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Accra...or Brooklyn? The African Diaspora

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Hanging out, selling art with Nilboy
Hanging out, selling art with Nilboy
Say goodbye to sadza and the sweet Zimbabwean smiles; pack our lives into bags that fit on our backs, sit in uncomfortable seats eating bad microwaved food and try to sleep for a few hours....and poof! We're in West Africa!

We landed in Ghana, in a bit of a daze after our sleepless night on the plane, and were surprised to find just how different it is from Zimbabwe. Not only the obvious things--like the side of the road people drive on, or the temperature-- but the people . . . their food, music, and mannerisms are totally different as well.

Hey Mon! A look at Rastafarianism

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A Rasta from northern Ghana and Kavitha
By the 1800's, Africans had been in the Americas for over 200 years, but due to the racist laws and practices of the colonialists, most still did not feel at home in the new land. That was why Marcus Garvey, from Jamaica, supported the "Back to Africa" movement. He and others, like J.J. Roberts, felt that Africans needed to unite and take back their own land. He organized a fleet service (the Black Star steamship line) that would provide a ship for Africans to sail back to Africa. Although his plan never worked, the "Back to Africa" movement gained a large following, and even today his flag of red, green, and black (gold was added later) can be seen flying in places as diverse as Kingston, Jamaica; Brooklyn, New York; Soweto, South Africa; and Accra, Ghana.

After Garvey's failed attempt at returning to Africa, many of his supporters went on to found Rastafarianism. Rastafarianism is a religion based on Afro-Christian traditional ways, as detailed in the Old Testament. It involves changing your diet, speech and making other alterations geared towards leading a more spiritual life. For example, Rastafarians have become known for their long dreadlocks, since one of the alterations they have chosen to make involves not cutting your hair (following Sampson's example in the Old Testament). The religion was named after the prince of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari, who was believed to have embodied the living god. Rastafarianism is now practiced all over the world, but it is especially prevalent in Jamaica...where some of the world's most famous Rastas, like Bob Marley, came from.

There are good pics of Marcus Garvey from a course offering at Michigan State University.

Also, there's a cool pic of Haile Selassie (rasta flag background) at Syracuse University's Rastafari Photo Gallery.

Here we weren't eating sadza na nyama (Zimbabwe's staple) anymore; we were eating peanut soup and okra. We weren't dancing to n'dombolo anymore; we've heard mostly reggae here. Even though we just came from six weeks in Zimbabwe, this new place felt very familiar in a strange way. Abeja used to eat peanut soup while she was in Virginia, and okra is one of my favorite things about southern cooking. I especially like it in Creole food--dishes like gumbo soup from New Orleans. And we've all spent time hanging out listening to Bob Marley and other reggae singers from Jamaica.

It is precisely these connections between West Africa and the Americas that are celebrated every year at Panafest, the Pan-African Historical Theater Festival. Abeja and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at the Panafest celebrations at Cape Coast, where this year's theme was the Reemergence of African Civilization. Our friends Nilboy and Leslie from Accra came with us, so we had an instant 'in' with a bunch of their friends, people who had stands at the festival selling artwork and other African crafts and tee-shirts. Panafest was such an eye-opener for was the first time I realized the depth of the connections between African (especially West African) cultures and African- American cultures. It was so cool seeing Nilboy and his friends jamming to hip-hop from the states, while some African-Americans from New York got djembe (a West African drum) lessons from the Rasta musicians.

The connections between West Africans and African Americans are due to a terribly disgusting history that we've all learned so much about growing up--the slave trade. The African Diaspora in the Americas did not begin until after Columbus's earth-shattering arrival in the New World in 1492. Like the Europeans, the Africans came in millions. Unlike the Europeans, though, they were unwilling immigrants. Most of the slaves brought to the Americas came from West Africa but few, if any, were able to keep in contact with their families. Most don't even know what ethnic group they came from.

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A beautiful work of art - Ghana style!
Despite years of persecution and oppression, the people of African descent were able to hold on to bits and pieces of their culture. Whenever there was an opportunity, songs would be sung together and old stories told. Passing what little they could by word-of-mouth from generation to generation helped preserve some traditions. Blending these traditions with native and European cultures, they ended up creating distinctly new American cultures--African-American cultures. In the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil, people of African descent found themselves in new lands controlled by cultures that did not include them, so they created their own: with new religions, new family structures, new foods and new music and dance.

The Panafest was a celebration of the entire African Diaspora. Significant figures in the history of the African struggle were honored. While people like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's first leader) were fighting for independence from colonial rule in West Africa, people of African descent in the Americas were struggling with new forms of oppression and inequality. Even though slavery had been abolished, the Americas still weren't a welcome home to most blacks. Some, like Marcus Garvey (see sidebar), urged people to go "Back to Africa," while others, like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, fought for full rights in America.

Despite all the hardships, people of African descent in the Americas have created rich cultures, from which the rest of the world has gained tremendously. Many people from Ghana and other parts of Western Africa can trace their ancestry back over seven generations. The extended family has always been important, and even today in Ghana families are organized into large clans, groups that include all the people who come from a founding ancestor. Since most of the Africans brought to the Americas were cut off from their family ties, they have been forced to start from scratch. Many African-Americans today still consider their extended family an important unit, though, and many families have large family reunions every year to get together and maintain their strong relations. Jasmine has been telling us stories about her huge family and how they get together every Sunday at her grandparent's house back in LA for a Sunday feast . . . just like in the movie "Soul Food"!

West Africa is world-renowned for its rich tradition of music and dance. Drums of all shapes and sounds combine with xylophones and string instruments to provide a focal point for storytelling and dancing. Africans relocated to the new world did not lose this feel for music. From Reggae to Jazz to Afro-Cuban to Rap, people of African descent in the Americas have been responsible for creating a number of musical genres that not only provide entertainment, but also a means to share and pass on stories and culture.

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A bead merchant selling his wares from all over Africa and the Caribbean
At the Panafest, Abeja and I were joined by thousands of others from all over the world. West Africans drummed with Brazilians, Jamaicans sold their Rasta clothes next to bead merchants from northern Africa, and Ghanaians cooked yams and fish stews next to the American Ice Cream stand. It was so much fun meeting all the different people and tasting all the different foods. Nilboy showed Abeja how to eat kenkey and fish stew with her hands, while I looked through the beautiful beads one vendor had collected from all over Africa and the Caribbean.

But the best part by far was the music! Whether it was Jamaican Reggae, American Rock, or Ghanaian High-Life . . . the music kept us dancing all night long! Let me tell you, when we finally got back to our hotel at 4 A.M. we slept really well, thinking of just how lucky we are that the African Diaspora has so much to share with the world.


The Team - Let's go to Cameroon, NOT!
Abeja - Next Stop Slavery - A Visit to an African Holding Pen
Jasmine - A San Francisco Treat
Kevin - It's a Hard Day's Night
Monica - The People On the Bus Go Up and Down...To Ghana and Burkina Faso

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