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Hundreds of Afro-Colombian Leaders Meet for Historic Summit

Hundreds of Afro-Colombian Leaders Meet for Historic Summit

Twenty Years after Passage of Landmark Afro-Colombian Communities Law, Rights Remain Unrealized

23 Aug 2013


Afro-Colombian leaders from throughout the country, as well as international observers, are meeting in Quibdo, Colombia, for the first Autonomous Congress of Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero, and Raizal Peoples. The Congress, which comes 20 years after the landmark ‘Law 70’ law guaranteeing the collective land and other rights of Afro-Colombians, will serve to chart next steps in the ongoing struggle for basic rights.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) applauds this historic event and stands with its Afro-Colombian partners from national, regional, displaced and religious organizations and community councils in fighting for an end to continued racial discrimination, forced displacement, and violence against afrodescendant communities. Our hope is that at this conference Afro-Colombian leaders will devise efforts that strengthen the communities’ right to prior consultation on development projects, protect the rights of Afro-Colombian women, and guarantees effective implementation of Law 70 of the black communities, as well as, Constitutional Court Order 005 on Afro-Colombian displacement.

We echo the statement made by eight members of the United States Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in calling on the Colombian government to implement a human rights agenda that adequately responds to the challenges faced by Afro-Colombian people.

Although it is encouraging that the government remains engaged in peace talks to end the internal conflict, continued violence disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians. If a lasting peace is to be achieved in Colombia, the government must work to protect the rights and safety of Afro-Colombian communities.

Cientos de líderes y lideresas afrocolombianos y afrocolombianas se reúnen en cumbre histórica

Veinte años después de la aprobación de la ley para las comunidades afrocolombianas, los derechos no son realizados

23 Aug 2013

Cientos de líderes y lideresas afrocolombianos y afrocolombianas de todas partes del país, así como observadores internacionales, se reunirán en Quibdó, Colombia, para el Primer Congreso Nacional Autónomo del Pueblo Negro, Afrocolombiano, Palenquero y Raizal. El Congreso, que viene 20 años después de la aprobación de la histórica “Ley 70″ que garantizó los derechos colectivos a la tierra y otros derechos de los afrocolombianos, servirá para trazar los próximos pasos en la lucha por los derechos fundamentales.

La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA, por sus siglas en inglés) celebra este evento histórico y se solidariza con sus colegas afrocolombianos y afrocolombianas de las organizaciones nacionales, regionales, desplazados y religiosos y los consejos comunitarios en la lucha para poner fin a la constante discriminación racial, el desplazamiento forzado y la violencia contra las comunidades afrodescendientes. Esperamos que en esta conferencia los líderes afrocolombianos y las lideresas afrocolombianas elaboren los esfuerzos que fortalecerán el derecho de las comunidades a la consulta previa acerca de los proyectos de desarrollo económico, la proteccion de los derechos de las mujeres afrocolombianas y garantizaran la aplicación efectiva de la Ley 70 de las comunidades negras, así como, el Auto 005 de la Corte Constitucional sobre el desplazamiento interno afrocolombiano.

Nos hacemos eco de la declaración realizada por ocho miembros del Grupo de Congresistas Negros (Congressional Black Caucus, CBC) que insta que el gobierno colombiano implemente una agenda de derechos humanos que responda adecuadamente a los retos que enfrentan el pueblo afrocolombiano.

Aunque es positivo que el gobierno de Colombia sigue comprometido en el proceso de paz que busca poner un fin al conflicto interno, la violencia continúa afectando a las personas afrodescendientes de forma desproporcionadamente. Para lograr una paz duradera en Colombia, el gobierno debe trabajar para proteger los derechos y garantizar la seguridad de las comunidades afrocolombianas.

Demanding Justice for Aiyana Jones

Police Search Girl Killed

Written by Mychal Denzel Smith for Feministing

Back in June, before George Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a jury failed to reach a decision in the case of Joseph Weekley, the police officer responsible for shooting and killing seven year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit on May 26, 2010. The young girl was asleep in her home when Detroit’s version of SWAT entered, looking for a murder suspect that lived in the apartment on the level above Aiyana and her family, and Weekley fired a single shot that struck her in the head and killed her.

According to a petition, started by Jamila Aisha Brown of Hue Global, “On July 25, 2013 Wayne County Judge Cynthia Hathaway reconvene to determine whether Weekley will face retrial for Aiyana’s murder.” It further asks: “Please voice your support to retry Joseph Weekley’s case so that a jury may reach a verdict. Aiyana Stanley-Jones represents another Black life taken too soon. Justice must be served.”

I wrote about this for The Nation:

Even if what Weekley claims is true, that his weapon was discharged by accident after a tussling with Aiyana’s grandmother, the entire ordeal could have been avoided if the police acted as police should. If it sounds irrational to require a SWAT team to apprehend one man accused of killing one person, that’s because it is—but it has become standard operating procedure. What happened to Aiyana is the result of the militarization of police in this country, itself a byproduct of the “war on drugs.” Over the course of the past thirty-plus years, police have become more and more reliant on military weaponry and tactics (big and small police forces alike have bazookas, machine guns and mini-tanks for domestic use) in response to crime. They hardly pretend to be interested in information gathering, investigating, protecting and serving any longer.

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, it’s imperative to be vocal in the demand that black life be valued by the systems charged with enacting justice. And while it’s still true that the justice system in this country is a broken mess, recognition that black life is important has value beyond that.

Sign and share the petition to ensure that what happened to Trayvon and his family doesn’t happen to Aiyana.


U.S. Moving in Right Direction on Afro-Colombians

Originally posted by the Washington Office on Latin America here:

On June 12 and 13, the United States and Colombia are holding the first meeting on the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality. At this meeting, the two countries are exchanging ideas on how to tackle racial discrimination against Afro-Colombians and indigenous persons in the sectors or employment, education, health, and housing. The purpose of the meeting is to bring civil society and private sector representatives together in order to develop a work plan mapping priorities for 2013-2014. At Monday’s reception at the Colombian Embassy to launch this meeting, both Ambassador Carlos Urrutia and Assistant Secretary State for Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson made important speeches expressing key support to combat racial discrimination in Colombia. While the inclusion of a broader number of Afro-Colombian organizations should be considered for the future, this meeting was is a good step for the two countries in tackling long-standing issues of racial discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization faced by Afro-Colombians.

The human rights situation faced by Afro-Colombians remains grave. Chief among the concerns is the protection of Afro-Colombian leaders and communities affected by the internal armed conflict. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), in 2012, 36 percent of all new displacements took place along Colombia’s primarily Afrodescendant Pacific Coast. This marks a 22 percent increase in displacements compared to 2011, and 20 percent of all newly displaced persons in Colombia in 2012 were Afro-Colombian. Much of the new displacement is due to the continued armed conflict, wars among drug narco-traffickers, and violence linked to resource extraction, such as mining operations. Indeed, civilians in Afro-Colombian areas of Valle del Cauca and Nariño are hard hit by abuses and violence led by illegal armed groups. According to religious groups, betweenJanuary 1 and April 19 of this year, some 91 disappearances were reported to the authorities in Buenaventura. Forced recruitment of minors—including children as young as eight years old—and sexual abuse by armed groups are generating displacement and confinement of the local population. Given the displacement crisis, it is encouraging that Assistant Secretary of State Anne C. Richard visited Colombia and Ecuador in May. While Ms. Richard expressed optimism on Colombia’s developments regarding internally displaced persons and supported the peace process, she highlighted concerns about ongoing violence and displacement.

Security for Afro-Colombian leaders also remains a major concern. WOLA has received increased reports of death threats, security incidents, and assassination attempts against Afro-Colombian leaders and human rights defenders who work on Afro-Colombian issues in recent months. These death threats are more than idle words, as demonstrated by the murders of Miller Angulo of AFRODES, Demetrio Lopez of Community Council of La Caucana (Valle del Cauca), and Socrates Paz Patiño, the legal representative of the community council of Iscuande (Nariño). According to the Regional Association of Black Communities (ASORCON), the 29th Front of the FARC murdered Patiño on May 28, presumably for protesting the extortion of local miners and the negative impacts illegal mining has had on the Afro-Colombian territory.

Miller’s murder, a peaceful protest by AFRODES at a forum with Colombia’s Vice President, and new death threats and security incidents against several AFRODES leaders have prompted a dialogue between Colombia’s National Protection Unit and AFRODES. This, is leading to the development of collective protection measures for AFRODES leaders in six areas of the country. While this process will take some time to come to fruition, efforts by the U.S. Embassy, State Department, USAID and its contractor Chemonics to work with Colombian authorities have been key to advancements in the provision of security for this group, allowing them to continue to operate. A recent statementfrom U.S. Embassy in Bogota and Ambassador Michael McKinley condemning recent violence against Afro-Colombian leaders—and vowing to continue to engage with the Colombian government on security mechanisms—is an important step toward recognizing and addressing the human rights abuses and security risks afrodescendant communities continue to face.Beyond AFRODES, U.S. officials have taken key action on all major security incidents affecting Afro-Colombians in the past six months.

Lastly, it is worth highlighting that after many years of U.S. international cooperation getting it wrong on Afro-Colombian projects, new USAID programming supporting Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples organizations is finally getting it right. Currently implemented by ACDI/VOCA, the programs are successfully generating new economic opportunities for Afro-Colombians. Recently, this program partnered with businesses Movistar Colombia and Atento to open a call center in Quibdó—a city that often makes the headlines due to problems associated with unemployment—benefiting some 700 people. In Barranquilla, some 900 Afro-Colombians are benefiting from a USAID project that brought together the Mayor’s office and local businesses to generate employment.

While changing decades of Colombia’s history of societal marginalization, exclusion, and racism against Afro-Colombians and fully addressing the causes of violence that generate security problems and abuses against Afrodescendant communities will take time, it is positive to see that the U.S. is taking steps to begin tackling these problems. The hope is that Colombia and the FARC will negotiate a lasting peace, and that in a post-conflict Colombia, the seeds of U.S. programs will succeed in helping Afro-Colombian communities to overcome many of the long-standing issues they continue to face.




Justice Served? Commemoration and Reparations in Plan de Sánchez


by Jamila Aisha Brown

Jamila Aisha Brown completed her term in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz as a human rights accompanier with NISGUA’s Guatemala Accompaniment Project (G.A.P.) in November 2005. “Justice Served? Commemoration and Reparations in Plan de Sánchez” was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Report on Guatemala.

Last year, witnesses stood before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and denounced the 1982 massacre of their village of Plan de Sánchez, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. After years of state delays and denial, in April 2004 the Óscar Berger Administration admitted responsibility for the violation of nine articles of the American Convention on Human Rights. [See Report on Guatemala V.25 N.3.] Following this admission, the Inter-American Court released a historic settlement mandating the government to provide monetary, infrastructural, and symbolic reparations to the massacre’s survivors and their community. The Court further ordered the Guatemalan government to prosecute those responsible for the violence.

However, despite a large-scale commemoration of the massacre in which the Vice President publicly announced state culpability, it remains to be seen if the government will fulfill its obligations. At present the state appears to have prioritized the completion of national reparations to former civil patrollers (ex-PACs) over the Court’s decision. Furthermore, the national cases charging former officials with genocide continue to experience slow and arduous progress. In the midst of threats to their personal safety by those opposed to the process of justice, the people of Plan de Sánchez continue to await their reparations.


On July 18, 2005, Vice President Eduardo Stein admitted to the people of Plan de Sánchez that the government was responsible for the 1982 massacre of their loved ones. His acknowledgment came 23 years after Guatemalan armed forces and civil patrols barraged a home with grenades and bullets, setting fire to 268 Achi Maya men, women, and children after hours of rape, torture, and assassination. “We are here today to ask forgiveness in the name of the Guatemalan state from all the victims of the conflict,” Stein declared to a crowd of nearly one thousand.

This was not the first massacre commemoration in Plan de Sánchez. For many years, survivors had gathered together, far away from the spotlight of the Vice President and the press, using their meager resources to mourn and remember. Meeting in the small hillside chapel that stands as a monument to the massacre site, they would adorn the altar with pictures, candles, and flowers to pay homage to those lost.

This year’s commemoration presented a remarkably different scene. Hordes of national and international reporters, human rights activists, government officials, and curious onlookers descended onto the soccer field of the rural mountain village to witness this historic event, overwhelming the small community of approximately 35 houses. The President’s Office of Human Rights (COPREDEH), now led by Frank La Rue, organized the event, providing programs listing the day’s speakers and sequence of events. No candles, flowers, or photographs of those assassinated surrounded the metal fence enclosing the stage on which the Vice President sat. The chapel stood in the background as a quiet remnant of the past as the activities commenced.

Nevertheless, one familiar element of past commemorations remained: the dramatization of the violence that had occurred, enacted by school children and members of the community. The reenactment opened the day’s events with a powerful message: “These are not theatrical plays. They are the stories of our families, so that [history] will never repeat itself and we will never forget them.” As the students portrayed what had unfolded that day, the Vice President openly wept in unison with the grieving. During his turn to speak, he once again became emotional as he confessed that the state’s army had “unleashed bloodshed and fire to wipe out an entire community.”

Unfortunately, his tear-soaked speech failed to answer the questions of those seeking reparations and justice. He made no mention of when the money would come to Plan de Sánchez. Nor did he state when prosecution against the alleged perpetrators would begin.

Moreover, after having claimed state responsibility, thereby fulfilling his obligation to the Court, Stein quickly exited. He did not stay to hear the words of Fernando López, outgoing director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the team providing legal counsel to Plan de Sánchez survivors. López spoke of the achievements in the Plan de Sánchez case and the importance of advancement within the Guatemalan courts. [See related article, page 13.]



On November 19, 2004, the Inter-American Court delivered its sentence finding the government of Guatemala guilty of committing acts that amounted to genocide. The unprecedented ruling was the Court’s first to accuse a nation of ethnic cleansing.

This ruling was accompanied by the highest amount of reparations ever awarded by the Court: almost eight million dollars (US), approximately 55 million quetzales, to be allotted to Plan de Sánchez for community projects meant to promote socio-economic development. The decision acknowledged the destruction of homes, livestock, and crops as part of the scorched-earth strategy and the fact that the community was left with no resources afterwards with which to rebuild. As part of the hefty package the government has pledged to:

  • Improve Rabinal’s municipal road network, drinking water supply, and sewage systems
  • Provide qualified bilingual schoolteachers to local schools
  • Establish a health clinic in Plan de Sánchez and a health center in Rabinal
  • Provide survivors with free psychological care
    • Construct houses within the village
    • Pay US$25,000 for the upkeep of the memorial chapel to the massacre victims

These projects are to be completed over the course of five years, with the government sending a yearly report to the Inter-American Court on its advancements.

In accordance with their findings, the Court assigned the government to complete the following acts in order to demonstrate the State’s admission of its wrongdoings and its commitment to support indigenous culture:

  • Organize a ceremony, to be covered by the media in Spanish and Achi Mayan, in which a high-ranking government official admits to State involvement in the massacre
  • Publish sections of the Court’s judgment in its official gazette and in a major
  • national newspaper in both languages
  • Translate the American Convention on Human Rights and the Court’s Plan de Sánchez judgments into Achi
  • Promote the study and awareness of Achi language and culture

Moreover, in an effort to recoup the personal losses and suffering of the victims, the Court ordered that Q175,000 (US$25,000) be awarded to each massacre survivor and next-of-kin of those murdered. The Court set a deadline of payment of January 2006, after which the Guatemalan State will have to pay interest. As of this writing, the government has not set a date for delivering the individual payments or carrying out the communal projects.

Community Commentary

After ten years of fighting within the court system, it appeared that Plan de Sánchez finally received its justice. However, for people who have been failed by their government multiple times, the promise of reparations without immediate results was not convincing. “It was nice for him to come, but it still has not helped us,” voiced one community member in the Guatemalan daily, Prensa Libre. These words reflect the sentiments of most throughout Plan de Sánchez. Many, who believed the Vice President was coming not only to denounce the acts of the state but also to deliver the money, found themselves once again disappointed by the government. Others, who never believed the state would honor its promises, had their doubts reaffirmed.

Those within the community remain astutely aware of the power that Efraín Ríos Montt and other government officials who led the violence hold within the government today. It was only two years ago that Ríos Montt came to Rabinal to rally support in his race for the presidency. Though he was met with boos and rock-throwing in Rabinal, Ríos Montt enjoys a considerable following in some rural areas. He continues to be a player in the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. His status as a high-profile leader disturbs those seeking justice. “Ríos Montt is free, eating well, and living well. He is rich and happy while we continue to suffer,” remarked one survivor. This state-condoned impunity for the perpetrators makes it difficult to believe the government’s commitment to awarding reparations in Plan de Sánchez.

Survivors note that the amount of money allotted will never repay the lives that were taken that day. “If they had killed my cow, I can tell you exactly how much it cost and I would ask for the value I paid for it,” explained María. “But I do not know how much to ask for the life of my husband. I cannot calculate the amount of money he would have earned over the years or how much his not being here has cost my family.”

The only resolution that would give survivors a semblance of peace is for those responsible to go to jail. “We hope that they fulfill the sentence and prosecute those responsible…they killed us, took advantage of us and left us without anything, then persecuted us for years,” bemoaned Juan.

Even if the money is delivered as promised, opinions of its effectiveness remain mixed. Some believe that the financial reparations will lift them from abject poverty, while others doubt that the payment will have a significant, long-term effect. As of now the decision of the Inter-American Court has not made any impact in the lives of those in the village, and they can only wonder about the changes and challenges reparations will bring.


Challenges Facing the Community

Located in the midst of heavily organized ex-PAC communities, Plan de Sánchez has endured much resistance in their struggle for justice. Many of the former civil patrollers participated in the 1982 massacre and fear prosecution should criminal cases advance. Further complicating matters, the government has agreed to give reparations to ex-PACs with the condition that they complete a reforestation project. Those who participate will receive nearly 6,000 quetzales (US$780) over the next three years, a mere fraction of the US$25,000 Plan de Sánchez’s victims will receive.

Consequently, tensions have worsened between the two groups. Following the commemoration, one ex-PAC from a neighboring village promised that “there will be deaths” once the money arrives. He claimed to have connections with gang leaders who would organize the robbery and possible murder of those in Plan de Sánchez.

Petty thefts of animals and home invasions are currently on the rise in Rabinal as the popularity of feared gang Mara 18 grows. In the midst of pre-existing social delinquency, the handover of large sums of money to individuals will augment security concerns.

The Impact on the National Genocide Cases

People from Plan de Sánchez have joined the Association of Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) to file charges in domestic courts against the intellectual authors of Guatemala’s genocide. These genocide cases were halted for nearly seven months without a public prosecutor until July 2005 when Hans Noriega was assigned to the post. He holds the authority to prosecute Ríos Montt and others accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. On September 9, 2005, Noriega attended the bi-annual conference of the AJR at which he pledged to push forward the cases.

Noriega’s nomination could be viewed as a direct response to the Vice President’s promise “to push the investigation into the events that occurred to allow for the clarification of what happened and permit us to identify, try, and punish the intellectual and material authors of these offenses.” However, a series of other factors may have influenced the government’s actions.

Several days before Noriega’s appointment, approximately 30,000 secret files of the National Police (PNC), containing information of people disappeared, tortured, and kidnapped during the violence, were uncovered. The discovery of these police files serves as a reminder to foreign funders that the Guatemalan government has yet to come to terms with the atrocities of the past.

Guatemala has recently signed economic agreements with the United States and Japan. Heavily dependent on international funding, Guatemala hopes to demonstrate, at least superficially, that it is tackling human rights issues in order to create a more favorable atmosphere for trade.

These elements, together with the public and historic decision by the Court, have pushed the government to pledge reparations and judicial action. Whether deeds will follow these words is a matter to be seen. War survivors across the country wait to see if the Court’s ruling will truly succeed in advancing a State commitment to justice and improving the lives of people in Plan de Sánchez.

March 25 is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Theme for 2013: “Forever Free: Celebrating Emancipation”

originally posted by the United Nations

Poster created for the 2012 observance

For over 400 years, more than 15 million men, women and children were the victims of the tragic transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest chapters in human history.

The annual observance of 25 March as the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade serves as an opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system, and to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today.

This year’s theme, “Forever Free: Celebrating Emancipation,” pays tribute to the emancipation of slaves in nations across the world. This year is particularly important with many key anniversaries, including 220 years since France’s General Emancipation decree liberated all slaves in present-day Haiti; 180 years since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in Canada, the British West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope; and 170 years ago, the Indian Slavery Act of 1843 was signed. Slavery was also abolished 165 years ago in France; 160 years ago in Argentina; 150 years ago in the Dutch colonies; and 125 years ago in Brazil.

2013 is also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, which declared that, on 1 January 1863, all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.



The Afro-Argentine Legacy of Tango


Black Women’s History and Building Solidarity Throughout the Diaspora


Women from around the African Diaspora gather for the OpenForum 2012 Conference in Cape Town, South Africa

by Jamila Aisha Brown, originally posted on the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s The Village

As we exit Black History Month, we march into the celebration of her story – Women’s History Month. First recognized by the United States in 1911, Women’s History Month is a global phenomenon in which billions honor the lives, contributions and accomplishments of women.

But what of black women in history, I found myself wondering as I baulked the scarcity of women of color in the PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America, chronicling the evolution of the modern U.S. women’s movement. I watched the film for three hours anxiously awaiting the mention of noted feminists, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis, only to find them absent.

I waited ten minutes before the film acknowledged that the trappings of being a mother and housewife were neither the reality nor the catalyst in the pursuit of equal rights for women who were not white and middle class in the 1950s.  These racial and class divisions, which fractured first wave feminism and formed its second wave and a separate and more intentionally inclusive feminist theory called “womanism”, were only briefly mentioned. And while the documentary featured many works central to the advancement of the women’s movement, it excluded the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writings by feminists and women of color.

Taken aback by how cavalierly our accomplishments are overlooked, I was reminded a passage from Ms. Lorde’s essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House:

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”

The activist in me holds a strong commitment to teach anti-oppressive ideologies such as the Combahee River Collective which outlines how the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality negatively oppress and impact black women, but I find myself torn. In rediscovering this quote I am particularly struck by the expression “diversion of energies” leading me to the question of how black women should forge the reclamation of our history in our own words and on our own terms.

Perhaps the time to educate has passed and the time for action is upon us?

When I think about what this action looks like, it is personified by many examples: young Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis triumphantly raising her arms as her name was announced for Best Actress; it is the brilliant and bold Crunk Feminist Collective’s blog; the Twitter community of Girls Like Us; and environmental activist Tanya Fields.

Storytelling has long been a part of our heritage and through technology, we now possesses a variety of mediums by which we can preserve and share our histories chronicling the realities and complexities of what it means to be black and a woman.  While mainstream media continues to omit, revise and distort our images, we have the opportunity to recount our tales without dilution.

This International Women’s Day, March 8, I encourage black women to create, act and stand in solidarity with our sisters throughout the Diaspora – La Red de las Mujeres Afro (The Network for Black Women) in Latin America, the African Indigenous Women’s Organization and CODE RED for Gender Justice in the Caribbean –who also work to reclaim their history and tell their stories in their words and on their own terms


Somebody Told A Lie – Martin Luther King, Jr

New Exhibition Highlights the History of Africans in India

Published by Tadias January 9th, 2013 in Events and History.

Tadias Magazine
Events News

Updated: Thursday, January 10, 2013

New York (TADIAS) – There is plenty of historical evidence that Ethiopian traders traveled to India as early as 2,000 years ago. The kingdom of Axum had established a very active commerce with India and Axumite gold coins minted between 320 and 333 AD had found their way to Mangalore in South India where they were discovered in the 20th century. Ivory, silver, gold, wine, olive oil, incense, wheat, rice, cotton cloth, silk, iron, copper, skins, salt, and sesame oil were some of the main items traded on both sides of the Indian Ocean and as far as China. Axum was also involved in the slave trade.

According to Dr. Sylviane Anna Diouf, an award-winning historian who studies the African Diaspora and the co-curator of an upcoming exhibition at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture entitled Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers, there was another wave of Africans who arrived in India beginning in the 1100s both as free and enslaved people, among them Ethiopians.

“The most celebrated of the Ethiopian leaders was Malik Ambar (1548-1626). Born in Kambata, southwestern Ethiopia, he was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen,” Dr. Sylviane said. “He was later sent to Arabia where he was educated in finance before being brought to Baghdad, Iraq. [Malik's birth name was Chapu] Converted to Islam, Chapu was renamed Ambar (ambergris in Arabic). He was sold and sent to India where he arrived in the early 1570s. He became a slave of Chengiz Khan (believed to have been an Ethiopian), the prime minister of the sultanate of Ahmadnagar.” She added: “Freed upon Chengiz Khan’s death in 1575, Ambar left Ahmadnagar to become a commander in Bijapur where he was granted the title Malik (the Great). In 1595, he went back to Ahmadnagar, putting himself and his army in the service of another Ethiopian, Abhang Khan. By the turn of the 17th century, Malik Ambar had an army of 10,000 African cavalry and infantrymen. In 1600, he gave his daughter in marriage to a 20-year old prince, installed him as sultan, and ruled in his place as regent and prime minister. Fateh Khan, Malik Ambar’s son, inherited his father’s position as prime minister. Fateh Khan married the daughter of another Ethiopian, Yaqut Khan, one of the most powerful nobles of Bijapur. In 1636, Fateh Khan poisoned Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah III and installed the sultan’s son in his place. Fateh Khan held the real power until the Mughals conquered the sultanate.”

Dr. Sylviane, who is also the Curator of Digital Collections at The Schomburg Center and Director of The Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Institute, said trade between East Africa and India was boosted with the spread of Islam. Indian Muslims from Gujarat migrated to African trading towns in Kenya, Zanzibar and the Comoros Islands where they worked with African and Arab merchants. While African traders traveled to and from India, some settled.

One of the images included in the show depicts a painting of Bilal, known to be of Ethiopian origin, was among Prophet Muhammad’s earliest converts. “He became the first muezzin of Islam, the man who calls to prayer from the mosque minaret.”

The African men and women who were taken to India through the early slave trade were known there asHabshi and Sidi (Siddi, derived either from sayyidi, my lord in Arabic; or from saydi, meaning captive or prisoner of war). They came mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and adjoining areas. Muslim, Ethiopian Christian, and Indian traders preyed on people they all considered “pagans.” Those bought for the Muslim world were converted to Sunni Islam. Trained as soldiers they were highly prized for their military skills. It is among these men that the generals, commanders, and rulers emerged.

During his travels in India, from the 1330s to 1340s, Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta had remarked that the Habshis of Gujarat “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.”

Besides appearing in written documents, Africans in India have been immortalized in the rich paintings of different eras, states, and styles that form an important component of Indian culture, also leaving an impressive architectural legacy.

“The imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other edifices they built — some more than 500 years ago — still grace the Indian landscape,” Dr. Sylviane said. “They left their mark in the religious realm too. The 14th century African Muslim Sufi saint Bava Gor and his sister, Mai Misra, have devotees of all origins. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians frequent their shrines.”

Politically speaking the “Abyssinian Party” as it was called dominated the Bijapur Sultanate starting in 1580 and conquered new territories until the Mughal invasion in 1686. The Africans were de facto rulers because sultans were frequently involved in mysticism and the arts, and often left the governing responsibilities to their vizier or chief ministers. Bijapur was thus governed, if not ruled, by nine successive African viziers.

In regards to commerce, in the 1300s Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta met Ethiopian merchants in what are now India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. The most famous African trader was Bava Gor (Sidi Mubarak Nob). He came from East Africa during the 14th century and made Ratanpur in Gujarat his home. He became the patron saint of the agate bead industry and is credited with increasing the trade of quartz stone between East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India.

The exhibition at the Schomburg Center that is also curated by Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins is scheduled to open early next month. It features 109 images displayed in 33 panels, including photographic reproductions of paintings which are held in different collections in Europe, India and the United States. They come from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, the British Library in London, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, the Francesca Galloway in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Musée des Arts Asiatiques Guimet in Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the San Diego Museum of Art, as well as the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, The Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection, The Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace in London, and the Freer Gallery of Art.


South Asia’s Africans: A Forgotten People

Originally posted on History Workshop Online written by Shihan Desilva Jayasuriya  

Across South Asia, there are isolated communities of African origin – often disadvantaged and with only tenuous links to the continent of their forbears. Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, a London-based researcher,  explains how her interest in these communities was first aroused, and how diverse patterns of migration still shape the situation of people widely known today as ‘Sidis’:

Sirambiyadiya. Photo – Shihan


My interest in South Asian communities with African ancestry began when I encountered the Afro-Sri Lankan community in Sirambiyadiya, a small village, few miles inland from Puttalama on the northwestern coast.  At the time, I was researching the current status of Indo-Portuguese, a creole language.

Indo-Portuguese is a language which should have died out with the end of Portuguese rule in 1658.  Yet here in

this small African community it still survives albeit spoken largely by the elderly.  How had it survived among people with African ancestry?  And what were the mechanisms which ensured that survival?


Most Sri Lankans are not aware of this small African community, though its grand-matriach, Ana Miselyia, and others were portrayed on Sri Lankan television in a documentary in the 1970s.

I learnt about their past, from their own accounts of their history.  They told me that their ancestors were slaves and soldiers who were brought from Mozambique, Madagascar, Goa and Portugal by the Europeans who dominated the Island for almost half a millenium. But there are more subtle and far-reaching reasons which have a bearing on their current position.  To understand this we have to move beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.

Afro-Asian communities are the result of a continuous centuries-old phenomenon but why are they not widely known?   The obvious reason for this is their hidden presence as forest-dwellers, villagers and people on the margins. Those who live in urban areas are not easily identifiable either and are lost in the diversity of South Asia’s cosmopolitan cities.  Afro-Asians are taken for African tourists until they begin to speak in the local Asian language!

Sirambiyadiya, Sri Lanka. Photo – Shihan

Movement of Africans to South Asia was fuelled by the slave trade.  An estimated 12.5 million Africans were moved across the Sahara, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to unfamiliar lands where they were re-rooted.  But this movement was over a millennium, from 900 AD to 1900 AD.  The Indian Ocean slave trade was lubricated by socio-religious factors.  Benefits from concubines, eunuchs, soldiers and servants were not entirely economic.

European commercial expansion into Asian markets added another dimension to this trade in humans which moved millions of Africans overland and across the world’s giant waterways.  But we must not forget that free movement of African seafarers, sailors and merchants in the Indian Ocean World did not stop whilst the slave trade was continuing.

The island of Janjira (off the west coast of India near Mumbai), for example, was a base for African traders long before it became the powerbase of a princely state ruled by Africans from 1618 for about three and a half centuries.  Another state, Sachin, was also ruled by Africans from 1791.  In 1948, the year after India gained independence, both these states became part of the new nation.  Ex-Royal Africans, still live in India and are well respected locally.  Elite military slavery, though not unique to Africans or South Asia, provided the mechanism for some slaves to reach high positions and wielded power.

Most Afro-Indians (called Sidis today) live on the periphery but those in Saurashtra (Gujarat state) and Yellapur (Karnataka state) fall within the category of a Scheduled Tribe.  They benefit from the Indian government’s affirmative action schemes available for those recognised as socially and economically marginalised.

Jambur, Gujarat. Photo – A. Whitehead

Village headman, Jambur. Photo – A.W.

Some Afro-Indians have found a role as spiritual healers.  The shrines of African Sufi saints are frequented by Hindu, Christian, Zoroasthrian and Muslims alike.  They are not concerned with the ethnicity of the Saints or the spirit mediums through whom they  simply want to benefit.

Not all Afro-Asians have been able to find a niche in India today.   In Andhra Pradesh, Sidis are associated with the disbanded African Cavalry Guard of the Nizam of Hyderabad.   They are nostalgic of their lost past; Indians looked up to them when they accompanied the Nizam on his parades. The story is similarly bleak in Uttar Pradesh, where descendants of the Nawab of Oudh’s African Bodyguard and Cavalry Guards live on the poverty line.  During the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the ancestors of these Sidis fought bravely and loyally for the Nawab.  Perhaps surprisingly, the Nawab had a female bodyguard and the British soldiers were not aware that they were fighting women until after their dead bodies were found.

Whilst Afro-Asians have not been able to maintain much of their  cultural traditions, it is quite striking that they have been able to hold on to their forms of music and dance which have also encapsulated vestiges of their languages.  In Gujarat, the Sidi performances of  Dhamal or Ngoma are linked to Sufi practices.

Sidi music troupe, Jambur, Gujarat. Photo – A. Whitehead

In Pakistan (Karachi and Sindh) the Shidees sing lava which encompasses Swahili words.  In the nearby  Maldives, Baburu lava rings out  the music introduced by African slaves.   The rhythm-driven music of the Roman Catholic Afro-Sri Lankan community in Sirambiyadiya and their Indo-Portuguese songs, called Manhas,reverberate in my mind.  Language change is inevitable but music is more resistant and the lyrics are preserving the vestiges of an endangered language.

Sirambiyadiya. Photo – Shihan

In the Indian Ocean, music of the Afro-Asians holds everything together – identity, resistance, entertainment and religion.

Social mobility, out-marriage and religious conversion were also catalysts in the process of assimilation which made Africans invisible in South Asia. Yet, there are a significant number of South  Asians who identify themselves with Africa.  Their physiognomy may not always fit into a stereotypical African phenotype.  Identity is a complex issue – dynamic and multi-faceted.

There are a significant number of South Asians who are of African descent.  There are a large number of Pakistanis with African descent.  As early as the seventh century, Africans settled on the Balochistan coast and the Sindhi shores.

Sidi dance, Junagadh, Gujarat. Photo – A.W.

Numbers of Afro-Indians are a problem due to the lack of accurate statistics. In India, there are about 25,000 each in the states of Gujarat and Karnataka with about 10,000 in Andhra Pradesh and smaller numbers in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

With improved communication networks they are becoming more aware of their ethnic origins and cultural roots.  Economic pressures dominate their lives, but there are tensions between assimilation and integration.

The legends and historical facts on African movement to South Asia, indicate that the ancestors of today’s African communities in South Asia were soldiers, traders or slaves.  The current fates of these communities are a result of diverse histories and varied fortunes.  These South Asians are aware of their African past and are hoping to forge links with their ‘lost cousins’.



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