Friday, September 15, 2006

Motherland of the Mind, Body & Spirit

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Maurice Haltom in a live concert performance.


Africa, of course, is a continent, a location on our planet; but there are many dimensions and many ways of accessing Africa. While people jam to the latest pop dances and grooves, it sometimes escapes us that the common practices of African American popular culture or African traditional culture can be the gateway to a profound inner wisdom and intuitive knowledge. Teachers like Maurice Haltom – or “fundis,” as they say in South Africa - remind us that we can find an infinite world of truth and beauty through the Motherland within ourselves.


Motherland of the Mind, Body and Spirit

Jamming to the latest R&B or hip-hop joints, or marveling at the grace and beauty of dancers in an Usher, Ciara or Aaliyah music video, we are captivated by a certain style and grace that is Africa. But it sometimes escapes us that the inherent sense of movement that created an endless variety of fascinating dances can also be the gateway to a deep intuitive wisdom, in much the same way that yoga in India - and Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong in China - are profound spiritual mind-body disciplines.

Indeed, just as African American pop dances are varied expressions of a certain inner theme or quality, and jazz music can yield many different renditions of a “standard” piece, Africa itself has the endless ability to adapt, absorb and morph its great identity into a multiplicity of manifestations. Sometimes certain teachers are able to illuminate these associations, to remind us that Africa has a richness of knowledge, congruities and connections that extend far beyond surface appearances.

As one such teacher, Maurice Haltom has never set foot in Africa, yet he carries the Motherland in his heart and mind, and throughout his whole being. In fact, it seems that virtually all of his aspirations and life’s work have been dedicated to exploring the profound wisdom and cultural connections underlying African music, movement and dance.

After more than 30 years of teaching, Haltom – who currently lives in Ithaca, New York and runs the Cayuga Center for Wellness and Healing Arts – has developed distinctive innovations synthesizing spiritual practices from India and China with fundamental aspects of African culture. His unique perspective has evolved from amazing life experiences spanning decades of encounters with remarkable teachers and mentors.

Perhaps his journey was sparked in the late 50s, when Haltom was high school student in Berkeley, California and his family lived a few blocks from the coffeehouses of beatnik poets, who at the time were sowing the seeds of the radical social movements of the 60s. Unbeknownst to his parents, young Haltom’s talent for African drumming was drawing him into startling new relationships and outlooks.

“The beatniks were vital and interesting to me because they appreciated the bongo drum. They would have the bongo drum playing behind their poetry and that’s where I got my first stage appearances – behind the beat poets,” Haltom explained, adding that his parents thought he was out running his newspaper routes. “In the meantime I’d be at the coffeehouses really getting my mind opened up. I could pop in there and find a whole different reference point. My own peers were no longer my reference point.”

The beatniks had an “artistic, European and French non-materialistic orientation” that Haltom says encouraged him to look for novel philosophies and alternative perspectives to mainstream ways of thinking.

After graduating high school, Haltom enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in England when he met Aubrey, an African-American drummer and flutist who also practiced Karate. Haltom was intrigued by Aubrey’s ability to bridge the avant-garde world of jazz and martial arts; his new mentor introduced him to salsa music and Latin and Caribbean drumming styles, as well as the discipline of Oriental fighting techniques. But as Haltom delved further into Karate, he felt there was a natural connection between African dance movements and the martial arts, and he kept trying to create a more fluid fighting style, which ran against the grain of Aubrey and his other Karate teachers.

“There was a certain grace and a certain rhythm I was trying to get to and they couldn’t stand it,” Haltom says.

During the height of the radical changes of the 60s – from 1964 to 1969 – Haltom played music while immersing himself in the exciting social scenes that were developing in London, New York City and San Francisco. Haltom played for a variety of bands in California – including The Loading Zone, Kwandidos and Tower of Power – that at times opened for rock music icons Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore in San Francisco. During one of his rehearsals, an Afro-Latin percussionist who learned that Haltom was interested in martial arts challenged him to spar. Haltom later learned that this non-assuming, talented musician had acquired the nickname “Sal the Assassin.”

“He took me outside and we spread out to spar and he just took me back to school in a way that I just could not ignore,” Haltom says, unable to suppress his own hard, hearty laughter. “And he did it in a way that like dancing. He was into music and dance, and he was an alcoholic at the time, but he had a mind that was really open. He was trained by a Kung Fu master and I asked him to take me to his teacher.”

As a result of his “schooling” by “Sal the Assassin,” Haltom then began studying with Kung Fu master Steven Hou. Kung Fu, with its continuous, circular movements, seemed to have the fluidity that Haltom had been yearning for. Not long after beginning his tutelage with Hou, Haltom also witnessed the Chinese Dragon Dance, and he saw a cultural connection between China and Africa that he had intuitively sensed. While unmistakably Chinese, the Dragon Dance – with its colorful tassels and loud firecrackers symbolizing the thunder of springtime – also has an essentially African drumbeat and rhythm. Haltom noticed that even the movements of the Dragon dancers themselves resembled African dance styles.

With time, Haltom became more and more aware of fundamental, archetypal expressions of African movement and dance, seeking to integrate these movements into his own martial arts and fitness practices. When he decided to pursue a Master’s degree in psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in the early 70s, Haltom found a surprising number of students who were drawn to his multi-dimensional approach to music, dance and martial arts. He taught his first Tai Chi class in the summer of 1973 with one student, but by the next year the class ballooned to 70. By 1982 Haltom found himself opening the Aquarian School of Movement Therapy; four years later the center moved to another Ithaca location and became the Agape Institute for Movement Studies, offering a full range of classes in African drum and dance, Tai Chi, Kung Fu and yoga.

Haltom developed new techniques and practices that were based on the idea that “you could be rhythmic and continuous, and that could still be a basis for a kind of strength and power.” He envisioned both the Aquarian School and the Agape Institute as embracing a “multi-cultural approach to becoming more mindful and more conscious of the body.” One of his most compelling classes, which he calls “Atlantean Yoga,” combined the fundamental postures of Indian Hatha yoga with circular motions of African dance.

Haltom was surprised at the growth of his organization and the general interest in his teachings.

“I never really thought that I was evolving something, but by about 1982, I was pretty aware that there was something going on here between Africa and China – and India, with the yoga postures,” Haltom explained, as he described the basis of his from of yoga. “Atlantean Yoga involves the idea of taking postures which appear to be still, but because you’re breathing there is an opportunity of engaging in small, spinal flexing movements. You can find ways to keep the posture intact but at the same time undulate the spine and thighs.”

Haltom says that his work with the intensified breathing and movement innovations of Atlantean Yoga develops a particularly powerful sensitivity and connection to the Life Force, and presaged some of trends that would occur with the widespread popularization of yoga in the 90s. In particular, the practice of “Power Yoga." a form of athletic yoga with enhanced cardio-vascular activity developed by Rodney Yee in California, and Sanyasin Yoga, are both somewhat similar to Haltom’s Atlantean Yoga system.

During the time that he was developing the Aquarian Center and the Agape Institute, Haltom also studied with Chinese martial arts master Mantak Chia in New York City. He found that Chia’s teachings on the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and its body systems were applicable to almost all aspects of his personal life, right down to his African drumming technique and the way he played salsa music. Haltom developed a close relationship with Chia, and after a few years Chia invited him to work more directly in transmitting Chia’s knowledge to a wider range of students. It was a difficult decision, as master Chia was becoming a world-renowned teacher and his work eventually resulted in new interest in Qigong – Chinese esoteric yoga and healing techniques – in the United States and the Western world.

“Mantak Chia invited me to join him in the process of taking his teaching forward to a new level. And I really had to think about it, because I knew that in the back of my head there were other things that I didn’t really understand or know, and I turned him down,” Haltom explained. “It was very strange because I was getting a lot from his teachings, but I declined because of this inner feeling that I could see all of these connections between Africa, China and India (in my own work). That was the vision in the back of my head and so I declined, and that was hard.”

Haltom believes that African traditions and practices are generally not appreciated for their potential contribution to health and healing because they involve a mind-body orientation that is quite unlike standard Western thinking. But developing these practices are well worth the effort, because they can lead one to a new awareness of inner knowledge and the “collective unconscious” that is not accessible through conventional education.

“I call it from the bottom-up, because you are learning and thinking and cognizing from a different part of your whole being, which I think is part of the collective unconscious anyway,” Haltom explains. “I think we all have this going on inside of us – it’s just about getting different ways to stimulate and open doors so this knowledge can come out.”

Haltom currently teaches a few classes per week at the Cayuga Wellness Center, but his life has been somewhat redefined by his psychotherapy work with Cornell students and in his own private practice. Although he does less mind-body activity, Haltom still feels his work as a psychotherapist parallels his involvement in music, African drumming and the martial arts and is similar to the traditional role of a shaman.

“Even right now, as a psychotherapist in a place as diverse as Cornell, I would see myself not so much as a psychotherapist as a shaman,” Haltom points out. “I say that because what I’m doing is assisting people to come in touch with a deeper part of themselves. We all have housed in us a relationship with the Life Force that is in each of us and in all life.”

Beyond the wealth of awareness and inner knowledge that can be developed through African music, movement and dance, Haltom believes Africa has a more general “gift” for humanity through the cultural processes that are reflected in jazz music and improvisation. Much like he adapted Tai Chi, Kung Fu, yoga and music to his own inner themes of rhythm and movement, Haltom sees a powerful adaptive intuitive consciousness that is inherent in African culture. Haltom believes it “takes a lot of training” to develop this consciousness, but the effort leads to “the opportunity you might have to start living a life like that.”

“I think that Africa comes with a unique plan for adapting right now, in the current moment – and to each and every moment – in a very spontaneous and fluid fashion,” Haltom says. “Each and every moment in life is a mystery, and the mystery is solved when I come to the mystery myself, connected to my inner lawfulness, and I can relinquish control and give over to this trust of there is something within myself that can adjust perfectly and adequately to a certain moment.”

Truly well spoken, like a griot, a fundi, an African sage. Through jazz, drumming, martial arts and more, Haltom has shown us that there are many inner gems of African mind-body wisdom, and many pathways to the Motherland in the heart.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Africa's Environment and a Woman's Mission

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A group of women protesting at a Niger Delta oil facility. Insert: Leslie Fields.
Before I interviewed Leslie Fields and talked in depth with her, I had given some thought to ecological issues in Africa, but I didn't see them as clearly as I do now or with the same sense of urgency. I knew something about the problems in the Niger Delta as well as climate change, soil erosion and desertification, but Leslie gave them a new prescience and a new realness. One thing I didn't mention in this article - although Leslie hinted at it - is the effect global warming is having on flooding, as the snows of Kilimanjaro and nearby mountains are melting. It's not as big of a problem as desertification, but it fits in the whole environmental-ecological picture in Africa. As more African Americans - and more people in general - travel to and become interested of Africa, we also have give consideration to these issues and become more involved in environmental justice.

Africa's Environment and A Woman's Mission
Leslie Fields is an African American woman who battles for sanity and reason in an insane, unbalanced world. Her long dred locks, high cheekbones and welcoming smile project soft-spoken character and a deep bond with the African Motherland she works so hard to protect. At first glance, one might not expect that this non-assuming woman is an international attorney who takes on the likes of Shell Oil and powerful government interests on behalf of unknown, powerless people. Yet throughout her career, Fields has found herself tirelessly admonishing, cajoling, exhorting and otherwise influencing an extraordinary array of ambassadors, cabinet ministers, senators and congressmen, CEOs, community leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) on environmental issues.

Most people think that ecology and environmental activism are the purview of liberal, touchy-feely Whites who live in suburbs and wear Birkenstock sandals. While there appears to be a lack of African-American interest in environmental activism, Fields encourages people to look beyond surface appearances and see that many ecological issues have important racial implications.

As an idealistic law student at Georgetown in mid-80s, Fields never studied environmental law, nor did she see herself becoming involved in the field. But during her early years as a practicing attorney working for the Texas Legislative Council and volunteering for the Sierra Club and the NAACP, she began to discern trademark patterns of community exploitation by large energy corporations.

“I got started doing environmental justice work here, in the United States. I realized very quickly all these companies were doing the same kind of exploitation – whether it’s “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, or the “Chemical Corridor” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” Fields explains. “You can’t live down there and not notice this. It’s very obvious; all these chemical companies and petrochemical companies are all sited in Black and Latino low-income neighborhoods.”

Through her legal role with the Texas Legislative Council, Fields drafted the first Texas Birth Defects Registry. At the time, many babies with birth defects were “being born in clusters” near polluting plants, factories and chemical refineries. The Birth Defects Registry helped disseminate information from county hospitals so the problem could be viewed from a wider perspective. Her work on the Birth Defects Registry sparked off a new interest and lifelong passion for understanding the specific impacts of environmental policies on families and communities.

Fields adventurous backpacking trips and various travels through Mexico, Central America and South America only confirmed the same problems she saw in Texas and Louisiana. As she became more aware of the broader scope of environmental issues, Fields began meeting and networking with people from the countries she traveled in.

“As I traveled, I saw how the same companies were contaminating the same kinds of neighborhoods in Mexico and Central America,” Fields said. “Then I went to Ecuador for the first time, and I went to the Esmeraldas area, which is all Black, and that’s where they have their oil. And again, the same oil companies and their subsidiaries were contaminating that area.”

Fields new contacts would lead to involvement with larger groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and the National Black Environmental Justice Network, an organization she helped found. Fields gets excited when she talks about the friendships and sense of community she developed through her environmental justice work. She feels environmental justice is unique because anyone with an interest can get involved – from scientists, lawyers and students to grandmothers, church members or community leaders.

“My favorite people are older women, kitchen table advocates who see a problem, with no funding, no big organization behind them, and they get themselves together and they take on the city council or they take on whomever,” Fields said, laughing as she describes the culinary joys of her regional “Interstate 10” diet. “They’re involved in everything, they’re the keepers of the neighborhood and they also feed you. They give you bread pudding and sweet potato pie and barbeque and you drink beer and it’s just wonderful. People still sit around on their front porch and drink iced tea or beer and you see plant in the background with the flair and that’s where everybody has to work.”

Fields believes that everything she has done locally in the United States “translates globally” and naturally fits into the same patterns and environmental justice trends worldwide. At the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001, Fields and other activists worked hard to write platforms and draft position papers to elevate environmental justice issues to same level of other human rights issues like human trafficking, racial and sexual discrimination and torture. In Durban Fields met Niger Delta and Angolan activists who would help her focus on some of the most pressing environmental problems in Africa. After the Conference Fields became the director of the Friends of the Earth’s Global Sustainability Initiative, and then returned to South Africa to participate in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Her work with Friends of the Earth – one of the world’s largest environmental organizations – initiated a new phase of involvement with African environmental causes.

With the highly visible martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, the international media was gradually becoming aware of the exploitation of the Ogoni people and other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta region through the actions of multinational oil companies like Shell, BP and Agif. As Fields traveled to Nigeria and worked with NGOs and government officials she became sensitive to many of the complexities of Nigeria’s economic growth and development. She feels very strongly that the problems in the Niger Delta are one of the world’s worst – and least followed or understood – environmental crises.

“The Niger Delta is a civil war that no one is paying attention to. Everybody hears about Iraq, everybody hears about different places in the world like Palestine, but this is a civil war, and people are suffering and dying, people are being contaminated, and women are having miscarriages,” Fields explained, with sadness and anger in her voice, adding that many problems are accentuated by poor oversight and lack of environmental regulations and standards. “Nigeria flares and wastes more gas than any (other) place in the world because BP and Shell and Agip just care about getting the oil – they don’t care about what happens to the gas getting burned off in the production process.

“They flare it on the ground, they flare it ceiling high, they flare it all over the place. So all these communities have terrible pollution. I’ve seen pipelines next to health clinics and elementary schools – they just put them everywhere.”

The situation in the Niger Delta is part of a bigger problem with other countries in Africa like Angola and Equatorial Guinea. Fields describes these places as being “awash in all these new oil wells, and people are living in filth.” These problems have new implications for African Americans, as volatile global conditions are forcing the United States to get one-quarter of its oil and gas from West Africa. In the drive to satisfy its thirst for oil, the American government and US foreign policy will “follow the same model” of Shell and BP, creating conditions that oppress the lives of Africans.

Fields is adamant about raising these issues in African-American organizations and forums like the American Association of Blacks in Energy, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, where often she is the lone environmental justice advocate. She feels too many Blacks do not see the multi-layered connections between America and Africa.

“As African Americans, we cannot walk around now with our newfound knowledge and our Akente cloth and pretend like nothing’s happening over there. People are dying so we can drive SUVs,” Fields says passionately, adding that environmental hazards have created a cholera epidemic in Angola. “In the Niger Delta and in Angola people live in the most appalling filth so that oil companies can get that oil out of there and sell it to us at a price that we can live with. We can’t pretend that we’re buying African art and everything’s ‘brothers and sisters’ over there and we’re part of the problem because of our consumption patterns.”

Fields says she has had some success and positive response from the American Association for Blacks in Energy – an organization of African Americans in executive positions in energy industries – and the Congressional Black Caucus. During Congressional Black Caucus week in Washington, D.C., a great deal of networking occurs between Black Congressional Staff, the Energy Department, energy professionals and Ambassadors and diplomats from African countries. Fields says she has met the Ambassador from Angola, Madam Ferreira, who has said she would love to get support for renewable sources of energy in Angola, but her country needs direct foreign investment to build basic infrastructure damaged from their 30-year civil war.

Beyond environmental and economic issues related to the oil industry, Fields is even more passionate about her work combating the problems of climate change and global warming. She describes ecological issues as the “back-story” to many of the conflicts occurring in Africa, and she feels more people need to understand climate change in the context of soil erosion, desertification and the effects it has on African populations.

“Climate change creates more conflict and migration than anything. People migrate because of floods and famines and because of desertification,” Fields says emphatically, her voice rising in indignation. “Remember those floods in Mozambique a few years ago? And the situation in Darfur is the way it is because women have to go out and find water and get fuel because there isn’t any anymore because of desertification and climate change, and then they get attacked by the Janjaweed.

“Climate change is fueling migration and making people move to areas where other people don’t want them. And it’s all about water, and it’s all about energy.”

While these global challenges appear daunting, Fields is enthusiastic because activists are making breakthroughs by applying pressure through critical avenues in the corporate world. Ironically, Fields points out that these new movements are being driven by some of the same activists who organized the divestment movement to stop American universities from investing in apartheid South Africa. Along with Sister Pat Daley, one of the progenitors of the divestment movement, Fields served on the board of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), an organization that encourages large pension funds, insurance agencies, banks and institutional investors to vote for shareholder resolutions that reflect the true costs of “climate risk.”

Climate risk may include damage costs related to floods and hurricanes such as Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast last year, or any costs associated with the ecological impacts from climate change. Fields did similar work through Friends of the Earth by advocating that international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the US Export Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation carefully monitor costs associated with oil companies investing in the Niger Delta and Angola. Fields lobbied for more stringent requirements and standards regarding political risk insurance, making it more difficult for oil companies to write-off losses associated with business activities in regions known for poor environmental regulations and oppression.

Fields is very proud of the work she and other women activists are doing in Africa. She says one of her highlights in Africa was meeting Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001. Dr. Maathi founded the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, which has planted 30 million trees to stop soil erosion and desertification while also enhancing Kenya’s development position via the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

“Women are holding up half the sky there – they’re doing it. I’ve met all kinds of women ministers and parliamentarians and women who are running NGOs, and women who’ve been through a lot,” Fields says. “Wangari Maathai is the best example of what I’m talking about. She went through a lot – she was imprisoned and beaten. Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf (the new president of Liberia) was also incarcerated.”

Fields feels blessed to have the opportunity to work in Africa, and she feels hopeful that growing numbers of African Americans will continue to travel and work in Africa.

“I definitely feel connected (to Africa), in a very, very broad sense, whereas growing up, we didn’t have that. Now I know more Africans, I know people from Africa who have friends here, and it’s enriched my life in a lot of ways that I can’t even put words to,” Fields says, with a sense of gratitude. “I search things out, and if something has an African Diaspora angle to it I will gravitate toward that. I’m much more of a critical thinker as an American because I have this Diaspora feeling in me. I try to think how my life will affect other people, particularly Black people.

“Because if we don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.”