Roi Kwabena, the Original Zero Anthropologist

Just as what came to be called Zero Anthropology made its first meager start, Dr. Roi Kwabena passed away, and very suddenly. For years we had corresponded, sent each other...

Just as what came to be called Zero Anthropology made its first meager start, Dr. Roi Kwabena passed away, and very suddenly. For years we had corresponded, sent each other our articles for publication in our respective venues, made plans for new collaborations, and he discussed my research on indigenous peoples of the Caribbean at length. I had only just started to write on non-Caribbean topics in his final months. He never got a chance to see what would become of ZA. Yet the suddenness of his passing, and the void that it left, caused me to redouble my efforts as if infused by his spirit, remembering the best of his mentoring, wishing to project his voice forward even more. Online, he still lives, in numerous websites that he created.

Roi Kwabena mattered in many ways in terms of the shape ZA would take. He was an anthropologist, but not an academic. His work was done entirely outside of the walls of academia, a form of cultural activism that inspired others who, even without a degree in anthropology, began to call themselves anthropologists as well. He introduced me to anthropologies beyond the institution and the profession, and ways of communicating–not ways of "communicating anthropology," in the manner of so much opportunistic disciplinary promotionalism, but rather ways of communicating and interacting that are at the essence of the most primordial of anthropologies: being out there, immersed, exchanging, learning, conversing, fighting, singing. He was thus also an artist, a musician, a poet, an essayist, a researcher, a publisher, and for a while a politician as well. I have a great deal to learn from him still, and as always, I have only just begun.

Roi stands for me as a vision of what a future anthropology could and should look like, I am making that very clear, even if my own praxis cannot mimic his. I told Roi how much of an inspiration he was for me, and modest and generous as he was he claimed that I was his inspiration. I still remember how he signed his emails, each time with a different statement of his being bearing the imprints of his native Trinidad (as curated by our mutual friend, Guanaguanare, pasted in below from his emails):

swim deep as manatee
levitate as a kolibri
chanting like a macaw
blowing like sandfly

fly high like a condor from los iros to guayaguayare

wade as an anaconda
dig deeper than anteater

In honour of Roi’s work and as a result of his inspiration, you can find on this site four videos made to visually animate four of his spoken word poems–Sour Chutney, West India, Deep Obeah, and Cascadura.

A little background on Roi…

The late Dr. Roi Guanapo Ankhkara Kwabena (born Fitzroy Cook Jr. on 23 July 1956 in colonial Trinidad), was a former Senator in Trinidad and Tobago, and a resident in the UK. Roi Kwabena died on 09 January 2008. Roi was a classic Caribbean renaissance man: poet, musician, philosopher, historian, a committed public intellectual with a strong, poetic critique of imperialism, social injustice and inequality, and the forced impoverishment of the so-called former colonies of the world system. His philosophy of "cultural literacy" emphasized respect for cultural difference. He was trained as an anthropologist.

Going back further, Roi established Afroets Press in 1973, publishing the works of numerous writers from the Caribbean and African diaspora. In the 1970s, in Trinidad, he published some of his earliest poetry in the influential paper, Tapia (see a sample here, reproduced below). In 1974 he published his book, Lament of the Soul. In 1977, he founded Bembe Theatre productions. A diary of his activities follows below. In the UK, in 2001-2002 he was the Poet Laureate for Birmingham, England (see the BBC feature of Roi and his poem about Birmingham, commissioned by the city). In 2007, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool named Roi one of history’s greatest Black Achievers–see the stories in The Independent (UK) and The Trinidad Guardian. The National Development and Research Centre for adult literacy and numeracy commissioned his poem, "Re: vision" (also see his interview with the NDRC on writing "Re: vision–Words, power and sound"). He regularly published robust volumes of his journal, Dialogue.

Roi was also a determined publisher on the Internet, with multiple sites still existing, and a prolific publisher whose many works are available as print-on-demand. A list of his sites can be found here. An avid blogger, Roi maintained numerous individual sites, listed here. In addition, his MySpace page affords us a glimpse of the many persons that he deeply touched.

1973- Publication of the anthology : " Four Hundred Years of Pain and Suffering" by Leroy Calliste and Selwyn Newton.
1974 – Launch of "Lament of the Soul" ; First book review by Anson Gonzalez in the Trinidad Guardian: " Young Poet steps boldly into print" First poetry reading session: featuring Leroy Calliste, Fitzroy Cook Jnr. , Peter Smart and Michael Als at Oilfields Workers Trade Union’s
Port of Spain Office. Several other readings staged at a commercial bank and church parish halls and community centres across the country.
1975 – Publication of "INSIGHT" ; Members actively advocate adoption of International Copyright conventions by Government. Memorable stage production of "BLACK FIRE" in sister isle Tobago. Leroy Calliste concludes a performance tour in U.S.A.
1976 – Tragic death of poet-teacher Leroy Calliste ; Afforded ISBN by Caribbean Agency; also Owusa Babatunde appointed AP Editor Publisher. Numerous readings across the country.
1977 – AP presents lecture by poet / artist Leroy Clarke. Media fuels controversy over " AP Poets" with their unusual style. Roi Kwabena delivers lecture on local literature to local Teachers Training College; Founding of BEMBE PRODUCTIONS ; Famous AP lecture by Dr. Victor Questel -"Nobody is coming to theatre, because it has nothing to say "
1978 – FUNDISHA cultural exposition in Diego Martin commands national media attention; "Redemptive Season" a literary event with music successfully promoted outside capital.
1979: Two young poets: Peggy Heather Hull and Helen Williams launch a season of new female writers. Veteran lyricist- Iacoob Ibn Abbass and community worker Omataa Ojungi joins Bembe.
1980 – In Other Words enjoys successful run at The THEATRE in Belmont, Port of Spain. Several performances staged in discotheques around the capital. These events blended popular youth culture with local performance poetry supported with percussion. At this time the artform RAPSO pioneered by fellow writer Bro Resistance of the Network Riddum Band also gained more popularity.
1981 – Publication of Seko Tafari’s: In Memory ; Christian Action for Development in the Caribbean supports our activities with a grant. Lecture on Women, Labour and struggle in the Caribbean by Dr. Rhoda Reddock; Cacique Publications a local publishing company seeks partnership and appoints Roi Kwabena an associate editor. Works published during this period included:- Is Slavery Again- Labour History and Bandit Garden- Pickers and Flowers- an anthology of poetry by Michael Als . AP gains Membership in the Writers Union of Trinidad & Tobago.
1982 – Several exhibitions and readings across the country featuring many writers and artists. Three dinner performances featuring vocalist-poet Amalla Sayida, Sapodilla, Roi Kwabena and Ateba Keneyatta successfully staged.
1983 – Publication of C.U.R.E. (Community Upliftment & Rehabilitation Exercises ) a journal of Good health.
1984 – Publication of C.U.R.E. , presentation of Manifestations art exhibition; Tragic passing of poet /artist Jamakie TUT Oyoyo and Dr. Victor Questel; Anthony Weeks appointed AP Editor-Publisher.
1985 – Our founder embarks on a Performance / Lecture Tour: Belgium, U.K., France, Netherlands, West Germany and Bulgaria. Links forged with international publishers writers and artists.
1986 – Publication of poetry and other works in joint co-operation with UK
( Coventry based ) TAMARA PRODUCTIONS. Including CHALLENGE- a newspaper serving the Afro-Caribbean communities in the West Midlands founded.
1987 – During a extended sojourn in East Afrika, Kwabena is accorded the distinguished title of AL ANSAARI in the Sudan. AWARE Publications Imprint launched in T&T.
1988 – Khadija Saliyma is appointed AP Editor publisher.
1989 – Lectures and workshops for schools and libraries across Trinidad & Tobago by Christopher Grey and Roi Kwabena. Exhibition on antiquity of KUSH presented in joint co-operation of the Institute For Cultural Co-Operation of the Venezuelan Embassy in Trinidad. This multi-media display also tours other venues across the country with support of the Division of culture-Trinidad & Tobago Gov’t.
1990 – Caribbean tour by Roi Kwabena , several titles published by AWARE. Plus Kwabena Trinidad Public Library in recognition of the U.N. Declaration of International Year of Literacy.
1991 – North American and Japanese tour by Christopher Grey, who also receives several national and international awards for his community work.
1992 – Roi Kwabena appointed Senator of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. He also supports RAPSO week and the T&T Government’s hosting of CARIFESTA . YOUTH VOICE journal also invites him to address their third anniversary celebrations. He addressed the formal opening of the NIA Arts Centre in Manchester UK.
1993 – AWARE publishes two more titles edited by Christopher Grey .
1994 – Valerie Griffith appointed AP Editor-Publisher; AP also presents Ghanaian historian: Dr. Kwaku Sennah’s lecture on the Afrikan Diaspora. Afrikan History Month celebrations staged at the University of the West Indies ( St. Augustine Campus- Trinidad ) and other venues. Aware
1995- PROFILE a cultural journal published by AP launched and Awards ceremony held. Roi Kwabena embarks on another tour of Europe. Third Edition of About The Caribbean published in Germany, plus the anthology: Manifestations through joint co-operation of AP and the University of Augsburg – Bavaria
1996 – AP publishes KUSH RECLAIMED and the fourth edition of About The Caribbean ; RAKANubian Saints Of Christianity; Further editions of above mentioned plus other titles released. Two Exhibitions- "Gathering Power I & II " featuring Midland based artists presented in Birmingham, UK .
1997 – About The Caribbean 5th Revised Edition published, also " A JOB FOR THE HANGMAN" – a controversial collection of poems by Kwabena. An official online presence on the worldwide web established.
1998 – Two titles of poetry by U.K. based poets published by RAKA Pubs.:- "Poetic Revelations" by Sakinah Reynolds & "Nelson Mandela’s Dream as a Boy " by Leon Blades. The Multi-media exhibition "Glory of KUSH" is open to view for twenty four weeks in London jointly hosted by the University of the Diaspora & Centerprise Trust Ltd. . The UK Dept. of Employment & Education commissioned Kwabena to launch the National Year of Reading. He also accepted an invitation from the Birmingham City Council to deliver the inaugural lecture: "MOCKING SHADOWS" for Black History Month celebrations.
1999 – An International and UK Tour by Kwabena performing selections from the Cd:Y42K "FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS" & "WHETHER OR NOT". The itinerary includes cities across Britain and Wales, Nigeria, Ghana, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, USA, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Canada.
2000- Trinidad Circle of Poets honoured our Founder at a poetry session at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port of Spain. Prizes sponsored by RAKA Books were distributed for a locally organised Poetry competition. Numerous workshops and lectures across UK, including a national extended tour of "GLORY OF KUSH" " multi-media exhibition. Hosted launch of BLUE magazine RAKA also hosts performances by numerous artistes, poets and writers…including CARIFOLK SINGERS (from Jamaica)KAALAMU ya SALAAMU ( Veteran Poet New Orleans), Goldie the Poet (California), Historian Runoko Rashidi and acclaimed playwright-Lennox Raphael.
2001- Celebration of our Anniversary.Publication of a new work by Dorrette Hanson: "HANDSWORTH THROUGH MY EYES" Our founder is appointed Birmingham’s POET LAUREATE for the period 2001-2002.


….dedicated to the memory of the late
    Leroy Caliste (Poet-Teacher) 1943-30/5/76

… i to sit
     an’ stare at these
             wretched walls

     an’ curse….
     with my memories of you….
     messenger of this season
     refuted by ignorant ones

…..or am i to laugh ironically
     to engulf lamentations
     within….benighting it from public

…..can any of these moves
     truly present themselves
     as aids for your resurrection?

… have left us….
          as Babylon the whore….
               laughs….exclaiming conquest
     in her lewd form of exultation

     an’….mother weeps….
     with our daughters viewing her
          expressing exasperation

i, no i cannot speak of
     a young warrior feeding the land
nor of spilt blood amid green vines
     curling about withered sticks….

yet i am to yearn again
          for pristine mornings
when we can meet each other
          dancing the ancestral dance
through the glade like passages
                         of ebony

where the chanting voices of
                         our mothers
                         and daughters
make tearful our eyes
               as we faintly remember
          the weavers of the dust

                         Salaam Brother….
what more can i wish?
may the memory of you
inspire the awakening flame
of destruction for Babylon….

may the memory of you
               enrich and nourish
the sensitivity of others
               to follow us
     Salaam….my brother


Commemorating Roi in return:


may the memory of you
inspire the awakening flame
of destruction for Babylon….
may the memory of you
enrich and nourish
the sensitivity of others
to follow us
Salaam….my brother

About Maximilian Forte

Anthropologist focusing on imperialism, neoliberalism, militarization, "humanitarian intervention," decolonization, Indigenous movements, and other topics in Political Anthropology. In addition, he teaches courses on visual anthropology, media ethnographies, and cultural imperialism. He is a full Professor in the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. Please direct comments and inquiries to