The Gambia – Independence Day

February 18


Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.

So begins Alex Haley’s classic Roots: the Saga of an American Family. The book and subsequent mini-series reawakened the American consciousness to the history of slavery and the black experience in America.

It’s actually The Gambia, not Gambia.

Inclusion of the article “The” in the Gambia’s case is because the country is essentially a tiny sliver of land drilled into the west coast of Senegal. It’s made up of the land that hugs the Gambia River as it winds to the Atlantic.

In Roots, Kunta Kinte is captured in The Gambia, transported on a slave ship and sold into slavery in Maryland.

That Haley can trace his ancestral line to what is now Africa’s smallest country (At 10,000 square kilometers, The Gambia is smaller than Connecticut) is not unusual. According to Wikipedia:

As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the [Senegambia] region during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade operated.

If accurate, that would mean thirty Africans were abducted from Senegambia a day, every day, for three hundred years.

The Gambia Fort

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first American President to visit Africa when he spent the night in The Gambia en route to the Casablanca Conference in 1943.

The Gambia achieved independence from Great Britain on February 18, 1965.

For the first 15 years of its independence The Gambia enjoyed its reputation as a model multi-party democracy for African nations. An unsuccessful but bloody attempted coup in 1981 dented that reputation. The country’s President Dawda Jawara was in England attending the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana when his government was nearly ousted from power. He maintained control via an agreement with Senegal to back his government with military force.

A second coup, in July 1994 was successful, ending Jawara’s near 30-year reign. The head lieutenant of the coup and Gambia’s future leader, Yahya Jammeh, had not been born when Jawara first became Prime Minister.

Teacher by Choice, Politician by Accident

February 5

Today is Chama Cha Mapinduzi Day in Tanzania.

tanzanian flag

Chama Cha Mapinduzi is the name of the ruling party of Tanzania. It means Party of the Revolution in Swahili. The party came to be on February 5, 1977 after the merging of Tanzania’s two major parties under the leadership of Julius Nyerere.

Nyerere was born in 1922 just east of Lake Victoria in what was then Tanganyika. He herded sheep and “led a typical tribal life” in the village where his father was chief of a small tribe.

He began school at age 12 and studied to be a teacher at Makerere University in Uganda. After teaching for three years he received a  scholarship to the University of Edinburgh.

Upon returning to Africa he taught English, Swahili, and history in Dar es Salaam. He was elected president of the Tanganyika African Association, which he had helped to form as an undergraduate at Makerere.

Under his leadership TAA transformed into the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) a political force dedicated to Tanganyikan independence. As his reputation grew colonial leaders pressured him to choose between teaching and politics. Though he chose the latter, his supporters would call him Mwalimu, or “teacher,” for the rest of his life.

He traveled to New York to speak to the United Nations on Tanganyikan independence on behalf of the TANU, which became the most powerful political coalition in the country. In the late 1950s, Tanganyika won independence and Nyerere was elected its first president.

tanganyika's 1st president

As President Nyerere helped unite Zanzibar and Tanganyika, forming Tanzania. He was instrumental in combining the two parties of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form the CCM, or Party of the Revolution

He was controversial for increasingly distancing himself and the country from Western and European governments and leaning more toward Communist China.

He introduced the concept of Ujamaa, or “familyhood,” as an economic movement, melding socialism with traditional tribal government. (Ujamaa is one of the seven values defining the holiday Kwanzaa in the U.S.

He stepped down from power in 1985, before it was cool for heads of state to voluntarily do so.

A few years before his death he gave an interview to Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

CHG: You mentioned the one-party rule in your country where you were president for four terms during which time you promoted the principle of “Ujamaa,” socialism, and you have acknowledged that it was a miserable failure…
NYERERE: Where did you get the idea that I thought “Ujamaa” was a miserable failure?
CHG: Well, I read that you said socialism was a failure…
NYERERE: A bunch of countries were in economic shambles at the end of the 70s. They are not socialists..You have to take in the values of socialism which we were trying to build in Tanzania in any society.
CHG: And those values are what?
NYERERE: And those values are values of justice, a respect for human beings, a development which is people-centered, development where you care about people. You can say ‘leave the development of a country to something called the market,’ which has no heart at all since capitalism is completely ruthless. Who is going to help the poor? And the majority of the people in our countries are poor. Who is going to stand for them? Not the market. So I’m not regretting that I tried to build a country based on those principles…Whether you call them socialism or not…what gave capitalism a human face was the kind of values I was trying to sell in my country.

He died of leukemia in 1999.

Democracy Day – Rwanda

January 28

“Rwanda Democracy Day, a holiday in Rwanda, which is called the African Switzerland; a civic day concerned with equality for all peoples in the nation.”

–Anniversaries and Holidays, by Ruth Gregory, 1983

Just over a decade later, “Rwanda” would be synonymous, not with “African Switzerland” but with the genocidal carnage that rocked the country in 1994.

In the late 19th century, Rwanda became part of German East Africa. During World War I, when Germany invaded Belgium, Belgium returned the favor by taking German East Africa.

European colonialism exacerbated ethnic tensions and divisions between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes. The Tutsi were the ruling minority in Rwanda. Physically, the Tutsis are slightly taller than the stocky Hutus. According to the Atlantic Monthly (June 1964):

Although they never constituted more than 15 percent of the population, [the Tutsi’s] hierarchical organization, built around a king known as the Mwami, their development of specialized warrior castes, and above all their possession of cattle enabled them to dominate the Hutu.

Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda-Burundi) became a UN trust territory governed by Belgium.

The beginning of the end of Tutsi dominance came in 1959, when the king died without designating a successor. A two-year Civil War broke out between Tutsi and Hutu. The Hutu gained the upper hand and declared the country a republic on January 28, 1961. (Burundi remained a Tutsi monarchy.)

For this reason the country celebrated Democracy Day each January 28, but it appears not to be celebrated today, perhaps because the holiday marked the fall of the Tutsi, who in 1994 were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands during three months of ethnically-motivated terror.

Rwandans remember the genocide each year on the anniversary of its beginning, April 7th.

15 years after the genocide, democracy is making a comeback. Rwanda held peaceful parliamentary elections in September 2008 in which women won by a landslide, making Rwanda the first nation in the world with a female-majority parliament.

Women Run the Show in Recovering Rwanda

Female Majority in Rwandan Parliament

In his inauguration speech, President Obama said that his country’s peace and democracy had been fully paid for by the blood of their forebearers and that there was no going back to the old days. This set me wondering whether, the quantity or value of the blood of our own forebearers had not been enough to buy us freedom.

MP Beti Olive Kamya, Rubaga,Uganda


January 19 (January 20 in Leap Years)

If you’ve just had an epiphany, you’re not alone.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany on January 19. (January 20 in Leap Year.) It’s called Timkat, or Timket.

In parts of Europe and the Americas Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day, (though no number or rank is specified in the Bible) and celebrates the visit of the Magi who bestow gifts on the baby Jesus.

In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches however, the day commemorates Jesus’s baptism by St. John in the River Jordan.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Mark 1:10

Traditionally Christians celebrate the event twelve to fourteen days after Christmas. (Once Epiphany was the twelfth day of Christmas.) In the Ethiopian Calendar Christmas falls on December 28, or January 7 Gregorian.


Timkat/Epiphany falls on January 11th in the Ethiopian Calendar, or January 19th Gregorian.

The night before, priests take the Tabot (which symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant) containing the Ten Commandments from each Church. Concealed by an ornamental cloth, it is taken to a tent, close to a consecrated pool or stream, accompanied by much ringing of bells, blowing of trumpets and the burning of incense. —

In Timket, Tella and Tej are brewed, special bread is baked called “Himbash” (in Tigrigna) “Ambasha” (in Amharic), and sheep are slaughtered to mark the three-day celebration. —

While most African churches south of Egypt date only to the colonial era, Hebraic traditions and Semitic language were practiced by some Ethiopian tribes before the birth of Christ.


In fact, the Ethiopian Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion, claims to hold the original Ark of the Covenant, said to have been brought to Ethiopia by Minelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, around the 9th century B.C.

The Ark’s authenticity has been impossible to verify, as only one person has access to the Ark at a time: a sacred guardian, chosen for a lifetime term by the previous guardian.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has the most extended Biblical Canon of any major church, numbering 81 sacred books. Among those writings not included by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic churches are the books of Enoch, Esdras, and Jubilee. – photos/celebration of Timket

Timket 2008: Epiphany & Stardom – a Peace Corps blog

John Chilembwe Day – Malawi

January 15

For nearly a century historians have puzzled over the actions of John Chilembwe, one of the most controversial figures in Malawian history and Malawi’s national hero. The focus: the last days of his life and the uprising he led in January 1915.

By all accounts, Chilembwe was not the type to start an uprising. He was educated by the Church of Scotland missionary school in what was then Nyassaland (Malawi). He later studied under and worked for Joseph Booth, a baptist from Australia, who was critical of the Presbyterian Church’s role in colonialism and believed in the unpopular idea (among whites) of “Africa for the Africans.” Booth’s daughter Emily wrote that Chilembwe…

…had a greater desire to learn and write, and to gain the Truth of Christianity…He knew his own mind and was not easily to be turned from his purpose. But…he was so kind and true – so thoughtful and unselfish.”

Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Uprising of 1915, G. Shepperson and Thomas Price (1958 )

Chilembwe accompanied Joseph Booth to the United States in 1897 where he attended the Virginia Theological College in Lynchburg. There Chilembwe explored the works of Booker T. Washington and learned the fatal story of abolitionist John Brown.

When Chilembwe returned to British-controlled Malawi, he developed programs to improve the plight of his people through education, Christianization, and industriousness.

According to historian Landeg White, prior to the rebellion, the most intimidating thing to white settlers was…

…Chilembwe’s habit of dressing himself in three-piece dark suits, complete with bow tie, and his mixed-race wife Ida in silk stockings and high-waisted empire gowns with leg of mutton sleeves.”

— Magomero: Portrait of an African Village (1989)

John Chilembwe & family

However, in the 1910s a famine devastated Malawi and its neighbor Mozambique. Colonial treatment of Malawians under the thangata (labor-rent) system worsened. One American 7th-Day Adventist (Walter Cockerill) wrote:

If the natives cannot pay their two dollars per year, they are taken by the magistrate and compelled to work about six months in irons.

And with the outbreak of World War I, the British conscripted Malawians en masse to fight against Germany.

This was the last straw to Chilembwe.

Let the rich men, bankers, titled men, storekeepers, farmers and landlords go to war and get shot. Instead we, the poor Africans who have nothing to own in this present world, who in death, leave only a long line of widows and orphans in utter want and dire distress are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs.
— John Chilembwe, letter to the Nyasaland Times, November 1914

The unabashedly racist yet prophetic book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-supremacy (1920) summarized Chilembwe’s uprising as follows:

In 1915 a peculiarly fanatical form of Ethiopism broke out in Nyassaland. Its leader was a certain John Chilembwe, an Ethiopian preacher who had been educated in the United States. His propaganda was bitterly anti-white, asserting that Africa belonged to the black man, that the white man was an intruder, and that he ought to be killed off until he grew discouraged and abandoned the country. Chilembwe plotted a rising all over Nyassaland, the killing of white men, and the carrying off of the white women.

In January 1915, the rising took place. Some plantations were sacked and several whites killed, their heads being carried to Chilembwe’s “church,” where a thanksgiving service for victory was held. The whites, however, acted with great vigor, the poorly armed insurgents were quickly scattered, and John Chilembwe himself was soon hunted down and killed. In itself the incident was of slight importance, but, taken in connection with much else, it does not augur well for the future.

Chilembwe actually ordered his followers not to harm women or children. The attack which killed three white men was targeted against the most brutal plantation in the area, the Bruce Estates, and its manager William Jervis Livingstone. [The display of Livingstone’s head in the church was true.] But the uprising that Chilembwe had hoped would spread through the protectorate never occurred, and Chilembwe was killed a few weeks later, along with members of his flock.

The uprising sent shockwaves throughout the continent. Chilembwe’s actions can be seen as the first revolt in the area in the 20th century struggle for African independence.

Today Malawians celebrate Chilembwe as a martyr who knew he would not survive the revolt, but who led it anyway as the last resort of retaliation against overwhelming oppression. It would be over 50 years before Malawi achieved independence. By that time, the vast majority of African nations had won their independence.

It remains for the Christians of Britain in this day, to consider, whether in the spirit of President Lincoln’s solemn confession during the Nation’s deadly struggle, we also shall be able to say, if the need arises,

“if all the treasure that has been heaped up by the spoliation of the African has to be expended; and if every drop of African blood shed in to the effort to appropriate his country, has to be blotted out by an equal expenditure of European blood just, and righteous, O God, are all thy judgments.”

Africa For the African – Joseph Booth

Voodoo Day!

January 10

Today the people of Benin celebrate the ancient religion of their ancestors, Vodun (Voodoo), in a festival known as Traditional Day, or Vodun Day.

Vodun is a religion of West Africa, and may be one of the oldest religions in the world. It traces its roots to the religious practices of the Yoruba peoples of Dahomey, around what is now Benin, Togo, and Nigeria about 6,000 years ago.

Variants of Vodun spread to the Americas through Haiti and the West Indies during the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. Haitians continued to observe Vodun religious practices in the early 19th century despite the Christianization of Haiti and the Caribbean by the Roman Catholic church.


Vodun’s reputation in the West was not enhanced by books like Sir Spenser St. John’s Haiti or the Black Republic (1884) which detailed erroneous accounts of human sacrifice and cannibalism, descriptions extracted from Haitian priests under torture. By the 1930s Hollywood had cemented this image of African “Voodoo” in the mind of the movie-going public, an image the religion never fully shook off.

Vodun means “spirit”. In Benin, Vodun recognizes a supreme deity as well a pantheon of saint-like spirits, each of whom is associated with a specific attribute (forests, storms, the sea, war, etc…). Spirits may change from region to region.

Tweeda Newa Jaar – South Africa

January 2


In Cape Town one day isn’t enough time to celebrate the New Year. So residents celebrate Tweede Nuwa Jaar, “Second New Year.”

On this day thousands line up along the streets to watch, or participate in, one of the most fascinating New Year’s celebrations in the world. The world-famous Coon Carnival.

Regarding the name, says one participant:

“The Americans come and they don’t want us to use the word Coon because it’s derogatory for the people. Here Coon is not derogatory in our sense. For us the minute you talk Coon, he sees New Year day, he sees satin and the eyes and mouth with circles in white, the rest of the face in black, like the American minstrels.”

Yes, on this day Cape Town musical groups called troupes or kaapse klopse don colorful uniforms inspired by American minstrels of the previous century. They paint their faces bright white and march down the Bo-Kaap part of the city. It has been called “a riot of color and sound” and, though it has no equal, might be compared in feel to the Mardi Gras celebrations in Brazil.

The celebration has been shunned by some members of the upper echelon, who prefer the more refined Malay Choirs and Christmas Bands. But in 1996 when Nelson Mandela put on the outfit of a minstrel troupe to open the Carnival, the traditional march outgrew its working class roots and gained a little more acceptance among the intellectual elite.

Denis-Constant Martin writes in Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town

“To the sounds of wind instruments, ghoemas, and tambourines, they march, dance and sing along Darling Street, past the Grand Parade, into Adderley Street, up Wale Street, into Chiappini Street, then Somerset Road and to Green Point where they go into the stadium for the second round of competitions.”

These troupes are from different parts of the city, and can number over a thousand members. To become part of a troupe all you need’s a uniform. You can beg or buy them from the group captain or bargain with him for a price. Indeed that’s how the groups make their money, from the sale of uniforms. Without a uniform, you’re not in the band, period.

The colorful outfits change each year and were inspired by the American minstrels who visited Cape Town in the mid to late 1800’s. They would smear burnt cork on their face to simulate “black face.” Locals imitated the outlandish dress, hat, and umbrella, but reversed the make-up to wear “white face” and the carnival was born.

The significance of January 2nd is that it was the one day of the year slaves were given holiday. Today the parade is an expression of the joy of life, of victory over the struggle of slavery and then apartheid, and a symbol of freedom and independence.

With the popularization of the carnival though, residents are concerned about the ideals the parade represents. Writes Joel Pollak

There is a widespread fear that organizing the Coon Carnival to appeal to foreign tourists and commercial sponsors would mean taking it away from the local communities that have kept it alive for over a hundred years, in effect reserving the best seats for tourists just as they were once reserved for whites at the segregated stadiums.

Time will see what’s in store next for the Minstrel Carnival, as city officials call it now.

Ujima & Ujamaa and Muhammad Nassardeen

December 28 & 29

December 28th and 29th are the 3rd and 4th days of Kwanzaa. The themes of these days are Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) and Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics). On the surface these do not sound like the general feel-good (or feel-bad) sentiments that accompany most holidays. For the record, other days of the celebration include themes such as Unity, Purpose, and Faith–themes more consistent with older holidays. Ujima and Ujamaa may be overshadowed by these more traditional holiday themes, but all are equally important.

Umoja, or Unity, is the first step, asking the community to recognize itself as a united group.

Kujchagulia, Self-determination, asks the African-American community to define itself and its future on its own terms rather than through the eyes of others.

Ujima and Ujamaa are the nuts and bolts of the operation. They require not just talk but actual tangible steps to achieve.

One man who did just that was Muhammad Nassardeen. His organization Recycling Black Dollars was an effort to keep the money of the African-American community within the community. White neighborhoods recycle dollars 5 times. Latino communities recycle dollars 3 times. And Asian-American communities as much as nine times. But Nassardeen found that the African-American community recycled the average dollar less than 1 time.

By creating and encouraging businesses and organizations, including local churches, to bank and buy within the Los Angeles African-American community Nassardeen helped to increase the wealth of the community substantially.

Unfortunately Nassardeen died in October 2007 of a heart attack. But his contributions to Cooperative Economics are remembered this Kwanzaa in the city where Kwanzaa first greeted the world.

[originally published Dec. 29, 2007]