South Sudan’s Refugee Crisis and Ideas for a Way Forward, by Jeff Grischow

On August 17, the Guardian newspaper reported that the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda reached the one million mark.  Another million have fled to Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  According to Jason Burke of the Guardian, the fighting between South Sudan’s factions ‘has created the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.’  The article, like many others, provides an important record of the personal stories of some of the South Sudanese victims of the conflict.  Thousands of children have arrived in Uganda without their parents; children and parents miss their homes but have nothing to return to; refugees in overcrowded camps depend on international NGOs to meet their basic needs.

South Sudan’s crisis is one of the most important global issues of the past year, but it has not been widely covered in the press.  The Guardian article reminded me, however, of a piece published in the New York Times earlier this year, which moved beyond the regular descriptions of the conflict to present the views of some leading experts on how to move forward.  I think it’s worth sharing in this blog.

Published on January 23, 2017, the article – written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman – asked whether South Sudan should be taken over by an international body to stabilize the political situation and buy time to find a solution to the civil war that has been raging since 2013.  The strongest proponent of this idea was the well-known Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, who proposed a six-year trusteeship period managed by the African Union with oversight by the United Nations.  Under Mamdani’s plan, none of South Sudan’s political elite would be allowed to participate.  Opposed to this plan is James Solomon Padiet from Juba University, who feels that an international takeover would be ‘offensive’ because it would exclude many good South Sudanese leaders who are ‘waiting in the wings’ for a chance to contribute to the country’s future.  Padiet also said that many South Sudanese – especially the Dinka – would oppose the idea of an international takeover and its interference with South Sudan’s sovereignty.

Taking a ‘middle position’ is Amir Idris, the Chair of the African and African-American Studies program at Fordham University in New York and a well-respected Sudanese intellectual.  Idris argues that the trusteeship option might be considered as a ‘last resort’ but that the priority should be to build a new South Sudan after removing the current political elite in its entirety.  This would open the door for a new group of South Sudanese politicians and experts to restart the development of the country along more positive lines.  Idris has written about the need for international involvement many times before, and as one of the most important scholars and activists involved in South Sudan his ideas should be considered very closely.

If you are interested in learning more about the current conflict in South Sudan, including historical and contemporary perspectives, here are a few sources that I consider especially worth reading:

Newspaper/popular media articles:

Amir Idris, Identity, Citizenship, and Violence in Two Sudans: Re-imagining a Common Future (Palgrave, 2013).

Douglas Johnson, South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation (Ohio University Press, 2011)

Douglas Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, 3rd edition (Boydell and Brewer, 2016).


Africa and Puerto Rico: Reflections on Loiza and Hacienda La Esperanza By Heather Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University

On June 2 and 4, the students in my travel course ‘Themes in Puerto Rican History’ visited two field sites with deep historical connections to Africa: Loiza, one of the most prominent Afro-Puerto Rican cities (chronicled in my previous blog entry), and Hacienda La Esperanza, a 19th century sugar plantation.  Here are the reflections of one of the student, Heather Smith, who is majoring in History, Medieval Studies and Music.

Jeff Grischow, Tshepo Institute, Wilfrid Laurier University

Loíza: June 2, 2017

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see a diversity of sites in Loíza. From a cathedral with a prominently featured St. Patrick, to the house of Samuel Lind, to learning to dance the bomba—it was a fascinating experience which is quite possibly my favorite day thus far. In terms of my overall impressions of the day’s events, one of the most significant aspects of the Puerto Rican narrative I noticed today was the difference in the depiction of the Taino origins. Samuel Lind himself emphasized the idea that the goddess after which the town is named – Loíza, or Yoisa, was present in the lands and could be felt in the caves. To this point, Lind’s depiction of the Loíza in clay looked very different from depictions we have seen in earlier days, and appeared much more “African” and less stereotypically Spanish. This was fascinating to see. Lind brings business and tourism to Loíza through his work, as our visit exemplified. Thus, the narratives which he both speaks and depicts through his art carry weight in terms of public perception. As such, he can be viewed as a cultural intermediary of sorts, communicating Loíza’s story to those who visit him and purchase his work. A cursory view of his facebook page reveals again, this emphasis upon Puerto Rico’s African roots and his mission to bringing awareness to that vision, as well as how this aligns with his view of the Taino culture as perhaps implicitly being connected to this African heritage. At the cave was a circle of stones with “Taino” drawings and symbols. This, alongside the drummers playing off to the side implicitly connected African culture and the site, with the Taino narrative.


Samuel Lind’s Studio, Loíza

What struck me the most across all of the cultural sites was the regional pride of Loíza. In contrast to our previous visit to Caguas which emphasized the Taino roots of Puerto Rican culture in conjunction with Spanish and African cultures, this Loíza vision very much deemphasized the Spanish: there was no mention of colonialism in all of our tours and events, except in association with slavery and Smith the bomba as an escape from oppressive day-to-day conditions. Altogether, the colours of Loíza, the patron St. Patrick (whom Lind depicts as African, and refers to as ‘our boss’ on his facebook page), and the sense of triumph over slavery, combine to create the sense that Loíza is perhaps a microcosm of still another vision of Puerto Rican nationalism. This might more aptly be referred to as “regionalism” if such a term could be coined. I am very interested to further diversify this Puerto Rican idea of “African” through our tours in the coming days.

Hacienda la Esperanza: June 4, 2017

On June 4, I our Laurier group visited Haceinda La Esperanza.  Our guide delved very deeply into the history of slavery at the site (much more than the guide the coffee plantation Hacienda Buena Vista, which we visited the day before) and was willing to answer virtually any question. Representing the slaves’ voices, as well as social classes using a collection of knives was an innovative approach as this provided a tangible and tactile way of conveying the concept of social class and slavery through material culture. Our guide explained how the knives with ornate handles would have belonged to wealthy citizens, while the most basic and unornamented belonged to the slaves. It was also fascinating to have the story of the slave Cecilio, whom we read about in an article by Astrid Cubano Iquina’s article,* recounted by our tour guide in the physical location where these events occurred.

McInnis Esperanza 2

Sugar Mill Steam Engine, Hacienda La Esperanza

One interesting aspect of the site which more closely resembled the approach at Hacienda Buena Vista, was the emphasis on technology by the slave owners. Of all of the questions asked, our tour guide bristled somewhat at the question surrounding the legalities of importing the machinery to build the steam mill engine machine. Afterward Papo revisited this by mentioning that as this machinery was illegal, it was not discovered by the U.S. during the Second World War. Thus, it appears that the curators of the site may have specifically omitted this fact in the attempts to keep the focus on promoting the technological innovations of the past. Overall, the site was more balanced in its focus upon both the history and the conservation elements of the site than Hacienda Buena Vista. Still, the overarching focus was on the technology and the processes used at both sites. Thus, it is somewhat a missed opportunity to tell more of the stories of the slaves, as Iquina’s article did admirably.

*Cubano Iguina, Astrid, “Freedom in the making: the slaves of hacienda La Esperanza, Manatı´, Puerto Rico, on the eve of abolition, 1868–76,” Social History 36(3)(2011): 280-293

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.