Features — 28 July 2015
Emancipation Day Commemorations in Belize with UEF

BELIZE CITY, Mon. July 27, 2015–Emancipation Day is commemorated every August 1st in recognition of the 1838 abolition of legal slavery in all countries colonized by Britain where chattle slavery, genocide, forced labor, rape, indentured servitude, environmental destruction and other crimes against humanity were, for centuries, legal when committed by Europeans and their descendants against African, East Indian and Mayan peoples.

The United Black Association for Development Educational Foundation (UEF) is recognizing the anniversary of Emancipation Day in Belize throughout this week. Every year UEF commemorates this day with more intentionality, and this year UEF has invited Dr. Jahlani Niaah, a farmer, a UWI -Mona Campus lecturer and an author of numerous articles, chapters and books, including Let Us Start with Africa: Foundations of Rastafari Scholarship to walk, share and reason with Belizeans.

Dr. Niaah will be on WUB today, Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. On Wednesday he will meet with St. Vincent Block/Serru Garifuna farming community in Peini/Punta Gorda at 11a.m. Then, he will give a presentation from 5-7 p.m. at the Punta Gorda Town Library, an institution that provides space for dynamic discussion, debate and dialogue along with afterschool and other programming. On Friday the 31st Dr. Niaah will, again in Belize City, speak at the Library of African and Indian Studies, at the Kremandala Compound from 7-9 p.m.

On August 1st, in Belize City on Emancipation Day, youth from the UEF Dr. Leroy Taegar Institute of Learning current summer program, along with artists from the Image Factory Art Foundation, will be releasing paper boats to honour the millions of Africans who were killed in the transatlantic crossing from Africa, in honour of the Garinagu who suffered a genocidal exile to Balliceaux in 1797, and, in honour of African peoples’ centuries of struggle, maroonage and revolts. There will also be drumming, a practice rooted in the African-Belizean experience of Kriol and Garifuna peoples.

On Saturday, August 1st at UWI Open Campus there will be a 5:30-9:30p.m. Emancipation Day Commemoration. Dr. Jahlani will speak on Emancipation, Liberation, Rastafari Movement, Folk History, Farming and Nutrition, Reparations and Repatriation. These events are open to all peoples.

The Sunday Welcome Reception at Spoonaz

This past Sunday the 26th, Dr. Jahlani Niaah, Dr. Sonjah Niaah and his two children (one of whom was celebrating his Earthday/Birthday), were hosted at Spoonaz with drumming from the National Kriol Council/Drums Not Guns, by members and supporters of UEF and sponsors.

Ms. Virgina Echols (UEF) one of the central organizers for Emancipation Day explained why she dedicates to these commemorations, “Emancipation Day and the recovery of our African history is so important. For so many of us, we do not realize how many of our cultural practices and values are actually coming from the African community and our Ancestors. The central nature of family, community and looking to the past in order to move forward, are all African ways of living. And that is true wherever you find us African people- African-Americans, African-Belizeans, Africans on the continent. As UEF we are a small educational effort, we do not have a lot of monetary resources, but we have a dedication to sharing with our people here in Belize, these truths and these powerful cultural exchanges. We have reached out to many people and organizations to donate in-kind, for example one organization covers the travel expense to PG, another donates the vegan food, etc. and this way we build community and strengthen community resources that already exist. (And to add, the vegan diet is such a physically and spiritually healthy one.) And so we at UEF are grateful for the people in Belize City, in Punta Gorda, all over, for contributing to make this possible. And we welcome people who are looking to learn more about Africa and our African-ness to visit the Library which has a wealth of information on African and Indigenous Peoples and to become a part of this work. And having Dr. Jahlani here is such an honor and a privilege.”

Dr. Jahlani spoke at the Reception sharing, “This is a special visit, we feel as if we are home and as though we have not left Jamaica. And I must say that both of my wife and my two sons are celebrating their birthdays here in Belize and they are in Belize as the first Caribbean country they have been to outside of Jamaica. It is truly a special trip. My two sons are fixated on the US and the UK, and we are living in a time when children hardly leave their houses because they are using phones and computers. And so, as the older generation we have to “take them to the water” so-to-speak. We must literally, immerse our children in a pan-African purpose, in the accounts of Maroon communities and pan-African communities, like those in Jamaica, like those in Belize. I feel as though I am at the western end of Jamaica. I would love to say more, but I am also looking forward to the Saturday Emancipation Day on August 1st at UWI to present for much more time with you all. Give thanks for this warm Belizean welcome”

Afterwards, Dr. Niaah passed the microphone to his wife and intellectual partner, Dr. Sonjah Niaah, a reknowned author of Dancehall from Slave Ship to Ghetto, who similarly shared her excitement and sense of belonging in Belize. She then discussed some of her work which she described as “complimentary to Jahlani’s work. My focus at UWI is two-fold. I am focused on establishing in the teaching of popular culture, teaching that which has been historically neglected. My focus on dancehall, which is global in scope, is a focus on marginalized performance and practice and on the international economies of reggae festivals and pilgrimages. I am also deeply interested in the War on Drugs and how Reggae, Rasta and Ganja became a commercial triad. In Jamaica we have what I call a ganja-politanism, a rasta-politanism, and reggae-politanism. These are my focuses, and a passion of mine is travel and exchange. I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries and I am so happy to be here in Belize to share with you all.”

Dr. Jahlani later in the evening presented at the Abab Kedus Haile Selassie I Day concert and gathering in BTL Park, sharing wisdom on the Rastafari movement as one that has prophesized to the world about the importance of nutrition and wellness, the importance of the herb, ecology and sustainable development- all ideas that Rastas have been discussing for decades before science came to prove it. Dr. Jahlani also shared about the Rastafari community in Jamaica, about the importance of Reparations and repairing the damage done to African ancestors. Saying, “We think of Reparations as just getting money and making white people pay us back, but Reparations and Repatriation are actually about healing and repairing, even the ways that we perpetuate this damage. For example, talking about light skinned or straight hair being better, we must heal from those damaging European ideas.

We have to think of Reparations and repairing our own family unit, the importance of fatherhood and recognizing the truth that we as African people must embrace our children as fathers, as we hold strong to the ideas of livity. We as Rastas are people who analyze the society and work to repair the society socially- going to the land, healing, returning to where we came from. This is no easy or small task. It is our path as Rastas who practice Rastafari, the first Indigenous African spirituality created in the “New World”.

We spoke with some attendees of the Welcome Reception, who shared their thoughts on Emancipation Day and the visit from Dr. Jahlani. One outspoken youth, Dwayne Murilo (Drums Not Guns, NKC COEICHE) who was drumming with Myrna Manzanares at the Welcome Reception Event at Spoonaz on Sunday, had much to say. Mr. Murillo described why it was important to recognize Emancipation Day in Belize, “We have to get back to our roots. We don’t know much about Africa and we have so many misconceptions and mis-information about Africa. The images are only that in Africa people wear loin-cloths and have a bone in the middle of their nose. Hollywood and the West paint Africa as bad and spread so many lies. So, Emancipation Day is important because our history began tens of thousands of years ago and we have a rich history we need to remember and teach about. We owe it to our ancestors to learn about our history. I love history and recognizing how we as a people in Belize have been pushed upon to have a foreign way, culture and religion. It was forced on our ancestors while we were enslaved. Emancipation was fought for and we need to see it as an opportunity to learn what our Ancestors knew and practiced before enslavement.” When asked why it is important that Dr. Jahlani Niaah has made this visit to Belize for Emancipation Day, Murilo said, “Belize has a strong connection with Jamaica.

Some slaves in Belize actually were brought on slaveships from Jamaica after being stolen from Africa. In that way, and in many others, Jamaica is like a sister country and very influential- in terms of Emancipation and slave revolts. Having our brothers and sister from Jamaica here, we can relate to their history and to them as African people. And there were some things that we very different there, that we can learn more about the practices, traditions, songs etc. Also, here in Belize our African Ancestors were forced to cut logwood and mahogany, whereas in Jamaica we were made to work on sugar plantations. This Emancipation Day with Dr. Jahlani gives us an opportunity to share and compare similarities and to do some re-grouping.” He then went on to discuss moments in his life when he became conscious, “There are some organizations and places that are teaching us about Africa. For example, by watching documentaries on Krem I learned more about our Ancestors in Africa. For example, we were the first to build pyramids, do science and many other things. For example, Dr. Sonjah Niaah is wearing a hairstyle, short full locs that remind me of the hairstyles of 1,000s of years ago that Africans wore. We are African people.”

While singing and drumming at the Reception, our Jamaican visitors sang along, in the realization that many folk songs in Belize are actually African folk songs and shared with other Caribbean people.

Sponsors of the UEF Emancipation Day Commemorations include: UWI Open Campus, Vegan Bites, Best Western Biltmore, Roe Group of Companies, Jamaican Independence Day Committee, Spoonaz, BTL, Kremandala. UnaMay Gordon- CiWL and ISLEx Coordinator, BEL, Stephen Duncan, NICH, Julie-Ann Ellis, Liyawada Cerro, Image Factory Art Foundation, Drums Not Guns, PG Library, Gomier’s Vegan Vegetarian & Seafood Restaurant.

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