Nigerian Women’s interfaith network builds bridges

Nigerian Women’s interfaith network builds bridges

One of the participants receives her certificate after the two-week empowerment program. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)

When Fatima Isiaka, a religious Muslim teacher, asked the cab driver to drop her off at St. Kizito Catholic Church in Abuja, the driver thought she was lost. “The cab man that took me to the church, a Muslim, was surprised to see me enter a church,” Isiaka recalled of the summer 2014 meeting. “He told me, ‘This is a church!’ I said, ‘Yes, I know.’ ”

Isiaka was part of innovative effort to bring Christian and Muslim women together in hopes of fostering religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. The Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network was first started in 2011 by Sr. Agatha Ogochukwu Chikelue, of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy congregation, and local Muslim businesswoman Maryam Dada Ibrahim.

Isiaka, an observant Muslim who wears a grey jilbab, a long head covering and robe, the traditional dress of some Nigerian Muslim women, is a respected Muslim leader in Abuja. Today, she serves as deputy director in the network’s Abuja branch.

She looks back fondly on her time at the St. Kizito Catholic Church. “It was an amazing experience and I loved every bit of my stay there,” said Isiaka. “In fact, I found a place in the church where I performed ablution [ritual washing before Muslims prayer], to set up my mat and pray.”

Since the group started in 2011, the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network’s activities have reached more than 10,000 Muslim and Christian women across the country through seminars, meditations, presentations by religious leaders, and dialogue.

The peacebuilding network also offers vocational training in catering, bead making, fashion design, and soap production to a smaller group of women who participate in the annual 21-day seminar. “The empowerment [training] serves as bait to lure more women to the network so that they’ll learn peaceful coexistence,” said Isiaka. The Swiss Embassy provided seed money to get the vocational training started in 2014. Cardinal John Onaiyekan’s Foundation For Peace (COFP), an organization working for peace in northern Nigeria, has sponsored the vocational training in subsequent years.

Sr. Agatha Chikelue started thinking about how to build bridges between Christians and Muslims in 2008, as northern Nigeria disintegrated into violence. Nigeria’s population is evenly divided with 48 percent Muslims and 49 percent Christians. Northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, while southern Nigeria is majority Christian. Ensuring equal Christian and Muslim political representation at local, state, and national levels is an especially sensitive subject.

Since 2009, Boko Haram, a group of extremist Muslims whose name means “Western education is forbidden” has terrorized northeast Nigeria. The terror group murdered Christians and burned churches, hoping to clear the area of Christian influences and create an Islamic caliphate to rule under Sharia law.

Hajya Fatima Isiaka, left, is co-deputy director of the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network in Abuja, Nigeria; right: Ekene Ofodili is a Catholic laywoman who oversees the six chapters in Abuja alongside Isiaka. (Festus Iyorah)

Later, Boko Haram began carrying out attacks in other parts of Nigeria and targeting moderate Muslims as well. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 female students in Chibok, Nigeria, prompting the international social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

Chikelue knew that religious leaders would need to step up. “We don’t want to use our religion as barrier, rather we want to use it as stepping stone towards achieving common good,” she said. “The essence of an interfaith group is to break barriers, break the walls and build bridges.”

In Nigeria, some religious clerics forbid their members from even visiting a house of worship from the other religion. But Chikelue dismissed those notions, using the respect afforded to her as a Catholic sister to visit mosques and set up meetings with more moderate Islamic clerics to propose an interfaith network.

But Chikelue knew she couldn’t do it alone.

A parishioner recommended Chikelue contact Ibrahim, a respected leader in the Muslim community. Chikelue visited Ibrahim’s office, and within a few months the two started planning the first meeting between Christian and Muslim women in Abuja. As the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, a growing city with a population of 2.5 million, is more diverse and integrated than other parts of the country. The city is about 40 percent Christian, and the Christian population is growing quickly.

Chikelue and Ibrahim recruited Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, and Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, the sultan of Sokoto and president-general of the National Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to act as patrons of the organization.

“Getting the Muslim women was not as difficult as getting the Christian women,” Chikelue recalled. “We started during the early days of the insurgency [with Boko Haram in northern Nigeria]. The insurgents started with bombing churches and killing Christians before they started killing Muslims too. A lot of Christians were holding grudges against Muslims at the time. Anytime we planned a meeting with Muslims, the Christian women would withdraw. They’d say ‘All Muslims are Boko Haram.’ ”

It took time, patience, and weekly meetings after Sunday Mass to convince the first group of Christian women to sit down with Muslim women.

Women attend an empowerment program that was sponsored by Cardinal John Onaiyekan foundation for peace in 2017. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)

“That first meeting in 2011 was one of the best meetings we’ve had,” said Chikelue. “The Christian women changed their perceptions about Muslims even after just one dialogue together. Everybody went home happy.”

The women’s meetings include presentations by clerics and priests, explaining basic tenets of each religion or challenging the view of religious extremists who say that Muslims and Christians should not interact with each other. Sometimes they discuss parts of their religions that overlap; for example, when Abraham plans to sacrifice Isaac, and how both religions interpret the story.

“Peace can be achieved through dialogue,” Chikelue said. “When Muslims and Christians sit together to explain how both religions operate it will aid understanding and put out any form of ignorance, stigma or hate that both parties have against one another.”

The women also visit each other for holidays. In 2017, a group of Christian women prepared the evening meal at the mosque to break the fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Muslim women have joined for special church programs, especially the annual end-of-the-year interfaith party organized by Onaiyekan.

The decision to create a women’s peace network was made after careful deliberation about which group would be most effective for fostering peace. Women have a unique a way of addressing conflicts, Chikelue explained. “In the family, women manage the home and are closer to their children, making it easy for them to preach peace,” she said. It can also be empowering for women, who are often marginalized, to suddenly have a leadership role in creating a more tolerant community. “We also want women to be aware of their role in peace building,” Chikelue added.

In 2014, with a special grant from the Swiss embassy, Chikelue began offering vocational training for the women as an added incentive. In a region where the female adult literacy rate is 41 percent, women welcome free empowerment training on sewing, soap making and catering. Basic communication skills, personal hygiene and training on financial literacy and how to start small businesses are also part of the free empowerment program. The training programs also help the women meet people from other religions, getting to know the “other” as well as combating poverty and gender-based violence.

“When there’s peace at home, we can achieve peace in the society. That is why we empower women in order to stop gender-based violence between women and their husbands,” Chikelue said.

The women who participate in the peacebuilding network are expected to pass on the information to the children in their communities by making presentations in their elementary and secondary schools about religious tolerance and talking about their experiences working with women from other religions.

Sr. Agatha Chikelue, left, presents catering equipment to women as part of the women of faith Network empowerment program in Abuja (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)

Participants of a Women of Faith Network empowerment program organized in 2017 learned catering and were given catering equipment afterward to try their businesses. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)

“There is also violence that doesn’t carry a gun,” explained Chikelue. “There are situations whereby parents don’t allow their children to have interaction with children of a different religion, or when they instigate them to go for war against a different religion.”

The network has made it easier to gather Christians and Muslims to speak on certain issues with one voice, Chikelue told GSR. For instance, in 2015, the network protested against a bill proposed to ease restrictions on obtaining an abortion. Armed with banners scrawled with messages against the bill, both Muslim and Christian women marched under the scorching sun to Nigeria’s parliament. The bill was later dropped.

Isiaka, the Muslim teacher whose cab driver thought she was lost, oversees the six chapters in Abuja with Ekene Ofodili, a Catholic laywoman.

Ofodili was one of the people who believed that all Muslims were Boko Haram, and at first, she resisted any interaction with Muslim women. But after Chikelue’s encouragement in 2011, Ofodili started seeking out Muslim women to hear their stories.

In 2012, Ofodili was invited to Turkey as a guest of a Turkish government-sponsored peacebuilding tour. The program invited Christians and Muslims women working to fight religious violence in Africa, the United States, Asia and Europe to discuss peace, harmony and religious tolerance. Additionally, the Turkish government wanted to highlight its own peacebuilding efforts by visiting areas where minority Christians lived with Muslims in harmony. In Turkey, Ofodili mingled with Muslim participants and entered a mosque for the first time.

“It changed my mentality about Muslims, and that’s why I can move with them,” Ofodili said of her time in Turkey. “Often times, many of the Catholic women shy away [from meeting with Muslims], but I tell them never to use one person’s actions [like the Boko Haram insurgents] to generalize an entire religion.”

Ofodili owns an English version of the Quran, a gift she got in one of her visits to the Muslim community in Abuja, which she reads in her free time.

“I discovered that the Muslims also recognize the Blessed Mother Mary,” said Ofodili. “That was when I had a total change of mind about them. I am a Legionary [a member of the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organization focused on Mary and charitable work], and anyone who says something good about our Mother is endeared to me,” she said.

The women celebrate after receiving catering equipment from the network. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)

In the Quran, an entire chapter (called Surah 19/Surah Maryam) is dedicated to Mary’s genealogy, childhood and her role as the mother of Jesus.

Isiaka, Ofodili’s co-deputy director in Abuja, said she did not face any opposition from her Muslim community regarding her interfaith work.

“We have been able to understand each other better and have also passed the message of religious tolerance to our children,” she said. While the group has worked hard to break down barriers and build friendships, she knows there is still much work to do. Still, Isiaka is optimistic.

“If we groom our children this way, I think in the next few years, we’ll have the peace we are all craving,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the Global Sister’s Report

Festus Iyorah is a Nigerian freelance journalist and photographer based in Lagos. He reports on global health, social innovation, gender equality, technology, development, conflicts and religion. He has been published in Al Jazeera, The Catholic Herald, The Guardian, National Catholic Reporter and World Politics Review.

Quality research in Africa matters more than ever – for the whole world

Quality research in Africa matters more than ever – for the whole world

We are at a unique moment in history. Two particular, ongoing events stand out. COVID-19 is one. The other is a long-overdue recognition of inequities among people in the US and worldwide, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement. These issues provide a useful, timely lens through which to consider the role and value of African research.

There are many levels on which the future of the world, not just Africa’s, rests on African research. First, Africa represents the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. This makes intellectual investment an imperative, to harness talent that is a significant and growing share of the global population.

Second, Africans represent the oldest and most diverse genome in the world. Human genetics research has the potential to reveal some of the small differences in our genes that are influential in determining what makes Africa more susceptible or resistant to certain diseases. The findings can influence disease outcomes and response to treatment.

Such studies are critical not just to improve the health of Africans themselves, but also to shed light on diseases that affect people of African origin who reside all over the world.

Scientists around Africa are working at the cutting edge of research and their work is relevant beyond the continent.

Third, Africa carries about 25% of the global disease burden. This is rapidly shifting from communicable to noncommunicable causes. Of course, it’s good news that part of this equation reflects a decline in death and illness from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases.

But it is also a sad story of the rapid increase in incidence in the noncommunicable diseases that have for a long time dominated in the global North. Heart and other vascular diseases, cancer and diabetes in African countries are often driven by the same excesses that exist in societies that have been prosperous for longer: obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise. By investing in African science to address African diseases, we invest in the parallel prevention and treatment of the same diseases everywhere in the world.

Fourth, scientific research is a vital driver of economies. Currently, the African continent’s scientific output represents less than 2.6% of the world’s share, according to UNESCO. Without major investments in scientific research, particularly the kind of basic research that is often not considered cost-effective for private enterprises, African economies will be at a perpetual economic disadvantage.

All of this raises the question: is there world-class research in Africa? Yes, there is. Thanks to major investment in science infrastructure, human resource training and education, the continent is well placed to lead from the front.

World-class research

This investment has not happened by accident. It’s been driven by deliberate programs and advocacy, much of it through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.

We and our colleagues at the African Academy of Sciences created the Alliance in 2015 through a partnership with the African Union Development Agency, founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. The Academy’s research and training programs operate under the Alliance. Its mission is to shift the centre of gravity for African science to Africa through setting agendas, mobilizing research and development funding, and managing science programs.

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa has funded 186 grantees directly. Some of them in turn offer master’s, PhD and postdoctoral fellowships. This has led to a scientific community numbering over 2,000 scientists in about 40 countries.

Among our premier programs are DELTAS Africa and Grand Challenges Africa. They tackle major infectious diseases, neglected tropical diseases and other health challenges.

These and other programs are bearing fruit. Research emerging from the Alliance includes point-of-care diagnostics; the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and identifying novel genes to detect hearing impairment early.

All of this research can be applied in African countries and beyond. And more of it can be produced if the global scientific community, governments, funders and others come together to tackle the hurdles that African researchers still face.


These challenges include:

  • Inequities within and among populations and between genders. These result in much potential talent being lost to science in general.
  • Exploitation by commercial enterprises that regard the African continent as a source of large populations for clinical trials.
  • Funding. Until more African science is predominantly performed in Africa, by Africans, and for Africans, the full potential of this work will never be realized.

The nations of the African Union have all pledged to dedicate 1% of their respective GDPs to research and development but spend an average of 0.45%. These nations are grappling with many competing needs.

Basic research is almost never attractive to commercial funders, and African governments often do not have the resources to fill this void. Or they are not in office long enough.

Western funders tend to focus on health and medical research. This is worthy. But it leaves the physical, mathematical, and chemical sciences as underfunded orphans. Big innovations are built on the foundation of basic discovery. African scientists must enjoy the opportunity to contribute to that foundation alongside their peers in countries where public investment in basic science has been provided for decades.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in ACS Omega, available here.The Conversation

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

Lied to and abused, trafficked persons from Zimbabwe find some healing

Lied to and abused, trafficked persons from Zimbabwe find some healing

Religious sisters attend the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Center: Sr. Theresa Nyadombo of the Handmaids of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, education secretary for the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said a collaborative effort is needed to raise human trafficking awareness. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

This article originally appeared on The Global Sisters Report

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Jane sat on a hard, wooden chair at a church in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, and stared into space for some minutes. Then, she began to croon in worship and, a few minutes later, the gates of her heart burst open, and she began to pour out her heart to her Lord, tears flowing freely like a fountain.

“Father, I forgive my abusers and the people who caused me pain,” prayed the 37-year-old mother of two, who asked that Global Sisters Report not use her real name. “They treated me like an animal, like I didn’t matter, like I was a dog, worse than a dog. God, please heal my pain and heal my broken heart.”

Jane’s journey of pain began in 2016, when she was enticed by a trafficking agent in Harare with promises of a salary of $1,400 per month at a hotel in Kuwait, more than 3,000 miles away. Life had become unbearable in Zimbabwe after her husband lost his job as a casual laborer in a local milk factory and they were evicted from their house for nonpayment of rent.

“Life was very difficult and we barely had something to eat, and if we ate, it was one meal per day,” she said.

It was at this difficult time that she met her trafficker, who was well acquainted with her mother. Everything was planned quickly, and within one week, all her travel documents were ready, including her passport. She was given a new Islamic name: Amina Ishmael.

Religious sisters display cloth promoting work against human trafficking at the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. The conference was organized by the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching and brought together various activists in the area of human trafficking. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

Upon reaching Kuwait, she was picked up from the airport by a man who would be her boss. It was at his house that Jane realized she had been lied to and trafficked. Her host took away her travel documents and forcefully performed a medical procedure to check her overall health.

“I was raped every day, and I was helpless to do anything about it,” she said, weeping throughout the interview with GSR but insisting she wanted to tell her story. “I was forced to work day and night, beaten, restricted to go anywhere, threatened of arrest and deportation and unlawful withholding of my passport. I wasn’t even paid for the five months I worked at the home.”

When things became intolerable, she fled the home and took refuge in the Zimbabwe consulate. Jane was deported after a week, and upon arrival back in Zimbabwe, she was introduced to the religious sisters who run the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST), an association of justice and peace practitioners throughout Africa, and who chaired the Counseling Services Unit, a group of doctors and counselors who assist the victims of human trafficking in Zimbabwe.

“As AFCAST, we deal with social problems that affect the people,” said Sr. Janice McLaughlin of the Maryknoll Sisters, who is one of the forum’s founders. “We focus our attention mainly on human trafficking and abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We always do our research and then we try to reach out to those affected or those we feel need help. All this is done by following Catholic social teaching and mission.”

Maryknoll Sr. Janice McLaughlin, one of the founders of the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching, leads dozens of sisters in denouncing trafficking during the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

‘There are no jobs here’

Jane is among the 40.3 million people who have been trafficked globally, including 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage, according to 2016 estimates by the International Labor Organization, the most recent available data.

Human trafficking in Africa is an urgent crisis, and women and children are especially at risk. People can be trafficked within their own countries, to neighboring countries and to other continents for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, domestic slavery and various forms of forced labor, according to the latest report by the United Nations.

Zimbabwe does not meet the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so, according to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department. The report also notes that the southern African nation has been mapped as a source, destination and transit point for trafficking. In most of these cases, victims are vulnerable children and young adults.

In 2014, the Zimbabwe Parliament passed the Trafficking in Persons Act to identify those who have been trafficked, mitigate the illicit practice and prosecute trafficking offenders. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that the government launched the Trafficking in Persons National Plan of Action to enforce the law.

Since then, Zimbabwe’s government has made some headway in its efforts to end human trafficking. It investigated 72 potential cases of trafficking and prosecuted 42 cases in 2016, compared to none in the previous year. The government reported prosecuting 14 trafficking cases in 2017.

However, women and girls from Zimbabwean towns bordering South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia are still trafficked and subjected to forced labor and prostitution. In rural areas, men, women and children are also trafficked internally to farms for agricultural labor and to cities for forced domestic labor and commercial sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. State Department.

Along Robert Mugabe Road in Harare earlier this year, hundreds of young female travelers stood in queue, holding luggage and waiting for their turn to enter into a bus. The driver of the Citiliner bus, a South African coach company offering services from Harare to Johannesburg, told GSR that many of them were heading to neighboring South Africa to look for greener pastures.

One of them, a young blond woman in a navy dress, told GSR she felt there was no future for her in her home of Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe, and she was seeking opportunities in South Africa to help educate her siblings. She said her friend living in the United States had put her into contact with a woman in Johannesburg who promised to use her connections to find her a well-paying job as a maid.

She blamed poverty and lack of jobs in the country as a reason of migration. The World Bank estimates that extreme poverty in Zimbabwe has risen over the past few years, from 33.4% of the population in 2017 to 40% in 2019. The bank predicts levels will continue to rise in 2020, to between 6.6 million and 7.6 million people. That is about half of the people in this country, who are living on less than $1.90 per day.

“I have no choice but to go and try my luck,” the woman said on condition of anonymity, noting that she doesn’t even have regular migration documents. “I’m told that one needs to have at least $30 to bribe border officials, then they will let you in. There are no jobs here, so I have to try elsewhere to earn a living and help my family.”

High school students attend the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Public education and awareness campaigns were launched to help especially children, since they are the most vulnerable. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

How the sisters and AFCAST help

On the streets of Harare, people jostle for space to get a glimpse of some notice boards advertising jobs and vacancies in the Middle East, North Africa and in Italy, Spain and other European countries. The vacancies on the glass-sealed notice boards are for recruitment agents looking for saleswomen, housekeepers, hotel attendants, drivers, waitresses and chefs.

Such practices that lead to trafficking have prompted religious sisters in the country and elsewhere to stand up against it. They have been organizing workshops every month in schools and churches to create awareness and assist women and girls affected by trafficking.

McLaughlin said the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching assists women and girls affected by human trafficking with counseling, reuniting them with their families and even helping them start self-help projects.

“I was really moved by the plight of young women and girls trafficked to Kuwait and other Gulf states when I met some of them through the migration office,” she said. “They are abused in foreign countries after being promised lucrative job offers. But it has been really rewarding to see some of them heal from trauma.”

While addressing a regional conference on human trafficking March 18 at the Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, McLaughlin denounced human trafficking as dehumanizing.

“Human trafficking is destroying the lives of many people, especially young people and young women. Therefore, there is need for a collective effort to fight the vice,” she said.

The conference, which was organized by the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching in partnership with the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, brought together various organizations involved in fighting human trafficking: the governments of Zimbabwe and the United States; survivors of trafficking; faith leaders, including Muslims; and members of civil society.

Sr. Mercy Shumbamhini of the Mary Ward Congregation of Jesus in Zimbabwe holds a Talitha Kum banner during the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Talitha Kum is a Rome-based organization of Catholic women religious established by the International Union of Superiors General in 2009 to end human trafficking. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

“It is the responsibility of each one of us to fight human trafficking,” said Maria Phiri, a detective representing the Zimbabwe Republic Police. “I would like therefore to encourage everyone to collaborate in this fight by detecting any suspicious activities and also report cases of human trafficking to the authorities.”

Human trafficking has disturbing and long-lasting effects on mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and shame.

Sr. Elizabeth Boroma, a psychologist, has been counseling women and girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labor. Boroma told GSR she has helped hundreds of women to come to terms with their pasts and to face their futures with confidence and dignity.

“Most of them are always hesitant at first to talk about their experiences, but with time, they open up and release it,” said Boroma of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. “Some usually cry throughout the entire counseling session, and I let them do it because it’s their way of healing.”

Sarah is one the beneficiaries of Boroma’s counseling service. She recounts heartbreaking tales of desperation, rape, hunger, life on the streets and the suffering she endured in the hope of a better life four years ago in Saudi Arabia, where she thought opportunities were better.

“I wanted take away my life because of the bad experience I went through while in Saudi Arabia,” said the 28-year-old mother of one, who asked GSR not to use her real name. “I went through therapy with the help of the nun, and it helped me move on quickly. I’m now happily married and doing a grocery delivery business.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has changed the nature of the sisters’ anti-trafficking work. Victims of human trafficking say they are not getting the personalized, face-to-face counseling and interaction they previously enjoyed with the sisters. They are also dealing with the loss of their livelihoods.

The sisters have adopted new ways of providing the needed follow-up counseling by communicating with the young women via WhatsApp, email, texting and phone calls.

Jane is still suffering from the sexual assault she went through while in Kuwait and hopes to attend several months of therapy to help her heal and move on.

“I want to move on, but it’s hard to forget what the man did to me,” she said. “He treated me like an animal, but I leave everything to God.”

GSR video by Doreen Ajiambo (YouTube/NCRonline)

[Doreen Ajiambo is the Africa/Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow her on Twitter: @DoreenAjiambo.]

The historic selection of Kamala Harris as the Democrats’ VP candidate resonates in the Caribbean

The historic selection of Kamala Harris as the Democrats’ VP candidate resonates in the Caribbean

.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

This article originally appeared on

The August 11 announcement that Joe Biden, the Democratic party’s candidate for the presidency of the United States, had chosen Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, has sent waves of celebration throughout the Caribbean.

Harris’ father, an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, was born in Jamaica when it was still under British rule — and although she identifies as American, Caribbean netizens still claim her as a descendant of the region. So, too, do Caribbean people of Indian descent, as Harris’ mother, a breast cancer scientist, was born in Madras, India.

From Trinidad and Tobago, writer Ira Mathur, herself of Indian descent, felt that the choice allowed “so many of us [to] see ourselves represented.” She wrote on Facebook:

From Madras and Jamaica with love to America […] from the West Indies to South Asia we couldn’t feel prouder or have more hope for a Trump shattered America.

In a piece for CNN, writer Fredreka Schouten contemplated what the move meant for “islanders” like herself:

I, too, am from the Caribbean […] but descended from people who came from all over what the late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite once called ‘a whole underground continent of thought and feeling and history.’

We carry the archipelago within us, looking and listening, always, for bits of what we left behind […] the habit — a preoccupation, really — with detecting the Caribbean heritage in the people around us.

To the nation, Shirley Chisholm represents the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to pursue a major-party nomination for the presidency. To me, she’s also the daughter of a seamstress from Barbados and a factory worker who came from Guyana. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as Secretary of State? His parents hailed from Jamaica. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Barbados roots. […]

Harris, who made a run last year for the Democratic nomination, has navigated public life as a Black woman in America.

That’s not to say she doesn’t embrace all of who she is.

Whether or not the Democrats emerge triumphant come November, Harris has already made history by becoming the first Black and South Asian American woman candidate for a well established political party.

Many social media users suspected Harris would be Biden’s vice-presidential pick, and although most were pleased with the choice, they also understood that it wasn’t a straightforward one.

Renee Cummings, a Trinidad-born criminologist and artificial intelligence (AI) strategist who lives in New York, noted:

She has the experience and she has the look and she has the energy that [Biden] doesn’t have but she also has a lot of baggage when it comes to black and brown men and the criminal justice system. But they must have worked out their strategy and messaging moving forward. She also represents ‘law and order’ and someone who was ‘tough on crime’ and ‘incarcerated a lot of black and brown men’ and they may be seeing that as a good counterbalance for the Trump campaign. She probably polled well among non people of color. She also has a white husband. So the aesthetic works politically. She’s also a very intelligent woman, articulate, and very savvy and will make a good VP. But she’s also half Jamaican so a big moment for Caribbean people in America.

She summarised her thoughts by saying Harris is “great for diversity,” adding:

She is also the daughter of immigrants and represents the promise of America pre-Trump’s attack on immigration. She ticks a lot of boxes.

Trinidadian Twitter user Caroline Neisha agreed:

Jamaican social media users also found Harris to be a unifying force, and a firm vote of confidence came from Wayne A. I. Frederick, the Trinidad-born president of Howard University, Harris’ alma mater. Posting a photograph of himself and Harris at a graduation ceremony, Frederick said on Facebook:

Today is an extraordinary moment in the history of America and of Howard University. Senator Kamala Harris’ selection as the Democratic vice presidential candidate represents a milestone opportunity for our democracy to acknowledge the leadership Black women have always exhibited, but has too often been ignored. […] As Senator Harris embarks upon this new chapter in her life, and in our country’s history, she is poised to break two glass ceilings in our society with one fell swoop of her Howard hammer!

Harris’ unique experience as a multiethnic child of immigrant parents who were very involved in the activist movements of the 1960s — she was part of the second class of students to be desegregated through busing — undoubtedly helped shape her identity and worldview. In her announcement post on Facebook, she said:

My mom and dad, like so many other immigrants, came to this country for an education. My mother from India and my dad from Jamaica. And the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought them together. Some of my earliest memories are from that time: My parents being attacked by police with hoses, fleeing for safety, with me strapped tightly in my stroller.

That spirit of activism is why my mother, Shyamala, would always tell my sister and me, ‘Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.’

That’s why I became a District Attorney and fought to fix a broken system from within. Why I served as California’s Attorney General. Why I’m proud to represent my state as a U.S. Senator. And it’s why, today, I’m humbled to be joining Joe Biden in the battle to defeat Donald Trump and build a country that lives up to our values of truth, equality, and justice.

Not everyone bought into her explanation. One Twitter user suggested that Harris once used her Jamaican heritage “to uphold an anti-Jamaican stereotype for unaccumulated relatability a broader white audience”. He is referring to a radio interview in which Harris joked about smoking marijuana, after which her father publicly distanced himself from her statement.

Harris’ record of incarcerating high numbers of people of colour is also proving problematic for some, and while there have been opinion pieces that declare the Biden/Harris combo as “disastrous,” some have also deemed it “wise.”

Former Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson, a classmate of Harris’ father, noted the ways in which she has grown:

She has been incisive, she goes to the heart of the issue that has to be resolved, particularly at this time when the US itself is going through severe challenges — including, but not confined to, matters pertaining to race. It is good to have someone on the ticket who can look at that and who has ethnic origins.

As the writer Schouten attested:

Who knows what will happen in the months ahead. But for the islanders keeping score — always reconstructing that continent of islands, if only in our minds — Harris will remain the first daughter of the West Indies on a major-party presidential ticket.

Compendium of New Research Celebrates African Solutions to National and Global Problems

Compendium of New Research Celebrates African Solutions to National and Global Problems

Supporters of outgoing Senegalese President Macky Sall cheer during a rally ahead of presidential elections in 2019.
Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images

Africa Day celebrates the foundation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963. It’s all about recognizing, as the First Congress of Independent African States held in 1958 in Ghana put it, “the determination of the people of Africa to free themselves from foreign domination and exploitation”. Indeed, it was previously called African Liberation Day.

The continent is now formally free of colonial rule. Nevertheless, the aim of remembering and furthering the fight for self determination remains relevant as ever. This year has seen Africa – once again – characterized as a set of helpless states that face devastation by the coronavirus pandemic.

Such lifeless and homogenizing depictions fail to recognize the ability of African communities and governments to overcome major health challenges such as Ebola. They also ignore the remarkably varied and dynamic – and in many cases effective – response of different groups and individuals to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola recently put it:

Africa is not waiting to be saved from the coronavirus.

A new major publication – the Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics – contains many important chapters that make the same point on a wide variety of topics. With 122 authors, 109 articles and more than a million words, it is one of the largest volumes on African politics ever published.

Chapter after chapter shows the ability of leaders, intellectuals and activists to find their own solutions to national and global problems.

Recognizing African agency

All too often, the achievements of African countries are overlooked. Conflict and controversy make for more attention-grabbing headlines than peace and democracy. Yet, while the continent features more than its fair share of authoritarian repression, in some respects African countries are leading the way.

As political scientist Mamoudou Gazibo points out, countries like Ghana and Senegal became democracies despite the fact that they faced a particularly challenging context. They lacked the kind of national wealth, strong state and large middle class that many theories suggest are necessary for a smooth transition out of authoritarian rule. Yet they have proved that democracy is feasible in Africa.

Similarly, Liberia and Sierra Leone should also be seen as remarkable – but not, as is usually the case, because they had horrific civil wars. Instead they should be recognized for overcoming extreme and prolonged violence to forge a pathway back to democracy. In addition to maintaining political stability, both countries have experienced peaceful transfers of power via the ballot box.

In all these cases a combination of good leadership, institution building, and the support of ordinary people for democratic values has enabled African states to change their futures for the better.

Yet this story is rarely told.

One reason is that stories like this don’t fit with the popular narrative that democracy is somehow “unAfrican”. In other words, that modern governance was introduced to the continent by the West.

This is not only untrue. It also turns history on its head.

As political scientist Kidane Mengisteab shows in one of the chapters of the book, in many countries “traditional institutions of governance” featured important checks and balances on how power could be exercised. These measures were typically destroyed, eroded, or radically transformed by colonial rule. This paved the way for the emergence of authoritarian regimes after independence.

Similarly, multiparty elections were not reintroduced in Africa in the early 1990s simply because the UK and the US decided this was a good idea. These freedoms and rights were fought for by activists, opposition leaders, trade unionists, religious leaders and ordinary citizens who risked their personal safety to bring down authoritarian governments. Some paid with their lives.

Recognizing African Genius

A major casualty of the tendency to overlook the creativity and contributions of African leaders and intellectuals is the neglect of African political thought. Africa has produced some of the most thoughtful and articulate leaders in the world on how political systems can best be designed. These have included Kwame Nkrumah, Tom Mboya and Leopold Senghor. Yet the continent is often treated as if it is devoid of interesting political ideas and ideologies.

This is one reason why many African intellectuals have been attracted to the idea of the African renaissance. In his chapter Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni describes this as:

a ‘remembering’ of a continent and a people who have suffered from ‘dismembering’ effects of colonialism and ‘coloniality’.

This concept continues to inspire both ideas and action, and fed into the #rhodesmustfall and “decolonize the university” campaigns that began in South Africa and had ripple effects across the world.

Yet despite this, African contributions continue to be downplayed – even within intellectual movements that are supposed to be all about breaking down racist assumptions and hierarchies. Take post-colonial theory, which analyses the enduring legacies of colonialism and disavows Eurocentric master-narratives. It is often said that African intellectuals have played a minor role in developing post-colonial critiques. Yet Grace Adeniyi Ogunyankin, an expert in gender studies and critical race theory identifies

African thinkers and activists who are intellectual antecedents to the post-colonial thought that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

This is often overlooked, she points out, because some – though by no means all – of those working in these frameworks have been “dismissive of African theorizing”.

Recognizing African leadership

The path-breaking leadership shown by many African countries has also been criminally overlooked. When asked to name two of the most advanced and progressive constitutions in the world, how many people would say Kenya and South Africa? Outside of the continent, my guess would be almost no one. Yet as legal and constitutional expert Muno Ndulo argues, the constitutions introduced in these countries over the last years 30 years enshrine democratic norms and values. They also go well beyond their European and North American counterparts by institutionalizing socio-economic rights (South Africa) and the principle of citizen participation in the budget making process (Kenya).

While including a clause in a constitution doesn’t mean that it is automatically respected, historically marginalized groups have mobilized creatively to demand the rights they are supposed to enjoy under the law. African women, for example, are not waiting for others to save them from patriarchy. They are mobilizing across the continent to claim their rights. According to Robtel Pailey, an activist, academic and author,

African women have simultaneously embraced and challenged cultural and socio-economic norms to claim and secure citizenship rights, resources and representation.

Recognizing African diversity

These are, of course, just a small number of the stories that deserve to be told. The encyclopedia includes articles on everything from political parties and elections to the role of China and migration, oil and religion. But despite featuring a chapter on every sub-region, political institution, and major trend, there is still so much more that needs to be said about a continent that is remarkably diverse.

That is one reason why we should celebrate the showcasing of the voices of African journalists and researchers, and share them far and wide.

As Nelson Mandela once said,

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham

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

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.