Why Africa matters to Providence, Rhode Island

By Judd Devermont | Providence Journal

The idea that Providence, the capital of the smallest state in the union, has such an outsized connection to the world’s second-largest continent tends to surprise Washington bureaucrats. Many of our nation’s diplomats regard Atlanta, Houston, Minneapolis and New York City as more consequential hubs for U.S.-African relations. Providence, however, should not be underestimated. It has deep historical and cultural ties, and it routinely leads the United States in its activism and policy engagement. Some of Africa’s leading lights have lived in Providence, and the African community has supported the city’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. These linkages, as significant and deep as those of our country’s largest cities, underscore why Africa matters to Providence.

In Providence, Africans have shaped the city’s daily life since as early as the 17th century. Providence was a key node in the slave trade, and Rhode Islanders built, chartered, worked on or captained between 60% and 90% of U.S. slave ships, according a 2019 interview. The city’s prominent Cape Verdean community started to arrive in the mid-1800s, working in New England whaling.

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Providence’s bond with the continent, however, is not frozen in time. It is regularly renewed by its embrace of new immigrants and refugees. Between 2002 and 2019, the city opened its doors to almost 1,800 refugees from sub-Saharan countries. In an interview, Julius Kolawole, cofounder of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, estimated that the African community is about 200,000 strong in Providence. He emphasized that the African diaspora, as well as newly arrived immigrants and refugees, have enriched the city’s cultural life and contributed to its economy.

Providence has important educational linkages to sub-Saharan Africa. Brown University has institutional partnerships with the two universities in Ethiopia. Brown also has a bilateral medical exchange program with Moi University School of Medicine in Kenya. In 2015, the University of Rhode Island worked with the University of Cape Coast in Ghana as part of a $24-million sustainable fisheries project. It also received USAID backing for a five-year project to preserve Madagascar’s marine environment. The Naval War College has welcomed 41 African students during the past decade. In addition, the city’s universities have hosted some of Africa’s top writers and artists. Acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe taught at Brown from 2009 until his death in 2013.

Providence has distinguished itself for its leadership on African issues. In the 1980s, Brown students pressed for divestment from apartheid South Africa. In 2006, Providence became the first U.S. city to pull its money from companies that do business in Sudan due to the genocide in Darfur. The city’s political leaders, such as U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, have visited the region and fought to include paths to citizenship for Liberians on temporary status. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline spent two terms on the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

One of Providence’s own, Brian Nichols, is currently the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. Reflecting on the city’s ties to the region, Nichols told me that Providence’s “political tradition of reaching out to the world” underpins its engagement with Africa.

Finally, Providence’s African diaspora has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. Kolawole notes that many members of the African community have advanced degrees in medicine and are focusing on the virus. Dr. Carla Moreira, for example, came to Providence from Cape Verde when she was 10 and is spreading awareness about COVID-19 among her community.

Providence has been a bridge between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa for 400 years. Its ties, moreover, continue to endure and evolve. Africa and the African community have contributed to the city’s diversity, economy and its scholarship and leadership in U.S. foreign policy.

Providence may be smaller than New York or Atlanta, but its deep connection to the continent has raised its stature and centrality to U.S.-Africa relations.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Read from source Providence Journal