African Superheroes

Move over Superman and Wolverine. Meet Guardian Prime and Enzo Kori-Odan.

While superheroes in comic books and in video games have predominantly been white characters, two companies in Africa are attempting to change the perception of what a superhero looks like.

Nigeria’s Comic Republic

In response to the lack of black comic book stars, Comic Republic, a startup based in Lagos, Nigeria burst onto the scene in 2013, responding to what they saw as a lack of uniquely African superhero stories.

Founder Jide Martin says: “I thought about when I was young and what I used to make my decisions on: What would Superman do, what would Batman do? I thought, why not African superheroes?”

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Guardian Prime

Comic Republic’s flagship character, is Tunde Jaiye, otherwise known as Guardian Prime. He is described as a fashion designer by day, superhero fighting for a safer Nigeria by night.

Martin says of the character he created: “I saw that Nigeria was filled with so much negativity. This hero [was] designed to give us faith to see that our actions and words could indeed make a difference and throw a positive light on Nigeria to a global audience.”

Comic Republic’s list of characters also includes a number of female superheroes, too. Ireti, one of nine central characters, is described as a “mighty warrior with powers that surpass normal men.” There’s also Bidemi Ogunde, an archaeology student and gymnast at the University of Ibadan who has special powers.

Creative Director Toby Ezeogu said: “There is a lack of female heroes on the African scene in general. We wanted female characters that would become icons to the African girl growing up, to give them something to aspire to – that they too can be heroes.”

Ireti

Ireti

But why did the platform want to focus on women superheroes? “The question should be why not,” exclaims the company’s head of marketing and corporate communications, Eduvie Oyaide. “With Jade Waziri, you see a stern commander who studies the activities of the heroes and ensures they are kept in check, then you see Aje, a female witch who needs to learn how to control her powers and use them for good or evil, you see Avonome, created out of a desire to teach more about the Nigerian culture using African fantasy; there is Ireti also of African descent and Jazz, a new character who joins a group of young teenage university graduates (The Extremes) in the quest to fight crime.”

“There is a lack of female heroes in the African scene in general,” adds Ezeogu. “Girls don’t have heroines to look up to these days, rather they have celebrities of questionable character. What you end up with is a generic stereotype of the female gender. Girls are seen to others as delicate roses, and we say yes, females are roses, but roses have thorns and roses are tough not delicate. We wanted female characters that would become icons to the African girl growing up to give them something to aspire to that they too can be heroes and it’s not an all male field.”

Comic Republic set out to inspire a positive movement. “We believe in the power of stories,” says Oyaide. “Sometimes, people struggle with acceptance of who they are. With our stories, we want to reprogram the values and beliefs that drive behavior among individuals. We want to inspire people to believe they can be so much more than they think if only they believe, we want to drive them to believe they have the power to influence their future.”

So far they’ve produced six major titles and over thirteen editions, all of which are available to read for free online.

Their Vanguards series features all of their superheroes together in one comic, and has been likened by some fans to “Africa’s Avengers.” According to the company’s Creative Director Tobe Ezeogu, it’s a movement that doesn’t just include fighting bad guys and saving the day, but rather, shows how these likeminded individuals came together to fulfill their dreams for a “better safer Africa.”

Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games

As a recent CNN article stated about Enzo Kori-Odan, “Finally, a video game hero for Africa.”

Enzo is the creation of Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games. According to Madiba Olivier, the company’s founder, “I wanted to break what I call ‘the exotic world’ image of Africa.”

AurionHis African role-play fantasy game, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, is the first of its kind in Cameroon.

So far Africa’s rich and diverse cultures is seldom incorporated into computer games. Olivier’s creation is changing that.

Unlike most fantasy games, this one features an African hero, and creates an alternative world inspired by African folklore and mythology.

The hero of the game, Enzo Kori-Odan, is the ruler of Zama — a diverse country free of an imperialist past but now threatened by a coup. The story centers around Enzo and his wife Erine, and their fight to regain the throne. The hero’s power comes from the collective energy of his ancestors, a force known as the Aurion.

Enzo

Kiro’o Games currently is one of several video game studios gaining prominence in Africa.

These two ventures from Nigeria and Cameroon are challenging the narrative of what superheroes look like, and inspiring a generation of young Africans at the same time.

The Sarah Baartman story continues

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Sarah Baartman

The tragic story of Sarah Baartman is one of racism, sexism, and colonialism.

Rumors over the last several weeks surrounding Beyonce possibly writing and starring in a film about Baartman have brought the horrific story back into the attention of the world.  While Beyonce has denied being part of any future film about Baartman, it has nonetheless led to numerous stories about Baartman’s tragic life.

So who was Sarah Baartman?

Two centuries ago Sarah Baartman died after years spent in European “freak shows”.

Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her exhibition continued.

Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried in South Africa until 2002.

Baartman was a young Khoisan woman cajoled into going to Europe in 1810 with the prospect of making money by exhibiting her unusual body. Stage-named the “Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. She eventually came to the attention of scientists who wanted to study her.

Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.

Baartman’s life was one of tremendous hardship.  She was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789, her mother died when she was two and her father, a cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent. She entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch colonist murdered her partner.

In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed-race entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.

The reason was that Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie, had steatopygia, a genetic condition resulting in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of fat.

These made her a cause of fascination when she was exhibited at a venue in London’s Piccadilly Circus after her arrival.

Englishmen and women paid to see Sara’s half naked body displayed in a cage that was about a meter and half high. She became an attraction for people from various parts of Europe. She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments. She was allegedly exhibited over 200 times during her stay in London.

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Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her.

“Economically, sexually, and racially,” Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, writes, “she was unfree.”

Baartman’s promoters nicknamed her the “Hottentot Venus”, with “hottentot” – now seen as derogatory – then being used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and San, who together make up the peoples known as the Khoisan. Venus was the Roman god of love and beauty.

During her time with Dunlop and Hendrik Cesara, the campaign against slavery in Britain was in full swing and as a result, the treatment of Baartman was called into question. Her “employers” were brought to trial but faced no real consequences. They produced a document that had allegedly been signed by Sara Baartman and her own testimony which claimed that she was not being mistreated, which she was allegedly coerced into saying.

Baartman’s show gradually lost its novelty and popularity among audiences in London and she went on tour around Britain and Ireland.

In 1814 she moved to Paris with Cesars. She became a celebrity once more, drinking at the Cafe de Paris and attending society parties. Cesars returned to South Africa and Baartman came under the influence of an “animal exhibitor”, with the stage name Reaux. She drank and smoked heavily and, according to Holmes, was “probably prostituted” by him.

It was in Paris that Baartman was forced to be studied and painted by a group of scientists and artists.

This period was the beginning of the study of what became known as “racial science”, says Holmes.

Baartman died aged 26. The cause was described as “inflammatory and eruptive disease”. It’s since been suggested this was a result of pneumonia or syphilis.

The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at one of Reaux’s parties, made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed at Paris’s Museum of Man. They were displayed as part of a cultural exhibition and they remained on public display until 1974.

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Cuvier, after he had dismembered her, wrote:

“The Negro race… is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism…. These races with depressed and compressed skulls are condemned to a never-ending inferiority… Her moves had something that reminded one of the monkey and…the orangutan.

The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilized people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.”

“The domination of Africans was explained with the aid of science, thereby establishing the Khoisan (‘the Hottentots’) as the most ignoble group in the progression of mankind, purported to mate with the orangutan,” wrote Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, editor of Representation and Black Womanhood: The legacy of Sarah Baartman.

Almost two centuries after her death, a Member of the Parliament of France, Jean Dufour, sided with the truth and said, “Enslaved, exploited, shown as an animal, (Sarah) was dissected by scientists who wanted first and foremost to confirm their theory of the superiority of a race over the others.”

After his election in 1994 as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and Cuvier’s plaster cast. The French government eventually agreed and this happened in March 2002. In August of that year, her remains were buried in Hankey, in Eastern Cape province, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.

At her burial in South Africa in 2002, President Thabo Mbeki said,

“The story of Sarah Bartmann is the story of the African people of our country in all their echelons. It is a story of the loss of our ancient freedom. It is a story of our dispossession of the land and the means that gave us and independent livelihood.

It is a story of our reduction to the status of objects that could be owned, used and disposed of by others, who claimed for themselves a manifest destiny ‘to run the empire of the globe.’

It is an account of how it came about that we ended up being defined as a people without a past, except a past of barbarism, who had no capacity to think, who had no culture, no value system to speak of, and nothing to contribute to human civilization – people with no names and no identity…”

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Sarah Baartman’s tragic story has been told in numerous books, documentaries, and films over the years. But whether or not Beyonce uses her fame to highlight the story of Baartman is inconsequential as this rumor alone has provided the public with yet another opportunity to understand just how cruelly and inhumane black Africans were treated by Europeans in the 18th and 19th century.

From the prison cells of Malawi to the Grammys

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They are housed in a crammed, dilapidated maximum-security prison, and their album was recorded with the most basic of equipment. Yet, come February, this unlikely collective might be at the top of the music world.

While the superstar names recently nominated for a Grammy grabbed the headlines, the most unexpected nominees were a group of male and female maximum security prisoners in Malawi, many of whom are serving a life sentence. The Zomba Prison Project‘s I Have No Everything Here scored a surprise nomination in the Best World Music Album category.

This is the first time that a music act from the southern African country will be represented at the prestigious awards.

“It is a great accomplishment,” Ian Brennan, the producer behind the Zomba Prison Project, told Al Jazeera.

“I am very happy for the prisoners and quite shocked really,” he said. “The awards have become extremely celebrity-driven, and ironically, the World category in particular has become so predictable – it’s the same names almost every year … so to see a group of unknown individuals get a nomination makes it that much more of an accomplishment.”

‘Don’t Hate Me’

Released last January, “I Have No Everything Here” by the Zomba Prison Project is an eclectic collection of 20 songs, 18 of which were written by the prisoners themselves.

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Most of the participants are serving life sentences. Their crimes range from murder to assault to theft, said Brennan, but there are others, especially women, who have been imprisoned over “more questionable” charges like witchcraft and issues related to homosexuality, or simply because their cases are taking too long to be heard due to bureaucracy.

The album, which features a series of rousing performances in the language of Chichewa, combines gentle guitars and softly-pulsing melodies with powerful lyrics.

“I am alone at the wide river and I have failed to cross it. When I was doing things secretly, I thought that no one was watching me,” sings honey-voiced Rhoda, a 42-year-old woman sentenced to life in prison, on “I Am Alone”.

“Share with the earth your happiness. Give happiness to this world, no matter where you are. Try to show joy every day to the people around you,” sings Agnes on “Don’t Hate Me”, accompanied by a steady rhythm guitar.

‘Giving voice’

The songs were recorded over less than two weeks in the summer of 2013, when Brennan, a US Grammy-winning producer famous for his commitment to bring international exposure to musicians ignored by the mainstream music industry, returned to Malawi on his latest music endeavor.

In the past, Brennan helped propel to international fame groups like the Malawi Mouse Boys, a gospel band whose members made a living by selling roasted mice to passing drivers, and Rwanda’s The Good Ones, a trio of genocide survivors.

“The idea had been fermenting for quite a long time,” said Brennan of his decision to head to Zomba Prison in southeast Malawi near the border with Mozambique.

“Wanting to not only to give voice to people who are under-heard or underrepresented internationally, but also to go even deeper into some of the most under-heard and underrepresented people of these populations.

“My belief is almost everyone is musical and I think that people that are under-heard have even more to express potentially.”

Tough conditions

Built in the 19th century to hold 340 people, the brick-walled Zomba Prison is today home to an estimated 2,000 people living in severe conditions, said Brennan.

The US producer was granted access to launch the project after agreeing to the prison head’s request to offer violence prevention classes to both inmates and guards. He then secured the permission of the prisoners, and began recording outdoors and next to the metal and woodworking shops.

“The entire recording was done with just six channels,” said Brennan. “The men had an organized band to some degree and they wanted to know more – their big concern was that they wanted to be sure that they were going to be recorded well, they were kind of checking me out – like, are you coming in with that [setup]?”

The women, on the other hand, were more reserved.

With access to just a few buckets used as drums, they initially claimed to not write any songs. But it all changed when one of them finally stepped forward to sing a tune.

“It was like the floodgates had been opened, and then it went on for close to two hours,” said Brennan.

“It was astonishing – just that it was happening, but also how beautiful and how good it was.”

Not attending

Overall, some 70 male and female prisoners aged from their early 20s to 70s were involved in some form in the album.

“The people have stayed with me,” said Brennan. “There’s certain moments where you just begin to cry with somebody’s playing because it’s so shocking and beautiful.”

Brennan said that despite being a “money-losing device”, the project has raised funds that have helped some of the prisoners get legal representation and gain release from their sentences.

He added, however, that it was “definitely” certain that the locked-up musicians involved in the album won’t be able to attend the Grammy’s ceremony on February 15.

“In an ideal world, the hope is that something like this that it can lead to future opportunities for individuals,” he said.

From Prison to the Presidency

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After spending 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994; from prison to the presidency.

With the recent elections in Myanmar, it seems that Aung San Suu Kyi is headed for the same miraculous transition.

After decades of campaigning for democracy and 15 years in prison, Aung San Suu Kyi is poised to take power.

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TIME magazine, Jan. 2011

Her party – the National League for Democracy – has won a landslide victory and seems certain to form Myanmar’s next government. Although constitutionally barred from the presidency, she has said she will be “above the president”.

Suu Kyi has faced a similarly daunting persecution and oppression as Mandela did under apartheid as the military junta that has led the country since 1962.

After the assassination of her father, Suu Kyi eventually led her own movement to free her people in an effort to bring democracy to the country. In this fight, Suu Kyi and Mandela share many similarities.

Both were committed to non-violence.

Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1991 and 1993).

Both faced authoritarian governments.

Both saw the government violently suppress peaceful protests (the 8.8.88 Uprising in 1988 and the Depayin massacre in 2003; Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the Soweto Uprising in 1976)

Both led their political parties to victory (the NLD in 2015 and the ANC in 1994).

Both countries have (seemingly) peacefully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy.

But as incredible as the stories of these two freedom fighters are, they are not alone. Other leaders who won their “fight for democracy” from prison to power include, to name a few:

  • Mahatma Gandhi (India)
  • Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan)
  • Lech Walesa (Poland)

When Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013, a BBC News article asked,

Nelson Mandela was often described as the “world’s elder statesman”, a father figure tackling global problems. His moral authority made him, in some people’s eyes, a successor to Gandhi. Who might play a similar role now?

Simon Marks, global affairs correspondent at Feature Story News, points out that Mandela’s successor might just well be Suu Kyi.

“Could she become that person? Maybe, except we don’t yet know how the political story will turn out,” Marks said. “She has this amazing moral authority because of her experience as a prisoner of conscience…”

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Afrikaans being phased out in South Africa

It was announced this week that the bastion of Afrikaner education in South Africa – Stellenbosch University – could possibly drop Afrikaans as the language of instruction and teach in English. The final say lies with the university’s council that will make a decision on November 30th.

This is a trend that is spreading throughout South African universities, as well. The University of the Free State, which currently offers classes taught in both English and Afrikaans, also is currently holding a vote as to whether courses should still be offered in Afrikaans anymore.

At the heart of this debate is how to best prepare students for a globally competitive work environment. With Afrikaans predominantly limited to being spoken in South Africa, and even then only in certain pockets of the country, the question is how much of a disservice are universities doing to these students if they are not taught in English.

“Language should be used in a way that is oriented towards engagement with knowledge in a diverse society and to ensure equitable access to learning and teaching opportunities for all students,” Stellenbosch University management said in a statement. “Since English is the common language in South Africa, all learning should be facilitated in at least English to ensure no exclusion due to language.”

Also, at issue is the cost and resources for universities like the University of the Free State to offer every course twice, once in English and once in Afrikaans.

“We are not against Afrikaans. We accepted it as an indigenous language because it was formed from African languages combined with German, [French] and Dutch,” Sechaba Dan Montsisi pointed out, one of the leaders of the 1976 uprising and an MP for more than 20 years. What students want is to feel welcomed and be able to study at one of the best universities on the continent that is in their country.

A YouTube video that was released in August started this conversation at Stellenbosch and across the nation.  Entitled Luister (Afrikaans for “Listen”), it was a documentary about the lives of students of color who attend Stellenbosch who have experienced numerous incidents of racial prejudice.

The larger question is the history and identity of this language of the role it has played in South Africa’s past. The Afrikaans language is widely used in the country: it is the third most commonly spoken of South Africa’s 11 official languages, after isiZulu and isiXhosa. But it has a torrid history. It has not, two decades after the end of apartheid, shaken off its association with that system.

To the country’s Afrikaners, which amount to approximately three million people (5%) in South Africa today out of the total population of over 53 million, this language is more than just a form of communication, it is a cultural identity. To understand this, one has to explore the birth of this language.

Birth of Afrikaans

As early as 1707, ancestors of predominantly Dutch settlers in South Africa began referring to themselves as Afrikaners (the Afrikaans word for Africans), denoting their identification with the continent of Africa as their homeland. This population eventually became a diverse genetic mix of various ethnic groups and backgrounds: 34.8% Dutch, 33.7% German, 13.2% French, 7% people of color (African, Malay, etc.), 5.2% British, 3.5% unknown origin, and 2.6% other Europeans.

As a result, there was a need for a lingua franca within this diverse population. According to Leonard Thompson in A History of South Africa,

Some colonialists were holding to the Dutch of the Netherlands, the official language of the colony. Some indigenous people were still speaking their native languages. A few slaves were able to use their languages of origin, whereas Portuguese Creole had become a common means of communication among the Asian slaves. A simplified form of Dutch…with incorporated loan words from the other languages, however, was becoming the dominant lingua franca.

This was initially referred to as Cape Dutch or Kitchen Dutch, and originated as a medium of oral communication between Boer farmers and slaves. This would evolve into a distinct language – Afrikaans – and would become a touchstone of their identity.

With the arrival of the British in the early 1800s and their enforcement of English as the language of education, commerce, and civil service, many Afrikaners pushed back by entrenching their new language of Afrikaans throughout their communities.

Rev. S.J. du Toit recognized the importance of language as a powerful ethnic and cultural mobilizer. He was the prime mover of the first Afrikaans language movement, founding the first Afrikaans newspaper, Die Afrikaanse Patriot, in 1875.

In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War and further British imperialism, with English being enforced as the national language, Afrikaner nationalists pushed for the advancement of the Afrikaans language with a renewed fervor.

Accordingly, the first half of the twentieth century saw efforts to promote Afrikaans as a written language, its use in schools, its use in religious services, and the development of an Afrikaans press.

These movements proved successful as, by 1925, the Bible had been translated into Afrikaans, there was an Afrikaans dictionary, and there was a substantial literature in Afrikaans. That same year, a constitutional amendment replaced Dutch with Afrikaans as an official language in the country, putting Afrikaans on equal footing with English.

The National Party, comprised of Afrikaner nationalists, eventually was victorious in the 1948 election. Afrikaners, skillfully mobilized, had won political control of a country in which they formed no more than 12% of the population. With this election victory, the segregation of the past was formalized and a series of even more oppressive and rigid racial laws aimed at benefiting Afrikaners went into effect.

It was exactly this use of the language which sparked the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto. As part of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, the government announced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 onwards in Math, Social Sciences, and Biology. Few black teachers knew how to speak Afrikaans, and black students regarded it as the language of the oppressor, and thus this regulation proved to be highly volatile. Thousands of students in Soweto boycotted school as a result of this language policy, leading to the Soweto Uprising in June 1976.

In many ways, it was Afrikaans that spurred the anger of the youth that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

But Afrikaans was not just a language used in oppression as there were a number of Afrikaners who used the language to protest the abhorrent apartheid policies. In literature, poetry, journalism, and music, Afrikaners used the Afrikaans language to speak against what the government was doing.

In the 1960s, a group of Afrikaner writers who opposed apartheid came together in the Sestigers, which is an Afrikaans word referring to the decade that they were most influential. This literary movement was critical of apartheid, and they provided an alternative Afrikaans voice to the government to show that not all Afrikaners supported apartheid. These authors and writers included, among others, Ingrid Jonker, André Brink, and Breyten Breytenbach.

In the late 1980s, a number of Afrikaner journalists were frustrated with the media’s lack of the courage to take on the apartheid state. In November 1988, a group of anti-apartheid Afrikaans journalists, led by Max du Preez, started a new national weekly newspaper — Vrye Weekblad (Free Weekly). Their goal was to provide an alternative Afrikaans voice in the media, specifically targeting the Afrikaans-speaking population in the country. They were the only Afrikaans-language paper that exposed the murders, beatings, and corruption of the apartheid government.

The Voëlvry (“outlaw”) movement was a group of Afrikaans alternative rock musicians in the mid-1980s who used their music to rebel against the ruling National Party and traditional, conservative Afrikaner culture. They were a younger generation of Afrikaners who didn’t believe in apartheid and didn’t toe the ruling National Party line. The movement coined the term “Alternative Afrikaner” for themselves. The movement included, among others, Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkerroel, and Belmodus Niemand.

Today

In the past, it was the Afrikaaners expressing their desire to free themselves from the domination of British colonization and therefore from being forced to speak English.

How ironic that decades later, the headquarters of Afrikaans – Stellenbosch University – could possibly drop it for English but this time for the greater good of all South Africa’s people.

Dropping Afrikaans means that, psychologically and symbolically, the walls of apartheid are still crumbling 21 years after racial segregation was officially removed from the statute books.  This is a continuing part of the decolonizing of the country that has included renaming cities and roads and taking down colonial statues from British and Afrikaner history.

Afrikaans is still one of the country’s national languages today and it is the language of 13.5% of the South African population today. So while its removal as a medium of instruction at some universities may be symbolic, it will be interesting to watch what the future holds for the world youngest language.

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Dr. Chitja Twala visits Vermont schools

While serving as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher in South Africa in 2012, I was hosted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. I had the honor to work with a number of professors at the University of the Free State, including Dr. Chitja Twala in the History department. Dr. Twala served as a mentor, advisor, and friend throughout my Fulbright experience in South Africa.

Dr. Twala is currently serving as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, and as a result, I was able to arrange for Dr. Twala to visit my high school and the community college I teach at in Vermont to speak to my students.

Dr. Chitja Twala at Bellows Falls Union High School in Vermont

Dr. Chitja Twala at Bellows Falls Union High School in Vermont

On Thursday, Oct. 29, Dr. Twala spent the day at my high school, Bellows Falls Union High School in Bellows Falls, VT. Dr. Twala gave a presentation to over 50 students from various Social Studies classes at the high school: AP Human Geography, AP World History, AP U.S. History, and AP European History. Dr. Twala’s presentation, entitled “South Africa and the U.S.: Black-White Confrontation History,” focused on the culture and history of South Africa and its similarities and differences with the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Dr. Twala started by pointing out the misrepresentations and stereotypes of Africa in the US and in the media and how inaccurate these are about life and culture in Africa. He also spoke about the emergence of apartheid and the resistance against it, told personal stories of his own life under apartheid, and compared the US Civil Rights Movement to the resistance to apartheid in South Africa. This was a great opportunity for the students of my high school to learn about South Africa from someone who lived through both the oppression of apartheid and the new democracy that was ushered in by Nelson Mandela.

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Here are some excerpts from what the students said after listening to Dr. Twala:

  • “Your inspiring, informative presentation on South Africa was a treat of the highest order.” – Zoe
  • “Thank you so much for coming to our school to tell us about your experiences in South Africa! It was amazing to hear about a significant historical event from the point of view of someone who lived it.” – Faith
  • “Your presentation was interesting and exciting, and kept the whole audience intrigued.” – Nina
  • “Thank you for teaching us about South African affairs in a much different perspective than I’ve had before. It was interesting to learn about this issue from somebody who had lived through it.” – Zac
  • “You’re presentation was very inspiring to stand up for issues that you believe in, to try to make a difference. I was very interested to hear about the problems South Africa faced, but more importantly how people worked together to end apartheid. Thanks for inspiring me!” – Lia
  • “You spoke of your own experience which really helped me understand more about Africa and its freedom movements. Your presentation was awesome.” – Bradie

In the evening, Dr. Twala then spoke to the students in my World Regions and Cultures course at the Community College of Vermont (CCV). Dr. Twala’s presentation to the class was entitled “From Apartheid to Democracy.” Dr. Twala specifically spoke to the students about brutality of apartheid and how various forms of resistance were used to resist it, culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. Dr. Twala shared a number of his personal experiences and stories of life and oppression under apartheid, as well, providing the students with a first-hand account of the realities of life under apartheid.

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Before taking Dr. Twala back to Harvard, I was able to take him to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to see where Henry David Thoreau lived for two years in the 19th century. This was a powerful connection as it was Thoreau’s discourse on civil disobedience that influenced Gandhi, which in turn influenced Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other leaders in the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa in the 20th century. As a tactic of resistance in South Africa, its practice dates back to the early 1900s with Mohandas Gandhi, who established his beliefs in passive resistance during his time in South Africa and practiced civil disobedience as a way to protest discriminatory laws in the country. His philosophy greatly influenced other calls for civil disobedience, including the numerous anti-pass campaigns from 1930-1960, the 1946-48 Indian Defiance Campaign, the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and the End Conscription Campaign in the 1980s. Internationally, many anti-apartheid activists also utilized civil disobedience as a way to get their governments to take action against South Africa. College students used this strategy on their campuses, and everyone from U.S. congressmen to entertainers practiced it outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC in protest of apartheid. It was a great connection to be able to walk around Walden Pond with Dr. Twala discussing the historical parallels of Thoreau and the practices of civil disobedience in South Africa.

Dr. Twala and I with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond

Dr. Twala and I with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond

Dr. Twala’s visit was a great opportunity for the students of both my high school and of the Community College of Vermont to learn about South Africa from someone who lived through both the dark days of apartheid and the new democracy that was ushered in by Mandela. It was great to be able to keep this Fulbright connection alive by being able to host Dr. Twala and have him speak to my students. In many ways, it is not just keeping the Fulbright connection alive, but bringing it full circle with me having the opportunity to pay Dr. Twala back for all of the kindness, knowledge, and hospitality that he showed me in South Africa.  Thank you Dr. Twala!

Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates

Last week, Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.  This is a group of four organizations: the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.  They were recognized for their decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in December 2010 with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.  This led to massive protests to overthrow the corrupt and unpopular regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since 1987. The regime was toppled by the protests, ushering in a democratic government.  The events in Tunisia spread throughout North Africa and into the Middle East in what became known in 2011 as the Arab Spring.

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This recognition of these African organizations allows one to reflect on the other 10 individuals from Africa who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their humanitarian efforts:

In is wonderful that the incredible achievements of so many Africans have been recognized by this honor, helping to dispel the stereotypes of a continent plagued with warfare, corruption, and despair.

The fact that South Africa alone has four Nobel Peace Prize laureates – all due to their role in ending apartheid in the country – speaks volumes about how long the resistance and fight against apartheid war and about the numerous and diverse individuals who fought for freedom in the country.  Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and FW de Klerk stand out for their role in bringing apartheid down and in all that is good about the country of South Africa and the continent of Africa.  As Mandela stated in Long Walk to Freedom, “I am simply the sum of all those African patriots who had gone before me.”  In many ways, these four are merely the sum of the achievements of an endless number of South Africans who were fighting alongside them to make South Africa the democratic and free nation it is today.

Nobel Square - Waterfront, Cape Town (2)

Nobel Square – Cape Town, SA (South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela)

Nobel Square - Waterfront, Cape Town (1)

Nobel Square – Cape Town, SA