african slaves brought more than their bodies

Besides being the workhorses of a growing young nation, African slaves brought with them their music, art, culture, and food. All modern music can be traced back to roots in slavery and Africa: country, rock, jazz, and especially hip hop. The influences of African artistic expression and shared culture can easily be seen, but what is often looked over are the not so easily recognizable economic influences of African slaves.

At one point, when free labor was scarce and the trans-atlantic slave trade began to meet the labor demand, African slaves made up 40% of the American colonial population. Of the 6.5 million immigrants who crossed the Atlantic between 1492 and 1776, 5.5 million of them were African slaves. In our early history Africans filled the country that we now historically call white, anglo-saxon, and protestant. We talk about the start of our country as a haven for religious freedom, but where is that freedom represented in the 5.5 million enslaved African people? Now, we often talk about the foreign aid and development dollars that the US and other Western countries send to Africa, but what we often completely miss is how we gained that economic ability and power from the very people that we enslaved. Most every history book or other historical account will glide over the fact that while white Europeans were seeking new lives, the majority of the US population consisted of African slaves trapped in a structure that dictated their lives, and so the hypocrisy that is American began.

It is no mystery that African slaves brought many of their cultural traditions with them, but what many do not realize is the incredible impact those traditions have had and how those impacts continue today. The US used to grow and sell the top variety of rice, Carolina Gold. The first variety of rice ever grown in the US was brought over with African slaves. Owners of slave ships would take rice for the long journey to be able to deliver healthy slaves to the US .It is believed that this variety of rice has its origins in Africa. It is still unclear as to which part of Africa, but indicators are pointing towards somewhere in West Africa. This variety of rice was not only the first, but also one of the most lucrative crops in US history.

The National Geographic article states,

“The slaves used their rice-growing know-how to convert the swampy Carolina lowlands to thriving rice plantations replete with canals, dikes, and levies, which facilitated periodic flooding of the fields, McClung noted.”

Carolina Gold quickly became a top variety of rice because of its versatility and was a major export to Europe. The Carolina Gold variety of rice is just one example of how African slaves helped to build a US centered World Economy. From sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rice, African slaves laid the base for the production of agricultural commodities that would rule the colonial world and place the US at the top. Our economic power may come from the abundance of land in the US, natural resources, and our entrepreneurial spirit, but that spirit lay in the abilities of the African slaves, their agricultural knowledge and their utilization of the US land and other resources.

music to your ears: this year with hiv/aids

This year, 2007, there is some good news about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The percentage of people living with AIDS has leveled off and the number of new cases has fallen. This is attributed to the prevention programs. However, risk remains high in sub-Saharan Africa. Eight sub-Saharan African countries represent one-third of all new cases and total deaths around the globe. This year there are still 33.2 million people living with AIDS, 2.5 million newly infected, and 2.1 million deaths. (Read the 2007 AIDS epidemic update) As with all good reports, “much good has been done, but more is needed.” Events are happening all across the continent with dedication and promises. The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is leadership and “Stop AIDS, Keep the Promise!” While there is a lot of talk (read the statements) already this year about what will be done about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

It is not very often that the news of HIV/AIDS is music to the ears, but this may be one case. In Uganda, where HIV/AIDS was first discovered in the continent in 1981, there is a rising musical movement to increase education and promote prevention. Beginning to make her mark as a rising vocalist in the Ugandan pop music scene, Sylvia Nakibuule chose to go on television to declare her status as HIV positive. Sylvia gained became well known through her work with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), which regularly puts on performances to educate people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to prevent spreading the disease. Sylvia tells the youth, “I never wanted this to happen to me, so I don’t want it to happen to you. The message I want to give the youth is let us do our best to have a virus-free young generation. Be careful in the way you handle yourself.”

In Malawi, the BBC has been following the village of Njoho and their responses to the AIDS epidemic. Six months earlier one of the village elders had little hope for the people in the village to change their behavior to combat the effects. Now there is only hope. The stigma has left the village; Orphaned children are given help, there are monthly talks and support groups for people dealing with the burden of disease, and there are training programs on education and prevention. The village is fighting back. However, the recent efforts have been hindered by a lack of adequate medical facilities. The local hospital is not equipped to give HIV testing or to distribute anti-retrovirals. Patients with AIDS-related disease are instead sent to a district hospital 10 km away and most villagers cannot afford the bus fare. Yet again the lack of basic healthcare infrastructure adds another complication to an issue already too complex. But there is always hope. Njoho will be starting a clinic next year for voluntary counseling and testing, mother to child transmission prevention, and will provide bus fare for those who need anti-retrovirals.

image of america, the blinding lights

In many of the Africa-related courses that I have taken, the very first assignment is very often called ‘Image of Africa.’ This is a way for students to explore what they know or don’t know about Africa and what preconceived ideas they have about Africa. This is a great assignment that helps many students to change their ideas to a more clear and accurate image of the continent. However, what this assignment does not take into account is the ‘image of America.’ The assignment does not address the potential vice versa of the issue of an ‘image of Africa.’ What I have experienced in Ghana so far leads me to believe that perceptions and false images is a two lane highway.

So far I have met some great people in Ghana. They are very interested in talking about issues, watching soccer, and making sure that we are taken care of in Ghana. However, I have also met a great number of people who are not as concerned and are more interested in getting our American dollars. There is an interesting perception that if you are American then you must have a lot of money. Sure, yes we do as compared to the common Ghanaian, but we do not have money on trees at home. This false perception is evidenced through the numerous interactions that I have had with Ghanaians in my three weeks here.

There was the conversation with Richard and Joseph, who work at the hostel, about America. Richard could not believe that there is poverty in America and that certain stories he had been told, by a man who visited America, were extremely false (you are not shoot for turning the wrong way). There was a love of President Bush. He is a man for his actions in Iraq and they love him as a brother, even though the US government has nothing to do with Ghana. Later while playing soccer I met a coach who was very nice. The conversation turned to where I was from. As soon as he found out that I was from America he mentioned that maybe I would be interested in supporting his soccer program. The false perception of America was even more strongly enforced when I met a man, getting ready to bathe, on the streets of Osu as we searched for a jazz club. He was very nice and helpful, asked where I was from, and asked since I was American – if I was rich. I said that I am far from rich, I am a student. He replied with, “Yes, but you are American.”

All these experiences remind me of reading one of our course books, Our Sister Killjoy. The story is of a Ghanaian student who has to opportunity to travel to Europe. She had all these preconceived notions of Europe and ‘white’ people. They are slowly broken down over her stay in Germany and she comes to realize that many people have no knowledge of Africa. In the world perceptions can be very dangerous, as she learns, and these false perceptions can be created by anyone.

This false ‘image of America’ is a very interesting issue for me being here in Ghana. The greater question that comes to my mind is, ‘Where did this perception come from?’ Where does this blinding light of America come from. I think I have discovered the answer and it all comes from the media. The media is life. Here in Ghana, American pop culture has penetrated, as in most corners of the globe, the major media scene. American music is played everywhere and spin-offs of American TV shows dominate the airwaves. In the TV shows and the music videos the wealth and opulence of America is expounded. How is anyone to gain a different image of America if all that is shown is wealth and commercialism? The VOA radio show is advertised heavily and VOA runs the TV Africa channel. Foreign films are often shown and American talkshows are aired everyday.

The media rules all, here they have helped to create a false image of America. We encounter this image daily. Sadly the results of this false image can lead many people into cynicism and a jaded view can be developed. That is where I will cry foul because it is of no fault to the people who has been enamored with the ‘Image of America.’ Blame the media, blame your media, and blame yourself. We all create perceptions, many times false. No one is beyond making a false judgement on anything that they do not know much about. So many Americans make terribly false judgements about Africa. As I noted before these perceptions can go both ways and today making a world of perceptions can be very dangerous. I like to think that I do not create perceptions and I do not have expectations about places, but there is no way that I did not create some idea in my head about where I was going. Keeping an open mind and watching with open eyes is the only way that we can defeat perception and learn of reality.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

the quest for the west

Day 11
Applied lots of Aloe today. The sunburn is getting better. The bus arrived as we sat down to eat. Kyle and I always seem to be two steps behind. Breakfast was a large, thin, pancake thing with chicken sausage and some eggs, it was so good. At the seminar room today we got to bond with Ted (Prof. Tims). We talked about ourselves, majors, passions, and future plans. We then discussed the novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The book was mostly about corruption, the attainment of wealth, poverty, the quest to be western, and one man’s journey to live and work honestly. In the end of the book all he is left with is an “aching emptiness” and that is all the rest of his life could offer him. Kind of a downer, but it is interesting since the day before we met a woman working with some anti-corruption group doing a study on Ghana’s judicial system.

It was then lunchtime and breaktime. We wandered campus and explored some. We ventured all over the campus. We saw the Library, the Center for African Studies, the dorms, and much more. The campus is much like any you would see anywhere in the world, obviously it has its differences, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The biggest difference, as on any college or university campus, was the dorms. These are huge structures of block squares where four people live. When school is in session you see the clotheslines of each student strung out with brightly colored clothing drying in the Ghanaian sun. Surprisingly on campus you see many people walking around with ipod or MP3 headphones in their ears. Higher education in Ghana is still very much a place for those with the money. It is interesting to see, since we have come to know Ghana as a place that favors and loves human interaction, instead of the secluded american, music in ears, head to the ground, walk right past you attitude. This happens to be few students however, and most will greet you cheerily. The West cannot taint the Ghanaian tradition of greeting.

We settled down at an small cafe called ‘Tyme Out,’ got some cokes and played pool. This is where my mind recalled the idea of a hip hop planet. The walls of Tyme Out were adorned with posters of former great and popular rap artists and the music on the radio was their past hits. Even here this glorification and fascination of the gangsterism and commercialized hip hop culture exists. It is not surprising since West Africa is where hip hop was born. The radio often plays Ghanaian hits from the hip hop artists who brought the american style to Ghana. Why is the american style born from West Africa mirrored in the place of hip hop’s birth?

After lunch we learned more about Ted and his love and life of music. He was a music major turned music therapist. He has helped countless people recover from illness with music. He was trained as a concert pianist and this lecture brought us a drumming exercise. We first learned the history of drumming. The Europeans could not grasp the complex rhythms and beats of African drumming because it was like nothing they had heard before. Drumming was used to induce trances and was often used for social events. African drumming has many complex rhythms and patterns, but in the end they all come together to make one song. You cannot stop and listen to everything at once without being confused, you have to concentrate and focus from one beat to another. In this lecture we also discussed the aspects of health. The West decided to cut health to focus just on body. Where other cultures and societies looked at health as comprehensive in mind, body, and spirit. Music is a huge aspect of bringing together those aspects.

In the evening we went to a nearby Chinese restaurant. We ventured down our extremely busy road in Shiashie Accra to reach the restaurant. It was much bigger and fancier than we had thought. Sadly the food was also worse than we thought it would be. The menu was 20 pages long and didn’t really have much traditional Chinese foods. A let down at the least. I had the spring rolls, which just had cabbage and some random chunks of beef. A poor end to the evening, but tomorrow is another day.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.