How to ensure that coronavirus doesn’t stop peace efforts in Africa

How to ensure that coronavirus doesn’t stop peace efforts in Africa

Leymah Gbowee, the head of Monrovia’s Women in Peacebuilding Network, stands in front of a sign calling for peaceful elections in Liberia in 2017.
Zoomdosso/AFP via GettyImages

COVID-19 is likely to disrupt ongoing peace processes, worsen existing conflicts and generate new conflicts. But it may also offer opportunities for ceasefires and peace agreements.

The measures taken to contain the spread of the virus are, unfortunately, also affecting the mobility of peacemakers, peacekeepers and peacebuilders.

At least 22 African countries are experiencing political violence. Countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, and DR Congo are experiencing high intensity armed conflicts between armed opposition groups and national governments.

There are peacebuilding efforts in most of the countries that are currently experiencing armed conflict and that have recorded cases of COVID-19. These efforts variously involve the support of international donors, nongovernmental organisations and national governments.

The secretary-general of the United Nations recently called for a unilateral ceasefire in ongoing conflicts.
But achieving a multilateral ceasefire might be difficult. Some warring factions will seize the opportunity to gain an advantage. The challenges are immense. The pandemic could worsen the conflict situation and undermine ongoing peacebuilding efforts.

On the other hand disasters can transform conflict dynamics. Research shows that disasters such as COVID-19 can create opportunities for peace in conflict countries. For one, they can undermine the ability of conflict entrepreneurs to access conflict areas. This reduces incidents of violence.

They can also create the conditions necessary for advancing peacebuilding processes in local communities. To achieve this outcome peacebuilders need to engage with local actors.

The impact of the pandemic

Peace processes supported by the international community are designed to involve multiple stakeholders. Even when described as locally led initiatives they are often guided by internationally recruited professionals.

The global response to COVID-19 in the African countries affected by conflict is hampering the movement of international and national peacebuilders. These professionals have been unable to travel to conflict zones. International organisations have placed movement restrictions on their staff. Many of them have returned to their home countries.

At the national level, restrictions have prevented people from congregating and limited their ability to travel.

Peacebuilding requires sustained efforts towards reconciliation and reintegration. Actors must address the impact of conflict and the causes of conflicts. This process often requires physical meetings and events that are designed to bring conflict actors together towards sustainable peace.

Retreating peacebuilding activities during this period portends a great danger for societies affected by violent conflicts. One likely consequence is that non-state armed groups will use the opportunity to expand their frontiers, thus undermining ongoing peace processes.

It also opens up the possibility of increased mortality in the context of violent conflicts. Hence, it is important that stakeholders adopt mechanisms that will sustain peacebuilding efforts in communities affected by violent conflicts during this pandemic.

Local actors are key

In the face of national lockdowns, one way the momentum can be maintained is through existing local authorities, community peace actors and peace committees. These are common across Africa.

Local actors that are embedded in communities can continue to work on sustaining peace processes even when professional peacebuilders are unable to gain access. For any peace process, what is important is that people keep communication open and sustained even during the pandemic.

And international peacebuilders can continue providing support to their local counterparts. This can be through funding to facilitate activities in local communities.

International peacebuilders can also provide remote mentoring and capacity building. There is technological capacity for peacebuilders to receive coaching in the most remote areas affected by conflict in Africa. International peacebuilders should also remain available to brainstorm with nationals when challenges are encountered.

Local peacebuilders can be enlisted to stop the spread of the pandemic through their existing networks and knowledge of community relations to coordinate preventive responses. These resources can also be used to reinforce the expertise of public health workers in local communities.

Local actors involved in peacebuilding already have experience translating complex messages into local languages. This skill is very relevant in the fight against the pandemic in communities.

Desired outcome

With the right information, local conflict actors can be persuaded to accept the UN’s call for a ceasefire. But this won’t happen unless local actors are involved in crafting the right messages.

Empowering local actors will not only sustain peace processes, but also contribute to the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

To sustain peace, we would need to find new ways of working, by meaningfully including national and local capacities for peace.The Conversation

Tarila Marclint Ebiede, Research Fellow, KU Leuven

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At the end of October, members of Brazil’s Catholic black lay associations gathered in the northern port city of Salvador to discuss their centuries-long history and the challenges facing the new network they have formed — an association of associations — in a country where the Catholic Church itself is questioning its future.

Created by slaves and emancipated black men and women in colonial times, when they were not allowed to attend the same churches as their white masters, the black lay associations were once refuges of solidarity and resistance against slavery. Most made efforts to buy freedom for their enslaved members. “Our brotherhood functioned as an important center in the abolitionist struggle,” said Antônio Nicanor, a member of the Brotherhood of the Black Men in Salvador.

But the existence of the black Catholic groups is threatened by the same societal forces that are draining all established religions of members and energy, chiefly the loss of young people. “The average age in our brotherhood is 55,” Nicanor told Religion News Service. “In most of the organizations all over Brazil, there’s no effective renewal.

“Since 2017 we’ve been working to reunite all brotherhoods and communities in Brazil, in an effort to grow stronger,” said Nicanor, referring to the network that is meant to bolster brotherhoods like his. “Our organizations are aging, and we have to fight against their end.”

Some of the decline has to do with problems particular to Brazil’s complex religious landscape. The lay associations have long been concerned with the conservation of African culture in the church, and many members are loyal both to Catholicism and to Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. These allegiances have caused some Catholic clergy to regard them with suspicion.

“We still suffer with the prejudice of some people in the Church,” said Analia Santana, a member of Nicanor’s Brotherhood of the Black Men and an academic researcher specializing in its history.

“Many priests say they don’t know anything about the black brotherhoods. Seminaries don’t talk about us. What happens if a priest like this is suddenly appointed as our chaplain?” asked Vanilda Silvério, vice-director of the Brotherhood Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men, in São Paulo.

Members of black brotherhoods, which include both men and women, attend a service at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men in Salvador, Brazil. Courtesy photo by William Justo

(In Portuguese, the term for these communities, “irmandade,” encompasses both men and women, though it is often rendered as “brotherhood” in English, and many specify black men in their titles. Even so, women such as Silvério have only served in leadership roles since the early 2000s.)

Her association has existed in São Paulo since 1711 and counted more than 400 members a few decades ago. Now there are 62 brothers and sisters. “My grandfather joined the brotherhood in the 1920s. Now one of my daughters is also a member,” said Silvério.

Her younger daughter, however, resists the idea of taking part in the group. “I’m 57. I’m worried about the future. I don’t see many young people joining the brotherhood. They don’t have time to contribute — they have to study and work.”

Like many shrinking institutions, Brazil’s lay Catholic associations both benefit from an infrastructure built up during their high times and pay dearly to maintain it. Most of the black fraternities own their churches, cemeteries and other historical buildings and are responsible for their conservation.

They also manage investment funds set aside for these properties’ preservation, for association activities and to pay a few employees, but the members generally lack the financial expertise to do so, according to the Rev. Lázaro Muniz, who was chaplain of the Brotherhood of the Black Men for seven years until early 2019.

During his tenure, Muniz created an archdiocesan commission in Salvador in order to keep up with the brotherhoods’ activities. “They’re independent entities, but we struggled to help them reform their bylaws and make several changes for their own good. Several fraternities had to close due to management problems. Our struggle is to preserve them,” he explained.

He was also one of the proponents of the national network of black Catholic lay associations founded three years ago.

“We hope very much this network will strengthen the brotherhoods. The meetings were very successful, and many of them are already in the process of reorganization,” he said. He added that they are forging bonds with the Afro-Brazilian pastoral commissions in their dioceses that deal with black churchgoers.

Over 500 years, the lay associations have weathered changes in the Church and the larger culture. Nicanor’s Brotherhood of the Black Men, probably the oldest black brotherhood still active in Brazil, shows up in official records in 1685, but there’s evidence it was created in 1604, according to Santana. Their staying power gives current members hope.

“Our brotherhood was always able to dialogue with the changing times and to renew itself. Many other entities had to close their doors throughout the centuries,” Santana explained.

They also have the advantage of being deeply rooted in the lives of rural communities. Though many brotherhoods originated in Salvador, Brazil’s first capital city and still its premier archdiocese, they soon spread across the country. They have long organized annual festivities in honor of their saints of devotion — black saints like Saint Benedict the Moor, Saint Elesbaan, Saint Ephigenia of Ethiopia and Saint Anthony of Carthage, who incorporated elements of the residents’ original African cultures.

These highly ritualized festivities, known as congadas, included the coronation of a king and a queen of the brotherhood. Although many of the urban fraternities don’t organize congadas anymore, they still can be seen in the countryside.

It is this kind of local religious culture that got favorable attention at the recent Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region, where Pope Francis urged bishops to reflect on “enculturation,” as the Church calls adaptation of Christianity to local contexts. Muniz believes this kind of thinking may be helpful in renovation of the Brazilian brotherhoods.

“This moment invites the fraternities to search for news ways, assuming a path of evangelization and offering possibilities for the youth to assume their traditions.”

For Nicanor, the black lay associations still have a contribution to make for a church that, guided by Francis, is looking for more lay involvement. “The church needs to feel that it’s the lay people who make Catholicism and not the clergy,” he said.

At the end of October, members of Brazil’s Catholic black lay associations gathered in the northern port city of Salvador to discuss their centuries-long history and the challenges facing the new network they have formed — an association of associations — in a country where the Catholic Church itself is questioning its future.

Created by slaves and emancipated black men and women in colonial times, when they were not allowed to attend the same churches as their white masters, the black lay associations were once refuges of solidarity and resistance against slavery. Most made efforts to buy freedom for their enslaved members. “Our brotherhood functioned as an important center in the abolitionist struggle,” said Antônio Nicanor, a member of the Brotherhood of the Black Men in Salvador.

But the existence of the black Catholic groups is threatened by the same societal forces that are draining all established religions of members and energy, chiefly the loss of young people. “The average age in our brotherhood is 55,” Nicanor told Religion News Service. “In most of the organizations all over Brazil, there’s no effective renewal.

“Since 2017 we’ve been working to reunite all brotherhoods and communities in Brazil, in an effort to grow stronger,” said Nicanor, referring to the network that is meant to bolster brotherhoods like his. “Our organizations are aging, and we have to fight against their end.”

Some of the decline has to do with problems particular to Brazil’s complex religious landscape. The lay associations have long been concerned with the conservation of African culture in the church, and many members are loyal both to Catholicism and to Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. These allegiances have caused some Catholic clergy to regard them with suspicion.

“We still suffer with the prejudice of some people in the Church,” said Analia Santana, a member of Nicanor’s Brotherhood of the Black Men and an academic researcher specializing in its history.

“Many priests say they don’t know anything about the black brotherhoods. Seminaries don’t talk about us. What happens if a priest like this is suddenly appointed as our chaplain?” asked Vanilda Silvério, vice-director of the Brotherhood Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men, in São Paulo.

Members of black brotherhoods, which include both men and women, attend a service at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men in Salvador, Brazil. Courtesy photo by William Justo

(In Portuguese, the term for these communities, “irmandade,” encompasses both men and women, though it is often rendered as “brotherhood” in English, and many specify black men in their titles. Even so, women such as Silvério have only served in leadership roles since the early 2000s.)

Her association has existed in São Paulo since 1711 and counted more than 400 members a few decades ago. Now there are 62 brothers and sisters. “My grandfather joined the brotherhood in the 1920s. Now one of my daughters is also a member,” said Silvério.

Her younger daughter, however, resists the idea of taking part in the group. “I’m 57. I’m worried about the future. I don’t see many young people joining the brotherhood. They don’t have time to contribute — they have to study and work.”

Like many shrinking institutions, Brazil’s lay Catholic associations both benefit from an infrastructure built up during their high times and pay dearly to maintain it. Most of the black fraternities own their churches, cemeteries and other historical buildings and are responsible for their conservation.

They also manage investment funds set aside for these properties’ preservation, for association activities and to pay a few employees, but the members generally lack the financial expertise to do so, according to the Rev. Lázaro Muniz, who was chaplain of the Brotherhood of the Black Men for seven years until early 2019.

During his tenure, Muniz created an archdiocesan commission in Salvador in order to keep up with the brotherhoods’ activities. “They’re independent entities, but we struggled to help them reform their bylaws and make several changes for their own good. Several fraternities had to close due to management problems. Our struggle is to preserve them,” he explained.

He was also one of the proponents of the national network of black Catholic lay associations founded three years ago.

“We hope very much this network will strengthen the brotherhoods. The meetings were very successful, and many of them are already in the process of reorganization,” he said. He added that they are forging bonds with the Afro-Brazilian pastoral commissions in their dioceses that deal with black churchgoers.

Over 500 years, the lay associations have weathered changes in the Church and the larger culture. Nicanor’s Brotherhood of the Black Men, probably the oldest black brotherhood still active in Brazil, shows up in official records in 1685, but there’s evidence it was created in 1604, according to Santana. Their staying power gives current members hope.

“Our brotherhood was always able to dialogue with the changing times and to renew itself. Many other entities had to close their doors throughout the centuries,” Santana explained.

They also have the advantage of being deeply rooted in the lives of rural communities. Though many brotherhoods originated in Salvador, Brazil’s first capital city and still its premier archdiocese, they soon spread across the country. They have long organized annual festivities in honor of their saints of devotion — black saints like Saint Benedict the Moor, Saint Elesbaan, Saint Ephigenia of Ethiopia and Saint Anthony of Carthage, who incorporated elements of the residents’ original African cultures.

These highly ritualized festivities, known as congadas, included the coronation of a king and a queen of the brotherhood. Although many of the urban fraternities don’t organize congadas anymore, they still can be seen in the countryside.

It is this kind of local religious culture that got favorable attention at the recent Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region, where Pope Francis urged bishops to reflect on “enculturation,” as the Church calls adaptation of Christianity to local contexts. Muniz believes this kind of thinking may be helpful in renovation of the Brazilian brotherhoods.

“This moment invites the fraternities to search for news ways, assuming a path of evangelization and offering possibilities for the youth to assume their traditions.”

For Nicanor, the black lay associations still have a contribution to make for a church that, guided by Francis, is looking for more lay involvement. “The church needs to feel that it’s the lay people who make Catholicism and not the clergy,” he said.

Methodist Church Southern Africa Enters New Era with Women Leaders

Methodist Church Southern Africa Enters New Era with Women Leaders

Purity Malinga, the new Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
Supplied

Reverend Purity Malinga has just become the 100th Presiding Bishop to be elected by the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. She is the first woman in the church’s 200-year history to be elected to this position. As Rev Jennifer Samdaan, a prominent female minister in the church points out,

There had been 99 men before her. For her to be chosen to lead us is wonderful.

The Rev Madika Sibeko noted in isiXhosa: “zajiki’izinto” (things are changing). Indeed, things are changing in the Methodist church.

The Methodist church is South Africa’s largest “mainline” Christian denomination, with its roots in the 18th century Wesleyan revival. Methodism quickly spread throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia and to Africa. In part this was because of the zeal of missionary societies, but also because of the spread of the British empire.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa became an independent church in 1889. It is the largest Protestant Christian denomination in South Africa and has a predominantly black African membership.

Having a woman elected as the presiding bishop is of great significance to the denomination and the region. In this role, Bishop Malinga will be the church’s most senior leader, with responsibility to guide the regional bishops and the ministry and mission of the church in the six southern African countries. These are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini and Botswana. Her personality and inclusive style of leadership are likely to bring some important changes to the culture and identity of southern African Methodism.

She previously served as the first (and only) woman bishop of a regional synod, the Natal Coastal District (until 2008). She is a widely respected minister who first qualified as a teacher before entering the ministry and completing her theological studies at Harvard University in the US.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has a history of challenging tradition, and being at the forefront of working for justice and the rights of oppressed people. Among the other notable southern Africans who were Methodists are Chief Albert Luthuli, Africa’s first Nobel laureate; Nelson Mandela, another Nobel laureate and the first democratically elected president of South Africa, as well as Robert Sobukwe, the respected Africanist. Another prominent Methodist is Graça Machel, the Mozambican and South African women’s rights campaigner.

Bishop Malinga’s induction heralds a new era in southern African Methodism, and indeed church leadership in the region. Her election as the first woman to the post coincided with three other women being elected as regional bishops in the six countries that the church serves. These women are Bishop Yvette Moses (Cape of Good Hope District), Bishop Faith Whitby (Central District, the largest district, covering parts of the Gauteng and North West provinces), and Bishop Charmaine Morgan (Namibia).

The history

Methodism first landed on South African shores in 1795 cloaked in the guise of colonialism and the empire. This date was just four years after the death of John Wesley, the founder of the movement. This makes the Methodist Church of Southern Africa one of the oldest Methodist or Wesleyan churches in the world.

The first record of a Methodist in the region was in the Christian Magazine and Evangelical Repository (1802). The article tells of a British soldier named John Irwin who had been stationed at the Cape of Good Hope from 1795 to protect colonial interests in the region. It records that he hired a small room and began to hold prayer meetings and services.

The formal mission of the church began in 1816 under the leadership of Rev Barnabas Shaw. The Methodists of the Cape were entwined in colonialism, as were most missionary movements that emanated from Britain at the time. Nevertheless, they sought to minister not just to the colonizers, but to the indigenous people living in the area and to slaves.

This got them into trouble with the British colonial authorities. An example was the refusal by the governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, to let Rev Shaw establish a congregation at the Cape.

So began a history of civil disobedience. Rev Shaw’s response to Somerset’s refusal was blistering:

Having received this answer I therefore left His Excellency and determined to commence preaching without it. My resolution is also fixed never again to ask any mere man’s permission to preach the glorious Gospel.

The Methodist Church continued to show great courage in addressing social, political and structural injustice.

Bishop Purity Malinga.
Supplied

The church also failed in many instances. And there was often a gap between the ordinary members and local congregations, and the more progressive aims of the denomination’s leadership.

New era

It’s fair to ask why it’s taken almost 200 years for women to be elected to leadership positions in the church.

The most obvious reason is that Christianity, in general, remains a patriarchal religion. The Methodist Church of Southern Africa is no different: men dominate the leadership and formal structures at almost every level.

The church first allowed women ordination 43 years ago. By 2016 only 17% of the clergy were women, only 4% of regional leaders (circuit superintendents) were women, and there were no women bishops.

Some ascribe this to religious patriarchy, and others to the dominance of patriarchy in African cultures of the region. There have been women in senior leadership roles in other regions of the world where Methodism is present, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. However, in many contexts, such as Africa and parts of Latin America, the denomination has been less progressive in recognizing and appointing women to senior leadership.

In her address to the 130th annual conference of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa at which her election was confirmed, Rev Malinga echoed the words of Oliver Tambo, the late anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress in exile, who said:

No country can boast of being free unless its women are free.

Her election, and those of Moses, Morgan and Whitby, bring South Africa a step closer to reaching that true freedom.The Conversation

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Professor in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Panama celebrates its black Christ, part of protest against colonialism and slavery

Panama celebrates its black Christ, part of protest against colonialism and slavery

The life-sized wooden statue of the Black Christ in St. Philip Church in Panama.
Dan Lundberg/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Panama’s “Festival del Cristo Negro,” the festival of the “Black Christ,” is an important religious holiday for local Catholics. It honors a dark, life-sized wooden statue of Jesus, “Cristo Negro” – also known as “El Nazaraeno,” or “The Nazarene.”

Throughout the year, pilgrims come to pay homage to this statue of Christ carrying a cross, in its permanent home in Iglesia de San Felipe, a Roman Catholic parish church located in Portobelo, a city along the Caribbean coast of Panama.

But it is on Oct. 21 each year that the major celebration takes place. As many as 60,000 pilgrims from Portobelo and beyond travel for the festival, in which 80 men with shaved heads carry the black Christ statue on a large float through the streets of the city.

The men use a common Spanish style for solemn parades – three steps forward and two steps backward – as they move through the city streets. The night continues with music, drinking and dancing.

In my research on the relationship between Christianity, colonialism and racism, I have discovered that such festivals play a crucial role for historically oppressed peoples.

About 9% of Panama’s population claims African descent, many of whom are concentrated in Portobelo’s surrounding province of Colón. Census data from 2010 shows that over 21% of Portobelo’s population claim African heritage or black identity.

To Portobelo’s inhabitants, especially those who claim African descent, the festival is more than a religious celebration. It is a form of protest against Spanish colonialism, which brought with it slavery and racism.

History of the statute

Portobelo’s black Christ statue is a fascinating artifact of Panama’s colonial history. While there is little certainty as to its origin, many scholars believe the statue arrived in Portobelo in the 17th century – a time when the Spanish dominated Central America and brought in enslaved people from Africa.

Cristo Negro.
Adam Jones/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Various legends circulate in Panama as to how the black Christ got to Portobelo. Some maintain that the statue originated in Spain, others that it was locally made, or that it washed ashore miraculously.

One of the most common stories maintains that a storm forced a ship from Spain, which was delivering the statue to another city, to dock in Portobelo. Every time the ship attempted to leave, the storms would return.

Eventually, the story goes, the statue was thrown overboard. The ship was then able to depart with clear skies. Later, local fishermen recovered the statue from the sea.

The statue was placed in its current home, Iglesia de San Felipe, in the early 19th century.

Stories of miracles added to its mystique. Among the legends in circulation is one about how prayers to the black Christ spared the city from a plague ravaging the region in the 18th century.

Catholicism and African identity

Since its exact origins are unknown, so are the artistic intention behind the Jesus statue. However, the figure’s blackness has made it an object of particular devotion for locals of African descent.

At the time of the arrival of Cristo Negro, the majority of the Portobelo’s population was of African descent. This cultural heritage is significant to the city’s identity and traditions.

The veneration of the statue represents one of many ways that the black residents of Portobelo and the surrounding Colón region of Panama have engendered a sense of resistance to racism and slavery.

Each year around the time of Lent, local men and women across Colón – where slavery was particularly widespread – dramatize the story of self-liberated black slaves known as the Cimarrones. This reenactment is one of a series of celebrations, or “carnivals,” observed around the time of Lent by those who identify with the cultural tradition known colloquially as “Congo.” The term Congo was originally used by the Spanish colonists for anyone of African descent. It is now is used for traditions that can be traced back to the Cimarrones.

During the carnival celebration, some local people dress up as the devil, meant to represent Spanish slave masters or complicit priests. Others don the dress of the Cimarrones.

Many of the participants in both the black Christ and carnival celebrations of Panama are Catholics as well. Together they participate to bring to light the Catholic Church’s complex relationship with Spanish colonization and slavery. Many Catholic leaders in the 16th to 18th centuries justified the enslavement of Africans and the colonization of the Americas, or at least did not object to it.

A revered tradition

The different colored robes that are put on the statue of Cristo Negro.
Ali EminovFlickr, CC BY-NC

Many people from throughout Panama have donated robes to clothe the statue. The colors of the robes donned by the statue varies throughout the year. Purple is reserved for the October celebrations, which likely reflects the use of purple in Catholic worship to signify suffering.

These robes draped on Panama’s black Christ are meant to represent those placed on Jesus when he was mockingly dressed in royal garb by the soldiers torturing him before his crucifixion.

Evoking this scene perhaps serves to remind the viewer of the deeper theological meaning of Jesus’s suffering as it is often understood in Christianity: Although Jesus is the Son of God prophesied to save God’s people from suffering and should thus be treated like royalty, he was tortured and executed as a common criminal. His suffering is understood to save people from their sins.

Some pilgrims specifically come during the October festival to seek forgiveness for any sinful actions. Some wear their own purple robes, the color indicating a sign of their suffering – and, of course, that of the black Christ.

[ Insight, in your inbox each day. You can get it with The Conversation’s email newsletter. ]The Conversation

S. Kyle Johnson, Doctoral Student in Systematic Theology, Boston College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ghana’s Year of Return 2019: traveler, tourist or pilgrim?

Ghana’s Year of Return 2019: traveler, tourist or pilgrim?

African diasporans visit forts and castles in Ghana as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the slave trade.

“We may call ourselves African Americans but we are truly disconnected from Africa. I say WE because I’m not excluded! I thought ‘my people’ came from South Carolina … but this heritage was only a small part of my people’s journey that began in Ghana, a place that had kings well before Europe had theirs.”

These were the words of American actor and director Michael Jai White, who visited Ghana towards the end of 2018.

He and over 40 African diasporan celebrities took part in “The Full Circle Festival”, designed to attract visitors to Ghana. The list included Idris Elba, Boris Kodjoe, Naomi Campbell, Anthony Anderson, and Adrienne-Joi Johnson. During the visit, Akwamuhene Odeneho Kwafo Akoto III, the Akwamu Paramount Chief, enstooled White as Chief “Oduapong” meaning “Tree with strong roots that does not fear the storm”.

The Ghana government invited the celebrities as part of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019”. The initiative involves a year-long series of activities. These include visits to heritage sites, healing ceremonies, theatre, and musical performances, lectures, investment forums, and relocation conferences. The aim is to promote Ghana as a tourist destination and investment opportunity.

This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown in the US. The Year of Return represents an effort to “unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora”.

In support, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said:

We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions (Africans in the diaspora) made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.

In commemoration, numerous visitors are traveling to Ghana. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will also conduct the Jamestown (Virginia, US) to Jamestown (Accra, Ghana) Memorial Trip.

Ghana is number 4 on CNN Travel’s 19 best places to visit in 2019.

Genealogies

African diasporans as “returnees” dates back to Ghana’s immediate post-independence period. Shortly after independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah invited many well-known African diasporans to assist with nation-building. These included Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., George Padmore, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Leslie Lacy, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

In the 1990s, President Jerry Rawlings initiated heritage tourism based on the transatlantic slave trade and Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s coastal forts and castles became integral to heritage, tourism and development strategies. Events included the Pan African Festival of Theatre and Arts (PANAFEST) and Emancipation Day. All were dedicated to the promotion of Pan-Africanism and attracted African diasporans, notably African Americans.

As part of the nation’s 50th independence in 2007, President John Kufour partnered with the Discovery Channel and launched “Ghana – The Presidential Tour”. He introduced “The Joseph Project” that targeted middle-class, Christian African-Americans.

The forts and castles remained center stage. Additional plans included the development of commemoration gardens, DNA projects, and sponsored tours. It also involved developing an interfaith center at Assin Manso, where captive Africans had their last bath before being transported onto the slave ships.

President John Atta Mills continued with heritage tourism as a means of development. In 2009, the most high-profile African diasporan tourist and pilgrim, US President Barack Obama, visited Cape Coast Castle.

In 2015, President John Mahama sought assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the forts and castles, and further development of heritage tourism.

Over the years, successive governments have also offered opportunities such as granting citizenship, dual nationality status, tax exemptions, and land grants to diasporans to encourage returnees.

Commercializing homecoming

Since Alex Haley’s 1980s popular novel and television series, Roots, African diasporans engaging in “heritage tourism”, “roots tourism” or “pilgrimage”, travel to Africa as tourists and pilgrims. This blurs the distinctions between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage.

African diasporans visit the forts and castles as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the transatlantic slave trade. They are the sites where captive Africans forcibly departed the continent to be trafficked through the Middle Passage and enslaved in the New World. Interpretations over the histories told at these sites are frequently contested.

Diasporans also visit other sites such as Manyhia Palace in Asante that represent the glorification of an African regal past.

In 2018, Ghana secured $40 million from the World Bank to develop heritage tourism. It is hoped this will stimulate economic development.

Yet, ongoing debates view heritage, tourism, and development in various ways. Some view it as exploitative and destructive, replicating and perpetuating colonial forms of domination and structural underdevelopment. Others view it positively. A few remain ambivalent.

An act of reclamation

The Year of Return 2019 remains deeply embedded within a capitalist culture that engages with a complex set of practices, discourses, and meanings.

Commercialization of the “return” requires the saleability of the history of the transatlantic slave trade for African diasporan consumption.

Herein lies a painful irony: the commodification of heritage directed at African diasporans is based on a system that was once the commodification of people, through the transatlantic slave trade.

Descendants of the enslaved of the past are the heritage tourists and/or pilgrims in the present.

Still, constructions of Africa have always been central to African diasporic imaginaries. White’s comments resonate for many African diasporans. For many diasporans, the “return” symbolises an act of heritage reclamation. Africa is viewed as the motherland. It is considered a source of black resistance, pride and dignity.

For Africans and African diasporans such as White, knowing heritage pasts are important. But it remains to be seen how this will translate into critical and sustained engagement to realise the potentials for transforming heritage futures.The Conversation

Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann, Assistant Professor, African Studies, Archaeology, Anthropology and Critical Heritage, Hampshire College

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Hope springs from need: In Africa, wisdom from a street vendor

Hope springs from need: In Africa, wisdom from a street vendor

Street cobbler. Sam ‘Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria., CC BY

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”

Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.

Measuring happiness

Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?

Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?

Chigozie Obioma. Grasset

Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.

How we face adversity

Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:

“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”

He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.

He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:

“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.

Hope against hope

Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.

Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.

Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.

Hopeful on the streets of Lagos: tomorrow’s promise captured on a billboard.Courtesy Chigozie Obioma

Understanding the human experience

In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.

Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.

Dried fish seller. Sam ‘Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria

Perhaps this may explain the contemporary renaissance of human flourishing as a discipline. Today we have Happiness Studies, subjective well-being studies, the World Wellbeing Project, and research by the Happiness Institute. The more wealth and technology we have, the more digital platforms we seem to be creating to better enhance and understand the human experience. The more we log on, however, the less happy we are. A variety of studies, some quite recent, suggest that social media usage has an adverse effect on happiness.

So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.The Conversation

Michelle Mielly, Associate Professor in People, Organizations, Society, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) and Prince C. Oguguo, Doctoral Researcher, Strategy, Collective Action & Technology, Grenoble École de Management (GEM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.