To launch our new Arts and Humanity Council (AHRC)-funded project on ‘Rethinking Reparations for Afrikan Enslavement as Cultural, Spiritual and Environmental Repairs’, the International Network of Scholars & Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) held a three-hour workshop on 15 July 2021, entitled ‘REMATRIATION: Rethinking Reparations for Afrikan Enslavement as Pan-Afrikan Envisioned Repairs Highlighting Cultural, Spiritual and Environmental Return to Mother Earth’ . Our aim was to explore and define two key areas of relevance to the struggle for reparatory justice for the transoceanic trafficking and enslavement of Afrikan peoples.
The first relates to the processes by which the descendants of those who were forcibly displaced from Afrika are able to re-establish their cultural and spiritual links to Mother Earth on their mother-continent of Afrika; a process known as 'Rematriation'. This is an indigenous concept that refers to restoring a living material culture to its rightful place on Mother Earth; restoring a people to a spiritual way of life, in sacred relationship with their ancestral lands; and reclaiming ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources.
The second relates the ways in which struggles for reparatory justice are underpinned by the need for 'Planet Repairs' and the role that Afrikan culture and knowledge can play in contributing to ecological and reparative social justice movements more broadly. Planet Repairs is about the need to proceed from a standpoint of pluriversality that highlights the nexus of reparatory, environmental and cognitive justice in articulating the need to repair holistically our relationship with, and inseparability from, the earth, environment and the pluriverse. It means giving due recognition to Indigenous knowledges in contrast with western-centric Enlightenment ideals that separated humanity from nature and devalorized Indigenous systems of knowledge to justify exploitation for capital accumulation.
Working within these two broad definitions, we asked our participants and speakers to consider the relevance of Rematriation to their work, along with its possibilities and challenges, and models and examples, in contrast with government-led ‘homecoming programmes’ or repatriation. We also asked them to think about the extent to which Afrikan indigeneity itself is under threat and why this should matter for Afrikan heritage communities in the Diaspora, as well as the need for Rematriation not just within the Diaspora, but also on the continent. Finally, we asked about the role that can Afrikan cultures and knowledges can play in contributing to ecological and reparatory justice movements.
The workshop opened with libations led by Dr Tony Van der Meer (University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA), while the session was chaired by Professor Joyce Hope Scott (Boston University, USA).
To kick things off, Aura Carreno Caicedo (Afro-Colombian student and member of the Extinction Rebellion Internationalist Solidarity Network) shared her video and spoken word performance of ‘Malaika’. Aura explained that she had created this moving poem from her experiences in school, where her identity as an Afro-Colombian woman was either unrecognized or associated only with an anonymous and enslaved Black figure. This negation of her identity led her to create this poem as a form of self-reparation, enabling her to express her thoughts and feelings about erasure and non-recognition. ‘Malaika’, she said, ‘is an action, a verb’ that works to contest the process of negation by reclaiming her personhood and connecting her back to the rich ancestry of her Afrikan roots.
Yvette Modestin (writer, poet and activist focused on Afro-descendent experiences in Latin America, and founder and executive director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro in Boston, MA, USA) responded to Aura’s poem with a poem of her own, entitled ‘An Ode to Mi Corona’ [my Crown]. For her, Rematriation is about reclaiming the Crown on our heads, while grounding our feet in resiliency. ‘Art and writing heal’, she said, ‘grounding the self in our African spirit’. She spoke of how a ‘poem showed up’ in a moment of deep grief, helping her to heal, and how poetry is a medium for ‘falling in love with who we are and where we came from’. ‘We are an Americas of people of African and Indigenous descent’ and we should be ‘unapologetically African, unapologetically Black’. Her creative work is lead by IFA: a spiritual force that enables her to reclaim her Crown. The symbol of the Crown, linked to hair and locks, is the force (Asé) that allows us to gather strength anew each day. It is the antennae to guide our life.
She spoke about reparation as something that is always being represented (from the outside) as ‘radical’, but how that label of radicalism is an imposed idea that forces conflict upon us. Instead, ‘we need to find a place of peace’ and understand that Rematriation as reparation is about reconnecting and grounding to achieve peace, in line with Rastafari philosophical and spiritual thought. ‘Our struggle is the same wherever we are in the world’.
From poetry, our speakers moved us towards thinking about Rematriation as a practice and a practical process. Nana Kojo Asare Bonsu (MAATUBUNTUMITAWO Global Afrikan Family Reunion International Council) led by speaking about his various visits to Ghana as a Jamaican man and his frustration at always having to obtain a visa. Kofi Mawuli Klu suggested an alternative route by encouraging Kojo to become part of an indigenous Afrikan community under the stewardship of one of Ghana’s Paramount Chiefs, Osei Adza Tekpor VII. This was not a quick process, but required him to invest time and energy unlearning, relearning and self-learning for self-repair. He learned the extent to which he belonged to a people that had been oppressed. During a visit to Elmina Castle, he described feeling things beneath his feet and seeing figures from the spiritual realm moving about the place; how his wife began to wail, as they relived the trauma of those who had passed through that place of horror.
The journey to Rematriate meant returning to that trauma, then confronting the realization that there is no automatic right to return and that there is resistance and (political) obstacles to the very process of returning. However, there is a solution in the key role that can be played by Afrikan chieftaincies in addressing the damage done by the imposition of colonial borders in Afrika. Kojo has now Rematriated having been fully welcomed into, and become part of, an Indigenous Afrikan community under the chieftancy of Osei Adza Tekpor VII.
Dr Debra Boyd (Professor and author of Wax Prints of the Sahel: Cloth Portraits of Contemporary African History, 2021) kept our focus on the importance of Afrikan Indigeneity. She looked up information on ‘Rematriation’ in preparation for the workshop, but kept coming up with repatriation. She noted how this echoed her own studies into Nigerien literature (from Niger), which would always be imagined as Nigerian literature (from Nigeria), the one occluding the other. For her, Rematriation is centred on the role of Afrikan women and their reclamation of the natural resources of Mother Earth.
Her focus is on cotton and the production of textiles, notably Afrikan wax prints. Cotton has an industrial history that is linked directly to the enslavement of Afrikans, but is also an artisanal Afrikan tradition. ‘Cotton’, she said, ‘is a fibre that changed the world, that was known as white gold, that was touched by women’s fingers that were small enough to handle its sharp bolls.’ From an artisanal perspective, however, the relationship of women to cotton, where women are the main producers, forms part of an important and overlooked history and tradition in the Sahel. In this case, cloth is linked to female power and the sacred values that people have invested in textiles. ‘Cloth speaks’, she said. It is a form of text, hence the name ‘text-ile’. Moreover, ‘cloth continues to speak after death’, the Afrikan wax prints retelling stories of Afrikan history and culture. Cloth becomes a means of communicating and preserving these stories, playing an important social and political role that can be used as an ideological and pedagogical tool. However, this Indigenous Afrikan practice is now under threat from external competitors seeking to replicate and produce cloth cheaply, but without any economic benefit to Afrika.
After listening to ‘Osun’ (a Yoruba chant sung by people in the Diaspora), Ras Cos Tafari (Rastafari in Motion Exhibit Team) spoke of how the conversations taking place in the workshop were all reflective of Rastafari consciousness, noting that the workshop was ‘like a spiritual experience’. Rematriation is about ‘reclamation of your divinity’ and that must not be forgotten. The music and poems we have shared are not just ‘entertainment’, but rather a reparatory process. We need to challenge colonial consciousness and recognize that ‘Afrika belong to us’ in order to rise out of victim mentality. The concept of Rematriation is therefore connected to that spiritual reclamation, with Rastafari consciousness being the bedrock and inspiration for Afrikan Rematriation.
Dr Davis-Kahina ChenziRa (Director of the Virgin Islands & Caribbean Cultural Center) then responded to Ras Cos Tafari in reverence and respect for the Rastafari who have been at the forefront of Rematriation. ‘Afrika is our root’, she said, and celebrated the collective spiritual energy and the guidance of our Elders and Elderesses. Picking up from Dr Boyd’s references to cloth, she noted that we are all threads in a tapestry, that we are all doing this work together, each playing our part. She asked us to think about what we are going to do after this workshop in response to the ‘versations’ (not conversations) that were taking place. For her, Rematriation comes out, orally, as ‘Rema’atriation’ in reference to the seven concepts of Ma’at: truth, balance, order, harmony, righteousness, morality and justice. Just as Dr Boyd pointed to the importance cloth and cotton in energizing our bodies and of clothing as one of our basic necessities, so Dr ChenziRa spoke the need to pay attention to our basic needs, including what we are eating to ensure that we retain our spiritual energy. By reconnecting to ancient ancestral Afrikan legacies, we facilitate our ability to heal. But we also need to ensure that we are working together. We need to pull all the threads together to create our tapestry (our cloth). In this way, we can heal the effects of the Maangamizi (and its intentionally disruption of Afrikan humanity) by applying the ancient Afrikan principles of ReMa’atriation and Ubuntu.
Our final speaker was Dan Okyere Owusu (Media literacy and production consultant, and film maker, Boston, MA, USA) who defined the concept of ‘Tarzanism’ or the extractivism of (western) media and the way it produces messages about who Afrikan people are, which then become part of our shared imaginary. Instead of ‘receiving other people’s messages about who we are, we need to define ourselves through our own stories’, he said. He is working in partnership with Medegbe TV (Benin) and Ghana TV, as well as his own Africa Gateway Online (AGO), to train people to tell their own Afrikan-centred stories and then pass that knowledge onto successive generations. Reclaiming stories through oral storytelling, using Indigenous languages and technology, means that media ‘can be our friend if we produce it’. This reclamation of identity through the power of narrative and the media is therefore also part of enabling Rematriation to heal the disinformation that harms Afrika and Afrikan heritage communities around the world.
The concluding discussions raised a number of different questions that will go on to inform subsequent workshops, including the twenty-year anniversary of the Durban Declaration which is not being commemorated by western states, yet forms an important landmark in terms of reparation (Barryl Biekman), the need to interlink different struggles of relevance to the Afrikan diaspora (Tony Van Der Meer), the importance of connecting Rematriation to the recovery of land (Kofi Mawuil Klu), as well as the difficulties of negotiating with the African Union, since this body of member states was a path prepared by colonialism (Wale Idris Ajibade). Finally, the question of creating a joint statement around the problems going on in Haiti, Colombia, Cuba and South Africa was raised by Tony, with the decision to set up a special meeting about what we can do practically to support existing efforts in these countries.
For as Kofi concluded, Rematriation is also about ‘addressing the plight of Afrikans across the world’.