“History of Histories is Needed to Address Systemic Racism” by Gisele Yitamben

Black power symbol

In recent months, racial and social justice, and systemic racism have been at the forefront of the battle for human equality. A few days ago, Mrs. Gisele Yitamben wrote a piece for the World Economic Forum (WEF) where she addressed a very important point in the battle against systemic racism, namely the fact that the history of the victim needs to be told accurately in all its glory and entirety for the healing process to start. There is a saying that “until the lion tells its story, the hunter will always be the hero.” Mrs Yitamben has been most gracious to share with us her ideas on ways to address systemic racism, and expand on her WEF article here. Enjoy!

======

History of Histories is Needed to Address Systemic Racism

By Gisele Yitamben*

“Systemic racism” is used to talk about all of the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. “Systemic” distinguishes what’s happening here from individual racism or overt discrimination, and refers to the way this operates in major parts of society: the economy, politics, education, and more.

Systemic racism is also a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other issues. 

Systemic racism has its roots in extractive capitalism”

 It is “a deeply rooted prejudice, combined with institutional power and systemic oppression of certain groups of people.” continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in humanity’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.

In the case of African and people of African descent, it is a direct consequence of doctrine patiently distilled, policies developed and communications put in place to downgrade the blacks with the end results of taking their wealth, their souls.

To support the Portuguese expansion, Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal bull on 18 June 1452 authorizing Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens (Africans) and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”. Successive popes reiterated the Bull: Pope Callixtus III in 1456 with Inter Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 and Pope Leo X in 1514 with precise denotations.

Pope Nicholas V

This position of the Catholic Church, accompanied by the legend of Shem in the Bible, that the noble institution disseminated without being encumbered with its real textual and theological foundation, too happy to have new territories of crusades, of evangelization, would be authority sweeping the reluctance herding slave traders and neophyte traders.

The position of the Catholic Church in relation to the slave trade was not going to be an epiphenomenon, far from it, its encouragements to enslavement would continue throughout the Negro period, like doctrinaire activism of the eminent French theologian Bellon de Saint Quentin, who used the “Holy Scriptures” to free the conscience of those who relied on his science.

All sorts of means will be used to dehumanize races, as a matter of policy to seek to assimilate cultures, for example, US and Canada, established boarding schools, prevented native language speaking, and separated children from their parents to put them in foster homes.

Slaves on board a ship

“People went as far as exhibiting Africans in Zoos”

Human zoos

Paris, the  capital of lights celebrated 100 years of freedom, equality and fraternity in 1989 with a “Universal Exhibition”. In addition to the brand new Eiffel Tower, the main attraction offered to the 28 million visitors to the “Universal Exhibition is the “Negro village” and its 400 Africans, exhibited on the Esplanade des Invalides, in the middle of the colonial pavilions. For ten years, these indigenous villages have been present in most of the major exhibitions, and they continued to be so for much of the 20th century in Hamburg, London, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Barcelona, ​​Osaka. Senegalese, Nubians, Dahomeans, Egyptians, Lapps, Amerindians, Koreans, and other so-called exotic peoples were thus presented in an environment evoking their countries, often in junk costumes and alongside wild beasts. More than 1 billion visitors rushed to these exhibitions between 1870 and 1940.

Caricature of Sarah Baartman from the 19th century

One of the most pathetic cases, of those  human zoos, is that of Sarah Baartman, who was put on display around Europe as a sexual freak, paraded naked on runways by a keeper who obliged her to walk, sit or stand so that audiences could better see her protruding backside

Even when she died, destitute and diseased, the ”Hottentot Venus,” as she was called, did not get a decent burial. Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeon general 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. Her brain, skeleton, and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried until 2002.

It was President Nelson Mandela who took up the cause of trying to get the young woman’s remains a proper resting place. Nelson Mandela sought the intervention of President François Mitterrand for his help in the matter when the two men met in South Africa in 1994. It took 8 more years to finally get Sarah buried.

Exposed face of Sarah Baartman from the French Museum

For more than five centuries, the Doctrine of Discovery and the laws based upon it have legalized the theft of land, labour and resources from Indigenous Peoples across the world. This has regrettably rendered indigenous peoples to be seen as dolls (see history of Sarah Baartman) that appeared not to have made any contribution to the evolution of mankind. Research has proven that modern day medicine took roots from traditional medicines practised by indigenous people. It is the same with other domains of social science.

Addressing the root causes of systemic racism and bias

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathematique

As a Black woman in Africa, I am living the reality that the “deep roots” of systemic racism lie in extractive capitalism on this continent. Slavery, the colonization of Africa and the economic exploitation and speculation that continues today, are driven by greed for profit which is underpinned by cheap replaceable labour and raw materials seemingly at any cost, using obnoxious cooperative accords inherited from the colonial era [The Charter of Imperialism]. Ultimately, it is greed that has led all European to the systematic and methodical devaluation of all Africans. For centuries, African peoples have been discounted and devalued as the colonizers sought to maximize profits and focused on their own needs and “happiness”. This mindset continues to drive racist attitudes today.  What is amazing is that the exploitation of African resources have been going on for 500 years and the minerals are showing no signs of depletion [The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu]!!! This should have called in a big change of the system’s approach.

Current approaches to addressing racism have failed for the most part because they have addressed the symptoms but not the root causes of racism. We see this when we consider that while slavery and colonialism were officially abolished, the system of oppression merely transitioned into Central banks serving slave owners [The Bank of Senegal: Ancestor to the FCFA – producing Bank], but not former slaves [Reclaiming History: Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners], and police forces serving elected officials rather than  ordinary citizens.  In Liberia for instance, a country populated by ‘freed’ slaves, plantations enslave the rural populace.

If we want to end systemic racism we need to get beneath the surface and understand what’s really going on, especially on an unconscious or subconscious level. And to do this, we need to go beyond campaigns, slogans and figureheads—important as these are—and re-write the real stories of each race and its contribution to humanity.

Writing the history as it happens

Black Pharaohs of Nubia
Black Pharaohs of Nubia

It has always been curious to me that the “black pharaohs” of Egypt – powerful Kushite leaders that ruled all of Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea from about 760 B.C. to 650 B.C. – have been largely forgotten by history [The forgotten kingdom of Nubia]. This dynasty of leaders embarked on an ambitious building program up and down the Nile, including the construction of pyramids in modern-day Sudan [Africa’s Forbidden Pyramids: Meroe, Nubia, and Sudan], under which their kings are buried. Yet the average person – black and white alike – if you mention pyramids, they think of those in Cairo first, and are not even aware that such structures exist further down the Nile in Sudan because this southern country is mostly a Black country.

“Black people need to start telling their stories”

In confronting racial stereotypes we need to tell the story as it happens and show how the development of the world is made of interwoven efforts; that will rebuild respect. There’s a reason why the Black Lives Matter activists are targeting statues of colonial and slave oppressors – because they recognize that there is power in these stories and symbols that have kept people trapped for centuries. As David Adjaye – lead designer of the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC –once wrote: “there is a direct relationship between symbols and systems and that people are starting to seek complex truths in new symbols that don’t ignore the losers or the forgotten underbelly of history”.

Pyramids of Nubia
Pyramids of Nubia, Sudan

For many years, the narratives about Africa have been about misrule, corruption, poverty and hunger, yet it remains one of the richest continents in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural potential. This is not to discount the reality of poor governance and corruption, which I must stress out is being encouraged and promoted by developed countries within the frame work of the exploitation strategy.; Many people lose their lives each year trying to cross dangerous waters into Europe in search of a better life largely because of these factors [Francis Bebey, Fatou Diome, and Immigration]. But there are positive stories we can tell too.

“When we really know each other, their contribution to common history and see that their solutions also hold value, we may start to shift systems” 

Africa needs to take the lead in telling her stories to shape a new perception. This new perception will be positively shaped if truth is told. It is not about begging to be accepted. We need to tell the stories that make visible the things we value, the beauty and the power that have been written out of history. We have a saying – “Until the lioness tells her side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Driving systems change at the local level

By telling real Africa’s stories (victories and downfalls) and making Black history more visible we can start the work of unraveling the systems that hold racism and oppression in place, but this alone will not be enough. Systemic racism has also to be tackled at structural, institutional and political levels. A system that has historically devalued a whole group of people is by definition exclusionary; we need to therefore re-design systems that value inclusiveness. In this, solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Those that need change most must be involved in bringing it about.

Flag of Cameroon

The COVID-19 pandemic may ironically be showing us a way here. In Cameroun working in remote areas with social entrepreneurs – lockdown measures have effectively cut us off from our usual means of trade; incomes have collapsed and we’ve been forced to create new systems to ensure that people can attend to their basic needs. This has included creating a local currency to allow people to trade during this time and setting up of new localized trade routes. While driven in this instance by necessity, there is power in this approach in that it starts with what is under the control of the beneficiaries and needed and what is valued and then builds around that.

Going forward, we can seek to apply this principle of localization more broadly. When we start to respect others and see that their solutions also hold value, we can start to shift systems.  These systems are built on mutual trust.

I believe social entrepreneurs will have a central role to play in this regard by driving localized solutions, for example, creating access to affordable finance for initiatives that can improve livelihoods for future generations of Africans. In this way we can build out a new narrative for the continent and create systems that value people, and their happiness and well-being, over profits.

We are at a historic moment in the fight against systemic racism. There is a wider moral recognition that some things in our society are fundamentally wrong and a broader understanding of the need to address the root causes of these ills. We have an opportunity to uproot systemic racism and it starts with rediscovering what has been forgotten and revaluing what has been systematically devalued.

Gisele Yitamben is the Founder and President of Association pour le Soutien et l’Appui à la Femme Entrepreneur (ASAFE) a social enterprise  that provides business training and development services, alternative financing and access to e-commerce to support thousands of women entrepreneurs in Cameroon as well as in Guinea, Benin, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She can be reached on myitamben@yahoo.fr

The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu

Mali_Timbuktu from a terrace by Heinrich Barth 1858
View of Timbuktu in 1858 by explorer Heinrich Barth 

As you all know Timbuktu was a great center of knowledge in search for  for many centuries starting at least in the 12th century. It was visited by people from around the world, in search of knowledge.

Timbuktu was one of the world’s first and oldest thriving universities! Students came from all over the world to study at Timbuktu. Imagine that, students from the middle east, and Europe coming to study in Africa! There are over 700,000 manuscripts at the great Sankore University in Timbuktu, and many more at other libraries including the  Ahmed Baba Institute, Al-Wangari Library, and others.

Enjoy this documentary about the lost libraries of Timbuktu commented by the Scottish/Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna. Enjoy, and discover with me the treasures of Africa.

Role of Timbuktu as the Market of Gold

Mungo Park
Portrait of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park

Here are the words of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park in 1795 about the great city of Timbuktu, and its central place in the gold trade in Africa, and the world at the time.

====

Timbuktu is regarded as the gold warehouse of the Manding. It is where the merchants of TunisTripoliFez, Morocco, come to take it [gold] to distribute it in the whole North of Africa. The biggest part of this gold then moves on the Europe. One can observe that the Gold Coast of Guinea, which is thus called only because the trade of the gold dust is done there, is located towards the Manding: but I don’t know if the gold found there was brought from the mountains, through the rivers of the north or those of the south. Maybe through all ; because part of the gold of the Wangara is being sold on the south coast.

Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. Vol. 2, P. 338, Paris, 1800.

Timbuktu: Saving One of the World’s Oldest Universities

Everybody on the blog loved this video of Timbuktu about its great university, one of the world’s oldest universities. I loved these centuries’ old manuscripts on medicine, art, literature, astronomy, and other subjects. The idea that my ancestors knew all these things, and that even today people are still trying to decipher these, make me so proud. The great historian Ibn Battuta talked about Timbuktu’s great universities, scientists, and scribes, and the beauty and wealth of the place when he visited in the 1300s. Enjoy the video below.

Why the name: Bamako?

Map of Mali with its capital Bamako
Map of Mali with its capital Bamako

What does Bamako have in common with London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, or Madrid? Of course it is the capital of a country, Mali, like all those other cities. However, the real similarity, is that it is located on the banks of a major river (like all those cities): the third largest river on the African continent, the Niger River, also known as Joliba (or the river of blood), near the rapids that divide the upper and middle Niger valleys in the southwestern part of the country. The city first grew on the north banks of the river, and later spread to the south banks as well.

Flag of Mali
Flag of Mali

The name Bamako comes from the Bambara word Bàmakɔ̌ meaning “river of crocodile“. It was founded at the end of the 16th century by the Niaré people, also called Niakaté, who are Sarakolés. The crocodile being the fetish of Bamako, in the olden days, a virgin girl was offered to it every year… however this tradition was abandoned a long time ago. A hunter from Lambidou (Kayes region) by the name of Simballa Niakaté chose the city’s site. However, it was his eldest son Diamoussa Niakaté who founded the city Bamako. The 3 crocodiles which symbolize Bamako found their origin in the 3 creeks that crossed Bamako: Lido, Diafarana, and Bèlèsôkô. The creeks come together in the city to flow into the Niger river. Just as the city’s symbol is 3 crocodiles, and so 3 creeks/rivers, it also comprises 3 major bridges which link both banks of the Niger River.

Mali Empire (Wikipedia)
Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

The area of the city has been continuously inhabited since the Palaeolithic era for more than 150,000 years. The fertile lands of the Niger River Valley provided the people with an abundant food supply and early kingdoms in the area grew wealthy as they established trade routes linking across West Africa, the Sahara, and leading to northern Africa and Europe. The early inhabitants traded gold, ivory, kola nuts, and salt. By the 11th century, the Empire of Ghana (this will be the subject of a post soon) became the first kingdom to dominate the area. Bamako had become a major market town, and a pathway to Timbuktu the center of knowledge via the Niger river. Later, the Mali Empire grew during the early Middle Ages and replaced the Empire of Ghana as the dominant kingdom in West Africa, dominating Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania. In the 14th century, the Mali Empire became increasingly wealthy because of the trade of cotton and salt. It was eventually succeeded by the Songhai Empire.

The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s
The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s

By the late 19th century, the French dominated much of western Africa, and in 1883, present-day Mali became part of the colony of French Sudan, and was its capital in 1908. Cotton and rice farming was encouraged through large irrigation projects and a new railroad connected Bamako to Dakar on the Atlantic coast. Mali was annexed then into French West Africa, a federation which lasted from 1895 to 1959. Bamako remained the capital of Mali after independence in 1960.

Bamako on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)
Bamako, on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)

Bamako is known as the crossroads of West Africa, since it is located 1000 km from Dakar (Senegal) and Abidjan(Côte d’Ivoire), 850 km from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), and 120 km from the border with Guinea. With a population of 1.8 million, Bamako is viewed today as the fastest growing city in Africa and sixth-fastest in the world. It is a buoyant city full of life. Enjoy a visit to the “river of crocodiles,” the crossroad of West Africa, and don’t forget to bathe in the centuries’ old history of great West African kingdoms in Mali, and its rich traditions.

2012: Who did we say goodbye to – Some Events that marked Africa

2012 was a different year with a lot of disappointments, hurts, pains, coup d’etat, and all sorts of things in Africa. We said goodbye to quite a few people in 2012, including:

1. President John Atta Mills of Ghana, who  joined his ancestors suddenly on 24 July 2012… So long Prof… May the land of Ghana hold you tight.

2. President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who passed on 20 August 2012… leaving Ethiopia in turmoil.

3. President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi, who passed away on 5 April 2012… he is succeeded in power by the second woman president in Africa: Mrs. Joyce Banda.

4. Minister Paul-Antoine Bohoun Bouabre of Côte d’Ivoire left us on 10 January 2012; this is the man who single-handedly saved Cote d’Ivoire from a financial cliff.

5. Cameroonian legendary footballer Théophile Abega, nicknamed ‘The Doctor’, left us on November 15, 2012. He was voted as one of Africa’s top 200 players of the past 50 years.

6. Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, was sentenced to 50 years for war crimes in May of this year.

7. A coup d’etat deposed the rightful president of Mali, President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) on 22 March 2012, one month before scheduled elections. This has left Mali in turmoil; the country is now going down the path of Cote d’Ivoire and Libya: split into two, and eventually … broken apart?

8. A coup d’état in Guinea-Bissau on April 12, 2012, by the military junta two weeks before the second round of elections saw the arrest of the two presidential candidates: Carlos Gomes Junior and Raimundo Pereira.

9. Abdoulaye Wade, the négrier of Senegal, was booted out of his presidency by the people of Senegal who voted for Macky Sall on 25 March 2012 (a true example of democracy in Africa).

10. Last but not least, the most hateful one of all: Nicolas Sarkozy, the ‘bourreau’ of Africa was booted out of the French presidency on 6 March 2012 … bye bye Sarko… you went for the recolonization and destruction of Cote d’Ivoire and Libya… and the deck of cards are still falling; now Mali… ? Sarko is gone… but his deeds are still going on.

Timbuktu under Attacks: Arise to save African Treasures

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

It is with horror that I watched and read about Timbuktu‘s desecration these past weeks, and I could not /would not stay silent as African treasures are being ransacked and destroyed.  Why would somebody destroy such a rich historical city?  Why would someone want to erase history?  Then I read the articles on BBC,  and they say that the destruction was conducted by muslim fundamentalists.  Seriously who do these media think we are?  Stupid?  Muslim fundamentalists?  Isn’t Timbuktu’s history linked to Islam?  Why on earth would somebody who loves and respects Islam destroy a place dear to his life?  It’s like saying that a catholic fanatic would want to destroy the Vatican or Jerusalem… really?  then they say these Muslim fundamentalists are from Northern Mali and are Touareg groups working to divide Mali.  See, again, BBC must really think that we are stupid or newborns.  How could a Malian, a Northerner, a Touareg, destroy his own home?  unless this group is not from Northern Mali…  unless this group is from somewhere else.  Remember Libya? there were foreigners attacking, and NATO, which destroyed the beautiful Libyan historic places: Sabratha and Leptis Magna … Remember that remains of Babylon were almost destroyed during the attacks of 2003?  Where are these stolen treasures today?  Please watch this video on Timbuktu and learn why any son of Africa should fight for its preservation.  There is over 10 centuries of history in Timbuktu, and it is our duty to save this place.  There are over 700,000 manuscripts saved in public libraries and private collections.  Check out this photojournal on BBC.  Enjoy and share!

Djenné: the mud brick (adobe) city

Djenné
Map of Mali with Djenné

Djenné is a city of Mali whose history is closely linked to that of Timbuktu. It is well-renowned for its mud brick architecture, and today most of the city is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In no place in the world do you have a civilization entirely built on mud! Maybe that is why Malians are so renowned for their work on mudcloth a.k.a. bogolan! The Djennenké say that nowhere in the world would you find people who can build in mud like Djenné’s masons: their work with mud is pure magic, as illustrated by the beautiful Great Mosque of Djenné. The masons’ family lines stretch back half a millenium! They mix the clay from the surrounding plains with the water from the Bani river, and bring to life an architecture purely from Djenné rising with splendor.

Great Mosque of Djenné
Great Mosque of Djenné

Djenné has fallen victim of time, erosion, and particularly rain which deteriorates the mud structure. Recently, as part of protecting this UNESCO world heritage, restoration started. For this process, Djenné masons divide up the work according to whose ancestors originally built the houses, the families that inhabit them, and themselves: dirt from old brick is reused only within the dwelling which it came from, since it is believed to carry a blessing which cannot be transferred; this is a practice whose roots date back to 250B.C.. Before the arrival of the French in 1900s, Djenné’s masons built using the technique of Djennefere or the art of building with cylindrical bricks, as opposed to rectangular bricks introduced by the French. Recently, a Malian-American team of archaeologists found in the base of wall fragments, from about A.D. 1400, of a type of bowl Djennenké still place in foundations for protection; another fragments with Arabic inscriptions dating back to A.D.

Great Mosque of Djenné
Entrance

1118. This is important, since before Djenné, there was Jenné-Jeno (before 200 B.C.), the “city without a citadel” which had no royal palace or ruler with an army, but was made up of different tribes or clans with different specialties which formed a sort of democracy where they came together to trade and decide community affairs. After 1100, Jenné-Jeno shrank, and by the 14th century, it felt and a new city, Djenné, grew from the trans-saharan trade in salt and gold. Djenné was later on invaded by Arab traders who introduced islam to the city. Later, Djenné was part of the great Mali Empire, the Songhai empire, the Ségou Kingdom, the Macina Empire, and the Toucouleur Empire. In essence, in Djenné, the old and the new merged, the mud from the earth grew, and the learning was passed on from generations to generations, making Djenné, the city built on mud rising from the splendors and knowledge of the past!

Map of Djenné
Map of Djenné

Both Djenné and Jenné-Jeno are UNESCO World heritage sites. You can learn about them on the UNESCO WHC website, as well as on Wikipedia, Architecture in Mali, and Djenne Patrimoine. Enjoy:

Timbuktu, one of the world’s first and oldest university

Timbuktu
Timbuktu

Oh wow… I always knew Timbuktu (Tombouctou in Mali) because of the story of the great emperor of the kingdom of Mali, Mansa Kankan Musa. I knew it was the center of his empire, but it is only lately that I realized that it was one of the world’s first and oldest thriving university! Students came from all over the world to study at Timbuktu. Imagine that, students from the middle east, and Europe coming to Africa to study! oooohhhh … Goodness Gracious, that sight only would make me proud! Well, to those who say Africa only has an oral tradition, go and check out the 700,000 manuscripts at the great Sankore University in Timbuktu, and tell me what you think! Oh la la…

In one documentary, the speaker mentions that they translated one of the manuscript on Algebra from Arabic to

Sankore University in Timbuktu
Sankore University in Timbuktu

French, and sent it to France to be evaluated educationally; well, that manuscript revealed that the mathematics it contained was currently studied in 2nd year of university in France, and the speaker then says “and that was taught at universities in Timbuktu before the 16th century“!  Wow… my Goodness!

Timbuktu also houses some of the world’s oldest mud mosques, and every year the people of the city unite to re-do the walls of the mosque. It was added to the UNESCO world’s heritage list in 1988  (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/119/).

Read about it on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timbuktu