Monthly Archives: April 2017

The West and East African Slave Trades, Compared

For those with an interest in colonial history, the West versus East African slave trade is a compelling comparison. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Fort Jesus stands as probably the best-preserved site at which to understand the difference between the two different slave trades on the opposite coasts of Africa. Here is what I considered during my visit, and some thoughts I had on the differences between West and East African slave history. All of these facts are taken from written citations, signs, or conversations with local experts, and not confirmed in publications, so they should be considered carefully.

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1. Routes: In the West, slaves were sent to the Americas as part of a triangle of trade. Men and women were kidnapped from West Africa and sent to North America, South America and the Caribbean. Then, the raw goods they produced, such as cotton and tobacco, were shipped to Europe. In turn, refined goods, such as lace, liquor, weapons, etc. were used to buy further slaves in West Africa. This sustained the triangle of exploitation.

However, slaves in East Africa were sent primarily to Middle East, and to Asia to a lesser extent, in more linear routes. Fort Jesus is important because it fortified the first Western domination over the Indian Ocean slave trade, by Portugal over Oman.

2. Mortality Rates: In East Africa, 4 out of 5 slaves died just during the journey from the interior to the coast, not including shipping. During the West African trade, 2 of 3 captives died during the entire passages across the Atlantic, including shipping. This means that the East African trek across land had a higher mortality rate than the entire transcontinental passage.

I would guess that the Portuguese and the Arabs had to venture farther into the eastern interior to get their captives, perhaps due to less densely populated coastlines in East Africa. Populations tend to congregate and grow around port and coastal areas. Or, because countries like Nigeria have an ample network of connecting creeks, using the creeks as transport routes would have facilitated kidnapping coastal peoples via boat from the deep interior. The East African trek was simply longer due to population spread over more challenging land routes. Having to travel further inland would also require Middle Eastern and Portuguese slave traders to expend more resources per slave, decreasing the overall quantity they could take from the east. This would just be my hypothesis.

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3. Duration and Intensity: The West African trade was shorter in duration and more intense in terms of number of slaves shipped per year than the East Africa one. The West African trade lasted about 300 years, with Portugal being the first trader in the 1400s, finally ending right around the time it lost control of Kenya in 1700. Perhaps the West African slave trade was more “professionalized” and thus able to export more slaves per year because each European power had its own territory and business venture clearly defined.

In comparison, the East African trade was lower impact, but sustained for longer.  Arab settlements in places like Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which was the largest source of slaves for Arabs, created the Swahili culture and language. Arabs established an African slave trade to the Middle East long before the Europeans did, as early as the 7th century. Trade reached its peak in the 18th century, but there is even a story of the Sultan of Oman bringing slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, long after the trade had ended.

It is important to note the difference in the nature of the two slave trades.  The transatlantic trade was chattel-based and slaves were worked to death with hard labor in the Americas. Those slaves, owned by Christians, were rarely able to keep their families together or buy their own freedom.  Slaves in the Arab world often had families and were able to possibly buy their own freedom over time, based on Quranic principles. East African slaves had a small degree of rights, and much of the female labor came in the form of domestic servitude rather than agricultural.

4. From Slavery to Independence: While exploring Fort Jesus, I wondered why West African countries seemed to gain independence just slightly before East African ones.  Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria gained independence in 1957, 1958, and 1960 respectively, while Tanzania didn’t become independent until 1961, and Kenya until 1963. A possible explanation for this is pan-Africanism and the effects of the American Civil Rights Movement. The exchange of ideas, ala Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, was geographically easier between West Africa and the U.S. than it would have been between East Africa and the U.S. simply because of proximity. Conversely, East Africa has much stronger ties to the Arab world, where slavery was still even practiced into the 1950s, e.g. Yemen, Oman. In other words, the Arab influence slowed down the independence movement in East Africa.

One of the true pleasures of being in the field is the freedom to consider history as it lies in front of you.  There seems to be less pressure to make sure your ideas are always “right,” and there is greater space to allow your thoughts to meander through the centuries.

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Peace Corps’s Grassroots Diplomacy Done Right in Africa

The above video is an example of the finest of volunteers produced by the U.S. Peace Corps. I served with Baktash Ahadi (Mozambique 2004-2006) and saw him embody the three goals of the organization: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. As his TED Talk demonstrates, Mozambique was a better place, and he was a better person, because he was there. So, why isn’t the program everywhere in Africa?

Although Nigeria has a domestic Peace Corps staffed by young Nigerians, the United States has had a very tenuous relationship regarding PC since the founding of the American program in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The international outreach program was plagued by a problems in its first year in Nigeria, when anti-colonial sentiment was running high. In the first months, a young volunteer dropped a postcard to her friend describing squalid living conditions there. A fellow student picked it up and upon its release, University of Ibaban students accused the volunteers of being American spies intent on a neocolonial agenda. Such political tensions remained until the program was then closed down in Nigeria in 1976. It again operated briefly from 1992-1995. Since then, there have been no substantive talks to reinstate the volunteer program there.

There are certainly challenges that the Peace Corps faces that must give us pause.  It does not tend to go to the neediest countries, hence its continued programs in Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., and a lack of presence in most of central Africa. Volunteers are young and inexperienced (for who else has the luxury of giving up their entire U.S. life?). I can personally attest to the disappointing medical care available to volunteers. I witnessed volunteers who faced mental health challenges living out in the bush all on their own. (However, admittedly, our 20s are often not the most stable of times anyway, and many a post-graduates in the U.S. faces their own personal stumbling blocks even at home.)

But, ultimately, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons, if only for the immeasurable and profound symbolic force that is the Peace Corps. Development and measurable impact aside, it says an immense amount about the American psyche that we can even produce thousands of young people willing to go live in poverty of their own volition. It says an immense amount about U.S. values that we spend tax money on such a program. I truly believe that Peace Corps helps improve the view of Americans in most countries that it operates in, reducing potential military expenditure based on potential tensions. In Mozambique, it makes rural villagers feel good that they are worthy of a college educated American’s talents and time. It makes them feel they matter.

I have heard the sentiment that Nigeria is too corrupt to host a U.S. Peace Corps program, and that the rate of kidnapping for ransom of foreigners is too high. There is the argument that Nigeria is too far removed from independence, that if the U.S. doesn’t implement a program in the years following independent statehood, then the country becomes intractably entrenched in its ways.

My feeling is that if the Peace Corps doesn’t go exactly where the challenges are, exactly where it is most needed, what is the purpose of the program at all?

 

What If You Held An African Summit And No Africans Could Come?

From NPR’s 

Photo illustration by David Malan

The African Global Economic and Development Summit took place at the University of Southern California from March 16th to 18th.

None of the approximately 60 invited guests from Africa were able to attend.

The problem was that none of the African delegates were able to get U.S. visas.

Humphrey Mutaasa from the mayor’s office in Kampala, Uganda, had organized a delegation of 11 business leaders from Uganda to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California.

He says it was a very high level group of leaders from private businesses, the Ugandan ministry of trade, chambers of commerce and the Kampala mayor’s office.

“The delegation that was coming from Uganda to that summit was very, very disappointed,” he says.

The conference was first held in 2013 and seeks to strengthen business ties between U.S. investors and African companies, says summit chairwoman Mary Flowers.

Visa problems have been an issue before, she says. In the past, she says roughly 40 percent of African invitees are unable to get the papers they need to attend, mainly due to a combination of red tape and bureaucracy.

“This year we were thinking there are going to be some rejections but some will still come,” she says. “But it was 100 percent blocked across the board.”

It’s hard to find out exactly why.

Delegations were invited from 12 countries across the continent. None of them were from the three African nations (Libya, Somalia and Sudan) covered by President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from 6 majority Muslim countries.

Flowers speculates new vetting procedures put in place by the Trump administration are discriminating against travelers from Africa.

“Obviously because this has never happened before,” she says of the inability of anyone to come.

The White House has called for “enhanced screening and vetting of applications for visas” worldwide as part of stepped up efforts to keep out terrorists.

A State Department official on background tells NPR that they can’t comment on any individual visa applications but says all applications are screened on a case-by-case basis. And the eligibility requirements for getting a visa haven’t changed.

Some of the African delegates to the summit say their visa applications were denied because they didn’t show a compelling reason why they would return home after the event. Others say bureaucratic hurdles were so big that they were not able to submit a visa application in the first place.

Humphrey Mutaasa in Kampala says the online application is complicated. You can’t even see how long the process will take until after you’ve paid a $160 application fee at a local bank. Then you have to wait a day to get a confirmation code to book an interview at the U.S. embassy.

“Then when you’ve finished that and you have the codes from the bank … there are the challenges of internet connectivity,” he says. “When you get online then the calendar [from the Embassy] will tell you the whole of February, there are no appointments, You can only secure an appointment after the 15th of March.”

Which meant he wouldn’t have a ruling on his visa until after the three day conference had concluded.

The end result of this year’s visa outcome, says Flowers, is going to be fewer connections between American business and the continent.

“I don’t know whether there’s some secret message going to the U.S. embassies in these African countries but it’s ridiculous,” she says. “The [visa] process was already somewhat discriminatory against the African nations in the past. We don’t know what the story is now but I do hope that America remains open to the world.”