Wednesday, 30 September 2015


The United Nations’ member states this month adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the world tries to build on the successes – and surmount the failures – of the previous eight Millennium Development Goals, which should have been achieved by 2015.

Culture is just a shadow in SDGs.
The new global objectives still focus on eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, and providing good healthcare and universal education. But they now include access to affordable, clean energy, and there is greater emphasis on protecting the environment.

A glaring oversight, however, is culture – mentioned just four times in the 169 or so subordinate aims. This is a lapse that many in the cultural sector see as unfortunate, especially when one considers the destruction of cultural heritage taking place in some parts of the world. It seems that the voices appealing for recognition of culture’s role got lost in the UN babel.

At a high-profile meeting last year for instance, Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO, joined policy makers from different countries in calling for culture to be integrated into the Post-2015 development agenda.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO's DG.
During this special thematic debate on culture and sustainable development held May 5, 2014, in New York, speakers used data and national examples to emphasize that culture “drives and enables the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development”.

Participants also recognized that culture is “the thread that binds together the social fabric of our societies”, as Acting President of the UN General Assembly Khaled Khiari put it at the time. Bokova warned, too, of the dangers of repeating the “mistakes” of 2000, when culture was omitted from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Last October as well, UNESCO hosted its third Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries, in Florence, Italy, where representatives from a range of countries discussed the contributions that culture can make to a “sustainable future” through stimulating employment, economic growth and innovation. (For the full article on this conference, please see:

All this seems to have borne little fruit, however, as culture is mentioned in the SDGs only as a subtext to education and tourism.

Is tourism the main reason for promoting culture?
In Goal 4 – to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning – the objective is that by 2030, all learners will have acquired the “knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including … appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

Apart from this, there’s Goal 8 – to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all – in which the member states aim to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

A similar idea is repeated in Goal 12 – to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Here, states undertake to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.
Seventeen goals and little space for culture.

Such wording, of course, raises the question: do governments see the promotion of culture only as a way to boost tourism?  Is tourism necessary for promoting culture? The sad answer to both appears to be “yes”, and the SDGs aren’t helping to change this mindset. The drafters missed a real chance to highlight the importance of culture and the necessity for it to be protected, in a world where many artists have to fight constantly to survive. - A.M.

Monday, 21 September 2015


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan - Though much-rejected and scorned during his lifetime, the great South Asian short-story writer and iconoclast Saadat Hasan Manto is making inroads into the hearts and minds of a new generation of Pakistanis, thanks to a biopic by filmmaker-director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat.

Sarmad Khoosat talking about his film. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
Written by the playwright Shahid Nadeem, and with Khoosat playing the protagonist, the film “Manto” comes 60 years after the Urdu-speaking author's death. It focuses on the last four years of his tormented life, as he drinks himself to oblivion.

But while the film has taken Pakistani cinema-goers by storm, it has also left them bruised and disturbed.

The movie shows Manto’s life juxtaposed with some seven to eight of his short stories and screen and radio plays, where his characters come and haunt him. The scenes are then interwoven with appearances by an alter-ego (who understands his inner torment and agony), played by the celebrated actor Nimra Bucha.

Many say it was not alcohol but the tragic events of the partition of the sub-continent that killed Manto. He was born in what is now present-day India, but he left, like millions of others, for Pakistan in 1948. 

The Manto poster: the rebel, the writer.
Some of his finest writings chronicle the partition period, and they touch a raw nerve even today as they force readers to re-live that era through the writer's words.

Manto put human suffering above everything else, beyond religion and patriotism, and he scathingly laid bare hypocrisy and pretense. This and other factors make the film disturbing.

"It's too intense and there is too much blood," said Ali, a young lawyer coming out of the theatre.

But this view is not the only one. After watching the film, television actor Saba Hameed said in an interview: "'s the truth that really jolts you."

If this is so, half of Khoosat's job is done and even rewarded. On a recent promotional talk show, when someone in the audience got up to tell him the film had too many disturbing visuals, the director was in fact quite pleased: "I want the audience to be disturbed and if it was, it means the movie has worked," he said, adding as an afterthought: "Manto would have approved of the stress given!"

The film does not portray Manto as an iconic figure but instead humanises him - for the person he was with all his flaws and faults.

Samad Khoosat makes another point. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
He is shown as an arrogant individual, who knows he is a great writer, honest to the point of being hurtful, an alcoholic who, in his weakest of moments, buys himself a bottle rather than precious medicine for his seriously ill daughter. He is also shown as a family man in one scene, painting a wall with his daughters.

Manto is equally seen surrounded by showbiz types and celebrities but they don't interest him - the underdogs do: people like a horse-carriage driver, the men at a mental hospital where he was admitted, prostitutes, even pimps.

He is obsessed with writing and conveying the truth in all its severity. In fact, it seemed he could foresee that he had much work to do, much to show, but time was running out.

A book of essays by Manto.
He was just 43 when he died in 1955, leaving behind 22 collections of short stories, several radio plays, a novel, collections of essays and personal sketches, and many film scripts.

For Khoosat, whose love affair with Manto began at a young age, this "passion project" was like a "dream come true". It got better when he was asked to play the lead role. "Who'd want to miss this opportunity?" he asked.

Calling it an unbelievable, almost "cosmic" journey that he was destined to undertake, Khoosat said he worked on the film for three years and termed that time as "living with Manto". While it took him just three months to shoot the film, it took over two-and-a-half years on the editing table meticulously going through hours upon hours of footage which he said "wasn't easy". 

It took Pakistan's government 57 years to acknowledge Manto as a short story writer of the Urdu language when he was posthumously bestowed with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Distinguished Service to Pakistan award) on August 14, 2012, the year of his centenary. That same year the idea to make a film on him was born.

Now that the movie has been released, how does it feel for Khoosat to be sharing his creation with the public? "I want to share him without fear," the filmmaker said.

Samad Khoosat signs a movie goer's book. (Photo Z.T. Ebrahim)
Sania Saeed, who plays Manto's wife Safiah, interrupted saying that Khoosat was “slowly and dangerously becoming really Mantoesque", and she thought that this breaking away from the protagonist was much needed.

While Khoosat may have immortalised the legend, to Saeed the bigger victory is to be able to present the film to the public and see their acceptance of a non-conformist. "Today, people can identify him for the person he was - someone who thought ahead of time," she said.

Ironically, while India and Pakistan squabble over just about everything, for years neither India (where Manto spent most of his life) nor Pakistan (where he spent the last few years) deemed it necessary to own and claim  the sizeable literary treasure that he produced.

But today Manto lovers have found it in them to pay tribute to this giant of an Urdu writer in a befitting manner. The film is expected to be released internationally in the coming months, with screenings in the United States and other countries.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Several internationally renowned artists, including Jamaica’s Sean Paul and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, have released a song urging world leaders to reach an effective global accord during the next United Nations climate conference taking place Nov. 30 - Dec. 11 in Paris.

Jamaican singer-rapper Sean Paul.
The track, titled “Love Song to the Earth”, is now available for download from iTunes and Apple Music.

The UN said that the artists, producers and directors of the song – as well as Apple – are donating their respective proceeds to environmental group Friends of the Earth US and to the UN Foundation.

With vocals too from Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis and Jon Bon Jovi, among others, the song “aims to reach new audiences with the message that the time to act on climate change is now”, the UN added.

Listeners are encouraged to share the song and to sign a petition that will be delivered to world leaders at the beginning of the climate summit.

The initiative is part of an international rallying of artists ahead of the conference (COP 21), where 195 states will try to reach a universal accord on reducing carbon emissions to curb global warming.

President Hollande (Photo: SWAN)
The French government also launched its own mobilization on Sept. 10, with filmmakers, musicians and others participating in a high-profile ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official presidential residence.

With his top ministers in attendance, French President François Hollande emphasized his commitment to making COP 21 a success, but he also warned about the possibility of failure.

“There is no miracle … there is a chance we’ll succeed but also a great risk we might fail,” Hollande said.

To avoid failure, all sectors of the society have to get involved, including artists, the president added.

Spearheading some of France’s cultural happenings is a group called ArtCOP21, which plans to “stage city-wide events that address climate as a people’s challenge and work to create a cultural blueprint of positive and sustainable change”.

Pharrell Williams (Photo: courtesy of Live Earth)
The group’s director, Lauranne Germond, said that sometimes artists can connect with those that politicians can’t reach.

On Sept. 19, Paris was scheduled to host a huge public concert in front of the Eiffel Tower as part of “Live Earth: Road to Paris”  a movement co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, with singer Pharrell Williams as creative director.

The event would've come 30 years after Live Aid, when artists mobilized massively to raise funds for millions of people affected by famine in Africa.

But the show has reportedly been cancelled, although Live Earth’s organizers are still urging that "now is the time to deliver a single message to world leaders: Take Climate Action Now.” 

Watch "Love Song to the Earth":

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Sigo Siendo - winner of the Best Documentary award at the Lima Festival de Cine - is a fascinating meditation on music, and a number of other things.

The musicians are old, the singer is young: a scene from the film.
Directed by Javier Corcuera, the film is situated in a well-defined generic niche, similar to Buena Vista Social Club. That is, it tells the story of very old, very charming individuals in Latin America and their entrancing music. Like Buena Vista Social Club, the movie takes place in the present but often harkens back to a golden age several decades ago when its subjects were young (usually during a difficult political context). Happily for viewers, Corcuera goes off in his own idiosyncratic direction.

The movie focuses on Maximo Damian, “Don Maximo”, an indigenous Peruvian violinist. He seems to be a lifelong itinerant musician. No spring chicken, Don Maximo crosses the beautiful but forbidding Peruvian hinterlands - hills, jungle, parched landscapes - as well as the teeming capital of Lima. The scenery is beautifully captured by the director and cinematographer, with the vividness of a travelogue, but an atmospheric, near-mythic quality as well.

Hitting the parched road in Sigo Siendo (I'm Still).
Don Maximo plays at one festival or celebration or another. Often these are linked to indigenous rituals, for instance calling upon the waters to replenish the land (with the help of the canal whose operation is being inaugurated). Water is a chief symbol in what remains a very agrarian country. One of the polarities we observe is between the dry countryside and Lima, which is not only an urban metropolis, but located next to the ocean. Don Maximo recounts how when he saw the beach for the first time as a youth he wondered where the giant “flood” was coming from.

There’s a striking cultural dichotomy depicted between the indigenous world and the more Westernized Hispanophone society. Aside from the Indians’ link to ritual and nature, there’s language. Most of the people we see speak a native language, rather than Spanish (the film’s alternate title is Kachkaniraqmi), and it’s in this language that the music is sung.

Landscape plays a big role in the film.
Yet the dichotomy is more complicated than we might think. The indigenous world has adopted Western fabrics and clothing, and the music is played on conventional instruments as well as traditional ones. We meet one indigenous man who long ago moved to the capital and became a chemical engineer, seemingly in disguise in his Western business suit, but also maintaining a parallel life as a traditional musician.

Some viewers may also be surprised to see that in addition to the indigenous and Spanish cultures in Peru, there’s a vibrant Afro-Latin culture.  There the music has the percussive stress of African music, as well as bluesy lyrics (sometimes laced with humour), and types of dance that resemble clog dancing and tap. Don Maximo has no problem harmonizing when he takes part in a procession in which dozens of rhythmically stamping feet are as much percussive music as dance (and also provide a visual show as they raise clouds of dust on the unpaved road).

Making music together in Sigo Siendo.
One last dichotomy has to do with age and gender. All the male musicians portrayed are quite old. Is it because the director chose to focus exclusively on them? Or does it indicate that the young male generation isn’t interested in traditional music? This is left unexplored. There are also a number of women singers depicted, nearly all younger. We understand that the older generation of indigenous women was constrained by manual work and domestic life, even if they participated in local celebrations. The young women we see are obviously talented, but with an emotional streak somewhat at odds with the austere purity of the traditional indigenous sound.

The poster, and a hint of Afro-Peruvian music.
In general, Don Maximo seems to travel effortlessly from one world to another, on foot and for longer distances by bus and minibus. He may wear simple clothing, or put on an elaborate Amerindian costume for celebrations. As a boy he apparently had a troubled family life - his father was also a violinist but for some reason opposed his son’s choice to follow in his footsteps, going so far as to hide his instrument and to un-tune it. He was clearly closer to his mother.

Don Maximo has his own family, whom we never see. We don’t know if his wife is still alive, or where his children are. Beneath the ups and downs of his peripatetic life, the ambiguities and mysteries, is his ever-present violin. When Don Maximo muses on mortality he says that if he was to be reborn, his future incarnation would still have the violin.  

Production: Rolando Toledo/Gervasio Iglesias/Guillermo Toledo. Distribution: New Century Films. Photos courtesy of the distributors.

Sunday, 6 September 2015


“Ignorance or concealment of major historical events constitutes an obstacle to mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation among peoples.”

Artwork by Cuban artist Kcho.
These words from the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, were prominently displayed during a seminar, artistic performance and exhibition that the organization hosted on Sept. 4 in Paris - part of an event titled “Artists and the Memory of Slavery: Resistance, creative freedom and legacies”.

To promote dialogue and help “break the historical silence”, UNESCO launched an exhibition comprising several monumental works by 15 contemporary artists from Benin, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, who offered “a fresh perspective on the tragic history of relations between Africa and the Caribbean”, according to the agency.

The exhibition, “Modern Times”, will be open to the public at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters from Sept 7 to 11, allowing viewers to discover both new and established artists and how they perceive the memory and legacy of 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.

In addition to the unveiling of the works, UNESCO invited artists, researchers and cultural experts from different parts of the world to take part in sessions that focused on the influence that the remembrance of slavery has had on literature, the visual arts, music and dance.

Artwork by Remy Samuz of Benin: "slavery hasn't ended".
Participants included Congolese musician Ray Lema, American saxophonist Archie Shepp, and French actor and director Jacques Martial, who is President of the Memorial ACTe in Guadeloupe - a new Caribbean centre devoted to the "Expression and Memory of Slavery & the Slave Trade".

The main hallway of UNESCO’s Paris headquarters also formed the stage for an original work of dance and music about tradition and modernity, titled “Ogun Today”. In this, a five-member band provided “world beats” to accompany a dancer who did an acrobatic routine, first with machetes in his hands (an enslaved person working in the fields?) and then with a broom. Meanwhile a drone observed his actions from overhead, dipping and diving to keep the "surveillance" going.

The event marked the 21st anniversary of the Slave Route Project – an initiative launched in Ouidah, Benin, in 1994 that has put awareness-raising on the international agenda.

Work by Miguelina Rivera, Dominican Republic.
It has contributed to the recognition of slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, a declaration made at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The Project has also been collecting and preserving archives and oral traditions, supporting the publication of history books, and identifying places and sites of remembrance so that "itineraries for memory” can be developed.

At the Sept. 4 commemoration, however, some observers wondered about the under-representation of women artists and of participants from the English-speaking Caribbean. 

But a UNESCO official said that this was a consequence of having a limited budget. The agency is still facing a funding crisis mainly due to the United States' withholding its dues since 2011, when Palestine beame a member.

A performance artist at UNESCO's "Artists and the Memory of Slavery" event. (Photos: McKenzie)

Monday, 24 August 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Prashant Nair’s Umrika comes at a critical moment of migration crisis in Europe, where thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa face overwhelmed services in Italy and Greece, where expanding refugee camps are putting pressure on the governments of France and the UK, and where backlash in Germany and other countries threaten the lives of asylum-seekers.

Saying farewell - a scene from Umrika.
In America a similar situation with Latin American migrants has become a heated political issue, particularly in the presidential campaign (Republican Donald Trump has maligned Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”, and supports building a wall to keep them out).

A number of recent films, such as Hope and Dheepan, have powerfully depicted the plight of migrants and the ordeal of trying to enter the so-called First World, whether "illegally" or through the asylum process. Umrika, which won the audience award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is different in focusing on life before migration. The move to Umrika - America - comes only at the end of the film. It portrays that life not only in terms of material deprivation, but complex family relationships and a skewed idealization of the Other Land - the flip side of how those from wealthy nations sometimes exoticize developing countries.

Umrika gives the back story.
The director begins by showing traditional village life in an arid Indian landscape. Nair is meticulous in giving us the details of the harsh daily routine of the villagers, but his visuals are so vivid he almost makes it attractive. Almost, but not quite - we can understand why the villagers seek their fortune elsewhere. In one particular family, it is the eldest son Udai (Prateik Babbar) who decides to leave and head for Umrika. His parents are grief-stricken, especially his mother. She genuinely loves her child, but as a deeply traditional woman she is also bereft at the absence of the first-born from social and religious ritual. Also saddened is Udai’s much younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma), the real protagonist of the film.

For a long time the family agonizes at the absence of any letters from Udai. While others receive word from distant loved ones, there is nothing from their son. Smita Tambe’s strong performance as the mother makes us feel the pain of the families migrants leave behind. Then letters do start arriving, with pasted photos and descriptions of the outlandish country on the other side of the world. It seems that Udai is becoming an immigrant success story.

Positive change also seems to come to the village, but that progress is often only apparent. New electric lines are put in, but in a shoddy way. Nair doesn’t explore the political dimension explicitly or deeply, but he makes it clear that we are in the period of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency. The father (a very affecting Pramod Pathak) winds up dying, electrocuted by accidentally stepping on a wire, and Rama leads the funerary rite, though it should be his older brother. (Indira Gandhi also has a tragic end, assassinated by her bodyguard.)

Faced with a dire financial situation, the now older Rama decides to set off for the city, sneaking away in the night without his mother’s knowledge. He is determined to make a sufficient living to support his mother, and to carve out a future for himself. In addition, there is growing doubt about those letters from his brother, and Rama will proceed to inquire about them.

Up to now the film has been reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, for the authentic, very human portrayal of peasant life, and the treatment of children. Nair’s expert, empathetic direction is matched by the performances of the actors playing the villagers. When Rama strikes out on his own, the film shifts, reminding us of Slumdog Millionaire and the novel White Tiger, cynical depictions of urban India’s lower depths.

The film is also a love story.
Rama is driven to survive, and is not above stealing another youth’s bicycle, which he needs to get a delivery job. The deliveries are for a firm selling halva for celebrations, but it’s implied that there are also special, more dangerous deliveries. What’s striking is that Rama maintains his humanity in this rough new environment, bonding with friends and falling in love with a girl from a deprived family. It’s a tribute to the director and to Sharma’s moving performance as Rama that this never strains credibility.

Nair’s direction appears sure-footed, even when we suspect at certain moments that it really isn’t. He sometimes includes Bollywood-type music, but this is to underline the mind-set of his characters. The photography gets grainy, like 16 mm or even Super 8, but this tends to happen when the environment and goings-on become murky. Camera movements and the use of close-ups turn out to be controlled, even when we think at first that the director is making heavy-handed stabs at emotion.

The logo sums it all up.
Aside from the dense emotional texture, what distinguishes the film from the Slumdog genre is the thematic drive, the focus on Umrika. Through photos and news reports, we get a humorous parallel history of America in the ’70s and ’80s. Events in America are absurd enough already, but are distorted through the Indians’ interpretations, even the tendency to make analogies with Indian myth and legend. We see how the Other Land is imbued and overlaid with elements of  projection, transference, sentimental longing, resentment, and idealism, just to name a few.

Rama’s search for his brother continues, with ultimately shattering results. Not unrelievedly so, happily. But without revealing too much of the plot, it is Rama himself who will pick up the baton and decide to fulfil his brother’s promise. There Umrika ends, and America begins. The migrant will have no choice but to discover the true moral and social nature of the Other Land. Prashant Nair’s film gives us the opportunity to understand the reality of the migrant, beyond the headlines.

Production: SSPL/Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Distribution (France): ARP Sélection.

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.

Friday, 31 July 2015


It’s vacation time at SWAN and we’re in a rush to pack and get going. But below are five carefully selected books and one journal that will definitely be in our hand luggage. They are listed in no particular order.

Dimitry Elias Léger's God Loves Haiti has been called a “wonderful book” by several readers that we trust. This first novel by the Haitian-born, France-based writer traces the story of three lovers in Port-au-Prince and the “challenges they face readjusting to life after an earthquake devastates their city”. According to publishers Harper Collins, God Loves Haiti is an homage to a lost time and city, and to the people who embody it.

One just has to hear Caryl Phillips read an excerpt from his latest book to become hooked on the story, and we had that privilege recently in Belgium at a conference on "madness in Caribbean literature". The Lost Child (One World) is partly a prequel to, or a “dialogue with” Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It moves between time and space to tell the story of a Heathcliff-type lost child as well as the “lost” descendants of enslaved Africans. The Independent newspaper said the novel is also “a more familiar story of marriages gone wrong and of children who must find their own way in the world”. The St. Kitts-born Phillips, who grew up in England, has won many awards for his work which includes Crossing the River, A Distant Shore and Dancing in the Dark.

For those who are fluent in French and want to practice the language over the summer, a great way would be to read Hemley Boum’s Les maquisards. This is the Paris-based, Cameroonian writer’s third novel, and it is a compelling read, shining a light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence. The story is told as a family saga, without sentimentality or beatification of the characters, as the author tries to clarify the past to explain the present. Boum’s French publisher Sylvie Darreau, director of the independent compnay La Cheminante, calls the book “a lighthouse in the night of memory”.

Moving away from novels, Kei Miller’s Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies also comes highly praised. The Jamaican poet, essayist, novelist and all-round writer won the prestigious Forward prize for the best poetry collection of 2014 for his work The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion; but he told SWAN that he feels most “revealed” writing essays. Many of these pieces will have you laughing out loud at the sharp and witty observations because Miller has the keenest of eyes - able to spot foible and foolishness from afar. (Peepal Tree Press)

Tansy E. Hoskins is a British journalist and activist who describes the failings of the fashion and retail apparel industry in Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion (Pluto Press). With summer being a time for holiday shopping - adding to the coffers of the trillion-dollar industry - this is a good book to remind one to buy ethically. To paraphrase Hoskins: think, and read, before you buy. For more about this book and the ethical fashion movement, see:

Finally, the Spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Caribbean Literatures arrived in the mail this summer, two years after it was expected. But it has been worth the wait. Edited by Dr. Maurice Lee and Aaron Penn, the journal comprises scholarly essays as well as fiction, poetry and book reviews. “In literature, there are a surprising number of universal themes, stemming from shared experiences that ignore human boundaries,” says Penn in his introduction. “We all share these basic experiences, and we all can see the reflections of these themes in [other] cultures.” A good reminder when we travel.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains - which provided refuge for the island’s indigenous people and later for Africans fleeing slavery - are among 24 new sites incribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, a first for the Caribbean island.

Nanny Falls in the Blue & John Crow Mountains (JCDT)
The UN's cultural agency said the mountains were selected for their universal significance, their relationship with unique traditions and their position as the natural habitat of biologically diverse plant and animal life. These criteria are part of the requirements that all World Heritage List “candidates” must meet.

The mountains are designated as a "mixed, cultural and natural site", while the 23 other sites are "cultural" entities in countries such as China, Mexico, Singapore, Uruguay, France and Turkey.

The List now comprises 1,031 sites in 163 countries, with Italy, China and Spain leading the pack. UNESCO extended the boundaries of three existing sites as well, including the Routes of Santiago de Compostela, while three sites in the Middle East were added to the "in-danger" list.

Meeting in Bonn, Germany, from June 28 to July 8, the agency’s World Heritage Committee also adopted the so-called Bonn Declaration. This recommends that heritage protection be included in the mandate of peacekeeping missions "where appropriate".

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova additionally launched a “Unite for Heritage Coalition”, whose aim is to strengthen mobilization in the face of deliberate damage to cultural heritage, according to the UN.

Jamaican Tody, a mountain native. (Photo: R. Miller)
In the view of the World Heritage Committee, the Blue and John Crow Mountains in Jamaica have special significance not only for the island's residents but for the rest of the world.

“The site encompasses a rugged and extensively forested mountainous region in the south-east of Jamaica, which provided refuge first for the indigenous Tainos fleeing slavery and then for Maroons (escaped African slaves),” UNESCO says in its description.

The Maroons “resisted the European colonial system in this isolated region by establishing a network of trails, hiding places and settlements, which form the Nanny Town Heritage Route,” it continues.

“The forests offered the Maroons everything they needed for their survival. They developed strong spiritual connections with the mountains, still manifest through the intangible cultural legacy of, for example, religious rites, traditional medicine and dances. The site is also a biodiversity hotspot for the Caribbean Islands with a high proportion of endemic plant species, especially lichens, mosses and certain flowering plants.”

The mountains have been represented in many Jamaican literary and historical texts, including the prize-winning novel Sweetheart. But mining operations have recently marred other areas of the region's beauty, so this inscription on the World Heritage List may give a boost to environmentalists.

For more information on the inscribed sites, go to:

Tuesday, 30 June 2015


“When you have a platform to speak out against oppression, and to speak for your people, you have to embrace it,” says Kashif Powell, a poet and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the United States.

Kashif Powell (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Powell was one of some 200 scholars attending the 2015 biannual conference of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR), which took place at Liverpool Hope University in northern England, June 24 to 28.

Titled “Mobilising Memory: Creating African Atlantic Identities”, this latest CAAR conference more than ever highlighted the need for dialogue about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, especially in light of recent atrocities against people of African descent in the United States.

It took place also against the backdrop of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving port in the 18th century and placed particular emphasis this year on the role that writers, artists and scholars play in preserving and “activating” memory in the struggle for social justice and human rights.

“When one is part of a group, part of a besieged identity, one has the responsibility of active involvement,” said Irline François, a Haitian-born professor at Goucher College - based in Baltimore, Maryland, where protests occurred earlier this year after an African-American man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

Gray was one of several unarmed young black men killed by police in recent months. Then, just days before the start of the conference, a white gunman killed nine people inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. These murders gave an added sense of urgency to many of the scholarly presentations.

The CAAR poster for Liverpool, by artist Lubaina Himid
“It is crucially important to preserve memory as a scholar and to do work that’s built and forged in community activism,” François told SWAN when asked about the contributions of academics - long criticised for being too cut off from the real world in their “ivory towers”.

Author of a forthcoming book on the African Diasporas in the Americas, François presented a paper that looked at the work of Haitian writers Edwidge Danticat and Yanick Lahens in relation to “history, memory and forgetting”.

She and other CAAR participants including Powell argued that it is only by examining human rights abuses as well as personal and collective trauma that healing can be achieved, and scholars have a part to play in this.

“I do have a responsibility but it’s also a privilege to represent my black experience,” Powell said in an interview. “I think it’s important for people to be made to remember. We can’t just pretend that certain things never happened.”

Prof. Cynthia Hamilton, co-organizer of the CAAR conference. 
Formed in 1992, CAAR began as an “association of individual European scholars working in the field of African American studies”. It has grown to become an “intercontinental organization” with members from around the world, according to a statement from the organizers.

“We are convinced that African American Studies has broad implications for the world today,” the association says. “Placing the field in an international context provides valuable reciprocal insights.

“African-Americans are the best studied ethnic minority in the world, and the theoretical and empirical understanding gained from this research is relevant to ethnic and racial issues elsewhere,” it added. Members say that the organization is trying to re-define itself to achieve greater diversity.

For this year’s conference, CAAR teamed up with the new Institute for Black Atlantic Research, or IBAR, based at the University of Central Lancashire, north of Liverpool. Alan Rice, professor in English and co-director of IBAR, and Cynthia Hamilton, head of the Department of English at Liverpool Hope University, were the co-organizers of the event.

IBAR’s involvement led to the participation of more writers and performance artists at the conference, as the institute’s emphasis is on art and culture, Rice said.

Tayo Aluko (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Rose Thomas, a 73-year-old author and Liverpool resident, read from her manuscript about life in the city for Black people in the 1950s, and poet and musician Curtis Watt got the assembled scholars laughing with his ironic sung-poems about the forms that discrimination can take.

Keeping with the theme of memory and activism, Tayo Aluko performed excerpts from his one-man show Call Mr. Robeson, about the life of American singer and activist Paul Robeson.

In his moving baritone, the Nigerian-born and Liverpool-based Aluko takes on the persona of Robeson, telling of his rise to fame in the nineteen-twenties and Thirties and the persecution that came with his speaking out against class discrimination and racism.

The U.S. government even confiscated Robeson’s passport, preventing him from travelling and performing, but officials couldn’t suppress the songs. Aluko’s renditions of “The Battle of Jericho”, “Ol’ Man River” and other pieces keep alive the memory of Robeson’s long fight against oppression.

His performance also underscored the links between art, politics and activism, which many scholars discussed during the conference. The academic presentations ranged from an examination of “Rebellious Thinkers, Poets, Writers, and Political Architects” to a discussion of “Slavery, Representation and Black Cultural Politics in 12 Years a Slave”.

Part of the exhibition at the International Slavery Museum.
The conference additionally drew attention to the role that museums are playing in the fight for social justice and equality. One of the keynote speakers, David Fleming, said that some museums are rejecting the notion of “neutrality” and opting to take a stand on human rights.

“Social justice just doesn’t happen by itself; it’s about activism and people willing to take risks,” said Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, which includes the city’s International Slavery Museum.

The latter looks at aspects of both historical and contemporary slavery, while being an “international hub for resources on human rights issues”.

As the conference was taking place, the museum launched an exhibition titled “Broken Lives”, about slavery in modern India and the experiences of the country’s Dalit community. Nearly half of the world’s victims of modern slavery are in India, and most of these are Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, the exposition pointed out.

Many CAAR participants went to view this exhibition as well as the museum's permanent display on the transatlantic slave trade.

Some also took part in a “slavery tour” whose aim is to remind the public of Liverpool’s past as a dominant actor in the slave trade. The city is also the home of the oldest Black African community in Britain.

“It’s important to have a space like this to show the importance of remembering,” Powell told SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie, as they ran into each other at the museum on the last day of the conference.

(In October SWAN will have a special article about IBAR’s work.)