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Talking back to the Empire

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Aug. 29th, 2007 | 09:23 pm
posted by: shewhohashope in ms_anthropology

From Mogadishu to Rexdale and back again

When I was in high school, the cold month of February passed without my taking much notice. The few lovable students who were political and knew the names of their local MPs organized cultural events. Some of the teachers who pretended to seriously mull over the contributions of blacks in the civil rights movement showed grainy videos of Martin Luther King rallies.

Now that I've made a few recordings and gained some notoriety, I've been invited to speak at workshops and forced to consider my own position on the value or legitimacy of Black History Month.

"Is there a black community?" a few of my fellow panelists at the more unimaginative workshops have asked. I knew the answer to that: I was living in one, Jamestown (Rexdale), where we were dealing with weightier questions like "Where are the guns coming from?"

Then there are those bloated with wisdom who invariably ask burning questions like "Why have we been given the shortest month of the year?" This sort then quickly offer the answers, while being sure to insert jargon like "politrics" or "overstand."

Watching events in Africa, it's so easy, surveying the hunger and the war, to forget how the dilemma faced by blacks today was all structured long ago at a conference table in Germany.

On Christmas Eve 2006, Ethiopia, cheered on by the U.S.-inspired Transitional Federal Government, invaded my birth country, Somalia, and overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts. To Africans, this story seems all too familiar. Division and conquest, war and subjugation and here we are.

One could start the narrative with the Stanley Electric Group, an automotive light bulb company based in Japan, named in honour of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, one of the most negative figures in black history.

Stanley was born in Wales, and at the age of six was committed to a workhouse. At 17, he made his way by sea to New Orleans, where he befriended a cotton broker. He later fought on both sides of the American Civil War. But it was as a journalist that he cemented his ugly place in black history.

In 1871, the New York Herald commissioned Stanley to travel in Africa. It was an assignment that would change the course of history when Stanley's ambitions expanded from exploration to exploitation.

By 1876, he had found a like-minded partner, the powerful King Leopold of Belgium, a first cousin of Queen Victoria, who believed that a country's greatness depended on the acquisition of colonies.

When the king could not find support for his ambitious expansion plans within his own government, he started a private company, the International African Society, and hired Stanley to run it for him. Under the cloak of this "philanthropic" organization, the king assembled a private army called the Force Publique that, through horrendous brutality, extracted rubber and ivory riches from the region.

Stanley thus laid the groundwork for long Belgian rule over the Congo, a regime that we know today claimed between 8 million and 30 million African lives. The French, who did not recognize Leopold's private colonization, tried to lay claim to the region themselves.

Out of this dispute, the Berlin Conference of 1884 convened, at which 13 European countries and the U.S. recognized Central Africa's Congo region as Leopold's private property.

But the effects of the Berlin Conference were much broader. It went on to divide the continent into incomprehensible pieces, in a process now known as the Scramble for Africa.

The Europeans basically invaded, imposed a new map on Africa according to their geographical needs, divided tribes and communities that traditionally got along and confined traditional enemies inside new shared borders.

All these years later, border disputes are still unresolved, as in Somalia, one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa. Ongoing conflict there began in 1886, when the British invaded the northern part of the country, the French took a piece in the north and Italians captured southern Somalia. Ethiopia's then emperor, Menelik II, encouraged by Britain, took over the Ogaden region.

Celebrated Somali poet Mohammed Abdullah Hassan led a 22-year-long colonial resistance, one of the longest and bloodiest in sub-Saharan Africa, in which Somalia lost a third of its population in the north. The decisive end came when the British, having lost too many of their men, called on a squadron from the Royal Air Force, fresh from a World War I bombing run, to destroy the resistance. Ethiopia's support back then for the colonial powers made a long-term enemy out of its neighbour, Somalia.

During a ceasefire in the 1980s, Somalis lived under a U.S.-funded dictatorship that was overthrown in 1991. The country was in complete anarchy, with a handful of powerful warlords struggling to dominate one another. More than a decade later, an alternative in the form of the faith-based Union of Islamic Courts emerged, crippling the warlords and restoring order in the capital of Mogadishu. Undaunted, the U.S., citing fears of Al Qaeda involvement, reorganized and funded the warlords under the umbrella Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terorrism.

Fast-forward to 2007: Ethiopia is now withdrawing after its December invasion, and the U.S.-backed pro-Ethiopian Transitional Federal Government, which made warlords from the Alliance into ministers, has been discredited by its reliance on Ethiopian forces.

Division and conquest, war and subjugation, tactical separations, ideological impositions and here we are, under the sun of a day when average people in these conflicts no longer know what happened to put them there, why they are dying and why they will continue to die, plagued by disadvantage, hunger and war.

Over a conference table in Germany it all began, but we Africans, speeding to our demise when the baton was passed , have all too eagerly carried it on.

And so it occurs to me that the month of February is really not so black after all, but half black and half white like the two men whose birthdays it commemorates, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. And maybe, too, like the puppet regimes of Africa that are still in place to serve the interests of Western countries far away.

World events today are starting to resemble the old Scramble, with one country waving the flag of domination. I wonder if the Middle East will get a month all to itself one day.

I haven't updated in a while, and looking over the posts to the community, there's a definite bias towards black and or African issues. I'd like to see some variety, so I'll remind you that anyone is free to post at any time anything that they feel is relevant. And it doesn't have to be articles, I'm just being lazy. Eventually I'll write some of my own thoughts down.

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