African Culture in Puerto Rico Jeff Grischow

I am writing from Puerto Rico where I’m leading a travel course for 17 students from Wilfrid Laurier University.  Our local guide Papo began the tour in Old San Juan, where our visit included the fabulous Museum of the Americas (‘Museo de las Américas’). Housed in the majestic Cuartel de Ballajá, an old Spanish infantry barracks, the museum is organized to reflect the three main cultures of the island: Indigenous (Taino), African and European.  The structure of the museums exhibits reflects a relatively recent turn towards recognizing and celebrating Puerto Rican’s threefold heritage, built problematically as it was on Spanish colonization of the Taino and the brutality of the slave trade.  This recognition of Puerto Ricans’ Taino and African roots represents a shift from the historically dominant narrative of the ‘European-ness’ of Puerto Rico compared to other Caribbean islands.  Today, prominent Puerto Rican scholars such as Fernando Pico (the author of History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of its People – our course textbook) emphasize the importance of acknowledging the contributions of the Taino and African populations to Puerto Rican history and culture.

Our tour guide Papo recapitulates this cultural sensibility, proudly referring to his Taino and African roots alongside his European heritage.  Papo is our cultural broker and – using Meta Carstarphen’s term – our ‘transfluencer,’ someone who can both translate our experiences in Puerto Rico and ‘influentially create a more intimate kind of access’ for our students (Carstarphen, 178).  For us, as for Meta Carstarphen and Jocelyn Peterson’s students at the University of Oklahoma, this access includes a personal visit to the home of a well-known Afro-Puerto Rican artist named Samuel Lind in Loiza, not far from where we are staying.


Loiza is one of the best-known Afro-Puerto Rican cities in Puerto Rico and it has been at the centre of preserving and celebrating the island’s African heritage since the Puerto Rican archaeologist Ricardo Alegria conducted research there between 1948 and 1951.  Alegria chose Loiza because it was one of the best examples of African cultural retention in Puerto Rico.  The area had been inhabited by Taino until the Spanish arrived and developed sugar plantations there during the 1500s.  Sugar production declined shortly thereafter, but took off again in the nineteenth century and after the United States invaded in 1898.  Loiza remained a centre of sugar production after the American invasion and as a result continued to have a large black population.  Alegria’s work cemented the city as the strongest centre of African cultural on the island, and this identity survives today.

Loiza Cathedral Saint

It will be interesting to see how the students respond to visiting Loiza and Samuel Lind’s studio.  His paintings reflect a deep passion for preserving and celebrating Puerto Rico’s African cultures, as well as the island’s indigenous heritage.  But some Puerto Rican scholars point out that there is a danger in separating and reifying island’s historically repressed cultures if the dominant culture remains European.  The danger, according to Petra Rivera-Rideau, is that the safe, folkloristic image of Afro-Puerto Rican culture can reinforce current European-dominated power structures and negate more oppositional and synchronistic cultural phenomena such as reggaeton, an Afro-Puerto Rican musical form that emerged out of the urban underground.  While the folkloric images of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in Loiza is accepted by elites as a safe part of Puerto Rican culture, reggaeton is not.  Our group – as well as any tourists who move through Loiza – should keep this in mind as we encounter the way in which Afro-Puerto Rican culture is presented in the official national imagination.  Perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves which Afro-Puerto Rican cultures are presented as part of the national imagination, which are excluded, and why.


Petra Rivera-Rideau, “From Carolina to Loiza: race, place and Puerto Rican racial democracy,” Global Studies in Culture and Power, 20(50(2013):616-632.

Meta G. Carstarphen, “Immersion Diversity: Teaching Tourism, Travel Writing and Race from the Inside Out,” in Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms, ed. George Yancy and Maria Del Guadalupe Davidson (Routledge, 2014), pp.173-180.


A Tshepo Mandela Lecture, “Truth Justice and Reconciliation: Re-Imaging Human Rights in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding”

On the evening of February 13, the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa held their third event of their Mandela Lecture series on the Brantford campus, co-sponsored by the Criminology Student Association and the Human Rights and Human Diversity Student Association.

The Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Dr. Heidi Northwood introduced the Tshepo Institute, and what the Mandela lecture series stands for. Northwood explained that many people still do not understand the serious challenges faced by Africans today and what is being done locally to combat such challenges. “In other words, it’s important not to stop seeking once one has an understanding of what’s wrong, or unjust, in addition, one can push farther and use this understanding, this diagnosis of what’s wrong to work towards something better and meet something more just. Of course this was exactly what Nelson Mandela stood for,” said Northwood.

The Director of the Tshepo Institute, Dr. Akbar Saeed, explained, “At Tshepo what we try to do is shed light on the issues and promote awareness of the issues that are happening in Africa with the aim of inspiring what we call positive transformation. The word positive is very important for us because the founders of Tshepo … Felt there was a lot of negativity surrounding the African continent and we need to promote more of a positive image and talk and shed light on those positive things that are happening.”

Program Coordinator of Human Rights and Human Diversity, Dr. Andrew Robinson introduced this lecture’s speaker, Prof. Bonny Ibhawoh, who teaches History, as well as Global Human Rights and Peace Studies at McMaster University. Robinson noted that Ibhawoh has published four books with more forthcoming, almost 20 book chapters and over 20 articles in scholarly journals. While Ibhawoh’s research interest was noted as wide-ranging, they include but are not limited to: the relationship of African societies and European courts, the role of human rights in African anti-colonial movements, the role of minority rights in Nigeria, the applicability of international human rights in the African cultural context and public history of human rights. Robinson outlined Ibhawoh’s writing as “very clear, accessible and engaging.”

“I feel like I’m with friends, there’s a homeliness about this campus, it’s cozy you know? A friendly space,” Ibhawoh said in the opening of his lecture. “So I come to you as a friend, and I come to you with my presentation as a reflection.”

Ibhawoh introduced his presentation as issues in the making, many ideas he is still grappling with to date. He was notably honoured to be speaking in memory of Nelson Mandela. “Mandela represents the ultimate aspiration for leadership, for humanity, for students,” Ibhawoh said.

Ibhawoh ventured into his lecture by noting that after 27 years in prison, Mandela began to talk about something that many people did not understand at the time: the idea of truth and reconciliation. Ibhawoh admitted, “many thought the old man had lost his mind. With so much pain, and bitterness in the atrocities that the black population had endured as a minority group for over a century, how can Mandela be talking about reconciliation?”

It is with this introduction that Ibhawoh went on to dispel his ideas regarding truth justice and reconciliation in what he believes is “Re-imaging human rights in post-conflict peacebuilding.”

Ibhawoh begins his lecture at the intersections between human rights, peace building, transitional justice and national reconciliation. His talk reflects on historical tensions, and how to bridge and resolve these tensions between human rights and peacebuilding.

While on the surface, human rights and peacebuilding seem to have much in common, Ibhawoh noted there is a subtle and persistent tension between the two. Peace conflict resolvers are characterized as willing to compromise rights and ignore abuses in order to secure political agreements, and human rights advocates are seen as idealistic and uncompromising in seeking redress for violations even at the cost of prolonging conflict and human suffering.

Between the principles of human rights and the pragmatics of peacebuilding, Ibhawoh believes in certain circumstances, there can be space for truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) to work together beyond these tensions. Ibhawoh defines TRCs as a way in which to uncover the truth about past abuses and provide justice to victims in fostering their national reconciliation.

“And my question today is this, and it is a simple one but I argue, a profound one:

how have truth and reconciliation commissions sought to balance the human rights and peacebuilding mandates and show accountability for human rights but also provide a framework for peacebuilding and national reconciliation?”

Following the South African TRC, Ibhawoh explained a new restorative justice model that began to become mainstream in the second half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. TRCs were first an area of justice particular to the developing world and transitioning societies, but despite the west’s classic retributive justice model it had begun to move into what Ibhawoh calls “the age of TRC.”

Noting the TRC of Canada as a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Ibhawoh explained the inspiration from the South African model despite important distinctions between the two. Ibhawoh used the South African TRC as the major framework in his ideas revolving around both the downfalls, and the effectiveness of TRCs as a whole.

Ibhawoh noted that even the United Nations, that is historically inclined to retributive justice, has now acknowledged the restorative justice model as the best way to go in some communities.

“It seems there is a yearning now to deal with so many of the historical developments that have long been taken for granted,” Ibhawoh explained. “So what we have and what we see increasingly, particularly in the transitional justice sector is an emergence of a new, holistic paradigm of transitional justice.” Criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparation programs, gender justice, security systems reform and memorialization projects have been seen throughout this age of imperial reckoning. Ibhawoh explained these are parts of a new found need for a justice system that goes beyond punishment of the perpetrators, and instead works to moves society forward.

But Ibhawoh questioned, “are they useful? Are the necessary? Do they do their job?”

While presenting an idealistic view of TRC Ibhawoh believes they are, however, he notes there are problems. Ibhawoh asks “Whose truth? Whose forgiveness? Is the truth balanced?”

Ibhawoh said that critiques of truth commissions claim the success is predicate on the participation of all relevant partners. But in the case of South Africa, it was thought to be flawed by the fact that many relevant partners refused to partake in the hearings.

Ibhawoh also posed to question what kind of truth these commissions should be portraying: an objective historical truth based on cold facts and factual records, or a more watered down truth that makes everybody happy.

“In dealing with conflicts and wide spread human rights violations countries who have opted for the TRC model continue to grapple with the questions of historical truth,” said Ibhawoh. “They also continue to grapple with trying to balance justice for victims and reconciling victims with perpetrators.” Such as how the Rwandan TRC both put leading perpetrators to trial, while also pursuing traditional reconciliation processes as this retributive paradigm took place.

Bringing us back to the South African TRC, Ibhawoh talked about the unique power of this TRC to grant amnesty to perpetrators that confessed crimes truthfully to the commission. This was said to raise questions of whose justice had been dispensed, and resulted in some victims refusing to forgive perpetrators. Many had argued that this encouraged impunity and did not achieve any form of justice. But later on in his lecture, Ibhawoh noted that only approximately 800 of the over 5,000 applicants were granted amnesty from South Africa’s TRC.

What Ibhawoh argued was wrongly criticized, was Mandela’s appointing of a religious leader that knew very little of the law instead of the typical judicial body used in other TRCs around the world. This was both a strength and a weakness: it created very open, public hearings where people felt free from the technicalities of the judicial process, but then the South African TRC was labeled as a “kleenex commission.” Rather than holding up justice and accountability of human rights violations, some argued the commission had more to do with nation building and feeling good about oneself again.

“Although I acknowledge that the South African TRC had many limitations, I disagree with that notion, on the specific case of South Africa and argue that it has quite valued the human rights language of serving the greater good,” said Ibhawoh.

Since the South African TRC, there has been at least 32 TRCs established in over 20 countries across the world. Because the South African TRC brought such global attention to this form of justice, Ibhawoh believes it deserves a little bit more attention.

The South African TRC was created on the traditional African value system that believes humanity is interconnected; the notion that we are all in this together. Therefore, Ibhawoh argued, this TRC was not formed by any external influence that would push systems of nation building, but the reflection of an indigenous culture.

“My imagination of peace, and human rights is that there can be a happy middle where truth and reconciliation can serve the costs of human rights, and human rights can also serve the costs of reconciliation,” Ibhawoh suggested.

While Ibhawoh acknowledged detaching human rights from the legal foundations of its justice roots risks obscuring accountability and the promotion of rule of law, he sees a way of bridging these two. Ibhawoh argued for a pragmatic peacebuilding approach in which retributive justice and restorative justice work together.

Ibhawoh outlined the great possibilities that came from the creation of the International Criminal Court, which had the potential to balance the principles of human rights and pragmatics of peacebuilding but failed to do so. “For the first few years, it did a wonderful job. But as I speak to you today, the countries of the African union have discussed how African states will withdraw their support from the ICC.”

But Ibhawoh still has faith in an integrative approach, in which peacebuilders should be finding ways of peacebuilding that ultimately promote human right standards, and human rights workers need to realize conflict management skills to communicate effectively the relevance of human rights to the parties in conflict. By collaboratively infusing human rights advocacy with peacebuilding and conflict resolution work, Ibhawoh argued that human rights can function as a broad framework to carry out peace work.

However, Ibhawoh said, “let me make it clear that my argument is not that human rights principles and legal accountability of human rights should take a back seat to impose the national reconciliation of peacebuilding. That is not my argument here, and I feel a strong need to emphasize that.” Ibhawoh recognized that abandoning the traditional retributive justice model is not the way to go, but that TRCs have the ability to integrate both peacebuilding and human rights models.

Ibhawoh concluded in recognizing that sometimes achievement is best through retributive paradigms, and sometimes through restorative justice paradigms, but sometimes, the both work best together.

Reflections on the Current Drought in East Africa, by Jeff Grischow

On March 28, Emma Thompson published an article in the Guardian newspaper on the looming famine in East Africa, which is threatening the livelihoods of up to 16 million people in the region.  The situation prompted Thompson to reflect on her visit to Ethiopia with the British charity Action Aid in 1984, when drought and famine took a huge toll in human lives and wiped out much of the survivors’ livestock.

Reporting from a recent visit to Dalocha, Ethiopia, Thompson reflects on the progress made since the 1980s, especially for women.  There was access to clean to clean water from a centrally located water kiosk; educational opportunities has expanded for girls; husbands and wives were partnering in business ventures.  I had a similar impression while visiting an Ethiopian friend’s NGO some years ago. I saw microcredit programs for women, dairy programs for peasant farmers, and an educational initiative that brought education to thousands of disabled children.  Ethiopia’s economy was growing in leaps and bounds, and Addis Ababa was a booming city filled with new developments (including a massive conference centre and Sheraton hotel).

This progress is under threat by the spectre of another famine in Ethiopia and beyond.  For Emma Thompson, it’s an environmental catastrophe brought on by ‘a new wave of drought following the strongest El Niño on record.’  As a solution, she appeals to the readers to donate to the East African Appeal of the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which mobilizes thirteen UK aid charities during global emergencies.  (It was the DEC’s appeal that brought the current situation to Thompson’s attention). The DEC is capable of raising millions pounds for emergency relief and its member organizations are working on the ground in East Africa as I write this blog.  But in viewing the DEC’s appeal video I’m struck by the same Western discourse I remember from 1984.  Famous actors – Eddie Redmayne and Kiera Knightly today, Sally Field in the 1980s – recite the NGOs’ pleas for money over images of affected people (children, mostly) in Ethiopia, or South Sudan, of Somaliland (it’s not clear where), telling Westerners that they can solve the crisis by mailing, calling or texting a donation.

What’s missing, then as now, are deeper analyses of the root causes of drought and famine in region and, I would add, honest and frank assessments of possible unintended consequences of aid.  There’s a wealth of research out there, from books and articles on the African drought of the mid-1970s, to Amartya Sen’s writing on politics and famine, to current research on the root causes of famine in East Africa and elsewhere.  Sen’s work on a previous famine in Ethiopia, for example, showed that foodstuffs were moving out of the worst drought areas, and implicated the government of Haile Selassie in the descent from drought to into famine.  There is also good work on the uses and abuses of aid, such as Alex De Waal’s research on NGOs and the politics of famine relief.  And I’ve come across other researchers who have uncovered a direct connection between Western NGOs, famine relief and the revolution against Haile Selassie of the 1980s, which led to the current government taking power in Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

This is not to argue that NGOs cannot play an important role in emergency relief.  But I would encourage readers of this blog to move beyond the headlines and dig more deeply into the root causes of famine and the politics of foreign aid.

Sources (a partial list – I’d welcome suggestions for additions):

Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997).

Alex de Waal, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power (Polity Press, 2015).

Mark Duffield and John Prendergast, Without Troops and Tanks: The Emergency Relief Desk and the Cross Border Operation Into Eritrea and Tigray (Red Sea Press, 1994).

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Clarendon Press, 1981).