Ocean and Freedom

This week in the Slavery: Heritage and Identity series we look at the ways we as global citizens can promote and connect with the ocean community to advance understanding of the African experience as part of our shared maritime history. And we highlight two examples of projects in Africa promoting connection and ocean literacy.

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The ocean is freedom. It has, at least until now, the capacity to assimilate, dissolve, nurture, and heal. As we deal with the dual pandemic of virus and racism, the ocean can serve as both symbol and reality of the admixture of intelligence and culture, and of resolve and action. There are the processes of Nature evident therein that can serve as models for our response to past and present social and political disruption and for initiatives by which to guide our way forward.

In the past four weeks we have discussed the maritime origin of slavery, its continuity as structural racism within the United States and elsewhere, provided examples of people of African origin taking back their history and its interpretation, and proposing a possible passage for reparation, by the iconic schooner Amistad.

Slavery was, and remains, a brutal form of appropriation. It captures both body and soul, enforces the tyranny of one world view upon another, demeans the human spirit, and compromises the best of civil society. Colonization, with its appropriation of land and culture, was not limited to the United States, and was imposed upon many other peoples in many other places around the world: India, Asia, South America, and Africa, where foreign nations assumed control of property, law, policy, education, and political order. The imposition of an alien world view imposed on indigenous communities subverted their language, ritual, art, stories of origin, and systems of value. The enforcement of that imposition found expression as regulation, segregation, assimilation, and brutality. If you understand this history, it is no surprise that we find ourselves today faced with protest and resistance, rebellion in the streets and at the ballot box, with disruption amplified by pandemic disease that lays yet another inequitable consequence on people of color.

Protest by black and indigenous voices, and all others affected by such enslavement, must be heard as justifiable anger, resilience, and demand for a just society. I say this as a confession of personal complicity and as a personal resolve to use the ocean as a prospect to be realized, a community of “Citizens of the Ocean” that mimics the integration, dynamism, and healing nature of a world united, not separated, by the sea. Each of us will chose whatever way serves this prospect best.

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Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

How do we get beyond symbolism to reality? How do we shape our behavior to attempt redress? How does our content change in response to such resolve? How do we reach audience disenfranchised by the system? How do we promote and connect with the ocean community to contribute to such change?

Here are two examples of projects that the World Ocean Observatory has attempted to advance to this end in Africa — by promotion, connection, and endorsement:

First, A Schoolteacher’s Guide to Marine Environmental Education in the Eastern African Region (Tanzania), a full curriculum, developed by African middle school teachers, that presents basic marine science in a specifically African environment, using illustrations of Africans at work in maritime endeavor, local coastal features and systems, and examples of familiar African experience. Second, the Pan African Vision for the Environment PAVE (Nigeria), an attempt to create a coalition of schools, organizations, and professional educators across Africa.

Success here can only be achieved by Africans themselves, and our sponsorship is ironic as foreign validation of two excellent home-initiated projects to advance marine environmental education in African schools.

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In the United States, the World Ocean Observatory focus is on the development of a virtual aquarium and expedition experience accessible to any student anywhere at no cost. The World Ocean Explorer concept is limited for now only by its presentation in English; otherwise the purpose is to remove all barriers to knowledge such as cost, location, ethnic origin, or citizenship, and provide access to a curriculum based on the principles of Ocean Literacy to formal classrooms home-schooling and curious individuals. It is a sad circumstance that Covid has raised the potential for this service exponentially.

None of us can do it all. But we can immerse ourselves in the ebb and flow. The challenge is to come out of our present circumstance as if cleansed and re-directed. To swim in the ocean is one thing, to come safely ashore through current and wave is another. We are on the edge. We will be submerged and rolled. There will be sand in our eyes and seaweed in our hair. We will lie there on the beach, exhilarated and free.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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