influences and more competition in the African economies, which means that foreign interests have to play by African rules. With such changes, livelihoods are changing for the better as well. Many young, globally connected, and increasingly more educated Africans are demanding political changes, better healthcare, functional governments, free elections, and are realizing the necessity for being the creators of their own destinies. Africa is slowly and steadily on the rise. The flaws and failures will eventually even out after many years of growing pains. For all of the negative incidents shown in the news, not enough of the African success stories are highlighted for others to see, like the economic gains of today’s Ghana and Mozambique. It is important to look at these many factors when examining Africa. To do so is not ignoring the problems that currently exist, but rather being optimistic of the things that are sure to come. 

Look to Mama Africa with optimism and hope, just like the Pan-Africanist leaders, Selassie, Nkrumah, and Kenyatta. Like DuBois, George Padmore and Dudley Thompson from America and the Caribbean. No matter who you are or where you come from, Africa is the birthplace of humanity and the foundation of our global future. The whole world is Africa. So, let us hail up Africa, like Marcus Garvey once wrote:

Hail! United States of Africa-free!
Hail! Motherland most bright, divinely fair!
State in perfect sisterhood united,
Born of truth; mighty thou shalt ever be.
- “Hail, United States of Africa” by Marcus Garvey

Happy African Liberation Day; Africa Unite, 

Kwame Nkrumah & H.I.M. Haile Selassie I

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Adjusting To Jubilation

It is important to know that life is a very wonderful gift, and that we should be mindful of this as we take this journey of ours. While getting carried through the whirlwind of our responsibilities, busy schedules, and daily routines, we need to acknowledge that these stresses are only small and often insignificant parts of who we are and what we do. There are times when it is absolutely necessary to pull out of our micromanaging and take a moment to be aware and give thanks. This year has been incredibly hectic for me, and since it is my birthday today, I celebrate it with an opportunity for reflection on what I have and how I am managing it.

I begin with mentioning that married life is something that I have been really busy adjusting to. It is very different from the lifestyle I once had as a bachelor. I follow that statement with mentioning that nothing could be more satisfying and wonderful than married life. Beginning and ending each new day with the love of my life, my best friend, my Empress, is a truly magnificent blessing alone. I can remember days of solitude, days of wondering whether or not there was that special woman for me... and then here I am spending each day and night with her! We share a home together, this little place of our own that we can take refuge in after long days of work. We have our arms to comfort one another. We have our shared experiences. To an outsider, it may seem boring or ridiculously ordinary. However, it is this constant and steadfast rhythm which is truly amazing. This stability is built on love, trust, and satisfaction. These qualities seem typical because we all desire them and strive for them in one way or another, but they are very extraordinary. So much so, that it seems just... ordinary. I liken it to the earth, spinning each day on its axis... turning day into night, and orbiting around the sun, bringing season after season. We expect these things, we are familiar with these things, but this act literally keeps the world turning. Together with my wife, “moon and sun” as I had written in a poem for our wedding, this daily turn with my Significant Other is significant indeed.

However, with married life comes a newfound responsibility. Being there for each other emotionally, spiritually, financially and physically can be exhausting. A single person meets their own needs (which is often a feat in itself), and then extends themselves to others when necessary. A married person must consider their partner, must make sacrifices, and must meet each other’s needs. Add to this being a homeowner, juggling mortgage payments, loans and bills, for the sake of securing your family. It is a very different way of life, but certainly it is a good type of “different”. Adjusting to that tempo is something that I am still learning. Even though I know that many challenges await us in our long years ahead (JAH willing), we have the commitment and love to succeed.

Adding to the daily rigors of (newly) married life is my life as a teacher. Those of us who are teachers know that the lifestyle of an educator can be very exhausting and very taxing. It has been a difficult year for me professionally for a variety of reasons, one of which includes working multiple jobs. Stability is just as important to a career as it is to personal or married life... we long for having a sense of achievement and a sense of worth, and when we feel stressed, overwhelmed, or unappreciated it can really affect our entire life and our outlook on life. Being in this situation has taught me a few things this year, at least an awareness of how important or unimportant something actually is. Whereas a sense of stability is vital and hopefully expected in married life, there is less of a guarantee for this at work. Changes can come quickly, both positive and negative. Unfortunately there has been a lot of negativity to cope with this year as a teacher, whether on a local level, state and national level, or even cultural level. Add to this the fact that socializing with so many people, and in my case indifferent teenagers, comes with a lot of extra pressures. Yet, although it is a facet of my life, it is NOT my life... not your life, not our life. Life is much more than that, and at times it is very necessary for us to skim it off the surface and reconstitute ourselves. Time for realignment (or vacation, whichever comes first).

As a married couple, having time for our families and our friends is another new adjustment. It is not always easy to keep this component at the forefront of our lives, but I believe it is necessary. Family is very important to me and, along with my wife, I am very blessed to have my relationships with my parents and brothers, my in-laws, and other relatives to all prosper. This is rare for so many people nowadays, so I acknowledge this as a true blessing. The simple fact that my wife and I can address each other’s parents as “Mom” and “Dad” and say it with love and feeling is such an awesome thing in itself. Friendship can be trickier to maintain because it requires communication and understanding to stay strong... but we all need it, and we should all value it. So I say to all my friends and family alike... I love you! As one of my friends has always said to me, “two mountains don’t always meet”.  So distance is no matter when hearts and minds are in tune. I am confident that I will get better at making time for all the people I love and care for, give thanks for the patience.

Now, after making time for my wife, my family and friends, I am working on reestablishing time for myself: Time to educate myself on the things that inspire me, time to strengthen my convictions, time set aside to write (which has been sparse this year for aforementioned reasons), time to read, time to keep physically fit, time to sing, time to celebrate. Time for doing the things that make me who I am... a husband, a teacher, a Rastaman, a friend, a world citizen. Yes these things are very important and necessary.

Finally I end this by saying I give thanks to God, whom I call JAH, Jehovah, Rastafari. Life is great and beautiful, but I can never forget the blessings that I have. For me it is important to acknowledge the Creator’s hand in this life of mine... because it is very real in my sight. When life is good, it is human for us to forget about God. I cannot. After expressing all the new things I am learning to adjust to, one can see how these adjustments are really just growing into the blessings that have been forwarded unto I&I. I have my Empress, I have my family, and friends. I have my health and strength. I have a meaningful vocation. I have a voice. Today, on my birthday, I renew my friendship with JAH and give thanks for life!

Yes, give thanks for another year and for all my blessings. I hope to keep this fire burning... so, all the Massive, check for the reasonings, poems, and lyrics in a Rastaman stylee! I am still here and there are still so many things to say.

More Love,