Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Report On Peru Conference For Slave Descendants by All For Reparations And Emancipation (AFRE)
Often when we take a trip away from home, we return with photos and mementos to remind us of where we have been and the fun that we’ve had. But sometimes, if we are very fortunate, we can travel into another world that teaches us, touches our feelings and fills us with renewed purpose. Recently, the Honorable Silis Muhammad and an entourage of ten others, gathered under the banner of AFRE and traveled to a UN meeting of Afrodescendant leaders in Peru. It was a journey that touched us with sadness and pain, hopefulness, and finally, a renewed spirit.
The group was led by Mr. Silis Muhammad, Chief Executive Officer of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam and of AFRE, and his wife, First Lady Misshaki Muhammad, Attorney General of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam and Legal Counsel for AFRE. The travelers included Minister Ajani Mukarram, of Chicago, Minister Ishmael Abdul-Salaam, of Atlanta, Minister Jabari Akil, of Detroit, Minister Husamideen Fedayeen, of Brooklyn, the National G.C.C. Directress Ikhlas Fedayeen, Asst. Supreme Captain Kamal Shabazz, National Intelligence Officer Kamaal Muhammad, Ambassador Raushana Karriem, Ambassador Ida Hakim, President of AFRE, and Queen Mother Dorothy Lewis, of N’COBRA. Most members of the group had traveled with Mr. Muhammad previously, to the UN in Geneva or New York, or to other conferences, and they were experienced and prepared to help in any way they could. National Directress Ikhlas Fedayeen proved particularly valuable as a Spanish speaker and translator for the group.
When we walked out of the airport door and into the Lima night, it was after midnight. The first thing we were struck with was the smell of diesel exhaust fumes. We climbed on board a bus and began the trip to our hotel, taking streets that were surprisingly desolate and dirty, reminiscent of some parts of old Mexico. The only light was the garish light of gambling casinos. Another striking view was that of guard towers and high fences. It seemed that everything of value was surrounded by a high fence, and guard towers were everywhere.
The following day, in the late afternoon, we boarded the UN bus and rode three hours south to the city of Chincha. We drove on the coastal highway, through a barren landscape. Our bus was led by the security police, as would be the case every time we took a bus excursion. We arrived at our hotel in Chincha and saw that it was surrounded by a high fence. When the gates opened, we drove into what was truly an oasis. The hotel was built in a hacienda style, and the plants were green and tropical, unlike the dusty, dry landscape we had driven through. The meeting was scheduled to start the next day, so we met for social drinks and then settled into our rooms.
Anticipation was high, as we expected the meeting to be both a reunion and a battlefield. The battle would be the same one that had been going on at the UN since 1988. Years ago, Mr. Muhammad understood that reparations is an international political/legal concept, and taking the battle to the UN would be the strategy he wanted to use. In interacting with the UN, he realized that in order to gain standing for a claim for reparations under international law, the descendants of enslaved Africans would have to exist in a political/legal sense, as a human family, as they currently did not exist. In essence, Mr. Muhammad’s effort has been to help the Afrodescendant family progress from political/legal non-existence, to political/legal full existence and recognition by the UN. At that point, when the political/legal identity is achieved, the demand for collective reparations can be made based upon violation of ratified international law, specifically Article 27 of the ICCPR.
Due to the clarity and accuracy of Mr. Muhammad’s interventions before the UN, the Working Group on Minorities took up the battle alongside him, early on, giving the first UN recognition to Afrodescendants on their agenda and within their documents. They confirmed that Afrodescendants are coming to life collectively, calling the resurrection, which was set in motion by Master Fard Muhammad, “ethnogenesis.” The UN assisted by organizing several seminars, culminating in a Regional Seminar in La Ceiba, Honduras in 2002. In La Ceiba, Mr. Muhammad continued the battle by persuading leaders that they needed to agree upon an identifying term or name. The term that Latin American leaders wanted to use was Afrodescendants, for this term had been used at the World Conference Against Racism. For the sake of unity, and in order to get the process started, Mr. Muhammad agreed to accept the term.
At the same meeting, Mr. Muhammad put forth a proposed definition of Afrodescendants, for he knew that the prophecy concerning the “scattered” children was in fulfillment. He also knew that a movement was afoot by Member States at the UN to include African immigrants in the same political/legal category as the descendants of enslaved Africans, thereby confusing the issues and undermining the legal basis for a reparations claim based on slavery’s lingering effects. The definition made it clear that Afrodescendants are descendants of enslaved Africans, suffering the lingering effects of slavery. The leaders agreed to discuss the definition at the next seminar, and the UN took note. As we went to bed that first night, we were all aware that the Peru meeting was the next one following La Ceiba.
At breakfast the next day, we saw quite a few friends from the La Ceiba seminar. The greetings were not only friendly, but they had a “we’re in this together” feel. There were also a number of new organization leaders and some unfamiliar UN representatives from Geneva and Latin America. Before the meeting began, we made sure that the Afrodescendants Working Paper that had been written and translated over the months prior to the meeting, was laid out on the table in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
When the time came, we moved into the meeting room, where the battle would take place. We picked up the available documents, including the agenda, picked up headphones through which to hear the interpreters, and took our seats. We knew in advance that we were going to fight in an arena that had been co-opted due to pressures applied in Geneva by Member States. We were ready to battle under these conditions, and we knew that Mr. Muhammad did have a friend at the highest level of the meeting: Mr. Jose Bengoa, Chairman of the Working Group on Minorities. The meeting title had been changed from “Second Regional Seminar on Afrodescendant Issues” to “UN Workshop on People of African Descent for the Americas Region: Strategies for the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Programmes to Reduce Poverty, Especially to Achieve Millenium Development Goal 1.” The agenda reflected the new title, with all speakers being instructed to talk about goals to alleviate poverty and goals for development.
The first thing that we noticed was the agenda did not include a follow-up discussion on the La Ceiba seminar, which was what we had been promised. This follow-up discussion was the point in the agenda where a definition of Afrodescendants would be brought up. Mr. Muhammad raised his hand, asking for the floor. When he was recognized, he asked where, in the agenda, would a definition of Afrodescendants be discussed. Mr. Bengoa, addressing the floor, immediately made a place on the agenda for a discussion of a definition of Afrodescendants, scheduling it during the final session, when he would be the chairperson.
Most people in the room were unaware of the origin of the meeting that they were attending. When it was first conceived, it was to be entirely a follow-up to La Ceiba. But this is a battle – a political/legal battle in fulfillment of the scriptures – and pressures are constantly being placed behind the scenes to cause the aim of this battle to deviate. In 2002, Mr. Bengoa and the Working Group on Minorities made the official decision to hold a follow up to the La Ceiba seminar, and they asked for funding from governments, yet the fund remained empty. In an unprecedented move, Mr. Bengoa approached Mr. Muhammad and asked if he could contribute the funds. Mr. Muhammad promised to contribute $30,000, which would be half of what was needed. Readers might recall a time in 2004 when the Lost-Found Nation of Islam engaged in a fundraising drive, asking for contributions to help put on a UN seminar in Brazil, which was where Mr. Bengoa originally planned for it to take place. The Nation of Islam succeeded in raising the $30,000, but still the meeting date wasn’t set, and it kept being pushed forward, and pushed forward.
During the same time period, the Working Group on Minorities came under attack. A move was being made to appoint a Special Representative for Minorities, which would allow the UN to take power from the Working Group. In April of 2005, the Commission on Human Rights voted in the Special Representative for Minorities and reduced the time allowed to the Working Group on Minorities to three days. One month later the Working Group on Minorities met for its last 5-day session. The Working Group continued the battle by asking AFRE/Mr. Muhammad to write a Working Paper on Afrodescendants. The Working Paper would be the first official UN document in which Afrodescendants were presented collectively, as a human family. At this session, we were told that the next Afrodescendant seminar would be in Peru, and it would hopefully be before the end of the year.
Under the cover of UN reform, the U.S. and other governments were closing down avenues that we had been successfully using. When we attended the meeting of the Sub-Commission in August of 2005, it had become a profoundly sad and poignant time at the UN. NGO leaders were given equal time to speak alongside governments and experts. Mr. Muhammad spoke and unintentionally went over his allotted time. The Chairman refused to interrupt him. After Mr. Muhammad spoke, Mr. Bengoa thanked him publicly, from the floor of the Sub-Commission, for his excellent statement on Afrodescendants. He offered his praise at length, in the presence of hundreds of officials including Member States, experts and NGOs.
Following his speech, Mr. Bengoa met Mr. Muhammad in the lounge area. Mr. Bengoa spoke about the UN and the possibility that the Sub-Commission would soon be no more. He asked Mr. Muhammad to speed up the preparation of the Working Paper on Afrodescendants in order to present it at the workshop in Peru. And finally, he said that his term was up, and he would no longer be able to serve on the Sub-Commission or the Working Group on Minorities. This came as a shock. It seemed the enemies were winning, and the friend of Afrodescendants would no longer be there with help and advice. The only battle to look forward to was Peru – it seemed to be all that was left, and it was the final official act of Mr. Bengoa.
Sitting in that Peru meeting room, watching the events begin, we knew that something profound had to take place here. The great human family of Afrodescendants had to be born now, as a people and a nation, for once an idea is born, it will find a way to live.
Officials made their opening remarks, and then NGOs from various countries were invited to speak on poverty situations. The presenter for AFRE was Attorney Harriett AbuBakr Muhammad. Atty. Muhammad presented the Afrodescendants Working Paper, which Mr. Bengoa had asked Mr. Muhammad to prepare for this workshop. She talked about the contents of the paper, encouraging people to read it, and then she spoke from her heart in an attempt to let the people know the years of work that have been invested at the UN, and the seriousness of the battle for Afrodescendant identity and reparations. The other speakers focused their remarks on their situations with the governments of their countries. They all complained of the invisibility of Afrodescendant communities.
In the afternoon, the workshop was brought to an abrupt halt when busses arrived to take us on an excursion. We boarded the bus and rode for less than a half hour, pulling up in front of an enormous gate and high stone walls. The gate opened and we drove in to a large circular courtyard with a plantation house and church on the far side, and shed-type structures along the walls. The place is called San Jose hacienda. It is the hell in which up to 30,000 slaves at a time, toiled, suffered and died for more than 200 years.
The impact of this place was hard to verbalize. Everyone was brought to remembrance of the great numbers of people who suffered and died, how they were branded, tortured, in a space that still exists, underneath the veranda. The owners of this place were so greedy they didn’t want to pay taxes on the slaves, so they made them dig a 17 kilometer tunnel to the ocean. They would bring slaves in through the tunnel to replace the ones that died in the fields. We went down into the tunnel and saw the caverns where slaves were kept in the pitch dark. We saw human bones, not buried with respect, but just laying there for tourists to look at. And the worst part is that it isn’t over – economic control of the descendants of the slaves continues. The family that owns San Jose hacienda today, controls water rights to the farmland of the Afro-Peruvians who live very close by. We will never forget this place for it brought us face-to-face with the horrors of slavery and the sickening reality of white supremacy. It was a somber ride back to the hotel.
On the morning of the second day of the workshop, we heard a number of presentations that seemed to be empty of information. The only thing we were struck by, was a talk by a UN representative who attempted to convey what the UN can and can’t do. He pointed out that the UN is owned by the Member States, and it has to do what they want. We know this is true. But even more important, we know that the UN is made up of 191 governments, and some of these governments want to help Afrodescendants. Much to the dismay of the U.S., it doesn’t control these governments, it doesn’t control the minds of the experts who help us, and it doesn’t control the collective decisions of the Afrodescendant people.
In the afternoon we found ourselves lingering at the lunch table. We were joined by Ms. Gay McDougall, the newly appointed Special Representative for Minorities. Ms. McDougall had a recommendation to offer on the definition of Afrodescendants, and since she is an Afrodescendant, a lawyer, and a person experienced with how the UN will receive a definition, Mr. Muhammad was happy to listen. Ms. McDougall recommended that the definition attempt to identify the Afrodescendant group in the most brief and concise manner, and also identify other people of African descent as being a group in need of assistance, although not the same as Afrodescendants. Notes were taken on her recommendations, as the conversation was being interrupted and we were urged to get on the bus for another excursion, this time to an Afro-Peruvian community near the San Jose hacienda.
When we arrived, the busses pulled up alongside a town square featuring a park and a large church. A few people were waiting in the park, others standing on a corner nearby. The greetings were very warm and friendly, and the people looked like they could have come out of any Black community in America. We toured their church, which stood on the town square. This church was a revised version of the one that stood next to the plantation house at San Jose. At San Jose, the church had a two story baroque altar of dark carved wood. It brought horror movies to mind, and thoughts of people praying to god while listening to screams of torture no more than a few yards away. The Afro-Peruvian church had a tall altar also, but this one was brightly and beautifully colored. It was sad that the people had been indoctrinated by slavery, but certainly their ability to turn something horrid into something beautiful was admirable.
Moving out of the church to the community center, we waited for the program to start. One of our friends from Colombia was quite an entertainer, and he kept us from boredom by improvising a play, with himself as translator. He chose a woman from the audience and four men including Minister Ajani Mukarram. The woman was to be in distress, and the men were to pretend to overcome some hilarious hardships and rescue her. The winner was to be declared the crown prince. Minister Ajani performed in “cool Chicago” style, and won the crown. Then the Afro-Peruvian performance began. We heard wonderful drumming from the young men, using instruments that looked like stereo speaker boxes. Young girls, from about five to ten years of age, came on stage and danced in free spirit, shaking their hips and buttocks in rhythmic movements that would have outraged our church-going grandparents here in America. Their free spirits, and their lack of inhibitions due to the influence of the church, was refreshing as they shook their bodies and danced and put on a wonderful show.
We also visited a restaurant in another community nearby, met more beautiful and welcoming people, and enjoyed more drumming and dancing. Finally the audience was pulled into the dance and it became a party. During the bus ride back to the hotel, the camaraderie was at such a level that language was no longer a barrier. A professor from Brazil said, in broken English, “let’s sing,” and he started with My Girl, by the Temptations. People joined in and pretty soon the bus was rockin.’ We sang song after song until even Mr. Bengoa joined in. We sang until the bus pulled in at the hotel, and spirits remained high throughout the evening.
The final day of the workshop was very emotional and dynamic. It began with Mr. Bengoa chairing a session that involved speeches by several dignitaries, including Mr. Doudou Diene, who serves the UN as the Special Rapporteur on Racism. Mr. Diene’s message was insightful and unexpected.
We first met Mr. Diene in 2002 at the opening session of the Working Group on People of African Descent in Geneva. At that time, he seemed to be arguing that all people of African descent should be grouped together in the claim for reparations. Mr. Muhammad spoke with him at that time, pointing out that Afrodescendants have suffered different damages than other people of African descent. The Afrodescendant claim for reparations is based on slavery and its effects today, including the loss of mother tongue and original religion and culture. International law addresses these human rights in Article 27 of the ICCPR. People of African descent suffer also, but from a different set of damages addressed in decisions of the UN with regard to racism and colonization. In Geneva, Mr. Diene didn’t seem too interested in Afrodescendants as a group, but in Peru he sounded like a different man. Perhaps his experience over the intervening years had educated him, including the experience of walking through San Jose hacienda. Tears welled up in his eyes as he said, “We Africans are so different from you.” He said that Afrodescendants have been through an experience that Africans cannot even comprehend. His words were full of sorrow, and respect and admiration for the people that have come through slavery. It was the most touching speech of the seminar.
Mr. Bengoa then called upon Mr. Muhammad. Everyone expected Mr. Muhammad to present the definition that had been prepared, but he surprised us all. He withdrew his definition, and gave the job of drafting a definition to the Latin American representatives. He spoke about his appreciation of Latin American Afrodescendants, and showed his awareness of the unique problems they face. He asked only that Afrodescendants be clearly defined, and said it was his prayer that “the definition will include us.” He also requested that a category be included for other people of African descent.
When Mr. Muhammad sat down, it seemed the whole room paused, for no one expected this, including those closest to Mr. Muhammad. The next person to speak from the rostrum, following Mr. Diene, was Edna Roland of Brazil. Ms. Roland was overcome with emotion, and had a difficult time speaking, but she eventually gained control and through tears began to speak, thanking Mr. Muhammad for his humility in allowing the Latin American representatives to come up with a definition. Later on outside, after the session had ended, she lovingly embraced him.
We waited, then, for the rapporteur of the workshop to select a small group of people to help her write the final report of the workshop, which would be presented to the Commission on Human Rights. We sincerely hoped that a definition would be included in the document, as this would mean that the UN would have no choice but to recognize the collective existence of Afrodescendants. After several hours the meeting was re-convened and the final report was distributed, in Spanish. The rapporteur, who spoke little English, tried to assure us by saying that the concept of Afrodescendant identity was in the paper. We thought that this might mean a definition, but didn’t know. The interpreter began to read the paper in English, and as it was being read, our hearts began to sink. In the first paragraph there was some language about identity that we didn’t quite grasp, but no definition and no mention of North America that we could hear. It appeared that a definition had been rejected, and North American Afrodescendants had been left out of the paper.
There was much hope invested in this workshop, and the disappointment we were feeling blurred what was being said by the next speakers. We had to wait for the end of the workshop in order to give Mr. Bengoa a plaque, thanking him for his many years of great service to the Afrodescendant people. Finally the end came, and Atty. Harriett Muhammad began reading the inscription on Mr. Bengoa’s plaque. Mr. Muhammad left the room, for this would be his last time with Mr. Bengoa, and his emotions were overwhelming him. Mr. Bengoa accepted the gift and hurried out to speak to Mr. Muhammad. As they embraced, Mr. Bengoa promised “I will never forget you.”
Later on, through language barriers, the rapporteur and others explained that the concept of Afrodescendant identity, placed in the first paragraph, definitely does refer to Afrodescendants as a group, including North Americans and all Afrodescendants in the Slavery Diaspora. They explained that they didn’t want to undertake writing an actual definition in such a short time, and with so many other things to deal with in the report. They stated their desire to meet again in order to write the definition, with Mr. Muhammad present. The disappointment faded as we realized that THE AFRODESCENDANT NATION HAD BEEN BORN!!! At the end of the day, the Latin American leaders made their family kinship clear once again by urging the AFRE delegates to join them at the next UN sponsored meeting in Brazil.
We left Chincha early the next day, and traveled along the barren coastline back to Lima. We were tired, and some of us were sick, but still we sat together in Lima and talked at length about what had happened. We knew we had been through a battle, and yes, the Afrodescendant nation had been born IN THE SIGHT OF NATIONS. We were grateful to Mr. Muhammad, our Saviour, for he is the one who invited us into this work, and led us through the battle. We know that after Peru every step must still be skillfully taken, every battle must still be fought, and for Afrodescendants, and for all of us, the journey ahead will be on higher ground.
The report was jointly written by several members of the AFRE delegation which was headed by Mr. Silis Muhammad, the Chairman of All For Reparations And Emancipation. Visit AFRE at www.AllForReparations.org Please send all comments to email@example.com.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005