Documentaries, Society

Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their anti-racist, anti-capitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

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Books, Documentaries, Society

The Banality of Evil: Learning from the Horrors of the Past

Last week I watched The Look of Silence, a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer and a companion piece to his 2012 work The Act of Killing. Both films explore how the Indonesian military killed a million people – suspected communists and subversives – over the course of 1965-66 after it overthrew the government. The films bring this hidden history to life through the voices of both victim and perpetrator.

In this recent work, a family of survivors discovers how their son Ramli was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers, nearly half a century after the event unfolded. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

First he meets Inong who, wearing the heavy optical frames Adi has placed over his eyes, speaks freely about his crimes, how he once cut off the breast of a communist woman who had been given up for execution by her own brother and how, like many of the killers, he drank the blood of his victims in the belief that it would stop him going mad amid the relentless slaughter. Continue reading


Rojo y Negro

“Red and Black”

A common theme that fills the history books of developing countries is the role of outsiders in influencing policies, mostly political, but also economical. In the past, European countries – France, Belgium, Spain, England, Portugal, Germany – played a major role in determining how countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia ruled themselves. When many of these European colonizers began returning power to their colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, a new power filled the void: the United States of America (USA, US, or so-called “America”). The role of the US in other countries is very evident in the history of Nicaragua. For centuries, the US has tried to either influence or outright control the lives of Nicaraguans. The fact that is most interesting about US-Nicaraguan relations is that the United States has repeatedly been defeated!

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Nicaragua – now made up of 8 million people – has time after time won the long game against the US – a country of over 300 million and defended by the world’s largest military. In every instance, one would have to give the better odds to the US, but sometimes things can’t be predicted.  While in Nicaragua, you can spot two very different flags being flown. This first one is the official national flag. Made up of two blue bars on the the top and bottom – representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that Nicaragua borders – with a white stripe in the center. There is also a triangle in the center with its own symbolic meaning.

But this is not the flag that I wish to highlight.

The one I find more interesting is the party flag of the FSLN. The party flag of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN (in English: Sandinista National Liberation Front) is a very simple design. It’s top half is red (rojo) and bottom half is black (negro), with the middle spelling out the four-letter acronym “FSLN”. It’s not exactly the flag that’s interesting, but rather, what it stands for.

During the 20th century, Nicaraguans have had to mobilize and fight for their freedom on three separate occasions. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Augusto César Sandino led a national rebellion against US occupation. Unfortunately, Sandino was assassinated by the police forces of the Somoza family and they would rule (with American support) for over 40 years.

In the 1970’s, building upon Sandino’s legacy, the FSLN and its Sandinista membership started a revolution against the American-backed President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Wanting an end to the corruption of Somoza and a more socialist set of policies, the Sandinista fought many battles in a civil war of urban warfare, eventually winning in 1979 and overthrowing Somoza.

But, with the election of American President Ronald Reagan came a new chapter in the USA’s presumed need to determine Nicaragua’s future. The year 1981 saw the start of the Contra War. Now that the USA could not manipulate a puppet leader, they used their own form of guerrilla warfare to try and destroy the presumed threat of a small, leftist government in Central America.

The Contras were made up of remnants of Somoza’s National Guard and were secretly financed and trained by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Much of the actions taken by the Contras were later determined to be illegal, such as bombing schools and health centers. Terror was the main tool of change that the US tried to use on the Nicaragua peoples.

It is inspirational to hear stories of everyday people standing up to determine their own future. At the same time, it’s sad that Nicaragua has had to shed so much blood for such a simple goal: freedom.

Today you’ll find FSLN flags and colors on every street and every town. But rather than focus on the violence of the past, Nicaragua is joyous and celebratory of the peace (paz) that fills the country now. Bullet holes can still be seen in historic buildings. But you can also spot people working tirelessly to earn an income and educate their children. It is a country that welcomes outsiders (like myself) and it proud to celebrate its national heroes.

My hope is that Nicaragua can remain independent and fulfill their dreams and those of their ancestors in their long battle towards freedom.


First Days in Nica

Nicaragua has so far been a beautiful experience. The Project HOPE team (which I’m co-leading) has worked for over 6 months to get to this point. Although we spent most of our first day traveling – more accurately, sitting in an airport – from Edmonton to the capital, Managua.

Transitioning from an air conditioned airport to the humidity and heat of Central America in May was no small feat. I was sweating buckets, but it was mainly my fault: I was wearing jeans, hiking shoes, carrying a 49.9 pound pack on my back, and a second smaller pack on my front!

To learn more of the history of Nicaragua, the team went on a bus tour of Managua. We visited the city lookout point, the city square (included a closed cathedral; closed due to repeated earthquake damage) and the port named after Salvador Allende. The team was put outside their comfort zone, somewhat, as they had to navigate the nuances of interacting with street merchants, some of whom were children. Throughout the day, we saw many references to the Revolution of 1979. And many examples of how the country celebrates their national heroes; people like Augusto Sandino.


The most exciting part of this first day (for me) was meeting Tanya, our in-country coordinator. Her and I got to share stories from growing up in rural communities; she told me about her studies in the USA; and her large family of 9 siblings, with 2 currently in university – one studying journalism and the other nursing.

Our time in Managua would be unfortunately cut short, as we had to start moving north and start working. On our second day, we drove to Esteli – our base for the month – settling into our hostel and getting to meet our partner organization: FUNARTE. This land is filled with amazing and generous people. We were greeted at Hostal Tomabu by the owners – Elena and Poncho – and showed to our assortment of single, double, and triple rooms. At this point, the team was running low on energy due to countless hours of sitting in transport.

On the third day, we were lucky to be invited to FUNARTE’s weekend workshop with the children of the Oscar Ramero community. Team members painted with youth of all ages and got to see, first hand, the power of adding color to canvas. I find the work of FUNARTE to be inspiting. Not only have they working continuously since the revolution (so, 35 years long), but they are able to inspire children to become story tellers and community artists.

I should mention at this point that Esteli is internationally known as the City of Murals. 35 years of murals adds up to a lot of murals. When walking on the street you are hard pressed to find a wall without a mural or a story. Rafa and Karen (our translator) from FUNARTE were able to give us a history lesson on a a few murals. Some were new creations and some were reproductions of ones done decades before. They speak to peace, environmental awareness, and equal rights. I am looking forward to taking in all the stories and artwork I can.


As the weekend was upon us, our team set out for a “fun” activity – a walk to waterfall. You could call it a walk, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. It was more of a endurance test of the mind and spirit. We began our trek at 9:30 am through the common sights of outdoor shops and narrow streets. We even passed the traveling circus. And them came the unpaved road. It winded up and down, left and right, with no clear indication of ending. People were sweating and people were getting tanned. But, in the end, we made it to our destination. And what a destination it was.


Everyone got to go for a swim. You could even go through the falling water to take a break on a quickly cramped set of rocks.

Later in the day, we found out that we were the first Project HOPE team to make this hike – everyone else just took a bus or set of taxis. Who knew!

The day was only half over as we had to get back into hiking mode and walk to Tanya’s family home, where we’d be eating lunch. It was a lovely traditional meal, with chicken soup and fresh tortillas. We were escorted around the family property, which featured coffee trees, an area that is rented to tourists, and a very large, very sociable pig.



All of this travel, planning, and fundraising was meant for one thing – the project. Our group of 11 MacEwan University students will be working in partnership with FUNARTE to bring the high school students of the Rosario Hospital community three things: repairs to six classrooms, a newly built multipurpose room to allow teachers to plan and psychologists to counsel, and the interaction with us. We will bring our own stories and hopefully take back with us, some of theirs.

photo (1)Stay tuned for updates!



Short History of the Guans

From the 6th Edition of the Guan Congress

Damongo, N/R, Ghana

October 2004

The Guan speaking peoples live mostly in Ghana though there are some pockets in Togo, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. Modern historians more or less agree that since time immemorial the Guans have been “the original inhabitants” of Ghana, because unlike the Akan who arrived from Bouna in the north-west, the Ewe from Notsie in Togo about 1720, the Ga-Adangme from certain parts in Nigeria, and the Mossi-Dagomba group of states who migrated from the north-east, the Guans, on the other hand, migrated from nowhere; thus Ghana is the ancestral homeland of the Guans.

Even the pockets of Guans in Togo (the Anyanga), those in Benin (the Gbede, Wese, Okomfo) and the Baule in Cote d’Ivoire claim migrant origin from Ghana. There are numerous studies which support Guans claim to their autochthonous (i.e. aboriginal) status. However, for lack of space the present writer may confine himself to factual information provided by Professor Abu Boahen who says: “Neither the Akan nor the Ga-Adangbe found the coastal districts of Ghana unoccupied. It is clear from oral traditions as well as linguistics evidence that these immigrants met the Guans who were living in these areas in different degrees of concentration and political organization”. These Guans are represented today by the Anum, Kyerepong, Basa, Breku, Etsii, Afutu and Asebu: “When these immigrants arrived they pushed the Guans eastwards and south-wards and either totally or partially assimilated the Guans culturally or ethnically. (vide: A thousand years of West African history, 1970. P. 167).

By 1482, when these Portuguese led by Don Diogod, Azambuja negotiated with the local chief of Edena for the construction of a fort, there was not any Fante, Ga, nor Ewe on the coast. The Edena people originated from one of the Ancient Guan Kingdom, namely Aguafo. The rest were Asebu, Fetu near Cape Coast, Agona in the Central region and Guan Kingdom in the Afram Plains under the Ataaras. They were all state builders.

Gonja is the oldest Guan settlement, but whether it is the nursery ground and the cradle of Guans institutions is one of the problems which archaeologists are now called upon to solve. But one thing is certain and that is the partrilineal groups so typical of the Guans definitely evolved here.

Historians assert that the growing power of Songhai Empire pushed the Mossi-Dagomba ancestry ancestors south of the Niger Bend, so that by A.D. 1333 they became a threat to the very survival of the Guans in Gonjaland, thus waves of Guans moved southwards in search of settlements.

Earlier the desire to move southwards into the forest country had been felt by the Guan, because the climate and the vegetation were not conducive to intensive human occupation. Eventually, members of kindred groups broke away and wandered afield to their present inhabitants.

The first Group penetrated into the Afram Plains where they built a powerful state under the Ataaras. The last of the Ataaras, by name King Ataara Ofinam VIII, was ousted by the Akan who migrated from Adansi in a seven-year war, (1690-1697), so that inhabitants fled to Atwode, Akpafu, Lolobi, Santrokofi, Likpe, Buem, Anum, Boso, Nyagbo, Tafi, Akposo, Logba, Akpafo, Abanu, and Okere, as well as the Buem and Nchumuru.

The OKERE ancestors first settled at Tafo, Kukurantumi and Osiem, from there they moved to ABOTOASE near the present-day Adawso before settlinh on the mountains. At Tafo the OKERE established the OHUM festival, which has since become the aboriginal cult of Akyem Abuakwa. In the same way the Fetu Afahye of the original Afutu at Oguaa has remined the aboriginal cult and not the Ahobar of Borbor Mfante.

The second group moved towards the lower Volta Basin. Among them were the Senya, Larteh, the Kpeshi aborigines of the GA countryside, the Obutu (Awutu) who leader by name Awietey had gold and brought this with him. The third group moved to Sefwi, Nzema, Aowin, Wasa, Ahanta, Shama, Asebu, Aguafo and the Etsii settlements. They have all been subjected to Akan imperialism and have lost all cultural triats which made them identified as Guan.

The Fetu settlers founded Oguaa. Some of them moved east-wards along the coast and founded Mumford and Winneba, while the Nkonya continued the journey to Nyanawase, thence to Lartey before the Volta. Almost all the Guan communities now living on either side of the Volta north of Kpando have traditions of COUNTER MIGRATION, i.e. migration southwards and backwards to the north. There was counter-migration from the ancient town of Lartey across the Volta to Nkonya, Prang, Yeji, Dwan, Nkomi and Nammuri.

The Guans now live in five regions of Ghana, namely; Central, Eastern, Brong-Ahafo and Northern. Their institutions and language operate side by side with those of their closest neighbours, and it appears this sense of cultural distinctiveness is intensified and justified by the practise of partrilineal succession in all the Guan-speaking areas, except Anum and Boso who became matrilineal by adoption.

In conclusion, let me digress a little with a plea that the Guans should value their heritage whatever their origins. They should preserve and not neglect their links with the past.