Sunday, September 16, 2007

At the Edge of Time in Zimbabwe

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Robert Mugabe and Canaan Banana, Prime Minister and President respectively, at a signing ceremony on Zimbabwe's independence, April 18, 1980.

Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe have become such controversial catch phrases for fearful demonization that few people remember the history and context out of which Zimbabwe became a nation, and Mugabe its early hero. Of course, recent events in Zimbabwe are very disturbing, and this prompted me to finally have a long and heartfelt talk with a friend of mine who has a powerful and intimate connection with Zimbabwe. While Sulieman Dauda and I are pretty good friends, I had never really talked with him in detail about what drew him to Zimbabwe in the early 80s. From a journalist's perspective, I thought it would be a good idea to try to examine some of Zimbabwe's current issues through the eyes of a unique person who has experienced a lot of history there. From a personal perspective, our conversations affirmed that Africa is often about mysterious connections, synchronicities, heart and soul, patience and intuition; I would say that Sulieman Dauda knows this very well.

At the Edge of Time in Zimbabwe

I first met Sulieman Dauda in Yeoville, a hip Johannesburg neighborhood that was a favorite hangout for journalists, actors, musicians, activists, travelers and just about anyone who was looking for a good time. My good friend Jim Harris, a jazz musician, labor organizer and a respected elder of the African American expatriate community surprised me when he said he had an old friend from Denver who was coming into town for the April 1994 elections. African Americans were a novelty in South Africa back then, few and far between, and I could hardly expect to find someone from my home town.

Jim’s friendship with Sulieman went way back to 1981 and the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence. They both owned beautiful homes in Zimbabwe, and they both seemed intimately caught up in the vortex of energy that birthed the new nation. In Jim’s modest flat, just one block beyond the raucous vibe of Yeoville’s infamous Rocky Street, I was captivated by Sulieman’s easy going manner and his wealth of knowledge and experience in Africa. Often into the wee hours of the night, Sulieman, Jim and I would ramble on about African culture, race, politics and spirituality as we watched news of the national elections and waited for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration ceremony. Jim and Sulieman especially savored the moment; just like years before in Zimbabwe, they once again had their front row seats to witness African history in the making.

Tall and lanky, with a graying beard, wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans, Sulieman Dauda was humble, non-assuming brother, not someone you would expect to be a property owner in the lush and stately suburbs of Harare. His ear-to-ear grin and bright smile seemed to reflect the unbounded joy of the Motherland itself. On the street, Dauda blended in with ordinary South Africans, and you could tell that he could party with the best of them. Somehow I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and Sulieman told me how they befriended Richard Pryor in Zimbabwe and how their hilarious adventures became part of the material for Pryor’s legendary “Live on Sunset Strip” performance. (Jim Harris even went so far as to suggest that Pryor unabashedly stole a few of his choice lines, but I digress…)

Sulieman Dauda had many friends throughout Johannesburg and Soweto, and the three of us all ended up “jowlin” – as they say in Joburg – partying heartily throughout the massive celebrations and elation that permeated the weeks leading up to Mandela’s inauguration. Sulieman went back to Denver after a few weeks, and not long after that Jim and I ended driving across the Limpopo Province and over the border, through to Bulawayo and Harare. Crossing into Zimbabwe at that time one felt a sense of peace that was not present in South Africa, a feeling of calm, patience and ease. In June, 1994 exchange rate of the Zim dollar to the US dollar was 7 to 1; now the exchange rate has exploded beyond the realm of hyperinflation and speculative fiction to an incredible 30,723 to 1.

Times have obviously changed in Zimbabwe. A litany of human rights abuses, a crackdown on freedom of the press, a failing economy, new refugees and displaced communities have marred the reputation of president Robert Mugabe as a hero of the liberation struggle. After reading news reports from Southern Africa, I have often thought about Sulieman Dauda and his extraordinary bond to that beautiful and struggling nation, which not long ago seemed to have all the promise in the world. As a busy landlord, Dauda spends most his time – usually from early mornings until evenings – tending to the duties of his many properties in Denver and his hometown of Gary, Indiana. Recently, in between his demanding schedule, I finally caught up with him to have in depth, detailed conversations about his adventures and exploits in the Motherland. I found his stories compelling, and his experiences and perspectives were refreshing and insightful.

"I knew at the age 16 that I was going to travel to Africa, and I knew I was going to live there,” Dauda said, as we strolled through City Park, taking in the sights and sounds of the Denver Black Arts Festival this past summer. “I had to go and see the truth for myself, and I could see from the books that were available in the late 60s, that they weren’t telling the truth – everything that should have come out wasn’t coming out.”

After a period of radicalization with the Black Panther Party at Wilbur Force College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Dauda left college and joined the Navy in order to get GI Bill education benefits. Through a long series of events, Dauda ended up at Metropolitan State College in Denver, where he chose to major in marketing and minor in Black Studies. In 1978 Metro offered its first ever educational travel program to Africa, and Dauda was the first student to sign up. While the trip was cancelled for lack of student participation, his teacher and mentor, Dr. Akbarali Thobani, arranged for Dauda to continue his trip with another tour group. Once he was in Africa Dauda could barely contain himself and decided he had to extend his travels beyond the limits of the tour.

“I said to myself I would get off at the furthest point (of the tour), and find my way back to the first point,” Dauda said with a smile and a soft laugh. “That’s what I did for three months. I went from Lagos, all the back up to Senegal.”

Perhaps his most important and telling experience in West Africa happened in Jos, Nigeria, where he met a blind spirit medium who told him, “Go to Zimbabwe, and all your dreams will come true…” The message was confusing, because at the time the name “Zimbabwe” was relatively unknown, as the country was still in the midst of its brutal independence war, and was then known as Rhodesia. But in late 1979 Zimbabwe grabbed more international headlines as the United Nations and the British government brokered an uneasy coalition government agreement that paved the way for free elections. Suddenly Dauda had a sense that destiny was calling him to a mysterious new country with a fascinating name.

At an African Liberation Day rally in New York City in 1980, Dauda listened to Robert Mugabe give a speech about his new country and its new government. Mugabe wanted African Americans to help in building the fledging society, and he told the crowd, “Be ye Africans, come home! Bring your skills to Zimbabwe!” The speech and the event so impressed Dauda that nearly 30 years later he still has the original brochure. Mugabe’s idealism and charisma sealed Dauda ‘s conviction that his future lay in Zimbabwe.

By the time Dauda embarked on his Zimbabwe sojourn a year later, he had taken two more trips to West Africa, and as a veteran traveler had learned how to make friends and barter, sell and trade his way through the region. Not long after arriving in Zimbabwe, he became friends Sam Mashata Paweni, a businessman that needed his marketing and management skills, and Dauda found himself writing proposals and tenders for to provide supplies and requisitions for various businesses, government agencies and the military. Their partnership was so successful that Dauda describes their business alliance as a “Halliburton” of Zimbabwe.

Paweni became one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest men, and Dauda was responsible for 350 employees and an array of companies, departments and divisions. While Africans were sometimes a little suspicious or wary of African Americans, Dauda was able to turn his unusual circumstances to his advantage in affecting the way he was perceived by Africans.

“A lot of times they are just as ignorant about us as we are about them. It’s kind of difficult to overcome that, knowing that ‘here I am in Africa, and I’m completely at their mercy,’ ” Dauda said, adding that his personality and his accent helped him transcend awkward situations. “The street part of me came out over there. Without that, no telling what would have happened. I know that a lot of times you just gotta talk until they tell you to shut up. They just want to hear you talk.”

Dauda took a few cues from Jim Harris, and parlayed his job and earnings (and fall in property values due to white flight) into purchasing the home of his dreams, a lovely 3 bedroom dwelling with a cozy fireplace, perched on the edge of hill in cove, with a panoramic view and a river running through it.

“It looked like a golf course when I first saw it. It was beautiful,” Dauda says, and then suddenly his tone of voice changes, as he pauses after his long “stream of consciousness” descriptions of the path leading to his early years in Zimbabwe. A brief silence overcomes him, as we watch people moving to and fro through the various Black Arts Festival booths and stalls, eating, laughing and meeting old friends.

“Man, now you’re gonna sit up here and make me cry,” he says, smiling, with a touch of laughter and sadness. “You know why? I’m remembering all these good times about Zimbabwe and how much fun we had. I never laughed so hard in my life at all the funny stuff that went on.

“Meeting new people was my favorite thing. Every time you meet somebody new they invite you over to their house, and then you’ve made a friend for life. You sit down at their house, eat their cooking, and spend the day with their family…”

But the good times and the good feelings had their limits. The goodwill and lack of recrimination that had manifest during Zimbabwe’s early years was doomed to evaporate in the face of South Africa’s hostility and repeated attempts to destabilize its democratic neighbor. Towards the end of the “independence hangover,” racism from South Africa seemed to spill over into Zimbabwe, poisoning the atmosphere and creating a sense of fear and distrust.

“(In the early days) everybody had money, and gasoline was plentiful, and food was plentiful. You could take a dollar and buy a steak as big as this plate, and that would be enough to feed 5 or 6 people,” Dauda said, adding that in 1980, the Rhodesian dollar was stronger than the US dollar, and the two currencies traded almost one to one for about four or five years. “Then everything started going backwards. The first time I ever experienced a petrol shortage in life was in Zimbabwe. But it wasn’t because of Mugabe – it was because of the white South African blowing up the oil pipeline.”

The South African apartheid government organized a number of bombings, including the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party headquarters in Harare. The failed assassination attempt on Mugabe killed mostly innocent civilians. Yet the most notorious event was the covert operation that resulted in a plane crash and the death of the popular Mozambican president and revolutionary leader Samora Machel. Dauda said the insidious South African attacks resulted in open clashes between Blacks and Whites on the streets in Zimbabwe.

“With the people in Zimbabwe, oh man, there were riots! They burned down the South African embassy, they burned the South African Airways building,” Dauda explained. “They were running up and down the streets slapping White people. Man, they knocked the sh-t out of them. White people were scared at that time, and that’s when things started to change. White people started leaving, after the death of Samora Machel.”

In his personal experience of Zimbabwean history, Dauda has as very different perception and understanding of President Robert Mugabe than the current media stereotype. Dauda speaks of Mugabe with reverence and respect for leader who faced a daunting task of building a new nation in extremely hostile and antagonistic conditions. He describes Mugabe as a man who had a lot of enemies and had to worry about his safety. Dauda is keen to point out that the vast majority of the Rhodesian forces were Africans, and thus the nature of the Black-on-Black conflict in the heart of the independence war was more complex than surface appearances.

“You see, it was actually a civil war, Africans fighting Africans. So Mugabe didn’t know who was who or what was what. The only thing he knew about Rhodesian forces was the soldiers had uniforms,” Dauda says, emphatically, his voice rising in emotion. “So his safety was paramount. That’s why he moved around in a large entourage. He had cars in front of him, cars in back of him, soldiers in back of him, driving around in 5 series Mercedes. They called him “Bob Marley and the Wailers” because everywhere they went they had these loud sirens.”

Dauda says his view of Mugabe has not changed, although he believes at times Mugabe has been ill-advised, and some of his cabinet ministers received jobs and appointments they didn’t earn or deserve. He also saw some people’s lives and careers ruined by misinformation given to Mugabe. Nonetheless, he remains a staunch defender of the controversial leader, and sees him “as a true comrade and a revolutionary.”

Dauda concedes that Zimbabwe has changed, and has become less secure and more crime ridden. On a recent trip he was mugged for the first time in Harare, which was a far cry from the time when Dauda walked down all the back streets of the capitol city without incident. He also feels that South Africa, like Zimbabwe, is not as safe as it used to be. Ironically, Dauda claims that he had the best time of his life in apartheid South Africa in 1987. He remembers a White South African border guard saying, “You’re going to have so much fun you’re going to want to move here.” He didn’t believe the guard, but the guard invited Dauda to come back and speak to him after his trip.

Hanging out with Black journalists, Dauda moved through Johannesburg’s racially-mixed neighborhoods like Yeoville and Hillbrow, and through Soweto’s neighborhoods like Dube and Pimville, and the vibrant but deeply impoverished township of Alexandra. A one month trip turned into three, and when he returned he told the border guard that South Africa was everything he said it would be, only “ten times more.”

“I still lay in the bed and think about that. What’s the difference between then and now? It’s nothing like it used to be. I don’t know what to say – I still had the time of my life,” Dauda says, as he reflects on his adventure under apartheid. “I can’t go there now and have the time of my life. I can’t go there now and have the time of my life – it’s not safe. I couldn’t go to the same border crossing and see that same border guard, because the whole border crossing has changed. It went from being all White to all Black. The people are very ornery…”

Such ironies have not escaped my remarkable friend.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Bold Magic of Afro-beat Master Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti, inheritor of the Afro-beat tradition, will bring the bold magic of his music back to American audiences this summer, as he tours in promotion of a new 2 CD set, Definitive Collection: Femi Kuti.

When I read about brutal excesses of repressive regimes across the African continent, I can't help admiring the conviction and courage of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician who dared to defy some of the most ruthless dictators of Nigeria's dark, post-colonial rule. Inspired by the Black Power movement and heavy sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone and soul music of the late 60s, Fela Kuti brought some of that fire back to Africa when he formed his own band and stage show that transformed him into Africa's most popular artist. But Fela seemed to care less about his comfort as an artist than becoming a voice for change in Nigeria, and he paid a terrible price in terms of endless beatings, harassment and imprisonment by the ruling authorities. When Fela Kuti died of AIDS in 1997, Africa was left with a huge hole in its heart. We are fortunate to have Fela's "Afro-beat" tradition live on in his son Femi, who in his own way, has expanded it and taken it to new heights.

The Bold Magic of Afro-beat Master Femi Kuti

It’s hard to imagine anyone bringing more of the bold magic of Africa to a musical stage than Femi Kuti. A distinctive master of the Afro-beat sound – heavy African drumbeats and bass lines interweaved with jazzy, blaring, powerful horns – Femi Kuti projects a whole new meaning into the words “funk,” “soul” and “rhythm.” Femi Kuti is once again touring with his band Positive Force in the United States, and will be performing at Belly Up in Aspen on Monday, July 30, and at the Boulder Theater on Tuesday July 31st.

Femi inherited the head of the Afro-beat mantle from his father, the late Fela Anikupalo Kuti, perhaps the greatest musician and activist voice to emerge from the African Motherland. With his undeniable magnetism and electrifying stage presence, Fela Kuti orchestrated a fabulous stage show with more than 30 dancers and musicians, who blazed their audiences with color, energy, sexiness and sublime artistry. Fela used his musical success and popularity as a platform to speak out against oppression, corruption and injustice. For many years Fela dared to criticize the brutal, repressive military rulers in Nigeria, and as a result he was continually harassed, beaten and imprisoned. Yet Fela never faltered in his criticism of the tyranny of the ruling elite and he became an icon to the Nigerian masses and West Africa as a whole; at his funeral in 1997, more than a million common Nigerians crowded the streets around his nightclub “The Shrine” and his home, to pay their respects.

In 1984 the Nigerian government arrested Fela on phony currency trading charges and jailed him for two years, which inadvertently thrust Femi into limelight as he unexpectedly was forced to assume leadership of his father’s band. Femi had only been playing with his father for a few years, and as a young man in his early 20s, Femi suddenly had to carry on his father’s legacy. He proved he was equal to the task, and after his father was released in 1986, Femi felt he had to establish his own band, and for a while he fell out of favor with his father. But with time Fela came to approve of Femi becoming a musical force in his own right.

Femi’s band, Positive Force, was originally formed in 1986, in the early years after Fela’s release from prison. Like his father, Femi played the Afro-beat sound, with a large stage ensemble of 17 people, including a six-piece horn section, two percussionist, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, and four singer-dancers. After several European tours and two Nigerian albums, Femi and Positive Force debuted in the United States in 1995, captivating audiences much like his father did years before him. Femi sings about many of the injustices that his father decried, and his music and lyrics bear the same sense of compassion and humanity. Femi won a record contract with MCA as a result of the success of his 1999 release Shoki Shoki. One of his hippest grooves, a playful song about sex called “Beng, Beng, Beng” – which is actually intended to promote awareness about AIDS, was banned by the government for its supposedly lewd lyrics. Perhaps with the democratization of Nigeria the political authorities have moved away from the overt repression that plagued his father, but the “Beng, Beng, Beng” episode still leaves one to wonder if the government will ever allow Femi and his musical tradition to exist in the spirit of free speech.

I was fortunate to catch Femi in between performances in Nigeria. Femi had a great deal to say about Nigeria and Africa in general, and is keen on taking his tour back to the United States. His tour is promoting a new two-disc CD compilation set of his some of his best works with Positive Force called Definitive Collection: Femi Kuti. Femi also has been working on a studio album, which is due to be release later this year or in the beginning of next year.

JA: How did your father’s death affect you personally, artistically, emotionally and in terms of your career?

FK: It was devastating, he had been ill for a bit but we didn’t realize how ill. My father was a great man very strong and man ready to die for his beliefs. I still miss him for all reasons, chatting about music, personal problems and normal guidance a father can give. He made me the individual I am today, one day I asked him to teach me to play a saxophone and he said do it yourself, at the time you get annoyed but you realize he was teaching you to be a stronger person. The death of his 10th anniversary is coming up and we are going to have a huge party at the Shrine – a good way to celebrate his life.

JA: What was it like for you, as a young man, to take over your father’s band in 1984 when the government jailed him on trumped up charges? You must’ve been in your early twenties back then, and it must’ve been a great responsibility.

FK: My father was always getting into trouble with the authorities; he was often hounded harassed & jailed for his outspokenness. In 1977 his compound was attacked by 1000 soldiers and my father was injured. My grandmother was thrown out of a window and later died due to her injuries. So when in 1984 he was jailed for 10 years for currency smuggling by the authorities we couldn’t believe it. I then took over the band from 1984 – 1986, it was quite a daunting task because I had not performed by myself in front of so many people but I could not let my father down, once I started though it kind of came naturally to entertain the crowd. When my father came back I then decided to head up my own band which as you know he wasn’t happy with, but ultimately we made up.

JA: How has your band Positive Force evolved from its formation in 1986 to it current state now, 20 years later?

FK: We have changed many members, my ex wife is no longer in it or my sister Yeni. We have three dancers one of them was originally in my father’s band but the other two girls auditioned for the part and got it. With regards to the band only the lead trumpeter and the trombonist are from the original band everyone else has changed.

JA: Tell me about your song “Beng, Beng, Beng” and the government’s reaction to it. Is it still banned, or has there been a change in policy with the new democratic leadership?

FK: It is a bit of fun really and the authorities took it too seriously. I was trying to tell them that the whole issue of Sex has to be addressed and not hidden. One minute there is a huge campaign on AIDS and the next minute they are banning my song. The two go hand-in-hand, don’t they? We need to be more open about sex then the whole issue of condoms can be discussed. I also wrote a song about AIDS – “Cover your Bamboo!” – to try and make people aware of the problems of having sex. As we know AIDS is decimating Africa and unless we all become more open it will carry on at a rate it is. And yes it is still banned.

JA: How do you feel about the political and social changes in Nigeria in the past decade, with the coming of democracy and Obasanjo’s presidency?

FK: There have been no changes; if anything life has got worse. Where do I start… Nigeria is Nigeria… Nigeria is full of corruption and nothing has really changed since my father’s time. There is even more disparity of wealth. Nigeria being oil rich the young people do not understand why they are poor, and crime increases all over. And then there is the issue of religion and the fighting between the Christians and the Muslims, there is a lot of tension and Islamic fundamentalism has grown because of the larger worldwide issues going on. The only way is for the Africans to help themselves. We have to get over our colonialist/slavery mentality and start to change things for the better. Every country has corruption but there are now corrections in place to find out who the people are who are involved and therefore hopefully over time corruption will get better. Also if other countries could alter their foreign policies such as fair trade then yes, this will make a difference. But the reality is strong countries are not going to help weaker countries; they will only play at it. If they become fair-minded they will lose their next election! We live every day with limited electricity and water. We make the most of it. A new president was voted in recently – Umaru Musa Yar'Adua – but to be honest things are not getting better, just worse. When these people get into power they never fulfill their promises. You see them with their big cars, they buy houses in England or America, they give their kids the best education, but the crop of the people, the masses themselves, they lose. Nigerians are used to being let down by their governments. We are Africa's biggest oil exporter, then how is it that we have fallen far behind other developing countries? Here is a nice figure for you: since independence from Britain in 1960, an estimated $400 billion of oil revenues have gone missing, presumed stolen, by the military and political elite.

JA: Do you feel a strong need to face and challenge some of the same political problems and forces that your father spoke out against?

FK: Of course I do, but it is difficult to change anything unless there is a radical complete overhaul of the existing people in government. I sometimes want to stop talking about the issues because nothing will change. Fela accepted a lot of beatings and still nothing changed. Being a spokesperson for Nigeria will hopefully at least make people sit up and notice the problems we face on a daily basis.

JA: Tell us about your new 2CD set “Definitive Collection: Femi Kuti” – what makes this collection special?

FK: The first album is a good retrospective of my past albums Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win; I have also got two tracks from an earlier album. The second album I have put just my remixes, I think it is such an honor for someone to love your music so much to remix tracks. Finally a track I really love was a track we recorded for Red Hot and Riot – “Water No Get Enemy” – which was a favorite of my father’s, this was recorded with Macy Gray and D’Angelo

JA: How do you feel about how your music has been received in America since you first toured here in 1995?

FK: I get a great reaction every time I come over to America which is great.

JA: It seems that hip hop and Afrobeat are an unlikely combination. What was it like for you to collaborate with artists like Common and Mos Def on your “Fight to Win” album (2001)?

FK: It was fantastic, you have to keep on experimenting with your music, I think it really worked well.

JA: A friend of mine traveled to Nigeria and had the good fortune of being taken to some fabulous clubs and music scenes along the Nigerian coast, where she had the most incredible music and party experience of her life. She saw a side of Nigeria that very few hear about or know about, and she felt that there was great undeveloped potential for tourism there. Can you comment on this?

FK: I agree… Nigerians love music and it is a hotbed of musical talent. We know that Nigeria has a lot of tourist potential as the Shrine gets loads of tourists as well as local trade.

JA: Is there anything special you want people to know about your band and this upcoming tour?

FK: Just come and be prepared to enjoy yourselves

JA: Beyond this double CD set, do you have any plans for upcoming albums?

FK: Yes I have already recorded a new album, and my son is playing on it, I think the plans are to release it the end of this year, or early next year.

A Governor's Missionary Experience in Africa

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and wife Jeannie on the campaign trail.

It's very unusual for an American elected politician to have experience living in Africa and doing Christian service work. When Bill Ritter - Colorado's new governor - was in high school, he thought he might want to be a Catholic priest. Years later, he found a way to express his Christian ideals at a Catholic Mission in Zambia, outside of the seminary and the path to priesthood. In doing this interview with Ritter, I found that he was very easy to talk to, and he has far more depth to his personality beyond public role as a politician. It is clear to me that Bill and his wife Jeannie have a deep and abiding love for Africa.

A Governor's Missionary Experience in Africa

Father Bill Morel believes it was divine intervention that led Bill Ritter and his wife Jeannie to become lay missionaries at the Mongu nutrition center in Zambia, Africa in August 1987. As an administrator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Father Morel was responsible for the religious order’s missions in Africa and other parts of the world, and yet his organization had never accepted a lay couple as part of their work before. But the future Colorado governor and his wife would prove to be an extraordinary exception.

Father Morel first met Ritter when he was an idealistic high school student coming to San Antonio, Texas, to study at St. Anthony’s, a special Catholic high school for young men considering becoming missionaries and priests. Ritter stayed at the school for his freshmen and sophomore years, and while he eventually decided to follow a secular path in his career and education, Ritter had been deeply impressed by his mentors at St. Anthony’s. Nearly twenty years after his seminary experience, married and with a one year-old son, Ritter felt a strong spiritual urge for service, and he called Father Morel with a special request.

“He called and said, Father Bill, but I don’t know if you remember me, but you taught me as a sophomore. I don’t want you to interrupt me, because I have something to say all at once, or I won’t have the courage to say it,” Father Morel said, recalling Ritter’s nervous voice over the phone. “I’m married to Jeannie and we have a one year-old child and we want to work as lay missionaries in Zambia, with Oblates of Mary Immaculate.”

Ritter didn’t know that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate did not work with lay couples; he also had no idea that Father Morel had received an unusual letter from the Bishop of Zambia that very day. The Bishop’s letter explained that a very important nutrition center in Zambia needed new leaders, and the Bishop requested a lay couple. Father Morel was stunned.

“To me it was perfectly clear – I had never in my life seen such a clear example of God intervening in kind of a coincidental way,” Father Morel said. After he told Ritter about the letter, Father Morel declared that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were going to change their rules, despite their usual concerns about the complications of housing and accommodating lay missionary couples. Bill and Jeannie Ritter were going to see their wish come true.

While going through a year of training and evaluation, the Ritters sold their house and most of their possessions in preparation for their three-year missionary service in Africa. It would prove to be an indelible experience. Witnessing crushing poverty, the onset of the AIDS epidemic, horrible diseases and malnutrition, as well as experiencing beautiful traditional cultures and the great love and dignity of the Zambian people, Africa had a profound impact on the Ritter family.

The Oblates mission was in the town of Mongu, the capital of the Western Province of Zambia – but the provincial “capitol” was really little more than an isolated back-country hamlet.

“The paved streets were probably only a mile long through Mongu town. Most of the people there lived in villages with thatched huts,” Ritter recalled, adding that there were only a few other expatriates in the area. “We were saturated by Zambian friends, Zambian workmates and Zambian culture.”

Ritter describes the mission as having 45 “bush depots” that been established for distributing food to rural villages; he and Jeannie created more depots, and worked on diversifying the mission’s activities to stimulate economic development and help the mission achieve sustainability. In addition to running a nutrition education program for village mothers, they set up a poultry program, expanded a fisheries project and sold fishing nets to fishermen along the Zambezi River.

Ritter estimates that the mission moved 60 tons of agricultural commodities per month between Mongu, the rural village depots and Lusaka, Zambia’s capitol. Through buying and selling, Ritter was able to raise a cash fund that was eventually used to build rice mills, which was a significant expansion of a rice project that Japanese aid workers had introduced 10 years earlier. Between the fisheries, the poultry project and the rice mills, Bill feels that he and Jeannie were able to achieve modest success in expanding the mission’s profile from a nutrition center to aiding economic development in the region.

“Today it functions as a cooperative and outpost that helps in agricultural economic development and that was part of our vision,” Ritter says. “We began thinking about it in broader terms than just feeding people; we began thinking about it in terms of economic development. That was a really important part of us doing the right thing.”

Despite Ritter’s success with the Oblates mission, he was dismayed by many of the overwhelming development needs of Africa. Ritter arrived at a time when the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to make an impact in Africa, and the rapid spread of the disease was disheartening. The Oblates also ran Zambia’s only leprosarium – a special hospital for lepers – and Ritter worked closely with two lepers who were eventually able to return to their communities.

“The interesting thing about sub-Saharan Africa is you can work really hard on health and nutrition issues, but with something like AIDS, as much as you wind up doing, you are keeping the score down, unless you engage in other kinds of prevention work,” Ritter points out. “But what I always, say and this is absolutely true – what may be even more clear to me than the devastating affects of poverty, disease and AIDS is the grace with which these people handled all that.”

Beyond fulfilling Christian service work and providing tangible aid to the region, the Ritters’ experience in Zambia has had a unique and lasting affect on their family. When they arrived in Mondu, Ritter’s eldest son, Augustine, was a year and four months old, while their second son, Abraham, was born in Zambia in June 1988, and by the time the left in June 1990, Jeannie was pregnant with her third son, Sam. Young Augustine – who was four years old by the time the Ritters left Zambia – played almost exclusively with Zambian children and was deeply affected by his environment on a subconscious level.

Ritter loves to tell a story about how his oldest son was somewhat confused when they returned to Colorado from Africa.

“I have 10 brothers and sisters, and they all have children, so he has all these cousins who came in the first few days we were home and they just mauled him. And he looked at me after we had been home three days and he said, ‘Dad, are we white?’” Ritter said with a chuckle. “It’s great story if you think about it. It speaks to the innocence of childhood. It never had occurred to him that in spite of the fact that he was white – he was blonde haired and blue-eyed, with a light skin tone – it hadn’t occurred to him that he was different from all of his (African) playmates.”

By the time the Ritters returned from Africa, young Augustine had acquired a British accent with a hint of an African Bantu dialect. While Augustine lost his accent over time, Bill believes that all of his children were affected by the family experience in Africa, which had “some kind of positive impact on the breadth of their thinking.” Abraham, who was born in Zambia, recently returned to Africa, visiting Ethiopia with the Four Quarters for Kids program, run by Noel Cunningham, the owner of Strings restaurant.

Ritter keeps up with political events in Africa, particularly the situation in Darfur, Sudan, civil unrest in Zimbabwe, the ongoing conflict the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the International War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha on the genocide in Rwanda. Beyond his faith and concern for Christian social justice issues, governor Ritter feels that his experience in Africa has also affected his view of political leadership.

“I think that with all that I’ve seen in the way of devastation and the really serious crises that I’ve witnessed, I have some perspective. We have serious issues here I’ll have to handle as governor,” he says. “But I think I have some perspective and it gives me some ability to remain calm as we walk through some of the difficult issues we face as a state,”

Ritter also feels he’s learned some important lessons from the Zambians themselves.

“Zambians are people who have a different pace than the Western pace. While I work hard and work long days, there is something I think to being more focused on trying to do the right thing rather than the quick thing. And that I think has always been a help and a benefit to me.”

Monday, January 15, 2007

Pathways to Africa's New Information Age

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The regional operating center of WorldSpace, the satellite radio company founded by African visionary entrepreneur Noah Samara. WorldSpace was the progenitor of XM satellite radio, and has two geostationary satellites broadcasting to all of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and most of Western Europe.

Pathways to Africa's New Information Age

Among the pantheon of digital media revolutionizing pop culture and entertainment – the Internet, iPods and iPhones, Blackberries and PDAs, laptops and game consoles, TIVOs and DVRs – Americans are just beginning to warm up to the notion of satellite radio.

Multi-million dollar contracts, massive PR campaigns and bidding wars between satellite radio giants XM and Sirius, drawing in the likes of Howard Stern, Bob Dylan and Oprah Winfrey, are driving much of this growing interest. In high-stakes bids for the satellite radio market, both XM and Sirius have moved beyond recruiting high profile personalities and into establishing powerful alliances with automobile manufactures. The result: virtually all new cars come equipped with satellite radios as a standard feature.

In 1990 – years before Americans had even heard about satellite radio – an African engineer was on his way to becoming a major force in developing the technology and making the concept commercially viable. Today, Noah Samara remains relatively unknown. The Ethiopian of Sudanese heritage sought to establish satellite radio as an economic and technological force initiating in Africa and spreading to Asia, Europe and the developed world.

“In the mid-1980s, I read something that changed my life,” Samara said at a commencement speech at his alma mater, Stroudsberg University of Pennsylvania. “It was an article in the Washington Post about AIDS in Africa and how it was spreading because millions of people had no information or the wrong information. It became clear to me that people weren’t simply dying of disease; they were dying of ignorance. Something had to be done.”

His idea was to launch a satellite over Africa that would broadcast digital radio to inexpensive portable receivers. He quit his job.

At an international convention in 1992, Samara convinced 127 developing countries to grant him satellite bandwidth on the L-band, outmaneuvering competing proposals put forward by the Canadian and Austrian governments. He secured $1.1 billion in financial backing from powerful Saudi interests, and won approval from the Federal Communications Commission for the first U.S. satellite radio license. Samara’s brainchild, WorldSpace – the world’s first satellite radio broadcaster – launched its AfriStar satellite from French Guiana in 1998. The launch of the AsiaStar satellite followed in 2000. WorldSpace currently broadcasts satellite radio to over 130 countries including India and China, all of Africa and the Middle East and most of Western Europe – an area that includes five billion people and more than 300 million automobiles.

“We needed around $1.5 billion to make it happen,” said Samara, who was a successful lawyer with the International Telecommunications Union in 1990 when he experienced his epiphany and literally sketched out his ideas on a napkin in a restaurant.

Samara and WorldSpace were prime movers in the creation of XM – the first satellite radio broadcaster in the United States. They developed the proprietary microchip technology used in XM receivers and financed a 20 percent stake in the initial venture. Eventually WorldSpace sold its stake in XM, and the latter concentrated on the North American market while WorldSpace focused on leveraging its technology in Europe, Africa and Asia. Four percent of WorldSpace’s satellite bandwidth is dedicated to meeting the special humanitarian needs of the developing world, such as long distance education.

Unknown Genius

Samara’s story and his relative anonymity speaks volumes about mass media perceptions of Africa and how little is known of the Motherland’s potential in this new age of globalization. Much like Koos Bekker, the South African wunderkind who helped create the encryption technology that is used for most satellite subscription services throughout the world, the achievements of Samara and others of his ilk seem perpetually obscured by tragic stories about HIV/AIDS, war, famine, terrorism and conflict in Africa.

The modern media is heavily skewed toward Europe and America and strengthening age-old stereotypes of Africa as both a backward continent and a futile place for investment or progress. Africa has wide swaths of untouched wilderness and vast rural areas with no power grids and cars, but the interface with modern forces of globalization is there nonetheless.
Very few people outside of those with specialized business and telecommunications interests are aware that the African continent is surrounded by a giant submarine network of fiber optic cable extending from Portugal to Cape Town, South Africa known as the 3rd Southern Africa Telecommunication/West Africa Submarine Cable (or SAT3/WASC). This 15,000 km cable is supplemented by another 13,800 km cable extending from Cape Town to Malaysia known as the Southern Africa Far East cable (SAFE) and by a third submarine cable reaching from Cape Town to The Sudan, called the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy). The SAT3/WASC and EASSy cable systems were spearheaded by South Africa and funded by a consortium of 12 investors from Africa, four from America, eight from Asia and 12 from Europe, contributing more than $600 million. These fiber optic cables offer the widest bandwidth and highest speed for voice, audio, data and video transmission of any modern medium (including satellite) and provide Africa with a highly desirable, state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure.

In the coming years, residents of some of the world’s most geographically, economically and culturally isolated regions will gain access to a global information superhighway, “leap-frogging” the costly and environmentally intrusive infrastructure originally developed in the West. Limitless renewable energy from solar photovoltaic panels and low-cost technology (such as $100 laptops, using free, open-source software) will open a window on the world. Moreover, in light of new African regional and international forums for cooperation, such as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Union, the possibilities are boundless.

Ubuntu Spirit

Like Samara, Mark Shuttleworth is an African entrepreneur who merged globalization into his own vision. Shuttleworth was a business student at the University of Cape Town in 1995 when he founded Thawte, an Internet consulting business that built a full-security e-commerce Web server available outside of the United States. Both Netscape and Internet Explorer came to see Thawte as a trusted third-party authentication certifier for public key encryption technologies.
After a rapid rise in the global market Shuttleworth sold Thawte to VeriSign for $600 million. Shuttleworth then dedicated himself to his love of space travel – training with the Russian crew of Soyuz TM34, and becoming the world’s second private “space tourist.” He also developed open-source computer software systems for use in Africa and the developing world. He created the Ubuntu project, desktop and server technology dedicated to making open-source software accessible and user-friendly.

Ubuntu is an African traditional concept that roughly translates into “humanity” or “I am who I am because of who we all are.” It essentially reflects the value of community, sharing and cooperation that is prevalent among various ethnic groups throughout the African continent. From the perspective of computer technology, open-source systems – unlike proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows – are developed by a community of software programmers who share free access to the source code to modify it and build their own interfacing software applications.

Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu software and hardware systems are aimed at making Linux open-source operating systems accessible to ordinary, non-technical computer users. With attractive interfaces and stylish graphic artwork that markets the values of community and sharing, the Ubuntu Web site proclaims “software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.”

Ubuntu distributes the Linux operating system free of charge and operates associated programs like Edubuntu, a platform of educational software. It also runs a variety of initiatives under the Hip2BSquare brand, which aim to make mathematics and science attractive to pupils who are beginning to choose their subjects for high school.

Many African governments recognize the value of open-source software in Africa’s development and they are making commitments to use Linux systems as well as Ubuntu products. Even Microsoft owner Bill Gates, aware of the challenge open-source and Ubuntu represent, has made overtures to subsidize low-cost versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system for African governments. The future could see Africa using different technological systems, formats and software that are distinct from Microsoft Windows’ domination of the West, and more suited to Africa’s unique cultural and economic imperatives.

In Africa, things are often not what they appear to be, and there is much to see beyond the distortions and superficial perceptions of mass media images. Unbeknownst to many in the West, there are brilliant minds in Africa creating and shaping their own versions of a bright, bold and extraordinary future.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Barack Obama: Dreams of an African Ancestor

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Barack Obama being interviewed at the 2004 Democractic Convention.

Throughout the 2006 elections everybody was talking about Barack Obama, and everybody was asking the question, will Obama run for president in 2008? I'd like to to turn the question on its head somewhat, and try to look at Obama's rise to prominence from the perspective of his father, the perspective of an African ancestor...

Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor

Now that the election results are in and we have witnessed a historic transfer of power in Congress (or “peaceful overthrow of the government,” as a lawyer-activist friend of mine says) pundits and commentators are naturally speculating about the mood of the country and the 2008 Presidential election. For the Democrats, the undisputed star of the 2006 elections was Barack Obama, who seemed to take the political world by storm. The charismatic Illinois senator broke fundraising records and made his presence felt as he stumped for just about every Democratic candidate who was locked in a critical or not-so-critical race. Jockeying for prime position in the national spotlight, Obama shrewdly timed a 13-city promotional tour for his book, The Audacity of Hope, to coincide with the most crucial part of the campaign season. Obama also used the Congressional August recess to travel to Africa, generating international publicity while making important stops in South Africa, Djibouti, Ethiopia and his father’s ancestral home of Kenya.

If Americans didn’t know Barack Obama’s face before his Africa trip, by October just about everyone caught a glimpse of him through various media outlets, from the covers of Time, Vogue and Vanity Fair to heavyweight television shows like Oprah Winfrey, Larry King Live and Nightline. Obama symbolized new hope and possibilities for the Democratic Party, and suddenly tongues started wagging about the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review making a very realistic bid to become the first Black president of the United States. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks urged Obama to run, paying him a compliment by saying that any Republican nominee should at least have to earn the distinction of beating Barack Obama. But his liberal colleague Maureen Dowd chided Obama for being caught up in the glamour of his own celebrity without settling down to the hard work of “being a man of history” and declaring his candidacy.

Interestingly enough, reaction among African Americans to Barack Obama and his presidential aspirations has been more mixed than one might expect. Before the elections, columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson proclaimed that Obama is “not the right tonic for Democrats” to win the presidency in 2008. Hutchinson pointed to Obama’s youthful inexperience, and a fear that the Republican South would not respond kindly to the idea of a Black president. Looking more deeply into African American perceptions about Obama’s candidacy, I was surprised to find considerable ambivalence or even outright resistance to the senator’s meteoric rise to media prominence. One writer described what he called "the Wayne Brady factor” with Black folks, who automatically become suspicious when they see a Black man being adored by White people. On one message board I made a comment about Obama being an intellectual, and another brother corrected me. “W.E.B. Du Bois was an intellectual. Franz Fanon was an intellectual. This n----a just got some hype.”

It later dawned on me that traditional African-American civil rights activists and community leaders might be uncomfortable with Obama because he breaks the oppositional mold and represents a new kind of Black political leader who has a broader focus and wide appeal. Obama has so many dimensions to his background and personality – a White mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, community organizer in Chicago’s inner-city, exemplary Harvard Law scholar – that people become befuddled when they try to fit him into their preconceived notions about politicians. A friend of mine who is Black and White and pointedly insists on describing Tiger Woods and himself as “interracial,” cynically wonders why the media should get excited about a potential presidential candidate just because he happens to be “interracial.” But Obama seems to distance himself from Tiger Woods’ philosophy of racial identification; among White crowds Obama refers to himself as a “Black guy” and among Black crowds he describes himself as a “brother.” Obama’s chameleon-like persona seems natural and without pretense; many journalists are fascinated by his ability to engage large crowds with an authentic, affable, “conversational” style. Both of his books, The Audacity of Hope and his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, read as intimate yet sophisticated and lucid conversations on complex topics viewed from his own personal experiences. Time columnist Joe Klein describes Dreams from My Father as possibly “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” Obama’s books illuminate the motivations and insights of a remarkably intelligent man who is very comfortable navigating the high-speed post-modern cultural and technological forces that are reshaping American society.

Barack Obama is often criticized as being inexperienced, long on speeches and media publicity and short on actual legislative accomplishments. Some critics note that his political views are not particularly innovative or visionary, but rather reflect the standard ideas and positions that liberal Democrats have been espousing for years. Others tend look at the hard possibilities of winning Southern states, and are skeptical that Obama is up to the task, at least for the upcoming 2008 election. But whatever Obama may be lacking in legislative experience, he compensates for with sheer intelligence and motivational idealism. A Barack Obama presidential candidacy would be good for the nation, pushing the envelop of what Americans believe is possible, as Americans – especially African Americans – have always found a peculiar excitement in breaking barriers. Ironically, Barack Obama may be the only Democrat with the charisma and magnetism to challenge the near mythical hero status of Republican candidates like former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani and Senator John McCain. Obama’s greatest strength may lie in his seemingly unique ability to identify with different sectors of America’s society, perhaps even including evangelicals. As a community organizer in Chicago, Obama found his home in the Black church, and is comfortable talking about religion during his political speeches. Obama even devoted an entire chapter in The Audacity of Hope to the subject of “Faith.”

As I watch Obama’s carefully crafted chessboard moves within the media spectacle surrounding his life, I can’t help wondering about the one dimension of his life that may be the least well-known or understood. I can’t help thinking about his African ancestry, and what his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., might feel about his son’s political fortunes were he alive today. I find myself captivated by the looming figure of Barack Obama’s father and his African origins.

Barack Obama the elder was born into the Luo tribe in Nyangoma-Kogelo in 1936, a small village in rural western Kenya. Inasmuch as a son’s destiny is connected with his father, the American Obama’s story really begins in this remote part of Africa, when missionary schoolteachers noticed a certain young African’s precocious intelligence, and sent him to a boarding school in Nairobi. The bright young man distinguished himself again in Nairobi, and was selected among the most promising Kenyan students of his generation to attend American universities. Barack Hussein Obama Sr. went on to receive scholarships from the University of Hawaii – where he earned his bachelor’s degree graduated at the top of his class – and Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in economics.

Barack Obama Sr. returned to Kenya in 1963, during the early years after independence, when many of Africa’s great leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya – had bright visions about their nations’ futures. Armed with his ambition and his Harvard credentials, Barack Obama Sr., a Luo, was assigned to a top government position, only to see president Jomo Kenyatta appoint a less-qualified fellow Kikuyu tribesman to become Obama’s charge. The move infuriated Obama Sr., who complained loudly that tribalism was going to be the downfall of the new Kenyan nation. But Jomo Kenyatta – the proud founding father of Kenya – reportedly told Obama Sr. that he would never find a job in Kenya again, and closed ranks against the brilliant Harvard economist. Kenyatta’s vengefulness made earning a livelihood and providing for his family extraordinarily difficult for Obama Sr., and this is one of the heartbreaking stories in Dreams from My Father. One can easily see why Barack Obama Jr. has spoken out forcefully against corruption in Africa, even to the point of addressing the Kenyan Parliament during his recent African trip about the intertwined problems of corruption and tribalism.

Although Obama’s speech stirred some controversy, his visit to Africa was overwhelmingly successful. Obama engaged in dialogues with South African leaders, and in Kenya he drew huge, adulating crowds wherever he went. Many Kenyans, one would assume, cannot help being proud of the fact that their “favorite son” could possibly win election to the most powerful office in the world. Surely the most educated and sophisticated Africans, as well as the most humble, know that Obama’s potential success portends well for Africa, the developing world and the international community. One can perhaps imagine the spirit of Barack Obama Sr., silently urging his son to live up to his talent and potential, and to fear nothing in a society that is supposed to be built upon individual freedom and merit. Like his father before him, Barack Obama is pushing the envelop, striving to fulfill his ambition. Judging from the results of the 2006 elections and Obama’s role in the Democrats’ success, there are many Americans who would like to see this highly gifted and compassionate African American become the next president of the United States.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Refugee All-Stars and the Power of Music

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It’s hard to imagine a war where hands, arms and legs are amputated with machetes and family members are tortured and murdered in front of each other for the maximum terror effect. A war fought over and fueled by the accessibility and profits of diamonds. While Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor ruthlessly spurred some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, people like Reuben Koroma, Franco Langba and Arahim Kamara were left to bear the brunt of their excesses and pick up the pieces. Their music – the music of the Refugee All-Stars – is magic in and of itself, let alone considering the extraordinary circumstances in which the group formed. To hear or see the Refugee All-Stars is to experience the real healing power of music, to know inner strength and to be part of a fantastic vibe.

Be sure to check out Zach Niles and Banker White's award-winning film "The Refugee All-Stars" and buy the All-Stars new CD "Living Like a Refugee." It's great music and it's bound to make you feel good... My favorite title is "Garbage to the Showglass," an ironic, supremely joyful chant about their improbable rise to fame. "They found us in the garbage, and put us in a showglass in the biggy biggy time..." "Black Nature" delivers a wickedly beautiful rap about God with interwoven English, Krio, French and African inflections, and everyone jumps in verse-by-verse to sing their own story.

The Refugee All-Stars and the Power of Music

Reuben Koroma has known the terrible depth of suffering and grief in Africa, yet his music has carried him from hopelessness to heights of abounding joy and ecstasy.

As a refugee from the diamond killing fields of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, Koroma was one of some 2 million displaced people who witnessed one of the world’s most gruesome conflicts, a war full of horrid atrocities. Throughout the 1990s tens of thousands Sierra Leoneans were killed or maimed as the ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel forces made a brutal bid for political power and control of the country’s lucrative diamond trade.

Yet in the midst of the horror, seeds were being sown for an astounding breakthrough for Koroma and his music. In 1999 at Sembakounya Refugee Camp, deep in rural Guinea, Koroma found Franco Langba and Arahim Kamara, fellow musicians he knew and had jammed with in Freetown. With an old, beat-up guitar and makeshift drums, the artists began playing music to entertain and uplift the spirits of their fellow refugees. They were eventually joined by six others – including a rapper – and created their own spirited blend of reggae, R&B, hip hop and West African genres, dubbing themselves “The Refugee All-Stars.”

American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White happened upon the Refugee All-Stars in 2002 while they were traveling through Guinea, seeking to make a documentary on the devastation of the civil war. With financial help from some high profile celebrities including Keith Richards, Bob Geldof, Graham Nash and Steve Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith, Niles and White followed the Refugee All-Stars for three years as the band performed in various refugee camps and grappled with the prospect of returning home to Freetown. With the assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the band members visited Freetown and then returned to the refugee camps to spread the word that the war was “done-done” and Freetown was safe once again. By mid-2004 Koroma and the All-Stars were back in Freetown recording their first album, “Living Like a Refugee,” at Island Studios, a sparse one-man operation run by Sam Jones, an easy-going British expatriate.

“The Refugee All-Stars,” Niles and White’s sensitive and poignant film was released in 2005 and won numerous national and international film festival awards while introducing the Refugee All-Stars and their music to enthusiastic audiences. Beginning with their performance in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Koroma and his band have captivated crowds with the irrepressible joy and energy of their unique sound. The groundbreaking Austin gig was punctuated with dynamic summer concerts throughout the US, Canada and Japan. The Refugee All-Stars current 26-city tour hits the Boulder Theater on November 7, and includes December concert appearances in London and Paris.

All of the band members have faced horrific tragedies, and some of them even had limbs cut off by the rebels. (Amnesty International estimates that the RUF mutilated about some 20,000 people in Sierra Leone, hacking off hands, arms and legs with machetes and axes, to terrorize people into working the diamond fields.) The soft-spoken Koroma – who witnessed his mother and father being killed during the war – is utterly amazed at the All-Stars’ journey from jamming in isolated rural refugee camps to polished stage performances at large international music festivals.

“My life was very bad a few years ago in the refugee camp – I was suffering in very bad conditions and I didn’t have something to hope for. But now things are really happening for the Refugee All-Stars,” Koroma said during a phone interview, in his soulful, rhythmic Krio English. “I believe this kind of success is a very good thing for us, and we feel important – we feel successful. I always feel good that I have been able to achieve and have many of the things that I was dreaming.”

From the 19 year-old rapper “Black Nature” to the silver-haired elder rasta Ashade Pearce, the Refugee All-Stars have a unique, eclectic sound that holds together diverse influences. Their album, “Living Like a Refugee” – released in the US in September on Anti Records – blends the familiar flavors of reggae and hip hop with rhythms and tones that are more deeply African and unfamiliar. While Koroma’s lyrics tell the story of the war, life in the refugee camps and themes of oppression, love and compassion, the music itself does not bear a hint of sadness. It’s clear – as Koroma points out – that music is intended to heal.

“It’s because of the love of music that we get together and then despite all of the struggles, all the constraints we are facing, we still really have some happiness within our hearts.” Koroma says, describing their music as a kind of therapy and having the power to heal trauma. “It’s treatment for us, because when we play music it feels like most of our problems are minimized. And then not only for us, but we saw hundreds of thousands of refugees were interested in listening to us. And then I think to myself, this might help them to minimize their problems, because everybody in the refugee camp has psychological problems.”

From the moment the Refugee All-Stars set foot in the United States, their music has taken the Western world by storm, and the band found itself thrown into a whirlwind of music industry machinations. Their very first performance at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival led to an on-the-spot negotiation for a major tour and promotion deal with the Rosebud Agency. With the tremendous buzz being generated by their concerts and the “Living Like a Refugee” CD, it seems that the Refugee All-Stars are on track to emulate the success of the Buena Vista Supper Club, the Cuban artists who sold millions of CDs worldwide after being propelled to fame through a film documentary by famed musician and impresario Ry Cooder.

While the Refugee All-Stars have electrified crowds at Central Park in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Koroma describes a peak experience in Niigata, Japan at the Fuji Rock Festival, where the band’s music appeared to break cultural barriers.

“Before we played people were telling us that it’s difficult for Japanese people to dance to music – they like listening but they don’t normally dance to international music. But when we came on stage we saw that more than 4,000 or 5,000 people were dancing,” Koroma said, barely able to contain his enthusiasm as his voice rose in excitement. “Everybody was dancing –it was like magic! I just thought it was wonderful, because I was not expecting that. I was just expecting 10, or three or five people would dance and the others would sit. To my surprise I saw everybody dancing, people coming from all different directions.”

Koroma is optimistic about the future of Sierra Leone and the impact the Refugee All-Stars are making on their local music scene and international music. He says that before the war there was only one radio station in Sierra Leone, and now there are six in Freetown, and each regional district has its own radio station. He also says that the people of Sierra Leone are “very, very proud” of the All-Stars for “making history in the world,” and as a result local musicians are gravitating toward playing instruments and live music as opposed to computerized, digital songs.

Koroma likes to point out that the Refugee All-Stars are revolutionizing music by introducing certain indigenous West African rhythms to the rest of the world.

“We have a traditional beat that is called the goombay beat, and we have another traditional beat in Sierra Leone that is called muktivange,” Koroma explains, adding that goombay is specific to Sierra Leone when muktivange is played all over West Africa. “This kind of beat (goombay) is really a traditional beat that has never been exposed in the Western world, and we are trying to do that. We are playing it one of the sounds on our album, “Ya N’Digba.”

To their credit, the Refugee All-Stars have demonstrated the resilience of Africa and the extraordinary power of music to heal and transform human emotions. Their triumph over adversity and their boundless optimism offers a much-needed ray of light in world of escalating conflict, fear and violence.

For more information on the Refugee All-Stars visit

Friday, September 15, 2006

Motherland of the Mind, Body & Spirit

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Maurice Haltom in a live concert performance.

Africa, of course, is a continent, a location on our planet; but there are many dimensions and many ways of accessing Africa. While people jam to the latest pop dances and grooves, it sometimes escapes us that the common practices of African American popular culture or African traditional culture can be the gateway to a profound inner wisdom and intuitive knowledge. Teachers like Maurice Haltom – or “fundis” as they say in South Africa – remind us that we can find an infinite world of truth and beauty through the Motherland within ourselves.

Motherland of the Mind, Body and Spirit

Jamming to the latest R&B or hip-hop joints, or marveling at the grace and beauty of dancers in an Usher, Ciara or Aaliyah music video, we are captivated by a certain style and grace that is Africa. But it sometimes escapes us that the inherent sense of movement that created an endless variety of fascinating dances can also be the gateway to a deep intuitive wisdom, in much the same way that yoga in India - and Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong in China - are profound spiritual mind-body disciplines.

Indeed, just as African American pop dances are varied expressions of a certain inner theme or quality, and jazz music can yield many different renditions of a “standard” piece, Africa itself has the endless ability to adapt, absorb and morph its great identity into a multiplicity of manifestations. Sometimes certain teachers are able to illuminate these associations, to remind us that Africa has a richness of knowledge, congruities and connections that extend far beyond surface appearances.

As one such teacher, Maurice Haltom has never set foot in Africa, yet he carries the Motherland in his heart and mind, and throughout his whole being. In fact, it seems that virtually all of his aspirations and life’s work have been dedicated to exploring the profound wisdom and cultural connections underlying African music, movement and dance.

As a musician, Kung Fu and Tai Chi master, yoga instructor, psychotherapist and healer, Haltom has mastered an extraordinarily wide range of disciplines related to fitness and mind-body awareness. At Cornell University, the Omega Institute and in countless seminars and workshops from New York to California and the Caribbean, Haltom has taught students from all racial backgrounds and walks of life about health, healing and spiritual consciousness through African-based traditions.

After more than 30 years of teaching, Haltom – who currently lives in Ithaca, New York and runs the Cayuga Center for Wellness and Healing Arts – has developed distinctive innovations synthesizing spiritual practices from India and China with fundamental aspects of African culture. His unique perspective has evolved from amazing life experiences spanning decades of encounters with remarkable teachers and mentors.

Perhaps his journey was sparked in the late 50s, when Haltom was high school student in Berkeley, California and his family lived a few blocks from the coffeehouses of beatnik poets, who at the time were sowing the seeds of the radical social movements of the 60s. Unbeknownst to his parents, young Haltom’s talent for African drumming was drawing him into startling new relationships and outlooks.

“The beatniks were vital and interesting to me because they appreciated the bongo drum. They would have the bongo drum playing behind their poetry and that’s where I got my first stage appearances – behind the beat poets,” Haltom explained, adding that his parents thought he was out running his newspaper routes. “In the meantime I’d be at the coffeehouses really getting my mind opened up. I could pop in there and find a whole different reference point. My own peers were no longer my reference point.”

The beatniks had an “artistic, European and French non-materialistic orientation” that Haltom says encouraged him to look for novel philosophies and alternative perspectives to mainstream ways of thinking.

After graduating high school, Haltom enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in England when he met Aubrey, an African-American drummer and flutist who also practiced Karate. Haltom was intrigued by Aubrey’s ability to bridge the avant-garde world of jazz and martial arts; his new mentor introduced him to salsa music and Latin and Caribbean drumming styles, as well as the discipline of Oriental fighting techniques. But as Haltom delved further into Karate, he felt there was a natural connection between African dance movements and the martial arts, and he kept trying to create a more fluid fighting style, which ran against the grain of Aubrey and his other Karate teachers.

“There was a certain grace and a certain rhythm I wasn’t trying to get to and they couldn’t stand it,” Haltom says.

During the height of the radical changes of the 60s – from 1964 to 1969 – Haltom played music while immersing himself in the exciting social scenes that were developing in London, New York City and San Francisco. Haltom played for a variety of bands in California – including The Loading Zone, Kwandidos and Tower of Power – that at times opened for rock music icons Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore in San Francisco. During one of his rehearsals, an Afro-Latin percussionist who learned that Haltom was interested in martial arts challenged him to spar. Haltom later found out that this non-assuming, talented musician had acquired the nickname “Sal the Assassin.”

“He took me outside and we spread out to spar and he just took me back to school in a way that I just could not ignore,” Haltom says, unable to suppress his own hard, hearty laughter. “And he did it in a way that like dancing. He was into music and dance, and he was an alcoholic at the time, but he had a mind that was really open. He was trained by a Kung Fu master and I asked him to take me to his teacher.”

As a result of his “schooling” by “Sal the Assassin,” Haltom then began studying with Kung Fu master Steven Hou. Kung Fu, with its continuous, circular movements, seemed to have the fluidity that Haltom had been yearning for. Not long after beginning his tutelage with Hou, Haltom also witnessed the Chinese Dragon Dance, and he saw a cultural connection between China and Africa that he had intuitively sensed. While unmistakably Chinese, the Dragon Dance – with its colorful tassels and loud firecrackers symbolizing the thunder of springtime – also has an essentially African drumbeat and rhythm. Haltom noticed that even the movements of the Dragon dancers themselves resemble African dance styles.

With time, Haltom became more and more aware of fundamental, archetypal expressions of African movement and dance, seeking to integrate these movements into his own martial arts and fitness practices. When he decided to pursue a Master’s degree in psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in the early 70s, Haltom found a surprising number of students who were drawn to his multi-dimensional approach to music, dance and martial arts. He taught his first Tai Chi class in the summer of 1973 with one student, but by the next year the class ballooned to 70. By 1982 Haltom found himself opening the Aquarian School of Movement Therapy; four years later the center moved to another Ithaca location and became the Agape Institute for Movement Studies, offering a full range of classes in African drum and dance, Tai Chi, Kung Fu and yoga.

Haltom developed new techniques and practices that were based on the idea that “you could be rhythmic and continuous, and that could still be a basis for a kind of strength and power.” He envisioned the both the Aquarian School and the Agape Institute as embracing a “multi-cultural approach to becoming more mindful and more conscious of the body.” One of his most compelling classes, which he calls “Atlantean Yoga,” combined the fundamental postures of Indian Hatha yoga with circular motions of African dance.

Haltom was surprised at the growth of his organization and the general interest in his teachings.

“I never really thought that I was evolving something, but by about 1982, I was pretty aware that there was something going on here between Africa and China – and India, with the yoga postures,” Haltom explained, as he described the basis of his new form of yoga. “Atlantean Yoga involves the idea of taking postures which appear to be still, but because you’re breathing there is an opportunity of engaging in small, spinal flexing movements. You can find ways to keep the posture intact but at the same time undulate the spine and thighs.”

Haltom says that his work with the intensified breathing and movement innovations of Atlantean Yoga develops a particularly powerful sensitivity and connection to the Life Force, and presaged some of trends that would occur with the widespread popularization of yoga in the 90s. In particular, the practice of “Power Yoga," a form of athletic yoga with enhanced cardio-vascular activity developed by Rodney Yee in California, and Sanyasin Yoga, are both similar to Haltom’s Atlantean Yoga system.

During the time that he was developing the Aquarian Center and the Agape Institute, Haltom also studied with Chinese martial arts master Mantak Chia in New York City. He found that Chia’s teachings on the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and its body systems were applicable to almost all aspects of his personal life, right down to his African drumming technique and the way he played salsa music. Haltom developed a close relationship with Chia, and after a few years Chia invited him to work more directly in transmitting Chia’s knowledge to a wider range of students. It was a difficult decision, as master Chia was becoming a world-renowned teacher and his work eventually resulted in new interest in Qigong – Chinese esoteric yoga and healing techniques – in the United States and the Western world.

“Mantak Chia invited me to join him in the process of taking his teaching forward to a new level. And I really had to think about it, because I knew that in the back of my head there were other things that I didn’t really understand or know, and I turned him down,” Haltom explained. “It was very strange because I was getting a lot from his teachings, but I declined because of this inner feeling that I could see all of these connections between Africa, China and India (in my own work). That was the vision in the back of my head and so I declined, and that was hard.”

Haltom believes that African traditions and practices are generally not appreciated for their potential contribution to health and healing because they involve a mind-body orientation that is very different from standard Western thinking. But developing these practices are well worth the effort, because they can lead one to a new awareness of inner knowledge and the “collective unconscious” that is not accessible through conventional education.

“I call it from the bottom-up, because you learning and thinking and cognizing from a different part of your whole being, which I think is part of the collective unconscious anyway,” Haltom explains. “I think we all have this going on inside of us – it’s just about getting different ways to stimulate and open doors so this knowledge can come out.”

Haltom currently teaches a few classes per week at the Cayuga Wellness Center, but his life has been somewhat redefined by his psychotherapy work with Cornell students and in his own private practice. Although he does less mind-body activity, Haltom still feels his work as a psychotherapist parallels his involvement in music, African drumming and the martial arts and is similar to the traditional role of a shaman.

“Even right now, as a psychotherapist in a place as diverse as Cornell, I would see myself not so much as a psychotherapist as a shaman,” Haltom points out. “I say that because what I’m doing is assisting people to come in touch with a deeper part of themselves. We all have housed in us a relationship with the Life Force that is in each of us and in all life.”

Beyond the wealth of awareness and inner knowledge that can be developed through African music, movement and dance, Haltom believes Africa has a more general “gift” for humanity through the cultural processes that are reflected in jazz music and improvisation. Much like he adapted Tai Chi, Kung Fu, yoga and music to his own inner themes of rhythm and movement, Haltom sees a powerful adaptive intuitive consciousness that is inherent in African culture. Haltom believes it “takes a lot of training” to develop this consciousness, but the effort leads to “the opportunity you might have to start living a life like that.”

“I think that Africa comes with a unique plan for adapting right now, in the current moment – and to each and every moment – in a very spontaneous and fluid fashion,” Haltom says. “Each and every moment in life is a mystery, and the mystery is solved when I come to the mystery myself, connected to my inner lawfulness, and I can relinquish control and give over to this trust of there is something within myself that can adjust perfectly and adequately to a certain moment.”

Truly well spoken, like a griot, a fundi, an African sage. Through jazz, drumming, martial arts and more, Haltom has shown us that there are many inner gems of African mind-body wisdom, and many pathways to the Motherland in the heart.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Africa's Environment and a Woman's Mission

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A group of Nigerian women protesting environmental hazards at on oil refinery in the Niger Delta. Insert: Africa environmental justice activist Leslie Fields.

Before I interviewed Leslie Fields and talked in depth with her, I had given some thought to ecological issues in Africa, but I didn't see them as clearly as I do now or with the same sense of urgency. I knew something about the problems in the Niger Delta as well as climate change, soil erosion and desertification, but Leslie gave them a new prescience and a new realness. One thing I didn't mention in this article - although Leslie hinted at it - is the effect global warming is having on flooding, as the snows of Kilimanjaro and nearby mountains are melting. It's not as big as a problem as desertification, but it fits in the whole environmental-ecological picture in Africa. As more African Americans - and more people in general - travel to and become interested of Africa, we also have give consideration to these issues and become more involved in environmental justice.

Africa's Environment and a Woman's Mission

Leslie Fields is an African American woman who battles for sanity and reason in an insane, unbalanced world. Her long dred locks, high cheekbones and welcoming smile project soft-spoken character and a deep bond with the African Motherland she works so hard to protect. At first glance, one might not expect that this non-assuming woman is an international attorney who takes on the likes of Shell Oil and powerful government interests on behalf of unknown, powerless people. Yet throughout her career, Fields has found herself tirelessly admonishing, cajoling, exhorting and otherwise influencing an extraordinary array of ambassadors, cabinet ministers, senators and congressmen, CEOs, community leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) on environmental issues.

Most people think that ecology and environmental activism are the purview of liberal, touchy-feely Whites who live in suburbs and wear Birkenstock sandals. While there appears to be a lack of African-American interest in environmental activism, Fields encourages people to look beyond surface appearances and see that many ecological issues have important racial implications.

As an idealistic law student at Georgetown in mid-80s, Fields never studied environmental law, nor did she see herself becoming involved in the field. But during her early years as a practicing attorney working for the Texas Legislative Council and volunteering for the Sierra Club and the NAACP, she began to discern trademark patterns of community exploitation by large energy corporations.

“I got started doing environmental justice work here, in the United States. I realized very quickly all these companies were doing the same kind of exploitation – whether it’s “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, or the “Chemical Corridor” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” Fields explains. “You can’t live down there and not notice this. It’s very obvious; all these chemical companies and petrochemical companies are all sited in Black and Latino low-income neighborhoods.”

Through her legal role with the Texas Legislative Council, Fields drafted the first Texas Birth Defects Registry. At the time, many babies with birth defects were “being born in clusters” of locations near polluting plants, factories and chemical refineries. The Birth Defects Registry helped disseminate information from county hospitals so the problem could be viewed from a wider perspective. Her work on the Birth Defects Registry sparked off a new interest and lifelong passion for understanding the specific impacts of environmental policies on families and communities.

Fields adventurous backpacking trips and various travels through Mexico, Central America and South America only confirmed the same problems she saw in Texas and Louisiana. As she became more aware of the broader scope of environmental issues, Fields began meeting and networking with people from the countries she traveled in.

“As I traveled, I saw how the same companies were contaminating the same kinds of neighborhoods in Mexico and Central America,” Fields said. “Then I went to Ecuador for the first time, and I went to the Esmeraldas area, which is all Black, and that’s where they have their oil. And again, the same oil companies and their subsidiaries were contaminating that area.”

Fields new contacts would lead to involvement with larger groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and the National Black Environmental Justice Network, an organization she helped found. Fields gets excited when she talks about the friendships and sense of community she developed through her environmental justice work. She feels environmental justice is unique because anyone with an interest can get involved – from scientists, lawyers and students to grandmothers, church members or community leaders.

“My favorite people are older women, kitchen table advocates who see a problem, with no funding, no big organization behind them, and they get themselves together and they take on the city council or they take on whomever,” Fields said, laughing as she describes the culinary joys of her regional “Interstate 10” diet. “They’re involved in everything, they’re the keepers of the neighborhood and they also feed you. They give you bread pudding and sweet potato pie and barbeque and you drink beer and it’s just wonderful. People still sit around on their front porch and drink iced tea or beer and you see plant in the background with the flair and that’s where everybody has to work.”

Fields believes that everything she has done locally in the United States “translates globally” and naturally fits into the same patterns and environmental justice trends worldwide. At the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001, Fields and other activists worked hard to write platforms and draft position papers to elevate environmental justice issues to same level of other human rights issues like human trafficking, racial and sexual discrimination and torture. In Durban Fields met Niger Delta and Angolan activists who would help her focus on some of the most pressing environmental problems in Africa. After the Conference Fields became the director of the Friends of the Earth’s Global Sustainability Initiative, and then returned to South Africa to participate in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Her work with Friends of the Earth – one of the world’s largest environmental organizations – initiated a new phase of work on African environmental causes.

With the highly visible martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, the international media was gradually becoming aware of the exploitation of the Ogoni people and other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta region through the actions of multinational oil companies like Shell, BP and Agif. As Fields traveled to Nigeria and worked with NGOs and government officials she became sensitive to many of the complexities of Nigeria’s economic growth and development. She feels very strongly that the problems in the Niger Delta are one of the world’s worst – and least followed or understood – environmental crises.

“The Niger Delta is a civil war that no one is paying attention to. Everybody hears about Iraq, everybody hears about different places in the world like Palestine, but this is a civil war, and people are suffering and dying, people are being contaminated, and women are having miscarriages,” Fields explained with sadness and anger in her voice, adding that many problems are accentuated by poor oversight and lack of environmental regulations and standards. “Nigeria flares and wastes more gas than any (other) place in the world because BP and Shell and Agip just care about getting the oil – they don’t care about what happens to the gas getting burned off in the production process.

“They flare it on the ground, they flare it ceiling high, they flare it all over the place. So all these communities have terrible pollution. I’ve seen pipelines next to health clinics and elementary schools – they just put them everywhere.”

The situation in the Niger Delta is part of a bigger problem with other countries in Africa like Angola and Equatorial Guinea. Fields describes these places as being “awash in all these new oil wells, and people are living in filth.” These problems have new implications for African Americans, as volatile global conditions are forcing the United States to get one-quarter of its oil and gas from West Africa. In the drive to satisfy its thirst for oil, the American government and US foreign policy will “follow the same model” of Shell and BP, creating conditions that oppress the lives of Africans.

Fields is adamant about raising these issues in African-American organizations and forums like the Association of Blacks in Energy, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, where often she is the lone environmental justice advocate. She feels too many Blacks do not see the multi-layered connections between America and Africa.

“As African Americans, we cannot walk around now with our newfound knowledge and our Akente cloth and pretend like nothing’s happening over there. People are dying so we can drive SUVs,” Fields says passionately, adding that environmental hazards have created a cholera epidemic in Angola. “In the Niger Delta and in Angola people live in the most appalling filth so that oil companies can get that oil out of there and sell it to us at a price that we can live with. We can’t pretend that we’re buying African art and everything’s ‘brothers and sisters’ over there and we’re part of the problem because of our consumption patterns.”

Fields says she has had some success and positive response from the American Association for Blacks in Energy – an organization of African Americans in executive positions in energy industries – and the Congressional Black Caucus. During Congressional Black Caucus week in Washington, D.C., a great deal of networking occurs between Black Congressional Staff, the Energy Department, energy professionals and Ambassadors and diplomats from African countries. Fields says she has met the Ambassador from Angola, Madam Ferreira, who has said she would love to get support for renewable sources of energy in Angola, but her country needs direct foreign investment to build basic infrastructure damaged from their 30-year civil war.

Beyond environmental and economic issues related to the oil industry, Fields is even more passionate about her work combating the problems of climate change and global warming. She describes ecological issues as the “back-story” to many of the conflicts occurring in Africa, and she feels more people need to understand climate change in the context of soil erosion, desertification and the effects it has on African populations.

“Climate change creates more conflict and migration than anything. People migrate because of floods and famines and because of desertification,” Fields says emphatically, her voice rising in indignation. “Remember those floods in Mozambique a few years ago? And the situation in Darfur is the way it is because women have to go out and find water and get fuel because there isn’t any anymore because of desertification and climate change, and then they get attacked by the Janjaweed.

“Climate change is fueling migration and making people move to areas where other people don’t want them. And it’s all about water, and it’s all about energy.”

While these global challenges appear daunting, Fields is enthusiastic because activists are making breakthroughs by applying pressure through critical avenues in the corporate world. Ironically, Fields points out that these new movements are being driven by some of the same activists who organized the movement to stop American universities from investing in apartheid South Africa. Along with Sister Pat Daley, one of the progenitors of the divestment movement, Fields served on the board of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), an organization that encourages large pension funds, insurance agencies, banks and institutional investors to vote for shareholder resolutions that reflect the true costs of “climate risk.”

Climate risk may include damage costs related to floods and hurricanes such as Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast last year, or any costs associated with the ecological impacts from climate change. Fields did similar work through Friends of the Earth by advocating that international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the US Export Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation carefully monitor costs associated with oil companies investing in the Niger Delta and Angola. Fields lobbied for more stringent requirements and standards regarding political risk insurance, making it more difficult for oil companies to write-off losses associated with business activities in regions known for poor environmental regulations and oppression.

Fields is very proud of the work she and other women activists are doing in Africa. She says one of her highlights in Africa was meeting Wangari Maathai - the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize - at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001. Dr. Maathi founded the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, which has planted 30 million trees to stop soil erosion and desertification while also enhancing Kenya’s development position via the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

“Women are holding up half the sky there – they’re doing it. I’ve met all kinds of women ministers and parliamentarians and women who are running NGOs, and women who’ve been through a lot,” Fields says. “Wangari Maathai is the best example of what I’m talking about. She went through a lot – she was imprisoned and beaten. Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf (the new president of Liberia) was also incarcerated.”

Fields feels blessed to have the opportunity to work in Africa, and she feels hopeful that growing numbers of African Americans will continue to travel and work in Africa.

“I definitely feel connected (to Africa), in a very, very broad sense, whereas growing up, we didn’t have that. Now I know more Africans, I know people from Africa who have friends here, and it’s enriched my life in a lot of ways that I can’t even put words to,” Fields says, with a sense of gratitude. “I search things out, and if something has an African Diaspora angle to it I will gravitate toward that. I’m much more of a critical thinker as an American because I have this Diaspora feeling in me. I try to think how my life will affect other people, particularly Black people.

“Because if we don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.”