Oct 20 2012

Blacks in North Africa: El Hamel’s new book on race and identity in Morocco

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:22 PM

African studies has long suffered from a divide between north and south of the Sahara. Scholars of the sub-Saharan strained to buold bridges with the studies of North Africa, which from Braudel to the present has been integrated neatly (and not illogically) into the Mediterranean world. Pan Africanists of course emphasize the unity of Africa and recent single-volume histories of the entire continental land mass earnestly attempt to identify robust multi-directional links between North and South.

One challenge for both approaches to understanding Africa is race. The sub-Saharan and “black Africa” are largely viewed as coincident. North Africa, by contrast, is chiefly viewed as part of the “Arab world,” whatever that means (and if it means anything, it means something different to different thinkers). One meaning of course is to read Arab as synonymous with Islam, and yet the meaning of Islam in the North is often quite different than in the sub-Saharan.

The thicket of issues grows even denser when the subject of race within the African continent is broached. Here the divide between North and South appears, on the surface at least, quite real and impenetrable. North Africans often present their region as so hybridized that race is irrevelant. And yet the status (or lack of it) of actual black people in, say, Egypt or Morocco, suggests that North Africa isn’t race neutral but rather decidedly ambivalent about the embrace of racial diversity.

Simplistic notions about race and North Africa are coming under growing scholarly scrutiny, part of an important effort to document and analyse the scale and scope of black slavery in the North and to assess and comprehend the degree of prejudice and marginalization that blacks experience in the North to this very day.  One benefit is a rising appreciation of the role of Africans from the sub-Saharan in North Africa and in the image and understanding of “blackness” in societies north of the Sahara. One of the most significant figures in this scholarly re-assessment of race in North Africa is Chouki El Hamel, a colleague of mine at Arizona State University and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Gnawa people of Morocco.

The Gnawa are best known in popular culture, as El Hamel writes in his forthcomng book, entitled Black Morocco, as “a spiritual order of a traditional black Muslim people who are descendants of enslaved sub-Saharan West Africans.” Embraced by the jazz musicians Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders, the Gnawa have become well known to fans of world music. But their social and historical significance, both for Morocco and black Africa, are virtually unknown. In the hands of El Hamel — a beautiful writer as well as a Moroccan challenging his own country’s norms — the Gnawa are a gateway into a neglected, even hidden, aspect of the African diaspora that El Hamel elegantly and bravely seeks to expose to the light of reason.

El Hamel persuasively argues, drawing on a mountain of original evidence, that Moroccans ought to answer to their own history of domination of sub-Saharans, who sometimes were brought to the North as slaves. “This denial and refusal to admit to the injustices of slavery and its legacy,” he writes, “produces the unfortunate effect of seemingly eradicating the historical truths surrounding race and slavery and does an injustice to those who were enslaved.”

El Hamel does more than reclaim the lost voices of the Gnawa and the discarded history of multi-racial Morocco. He also reinforces an important truth about the African diaspora: there is more to the story than the New World of the Americas. El Hamel highights “a less researched but no less important aspect of the global African diaspora,” the movement of peoples “internal to Africa.”

By examining “the forgotten role of Blacks in Morocco,” El Hamel provides important new evidence for the complexity of the Pan-African dream — at once underscoring the contested nature of the claim that geographic and cultural unity ought to be coincident — while at the same time demonstrating that the two-way traffic between north and south of the Sahara deserves greater understanding.


Oct 11 2012

Chimpanzee politics gets personal

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:08 PM

This is the story of the plight of chimpanzees in West Africa – not the only story by any means, but the only one I know first hand — about an orphaned chimpanzee, once cared for (as a baby) by my wife, and who is now an adult living in a zoo in Ghana.

This chimpanzee, who goes by the name of Jimmy, was cared for by my wife Chizo when he was an infant in Accra. Their relationship and the plight of chimpanzees generally in Africa occurred against the backdrop of competition between Great Apes and humans for resources. Though they are our nearest genetic relatives, chimpanzees are threatened by increased logging and hunting. Logging destroys chimpanzee habitats and hunting destroys chimpanzees themselves. The latter is intensifying as middle-class Africans, living in cities and earning decent incomes, gain the capacity to afford what they call “bush meat” and which sometimes includes the flesh of chimpanzees.

Jimmy is now an adult of about 12 years old, and lives with his own female companion, Izma, in the Kumasi Zoo. In June, Chizo and I visited Jimmy and Izma, traveling from the U.S. where we now live (Chizo grew up in Nigeria and we met while we both lived in Ghana). In advance of our visit this summer to the Kumasi Zoo, we did not even know if Jimmy was dead or alive, since zoo officials do not communicate regularly with us. We were delighted to discover, within minutes of our arrival inside the zoo, that Jimmy distinctly remembered us and that also he had fathered a child while in captivity. In early 2011, Izma, his female companion, gave birth to a boy, Samson, who we found in reasonably good health, though somewhat under-weight for his age.

That Jimmy can experience of fatherhood in the safety of a zoo cage of course is a bittersweet achievement.  The plight of Africa’s chimpanzees remains a source of anguish for Chizo and I. Jimmy, Chizo’s beloved orphaned chimpanzee, is still in captivity after all. He remains subject, at times, to cruel and stupid taunts from visitors. His diet is inadequate because of limitations on the zoo’s budget. Jimmy’s enclosure is too small and Samson has no toys to play with. The floor of their enclosure is, sadly, concrete. As the photo of this family shows, they are separated from their freedom by iron bars.

The last time we visited Jimmy, back in 2008, Chizo first let Jimmy “groom” her arms and then her forehead. Then she and Jimmy embraced through the iron bars. As Jimmy curled his arm around Chizo’s neck, I held my breath. When he realized her, I privately celebrated her escape. Before we left the zoo, I asked the zoo director if Jimmy would ever be freed. “He is too popular,” the zoo director said. Besides, the director wanted Jimmy to sire a child.

Now that he has done so, the Kumasi Zoo seems even less likely to release Jimmy into a chimpanzee sanctuary, of which there are many in West Africa. In addition to the Ghana government, which oversees the zoo, insisting that Jimmy is the property of the Ghanaian people, there is the added factor that Jimmy is now too old to easily adapt to the company of other chimpanzees and the routines of a jungle sanctuary.

None of the stubborn facts of Jimmy’s life story free me from my sense of grief over his incarceration. Of all the things I have not done in Africa, failing to free Jimmy is what I most regret. Knowing that he shares his existence with a boy-child eases my sense of regret but does not extinguish it.