Wednesday, 6 July 2022


The vibrant canvases of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, the acclaimed Aboriginal artist who began painting around the age of 80, can be seen this summer in a stunning exhibition in Paris.

The show runs until Nov. 6 at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, located in the Montparnasse area on the city's Left Bank, and it’s the first solo exhibition of Gabori’s work outside Australia.

“This immense painter has produced a unique body of work comprising extraordinary modernity, without any apparent attachment to other aesthetic currents, especially within contemporary Aboriginal painting,” say the curators.

Gabori is considered one of Australia’s greatest contemporary artists of the past 20 years, achieving national and international artistic fame before her death in 2015. She created hundreds of works within a decade, after she was introduced to painting at a local community centre.

The exhibition is not presented in chronological order; instead, visitors are treated to an ocean of colour, where the sea seems to take centre stage. This is a show where art lovers can simply immerse themselves in works that pulse with force, personality and creativity.

For more information about the exhibition and Gabori’s life and work, see:

Photo (by AM): A visitor looks at Sally Gabori's paintings at the Fondation Cartier, Paris.

Sunday, 22 May 2022


France is hosting its 9th “Latin America and Caribbean Week” (La Semaine de l’Amérique latine et des Caraïbes or SALC) from 26 May to 11 June this year, and included in the line-up of cultural and artistic events is a discussion of Caribbean literature at ESSEC Business School in Cergy-Pontoise, a commune outside Paris.

The talk will feature two Jamaicans based in France - researcher and lecturer Dr. Sondré Colly-Durand and award-winning writer Alecia McKenzie, author of the novels A Million Aunties and Sweetheart

They will participate in a three-hour interactive presentation at ESSEC, with Colly-Durand discussing the work of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott and Booker Prize-winner Marlon James, while McKenzie will discuss A Million Aunties, which was longlisted for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award. She will also offer insight into both the writer’s craft and some of the themes in literature from the Caribbean - including colonialism and migration.

The presentation forms part of “Great Novels and Short Stories from the English-Speaking World", a course created by Michael Klouklakis (the director of ESSEC’s Languages and Cultures department) and co-taught with American writer Curtis Young.

The annual Semaine de l’Amérique latine et des Caraïbes, or SALC, is an initiative launched by a French Senate resolution in 2011 and coordinated by France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. It has long gone beyond being a “true week” since it generally runs for more than seven days. “But when you like something, you don’t count the days,” an official once declared as the event got underway.

In previous sessions, McKenzie - founder of SWAN and the Caribbean Translation Project - has led a bilingual literary reading at a Paris bookshop and focused on translation at a virtual event last year during the pandemic “Semaine”.

France has seen a growing number of literary translations from English-speaking Caribbean countries and from Latin America in recent years, reflecting public interest. Trésor, the translation (by S. Schler) of McKenzie’s novel Sweetheart, was awarded the Prix Carbet des Lycéens in 2017 by students in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane and London. 

More info here:

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @Caribtranslate

Wednesday, 11 May 2022


She's here now. We can see her. She won’t be forgotten.

With these words, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on May 10 inaugurated a statue of Solitude, a woman who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe, was sentenced to death by French forces in 1802, and killed a day after giving birth.

“History and memory are part of our lives,” Hidalgo declared, pointing out that women however tended to be the "forgotten ones". She said the commemoration was important not only for people today but also for future generations.

In France, May 10 is observed as the National Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery, and Their Abolition (la journée nationale des mémoires de la traite, de l'esclavage et de leur abolition), and several events were held around the country, including one with President Emmanuel Macron at the Jardin du Luxembourg in the French capital - as in past years.

The statue’s inauguration formed part of these events, taking place in a symbolic location. “Solitude” stands on the Général Catroux Square in the 17th arrondissement, in a garden that the city had already named for her in September 2020.

Close by are monuments honouring famous writer Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers) and his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - who was born into slavery in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and eventually became a general in the French army.

Up to now, the most striking feature of the square has been two huge “broken-chain” shackles on the grass, created by artist Driss Sans-Arcidet and installed in 2009 as "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas". It is around this iron sculpture that some associations have been paying homage to the victims of slavery, since the national May-10 day was launched in 2006.

In fact, even as Solitude’s statue was being inaugurated, another commemorative ceremony was taking place just a few meters away, with music sometimes drowning out the voices of Hidalgo and other official speakers (who included the statue’s creator - artist Didier Audrat - and former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault). 

Apparently, the organizers of the two events had not consulted with one another, according to several spectators, who called the “clash” a “pity”.

Meanwhile, the statue’s inauguration drew a diverse crowd, who rushed to snap pictures of themselves beside the monument when it was unveiled.

The almost non-stop picture-taking sometimes felt jarring, but it was perhaps understandable, given Solitude’s legendary role in slavery resistance in the Caribbean. Beyond Guadeloupe, her life has been made known particularly through the work of French writer André Schwarz-Bart, whose Guadeloupean widow and fellow writer, Simone Schwarz-Bart, spoke at the inauguration, discussing his acclaimed novel La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Schwarz-Bart said that she and her late husband knew that the story had to be written.

According to Guadeloupean teacher and translator Suzy Roche, both writers indeed worked to shine a light on the little-known aspects of Solitude's life and to "return her" to her people, as so many Caribbean heroes "have been lost to history".

Solitude was born circa 1772, some two decades before France first abolished slavery in Guadeloupe (in 1794). She came of age during a period of uprisings, as people in French colonies fought for their freedom, against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

It was in 1802 that, while pregnant, she joined an uprising against French troops sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to reinstate slavery. The uprising was brutally suppressed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has produced pedagogic material on Solitude as part of a “Women in African History” project.

Researchers say that she “was taken prisoner around 23 May 1802”, sentenced to death and "suppliciée" (possibly tortured, flogged to death or hanged) on 29 November that year, a day after giving birth. That same year, France reinstated slavery, before abolishing it again in 1848.

Solitude’s story is a universal one that symbolises the fight for freedom and the current need for continuous dialogue, said Hidalgo at the unveiling of the statue.  

It also symbolizes the struggle against racism and xenophobia - both of which are enduring features of life in France, as various anti-discrimination organizations have noted. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom, by A.M.): the statue of Solitude, by artist Didier Audrat; sculpture "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas" by Driss Sans-Arcidet; officials, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (centre) and former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (far left) posing with "Solitude". alongside writer Simone Schwarz-Bart (in sunglasses).

UNESCO info:

Saturday, 30 April 2022


By Valentina Vagliani

(The following article is a contribution to SWAN's discussion of languages and translation, in collaboration with The Caribbean Translation Project.)

As a multilingual child, I remember feeling surrounded by a variety of tones, rhythms and melodies, all at reach to seize and happily combine. Every word you catch as a toddler is welcomed by marveling grownups; any combination is allowed and whatever you formulate is seen as “adorable”.

Then comes the time for separation, when variety turns into difference. You discover what is right and what is wrong in each separate tongue, what is possible and what isn’t in one or the other, how unity must be shattered. Each culture clearly sets its boundaries, but along with my growing knowledge and love of these cultures, there was no single one growing inside me, and never will be.

Later, strangers, acquaintances and family started asking questions: “Which one is your favorite?” “Which one is the strongest?” “You must have a first language.”

I can still see them, on the lookout for confirmation of the answers they wanted to hear. I don’t think they were ever interested in the actual frame of mind of the “whiz-kid”. One way or another, the response had to fit their own assumptions.

I realize now how those innocent questions were all about discrimination and grading, and how I instinctively protected my opposite mindset as an inborn reflex of self-preservation. Why should I put my musical friends - my languages - in rivalry, when I loved them all?

When you speak several languages, people assume you are a born translator. What else could languages be useful for?

While you may or may not enjoy the challenge of translation, the beauty of natural born multilingualism is precisely that there is no need for translation. You don’t need to refer to a dominant culture to understand another.

However, a strange phenomenon occurs: you are always seen as from the other country by locals, even your own kin. You are still a member of the family, but a different one. I’ve heard that it happens to all expats as well. Once you’ve seen your country from the outside, you become an outsider. You are no longer really one of them. It’s not all bad, you stand out as an exception, you attract attention and interest, but it affects your sense of belonging.

Then your “exoticism” can become invasive. That shouldn’t always be the source of interest towards you. It gets in the way of what you want to say and to do with your life.

And that’s when someone says: “Come to think of it, you’re really nothing, since you are none of them completely” (meaning none of my three cultures). “Nothing personal…”

Seriously? Certainly nothing you can imagine.

The dismay caused by those words is reflected in Toni Morrison’s famous quotation:

“Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.” (Portland State Public Lecture on the theme of the American Dream, 1975)

I was also told: one day “you’ll find your idiom”.

Multilingualism is a way of thinking, not only the ability to switch languages. Is that what makes some people so uncomfortable? Perhaps they can sense but cannot see, and therefore can’t quite understand or even imagine the mind of the multilingual person? Yet, when we explain what we experience, it doesn’t calm the threat, it just triggers more provocation, which reveals denial of multilingualism’s specific characteristics. And it is this denial that creates issues.

In people’s defense, the lack of words to represent what exists in multilingual persons’ minds doesn’t help others to envisage the possibility of what one describes. The expression “father tongue” is not as commonly used as “mother tongue”, and how does one refer to the language you acquire from attending school in another country? The lack of specific terminology shows how little multilingual culture is represented.

To further describe the multilingual mindset, imagine being everywhere at once, having a certain gift of ubiquity, as you can stand in a culture while watching it from the perspective of another, and this, without being watched in return.

Come to think of it, that in fact could be so disturbing to some people that they just lose it. How else could several cultures add up to nothing?

Fortunately, many individuals don’t need to know a second or a third language to use their imagination and open their minds. Putting thoughts into words is the first act of translation we all experience.  Others love to learn foreign languages. They enjoy discussing thoughts, concepts and are glad to explore the many ways of thinking and possible representations of the human mind. And that, in the end, is the most interesting part of life and of multilingualism.

Yes, you will find your idiom, it’s called freedom. 

Italian and American, born in France, of Jamaican and Barbadian origins, Valentina Vagliani is a dancer, singer and voice teacher based in Paris. She is naturally trilingual and also speaks a fourth language.

Editing by SWAN. Photos (top to bottom): Valentina Vagliani, by Rémi-Charles Caufman; image of Toni Morrison on the cover of The Source of Self-Regard, published by Knopf, 2019.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate.

Monday, 28 March 2022


Like many arts events, the Brazilian Film Festival of Paris found itself scrambling to survive when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Organizers first moved the programming online because of lockdowns, and then changed the date to summer in 2021. Now, the festival is back with live screenings of films that will take place in the French capital March 29 to April 5.

This 24th edition is putting the spotlight on music and on pioneering musicians, presenting Brazil’s greatest cultural export through different lenses, according to the festival’s founder and director Katia Adler. A resident of Rio de Janeiro who studied film in France and worked in television, Adler began distributing Brazilian films in 1998 “as a way to show a different picture and to help filmmakers at a time when culture was being pushed to the side-lines,” she said.

“When I was working in television in the late Eighties and there was something about Brazil, it was always negative, focusing on street children, drugs or poverty,” she told SWAN in 2013 - a year that Brazil was the “guest of honour” throughout France, with a range of cultural events.

While the festival has faced difficulties since then, Adler says it has become an important event in Europe, and she and her co-organizers are determined to see it continue. The following edited interview with Adler took place in Paris via telephone in March 2022.

SWAN: The pandemic affected the festival in 2020. How did you cope?

Katia Adler: We had to cancel the in-person screenings and go on-line. We had a selection of about 60 films and quite a number of virtual debates as well. Then in 2021, we moved to July, for four days, with precautions. But people were still afraid to go to the cinema, so our audience was smaller. Now we’re back to our format before the pandemic, and I hope people will come out to see the films and that things will be more or less back to normal. We hope we’ve left the pandemic behind us.

SWAN: What’s happening at this year’s event?

KA: We have a line-up of 29 films, and we’re really happy to be back with screenings in the cinema because that’s important for viewers. We have 10 to 12 special guests coming from Brazil - I think that’s significant too. And the festival can be seen as a fighter because we’re still resisting negative trends even though we don’t have a sponsor this year.

SWAN: Among the notable films that will be screened, there is a documentary on renowned musician Gilberto Gil, titled Gilberto Gil - Antologia Vol.1 and directed by Lula Buarque de Hollanda. Can you tell you tell us more this?

KA: Yes, the closing film of the festival is about Gilberto Gil, and it includes archival footage that’s unknown to most people. The images come from his personal archive, and it’s a very interesting film about him, about his life and music.

SWAN: Along with this year’s theme of music, you’re also focusing on a work that had a great impact on Brazilian filmmaking.

KA: We’ve chosen a film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio 40 Graus, which somehow changed the way that directors subsequently made movies because it was filmed in a favela in Brazil, with Black actors, and that was significant. After this film, Brazilian cinema changed a bit, but we’re still far from having representative Black directors in Brazil. There’s still much to be done to portray and represent Black Brazilians, who make up 50 percent of the population.

Our opening film this year, Pixinguinha (directed by Denise Saraceni), is about a great Brazilian musician and I think that it’s important for the festival to show this film, and to have discussions and debates.

SWAN: Overall, what’s the main importance of a festival such as yours, especially with the sizable Brazilian community in France?

KA: In addition to the Brazilian community, about 70 percent of our audience consists of French film fans who are interested in Brazilian culture, and the festival serves on one hand to promote Brazilian cinema, but it also serves to highlight French distributors of Brazilian films. France is the leading country for co-production of films with Brazil. But Brazilian cinema is on average still not widely known. It’s not like Brazilian music, which most people know, and which is played just about everywhere. I think it’s fundamental to have a festival that has existed for 24 years and which is a platform for Europe, because other countries ask for the films after seeing them at the festival.

Photos (top to bottom): the poster for the Brazilian Film Festival of Paris; Katia Adler; and a shot from the film Pixinguinha. Images are provided courtesy of the festival. 

The festival is also making about 8 films - features and documentaries - available online from March 29 to April 30, 2022.

For more information: Festival du cinéma brésilien de Paris 24 - Festival - Jangada

Monday, 14 March 2022


With his latest album Kintal da Banda, the acclaimed Angolan musician Bonga has reminded us how valuable art can be in times of darkness.

From the first track, which gives the album its name, listeners will feel their spirits lifting as Bonga’s passionate, raspy voice and irresistible melodies take us to a sphere of light.

The collection of songs celebrates his memories of growing up in Kiripi, Angola, and receiving an education in the courtyard of his family’s home. The album’s title translates as “the Courtyard of the Place” or, perhaps more loosely, “Yard Band”, and it recalls the area where Bonga “forged his social and political conscience” and his “aptitude for tenderness and revolt”, as French author Anne-Laure Lemancel puts it, in notes about the release.

The themes range from family get-togethers and shared meals to the need for resistance against the “dark forces” of the planet, no matter who they are – although Bonga asserts that he doesn’t wish to get angry anymore because it’s detrimental to his health. The stories in the songs come alive through the melodies of semba, the traditional Angolan music genre that Bonga is credited with popularizing on the international scene.

One of the album’s highlights is Kúdia Kuetu, a duet with French singer Carmélia Jordana that speaks of Angola’s famed cuisine, and which somehow evokes the sweet sadness of songs by the late Cabo Verdean star Cesária Évora. (Both Bonga and Évora were born in the early 1940s.)

Other tracks, such as Kolenu and Sem Kijila, recall Bonga’s long career of activism and revolt, and even as we dance to the rhythm, the message is clear: keep resisting the darkness and the warmongers.

Listen to Kúdia Kuetu here:

Monday, 14 February 2022


By Marta Fernandez Campa

Critically acclaimed Cuban-American writer and translator Achy Obejas is the author of many works of prose and poetry, including seminal texts such as We Came all the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This? (1994) and Memory Mambo (1996). Obejas’ most recent publication, Boomerang/Bumerán (2021), is a book of poetry that explores a wide range of themes, including love, exile, politics, gender and language from a multilingual perspective.

Her writing has been widely anthologised in collections such as Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban women (1998, translated from Spanish), Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2008), and Radical Hope: Letters of Dissent in Radical Times (2017), to name a few. She is also a journalist and has published investigative and opinion articles for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Out, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and other publications.

As a translator, Havana-born Obejas has translated the writing of several authors, including Caribbean writers Junot Díaz, Rita Indiana Hernández and Wendy Guerra. She has translated into Spanish Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and translated into English Hernández’s novel Tentacle and Guerra’s Revolution Sunday and Everyone Leaves (which has been translated into several other languages as well).

She is the recipient of multiple awards, including a Lambda Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her journalistic work, alongside National Endowment for the Arts and Ford fellowships. Her most recent short story collection, The Tower of the Antilles (2017), was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award.

The following interview with Achy Obejas, conducted by email, is part of SWAN’s series of conversations with translators of Caribbean writing, in association with the Caribbean Translation Project.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

Achy Obejas: I feel like I’ve always been doing translation. When we first arrived in the U.S., I was six and took to English very quickly, so that I became my family’s translator/interpreter. This meant that, for me, translation came very naturally. It wasn’t until I began doing it professionally that I realized it was actually a specific skill set, that it wasn’t just what you did to help your (immigrant) parents along.

When I first moved to Chicago, I began doing interpreting gigs: depositions, labor disputes, medical emergencies. I had to learn new vocabulary, reconsider the casual Spanish of my family, and the regional variants that often came into play.

My first actual book translation was an accident, really. Akashic Books editor Johnny Temple and I agreed that I’d edit a Havana entry for their noir series. At the time, I figured most of the writers I was thinking of using had translators or work already translated, but the truth is we didn’t consider translation very much at all. And then, when I started getting the translations, they were god-awful. It soon became apparent that it was better, and easier, for me to just do the translations than try and fix them. Johnny and I ended re-negotiating for translation fees on top of the editing fee.

After Havana Noir came out, David Unger was gracious enough to recommend me to translate Junot Díaz’s Brief and Marvelous Life of Oscar Wao. I honestly didn’t think I stood a chance so when I was asked for a sample, I just went with a kind of Spanglish that complemented what Junot was doing in English. I got the job, and great reviews for the translation, and suddenly I was a translator of literary fiction.

SWAN: You’ve translated the work of many Caribbean authors, including Rita Indiana Hernández, Wendy Guerra and your own writing. Can you tell us more about these collaborations and your process of translation?

A.0.: Every author is different. A lot depends on their personality, the work, their own level of interest in the translation, their own knowledge of English. Wendy just hands it (over) and trusts me to do her right, and of course I cherish that trust. With Rita, I had a few questions but it was mostly a hands-off situation.

I honestly prefer when I’m left to my own devices, to ask questions when I have them but to not feel too supervised. My worst experiences have been with authors who think they speak English, for Spanish, well enough to intervene. It’s usually not the case, and it requires a lot of diplomacy.

I’m a pretty straightforward translator - I read the text and take notes for questions, research, challenges and doubts. And then I dive in, chronologically, usually one page per session, with several sessions in a given day. I re-read the previous day’s work every morning. After each chapter, I back up and read from scratch, just to make sure the voice is steady, that there aren’t connections I’ve missed, that kind of thing.

In addition, I always hire a reader. This is particularly important to me when I’m translating into Spanish for two reasons: one, because I’m autodidactic in Spanish (all my formal education is in English) it’s important to have that safety net, and, two, because I’m frequently translating into variants that aren’t Cuban, I want to make sure that the voice is absolutely true.

SWAN: How important is translation for today’s world, especially for communities that might be underrepresented?

A.O.: I think it’s vital. I’m always disturbed by this notion that the translator is somehow a traitor. The translator is a bridge, a pathfinder, the one who makes communication possible. And communication is imperative in our fractured world. And given that the world’s superpower refuses to foster multilingualism, then I think translation is our only hope of expanding minds and opening hearts.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education spheres help to bridge these linguistic “borders"?

A.O.: I think the only way that’s real is to learn each other’s stories, to get closer to each other’s lives. We do that by talking to each other, which means we use translation as a bridge, not just to understand each other’s language but each other’s experiences and how they shape each of us.

SWAN: How do you see literary translation evolving to reach more readers?

A.O.: I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be a translator, and a terrific time for discussions about the hows and whys of translations. Language is always evolving but right now feels like a very emphatic moment in terms of gender, disability, race and other political concerns and how language frames these conditions. It seems to me I’m constantly re-evaluating and reconsidering my approach.

SWAN: The decade of Indigenous Languages begins in 2022. Can you speak a little about what that can mean to the work of translators and to translation generally?

A.O.: Wider circulation, I hope, of indigenous texts. And greater respect and honor for indigenous communities, their histories and stories. And a greater understanding too of how much those languages have infiltrated and influenced more widely used languages, especially European languages. Because we owe a lot.

SWAN: Congratulations on the publication of Boomerang / Bumerán, your latest poetry collection. In its Author´s Note, you mention that you wanted to write largely a gender-free text and you highlight the challenge particularly with the sections in Spanish, a language that is marked by gender categories in its grammar and that, as you say, “exists on the binary.” How do you see the poems disrupting gender binaries as well as other binaries and discursive levels?

A.O.: Most of the time when we talk about inclusive language in Spanish, it means degendering persons, but the rest of the language remains gendered: the table is feminine, the coffee is masculine. I have yet to understand why that’s okay in a supposed de-gendered text; I have yet to understand the utilitarian nature of gender. So, in Boomerang/Bumerán, I de-gendered the table and the coffee and everything in between. I don’t think you kill the binary in persons but allow it in things; why?

This is, of course, an intellectual and political exercise. Most of us only de-gender a little here and there in our speech - todes, amigos, that kind of thing - but I wanted to propose a vision of another possibility. Not the way necessarily, but a way.

SWAN: What are your next projects?

A.O: I’m currently working on a novel. I’m excited about returning to that form. 

Photos (top to bottom): Writer and translator Achy Obejas; Havana Noir (Akashic Books); Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated by Achy Obejas; the cover of Boomerang/Bumerán by Achy Obejas.

Marta Fernandez Campa is a researcher and lecturer based in London, with various research interests, including multi-lingual texts and the role of translation.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate

Wednesday, 2 February 2022


The Rastafari movement, which began in Jamaica during the 1930s, has become internationally known for its contribution to culture and the arts, as well as for its focus on peace and “ital” living. Major icons include reggae musicians Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Burning Spear, with the movement overall projecting a very male image.

But women have contributed significantly to the development of Rastafari, as Jamaican-born historian Daive Dunkley has shown through his research. Rastafari women were particularly active in the resistance against colonial rule in the first half of the 1900s, and they created educational institutions for young people and helped to expand the arts sphere in the Caribbean, among other work.

These contributions are highlighted in Dunkley’s latest book, Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement, an essential addition to the history of Rastafari - which scholars generally see as both a religious and social movement. US-based Dunkley, an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Black Studies and director of Peace Studies, spoke to SWAN about his research, in an interview conducted by email and videoconference.

SWAN: What inspired your research on women’s role in the early Rastafari movement?

Daive Dunkley: There is a story here. My inspiration for writing about women’s role in the early Rastafari developed from research I had been doing since 2009 on Leonard Howell, one of the four known founders of the movement. I quickly realized that women were a significant force in the group that became known as the Howellites and were critical to all their considerable initiatives. These included developing the first self-sufficient Rastafari community, known as Pinnacle.

Hundreds of women joined the estimated 700 people of the Pinnacle community in 1940, located in the hills of St. Catherine, Jamaica. I realized too that the women had been part of establishing the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1937 and were members of its governing board. They were secretaries and decisionmakers, including Tenet Bent, who married Howell. Bent was one of its leaders and financial backers. She also had connections in middle-class Jamaica that proved critical to the development of the ESS as a benevolent Rastafari organization.

Interestingly the ESS created a constitution written chiefly by women who called it a “Christian charity.” And some of its first outreach programs were also clearly determined by women, such as providing relief in the form of food and clothing to survivors of natural disasters in several parts of Jamaica in the late 1930s. In 2014, I decided to focus my research on the activities of the early women, who came predominantly from the peasantry. The colonial government and newspapers largely ignored the activism and leadership of these women in the development of the Rastafari movement.

SWAN: Were you surprised by the information you discovered?

D.D.: I was not surprised by my information about women’s political, economic, and cultural activism within the early Rastafari movement. My earlier research on the antislavery activities of enslaved people included research on women. Despite slavery, these women remained active in the resistance - undermining, escaping, or abolishing slavery altogether. I found out that women’s role in the early Rastafari encountered silencing by the colonial system. We helped maintain this silencing in later writing about the early movement. What I read in terms of secondary scholarship was largely androcentric. I learned the names of the four known founders and some other prominent men. They engaged the colonial system unapologetically as Rastafari leaders. I read nothing similar about women, which I found pretty strange.

Moreover, when women were portrayed, including by British author Sheila Kitzinger in the 1960s, it was essentially to reflect on how marginal they were in the movement. By the way, for me, the early Rastafari movement dates from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s. Women in the 1960s were members of the early action, and many joined from the 1930s through the 1950s. In other words, early women were members of Rastafari during and after the colonial system. This system was far more devastating in its attitudes towards Rastafari than the early postcolonial government of Jamaica that took over with the island’s political independence in 1962.

Rastafari obtained a male-dominated image from the mid to late 1950s with devastating consequences for all the movement’s women. The colonial system successfully imposed a veil of silence on women, resulting in our ignorance of these women. More research using interviews with and about women and closer reading of the colonial archives, including the newspapers, helped me uncover some of the hidden histories of the women in the early movement. I was inspired to continue searching for these stories because I knew that Black women were never silent in the previous history of the Caribbean or before the genesis of Rastafari in 1932.

SWAN: What was the most striking aspect of this story?

D.D.: This question is a difficult one to answer because all these stories involving women were fascinating or striking. But if I were to venture an answer to the question, I would say that the story about the women who petitioned the government for fairness and justice in 1934 stands tall among the most striking. I’ve written elsewhere about this story in a blog for the book published by LSU Press. I said that the women who petitioned the government for justice and fairness showed their awareness of the power of petitions in the history of the Black freedom struggle in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

These women organized themselves to defy the colonial police, justices of the peace, and resident magistrate. These entities had dedicated themselves to silencing Rastafari women and men. The women submitted their petitions to the central government. They did so in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the colonial officials did not ignore the pleas.

You will have to read the book to get a fuller sense of what happened due to these petitions. I will say that engaging with the government showed an effort not to escape from the society but rather to transform colonial Jamaica into a just and fair society. The women wanted the island’s Black people to see themselves improving. They wanted Jamaica to reflect their aspirations. The activities aimed at accomplishing this wish were among the most significant contributions of early Rastafari women. They were not escapists. They were radical transformationalists if we want a fancy term.

SWAN: How important is this particular segment of history to Jamaica and the world, given the international contributions of the Rastafari movement?

D.D.: Rastafari’s early history is critical to understanding both the history of Jamaica and the African diaspora at the time. People like to think of the internationalization of the Rastafari movement as starting from the 1960s and growing from there. However, my research on early Rastafari women has confirmed that this is not true. Rastafari was formulated with an international perspective and established ongoing connections with the global Black freedom struggle from its very beginning. The women also helped establish relations with Ethiopia on a political level that included fundraising, organizing, and participating in protests against fascist Italy’s aggression and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia in 1936-1941.

In addition, women protected the Rastafari’s historic theocratic interpretations of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw in 1930. The coronation event was critical to inspiring the genesis of the Rastafari movement. Women such as the previously mentioned Tenet Bent maintained the correspondence with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) through one of its founders, George Padmore, the Trinidadian Marxist based in London. The women knew that the organization evolved out of the International African Friends of Abyssinia formed in London in 1935 to organize resistance against Italy’s attempts to colonize Ethiopia.

In 1937, Padmore created the IASB with help from other Pan-Africanists from the Caribbean and worldwide, including CLR James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, ITA Wallace-Johnson, TR Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta, and Chris Braithwaite, the Barbadian labor leader. The early Rastafari women preserved the history of Rastafari’s attempts to engage with the global Garvey movement from 1933, though disappointed by Garvey’s unwillingness to meet with Rastafari founder Leonard Howell.

Women, however, helped preserve the movement’s links to Garvey’s Back nationalist ideology to maintain the Pan-African political consciousness of the African diaspora. Women also read and discussed the literature of Pan-Africanist women writers such as Amy Bailey. The newspapers of Sylvia Pankhurst, the British socialist and suffragist, also kept the early Rastafari women abreast of developmental initiatives in Ethiopia.

Undoubtedly, the 1960s onwards brought further development of this international focus, especially with the development of Reggae and primarily through the touring by Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1970s. However, much of the success of Reggae was due to its Rastafari consciousness developed in the 1930s. This consciousness centered on the African origins of humans and empowered Reggae with a message of morality, peace, and justice that appealed to people worldwide.

SWAN: From a gender standpoint, how significant would you say the research is for Jamaica, the Caribbean?

D.D.: The early history of Rastafari women revealed some crucial developments in the story of gender and its dynamics in the modern history of the African diaspora. The early women challenged gender disparity inside and outside the movement from the 1930s’ inception of Rastafari. Many of these women had been part of empowered women congregations in the traditional churches, namely the Baptist church.

Still, they felt that Rastafari focused more on their African ancestry and therefore was more relevant to their social uplift. Among the gender discussions initiated by women was equality between the emperor and empress of Ethiopia, whereas men saw the emperor as the returned Messiah. The women proposed that the empress and emperor were equal and constituted the messianic message of the coronation event in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1930.

Women also ensured that they participated in preaching the Rastafari doctrine on the streets of Jamaica from the early 1930s. They defended men arrested and tried for their involvement in Rastafari. Many women also ended up imprisoned for their defense of the movement and its use of cannabis. Women were present during the court proceedings as witnesses and supporters. Their willingness to engage the justice system revealed to colonial officials that the male focus in suppressing Rastafari would continue to fail unless they paid attention to women.

The women carried on the Pinnacle community in the 1930s through 1950s when the police arrested the men. As my book discusses, women were at the center of initiating the most significant Rastafari organization of the late 1950s, the African Reform Church of God in Christ. One of its two founders was Edna E. Fisher. She was prosecuted for treason-felony and did not attempt during the trial to hide the fact that she was the owner of the land on which they built their organization. Fisher considered herself the brigadier of the movement. However, scholars have named the events and the trial after her partner and future husband, Claudius Henry. Still, Fisher was instrumental in the leadership and creating the organization’s cultural and political objectives.

SWAN: Why did the Rastafari movement become so male-oriented in later decades?

D.D.: My research has shown that Rastafari became male-oriented mainly in the 1950s. This change was primarily a response to the attempts of the colonial regime to suppress the movement. Its male leaders and many male followers decided they needed “male supremacy” to fight “white supremacy.” Scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the United States has also disclosed this decision. Despite this reorientation towards male centrism, women continued to play pivotal roles inside and outside leadership positions.

Initially, it made sense for many women to capitalize on the image of male power to protect the movement because of the targeting of male members by the government. 

However, state officials eventually recognized that targeting men could not end Rastafari. They needed to take a gender-equitable approach to suppress the movement. That recognition would lead to the detention of many women by the police on charges of disorderly conduct, showing animosity towards state officials, such as police and judges.

Of course, many women also faced cannabis charges. The male orientation of the movement continued into the independence period of Jamaica primarily due to the men seeking to consolidate power. Many cultural and philosophical attitudes developed around this male-centered identity that started in the 1950s. The male focus continues within the movement despite women challenging these attitudes using notions of gender equality inherited from earlier women.

SWAN: How did the book come about?

D.D.: I started to write chapters for the book in 2014 and revised them over the next seven years. One of the strategies I used was to return to some of the women and men I interviewed to ensure that the information was consistent with what they had told me previously. I also expanded the archival research to include Great Britain and the United States materials. Regarding research materials for the book’s writing, the most important sources were the Jamaica Archives, the British Archives, the Smithsonian, and the newspapers, particularly Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner.

SWAN: What do you hope readers will take away from it overall?

D.D.: One of the things I hope will happen with this book is that it stimulates further research into women’s role in founding the Rastafari movement. That part of the history needs analysis that I think will expand our understanding of how Rastafari came about and give a complete picture of the critical figures in founding this movement. I believe women were vital to both the genesis and initial development of Rastafari, who had been articulating its consciousness before the 1930 coronation of the empress and emperor of Ethiopia.

It is clear from my research that women read the same materials men read and gradually developed their ideas about Rastafari consciousness independently of men. I also hope the book will inspire people to see poor Black women as agents of historical, social changes in the history of the African diaspora. These women had meaningful conversations regarding materializing social change for the greater good. I’m hoping readers see these women as intellectual catalysts and activists who helped shape the evolution of the modern African diaspora. These women were critical to the decolonization process, for example. – AM / SWAN

Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement is published by Louisiana State University Press.

Photos (top to bottom): Dr Daive Dunkley (courtesy of the University of Missouri); the cover of Dunkley's book (courtesy of LSU Press); Tenet Bent (courtesy of Month Howell); Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom; an image from one of Dunkley's scholarly presentations; artwork from the reggae CD Inna de Yard.

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Wednesday, 26 January 2022


By Dimitri Keramitas

Few titles are as painfully ironic as that of Thierry Michel’s excellent but wrenching documentary Empire of Silence, about the long wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - a country that human rights observers don’t consider to be “democratic”, and which doesn’t perhaps qualify as a “republic”.

Yet, as the Belgian director’s lush footage makes clear, this vast land in central Africa could be something akin to paradise. The rolling, forested hills and valleys, the nestling villages, evoke endless fecundity, while the enormous Congo River provides a lifeline to much of the country.

The filmmaker shows the rural population comprising hardy, salt-of-the-earth folk, “beautiful” from the point of view of the camera even in leathery-skinned age - and even in the midst of great suffering. Michel also depicts the French-speaking elites as well as the corrupt warlords, who all give viewers a sense of the talent and energy that have gone to waste in the conflicts.

When the Nobel Laureate Denis Mukwege, a doctor and human rights activist, says in the film that Congo is the “world’s wealthiest nation”, he inadvertently steps towards the slippery slope. For it is the monetization of “paradise” (turning it into an “empire”) that is at the root of a long history of unspeakable brutality. In the past it was minerals such as gold, nickel, copper, then “blood diamonds”, still a lucrative business. Now high tech - smartphones, electric cars, batteries - have made the country an important source of cobalt and rare earths.

Michel isn’t interested in presenting us with an artsy impressionistic documentary. Although the film is extraordinarily vivid, he’s an old-fashioned documentary filmmaker who wants to teach his public. He uses old news footage (including recyclings of his own work), superimposed maps of different regions, talking-head interviews and his own intoning voiceover taking us through the country’s history.

After the ravages of Belgian colonialism - which Michel doesn’t address in this film - the more recent origins of Congo’s ordeal, aside from greed for mineral wealth, have been Cold War politics, mainly the U.S. government’s unwavering support for dictator Mobutu Sese Seku, who ruled for decades. (The director also doesn’t delve back into the CIA-linked assassination of the revolutionary idealist Patrice Lumumba.) One unpalatable “truth” - and there are many in this story - is that Mobutu did keep Congo (then called Zaire) “stable” and unified for years.

Mobutu, finally old and ailing, was overthrown by an unlikely rebel leader named Laurent Kabila. The footage the director shows of Kabila, interviews and his swearing-in ceremony (conducted in French), depicts a bald, round-faced, heavy-set man, with an ingratiating smile.

A long-time opponent of Mobutu as far back as the 1960s, the famed revolutionary Che Guevara, during his Congolese adventure, noted Kabila’s fecklessness. How could such a man force his way to power? For Michel, essentially two reasons: Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries wanted to pillage Congo as much as Western robber-imperialists - Rwanda eventually became one of the world’s largest exporters of (Congolese) diamonds.

When the Congolese people got sick of the foreign intrusions, Kabila ordered out Rwandan troops, including an officer who was a high official in the Congolese army.  Soon afterwards the president was assassinated by his own bodyguard. More grotesque ironies, with evil emerging from the good: Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who overthrew the genocidaires in his nation, and became the West’s example of African modernization, is the chief villain of the documentary. He pursued not just renegade Hutu killers in Congo borderlands, but also refugees, perhaps because they might one day support and join the extremists. Many were abducted and forced back to Rwanda, many were slaughtered. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who’d defeated the mass murderers Idi Amin and Milton Obote, was another “development” icon, but he wound up as Kagame’s partner in crimes against humanity.

The successor to Kabila was his son, Joseph Kabila, who ruled for a number of years, during which time Rwandan and Ugandan influence prevailed once again, and violence continued to be the order of the day. Michel puts together a sort of montage of Joseph Kabila that is fascinating to watch, in a very disturbing way.

We see his swearing-in ceremony, which is an eerie repeat of his father’s, and also glimpses of him as president at various times. But the most intriguing footage is one of him before his father came to power, when he too was a rebel in uniform. This contradicts the idea of Joseph Kabila as just an entitled fils à papa. We can’t help wondering if he may even have been complicit in his own father’s death, though no evidence has emerged, only the fact of Kabila blithely dealing with the regimes that certainly wanted the father dead

Such an extraordinary parade of political villains is dispiriting. Fortunately, Michel gives us a number of moral counterweights. Dr. Mukegwe is the most obvious one, but there are several others: an exiled journalist who speaks truth to power; another doctor, who was nearly killed for refusing to transfer corpses from a mass grave to conceal the crimes of marauding soldiers; a pastor whose congregation and hospital patients were massacred, but who remained in place. Then a number of international dignitaries and human rights activists, the most prominent being Italian official Emma Bonino. But certain ostensibly sympathetic US congressmen seem to reciting boilerplate, or the usual clichéd condemnations, of which the effects have been nil.

The chilling nadir, and taunting riposte to humanitarian efforts, comes with Michel’s recounting of the murder of two UN human rights investigators, an American man and Swedish-Chilean woman. Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan were investigating crimes against humanity committed by warlords and got too close to a node of power. Phone video shows armed men leading them away from the road where they were accosted. We then see first Sharp, followed by Catalan, shot to death.

No one has been prosecuted for the crime, no government or political faction punished. On one hand, after so much grisly violence and suffering, we can question whether the murders of two individuals should be held up as the ultimate atrocity simply because they were white professionals.

But the lack of action by international authorities and Western governments does indicate the utter impunity which reigns. This impunity is the “silence” of the title, the omerta that extends from cowed villagers to Western halls of power.

The director has accomplished a great deal by depicting in vivid texture and comprehensible form the complexity of Congo’s tragedy. But as the story continues into the contemporary moment, we would like him to name some names of the present-day corporate and political criminals responsible for the ongoing situation, and also to examine the legacy of Belgian colonialism, even if he might have already done so in other films.

Michel tries to end on an uplifting note by showing us some sort of tribunal proceeding. It’s not clear where this is taking place, or under whose auspices. Who are the juridical-looking persons presiding, and what are the supposed results supposed to be? We see victims testifying, and villagers chanting in unison about past crimes. The first at least seem authentic; the latter have obviously been rehearsed. Was this a pantomime put on by the Congolese regime, or a “truth and reconciliation” event sponsored by an NGO? The lack of clarity is frustrating, and not very convincing.

Yet Thierry Michel is, on the whole, to be applauded for making this film, as well as his documentary on Dr. Mukegwe (LHomme qui répare les femmes / The Man Who Repairs Women) and several other films about Congo - they should be required viewing for any number of officials and activists, even if another irony is that a Belgian filmmaker is producing such documentaries. – SWAN

All photos courtesy of JHR Films (distribution). Empire of Silence will be in cinemas from March 16. 

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.