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

Human Rights and Disability in Africa: A Case Study from Ghana, 2008-2014

By Jeff Grischow

My phone rang at 3:00 a.m. on a January morning in 2008. ‘I’m in the hospital,’ said a familiar voice, ‘I’ve had an accident.’ It was Kwesi, a friend from Ghana who worked as a carpenter at a government-run training centre. For the next hour, I listened as Kwesi shared his story.

On January 13, Kwesi left home on his motorcycle to check on a maintenance job at his worksite. On the outskirts of town an oncoming bus swerved into his path, tore into his left leg, and knocked him down. An ambulance took Kwesi to the nearest public hospital where a surgeon decided to amputate his leg below the knee. As we talked on the phone that January morning, he already had two clear goals: to obtain a settlement for his injury, and to reintegrate into his job at the training centre. Over the next four years, Kwesi embarked on a quest to claim his rights as a newly disabled Ghanaian. It was not easy, and it depended on a combination of personal determination, chance encounters and help from people who championed his cause.

Kwesi’s journey began with his discharge from the hospital on February 10, 2008. To be released, the hospital demanded that he pay the full bill of 900 cedis (equivalent to USD$900, or four months’ net earnings). Otherwise he would be left the condemned ward without food or water. Faced with this prospect, I helped him to pay the bill and he returned home. For the first four months Kwesi relied on crutches, which made it impossible for him to return to work fully because his job required heavy lifting and roofing. Yet his supervisor insisted he return to work and threatened to fire him if he didn’t.

Kwesi needed his job, so he hired a trainee to do the harder physical work. This ate up half of Kwesi’s take-home pay, but at least it prevented him from being sacked. After June, 2008, Kwesi was able to move more freely with a prosthetic leg supplied by an American NGO called Standing with Hope. But he still struggled with some tasks and continued to employ the trainee at his own expense. Several years later a new manager (the third since the accident) took up Kwesi’s cause and encouraged him to apply to the position of Head Artisan, which would allow him to supervise contractors rather than perform heavy work himself. Kwesi accepted the offer and holds this position as of today.

While he recovered, Kwesi pursued a claim against the bus driver’s insurance company, the State Insurance Corporation (SIC). For this to happen the driver had to be convicted of dangerous driving, which happened after Kwesi built his case using a paralegal (who charged 500 cedis), and obtaining a police report (for which the police officer demaned 300 cedis). Along with the conviction, Kwesi also had to submit a medical report to SIC assessing the extent of the injury, which the doctor provided for a ‘fee’ of 200 cedis. As Kwesi said, ‘you give them some bribe, to just make things quick for you.’

Kwesi’s claim sat with SIC for three years, despite repeated meetings with claims officers. Finally, the claim only succeeded, but only after a chance encounter with a friend’s brother – who worked at SIC and overheard one of Kwesi’s frustrating conversations – referred Kwesi to a lawyer. In 2011, with the lawyer’s help, Kwesi finally received his settlement – 15,000 cedis less a 10% lawyers’ fee. Kwesi has invested some of the settlement in two plots of land, on which he hopes to build a house large enough for his family and several rented rooms. This could not be done for 13,500 cedis, but Kwesi is still trying to fund the project through his earnings at work.

Kwesi’s story sheds much light on disability rights in countries like Ghana. In 2008, the Government of Ghana passed a Disability Act based loosely on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). On paper the Act mandates economic reintegration and affordable healthcare for disabled Ghanaians. The CRPD goes further, providing for equal access to justice and a reasonable standard of living. Many scholars believe that legal instruments in themselves will produce disability rights. But Kwesi’s case shows that chance encounters with powerful patrons might be more significant. And not only in Ghana or the developing world. The American disability activist Marta Russell shows that this can be true in the West as well. For me, Kwesi’s story indicates that, despite the existence of disability rights on paper, disabled individuals in non-Western societies will face significant challenges in claiming those rights in practice. Their stories need to be heard.

You can read more about Kwesi’s story in my article, “’I nearly lost my work’: chance encounters, legal empowerment and the struggle for disability rights in Ghana,” Disability & Society, 30(1)(2015).

Jeff Grischow is an Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Associate Director of the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa