Africa is a Country

Africa is a Radio: Episode 6

(photo via NBC news)

Africa is a Radio episode 6 opens up with a transnational blend, combining remixes of Dotorado Pro’s “African Scream” with its sample source: DJ Sbu & Zahara’s “Lengoma.” From there we travel around the world -from Ferguson to Havana to Monrovia- touching on the sonic imprints of the contemporary news cycle. We end on a lighter, danceable note.

Israel’s arms exports to African countries has more than doubled

Despite an overall drastic decline in Israeli arms exports, trade with Africa had reached a four-year record, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Interestingly, African countries spent $223 million on Israeli arms in 2013 compared to $107 million in 2012.

The report that was given to Haaretz by the Israeli Defence Ministry doesn’t detail specific countries so there is no official comprehensive information on which country imported how much and what. Despite past demands and petitions Israel refuses to reveal the full list of the countries it sells arms to. As Haaretz reported in January 2014, when ordered by an Israeli court, Israel’s Defence Ministry would only reveal that it had sold arms in 2011-12 to the United States, Spain, Kenya, Britain and South Korea, “but its other customers can’t be named.” As Haaretz pointed out at the time, this was “like a bad joke. First, the ministry itself boasts of the great achievements of Israel’s defense industry and the billions of dollars of business it does worldwide. Second, every international defense journal or website reports at length on the deals of Israel’s defense companies.”  In addition, a 2013 British government report was very detailed about Israel’s customer list:

The British report, covering the years 2008-12, listed India, Singapore, Turkey, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Portugal, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Holland, Italy, Germany, Spain, Thailand, Macedonia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, Ecuador, Mexico, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Argentina and Egypt as Israeli customers. Even countries that have no official relations with Israel appeared on the list: Pakistan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. The report also said Britain refused to approve components for products destined for Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. In total, that’s 41 countries, and there are others not listed in the British report.

In June, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman toured West and East Africa (that’s him in the photo above in Cote d’Ivoire after being crowned honorary chief), accompanied by 50 executives. The delegation visited Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Ruanda and Kenya. Among the delegates were representatives of Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel Military Industries, and the defence electronics firm Elbit Systems, Israel’s leading defence contractor, which provides arms and services to the IDF in hundreds of millions of dollars.

In April 2013 it was announced that Elbit had won a $40 million contract to provide an anonymous African country with “intelligence analysis and cyber defence.”

Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola

Wherever I turn, there is Ebola. In the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, and across the ubiquitous social media. Ebola. I sweat, shake, and cringe in mortal fear. Such an ugly word, fearsome in its primal sound, so African, so dark, so black. Since Africa is one country, beware of going to Africa, the media screams. Never mind those who occasionally mention the disease is currently confined to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, three out of Africa’s 54 countries. But what do they know about world geography, Africa is Africa. That’s the problem with political correctness, denial of inconvenient truths. This is an African disease. It afflicts Africa, that benighted land of biblical agonies, of inexplicable scourges, of unimaginable suffering, of epidemics and pandemics, of AIDS.

I am afraid of Ebola because I am an African. I am not one of the nearly 1.1 billion Africans actually living on the continent. What difference does it make that all of western and eastern Europe, China, India, and the United States would fit into Africa; it is one sorry place home to all those hapless people living in trepidation of Ebola. I am part of Africa’s large global diaspora numbering in the tens of millions. But I remain an African, so I am scared of my susceptibility to the disease that is so African. I live in the United States, and I am terrified because, as of today, months after the panic started Ebola has already killed one person, an African who had travelled to Africa, and infected one health care worker.

I wonder how many people have since died of other diseases—heart disease, malignant cancers, lung disease, brain disease, accidents or unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, the ten leading causes of death in the United States, responsible for nearly 1.86 million deaths in 2011, three-quarters of all deaths in the country. Where is the panic on all these deaths, some of which were surely preventable and premature. But that is beside the point. These are normal deaths. Ebola is terrifying in its monstrosity. It is a disease out of Africa.

I am afraid of Ebola because I, too, come from Africa. I watch the gory images of deaths from Ebola in Africa. I listen to the pundits pontificating about the millions it will kill in Africa, the need to close US borders from Africa. I shudder at seeing President Obama whose father came from Africa (or is it Kenya) being called President Ebola. I am stunned when a student refuses to go on a study abroad trip to Spain because it is close to Africa. Hasn’t one Ebola case already been diagnosed there? I am speechless when well meaning colleagues wonder why I’m going to Africa; they never hear the names of the actual countries I am going to.

I am afraid of Ebola because it is robbing me of my African authenticity when I fail to give special insights into the nature of the disease from inquiring colleagues or the media. About the culinary delights of eating monkey meat that apparently sparked Ebola and the strange primeval customs that helped spread it like wildfire. The fact that I am not a medical doctor, or from the three affected countries doesn’t matter. I am an African. Or have I become too Americanized to understand my African disease heritage? Maybe I am not Americanized enough to speak authoritatively about things I know little about, not even when it comes to that simple place with a single story called Africa.

I  am afraid of Ebola for bringing back to the center stage the Afro-pessimists with their perennial death wishes for the continent. In recent years they had lost some traction to the narratives of a ‘rising’ Africa. I am afraid of Ebola because it has quarantined me in the denigrated Africa of the western imagination, in the diseased blackness of my body. Ebola has robbed the American public of Africa’s multiple stories, of the continent’s splendid diversities, complexities, contradictions, and contemporary transformations. Ebola is indeed a deadly panic. It threatens civilization as we know it.

Or are my fears about Ebola misplaced? Is it about something else deep in the western psyche I can’t understand, perhaps going back the Black Death of the 14th century that decimated nearly one-third of Europe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people, or the genocide of native peoples in the Americas brought about by European diseases? But questions offer little solace in the avalanche of grim stories about the African plague of the year, Ebola. As someone who earns a living as an educator, I am afraid of Ebola because it is an enemy of critical and balanced thinking about Africa, about disease, about our common humanity.

What’s the matter with … Stellenbosch University

One afternoon, during my final year of high school, I first found myself at Stellenbosch University (also known as University of Stellenbosch) on a tour of potential universities in the Western Cape, South Africa’s south-western province. Walking around the various buildings on campus and after a quick stopover in the Neelsie, the university’s mall, I hesitated at the thought of studying there–besides, they didn’t offer what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life at the time. So I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Cape Town instead. However, a decade-and-a-bit and some career adjustments later, I am back at SU as a Masters student in the Visual Art department.

In line with the typical Apartheid urban planning practices of many South African towns and cities, Stellenbosch consists of a town center, reserved for “white” people during Apartheid by the Group Areas Act (1950) surrounded by spatially disconnected and racially segregated suburbs and townships. In Stellenbosch, the Group Areas Act was implemented through forced removals in thriving neighborhoods like Die Vlakte (English: The Flats) in the center of town where “black” and “coloured” people lived. The land in Die Vlakte was subsequently acquired by SU after the communities who lived there were evicted and displaced to Kayamandi, Cloetesville and Idas Valley on the town’s margins.


Legacies of colonialism and apartheid are etched into social dynamics of the town in the way its inhabitants occupy public space – real and imagined boundaries are still constructed according to race and class. Spending a significant amount of time there has reminded me that the architecture of a place, both in the physical and social sense, is always deeply embedded in relationships of power.

The ‘dop’ (tot) system, where farm laborers were paid in alcohol in return for their labor led to generational alcoholism and left visible marks on the town’s psyche. Stellenbosch could be viewed as a microcosm of contemporary power relationships among race groups in South Africa – a wealthy “white” minority with access to cultural capital, a “black” elite and growing yet small middle class and disenfranchised poor “black” majority. In a discussion on poverty and inequality in Stellenbosch, the sociologist, Joachim Ewert suggests that between 1996 and 2009 (roughly coinciding with the first decade and a half of of democratic rule) poverty in Stellenbosch increased within all race groups, except the “white” population, and that poverty in Stellenbosch may be greater when compared to other towns of similar size.

In the ten years since my first visit, the university seems to have made some transformative strides in terms of race representation on the surface. That said, 2013 enrollment statistics show that “white” students make up just over 65% of the student population in a town where the overall “white” population is 18,5%. University projects like the HOPE project, an initiative by the late University Vice-Chancellor, Russel Botman, attempts to address issues of transformation at SU and has identified several core focus areas intended to facilitate institutional redress.

However, recent events in Stellenbosch show that there is room for robust dialogue around race and transformation at the university. These include, most notably: the university’s failure to act against two white students photographed in blackface at a party in September. Then there’s the eugenics kit belonging to a SU scientist close to Adolf Hitler and discovered by researchers in the university’s Anthropology department in 2013 (the university spun it as the basis for a new “innovative” project about the find). Finally, there’s the death of Russell Botman, the university’s first black president, in 2014.


Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State and one of a new generation of black university presidents, among others have hinted at the difficulties and pressures surrounding Botman’s tenure (which may have led to his death) and has publicly called on those who contributed to these pressures for “introspection and acknowledgement of their contribution to the immense difficulties the rector had to absorb as he tried to transform this rock-solid cultural monolith.”

It’s with that background that recently, from 29 September to 3 October, the university held its annual “Diversity week” celebrations, a week-long event organized by SU’s Centre for Inclusivity with the intention to “reflect the University’s view that a variety of people and ideas is an asset for a 21st-century higher-education institution”. The program included a lineup of local comedians and celebrities and a series of discussions called “Critical Hour” on various topics affecting the university, like “Women in Leadership – Must Have or Nice to have?”

The event was opened with a flag bearing ceremony supposedly representing multicultural, Pan-African unity and inclusivity. This was followed by Vicky Sampson’s opening performances of “African Dream” and a cover of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s “When you believe”– a confusing choice for the mostly millennial audience. The event logo and slogan “Glocal is Lekker” (Glocal is Cool) seems to suggest that by embracing a global outlook, the university is aspiring to position itself as a “world-class” tertiary institution and cultivate perceptions of itself as multi-cultural and progressive. (This seems to be a strategy of most South African universities; unfortunately, becoming “world class” often excludes coming to terms with racial and class inequalities inherited from Apartheid)

Browsing through Diversity Week’s twitter feed, and confronted with video-tweets reminiscent of post-1994 Mandela-era rainbowism, I wondered aloud whether university-sanctioned efforts at celebrating “diversity” are premature in place where non-Afrikaans speaking students are still excluded through language (While it is the official language policy of the university to have a dual-lingual approach to tuition i.e. Afrikaans and English, Afrikaans is often the preferred language of lecturers in class) or subjected to forms of institutional and physical violence. For example, stories of incidents involving violent racist insults are commonplace against black students. The university administration proves slow to react. Then there’s the commemorative bronze plaque to H.F Verwoerd, one of the founders of Apartheid and prime minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966 which adorns the foyer of the Accounting and Statistics building on SU’s main campus.

Although advertised as somewhat subversive of the prevailing ethos on campus, there was nothing transgressive about “Diversity Week” and many of the events I went to were poorly attended. It seemed like little more than a week-long marketing opportunity for the university and a diversion from the real challenges facing the institution. A friend remarked that there were proportionately more photographers to students at the opening ceremony looking for opportunities to capture the “diversity” of the institution. To cultivate a sense of gees or institutional spirit among students seems very important to the culture of this University. Historically, this institutional spirit played an important part in cultivating Afrikaner nationalist identity in building institutions like the Broederbond (the secretive organization which controlled the National Party) and affirmed Stellenbosch’s position as the cultural seat of Afrikaner Nationalism for much of the 20th century.

Given the context of the socially engineered polarization of the town, how can we begin to facilitate a spirit of inclusivity? The Stellenbosch literary Project (SLiP) supported by SU’s English department is a student-led initiative trying to negotiate these challenges in addressing topical issues of inclusivity, inequality and race in Stellenbosch through poetry.

A regular at their InZync poetry event at AmaZink, a bar/restaurant in Kayamandi and one of the few social settings I feel comfortable in in town, I was surprised that they weren’t included on the “Diversity Week” bill. (AmaZink, ironically, was also the setting for a party where two white male students dressed up in blackface as the Williams sisters recently.)

Pieter Odendaal, one of the founders and project manager of SLiP says the idea behind the project was to create an inclusive space where poets performing different styles of poetry, from paper poets to spaza rap could get together to meet and perform their work. SLiP has 3 main projects: InZync Poetry sessions, The INKcredibles—a weekly youth poetry workshop—and an online literary blog,


InZync sessions happen monthly and probably attract the most diverse audience in Stellenbosch. Each session is an exhilarating mix of regular student acts with visiting poets like Cape Town poet/musician Jitsvinger and young poets from the INKcredibles poetry workshops. It has become a space where participants can become entangled in one another’s narratives and perspectives, through addressing the big questions relevant to our time and place like identity, transformation, economic freedom and also the shared human experiences that connect us regardless of race or socio-economic background.

It was important for SLiP to situate the project in Kayamandi, as opposed to a space like the university auditorium to connect students at SU to the wider Stellenbosch community. Crossing boundaries remains a core value of the project. Events are free, which allow anyone to enter the poetry session at AmaZink and shuttles transport students from SU to Kayamandi and vice versa when sessions are held at the university or at Cafe Art in town. Adrian VanWyk, student, poet and Events manager for SLiP adds that while they have been successful in bringing students to Kayamandi, they have been less successful in attracting people from neighbouring Cloetesville. “Black” and “coloured” communities of Stellenbosch remain socially polarized and physically divided by a road – another Apartheid hangover, certainly not unique to Stellenbosch, but hyper visible in a town of this size.

SLiP fulfills an important role in building a spirit of inclusion in a context where “black” students often talk about feeling unwelcome and where they are often excluded outright from entering the town’s bars and clubs. I question whether “Diversity Week” in its current neatly-branded form is really addressing and challenging issues of race, homophobia and sexism at this institution. Transformation is a messy process which may need to involve confrontation and contestation that can’t be limited to a single event for 5 days of the year.


Germany has its own “Sinterklaas Scandal”

The Oktoberfest in Munich may be over, but a curious debate sparked by the annual Bavarian bierfest is lingering like a bad hangover. Is it racist to put up targets portraying black people for fairgoers to shoot at? Yes, in Germany this is treated as a question to be answered with yes or no. This curious “debate” was kicked off by an article in the Munich-based national newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, on an attraction at this year’s “Wiesn” where visitors could shoot at iron figures portraying a black soldier and a black man in “civilized” clothing with air guns firing lead pellets.

Maximilian Fritz, who runs the stand, clearly knew that something was wrong with his attraction. He expected Wiesn organizers to question him about it, and was surprised when they didn’t. His justification for setting up shop anyway? “It’s about tradition, that’s how it was done in the past!” Oh, and of course he adds another line from the playbook: “I’m definitely not a racist.” Why? Because he removed the iron figure of a man resembling a Jew. In his mind, accusations of racism were “boring and narrow-minded.”

The stand was part of the “Oide Wiesn,” the “old Oktoberfest,” a section of the Wiesn that puts on display artefacts of Oktoberfest’s past. But make no mistake, it’s not a museum. It celebrates the history and tradition of the Oktoberfest, but there is no critical commentary on what is exhibited there. After the Munich newspaper contacted the Wiesn organizers, they did attach a plaque to the stand explaining that shooting at black people was not about racism; it just had to be understood “in the context of the colonial history of the time.” Clearly, the organizers have a high tolerance for contradiction.

The newspaper article triggered what Germans like to refer to as a “shitstorm” on social media. A look into the streams and comment sections is instructive about the level of public debate in Germany. The Süddeutsche Zeitung’s question, “Is this racism or tradition?” prompted many people to comment that it’s both, a “racist tradition.” But many other comments reveal that people think like Mr Fritz, the stand owner. “We have more important problems to discuss” was a usual response—fighting ISIS, for example. Some people even suggested exchanging the black figures with figures of Islamists.

Comments conveyed all the well-worn tropes of reactions to charges of racism. For many, it was a “typically German” debate. Germans overreact, they cause alarm for no reason, and they are too dramatic. Some complained that critics were too quick to “wield the Nazi cudgel,” a term recalling a debate around renowned author Martin Walser’s rightward shift in the 1990s. Many commenters were concerned that soon “it won’t even be allowed to shoot at animals and flowers, lest we upset animals rights activists.” Finally, the whole thing couldn’t be racist because some targets were white figures and players don’t actually shoot at the figures directly but at moving clay pipes attached to the figures.

The level of ignorance these comments convey is alarming. Commentators did not recognize that the other figures probably portray outcasts and other marginalized people of the time. And many people cited in their comments their happy childhood memories of singing the song “10 kleine Negerlein” (10 little N***), playing with their N***-puppet, and eating N***-kisses, a type of chocolate-glazed sweets. In those times, “no one thought this was racist,” and that’s why apparently it should be OK today. Some thought placing things in historical perspective made things worse. If the explanatory plaque hadn’t been attached, their reasoning goes, nobody would have made a connection with race discrimination.

The most disturbing comments were those characterizing people who raised concerns about racism as “fascists of political correctness,” “sharia public order officers,” leftist idiots who always complain, smartasses, and “Gutmenschen” (do-gooders)—a term linked to right-wing populism that was declared the second-worst term of 2011 (“Unwort des Jahres 2011″). Many commentators felt that those who raised concerns were people who felt the need to distinguish themselves.

At a time when Germans are concerned once more with the “refugee problem” and fears of a rising tide of anti-Semitism, this debate is troubling. As in many other contexts we wrote about, tradition is used as an excuse for racism.  People don’t see a problem with the usual justification that it’s not meant to be racism. Hamado Dipama, member of the Panafricanism working group and of Munich’s Council for Foreign Residents, rightly wonders “Why is it so difficult to understand when we Africans say that it’s offensive?”

* Image Credit: Twitter.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Moussa Sene Absa

Moussa Sene Absa is a Senegalese filmmaker, artist and songwriter.

What is your first film memory?

It happened during the school holidays the year I turned ten in 1968. As a reward for my good grades my uncle took me to the cinema to watch <The Lion from Saint Marc. At one point when a lion looks straight into the camera I was terrified and tried to run away, but my uncle grabbed me and said “It’s just a film.” The scene haunted me for days.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I fell in love with movies as a teenager, but before that, when I was ten, I used to make Chinese shadow films at our house in Tableau Ferraille. Kids would pay me to tell them stories, which I had read in comic books or seen on film, like ‘Blek’ and ‘Zembla.’ Story telling is my way to make the world a better place, to dream and allow others to do the same. I’m a Griot and a storyteller, who grew up in a family of musicians and singers. I started in theatre before turning to film. I was fascinated by both art forms and I’ve always considered the stage to be the best storytelling platform. Film is the perfect tool to tap into other realities in order to make sense of the world, and to portray people and their stories. I became a filmmaker to tell both great and decadent stories, and to make people cry and laugh out of fear and joy.

Which film do you wish you had made?

There are many films that made a huge impression on me and that I wish I had made, like Once upon a time in America, Rome, open City, Breathless, Hyenas, The little girl who sold the sun and In the mood for love. But if I had indeed made them they would be different as they would have reflected my personality and culture in terms of music, costumes, casting etc.

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

In its simplicity and the way the story is told, The little girl who sold the sun is the most accomplished film, which talks about life and the future. It’s such a pure and humanist story, and without ever becoming sentimental, it portrays the protagonist – a young girl – as a hero.

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

‘Where is African cinema heading, and what are you working on now?’ Africans have made films for half a century, and the continent has produced many great filmmakers, who made films rooted in Africa while also reflecting a universal vision, However, during the last couple years, our film language has become increasingly uniform, and with a structure that originates from the West: “Introduction and development followed by conclusion”. Africans usually begin with the end, saying, “He is dead” and then trace the life of the dead person and the people concerned. This storytelling structure is hardly applied on our films.

I’m hoping that our filmmakers embark on a search for our identity and our cultures. You could easily think that some Africans films were made by British, Germans or Americans, with a gaze that is truly problematic.

At the moment I’m working on a project called Sangomaar, which explores how we adapt to our turbulent world. According to Senegalese tradition, Sangomaar is where the sea meets the river and where the Gods gather to discuss mankind and suggest solutions to our problems, as well as scolding or rewarding us. It’s the place where our destinies are formed.

‘Sangomaar’ is the second film in a trilogy about black people that starts with my film ‘Yoolé’ (The Sacrifice). I’m applying the principles of Kurukan Fuga (the ancient Malian constitution) to judge whether we as human beings are moving forward or backwards.

I ask questions about where we come from, how we are living our lives, and alternative ways of living and thinking. I also explore the painful moments of our rich and poor continent. Africa is indeed a place of contrast and paradoxes.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here.

Let’s talk about ethnicity and nationalism in Ethiopia

So much of the discord and paralysis in the pro-rights movement in Ethiopia and the Diaspora comes down to one factor: ethnicity. Politics related to Ethiopia has become so heavily “ethnicized” that we have a difficult time distinguishing between ideology and identity. Conversations about change cease to center on shared concern (like justice, human rights and democracy) and turn to disputes over ethnicity. While recognizing that we shouldn’t sweep these issues under the rug, it is clear that currently no one benefits more from this fragmentation than those who are interested in maintaining the status quo—chiefly, the ruling regime which has inflicted injustice and repression on people of all ethnic groups, including its own.

Increasingly elites in Ethiopia are using ethnicity as a basis for political organization, infusing linguistic and cultural differences and competing historical narratives with new political meaning. In recent years, there has been a rise of ethnic consciousness and ethno-nationalism, most notably amongst Oromos—the nation’s largest ethnic group (estimated at over 25 million people within Ethiopia, larger than most African states), which has historically been disproportionately underrepresented in national politics. Under the existing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, power has been wielded predominately by elites from the minority Tigrayan ethnic group, while in the past—with the noted exception of the Derg regime during the 1970s and 1980s—it shifted mainly between Amhara and Tigrayan monarchs.

Despite having introduced ethnic federalism, a system of decentralization that, in theory, distributes power and resources to regional states based on ethnic majorities, the EPRDF government views ethnic nationalism of any sort as a threat to its centralized rule. In fact, the intention of this new system was never to share power but to maintain political dominance. According to a 1993 EPRDF manifesto:

The interests of the majority of the population would be fulfilled only through our revolutionary democratic lines. So the objective condition requires the establishment and continuity of our hegemony”. The way that the EPRDF seeks to establish this hegemony is by institutionalizing ethnic divisions: “The mission of these nationally-based organizations is, on the one hand, to disseminate in various languages the same revolutionary democratic substance, to translate this substance into practice by adapting it to local conditions (history culture, character, etc.).

Though the EPRDF envisioned ethnic federalism as a means of maintaining control over an ethnically-diverse state, when groups assert their autonomy, the government’s response to ethnic mobilization around political grievances—similar to its response to any type of political opposition—has been harsh and swift. For instance, earlier this year, Oromo students took to the streets in the town of Ambo to protest the government’s plan to expand the administrative boundaries of the federal capital, Addis Ababa, into parts of the Oromia Regional State. According to the government, 11 students died in Ambo when they encountered police who were deployed to quell the protests, although eyewitnesses say that dozens of students were killed. As protests spread to other towns, hundreds more students were arrested. Although human rights groups and activists rightfully condemned the brutal massacre and crackdown, there was scant national or international coverage of these deaths or arrests—not surprising given the state’s control of the media.

Within the vocal Oromo Diaspora community, the state violence in response to the student protests has been described as more than an attempt by a repressive regime to crush opposition to government policy. Instead, it is understood as part of a systematic and long-standing history of oppression against Oromo people by the Ethiopian State. The expansion of Addis Ababa into 1.1 million hectares of the Oromia Region demonstrates blatant disregard to the authority of the Oromia Regional Government and is viewed as legally and morally indefensible. Mohammed Ademo explains: “For the Oromo, as in the past, the seceding of surrounding towns to Addis means a loss of their language and culture once more, even if today’s driving forces of urbanization differ from the 19th century imperialist expansion.”

Conversely, for some non-Oromos, the fact that the protestors were advocating for upholding Oromos’ regional autonomy over federal planning priorities is viewed as “anti-Ethiopian” and an impediment for national development. This idea is aided by the government’s response that the protesting students were “anti-peace forces.” While seemingly laughable, re-focusing the debate on whether Oromo nationalism is “threatening” Ethiopian stability has quietly shifted attention away from the government’s egregious actions against peaceful protestors.

Beneath the recent dispute over urban expansion, federalism and the government’s common use of excessive force against protesters is a boiling debate about identity, history and state legitimacy in Ethiopia. One typically encounters two competing narratives on the question of Oromo national identity. The first is a narrative of imperialist expansion, in which Oromos have been marginalized politically and economically for centuries and continue to be oppressed under the current regime. In this version, what is promoted as Ethiopian culture—food, music, language, and traditions—is largely Amhara and Tigrayan and does not reflect the unique contributions of Oromo people.

The second is the multi-ethnic nation narrative, where (similar to South Africa) Ethiopia is construed as a multi-ethnic nation that accommodates and embraces its cultural diversity. Under this framing, all ethnic groups have equal standing in politics, and those who complain of marginalization are portrayed as being “anti-Ethiopian” – promoting their own self-interest above what’s best for all. Repression, injustice and inequality in Ethiopia under this narrative are not issues related to ethnicity but rather to class and political affiliation.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification, but that these two narratives dominate many conversations in Ethiopia today is revealing in demonstrating how a lack of open debate and dialogue begins to dangerously cloud the truth. Ethiopians should really be discussing how to respond to a government that feels the need to kill peaceful student protestors. The less we converse—and the more we compete to have our narrative told over others—the more dangerous our silences become.

‘Niçoise with sweet potatoes’

What is more surprising than a mix of traditional Congolese music and European baroque music? What is more powerful than someone who makes another culture’s codes his own? “Coup Fatal” (currently on tour in Italy and Germany) is a collaboration between the Congolese baroque singer, Serge Kakudji, the Belgian choreographer, Alain Platel and the Belgian jazz musician, Fabrizio Cassol. A bit tongue-in-cheek, the makers explain that they have made something like a salad; mixing a bit of Europe and a bit of Africa. This “niçoise with sweet potatoes” brings thirteen musicians and dancers from Kinshasa plus the counter-tenor to the scene, under the musical supervision of Rodriguez Vangama. Here’s the trailer:

I saw the show in Brussels. After the show, try to explain to a friend what you saw and I bet words will fall short to describe this inexplicable experience. This performance appeals directly to the senses and the emotions invoked. The absence of a clear story, logic or structure forces you to be guided by your instincts.

When I asked Serge Kakudji what Coup Fatal is about, he simply answered: “Coup Fatal is like the Congo River, you expect a wave to arrive but you never know when and how it will manifest itself.” I would even go as far as saying this show intelligently represents several facets of Congolese daily life: a day-by-day-existence enveloping the absence of thoughts about “tomorrow,” poverty, political corruption but above all, a determination to overcome hardship. According to Alain Platel it is remarkable how much that determination lacks in Western society.

Alain Platel smartly let the dancers’ bodies express in their own individuality the contradictory phenomena we can find in Congo; for instance, poverty opposed to the dandy movement better known as “sapologie.” This paradox is even present in the setting. In fact, the sculptor, Freddy Tsimba, offered an incredibly beautiful curtain made of war bullets for the show.

I think the paradox is everywhere in “Coup Fatal.” Perhaps, the main lesson here is that differences can be harmonious and allow people to come together despite their background and roots.


Angola’s Forgotten Massacre

In her famous tract on literature and trauma, Cathy Caruth writes: “If Freud turns to literature to describe traumatic experience, it is because literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing…” Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (2014) is literary reportage that flirts with memoire. It tells a slice of the complex and violent events on and after the 27th of May, 1977: the date of a supposed coup d’etat in Luanda, Angola. As the coup (or demonstration, depending on who is speaking) was initiated by internal dissenters of the (still ruling) MPLA party in the early years of Angolan independence, it has been scarcely acknowledged within Angola, and absent from discussions outside the country. In the years following the events of vinte-sete de Maio, thousands were purged from the MPLA, including many who were demonstrably innocent of collusion with the opposition, led by Nito Alvez, a former government minister. The numbers killed are only surmised, and the wide disparity of numbers each party claims tells of the darkness that shrouds the vinte-sete: claims are anywhere from four to 2000 to 90,000.

Now, if literature provides a key to traumatic experience, the historical content in Pawson’s book includes overviews of historical writing, witness and victim testimony, confession, and description: both hers and others’. The confessionary model has been used in modern truth and reconciliation hearings, but this book, however, is the struggle of a reporter and a sympathizer to come to terms with what happened in a country far from her home in Britain. As she was paid to witness events in Angola as a war correspondent for the BBC in the 1990s, the events of the country haunt her in an oblique and powerfully confusing way. In fact, one of the many crises that emerge in the course of the narrative is that of the public sphere, especially given the media networks within which Pawson moves. If, as Graça Francisco insists (reprinted in the opening of the book), this is Angola’s history alone, what are the affiliations, strings, attachments, and collusions that allow someone like Lara Pawson to engage? Pawson answers: “Someone has told me a story. Why do I believe it? Will anyone else? I just want to stay very still, to let the heat fill me up, and to know that Maria [a victim of the vinte-sete] is beside me, that we are together, sewn into each other’s skin by an immense effort to revisit the past. Before I met her today, I believed that cultivating the memory was an obligation: now I’m beginning to understand that it’s also an art.”


There are two major crises the book lays out: political and historiographical. Therefore the question that immediately presents itself is whether this book should be considered a contribution to existing (though scarce) literature on the vinte-sete or whether it exists more as an elegy and reverberations of the vinte-sete. Politico’s José Pedro Monteiro points out that the tactic of confession and the subjective textures of memory can also immunize Pawson from the burden of facticity. If these are just stories from particular points of view, what is the point of trying to determine the truth of this set of events?

Perhaps, then the book spells out what historian David William Cohen called “the risks of knowledge.” It has become, in fact, common in Angolan historiography to turn to memory because of the lack archival evidence and the obscurity of official documents: in the vinte-sete case, there are very few documents or official statements outside of the sixty-five page pamphlet published by the MPLA in 1977. And consider the archival reliability of the publication. The pamphlet ends with a whole page block letter quote from the Political Bureau of the MPLA, a purist Leninist sentiment:

We will apply the Democratic Revolutionary Dictatorship to finally finish with saboteurs, with parasites, and with opportunists.

In this quote is the seed of contention, which rages on today, about who were the peasants and proletariat that were to be the beneficiaries of the “new Angola”. If the vinte-sete has a particular valence today, then it is perhaps the ghosts of the MPLA that are emerging as the country moves on from the 2002 ceasefire and manages an economic boom.

But if one of the criticisms of the book is that Pawson blows the vinte-sete out of proportion in relation to the millions who died in the war with UNITA, it is because the war has been the only history told about the MPLA; it is the only one that for the party is verifiably “heroic” and moral. It is in this vein that the issue of numbers of dead becomes important. She asks whether it would be any less horrifying if the number were 2000 instead of 90,000. Of course it would be less of an “event,” still abject, but comparatively insignificant given the overall level of trauma and numbers of dead in the years since the 1961 insurgency against the Portuguese. Counting the dead and determining the official cause and labels has become the political plague of modern war worldwide.

A major contribution of the book is the refusal—poised on an inability—to discuss this event on the level of official history. The most riveting moment for me was when Pawson describes sitting at a beachside café watching while two men might be murdering a man; she’s not sure. I read it several times, attempting to process the same scant amount of information she gives. This sense of alarm and absurdity—sitting comfortably on a beach while feet away someone violently loses their life—discernibly shapes the affect of the book. The vignette is telling of the positionality that so clearly troubles her: she sits comfortably and safely in a space demarcated by money, status, a labyrinth of laws, and international intrigue, while gazing in horror at what happens just on the other side of that boundary. She is a witness.

A museum in the middle of the street

Three towering moko jumbies stroll up behind the stage, as if on cue, dressed in suits of glow-in-the-dark yellow and electric blue. The sun is setting on the second and final day of ChaleWote, Accra’s annual street art festival, but energies show no sign of fading as Burkinabe band Siaka Diarra (image immediately below) streams the “polyrhythmic madness” promised in the festival program, djembe gyrating slowly-quickly-slowly against unpredictable percussion.

The sudden appearance of men on stilts swings eyes and cameras away from the music, but the moko jumbies do not steal the show; only enhance it as they walk casually around the stage, past the food and drink stalls that line the perimeter of the concert space and out into the festivities beyond. At ChaleWote the time/space lines between different performances and exhibitions, and the larger space in which they are situated, constantly blur and stir into one pulsating continuity of creative expression.


When the Takoradi Masquerade parades by a few minutes later, Siaka Diarra spontaneously swings their tempo towards the passing beat. As the show comes to an end, a cross-dressing dancer jumps on stage to drop moves that twerking can only hope to dream of becoming one day. This is not a festival for those who like experiences folded neatly, or art served with hors d’oeuvres via a stick up their buttocks. That said, it’s a festival for everyone.

ChaleWote takes place at the seaside site of the first Ga settlement in the Accra area–a spiritual mecca for several centuries, known as Ga Mashie until it became the capital of colonial invasion and was christened Jamestown. The festival has been organized every year since 2011 by the “subversively African” arts collective Accra[Dot]Alt. It brings together artists from Ghana and beyond, and thousands of merry makers, for a weekend of visual art/music/fashion/theatre/extreme sports/photography/spoken word/film that run down a long stretch of Jamestown’s John Atta-Mills High Street all the way to the shore.



A painful history rests beneath the festivities. “Under Jamestown is another town,” explains Mantse Aryeequaye, Accra[Dot]Alt co-founder. “There was a lot of resistance from the community to the slave trade, so they didn’t want people to see that they were transporting humans. There are houses with secret tunnels that lead all the way to the shore where they would put the slaves on a ship.”

Today, above ground, Jamestown is a mix of fishing neighborhoods, local enterprises and dilapidated colonial structures. Its history as a hub of oppression – but originally, of pre-colonial spiritual symbolism – lends itself to what Mantse describes as “a new expression, to reimagining the space”.


The theme of ChaleWote 2014 is “Death: An Eternal Dream into Limitless Rebirth.”

“Why Death?” asks the festival program. “It surrounds us in Ghana. Funerals every weekend are important social affairs.” Festival-goers need not worry about missing out on the weekend funeral scene – Death is exquisitely represented at ChaleWote 2014. Collaborative artworks portray perceptions of death and rebirth. An eerie-beautiful procession of pallbearers carries fantasy coffins designed by Ghanaian sculptor Pa Joe. “Enjoyment after death”, a performance installation by Serge Attukwei and GoLokal, examines Ghanaian funeral culture and celebration of the dead.

Rebirth, too, is celebrated through the art, which seeks to “breathe life into new histories, possibilities, hopes and desires…. stories that are thrilling, passionate and charismatic”. It is this spirit – the spirit of born-again creativity rocking in beat with history – that makes ChaleWote what it is: free, in many senses of the word.


At the lighthouse end of High Street, across from the main concert space and against a backdrop of art and poetry murals, Rolla Wondaland skaters create a runway. Dozens of people line up along the street to cheer gravity-defying champions, or whoosh a collective wince if one crashes into the ground. On the adjacent beach, Action Accra’s “Eco playground” showcases art made from recycled objects. Transforming discarded objects into objects of beauty is a recurrent theme in the festival: ranging from Maame Adjei’s “Crate-ive Seating” that repurposes obsolete crates into quirky benches, to a parade of brides clad in fashionably recycled plastic bags, designed by Ghanaian artist Fatric Bewong.

The post office building is draped with Ibrahim Mahama’s “Social Reality”, an installation made from coal sacks and wax print panels and described in the festival program as a work of “relational aesthetics…an extension of the body irrespective of its ‘true relationship’ with the site and its history”. I’m not sure what that means, but my god, it’s beautiful. “If only street art give orgasms…lol!” reads one Facebook comment. Well if it wants to learn, this might be a good place to start…



Throughout the day, Social Reality and other artworks double up as backdrops and props for a series of impromptu photo shoots. While dishing up orgasmic art, #ChaleWote2014 multitasks as unabashed host of the selfie Olympics. From supermodel poses with theatre troupes to tongues reaching for nipples in murals, there is a spontaneous energy around the art that encourages interaction on any level at all.

The children of Ga Mashie, inadvertent hosts of the festival, are no exceptions to this. Be it through curious stares or hawking goods, clambering over artwork or clinging to the bike of Wanlov the Kubolor, one pillar of the visionary Ghanaian hip-hop duo FoknBois, their presence is felt strongly. A new acquaintance warns me against getting too friendly: “these children who live in Jamestown are the most stubborn children in Ghana …” he stops and thinks about it “… in the world. Everyone knows about them, they are so stubborn!”



Their presence sometimes creates friction, some people shooing them away harshly when they get too excited. There are those who, Mantse comments, “don’t have the approach of minding the space because it belongs to other people, so if the kids are bothering them, they tell them to fuck off.” But the children of Ga Mashie, he points out, “are not regular kids. That comes from their surroundings – they are forced to be tough at a very early stage. So they come into a space and do what they want to do”.

In that sense, too, the kids at ChaleWote are right at home. Come into the space and do what you want to do seems to be one of the many unofficial mottos of the festival. “Artists who did not even answer the call use the space as a platform,” muses Mantse. “Things more or less follow the schedule, but what makes it even more exciting are these random performances that are not planned, are not part of the official program, just people coming in and expressing themselves. As we grow, we will need to find creative ways of accommodating that, because it’s important – to make space for schedules, but also for spontaneous things to happen. That’s what helps to create this really intense energy that the festival has. It’s just people showing up and creating.”


Outside Bible House, the YoYo Tinz hip hop booth serves gospel from 10 in the morning, DJs giving way to a range of live performances as the day progresses. Graffiti artists – and anyone who cares to join in – paint the adjoining street. Flamenco dancing and motorbike stunts, acrobatics and theatre, capoeira and street boxing, are among the acts popping up at various times and spaces across the festival. A mini film festival with colorful fabric for walls is constructed in the middle of a compound. There, in my search for yet another installation, I stumble upon a crumbling but stubborn staircase, which ambles down to a serene nook by the sea. Blissfully lost, I sit still for a while.

ChaleWote is best played by ear. When I surrender and stop studying the schedule and map like some kind of neurotic Swiss navigator, it’s a pleasant confusion that ensues. Why are these incredibly dapper gentlemen walking past me as though on an invisible catwalk, with boom boxes under their arms? Is that chocolate sitting on the outstretched palms of that gold-painted man? To where are the writers from the poetry workshop I visited earlier marching in fluid synchronicity? (“We’re performing our poems at all the stages, come! You were at the workshop, aren’t you a writer? Don’t you want to read something?”)

Afro district1


Several years ago, recalls Mantse, “the creative community in Ghana was mostly concentrated in hotels, museums, embassies – that’s where you found art. It was all very elitist, very exclusive…it does nothing for people to have a few in one small space who are supposed to represent everyone else. That’s why ChaleWote is important – it’s public, it’s free, you’re creating a museum in the middle of the street, and everyone can take part.”

It also creates employment, as the residents of Jamestown – who are extensively involved in ChaleWote’s operations and performances – benefit from the festival and from the spike in tourism that it has generated. “This is one of the ways we can create opportunities, especially at a time when Ghana went from being an ‘Africa Rising’ star to getting an IMF bailout,” says Mantse. “The government doesn’t support artists, so if we want a thriving creative community it’s up to us to build structures for that. And because of the DIY nature of the festival, it also has this DIY energy around it – people think of amazing stuff, it encourages them to create outside their comfort zones.”

The practical organization of ChaleWote also lives outside the conventional comfort zone. “I doff my hat to Accra[Dot]Alt for birthing such an enthralling event”, says Eugene Owusu, a self-proclaimed “arts freak” whom I meet at the festival. If only it was well supported by the government of Ghana and corporate organizations, he adds, “ChaleWote would become the world’s number one festival that all and sundry would look forward to every year”. Currently, ChaleWote is mostly funded out of pocket by Accra[Dot]Alt, with contributions in kind from various institutions. Corporate sponsorship is conspicuous in its absence – at least, its physical absence. Outside the small stalls set up by food and fashion vendors, no branding is visible anywhere.

But cyberspace is an open playground. So when sponsorship talks between Accra[Dot]Alt and Guinness come to an unceremonious end, the international beer brand still pushes its #MadeOfBlack online ad campaign on the back of ChaleWote, by contracting prominent Ghanaian bloggers to attach the hashtag to their pics and updates of the festival. I believe the official legal term for this is “swag-cyberjackery”– the arrogance with which corporate money appropriates community creativity – but still, the show must go on.


And on it goes, and on. In the courtyard of Brazil House (which has a history of Brazil’s African slave industry mounted on the walls) Bright Backwerh presents “Immaculate con-tra-ception/Race 11/Untitled”: an installation of wooden silhouettes and news clippings that tell stories of racism in football and life. Around the corner, Sabolai Radio – the music-centered sister festival of ChaleWote – gives us a taste of things to come in their upcoming festival (19 – 21 December 2014). Across the road, Pretty Period, a photography exhibition made of portraits of festival-goers, celebrates the beauty of dark-skinned women. The fashion market is Satan to my wallet, the food market Lucifer to my belly, both in the most heavenly of ways.

“How much did you pay for that? [laughter] Hehhh, chale tomorrow you will cry! I’ll take you somewhere you pay just 10 cedis for the same thing!”

“Let me tell you where Ebola came from – whites made it in a lab. Think about it…”

“Are you on Facebook? Write your name here so I can tag you in my photos. Can I come visit you in Rwanda?”


As evening falls, the festival is supposed to be winding up but the crowd only gets thicker. I am slightly overwhelmed by everything I’ve absorbed in the past 8 hours, which is still not everything the festival had to offer, and curiosity drives me up the street for one final lap. The official events are winding down and melting into several parties clustered on different corners, each blasting their choice of music to an animated crowd. This is where tehning up comes to tehn up, and by the time I tehn back, I have experienced such an acute overdose of good times that I have to go home immediately.

Yes, home. Abruptly like that. Because there’s only so much a woman can take before exploding into infinite shards of creative bliss. So I can’t say how ChaleWote2014 ended, but my sources tell me they jammed past the witching hour, and as for me, I can tell you this: start saving if you can, and planning where you can. Because if you miss #ChaleWote2015, hehhh, chale. You will cry!



* Photo credits: Accra[Dot]Alt and Walter Adama n Selorm Atikpoe,, Ghanyobi Mantey, Live 91.9FM.

Who profits from the production of blackface?

That time of the year is coming up again and the contested Dutch blackface figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is still with us. Some tried to turn blackface into brownface (only in the Netherlands) while others are still trying to convince us that Black Pete sets a fine example for black people. In any case, anti-blackface protestors have not been silent.

Recently, anti-blackface campaigners have again drawn attention to the economic dimension of blackface. It is quite apparent that the Dutch state and its economy are profiting generously from their annual blackface partay. The Dutch spend more on the Sinterklaas celebration than on any other public holiday – think presents, but also lots of Sinterklaas related stuff from toys, candy, and chocolates to wrapping paper. It comes to no surprise then that campaigners are critically examining who exactly is profiting from the production of blackface.

The idea that blackface is not only produced, but also very much consumed goes back a long while. Blackface has a long trajectory of entertainment. The consumerist notion of blackface has led to a situation in which the use of blackface has become normalized. In the same vein, using caricatures and stereotypes of black people in the design of, for instance, children’s toys is also common practice. The act of consuming blackface has now become a disposable act, unrelated to any political issue and completely emptied out of its historical context. This also, partly, explains the huge outrage (and all the tears) that anti-blackface campaigners are faced with; they are disturbing the natural order of things (blackface). As many have argued before me, the dehumanization of black people has become ingrained in the fabric of our societies.

There have thus been a lot of instances where blackface has been used, in print, in commercials, etcetera. A few years back a franchise of Dunkin’ Donuts in Thailand came under criticism for having woman in blackface promoting a new chocolate flavoured doughnut. Although the Thai officials tried to defend themselves, the company’s US headquarters immediately pulled the add and offered an apology.

There’s little hope that Dutch owned department stores will give up the profits made from dehumanizing black people, but what about Dutch department stores that have international owners? Do they condone the use of blackface? Do they want to promote the use of blackface? Do they want to make their money from blackface? We know that in their respective home countries, for example the UK, there would be a national outrage if any department store had the audacity to put up giant stuffed golliwogs on a rope for entertaining purposes.

Dutch department store group De Bijenkorf (known for the Black Pete’s on a rope spectacle) is internationally owned, more specifically by Selfridges, a chain of high-end department stores in the UK.

To that end, campaigner Eduard Mangal posted the following to the Facebook page of Selfridges:

Mr. Anthony Graham of Wittington Investments, and Mr. Paul Kelly of Selfridges do you support racial offending actions that can hurt your business and ignore court decisions? Do you really support blackface? Talk to your management in the Netherlands and please respond!

He also posted this to the Facebookpage of De Bijenkorf (who deleted the whole topic):

Why does the Bijenkorf not respect the decisions of the [Dutch] court, the Board for the Protection of Human Rights and the UN working group of experts on peoples of African descent, that the blackface character “Zwarte Piet” is a racist caricature, confirming stereotypes? Why does the Bijenkorf [- your store in the Netherlands! - continue to offend people by] decorating their store with blackface characters?

On September 26th, Selfridges responded to Eduard Mangal by basically saying that they are fine with promoting blackface because De Bijenkorf styles their Black Petes differently every year and take the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage” into account.

Thank you for your inquiry we have checked with our colleagues in de Bijenkorf and they have informed us that they have responded to this information request on their Facebook page
The response is as follows:
The Piets will again decorate the Atrium in de Bijenkorf, the way they have for decades.
Separate from the societal discussions about the appearance of Piets the appearance at de Bijenkorf are in line with the recommendations of the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage”.
Each year the Piets in the deBijenkorf are styled differently in terms of accessories, clothes and hair. So for example the Piets don’t have golden earrings and they have different hair styles, such as straight hair. Matching the current trends.
This year the appearance will evolve in line with the recommendations from the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage”.
We thank you for your interest.

Selfridges cannot be taking itself seriously with such an answer.

They as owners profit from promoting and selling blackface and they are not the only ones. Dutch department chain store HEMA is also internationally owned. UK private equity fund Lion Capital LLP owns HEMA, which has branches in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and now in Spain and in the UK as well. Recently HEMA opened its first UK store in London (without Black Pete products). HEMA had announced that it would take Black Pete related products off the shelves, but later backed out by saying in a public statement that they will be selling these products par usual and will follow the debate closely in case of any important changes in the regulations. However, they did make some changes to the products that are also for sale in other countries. So basically: What is absolutely not racist to us might be racist to others, i.e. the Dutch logic. Eduard Mangal also questioned HEMA owners Lion Capital LLP and still awaits a response.

Campaigning against big companies that have big money might seem impossible, but there have been success stories. A collective of people, including the action group Mad Mothers NL, sent letters to the Sesame Street Workshop Corporation in the US and demanded that Black Pete be scrapped from the Dutch version of the program. Black Pete will now no longer appear on the show or be used for promotional purposes. Another example is Playmobil, who will no longer be selling plastic Black Petes. These actions are important because they demonstrate that international companies are indeed weary of supporting blackface – as they should be – and that protesting does help in some instances.

Although some Dutch people still like to think we’re an isolated little nation– we are not. Stores such as De Bijenkorf and the HEMA perpetuate blackface, and through their international owners contribute to a global economy on blackface. Selfridges, would you have a window display full of fun golliwog products? I think not.

That story about Akon’s “giant Ebola air bubble”

People, that story about Akon, the Senegalese-American R&B singer, performing in an air bubble to thousands of screaming Congolese in Goma, because he doesn’t want to get Ebola is false. The hip hop magazine The Source (or whoever started it), made that one up. In a classic case of how modern “journalism” works, that story has been picked up by tabloids and other news sources that take themselves too serious alike. That air bubble thing has been part of Akon’s repertoire for a while now. A few media outlets reflected that by this morning:

He has used the giant orb at a number of concerts, including 2010 gigs in Australia and Dubai — four years and thousands of miles away from the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

But what’s actually more interesting is why Akon was in Goma. For that we have to turn to of all people,, who did some actual reporting on it.  Reporter Jessica Hatcher went there to to cover the concert. Akon, and the actor Jude Law, were thereon behalf of some organization called Peace One Day,  “a London-based [well, Surrey based] advocacy and networking group that attempts to achieve peace around the world for one day a year, and makes films about its work.”

The movement dates back sixteen years, to when a Briton called Jeremy Gilley decided to create a global day of peace. He petitioned governments, who brought a resolution before the UN General Assembly, and the day was universally established in 2001. He likens himself to Mrs Jarvis, who invented Mother’s Day in 1908. “We made the day famous – not ourselves.”

The usual positive feelings thing. You can’t make these things up.

Hatcher quotes Law: “There’s such cynicism towards people, and so many pieces written, fun poked towards people genuinely trying to do good, it’s a cliche.”


But the locals, while enjoying the music (it’s not everyday someone like Akon or Jude Law travels to Goma–well, Ben Affleck does–or for local artists to be on the same bill as ), can see right through all this:

Don’t tell me it’s about peace,” a 29-year old Congolese peace activist, Micheline Mwendike, said of the Akon gig. Her letterbox-red nails flashed as she gesticulated with frustration. “It’s about dancing and singing. To sing and to take a moment of joy is good — but you have to choose your moment. We are killing values for this short moment.”

In choosing to dance, instead of use Peace Day to talk about good governance, she said, a valuable opportunity was being missed: to talk about justice and impunity, to talk about the diabolical state of North Kivu’s roads, to talk about the leaders who show no interest in providing basic services, to talk about the obstacles to peace. “If there are no solutions, the future generation will be in the same position as today,” Mwendike said.

Hatcher also quotes a 15 year old girl:

“My mother used to tell me, if there’s a problem, don’t look at the impacts, look for the roots. Here in Goma, you won’t find the roots,” she said. Nzuki thinks Akon and Jude Law should be out in the countryside, seeing the armed groups’ fiefdoms for what they are. “This festival is useless. I’m not interested.”

And then, finally, a senior international aid worker, who “literally held his head in his hands with opprobrium.”

“They might as well call it the Peace One Day mining company —they’re mining these people,” he said — mining them for the film they will distribute globally, for photo opportunities, and for their own sense of self worth. “It is exploitation.”

As for Akon’s politics and his businesses (he wants to “light Africa‘), we’ll just refer you to our archive, here and here.

Kampala gets an Art Biennale

Billed erroneously in a local Ugandan newspaper as Africa’s first contemporary art biennale, the Kampala Art Biennale opened on 1 August showing mostly paintings of 45 artists from 13 African countries. Its main exhibition venues were the historical Uganda Museum, as well as the Makerere Art Gallery, and Nommo Gallery. The biennale capitalized on marketing itself as the first biennale on the African continent, though this is clearly incorrect (Dakar, Douala, Cape Town, Bamako, Johannesburg and Lubumbashi biennales, anyone?).

Stephen Asiimwe, the CEO of the Uganda Tourism Board, made this erroneous assumption during a speech he gave at the exhibition press conference in July. But I later heard this same rhetoric in biennale director Daudi Karungi’s opening speech, claiming the biennale to be the first of its kind. Though people in the art scene would have been skeptical, this grandstanding played well on the ignorance of the local audience and the tourism partners.

The 2014 Kampala Art Biennale had odd echoes of the long term effects of mandating that Ugandan art somehow connect itself to foreign investors–and, in fact, ensure that foreign investors’ aesthetic and subject matter interests are reflected.


This practice is connected to one of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s creative moments: during a tour of Vienna in 1992, Museveni declared it an opportune moment for (Ugandans) to portray, through paintings, a promising picture of the new Uganda. He understood, at the time, the power of art in representing Africa to the world, especially through the work of then-internationally renowned Ugandan sculptor Francis Nnaggenda, whose modern and experimental aesthetic introduced foreign audiences to the histories of Uganda through its contemporary art. Museveni’s declaration came after he signed the Investment Code Act of 1991, which sought to make favorable conditions for foreign investors. In particular, he was on the prowl for Austrian investors, and even more so, Austrian art collectors. This desire to attract foreign buyers had the most unfortunate consequences in the following decade: Ugandan art quickly became simplistic, colorful, and exotic for the tourist market. Following Museveni’s investment policy, tourist art would quickly overshadow the depth and richness of an already established Ugandan contemporary art scene, among which was Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art, a hub for contemporary art practice throughout East Africa since the 1950s.

In establishing the 2014 Kampala Art Biennale to represent the “current status of Africa” through visual art, the curators Henry Mzili Mujunga and Daudi Karungi’s choices reflect the long after-effects of president Museveni’s decision to marry art and commercial interests. Although the Kampala Biennale’s theme promised to reference the debates about what it means to live and produce art in a modern and ‘progressive Africa’, it still showed the deep effects of Museveni’s investment manifesto: today, in 2014, the exhibition told the grand narrative not of Austrian investment, but of Chinese and American investment in regional and local markets.

To begin with, one sweeping glance across the hall told me that contemporary art was not the focus at the Uganda Museum. Light beaming down from German architect Ernst May’s atrium created a celestial atmosphere in the room. A sideboard held the archaeological display titled ‘Ancestors’. Here one found Lucy, the 1.5 million year old fossil skull, staring from behind the glass frame. In this environment was a panel discussion that uncomfortably juxtaposed art, culture, and tourism.

At the central showcase in the Uganda Museum, the viewer was rendered incapable of tracing a particular genre or style or movement in the exhibition. The more complex work was subsumed by the more obviously “colorful” and exotic. Ideas of ‘progress’ were captured in works by Kenyan painters Michael Soi and Samuel Githui for whom foreign investment in Africa is a battlefield. Githui’s “Bullfight” depicts two bulls facing off amidst a cheering crowd symbolizing the investor neocolonialism of America and China in Kenya. Soi’s “China Loves Africa” depicts Chinese businessmen drinking oil from long straws penetrating into Africa’s heart.


The poetic documentary photography of Malian artist Harandane Dicko, and the striking woodcuts by Ethiopian artist Yonas Melesu had nearly disappeared into the background. When I asked filmmaker Mira Nair who attended the opening what her favorite work in the show was, she mentioned Melesu’s woodcuts. I strained my eyes to find the work, which appeared at the threshold of the exhibition hall. Its near A3 size and subtle brown receded further into the wall next to Soi’s exotic, and rather simplistic “China Loves Africa”. Similarly, the exhibition’s grand narrative of employing art for economic development swallowed up the significance of the context in which Ugandan artist Babirye Leila produced burnt found sculptures: they were made during the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in February. However, the psychological trauma inherent within Leila’s work’s was relegated to the everyday issues of corruption and a failing education system in postcolonial Uganda.

Rather than highlighting African artists’ own ability to produce work that reflected their own contextualised, nuanced aesthetics, the art practices and personal backgrounds of the artists showcased in the exhibition were swallowed up by the machine of exoticism, tourism, and nationalist sentiment. As I walked about this biennale, all I could think of was the Nigerian critic and curator Olabisi Silva’s words on the challenges of curating contemporary art in an international context in 1995: “the distinctive development of each artist is denied, as is any proper debate within the context of wider international art practices.”

During some of the panel discussions, it became clear that governmental funding without strings attached, and the need to groom a local art audience were foremost on everyone’s minds. Biennale curator Henry Mzili Mujunga relayed his vision of a contemporary art museum in Uganda and the need for governmental art support to the Minister of Tourism, who was sitting in the audience. Of course, all this happened before there was a clash between the proponents of art and the promoters of tourism in a heated, though often hilarious, exchange between the panelists. Oddly, gorilla tracking fees actually came up during a debate about the cost of contemporary African art – (I was dumbfounded, specifically, by a panelist’s comparison of an El Anatsui woven metal piece and the odd 600 USD gorilla tracking fee in a Southern Uganda impenetrable forest) – this, in its own way, made it worthwhile to attend a biennale in Uganda. While the emphasis of the Kampala biennale was all about ensuring that African artists are able create what the view from Africa looks like for the tourist market, evident in the Uganda Museum environment was the need to move the art discussion away from Darwinian interests in gorillas to the concern for new audiences for contemporary art in Africa.

Image, Top: Kampala Art Biennale.

Ba re e ne re: The rebirth of a literary dream in Lesotho

In Sesotho, the language of Lesotho, the words “Ba re e ne re…” mean “They say it was said…” Similar to once upon a time, this is how folktales begin in Sesotho. The words have another deeper meaning however, they represent the life and legacy of a phenomenal spirit called Liepollo Rantekoa.


Liepollo was born in Lesotho, though she did much of her schooling in South Africa, first in Bloemfontein, then in Cape Town at the University of Cape Town. Her parents wanted her to study accounting, but she was a creative type who had no time for a safe and practical career. On the contrary, she wanted to better understand and critique history, politics and culture so she switched to sociology, taking classes from UCT’s Centre for African Studies.

The classroom couldn’t contain her, however, and she found greater stimulation in the arts and literature world, eventually joining the team at Chimurenga Magazine, the rabble rousing pan-African journal. With Chimurenga she found a family that challenged her intellectually, offered her creative freedom and helped her unlearn and dream.


Yet home has a way of calling and Liepollo felt a responsibility to bring back to Lesotho all the energy she felt about literary culture and the importance of reading and writing for a society’s growth. It was with this energy that Liepollo organised the Ba re e ne re Literature Festival in March of 2011 with guests that included Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lesego Rampolokeng, Njabulo Ndebele and many others. She had never done anything this big on her own before and she wanted to prove to herself what she was capable of. The first of it’s kind in Lesotho, the festival turned out to be a great success, attracting people from a variety of backgrounds and ages including writers, editors, publishers, poets, students, professors and ministers.

It was Liepollo’s desire to continue with the evolution of Ba re e ne re. She dreamt of community literacy centres, book publishing and more. Though stories, as she knew well, wind and bend. One morning in September 2012, while working on another project, the vehicle in which she rode rolled off the road and tumbled down a hill. She died in the accident, just two days after her 29th birthday. The driver of the vehicle was a young German volunteer, who had been driving recklessly and not heeding his passengers’ requests to be cautious and slow down. He sustained only minor injuries but was flown back to Germany for “medical treatment” and never held accountable.


In response to this tragic end to an incredible life, we, her friends and family found catharsis in working to establish a legacy for Liepollo and to continue the important work she had started by reviving the Ba re e ne re Literature Festival. Our new festival team, led by Lineo Segoete, experienced many challenges including planning via different time zones, delayed funding and more recently Lesotho’s political impasse. Nevertheless, through creative tenacity all roadblocks were overcome and the Ba re e ne re Literature Festival was finally reborn September 5-7, 2014. Here’s the festival trailer:

Joining our conversations about how to cultivate a new generation of readers and writers in Southern Africa were fantastic international guests Niq Mhlongo, Yewande Omotoso, Keamogetsi Molapong and the team from Chimurenga, as well as great local authors and poets such as Mpho Makara, Patrick Bereng, Motebang Sekhohola and Teboho Rantsoabe. We didn’t know what to expect, but the audience turned up ready to engage and the festival proved to be a truly valuable experience (plus sessions were broadcast live on Chimurenga’s Young people especially, demonstrated that they have beautiful stories to tell and the will to share them.


At the end of the final day of the festival, the organising team and the guests created a new ritual by visiting Liepollo at her place of rest. With the setting sun blazing on the horizon, we cleansed her stone and gave thanks. Liepollo, the road was long and rough, but inspired by you we persevered. Ba re e ne re lives on and will continue to evolve with new chapters, as the tales of the storyteller. Ba re e ne re.

Edition: Dakar

In June of 2014, My Africa Is decided to dive into Dakar, Senegal, a rarely talked about city on the West Coast of Africa. (We focused on Lagos, Nigeria in Season One). Dakar not only boast an amazingly hospitable population being the home of the “Teranga”, but is a secret gem for european tourists, and has a youthful population that is very aware of their rights, and are not afraid to fight for it. So we put these three episodes together, to give you a taste of what Dakar has to offer, and provide a brief history lesson on the city. Through this season of My Africa Is, we hope to open the eyes of many, and help them gain a multidimensional perspective on Dakar, Senegal.

Le Journal Rappe:

Sunu Street Project:

Malika Surf Camp:

Get Well Soon, Ashoka

Today the American network NBC announced publicly that friend (and contributor) of Africa is a Country, Ashoka Mukpo, is the freelance journalist who has been diagnosed with Ebola and is being flown to the United States for treatment (read Ashoka’s thoughts on the root causes of the crisis here on Africa is a Country on September 23rd).

As a sort of get well card, I think it’s fitting for us to post the below video, recently shot by Ashoka, of Ebola songs performed at Pan-African beach in Monrovia. I know Liberian music is a great passion of his, it was through a shared interest in Monrovia’s Hipco scene that we first met in Liberia in 2011. After elections he stayed on in the country doing freelance work particularly around workers rights, but had recently returned to the states. This summer he hopped on a plane and decided to go back and help disseminate truth about the Ebola crisis (rather than the hysteria that tends to accompany the coverage of crisis in West Africa.) He had been doing a wonderful job of it.

We wish him a speedy recovery and return to action!

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Lodi Matsetela

Lodi Matsetela is a former copywriter cum a seasoned scriptwriter, director and a partner in Puo Pha Productions with Makgano Mamabolo. She has worked as a writer on many award-winning South African TV-series. She is the co-creator of the popular TV-series Society, and the director of the short film BFF (Best Friends Forever). Puo Pha Productions has worked with all South African broadcaster, has made the leap into features. With a couple scripts in development the company is in the process of producing another installment of Society for SABC1. Lodi, who is currently pursuing a Masters in film at Howard University in Washington DC, is a member of the newly formed Parallel Film Collective. She tweets under the handle @Letjatji.

What is your first film memory?

I remember going to the drive in with my parents. All 7 of us (5 kids and the parents) squashed into the Cressida station wagon, my brother and sister and I already in our PJs. Smarties melting in my hands. I remember watching The Gods Must be Crazy and being in stitches (how little I knew), and Dirty Dancing (although I don’t think I’ve ever watched it to the end, I always fell asleep). I remember being forced by our mother to watch the Roots film series and in return we’d get to watch a film of our own choosing, which would normally be some  80s B-grade masquerading as A-grade drivel like Rambo or The Running Man.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I didn’t decide to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a storyteller. Film is an outlet for me. It could have been journalism, novels or plays, but it ended up being film. I went to the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, where I did Drama, which must have influenced my choice. It might change, who knows? Life is so unpredictable, but right now, this is the path I’ve chosen.

Which film do you wish you had made?

I wish I’d made  Biutiful by Alejandro Inarritu. I think he’s a Kubrick in the making. His films take my breath away. Mostly because of the dense story, and how he seamlessly weaves them together. The global social commentary. I’m glad that the machine that is Hollywood can foster such storytellers. I wish I’d made Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty – again for its social commentary. There are very few South African films that speak on post-Apartheid South Africa with such lyricism. We are still overwhelmed by the cloud of Apartheid. Not to say Apartheid is a story that is overdone (it’ll never be, there’ll never be enough stories told about it. As with the Holocaust I think our duty as South Africans is to continue to tell that story and its lasting effects. To analyze it, chronicle its omnipresence. We must never forget, or let others forget.
As a filmmaker I want to be an alternative voice, in a topography that’s filled with stories by others defining black people. Images that then become the truth, rather than a particular version of the truth (since truth is subjective). I want to make sure there are alternatives to films like Django Unchained.

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

My top-5 films are constantly changing, I”m forever learning about directors of young and old. It’s a life long journey and I’m not in a rush. Also I like films for different reasons, for their parts rather than their whole.

Somewhere by Sofia Coppola is one that I constantly reference when writing or directing, because she managed to create her own cinematic Pinter Pause. She has intermittent irrelevant dialogue that doesn’t drive story between long moments of silent action. I think it’s powerful, and having tried to achieve it, I know it’s not easy, its very tricky, and it could easily seem contrived, or gimmicky . She’s found her own language and that’s great. I think she’s a little underrated, even for her privileged Coppola self. I’m looking for my own voice and in the meantime I’ll tread in the footsteps of the likes of her.

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

“What is South African cinema lacking?”

I think we need to stop making films that compete with Hollywood films at the box-office. Its’ a losing battle. Nobody does Hollywood better than Hollywood. Instead we should go back to plain old storytelling. We should stop importing writing-gurus and their ilk. We’ll never find our own voice if all we do is use story telling templates or techniques that don’t acknowledge the context in which the story is being told. Sure, structure is important, but structure with bad content doesn’t make a good script.

Jitsvinger–Practicing, Not Preaching

This article by Lindokuhle Nkosi originally appears on the PASS website. She kindy agreed to let us publish it. Lindokuhle is one of two South Africans partaking in this year’s Invisble Borders project. She documents her encounters here.–Tseliso Monaheng.

Jitsvinger is concerned with matters of identity. Language. Land. Becoming. Being. He delves deep into the “who are you?” and “why?” Through his lyrical, rhythmic fast-paced rhymes, he aims to do more that entertain. He enlightens.

In stark comparison to the flashy, bling-culture of the hip hop of late, he wears his humility like a cloak. “People always wonder about how I made it. How I’m making a living of my art but they don’t know what happens behind the scenes. How hard the hustle is. How I manage to make my rent.” However, money is not what drives him. He’s curious. A little subversive. Unwilling to accept the status quo-the practices and regiments passed down like ill-fitting clothing. “I am concerned about the unsung heroes. People in every sphere who make unrecognised contributions. You have to know what came before you. What was done and was has been done. The artists who invested in what we have now. The historians and the story-tellers.”

It’s a fine line to tread though. The tenuous balance of making history while attempting to preserve it. “I recognise that while I’m exploring and discovering, digging the facts and tracing roots; what I say and do becomes part of the puzzle as well.” Historians make history. Storytellers become the stories. People who dare to tell their own truth, in a personalised manner, become truth.

“Where I come from there’s a demand for identity.” He rolls his eyes up, as if searching for an answer on the ceiling. “People are interrogating race, culture. So we observe and we unpack. It’s an ongoing process.”

He brings the same passion for preservation into how he makes his music. Discovering hip-hop in the early 90’s, he found through it an escape. A raw honesty previously unheard of, unwitnessed. “The metaphysical properties of hip-hop, the metaphors, helped me imagine a better world,” he muses. “I’d get tapes from my brothers and cousins, lock myself up in my room and see what they were rapping about right outside my window. I thought to myself ‘let me try’”.

While he’s a popular Afrikaans vernac rapper now, he began penning his first rhymes in English. “When I discovered poetry and hip hop, English was the medium. That is how I saw other lyricists expressing themselves.” And then he discovered Adam Small. “He wrote the way we spoke, in our dialect, and then I realised that for my music to be accessible, it has to speak to people in way they know and trust.”

“I used to rap in the streets. I hardly performed. I would call into radio stations like Bush Radio, and kick it freestyle over the phone. That’s how I met the local hip hop community. I went from beat boxer to songwriter to full-on musician.” I ask what kept him away from the stage for so long. Was it apprehension? Perhaps some kind of performance anxiety? “I had to build a relationship with the music first. I had to understand what I was doing? What I was trying to do?”

You see was always there. Jits comes from a huge musical family. Grandparents, uncles and aunts; all musicians in their own right. “They were a music institution and they didn’t even know it,” he exclaims. “My mom taught me how to play the guitar!” Nothing street-hard about that, but nothing easy either.

He was still stuck in the factories. Laced up in boots and blue overalls, brewing a plan. “When I was working in the factories, I would look around and see old men who had been there their whole lives. Who were content, or rather they thought they were content. I’d be labelling boxes, or preparing packages with Busta or The Last Emperor,or Wu Tang in my head. I used to think ‘This is not my life. I didn’t make this decision. This is not my lot to carry.’ Rhyming was the escape hatch at the back of my head.” So he kicked down that door, and found his freedom.

He used his bare minimum wages to purchase beats from hip hop street icon, Wayne [Wayne Robertson, alias Hipe, formerly of the duo Ancient Men with Dmus]. He sold his beats for R50 a pop, sometimes cutting Jitsvinger a little discount deal or two. “Then Wayne slipped one of my songs to Ready D and I started getting some airplay. The song made it to a compilation disc called Faculty of Hip Hop-Bootleg no. 3. I still have the C.D. now.”

Again we loop back to issues of identity. To his involvement in Dylan Valley’s Afrikaaps. The documentary film, released late in 2010, traced the history of Afrikaans in the manner it is spoken in the Cape; challenging the idea that it is a white language; claiming it as an indigenous language. As a taal. “This project was very important to me.” Again his eyes scroll upwards. “The thing is, language is connected the land and its history. Its migration is our migration.” But the award-winning movie was met with criticism. The self-proclaimed keepers of all things Afrikaans contested the assertions made in the film. The historians and their fragile, white porcelain memories were up in arms. “We had people like Breyten Breytenbach, the poster boy Afrikaaner telling us that Afrikaan was dead. I was like, ‘whose Afrikaans are you talking about?’ We had to press on because people didn’t know. They didn’t know about Cape Slave history.” He zips down jacket, revealing a Grahamstown Arts fest hoodie underneath

I’m beginning to wonder if in his interrogations of identity, he has managed to discover himself. If what he proclaims is evident in his own life. If while challenge people to challenge themselves, to find themselves; he’s managed to figure himself out. His answer is revealing. He’s spent a huge part of his professional life trying to unearth the coloured identity, you would think that has somehow informed his; but when I ask him simply “Who are you?” he responds, “I am a word designer.”

“I don’t conform to being coloured or black,” he elaborates.

Me: “So you’re an artist before you’re anything else? Before you’re coloured or black or a man or a South African?”

Jits: “I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve gotten the opportunity to another perspective on who I am and where I’m from. I’ve found people all over the world who don’t look like me or speak like me, but they’re all my brothers and sisters in hip hop.”

Me: “But you say you’ve backed away from hip hop in a traditional sense? Are you redefining the relationship again?”

Jits: “I had to step out of hip hop for a while. I had to. I don’t think I need to rethink my relationship with the music, I think our hip hop needs to redefine itself in general. What is hip hop in Africa? What is African hip hop? We need to figure it out ‘cause it’s a huge broadcasting system. It’s the pulse of society. I want to approach music from a contemporary angle. Come up with something wholesome.”

Hip hop is alive in a tangible manner in this province. It’s not in bottles of champagne and music video lifestyles, it’s still in the street. In graffiti as politics. In rhymes as activism. In some kind puritanical observation of the five elements. Hip hop as religion, as daily bread. “There’s something about Cape Town that makes it perfect for pure hip hop. Something in its mysticism.” A mistiness has crept into his voice. “ cause the creativity here isn’t confined to Ivory Towers; it’s out there in the flats. In the streets. Hip hop here is a community, and its patrons give back. We lecture, we teach. We teach kids how to write, how to illustrate. You get b-boys and b-girls going out to the schools to teach the children a different way.”

“I’m not just hip hop. I am a cultural activist. I’m not preaching. I’m practicing. I’m doing.”

*Photo credit: Retha Ferguson for Slipnet

**This article is part of Africasacountry’s series on South African Hip-Hop in 2014. You can follow the rest of the series here.

Brett Bailey, The Barbican and Black Britons

The South African artist Brett Bailey’s installation, “Exhibit B”, was supposed to open on Tuesday, September 23, at The Vaults, a multi-disciplinary space located in underground sections of London’s Waterloo station. The Barbican had hired out the space for Exhibit B. As guests arrived for the opening of Bailey’s show, which featured black actors chained and in cages, however, they were met by 200 protesters who had blockaded the entrance. The Barbican condemned objectors for preventing artists’ and performers’ “freedom of expression”, but eventually decided that the installation, which was slated to have a five-day run, should be shut down.

Exhibit B is described in PR material as critiquing “… the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity through the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Each of the twelve tableaux in the exhibit “features motionless performers placed in settings drawn from real life. Collectively they confront colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today.  As spectators walk past the exhibits one-by-one, to the sound of lamentations sung live by a Namibian choir, a human gaze is unexpectedly returned.” If Exhibit B was the heartfelt, well-thought out critique of slavery and colonial exploitation that Bailey and the Barbican claimed it to be, why the furore? Why did people object to seeing “tableaux” of silent, entrapped human beings — albeit with the power to gaze back at visitors, inciting guilt, if not recognition of complicity, long-term repercussions on present day circumstances of the descendants of those formerly enslaved peoples, and the ways in which power and privilege continue to be built on these historical practices?

Culture South Africa

On the most obvious level, the exhibit has been criticized for its cavalier treatment of slavery and racial violence. The protests were well-organised, and supported by people across Britain; as The Guardian reported,

The campaign against the exhibition was led by Birmingham-based activist and journalist Sara Myers but drew support from around the country, including noted figures such as Lord Boateng, Britain’s first black cabinet minister.

We won’t revisit those efforts here. The best of the critiques about Bailey’s “provocative” work are here (by Kehinde Andrews), here (TO Molefe) and here (Esther Stanford-Xosei). And London was also not the first time that Exhibit B faced protests or public criticism by antiracist campaigners; at Playfair Library Hall, University of Edinburgh, it also faced serious criticism.

Maybe Brett Bailey’s lack of self-reflection is to be expected; after all, one of his former collaborators told The Guardian that he was well suited to mount the exhibition because as a white South African, he was sufficiently removed from colonialism. Then there was the bizarre revelation (in TO Molefe’s piece in City Press-linked above) that the South African government funded the work. But one of the most significant results of the Exhibit B debacle was that it galvanized people of color or of African descent in Britain; they organized themselves, and rallied to protest their lack of representations in the arts.All that ability to not only “return the gaze” but to also demand and expect change meant that the Barbican was caught with its pants down. Liberals, of course, love to give a ragged handout and claim that downtrodden recipients should be grateful. Tell them what’s what, and one becomes an “extremist.” Note how The Barbican framed the nature of the protests in its press release

… it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.

They also cried over the fact that its power and privilege was checked:

We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.


So, who are the ‘extreme’ protestors imagined by the Barbican and who is silencing who?

It so happens that I know most of the protestors, many who are fluent on matters of race in Britain, and alert to their right, as citizens of the United Kingdom, to organised, and peaceful protest. The leaders of this protest are highly respected members of the communities they represent. I have personally heard these leaders, including Sara Myers (the initiator and leader of the ‘Boycott the Human Zoo’ campaign on, Lee Jasper and Zita Holbourne amongst them, speak on matters of race and the history of organised Black political protest in Britain. They are a diverse group of activists, role models, cultural figures, and intellectuals. Not quite the mob Barbican dreamed up in their Public Relations statements.

On the day of the official hand-over of the petition started by Myers, no one in a position of authority at the Barbican deigned to make themselves available to receive the petition handed to them (despite committing to do so), which was represented by 22,989 signatures of white and black British people and, most importantly, South African citizens.

exhibit b

The Barbican’s refusal to engage with protestors is itself a form of censure. It is one of the many forms that racial violence can take.

Arts producer Julia Farrington, writing about Exhibit B for, makes it very clear that art institutions and funding bodies in the United Kingdom are certainly not thinking about Black artists, curators and audiences when deciding to run shows like Exhibit B. Farrington cites independent arts consultant Jenny Williams:

The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.

Given this information, who exactly were the Barbican’s imagined audiences? Bailey (who has been given space to argue his case, including in The Guardian), contradicts himself about this: he has told us the work is ‘for the diversion of (mainly) white audiences.’ Speaking through the Barbican he has also told us: ‘Exhibit B is not a piece about black histories made for white audiences.’

And as Myers points out in her petition,

Bailey himself sounds unsure as to the impact of this work. In an interview with the Guardian he says: “For all I know, I could look back at Exhibit B in 10 years and say, ‘Oh my God, I am doing exactly what they are accusing me of.”

Bailey and The Barbican have demonstrated that they don’t care what the majority of black publics (especially in the UK) think. Neither Bailey nor the Barbican appear to have taken black audiences into account. Perhaps, for them, race is an abstraction, a commodity, a way to draw audiences, or just the right ingredient that creates controversy and notoriety – without, of course, affecting revenues for the institution, or causing aversion to (or worse, a bored dismissal of) the artist’s ill-conceived work.

Bailey assumed the right to represent and speak on behalf of Black Britons’ ancestors – be they of African, Caribbean, or South Asian descent, without consulting those for whom these histories remain a traumatic legacy. Part of Bailey and the Barbican’s public relations campaign is their insistent presentation of so-called objective evidence. They would have us believe that they cannot possibly be racist, and they are teaching us all about suppressed histories. After all, Bailey is fond of reeling out the responses of his black performers: performer after performer is brought out to say that they’re fine with what they are doing, that they understand what they are doing, etc. Of course, none of these exercises include references to the position of relative powerlessness in which an employee (the performer) is placed, having to speak in defence of their powerful employer (Bailey), from whom they are receiving payment, exposure, references for a next gig, etc. In any case, none of these defensive tactics carry any critical weight – not when those in the audience overwhelmingly decide that the patronising exercise of guilt-trauma-drama in front of them isn’t good enough. Full stop.

What’s the matter with … Tim Noakes

This July it was announced that Tim Noakes,who rose to prominence as a respected sports scientist as the University of Cape Town, is in talks with Derek Carstens, former First Rand Bank executive and now Karoo farmer, about improving the diets of farm workers. Noakes, who has a following in Cape Town, has recently gained a certain notoriety – or, depending on your point of view, wild popularity – for advocating a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. Local newspaper, The Cape Times reported:

Once the project begins, the families on the farm will be monitored for five to 10 years. With a diet high in offal – which is readily available in the farmlands of the Karoo – the families will stop consuming carbohydrates, which Noakes says are of no benefit to the human body.

‘This is an ideal set-up,’ said Noakes. ‘And it would be much harder to do research of this nature in a place like Cape Town.’

Since the emergence of nutrition as a field of scientific enquiry in the early twentieth century, the poor, the hungry, and the socially and politically disenfranchised have often been the subjects of research into diet and malnutrition. Last year, University of Guelph-based food historian Ian Mosby published evidence that during the 1940s and 1950s, scientists working for the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on malnourished residents of rural Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

Rural impoverishment in the 1930s – brought about by the decline in the fur trade and cuts to government provision of poor relief – meant that First Nations people struggled to find enough to eat. They could not, in other words, afford to eat, and this knowledge informed the advice they provided to researchers for eradicating malnutrition. In his article ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ published in the May 2014 edition of Histoire Sociale/Social History, Mosby writes:

Representatives of the various First Nations visited by the research team proposed a number of practical suggestions for ending the hunger and malnutrition in their communities. In addition to more generous relief during times of extreme hardship, these included increased rations for the old and destitute, timber reserves to be set aside for the building and repairing of houses, and additional fur conservation efforts by the federal government, as well as a request that they be given fishing reserves ‘so that they could get fish both for themselves and for dog feed, free from competition with the large commercial fisheries.’

However, researchers decided to set up an experiment in which First Nations peoples were provided with vitamin supplements to gauge their relative effectiveness in combating the side effects of hunger. Crucially, researchers were well aware that ‘vitamin deficiencies constituted just one among many nutritional problems.’ In fact, they calculated that the average diet in these communities provided only 1,470 calories per person during much of the year.’ First Nations people needed food supplies, not vitamin supplements. Mosby concludes:

The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human ‘experimental subjects.’

In other areas, researchers regulated what kinds of food Aboriginals could purchase with their welfare grants (the Family Allowance):

These included canned tomatoes (or grapefruit juice), rolled oats, Pablum [baby food], pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter.

This experiment was also an attempt to persuade First Nations people to choose ‘country’ over ‘store’ foods. They were to hunt and to gather instead of relying on shops. To these ends, some officials tried to prevent some families from buying flour:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the subjects of these research projects consented to being part of them.

These Canadian research projects were by no means the only nutrition experiments conducted on oppressed peoples in the (former) empire. They were all produced by a similar set of concerns: by an interest in civilising indigenous people, but also because, in the case of Canada, ‘it [was their] belief that the Indian [sic] can become an economic asset to the nation.’

Noakes is correct when he says that conducting the research he proposes to do on rural farm workers would be almost impossible in a city. Although he insists that he will seek ethics approval, I wonder how he and other researchers will go about winning the informed consent of a group of people who are dependent on their employer – Noakes’s collaborator – for their livelihoods, and who have, historically, very low levels of education.

Also, Noakes seems to believe that only carbohydrates are at the root of farm labourers’ poor diets. As the First Nations people referred to above argued, malnutrition is caused by an inability to access good, nutritious food – and usually because of low wages. Instead of feeding Carstens’s employees offal (and it’s interesting that Noakes advises his largely white, middle-class readership to eat the more expensive fatty cuts of meat, while reserving cheap offal for poor farmworkers), it would make better sense to investigate how much they are paid, and how easy it is for them to afford transport to shops selling healthy food.

Noakes argues that ‘We can’t build this nation in the absence of sufficient protein and fat.’ To what extent is this project purely for the benefit of Karoo farm workers? And to what extent to prove a controversial theory proposed by a prominent researcher?

Image Credit: Twitter.