Sunday, December 30, 2007

Women of Africa

In Sub-saharan Africa, women have always had an important role. Despite being, in general, a traditionally patriarchal society, an institutionalised part of power, that limited the king, was hold by a woman of his kin (mother, sister, aunt or cousin). The queen consort often had decision power at the same level as the king in most of the affairs, as happened in the Mali empire. Moreover, it was not rare that a woman became queen, even when there were male successors to the throne. It was characteristic that women participate in wars. In the Ashanti and Dahomey there was a corps of women that accompanied the king to military expeditions.

Anna Nzinga (1582-1663), queen of Matamba-Ndongo, dominated the history of current Angola during thirty years until her death at 82 years old, and opposed a fierce resistance to the Portuguese, who eventually respected the borders of her kingdom. The Portuguese had found in Angola an unusually fertile territory, occupied by a population highly productive and trading in agricultural products, furs and diamonds. After fighting for a century they conquered the coastal part of the country, establishing an important exporting centre of diamonds and slaves in Luanda. Being sister of the king Mani Ngola, Nzinga was sent to negotiate with the viceroy Joao Correia Da Souza, and proved so skillful that passed from a defeat situation to the achievement that Portuguese removed their troops from Matamba. In 1624 she succeeded her brother as a queen, and faced Portuguese offensives without losing any territory, she reorganized the army, formed alliances with neighboring countries (and also with Netherlands) and constituted an efficient secret police.

Amina, queen of Zazzua (1533-1610) is known as a great warrior queen from Nigeria. Amina's mother, Bakwa of Turunka, was already queen of Zazzua, a Hausa state-city, title already hold by her grandfather. Amina was educated in government and warfare skills, and fought in battles together with her brother Karama, who became king at his mother's death. When he died in 1576, Amina succeeded him when she was 43 years old. She used her strategic skills to expand the territory of Zazzua to the mouth of the Niger, and towards Kano and Katsina northwards. These conquests lead to a stage of wealth to the kingdom, with the opening of new trade routes and the arrival of new tributes. Mud walls were risen in all the cities, still known nowadays as "Amina's walls". The queen refused to marry and had no children.

In the kingdom of Waalo, in Senegal, next to the French colony of Saint-Louis, the queen Ndete Yalla managed to maintain her territory in peace during ten years and imposed a tax to French settlers when they used transport in the Senegal river, and when it ceased to be respected, immediately ordered in 1855 the expulsion of all strangers, which meant war. In the current Ivory Coast, a woman, Pokou, took the leadership of her tribe, known as Baoulé, to save them from extermination, when the Ashanti confederation of Ghana, founded by her great-uncle, broke up, in a tragic exile that later became a legend.

Some queens were not exempt from cruelty. In Madagascar, the queen Ranavalona took the power when her husband, the king Radama, died (murdered by her orders, as it is believed). She ordered Christian missionaries in the island to be executed, decreed the expulsion of all strangers in 1857, and formed a kingdom of terror in which thousands of executions were carried out per year. It is also told that, in the territory of the Dschaks, in the inner Congo, once arised a queen who, after overthrowing her mother and killing her son, formed a female kingdom in which men were enslaved, sacrificed or assassinated. Pregnant women had to flee from the land until they gave birth, only if they brought back a little girl. The subsistence of her kingdom, lacking agricultural activity, was possible for several years with the sacking of neighboring people and villages, with who they did not cease to fight.

There were prophet women, too, such as Kahina, a berber priestess from Mauritania, who became the leader of her country's army and caused the first major defeat to Arabs in 690. Kimpa Vita in Congo, in the 17th Century created a religion that mixed Catholic and African concepts, which attracted the support of a great part of Congolese aristocracy to expel strangers from the country. She was accused of sorcery when she was 24 years old and burn alive together with her child.

Apart from politics, African women have had and still have an important role in economy. African women have always been excellent in domestic resources organization, because of the traditional complete lack of interest from husbands. This has allowed women to eventually create trade networks in order to focus these organizational skills and communication talents. Nowadays, 80% of autonomous business in sub-saharan Africa are carried by women, and there exist important women trade networks such as those in Accra (Ghana) and Nairobi (Kenya). Historically, it should be noted about the life of Tinubu, in the 19th Century, a Yoruba woman who started selling corn mush and later, with the support of a group of wholesale traders, created a business of slave traffic, that she abandoned when abolition spread and started trading palm oil. She eventually became the main mediator of Euro-African trade of the area, and thanks to her growing influence, became the main advisor of the king of Lagos. After being banished from the kingdom by the British, she acquired wealth with the arms trade and became a heroine of her home city Abeokuta in the resistance against the Europeans and the neighboring kings of Dahomey.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History of a kiss

One of the greatest kisses in History is the one that took place between communist leaders Erich Honecker, from East Germany, and Leonid Brezhnev, from Soviet Union, during the 30th Anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in June 1979. Despite the controversy and ridicule arisen in the West, this was actually a common sign of socialist solidarity, very used since Khrushchev era. It seems, moreover, that both leaders were very keen on kissing*. However, this kiss has a greater story.

The good kiss

Honecker had become the leader of German Socialist Party in 1971, after the fall of Walter Ulbricht in disgrace, thanks to Brezhnev support, and in 1976 had become president of the Counsel of State of the GDR, also aided by the latter.

In the new 70's spirit of the "détente", the Soviet Union achieved, in exchange of a relaxation of weapon tensions, that the United states recognised its influence area in Eastern Europe. In this political atmosphere appeared the "Brezhnev Doctrine", that imposed the right for Soviet military intervention in European socialist states. This happened, for instance, in the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw Pact in 1968, with the passivity of Western allies.

Honecker carried out a series of economic reforms in the GDR that lead the country to a so-called "consumption socialism", that resulted in an improvement of the population's standards of living. Apart from that, relationship with its Soviet colleague were a true love story. GDR and the USSR needed each other, the first became the greatest ideological defender of Communism in a time when this system was more than questioned. In turn, the Soviet Union guaranteed the Red Army intervention in case of a popular revolt similar to that in Prague, which was pretty probable considering the number of opponents to Honecker's regime. Finally, the GDR was interested in furthering all possibilities of German reunification, so the "détente" politics was very useful to follow.

Nowadays, a painted version of the "Fraternal Kiss" can be seen on the eastern side of Berlin Wall's ruins, performed by Dmitri Vrubel after the collapse. If one looks to it attentively, one can realise that this kiss is typical of a Greek tragedy, a suffocating kiss, in which lovers get too compromised on each other, despite of knowing that there is no future in that poisoned relationship. Actually, the painting is named "The Kiss of Death", and one can read under it "God, help me to survive this deadly love".

The bad kiss

Exactly, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the romance was over. His only ambition was to save his country from economic ruin, after the disastrous conditions in which Brezhnev had left it. After presenting a series of reforms concerning restructuration (perestrokia) and openness (glasnost) he would carry out, Gorbachev announced the end of Brezhnev Doctrine: the Soviet Union had not the will to impose the political regime to any East European country anymore.

During Gorbachev's official visit to Eastern Germany, in October 1989, Honecker had the intention to ask the Soviet Union for a fundamental aid to keep order in the country, However, upon his arrival, the relationship had cooled down: the protocol kiss Gorbachev gave him was very different to that of ten years ago. This one actually meant "my friend, you are alone". Less than one year later, GDR had ceased to exist.

* A contemporaneous joke showed Brezhnev staring at the departing plane of a foreign leader, exclaiming: "As a politician, rubbish... but what a good kisser!".

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The red explorer

A medieval Saga tells the story of Erik, called "the Red", one of the greatest Viking explorers. The appelative "the Red" most likely refers to his hair color, and perhaps also his fiery temper. He was born in around 950 in the Jaeren district of Rogaland, Norway, but his family settled in western Iceland after his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished for murdering a man. Wandering would become a habit during his life. So, they occupied land in Hornstrandir, and dwelt at Drangar, where he became a Norse Chieftain.

Continuous banishment

After his father's death, he got married and moved south to Haukalar. There, when his servants were clearing land for farming, they accidentally started a landslide on his neighbour Valthjof's farm. A kinsman of his, called Eyjolf Saur, killed the servants for this misfortune, and in revenge, Erik killed Eyjolf. This caused him to be thrown out from the region and installed in Sudrey.

Around the year 982, tragedy accompanied him again in a quarrel with his neighbour Thorgest, because of some beams he had borrowed from Erik and was never given back. When Thorgest refused to return them, Erik stole the beams back. A great fight arose, where two sons of Thorgest died. Eventually, at the next Thorsnes Thing event, where judgments were carried out annually, the Icelanders decided to convict Erik of these murders and banished him from Iceland.

Erik the Red, considering that he was never welcomed in any land, decided to find one by himself. He had heard of a discovery of new lands in the West, around 50 years before, by the explorer Gunnbjorn, son of Ulf the Crow. He then prepared a ship and left from Snaefellsnes, promising to return if he found the land. His friends Thorbjorn, Eyjolf and Styr, and other crew, joined him in his banishment.

After three weeks, he eventually reached North American lands and rounded the southern tip of a great island, and sailed up the western coast. He found it unpeopled and, for the most part, ice-free and consequently with conditions that promised growth and future prosperity. According to the Saga, he spent his three years of exile exploring this land and naming its places.

The New World

When Erik returned to Iceland, he brought with him stories of the new land he called "Greenland". Although the high medieval climate was milder than it is today, Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than "Iceland" in order to lure potential settlers. He explained, "people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name". Ultimately he did this, though, to gain favor among people, as he knew full well that the success of any settlement in Greenland would need the support of as many people as possible.

His salesmanship proved successful, as around 600 people, especially among those living on poor land in Iceland, joined him to Greenland in the Spring of the year 985, in what was one of the greatest Arctic expeditions of all time. 25 ships left Iceland in that dangerous voyage, of which 14 arrived to Greenland. They established two colonies on the southwest coast: Vestribyggd (West, close to present-day Godthab), and Eystribyggd (East, in modern-day Julianhab). In the latter Erik built the estate Brattahlid, from where he ruled his colonies as Paramount Chieftain, a respectable title that practically gave him independence in his lands from Iceland. Although these facts are told as a legend, carbon tests performed on archeologic remains of what is thought to be Brattahlid give this date as accurate. There the first Greenlandinc Thing (parliament) was founded based on the Icelandic one. Laws were not centralized but decided by the people, and not written down, but memorized by an elected Lawspeaker. The first Christian church in the New World, Thjodhildakirkja, was also built in there by Erik's son Leif Eriksson.

In the next years more settlers arrived from Scandinavia and gradually occupied all the southwest coast of Greenland, which was actually the only area suitable for agriculture. There were around 400 farms in the territory, which reached 5000 people in its best time. During the summers, armies of men were sent to hunt above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seals, ivory from tusks, and beached whales. In these expeditions they probably encountered the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who had not yet moved into eastern Greenland.

Commerce flourished with Iceland and Norway. Greenlanders exported ivory, ropes, sheep and furs. Iron and timber, not present in the island and necessary for building, were brought from Europe to chieftains, who distributed it among the surrounding farmers. Although the colonies' dependence on these goods was high, trade was very active since Greenland ivory was very appreciated in Europe, as the trade of elephant ivory had been blocked by conflicts with the Islamic world.

In 1002, a group of immigrants brought an epidemic that ravaged the colony, causing Erik's death. However, the colonies survived and rebounded again under the protection of the king of Norway. In 1126, Norvegian control grew by founding a diocese dependent on the archdiocese of Trondheim. In 1261 the population finally accepted the overlordship of the Norvegian King and started paying tributes, although it continued to have its own law.

Decline started in 1348, with the arrival of the Black Death and the Inuit attack to the Western Settlement. Since 1380, the trade with Europe gradually declined, stressed by the prohibition of all private commerce by the new Danish government of the Kalmar Union in 1397 and the loss of interest in the colonies. The population had to be excused several times from paying taxes, and archeologic findings show an increasingly empoverished diet for men and animals. In 1418, English pirates sacked the Eastern Settlement and by the end of the 15th Century, the Norse population of Greenland had disappeared. The most probable ultimate reason for the abandonment of the colonies was that climate became colder in what is called the "Little Ace Age". Moreover, the Norse never learned the Inuit techniques to adapt to cold winters, kayak navigation or ring seal hunting.

The sons of Erik

Erik's son, Leif Eriksson, also made History by becoming the first Viking to explore the lands of Vinland and Markland (present-day Newfoundland, in Canada) around the year 1000. Settlement there resulted a disaster, since the colony Leifbundir only lasted ten years. The reason was the continuous conflicts with what they called "skraelings" (literally, "ugly men"), who, in the first contact, killed Leif's brother Thorvald. Fights were usually won by Vikings, but they soon realised that establishment was impossible without a military support, and travelled back to Greenland. They returned periodically to gather timber for building, as the journey was far shorter than going to Iceland. The last known journey to Vinland dates from 1347.