Monday, 28 November 2011

Amazonas - South America's 'Heart of Darkness'

It's just over 6,800 miles (almost 11,000 kilometres), as the crow flies (not that a crow would ever fly this distance!) from Zanzibar to Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.  Covering an area that is more than 10 times the size of England and slightly bigger than Mongolia (or ten times the size of the US state of Georgia and slightly smaller than Queensland, Australia), Brazil's Amazonas has a population of 3.5 million people. 

More than half of Amazonas' inhabitants live in the state capital, Manaus, which is a mere 3 degrees south of the Equator and sits at the confluence of two of the Amazon's great tributaries, the rivers Negro and Solimões.  Manaus is almost 1800 miles (or 2900 kilometres) from Rio de Janeiro, which is like travelling from London to the other side of Europe. 

It feels like quite a big task, taking on Amazonas - not only because it encompasses the world's greatest river and largest rain forest, but also because this is my first time to blog about Brazil, a country that has gradually taken its rightful place on the global stage and a place that fascinates me, although I know very little about Brazil and its history. 

Flag of Venezuelan Amazonas
Of course, the Amazon isn't just about Brazil - Peru, Columbia and Venezuela, also have regions or districts called Amazonas.  Whilst I'll mostly be focusing on the Brazilian Amazonas for the purposes of this blog, I'll try to keep an eye to the other Amazonas regions in neighbouring countries. 

Something I fail to understand about Brazil is what happened there before Europeans turned up.  Whilst the western part of South America had the Incan empire and fabulous wealth, I've heard very little about the native tribes who lived in the eastern part of South America, on the Atlantic coast.  Whilst blogging about Paraguay, I learned a lot about the Jesuits and the history of South-Eastern Brazil, but the Amazon is a mystery to me that I'm hoping to make more sense of in the coming weeks.

From what little I've read so far, I can see that early European attitudes towards the native Amazonian tribes were full of racism, feelings of superiority and a belief that the native tribes were 'lazy' and had wasted a great natural gift that God had given to mankind.  The first Portuguese, Spanish and other Europeans who visited the Amazon region, believed that, with proper farming methods, the Amazon could be 'tamed' and made into a productive agricultural area.  Four centuries on and the Amazon rain forest remains untamed. Efforts at making the region economically productive have resulted in ecological devastation on a scale that is almost impossible to fathom. 

Flag of Columbian Amazonas
During the next few weeks, I want to further explore the impact of human activity on the Amazon rain forest.  I want to learn something about the native Amazonians and the history of European colonisation.  I'm also using the Amazon myth as an opportunity to explore themes around feminism.  As usual, I'd like to learn to cook a dish that is popular in the Amazon region or Brazil.  I've already started listening to Brazilian music and I have several books and movies lined up that deal specifically with the Amazon. 

Of course, typing Amazon into a Search Engine, will most likely bring you to the online book seller.  I've used Amazon (the book seller) a lot to find material for this blog and I'm a big fan of theirs, although I only really buy second-hand books, which you can get for as little as 1p (plus postage).  It's particularly useful for buying old editions of guidebooks (I usually buy the Insight guides). 

I used to think that the company was called Amazon, because of it's second-hand book section, ie. circulating already existing books, instead of cutting down trees to print new books.  I realise now that it was a bit naive to think this and that, actually, Amazon's founder just really liked the name.  Perhaps with their growing ebook market and the popularity of the Amazon Kindle, there is an opportunity for the company to adopt a Green agenda. 

Image credits:

All flags are taken from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Zanzibar - Kwaheri

So, the time has come to say kwaheri (farewell) to Zanzibar.  As usual, it's been a fascinating (virtual) journey and, as usual, I'm left with a burning desire to go and see this part of the world for myself!

A summary of the themes

Outside the blogosphere, I've been incredibly busy recently, so Zanzibar has taken me a bit longer than expected, almost two months in fact!  During that period I have learned about the History of Zanzibar, its connections with Oman and the Arab world and its bloody revolution in the 1960's.  I've also learned about the cultivation of cloves and how this spice made Zanzibar wealthy.  I learned how to cook Octopus and the traditional Zanzibari dish pweza wa nazi.  I learned about Emily Reute, aka Salamah bint Said, the Arabian princess who left Zanzibar and went to live in Germany.  I discovered that Zanzibar is the home of KiSwahili - both the language and culture.  I read Abdulrazak Gurnah's enchanting novel Paradise and I learned about Zanzibar's thriving slave trade, which dominated the East coast of Africa. 
Freddie Mercury by Virginia Mayo Garcia

Other Themes

As usual, there were many other themes that I touched upon during my research into Zanzibar, but didn't have time to explore fully.  I'm listing some of them below, which might be worth looking into, if you have time:

- the life of Freddie Mercury, who grew up in Zanzibar
- the influence of Zoroastrianism on Zanzibari culture
- the ornate doors of Zanzibar
- the practice of swaddling
- the life of Tibbu Tib, East Africa's most notorious slave trader
- the Sufi mystic Rumi
- Dhul-Qarnayn - the 'Green man' of Islam
- Iblis, Shaytan and Islamic interpretations of the Devil
- Sir John Kirk, the Scottish botanist

Still from Road to Zanzibar
As part of my research, I watched a movie called Road to Zanzibar starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.  It was a silly, rambling movie, with a thinly-held together plot and unexplained intervals of song, but I enjoyed the experience of seeing a movie I would otherwise not have bothered with.  It was part of a series of Road to . . . movies starring this trio and some of the scenes from the movie are captivating.  Its depiction of Africa might be considered racist nowadays (ie. a place full of savages), but I guess we have to take it in the context of its era.  It's a movie which has dated and offers little entertainment to a modern audience used to more sophisticated formulae, but I'd imagine it was fairly popular at the time of its release in 1941.

Dinner party trivia

During my research into Zanzibar, I also discovered lots of little tidbits of information, which you can use as dinner party trivia.  I learned that:

- the Chinese sent a diplomatic mission to Zanzibar in the 15th century, which is interesting, as we often assume that China's interest in Africa is a more recent phenomenon
- the leader of Zanzibar was called the Mwinyi Mkuu or 'great lord'
- Dr Livingstone said he was going to Africa to spread civilisation, commerce and Christianity
- Europeans didn't enter the hinterlands of Africa until the mid-19th century, when they 'discovered' Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria.
- An estimated 13,000 people of Arab descent were killed during Zanzibar's 1963 revolution
- the father of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere spent three years studying Economics and History at the University of Edinburgh
- The shortest war in history was fought in 1896 between Zanzibar and Great Britain.  Zanzibar surrendered after just 38 minutes!
- Traditional Swahili beds are high enough for a slave to sleep underneath.
- William Thackeray's cousin, Caroline, spent the last 25 years of her life working in Zanzibar as a schoolmistress
Kirk's Red Colobus by woodlouse
- Kirk's red colobus is an endangered species of monkey.  It was isolated from other primates for a period of 10-15,000 years, which means it has developed unusual features, such as the four stomachs it needs to digest food.  It's called 'poison monkey' in Swahili.
- There are lots of superstitions in Zanzibar related to different animals, such as chameleons, land crabs and plate lizards.
- Zanzibar's stunning white sand beaches are created by parrot fish, who chew up coral and spit it out  as a white dust
- Modern Zanzibar is an incredibly popular destination for honeymooning couples

Taarab - the music of Zanzibar

Another aspect of my research that I didn't have time to blog about is the music of Zanzibar, known as Taarab.  I bought an album of Taarab music, which has provided me with a soundtrack for my blog.  Traditional Taarab music sounds much more like the music of Arabia than the music of Africa and different types of Taarab owe their influences to the music of Egypt, Yemen and India.  After the revolution, more African rhythms and styles were incorporated into the existing repertoires, so that modern Taarab music, like the Swahili language, is an interesting fusion of African, Indian and Arabian cultures.

Taarab is all about the musical clubs, rather than the individuals and a lot of the most famous Taarab groups have been supported by the revolutionary government and provided with an official 'seal of approval'.  This is really apparent in lots of the names, like Ghazzy Musical club and Royal Air Force musical club which show that these groups belong to the official government cultural music clubs.  Women sing Taarab even more frequently than men, but the musicians tend to be exclusively male.  Some of the female ensembles like Sahib El-Arry also function like co-operatives and have vegetable plots which help support the group's members. 

Although Taarab is all about the clubs, rather than the individuals, one notable exception is Bi KiDude, one of the world's oldest singers.  As you will see in the YouTube video below, she certainly has stage presence and, although she's more than 100 years old, her voice seems to be as strong as it ever was.  She's definitely one of Africa's greatest singers and a legend in her own time. 

Up next month, we're moving around the alphabet again from Z to A . . .

Image credits:

The drawing of Freddie Mercury is by a Spanish artist called Virginia Mayo Garcia.  Virginia's artwork can be seen on the Artelista website, where you can also purchase copies of her work.  She has shared this image using the Creative Commons license, as a way of promoting her work. 

The still from the movie Road to Zanzibar is from a photo taken by me. This still is being used to illustrate this blogpost and promote the movie. By publishing this image, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of this image on the Internet or anywhere else. This image is not meant to bring the actors or studio into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blogpost, but is meant to promote the performances of these actors in this movie.

The still shows Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as they sit in the jungle and try to work out the scheming of the two female characters (played by Dorothy Lamour and Una Merkel).

The image of Kirk's Red Colobus is from flickr member woodlouse who is a web editor from Brighton.  You can see more of her images of her photostream

Monday, 7 November 2011

Zanzibar - Slavery in the 21st century

Whilst most of us are well aware of the history of the 19th-century slave trade in West Africa and the Americas, I think that many people will be less aware of the thriving slave trade on the east coast of Africa, during this period, which centred on Zanzibar and its links with Oman and the Arab world.  As I'm blogging about Zanzibar this month, I thought it would be a good opportunity to have a look at slavery, not just in the past, but also in the 21st century. 

Slavery in the modern world

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, since time immemorial and, despite the reforms of the 19th century and the abolition of slavery world-wide, the number of people living in slavery today, an estimated 12-20 million, is higher than it's ever been at any other point in human history.  Just last month, in Bedfordshire, England, a man was charged with slavery offenses, when a group of 24 English and Eastern European men were released from 'servitude' at a caravan site where they had been kept, either by force or dependency.

Slavery is a massive subject area and there is a lot of information out there.  Organisations like Anti-Slavery work hard to campaign and inform the public about modern slavery around the world.  I can only hope to scratch the surface of this topic area in this blog post, but it's something I'd like to research in more detail at a later date.

Slavery by Quadelirus
The Language of Slavery

The word 'slave' comes from the Greek, σκλάβος 'sklavos, which is also the origin of the word Slav/Slavic.  It's believed to have come from a verb meaning 'to strip the body of a slain enemy'.  When we talk about slavery today, it's a term which is incredibly loaded, historically, and one has to find a balance in the use of this word, that recognises the more complex nature of modern slavery but, at the same time, doesn't trivialise the oppression and suffering experienced by slaves in the pre-modern age.

Whilst chattel slavery, ie. the explicit ownership of slaves (chattel from the same root as capital, ie property) is less common nowadays, there are many other forms of slavery that have taken its place.

Unpaid work

A wider definition of slavery could refer to anyone who does work that they are not paid for.  Whilst this is hardly the same as being chained together and sent across the Atlantic in ships and being denied even basic freedoms, the form that modern slavery takes is complex, but no less repressive.

The most common form of slavery is Bond Labour, ie when someone is required to work for no or little pay, to pay back a debt, often one that has been handed down from their parents.  It's estimated that 40 million people in India are bonded workers paying off a debt.  Whilst bonded labourers are free to marry and lead their own lives, they are, nevertheless, trapped in an endless cycle of work and debt that binds them to their 'employer'.

The enslavement of women

Perhaps enforced marriages could be seen as a kind of slavery?  If we're talking about unpaid labour, I can't think of many countries in the world where the labour of keeping a home and rearing children (generally work done by women) is paid for and women still suffer enormous oppression and 'enslavement' to the needs and decisions of their husbands/brothers/fathers.

Petitioning Downing Street by 38 degrees
Human trafficking

Although slavery is illegal throughout the world, the law is often not enforced, especially on the International scene and most readers of this blog will be familiar with issues around human trafficking and will have heard of cases in your own country where people moved from somewhere else, with the hope of creating a better life for themselves, only to fall into the hands of traffickers, having their passports taken away and being forced into unpaid or low-paid labour or, in extreme cases, into a life of prostitution.

Other examples of unpaid labour

When I was teaching in Uzbekistan, I had to cancel a whole month of lessons during October, as almost all of my students from the university were sent off to pick cotton for the State.  As far as I know this was unpaid labour and I heard some horror stories about appalling working conditions in the cotton fields.  Anyone with a bit of money would try to buy their way out of this obligation, but poorer students had no option but to sacrifice a month's study to bring in the cotton harvest.

Perhaps military service could also be seen as a kind of slavery?  Again, in lots of countries I've lived in, including France and Russia, young men go to great lengths to get out of this obligation - often damaging themselves mentally or physically, so they won't be put in uniform and lose their freedom (usually up to a year or two years).  Young men from ethnic minorities or men who are gay or bisexual fear military service most, because of the terrible hazing of new recruits.  A shocking incident occurred when I was living in Russia, were a young recruit lost both of his legs because of the cruelty of his commanders.

Wage slaves

In a more abstract sense, being a wage slave is also incredibly oppressive and limiting.  21st-century society in the West functions in such a way as to discourage you from giving up your job and the wages you receive for the work you do, so that many people find themselves trapped in lives that are unfulfilling.  Let's face it, most of us are slaves to the capitalist system.  Our jobs, livelihoods and living conditions depend on the whims of the global economy and the actions of a handful of incredibly rich people.

Are we any less enslaved that people in the 19th century?  Well, I guess it's an unfair comparison as we do get paid for our work and we do have the option of changing employers or changing the direction of our lives (however difficult that might be), something that wasn't an option for slaves in the 19th century.

The abolition of slavery

William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner
Slavery was abolished in Zanzibar, when it became a British protectorate in 1897.  I think Britain has played an incredibly important role in the abolition of slavery around the world and reformers like William Wilberforce paved the way for a world where individuals would have more control over their lives.  It's obvious that slavery is not a thing of the past, however and modern generations should continue to campaign and educate others on the nature of slavery, as it exists in the world today.

A small number of countries, like Japan, have no real historical baggage relating to slavery, although even Japan in the 21st century is a centre for human trafficking, especially of young women who move from places like Thailand and Columbia and are forced into prostitution.

Iceland abolished slavery as early as 1117 (previous to that, most slaves in Iceland had been kidnapped from Ireland and Britain and taken to the island by force).  Other countries have been much slower to catch-up, especially in the Arab world, where slavery was still legal in Yemen and Saudi Arabia until 1962 and in Oman until 1970.  Mauritania (in west Africa) was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981. 

Image credits:

The image of the young slave girl statue was taken by flickr member Quadelirus - the original image can be seen at

The image of the petitioners was put on Flickr by a UK-based campaigning organisation called 38 degrees - you can find out more about their campaign work at their website.

The image of William Wilberforce is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.