Ethiopia stands out in African history. As any proud Ethiopian will tell you, the country has been united since Biblical times. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the Queen of Sheba – who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem – returned home pregnant. She gave birth to a boy who became Menelik I, the first emperor of Ethiopia. Ethiopian then welcomed Christianity, and they are proud of being the only Christian kingdom in Africa to have resisted Islamic invasion. Again, Ethiopians are eager to point out that they had a centralized government long before any other country south of the Sahara did. All this is presented as historical fact, based on documents.
Reality is somewhat different. Historians recognize the antiquity of the Ethiopian Empire, but also point out that the stories relating to the Queen of Sheba were well crafted by knowledgeable people at the service of the emperor to give a firm foundation to their claim to the throne. The Coptic Church certainly has had an important role in the building of the Empire and in its growth. Yet, one should be blind not to realize that Islam – with 35% of the population – is of great influence in the country.
John Markakis’ latest book – Ethiopia, the last two frontiers – revisits the working forces behind the building of Ethiopia. Markakis, with a lucid analysis, reminds the reader that “although it called Ethiopia an ‘empire’, the imperial regime did not regard the expansion as an imperialistic venture. It saw it as the restoration of the status quo ante”. Markakis argues that today’s Ethiopia is the result of an ever enlarging circle of influence, an expanding power that wants to annex and control territories at its periphery. This is a movement that brought the original Amhara rulers to expand first within the highlands, and then towards the lowlands, the semi-arid and arid regions which surrounds the highlands.
The centre has always imposed its influence, even though allowing limited self-administration and favouring the rise of a local elite. Yet, this system cannot perpetuate forever. On the one side there is the pressure of highlands peasants for land, on the other, the demands of the people from the lowlands. If in the past the lowlands were considered little more than a nuisance, places for goat herders and little more, today all Ethiopians appreciate the value of those lands. They are valuable because they can be opened to agricultural exploitation, and because of the many mineral resources they harbour.
A change is in order, and the totalitarian temptations of the present regime do not give much hope for a positive outcome. As the author sums up “return to ... a centralised state under centre control ... can only be imposed on the periphery with greater exertion and force than ever. If this were to happen, it would condemn yet another generation of Ethiopians to authoritarian rule and civil strife ... Ethiopia's rulers face a genuine dilemma, a choice between two risky alternatives. One would be to cross the political frontier, make a clean break with the past, renounce centre hegemony and accept equitable power sharing with the periphery. Another would be the political downgrading of the Abyssinian core, and the loss of the centre's prerogative to determine the distribution of national resources. ...”
Markakis book is a well thought out text. The author relied on research, but much more on the personal experience built while lecturing in Ethiopia, where he certainly built an excellent network of scholars and resourceful people. The result is a text worthwhile reading and certainly one of the best explanations of the present situation in Ethiopia published so far. It is a must read for those interested in Ethiopia and, indeed, the Horn of Africa.
John Markakis, Ethiopia, the last two frontiers, pp. xiv +383, James Currey, Woodbridge 2011
Historians and anthropologists have always been fascinated by the conflict between shepherds and farmers. It is a conflict between two cultures, two ways of looking at life and the environment. Both groups need land and water, and their interests clash.
Pastoralists want to wander in the land and have access to grazing areas and water sources. Agriculturalists want to fence their land to defend it from animals and like to organize water usage to benefit the most from a scarce resource. They also have cattle, needed to work the land and provide milk, wool, leather, and meat. So the rivalry also concerns the possession of cattle, and the cattle- raid becomes one of the strategies which are used to increase their number or to recover lost animals.
In the past, the raid was an exciting topic for anthropologists and ethnologists. They saw in the raid a significant form of social organization. Pastoralists and agriculturalists used spears and arrows, and observed strict rules of engagement with a spirit of chivalry. Today, the cattle raid has become a real plague. And for one simple reason: the proliferation of automatic weapons.
According to reports on arms smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa – a wide area where shepherds and farmers coexist – the market for small weapons is growing, due to the many local wars in the region and the political and economic benefits for those who holds the strings of this business.
The presence of small arms has intensified internal conflicts among the Pokot of Kenya and Uganda, raised the number of cattle raids and forced many people to flee their homes. Today, a Kalashnikov – an automatic rifle also known as AK47 - costs £ 35-50, a high but not impossible price for local tribesmen. Merchants know that the Pokot have little cash, so they are happy to trade weapons for livestock. They ask for four or five cows, and a Pokot knows that with the rifle he will be able to acquire many more. The price can go up between June and October, when neighbouring Karimojong (Uganda) and Turkana (Kenya) increase the number of raids. The transhumant Pokot, Turkana and Karimojong, stopped using the traditional spear and shield; they all have adopted automatic weapons. The AK 47, or similar weapon, has become part of their wardrobe.
Weapons are bought for different reasons. Possessing a weapon raises the social status of the owner. It also allows planning to steal animals to pay the "bride price" (which always tends to rise). Modern weapons help defend the homestead against raiders from other ethnic groups, and come handy during revenge raids. Beyond cattle raids, weapons are used in acts of banditry and in clashes with security forces. The presence of well armed and organized band of people is also a plus for shrewd politicians, who use them as a tool to enhance their control on their constituencies.
The Akiwumi Report - named after the judge leading the inquiry commission on ethnic conflict in Kenya in 1992 and 1997 – showed without doubts that violence between Kalenjin, Maasai and Pokot, on the one hand, and the Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya and Luo, on the other, was incited by unscrupulous politicians who used the ethnic card to influenced the vote in favour of the ruling party. The same happened in the aftermath of the infamous 2007 elections.
With the collapse of traditional values, the raid has taken on different connotations from the past. Weapon holding warriors do not feel bound to traditional authorities and interpret the rules of engagement solely to their advantage. Central governments have tried to disarm tribesmen, but the exercise is futile. No one will voluntarily offer its weapon knowing well that neighbouring tribesmen will not. No one is willing to become vulnerable to attacks, knowing well – because of previous experiences - that the central government would not intervene to defend them. Only Churches and NGOs have the moral authority to intervene. They do so by offering workshops on conflict resolutions, promoting meetings between different communities, trying to dissolve the mutual suspicion and violence. It is not easy, but some successes are already present and may serve as benchmark for future action. The raid culture will have to disappear, notwithstanding historians and anthropologists.
One key way the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (T&T) is able to grow and remain a vibrant, cutting-edge entity is through its associations with other film festivals. Some of T&T team attend major festivals such as Toronto, Miami and Cannes, and they are in partnerships with other festivals, such as Femi in Guadeloupe and ZIFF in Zanzibar. Networking serves various functions. Seeing how other, often more established, festivals operate can provide T&T with valuable lessons on how to improve; and other festivals provide precious networking opportunities. Most importantly, by attending other festivals T&T is able to discover great films that would not otherwise be available in loco.
Two members of the T&T team recently returned from such journeys. Co-director Annabelle Alcazar attended the Verona African Film Festival in Italy. The oldest film festival in Europe screening exclusively African and African diaspora content, the Verona festival celebrated its 31st anniversary this year, and had as its theme “Revolution, the Arab spring and the diaspora”. Not only did Annabelle attend the festival as a representative of the T&T, she also had served on the festival’s jury. Also recently taking place was the 5th annual Dominican Republic Global Film Festival, at which T&T founder and Director Bruce Paddington was a guest. The Dominican Festival is one of the fastest-growing in the Caribbean. While in Verona, we asked Annabelle a few questions.
Could you tell us about the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival?
We are in our sixth year and our festival is the largest in English speaking Caribbean. There are more important festivals in Cuba and in the Dominica Republic, but for our linguistic area we are the largest. The festival runs for two weeks, the last of September and the first of October. In the last edition we showed 85 films, between documentaries and features, mainly from the Caribbean, which is our focus. We had films from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica and other islands; from countries bordering the region, like Venezuela and Colombia; and the diaspora. We are now opening a new area of interest which is the African films.
What is your relation with the Verona Film Festival?
This is the first time one of us has visited the Verona Festival. This happened because one of our directors was in Zanzibar last year to participate at the festival there. Among the jury, there was Fabrizio Colombo, the artistic director of the festival in Verona, who is looking to expand the scope of the festival to include more films from the diaspora. He invited us to participate at the festival in Verona. We hope to start a good relationship with an exchange of films and experiences. Starting next year, there will be films from Trinidad and Tobago here in Verona, and we hope to receive some films from Africa, through the support of the Verona Festival.
You are co-director of the T&T, what does this entail?
T&T has grown so much that it has become a full time job for me. I have to look for films, vision them, and shortlist the candidates to participate at the screening. We also offer workshops and other activities. All this must be organized, prepared and it requires much time and attention.
How did you evaluate your experience in Verona?
I am not knowledgeable on African film on the whole. This is why I attach much importance on this experience, to get a perspective through this festival. We do have contacts with Zanzibar and some link to West Africa. We hope to acquire more experience on north, central and southern Africa through our friends in Verona. So far I have seen very good films, of good quality, high standards, all dealing with very important issues. I enjoyed watching the films so far. I have also appreciated the opportunity to meet young filmmakers. The African film industry is growing and I am pleased to see the results.
The Caribbean film industry is still very small. Our government is encouraging the growth of this industry because our society needs to diversify. So far, we are doing well thanks to natural resources, but these are not to last forever. The government in Trinidad and Tobago is trying to set up other industries which will provide occupation to the population, and the film industry is one of them. We encourage young people to get closer to film making. Here in Verona I have seen some good films shot and produced by young people, I am inspired by them and I hope this will also be possible back at home.
We all are aware that Africa is the birthplace of humanity. Archaeologists keep finding new evidence of this. Now, even the arts remind us of this reality, with an original theatre piece - The Cradle of Humanity – work of South African performer Stephen Cohen. The Cradle of Humanity was first performed in Europe at the Danae Festival in Milan last November.
Only two performers climbed on the stage. Cohen himself, half naked and wearing only a corset of sort and whitened with a serious dose of white powder, and an old San lady wearing only an imaginative loin cloth. There were many objects: a measuring rod of the kind used by Lombrosian ethnologists working for the various empires; a bow, with the small arrows used by the San in their nomadic life; a small table with a human cranium, the head of a monkey, small trees, diamonds and a huge plastic bowl ball in which Cohen went to hide only to be taken out by the old woman, almost like a child that is born; a sort of hat- loudspeaker which was placed on the head of the woman, a large stuffed monkey which the man placed before him mimicking a sexual use or oppression and violence; handcuffs and chains, animal paws, symbols of the servitude and slavery the colonial governments imposed on Africans; a screen and record player with images and sounds of the San (formerly known as Bushmen). Among the elements that contributed to the performance, allusions and gestures referring to a nonexistent spaceship which brought new human beings from other planets, another reference to the colonial descent on astonished and unsuspecting people.
In various interviews by Stephen Cohen published in local newspaper, we came to know that the woman on stage was Nomsa Dhlamini, 91, who raised him when he was an infant in South Africa, as often happened – and sometimes still happen – in well to do families who entrust their children to a nanny.
Nomsa's body on the stage, so true and real, with its amber in colour, so true and real, and the august shape of old age, was in itself a beauty and a document of reality, against which the Cohen's body seemed powdered and false. The performance moved from stage to stage without a clear cut narrative. Yet, it was consistent in referring to humanity’s first steps and to the racist policies people were subjected to by colonial powers. Stephen Cohen also gave a short performance as a drag queen.
Contemporary theatre is making much use of the body, in this the show was not a surprise. However, the performance of Stephen Cohen and Nomsa Dhlamini has the merit to incarnate the unspeakable simplicity of an ancient body, more than a simply old one, a body solemn and full of expression: a performance that led the public to a silence full of admiration and awe.