Africa is a Country

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar nominated ‘Timbuktu’ transcends the present

Timbuktu, a new film from acclaimed Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako has won a string of international awards, is nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, and is a firm favorite to take the best film award at FESPACO. We decided to publish a few reviews of this momentous film. This is the second review we’ve published on the film. The first was by Andrew Hernann. 

Early on in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, a jihadist gets off a motorcycle in a city street and announces over a loudspeaker that from now on smoking is forbidden, music is haram, and women must cover up. The jihadists have taken over, and life is about to change for Timbuktu’s inhabitants. The rest of the film traces the way in which those words become a deadly reality. At the center of the film is Kidane (played by Ibrahim Ahmed), a Tuareg herdsman who gets caught up, along with his family, in the jihadists’ net after a fatal accident by the river one day.

Timbuktu is the first film by an African-born black filmmaker to be nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar in this year’s Academy Awards. Its director, Sissako, who is half-Mauritanian and half-Malian, was inspired to make the film after the real-life takeover of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, a jihadist group that briefly occupied the famed ancient city in Mali in 2012.

In the wake of the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria and the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in recent times, the film is relevant to the present moment for obvious reasons. But Sissako’s achievement transcends the present moment.

For one thing, it’s a film that makes magic out of the stark landscape of the desert, and its visual symbolism—from the image of dust rising out of the mouth of an indigenous figurine shot up by jihadists to a wide shot of Kidane crossing a river not only to the other bank, but into a new, tragic fate—is both beautiful and provocative.

“Timbuktu” is not without its flaws; certain scenes drag, and some of the actors are more convincing than others. The plot moves abruptly at times, but the film more than makes up for these flaws through its visual shrewdness.

Perhaps the most stunning scene in the film is the one depicting a football game. The jihadists ban sports in the town and balls are confiscated. Still, the town’s young men get together to play a football game—with an invisible ball. It’s a scene that perfectly captures, as some critics have noted, the absurdity of the jihadists’ project. More than that, it’s a beautiful vision of resistance.

The film is also impressive in its multilingualism. Bambara, Tamasheq, French, Arabic and English are all spoken by the characters. The relationship between language and religion is important; just as the film presents multiple versions of Islam, so the multiple languages remind us that the religion can’t be reduced to one viewpoint, one cultural or personal perspective. Long scenes depict characters translating to, or for, other characters. Sometimes a character translating will misinterpret or change the speaker’s original words. At other times characters are unable to understand one other. “Your Arabic is terrible,” a senior jihadist tells one of his juniors. “Speak in English.” This in itself gets at the heart of the battle over Islam, which is a battle over translation or interpretation. How do the jihadists translate this religion? How do the millions of ordinary Muslims who live and breathe Islam on a daily basis translate it? Is there one interpretation that’s more valid than the rest?

What is refreshing is that Westerners—and Westerners’ views on Islam—are notably side-lined in this film. “Timbuktu” shows us Muslim characters grappling with Islam. In a Q&A after a screening of the film at the Film Forum in New York on February 7th, Sissako made the point that it’s necessary for Muslims to engage in more debate within their own communities about the religion. The film dramatizes this idea. The imam of the local mosque argues over the meaning of jihad with the newly-arrived fundamentalists; two jihadists disagree about whether Kidane, the hero, is a good Muslim; a woman fish-seller confronts the “Islamic Police” about the impracticalities of their injunction that women wear gloves. She’s fish-seller: how can she wash her fish with gloves on?

The film has been criticized by some for “humanizing” the jihadists. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks one mayor of a Paris suburb went so far as to ban it from cinemas (though he later backpedalled). But the representation of the jihadists is not that simple. Visually, the jihadists are often presented as shadowy figures, lurking on rooftops, stalking alleyways, bursting in on the privacy of people’s homes: spooks in the night. But these shots of dark, gun-wielding spooks are contrasted with the close-ups that we get of their faces, of their wrinkles, eyes, smiles. There are two sides to the coin. The spooks who stone a woman and a man to death for adultery are the same people who can be charming and funny and charismatic.

The film’s most subversive achievement is not that it humanizes the jihadists, but that it humanizes all Muslims. There is no one monolithic Islam and no one monolithic Muslim identity. This may seem self-evident, but it’s a fact that’s often forgotten in the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric used to talk about Islam and terrorism post-9/11.

“Timbuktu” is a testament to what art does best, treading the line between the universal and the specific. The film gives us a universal vision of Islam, which is also specific, particular to the individual stories and characters that it depicts. We can only begin to have a broader picture of the religion through those individual stories, and it is stories like these which make any easy generalization impossible.

Are quirky white people with thriving, trendy careers in New York City, the only ones to find love?

Having grown up in a Yoruba home, I know first hand that the ideas of affection and romance that are seen in run-of-the-mill western sitcoms is more foreign than bug-eyed green men from Mars. For most Nigerian parents, love and affection are hardly ever shown with the traditional actions that come to mind when these words are brought up, but instead are presented in the form of accolades for good grades (because there’s no such thing as great grades in Nigerian homes) and accomplishments; even the dreaded scolding, equip with comparisons to other children and cousins, is to be interpreted as affection.

While our parents and elders believed that their constant berating was affection, we knew that there was more to it. Could it be that only quirky white people with thriving trendy careers in New York City were the only ones who could find love? Or were we exempt because we weren’t the sassy African American women with trust issues that would soon find her Morris Chestnut-Esq lover at a black professional mixer? Was that kind of love for the average Yoruba girl or was it something that had to be purchased in the form of lavish weddings and expensive foreign homes?

I did not grow up in Nigeria, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a very Nigerian home where a week did not go by without white rice and stew for lunch, and Christmas was impossible without jollof rice and goat meat. Growing up with a single mom, I quickly learned that for Nigerian women, love had very much to do with who snags who up first. There is very little care for romance as long as a woman could brag that she had a husband or a boyfriend or even some small boy that keeps bothering her to let him court her. I remember being a teenager in church, looking at the old married couples who behaved more like roommates than they did soul mates and thinking, “why bother?” My only ideas of love came from the glimpses of my mom’s romance novels with covers donned with a gorgeously sculpted white man with luscious hair, clutching an unbelievably gorgeous white woman to his chest as his rippling muscles protrude under the title.

Needless to say that my idea, and that of many of my African contemporaries, of romance is a bit warped. We have had very little exposure to any literature that had any characters that even slightly resemble us Instead, they were filled with European romantics committing suicide, incest and a host of other debaucheries in the name of love. And of course, not knowing anything better, we gobbled it up like fried rice at a 50th birthday (there’s nothing like it). So it’s pretty obvious that we, the African youth, are very much in the need of romantic literature that we can actually see ourselves in. Enters, Ankara Press.

The beautifully written pieces by these women that look like me and my mother and my cousins and the countless African youths wondering what romance is, are more than a breath of fresh air. These novels tell stories that vividly bring Nigeria to life, at a time when it may seem like it is imploding and withering away, and show that romance lives, no, thrives in the streets of Nigeria. A spark lit up in me as my mind was filled with amalgamated images of the Nigeria I remember and the Nigeria I see in Nollywood movies. I fell in love with characters in a way that I had never done before because these characters were so close to me. The stories of these novels are making African romance more than something that is hooked up by nosy church aunties who are scared that your time will soon pass. They present an alternative way of thinking that none of us probably thought was possible. However, my new crush Dominic, from Amara Okolo’s Black Sparkle Romance elegantly put it into words when he said “live free… Life is too short to bother about work alone…there are many beautiful things to see and enjoy” (39). Our parents have made work and success the bane of our existence by making their accolades and scoldings the only forms of affection we’ve ever known. But believe it or not, there is more affection in the world than that and it can easily be found in the beautiful novels of Ankara Press.

The average person in Kampala knows a lot about the Canadian Prairies

I used to find some consolation in the fact that the average person in Kampala knows much more about North America than I knew about east Africa for most of my life.

“Which part of Canada are you from? The Prairies? Or from out east, near Toronto?” is a regular question. “Can you really go to the doctor for free in Canada?” my neighbor’s 7-year old daughter asked me yesterday. And Sam, a local boda driver’s self-appointed mission is to educate me on the gamut of Canadian music after deeming my knowledge on the topic to be painfully insufficient. (To date, our playlist on the drive to work has ranged from Joni Mitchell to Broken Social Scene.)

These kinds of interactions led me to initially believe that contrary to prevailing ideas about “the state of education in Africa,” Uganda’s education system and media were far superior to those back home, which regularly feature such riveting and politically important issues as local owl sightings.

But when you delve into why the Canadian Prairies receive as much attention as the Sahel in geography class here, a number of troubling explanations emerge. The first is an out-dated school curriculum shaped by the legacies of colonialism and its buddy, Eurocentrism (encompassing North America).

Although some efforts have been made to “decolonize” the primary school syllabus, the secondary school curriculum has stagnated for decades. As the head of secondary education at the National Curriculum Development Centre rightfully states, “we still talk of the prairies of Canada. This is outdated. We need to localise.” A reform process has been underway since 2012 to make the curriculum more relevant, but it is unlikely to be implemented until at least 2016.

Added to this is the formal classroom-based education system itself being a colonial inheritance, which many critics argue was and still is unsuited to local cultures, values, and livelihoods. For example, while agriculture still employs the majority of the population, it is only an optional course in most secondary schools, and remains highly theoretical. The proof? The highest grades in agriculture are achieved in schools which have no teaching gardens.

In Uganda, where 78% of the population is under the age of 30, an educational system which equips graduates with employable skills is vital requirement – but is far from the current reality. Eunice, a geography teacher in one of Kampala’s public secondary schools, explains: “what we teach in schools – and how we teach it – does not give students concrete skills or knowledge which they can use in jobs. And companies know this, so they do not hire young people, preferring those with actual work experience.” This is certainly one reason why the current youth unemployment rate stands at a whopping 64%.

The lack of employment opportunities is closely tied to the second explanation for the average person in Kampala being well-versed about “the West”: the desire to emigrate there, driven by a vision of the West as a “fantastic cosmopolis” of economic opportunity and freedom. This is of course fed by large-scale imports into east Africa of Western culture and ideas, ranging from American television and pop culture to economic aid.

The current obsession with the West stands in stark contrast to the days following independence in the 1960s, when Uganda was considered not only to have a better education system than its neighbors, but was also a hub for the pan-Africanism and African intellectualism movements. But dictatorship, first by Amin and then Museveni, crushed critical intellectual voices at the same time as opening the door to neo-colonialism by the West: after all, it was institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF who were keen to see their visions of “an educated Africa” realized were the ones who provided the resources to build the current educational system. And although President Museveni might not have agreed with this vision, he certainly was not going to object and ruin his long-standing mutual love affair with Western donors.

As a result, Ugandans today are confronted by a cultural and political paradigm which pushes a preference for Western lives and lifestyles from multiple angles. Of course, this comes at the unmeasured cost of all of the history, art, debate and news from Uganda – and Africa more widely – which remain un-recorded, un-published, un-taught, un-learned, and un-discussed.

I hate SPUR!

I hate SPUR! Assuming that there are those who do not know, SPUR Steak Ranches is a restaurant chain themed around Native North American culture very popular in South Africa. Its branches have names such as ‘Texas Spur’, ‘Red Hawk Spur’, ‘Silver Mountain Spur’ etc.

The idea being to give you an authentic Native American experience through its menu that consists of spicy beef strips, calamari, nachos Mexicana, cheesy chicken quesadillas. If you feel like a warrior you can take on their famous pork ribs and a variety of steaks. There is even a “secret tribe” your child can join and enjoy various benefits like a birthday meal and a free soda every time you visit one of their franchises. As you can see nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest. Spurs are what cowboys wore and it was the conquest of Native American land, the making them subaltern, which is subsumed in the image of the Native American warrior image in the brand (a brand also largely of Hollywood’s making).

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It’s disgusting. An entire people with multiple histories of struggle, multiple ethnic groups with unique lifestyles, languages, cultural symbols and social systems are used to sell chicken-schnitzels.

The erasure of black and other minorities through the removal of cultural meaning and rendering of cultural symbols into one dimensional products or dumbification through commercialization is a staple of the corporate world. However, this racist cultural appropriation by corporations in their advertising is something we rarely explore in South Africa. By erasure I don’t mean absence, I mean symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the process of erasure under or misrepresentation of some group of people in the media, this is usually based on race, socio-economic status or religion. A particularly egregious form is erasure through the portrayal of harmful stereotypes and/or invisibilisation through the reduction of history and culture into products or commodities that are then used for profit. This form of erasure is astoundingly offensive as it minimises entire histories and cultures rich with meaning and legacy, rendering them one-dimensional caricatures.  This is by no means incidental but part of a system which is inherently racist and which maintains inequality through locating and concentrating privilege in whiteness. Wealth enables those at the top of the hierarchy to continue this system of racial inequality by recreating and perpetuating images of minorities that confirm ideas justifying oppression.

This makes sense of course, if an oppressor can maintain the idea that those they oppress are deserving of their oppression then it becomes difficult for the oppressed to mobilise against them. It reallocates the blame onto the oppressed and allows the oppressor to take comfort in the idea that their privilege is deserved. A collorary is that it allows the oppressor to engender a seraphic image of themselves in the imagination of the oppressed. Centring only them as capable of expressing complexity – a central aspect of being human. The act of dehumanization needs a parallel act of humanization in order to root its legitimacy.

Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao articulates it best when he says “if you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” You might be inclined to dismiss this as “only advertising.” But the advertising world is particularly dogmatic in its insistence on being present in every aspect of our lives. You cannot opt out, you have no choice whether you see them or not – this is precisely their goal.

The images we see are symptomatic of the capitalist-racist culture of South Africa. In such a society everything is a potential product, everything can be commodified. Nothing must stand in the way of the drive towards wealth accumulation.

Within the South African context, we see this in the imagery of dancing, happy blacks in adverts and the use of singular cultural representations. For instance, a particular vernacular word such as AYOBA or a textile design such astraditional prints.Cultural icons as marking gimmicks either to speak to the ‘emerging markets’ or act to spice up high end designs. The latter example uses a cultural symbol in order to add ‘authenticity’ to a product in order to make its target – white people – feel they are part of the rainbow nation. This creates a sense of cultural cohesion where there is none. SPUR Steak Ranches is a great example of this. A beautiful composite of capitalist-racist cultural mis/appropriation, it is truly disgusting and South Africans love it. The joy South Africans take in U.S. racist tropes and cowboy dramas displaces the hard work of dealing with our own racist past.

Perhaps I disagree with Diaz slightly, to render a people monsters on a cultural level, deprivation of cultural reflections is not through denial alone but through symbolic detachment – caricaturising them and making them complicit in it. It is to invisibilize and caricature them to an extent where their annihilation becomes their pleasure. In the case of Spur, this happens for South Africans at one remove, in another place’s history. It is also, increasingly, happens as a form of abstraction.

Racism is disconnected from the body. Complicity then is about the pleasures of consumption, some purported equality in the marketplace. Previously racist-capitalism was focused directly on the black body and mind as the primary sites of violence and/or exploited labour now that that avenue is unavailable it has morphed.  Racist cultural appropriation has slipped into the daily routines of normalcy and sediment into our cultural psych. The normalcy of racist mis/appropriation has made us complicit in our continued oppression. It is important we are constantly critical of the things we consume and patronise in South Africa.

Of course SPUR is not the only one to do this, OUTsurance did it with Ashley Taylor, who can forget “All Zee flavours Mochachos” offers and retailer Woolworths has a TV advert, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with blacks singing ‘Asimbonanga.’ BTW, I love when black people sing; I have enjoyed church songs even though I am a reluctant atheist but the imagery of black workers singing whilst an appreciative white audience enjoys specticalized blackness makes me very uncomfortable. Within the capitalist-racist context of South Africa these images continue to reinforce the ideas which sustain systematic racial inequality. When you do not reflect alternative narratives of a people you often justify their continued oppression. Anyone who buys from Spur is – even if unwittingly – complicit in this.

* Thank you to Lihle Asante Ngcobozi for her contribution to this piece through critique and supportive advice and debate.

What if black people inverted South Africa’s township tours ?

This video piece below is just brilliant. Here’s the set-up: What if two black Capetonians (both photographers) went to Camps Bay doing “an alternative township tour” to invert the “township tour”? The video is by LiveSA, a Cape Town based web and print initiative staffed by young black people: “Recently LiveSA made a news insert for eNCA about township tours in South Africa – do they promote tired stereotypes? Are they ‘poverty porn’ for tourists? Can young people re-invent the township tour?”

For those not familiar with “township tours,” read Busisiwe Deyi’s post from last year. In short, township tours are instances “where tourists are taken in buses through townships to experience ‘authentic’ South Africa.”  (BTW, Deyi’s post also takes on a supposedly progressive variant of township tours, “social justice tours.”) As for Camps Bay, it’s a largely white neighborhood of the super rich on Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard, which is as much a legacy of Apartheid. There’s little else to add other than to say watch the video and see how all the whites featured do exactly what you thought they would do.  From the white man who announces that his dogs are barking because ‘they [the dogs] don’t recognize strangers.‘ Then there’s the people at a restaurant who are annoyed at this intrusion on their privacy and “Desmond,” “their black” (because that’s what he is), to deal with “these people.”

So apart from the comment on “township tours” (privacy is a privilege of the wealthy and the mostly white, poverty means you are ready to be on display, be a ‘type’), what the video does is gives you a sense of what most black people Cape Town have to keep up with everyday, including random violence, in “white spaces.”   On the upside, this kind of interrogation (on video) of white privilege in Cape Town (and elsewhere in South Africa) by black people is relatively new, and with increasing access to social media platforms like Youtube, and media production tools like  DSLRS we’ll see more of this. Kudos to LiveMag for being the first (as far as we can tell) to do this. We only wish the video was longer. Next up, there should be tours of places of forced removals.

What Egypt’s latest football tragedy says about social divisions in the country

On Sunday while I sat sipping tea at a French chain café somewhere on the outskirts of Cairo, dozens of football fans were killed at a stadium less than a mile away. To grasp what happened and its significance, it is necessary to understand the landscape in which this tragic event took place. It did not happen in Cairo, as one less familiar with the metropolis’s composition may know it. It was not among the bustling, crowded, cluttered streets of the city proper. This carnage took place in the sleepy, affluent suburb of New Cairo, where the villas are many and the stores are boxy. And while a mile may seem like a substantial distance, in this context, it was right next door.

The Olympic Village of Air Defense Forces, where the football match took place, is part of a sprawling military complex that abuts two major thoroughfares. On the other side of this vast intersection is an enormous shopping and entertainment complex owned and operated by the Al-Futtaim Group, an Emirati conglomerate. While peak hours can see traffic jams, this area is often strikingly empty, and the great swathes of uniform desert make the distances seem like a fraction of what they actually are.

In the afternoon, I had a taxi pick me up to take me to this glossy compound of striking resemblance to the Dubai Airport. He took back roads so as to avoid the game-day traffic, commenting incidentally on the lack of police presence on the roads leading to the stadium. On the trip back two hours later he simply stated that in the interim, there had been “some problems between the people and the police.” It was not until I returned home that I realized what had happened: As I sat sipping tea and listening to elevator music next to a comically grandiose novelty fountain, across the street, completely unbeknownst to me, at least 20 fans were killed (the official death toll as of writing); trampled, suffocated by tear gas, and according to some reports, fired on by security forces (forensics report claims no deaths were caused by live ammunition).

This tragic juxtaposition felt so depressingly representative of the current social and political climate in Egypt, where groups of individuals live next to each other but in completely different worlds, and where one person’s version of the truth, shaped by their experiences or the content they choose to consume, is in direct opposition to the version of reality as understood by their neighbor.

The divergent narratives propagated by state and privately owned media domestically, by international outlets, and of course via social media, fuel this second point. Much of the local media blamed the reckless behavior of ticketless fans for the tragedy, while witnesses alleged excessive force on the part of the police.

Had this event occurred anywhere else in the world, invariably multiple narratives would have emerged. So is the nature of tragedy and panic. However, in the Egyptian context, this offers yet another glimpse into the deep-rooted social polarization, where those who support the government and police blamed the thuggery of fans, and those with deep-rooted suspicion of security forces, borne out of the many well-documented instances of excessive use of force, have labeled it a massacre.

On the other hand, my experience, or lack thereof, is indicative of the literal and figurative barriers that exist in a society where those who can afford to, are able live within protective walls, only looking to see what lays behind the curtain if they so choose. Ask virtually any Egyptian and they will tell you that the breaks from reality are a necessity for maintaining one’s sanity. However beyond that, these barriers reinforce the corrosive social inequalities that have been eating away at Egyptian society for decades.

Since the incident, President Adbel Fatah el-Sisi has called for an inquiry into what happened, and the Egyptian Football Association has pledged to compensate the victim’s families.

While many details about this latest disaster remain murky, what does emerge clearly is a common appeal; that until there is genuine accountability, a restoration of social trust, and systemic efforts to break down social barriers, tragedies like this will continue to occur.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker–Hawa Essuman

Kenyan-Ghanaian filmmaker and actress Hawa Essuman’s fascination with telling stories with pictures and sound led her to filmmaking via commercials and TV, which she continues to nurture as full-time fortunate indulgence. Her feature film Soul Boy (2010) was screened in over 40 festivals around the world and honored with several awards.

Essuman, who is also a music video director, is currently in production for two documentaries: Logs of War, about extractive industries and the delicate balance between development and destruction, is set in Liberia. Distance is about how the growing trend of people moving, as a way of life, impacts on their identity and relationships.

1) What is your first film memory? 

The first film I ever saw on the big screen was Star Wars, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was four or five and the day care centre was taking a group of children to the cinema. I was over the moon to be picked. I remember the seat feeling incredibly large. My craned neck and saucer eyes didn’t move for the length of the film. I was transfixed. Immersed. Absorbed. I went home dreamt about it for days after.

Much later, in my early twenties, when we were talking about the film, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen it. My friend borrowed it and while watching it, all those long ago experienced feelings came rushing back. It felt like I had returned to something important.

2) Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I don’t think there were one particular defining reason, but more like a culmination of reasons. One was that I wanted to tell stories. It’s through stories that we learn and share thoughts.

Film has a power that we currently take for granted because they are so ubiquitous. Overload doesn’t diminish power though. Film has a way of moving and influencing people, like other art forms. Except with film you get to play with all other art forms to create your vision. I really don’t think any other medium allows that.

I like how the story one tells with film sits in people’s minds. It gets them thinking in a way they probably wouldn’t otherwise, simply because they allow themselves to suspend reality enough to fully engage, no matter how far-fetched a thought process is. I like that an idea being echoed back to society in images and sounds, makes one consider a specific perspective. Film widens our own horizons, whether we realize it or not.

3) Which film do you wish you had made and why?

There’s quite a few. The list rotates. Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro and In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar Wai are two. Both films are beautiful in their romanticism and darkness/tragedy. I love the fact that there are no clear-cut lines and that no one is spared, which is what life is about. Both films explore the human capacity to go beyond oneself for whatever our conviction is. Making us our best or worst selves.

4) Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.

In the Mood for Love is always on that list. It is such a feast for the eyes – beautifully shot and crafted, so deliberate. I just really enjoy how Wong Kar Wai makes a meal of human relationships. Abandonment and pain make for interesting bedfellows and in their commiseration have their own emotional affair – a theme that he explores and treats really well.

5) Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.

What do I think about the concept of “African stories”?

I think that confining any storyteller to a label is a disservice to the story and the one telling it. And I’m not really sure what purpose that serves. At the end of the day it’s about telling a good story. Inspiration is fluid.

How about, we just tell stories and make films as they come to us, and through the body of work try determine who we are/were as artists, keeping in mind that identity is in constant flux.

The hierarchy of refugee stories

Three hundred refugees and migrants are now missing and feared dead after trying to cross the Mediterranean over the weekend from Libya to Italy on rubber dinghies. According to the latest news reports, the majority of the refugees were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Stories about Syrian refugees dominated the mainstream U.S. and Western English-language media over the past year. Reporters covered the lives of individual refugees struggling to adjust in camps and European cities, while also examining everything from the international aid response to the architecture of refugee camps.

In 2014, at least 40,000 Syrians crossed the Mediterranean to seek asylum in European countries via Italy. But approximately 35,000 Eritreans also made the voyage – a sharp increase from 10,000 in 2013. More Eritreans have also entered refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, the majority between the ages of 18–24, and a significant number of unaccompanied children under the age of 18. Young Eritreans are fleeing mandatory and indefinite military conscription and imprisonment and torture for political organizing; there are also reports of growing famine.

Yet in sharp contrast to the coverage of Syrian refugees, the Western English-language media has barely registered the escalating Eritrean refugee crisis. There have been few in-depth stories; absent profiles of Eritreans struggling to re-build their lives abroad; and rare editorials condemning the international community for not accepting more Eritrean asylum seekers or for failing to rescue Eritreans who are held hostage and brutally tortured in the Sinai.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy: the Syrian war has forced 3 million people to leave the country and created an unprecedented flow of people into neighboring countries; it rightfully deserves significant and ongoing coverage. But the other reasons are about history, politics and power – the Middle East has received increased Western media coverage in the post-9/11 era. As a result, there’s a media infrastructure; some of the main Syrian refugee camps are housed in countries where there were already bastions of foreign correspondents, and it’s relatively easy for Western journalists to travel from Istanbul and Amman to camps along the borders of Turkey and Jordan.

In contrast, most Eritrean refugees flee first to Ethiopia or Sudan, both countries where there are few journalists reporting for the Western press. Neither country is particularly welcoming to journalists, but Ethiopia’s draconian press laws mostly target local reporters, and accessing the refugee camps in the Northern Tigray region is not difficult – there are daily flights from Addis’s Bole Airport. Ethiopia now hosts more refugees than any other African country, yet most coverage of issues in the camps comes from the press offices of relief agencies. (As a side note, the fighting in Sudan and South Sudan has recently resulted in huge flows of people across borders as well as into Gambella, Ethiopia; but these refugees also get barely a mention.)

While we’re inundated with the tales of brave war correspondents crossing the border into Syria to capture the atrocities, there is an absence of stories about journalists attempting to infiltrate Eritrea on a similar mission. Eritrea, which once riveted Europe and the US with its independence struggle from Ethiopia, has fallen from the media’s gaze since Isyas Afwerki began constructing his police state in 1993. Eritrea now barely registers in Western consciousness – except of course as it relates to possible support for or against terrorist movements.

The mainstream media’s bias of covering refugee issues more extensively in the Middle East matters. While Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK, Sweden and Switzerland have historically granted Eritreans asylum, there are now disturbing political undercurrents as Northern European countries appear on the brink of closing their doors to Eritreans.

In mid-2014, Denmark’s Immigration Service sent a team on a “fact finding mission” to Eritrea, after suspending asylum proceedings due to the increased numbers of Eritrean asylum-seekers. The purpose was to determine whether the situation was really so terrible. In Eritrea, these so-called fact finders primarily spoke to Western Embassy staff; their resulting report in October 2014 claimed that conditions in Eritrea had improved enough to conveniently tighten Denmark’s asylum criteria. The report was so blatantly inaccurate that Human Rights Watch and UNHCR debunked it point by point. The sole academic quoted in the report issued a statement he had been deliberately misquoted and demanding his name be withdrawn. The audacity of Denmark’s Immigration Service is notable – they clearly thought people were uninformed enough about the ongoing crisis in Eritrea to not even notice their inventions.

While the Danish report is now “under revision”, the Afwerki regime is already using it as propaganda. Meanwhile, the UK and Norway are undertaking their own investigations that will have implications on their asylum proceedings. Israel (which houses many Eritreans who survive the journey across Egypt) continues to imprison refugees who cross its borders or forcibly deports them, violating their basic human rights. (As AIAC has noted before, Israel refuses to even call them refugees, instead using the term infiltrators.) In a time when there are more refugees than in the previous 50 years, and as xenophobia and racism manifest in the political parties and policies of many developed countries, we need journalists who cover the lives of all refugees – not just those of geopolitical importance.

A boulevard named after F.W. de Klerk. Or, do we really need new street names?

It is interesting to note how much of the debate about the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard on the edge of downtown Cape Town after apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, has invoked ideas of memory and amnesia. How can we remember particular role players in relation to South Africa’s transition to democracy? It’s an important question. Memory can be associated with ideas of inscription and re-inscription, since it implies that the act of recollection is also one of forgetting. And that makes it profoundly political.

Indeed, from this perspective, we can see that the controversy surrounding the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard reflects a strange series of turns in contemporary South African political memory.

For example, if you will recall, a few years ago the eThiwkini municipality (how Durban in Kwazulu-Natal is officially known now) initiated a process of renaming a number of roads. One of the more controversial proposed names was that of Andrew Zondo, a young man who in the 1980’s planted a bomb in a shopping centre out of frustration at the brutality of the apartheid state. Four innocent people were killed and many were badly injured. Zondo was tried and eventually executed for his crime.

At the time, the Democratic Alliance (which governs in Cape Town) fought tooth and nail against the name changes in Durban. In court battles, and public statements, they marshalled many of the arguments—about cost, about the ANC bulldozing the proposal through and the moral standing of Andrew Zondo—critics (here, here and here) have raised against the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard. The Zondo case therefore marked a signal moment in contemporary South Africa’s contestation of public memory precisely because it highlighted the heated, complex political dynamics at play in the negotiation of forms of public honour.

Strangely, it seems prescient that it is a main arterial road in Cape Town that has been renamed, quite swiftly, and under dubious circumstances if opposition parties are to be believed, since it affirms strongly held views about the ruling DA being inconsiderate of the province’s black and coloured majority. Many were moved to ask, ‘how the can we honour the last apartheid president, a man who very recently declared on CNN, “I haven’t apologised for the original concept” of apartheid?’

But if you will recall, in 1994, while the ANC cleaned up in the national elections, the National Party claimed a majority in the Western Cape. This was a bitter pill to swallow. As Sean Jacobs (in a 2001 article) shows, the reasons for this are complex. The Western Cape was an important hotbed of anti-apartheid political activism. Many post-apartheid political figures, like Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carrolus and Alan Boesak cut their political teeth in the city’s coloured townships and its African townships produced leaders like Oscar Mpetha while Chris Hani spent some of his formative years here. Indeed, like Andrew Zondo, Robbie Waterwich, Colleen Williams and Ashley Kriel feature among the many black South Africans who also took up arms against the apartheid government. 

Evidently, it was the National Party’s ‘swart gevaar’ political campaign, which played on the perils of immanent black rule, and the charismatic figure of F.W. de Klerk, that swung the vote. ‘Coloured voters’ (who make up the majority in the province) had effectively lent support to the party and representatives that they had actively struggled against during apartheid. (The plurality of coloureds now vote DA. Most whites vote DA too while Africans overwhelmingly vote ANC).

21 years later, the City of Cape Town is going ahead with the renaming, and it’s causing uproar.

One reason for the controversy is that post-apartheid memories are a product of the negotiated settlement, of compromise and complicity. Which means to say, all memories are valid in the context of the greater human tragedy of the bitter past. This flows through the TRC process, and indeed, is enshrined in South Africa’s heritage policy.

There was also no cleansing of the public sphere, no washing away of public memories, after the fall of apartheid. That is in part why Cecil John Rhodes continues to ‘salute’ in the Company Gardens in Cape Town, and the Voortrekker Monument, a monolith to Afrikaner nationalism, still stands proudly in Pretoria. The place of material representations of the colonial and apartheid past have been rendered the subject of continued negotiation, as markers of difficult pasts that cannot easily be abandoned.

This political spirit of parity of memory has also led to some strange juxtapositions, such as the Mandela-Rhodes Place, and the eponymously named fellowship. Freedom Park—a post-apartheid monument aimed at promoting nation-building and reconciliation—stands opposite the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria for example. It has a monumental Wall of Names. In 2007, an Afrikaner rights group, Afriforum and self-proclaimed Afrikaner rights activist, Steve Hofmeyr, campaigned for the inscription of former SADF soldiers who died in the ‘Border Wars’ in Namibia and Angola to be inscribed on the Wall together with soldiers who fought for the country’s liberation from apartheid. 

Indeed such a policy forces us to continuously remember. And indeed, in the case Table Bay Boulevard it appeared that perhaps mainstream political memory had lapsed. For indeed it has come to light that there is already a road named after F.W. de Klerk in Wesbank, a poor coloured township on the outskirts of the City. The street name was assigned 15 years ago when the province was ruled by the ANC. The residents of Wesbank do not appear to have been incensed by the name.

I am strongly against the renaming. I don’t think F.W. de Klerk is worthy of the honour. But I find it difficult to also let go of the idea that the proposal raises a bitter, yet poignant irony about post-apartheid political memory, about its contradictions and complexities, and the struggle against forgetting that is so visceral and present for so many.

It’s been one year since Stuart Hall passed

My early university education at the then-very white University of Cape Town coincided with South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy. Stuart Hall didn’t feature much, despite the fact, as I would later learn, I was indirectly influenced by his ideas about identity politics, language, culture, race, and social movements.

For example, I remember writing a seminar paper as a final year student at the University of Cape Town about “black Afrikaans”—a movement of coloured poets and educators in Cape Town and the Cape West Coast allied to teacher unions and the United Democratic Front who sought to counter white histories of Afrikaans by emphasizing its hybrid origins in a slave economy and encouraged use of spoken Afrikaans in classroom settings. Nevertheless, culture (or studying culture) was hardly a priority for my late-1980s/early-1990s cohort—South Africa then was in the midst of a violent transition; protest movements and their academic allies were tactically focused on electoral power and state institutions.

Strategic considerations, too, pushed us to eschew analyses of race in favor of class. Lynette Steenveld, a media scholar at Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, wrote to me that “… identity was a problem because of the Apartheid state’s racialization of identity and its essentialist stance on culture. So the one progressive move was to eschew identity and focus on class.”

That said, there is ample evidence that South African scholars, students and media activists were very familiar with Hall’s work in that period. In 1980s Apartheid South Africa, academics who studied culture, came at it from two diametrically opposed schools: on one side a more traditional behavioralist approach (the Afrikaans “communications studies”) and on the other, leftist /political economy approaches to culture (reflecting dominant positions in the liberation movement and old school Marxist influences).

But as Steenveld recently reminded me that when she was a graduate student in the mid-1980s, some scholars—most notably at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape and what is now the University of Kwazulu-Natal—were exposed to the work of Stuart Hall. Keyan Tomaselli, a media scholar at the now University of Kwazulu-Natal, who is most closely associated with the beginnings of cultural studies in South Africa, should take much of the credit for this. He modeled a center after Hall’s at Birmingham. Steenveld adds: “I personally came from a Marxist position which was critical of the ANC’s racial politics, so discovering through Hall a new way of thinking left politics was helpful to me.”

In 1995, I went to study for a political science graduate degree at Northwestern University in Chicago’s northern suburbs. It is probably there where I first became familiar with Hall’s work in classes on the interactions between media, globalization, and cultural politics. Not surprisingly, my current research and writing on popular culture (reality shows, public television, advertising, social media, and my foray into football studies), is heavily influenced by Hall’s work.

When Hall passed away, The New York Times tried to dismiss him as a scholar and activist of multiculturalism only and suggested his influence was limited to Britain; someone who was out of time. That was, however, contradicted by how a whole new generation on social media who honored and debated his legacy. It helped that Hall reinvented himself right up until the end, speaking directly to 21st century anxieties.  For example, in 2013 writing about his and others’ “Kilburn Manifesto,” Hall wrote: “What is required is a renewed sense of being on the side of the future, not stuck in the dugouts of the past. We must admit that the old forms of the welfare state proved insufficient. But we must stubbornly defend the principles on which it was founded – redistribution, egalitarianism, collective provision, democratic accountability and participation, the right to education and healthcare – and find new ways in which they can be institutionalized and expressed.”

Specific to South Africa, Hall cared for and wrote about that country. His most explicit engagement with South Africa was in his 1980 essay, Race Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance, where he entered academic debates between white South African left and liberal intellectuals over the nature of domination and repression. I am surprised not more people in South Africa have read it or commented on it. Hall, of course, eventually did get to South Africa himself in 1996, accompanied by his wife, Catherine. He gave the keynote address at a conference at the now-University of Kwazulu-Natal (invited there by Tomaselli).

I have been trying to find a copy or a transcript of Hall’s address to the conference, but with no luck thus far. I keep wondering what Hall made of South Africa, still a very new country at the time of his visit.  Perhaps he would have admired the South Africans for their tenacity, warned against complacency and, like Gramsci, reminded the South Africans that it is always a “war of position.”  Or he may have said of South Africa, what he later said of Barack Obama. At the time Obama was elected, Hall celebrated the election of the first black president of the United States as a historic event, but cautioned that the value of Obama’s Presidency remained to be seen. Three years later, Hall felt comfortable to cast judgment: While Obama’s “heart was in the right place,” he “was never radical.” Hall also felt that Obama and his supporters had not reckoned with the inertia of the American political system and its tendency to settle for a tepid consensus and was disappointed by some of Obama’s policy decisions.

But perhaps as much as his ideas, Hall’s influence and prominence made a significant impression on whole generations of black intellectuals and scholars, myself included, who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. The South African academy has always skewed white, and black intellectual role models were often rendered invisible, even where they did exist (either to exile: Archie Mafeje, Stan Nolutshungu, Bernard Magubane; or not properly acknowledged when at home, like Neville Alexander and Jakes Gerwel).  What John Akomfrah and Ben Carrington wrote and said about Hall’s impact on young black intellectuals in Britain holds for places like South Africa: “There was no space for someone like me before Hall.” Wrote Carrington, on Africa is a Country (a site I started and that I like to think may be an indirect part of Hall’s legacy): “It’s taken for granted now that culture matters, that popular culture is a site of politics, that politics saturates everyday life, and that these things can and should be studied in a serious manner. But despite their claims, it was not Sociology, or History, or Economics, or even Anthropology that created this space. It was Cultural Studies.”

Finally, Hall’s transparent engagement with his family’s biography, his exploration of his relationship to blackness and creole identities, provided a way of thinking about my own family history.  Despite the class differences (Hall grew up middle class; I’m the son of a domestic worker and a gardener) and the different historical specificities of the Caribbean versus the Western Cape of South Africa, there were striking commonalities: Shame, slavery, colonialism, colorism, and deference to whites (despite the violent history of white trusteeship and oppression), are also “natural” to the world in which I grew up. (For example, Hall’s parents discouraged him from playing with dark-skinned children, prevented his sister from marrying a black doctor and never really identified with Jamaica.)  Those are parts of my biography that I still want to explore. Perhaps the most lasting impression I have of Hall’s life’s work is that he continued working at making sense of the past and the present until the very end.

* This was first published on Social Text.

Economics has an Africa problem

Economics has a gender problem. This much we know. Economics might also have an Africa problem. There seems to be an established tradition in economics of talking about Africa (and developing regions in general) from afar, with western scholars leading the discussion (see this list of so-called big thinkers in international development). 

Arguably the most important conference on the challenges of economic development in Africa takes place every March in Oxford. The conference is hosted by the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE)  which is also based in Oxford. Once the call for proposals goes out, development economists working on Africa try to get their papers accepted with the hope of traveling to Oxford to talk about the continent. Then there’s the North East Universities Development Consortium Conference held every year in a north eastern university in the US. Last year’s was held at Boston University and all the papers presented were either on Africa or on other parts of the developing world. And then there is the African Economic History Workshop which has been held at LSE, Lund and in Geneva since its inception in 2005. This year it will be held at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. I could go on and on. 

The exclusion of Africa from the debates that concern it is also evident in the composition of the editorial staff of leading scholarly publications in economics that focus on the continent or have the continent as subject matter. The Journal of African Economies (JAE), arguably the most prestigious and influential publication on African economic development issues, is not only housed faraway at Oxford but has only one African-based scholar on its editorial board out of a total of 27 (Johannes Fedderke is listed as based in South Africa but he is actually a full-time professor at Penn State).

Matters are not any better at the Journal of Development Economics where none of the 64 academics serving on its editorial board is based in Africa (there is only one person that is partly based in a developing country)! The Journal of Economic Growth is just as bad

So what really explains this state of affairs? Some will say that the meetings/conferences by necessity have to be held in the US or Europe because of infrastructure concerns in Africa. But this is not entirely convincing given that some of Africa’s cities have infrastructure that easily rivals the best that the West can offer. Lagos, Nairobi and Accra can very easily host gatherings of the likes of the African Economic History Workshops. What about the exclusion of African-based scholars on editorial boards of leading scholarly publications in the field? Perhaps Africa lacks the necessary expertise to sit on these boards? Again this is doubtful: leading African universities in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, to mention but a few, are chock-full of academics with a deep and intimate knowledge of the continent. Some of these scholars received their training at some of the best universities around, the same universities that host these faraway get-togethers! 

By physically locating these meetings in places far away and disproportionately underrepresenting African-based scholars on journals’ editorial staff, the view is affirmed that the answers to Africa’s problems and the storylines of Africa’s past can only be weaved elsewhere under the leadership of western scholars. Economics as a discipline is sending a clear message: Africa cannot be a leading participant in the debates that ultimately shape its destiny. Is there any other interpretation that one can give to this?

Postponed For Now: Nigerians to choose between General Buhari’s populist promises and President Jonathan’s status quo

Nigeria’s elections, originally scheduled for Valentine’s Day, have now been postponed, for six weeks. One thing is certain though: the two leading candidates are neck and neck according to an Afrobarometer poll released at the end of January. Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator who ended Nigeria’s second attempt at democracy with a coup in 1983, and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan are polling at 42% each, with 11%of voters undecided. Local conflict resolution efforts and western policy planners have focused on two unpleasant scenarios, either one accelerating a downward spiral. How much fear is driving forecasting?

In the first outcome, Buhari, a northern Muslim wins and there is violence in the south, especially in the Niger Delta where former rebels in the oil-producing region pick up arms again. Upwards of 36,000 militants have been part of an amnesty program since 2010, and a large proportion of them are ethnic Ijaws, like the president. One former militant leader, “Tompolo,” threatened that Nigeria would break up if Buhari won.  Tompolo has much to lose since he has received hundreds of millions of dollars in security contracts from the Jonathan government. Asari-Dokubu of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force said ex-militants “would return to their old ways should President Jonathan lose the election.”

When a powerful former minister of defense recently called for the arrest of Tompolo and other militants over such statements, prominent cultural groups such as Ohanaeze Ndi’gbo among the Igbos in the east, and Oduda People’s Congress (OPC) among the Yorubas in the west lent political cover to the militants’ position by saying – perhaps clarifying – that if the election is not free and fair, the south should reject the results.

It’s the tightest election since the 1999 transition. The opposition All Progressive’s Congress (APC) has successfully capitalized on several tiers of frustration: political candidates have been locked out of elections through corrupt primaries for years by the ruling People’s Democratic Party and its rigid rules of geographical rotation; governors have fought the federal government over unfunded mandates, borders, and diversion of oil revenue allocations; and 74 % of ordinary citizens say the country is overall going in the wrong direction (up from 70% two years ago).  The APC’s electoral coalition includes powerful governors in critical states, including Lagos and Rivers in the south, and Kano in the north. Even the Niger Delta militants are divided over the campaign: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) endorsed Buhari last month, beginning its statement by saying not a single government official has been successfully prosecuted for corruption under Jonathan’s administration. “No wonder,” wrote the group’s leader Jomo Gbomo in an email, “the once respected Nigerian Military has been reduced to a ragtag Army by the Boko Haram Terrorists.”

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Image via

The second scenario, with a Jonathan victory, simmers in a similar cynicism about Nigeria. Jonathan’s plan to campaign on economic growth, improved infrastructure, and some increased diversification of Nigeria’s oil-based economy was interrupted in April 2014 with the kidnapping by Boko Haram of over 200 girl students (remember the #Bring BackOurGirls campaign; they’re still missing). The fear here is that northerners might believe they have been denied their “turn” to rule since Jonathan had his chance. In fact 800 people were killed in the wake of Jonathan’s 2011 electoral victory. Moreover, escalating terrorism in three northeastern states despite a federal state of emergency there has contributed to not only general insecurity, but also a sense of disenfranchisement. Due to logistical and legal barriers, over a million internally displaced persons may be unable to vote, and Boko Haram’s violence may significantly deter turnout in northern states aligned with the opposition. And if terrorism doesn’t interfere with voting, then the security services might: “There are strong cases of partisan control of security institutions in the country,” warned a leading human rights organization in December. “The Federal government has been very partisan in its use of the Police, Military and the DSS.”  Nearly 50 percent of Nigerians fear “personally becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence” during this election, according to Afrobarometer. I witnessed some of this interference directly, during a recent trip to opposition-controlled Rivers State, where the police have been physically blocking the state House of Assembly from meeting.

In this context the APC might take to the streets if the election is deemed neither free nor fair. Though such mass mobilization does add an element of uncertainty, the west should keep in mind the grassroots’ essential role in bringing down the dictatorship in the 1990s, defending term limits in 2006, advancing essential electoral reforms in 2010, and getting President Jonathan to focus on Boko Haram. Buhari has populist appeal among those nostalgic – perhaps naively so – for the law and order of “soft” authoritarianism, as well as among northerners who feel excluded from emirate and elite patronage structures (the “talakawa,” in Hausa). But it would be a mistake to take this as a basis for collapse. At the time of this writing, pro-democracy organizations are outside the electoral commission, demanding that the commissioner not give in to calls to delay the election. The Transition Monitoring Group, the Enough is Enough Campaign, Occupy Nigeria, and other groups are prepared to defend Nigeria’s democratic progress.  Nigerians have fought for democracy before, and we shouldn’t underestimate civil society’s willingness and capacity to peacefully defend it.

Yes, we have some #AdviceForYoungJournalists

It’s been a glorious week for journalism, hasn’t it? Those fearless warriors for truth and justice, standing up for the weak, giving voice to the voiceless. I think we can all agree it doesn’t matter which mosque you left, or which helicopter you weren’t in, the main thing for journalists is to get ahead with their careers. In that spirit, here is our contribution to the ongoing #AdviceForYoungJournalists hashtag that got going on Twitter. Speak truth to power? You must be joking.

If you're in USA, home of freedom, don't write anything critical of Israel or your cowardly bosses will fire you. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Make shit up that plays to white people's fears. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Never publish info that make the US government look bad. Write an op-ed denouncing those that do as traitors. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Never question or attempt to independently verify anything the police say. They never lie to reporters. Ever. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Write about Africans as if they're not real people. Never interview an African. Always use a "bridge character." #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Never read or cite a book that wasn't written by a white man. Especially if writing on Africa or the Middle East. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

To become a successful editor, never commission black writers. Especially black women. That white guy can do it. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

If making a documentary or extended report in, say, Uganda, only interview white people. That's very important. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Ride in the second helicopter, but remember being in the one in front. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

If you have a NYT column, never — upon ANY account — do any research. Just reheat what you wrote last week. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

If asked to write obituaries, part of your job is to deride the lives and achievements of dead black scholars. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Go to the mall. Order some mac & cheese. Observe the Macedonian waiter. Your Pulitzer will be along any second. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Report on US wars so that the killing of brown people appears somewhat sad but totally inevitable. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Report on Israel's massacres so that the killing of Palestinians appears somewhat sad but totally inevitable. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

US military bloodshed must be reported ONLY in the passive voice. Thanks to @AndyBarenberg for the reminder #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

The best political stories are the ones that show you got to talk to, or just stand near, a famous politician. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Ask the nice man from the Israeli Defence Force for advice on what to call the things you see before you. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

US politics are best reported on like a horse-race. Ignore the details of why people are screwed either way. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

If in doubt, the topic of your next op-ed should be: Why Iran is the real threat. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

If reviewing, say, Jamaica Kincaid's novel, deride everything except the "encantatory" quality of her prose. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Write a story about white men saving brown women from brown men. Repeat. Your Pulitzer will be along shortly. #AdviceForYoungJournalists

— AFRICA IS A COUNTRY (@AfricasaCountry) February 10, 2015

Image at the top is from Humor Times.

Teca #2: Latin America is a Country’s Suggestions for the Grammys

Did you watch the Grammys? It doesn’t matter for our purposes, anyway, since the “Latin” categories were not shown on the TV broadcast. And, while the “important” awards were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the “Latin” categories were given out at a “Premier” award ceremony at the Nokia Theatre, also in L.A., a few hours before the main ceremony.

Here are the winners (and here you can see the full list of nominees):

Tangos, by Rubén Blades for Best Latin Pop Album.

Multiviral by Calle 13 for Best Latin Rock Urban or Alternative Album.

Mano A Mano – Tangos A La Manera de Vicente Fernández  by Vicente Fernández for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) (heh).

Más + Corazón Profundo by Carlos Vives for Best Tropical Latin Album.

So, let that sink in. Rubén Blades, one of the forefathers of salsa (and a man who shaped Latin America is a Country’s staff teenage years), won the Latin Pop award for an album in which he reworked 11 of his Salsa classics into Tango songs. Ranchera legend Vicente Fernández won a “Regional Mexican Music” award with an album of his covers of Argentinian and Uruguayan Tango standards.

It’s not like the Grammys are relevant, truly, but in one of the few chances Latin American music gets to be recognized, we get this. Even though we like both those Tango albums, we have a suspicion that maybe there were other worthy, non-cover, pop albums and Mexican works that deserved some acknowledgement last year.

And Calle 13… Again Calle 13? They have won a record-shattering 21 Latin Grammy awards and have won three out of eight Latin Urban/Latin Urban-Rock-Alternative awards that have been given at the Grammys. Some of the other nominees this year wouldn’t have bothered us. Anita Tijoux’s Vengo, was one of our favorite albums from last year. ChocQuibTown’s Behind the Machine is a beautiful pop reinterpretation of Colombian Pacific music that we hold dearly. Jorge Drexler’s Bailar en la cueva might be our favorite work of his. But, no, it had to be Calle 13 once more.

Aren’t you tired of Calle 13 being, apparently, the sole face of contemporary Latin American music in the U.S./Europe? Well we are. Which is why we compiled this brief list of Latin American artists who put out albums last year(ish) which could have been a good choice for the (completely absurd) “Best Latin Rock Urban or Alternative Album” category:

Our “Urban” nominees:

EveryDay Fight EP, Zalama Crew

The rapping crew from Cali, Colombia, has some of the best beats being done right now in Colombian hip-hop, fusing Colombian Afro-Pacific sounds with Colombian Afro-Caribbean cumbia and Afro-Caribbean reggae and dancehall. And with this EP (which is actually from 2013, like ChocQuibTown’s album), you’ll get to dance while listening their heavily socially-conscious lyrics. Listen to the full EP here.

Bidireccional, Pounda Ranks & NoModico

The duo of rappers from Lima, Perú, released this album for free in 2014. They dubbed it an “experimental, independent, free” production. Check it out for yourself.

Contraforma, Aerstame

The rapper from Santiago, Chile, is part of a crew known as Movimiento Original, but it’s the flow of his solo work that has us enamored. This album, from 2013, is maybe the best example of why you should follow him.

El presidente de la champeta, Mr. Black

The big guns over at Africa is a Country have their host of life presidents. Well, we have our own life president too, Mr. Black, the self-proclaimed president of champeta. The Cartagena, Colombia, native is probably the inventor of champeta-pop and has been filling out clubs around his country and abroad with his particular, party-heavy, breed of the Caribbean rhythm.

Our “Rock” nominees:

Conducción, Ases Falsos

We have said it once, and we might say it again. This album, by the Santiago, Chile, band Ases Falsos, might very well be our favorite from last year. With great lyrics, catching hooks, and great flow between songs, this is an album you want to hear from start to finish. Which you can do below.

Eclipse total del corazón, Los Waldners

Los Waldners, from San José, Costa Rica, bring us this bittersweet album which might make you cry, or look outside the window reminiscing about lover, or i might make you want to dance, or all at the same time, why not?

Eclipse Total Del Corazón by Los Waldners

Alkaloides, Alkaloides

The Quito, Ecuador, based group makes its debut with this wonderful sci-fi-inspired, punk influenced, shoegaze record that talks about bacteria, Nintendo 64 and time-travelling girls. What else do you need?

Our “Alternative” nominees:

Ada, Adanowsky

Adán Jodorowsky, the son of multifaceted Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mexican actress Valerie Trumblay, was born in Paris, France. There, he recorded this funky, 80’s poppish album, in which he sings in English about his feminine side. In the press release for the album, it is stated that Adán’s parents thought he would be born as a girl and were planning to call her “Ada.” When their mistake was revealed, they named him “Adán” instead. This is Adanowsky’s attempt to come to terms with Ada. Fun stuff, right?

Otra Era, Javiera Mena

In our humblest of opinions, this is Santiago, Chile’s Javiera Mena’s finest work yet. Full of techno and electronic beats, this indie pop record gets very easily stuck in your head. Dance away:

Historia, Los Actors

Melancholy, romance, dark bass-lines and sadness all around, all the way from Mexico City. Listen (if you have Spotify) to the full album here.

Do you have any other suggestions? Leave them on the comments below, or send them to our twitter or Facebook.

Also, see the rest of Teca here.

 

Here are our Africa Cup of Nations 2015 Awards

That was AFCON 2015. It was like 1992 all over again. The Ivorians are African champions after a nerve-shredding penalty shoot-out, and a Black Stars side led by an outstanding Number 10 named A. Ayew are still waiting for the cup after 32 years. The tournament was a bit of a weird one, like a cantankerous old uncle whose grouching plays on your nerves, but is full of surprises. Here’s our rundown of the best things about AFCON 2015.

Best quote: Boubacar “Copa” Barry, Cote d’Ivoire’s much-maligned veteran goalie (and alleged Tupac lookalike), who saved two penalties and scored the decisive kick, having twice lost AFCON finals on penalties. A triumph that would melt the hardest heart, and then, in his post-match interview, this:

Boubacar Barry after winning AFCON '15: "I am not big in size or talent. But I thought of my mother who loves me" #mA pic.twitter.com/OeAt2n5Ib3

— Muslim Footballers (@TheAMF) February 8, 2015

Best player: Serge Aurier. The dogged, skilfull Ivorian right-back was awful in his first match, and divine for the rest of the tournament. Apparently he had to shave his beard off in the dressing room after the final (he wasn’t the only victim of enforced hair removal, as we shall see.)

Best fan: Didier Drogba. We’re not sure if this instagram post of the great man watching Copa Barry slot the final penalty is the greatest thing ever posted to instagram, but it’s in the top one.

Instagram Photo

Best coach: Florent Ibengé. Took DRC to the semis and added a touch of class throughout, in a tournament stacked with mediocre foreign coaches. Plus Herve Renard can’t get to win everything. Ibengé’s players obviously loved him.B9Rn3leIQAAPlfV

Personality of the tournament: This award had to be shared. First, there was Gervinho. He started by punching Naby Keita, finished by hiding behind the bench during the shootout. Yes, there were some memes.

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And then, of course, there was DRC goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba. We already knew about his famous bum shuffle goal celebration, and got to see it over and over again as DRC kept scoring. This was how he celebrated clinching 3rd place:

The highlight came just before that. As he was facing Equatorial Guinea’s star player, Javier Balboa, Kidiaba, 39, casually pulled off a perfect back-flip. Balboa blazed his effort wide.

Best goal: Mandla Masango for Bafana vs Ghana. This was the best AFCON goal in a long, long time. Shades of James Rodriguez’s famous goal in the World Cup — watch how Masango has just gotten back onto his feet as he strikes the ball. Incredible. Unfortunately for Bafana, this was as good as it got.

Best game: DR Congo 4-2 Congo. There won’t be a better 45 minutes of football than the 2nd half of that one for years. Jude Wanga wrote a memorable post for the LRB about it, here’s a snippet:

When DRC went 2-0 down, less than twenty minutes into the second half, the colourful language broke out. Lingala has seven vowels and 29 consonants, and my family put them all to good use criticising the defence. New and inventive ways of swearing were learned by all. My aunt shouted that there were children present. It had no effect. Then came 25 minutes of pure magic. A dramatic and scarcely believable four-goal comeback saw Congo collapse against their stronger neighbours. I gave up tweeting just before the third goal. When Dieumerci Mbokani sealed the win in the 90th minute, the living room erupted. Six different languages were being spoken at once.

Reports began pouring in of people taking to the streets in DRC. Car horns blared in Kinshasa, roads were packed in Goma. DRC were through to the semi-finals for the first time since 1998, and people were in the mood to celebrate. Ibenge’s name rang out in the streets of Kinshasa, children ran around waving flags, even people carrying the dead home to prepare for the customary period of mourning got caught up in the celebrations.

I spoke to my father on the phone after the match. He told me he had known all along we would win. He is 79 years old, and has lived through two coups and two civil wars. ‘The Congolese are a resilient people,’ he said. ‘Look at our history. Look all we have been through. We are never beaten. We will never be beaten. We will always go forward.’

Best tweet: This was a tie as well:

Herve Renard. Post-colonial African hero with a job for life somewhere in Africa. He’s like a World Bank employee. Uh oh. #AFCON2015

— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) February 8, 2015

My people may not have access to good schools or clean water, but look at the amazing stadium I built for #AFCON2015! pic.twitter.com/pYUjMxIwvS

— President Obiang (@PresidentObiang) February 8, 2015

Baldest studio analyst: Sammy Kuffour. He bet that his Black Stars would win. They didn’t. He was shaved live on SuperSport. First by Robert Marawa, and then by a specially appointed Nigerian barber. We couldn’t find a vine of it, probably because of Eskom.Kuffour-shave

Best hair: The one and only Yannick Bolasie. He was fantastic throughout, a wonderful addition to AFCON, and another good reason to celebrate CAF’s inspired decision to invite fans to present man-of-the-match awards to the players. This resulted in some truly epic player-fan encounters:B7p4l1GIEAMk3hn

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Rogue’s Gallery: The medal ceremony: Issa Hayatou, Teodoro Obiang, Sepp Blatter.That’s a lot of autocrats for just one stage. Life presidents of FIFA, CAF & Equatorial Guinea. In power longer than these players have been alive. As usual, the beautiful game had to triumph in spite of those in charge.B9XOCo-IcAE-Hzm

Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu complicates the Jihadist narrative

Timbuktu, a new film from acclaimed Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako has won a string of international awards, is nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, and is a firm favorite to take the best film award at FESPACO. We decided to publish a few reviews of this momentous film.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu begins with a scene of a truck of armed jihadists chasing a gazelle. One screams to the other, “Don’t kill it. Tire it out.”  It’s a fitting metaphor for the occupation of northern Mali. For, it represents the gradual, often confounding, regulations and punishments that jihadists enforced in the name of shari’a. It also represents the physical, economic, and emotional exhaustion that so many Timbuktians experienced under the occupation.

Timbuktu, which opened in the United States on January 28, centers on a Tuareg family living in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Both honor and fatigue make the family reluctant to flee with their family and friends. This leaves them worried and lonely. It also makes them vulnerable to the jihadist regime, as well as fellow Timbuktians, who are equally frightened and on edge. But the film also highlights other residents—including locals and jihadists—as they negotiate the demands of the occupation.

Many film critics have lauded Timbuktu as a “visual masterpiece,” praising Sissako’s use of vast landscapes and captivating cityscapes. However, the cinematography accomplishes more than stunning images. Instead, it evokes the loneliness, confusion, desperation and sense of abandonment that so many Timbuktians experienced. Who could they rely upon and trust aside from the few who remained? How were residents to gauge the jihadists’ often conflicting motives?

Others critics have also applauded the film’s supposed comedic and satirical script. Such praise is somewhat misleading in my opinion. Timbuktu does not portray the jihadists—at least not all of them—as either purely ideological or bumbling buffoons. Many are depicted as critical thinkers in their own way. Others—(former) lovers of rap music and soccer—are depicted as youths who are way over their heads. Contrary to certain criticism following the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, this is not to suggest that Sissako is an apologist for extremism. Far from it. Instead, he depicts the jihadists as real, not as a caricature.

timbuktu_2

Sissako also demonstrates local resistance to shari’a. He includes a scene of a fishmonger critiquing new regulations that force her to wear gloves. And he includes another of lower-level jihadists searching for singers and guitar players. Some viewers and critics find these scenes amusing, and perhaps they were partially intended to be. Nonetheless, rules enforcing public veiling and prohibiting music were far from amusing to the Timbuktians with whom I worked in 2013. And as Sissako accurately illustrates, the jihadists brutally countered these local expressions of resistance.

Timbuktu is not a documentary… which is not to suggest that it should be. The film excellently depicts many of the hardships that Timbuktians encountered under the occupation. It also excellently depicts the numerous creative ways in which locals—particularly women—subtly and not so subtly rejected shari’a. But viewers should remember that Timbuktu is very much in medias res. Aside from a scene of a brief conversation with a Tuareg mercenary from Libya, there is little historical or regional context, which is perhaps a means to avoid a more complicated discussion of the role of the MNLA and Tuareg-led independence movements. Furthermore, the occupiers are regularly referred to as “jihadists”. This is surely what they called themselves. And it also facilitates Sissako’s critique of religious extremism. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to consider that most Timbuktians themselves refused to identify the occupiers with Islam. Almost every time I referred to them as “jihadists” or “Islamists”, my friends would (sometimes angrily) correct me, saying, “No, these people know nothing about Islam. This is not Islam. They are terrorists, pure and simple.” Of course, it’s not that simple. But it is important to reflect upon this local perspective while viewing Timbuktian characters on screen critique the occupation.

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Many of my Timbuktian friends were disappointed that Timbuktu’s global transformation from “mythical town” to “real place” occurred as a result of terrorism. Similarly, I find it somewhat unfortunate that this is the context for what is more or less the town’s contemporary cinematic debut. Nonetheless, Sissako tells an incredibly accurate story of Timbuktu. Without romanticizing it, we find an urban center that is also equal parts Sahara Desert and Niger River. We find a place of ethnic and linguistic diversity that has historically championed cosmopolitanism and more moderate expressions of religion. What Sissako’s Timbuktu highlights—and perhaps this is the film’s most important lesson—is that, despite inflammatory rhetoric that suggests otherwise, those in the West are not those most affected by terrorism. Those who are regularly forced to confront such violence are in Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia, Libya, not to mention Syria and Iraq… places that rarely make it into the Western press.

#SAHipHop2014: When South African Hip Hop Met The Internet

It’s all my father’s fault!

Sometime towards the end of the nineties, I remember him bringing along a heavy-set, pale-skinned man into our home during a lunch break from work. The man wore one of those green-gray shirts which only come in size XL and above, a pair of shorts, and veldskoens. This look rendered him more a farmer than a technician who’d come to fiddle with our computer.

He asked for the telephone end-point, the one onto which the telephone receiver gets plugged in, and began fiddling with that too. In no time, I’d figured out that either that evening or the next day (it all depended on ‘activation time’), I’d be able to access ohhla, spitkicker, and a small fortune of websites I’d only heard of or read about. The World Wide Web had landed on my desktop at a record-breaking speed of 56kbps and I was going to usher in every bit of it!

Around 2002, I was set in my ways; I’d become an Internet-dependent delinquent prowling night and day for hyperlinks to rap music websites which I’d spot on magazines, see written at the end of television shows, and hear as they were announced radio. It was during these solitary digging missions that I discovered Africasgateway. Almost instantaneously, I fell in love with its forums – a buzzing community of like-minded heads waxing fanatical about rap music from the African continent and beyond.

ag

“I’m from an area of South Africa that is very secluded in many ways,” says Rushay Booysen – community activist, public speaker, connector, and Internet prowler of note. Rushay was an early adopter of Africasgateway and its forums. Speaking over a Skype connection from his house in Port Elizabeth, he shares invaluable information about the website which was founded by Shane Heusdens, a Dutch national who’d migrated to Cape Town from Namibia in 1989.

Rushay was alerted of Africasgateway’s existence by his then-girlfriend who understood just how much he loved hip hop and desired to connect with like-minded heads from all over the world. It’s the same desire which still informs his world view to this day. Through Internet communities, Rushay has connected with heads from all over the world.

“When you looked at the web at that time and you [didn’t] know the specifics and the dynamics of running or hosting a website, it just [looked] like a corporation. It [didn’t] look like it could be one person doing that thing,” says Rushay.

He drafted an e-mail introducing himself and stating his intention to get involved and sent it over to Milk (short for Milkdaddy, Shane’s alias on the website). Milk, whom Rushay had spoken to over the phone a few years earlier, responded by inviting him over to his house in Cape Town. “He had this coloured accent,” he recalls.

“I just took a bus to Cape Town and knocked on the guy’s door,” he adds.

Arriving in Cape Town, Rushay’s perception of how Milkdaddy might look was completely altered. Milk was still living with his wife at that time; she’s the one who opened the door when he knocked.

“You meet this woman with her husband and it’s a white dude, a white Dutch [who] grew up in Namibia. It was just like ‘this is crazy!’” says Rush, relaying the shock of that initial meeting.

Other website at the time

Africasgateway didn’t exist in isolation. There was also Africanhiphop and Hip Hop Headrush (HHH). The latter is the first ever website to exclusively documenting South African Hip Hop and the culture around it. The site was last updated in September 2007.

Africanhiphop, Milkdaddy notes, is what inspired Africasagateway. He’d connected with its founder, an Amsterdam native called Thomas Gesthuizen, through music exchanges.

“He was interested in stuff coming from where I was [Cape Town], so I would send him stuff that I would come across, and he would send me stuff from the Netherlands or from [wherever], you know?”says Milk, who’d begun teaching himself how to code using html while not working his day job.

Milk registered the domain name and started populating the website with local hip hop news and album reviews. In true web 1.0 fashion, the site was static, meaning he had to manually update all sections everytime new content became available. Eventually, he decided to use a Content Management System (CMS), enabling Africasgateway to scale well with increasing traffic. Forum functionality could be enabled within the CMS. “The forums [were] primarily just about local African music, African hip hop. And then it just went massive. I mean, it got so large at one point it was…I had to move servers several times,” says Milk.

A community of users could log in and partake in any of the topics being discussed – anything from general issues, to audio production-related discussions, to rap battles, to epic discussions about the latest rap releases. Initially, users could comment anonymously on the thread, but a username was later required as a means of discouraging trolls.

hhh

South Africa-born, UK-based Massdosage of HHH was a Computer Science student at Rhodes University during the mid-nineties. The website was an off-shoot of a prototype he’d built while hosting the Hip Hop Headrush on RMR, Rhodes’ campus radio. He’d publish the show’s tracklisting on the website and, occasionally, put up “a really bad, short [real-time] audio clip” for people to listen to and/or download. This was late 1995.

He completed his studies and moved back home to Johannesburg where he started work at a multimedia company in 1999.

“The account I had at Rhodes was going to get closed. I had to keep paying for it but I was like ‘what’s the point?’ But then I realised I was going to lose the web space,” says Massdosage of the free server space allotted to him while still a student. He decided against letting the website go, aided in part by the potential he saw in the Johannesburg media space. He had contacts who helped him with interviews. “I thought we can make this bigger than just the radio show,” says Massdosage.

After trying and failing to register hhh.co.za (the initials of his radio show), he began thinking of alternatives. It turned out that hiphop.co.za was available so he snapped it up, got a designer with whom he completely overhauled the website, then went live in 1999.

Massdosage would go to events at clubs like 206 to film the likes of DJ Ready D during their performances. Through the website, he was able to host a live chat with Dead Prez during the South African leg of  their Black August tour.

“I’d also get certain artists to give me songs to put on-line, to distribute. But I would always discuss it with them first…it was like promotion for them,” he says. These artists included the P.E.R.M collective (Zee, Strawmoon, Space2wice, Kju52, Tumi, Richard III, McWillie, Neo Shamiyaa, and Diliseng), Skwatta Kamp, and the late Mizchif.

Rushay recalls this period: “[Massdosage] was the one guy running the site, he was updating it. It was very basic, but it allowed us to share. We did an event, we shared photos, we shared the story of the event. It was this sharing platform which was one of the first of its kind in South Africa.”

The status quo

Nowadays, Africasgateway is but a shadow of its former self. It succumbed to the ripple effects of Myspace and Facebook.

“Having sites that had that control—not the control but like, where you could kind of congregate everybody—everything just kind of like went flat. And so that’s when the site just kind of died. And a lot of sites around the world went the same way,” says Milk of the website’s demise.

Africanhiphop.com is still being updated, but is more active on twitter. They have archived their once-vibrant forums which helped in facilitating many a cross-continental collaborative projects.

There are more websites and blogs focused on posting South African Hip Hop-related content, from the African Hip Hop Blog’s editorials, to Heavyword’s snapshots of the latest gems. Chekadigital, more a lifestyle blog which sometimes focuses on hip hop, is also doing its bit, as are blogs like Kasi Music Kona, Sistersnrap, and others.

Slikour Metane, solo artist and [former?] member of Skwatta Kamp (and participant to the Africasgateway community) runs a (Jay Z’s) Life + Times-style blog focused on easy-to-digest content. “I am not a blogger, but I love the music, so if I am going to write it with my bad writing skills, know that I did it for the music. I haven’t even scratched the surface as it is a five-year plan,” he told one publication in an interview.

Phiona Okumu was a contributor to Hip Hop Headrush in its heydays. Nowadays, when she’s not travelling the world, she writes about urban African music for The Guardian and is part-owner of Afripop. As one of the earlier purveyors of South African Hip Hop writing, both on-line and in print, does she see a future for the movement on-line?

​“I can’t imagine why ​not,” she responds via e-mail. “​S​outh ​Africa has had no real ​definitive ​Internet place ​for hip hop ​to call home since the days of hiphopheadrush ​or [Africasgateway].”

Phiona points out that it’s not only with hip hop, but “with pretty much all the urban musics.” She recalls the days of the Black Rage Productions-owned rage.co.za, and says it’s strange that “no site has taken up the baton to represent SA urban culture in the way that Rage did.” (Black Rage went under with the 2008 financial crisis).

“​Today, for better or for worse, anyone with a WordPress and the time can set up shop. ​That’s why it blows my mind that there aren’t more kids doing it,” she says after noting that the Internet was a different place during the days of Rage. She also credits artists such as Okmalumkoolkat whose on-line presence has been instrumental in catapulting them to mainstream acclaim.

Journalist Mookho Makhetha expresses another view in her article entitled For the love of music:

As large as the online music blogosphere is, it is still left on the fringes of “normal” life. Most bloggers have day jobs and do not have the resources to invest in exhaustive tales about an artist’s music. Some blogs while engaging and well-written (even better than most journalistic pieces) do not have access to the artists. That music writing is not a worthwhile pursuit, that it is something that one does in their spare time and will often play second fiddle to people’s “real” careers is precisely the problem.

We should be recording this

The comparatively low costs of webhosting coupled with the rise of blogs and social media have democratised the playing field for South African Hip Hop. It’s important to recall a time when this was not so, and to celebrate the prospects and promise of a South African Hip Hop which fully embraces the internet. As it stands, most artists treat these platforms as a stopover, a mere mask to cover up their ultimate desire to congregate at the behest of radio and television so as to feel like their music genuinely matters. Phiona, in closing says:

Many from my generation feel like there was something of a golden era that played out between 2003-2004. I think that now, ten years later, the real dawn of an era is happening where for once, hip hop is being given the same weight as Kwaito was. We should be recording this…

Footnoteboth Milkdaddy and Juma 4 of Africanhiphop.com reference Shamiel Adams (alias Shamiel X, formerly of the DJ collective The Beatbangaz) as having influenced them to start their individual websites. Attempts to get input from him proved unsuccessful.

Digital Archive No. 12 – The African Rock Art Digital Archive

Last summer, I got the chance to visit the Origins Museum on the University of the Witswatersrand campus in Johannesburg.  A major feature of the Museum’s collection is an installation of San rock art.  As the Rock Art Research Institute’s website attests, rock art is a key medium through which to understand our collective pasts (pasts which evade the written word).

Rock art is one of the most evocative of all the pieces of heritage left for us by our ancient ancestors. By looking into its symbolism, we can look into the minds of people who lived thousands of years ago. Rock art can take us back to a time when the world was very different, to the time when Egypt was home to the greatest civilization on earth. At that time people were painting rock art in the centre of the Sahara. But, even then, the rocks were not clean. The painters were covering over rock art that was already some 6000 years old. And, while Pygmy dancers entertained the great Pharaohs, their womenfolk painted the shelters of central Africa with a geometric art that remains amongst the most sophisticated of all the world’s arts. These great traditions, and hundreds of others, remain on the rocks to be discovered by anyone willing to take the time. The following pages introduce you to some of our great painted and engraved treasures, but words and pictures are a poor substitute for a visit to a site to witness the real thing.

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The Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), based at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, aims to not only research Africa’s rock art, but also to publicize, preserve, and conserve these treasures.  And one of the ways that they have worked to achieve these aims is through the South African Rock Art Digital Archive.

Some of the images from RARI are available through the Google Cultural Institute.  But while the Google collection only contains five images, this site contains over 270,000 images of rock art from 30 institutions around the world.  The digitization of the RARI collections began in 2002, thanks to funding from the Ringing Rocks Foundation.  In developing their preservation schema and digitization methods, this organization realized it could use their newfound expertise to preserve other private and institutional collections, including materials owned by the Analysis of Rock Art of Lesotho project, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, Natal Museum, National Museum, University of Cape Town, and the University of South Africa (the specific collections and their digitization dates can be found on this page).  This collaborative venture (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) resulted in the website that you can access today.

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There are multiple ways to navigate the site, which are laid out in these guidelines on how to search the database.  The most straightforward way to explore the archive is through the Browse options.  You can search by subject (ranging from animals to equipment to human figures), traditions (focusing on African hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists/herders), researchers and institutions, and locations (specifically Southern African public rock art sites–though this project also features rock art from throughout the continent).  For those planning trips to Southern Africa, this site also acts as a hub of information for public rock art sites that you can visit (as well as proper etiquette for interacting with the artifacts).

It is useful to go through each browsing function to explore all of the options available, since the organizational scheme of this site seems to obfuscate as much of its content as it presents.  For example, there are brief essays with each browsing category that are only accessible if you click through each section.  Take, for example, this introductory essay on KhoeKhoe Rock Art.  Or this essay on Chewa Rock Art in Malawi and Zambia.  On that same note, this is not just, as the title suggests, a South African Rock Art Digital Archive, but an African Rock Art Digital Archive.  There are artifacts included from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Mali, the Sahara, Kenya, and, of course, South Africa.  But you do have to dig for them.

Find out how you can get involved with SARADA’s efforts here.  You can also follow the Rock Art Research Institute on Facebook.

White History Month 2015 is coming and we want your submissions

Last March was the inaugural White History Month here on Africa is a Country, and without tooting too loudly on our own vuvuzela, it was kind of brilliant. So we’re going to do it again.

We featured stuff like Kathleen Bomani’s Leather from Human Skin in 1880s Philadelphia and pulled together a wide range of material, from Britain’s mass torture regime in 1950s Kenya to that time the South African government sent a delegation to the USA to find out how “reservations” worked. Check the whole series here.

White History Month should be a resource for all kinds of people, not just those as confused by history as the likes of Michael Elion. In November, Elion thought it was cool to exploit Nelson Mandela’s struggle against white supremacy, by making a repulsive advertisement for Ray-Bans in Cape Town. That’s him pictured above, after his PR campaign had been converted into something more resembling a piece of art, thanks to some beautiful graffiti by Tokolos Stencil Collective.

Ignorance of White History is real, people, and it leads to all kinds of BS.

This year, we’re inviting Africa is a Country readers (you too, Elion) to contribute to White History Month 2015. Get in touch using editorial [at] africasacountry [dot] com and let us know what you want to write about. Take a look at what was featured last year to get an idea of what we’re looking for.

The inspiration for White History Month comes from a 2007 column in the Nation by Gary Younge.

Here’s what he wrote back then:

… So much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice. Leaders “get assassinated,” patrons “are refused” service, women “are ejected” from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility … There is no month when we get to talk about [James] Blake [the white busdriver challenged by Rosa Parks]; no opportunity to learn the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who murdered Emmett Till; no time set aside to keep track of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, whose false accusations of rape against the Scottsboro Boys sent five innocent young black men to jail. Wouldn’t everyone–particularly white people–benefit from becoming better acquainted with these histories? What we need, in short, is a White History Month … The very notion of black and white history is both a theoretical nonsense and a practical necessity. There is no scientific or biological basis for race. It is a construct to explain the gruesome reality that racism built. But, logic suggests, you cannot have black history without white history. Of course, the trouble is not that we do not hear enough about white history but that what masquerades as history is more akin to mythology. The contradictions of how a “free world” could be founded on genocide, or how the battle for democracy during the Second World War could coincide with Japanese internment and segregation, for example, are rarely addressed … It would offer white people options and role models and all of us inspiration while relieving the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year. White people, like black people, need access to a history that is accurate, honest and inclusive. Maybe then it would be easier for them, and the rest of us, to make history that is progressive, antiracist and inclusive.

White History Month 2015 is coming. Someone better tell all those folks who love to whine about how “racist” it is that there isn’t a White History Month.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker–Jim Chuchu

Hyper creative visual artist, filmmaker Jim Chuchu lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was born in 1982 and has lived since.  He is the Creative Director at the NEST- a multidisciplinary art space, and a member of the ten people strong collective. In addition, he is also a singer-songwriter and former member of the group Just a band.

Chuchu, who has directed short films – among them two fashion films and one of African Metropolis Project films – is currently working on his first solo exhibition of images and video works, scheduled for May this year. With the NEST, he is working on the Stories of Our Lives book, to be released in March. The film Stories of Our Lives has been selected to the Panorama-section of Berlinale, and is screening four times between February 8 and 14 (see the schedule here).

1) What is your first film memory?

I remember watching a cartoon in a film theater sometime in the 80s. I can’t remember what it was called, but it involved tails and mice, and I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing. I was too little to sit properly on the folding theater seat, I kept falling through the gap in the back and my mother had to pull me out several times.

2) Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I was an escapist child, who spent a lot of time in the imaginary. Filmmaking seems to me to be the adult version of the games I used to play when I was a child. Bringing my family at the NEST, stories, pictures and sound together to create something immutable. Lately, I’m starting to discover that film has the capacity to dissect and soften those many, unyielding and convoluted castles of privilege and nonsense that one encounters in the universe of Being Black, and Being African, and Being Different. It’s a capacity that I was only dimly aware of until now, and I am relishing the opportunity to explore it.

3) Which film do you wish you had made and why?

Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron; an almost silent film featuring lovers who never speak to each other, mysterious and ambitious, and that deliciously unaffected sleight-of-hand at the end. Breathtaking! When I grow up, I want to make films that are as simple and confident as this.

4) Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.

I’d always been interested in the story of the Zambia Space Program, and the way those guys were and still are ridiculed. That story was, for me, more evidence of how little room there is for contemporary African dreamers, how pervasive the idea that Science does not (and cannot) belong to Africans and how much fantasy and the unknown are derided as being useless and dangerous for and by the continent.

I heard about Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts and waited years (YEARS!) to see it. Because of the way African films work these days, where you’re more likely to see them in Europe than in Africa (sigh), I finally got to see it in Sweden, and it was worth the wait. I haven’t seen anything so spectacular and awe-inspiring, I haven’t seen black bodies move with such grace. My heart was beating fast throughout its 14-minute run-time. This is what film can do; demonstrate the truth of things that are beyond the boundaries we place on black bodies and minds. I met her afterwards and had such a fan-boy moment, rendered absolutely mute!

5) Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.

What has the little voice inside your head been saying lately?

Stop resisting chocolate.

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