Africa is a Country

If you love me, help me grow Ghana

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In Adum, in the center of Kumasi – Ghana’s second-largest city – an old warehouse stands as a beautiful letdown. It has been over ten years since the loco shed was used to full capacity. It is neglected and yet somehow humming with life.

In years past, faulty trains were sent there to be repaired. Now, only a handful of staff remains at the station. From the roof, old lamps hang from where they once shone light. Plants have occupied windows and walls. Families occupy old offices, turning them into places of residence. The platform is a resting place for the homeless. Growing shrubs sprout from the withering machines. The workshop is now a transitory place for passers-by looking for a shortcut to somewhere else. Its inhabitants and activities spill out into the neighborhood around it.

During the exploitative years of colonialism, the British established the railway to extract precious metals, minerals and cocoa from the hinterlands and send them to the coastal ports for export. The lines would pass through the Ashanti Region, of which Kumasi is the capital, the Western Region to the port in Takoradi and also the Eastern Region to the port in Accra. When Ghana gained its independence in 1957, the railway was renamed the Ghana Railway Company and over the next 40 years the Kumasi Railway would house and be a place for the repair of equipment, vehicles, engines and carriages from Japan, Germany, America and Britain, each piece gradually wearing away with time.

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In April, the blaxTARLINES KUMASI curatorial collective held an exhibition entitled “if you love me…” , featuring 30 artists and a number of their collaborators. From painters and sculptors to horticulturists and engineers, the artists – many of whom practice in Kumasi – exhibited their interpretations of the theme at the locomotive shed of the Kumasi Railway.

The artists and curators contemplate the possibilities in the space and the linkages across the country. For instance, Eugene Edzorho’s collection of rocks gathered from small-scale mining sites hang in an old carriage, a reminder of the significance of trains to mineral ore transportation. Edzorho and his collaborator, Rex Akinruntan, are working on a similar installation at the Takoradi Railway Station, which is currently under construction.

The shed’s current state poses some questions. Do any of us here – loitering, mingling, living – know of or remember the station in its former incarnation?  And do we care? Should we? In a bid to reconcile the aspects of life and living in the locomotive shed, the curators – Robin Riskin, Selorm Kudjie and Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah – along with the artists, attempt to weave the artworks and the environment together. So much so that even a floating locomotive doesn’t seem out of place as it hangs as though in zero-gravity. Like a spaceship, the suspended styrofoam blocks inside it, with tessellated patterns drawn on by artist Lois Selasie Arde-Acquah, oscillate gently with the breeze.

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The exhibition takes its title from the work of Eric Okwei Nii Noye, whose fabric with the inscription “if you love me let me know” can be found hanging in the windows and on drying lines like that of the clothes and fabric of the people living in the warehouse.

People stream through the shed going about their day, sometimes stopping to read artists’ inscriptions on the walls or old buses and other aspects of the exhibition. Some are impressed, others unfazed. Two young men linger longer than most. Encouraged by the unfamiliar visitors to give their opinion on the exhibition – “It is interesting” – they say eventually before scuttling off.

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Just outside the warehouse on a large billboard, grinning cyborg Medusas greet drivers and their passengers on the Asafo interchange as they go by. Bursting with color, Adjo Kisser’s instantly recognizable cartoons signal transformations across space and time as the environment changes. On an adjoining billboard, Deryk Owusu Bempah’s vanishing-point display alters perceptions, causing the viewer to consider the immediate space and question where it really ends, if at all.

Black and white painted soft drink cans, styrofoam plates and takeaway boxes installed by Francis Anim-Sakyi are littered along the tracks and platform. They differ only slightly to the plastic waste strewn around the area. Easily overlooked, Anim-Sakyi’s work highlights how we can get used to seeing discarded rubbish out and dumped thoughtlessly.

Rainbow tapestries of one pesewa coins hang over the platform wall onto the crushed stones and ballast. For this work, the artist Yaw Owusu puts the coins through oxidization, heat and chemical processes to achieve the multicolored effect, effectively speeding up the ageing process. Like the railway, the tapestries themselves represent something of little use. The coin, the lowest value in the currency, is accepted nearly nowhere.

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In one of the rooms above a windowless opening, a headless statue alluding to the figure of Kwame Nkrumah – Ghana’s first president – is painted over the cracks of the wall by Afia Prempeh, as though telling of a loss of leadership. Without a head, what use is the body?

Observing the warehouse and interacting with its occupants and the exhibition – itself a sort of occupation – it’s hard not to imagine what could have been, or indeed could be if the political will and right management was in place. A thriving railway would transform the country, least not in the economies of the regions it would run through, with people and goods crossing the country with relative ease.

Recent and present governments have all pledged to rehabilitate and build new lines to the outstretches of the country, as far up north as Paga in the Upper East Region on the border with Burkina Faso. Work in Takoradi-Sekondi and along the Western Corridor has begun, but the Kumasi line remains idle. And, as such, the workshop is somewhat removed from its old life. It continues to transform, morph, expand and be expanded.

Perhaps then, a possible closing of the title of the exhibition could be “if you love me… help me grow.”

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Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead

Their voices, sharp and angry, shook me from my slumber. I didn’t know the language, but I instantly knew the translation. So I groped for the opening in the mosquito net, shuffled from my downy white bed to the window, threw back the stained tan curtain, and squinted into the light of a new day breaking in South Sudan. Below, in front of my guest house, one man was getting his ass kicked by another. A flurry of blows connected with his face and suddenly he was crumpled on the ground. Three or four men were watching.

The victor, still standing, appeared strong and confident. His sinewy arms seemed to have been carved from obsidian. Having won in decisive fashion, he turned his back and began walking away with a self-satisfied swagger. The other man staggered to his feet, his face contorted with a ragged, wounded-animal look — the one that seems to begin as an electric ache at the back of your jaw, drawing your lips back into a grimace as tears well up in your eyes. And what he did next seemed straight out of a movie. I couldn’t believe I was seeing it.

The vast, rutted dirt field below me was filled with trash: half-burned water bottles, empty soda cans — and glass. And that furious man promptly did what I had previously only seen on screen. He grabbed a bottle by the neck — it might already have been broken or he might have shattered off the bottom with a quick rap on a rock — and in an instant he had himself an equalizer.

The ass-kicker spun around to find the tables turned and he knew it. The man with the bottle knew it, too. He was shouting and jabbing, though he wasn’t actually close enough to do any damage. Nonetheless, with fear spreading across his face, the ass-kicker backpedaled, still talking loud but unmistakably in retreat.

It seemed clear enough that the man with the bottle didn’t really have it in him to punch that jagged glass through the other’s taut skin. His fury seemed to fade fast and he didn’t press his advantage. Or maybe he was just afraid of what might happen if he were disarmed. Whatever the reason, cooler heads prevailed. The onlookers got him to drop his weapon and the combatants walked off in opposite directions. It was over, even if nothing else was in South Sudan.

At one point, as the two fought, I glanced back at the bed where my cell phone lay and nearly fetched it. The impulse to shoot a few pictures or some video footage of the unfolding scene was powerful and hardly surprising since I come from a culture now built around documenting and sharing even the most mundane happenings.

I didn’t move, in part because I had no idea what was going on. If I recorded it, what then? What accompanying story could I tell? I knew that, short of one man killing the other, it was unlikely that anyone would be around by the time I threw on my clothes and got downstairs. Real-life fights rarely last long. And what, even if they spoke English, were these men going to tell me? Would I write about a personal skirmish over money or a woman or some drunken insult?

Thinking about it later, I came to see the episode as a metaphor for my situation. It was the summer of 2014 and the dawn of my first full day on my initial trip to South Sudan. I was there to get an on-the-ground look at a failing nation in the midst of a months-old civil war; a complex, partly tribal conflict that, in some ways, boiled down to a backyard fight between two men. And frankly, as with the morning struggle I had just witnessed, I had little idea of what was going on. Sure, I’d talked to humanitarian experts and South Sudanese in the United States. I’d read news articles and substantive reports by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and others. On the flight over, I’d finished a very good book on the country and a couple marginally useful ones before that, but I couldn’t have been more of a neophyte standing there in the capital of a new nation, convulsed by a conflict that had already killed more than 10,000 people and left millions homeless or displaced.

Still, I came with a history that seemed suited to the situation. I’d spent parts of the previous decade wandering around post-conflict countries in Southeast Asia, unearthing evidence of horrendous crimes committed by the United States and its allies. I had traveled to remote Vietnamese villages no American had visited since my country’s combat there ended in 1973, hamlets where the villagers might never have met an unarmed Westerner. I talked to people about rapes and murders and massacres, largely by American troops. I interviewed them about living for years under bombs and artillery shells and helicopter gunships that hunted humans from the sky. I spoke with women and men who saw their families cut down by American teenagers with automatic rifles. I talked with those who had lost limbs or eyes or were scorched by napalm or white phosphorous — incendiary weapons that melted faces or left the victims with imperfectly mended swaths of skin. And back in the United States, I spent endless hours with the men who had done these sorts of things to Vietnamese and Cambodians, as well as others who had refused to take part.

After more than 10 years immersed in atrocity, I needed a change so — obviously — I headed for a war zone filled with atrocities about which I knew next to nothing. But to me, it felt different. I wasn’t about to repeat my work in Vietnam. I had landed in a place where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim. This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons. It didn’t take me long, of course, to realize that there was something unnervingly familiar about the work, about the grim tales I began to hear of suffering, privation, and loss (with women and children, as always, hit hardest). In talking to people in those sun-drenched limbos — refugees in their own country — it took next to no time for stories I recognized well to begin seeping into the interviews, tales of family members gunned down in the streets, of rapes and assaults, the sort of hideous acts that form the fabric of modern war, no matter what country, what area of the world.

I spent a couple weeks in-country talking to ordinary South Sudanese and humanitarian workers, taking stock as best I could — part of the time on the outskirts of Malakal, a war-ravaged town 515 kilometers north of Juba.

I traveled there, in the heart of the rainy season, to find a United Nations base drowning in a sea of muck and squalor. And I wiled away an evening with a couple of local journalists who had, in the wake of the war, signed on with the U.N. Bathed in an unnatural fluorescent glow, we talked shop after hours in their office. I wanted the inside story of South Sudan’s crisis and they, in turn, wanted to know about me. Perhaps unsatisfied with my answers, one of them decided to consult Google for background. My book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, popped up instantly and he looked up from his monitor astonished. He had, after all, just told me about how a member of his family — a man of some standing — had apparently been the victim of a targeted killing in the opening salvo of the civil war. If I specialized in investigating crimes of war, the journalist wanted to know, why the hell wasn’t I investigating war crimes in South Sudan? I came up with excuses, but my new acquaintance found them unconvincing and, in truth, I wasn’t that convinced myself.

I spent that night on a cot in the back of a deserted office on that U.N. base thinking about what he had said and was still thinking about it the next day when I arrived at a nearby airport to catch a U.N. flight back to Juba. Of course, to call it an airport is a bit of a misnomer. By the time I arrived, it had devolved into an airstrip. Nobody seemed to use its vintage blue and white terminal building anymore. Instead, you drove past cold-eyed Rwandan peacekeepers, U.N. troop trucks, and an armored personnel carrier or two, right up to the tarmac.

That’s where I was when a large, nondescript white plane arrived. That in itself was hardly remarkable for Malakal. If it isn’t a World Food Program flight, then it’s a big-bellied plane hauling in supplies for some nongovernmental organization or a U.N. plane like the one that brought me there and would soon take me away.

This nondescript white plane, however, was different from the others. When the Canadair CRJ-100, with “Cemair” written across its tail, taxied up and its door opened, a group of young men in camouflage uniforms carrying assault rifles and machine guns emerged. And they were met there by scores of similarly attired, similarly armed young men who had arrived in a convoy just minutes before.

I’d never seen anything like it, so I pulled out my phone and tried to surreptitiously take a few photos. Not surreptitiously enough, it turned out. A commander spotted me and promptly headed my way, visibly angry and waving his finger “no.” As I glanced to my left, a boy holding an AK-47 and following the officer’s gaze turned toward me and with him came the barrel of his rifle.

I didn’t think he was going to shoot me. There was no anger in his eyes. He didn’t draw a bead on me. His finger may not even have been near the trigger. Still, he was a boy — he looked about 16 — and he was holding an assault rifle and it was pointed in my direction, so I stepped lively to put the commander between him and me, while quickly shoving my phone in my pocket and apologizing profusely if not quite sincerely.

By the time my plane arrived and I was heading back to Juba, I was sure that I needed to return to South Sudan to talk to boys like that teenaged soldier; to spend more time on United Nations bases with people trapped in squalor; to try to understand how a new nation only years before “midwifed” by my own country and hailed as a great hope for Africa could be laid so low that people were starting to whisper “Rwanda” and talk about South Sudan as a possible next epicenter of genocide.

Even though I’ve spent considerably more time in the country since, I still don’t claim to know much about this hot, land-locked, Texas-sized country, only a few years old, inhabited by 60 ethnic groups, and a population whose median age is 17. But, there are people who do know it intimately and I sought them out. For several weeks in early 2015, I spoke with U.N. officials and humanitarian workers, military officers and child soldiers, politicos and “big men,” but mostly with ordinary people whose already tragedy-tinged lives had been blown apart by a violent power struggle that began on a military base in Juba and spread like a pandemic into the neighboring streets, then through the capital, and finally into rural hot zones to the north.

No one knows how many men, women, and children were slaughtered in Juba’s streets that first night, December 15, 2013, or how many died in the following weeks as war flared in the towns of Bentiu, Malakal, and Bor, or in the spasms of violence elsewhere in the months that followed. Nobody knows where all the bodies went; where all the mass graves are located. But when so many die, others in similar situations do survive and I sat down with scores of them in plastic-tarp shanties, dimly lit bars, deserted workplaces after hours, or under the welcome shade of sun-scalded trees, or we spoke by phone or on Skype in Africa and the United States. With a vividness that often astounded me, they described their stories of hardship and horror and sometimes even told me of small victories.

There is a chance that by the time this book is published a peace deal signed as the manuscript was being completed will take root — unlike the many ceasefires before it that shattered, some within hours — and that the world’s newest nation will be on a path to reconciliation and prosperity; a chance, that is, that the promise of that country’s Independence Day in 2011 will finally be realized. There is also the potential for so much worse, the possibility that recent reports of government forces raping girls and burning them alive, castrating young boys and allowing them to bleed out, or crushing people with armored vehicles are a prelude to an even more brutal, sadistic spree of violence on an even more massive scale, a chance that “Rwanda” could become a reality in South Sudan in the months or years to come.

Whatever happens to the country and its long-suffering people, the voices in this book serve, I hope, as a testament both to the struggles and the courage of the victims of violence there and as a cautionary tale of the sort of chaos and mayhem that may lie ahead.

This is the introduction to Nick Turse’s new book, “Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan,” published by Haymarket Books. The book can be purchased here and here.

Kenya’s Refugee “Problem”

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Earlier this month, the Kenyan Interior Ministry declared its intent to shut down the country’s refugee camps, citing concerns about security and the threat of terrorism. The last time the government indicated its plan to close the camps in April 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced $45 million in additional aid, and the camps remained open.

This time, policymakers and domestic and international rights activists have noted with grave concern Kenya’s recent revocation of prima facie refugee status for Somalis, who constitute two-thirds of the nearly 600,000 refugees in Kenya. This change means that those fleeing Somalia will need to apply for refugee status on a case by case basis—made more complicated by the decision to shut down the Department of Refugee Affairs—and in the interim, they will be subject to removal and abuse by security forces.

Commentators have pointed out that the Kenyan government has never substantiated its claims that refugees were responsible for violent attacks in the country. Instead, they argue that the government is using the refugee population as a diversionary tactic domestically, and as a bargaining chip for more aid from humanitarian institutions internationally. As European states are now willing to pay for other governments to assume the burden of hosting refugees, Kenya seems to be positioning itself not simply to attract more funds, but also to challenge the moral authority of Western states when it comes to international obligations.

Integrally tied to this pending humanitarian crisis is the global architecture of counter-terrorism. The Kenyan government is but one actor among many who produce, and profit from, the specter of terrorist threat, which allows for the discursive slippage from civilian, to potential Al-Shabaab sympathizer, to potential terrorist. Readers unfamiliar with the region are led to believe that ‘Kenya’ is an inward-looking political entity with little connection to the situations in neighboring states, beyond its position as the recipient of refugees. The ‘international community’—led by the world’s most powerful states—is viewed only through the prism of aid, with little consideration of these actors’ own role in exacerbating, rather than mitigating the very violence leading to displacement in the first place. Viewed through this polarizing lens of ‘Kenya’ vs. the ‘international community,’ we fail to grapple with the array of conflicting cross-border interests and entanglements at play, and to contextualize the dilemma as it unfolds.

In 2009, the Kenyan government initiated plans to create a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia. Working closely with both the Ethiopian and Somali governments, Kenya recruited roughly 2,500 youth both from within Somalia and from north-eastern Kenya, including Dadaab refugee camp. Luring them with false promises of financial remuneration, this militia was trained for a possible assault on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in southern Somalia. Yet disputes soon unfolded between Kenya and Somalia about where to deploy these forces, confirming the range of interests at play. The whereabouts of these young men remains unknown, raising important questions about the mobilization of armed actors for the objective of ‘counter-terrorism.’

Yet this number pales in comparison to the nearly 22,000 troops now occupying Somali territory as part of an internationally funded ‘peacekeeping’ operation. Formed in 2007 following the US-backed Ethiopian-led invasion of Somalia, the African Union Peacekeeping Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) troops hail from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, with police contingents from Nigeria and Ghana. AMISOM receives logistical and financial support from the UN, and is funded primarily by the EU, US, UK, Japan, Norway, and Canada.

Few analysts have inquired about the violence and displacement generated by the introduction of these armed ‘peacekeepers,’ despite the publication of UN and other reports documenting such effects. In 2014, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that AMISOM troops abused their authority by preying on women and girls, who constitute the majority of those displaced by violence. Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group Report observed in October 2015 that offensive military operations by AMISOM and Somali security forces have exacerbated insecurity. The rush by various actors to capture resources in the wake of territorial gain has threatened to undermine peace and state-building efforts, while the territorial displacement of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region.”

African Union troops are not the only actors shaping dynamics in Somalia. Private security firms operate largely with impunity despite documented abuses. In 2015, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict expressed concerns about the unlawful detention of children, reportedly formerly associated with armed groups, in a ‘rehabilitation’ camp run by the Serendi Group in Mogadishu. And in March 2016, the US military launched a drone strike that killed 150 people, citing Al-Shabaab plans to attack both US and African Union forces.  While US officials insist that the precision of these airstrikes ensure minimum civilian casualties, the Intercept recently reported that the US possesses limited intelligence capabilities in Somalia to confirm that the people killed are indeed the intended targets. Between AMISOM and private security abuses, and the growing use of drone strikes, Somalis may not necessarily feel more secure in the hands of foreign armed actors than they do in the hands of local ones. And as those who have documented the conditions inside Kenya’s refugee camps have indicated, we should perhaps think twice about calls by humanitarian agencies to simply maintain the status quo.

But Somali experiences and perceptions are of little interest to the more powerful external players who make daily calculations about how to justify their continued role.

As Alex de Waal observed in his recent book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, the ‘war on terror’ has enabled “an exceptionally well-financed rentier-political-security market with the added bonus that counter-terror patronage also comes with intelligence technologies and a legal vocabulary that is perfectly suited for justifying secrecy and repression.” Former Somali Special Envoy to the U.S. Abukar Arman uses the term ‘predatory capitalism’ to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany state-building efforts, as ‘capacity-building’ programs serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights, and as senior military officials profit from the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal.

Cognizant of the potential for critical questions about their own role in ongoing instability in Somalia, the AU and UN have employed consulting firms to ensure that we, as outside observers, continue to conceive of only a select few actors (Al-Shabaab) as part of the problem, with others (UN, AU, peacekeepers, donor states, and private firms) painted as entirely outside the frame and therefore best-placed to offer solutions.

Recent developments have led to the temporary placement of the Kenyan government in the ‘problem’ category. But rather than conceive of humanitarian agencies and the ‘international community’ on one end and the Kenyan state on the other, perhaps it is time to think more critically about their entanglement. As governance in the name of humanity becomes intertwined with the violence of ‘security,’ it becomes less and less clear what ‘humanity’ is. Simply insisting that the refugee camps in Kenya remain open distracts us from more difficult but important considerations: namely, the ongoing participation of an ‘international community’ that includes Kenya in the production and reproduction of violence in the region.

Racial nationalism and the political imagination

We are an African people

In 1976 the historian and activist Walter Rodney spoke at Howard University on the then-unfolding civil war in Angola. Noting that in the late 1960s and early 1970s many African-Americans had been compelled by the then-nascent UNITA movement’s seemingly Africanist-centered opposition to the socialist-aligned MPLA, Rodney cautioned that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.” “The Lessons of Angola” he suggested, were that racial solidarity needed to be tempered with ideological solidarity in order to fashion a more effective weapon. The tension between left- and race-based politics has been a constant issue in transatlantic solidarity for decades, as have issues of race, decolonization and education.

The Cornell University historian Russell Rickford examines the historical intersection of these concepts in in his remarkable new book, We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination (published by Oxford University Press). Rickford’s study tells the little-known story of how US-based Pan Africanists responded to white racism and a corrupt school system by founding and funding their own schools, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last few months, Rickford and I had exchanged periodic messages about his book, historical antecedents to contemporary debates about education, and the fault-lines of Pan-Africanist and African diasporic politics. We began by considering the career of Howard Fuller, who founded the Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969.

Tell me about Howard Fuller, a.k.a. Owusu Sadaukai. 

Owusu Sadaukai (aka Howard Fuller) was one of the most influential U.S. Pan Africanists of the Black Power era. He was a community organizer who was deeply involved in antipoverty work when he founded Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) in Durham, North Carolina, in 1969. The post-secondary school, which eventually moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, was widely regarded as the leading Pan Africanist/black nationalist institution of the period.

Sadaukai is significant for a number of reasons. One of his main contributions was helping to increase black American awareness of and support for armed struggles against settler colonialism and white minority rule in Southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies. Sadaukai made a very influential journey to Mozambique in 1971, where he spent a month embedded with Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) fighters. The experience helped transform Sadaukai’s vision of Pan African solidarity. He began to see the fight against U.S. imperialism as the main priority for black American internationalists, because Portuguese colonialism was propped up by U.S. aid.

Sadaukai also played a leading role in founding African Liberation Day (ALD) in 1972. This annual fundraising and public education effort on behalf of ongoing anti-colonial struggles on the African continent greatly increased Pan-African consciousness in the U.S. It also accelerated the political growth of many U.S. Pan Africanists by hastening the transition from Racial Pan Africanism (a philosophy based on notions of global racial linkages) to Left Pan Africanism (an approach based more on anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-racism).

However, Sadaukai followed a very strange path in the decades after the Black Power movement. Ultimately he became a major spokesman for “school choice,” or voucher programs that enable parents to use public education funds to enroll their children in private schools. “School choice” has been a major goal of the privatization movement, and is widely criticized by defenders of public education, the system upon which the vast majority of black children rely. Thus, Sadaukai (who has now reverted to his original name, Howard Fuller) has traveled full circle from integrationism to black nationalism to Marxism-Leninism to staunch advocate of free market policies. In the closing chapters of my book I trace a larger retreat from the radical elements of Black Power politics during the post-civil rights era.

That’s quite an intellectual journey. I want to keep the “end” of Sadaukai / Fuller’s journey in mind as we continue our conversation, but for now let’s go back to the beginning. How was Sadaukai’s political activism and especially solidarity with Frelimo and other liberation movements consistent with his critique of the American educational system?

Sadaukai and other Pan-African nationalist organizers and intellectuals believed black America had been socialized for subservience and sociopolitical dependency.

They were strongly influenced by postcolonial and radical theorists who condemned Western education for “colonizing the mind” of oppressed peoples throughout the world. They joined a host of figures, from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere to Guyana’s Walter Rodney, in arguing that subject peoples (including African Americans) needed to reject the principles of individualism, materialism and white supremacy on which Western education was based in order to reclaim their humanity and achieve cultural and political autonomy. These were guiding principles for  MXLU.

However, Sadaukai’s view of revolution changed in the early 1970s. As he traveled and interacted with revolutionary movements, he developed a more materialist vision of the reconstruction of society. Rehabilitating consciousness remained a major priority, but he began to see anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as struggles for land and for the reconstruction of political economy. He developed a critique of global finance capital as the engine of political and economic exploitation not just in the Third World, but also in the United States.

As Sadaukai’s politics evolved, MXLU developed a more internationalist and leftist orientation. Equipping African Americans (and other black people) with technical skills so that they could assist in the modernization of developing nations (especially those seeking to travel a socialist path) emerged as the institution’s primary mission. Before it closed abruptly in 1973 amid severe financial trouble, MXLU also attempted to revive its original emphasis on serving local African American communities within North Carolina.

Could you talk a bit about the distinction you made earlier about the difference racial Pan Africanism and left Pan Africanism?

In the book I try to distinguish between a Left Pan-Africanist orientation rooted in a fundamentally anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and “Third Worldist” outlook and a racial Pan-Africanist trajectory, more wedded to principles of racial fundamentalism, cultural nationalism and the politics of all-black unity.

The complex realities of ideology often stretch the explanatory value of these categories, but over the course of the 1970s sharp conflicts erupted in black progressive and radical circles over these and other ideological distinctions.

The story of the decline of the more radical tendency is complicated. One would have to talk at length about external factors (including state repression) and internal factors (including bitter ideological feuds.) But I think it is fair to say that by the 1980s, racial Pan Africanism was more widespread. It emerged as a more inward-looking form of Pan Africanism re-emerged as a major black political alternative to integrationism. This iteration of Pan-African nationalism took a less hostile stance toward global capitalism than had the radical varieties of the 1970s. It was also more firmly based in the academy and less closely tied to ongoing struggles in Africa and the Caribbean. In my epilogue I make the case that this bourgeois nationalism entered into a kind of detente with corporate capitalism and the forces of privatization. But forms of Left Pan Africanism never fully disappeared, and continued to influence campaigns like the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Black Radical Congress.

Responding to your striking title, I’m wondering what lessons your book offers about the African Americans’ relationship to “Africa” (as a fact, as a concept) both during your time period and today? 

The question of the relationship of African Americans to Africa is a thorny one, of course. The historical relationship itself has been torturous. From the African-American perspective, I would have to say that black folk need to understand the history of what I call “Africa in the African-American Mind” (I teach a seminar on the topic at Cornell). A good place to start is by reading Middle Passages by James Campbell and Proudly We Can be African by Meriwether.

But in general, I still think some of the lessons of the Black Power era are relevant in terms of African-American consciousness. Most of the figures in my book start from a position of romanticizing African politics and culture in the context of the 1960s revalorization of African identity. My book’s title, “We are an African People,” comes from a very popular slogan of the late 1960s/1970s, which makes this point quite clearly.

As these activist-intellectuals traveled throughout Africa and the Diaspora, they were forced to confront some of the political and social complexities of societies and governments that they had previously viewed through a very simplistic lens. At best, African Americans rethought the basis of their connection to Africans, moving away from racial mysticism and thoroughly western essentialism and moving toward solidarity based on common circumstances and political perspectives/objectives. They began confronting the complex problems of neocolonialism. They began considering questions of class and gender in both African-American and African contexts. This is part of what I characterize in the book as “political maturation.” Yet, realistically, I must concede that at the end of the day, a push for African and African-American solidarity based on racial romanticism is probably superior to an outright rejection of the idea of shared political fate. The African and African-American cultural encounter seems to work best when both sides recognize multiple historical veils of stereotype and misunderstanding as well as historical ties of solidarity, inspiration, and struggle.

Julius Malema’s Tailored Image

President of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, at his party headquarters in Johannesburg, 31 March 2014. Image via Jerome StarkeyJulius Malema, at his party headquarters in Johannesburg, 31 March 2014. Image via Jerome Starkey.

At the end of April this year, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), launched its local government elections manifesto in front of 40,000 people in Johannesburg’s Orlando Stadium. Julius Malema, who serves as both the party’s political and sartorial “Commander in Chief,” led the proceedings, sporting his now iconic red beret and jumpsuit. This carefully constructed image is central to the EFF’s populist allure, one the party hopes will prove strong enough to overthrow the ANC in the upcoming local elections.

The color red, berets, and plain workers’ clothing have all become potent aesthetic symbols for the EFF. Standing in monochrome defiance of the ruling African National Congress’s black, green and gold, Malema and his red band use the color to commemorate “those who have died during the struggle for economic freedom.” The color also serves to remind the nation of the 2012 Marikana massacre, which occurred under the watch of the ANC. Berets and the occasional military fatigues convey a revolutionary Guevaran spirit, while overalls and jumpsuits show solidarity with the working class.

But Malema’s closet would surely tell a different story. Somewhere under all the layers of EFF apparel sit past political skeletons. Not so long ago, the South African media rightfully called out the disparity between Malema’s everyman speech and designer shoes. After the media salvo, it’s no mystery why Malema ditched the Gucci suits for something more palatable to the proletariat and better aligned with his platform. Although the media has since eased off, stories of “Malema’s millions” are still fresh for many South Africans.

Beyond media fodder for contradiction between walk and talk, a politician’s outward appearance can convey several messages: defiance, humility, and status among others. Leaders use their outward appearance to elevate themselves above the masses or, in Malema’s case, to walk among them. Physical appearance as political messaging is as old as politics itself. Brown University’s Jeri DeBrohun writes that Greeks and Romans alike appreciated the “potential of the body . . . as a means of marking social, political, religious, and even moral distinctions.”

But one doesn’t have to look to the ancients to witness the power of dress. In Malema’s home country, it’s now the stuff of legend. Nelson Mandela’s outfits were as numerous as his identities: camouflage to flex his strength as leader of the ANC’s military wing, a tailored suit to show his brilliance as a lawyer, and traditional Xhosa garb at a 1962 trial for inciting a work stayaway and leaving the country without a passport. That reference to tradition made deliberate connections between his royal lineage and his emerging role as a black nationalist leader. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup, then president Mandela famously donned the green jersey and cap of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team and former personification of apartheid. Many whites at the time saw this symbolic gesture as an important step towards reconciliation and unification of the fragile new democracy.

Mandela’s successors continued this tradition to suit their own political needs. Thabo Mbeki’s choice of more conservative wardrobe, often suited demurely, reflected his alignment to the West. Although normally also dressed in suit and tie, Jacob Zuma built his public persona in post-apartheid society as a Zulu traditionalist, particularly in his off-duty fashion choices on public holidays.

However, Malema’s red beret does not give one a sense of reconciliation or cultural identity. For better inspiration, we have to look outside South Africa, just as Malema did. The most obvious visual comparison comes from Venezuela’s Chavistas. Before he formed the EFF, Malema expressed his admiration for Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, visited the country and copied, wholesale, Chavistas’s use of the color red as well as the red berets.

An even better historical example for Malema’s stylistic motivations comes from another beret-wearing revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, who EFF leaders often invoke. Until his assassination in 1987, Burkina Faso’s charismatic leader only wore clothing made from cotton grown, dyed, and woven in his home country and exuded the type of self-reliance and national pride he reflected in his anti-foreign aid policies.

In a memorable scene from the documentary “Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man,” Sankara is seen seated, smiling wide, surrounded by a group of men and women listening to him intently. Sankara lifts an arm and beckons a comrade from the crowd to come forward.

See, you’re wearing an advertisement for Levi’s,” he says playfully, as laughter ripples through the crowd. “Yes it’s well made – it’s Levi’s. But it’s American. Don’t you think we have weavers able to make them here?

During his presidency, Sankara launched the Faso Dan Fani, Burkina Faso’s national cloth, and required all public servants to wear homegrown Burkinabé clothing. But this nationalist sentiment could not stem the tide of globalization, even in the 1980s. Public servants often brought the Faso Dan Fani in a bag to work and only took it out during one of Sankara’s infamous surprise visits to government offices. Soon, people dubbed Faso Dan Fani’s as “Sankara’s coming.”

Interestingly, political dress spanned the ideological spectrum. Even more rightwing African leaders tied clothing politics to their ability to reproduce their power. In the early 1960s, Mobuto Sese Seko sought to offset his regime’s dictatorial rule through dress. He decreed a strict African dress code, later known as Authenticité, for the Congolese, to portray himself as a cultural nationalist.

Sankara’s Faso Dan Fani would probably play well with Malema’s comrades today. Amid service delivery and outsourcing protests, especially on university campuses, Malema’s worker jumpsuits complement the manifesto’s main points. If elected, the EFF promises to ensure that a “minimum of 50% of basic goods, services and products consumed in the municipality are manufactured, processed or assembled within the municipality.” Here, the EFF hopes to bring Sankara’s self-reliance to a local level.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the public and the media have bought into Malema’s image and policies. The EFF will find out in August, when South Africans head to the polls to decide whether red is their color or not.

Intersectionality and economics

Intersectionality is all the rage in social movements. I am a former student at the University of Cape Town and the movement informed by intersectionality that I have observed most keenly has been the #RhodesMustFall movement there. As a result of my interest in economics, I have been wondering the ways in which what has emerged at South African universities relates to demands for economic redress and development more broadly. I hadn’t found a clear link until recently.

That there is a lack of clarity between the student movement and questions of economic transformation, is because the dominant ideological frameworks in the emergent movements — postcolonial theory and theory around intersectionality — tend to suffer from the absence of an economic analysis. (Sociologist Vivek Chibber’s work on the limitations of postcolonial theory in explaining the evolution of the Global South and his more recent critical commentary on the use of the language of intersectionality in the US presidential election speaks to this.)

Two recent developments have challenged my views. Firstly, I recently heard Feminist/Marxist economist Nancy Folbre (she is based at the University of Massachusetts, Armherst) outline her forthcoming work on “The Political Economy of Patriarchal Systems,” which seeks to push intersectionality into political economy and challenge the binary that only class relates to economic interests while gender, race, citizenship and sexuality (among others) relate merely to issues of identity.

Folbre’s work attempts to put forward a relationship between intersectionality and economic analysis, beyond looking merely at the traditional economic domain of production and exchange. It does this principally with reference to the notion of “dynamic intersectionality” and the idea that “different identities may become more salient as different opportunities for collective action to emerge.” While there is a lot more work to be done in sketching out under what terms identity relates to economic interests, the skeletal outline of “dynamic intersectionality” seemed to me to hold the prospect for an exciting positive account of a formalized representation of intersecting inequalities.

The second is the emergence of the Decolonise UCT Economics movement in South Africa, which excites me in its ambition. It is an antidote to the suffering I endured through four years of economics at UCT. Ideas like “trade unions are to blame for South Africa’s high unemployment rate” or “education is the only solution to the country’s status as the most unequal country in the world” – are all unquestioned dogmas among professors there.

An intersectional economic theory, rooted in, but also moving beyond, the traditions of radical political economy might precisely be the development left students need to pursue in countering the role of orthodox economics in perpetuating the continuing social crises that are the lived experience of South Africans (or even here in the United States where I am currently based) of different oppressions.

For me, an intersectional political-economic theory has great potential to provide a working basis for social movements that draw strength from powerful alliances of oppressed groups. This can be seen in the US presidential primaries, where we can speculate that had Bernie Sanders contested Hillary Clinton’s appropriation of the language of intersectionality to her own cynical ends, Sanders may have stood a better chance at speaking to Black and Latino voters.

In the South African context, the potential for a student-worker alliance that speaks to the intersections between worker exploitation and the issues that students have taken as their central causes (fees, racism, the continuation of colonial culture, rape culture) represents to me one of the best prospects for a united front, that up to now has not been utilized productively. In other words, it would be exciting to see what could be built on the back of the tremendous achievements of movements like #RhodesMustFall alongside university workers in winning concessions like the scrapping of outsourcing, against the backdrop of years of neo-liberalization at the university.

The ambivalence of students to participate in regressive, opportunistic movements like the #ZumaMustFall campaign suggests strong and principled analytical capacity. (#ZumaMustFall emerged soon after South Africa’s sudden currency depreciation, bringing about public uproar from mainly white South Africans, who took to the streets, with their poodles and slogan marked yoga mats, to protest their trips to Europe becoming more expensive.) This mirrors in some senses (perhaps through a shared critique or general skepticism of those who wish to venerate the South African constitution as the basis for all efforts at realizing progressive change) the interventions of more principled members of the union movement (see here). It would be exciting if these forces could be united in the aim of more consistent public left opposition to social crises of national importance.

Economics has an important role in the analysis of the contemporary national and global order, it thus holds an important role in questions of ideological orientation and strategy for social movements. An intersectional economic theory holds the prospect of informing the development of a more complete analysis and strategy for social movements that speak to broad coalitions of oppressed groups interested in furthering progressive agendas. That such a theory doesn’t seem to exist damages the coherence of both, movements that seek guidance from an analysis emphasizing a ‘class first’ approach, and those that pursue a ‘race first’ approach (either explicitly or implicitly). These tensions are clear from recent public debates about reparations for slavery in the US (see here and here).

Another way of making this point is that an intersectional economic theory cannot be truly intersectional without successfully challenging the false binary, discussed above, that seems to be the main aim of Folbre’s forthcoming work. Further, developing such a theory ought to be a central goal of progressives interested in dismantling multiple oppressions and would be a valuable addition to the exciting social movements that have emerged recently. With this in mind, I hope movements like Decolonize UCT Economics will move forward in centrally pushing for a revised curriculum with a bigger place for radical political economy. It will only be through a better informed public debate that the aforementioned tensions can be resolved, and if done successfully, it will be to the benefit of meaningful progress in realizing truly emancipatory political projects.

Black players won’t be a big deal at today’s ‎FA Cup Final‬. Back in 1965 it was

When Manchester United and Crystal Palace take the field in the English F.A. Cup final in London later today, the presence of black players on either team won’t be a big deal. But back in 1965 it was. That’s when Albert Johanneson became the first black footballer to play in an F.A. Cup Final, for Leeds. (Leeds lost to Liverpool.) Like many early black sports pioneers Johanneson has been largely forgotten in both his home country of South Africa and in the U.K., where he played and lived most of his life.

After almost a decade playing for Leeds, Johanneson (born in Germiston outside Johannesburg) played a season for fourth division side York City, returned to South Africa to play for Glenville FC (in the Indian and coloured Federation Professional League) for a season before returning to the UK. He never played professionally again and died at fifty-five in Leeds, in poverty, having struggled with alcoholism for much of his life. 997d5cff-26f8-41fb-a22c-5e4fdcb27029

This his time last year, saw the publication of “Albert Johanneson, the first Black Superstar.” One of the things that stood out for me in the research material on Johanneson was how fans and teammates described him shrugging off insults, always being friendly and humble and seeming unaffected by the (often intense) racial abuse he was confronted with. I’m sure decades of this must have affected him, though, and the later alcoholism and personal problems no doubt, reflect that. Imagine the exposed position he was in as, usually, the only black man in the stadium, never mind on the field.

I first came across Johanneson’s life story in 2009 while doing illustrations for an exhibition called ‘Offside’ at the District Six Museum and funded by the British Council.  Johanneson was one of forty odd players illustrated at life size for the exhibition timed to coincide with the 2010 World Cup taking place in South Africa. ‘Offside’ intended to celebrate the contribution of African footballers who had played in the European and American leagues and examine their varied experiences depending on race, gender and time-period.

The UK-based FURD (Football Unites Racism Divides) was one of the partners for the Offside project and Howard Holmes, FURD’s founder, contacted me later about a project related to the Offside show. He wanted to do football comics about these early sports pioneers to celebrate their achievements but also show the damage racism had done to their lives and careers.

We started with the Ghanaian Arthur Wharton, a major sporting figure in the 1880s in Britain credited as “the world’s first black professional footballer.” Wharton’s story was so early and unusual, and there are so few photographs of the sports of the period that he was almost totally forgotten. Howard helped to organize a proper headstone for his grave and did some work with his granddaughter. We completed ‘Arthur Wharton, Victorian Sporting Superstar’ now two years ago.

For the second of these ‘FURD Pioneers’ comics Howard suggested Albert Johanneson, to coincide with last year’s F.A. Cup final, which happened to mark fifty years since Johanneson’s appearance in 1965. The Albert Johanneson comic was launched in the UK last year and we launched it in South Africa at the District Six Museum’s Homecoming Centre on Human Rights Day (March 21st) and then on Freedom Day, April 27th, at Sophiatown’s Trevor Huddlestone Memorial Centre in Johannesburg.

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Many of us in South Africa grew up on the old British football comics like Roy of the Rovers, and to show some more relevant history and character stories in a comic book format is very satisfying. We feel that the stories of sporting pioneers like Johanneson and Wharton (and many, many others) can, told, in this format, reach a wide audience and entertain readers while reinforcing an anti-racism message.

We are trying to distribute the stories as widely as possible, to this end the first comic is available in digital format on the FURD website and we have sold and given away thousands of copies of both comics now. Contact FURD or the District Six Museum for copies and more information.

Music Break No.95 – Afro-Europe special!

Fresh of a trip to the UK and Germany, with stops in Afro-European strongholds of London and Berlin, I thought I’d theme this week’s Music Break around some of what I saw and heard there. So enjoy this brief (and not comprehensive by any means) trip around young Afro-Europe, with stops in London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, and Rome.

Music Break No.95

1) MHD was a revelation for me on this trip, first getting hipped to his #AfroTrap series by a friend in Bristol, and then being treated to an onslaught of it in Berlin for their Carnival weekend. 2) Belly Squad out of London come with a bit of a naughty song and video to show the youthful energy of the UK-Afrobeats scene. 3) Amsterdam via London’s Jaij Hollands’s gravely flow is taking Afrobeats in a little harder edged direction. 4) Maître Gims’ Sapés comme jamais was also on repeat in Berlin, also coming from the Paris scene. 5) YCEE who bursted on to the scene with Jagaban last year takes his new video to the streets of London, showing how many artists, even those based in Africa, prefer to go to London for their aesthetics. 6) Aina More is killing it over this beat by DJ Juls! 7) On the other side of Berlin, Daniel Haaksman recruits Spoek Mathambo for this chugging Mbaqnga influenced Afro-House jam. 8) Lisbon’s Throes + The Shine recruit Argentina’s La Yegros for this high tempo Afro-Latin-Rock number. 9) A few years old classic out of Rome, Pepe Soup’s Pump Tire! 10) And finally, the absolute Dona of the Lisbon Afro-Electronic scene in her Boiler Room Lisbon appearance to take you out!

Happy Week’s End!

Monochrome Lagos

29 Sep 2015 Chill.

Lagos is known for being an assault to the senses: Swarms of bright yellow danfos maneuver stridently through lanes, and in a manner not quite unlike bumblebees — carrying a weight that seems optimistic at best. Dust often cakes the skin, but is streaked by drips of perspiration, courtesy of the blaring sun overhead. An ever-increasing soundtrack of voices booms in the background, emitting from seemingly every direction and without a recognizable source. Ever oscillating between exuberance and excess, the city is described as cacophony of sights and sounds—varying in levels of logic and function, always full of movement and energy.

Yet, in Logo Oluwamuyiwa’s ongoing project Monochrome Lagos (2013—), we encounter a Lagos that is rendered quite differently. A resistant body of work, Monochrome Lagos presents an alternative visual vocabulary through which to comprehend this city — one that strips Lagos down to its component parts, as an encounter between the individual and the built environment. Limiting his palette to black and white, Oluwamuyiwa presents high-contrast images that demonstrate a close attention to line and architectural forms. A rumination on presence and absence, Monochrome Lagos muffles the sensorial tropes of Lagos, bringing to the fore the spaces wherein once can find solace within the city.

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Drawing on a photographic lineage of documentary and street photographers such as Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and fellow Nigerian J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Monochrome Lagos attests not only to the individual narratives of Lagos’s inhabitants, but also Oluwamuyiwa’s own artistic development within the medium. From the outset, one can envision this photographer as a flâneur of the digital age, presenting an intuitive cartographic study with an ever-heightening attention to light, line and form. Rather than proposing a block-by-block visual analysis of the cityscape, Oluwamuyiwa embraces the complexities and inconsistencies of Lagos, and often perched on the back edges of buses, captures mundane objects and quotidian interactions from a quasi-aerial perspective.

While a critical mass of images seems to accrue around the architectural structures of the Third Mainland bridge, Oluwamuyiwa attests to the psychological meaning of the bridge solidifying its central position in his work, not only its function as the connection between Lagos’s Victoria Island and mainland. Also featuring images that abstract the various texts (signs, advertisements, logos, etc…) of the city, Monochrome Lagos, hints at a dialogue between word and image that could re-envision the working structures of the photo-essay.

Remi- 31 December City Hall 2015

Perhaps the only element of this project that confirms to reigning expectations of Lagos is the tremendous number of narratives it represents—to date it includes more than 200 photographs. Yet, because Oluwamuyiwa frames this project as simultaneously a digital archive and poetic process, such numbers seem well suited to its location on platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. This decision also positions Monochrome Lagos quite uniquely: its aesthetic treatment of mundane objects as social sculptures is reminiscent of fine art photographer Edson Chagas’ “Found Not Taken” series in Luanda, yet its unifying mission also brings to mind Fati Abubakar’s viral Bits of Borno Instagram project. In a recent conversation with Tate curator Shoair Mavlian, Oluwamuyiwa spoke to the importance of Monochrome Lagos’s photographic lineage and social impact online. He stated, “the urban space is inexhaustible in its narratives” — a sentiment one can undoubtedly perceive through every image in this series, as well as its collective bearing on larger visual discourses of Lagos.

Remi- 8 Oct 2014 Waka about behavior

Oluwamuyiwa’s first exhibition in the United Kingdom, “It’s Also a Solo Journey,” is on view at News of the World until 22 May 2016. This exhibition forms part of the first session of Future Assembly, a London-based artists’ development program for emerging practitioners from Africa and its diaspora, founded by Hansi Momodu-Gordon, and co-curated with Orla Houston-Jibo.

Could Angola have prevented its yellow fever epidemic?

Angola is in the midst of a yellow fever outbreak that has caught worldwide attention. Between December 5, 2015 and Monday of this week the World Health Organization reported 298 deaths and the majority of these have occurred in the capital city of Luanda. While this is the official figure, the actual number of deaths is likely much higher. Many of those who are ill never make it to a hospital or a health clinic.

The rapid spread of this rare, but deadly, disease — which can be prevented with the administration of a highly effective vaccine — is part of “ordinary,” “everyday” life in post-war African countries. As in post-war Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea where Ebola claimed the lives of many in 2014 (and is reportedly rising again), Angola suffers from a shortage of hospitals and hospital beds, clinics, doctors, nurses, trained technicians, vaccines, tests, and testing facilities. Like other countries that have experienced long civil conflicts (Angola’s conflict, which only ended in 2002, lasted for 27 years and was preceded by 14 years of anti-colonial war), the country presently does not have the capacity to deal with “the extraordinary” such as a yellow fever outbreak.

Diagnostic capacity is also weak in post-conflict Angola. An assessment conducted by Norway’s Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) in 2011 of the ability of health care workers to correctly diagnose a number of common illnesses in Angola produced alarming findings. Using patient simulation cases whereby health workers were asked to make a diagnosis based on a set of common symptoms exhibited by a hypothetical patient, CMI found that half the time, diagnoses by a sample of health workers in Luanda were incorrect.

Two thirds of the time, health workers in Uíge, a city in the northeast of Angola, incorrectly diagnosed simulated cases of acute diarrhea with dehydration, malaria, pneumonia and other “typical” diseases.

The health care system in Angola may be even worse off than many other post war countries because the usual assortment of humanitarian aid from non-governmental organizations and donors that arrives after a conflict have barely materialized. After helping to bring under control a terrible outbreak of Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic fever almost as deadly as Ebola, Medecins Sans Frontières reportedly packed up and closed its offices in Angola in 2007.

In December, 2015, USAID officials in Luanda indicated to me that they were facing budget cuts which would likely affect American aid to Angola’s health sector.  Indeed, USAID’s projected budget in Angola for 2017 indicates a reduction of 17% available revenue over the past two years. At the same time, it doesn’t appear that USAID has shifted its funding priorities in response to the recent yellow fever outbreak. Its webpage for Angola — last updated two months ago — makes no mention of support for addressing the outbreak of yellow fever.

The paltry overseas development assistance for post-war Angola is lamentable, but in another respect, the current health crisis is very much a crisis of the Angolan government’s own making. It is a product of lavish spending on the wrong projects, conceived and completed in the wrong order in the 14 years since civil conflict ended in 2002. It is the result of top down decisions regarding public spending priorities by government officials cloistered away in air conditioned offices and luxury residential enclaves. According to the World Bank, health care accounted for only 3.6% of the government’s budget on average from 2011-2015 compared with 6% of the budget in Mozambique and 11% in Sierra Leone, two other post war countries.

As the many public billboards dotted around the city of Luanda are keen to stress, the government has financed new housing projects, built new hospitals, supplied water, and extended and repaired road networks. All of these developments arguably improve public health. But the upgrading of informal urban settlements, rather than building from scratch, would have been more cost effective and benefitted a larger number of residents. Also much government expenditure since the end of the war has been on the symbolic instruments of power rather than on the ordinary necessities of urban life. It has been directed at constructing the new legislature, built to resemble the US Capitol, or the new Palace of Justice, inaugurated in 2012.

The current crisis is also the consequence of a failure to reorganize budgetary allocations when the oil boom turned to a bust last year. In the wake of the collapse in oil prices, foreign currency, which is critical to the purchase of imported goods such as medicines, has dried up. The kwanza has lost a third of its value in relation to the dollar over the last year and informal exchange rates are even lower. Angola’s GDP is half what it was two years ago. But that doesn’t seem to have affected the continued appropriation of a large percentage of the state’s revenue by the elite, while the rest of the country suffers.

Luanda is particularly hard hit by dwindling revenues: a quarter of the country’s total population lives in the capital in overcrowded, informal housing. Many residents lack reliable access to safe drinking water and sanitation is often inadequate. In some areas, garbage collection seems to have ceased. All of these conditions facilitate the rapid transmission of disease. Fiscal austerity means less revenue to construct and repair storm drains, which would help control the breeding of mosquitoes. It means less money for continued improvements to infrastructure such as water distribution and sewerage systems. It means less money to pay for garbage collection, road building, and most of all, convenient, fully staffed, public health clinics with proper labs.

The strains on residents of Luanda (not to mention those living in rural and urban areas in the rest of the country where health facilities are fewer in number and even less well supplied), must be great. Reports of two to three hour commutes to get to the nearest hospital and long waiting periods to be seen by physicians abound. At government expense, seven million people in and around Luanda have received yellow fever vaccinations, but the virus is spreading and the supply of available vaccines is insufficient to cover the rest of the country. Now the virus has been reported in Democratic Republic of Congo and there is a real threat of transmission to Namibia and Zambia. Recently, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that the yellow fever outbreak could become a “global emergency,” owing to the shortage of vaccines. Not surprisingly, such claims by a respected medical journal have generated a mild moral panic and been repeated by major news media such as The Economist. Sadly, in spite of the high number of deaths, the Angolan government has yet to declare this tragedy even a “national emergency.”

The state of Nigeria’s (live) music industry

momentFans at Gidi Music Festival

With the burst of Afrobeats on to the international scene, much of the world now looks to the Nigerian music industry as the leading charge to establish a permanent African presence on the global pop landscape. In spite of these successes, several players in the local entertainment industry have identified bottlenecks in the Nigerian music scene, and are looking at ways to improve the business that surrounds it.

On a recent trip to Lagos for Gidi Music Festival, I was fortunate to have two separate yet overlapping conversations about the state of the Nigerian music industry. Chin Okeke and Teme Banigo, co-founders of Gidi Music Festival, explained to me that they are trying to raise the bar in terms of music performance in Nigeria. They are doing this by prioritizing live acts over pre-recorded and playback sets.

For those who don’t know, it is rare in much of Africa to see a festival line-up of both established and up and coming artists performing with a full band. On the contrary at Gidi Music Festival, this was a common occurrence. To add to their successes promoting live music through the festival, Chin and Teme’s longer term goals also include opening up mid-sized venues to expand the live music offerings in Nigeria.

Later on my trip I spoke to Jenny Tan, co-founder of Lagos Music Conference, a 2-day event taking place in Lagos this weekend. Jenny’s thoughts illustrate that the conference is sure to stir up a lot of debates in regards to how music is handled both in and outside of Nigeria.

DBanjD’Banj at Gidi Music Festival

The following interview excerpts contain highlights from these two discussions:

What’s the live music landscape in Nigeria today?

Chin: There’s a lack of infrastructure. What was here in the 1960s and 1970s has been entirely dilapidated. We’re now building up. Most events are sponsorship-driven. If you look at the event space, you’ve got weddings, normally one person foots the bill, or if it’s a branded event, the brand foots the bill. Technically, it doesn’t generate money.

What about venues?

Jenny: There are no medium size venues, so if you’re not an A-list artist, and want to go on a national tour, it’s really difficult. In Lagos you might just about find something, but outside Lagos it becomes really difficult, because either you are looking at stadiums or you’re looking at clubs.

Chin: There’s a lack of venues, we have hotels and tents, some can seat 2,000 people. There are no arenas, and this is an area we want to move into quickly. Right now we’re working on a site that we don’t own [for Gidi festival], but we want to look into acquiring land and building it up, developing the festival and around the festival.

What about promoters?

Jenny: There are also no promoters: not many artists pull a crowd; fans are not particularly loyal or specialized. Mainstream music does not have die-hard fans, so most artists alone are not able to pull a crowd. So if a promoter wants to put on a show, they have to bring the big guns, which you can only do with big sponsors.

Chin: We don’t have promoters in Nigeria because we don’t have enough venues. The cost of putting together a production at the venues we have can never make sense if you look at the numbers. Renting out Eko hotel costs US$80,000, it seats 3,000 people, so if you charge US$50, the numbers never add up.

Jenny: Our system is kind of broken. As a promoter, you look at the potential revenue you can make. You budget about 50% on production, and 30% is supposed to go to the artists. If you were to book talent and apply this formula, nobody can put together an event here, because the artists are too expensive to support the industry. There’s a real disconnect between money they expect and the money they would get without a sponsor.

So the only way to make it work is to do it with sponsors, and I imagine this approach has its own challenges?

Chin: Most brands don’t get it. Their idea of success and their criteria are so warped, because they pay attention to the wrong details. Some brands just want their logo on a flyer, they’re not about creating an experience. Then you have brands who are just interested in the 20 VIP tickets.

Teme: we have brands of consumer goods more interested in the red carpet aspect, instead of their customers’ experience.

Chin: for Heineken, all I had to do was show the brand manager a few things trending, she saw how much engagement had come from a simple event. They do more research, pay attention to the customer experience. Rather than just ask to have their logo everywhere.

Jenny: 90% of events are branded shows. The promoters are the sponsors, they mostly care about banners, VIP seats for the management teams, etc. Nobody cares about the experience.

Yemi AladeYemi Alade at Gidi Music Festival

It sounds like this system doesn’t push the music or experience?

Jenny: There’s no curation of content. Recently a promoter tried to convince me to put so and so on the bill for an event I was organizing, “otherwise people won’t come”. As opposed to saying for instance, we just want the real hip hop fans, and you put together a hip hop line up. Then you’ve got the hip hop crowd. But what we see is a little bit of everything, and the die hard fans don’t want to go, because they will feel like they’re wasting their time and money.

The fact that people never have a great time, and never share a great experience with fellow fans, makes people not want to attend shows. Most shows start late, drag on til late, it makes it costly or dangerous to go home. It’s a mostly shitty experience to go to a large event. Sometimes they run out of drinks, or don’t even sell drinks altogether. Not to mention security guys treating every single people in attendance like they’re football hooligans, girls getting harassed or robbed. So the overall experience is… not great.

Chin: As long as there are people like us ready to up the game, it will continue to grow. Not as fast as we wish because there aren’t enough platforms, but it’s growing.

Teme: In Nigeria we have an environment where we copy success, so as we grow, people look at our model and try to mimic it. If you even look at what’s happened since we started Gidi Festival, we’ve literally seen other events now calling themselves festivals! So I feel that as our model becomes more and more successful, the industry will lean towards this model of live entertainment. I think artists will now be forced to have a live act that will be more attractive to promoters like us.

It sounds like you all agree that Nigeria needs good promoters and more variety in music?

Chin: The industry is evolving, people are watching, production’s gone a long way. But again there’s a lot of top line and very little bottom line. Everybody’s running with it, it looks great, but there’s very little underneath. Everything sounds the same, so the next wave will be stuff that sounds different, that’s what people will be buying into, just because the other stuff is not sticking anymore. Right now I think we just need a few more people to guide the industry, to be responsible for taking decisions, for deciding what is good or bad, what needs to be done. There’s a storm brewing, there’s the mainstream and there is the stream which influences the main. That’s the idea behind the Collective.

Teme: the audience can now be critical, once they’ve been exposed to better, they can be more critical.

Jenny: When I did parties in New York City, we wouldn’t promote on a Clear Channel radio, we’d promote through the scene. Same thing goes for the music at LMC festival. We’ll drill down social media analytics, we’ll find fans who commented on Kid X’s content, we’ll geotarget, then we’ll let these people know the artist is in town. With a line-up of 15 artists, if you find the fans, if each artist pulls 100 fans, then we can pull a crowd. We don’t need to speak to everybody.

What we are doing this weekend is pioneering in a totally different way, we have booked a non-commercial, non-mainstream line up, but it’s not aspiring artists, it’s good music, it’s curated to fit together. I’m now going to have to prove that it is in fact possible to pull a crowd specific to a genre, and prove that curation can help fill the space.

Student protests and postapartheid South Africa’s negative moment

The political theorist Achille Mbembe, from the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, describes South Africa as experiencing a “negative moment.” Though protest and dissatisfaction with the terms of the “new” South Africa have been brewing for some time, there is a strong sense that the black majority is losing patience with the ruling African National Congress. The student protests, which engulfed campuses for much of 2015, while limited by its narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.

South Africa’s democratic system is twenty-two years old. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), once a liberation movement, has been transformed into an ordinary political party encumbered by an election cycle mentality, and the largesse of the state. The party also presents a paradox: Dissatisfaction with it and government are at all time highs. Much of the rancor is reserved for the country’s president, Jacob Zuma (2009-), whose regime is associated with the widespread corruption of state institutions and party structures. Yet, the ANC continues to command electoral majorities nationally, and holds executive power in eight of the nine provinces. The exception is the Western Cape, governed by an opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. The ANC also controls all major metros, i.e. large cities, except for one (Cape Town, also run by the DA).

Because of the relative weakness of opposition parties, the fragmentation of the opposition landscape more generally, and the ANC’s continued national dominance, the preferred forms of political opposition are street protests, including wildcat strikes, by workers.

Protests and disruptions are not new in the “new” South Africa.  But after an initial honeymoon period (which concluded with the retirement of Nelson Mandela from elected office), protests become synonymous with democratic politics in South African politics.

Between 1999 and 2003, those protests took the form of either service delivery protests or more well organized “social movements.” The former were very local, often spontaneous, mostly parochial, short-lived struggles over housing, electricity and housing evictions. The latter were more planned, media savvy, drew on the language of struggle, allied to the ANC, brought back the language of the antiapartheid struggle and asserted new constitutional rights. The movement for access to affordable AIDS drugs and treatment, led by the Treatment Action Campaign is the best example. The TAC produced what was South Africa first post-apartheid, progressive—and crucially multiracial and national—movement outside the ANC and the trade unions, and forced concessions from the state through the court system.

By the mid to late 2000s, more sporadic, and very violent protests, characterized by retaliatory police violence became ubiquitous. Police violence against protesters were commonplace, so was the security services spying on activists.

But throughout this period, the ANC retained its legitimacy as the guarantor of the post-apartheid settlement. By this I mean the series of political, social and economic deals in which the racial inequalities of Apartheid and wealth disparities largely remain intact and which benefits whites in general. South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world with high levels of unemployment, much of it structural, disproportionately concentrated within the black labor force.  At the same time, the ANC promised a better life to black South Africa. To some extent they’ve delivered on it: 45% of households now receive some form of social assistance, more children are enrolled in schools and the government has embarked on an ambitious affirmative action project, creating a black middle class numerically equal the size of the white population.

Then came the fateful events in August 2012 at Marikana, a mine owned by a British multinational in which the country’s current deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a non executive board member. Police—under pressure from the mine company and the minister of police—murdered 34 striking mine workers in broad daylight.  The events shocked South Africa though it, crucially, didn’t result in mass protests. The government subsequently held a public commission which disappointingly did not hold anyone specific accountable, but its symbolism wasn’t lost on South Africans and South Africa watchers. As Dan Magaziner and I wrote on “The Atlantic” magazine’s website in 2012: Though public discourse in South Africa refuse to acknowledge this, Marikana also marked the end of South African exceptionalism. South Africa’s problems are no longer specific to the apartheid legacy, but about more global issues of poverty and inequality, labor rights, corporate responsibility and the behavior of multinational corporations.

In subsequent national and provincial elections in 2014, the ANC retained its electoral majority, but the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), formed merely a few months earlier, gained about 6% of the national vote. Since then, the EFF has replaced the Democratic Alliance as the effective parliamentary opposition in the public’s mind.  They use a mix of carnival (they dress like Chavistas), mass protests (they succeeded in getting 50,000 people to march from downtown Johannesburg to the city’s financial quarter where banks and the stock exchange is located) to disrupting parliamentary politics (getting kicked out of the chamber, shouting for President Zuma “to pay back the money” and publicly mocking his association with a wealthy business family).

The student protests are a reflection of this wider unease.

South Africa has 23 public universities, which includes some technikons since upgraded to university status. Most students in higher education institutions are black—a result of the new government’s expansion of college access. While students at historically black universities (like Tshwane University of Technology or the University of the Western Cape) had been protesting over fees and outsourcing of service jobs on campuses, it would be protests over symbols at UCT and Rhodes that would kickstart the student movement. In March, at UCT, students protested the prominence of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a divisive colonial figure, while at Rhodes they objected to the name of the university.  Those protests morphed into demands for more diverse faculty and to “decolonize” curriculums.

By midyear, the protests linked up with trade unions opposing outsourcing on campuses, and by year end they demanded, first, a freeze on fees increases, and simultaneously free, public higher education. In late October 2015, after students had marched to his office in the capital Pretoria, Zuma announced there would be no fee increase. The movement was distinctive for its use of social media, highlighting patriarchy and sexual abuse in black movement politics, openly questioning the hegemony of the ANC and the failure of the new South Africa to deal with racial and class inequality.

Since the end of 2015, as the essayist TO Molefe (who is sympathetic to the students) has noted in “World Policy Journal,” the student movements have stalled somewhat: “Revolution as becoming isn’t only about what society and individuals should become; the protesters mostly appear to have that part down pat. They want freedom, for real this time, for themselves and those like them. But there is also this perhaps most important question at the center of this principle: How do you co-exist with those whose outsized power you’ve just overthrown?”

Similarly, the insistence on horizontal forms of organization, may hamstrung the students: Everyone is a leader.  There is no national, coordinated structure, but a series of movements and allies that draw on student groups, the youth wings of mainstream political parties and SRC’s. As a result, groups like the EFF and the even smaller PAC, a black nationalist party that is relatively marginalized in both liberation and postapartheid politics, have made comebacks among students.

Black racial solidarity is foregrounded in some cases (the movements at UCT and Wits University inhibit white student involvement), but obscures differences in the issues faced by students depending on where they are located in the class structure that is South Africa’s higher education system. The issues and conditions of a black student at UWC is very different from her counterpart at UCT. Similarly, the state has employed significantly more violence in its response to protests at historically black universities where there’s less media coverage and very little middle class outrage.

Then there’s the terminology. The students prefer “decolonization” to “transformation,” the latter preferred by the state and university administrations. But even then, “decolonization” remains an elusive term. It is a big catchall, encompassing symbolic politics, white supremacy, curriculum, patriarchy, demands for diverse faculty, language politics, fees and free public higher education, among others.

Currently, students on some of the elite campuses (most notably Wits, UCT and to some extent Rhodes) are embroiled in internecine battles over sexuality, gender and class.

Finally, and this is a crucial point, less we overstate the extent of this rebellion:  The students represent a minority. South Africa’s labor force is characterized by low numbers of college graduates. There are only about one million students enrolled in the university sector out of a population of 54,9 million people. This raises the question of the linkages of these student movements to the larger unease in the society or to link up with causes and groups beyond campuses.

Nevertheless, the student protests coupled with the growing appeal of the EFF and the restructuring of the trade union movement (the largest union federation split) represent an interesting political moment for South Africa. Until now the most vocal opponents of the ANC government in the public sphere were middle class whites.  What the student protests have achieved is perhaps point to a possible break in the ANC’s middle class black support (who up until now was solidly for the ruling party) and that, more than street protests in faraway townships, they represent a greater threat to the ANC’s hegemony and, more crucially, the party political system.

* This essay was first published in the May issue of the Africa Workshop Newsletter of the American Political Science Association. The issue focused on the politics of higher education in Africa.

‘Fantastically Corrupt’

British Prime Minister David Cameron told Queen Elizabeth II this week that Nigeria and Afghanistan were “fantastically corrupt.” Make no mistake, Nigeria and Afghanistan are corrupt. It’s just ironic coming from Cameron, a beneficiary of tax dodging. But beyond Twitter banter, there is a case to be made that it is actually the UK (and other western countries) that are at the center of the global corruption nightmare. Corruption then, much like beauty, seems to lie in the eyes of the beholder.  So who’s the most corrupt of them all? We try to figure this out this week. But like beauty it’s complicated.

(1) First up, where in the world did David Cameron get the idea that Nigeria and Afghanistan were some of the most corrupt countries in the world (and by implication the UK was squeaky clean)? Well, having only a few seconds with the Queen, Cameron didn’t go into the finer details of referencing his source. But we think he got this idea from the famous Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) that’s been reported every year since 1995 by Transparency International. For 2015, the CPI ranked a 167 countries from least corrupt (number 1) to most corrupt (number 167). Nigeria and Afghanistan were ranked 136 and 166 respectively. Cameron’s the UK was ranked 10th.   

So going by the CPI Cameron is right, right? Well, what Cameron doesn’t know (or pretends not to know) is that the CPI is riddled with serious methodological problems that raise questions about its usefulness. We cover some of these below.

(2) Much like a beauty pageant with judges subjectively scoring nervous contestants, the CPI is derived by asking “experts” on their “perceptions” of corruption in different countries. And who are these experts, we hear you ask? Alex Cobham of the Tax Justice Network has a useful listing:

[A] group of country economists,” “recognized country experts,” “two experts per country,” “experts based primarily in London (but also in New York, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai) who are supported by a global network of in-country specialists,” “staff and consultants,” “over 100 in-house country specialists, who also draw on the expert opinions of in-country freelancers, clients and other contacts,” “4,200 business executives,” “100 business executives … in each country,” “staff,” “100 business executives from 30 different countries/territories,” “staff (experts),” “100 business executives per country/territory,”…

So the CPI is obtained by aggregating the noise of a tiny set of global elites whose opinions are likely shaped by what they read in elite Western media or those stories brought back home by John from his recent business trip to “Ayngola”.

If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to attend a cocktail party, then you know that the global elite are not known for having diverse opinions, let alone original ones.

(3) So what happens when the opinions of a global globetrotting elite are stacked up against those of the everyday citizen, the type of citizen the elite are trying to protect from corruption? Well, you get a vastly different picture. Here’s Alex Cobham once more:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the view changes when the experiences of a group of a country’s citizens are considered instead of restricting the view to elite perceptions only. [University of Minnesota law professor Stuart Vincent] Campbell writes that, in contrast to the CPI ranking which in 2010 put Brazil 69th, behind Italy and Rwanda, “The 2010 Global Corruption Barometer [based on a broader survey of Brazilian citizens] found that only 4 percent of Brazilians had paid a bribe, which is a lower percentage of bribe-givers than the survey found in the United States or any other country in Latin America.

(4) It’s this increasing awareness of the uselessness of perceptions-based measures that’s led the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to call for a rethinking of how we measure corruption particularly in Africa:

The current predominantly perceptions-based measures of corruption are flawed and fail to provide a credible assessment of the dimensions of the problem in Africa…The present report calls upon African countries and partners to move away from purely perceptions-based measures of corruption and to focus instead on approaches to measuring corruption that are fact-based and built on more objective quantitative criteria.

(5) Back to David Cameron and his gaffe: President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria reacted to it by saying he didn’t want an apology from Cameron. All he wanted was a return of stolen Nigerian assets held in British banks, suggesting that Britain was itself a facilitator of corruption. But is Buhari right?

(6) Here’s economist Jeffrey Sachs writing in the Guardian this past week:

The UK and the US are at center of the system of global abuse. Britain created the modern world of global finance in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Wall Street became co-leader with the City of London after the second world war. In both countries, hundreds of thousands of lawyers, bankers, hedge fund operators, politicians, accountants and regulators have consciously built a system of global tax havens of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich that now hosts more than US$20tn (yes, trillion) of funds hiding from taxes, law authorities, environmental regulation and accountability.

  (7) Or according to the Brookings Institution:

For those seeking secret shelters and corporate shells, the mighty U.S. (which unsurprisingly doesn’t feature much in the Panama Papers) is one of the world’s most appealing destinations: Setting up a shell corporation in Delaware, for instance, requires less background information than obtaining a driver’s license… And the U.K. is an important enabler of corruption: It has stood by as its offshore jurisdictions and protectorates operate as safe havens for illicit wealth, which the Panama Papers make clear. The British Virgin Islands, for example, were the favored location for thousands of shell companies set up by Mossack Fonseca.

(8) Friends, no matter how hard you try, those US$5 “gift payments” you made to the police officers at the last checkpoint will never come close to the type of grand-scale corruption detailed in (6) and (7).

(9) And let nobody cheat you that tax havens serve some type of justifiable economic purpose. They don’t. It’s just good old fashioned theft.   

(10) Oh, by the way, as we mentioned at the outset that the Honorable David Cameron is himself a beneficiary of tax dodging?

Yes, the whole thing’s a mess. Our heads are also spinning. We best leave it here. Here’s to wishing everybody a corrupt free week.

Africa’s Premier League

Africa is a Country is excited to present to you, loyal reader, the Kickstarter campaign for our very first full-length documentary film project.

It’s called “Africa’s Premier League,” it’s going to be a blast, and we’d love to have you on board.

Here’s the lowdown:

Africa is obsessed with the English Premier League. The continent may be divided by old colonial borders, thousands of different languages, and major cultural, political and economic differences. But Africa is united every weekend around the spectacle of English football. Love it or hate it, it’s one of the things that brings people together.

The everyday lives of Africa’s football fans are all different. Yet they share a long-distance love affair, with all the hopes, fears, joys and sadness that comes with it.

If it’s not Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame taking time out to tweet his views on his beloved Arsenal (or TB Joshua making “prophecies” about upcoming matches), then it’s the millions of ordinary Africans across the continent who are glued to TV sets in bars and bespoke viewing centres, from tiny villages to heaving mega-cities like Lagos or Kinshasa.

We want to show, in depth and detail, exactly how English football fits into the ordinary lives of African supporters.

Our film will tell the story of Africa’s passion for the English Premier League, through the eyes of the fans themselves.

Here’s the trailer:

If you love what we’ve been doing at Africa is a Country all these years — bringing you that fresh, incisive analysis of African politics and culture — you’ll love AFRICA’S PREMIER LEAGUE. We’ve never asked our readers for money before, but we need your support in getting this project off the ground.

AFRICA’S PREMIER LEAGUE follows four fans – in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Congo – as they live through the highs and lows of a football season, and explores the overwhelming attraction of English football in Africa.

AFRICA’S PREMIER LEAGUE will be a feature-length documentary film, a web series & a TV series.

With your help, we will take our crucial first step: making a high quality short teaser film on the life of an EPL fanatic in Cape Town, South Africa. We’ll use that to win big backers and distribution for the full-length project.

To help us, go donate here.

This film is about revolution

In the five years since the start of the so-called “Arab Spring,” as poverty, repression, and extremism have continued to impact daily life throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a civil revolution has quietly flourished, one that is complex, creative and marked by discontent. There is, of course, no simple way of describing, or even of dating recent revolutionary movements in the region. When did they begin, and is it remotely accurate to suggest that they have “succeeded” when, in many instances, the status quo remains seemingly undisturbed? Western media outlets may appear to crave simplistic accounts of revolution in the global South, imposing grand narratives as they cover major (typically violent) events, and implicitly suggesting the cessation of revolution by bringing reporters back from a seemingly stabilizing field and discouraging further coverage.

That journalistic accounts of the Arab Spring are now difficult to come by, at least compared with the glut of such accounts in 2011, is one reason westerners may suspect that Arab League countries are now characterized by an emphatically “post-revolutionary” moment – an experience of relative calm. Another, thornier reason may have something to do with the sheer difficulty of defining “revolution” in the first place, particularly in those parts of the world where multiple modes of censorship reign. Who, ultimately, can speak with authority on recent events in Egypt, and, more importantly, how?

Egyptian protesters try to tear down a cement wall built to prevent them from reaching parliament and the Cabinet building near Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2012. Egypt’s black-clad riot police fired tear gas in fierce dawn clashes with dozens of protesters. The violence which was soothed hours later in central Cairo comes on eve of the second anniversary of Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising, which toppled longtime authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. (AP Photo/Hussein Tallal)Egyptian protesters try to tear down a cement wall built to prevent them from reaching parliament and the Cabinet building near Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2012. Image Credit: Hussein Tallal (AP Photo)

Egyptian filmmakers are, at present, in a particularly complicated position, whether they remain in Egypt or live abroad. With European festivals and funding sources still clamoring for anything that smacks of an “authentic” representation of the Arab Spring, it is almost axiomatic that, by including the word “revolution” in a film’s title or description, Egyptian filmmakers will receive attention, financing and even major awards for their efforts, whatever their practical and ideological relationships to revolutionary action. Emerging from this exoticizing interest in the “Arab Spring” are, inevitably, certain prescriptions for filmmaking – dominant ideas about what, exactly, a documentary on the subject must “be” or “do.”

Jehane Noujaim’s rapturously received The Square (2013), which enjoys the imprimatur of both Netflix (its distributor) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which nominated it for the Best Documentary Oscar), is emblematic of the type of film that embraces a charismatic cast of characters through which it frames, personalizes, and even seeks to “master” history. Indeed, The Square presents its protagonists not just as characters in a drama but as individuals with arcs – psychologized trajectories that help the film to narrate the revolution as a living organism with a spectacular birth, awkward adolescence and troubled adulthood. Thus, when the glamorous Ahmed Hassan, having taken a long, luxurious drag on his cigarette, turns to the camera and says, “Let me tell you how this whole story began,” the confident sweep of his declaration references both his intimate self-knowledge and his expansive comprehension of Egyptian revolutionary events. The viewer is expected to trust Hassan’s account of these events as a reflection not simply of his own lived experiences but also of a certain command of history – of how, precisely, “this whole story began.”

filming revolutionImage Credit: Suhaib Salem (Reuters)

Shadowed by the global critical success of The Square are numerous documentaries that take a dramatically different approach, many of them by refusing mention of the “Arab Spring” and instead centralizing the struggle to produce creative works during altogether confusing and contradictory revolutionary times.

“It will hit you without warning, and simply carry you away.” sings Gil Scott-Heron in “Third World Revolution.” For filmmaker and scholar Alisa Lebow, such carrying away might well describe the experiences of the participants in her project Filming Revolution, many of whom claim to have moved past the point at which they could conceivably offer any easy answers or linear narratives to explain revolutionary movements, whether to outsiders or to themselves.

 

Described as “a meta-documentary about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution,” Lebow’s project has culminated in a website that brings together filmed interviews with 30 Egyptian filmmakers, artists, activists, and archivists, along with examples of key creative works. An illustration of what Lebow calls “interactive documentary,” the website allows users to make their own connections among its thematically organized components, inscribing idiosyncratic research pathways either anonymously or by logging on via Twitter. The site thus positions visitors not as passive recipients of the sort of knowledge that in conventional documentary fashion The Square seeks to construct and impart, but as active agents in an ongoing struggle to scrutinize the innumerable, unheralded intersections between art and activism in Egypt.

Filming Revolution began as a curated set of films for the Istanbul Film Festival, at a time when Lebow was hoping to bring together any audiovisual works remotely related to the term “Arab Spring.” She was also struggling to contextualize Egyptian revolutionary films in relation to earlier examples of revolutionary documentary and documentary-style fiction, from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967) to Patricio Guzmán’s three-part The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979). Eventually opting to move beyond the practical and ideological limitations of both the film-festival circuit and the scholarly monograph, Lebow traveled to Egypt in December 2013 and began conducting interviews there. Arriving just four months after the Rabaa massacre, Lebow encountered what she called “revolutionary fatigue” – a distinctive feeling of lethargy occasioned, in part, by Egypt’s recent state of emergency and associated curfew.

 

Many of Lebow’s interviewees, selected because they had participated as Egyptians in various revolutionary actions, claimed to be adamantly opposed to the notion that a film could adequately capture, let alone communicate, the fervor of revolution. In interviews accessible on Lebow’s website, they eloquently convey their aversion to tendentious filmmaking strategies – those that disingenuously present revolution as narratable, generating documentaries that are taken to be authoritative examples of historiography, rather than works that question received knowledge, including about documentary itself. In its rhizomatic dimensions, Filming Revolution is an endlessly stimulating index of Egyptian creative practices, and a profound challenge to anyone willing to offer a tidy description of what mainstream journalists continue to call “the Arab Spring.”

No place like home for the “go-home blacks”

When an African is forced to leave home – from Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea or any other country where their lives may be endangered – they know the risks. They know they may find themselves trapped in a refugee camp, waiting often for years to find permanent residence. They know they face a minimum of a month-long trip across the Sahara, called “bahr bila ma” (the sea without water), before reaching the Mediterranean. They know they may get lost in this desert, or run out of water and be forced to drink Benzene. They know they may be held for ransom, and tortured by the smugglers hired, supposedly, to escort them to safety.

If they make it to countries with ports, like Morocco, Algeria or Libya, many live in forest encampments, working multiple jobs to fund the trip across the sea before being extorted again. And once they arrive in Europe, if they haven’t perished at sea, they’re often branded mere economic migrants and are refused asylum before being deported back to the place they fled. Desperate, many will take the trip again across the Mediterranean. And many more follow them.

A recent report reveals there’s been an 80% increase in the number of refugees arriving in Italy compared to the first three months of 2015, with Nigerians, Gambians and Senegalese making up the largest numbers of asylum seekers.

The experience of the typical African refugee is one of rejection, inevitable denials of asylum, and being confronted by persistent anti-African sentiment. Despite this, and the fact that Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali are among the top 10 countries that people are fleeing, Africans are still largely erased from the discussion around the refugee crisis. Instead they pad the ballooning numbers of victims and receive little support in return.

This kind of erasure is not limited to countries in western Europe, where many African refugees first land. We’re seeing similar patterns here in Canada. In late March, when the new federal government revealed its budget, it included a commitment of $245-million to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, which is in addition to the 25,000 it had already fast-tracked. We support this action and many other Africans do as well, but something’s wrong with this picture.

Many will say that Syria produces the largest number of refugees and so, they deserve preference. It’s certainly true that Syria ranks as the most affected, but, while we remain in solidarity with all displaced people, we shouldn’t practice a first-past-the-post humanitarianism. Africans are a part of this crisis and if the federal government will make commitments to some it should make them to all.

If you want to privately sponsor a refugee in Canada, there are currently no limits for Syrians. This is also commendable, but Africans face the detrimental effects of caps on private sponsorships and incredibly long delays (often years) in the processing of their applications. Not only have applications of specifically African refugees been put on hold, but also some refugee offices such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto have begun turning away new applications submitted on behalf of African refugees. There are reports of families separated, with children waiting for years in refugee camps while their parents are settled in Canada. The longest delays are for the 18 African countries covered by the Nairobi visa office. Most privately sponsored refugees through that office wait more than three years, and, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “rather than increasing the numbers of African refugees to be admitted, the Canadian government has asked private sponsors to submit fewer applications at the Nairobi office.”

Canada’s response to refugees has become less global, neutral, and principled and more targeted. It’s within this selection process that African refugees are systematically excluded. It leaves many marginalized populations outside of the dialogue, further dehumanizing them. If and when these refugees finally reach Canada, they’re usually offered loans to help cover the costs of transportation fees, medical services, and sometimes even first month’s rent. These loans, which are typically paid with interest, are often as high as $10,000. Paying them back means working longer hours and postponing their education in a new country. In contrast, Syrian refugees arriving in Canada after November 4  don’t have to pay back their loans.

Last year, when those images of toddler Aylan Kurdi made it to the front pages of the world’s papers, we were as moved as anybody. And when rallies in support of refugees across the globe were organized, we supported and marched as well. But the truth is that some of us have seen images of washed up African toddlers for years. For some of us, Kurdi was one of many. For some of us, the rousing call from governments and settlement organizations and community groups of “refugees welcome”, was welcome but surprising, as there has been no such commotion when Africans drowned. Indeed, we wonder, with anger and disappointment, why the settler-colonial, Canadian state and our own allies remain silent as Africans continue to die; why we have been rendered what the poet Warsan Shire calls “the go home blacks.”

Reading maps, the interventionist state and another $15 billion missing from Nigeria’s government

This week is about charts.

(1) First up, is the chart below from the newly launched Global Consumption and Income Project (GCIP) spearheaded by Professor Sanjay Reddy of the New School for Social Research. (We’ve written before about Professor Reddy’s work challenging the World Bank’s poverty estimates here.) The chart shows levels of income inequality across African countries for the year 2014 (most recent year with available data). Inequality is measured using the Gini Coefficient which measures inequality on a scale of zero to one. (A Gini closer to zero means low inequality while that closer to one means high inequality.)

Surprisingly, Nigeria, with a Gini of 0.4883, has the lowest level of inequality on the continent. Unsurprisingly, South Africa, with a Gini of 0.6624, has the highest inequality measure on the continent. The other countries fall somewhere in between these two extreme cases.

chart 1

(2) The second chart, just below, digs into the underlying factors behind South Africa’s high inequality. First published by The Economist in December 2013 (after Nelson Mandela’s death), it shows, among other things, the evolution of average incomes per person across different racial groups in South Africa from 1917 to 2011. The first takeaway from the chart is that before the official ending of apartheid in 1994, average incomes for whites rose at rates that were considerably higher than those of other racial groups (see the blue line) – unsurprising as this was Apartheid’s main aim. The second takeaway is that the “freedom bonus” largely accrued to whites only – their average incomes nearly doubled over the period 1994 to 2011. This too is unsurprising as the opening up of South Africa’s economy after 1994 was only going to benefit those who had previously been privileged in accumulating capital (real estate, land, equity, savings, etcetera) and skills.

The chart is a great antidote to those who think history doesn’t matter in South Africa. We are especially looking at you, yes you, the choir that likes to sing the “black people are just lazy” song. (H/T to Josh Budlender on Twitter)

chart 2

(3) The next chart is taken from Afrobarometer and shows issues that are of most concern to the everyday African across 36 countries (the survey was conducted in 2014 and 2015). The most cited issue of concern is unemployment, followed by health and education. (H/T to Carlos Lopes on Twitter)

chart 3

That’s on maps for now.

(4) Naturally, we wanted to find out whether the concerns raised in number (3) are reflected in the kind of research questions that economists working on Africa are asking. And what better place to look than the Economic Development in Africa Conference held every year at Oxford University and billed as the premier conference for economists working on the continent (yes, we’ve blogged before about how troubling it is that this conference is held in Oxford). Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development went to the 2013 edition and conducted an analysis of the focus areas of the papers presented that year. He split his analysis based on whether the economist was African (i.e. African-based) or non-African. Sandefur found that:

African scholars [were] disproportionately interested in labor (i.e., jobs), firms (possibly jobs again), and monetary policy. Non-African scholars [were] disproportionately interested in political economy, conflict, natural resources, and (an outlier) migration. Roughly speaking, there [was] a division between jobs-focused papers by African researchers and papers by non-Africans focused on institutions.

Does this disconnect surprise anyone?

(5) One of our favourite UN bureaucrats Dr. Carlos Lopes of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) sat down for an interview with South Africa’s The Daily Maverick to make the case for “interventionist states” in Africa. Here’s a sample:

[African] states need to get involved. The terms “developmental state” or “interventionist state” might be unpopular, but that is exactly what is required for African countries to lift themselves out of poverty, to achieve the kind of economic development required to tangibly improve the lives of hundreds of millions of African citizens.

The idea that governments could intervene in the economic affairs of their respective countries was rendered obsolete by the market fundamentalist ideas of the Washington Consensus.

(6) More on Dr. Lopes: We watched this really insightful talk on understanding Africa’s infrastructure appetite. Here are some facts from the talk that we were unaware of:

  • Africa as a whole has made more infrastructure investments over the last 5 years than in the 30 years prior to this
  • Contrary to perceptions, most of this has been financed by local resources (for example Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Second Suez Canal project)
  • African governments can still do more from local resources by collecting more taxes and cutting down on illicit financial flows out of the continent estimated at US$50billion per annum.

(7) We read this rather puzzling sentence in Chapter 11 of the 2014 book “Zambia: Building Prosperity from Resource Wealth” (emphasis ours):

Public ownership [of companies] remains surprisingly popular in Zambia, reflecting both President Kaunda’s ‘African Socialism’ and the controversial record of the privatization program of the 1990s.

Why is any of this surprising? Something is obviously going to be unpopular if it’s controversial. Duh!

(8) Is this the return of the Zim Dollar?

(9) Lastly, why is the government of Nigeria so clumsy? They’ve misplaced another US$15 billion.

Liberia needs ‘a history that will be called history after the settlers’

liberian journeys

In 1926, following the granting of a 99-year lease to the Firestone Tire Co. by the Liberian government, a group of Harvard scientists and physicians traveled to the West African nation to conduct biological and medical surveys.  One Harvard medical student named Loring Whitman recorded the expedition as its official photographer and gathered a database of some of the earliest media available on Liberia.  Whitman’s photograph and films, along with documents related to the expedition, form the source base for A Liberian Journey:  History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation.  Funded by the National Science Foundation, A Liberian Journey is the result of a collaboration between the Center for National Documents and Records Agency in Liberia, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In gathering together the records of the Harvard Expedition, this collaborative project provides “a view of Liberia shaped by the white privilege and racial attitudes of American scientists,” as well as “glimpses of the peoples, cultures, and landscapes of Monrovia and Liberia’s hinterland at a time of rapid economic, cultural, and environmental change.”

Dr. Greg Mittman, a professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, placed this expedition in historical perspective at the launch, pointing out that the 1926 expedition team “included some of the best minds in medical entomology, tropical medicine, botany, mammalogy, and parasitology,” including Max Theiler who, on this trip, “began his research on yellow fever, work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize for the development of yellow fever vaccine.”  In addition to the scientific achievements of the expedition, Mittman also explained that the expedition built a significant archive during their travels, “documenting medical conditions, plant and animal species, and the life and culture among the different ethnic groups of Liberia.”  These important discoveries are available to all users and can be navigated through three different gateways.  Users can explore the collections contained in the site through the Map, which uses LeafletJS to plot out key points referenced in the collections’ materials.  Users can also browse the exhibit focused on Chief Suah Koko, a female chief and key figure in the history of Liberia.  Finally, the collection can be browsed according to the item type, from photo to documents to historic films (some of the oldest available on Liberia) and stories.  This collection boasts nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents related to the expedition.  All of these items are easily accessible, even on mobile devices due to the choice to build the site on the Omeka platform, in order to “ensure that anyone can access the site especially in areas of Liberia with limited internet connectivity.”

And this is a project meant for Liberians, first and foremost.  Attending the launch of Liberian Journeys at the Center for National Documents and Research Agency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf envisioned the potential of this project to make Liberian history accessible to all its citizens.  “By that,” President Sirleaf explained at the launch, “it will make all Liberians to know about their true history and roles their forefathers played in the past in bringing all of their children up to this point.”  Dr. Joseph Guannu, a leading historian of Liberia and one of the featured interviewees in the Stories section of the site, has long been an outspoken advocate of the need for Liberians to recapture their history.  “We need a real history that will be called history after the settlers,” Guannu argues, “because a country that does not know its past or where it’s heading, is not a country.”  And Liberian Journeys provides a new direction for Liberian history, gathering together important historical artifacts and making them available to anyone through the click of a button.

Users are also encouraged to interact with the site by sharing their own memories of Liberia.  You can contact the site administrators with any questions via this link.  As always, feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

The business of lies

Lucifer has been hard at work on “African” social and traditional media over recent months.

Donald Trump dissing Africans. Trump threatening to arrest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Mugabe calling Trump Hitler’s child. Mugabe proposing to marry Barack Obama. Mugabe dissing Kenyan “thieves”. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli banning miniskirts. Eritrea ordering men to marry two wives or face jail.

The Lord of Lies and his minions of web traffic-grubbing demons are winning, and there just isn’t enough fact-checking holy water to exorcise them from our timelines and your chat groups.

The Internet has lied to the gullible for years, and fake news sites such as SDE, Spectator and Politica of Kenya have been carrying on the tradition.

Helping these children of Lucifer is all of us; That know-all in your chat group who is always “first with the news,” yeah, the one who posts fake news about accidents, goblins and so forth. The Facebook guru who is famous for being famous on Facebook. Outrage Twitter, up at dawn scrolling the timelines looking for things to get angry about. All of us. And Lucifer.

Why do fake news sites exist?

Easy. The love of money is the root of evil, such as all this fake news. Once you click on the link, fake news sites make a few extra dollars on all those ads you see on their web pages. They don’t care if you stay on the site for a long time to read more content; this is why they work hard to create viral, single news items.

Using web tools like webuka and siteprice, you can get an indication of how much these fake websites make in ads monthly. Take, for instance, SDE Kenya, the site that gave us lies about miniskirts being banned in Kenya and the Eritrea thing. In the days after the Eritrea hoax story, the site had an average monthly ad revenue of between $6,000 (via siteprice) and $18,700 (on webuka).  Not dead accurate, distorted by fluctuations in views, which went up to 102,000 daily views. But you get the picture.

The statistics show people stay on SDE an average 5 minutes. They don’t need you to stay long. Just long enough to get you reading that one viral fake story and get those ads.

Lucifer’s work is even more profitable elsewhere. Joseph Finkelstein, an SEO expert quoted in an article by the New Republic, said of one of America’s most well-known fake news sites, The Daily Currant:

But at most, over the few years they’ve existed, The Currant may have made as much as $500,000 in revenue—split between two people who are hardly doing any work.

You see the Devil and his work?

Why do they succeed?

Well, no kinder way to say this; they succeed mostly because we are stupid, prejudiced and ignorant. We don’t check facts, or question the source because we’ve come to believe that, as I’ve said here before, everything is true if it’s on the Internet.

We can forgive ordinary web users for having meme fun with fake news. However, it all gets worrying when mainstream media–many with large audiences–also join in, allowing themselves to be duped into providing conduits for fake news.

Check the source. Who said it? Where? Who else is reporting it? These are steps we could take to verify. But then Lucifer whispers “where’s the fun in that,” and we press the share/retweet button, spreading lies.

Mainstream news sites that do that also profit from high traffic to their sites, even if it means sacrificing some credibility.

Why are media being duped?

Fake news websites play on our own prejudices and ignorance. They bank on us, and major news media, wanting for certain news to be true. Some of the news feeds our existing prejudices; about Africa, and even our own countries.

Josh Voorhees, of Slate, in an article he wrote when Drudge fell for a story on The Daily Currant, said fake sites “rely on (mainstream media) wanting to believe a particular story is true.”

And “wanting a story to be true” is the case with all the stories about President Mugabe. When the US legalized gay marriage in 2015, AWD News, a fake news site, wrote that Mugabe had reacted by “proposing marriage to [Barack] Obama.”

In no time, the article had been shared widely on social media. South Africa’s News24 took it as fact and published it. The BBC published the article as fact, linking to the AWD story with no hesitation. The UK’s Daily Mirror also did the same. In December 2015, BBC Africa reported the “I want to marry Obama” quote as one of its “top 2015 quotes.”

Mugabe, we were told, had said all this “in his weekly radio address.” Even Zimbos, who know, or at least should know, that there’s no such thing as a “Mugabe weekly radio address,” believed it.

In 2015, Spectator, a fake Kenyan site, wrote a fake story claiming Mugabe had called Kenyans thieves. The story made it into an otherwise great story on Kenyan corruption by the NY Times. After some criticism, to the paper’s credit, the fake quote was removed.

the spectator

Yet, an example of “wanting fake news to be true” came from Jeffrey Smith, of the US rights group Kennedy Institute. He shared the Kenya story on Twitter; a corrupt man like Bob had no right to be lecturing on graft, he shouted. When told it was all fake, he replied: “Wouldn’t be the first time he’s made such comments.” The “Obama story” was fake too, but, you see, this sounded like something Bob would say.

Jeffrey Smith Tweet

Which, somehow, makes it all OK. It appears a story doesn’t actually have to be factual, but just believable.

It’s true. I read it on the BBC. It was in the papers too.

One of the major reasons fake news succeeds is gullible “mainstream media” sharing it online. Desperate for content and engagement, and eyeballs to their own websites and paper sales, fake news is pushed on audiences without so much as a basic fact check.

This is how we end up with purportedly reputable news sources such as the BBC reporting it as fact that Mugabe wants to marry Obama.

BBC Africa Story

You get the feeling that, many times, major media do not put stories from Zim or Africa in general through the same credibility tests as they do stories from elsewhere. This is something I’ve blogged before.

Will this ever end?

It won’t. There’ll always be people who lie and people who believe lies. So, no.

Facebook has tried to stop the sharing of fake news on its walls, but it’s all pointless. Because, face it, if people are still crazy enough to believe, and share, fake news, there will always be people crazy enough to produce fake news.

Lies are more fun than facts. Lies are proving to be more profitable for websites. Facts are boring anyway. Even here in Zimbabwe where facts can be more hilarious than fiction.

Facts have never been popular on social media – and that, in fact is, one reason why social media is popular.

*This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Ranga Mberi’s Tumblr blog.

Malick Sidibé: Directing Light

Legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibé passed away on  April 14. Immediately following his death, we published a short tribute by the writer and photographer, Teju Cole. Since then we have reached out to friends and colleagues to reflect on the myriad ways Sidibé directed light in his lifetime – in and outside his camera.

Amy Sall: Malick Sidibé was one of the greatest, pioneering African visionaries to push against Western subjectivity, forging a space for African autonomy and agency to be recognized by the masses. His work shone a beautiful and important light on the robust youth culture, sartorial prowess and rich daily lives in Mali. Whereas Western entities saw Africans as one-dimensional, and developed warped theoretical constructions on who we were, Sidibé fought against such ignorance by simply showing the world who we were, in all of our nuanced glory. We are forever indebted to the Eye of Bamako–Amy Sall is a photographer and the editor of Sunu Journal.

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Candace Keller: Malick Sidibé was arguably one of the most influential photographers of our time. Most renowned in international art circles for dynamically composed black and white studio portraits and photographs taken of youth at parties and celebratory events in Bamako, during the 1960s and 1970s, Sidibé’s images have inspired numerous fashion designers, photographers, videographers, and filmmakers around the globe. Accordingly, in the past two decades, Sidibé was commissioned to take fashion photographs for magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Paper, and the New York Times Magazine.

In Mali, Sidibé was the patron saint of photography. For much of his career, he was one of few people in the country who could repair medium format and 35mm film cameras. As a result, Studio Malick became a nexus for photographers. Over time, his studio acquired a large collection of cameras, which he regularly gifted to young men and women aspiring to enter the profession. Later in his career, he facilitated several photographic workshops, training future generations, and as the president of the Groupement National des Photographes Professionels du Mali advocated on behalf of the trade and its practitioners at the National Assembly.

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Those who knew him admired his generous, humble spirit, jovial sense of humor, and philanthropic endeavors. For his 21st-century fashion shoots and Vues de dos (Back Views) series, he hired single mothers and orphans from his neighborhood to serve as models, providing them with communal support and a source of income. For decades, as he noticed passersby or was reminded of someone who had recently or long since passed, he would find their portrait in his archives and reprint it for their family – unsolicited – as a memento. As president of his hometown association, he helped provide support for the construction and renovation of schools, roads, and other community resources for his village, Soloba.

Over the past 15 years, as I have studied the history of photographic practice in Mali, spending hours in his studio, darkroom, and home, Malick has remained one of my greatest teachers and an inspiration for what it means to be a good person, neighbor, and friend. Sobekela de don! His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he touched. May he forever rest in peace–Candace Keller is an associate professor at Michigan State University.

Drew Thompson: Malick Sidibé’s practice flourished outside of the commercial studio, where he initially trained as a photographer. The poses and dress styles of his photographed subjects mirrored the processes of globalization that accompanied the end of French colonial rule in Mali. In fact, his photographs illustrate the material worlds inhabited by his photographed subjects and the forms of appropriation that characterized the presence of diverse technologies like cars, radios, and clocks. Sidibé’s physical movements with the camera blur the boundaries that distinguish social, professional, and political spaces, and as a consequence display the ways in which photography’s practice and acts of looking were fundamental to Malian daily life.

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Sidibé humanizes his unidentified subjects through the lenses of fashion, leisure, and romance, and his use of the camera and the prints that resulted prompt a rethinking of popular culture’s role in processes of colonization and decolonization. Furthermore, his pictures were formative to the creation of Recontres de Bamako, the major photography biennial, and the curatorial endeavors of Okwui Enwezor – both of which have transformed the public’s engagement with and study of photographers from the continent of Africa. Sidibé’s photographs represent a distant memory when compared to recent historical events in Mali. In fact, insurgency movements have used the representational contents of and symbolic value embodied by Sidibé’s practice and photographs to challenge political rule and to unsettle state boundaries. What then are captivated viewers to do with such mesmerizing prints and an illustrious professional legacy, especially when the photographer is no longer living and when geopolitical circumstances render the contents of photographic prints as artifacts of the past? Sidibé’s death presents such questions while providing few, if any, answers–Drew Thompson is a visual historian.

Cherif Keita: Malick Sidibé, the man who lived several lives, has left to join his elder colleague Seydou Keïta, in the land of immortality. What an abundant legacy he has left to posterity.

It was in 2010 that I had the unique opportunity of meeting this father of African Photography. One January afternoon I arrived at his studio in the populous neighborhood of Bagadadji, with 21 American students in tow. Smiles, wide-open arms and loud greetings! It was as if Malick had known each of us in the not too distant past. Truly, we had arrived home, at his studio.

Cherif Keita and Malick Sidibe in Sidibe's Bamako studio.Cherif Keita and his friend Toure, photographed by Malick Sidibé in Bamako in 2010.

Our conversations over his numerous photo albums were a unique moment for me, the Malian exile, as well as for the young Americans, freshly arrived in Mali, as part of a study trip, with the theme of Malian history and culture. Each photo spoke volumes about a feverish period of my own youth in Bamako, on the eve of the military coup of 1968. My students had finally under their eyes the vibrant social landscape I had tried my best to paint for them in my classes on the other side of the Atlantic.

After spending a good hour traveling through time, Malick told us that it was time to stand in front of his camera. In general, for Malick, it was a matter of simply catching the joyful moment that we were sharing that afternoon. Such was his overall artistic philosophy.

The last time I saw Malick was in June 2015. Not having found him at the studio, I went to his house in Magnambougou, because I had for him a signed copy of a book written by my friend, Professor Tsitsi Jaji, with one of Malick’s photos on the cover. Even though he was ill and weakened by old age, he had not lost his legendary smile. Very quickly, some albums came out, which we had to vigorously dust off before going through them. They are right, those who say that the world has seen only a small fraction of the thousands of photos taken by this tireless photographer.

Cherif Keita viewing photo album with Malick Sidibé.Cherif Keita viewing photo album with Malick Sidibé.

It is said that when Photography was first introduced in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, people were afraid of it, because in the Bamana language, for instance, it was considered a dangerous act: jà tàa meant to take the soul or the shadow of the person who was being photographed. Going from that to Mali becoming the capital of Photography in Africa, clearly we all owe a debt of gratitude to Malick Sidibé – with his mild manners and disarming smile – for having convinced tens of thousands of people to entrust their souls or shadows to a black hand holding a shiny little box that produced a blinding light. Rest in Peace, Malick, illustrious son of the village of Soloba, in Wassulu–Cherif Keita, born in Mali, is a documentary filmmaker and professor of French and liberal arts at Carleton College in Minnesota.

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