Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Arts as a Tool for Self-Preservation: The Plight of the Saharawi of Western Sahara

In any struggle against oppression, the arts express the irrepressible core of who we fundamentally are. The arts provide a tenacious platform that reinforces identity and propagates a message that permeates beyond physical or tacit borders. The arts convey the feelings that arise from the depths of our very being and converts them into a visual or auditory illustration, that allows others to experience them. By seeing and /or hearing the expression of self, we momentarily grasp a fragment of another's soul. In other words, the arts foster the human connection. Although artists express their pain and their joy from their individual perspectives, in an oppresive environment they concurrently create a focal point that breeds unity and determination amongst the oppressed and are knowingly or unknowingly the voice of a community and even a nation to the outside world. Consequently, the power that an artist potentially has within their reach can be viewed as a threatening force to any oppressor.

In my childhood, I vividly recall the late 70's / early 80's government-imposed detention without trial and banning of books by the renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who later went into exile in the UK and the United States. At that age, I could not comprehend why writing stories about Kenyans and more so in a Kenyan tongue, should be regarded as a political weapon that could instil fear in the then President Moi. Artists present the truth – their truth to the masses in a language that captures our attention and imagination, by speaking to us at a level that is beyond cerebral comprehension and assimilation. Ngugi has been an adamant and much acclaimed voice in the face of neo-colonialism and an avid campaigner of the use of African languages.

Colonialisation, however, has not yet been put to bed and Western Sahara has been fittingly coined Africa’s last colony. With a similar thread to the occupation of Tibet by her neighbour China, Western Sahara has been occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco since the Spanish withdrawal and handover to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. The UN has its hands tied due to vetoes by France and USA in the UN Security Council, whose support for Morocco is supposedly intended to combat Islamist extremism. And that is only part of the story of the chronology of the Saharawi struggle... As a consequence, multitudes of Saharawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert and Morocco continues to have authority over the Saharawi people. Sandblast, a London-based charity, has organised the Sandblast Festival 2007 that will stage Saharawi artists in order to create global awareness of the plight of the Saharawi. They seek justice. Will you listen?

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