In 2005, the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations organized “Africa Unite,” a series of events to be held in Ethiopia. Nominally created to posthumously celebrate Bob Marley’s 60th birthday, Africa Unite was meant to encourage and nurture unity between nations and peoples on the African continent and to inspire self-sufficiency and world consciousness in African youth. As an annual event, it has continued: Ghana (2006); South Africa (2007); Jamaica (2008, from February 1 to 21). (http://africa-unite.org/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/)
The film “Africa Unite” is meant to show, and does show, the coming together of peace-minded folks from 40 to 60 African countries (reports vary), for a series of workshops, including three days of African student-delegate dialog sessions, meetings, and a celebratory concert. Marley’s wife, mother, five sons, and sundry grandchildren flew to Addis Ababa from Jamaica for the occasion, together with a collection of elderly lifelong Rastafarians.
Africa Unite is not a concert film; it documents all the elements of the occasion, culminating in the 12-hour concert in Addis Ababa, which was attended by 300,000 to 500,000 people (again, estimates vary) from all over the continent. The movie contains snippits of the concert and the commercial DVD adds more, but if you’re looking for reggae onstage, you won’t find much of it in the documentary itself. Instead, check out YouTube (e.g.,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5fRBNoDR2Y) for a quick look and listen. In the film there are glimpses of Lauryn Hill, Angelique Kidjo, reggae leaders Bob Andy, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, and a number of Marley’s children, including Ziggy, Damian, Stephen, Cedella, Julian and Kymani, the top shotta himself as he lays out “Crazy Baldheads.”
Released in 2007 and directed by Stephanie Black, a documentarian with limited resume, the film makes no mention of Africa Unite 2006 – 2008. Danny Glover’s Louverture Films and the Marley family’s Tuff Gong Pictures are listed as executive producers. Glover has been a Bob Marley enthusiast since he attended one of Marley’s concerts back in the ’70s. The movie is a standard, old-fashioned documentary, presenting a UNICEF-assisted event in an institutional style that the UN might appreciate. That is, we get a clip from the concert; the Marleys flying to Africa; another clip from the concert; workshops and conference sessions preceding the concert; another clip from the concert; local color; clip; boilerplate; clip; footage of Ethiopia; clip; so forth.
Several aspects of my critical apparatus competed for attention as I watched this movie:
a. Mr. Concerned Citizen. Africa Unite! How wrong can that be? Represent!
b. Mr. Cynic. The Marleys visit a zoo and admire the caged lions. Welcome to Africa! Is the title ironic? Is this the Africa of Kenya, Chad, Sudan, Somolia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe, etc., etc., that we’re talking about?
c. Young Mr. Unrepentant High-School Viewer, still alive down there in my brain only one layer up from Mr. Id Crocodile Brain Stem. Conjured up from the deep past by the industrial-strength instructional-film vibe radiating like a death ray from frame one onward in this film. Whatever experience in filmmaking the director Ms Black has had, she seems to have designed these 89 lonnngggg minutes to be transmogrified later by young institutionalized viewers into high-school term papers – reports on how to spur economic and educational reform and combat poverty and strife in African nations, via talkin and then more talkin – her movie being a workmanlike, dull, interminable, didactic, social-studies series of scenes unreeling on an old-fashioned projector in Civics 101 in a warm stuffy classroom right after a heavy lunch of meatloaf in the school lunchroom. Heads thunk onto desktops as students doze off and topple forward, necks going all slack.
Mr. Concerned Citizen queued up the DVD and sat down with pen and clipboard in hand. Tapped foot to the beat as the first concert footage poinked out, de dah.
Mr. Cynic took control of the pen as we see the Marley brothers on a plane flying east to Africa for this, their excursion into peace-making. The plane lands in Addis Ababa to the accompaniment of hopeful music and words about Africa peace, political will, and the future. In big red letters on the side of the plane: Kenyan Airlines. In addition to the 1000+ killed so far in the current civil unrest in Kenya, country fracturing along tribal lines, a second parliament member is assassinated – a member of the opposition in the government and a peacemaker. Get onboard the peace train!
Mr. Concerned Citizen yanks back control of the pen as the first African student to be interviewed comes onscreen, talking about the need for African nations to come together, the need for Burundi and Rwanda to kiss and make up. Uh oh. She’s from Kenya. Got to Ethiopia for the peace concert just before the bullets started flying in her neighborhood. Political unrest based on tribal allegiance. Mr. Cynic is back, scanning the young woman for tribal markings or gang signs on her traditional Kenyan costume. Meanwhile, Barack Obama records a cool-it message for broadcast in Kenya, but his father belonged to the tribe associated with the opposition, so conspiracy theories are immediately hatched re his involvement in the unrest. Condi to Kenya to settle things down!
But now, while Mr. CC and Mr. C contend for my consciousness and the hand holding the reviewer’s pen, the film unleashes roundtable discussions, speeches, and canned historical footage of the League of Nations and before I know what’s happening, Mr. High-School Viewer is in charge and trying to put my body, including the hand holding the pen, to sleep.
And how to deal with this neverending civil violence in African nations, per Africa Unite?
Q. Kymani, what do you think it’s going to take to unite Africa?
A. Just the right state of mind. Point blank. That’s all it comes down to. Your thinking. What is your purpose on Earth? My purpose is to make the next one feel up, feel happy. I don’t live for myself; there’s no joy in that. I think if everyone took on that approach then we would have a peaceful and united Africa.
And that goes double for Darfur and its genocide, Kymani, and Chad with its coup and killings, and the hidden civil war and ever-mounting death toll in Congo.
“The efforts of the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations are giving life to the words of Bob Marley: “Africa Unite!” Sponsoring a series of events each year in a different country, the goal of uniting Africa is becoming a reality.”
Bear with me while I quote the message:
“The role of education was emphasized as the critical element in the process of African transformation. This education must be both formal and heartical. We must work with school curricula, children in clubs and informal groups as we seek to have everyone learn about slavery and its effects as well as what our philosophers teach about the way forward. We must all have the same books telling the same story of our Pan African history.
“The Bob and Rita Marley Foundations were requested to investigate publishing books as well as having ongoing discussions with the relevant Ministries in Africa. The Foundations were also asked to continue their scholarship program. Ghana through Professor Nketia has pledged its support to work with the Foundation on this. Different countries both in the diaspora and in Africa should also consider holding workshops for music development at the local level. These could be supported by the Foundations.”
In the movie, it’s all about the old CW reasons for Africa’s current problems: post-colonial damage, World Bank, IMF. Exploitation by the white man. The carving up of Africa by European interests in the late 1800s. The history and consequences of slavery.
To celebrate post-colonialism, Mr. Cynic takes a ganja break.
Rastafari started up in Jamaica in the ’30s, when blacks were poor and meant to stay that way. Meanwhile, Africa was still run by Europe. The Rastas announced that every individual is worth something, and that Africa, as Man’s birthplace, is also worth something. By 2000, Jamaica was as much as twenty percent Rastafari, with more than a million Rasta worldwide. The name comes from “Ras” meaning “head” and Tafari, the first name of Haile Selassie before he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The Rasta take Selassie as God on Earth, although now that he’s dead, I’m not sure what his brief visit on this planet is taken to have accomplished. When the Messiah returns, most religions don’t expect him to run a country for a while and then expire, but then, some Rastafaris believe that Selassie’s purported death was in fact a white hoax. That is, he’s out there somewhere and will return in due course to liberate his followers.
The Ethiopian story is that King Solomon fathered a child with the Queen of Sheba, whom she took home and who became the root stock for the black Jews of Ethiopia, who continue today. The presence of these Jews is one reason that Rastafari accept Ethiopia as Zion. Another is that Ethiopia remained independent while all the other countries on the continent were being colonized.
I forget what the dreadlocks are about. Something life-affirming.
I know of no connection between “rasta” and “rasty.”
Ganja is essential to the religion. I cannot overemphasize this.
There is a “live forever” thing going on in the religion as well. Bob Marley wouldn’t donate his organs, even when at death’s door, because he figured he was still going to need them. But how useful are cancer-ridden organs anyway?
Sellassie gave the Rastas 500 hectares of his personal land in the area of Shashemene, 150 miles from Addis Ababa. Whenever he drove by, he would say “Where are my people?” But he also told the Jamaicans to stay home until they had defeated their oppressors in Jamaica, so that’s where they still were every time he drove by Shashemene and asked, except for a few settlers who did go over, returning to Zion. When Sellassie was deposed, Mengistu took back all but 11 hectares. The Africa Unite celebration included events at Shashemene, what’s left of it.
As I mentioned, the Marley’s brought some elderly Rastas with them on the plane and these octagenarians were motored about Addis Ababa. So these gentlemen are looking out the car windows at Zion. Ethiopia, being one of the poorest countries in the world, features scenery that has a lot in common with the slums of Kingston. Taking climate, populace, and ambiance all together, and the grinning crowds of the poor, these men now in the promised land were staring out at something that looked a heckava lot like home. Didn’t seem to bother them.
I asked my Ethiopian friend about black-on-black racism in his country, which has 80 tribes. He went racial on me in a very complicated way and I just let that whole question drop. Something about Negro, Bushman, and Bantu and how the superiority of Hamites over Negroes was no myth. Nose shape. Tall vs short. Smart vs dumb. American Negros looking more Bantu that Negro because of the white admixture in their blood. So forth. You’re black in the US and then you get off the plane in Africa and everybody is black. Great. But oh oh. You’re a little stocky with a flat nose and the next thing you know, it’s “Dude, you Hutu? Cause if you aren’t Tutsi, you’re in a bad place here!”
Mr. High-School Viewer takes a ganja break in honor of the Rasta. Man, I could eat a horse. I checked out “Eating horse in Ethiopia” and got hits about man-eating horses. That’s the kind of thing that can rattle you when your hold on reality is a little shaky anyway.
So the Rastas deplane in Ethiopia – their Zion – with portraits of Selassie – their god – on their T-shirts and words about slavery and colonialism on their lips. No mention of the coup in ’74 that deposed Selassie, or the fact that he’s dead, or the ensuing Communist regime in the country, or Mengistu’s conviction for genocide. Much is made in this movie of the fact that Ethiopia fended off Italy back in the colonizing period of the late 1800s, but I heard no mention of Italy’s occupation of the country from 1935 to 1941. Whatever.
Because if you’ve got to pick a place to represent the cradle of humanity, well, humans have been living in Ethiopia since the beginning, since before the beginning, since before they could pass the human test. The Rift Valley. Formerly Punt and then Abyssinia, Ethiopia is the second oldest country in the world, after Armenia, to become Christian. (But now with a large Muslim population too). Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, with a secular government since 1974. It was an original U.N. member. The capitol is by no means isolated. The headquarters of the African Union is situated in Addis Ababa.
This constant talk of African unity after throwing off the colonial yoke – Mr. C couldn’t help remembering that Ethiopia only concluded its bloody civil war with Eritrea in 1993, with flareups since then, and that its neighbors are Sudan (Darfur), Somolia (Black Hawk Down), Kenya (current civil unrest, rigged elections), Eritrea (border flareups), and Djibouti (10-year civil war, single-party government) – well, why else so many calls for unity? Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique; death and violence past and future, breaking along tribal lines.
While Mr. C snorted, it occurred to Mr. CC that the speakers were not orating in a vacuum, in front of the cameras, but on a continent, in a land, of uncertain freedoms and swift retribution. In the poor and warlike country of Ethiopia, could it be that these men and women were taking care while running on about unity and freedom, to oppose those concepts to past colonialism and slavery, rather than the current situation in at least 145 African countries today where it might be worth their lives to get more particular about present injustices rather than those of fifty years past?
Hmm. Ethiopia ranks 106 out of 167 African countries vis a vis human rights. The country comes in between Cambodia at 105 and Burundi at 107. There is little freedom of the press. 80 ethnic groups contend for power and small privileges in 83 languages. Mr. CC calls to mind the armed and unsmiling troops circulating through the crowd in the concert clips, eying the audience, not the performers.
As a defense against this serious pondering, Mr. C and Mr. HSV take ganja breaks, sharing a blunt.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH AFRICA?
Mr. CC knows that there are between 18 and 20-odd democracies in Africa (depending upon how elastic your tolerance, or delusion, is); in 1980, there were only 4. This is why Bush can take a victory lap over there without having to dine every night with an outright war criminal, and without getting shot or locked up. He can send Condi to Kenya to straighten things out, ignore Darfur, and accentuate the positive in that special way that he has. Mr. Bush enjoys an approval rating in Africa much higher than in his own country; this is all Mr. C needs to know. But in fact, Mr. C also knows that most of these African democracies are “imperfect,” “fragile,” or “illiberal.” He is familiar with papers with titles like “Who Killed Democracy In Africa?” and ““Support for Democracy Seen Falling in Africa.” Doing our math, we see that if more than 60 countries were represented at Africa Unite, many of the student attendees arrived to participate from countries ruled by a dictator. Did any of these students appear in the movie? Those who spoke on film were identified as citizens of Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, and The Gambia – all countries among the fledgling democracies; and even so, these students spoke in careful measured tones and used diplomatic sentences. No fire-eating, to be caught on tape before they returned home. Who are these students fronting the documentary anyway? They all showed up at an Africa Unite banquet in the movie dressed to the nines.
But then, lo, at the 70-minute mark, Ms. Black edits in a more militant voice. Some attitude pipes up here. A fellow saying that knowledge is power and sounding like he means a lot more than that. Name? Country? Withheld. Mr. CC and Mr. C can both go a little paranoid when high, and at this point began to remark on the vanilla flavor of the previous discourse, and the beady, shifty eyes of the Ethiopian official windbags who alternated with the students at the mike and who previously caused Mr. HSV to take control on the couch and nod off. Now, suddenly, the harping on colonialism and slavery and the IMG and the World Bank is dropped in favor of a strong call for a ban on weapons, power to the people, self-sufficiency, and truly democratic policies. A woman speaks as well, and her name is blacked out. She demands peace and quality health care. And Ms Black allows Danny Glover to bare his teeth a little: “Use all means to listen to and celebrate the young people.”
But that’s enough of that. No burning of bridges with future Africa Unites yet on the drawing board. It’s back to colonialism, racism, artificial borders, and debt. Nary a mention of the tradition of central political authority that fosters corrupt and despotic leaders, the habit of African leaders to avoid criticizing each other, or the unbelievable backwardness in much of the continent. Leave the internationally-connected cities, like Khartoum, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Kampala, and you’ll discover a continent where the rest of the world seems remote indeed, in time and in space. Here there are communities without the wheel, using ancient methods of agriculture, where tribal law and custom still employ polygamy and do not recognize private ownership of land, and where religions are based on magic and other anti-modern forces (including fundamentalist brands of Islam). There is a chasm between ancient and modern in Africa and Western intervention hasn’t affected it much. Africa is not just another South America. (This just in: Bush visits Ghana but misses the open sewers in the streets and the major poverty in the country, visiting instead the most expensive private school in Accra. Says that abstinence can work in the battle against AIDs.)
On the other hand, huge shanty towns surround every large African city: the young leave the quiet countryside to find work in urban areas. Is this the force that will change Africa? Many thinkers on the subject, including voices like Paul Theroux, Graham Hancock, and Michael Maren, believe that outside aid is doing more harm than good, with the exception for disaster assistance and environmental aid – and, I hope, Bill Gates’ millions for vaccines.
I asked my Nigerian friend about repression in Nigeria. He showed me his scars and I let it go at that.
Mr. C points out that there are ten times as many hits for “democracy in africa” as for “what’s wrong with africa?” Mr. CC responds that there are twice as many hits for “violence in africa” as for “democracy in africa.”
One thing I do like about Africa is that the inhabitants of the continent haven’t eaten all the large animals there. When humans emerged from Africa and spread out around the rest of the world, they consumed everything large in sight and did it damn quick. Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, big cats – all eaten. They had no fear of humans. A few critters survived, but not many. Buffalo, moose. But they followed humans and got to North America, for example, during an ice age, with the hungry hunters out of the way down south. Evidently in Africa, where humans and big animals evolved together, the animals learned to fear the humans and so survived; an equilibrium was established.
Africa sometimes seems united in a slow-motion effort to destroy itself. For this viewer, Africa Unite, the movie, is so full of resonances, connections, associations, and questions about that continent that it transcends its subject matter and clunky execution to become a testament to humanity’s ongoing insanity, which is unchanged since those days in the Rift Valley when we could walk pretty good but didn’t do too much thinkin. Cognitive dissonance between the dancing onscreen and children with machetes and Kalashnikovs, refugees, debt forgiveness that lines the pockets of the corrupt, justice at the end of a gun, the species of freedom that comes courtesy of abject poverty, no blacks in the IMF, AIDs, Ebola, West Nile, the new malaria, diarrhea, river blindness. The Internet loaded with African argument and discussion about race, black vs black, not black vs white. Followed by some great reggae concert energy. At this point you can get high and go to sleep, or switch over to the latest episode of Lost, or run outside and burn down a couple of buildings in protest.
Filed under: Documentary |