Thursday, April 10, 2008

Black and Brown Getting down (Africa and India)

Some of the Original people abroad realize that we aren't different and are uniting. It is important in that they are becoming aware of their own ability to effect change and what role each of them play in this. They are throwing off the yoke of the 10% and moving full steam ahead. It is here that we in this country should take notes so as to not become separated via skin tone, language, coast or any other tool of division utilized by white supremacy against us.

Here's to Closer Ties Between India and Africa

Representatives from 14 African nations were in New Delhi for the first-ever India-Africa summit, which just ended today. (The India-Africa Summit follows closely on the heels of the China-Africa summit of November 2006.)

Attendees signed off on the Delhi Declaration and the Africa-India Framework for Cooperation, pledging cooperation in the areas of energy, terrorism, climate change and UN Reforms. An informal and equally important outcome: India is looking to play a far more prominent role in Africa’s economic development than China in coming years.

My uncle Gobind is a retired World Bank developmental economist who has served as economic adviser to the government of Ghana. I asked him to share his thoughts on this historic summit.

“While India is less prominent than China in Africa today, both in trade and investments and aid,” he said, “it is more respected than China because of its image, its democracy, its presence in education, industry— especially pharmaceuticals and railways, and IT. There is growing interest in Africa in India, but it is not yet a hot issue, except for mining companies and the new private oil companies like Reliance. India is currently big in Sudan, DRC, Nigeria, Zambia and S. Africa. But it’s increasing its presence everywhere.”

The Emerging Economy report, released yesterday, underlined the role of Indian corporations in driving new technology usage in Africa. From the Earth Times [full story link]:

Chinese corporations have made significant investments in Africa over the past decade. For example, China’s Civil Engineering Construction Corporation is building the $8.3 billion railroad linking Lagos and Kano. However, the Report also points out that Indian entrepreneurs have long enjoyed trading relations in Africa, particularly along the continent’s east coast, running from Kenya down to the tip of South Africa. In the early part of the 20th century Indian engineering and consumer brands were considered as reliable as those coming from Europe. Bilateral trade between India and Africa increased from less than US$ 1 billion in 1991 to over US$ 9 billion in 2005. Today, the Government of India is aiming to achieve a trade turnover of US$ 500 billion by 2010.

My grandfather might be one of those Indian entrepreneurs referred to above. In the 1930s, Dada came to West Africa as apprentice to an Indian trading company. He ended up placing his roots down in Ghana where he opened a chain of movie theatres and imported movies from India and China for a rural audience.

From Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana and the “capital” of the Ashanti kingdom, Dada explored the many cut-out kingdoms and colonies of West Africa, forging links with locals and other Indian expatriates and expanding his import-export business over the years. “Indian companies like my grandfather’s were important in promoting imports with other parts of the Commonwealth at the time,” Uncle Gobind told me. “The contribution was to provide cheaper and better quality consumer products, and to introduce new trading methods and sources to African countries.”

“Very few Indians went into industry, and where they did, they did not last. Nigeria may be an exception,” observes Uncle G. (Then, there’s Tata Motors, which has been in Africa since the ’70s. They announced on Wednesday that the company will expand its businesses in the continent, including assembly operations of pick-up trucks and buses in Sengal and Congo. [more on Tata’s vision in Africa])

Overall, the reputation of Indians in Africa has been positive, except where their presence has been used for political gains, as in 1969 in Ghana when the government passed a law requiring foreign investors and industry to re-invest at least 60 percent of their profit within Ghana. This essentially meant that non-Ghanaian nationals could not singly own businesses. My grandfather had acted fast and wisely, immediately forging a partnership with his good Ghanaian friend. Over the years, my family’s ties to my birthplace have remained strong, whether it is through continued business relations with local companies or intermarriage.

I realized just how strong these ties were when I made my first journey to my birthplace Kumasi without my parents back in 2000. I found myself speaking to my father everyday to ask him what I need to see before returning to the capital, Accra. “Talk to Mr. Appiah and ask him to take you to visit the Queen Mother, Yaa Asantewaa,” Papa told me when we spoke on the phone. “She’s almost 90 years old and I’m sure you will learn a lot by going to see her. Besides, she is like a mother to me.” As a child growing up in Ghana, Papa was fluent in the local language Twe and had played football with the Queen Mother’s son. Throughout his adulthood, my father continued to pay regular visits to pay his respects to the Ashanti royalty.

The “Queen Mother” whom my father was referring to is the female head of the Ashantis, the ruling tribe of the largest area and kingdom of Ghana, the Ashanti region, famous for its gold and its rich cultural heritage. She governs the Ashanti nation along with the Asantehene, the “king” who is chosen by her, area village chiefs and the Ashanti people.

I pictured her – ancient, wrinkled and in a throne, wearing heaps of gold and being fanned by kente clad attendants. Would I bow down to her? Try to greet her in Twe, the local language or resort to a translator?

When I asked Mr. Appiah, my father’s accountant whether he could take me to meet her, he was delighted. “Yes, yes,” he beamed. “She is like your grandmother. She will be sooo happy to see you. Eh eh.” He put a call in to the palace and soon we were on our way. We stopped at Shirdi Bazaar, an Sindhi shop, to buy her a gift – a bottle of Red Label Johnny Walker Whiskey. This, I would present to her along with 100,000 cedis in cash. In Ghana, this is an appropriate gift, even for royalty. My father’s accountant had pulled out a calculator and punched away, concluding, “For you, this is only $41.”

We arrived at the palace, a strange group of visitors. There was Mr. Appiah, clad in a white shirt, black trousers and sandals. Apart from being an accountant, on Tuesdays he serves as a chief in the local court held at the Queen Mother’s palace. Here, in a three-walled room overlooking a courtyard, civilians gather to file complaints about ills done unto them. The group of chiefs acts as judges, along with the queen who sits on her throne – an elevated step in the front of the room that I almost sat on before I was stopped by Mr. Appiah. Then, there was Maggie, the daughter of Mr. Ashan, one of the main managers of my father’s company here in Kumasi. Attractive and soft spoken, she was my age. She was wearing a white and brown skirt suit and looked quite the business woman. At that time, she was job hunting – she has studied Marketing and PR and was finding it difficult to land a position in town. Steven was the third member of our gang. My uncle’s driver who has been taking me around for the past few days, he seemed amused by all of this. Amused and yet, eager to participate in our adventures. Last, there was me – wearing blue jeans, a gray tank top and sandals. I felt under dressed and wonder whether I was fit to meet nobility.

The palace, a simple set of cement buildings that held an open courtyard in the center, was not quite what I expected. Outside, a police officer guarded the entrance and asked us the purpose of our visit. He recognized Mr. Appiah and looked at me curiously, ultimately deciding to speak to me in Twe. He knew that I would not understand and waited for me to tell him so.

“The Queen Mother is busy. She is handling some cases at the moment,” he repeated, this time in English.

“Oh,” said Mr. Appiah, “We have just called and she is expecting our visit. This is Mr. Nankani’s daughter. She is the grand daughter of the queen for the queen has taken her father as her son!” He laughed.

The officer appeared more interested in me now. He suggested that I visit the museum after our meeting, stressing that I would have to pay 5000 cedis because I was a foreigner.

“Oh!” exclaimed Mr. Appiah. “But she was born here and she is visiting her grand mother.”

The officer pondered that one for a moment. “Yes, yes, you are from here after all. If you were born here, even if your skin is copper colored, this e-be your homeland. OK, you can pay 1000 cedis.” He waved us in.

Inside, I saw several women dressed in the traditional Ghanaian dress waiting for an audience with the Queen Mother. We waited our turn and when we were asked to enter, I removed my shoes.

“Don’t greet anyone else before you greet her,” Mr. Appiah whispered to me before he raised the curtain to enter the doorway. “And, do exactly what I do. The queen is the lady whom I will greet.”

I wanted to say that I was sure I would know who she was, but I kept quiet.

We walked into a Western-style sitting room. In the middle was a simple chair on which the Queen Mother was seated. She was a small, thin woman wearing no jewelry; just a black cloth draped around her body and over her left shoulder. Her head was covered by a matching wrap, and she was barefoot. She sat straight, her eyes smiling and her face unwrinkled.

Mr. Appiah walked forward and shook the queen’s hand, telling her in Twe that he had brought the daughter of Tommy (as my dad was known here in his hometown) Nankani to see her. She smiled at me widely and took my hand, shaking it up and down for a long time. The queen spoke to me in Twe – she must have been thinking that I, my father’s daughter, should also be able to speak her language as well as he did. I do not.

She figured this out quickly enough and asked Mr. Appiah to tell me how much she loved my dad, how he was like a son to her, and how she wished that he could come visit her.

I was told to sit on the sofa to her right as she continued meeting the rest of our gang. When all the introductions were made, she turned her attention to me once again.

She was aware that my father was not well and asked about for him. I responded through my translator and we had a brief conversation that mainly centered around my father. She told me that she prayed that he would soon be well so that he could come visit her soon in the new home that her son, the newly enthroned Asantehene, was building for her.

Mr. Appiah remains standing as he addressed his queen, telling her what I had been doing in Ghana.

“She was in Bonwire yesterday,” he said. “She was visiting the women who weave kente because she is writing an article for an American magazine about them.”

The elders in the room smiled at me and nodded their heads in approval. The queen also looked at me intently as he spoke. I squirmed inside. There were too many eyes looking at me in this room.

Time to present the gift. Mr. Appiah ceremoniously removed the carton of whiskey from the black polythene bag as I pulled the envelope out of my bag. I rose from my seat and walked towards her. She accepted the present gracefully and shook my hand once again. An elder on the couch to her left said something and a dialogue ensued between them.

When I returned to my seat, I asked Maggie what they were saying. “Oh, they are telling her that there is money inside and that she should not open the envelope until after you leave,” she translated.

I looked at the Queen Mother and saw an amused look on her face. Of course, I thought, what queen would like to be told what to do? And what queen would think of opening an envelope immediately after it was presented?

After the excitement in the room had died down, I asked for permission to photograph the queen mother alone and she posed, sitting up straight and statuesque in her simple throne. Her smile spoke of many things seen and her eyes gazed at me affectionately. I knew that she wanted me to show this photograph to my father.

By looking into my lens, she was smiling at him, sending her love and regards. Then, I handed my camera to Maggie and moved to crouch on the floor next to her. She smiled at me widely, her white teeth doves in the night sky.

The flash shone a bright light on the room and the camera beeped twice.

“Your grandmother and you,” said Mr. Appiah. “Your father will be so happy.”

The above is originally posted here

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