Africa is a Country

The Stade de France–A History in Fragments

The French national team player Patrice Evra was dribbling up the pitch when the second bomb exploded. Two minutes earlier, the same thing had happened: a loud, resonating explosion heard by the 65,000 fans gathered to watch a friendly match between Germany and France. There was a wave of shouts – not quite a cheer, almost something like tens of thousands of people saying “whoa,” or “what”? – but no panic. People mostly seem to have thought it was a loud firework, perhaps a flare exploding in one of the tunnels. Football games are full of noise, after all, and sometimes explosions. So the game went on.

A stadium, these days, can be a curious bubble. Millions watch what happens there on television, but when you are inside you can easily be relatively cut off from the broader world. With tens of thousands of people in one place trying to tweet, text, instagram, you often can’t get cell service. So it was that those gathered in the stadium were among the few in Paris not to quickly find out what was going on. People rarely leave their seats during a football match – the pace is constant, you might miss one of the few goals – and the halls and entrances are mostly empty, a kind of buffer.

But around them, over the course of a little over a half hour, three suicide bombers set off bombs in and around the Stade de France. One was caught by security trying to enter the stadium, and set off his bomb as he backed away from the security checkpoint. Another detonated his bomb on a street that runs along one side of the stadium. It is named after Jules Rimet, a French World War I veteran who created the World Cup in the early twentieth century. A third bomber followed suit near a McDonald’s nearby. At least two people were killed in these attacks, and many more were injured.

When he heard the second explosion, Evra stopped for a minute, pondering the echoing sound. He looked up but – ever the footballer – had the presence of mind to pass the ball back to a teammate. A German player trotted after it, a little languidly. It was just a banal moment in the midst of a football match, but slightly off kilter, slowed down.

Evra was born in Senegal of a father from Guinea and mother from Cape Verde, but grew up in France. He is one of many players on the French national team of African descent. What was he thinking when he heard that explosion? Did he wonder, for a moment, whether continuing to play was a kind of madness? Or did he, and the other players, make the same decision that many are now saying we should: that in the face of horror the only thing to do is to keep playing, moving, living?

Watching it now – knowing all that we do about what happened Friday night in Paris – we can perhaps count it as one of the most surreal things to ever take place in this storied stadium, a place built nearly two decades ago specifically to house history.


July, 12, 1998

The Stade de France was built for the 1998 World Cup in France. It is in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of the city famous for its ancient basilica and, more recently, as one of the banlieue regions often depicted primarily as sites of poverty, conflict with the police, and fertile ground for Islamist militancy.

When Smail Zidane, the father of the great French footballer Zinedine Zidane, had migrated to France in 1953 from Algeria, he worked for a time on a construction site in Saint-Denis. Without enough money to pay rent, he slept on the construction site. His son Zinedine grew up in Marseille, playing football in the plaza or the project where he lived. He didn’t like to head the ball, and when he was recruited to a football training academy at the age of thirteen had to be taught how to do it.

But in the final of the 1998 World Cup, Zidane used his head to score first one goal, then another, against the Brazilian team. His head won France its first ever World Cup, in the Stade de France. After he scored, he ran to the side of the pitch where his friends from his project in Marseille were in the stands. “We looked at each other,” he remembered later, with “a profound look, as vast as the football fields that we ran around on as kids.” Locked in an embrace for a long time with his friends, Zidane could smell “all those Marseille afternoons” as his friends shouted in his ear: “you’re the kid from the cité, our buddy who scored those two goals.” On the way back from the stadium – as deliriously happy French fans were flooding the streets for what would become several days of celebration, often chanting “Zidane President!” – he began thinking about “the murmurs that were rising up from the paths of the village where my father was born.”

Looking back on that evening a few weeks later, he described his goals as a testament to the possibility of Algeria and France reconciled: “it was the son of a Kabyle that offered up the victory, but it was France that became champion of the world. In one goal by one person, two cultures became one.”

The evening of the victory, after they had collected their trophy and shaken hands and had their picture taken, even after many of the fans had left, players from the French team remained on the pitch at the Stade de France, sitting, chatting, enjoying themselves almost like they were at a picnic on a Sunday afternoon.


November 13, 2015

Just before the half, France scored a goal against Germany, to the cheers of the crowd. The players still didn’t know what was going on, nor did the fans, at least most of them, at least not enough to create a panic. But President François Hollande, who was in attendance at the match, was quietly escorted out of the stadium, heading to out to speak to the press, and then to visit the sites of the carnage around Paris.

During the half, the team coaches learned the news, but decided not to tell the players. The match officials asked them to go out and play the second half nonetheless, having decided the safest thing was to keep the crowd in the stadium, which seemed relatively secure compared to the streets outside. A sanctuary.

France scored again. So it is that, drowning amidst the news from Paris, there can be this now insignificant headline: France defeats Germany in friendly match, 2-0.


October 6, 2001

It was a long-awaited and long-planned game at the Stade de France: a friendly international game between France and Algeria. It was layered, in fact over-burdened, with symbolism. Algeria had won its independence through a brutal war with France – one that had led to much violence in Paris too, including a brutal night of killings of Algerian demonstrators by French police in 1961, and terrorist bombings by various sides in the conflict. Algeria’s flag and anthem carry the history of its anti-colonial revolution. On the French team, meanwhile, the star was Zinedine Zidane, born of Algerian parents. Who would the many French fans of Algerian descent root for, the press wondered? Could football heal the wounds of history?

Seventy-nine minutes into the game, Algeria was losing 4-1 when Sofia Benlemmane, a dual Algerian-French citizen and women’s semi-professional football player, ran onto the pitch carrying an Algerian flag. Soon, others followed, and the pitch was overtaken by fans of the Algerian team, running, waving flags, laughing, chased here and there by security guards. The players were urged off the pitch, and the match was called off. But defender Lilian Thuram stayed. Born in Guadeloupe and raised in a project south of Paris, Thuram had famously scored two goals in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup, becoming almost as famous as Zidane in the process. He had become increasingly politically active and vocal since then, speaking out against racism. His immediate reaction was to worry about how the pitch invasion would be used by the right in France. He grabbed one of those running with an Algerian flag and gave him a lecture. Don’t you realize, he told him, that they will use this against you? That it will seem to confirm everything they are saying about you: that you can’t truly be French?

A few days later French far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen announced his candidacy for president outside the stadium, evoking the pitch invasion as clear proof that immigration was a menace to French society, that the integration of North African migrants had failed, and that France needed a leader like him to set back on the right course. He made it into the second round of the election, the best showing ever for a far-right politician, though was ultimately defeated by Jacques Chirac.

Since then, it has become a bit of a tradition that games between France and North African teams – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – involve some kind of controversy, usually the booing of the Marseillaise by fans rooting against France. There follows, inevitably, a round of laments about this. Sometimes players are taken to task, as they first were by Jean-Marie Le Pen during the 1996 European Cup, for not singing the Marseillaise before games. The Stade de France, in these moments, becomes the theatre for the problem of history unresolved, unending.


November 13, 2015

Only by the end of the second half did new spread among the crowd about what was happening. The killings at the Bataclan, on streets, on restaurants. Leaving the game, the players saw the news on television. One player, Antoine Griezmann, began trying to get news of his sister Maude, who he knew had gone to attend the concert that evening at the Bataclan club. He learned later that she had been able to escape.

But Lassana Diarra, who had played for most of the match, learned that his cousin Asta Diakité had been shot in one of the attacks on a restaurant. Diarra’s parents are from Mali, and he is a practicing Muslim. In a statement after the attacks, he explained that for him Diakité had been a “reference point, a source of support, a big sister,” and declared that in a “climate of terror” it was critical for “those who are representatives of our country and its diversity” to “speak up and stay united in the face of a horror that has neither color nor religion.” “Together,” he went on, “let us defend love, respect and peace.” In mourning, Diarra sought to channel some of the hopeful vision of France that has often been represented by the football team of which he is a part. Will he be heard?

Diarra probably learned about the death of his cousin while the team was still waiting at the Stade de France, where they spent many hours after the game. The Germans, told it would be unsafe to travel in busses, spent the night in the stadium.

The fans in the stadium, who by the end of the match had learned what was happening, had their own decisions to make. Should they leave the relative confinement, maybe even security, of the stadium in order to go out into a city that feels under siege? Already last year, during the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Parisians had been asked to stay home as the drama unfolded. Getting in and out of the stadium, through its tunnels, into the streets or onto the metro, is always a moment of potential danger. Authorities limited the exits and asked for calm.

Hélicoptère, pelouse envahie, scènes surréalistes.

— Vincent Menichini (@v_menichini) November 13, 2015

Many of the entrances were closed off, and fans didn’t seem to know what to do. Many began walking, running, towards the pitch itself. But there was no general panic. Some of those who made it to the tunnels to the subway found solace and calm by singing the Marseillaise as they walked, slowly, pressed together, out towards the city and, further, home.

But others had a different reflex, which was to wait in a place that seemed safe: on the football pitch itself. Having left the stands they gathered there, waiting, checking phones, sharing news, talking, crying. That green rectangle of the Stade de France is the mythic site of the victory of 1998, of the pitch invasion of 2001. It is a patch of grass that millions of French have watched and fretted over year after year during games. But that night it served perhaps its greatest purpose: it became, for a time, a refuge.

Sex, beer, and Ndombolo: an interview with Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Tram 83 is Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s dazzling first novel. It follows an idealist writer named Lucien in an unnamed African mining town governed by global capitalism’s worst impulses. In the midst of a world reduced to chaos, survival and exploitation, Lucien tries to finish his grand oeuvre, a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility” and dedicated to Patrice Lumumba. The novel’s action occurs almost exclusively in a nightclub where child miners mix with striking students, rapacious Western businessmen, and women who are, in the words of one of the characters, “emancipated, democratic, and independent”. Mwanza’s vivid representation of this temple of intemperance and, more generally, of the human landscape in which Lucien must function, makes his novel a fascinating read that oscillates between gripping dystopia and humanist celebration.

Tram 83 was published in French in 2014 and has already won several literary prizes in Europe. It is now available in English, and translations in several other languages will appear soon. However, few Congolese writers works have been made available internationally; in fact the last time a Congolese novel was translated in English was 1993, when the DRC was still named Zaire.

Mwanza grew up in Lubumbashi, Southeastern Congo’s copper capital. Lubumbashi is a city pregnant with difficult histories, where the wounds of colonial segregation overlap with the more recent memories of secession, dramatic economic decline, and the violence of politicized ethnic identities. It is also a cultural crossroad where artists have taken advantage of the great distance that separates them from Kinshasa to go where their own imaginations took them. Not coincidently, the city also claims the photographer Sammy Baloji (who happens also to be Mwanza’s cousin) and the baroque singer Serge Kakudji, two artists whose work have a brilliance and freshness that resembles his own.

I recently talked to Mwanza on Skype in his home in Graz, Austria, where he has lived for several years. We discussed his novel, the recent protests in Kinshasa, and the new generation of Congolese musicians.

Your novel conjures the energy of the Congo, yet you wrote it from Austria. Was it a challenge to write a novel that is so infused with disorder, vitality, and convulsions while living in a country mostly known for – excuse the clichés – its draconian sense of order, quaint national costumes and picture-puzzle landscapes?

The Congo is like a cumbersome piece of luggage that you would carry everywhere. When you leave the country, you take the Congo with you. You become the Congo. You get interested in everything that is going on back home and you become more Congolese than the people there. The teeming reality of the country imprisons you when you’re home and you don’t have to define yourself. When you are abroad, you look at the country in a different way. You feel more Congolese and you feel you have to define your difference.

You are just back from a long tour in the United States. How was Tram 83 received there?

The reception of the book in the U.S. is not dissimilar to my experience in Austria. American or Austrian readers are obviously less familiar with francophone African literature than, say, readers in France or Belgium. This is actually quite refreshing, because people actually look at your text, at what you are saying, at your aesthetic, at your language. While in France, people are often interested in genealogies – “you write like so and so” –, which reduces the book to a form of ethnological reading.

I also think there is a genuine interest in the DRC in the U.S. It might be because somehow the country has been at the center of the world since the Berlin conference. And even people who don’t know much about the Congo will still at least be able to relate to a few images. They will remember Mobutu, the Rumble in the Jungle, or some of our musicians.

Tram 83 takes place in a fictional city that often evokes Kinshasa, Mbuji-Mayi or Lubumbashi. Yet, you situate that city in an unnamed African country, which is explicitly not the DRC. Why did you choose to employ geographical ambiguity?

It is impossible to write about the Congo. It is impossible because it is a country that still doesn’t exist. It does not exist as a place of rights, as a normal state. It is also impossible to write about the violence in the Congo and its millions of victims. The only way you can write about this is by embracing extremes, exuberance, and poetry. And my novel is like a long poem.

I wanted Tram to be able to represent a form of exploitation and neocolonialism that happens throughout Africa, not just in the Congo. Yet, the mining cities of Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi, and their transformation since the liberalization of mining, were indeed my most direct sources of inspiration.

Some reviews of the novel have missed its humanist dimension, which was crucial for me. The use of children in the mines, the women who prostitute themselves in the mines, the new slavery of the mines, I did not invent it. Even you or me, we can go to a place like Mbuji-Mayi today, rent a concession, hire ten miners and pay them in Monopoly money. The novel contributes to the understanding of these new wretched of the earth.

Tram 83 does not only conjure the mining worlds of Central and Southeastern Congo. It is also an unforgettable portrait of the larger-than-life universe of Congolese nightlife, and notably of Kinshasa’s bar scene. The nightclub of your novel is a real pandemonium, a place where sexual exploitation coexists with hedonism, artistic creativity, and the emergence of new ways of making society.

Do you think Congolese politics can be reinvented in bars and nightclubs? 

Politics is already happening in these places. Everybody knows that the most important decisions in the Congo are made at night, and not in official buildings. In my novel, people are going to the nightclub to talk about everything. The place becomes life itself, as well as its own country. It is a place that is both cruel and hopeful, where someone can be pimping young women while being the most kind-hearted person. You have people like that in the Congo too. And change also often comes from these very contradictions.

Towards the end of the novel, the patrons of the bar – the students, the miners, the prostitutes, the profit-seeking tourists – all come together and nearly succeed in overthrowing the dictatorial dissident general who rules over the city-state.

It is difficult not to notice the resonances with the recent mobilization in Kinshasa against the extension of Joseph Kabila’s presidency beyond its constitutional end date in 2016. What do you expect for the future of the Congo?

I am actually rather optimistic. The protests of January show a change of consciousness among the country’s youth. Despite the violent repression that followed the protests, I think lot of hope comes from a new general awareness that the youth created by taking the streets. Chaos is a possibility, but it will not turn into a civil war. People feel that they have been deceived, but they still want change. And they want to participate in the construction of a legitimate state based on the rule of law. There is a lot of hope, but it also feels as if we were at the eve of a battle, a battle that could be the last one. Next year will be decisive for the country. People are mobilized and I think the government will fold.

What is also happening, both in the Congo and in the diaspora, is a movement away from the world of beer and music that I describe in the novel and that has kept the Congolese youth away from the important questions. The boycott among the Congolese diaspora in Europe against Congolese musicians who have supported the current regime is part of that movement.

What is your view of the music scene in Kinshasa today? The sonic environment of your novel includes jazz and rumba extensively, but not contemporary Congolese so much. I think you only allude once in passing to JB Mpiana’s horse dance.

I listen to everything, from Grand Kallé to Fally Ipupa, and from King Kester Emeneya to Koffi Olomidé. But, in my opinion, there has been a decline in Congolese music that started at the time of Mobutu’s so-called democratization in the 1990s. There was a rupture with the era of the Francos, Rochereaus and Papa Wembas of Viva La Musica, when music was a serious business. Paradoxically, the democratization process introduced the cult of personality in Congolese music. Before the 1990s, what was important was the orchestra more than individual musicians: Empire Bakuba with Pepe Kallé, OK Jazz with Franco, Afrisa with Rochereau, Viva la Musice with Wemba, or Zaiko Langa Langa. Each of these orchestras had its own identity and worked as an institution.  Today, there is an over-commercialization of music that has had a very negative impact on its quality.

But don’t you think there are interesting things happening in the new generation? For example, Fabregas’ recent hit “Ya Mado.” The song is basically a quintessential emblem of Congolese popular culture: it warns the youth about the dangers of HIV-AIDS while launching one of the most sexually explicit dance moves of the year. In a way, the song is a good description of the constrained moral and social space in which the women of your novel are evolving.

I think there are interesting things coming out of the new generation of musicians. Today’s music is very much like the country itself and its attempts to recover after years of political crises. There are weaknesses, but also reasons for hope. Next to songs of poor quality, you will also find real nuggets of gold. You only have to dig. You will not be disappointed. One among others to look at is Ferré Gola. I consider him Pepe Kallé’s heir.

Fabregras, on the other hand, responds mainly to the market. He is giving consumers the type of dance moves they expect. He has the spirit of an animateur, with the culture of the hit single. He is thinking about how to get people to the dance-floor. And throwing in suggestive choreography will always do the trick. Yet, I don’t think that people will remember this song in five years, because there is nothing new in the lyrics.  We are very far from the 1980s and 1990s when musicians were contributing powerful songs like Stervos Niarcos’ “Kinshasa-Brazza” or Dindo Yogo’s “Mokili echanger.” The lyrics of these songs helped people develop a sense of their collective history. This is the kind of cultural mapping that I am trying to emulate in my writing.

The land grabs in Africa you don’t hear about

In the ongoing global debate about income and wealth inequality, a little known fact with particular relevance for Africa and with far reaching consequences has flown under the radar: land in Africa, which historically has been available to many, is increasingly becoming concentrated in the hands of the few.

More than half of all those living on the continent derive a livelihood from land through agriculture. In some countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, the percentage of people depending on the land exceeds 70 percent. Most of these people tend to be poor, growing just what they need and selling what little surplus remains.

The last couple of years have seen an increase in the number of media reports exposing “land grabs” in Africa. These reports have tended to focus on transactions involving Chinese or Middle-Eastern companies. For instance, the Guardian carried a widely shared story in 2013 on the proposed leasing of 1,500 square kilometers of land bordering the Serengeti National Park to a Dubai-based hunting and safari company. The deal would deprive thousands of Maasai of valuable grazing land for their cattle. Two years prior, the Guardian ran an extensive story on China’s Africa land grab.

While there is little doubt that Chinese and Arab interests are procuring land in Africa, a careful review of the evidence suggests that the biggest perpetrators are much more insidious. In a highly insightful book titled The Great African Land Grab?, Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development has marshaled the best available evidence on the scale and geography of the problem. Given that most transactions involving land take place behind a veil of opacity, credible continent-wide estimates of scale are hard to come by. Mr. Cotula instead chooses to focus on a handful of countries (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Sudan) where systematic national land inventories have been conducted. In these five countries, the evidence shows that about 10 million hectares of land, roughly the size of Iceland, has been acquired between 2004 and 2009.  Contrary to media accounts and widely held perceptions, it is well-connected urban nationals (such as civil servants, business people and politicians) who have grabbed the majority of this land in rural areas.

For instance, Nigerians acquired 97% of almost 1 million hectares of land between 2004 and 2009. In Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia the percentages acquired by locals were respectively 78%, 53% and 49%. A study based on a 2010 survey of land acquisitions in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger found that over 95% of the investors in land deals were locals.  One of the reasons why land deals involving locals go unreported in the media is that individually they tend to be small, about 85 hectares on average, but cover lots of land in the aggregate given the number of transactions.

A second set of culprits, also flying underneath the media radar and unbeknownst to many land rights campaigners in the West, are actually Western-based companies. A study reviewed in Mr. Cotula’s book showed that about half of all the land acquired in Africa between 2005 and 2011 was done by Western companies. European companies often lead the way – a situation that brings back bitter memories of colonial era land grabs. The same study showed that companies based in the United Kingdom, the United States and Norway were respectively the 1st, 2nd and 4th biggest external land grabbers in Africa.

Whereas the land grabbers of yore were mainly interested in plantation agriculture, the current generation is a diverse bunch. About 60% of the land acquired is for growing crops for biofuels to meet increasing energy demand in the West. Some of the land is used to plant trees to take advantage of carbon credit schemes. Norwegian companies are in the lead here having large tree plantations in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan. Hedge funds are also involved, channelling money from Western pension funds, endowments and wealthy individuals into land deals hoping to cash in on any future rises in the price of land.

Ironically, the African middle class is acquiring land using the same methods and tactics perfected during the colonial era. Prior to colonization, local people laid claim to land using complex customary systems that had developed over centuries. The role of traditional authorities was to keep a record of different subjects’ land claims and to resolve any land conflicts that arose. The onset of colonialism had a profound impact on this system. For one thing, the colonial administrators elevated the position of traditional authorities vis-à-vis subjects and reinterpreted customary law so that all land decisions resided with the chief. All someone had to do when acquiring land was to deal with the chief – cutting out the original occupants of the land from the decision-making process. According to Cotula, the same modus operandi has sadly continued today, as people with money create alliances with local leaders in order to seize land.

Naturally, the impact on people whose land is taken is devastating. Families have lost land to farm on and land for cattle grazing. Sometimes they’ve lost complete access to water resources. What’s most tragic is that the urban elite often acquire land not to make meaningful investments, but for purposes of conspicuous consumption or to speculate on land prices. Western companies who acquire land rarely even use it.

So what can be done? First, we need increased transparency around land transactions in Africa. As things stand today, it is difficult to know who owns what in most countries. For instance, land policy in Zambia is still formulated on the basis of a land audit performed in the early 1990s (Cotula thinks this is no accident, as out of date data favours the land grabbing elite). Second, there is a need for African countries to reform colonial era titling systems to incorporate the claims of customary “title deed” holders. Lastly, the World Bank has recommended the levying of an annual land tax. Such a tax has the potential to raise money to compensate those whose lives are disrupted. The tax can also ensure that wasteful activities such as conspicuous consumption and land speculation are kept to a minimum (although the irony seems to be lost on the World Bank that they too have been involved in land grabs in Africa).

The last decade or two has seen millions of the rural poor losing their claim rights to land. The debate on inequality in Africa needs to be rooted in this reality if it is to have any relevance at all.

*The Inequality Series is a partnership with the Norwegian NGO, Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

Through writing and dialogue, SAIH aims to raise awareness about the damaging use of stereotypical images in storytelling about the South. They are behind the Africa For Norway campaign and the popular videos Radi-AidLet’s Save Africa: Gone Wrong and Who wants to be a volunteer, seen by millions on YouTube.

For the third time, SAIH is organizing The Radiator Awards; on the 17th of November a Rusty Radiator Award is given to the worst fundraising video and a Golden Radiator Award is given to the best, most innovative fundraising video. You can vote on your favorite in each category here.

Africa is a Country will join the Pan African Space Station in NY!

The Pan African Space Station (PASS) is an online music radio station and pop-up studio project of Chimurenga, a Cape Town-based platform founded by Ntone Edjabe in 2002. This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Africa is a Country will be presenting three panels at PASS’ library-of-people installation at the Performa 15 Hub in New York City. Alongside a host of talented artists, writers, and intellectuals, we are happy to be part of the multi-media and cross-disciplinary event, and to be able to invite friends and colleagues to present on various aspects related to contemporary African culture and current affairs that are covered and recurrent on this site.

The three panels, curated by AIAC managing editor, Africa is a Radio host, and music section editor, Boima Tucker, are:

Friday 13th Nov. (3pm)Block The Road: The Sound of Afrosoca

An exploration of the recent explosion of cross-Atlantic exchange between Caribbean and African musicians, with Rum N’ Lime Radio co-hosts – Queens-based writer and academic Rishi Nath, and DJ, producer, and Trinidadian Soca ambassador DLife.

Saturday 14th Nov. (4pm)Adrift: A soundtrack for migration

A current and former member of the Brooklyn DJ collective Dutty ArtzDJ Ushka (Thanu Yakupitiyage) and Lamin Fofana, will talk about Fofana’s recent EP as a jump-off point to discuss migration — from what the Western media has dubbed a European “migrant crisis” stemming from Africa and Syria — to other examples of being “adrift.” The two will draw on there personal experiences as immigrants to the U.S from Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone respectively to discuss how they’ve incorporated heavy themes of (im)migration into their work as musicians and activists. The hour will feature both Ushka and Lamin’s musical selections as a soundtrack to being adrift – in terms of bureacracies, physical space and geopolitically.

Sunday 15th Nov. (4pm): Seeing voices: Reflections on African photographic portraiture

Zachary Rosen moderates a discussion between guests Awam Amkpa, a professor of cultural analysis at NYU and curator of the photography exhibition Africa: See you, see me, and Delphine Fawundu, a Brooklyn-based photographer. In her work she focuses on identities through cultural expression; incorporating themes of social justice, music and history.

Visit the PASS blog and/or for more info on the entire event. If you can’t make it to the Performa 15 Hub, be sure to tune in on the Pan Africa Space Station feed! Live streaming takes place from November 11-15th 3-8pm (NY time).

Catching up with Noura Mint Seymali

In the dark, beautifully backlit confines of The Triple Door in Seattle, Noura Mint Seymali was holding court. A smallish woman from Mauritania, she ruled the stage with a fiery intensity that only the most powerful divas can maintain. She plucked her instrument, the ardine (a kind of harp that is somewhat similar to the kamele n’goni of Mali), with exact precision and sang with a voice so powerful it felt like it could pierce your skull. Along with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose psychedelic electric guitar riffs would put any Jimi Hendrix wannabe to shame, the young American drummer Matthew Tinari who’d been helping them book their tour and translating for the audience, and bassist Ousmane Touré who’d known her since she was a child, she tore the roof off this usually serene concert hall. It was an amazing experience, and in fact Seymali has been making big waves in the US since the release of her most recent album, Tzenni, on European label Glitterbeat. Backstage, we hung out a bit and talked about Mauritanian life and culture.

Seymali is the daughter of the famous and respected Mauritanian musician Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall who was responsible for modernizing much of Mauritanian music, for notating the Moorish traditions in sheet music, and for basically being the main ambassador of Mauritanian music to the West. It’s a position that his daughter now holds, and clearly believes in with a huge passion. Seymali learned from her stepmother as well, the beloved national singer Dimi Mint Abba (as well as many other family members).

The music that Noura Mint Seymali plays is rooted in the intensely complex classical music of Moorish North Africa. In Mauritania, there are five modes to the music and traditional artists move in a kind of “melodic orbit” through the modes during a performance. Each mode has multiple under-modes that are referred to as black or white. It’s a kind of coloring to the music that helps bend the mode in a certain direction, either black which lends violent tension, or the white, which lends a softness or elegance. The push and play between these helps transform each mode. “Our music is rich,” Jeiche says to me backstage, and it’s no exaggeration. You’d need a degree in ethnomusicology and years of study to really get at the heart of what is made to seem effortless.


The following is an interview with Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chighaly, conducted backstage at The Triple Door, with help from Matthew Tinari.

How is music transmitted in Mauritania? In families, from father to son, or what’s the process?

Noura Mint Seymali: There are women, griots, the ancient ones. It was these griots who made music in Mauritania, but now there are a lot of people making music who are not griots. Normally, though, in Mauritania, only the griots make this music. It’s made in families, like my own. I’m a griot, as was my father, his father, and twenty-one fathers before that.

21 generations?

Noura: Yes! Jeiche too is from a family of griots.

Is it common for a woman to be a griot?

Noura: Yes, there are female and male griots, especially female in Mauritania.

Jeiche Ould Chighaly: But before the 60s, women who were not griots couldn’t sing, only the griots could sing. Now, people who aren’t griots can sing.

The instrument you’re playing, the ardine, is it for griots only?

Noura: Until now, the ardine was for griots only. For the female griots only; there was another instrument for the men. The tidinit is for the men [Note: Jeiche’s guitar playing is directly based on the tidinit] and the ardine is for the women. It’s an ancient instrument.

Did you learn the ardine from your mother?

Noura: From my grand-mother. My father was a great musician. A professor of music and a composer as well. He wrote a lot of songs in Mauritania and he is very very well known there. He did many things. He wrote down the modes in Mauritanian music…

Matthew Tinari: He was explaining Moorish music, explaining all the instruments, the modes.

Noura: He explained the ardine, the tidinit… He wrote down in his book everything that’s in Mauritanian music.

What age did you start playing music?

Noura: I was nine or ten years old. I sang with my brothers, with my family.

Jeiche: Her brother is a composer and lives now in Spain. He married a Spanish woman. He’s a composer and he had this family band. He was the soloist, there was a brother who was the bass player, and his sister on the drums. It was a family band, but modern.

Noura: After that I went to school for my studies and was playing traditional music with my family. Then I started playing for weddings in traditional groups. Then in 2004 I started modernizing the music I played. We brought in the drums, the bass. That was difficult in Mauritania.

Jeiche: Mauritanians don’t like fusion music. They like the tradition more than any fusions. There are young people who like this, but there are all these older people who always want to be under the tents with the griots.


What’s the wedding music tradition in Mauritania?

Noura and Jeiche: It’s during the holidays of Tabaski (Eid el Adha) and Ramadan… When Ramadan is over there’s a big party. Since everyone’s tired because of Ramada, they want to make music. Plus there’s also the Tabaski holiday as well.

Are you guys busy with these weddings in Mauritania?

Jeiche: Yes, before we came here to the US for our tour, we were at a wedding. Noura was with us and people were just throwing money on us while we were trying to play !

Noura: But I don’t like playing weddings.

Jeiche: She doesn’t like weddings, but I love them. My father didn’t go to music school, he just came from the tradition. He died this year, he was 92 years old, and he was the one that taught my family music.

Matthew: His father had a lot of wisdom in his music.

Jeiche: He was a poet, he knew all about Mauritanian music and modes. Yobua was his name.

Noura, What kind of changes did you make to the tradition?

Noura: I added the bass and drums, I put in modern rhythms, but at the same time paired them with very traditional melodies and songs. Like the last song we played was a very modern rhythm but the song is traditional. The songs remain traditional, but we’ve reworked the rhythms.

Jeiche: The songs speak about the magic of Mauritania. About the prophet, about many things… Marriage, love, food.

Noura, do you write the songs in the group?

Noura: No, there are a lot of people who have written these songs from all over Mauritania.

Matthew: Maybe I’ll just explain a little bit… There’s a repertoire of poetry that all the singers draw on. Each griot takes a bit from here and a bit from there. It’s more like your rendering of poetry that’s in the public domain. It’s like rap or reggae where there’s all these sort of memes or lines out there and you’re drawing on them.

Do people recognize the lyrics? Like, “Oh, that comes from this poem…”

Jeiche: All Mauritanians know poetry, or most do. It’s popular. They know arabic poetry, but for us, we don’t sing arabic poetry, we sing hassani poetry. That’s the language that we speak.

Noura, what was a lesson you learned from your father?

Noura: Lots of things, lots of things… A lot of melodies. He said to sing with your stomach. You musn’t sing with your voice, you must sing with your stomach. If you sing with your stomach, you won’t get tired. Even if your voice gets tired, your chest won’t get tired.


Did you always want to play the ardine?

Noura: For me, the most important thing is to show the ardine. Because this is our tradition…

Jeiche [translating from Noura’s Arabic]: She’d like Mauritanians to know that what she’s doing is to ensure that Mauritania becomes better known. There are plenty of people that know nothing about Mauritania. She’s like a messenger of the music. Many people like this, but there are others that always want to stay in the tradition. Someone just sent her a Facebook message: “Noura, come back for my wedding, I can’t do my wedding unless you’re there!” But she’d rather be doing these kinds of concerts on tour, maybe leaving the weddings to her brothers and sisters.

To me, Mauritanian music kind of sounds like music in the Sahara. Are there ties between these traditions?

[heated discussion in Arabic]

Noura: No, in the Sahara there’s no music or culture of music.

Jeiche: They collect ideas from our music. There are no griot families in Saharan music.

I was thinking of the folks in Tinariwen or other Tuareg artists.

Jeiche: The Saharans or the Tuaregs, they take our music, but then it’s not at the level of our music.

Matthew: Mauritanian music has never really hit the international stage in the same way that Tuareg or other music really has. There’s a feeling that some of those cultures look to Mauritania for inspiration. There are elements of Mauritanian music that has been integrated into those styles over the years. But yet, Mauritanian music has never really broke. That’s a whole other conversation because it’s kind of political.

Jeiche: Our neighbors, they put out our music before we can get it out. You know, people like Abdallah of Tinariwen, when they see us they say, “Bravo, Bravo!” They know that this music comes from us. In the Sahara there are no griots. There are people who have music and if they listen to us for a bit, they take ideas. But it’s something different. There aren’t any of our modes, or the black and white modes.

What do the griots, especially the female griots, do in traditional society? Are they like journalists or politicians?

Jeiche: They don’t get into politics, but they take the stories and history of all the people in Mauritania. They know all these stories. Sometimes, we have these songs. If you love a girl and you can’t tell her that you love her, but it’s something that could be said with poetry. A griot could sing to this girl and tell her about you…

*This post appeared in its original form on the author’s Kithfolk BlogThe interview was originally conducted in French, Arabic, and English.

A short history of helping far-off peoples

In the past two centuries, as technologies of mass media have advanced, so too has our knowledge of the suffering of distant others. It is through this knowledge that the new ways of generating empathy underpinning the modern humanitarian movement came into being. But the desire to help others is difficult to disconnect from representations of their need.

Humanitarianism is a modern phenomenon, generally traced to the late-eighteenth century, when new forms of print media publicized the plight of far-off peoples. At heart it was about helping a distant stranger, rather than a friend or neighbour.

The abolition of slavery is usually credited as the first humanitarian campaign. During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries western activists sought to create sympathy for enslaved peoples in the Caribbean through images and narratives that focused on both bodily and emotional pain. New ways of generating empathy for the suffering of distant strangers were created though lurid descriptions of torture and suffering. These were widely circulated due to the expansion of technologies such as the printing press, and reached new audiences due to expanded literacy. By focusing on the physical and emotional pain of slaves, humanitarian appeals highlighted the shared humanity of slaves. In doing so, these appeals created and extended empathy for distant strangers. Thus, humanitarianism has always been inseparable from its literary and visual representations.

However, anti-slavery appeals did not portray slaves as equal to western audiences. The images of the anti-slavery campaign instead showed slaves as helpless, supplicant and grateful to their Western liberators. In the quintessential anti-slavery image, an enslaved man asks the viewer, ‘am I not a man and a brother?’ He does so kneeling with clasped pleading hands. While attempting to overcome the most profound inequality created by early imperialism – the slave trade – anti-slavery campaigns also entrenched colonial hierarchies, portraying African people as helpless and white Westerners as their natural ‘saviors’.

Following the anti-slavery campaign, humanitarian appeals proliferated. From the mid-19th century onwards, a host of newly created humanitarian organizations vied with one and other to win the support of potential supporters and donors. To do so, they sought to show that the subjects of their appeals were the most worthy of humanitarian aid. While a few organizations – such as the newly established International Committee of the Red Cross – did this by highlighting the heroism and bravery of those in need of help (soldiers, in the case of the ICRC), for the most part, appeals echoed anti-slavery rhetoric, emphasizing the helplessness and humanity of victims of war, famine and poverty across the world. In addition to helplessness, mid-nineteenth century appeals emphasized new a criterion for sympathy: innocence.

Increasingly, humanitarian appeals focused on women and children, considered to be blameless, helpless and, unlike adult men, removed from the complexity of politics. Appeals for causes ranging from the Irish Famine in the 1840s to the South African War (highlighting the plight of the Boers) in 1899-1902 were almost identical: they emphasised the suffering of mothers and the starvation and sickness of children. The recurrent motifs of the modern humanitarian movement had begun to emerge. Over the course of the twentieth-century, through the rise of mass media and mass marketing, these persistent humanitarian tropes would be increasingly refined and standardized, and images of ‘innocent’ ‘helpless’ women – and, even more often, children – came to represent all moments of humanitarian crisis and forms of need.

The persistent use of mothers and children in humanitarian appeals has had two important effects. First, by depicting ‘starving children’ in humanitarian appeals, humanitarian organizations gave donors a sense of superiority over the people that they ‘saved’. They invited the white West to be ‘parents’ to people in need and, by extension, portrayed people and nations in need of assistance as ‘childlike’ – reinforcing colonial hierarchies and stereotypes.

Second, by depicting children, humanitarian organizations obscured the often-controversial politics of aid. Both now and in the past, humanitarian emergencies often emerge in the context of military conflict or political corruption. By presenting images of children – isolated from adult community members – humanitarian organizations distance the need for aid from the conditions that produce it. Donors feel as if they are giving to ‘innocent children’ rather than politically suspect adults. This approach has not only led to scenarios in which aid exacerbates conflict or props up bad leadership. It also – just as problematically – creates an ideal of ‘non-political’ humanitarianism and the recipients of aid as devoid of political ideals and agency. Three instances of extreme humanitarian crises from the twentieth century – the Russian famine of 1921, the Biafra-Nigeria War or 1967-70, and the Ethiopian famine during 1983-85 – illustrate some of the problematic effects of humanitarian appeals.

Oxfam 1995 aid campaign

Oxfam 1995 aid campaign

In 1921, a mass famine swept Soviet Russia, endangering the lives of 10 million people. Western aid agencies, such as the newly founded Save the Children Fund, realized that if they were to raise money for Russian citizens that they would have to overcome significant anti-Communist hostility from potential European and American donors. Just a few years prior, the Communist government had seized power in Russia and created an international outcry. As they withdrew from the allied effort in the First World War, Russia issued anti-capitalist propaganda, and amongst other atrocities, executed the popular Russian royal family.

Humanitarian organizers in the West knew that if they were going to create sympathy for Russian famine victims, they would need to obscure the political context of a famine taking place under Soviet rule. To do so, humanitarian appeals depicted only children. Drawing on religious and romantic discourses of children’s innate value and innocence, appeals claimed that the young “could not be Bolsheviks” or “had no politics.”

In 1921, cameras were rare. Few relief workers carried them into the field. The Save the Children Fund thus relied on journalists for images of starving children, and promised large payments for “ideal” fundraising images. They drew up guidelines of what ideal images should look like: they should portray children – usually girls – under the age of 10 wearing few clothes in order to show their hunger, and should not contain adults. Mothers, it was later agreed, were perhaps acceptable, but certainly not men (who would be thought of as soldiers and Bolsheviks).

These images were an extraordinarily successful fundraising device, enabling a famine relief effort that fed three million children. But, the famine relief scheme also had unanticipated consequences. The Russian famine was not a natural phenomenon. It was caused by years of civil war, and the ineffective agricultural policies of the new Soviet government. By feeding Russian citizens, the West would enhance the legitimacy of the communist regime; a regime that would, ten years later, use famine as a weapon against its opponents in the Ukraine, and deny relief workers entry to assist in their relief. Even when aid was portrayed as non-political it could, of course, have far-reaching political consequences.

In 1967, the eastern area region of Nigeria attempted to secede – briefly becoming the independent state of Biafra, leading to a brutal and bloody civil war. Starvation was used as a weapon against the Biafran people, as Nigerian Federal troops blocked supply lines to the self-proclaimed independent state.

In a bid to secure international recognition for the secession, Biafran leaders attempted to highlight the political legitimacy of their cause. The Biafran people, they argued, had been systematically discriminated against in Nigeria, and the Nigerian state had itself only been created though the piecemeal amalgamation of culturally and ethnically distinct areas under British colonial rule in 1914. Yet these attempts to gain political legitimacy were widely unsuccessful: Western public opinion was initially unconcerned, while the British and American governments continued to support Nigerian federal forces with shipments of arms.

It was not until mid-1968, when the news reports of British journalist Fredrick Forsyth beamed images of starving Biafran children onto the television screens of millions of viewers that the Biafran cause captured the international imagination. As Forsyth himself explained, “people who couldn’t fathom the political complexities of the war could easily grasp the wrong in a picture of a child dying of starvation.” In an era when many homes were newly equipped with televisions, Western audiences were forced to confront the suffering of “Biafran babies” in their own living rooms. These images of staving children worked both to simplify and “humanize” the conflict for a Western audience, and aid organizations such as the Oxfam and the newly established Médecins Sans Frontières drew unprecedented donations to deliver humanitarian supplies behind the Nigerian blockade.

Undoubtedly, humanitarian intervention spurred by images of starving Biafra children saved lives. Yet, it has also been argued that humanitarian intervention served to prolong the Biafra-Nigeria war ultimately leading to further loss of life. The Biafran famine appeal also had long-term cultural implications. In the late-1960s, an era in which may African states had become newly independent, Biafran famine appeals reduced the complexities of post-colonial politics to the image of a helpless, starving child, whose future rested not upon political self-determination, but Western aid.

Fast forward to the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine. Then familiar humanitarian tropes were deployed once again to create sympathy for victims. A host of NGOs (and pop stars) publicized the plight of Ethiopian children, who, like the Russian and Biafran famine victims who had come before them, were the subjects of graphic photographs and lingering camera shots focusing on the pain and physical deformities that chronic hunger produced. In a series of near-identical humanitarian appeals and news reports cameras panned from helpless, hungry mothers and children to wide-lens shots which emphasized the scale of the crises (among them the song and video for Band Aid – the first of a now familiar genre of charity music appeals satirized by Africa for Norway). In these appeals, victims of hunger were reduced to a “mass of humanity” as viewers were told repeatedly that the famine was on a “biblical” scale. As in Russia and Biafra, the causes and context of the famine were obscured in order to create a compelling humanitarian narrative: Ethiopians were hungry, and Europeans could “save” them by making a simple donation.

Humanitarian appeals that obscure the complex political causes of disasters do not only undermine the agency and individuality of their victims. As Alex de Waal argues in his book Famine Crimes these humanitarian appeals – by presenting famines as unavoidable emergencies that can only be resolved through Western aid – diminish the responsibility of governments to meet the needs of their citizens. In the case of Ethiopia, de Waal argues, humanitarian appeals and humanitarian aid ultimately absolved the government of responsibility for the famine, thereby strengthening the authoritarian Mengistu regime and disempowering Ethiopian famine victims.

The nature of humanitarian appeals has had profound effects. In the short term images of suffering children have captured the imagination of the western public and allowed for interventions that have saved lives in moments of crisis. Yet, in the longer term, humanitarian images have obscured the causes and political complexities of disasters, and undermined the agency of their victims – both symbolically and practically. They have perpetuated hierarchical relationships between the Global South and the West.  By masking the political causes of humanitarian crises, instead offering a simplified narrative in which victims of hunger as ‘saved’ by one off interventions by Western aid agencies – sustainable, long term solutions to hunger and poverty remain out of reach. It remains to be seen if we can strive towards a system that asks tough questions as opposed to presenting simplified rescue solutions, but in 2015 we should not be content with reproduction of the images and inequalities of the past.

*The Inequality Series is a partnership with the Norwegian NGO, Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

Through writing and dialogue, SAIH aims to raise awareness about the damaging use of stereotypical images in storytelling about the South. They are behind the Africa For Norway campaign and the popular videos Radi-AidLet’s Save Africa: Gone Wrong and Who wants to be a volunteer, seen by millions on YouTube.

For the third time, SAIH is organizing The Radiator Awards; on the 17th of November a Rusty Radiator Award is given to the worst fundraising video and a Golden Radiator Award is given to the best, most innovative fundraising video. You can vote on your favorite in each category here.

South Africa, Post-Trauma

In the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose…One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.

– Theodor Adorno (The Meaning of Working Through the Past) 

In a recent essay published on this site, the political theorist Achille Mbembe painted a compelling picture of the pathologization of black life in South Africa. To be sure, recent events have changed this narrative somewhat, as Mbembe himself has acknowledged. Absent from this current discourse, however, is something that is also frequently absent from the narrative of #feesmustfall and others protests: To what extent has South Africa and have South Africans failed to address the aftermath of Apartheid, the resonances of which can be felt to this day? To what extent are we living in a post-traumatic space?

In his own research on the postcolony in general, Mbembe argues that African socio-political life is mutually constituted, that our existence and mobility within communities is a product of intersubjective relations. With regards to this, he builds off of thinkers like both Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, who critically engaged with the ways in which white supremacist ideologies connect skin pigmentation with inferiority. Fanon in particular underscored the importance of embodiment and perception in the construction of socio-political life. The black body in Fanon’s France is “surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty” (Black Skin, White Masks 110-111). It is a body which, under the white gaze, is “given back…sprawled out, distorted, recolored” (Black Skin, White Masks 113). The project of decolonization is therefore a project to do not so much with the black bodies negating whiteness, but rather with the desire to self-define, to not be over-determined from the outside. The material manifestations of this psychic project are necessarily political since the black body continues to be an ‘object’ of whiteness’ own neuroses. For Fanon, this is a form of trauma, needing to be overcome.


This brings us to a terrain Mbembe seems wary to tread: that of the psyche and the emotions. Academia has a long and abiding suspicion of emotive language. Fanon, however, did not. His philosophical and psychoanalytical observations stemmed directly from his engagement with his personal narrative and those of the many people he treated in clinics in the context of the Algerian liberation struggle.  As a therapist, Fanon knew that there are certain dynamics which only come to light via the vehicle of narrative. In the aftermath of the violence of apartheid, perhaps the main form of writing that black South Africans can muster currently is that of narrative and, by extension, the autobiographical. There is nothing remarkable or out of place about this, as many societies have adopted this strategy in the past (e.g. profusion of autobiographical writing on the Holocaust and slavery by survivors and/or their descendants). The insistence on the legitimacy of narrative is thus not so much an “indictment” of whiteness, but rather a condemnation of a politics of mis-remembering and, in some instance, a forgetting of our very recent past. The plurality of black life in South Africa will emerge more easily from these kinds of narratives, rather than from academic modes of writing. I would therefore argue that references to Biko and Fanon are better read as springboards to new grammars of the psycho-social experiences of black citizens.

In a country where empty gestures such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which solicited forgiveness from the victims of Apartheid and those they left behind, predominate; where static symbols like the Apartheid Museum and the like abound; and exclusive spaces like Robben Island function as tourist destinations rather than as sites of public memory, it comes as no surprise that articulating black pain is still taboo. Let us compare this with the cultural memory of the Holocaust. To this day, children in Germany and various other European countries are taught about the Holocaust at school. There are a multitude of Holocaust Memory projects around the globe and it is the subject of various academic projects. Survivors and their descendants are still the subject of public debate. Their lives and their selves are their testimony. Apartheid is subject to academic discourse, but the cultural memory of Apartheid, as felt in black bodies, is disproportionally invisible in every day life in South Africa. A child can finish school in South Africa without knowing what Apartheid was, what it meant, and how they are located within its legacy. This is why we have teenagers and university students across all racial divides who think it is progressive to have “one black/white friend” or to be “colorblind” (evidence of this can be seen in the #IAmStellenbosch campaign, but is not limited to that particular space). Our amnesia is an indictment of our society at large. This is trauma at work.


Concomitant with the suspicion of personal narrative and the terms of address, Mbembe argues that “a new anti-decorum” abounds and that this is symptomatic of an “age of fantasy and hysteria”. I disagree. The very idea of decorum is intimately bound up with performances of civility, which protect whiteness from a violent confrontation with its own racism. Insofar as whiteness has already established itself as the center, as the source of civilization, it can dismiss expressions that do not conform to the prescribed modes of politeness as barbaric. Far from coming about as a result of expressions of rage and outrage, hysteria and fantasy are already embedded in racism itself. Taking a lead from Fanon, racism itself is a mental disorder or delusion that plays itself out in socio-political life by attempting to control the reality and social existence of others. Whiteness need not seek to “institutionalize itself” because it has already ensured its domination of all avenues of social, political, and economic realms through the dual systems of oppression: colonialism and Apartheid. This domination involves the psychic life of both whiteness and blackness in the communal imaginary of South Africa.

Take a well known episode in the recent #FeesMustFall protests, during which white allies stood as human barricades between the police and black students, thereby highlighting the extent to which white bodies are protected from brutality by their very pigmentation. Greater force was exercised at historically black universities such as Fort Hare and the University of the Western Cape – to name but a few. The trauma is ongoing. Writing in another context, Judith Butler argues that “those who are unreal have, in a sense, already suffered the violence of derealization…if violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and so must be negated again…and again” (Precarious Life 33). No matter the agent of the violence enacted against black bodies, the meaning behind it is intimately tied up with the reinforcement that black lives do not and cannot matter, precisely because they have yet to be granted the status of human. The numerical dominance of the black population is not enough to dismantle the abiding legacy of dehumanization at the heart of black disavowal in South Africa.


Rather than seeing expressions of pain as redemptive or as a means of gaining coherence with the self and with others, Mbembe instead perceives it as a destructive exercise. But how do we heal if we are not able to express our pain? To be clear, I am not advocating for the acceptance of hate speech and racial hatred. Rather, I’m arguing that black people also need space to feel themselves. Expressions of pain arise not so much out of victimhood, but rather as attempts to make sense of what it means to be a survivor of an unjust past , and to leverage that past to negotiate a more potentially just future. All South Africans are living in a post-traumatic space which, by definition, resists articulation through language. The personal is political precisely because our bodies within this space are still very much politicised.  In order to “resume human life in the aftermath of irreparable loss,” as Mbembe puts it, it is necessary to speak about what we have lost. And sometimes to cry, and sometimes to yell.

Perhaps it is the case that our discussions of political life are inadequate precisely because they neglect to factor in the psychological dynamics embedded within political discourse. What would be valuable would be to examine the ways in which the political and the psychological overlap to form a communal imaginary across all racial divides. This kind of work would involve the revision of who we are and who we are in relation to others. I suspect that consciously inserting memorialization into every day life would be a sufficient first step in this process. Until we are able to acknowledge and pay due credence to our respective positionalities in the aftermath of Apartheid, rather than trying to hold on to the delusion of a just society, we will not be able to be amongst others in an ethically legitimate way.


Purveyors of injustice, we see you, and we also send an insult to your mum

In June 2015, an Afro-capitalist owner of a not-so-popular radio station grabbed one of the only playing fields in the densely populated poor urban settlement of Kosovo, Mathare. It was done, ostensibly, to build a primary school, but there was already a primary school; the community had requested a secondary school during one of the perfunctory image saving “participatory” consultations that was organized by so-called Mathare leaders and with the Nairobi governor in a cameo role.

Fast forward a few weeks later, and the community found out that not only was the school going to be a primary “academy” that few, if any, Mathare children would be able to attend, but that this illustrious institution would block one of the more popular pathways that provided entry into the settlement. And their kids would still be deprived of a playing field.

People were pissed.

Venting at a recently held political accountability and social justice forum organized by Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) residents declared:

“Ai these rich people keep coming here and they don’t even have a mother in the ghetto!”

“Next time if we are going to vote someone in they have to come and stand and show that they have a mother from the ghetto!”

“Yes” people shouted.

“They have to bring her here!”

“We need to stop voting in tourists!”

“These people cannot come and grab land here. We are going to cross the street to see all the rich people in Muthaiga, take over their gardens and grab their land and say if you ever come over to our side you will see!”

“Yes” people shouted again and again.

“We need a military wing!”

Bigger shouts of “yes”

“And an intelligence wing!”

And slight Okal from Turkana – who came to Nairobi to find work on the day the American embassy was bombed in 1998, and who, like many residents, has since slept in numerous city gutters – a little drunk but full of valour, announced: “I want to say that I volunteer for the intelligence wing”.

And everyone cheered, hard.

But this defiance and resolve to change things cannot immediately override the pervasive neglect that they live, and El-Nino will soon be here to show just how deep this structural disregard is. The last time we were privy to this weather inferno was in 1997, and in Mathare it blew the roofs off people’s houses and swept away homes. When it happens again, the muddy paths will be impassable, and the rates of cholera will go through the roof.

Unsurprisingly the extent of government preparation for the next climate change disaster is the one big drain by Juja road and the purchasing of soap bars that are rumoured to have cost 37,500 Kenya shillings each ($400).

People are long tired of living these same insults over and over again, and so at the forum they created a community-sanctioned insult of their own.

“These people need to be told that Mathare si ya mamako!” one young woman declared with fervour.

And just like that it became the slogan of one of the resulting campaigns; Mathare is not your mother’s!

As in most cases, the English language barely comes close to capturing the venality implicit in this statement; trust me it’s rude. And it also has special significance in Mathare where the current member of parliament, recognized as one of 12 MPs who did not contribute to any legislative debate in 2014, took this electoral seat one term after his mother who had reigned four years before him. As part of his campaign she gave out bribes to residents from her evangelical church, and is said to be the actual brains behind her son who is so absent, you need to buy a TV in order to see him.

And in this community close to where Gideon Njuguna was shot in the eyes, chest and jaw and was later found abandoned in the morgue,

In this area where marking the entrance to Huruma ward is a police station on one side and coffin makers on the other,

In this country where people’s children can’t afford to go to school yet the VP builds a 1.2 billion house complete with a private airstrip, and we are told not to worry because we are a “middle income country” yet we have never known anything more than a minimal income,

This forum taught some of us that we need to take up more insults for justice.

Kenya si ya mamako.

Mathare si ya mamako.

In these places that are “out of justice” it’s not just about the playground. Or about insults. It’s about working towards structural redemptions to ease the million systemic heartbreaks that happen every day (preferably while causing offence).

So if you are one of these people who grab land, kill children and hold up sinister superstructures of disadvantage, know that as we work to shake off the menacing insults of forced evictions, tenure insecurity, police violence and increasing precarity,

We see you,

And we also send an insult to your mum.

*This article is part of Africa is a Country’s Inequality Series. AIAC’s new Inequality Section examines the politics of aid, rights, migration and other topics. The Inequality Series is a partnership with the Norwegian NGO, Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

Through writing and dialogue, SAIH aims to raise awareness about the damaging use of stereotypical images in storytelling about the South. They are behind the Africa For Norway campaign and the popular videos Radi-AidLet’s Save Africa: Gone Wrong and Who wants to be a volunteer, seen by millions on YouTube.

For the third time, SAIH is organizing The Radiator Awards; on the 17th of November a Rusty Radiator Award is given to the worst fundraising video and a Golden Radiator Award is given to the best, most innovative fundraising video. You can vote on your favorite in each category here.

Anti-Dominicanism, a No Lesser Evil

In the recent crisis involving Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the world seems to be lacking stories that show Dominicans in identification with human rights or blackness. In the absence of balanced representations, assumptions turn rash and hopeless.

In the book form of the film documentary series “Black in Latin America,” African American intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. goes as far as to suggest a measure of “schizophrenia” on the part of Dominicans. This would be a reckless assertion if it were not that verdicts such as this appear regularly within an atmosphere of negative criticism in the press and social media where an audience seems to grow inured.

Yet, the air to revile so blatantly begs the question of whether the cast diagnosis is not in itself a reflection of the state of disorder reached by some intellectuals and others who inform opinions in the United States, as they seem to be losing patience and clear judgment when dealing with the DR.

Gates is hardly the instigator, for nearly fifty years before in 1967, a Dominican exiled in Venezuela, Pedro Andrés Pérez Cabral, already ground the axe and dissected the national consciousness that he himself identified as partly unsound. He unleashed vitriol against Dominican identity in some sections of a generally useful book titled La comunidad mulata (The Mulatto Community), as he deployed an analytical style seemingly influenced by the works of psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, particularly the Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), which appears listed as a source in La comunidad.

At times, Pérez Cabral’s language suggests homoerotic yearnings of a confused Dominican people who hate their own skin and lust after white leaders. He attacks whitening and implies a defense of blackness, as he claims that pure races have backbone while fusion yields a degraded collective. But his assertions veer often into extremes that reverse his purpose to expose or defeat racism.

For example, Dominican diehard Joaquin Balaguer used a similar line of argument for years to do the opposite: exalt whiteness and demean blackness. In his 1983 La isla al revés (The Backward Island), Balaguer warned Dominicans against mixing with Haitians, for in his view they ruined all attempts at human progress and organized society. And so it is that the junction of parallels becomes true.

Herding Dominicans in as the sheep gone astray is as mistaken as are rants to keep Haitians out. In every case, Haiti is cast as a symbol of blackness and the DR typecast as its negation. Perceptively, African American anthropologist Kimberly Eison Simmons avoids falling in this trench.

In her book, Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the Dominican Republic, Simmons steered clear of Pathology Road, dealing but moving past the racial contradictions and returning an account of Dominicans that is neither romantic nor singularizing. Her stay and findings in the DR resonated with some of her life experiences in the US, as she suggested the significance of context and the need for observers to relinquish exclusive copyrights to blackness as conditions to appreciate how Dominicans express themselves in a local or US setting.

To study Dominicans on their own terms is a bold line followed by her arranged translation of The African Presence in Santo Domingo, a work of Dominican blackness by local Dominican sociologist Carlos Andújar. Simmons answers the question of black “denial” with a not-so-obvious reply and with the matter for another question: is prejudice all that we should know of the DR?

Anti-Haitianism in the DR is an ideology with a government patent and whose practices are documented. It involves an effort to discriminate and deny recourse to victims of xenophobia and racism. Anti-Dominicanism, as it plumes its feathers on the other hand, comes as an attitude parting from a conviction, ignorance or lack of efforts to present critical information that warns against lampooning a nation and its people. It is an obstinate scheme.

No one takes the stories of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. only to highlight those blacks who betrayed them and impose the view of duplicity of African Americans. There is hardly a squabble, however, when Dominicans are portrayed widely as the epitome of self-hate and anti-blackness, who blame Haiti for their mental deformation and would sever their skin for a try at racial mutation.

The complex reality of a people is outplayed by this cruel satire which, impervious to changes and sobering facts, is dealt best by indulging in its own theatre of irony, for no light attempt at rectification could alter the tendentious portrayal.

The anticipation for the final act in this “ethno-drama” is infecting the public with rage and many Dominicans with anxiety. How is the story going to end for Hispaniola? It certainly has the sparkle of a classic thriller. When injustices in the DR, such as stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, are denounced internationally while leaving the impression that Dominicans are not moved to indignation, the stage is set for a famous ending that channels the tragedies of old.

Sodom and Gomorrah, we are told, had a punishment befitting annihilation through scorching cataclysm because not a single soul was free from its folly. The techniques of effacing are no less spectacular today because they employ tactics of economic drought. In this newly rising script, fiery sanctions against the DR can also burn Haiti (the House of Lot). If Judgment Day starts in the form of a ban on Dominican economy—a lit fuse clearing the way to the Overture of 1812 finale—Haitians will have to run faster than Napoleon, and then swim, to avoid some of the exploding brimstone, as fate bound them to their neighbors in one island.

The truth is unsettling as is the fiction. Anti-Haitians and anti-Dominicans work alike for doom and disunion. It is true. One lives in the past prophesying of a coming avalanche of Haitian immigrants fulfilling a conspiracy, and the other lives on the moon demanding an apology of the Dominican people they call “lunatics” for living their history.

George Washington Carver once said: “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” It is good advice to change what we now see. Anti-Haitianism will live for as long as the politics and activism against it are less about forging ties and more about disqualifying Dominicans as allies for justice. We cannot ignore the mirror and the consequences no matter how big the outrage.

In the DR, Dominicans of Haitian descent can face ugly attitudes that ridicule their ancestry. How will it be different when, in the US, Americans of Dominican descent are told that they too come from a family tree diseased at the roots? This is the fusillade carried by the media, well-funded figures and other bullhorns of monotone determinism. They become that which they eliminate, and that is no less of a problem.



After Tanzania’s national election, things get complicated in Zanzibar

In April 1964, following a racially charged revolution in Zanzibar, its new leaders negotiated a union between the Zanzibari islands, with their 300,000 people, and the country of Tanganyika on the mainland with its 10 million people. The bond was bound to be unbalanced, Zanzibar would remain with its own government, president and vice president, and revolutionary council, while simultaneously being subsumed under the government of a new “united republic,” with its own president and parliament, to be known as Tanzania. Tanganyika no longer had its own government. The Zanzibari president became the First Vice President of Tanzania, while the Tanzanian president’s running mate became its Second Vice President.

The union’s lopsided ambiguity makes it hard to shake, but is also the source of its frustration. Zanzibaris never quite came to a consensus about what their constitutional relationship to the mainland should be, and the opposition makes the appealing case that it should have more autonomy. Many on the mainland agree: why not have a “three-government” system, with both Zanzibar and the mainland operating autonomous governmental structures under an umbrella government overseeing both?

This question was the central ideological issue at stake in the recent Tanzanian presidential elections. The opposition to the ruling CCM party was a coalition of parties allied by their fight against CCM attempts to railroad a constitutional reform process towards their interests.

The elections of October 25, 2015 were the most hotly contested in Tanzania’s independent history. Although many the main opposition candidate disputes the results, officially the CCM candidate won by nearly 3 million votes. Despite ongoing litigation in various constituencies, it was a very well run election with indisputably strong showings for both candidates. The CCM candidate was sworn in with great ceremony, and ceremonies mean a lot in this country. The national president is here to stay.

In Zanzibar, however, things got complicated. The candidate for CUF, a member of the opposition coalition, was Seif Sharif Hamad. “Maalim” Seif, as he is known, has run for Zanzibari president in every election since 1995. He has lost every time in elections widely panned as rigged in CCM’s favor. Many Zanzibaris have become intensely frustration with CCM domination and its racially charged propaganda. Throughout this period, Maalim Seif has struggled patiently against hope that one day there would be a clean and uncontroversial election in Zanzibar. He has repeatedly sought legal and electoral recourse, and has never advocated violence or rebellion… at least until last week.

Two weeks ago Monday, the day after the election, Seif called a press conference to announce that according to reported polling results, the trend looked as if he would be the winner. Further reported polling results over the next few days showed a strong, if dubious, CCM showing. The Zanzibari Electoral Commission (ZEC) was to announce a winner at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. No announcement came until that afternoon when the chair of the ZEC nullified the entire Zanzibar election. Dozens of legal and procedural questions arose, creating a constitutional crisis.

The ZEC chair cited irregularities and conflict within the ZEC, and claimed that more people voted in CUF strongholds than had been registered. Conceivably, he acted to prevent a CCM victory that would have been almost universally seen as fraudulent. But most Tanzanians assumed that he had acted to obscure the fact that CCM was trying to steal the election. Maalim Seif, opposition leaders, and major embassies all denounced the nullification, while two members of the ZEC said they had not been consulted and they disagreed with the decision. With the current Zanzibari president’s term officially ending, there was the possibility that the islands would be without a legally constituted government as of Monday, November 1.

Frustrated with the silence from the mainland government, who were busy celebrating their victory, Maalim Seif called another press conference the following Friday evening. Pleading for CCM to sit down and talk, but unwilling to sit by passively while the electoral process was so blatantly ignored, Seif said that if positive steps towards a solution were not taken on Monday, then he would no longer restrain his followers from going to the streets to “pursue their rights.” It was an ultimatum.

It seems to have worked, because the current CCM government sent its top military commander to meet with the Zanzibari contestants, and then the outgoing CCM president sat down for a conversation with Maalim Seif. These were positive steps, and between Seif’s calls for restraint and a large military police presence, Zanzibar has remained calm throughout the crisis.

While CCM still retains a lot of goodwill among rural and older voters in the mainland, many Tanzanians thirst for an opposition victory that would be a rebuke against corrupt governance and a sign that Tanzania’s democracy has truly come of age. With the new CCM president firmly in place, and an opposition presidency in Zanzibar would not be a threat to its political dominance. CCM is unlikely to find a better negotiating partner in Zanzibar than Maalim Seif. He is a moderate who has consistently chosen compromise over confrontation. Whoever rises to the top of Zanzibari politics in his wake is unlikely to wield the same influence or the same willingness to forgo conflict for the wellbeing of theZanzibari people.

CCM ostensibly opposes his candidacy because they fear that he would try to break up the union, even though CUF has never advocated Zanzibari independence. He would certainly bring pressure to revise the current structure, but that pressure is now coming from every direction and needs to be addressed regardless. More deeply, some in CCM might worry that without the united front of CCM government, extremist groups might take root in Zanzibar. But on this score, it is clear that CCM’s intransigence is only seeding the atmosphere with resentment that is already fueling more radical rhetoric: this week, Zanzibar’s first IEDs exploded (without injuries) in its historic Stone Town. Maalim Seif is probably the best placed politician in the country to lead the most frustrated elements of Zanzibari politics back towards the compromise and power-sharing necessary for democratic governance. If Maalim Seif legitimately won the election, CCM would be wise to let him represent the will of the Zanzibari majority and begin to talk about how best to restructure the union to face future challenges.

The current Zanzibari president’s term has been temporarily extended, and it remains to be seen whether this week’s discussions will resolve the impasse.

The Hooligans

A black coated Nylophor fence transverses the Union Building lawns the day #FeesMustFall marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The fence creating a ceremonial space for protest below and, at the top, the Union Buildings edifice with a tall sculpture of former president Nelson Mandela with his arms wide open in cruel irony. The fence is secured by Bekafix posts and impenetrable (or so we thought). To others, students from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Soshanguve campus, especially, it was relative – it could be bent and broken and torn apart: it could be transform from a deterrent into something else, even an entrance, perhaps. In tearing the fence open TUT Soshanguve students altered the relationship between the State and its citizens at that moment of ceremony.

They folded the distance between power and people upon itself, shortening the distance by half. One got the feeling that this particular protest action was not on the cards for most people who were in attendance—for that’s what most of us were there to do, to attend a ceremony where President Jacob Zuma would speak and, hopefully, placate our frustrated energy and tell us something we could take home, something that would render all the effort of driving or taking the Gautrain to Pretoria, worth it.

But TUT Soshanguve – who had by now been derided on social media as ‘hooligans’ – had already muddied our symbolic defiance of the State and made matters worse for everyone. They had caused us great panic and even greater regret to having come to this untethering of Pretoria’s urban youths, to experience the stripped down version of revolution; the one were the state shows its fangs vis-a-vis its heavy handed riot police with its rubber bullets and tear gas and stun grenades and what have you; and the gathered residuum retaliating by equally destructive means – a brick here, a petrol bomb there, a burnt down mobile toilet or two. My friend and I had stood far back enough to notice the happenings by the fence. Each time the TUT Soshanguve students made head way with the fence the police stung them with stun grenades. Every single stun grenade was met with a “Happy!” from the students as though it were New Year’s.


This joy in that which was so blatantly violent was as tragic as it was comical to those of us who deplore violence in all its forms, but at this moment, at this proximity with real revolution, with the real risk of catching a rubber bullet to the leg, our outrage froze inside our bone marrow. So we tweeted it instead. The violence unfolding in front of us and the way in which we casually watched at such close proximity, without raising a single finger or placing our bodies between the riot police and the TUT Soshanguve students, spoke of the ways in which violence is naturalised in this country, especially between the State and its citizens. We all knew something about what was happening and we all knew not to intervene. Violence of the State against its own citizens usually points to its illegitimacy than its power. It points to cracks in the syntax of power. To those who had come with the intent to demonstrate those exact same cracks this state of affairs glimmered with hope. Finally, the South African government, the president himself, would have nowhere to hide his true face. Today he would kill his children and the entire world was watching and the riot police feigned restraint while grinding their teeth behind riot shields.

Tear gas canisters fell from the sky – from a police helicopter – onto anyone and everyone. Teargas chokes, suffocates and repels. It stings the eyes. From here on it was clear that the president wouldn’t come out. TUT Soshanguve students were still working their way through the fence as though tear gas were the very air they breathe in their neighbourhoods. It is important to draw the distinction between ‘symbolic violence’  and the violence the intimate violence of poverty and squalor which snatches food from your cupboards, haunts your dreams and denies you choices, poisoning the water you drink and the very air you breathe. It is inside these homes that symbolic violence finds its similitude in physical violence. It is here that it is mirrored with devastating effects. And it is also here that the signatures of power speak the loudest.

As we watched with teargas filled tears the coterie of sinewy TUT Soshanguve students finally rip through the Nylophor fence, uproot the Bekafix posts and put their hands up in the air in surrender before getting down on their knees to disarm their rage, we were somewhat relieved. It became apparent they only wanted to tear down the boundaries that separate State and citizen. They wanted to be allowed into the space that purports to be theirs to own. In their tenacity to tear down the fence that transverses the Union Building, they had succeeded in restoring the Union Buildings into its proper function as a public institution.


We ambled in after them through the hole in the fence in quiet disbelief.  To some us the fence had a justification somewhere in the back of our heads, if one cared to look there and rummage with both hands. The fence needed to be there, this we knew. Especially those of us of middle class leaning. We are accustomed to high walls and electric fences. We know whom they are meant to deter. But here, at the Union Buildings, in this supposedly public space, our grasp of borders and privileged spaces nearly made a mockery of our own supposed intelligence. Here were these outsiders, writ large in the language of violence and derided as Hooligans on Twitter, demonstrating to us and the rest of the world how to communicate with a government that only speaks fluent violence against its own citizens to preserve middle class illusions and maintain upper class affluence while defending its own unbridled corruption. When The Hooligans climbed the top of Police Nyalas to look the president in the eye had he come out to deliver his speech, some among us joined them. There was a sense of passing through an impossible threshold once you went through the torn down fence. There was a genuine, visceral sense of victory when you drank from the sprinklers with your bare hands and dabbed your teargassed face with the cool water inside the beautifully manicured lawns along the first steps of the Union Buildings.

People gathered tiredly under the tall trees and conversed. The riot police, which were not so long ago a sign of imminent danger were now but negligible gnomes – forming part of the landscaping. To think that to get here it took less than 50 people out of a couple of thousands – potentially – had given me a glimpse of the power we have as citizens. It was clear at this point that the president wasn’t going to come out. If I were him I’d have done the same. Here were people who tore the fence that divided them from power, and with it tore open their hearts and bled right there in front of us in fits of rage for justice. My president enjoys a good laugh but The Hooligans had demonstrated that today would not be a laughing matter. There would be no chortling and clearing of the throat; there would be no meandering around a point and beating about the bush. The language of violence from the State had, on this day, found its mirror. Even better, it had found its partner that would finish its sentences. The Hooliganism of State had finally met what it had procreated in poor communities and in the wells of minds of its most vulnerable citizens. And we stood there, stunned in clumps of bewildered middle class markers, cloaked in suburban revolutionary language, caught in the middle of a conversation between two lovers, who had sized each other up well before hand and had met on this day on terms that only lovers understand. I knew then that it was time to drive home, to get on the freeway to Johannesburg. There was a tension I couldn’t quite decipher. Evening was approaching and I knew that by night lovers will do only what lovers are prone to do. This was only a visceral intuition I could not quite shake off. As we drove onto the M1 the first shots were fired by the riot police and by the time we arrived at Wolves on Corlett Drive in Illovo for a beer, the first police van had been set alight. By the time our partners came to meet us after work, there were students who wanted to abandon the revolution and go home. And by the time I got down to write this, a few universities had agreed to end the exploitive practice outsourcing their general staff, a decision that our erstwhile president, barricaded inside the Union Buildings couldn’t even attempt to make on that decidedly hot Friday afternoon.


If anything, that fateful Friday exposed not only the hubris of power and language of state and the way in which that language and its violence inscribes itself on vulnerable black bodies; it revealed the fissures in the solidarity between privilege black bodies and not so privileged ones in times of struggle; it pointed to the modulations of similitude within the movement itself – where common ground reflects common convenience  and where and when shifts to reflect different class conveniences within struggle itself. The fractures in the student movement are a mere microcosm of the heterogeneous experience of black bodies in South Africa, and as such, were to be expected. In the end, it revealed that fidelity to revolution becomes a matter of convenience or necessity depending on one’s proximity to the centre that holds all the power of economic, political, cultural and social currency.

Asking for a friend

This week’s 20 questions from our friend:

Can Idris Elba’s acting save the Netflix movie ‘Beasts of No Nation’?

Why do African national teams do so well in FIFA age group competitions (Nigeria and Mali play each other in the Under 17 World Cup Final today in Chile) but fail so spectacularly at senior level? (A former Mexico coach–they lost to Nigeria in the semifinal–has a theory.)

Will the child refugees who are the subjects of this New York Times Magazine/Google ‘real time’ storytelling app be able to see it?

Who will win Uganda’s presidential election in 2016?

You know that President Paul Kagame can technically rule Rwanda until 2034? Think about it: North West Kardashian will be 21 and D’Banj will be 54.

Is Africa’s best footballer Yaya Toure mad at John Obi Mikel?

Will the Italian newspaper La Republica at some point explain to the rest of us why it decided to make a blackface film?

Is Bono also your go-to person on global poverty and Ethiopian history?

What is Nigerian Senator Patrick Obahiagbon saying?

Who should we blame for the pitiful state of commercial rap music?

Is Drake Zambian?

Is “Our Brand is Crisis” (the fictionalized movie version with Sandra Bullock of the revealing 2006 documentary film) as bad as we assume it is?

Why is Fareed Zakaria still allowed to make stuff up?

Does the  movement have its own soundtrack?

Have you gotten your copy of “Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy”?

What was NPR thinking?

Who believed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Order of the Blackface) when he pretended to know very little about his country’s deep historical ties to South Africa?

Did the City of Johannesburg take Burning Spear’s advice about social living literally?

Why do US public representatives take their foreign policy advice (on the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from Nicole Ritchie and Ryan Gosling?

Don’t we all miss Brenda Fassie right now?

Beyond the Boundary

On November, 10th 1991, after more than 20 years of isolation from international cricket, the South African cricket team played a One Day International against India in Kolkata. Nelson Mandela had only recently been released from prison. The National Party, the party of apartheid, still ruled in South Africa. The scores were low. Sachin Tendulkar was beginning his career.

Two and a half decades later, in 2015, South Africa once again travelled to India for a series of One Day Internationals named after Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. Things had changed. In the first match alone South Africa picked five black players including, test match captain and quickest player to score 6,000 ODI runs and 20 ODI centuries, Hashim Amla, senior campaigner and all-rounder JP Duminy (who has also recently captained South Africa) and the talented young fast bowling sensation Kagiso Rabada. This team produced South Africa’s first ever series victory in an ODI series on Indian soil.

Cricket continues to be a political matter in South Africa. Despite the emergence of significant black cricketing talent over the last two and half decades the debate about race and cricket rages on in South Africa’s living rooms, pages of newspapers (like this), online and even the seats of Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meetings. Parliament regularly discusses the opportunities afforded to specific young black players and the media’s ill treatment of black players like Vernon Philander. As the Caribbean intellectual of sports and politics, CLR James, so eloquently describes in his seminal Beyond a Boundary, cricket was born in politics in England and spread across the world imbued with a puritanical value system and not a small dose of habitual racism. It has always managed to “encompass so much of social reality and still remain a game.”

Let’s be clear: five out 11 players is still significantly below representative in a country in which 10 out 11 people are black. For now, Kagiso Rabada remains one of the only black African players being regularly played in the national team despite the population of South Africa,compromising more than 80% of black Africans (Amla, for example, is Indian South African and Duminy coloured).

Kagiso Rabada is 20-years-old. Born and bred in Johannesburg in post-apartheid South Africa he is what is often referred to in South Africa as a “born free”. He is a sensational fast bowler. Standing at 1.91 metres Rabada regularly bowls at over 145 kilometres an hour and often reaches speeds of over 150 kilometres an hour. Translation for cricket muggles: that’s the equivalent of sprinting a hundred metres in less than 10 seconds. But Rabada is not just raw pace and height, he is an intelligent, composed bowler, with all the variations and skills required to succeed at the top level in international cricket. Rabada burst into the limelight in 2015 at the age of 19, taking six for 25 in the Under 19 World Cup semi-final against South Africa’s fierce cricket rivals, Australia.

Since his international debut against the senior Australian outfit later that same year, Rabada has done nothing, but impress in ten One Day Internationals and eight T20 International matches and as you read this is playing his debut Test Match in Mohali. Highlights include claiming the Man of the Match award in his ODI debut by taking six for 16 away from home against Bangladesh in July 2015.

Rabada ended the recently concluded Ghandi-Mandela bilateral series in India as the joint highest wicket taker with Dale Steyn, claiming 10 wickets, at a better average, lower economy rate and equal strike rate to the world’s indisputably best bowler. Translation for cricket muggles: he is very good.

He accomplished this in sub-continental conditions which typically do not favour fast bowlers. I repeat. Rabada is a phenomenal player. But why trust me? South Africa’s former captain and fast bowling all rounder Shaun Pollock, when asked on air whether he was a potential future superstar responded: “He is already a superstar.”Allan Donald, South Africa’s former bowling coach says that Rabada is “destined to play for the Proteas for a long time” and has “unbelievable talent.” Makhaya Ntini, South African cricketing legend and South Africa’s most successful black African fast bowler to date, described Rabada as “without a doubt” this next big thing in South African cricket.

Not surprisingly, when it is crunch time – the so-called ‘death overs’ at the end of match, Rabada’s captain, AB De Villiers, has consistently and without hesitation given the twenty year old the ball.And Rabada has excelled.

In the first ODI against India in Kanpur, Rabada was tasked with bowling the final over against India’s captain MS Dhoni. India needed only 11 runs to win. The pressure was on and South Africa’s superstar stepped up. He managed to take two wickets, including Dhoni’s, and conceded only six runs. Cricket muggles: this is like running 100 metres in 9.8 seconds while juggling. He repeated this feat in the next match, again bowling the 50th over to Dhoni, Rabada, as a packed crowd watch in awe at the blunting of their own hero, bowled five balls without conceding a run before being hit for six by Dhoni off of the last ball of the innings.

This is quality cricket. The media coverage has been less so.

Experienced South African cricket journalist Neil Manthorp, writing in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper after the first ODI in Kanpur, credited South Africa’s captain AB De Villiers “genius” in managing to advise and calm young Rabada down, as if Rabada might be completely foreign the match situation or unlikely without AB’s intervention to execute his skills effectively. So fixated is Manthorp on De Villiers, that he even finds space to write about his slow over rate –Note to Cricket muggles:a negative for the captain who may be suspended as a result and the cricketing version of a parking fine– and put even that negative down the his excellent fastidiousness in managing his bowlers, including Rabada.

AB can do no wrong. Rabada can do no right.

Instead in an article titled“De Villiers’ genius shows in Rabada moment” Manthorp commits not a single line to Rabada’s bowling and merely catalogues AB De Villier’s achievements and role in “calming Rabada down.”

Manthorp, as the political scientist (and also Business Day columnist) Steven Friedman observed in a Facebook post, seemed totally incapable of crediting Rabada’s performance, to Rabada’s own talent and temperament. Friedman therefore observes correctly that

“yes, AB de Villiers did very well to give a 20-year-old the final over in a tight match. But when journalists and headline writers can only explain black achievement by pointing to the guiding hand of a white person, then we surely do not need to debate whether racism is alive in well in this country today.”

In the cricketing context there is nothing new about white players being credited for black cricketing excellence or black players cricketing temperaments and minds – as opposed to their exoticised physical ability and power – being ignored. In Beyond a Boundary, CLR James also explained that for decades colonial West Indian authorities could not stomach the appointment of a black captain, especially to play Australia or England, despite the vast majority of their best players being black. Black players were invisible, both in James’s time and, apparently, in Manthorp’s mind. As James wrote then:

There whole point [The white controlled West Indian cricket authorities] was to continue to send to populations of white people, black or brown men under a white captain. The more brilliantly the black men played the more it would emphasise to millions of English people: “Yes they are fine players, but, funny isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves – they must always have a white man to lead them.”

Manthorp’s analysis continues the racist spurt of journalism and commentary that has grown exponentially preceding South Africa’s defeat by New Zealand in the seminal final of the ICC Cricket World Cup earlier this year and the acceleration of Cricket South Africa’s transformation policy to require six black players – of which three must be black African – to play for each team in domestic cricketing competitions.

Vernon Philander, readers of this blog may recall, was blamed for South Africa’s defeat despite his own impressive record, and the fact that Dale Steyn conceded the winning runs at the pivotal moment. Black players are damned if they do and damned if don’t. Succeed and somebody else will largely be credited. Fail and they will be blamed disproportionately not only because of their performance but because of their blackness. White players like Steyn, on the other hand, are praised when they succeed and endured, tolerated and supported when they fail.

Manthorp should not face the music alone. He is just one of many white male cricket journalists in South Africa who continue to suffer from either a total inability to understand the significance of race in cricket or, more commonly, an open contempt for Cricket South Africa’s laudable transformation agenda.

This cacophony of white male voices, constantly claim it is selection “meddling” which “galls” players needs to be put to an end. Unlike Manthorp, De Villiers and the Proteas team appear to feel quite comfortable with Rabada’s brilliance and accept the transformation imperatives which manifest as quotas at a domestic level and guidelines at the international level. White journalists should not mistake their own lack of understanding, discomfort and racist attitudes for nefarious activity in selection and discomfort of players. On the contrary, it is white cricketing journalists who are causing harm to players and disrupting the cricket team’s unity by “meddling” for their own satisfaction, manufacturing of click bait and conservative political agendas.

As South Africa’s cricket players successfully competed in the Ghandi-Mandela series, student activists in South Africa were momentously brandishing the words of black consciousness and ideas of revolution to end outsourcing at universities and eliminate university fees. They are leaving Mandela’s friendly, reconciled rainbow nation behind. Some consider Mandela a “sell out”; they will not tolerate a slow pace of transformation in universities – or cricket teams.

In the same way as Nelson Mandela’s “reconciliatory” politics are being left far behind, so are Neil Manthorp and the white cadre of cricket journalists. They would do well to stop commenting on cricket as if it were capable of being apolitical and the South African team as if it were still the lily white outfit that emerged from isolation in Kolkata in 1991 to face India.

The country is changing quickly. So should they.

New doc film, ‘We Will Win Peace,’ skillfully debunks many myths behind conflict minerals in the Congo

Washington, DC: In front of the White House an activist carries a megaphone facing a crowd. He is visibly agitated, excited as he screams: “We will win peace… in the Congo!” The Congo, or Democratic Republic of the Congo as the country is called since the ousting of autocrat Mobutu in 1997, is the scene of the most persistent concatenation of armed conflicts since the early 1990s, allegedly due to greed for raw ore and rare earth.

“It is true that the minerals in our cell phones link us to crimes against humanity.”

The activist and his colleagues from Enough Project, an American NGO that tries to “end genocide,” claim to have found the logic of these wars: rebels who rape helpless women and girls in order to ransack the vast mineral riches of eastern Congo. Their claim, as powerful as it is simple, was instrumental in paving the way for a legal novelty: a US piece of law that immediately engages with the exploitation of so-called “conflict minerals” in Central Africa including tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold (aka 3TG). Unfortunately, though, the claim is untrue – and this is what a new feature-length documentary is about.

Seth Chase, Ben Radley and their team produced a meticulously researched 90 minute film on an issue that may simultaneously be the most salient in media terms, when it comes to Western perception of the Congo, and the most misunderstood in its essence and meanings. We Will Win Peace navigates through this cleavage in both virtual and actual life. In the footsteps of Mr. Ryan Gosling, Ms. Nicole Richie, and other celebrity activists, Chase traces the making of a narrative of eastern Congo’s recurrent conflict throughout a plethora of YouTube clips. Enough Project consistently denied to be interviewed and, Radley admits, “It was certainly frustrating and revealing to experience the difficulty of holding such actors accountable when their actions cause harm.” In turn, the filmmakers do something neither advocacy nor US congress leaders seemed to have considered necessary – a series of in-depth interviews and testimonies from Congolese miners, civil society activists, and analysts who describe the impact to date of Dodd-Frank Act, Section 1502. So, how has this bill come about and what relevance has it for eastern Congo?

“It creates dogma, it makes the world black and white… while the world isn’t black and white.”

Almost ten years ago, a group of American congressmen – some of them close to the current President under whose name the eventual “Obama’s Law” is known in the Congo – went forward with a law project to break the suspected link between rape, violence, and greedy warlords. Despite the massive support of NGOs such as Enough Project and others, the draft did not make it through the house, and the Conflict Minerals Act failed. However, Enough’s leader John Prendergast and Senators Brownback and Durban did not relinquish; and an emaciated version of the Conflict Minerals Act made its way into the miscellaneous provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, a vast law package aiming at improved business regulation and consumer protection in the slipstream of the American mortgage and financial crisis. As Prendergast confessed to the late Didier de Failly, a Belgian missionary and human rights defender, the crucial accompanying measures to make transparent mining viable were then dropped for the sake of simplicity and policy success.

We Will Win Peace goes beyond merely unveiling the political ramblings around Capitol Hill. In the movie, Séverine Autesserre, a professor at Columbia University and author of several books on peacebuilding and the Congo, explains how the simple story that led to Dodd-Frank 1502 not only obscures myriad other causes and consequences of conflict and violence in the Congo but actively contributes to a biased solution with counterproductive effects such as an increase of sexual violence since the law’s adoption. Jason Stearns, the Director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, stresses the futile Western perception of Congolese “rebels on dope and opium”, looting mines and raping: “This is not what the conflict is about today, and it was not what the conflict was about when it first started in 1996.” Stearns used to lead the UN Group of Experts, a panel mandated to track violations of sanctions and human rights in the realms of arms trade and 3TG mining. In more recent reports, this panel confirms that – at least indirectly – US legislation and the ensuing de facto embargo on Congolese minerals helped smuggling to skyrocket.

Dangerous narratives create unintended consequences.

However, Dodd-Frank 1502 does not forbid anyone to trade in these minerals, it simply imposes on US stock market listed companies (and their suppliers) to report on whether or not they have sourced from the Congo and its neighbors and give proof of their efforts to perform “due diligence” in their business activities. Does that tame civil war? Enter Thierry Sikumbili, a provincial head of Congo’s mining export authority: “Can you cite one country in this region that produces arms? I don’t think so. You ask us to trace our minerals, but I would have liked the West to trace its arms. It is a bit like wanting one thing and its opposite at the same time.”

The documentary follows several miners and petty traders across Congo’s Kivu region. Artisanal exploitation of these minerals is estimated to be the lifeblood for millions of Congolese. Jean de Dieu Habani, a tailor working in one of eastern Congo’s mining hubs, is one of them. He recalls how his business was affected by the de facto embargo and how all his peers have become jobless since “Obama’s Law” remote-controls the handling of Congolese mineral trade. Debora Safari, a restaurant owner from Lemera outlines how embargo-related price drops and the ensuing monopolisation of mining through the international tin industry’s iTSCi project has left her without income as miners cannot afford eating at her restaurant anymore. Apocalypse Fidèle, a miner-turned-rebel, reports how he has been denied digging for a living and ended up joining Raia Mutomboki, the “militia of angry citizens.” Radley explains how “high levels of poverty and unemployment provide fertile ground for armed group recruitment, so if you are overly zealous in your regulation of the sector to the point that it suffocates, you will be adding as much fuel to the fire by providing fresh recruits as you are dousing by depriving militia leaders of mineral revenue.” He adds, “focusing exclusively or overly on the mining sector is not a solution, but a distraction from deeper, more thorny issues.”

It is the strength of this formidable documentary to go beyond simple stories. By giving a voice to the Congolese, it mercilessly uncovers the failure in understanding the Congo and its conflicts, partly for the sake of policy, partly for mere neglect of the government, the civil society, and ultimately the miners in the Congo. In Chase’s own words, “we wanted to show the very real consequences of trying to apply a solution from the outside, we wanted to investigate a Congo that was connected to the rest of the world via an image of war and suffering. For me this is a film about broken systems, and people trying to survive within.” We Will Win Peace is a crucial, deep, and unavoidable account of what the “white saviour” syndrome and “badvocacy” can spark if the main objective is to respond to one’s own advocacy rather than to the people it is ultimately about.

Come to the Third Festejo Pachone in Bogotá

About five years ago, three friends and I gathered in an apartment in downtown Bogotá, Colombia, and decided to create an online radio station. We called it Radio Pachone. We didn’t know how to properly record sound, or how to produce a show, or how to edit audio, but we were sure that there were many things that we wanted to talk about and that they weren’t being mentioned in mainstream media.

So we looked online, we reached out for help, we asked people to loan us equipment and, since the very first show, new friends started to join us, excited to contribute their knowledge to make this thing even better. Our small radio-thing immediately started to become larger than we had ever thought.

We had planned to use it to talk about music, movies and artists from Colombia and Latin America (and beyond) that we enjoyed but had minimal (or no) coverage in local media. Yet, soon we were debating pressing cultural issues with committed and interesting artists and activists. We were doing beautiful soundscapes and sound experiments. We were broadcasting live concerts from our studios – which began as that apartment’s living room, and then moved to anywhere we could fit – and not only with Colombian bands, but also with people coming from all over the world.

We were meeting a lot of incredible, talented people, but many of them had trouble making a living from doing the things they loved (just like us, who worked in Radio Pachone for free). So we joined forces with our friends from Fundación Rema and we decided to create a festival where all of the interesting people we had met – and the others that we knew were out there – could meet each other, create networks, debate arts, culture and beyond and, hopefully, start new projects together.

We wanted it to be an open, inviting festival, where the attendants would be as important as the people showcasing their work, so we called it Festejo (or “Celebration”). After crowdfunding and navigating the always intricate bureaucracy of the city, we staged the first Festejo Pachone in June, 2013.

It was a blast. Bogotá’s unpredictable rain came and went with the violence of an insecure emperor’s army, but also about a thousand people came and went through the live discussions, the live music shows and the stands for independent artists, designers, publishers, record labels and so on that we had lined up that day.

After its success, my friends from Radio Pachone (when I had already moved away) staged the second Festejo Pachone in 2014, also in Bogotá. The city backed down from giving the permit to use a public park for it less than a day before it was scheduled to happen. Fortunately, there are now many friends around this project and, with their help, the Festejo II still happened that day, just in a different location.

This Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th, the third Festejo will happen in Bogotá, and if you happen to be around, you really should attend. It will be a great showcase of interesting things happening around the city, which are plentiful.

(When we started, I remember saying that we wanted to make people stop saying “there is nothing to do in Bogotá,” because there were always many things to attend, you just had to lose that mentality and venture out there. Now, the Festejo is part of the Capital de Festivales movement, a group of year-round festivals and events that give bogotanos a lot to do.)

At the third Festejo, there will be booths for independent creators, there will be discussions about the state of arts and culture in the city, the country, the region and the world, and there will be 12 concerts by bands coming from Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

Most of this will be free (except for things happening on Saturday after 9:00 Pm, when you would have to pay 15,000 pesos, or about 5 U.S. dollars) and most of it will happen right at the heart of Chapinero, our spiritual home in Bogotá.

Saturday will be at La Ventana de la T (Carrera 12A # 83-61). Sunday will be at Casa 9-69 (Carrera 9 # 69-07).

Check out the program here:


Check out some of the bands, too:

Here’s the very undescribable, but also very awesome Chilean duo Las Uevosh

Here’s the techno-pop-culture jams from Bogotá’s De Juepuchas

Here’s Argentinian Lucas Totino with his cool rock

Hope you can make it!

Incumbent Alassane Ouattara’s electoral sweep might be a good outcome for Côte d’Ivoire

The contrast between the October 2015 (two Sundays ago) and 2010 presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire could not be any starker. In 2010, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down, despite internationally-endorsed electoral results which indicated the victory of his rival, Alassane Ouattara. A four-month stand-off ensued, with both men declaring themselves president. In April 2011, pro-Ouattara forces swept into the country’s commercial capital, Abidjan, and captured Gbagbo (with some assistance from France and the UN), paving the way for Ouattara to assume the presidency. The post-electoral fighting resulted in about 3,000 deaths and a million displaced people. A few months later, Laurent Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to account for his role in the post-electoral violence. Against this backdrop, the 2015 election was laudable for its absence of violence. There were virtually no serious incidents reported anywhere in the country. The election was peaceful, deemed free and fair by election observers and the outcome — Ouattara’s resounding victory with 83,66% of the vote in the first round — was accepted by his rivals.

Ouattara’s margin of victory and the distribution of his support also mark a clear difference with the 2010 election. The 2010 poll produced very strong regional electoral cleavages, with Ouattara gaining the vast majority of his votes in the (largely Muslim) North and Gbagbo drawing his support from the (largely Christian) South. These patterns clearly replicated the division between the two sides in the country’s recent civil war.  It is all the more striking then that in 2015 Ouattara received the majority of the vote in all but 2 of the country’s 30-plus regions. While voters’ area of residence and their religion were very strong predictors of vote choice in 2010, they no longer played such a role in the most recent election.

Yet, Ouattara’s overwhelming victory throughout the country should not be seen as synonymous with a complete reconciliation between the previously hostile parts of the country. Some tension, antipathy and resentment of perceived “victor’s justice” are still palpable in the South. Ouattara’s forces were never held to account for their role in the post-electoral violence, a role recently criticized by the Human Rights Watch. Rather, many Ivorians probably concluded that Ouattara’s victory was inevitable in the absence of any viable opposition to him. Gbagbo’s Popular Ivorian Front lost much of its weight since Gbagbo’s downfall, with the successor, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, garnering only 9.3% of the vote. Indeed, turnout in former Gbagbo strongholds in the South was lower than in the North, indicating that many of Ouattara’s opponents decided to stay home, rather than actively support any of his rivals. At 54.1%, the electoral turnout for the country as a whole was still respectable, but considerably lower than the 80% recorded in 2010.

Remarkably, much of the Ivorian political class seemingly came to the conclusion that it was better to join the incumbent than to campaign against his. Ouattara’s striking electoral “knockout” owed much to the “bandwagoning” of some of his former adversaries. Chief among them was Henri Konan Bedié who endorsed Ouattara and actively campaigned for him. Bedié’s support of Ouattara appears all the more calculated because of Bedié’s history of questioning Ouattara’s nationality, with the infamous concept of Ivoirité, aimed to exclude many Northerners from participating in politics. This time around Bedié and his spokesmen told voters in the center of the country that voting for “Alassane [Ouattara] was the same thing as voting for him [Bedié].” Several other Ouattara’s rivals withdrew from the presidential campaign.

Still, despite the cynicism of the political class, Ouattara’s electoral sweep might be a good outcome for Côte d’Ivoire. His resounding victory throughout the country could help overcome to some extent the divisive legacy of the civil war. More importantly, an orderly election without violence is a good step towards recovery, helping the country heal and continue its economic growth. Yet, in the long term, Côte d’Ivoire would benefit from more robust and principled opposition.

Beasts of No Nation and the child soldier movie genre

Distributed by Netflix, American director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation is receiving rapturous praise from mainstream critics in Europe and the United States, nearly all of whom, in asserting the film’s singularity, seem distinctly unaware of the fact that it belongs to a rather robust, longstanding cinematic subgenre. Extending the category of the war film, this particular subgenre sees African child soldiers perpetrating acts of extreme violence within vaguely sketched sociopolitical conditions.

Like the novel on which it is based, Beasts takes place in an unnamed African country shaken by an unspecified and ongoing conflict. But while the novel is written in a variant of English that strongly suggests the influence of various Nigerian dialects, the film’s first act features characters speaking Twi, an Akan language widely used in Ghana. That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions. Indeed, mainstream critics are split on the subject of the film’s “real” setting: A. O. Scott sees Sierra Leone or Liberia, while David Edelstein insists it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. In any case, the film sets out to depict one possible process through which a mere boy might become a murderous soldier, strategically dispensing with Twi as soon as the boy, Agu (played by the remarkable Abraham Attah), takes to the forest to escape the troops responsible for the deaths of his father, brother, and friends. As if in a dream, the boy suddenly finds himself in thrall to a charismatic commandant (played by the great Idris Elba) who leads a squadron of child soldiers on an ambiguous quest to “reclaim” the country.

It is a testament to Elba’s talent and inventiveness that he rejects standard actorly approaches to the madness of military leaders, offering a surprisingly lethargic, drawling take on the brutal commandant. Far from fresh, however, is the film’s take on the subject of child soldiering in sub-Saharan Africa. At least two writers—Julie MacArthur on Shadow and Act and Zeba Blay on The Huffington Post—have drawn attention to such important antecedents of Beasts as Newton Aduaka’s Ezra (2007), Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), and Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (2012), films that, in hailing from various sites and sources of production, have helped to construct the child-soldier subgenre as a truly transnational affair.

That Fukunaga’s Beasts breaks no new narrative or thematic ground is scarcely a sin. But the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South. Fukunaga’s film was, as many a press release has made clear, filmed in Ghana. Less available, however, is the fact that Fukunaga shot retakes in Brazil, letting the lush landscape of that South American country stand in, however unconvincingly, for some of the environmental specificities of West Africa.

At the same time that Beasts is being positioned as “authentically” African in Western press accounts, the film’s authorized distribution pattern has effectively ignored, even actively excluded, African contexts of reception. The problem is partly structural: Netflix reportedly paid roughly $12 million for the film’s worldwide distribution rights, but the term “worldwide” refers, in this instance, only to locations where Netflix may be accessed (and where, for that matter, high-bandwidth streaming is possible in the first place). Netflix is inaccessible in Ghana, where Beasts was shot, as well as throughout West Africa. Even if it were accessible, however, local conditions of access to the Internet are such that it would be rather frustrating (to say the least) to attempt to stream bandwidth-heavy content like Fukunaga’s 137-minute film. Beasts is thus multiply distanced from the West Africa in which it was made and in whose name it claims to speak.

Significantly, West Africa is being written out of new narratives of film distribution that tout Internet access in general and Netflix penetration in particular, rendering the region a veritable blank space even as its screen depiction is central to “revolutionary” modes of dissemination. The first narrative fiction film to be released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, the “history-making,” “epoch-defining” Beasts is presently unavailable via either platform in the very places where it was shot—in the very region that it purports to depict. Such harsh irony is painfully familiar, with deep roots in global capitalism and an obvious analog in the sort of “parachute journalism” that produces reports on the global South for the exclusive edification (and delectation) of consumers in the global North.

Not only have such African filmmakers as Aduaka, Fanta Régina Nacro, Dickson Iroegbu, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, Tade Ogidan, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (among many others) tackled the topic of youth violence, rendering Fukunaga’s Beasts redundant at best, but some of the industrial contexts in which these directors have worked are witnessing renewed efforts to reclaim traditional spaces of exhibition for African films. Consider, for instance, the New Nollywood Cinema, a movement to produce features on celluloid and high-definition digital video for distribution to upscale multiplexes around the world. If Beasts can’t be legally streamed in a Netflix-free West Africa, then it should at least be screened in such Ghanaian and Nigerian venues as Silverbird, Ozone, and Genesis-Deluxe.

Probably by design, Beasts of No Nation has found itself at the center of debates about movie-going in the digital age, with four of the biggest theater chains in the United States boycotting the film on the basis of its immediate (rather than delayed) availability on Netflix. Partly in response to this boycott, Netflix has modified its initial narrative of abundant availability, suggesting that, in collaboration with the fledgling distribution company Bleecker Street, it is now restricting the theatrical exhibition of Beasts to a few art house cinemas in London, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, strictly to qualify the film for Oscar nominations.

While much has been made of the paltry box-office returns on Beasts, with some pundits intimating that “African” subjects are never really salable, no one in Hollywood seems willing to concede the existence, let alone the viability, of African markets for theatrically distributed feature films. Even if Silverbird, Ozone, and Genesis-Deluxe are unlikely to dramatically boost the film’s worldwide grosses, it is worth questioning the ethics of a distribution policy that, with a joint focus on Oscars and the Netflix “brand,” completely excludes Beasts of No Nation from legal consumption in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Such a lacuna powerfully symbolizes the opportunism of a film that must be pirated in order to be seen in its primary site of production—and that, in its end credits, thanks Nigerian actor-director Kunle Afolayan by misspelling his name.

Beasts of No Nation represents the latest reminder that Western constructions of “Africa” are often deployed for the sake of brand differentiation—as ways of separating the “brave” from the staid, the “bold” from the boring. Fukunaga, like Sidney Pollack with 1985’s Out of Africa, has “heroically” made his “African” film, and executives at Netflix are being similarly lionized for agreeing to distribute it. If his experience in Ghana sets Fukunaga apart from filmmakers who confine themselves to Hollywood soundstages, then it also separates Netflix from its competitors in the video-on-demand market, none of which have subsidized “African” projects.

Perhaps unintentionally, the opening shot of Beasts concretizes the very assumption that appears to be underwriting the lack of legal availability of the film in West Africa—namely, that the region is without screens on which to legitimately project Western cultural products. A discarded SANYO television set, its glass screen missing, frames our first glimpse of Fukunaga’s Africa: an impromptu football match monitored by boys who later try to sell the television set (what, with an entrepreneurial panache, they label “an imagination TV”) to a Nigerian soldier. “The Nigerians are keeping the peace,” explains Agu in voice-over. “They are always buying things, so they are easy to be selling to.” (Netflix and Bleecker Street, in doing nothing to ensure the film’s legal availability in media-literate Lagos, apparently didn’t heed Agu’s advice.) 

At first, Beasts is in potentially productive conversation with the syncretism of much of African popular culture, featuring a male character (Agu’s older brother) whose bedroom walls are covered with images of Black Americans (from Michael Jackson to Snoop Dogg), as well as a media-rich environment in which Telemundo programs compete for attention with Perry Henzell’s Jamaican film No Place Like Home. When several wandering boys encounter a disgruntled “witch woman” who, accusing them of theft, promises that their futures will be dark, the film is seemingly drawing on one of the richest Nollywood traditions, mixing juju and social realism. Such rewarding (and perhaps accidental) references to West African representational traditions disappear after only a few minutes, however—never to return. Beasts of No Nation is a purportedly African story made in a conspicuously American style, with a brief average shot length, slow-motion interludes, and the ostentatious shakiness of handheld camerawork (which plainly replicates the iconography of Western “eyewitness” reporting).

Beasts is, like Blood Diamond (2006) and The Last King of Scotland (2006) before it, the type of film that seemingly satisfies so many requirements of the Western imagination, including through the off-screen mobilization of Fukunaga’s personal, adventurist narrative. The experience of making Beasts gave the director a chance to boast about having contracted malaria on the African continent, presumably after foolishly refusing the antimalarial pills that must have been abundantly available to him. In published interviews (such as one with Rolling Stone, tellingly titled “How ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Almost Killed Cary Fukunaga”), the filmmaker suggests that his bout with malaria provided an unexpected creative boost—a chance to finally sit still and tweak his “African” screenplay. That there are hundreds of millions of global malaria sufferers for whom the disease is decidedly not a source of pride is apparently lost on Fukunaga, who, with Netflix’s help, is ensuring that Beasts of No Nation is intelligible only as a familiar Western fantasy.

What is the university for?

In the wake #FeesMustFall protests which electrified South Africa one week ago, much has been made about the way in which universities have been bent to the needs of international capital and its neo-liberal demands. Students and workers rightly condemn the expense, outsourcing and indebtedness that make a mockery of the university’s ‘ideals’ of thoughtfulness, critique and freedom. This should be so. Yet we should not be tempted to idealize the university ‘as it was’ – especially in a country like South Africa, where universities have meant oppression, segregation, epistemological violence and apartheid, as much as (or even more than) they have meant ‘knowledge.’

Instead, unlike in the global north, in South Africa the possibility exists to admit to two ways we hear the parsing “for” in “what is the university for.” On the one hand, we hear a question about what the university is supposed to be doing now, and on the other, we hear a question about the university’s standpoint.  With the emergence of a new scripting of the university in the image of capital and its drive to accumulation, the question of what the university stands for seems to take precedence over the question of what the university is to be doing now. The demand is not to reverse the orders of these questions but to realize that in South Africa today, the opportunity exists to study both senses of hearing the phrase “what is the university for”, in their very simultaneity, and at whatever speed. In such simultaneity the university may open itself to a future in which it more searchingly requires its students, faculty and workers to think ahead by asking what we should be desiring at the institutional site of the university.

We would be remiss if we did not think of the university as more than an institution that preserves the best of what we have learned for the greater public good. The university is, and must be uncompromisingly intellectual in its desire, commitment and pursuits of these two simple, albeit contested ends. An emphasis on what the university ‘was’ is conservative; we need to be thoughtful. The university is perhaps to be approached less as a question of putting knowledge in the service of the public, than as a space for inventing the unprecedented. .

As much as universities are thought to advance knowledge, its reigning ideas have shifted considerably over the centuries. If at one moment the reigning idea of the university was that of reason, it later emerged as an institution grounded in the concept of culture. Today it is being appropriated to the logic of the market and a prospective future of growing indebtedness. Taken together, this latest installment of the idea of the university that appears to be proliferating globally is creating a deep sense of anxiety, alienation, and a feeling of proletarianization. The university is becoming a hyper-industrialized information machine that is beginning to reveal itself as an information bomb.

In contrast to the hyper-industrialized information machine, the university’s uncompromising intellectual sense historically derives primarily from the idealism that brought it into being, and in the second, in its overwhelming, but not exclusive location in the changed circumstances of the Second World War. Such idealism contended with the hegemonic formations of state, capital and the public sphere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Africa, the birth of the university accompanied the wave of nationalist independence movements that swept through the continent in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the promise of development underwriting its public commitments. And in South Africa specifically, the university was tied more fundamentally to the determinations, intensification and demands of a racializing state and capitalist formation. The distortion in the original idealism of the university has been overtaken by the long twentieth-century in which the university became entangled in an even longer process of dehumanization. It has also been overtaken by a rapid expansion of technological objects through which research and teaching are now extensively mediated, resulting in, among other manias, the fetish of outcomes and measured results.

Bound at once to a contract with the state and simultaneously to a public sphere, the university has had to reinvent its object of study, abiding by duration and commitments to the formation of students in respect of its reigning ideas. It is in the interstice of these seemingly opposing social demands that the inventiveness of the university as an institution is most discernable. Rather than being given to the dominant interests of the day, whether state, capital or public, the university ought by virtue of its idealism to be true to its commitment to name the question that defines the present in relation to which it sets to work, especially when that question of the present may not appear obvious to society at large. Yet, in naming this question the university is ethically required to make clear that it does not stand above society.

Today there is growing concern that the university has lost sight of its reigning idea – the demands of radical critique and timeliness – and all the contests that ensue from claims made on that idea. In the process its sense of inventiveness has been threatened by an encroaching sense of the de-schooling of society, instrumental reason and the effects of the changes in the technological resources of society that have altered the span of attention, retentional abilities, memory and recall, and at times, the very desire to think and reason. Scholars around the world bemoan the extent of plagiarism and lack of attention on the part of their students; features that they suggest have much to do with the changes wrought by the growth and expansion of new technological resources. What binds the university as a coherent system is now threatened by the waning of attention and the changes in processes of retention and memory. In these times, retention has been consigned to digital recording devices. Students and faculty are now compelled to labor under the illusion that the more that we store and the more we have stored, the more we presumably know.

Here again we can learn from our past. The movement that unfolded in the 1980s at SA universities was a statement of force against the cynical reason of apartheid, yes, but it also contained an element of the creative act, the process of inventing the unprecedented, which underwrote every effort at turning apartheid’s rationality on its head. It is a version of the creative act that is now threatened by the onset of memory loss. In its place seemingly more vacuous words have come to take the place of formidable concepts in formation. Words such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘excellence’ now replace more thoughtful and thought-provoking notions of “epistemological access”. Where the concept of “epistemological access” generated extensive curricula debate in the 1980s, efficiency and excellence serve as buzzwords with little or no epistemic grounding. And newer scripts of creativity are producing fantasies that may yet prove to be the nightmare for students in the future. The speculative logic of the student as an entrepreneur of the self lends itself to the promise of consumption and fulfillment, but at the same time, drags students into a state of limbo and mere functionality. Against this slide into mindless creativity, an older notion of the creative act, like the notion of a work of art that resists death, must surely be a possible concept upon which to constitute a future university. This is a work of art that calls on a people that does not exist yet. It is the idea of the university that creates the space for the invention of the unprecedented.

There has never been a more hazardous time to forget to ask “what is the university for?” The university’s future resides in cutting into the future and into established knowledge. All the while, we should hear in the echoes of the past, the demand to keep desire alive, to remain awake, and to constitute a community that is open to the future.

In South Africa, where the university under apartheid was placed in the service of a cynical state rationality that divided society along race, class and gender lines, the question of our time now demands that we ask how we reinvent the idea of the university. We need to think once again about approaches to technology, the state and the public sphere – and how each gives a view on the desire that now remains repressed in our respective knowledge projects. We need to recuperate the sense of attention and play, of the creative act as opposed to the banality of neoliberal creativity, that will prove indispensable for naming our present and finding our way out of those predicaments that threaten to undermine the best of our knowledge upon which the future of our students, faculty, its workers and that of the institution of the university rests.

Africa is a Radio: Season 2, Episode 6

Africa is a Radio show for October 2015. Sean and Elliot are on a break from the show, so Boima fills in with some new tunes from around the African Diaspora, with special shout outs to the South African student protesters, and young Afrobeats artists in the UK.


VVIP – Skolom feat. Sena Dagadu
Aewon Wolf – Sukumani 2.0 feat. Mashayabhuqe KaMamba
Pablo Vittar – Open Bar
Maffalda – Fuck Your Feelings
Ifé – 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)
Leka el Poeta & Master Boy – Ella Queire Hmm Hmm Hmm
Atumpan – African Wine
Olami Still – Call on me
J Hus – Dem Boy Paigon
Mazi Chukz – SOS feat. Baseman & Ezi Emela
Khuli Chana & Patoranking – No Lie
Ace Harris – Drop feat. R. City, Lloyd Musa, and Yung Muse
DJ Flex and DJ Dotorado – Bando Remix
Aero Manyelo – DNA Test
Big Space – Long Ride
Olatunji – Ola

Weekend Music Break No.87

Weekend is here so that means it’s time for another music break! If there’s any theme this weekend, it is artists who are looking back into the past to tap into some kind of inherited tradition or cultural roots… and then one just for fun. Enjoy!

We covered Gabacho Maroconnection earlier this month in our Liner Notes series — here they perform their song “Allah Moulena”; We also ran an interview with Somalia via Seattle rappers Malitia Malimob — this song samples traditional Somali sounds; A throwback tune from Youssoupha (who’s 2015 album NGRTD is pretty great) — a dedication to his father the great Tabu Ley Rochereau; Fally Ipupa taps into some traditional rural Congolese sounds, updating them with a 2015 Kinshasa flair; D Banj and Akon also bring some new ancient rhythms to the club… it would be really great to hear this kind of rhythm on the dance floors of mainstream clubs in New York or Las Vegas… recent Instagrams by super producer Swizz Beatz point to the possibility of that reality not being too far away; Blsa Kdei taps into a classic Highlife sound, with the lilting guitar on “Mansa”; Featurist gets particularly traditional with his fashion style and moves in this video for “BABAAH” (the dance of grandfather!); Ghanian SK Kakraba is a master of the Gyil — living in Los Angeles he recently released a record on the Awesome Tapes from Africa label; Malian Kora player Abou Diarra plays a live session accompanied by acoustic guitar; and finally, after seeing great success in the UK for his Afropop hit “The Thing“, Atumpan goes dancehall and turns in a video for “African Wine” shot at this year’s Nottinghill Carnival in London.