Africa is a Country

Hipsters Don’ t Dance’s Top 10 African/Caribbean Collaborations of 2014

2014 was a year when our musical worlds began to collide and we saw an increase in African artists working with artists from the Caribbean. This is a really big development as some DJs have seen similarities between the musical styles for some time, now artists are jumping on board and helping the sound to develop and grow. Although we still can’t figure out the government endorsed cultural link between Trinidad and Nigeria (Calabar in particular.) We have seen a sudden explosion of these 2 cultures colliding, with the most successful collaboration being Timaya and Machel Montano’s Shake Yuh Bum Bum. Similar artists teaming up together created something magical and we hope that they do it again. M.I. featured Jamiaca’s Beenie Man on his LP and Samini had Popcaan on a single as well. Busy Signal lead the way merging dancehall and afropop with his versions of P Square’s Personally and Mafikizolo’s Khona. We are glad that these artists are working together, not only does it broaden their appeal but selfishly it provides us with more ammunition for the clubs! Here are our top picks for 2014:

Timaya feat Machel Montano – Shake Yuh Bum Bum (Official Soca Remix)

P-Square feat Sizwe – Alingo (Victorious Remix)

2face Idibia feat Machel Montano – Go

M.I feat Emmy Ace and Beenie Man – Wheelbarrow

Samini feat Popcaan – Violate

Ding Dong – Ginja

Kalado – Personally

Busy Signal – Professionally

Busy Signal – Bou-Yah (Vampire Teeth)

Fuse O.D.G. feat Sean Paul – Dangerous Love

Havana and Washington: On African Time?

Was it ever in doubt that the first African American president of the United States would wish to crown his legacy by normalizing relations with the most African island in the Americas? Few among us Cuba-watchers doubted that, should Barack Obama secure a second term, it would only be a matter of time before moves to repair the rift between Havana and Washington began in earnest. Blood-ties aside, US business interests have watched in frustration as economic rivals such as China made increasing inroads into the Cuban economy. But given the prime position that Africa has held in Cuba’s foreign policy ever since Che Guevara’s first visits to newly-independent countries in 1959 and 1965, what does the latest thaw in diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington mean for the continent?

It all depends on how extensive and far-reaching the changes become. For instance, should the economic embargo or Helms-Burton Act be dismantled, this would open the way for countries such as South Africa, which have long provided economic assistance to Cuba under the umbrella of development, to pursue more direct trade and investment agreements. And since South Africa and, old Cuban ally, Angola are joined in a friendly economic and cultural rivalry, it surely wouldn’t be long before the MPLA would appeal to the ties of history to lay claim to most-favoured nation status.

As for whether the countless urban and rural communities in Africa would continue to benefit from the thousands of Cuban doctors providing sorely needed medical services, much depends on the rival opportunities that might be created. Under current conditions, there are important perks and benefits that accrue to Cuban healthcare workers who opt to take up service posts overseas. At the same time, there have been accusations that medical internationalism has undermined the formally high standards of healthcare provision at home, as highly trained personnel seek out the greater compensation attached to, say, staffing a clinic in Luanda or fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. Prior to the round of salary increases for medical personnel in 2014, the average salary for doctors working domestically was $30, compared to the $200 to $1000 earned by their counterparts stationed outside the country. However, an increase in economic opportunities on the island could change all of that, if increasing investment were to lead to higher salaries and a wider range of opportunities linked, for instance, to the almost certain development of the medical tourism industry in Cuba.

castro and malcolm

Any initial shortfall in the number of internationalist doctors, on the other hand, could eventually be remedied so long as Cuba continued, or even ramped up, its medical training programme for overseas students. This is perhaps the most important aspect of Cuba’s medical diplomacy, and the one that African nations should be most motivated to safeguard.

For the African diaspora, especially African Americans, the thaw in relations could see a rekindling and even a strengthening of the pre-Cold War relationship that Lisa Brock and Digna Casteñada Fuertes portrayed in their 1998 book Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban Revolution. And, at the very least, Afro-Cubans could hope for easy access to affordable beauty products tailored to their needs, and bid farewell to the demeaning practice of begging for Dark and Lovely and so on from friends and relatives living abroad.

Of course, courting the support of black Americans was an important ideological strategy in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. It backfired with some (Eldridge Cleaver wasn’t won round, to put it mildly); but Assata Shakur, the first woman on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, has been quietly living as a political exile on the island for the past thirty years. It is hard to imagine that any meaningful process of repairing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in these post-911 times could proceed without Shakur’s extradition. But what would the handing over by Havana of this famous ‘cause celebre’ of Black Nationalism to the U.S. authorities mean for the Obama legacy? There is always a heavy price to pay for peace. The question that all of us need to ask ourselves, in the wake of Ferguson, is whether this sixty-seven year old black woman, wanted for murder, is likely to get a fair hearing.

In his announcement of the major shift in Washington’s policy for Cuba, Obama referred to the “unique relationship, at once family and foe,” and this is a dynamic that African nations, with their colonial histories and concomitant legacies, know only too well. In that regard, Havana and Washington are finally operating on African time.


Historian Terence Ranger is no more

Zimbabwean historian Terence Ranger (1929-2015) is no more. Ranger was central to the historiography of Rhodesian colonialism and a keen observer of post-independent Zimbabwe. In the image above, taken in 1962, Ranger is on the left. At the time he was being deported from Rhodesia. In middle Joshua Nkomo, then leader of the liberation movement ZAPU, and second from the right is Robert Mugabe, who broke away from ZAPU shortly after (1963) to form ZANU. We’re putting together some tributes on Ranger. Watch this space. Meanwhile, browse some of his wide bibliography and this excellent interview with Ranger.

“You Want to Study Domestic Workers? Disgusting!!!!”

Several months ago I was at a gathering with some friends I had not seen for a long time, when one of them asked me about my research. In a few words I explained to them that I wanted to study the situation of women who work in domestic service in Latin America. Two of them reacted with astonishment: “You want to study domestic workers? Disgusting!!!!” I was shocked and did not respond the way I should have.

I interpreted my friends’ disgusted reaction in two ways. The first is that they were referring to me and to my interests, which have become increasingly different from theirs. This first interpretation, in addition to being offensive, seems unlikely. The second is that they felt disgusted by the idea of doing research on the situation of these women. After giving it a lot of thought and discussing it, I consider this is the most probable interpretation.

I confess that the “class monster” constantly haunts my thoughts. It is not easy to completely eliminate it after living for more than twenty-five years in such an unequal country as Colombia. Yet, I have proudly come to the realization, that I could have been a domestic worker in my country. That having grown up in an economically privileged home happened by chance. That I could have been born a few miles to the left or right, under completely different circumstances. I do not want to diminish the achievements of those around me, but when I hear them declare, “I have worked for everything I have,” I breathe deeply and try to remind them that having attended a private and mostly bilingual school, having a steady job where they receive a salary to buy a car and travel around the world, and having been born into a family with social contacts and money, are privileges few people have been afforded.

When my friends consider that research focused on the situation of domestic workers is disgusting, I ask myself whether they remember that it was these women who allowed their parents to work, because their parents had trustworthy caregivers at home whom they could trust to take care of them and clean the house. Whether they remember that these women had to wake up early every day to clean their employers’ houses, often leaving their own kids and home behind. Whether they ever had to clean a toilet or keep their house clean and if they are able to acknowledge the time and effort this work consumes. Whether they understand that most of the domestic workers are women just like they are, and that we are all human. As human beings, I believe we are equal. Life has taught me that the privilege I grew up with makes me more responsible, because perhaps I have more power than other people to try to improve society.

The activism that runs through my veins has forced me think about how I can help transform a social sector deeply grounded in ideas that can be traced back to the Colonial era, which suggest people are less human because of their sex, the color of their skin, or the amount of money they have. When I asked people that share my concerns, many of them told me that I should question why I still have these girls as friends. That actually changing the ideas in their heads was very difficult because we were raised thinking that some people were inferior. That broader-minded people should be my target. I do not agree with this. Ten years ago when I left my hometown to study in Bogotá, the capital, I was close-minded. I believed that I alone was responsible for all my achievements, feminism seemed a movement of crazy women who hated men, I did not believe in same-sex marriage or adoption by same-sex parents, and I completely misunderstood women’s decisions to have an abortion. But, ten years ago I started meeting people that convinced me with arguments, and if they were able to open my mind, why can’t I plant doubt in others?

I still question today whether it was fine for me to stay quiet instead of responding to my friends immediately. Maybe I had to process it and write this post. I still have several doubts: why can’t they connect to people like domestic workers who are so important in their lives? How can there be such a degree of dehumanization as to refer to another person with disgust? How can we transform rigid social structures considering that these are educated people still tied to class ideas that can be traced back to the Colony?

*The image from this post was originally published as the centerfold of Revista Hola in 2011, sparking a mild and short debate about race and class in Colombia.

**This post was originally published in Abriendo el Clóset.

Some observations on race and security in South Africa

When it rains the whole area goes tick-tick as drops fall on the electric fences. Visitors are greeted with a sign saying ”Warning criminals you are entering a Blue Zone 24 hours dedicated patrols in operation”; we are in the thriving white ghetto Umhlanga outside Durban, South Africa. It is my first visit to South Africa and it is a very different and to some extent disturbing experience compared to my previous stays in West and East Africa. It is altogether a different zone – a blue zone. Indeed the airport works smoother than any in Sweden. Roads in Kwazulu-Natal are great. Traffic is flowing; traffic police monitoring our moves. Huge farms are impressive and scenery fantastic. People are all nice and talkative. And we all talk security. Maybe it is unfair, maybe we make them do so, but with my landlords, with taxi drivers and people in the street we always end up talking security. Our interpreters are white, black and Indian. Security is central to our discussions.

We walk the short distance from the Umhlanga village. There is almost always a security vehicle in the street corner, there is also a security guy on a bicycle, and every house has got at least one sign telling us which private security company they use. They have Blue security for the area and then individually organized security for each house – the monthly fee for security is said to roughly equal an average state pension. All have electric fences, even a taxi-driver we talk to admits having an electric fence on the walls around his house in the rather low class area he resides in. In Umhlanga it is a must and walls are tall and impersonal, carving out a no-go street in between with unpleasant lights at night. Our house feels safe despite the panic button next to the bed, but the strict security focus signals dangers out there. It is scary to imagine you being attacked in the street because if you are: there are no people out at night and no place to run. Would anyone open their electric gate for you if you are in need of temporary security? I doubt.

But how dangerous is it really? We try to investigate. Talking to taxi drivers is interesting. A black South African says that he would never walk around in downtown Durban late at night because of the immanent dangers (1). He states that people are frequently robbed daytime or pickpocketed, but investigating further he has only once in his entire life been pickpocketed and never robbed. Nothing has been stolen from his home in one of the residential townships. An Indian taxi driver complains about the increased insecurity in the city, but he has never been robbed during the twenty years (!) he has run the taxi. Once his house was burglarized and the thief stole his wallet, phone and cigarettes – nothing more. His response was to raise the wall half a meter. The taxi agency he works for runs throughout the night, and although most of the company’s drivers are Indians, the nighttime drivers are black, actually Nigerians: “they are much smarter at night”. When we ask him if they are robbed, he simply says no (2).

On the other hand in the game of blame-throwing much negative is given to the Nigerians: they are amongst other the ones controlling the drugs trade in the Point area of Durban. When it comes to distrust it is all about categories of difference and appears and almost always in racialized terms. Indians don’t trust the black South Africans, the white blames the black, but also the Indians, the black community distrust the whites. The only thing they appear to have in common is that they all distrust the Nigerians. Is that the basis to build new South African security upon?

I know that changes do not happen overnight. I know that South Africa’s tragically racialized past is a hard nut to crack, I know we have only seen a snapshot of the country, but it still saddens me to see that steps made are baby steps and that trust across racial categories is so extremely low. I had hoped to see some more common ground beyond the grand scheme of joint distrust towards Nigerians. But maybe we ourselves need to step out of the blue zone? After all, house owners in Uhmlanga are white, their domestic workers are black. The restaurants in the village are filled with white customers served by black waiters. Late at night the taxi drivers are Nigerian and we are walking down the empty street giving thumbs up to the only person out there: the guard in the Blue patrol car.

* * *

(1) In this text I use the grossly simplified race and national labels in the same way as they are used locally.

(2) I am neither diminishing incidents of crime in Durban nor arguing that people have no reasons to protect themselves. South Africa has a very high level of crime and I have also come across gruesome stories of violent crime. However in this text I am more interested in how insecurity cements racial categories. South Africa has roughly 16.000 homicides a year equaling about 30 per 100.000 inhabitants, roughly the same as Bahamas but well above Russia 10, US 5 and Sweden 1. Honduras with 90 homicides per 100.000 inhabitants is worst struck according to World Bank statistics.

* This post first appeared on Mats Utas’s personal blog.

Steven George Gerrard: A Man Apart

Our six year old son, Ezra, only pretends to watch Liverpool games with me. It is his way of indulging his father – or, more precisely, his father’s lifelong love for Liverpool Football Club (FC). For ten minutes, anyway, Ezra will sit next to me and make vague noises; for his troubles, Ezra already has an impressive array of number 8 Liverpool FC shirts. However, when it comes to Stevie Gerrard, Ezra knows that something of consequence is at stake. At the very least, this is what he has picked up from me. It is a source of tremendous pride to me, then, that when I say “Stevie,” Ezra has, since he was 3, been able to complete the trinity of proper nouns. “George Gerrard,” Ezra intones, looking earnestly for Stevie on the pitch, although Ezra’s favorite number is 10. “Steven George Gerrard,” my son knows what he means.

And this is what makes the announcement of his impending departure, most probably to the LA Galaxy of the US’s Major League Soccer the source of such profound difficulty for me. I must, of course, but I cannot, I (absolutely) will not, conceive of a Liverpool FC team without Stevie. It is possible to rationalize his decision to leave. The time is probably right; better for him to leave now than cut a lonely figure on the bench; the greats never do well on the sidelines, they do not like witnessing their own passing. It would be difficult, but not unbearable (given his love for Liverpool), for Stevie to watch the young bucks, Phil Coutinho (22; he wears Ezra’s favorite shirt), Raheem Sterling (20), Adam Lallana (admittedly, at 26 not young in the same way as Coutinho and Sterling, but Stevie is at least a generation Lallana’s senior) make the team in their image. Lazar Markovič (20), will form the final member of this new quartet of skill players led upfront by Daniel Sturridge (when he returns from injury) and marshaled in midfield by Jordan Henderson.

I have dubbed Coutinho, Sterling and Lallana, physically small players all, the “Little Three,” and I expect a few special things from them, technically gifted as they all are. And Marko is showing signs of coming into his own. Liverpool’s future is entrusted to these players. Add to them big Emre Can (pronounced “John”), who has been brave enough to take Scouser legend Jamie Carragher’s number 23, so I don’t think the Turkish German lad will wilt. And Martin Škrtel, as has for these many seasons, will soldier on is his own indomitable way; and Alberto Morreno may turn out to be a player yet. And . . . there may be others.

Still, Liverpool sans Stevie . . . how can that even be?

He is his own man

Stevie Gerrard is that rarest of contradictions. Steven George Gerrard: the local footballer who is entirely of his hometown team is the self-same footballer who stands apart, not only from that team but from his teammates, from everyone, it seems. He stands, in all the ways that matter, by himself, intensely by himself. He is the captain who leads through ferocious example, who gives his all but remains determinedly beyond our affective grasp. Stevie rarely yells, but he has lead Liverpool in a singular fashion since 2003, when he replaced Sami Hyppia. Stevie is always urging his team on, relying almost exclusively on his driving play, his biting tackles and, most imposingly, with that closed-face, set, visage. It is all in his eyes. Stevie Gerrard does not look at you or even through you: he is looking, it always seems to me, at something that is only visible to him. He is not implacable, he is simply unto himself. He shuts out the world with his eyes.

So much so that one can almost say that Steven Gerrard leads with his illegible face. Stevie’s brow is furrowed, his jaw, flecked with a few day or so’s worth of stubble for every match, is clenched, his eyes are narrowed and they look . . . well, the only message that can be detected is that you can’t possible imagine his thoughts. Stevie’s instructions are barked in clipped, precise phrases. It is a face that brooks no dissent. No one argues with a man who goes about his business with such an intimidating look of self-sufficiency. In the face of that, one can either wilt – as many have done (Gennaro Gattuso in that Champions League final in 2005, just for starters) – or look on in wonder, amazement, puzzlement and, yes, awe.

Stevie is entirely capable of letting his charges know when he is unhappy. Mainly, however, he allows no room, between those fiercely narrowed eyes and those rapid hand gestures (urging a teammate to take up his position this very instant), for disagreement. Steven George Gerrard does not ooze presence. He is presence, distilled to its most intense elements. His eyes, I have written elsewhere, are hooded. Stevie’s eyes are the visors through which he filters the world; his eyes are hooded against the world in a very telling way. Gerrard can face the world, answer its questions directly, but all the while he allows you no point of entry. His is fiercely unto himself; you feel his fierceness, even from the distance of the TV camera, but you can neither (ever) fully – which is to say, properly – comprehend it or account for it. It is not, I suspect, that he is impervious to the world. It is something altogether more than that: he has acquired that unique capacity to exclude the world on his terms, and his terms alone. The power of his eyes is that he looks you in the eye while forming the most impenetrable barrier against access. Stevie Gerrard never lets you in.

Stevie Gerrard is, before all else, together with everything else (Liverpool captain, England captain; one of the greatest players of his generation, arguably the second greatest Liverpool player of all time – Kenny Dalglish is the consensus number 1; and so on and so forth), his own man. He knows himself. Because of his supreme self-knowledge, he will allow you to know only what is appropriate. He gives everything. He asks, as Liverpool FC captain, nothing. And by “nothing” I mean that he expects those who wear our colors to match his commitment, even if his level of performance is beyond them. Stevie understands his job as bringing honor to the shirt he wears – to the shirt they are honored to wear. And what a job he has done these past 25 years.

There is something at once tragic and heroic about his intense self-remove. He has borne upon his shoulders the weight of Liverpool’s expectation and he has borne them with a singular determination. If history had appointed him, local lad from Huyton, a Scouser from his hair parting to the soles of his feet, to the task, he would accept it in the name of those in the stands and those who, before him, achieved for Liverpool. (His hair always, it seems, neatly clipped, never moves during his many exertions on the pitch.) It is only defeat, and then only for an instant, that the full weight of that burden is visible. Watch his eyes then, and you catch a glimpse of the deepest, most haunting sadness. It is not a look on which you wish to linger; nor do you wish to retain that image for too long, if at all. It is the look of a man shaken to his very core – you can, even from a distance, through the visor, sense the desolation and despair that is churning there.

Against Chelsea last April, that famous “Gerrard slip,” his shoulders slumped and, as is his wont, he looked, right hand running from his eyes to his chin, distraught. He looked, in that characteristic Gerrard pose, down, toward the ground; not to find answers on the Anfield turf, but as if he could have the briefest conversation with himself, in private, before the whole world that he had just shut out. In looking down, Stevie did not have to look at us – he kept himself, just for that moment, to himself. Truth is, moments of self-engagement such as these are as true of Gerrard in victory as they are in defeat. In the midst of the turbulence that was the 2005 Champions League final triumph, Stevie was alone – surrounded by but cut off (his act) from the tens of thousands who were cheering right before him, some of them his teammates right next to him.

Against Chelsea, he looked down, I would suggest, because that would allow him to face himself in his preferred Socratic mode. Socrates, we recall, argues that we are never alone, we are always in our own company. What powerfully alone company Stevie Gerrard keeps. There, on the ground, in his own reflection, he found what he was looking for: his own intense sense of responsibility. He had done this. His slip had allowed Demba Ba to score the goal. It was he, Stevie Gerrard, who had crushed Scouser dreams of a first Premier League title. And then, a moment later, poised, proud, but neither defiant nor defensive, he walked toward his teammates, he would face this. He looked the camera in the eye: he could, now, bear this indictment, as if he were a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. Perhaps, I wondered, he could endure the condemnation because no public indictment – from the media, the bereft fans, the pundits – could match the sting of the judgment he had already issued against himself.

There was courage in that gesture. As there was sadness. But the sadness was ours, not his. Or, we would never know – we can speculate, but that is all we can do – because Stevie Gerrard never lets you in. Sadness bears within it a strange resonance. Sadness lingers, and infiltrates all our other affects. It stays with you, sadness, you can never quite rid yourself of it. There must be a deep well of sadness in Stevie Gerrard. But we will never know the depth of his sadness, or his joy, for that matter, because he has always, from the very first moment he burst on the scene in 1998, kept the world at the length he considers appropriate.

The remarkable thing about Gerrard’s reserve is that it never prevents him from protecting those whom he leads. He may be unto himself, but it he is never self-consumed. It may be why he is such an exceptional captain, why he has been able to get the most out of, frankly, speaking, a succession of mediocre teammates. Here one need only recall that Gerrard won a Champions League medal for Djimi Traore; or, if one was so inclined, one would have to admit that there cannot possibly be a player with both a Champions League and FA Cup winners medal more unworthy than Harry Kewell. Kewell “won” these medals for a combined 40 minutes of football, give or take, courtesy of Stevie. Of course.

When asked by a group of Scouser school children who his favorite footballer is, Gerrard’s most trusted lieutenant Jamie Carragher replied, in that unnaturally small Scouser voice of his, “Stevie Gerrard. Without him I wouldn’t have any medals.” Jamie earned his, unlike Kewell and Traore, unlike Djibril Cisse and . . .

When Liverpool squandered a 3 goal lead to Crystal Palace at the tail end of the 2013-14 season, Luis Suarez broke down and sobbed in the middle of pitch. Right there, in the blink of an eye, was Stevie: he put his hand in front of the cameras, shielding “Lou” (as manager Brendan Rodgers liked to call the mercurial Uruguyan), from intrusion. Suarez’s grief was taking place in public, but standing between Suarez and any broader exposure – TV cameras in particular – was Stevie’s right hand. In that moment, with his fingers spread, his right hand looked as big as a bear’s claw. And, it evinced a similar threat. He literally, if I might be permitted this odd turn of phrase, shoved people away from “Lou” without so much as laying a fingernail on them. That is the force of Stevie’s presence.

And then, in a touching moment, he escorted Suarez away from the camera and into a huddle of Liverpool players. He deposited the gutted Suarez into the arms of a veteran, Kolo Toure, and then Stevie took the cameras with him.

Whatever tragedy Gerrard had endured because of the slip, whatever demons haunted him, it was never allowed to interfere with the business of captaincy. Nothing would prevent him from being there for his teammates, for his club.

What a feat. To be a man apart in the midst of such responsibility, to have been that player, the local lad made good of whom everything is expected, since he was made skipper by his then-manager Gerard Houllier 2003, what a thing that must be. To understand that responsibility and, though he may have bent under its weight in the odd moment, he has never shirked it.

We can all complete the “trinity” . . .

Now he is leaving and he will take his enigmatic self with him. What am I left with?

He may have kept himself to himself even as he gave everything to the Liverpool cause, but I do not know how to watch Liverpool without him. Of course, one learns. Of course, one never learns. It matters, of course, that he has never allowed us to know beyond what he thought necessary.

However, what matters more is infinitely more revealing because it says so much about us, and our deep regard, affection and love for him. In the process of giving himself to us and keeping himself to himself, a strange thing happened: Steven George Gerrard took up permanent residence in our Liverpool FC hearts. And on that score, there are no, as it should be, absolutely no contradictions.

No matter the severe limits of his attention, no matter how peripatetic his Liverpool FC viewing is, our son Ezra knows this formula by heart.

I say “Stevie,” and we can all complete the “trinity” of proper nouns.

Africa is a Country digest: Blogging gold of 2014

Over the years we’ve developed a somewhat undeserved reputation as purveyors of angry hatchet-jobs. We do our share of take-downs, but most of our content isn’t really like that, even if it’s the snark that often pulls in the most readers. When we’re rude about someone, it’s usually because that seems like a fitting and sincere response to some genuine, oppressive BS. On Friday, we rounded up our favorite books of 2014, to help you through the holidays, and today it’s time for a digest of some of the best writing we’ve had on AIAC this year. These posts didn’t always make the biggest splash, but all of them are well worth reading, sharing, and returning to. Here, in no particular order, are some gems from 2014 on AIAC. This isn’t an exhaustive run-down, share your picks in the comments.

* The most important thing we’ll ever publish? Binyavanga Wainaina, I am a homosexual, mum.

* Neelika Jayawardane’s tribute to photographer Thabiso Sekgala, who passed away this year (that’s an image by Sekgala above). And her interview with novelist Ishtiyaq Shukri.

* Over the summer, we marked James Baldwin’s 90th birthday with an astonishing essay in four parts by Ed Pavlic. Here’s part one, Not the Country We’re Sitting in Now. And part two, Toward a Writing “Immune from Bullshit”. And part three, Black Style in an Age of Sights for the Speechless. And part four, The Brilliance of Children, the Duty of Citizens.

* Sisonke Msimang’s essay Belonging — why South Africans refuse to let Africa in.

* Ts’eliso Monaheng laid down the final word on The State of African Hip-Hop in 2014. He put out an extraordinary body of work on AIAC this year. Even Complex noted.

* We didn’t much like Pieter Hugo’s portraits of perpetrators and victims of the Rwandan genocide, which the New York Times was so excited to publish (or commissioned). Here is what Suchitra Vijayan wrote in response back in April.

* We aren’t big fans of township tourism either. Busisiwe Deyi’s thoughtful critique enraged township tourists in certain quarters, but must be one of the best things written on the subject.

* Ben Carrington wrote a moving tribute to Stuart Hall, who died this year after teaching everyone around him (and plenty of people who never knew him) how to think in better ways.

* Sean Jacobs wrote How do we talk about the memory of Apartheid? back in October. He wasn’t to know about the Apartheid cocktail in Iceland Air’s hotel in Rejkjavik, at the time of writing.

* Collectively, we did some thinking about what it means when writers are tasked with “Telling the African Story.”

* In July, a woman was photographed walking naked towards the statue of Nelson Mandela in affluent Sandton, Johannesburg. Milisuthando Bongela offered a memorable reading, deep into the moment.

* For on-the-button analysis of historic upheaval, it doesn’t get much better than Siddhartha Mitter’s post, What Next for Burkina Faso? Written when the situation in Burkina was extremely uncertain, its insights remain valuable months later.

* Apparently there was also something called the World Cup this year. We sent Achal Prabhala to solve football’s greatest mystery — Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey. Associated Press enjoyed Achal’s essay so much that they ripped it off, without attribution. Thanks, AP.Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 10.06.01 PM

* It’s not every day you get a bona-fide Pulitzer-winning adventurer blogging for you, still less from 15 years into the future. Fortunately for us, Jeffrey “The” Gettleman filed his report from 2029 via Paula Akugizibwe (just moments after his astonishment had finally abated at finding Eastern European waiting staff and a Subway restaurant in Nairobi).

* Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza over the summer was just the latest outrage of Israeli-style apartheid rule. If you think it has “nothing to do with Africa,” you’re wrong. Back in July, Nathan Chiume traced the history of diminishing solidarity with the Palestinian cause across Africa, focusing on the case of Tanzania. That article should whet your appetite for our first ever e-book, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, edited by John Soske and Sean Jacobs and featuring contributions by Achille Mbembe, Robin Kelley, Salim Vally, Marissa Moorman, and more.

* 2014 was the year we properly inaugurated #WhiteHistoryMonth on AIAC, with a series of posts through March that then continued sporadically through the year (as if every month is for White history!). They’re all worth reading, but the pick of them was probably Kathleen Bomani’s Leather from Human Skin in 1880s Philadelphia. Just read it.

* Finally, Sean Jacobs getting occasional lost in the deep dark internet resulted in him coming upon this: When Steven Van Zandt convinced AZAPO to take Paul Simon off a hit list and what Paul Simon really thought of Nelson Mandela.

* We’ll be back on January 3rd, 2015. Happy New Year!

We couldn’t say goodbye to 2014 without one more #ZwartePiet list

When in December 2013 Chandra Frank compiled a list of common excuses Dutch people make for racism (much of it revolved around defending #ZwartePiet, the blackface character trotted out around Christmastime and who is well past his sell by date), we wondered how elite opinion (that is politicians, writers, journalists, etcetera) react to #ZwartePiet. It’s no shock: they tie themselves into knots “explaining” it. And we’re not surprised. The Netherlands as a country blithely engages with its history of slavery and or colonialism in places as far afield and diverse as Brazil, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa and Indonesia. As Katarina Hedren, in a piece about Sweden’s own uneasy relationship with racist images, name-checked the Dutch: “If there’s anything these last years have taught us, it is that smoking weed in public like the Dutch … doesn’t automatically make you cool, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we can trust your morals.” In any case, we compiled some of the arguments Dutch elites made to explain their affinity for, or reluctance to let go of, Zwarte Piet. Here—as we wish for a 2015 without #ZwartePiet (we can dream)—are a selection of the best rationalizations for Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands:

* Prime Minister Mark Rutte (where would we be without him?), in March reassured the nation that blackface is fine with the wise words you’d expect from a Prime Minister, “Zwarte Piet is just black, I cannot change that.” He also made some comment about struggling for days after to get the black make-up off his face when he dons blackface, while his black friends in the Caribbean don’t have to. Here, watch:


* Ajé Boschhuizen is the head of the influential Sinterklaasjournaal, the main TV program for children during the Sinterklaas period (this last till from November 22nd to December 5th every year), and is basically in charge of the future of Zwarte Piet. He must have had a pedagogic epiphany when he introduced Grandpa Piet (one of the senior Black Pete characters who assists Sinterklaas) as Black Sinterklaas. Boschhuizen also compared Grandpa Piet to Desmond Tutu.

* Gert Oostindie, a very well respected professor of Caribbean history at Leiden University and Director of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, compared the clash over Zwarte Piet to what would happen if an ethnic group living in America pushed to ban turkey from the Thanksgiving table (yes really). “Because the intention is just to have fun … most white Dutch struggle to understand what’s wrong with a little blackface paint once a year,” he told a writer for the American magazine The Nation. Did he actually compare Black Pete to a turkey?

* In the documentary film “Our Colonial Hangover,” the founders of Pietitie, a pro-Zwarte Piet Facebook page (two million likes within 48 hours when it first went public) explain why Black Pete isn’t racist. Both argue that the often-debated lyrics of a children’s song “Even if I’m black as coal I mean well” indicate that Black Pete means well. When asked about the attire of Black Pete, they explained that his skin color is related to his Spanish background and from climbing through a chimney. The founders questioned why black men can’t just make children happy, as there is nothing racist about giving presents.

* Evelien Groenink, a Dutch journalist based in South Africa, suggested keeping Zwarte Piet and instead making Sinterklaas black. That, she argued, would be black empowerment. Unless we read her wrongly, she wants the flawed policy (by all accounts) that the South African government came up with to create a black middle class be applied to a blackface party in the Netherlands: Let’s not get rid of racism; let’s empower black people to participate in it. 

* Eberhard van der Laan, mayor of Amsterdam and known for his atrocious policies against undocumented people, received a replica of the famous Golden Age painting “The Night Watch” on the day of the parade. On the replica, next to the original lieutenants and captains, one can now also see Sinterklaas and Black Petes. The painting is up in the Hermitage in Amsterdam as it is part of the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age.


* Political party Leefbaar Rotterdam hung Black Pete dolls on lanterns to demonstrate the Dutch don’t bend for anti-Black Pete sentiments. Another sweet case of colonial amnesia.

Leefbaar hangt Rotterdam vol met Zwarte Pieten

* The Nederlands Centrum voor Volkscultuur en Immaterieel Erfgoed (Dutch Folk and Heritage Center), for attempting to transform Black Pete to Brown Pete – complete with straightened hair. Yes, we didn’t forget about that one. As we wrote before, please never seek a compromise on racist imagery.

Anyway, we could go on about Dutch people who invent new Pieten like “Cheese Pete” and “Clown Pete,” people who threaten to take Ramadan away if Zwarte Piet must go (a frequent lament on Facebook), the ones who still argue Zwarte Piet is fine because their black friends likes Black Pete. Just stop.

Who is Dulcie September

As recently as May 2012 a South African newspaper headline read: “Who Killed Dulcie September”? The Cape Town born ANC activist (then the ANC’s chief representative in France) was assassinated in Paris, twenty-six years ago. Five bullets to the head ended the life of one of the anti-apartheid movement’s most ardent, most courageous fighters. “If there was ever a soft target, Dulcie was it,” said Alfred Nzo, the ANC’s secretary general for much of its exile period.

We still don’t know who killed Dulcie September.

Or why.

Was it a French mercenary?

Was one of the infamous South African death squads operating in Paris throughout the 1980s?

Was it because Dulcie knew too much about the nuclear military trade between South Africa and France?


Our play, Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September does not attempt to solve the mystery. Instead, we offer brief sketches of her extraordinary life, stage questions about her death, and invite audiences to draw their own conclusions. We paint a portrait of woman who was both totally committed to her political convictions but still loved to loose herself in dancing, an activist who prized action over rhetoric, but remained unwaveringly loyal to her friends. An émigré who accepted the reality of exile, but continued to pine for home. We look at the young Dulcie’s determination to pursue education, to become a teacher. We map her growing politicization, the trauma of the five years she spent as political prisoner of the apartheid state, and finally, the alienation of being banned and then exiled.

Dulcie’s life was rich and beautiful. She was full of love for human beings and full of rage at systems that oppressed them. She lived and died by her convictions. She should be widely known and celebrated and we believe this performance will play a role in doing just that.

The play premiered at the 2014 National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa and is the winner of the Standard Bank Ovation Award (2014) and of an award named for wife of former ANC leader Oliver Tambo, the Adelaide Tambo Award for Celebrating Human Rights in the Arts. Here’s some video, made by Rhodes University students, of the Grahamstown premiere:

I did most of the research for the play and star in the leading role. The play is directed by Basil Appollis (credits: ) and is written by Sylvia Vollenhoven and Basil.

Help us bring Dulcie’s life, and her life’s work, to the stage.

We are crowd-funding and the end date is December 30th, 2014. Eight days from now. Please visit our site and claim a reward. For out-of-country funders, we have the “sponsor a student to the theatre” option, among other things.

Fund us here.

An Archive for South African historian Jeff Guy (1940-2014)

“We know… but we don’t know.”

These were words that we heard often from Jeff Guy (1940-2014) in discussing the history of KwaZulu-Natal, the region that fascinated us all. In print, these words may look banal. But in Jeff’s dramatic, deliberate cadence, they resonated as a historian’s call to arms: a command to return to the archives to dig deeper, to talk to more people, to think more creatively, to write more clearly.

To honor his life, we have begun to assemble an archive on Jeff, in which his friends, colleagues, and students from around the world have shared their memories.* Jeff’s first reaction to this archive would have been to shrug those broad shoulders, widening his eyes in incredulity at the legacy that we describe. “Don’t romanticize me,” he would warn us, stretching out his syllables.

He needn’t worry. We have left these recollections minimally edited, shown in the order in which they were received. Together, they reveal both more and less than a scholarly icon: they conjure a man who took everything personally, and so made history personal to his many friends. In the words of his student Eva Jackson, “He insisted on the personal nature of everything, the love and affront and importance of the past and present.” And so we remember the love, affront, and importance of Jeff.

* * *

On the morning of Tuesday, 16 December, we opened our email to find a dashed note from a colleague, with the subject line “Tragic sad news.” Jeff had collapsed at Heathrow airport, waiting to board his flight home to Durban after a Cambridge University conference on John William Colenso, the controversial Natal bishop and advocate for the Zulu kingdom whom Jeff had immortalized in his 1983 classic The Heretic and its 2002 successor, The View Across the River. There Jeff had given a powerful presentation and enjoyed the company of old friends—returning to the networks in which he had trained as a scholar, as the first Ph.D. student of the path-breaking South African historian Shula Marks in 1960s and 1970s London.

Jeff was 74 years old, a cancer survivor with a recent history of ailments. But his sudden passing had the startling force of the death of a young person, still rich with potential, not the anticipated sadness of the death of an elderly man. His vitality at once made his death more tragic and his life more awe-inspiring.

Reflecting this vitality, most of the memorials we received came from younger scholars who found in him a remarkable willingness to take their ideas seriously. For both of us, too, Jeff was the kind of mentor more common in campus fiction than in the 21st century academy: the curmudgeon with the heart of gold, stooped and pensive, always thinking, asking, writing, revising.

But to experience Jeff’s mentorship, one first had to overcome his formidable persona. He was to Durban intellectual circles what Larry David’s character is to the entertainment business on the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm: principled to the point of pugnaciousness. Many memorials follow a similar script, in which the young scholar incurs Jeff’s wrath before securing his friendship. After she called an aspect of his question at one of Durban’s legendary History and African Studies Seminars “banal,” Meghan spent a month with her name in what Jeff called his “grudge box.” (We regret never asking whether that box was proverbial or literal, as it would surely contribute richly to Jeff’s archive.) His student Dinesh Balliah recalls an intimidating first visit to his office hours after a class absence, in which he cut an apple in a way that made her fear it represented her “effigy.” Another student, Scott Couper, raised Jeff’s ire by calling him “sir,” explaining that he was “raised to show respect for benevolent authority.” Jeff protested vigorously: “I’m not benevolent.”

Yet of course he was benevolent. Jason Hickel—both American and an anthropologist, two categories of which Jeff did not initially approve—remembers the intellectual joys of Jeff’s Tradition, Authority, and Power (TAP) Research Group, in which Meghan also participated. Mwelela Cele, another participant in TAP and a colleague at the important Durban archive Campbell Collections, recalls Jeff’s inspirational support for his research into his family’s past. Scholars who knew Jeff for months or decades treasure his encouragement of their projects.

Jeff’s benevolence was valuable because it came with his critical engagement—the very quality that made him a curmudgeon. As his student Jenny Josefsson recollects, as an editor “he was hard on me, but he was hard on everyone… He was also his own toughest critic… Although it made him miserable and grumpy at times, this also made him a great historian and writer.” His colleague Norman Etherington, who enjoyed fighting with Jeff for half a century, describes this engagement best: “Argumentation, questioning and debate were the essence of his being. I shall miss them.”

What inspired us most, and drew so many of us to him despite the gruff persona, was the inseparability of his scholarship and politics. Jeff was clearly the opposite of his long-studied Theophilus Shepstone, of whom he once said: “The private man keeps a great distance from the public one.” Understanding history was imperative to answering contemporary questions. That his Marxian framework remained across the decades was a testimony to his principles and desire for a just world.

He committed his life to understanding the past with an eye towards shaping the present, from his 1979 classic The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, to his final book, Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal (2013). He wrote letters and articles in the Mail & Guardian and penned historical pieces for the Natal Witness. He memorialized the 2006 centenary of the Bhambatha Rebellion with a series of articles in English and isiZulu, and in accessible books, The Maphumulo Uprising (2005) and Remembering the Rebellion (2006). While he may have vocally lamented the tragedies and farce of liberation (including Durban’s Che Guevara Road), he sensitively highlighted historical precedents—in both the press and his recent book—that could help South Africa make better sense of key concepts shaping South Africa, including “customary law,” “tradition” and “traditional authority.” As Nomboniso Gasa reflected on Twitter, “Those of us who contest the ‘neo-traditionalist & essentialist trend’ have lost a brave and unflinching ally.”

Jeff wrote anti-apartheid and post-apartheid history, in which “black” and “white” pasts emerge as profoundly intertwined. He charted the transformation of southeast Africa from a social world where “the objective in life was people” to one in which “the objective of life is things,” as he wrote in the introduction to his last book. But his work showed that underlying this fundamental transformation were complex continuities, in discourses and practices of social institutions like bridewealth and chieftainship. His words in the coda to Theophilus Shepstone exemplify the significance of these historical insights, and their intense connection to present politics:

“The years spent researching and writing this book have been accompanied by the controversies around the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 and the legislation derived from it. As a result, the private process of historical investigation was unable to escape the public assertions that legal reform would soon wipe clean tradition and custom of the accretions left by colonialism and apartheid, and reveal them for what they are. This book attempts to break free from the self-defining circularity of such arguments and begins with a pre-colonial past at its colonial beginning—with the story of Musi in the 1830s, heir to the Qwabe isizwe, hidden for safety, herding calves in his grandfather’s homestead in the Zulu kingdom, brought into Natal to revive the Qwabe lineage and rebuild the Mthandeni homestead with the social resources accumulated and stored in the cattle given to him by the widows of his forebears. He did this as a colonial chief, using pre-colonial practices. When he died in 1892, the Qwabe was one of the largest chiefdoms in Natal, paying tax on over 3,300 houses. But it was an achievement that cannot be understood in terms of either the traditional or the colonial: it was the result of synthesis in a new situation; it was part of the process of change that continued and continues to this day.”

Jeff’s writing was just part of his quest to share history and scholarship with more people, to get young men and women to study history at the university and policy makers to think more critically. He still had so many ideas and plans: for funding to make academic books cheaper, archival workshops for traditional leaders, and digital databases so that future scholars could access his notes on Zulu history. He was always pushing the young archivists in Pietermaritzburg to do postgraduate studies in history—and they quickly came to lovingly refer to him as “Prof” without ever having him in class. When it came to North American and European scholars, he reminded us of the privileges of our academy—the funding to spend long hours in the archive—and challenged us to make good of them.

The archives will be quieter these days. The cafés on Davenport Road will have an empty chair. The streets will probably be a bit safer—as the memorials testify, Jeff’s driving was notorious.

But his family, his friends, his colleagues, our scholarship: they are all the richer.

Hamba kahle, Prof. Hamba kahle.

*For those wishing to add to the archive, please email the authors. They will continue to add to the site in anticipation of a memorial at the upcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference.

Africa is a Country recommends: Books of 2014

Christmas is coming, and like the German Bundesliga we’re going to be taking a wee break on AIAC, returning in the early days of 2015. Everyone has their own ways of getting through those long, blogless days of festive family over-eating, and AIAC generally relies on Gin and Tonic, long walks, and English football. But there are also books. Remember those? Especially good for giving you that faraway feeling as you try to zone out of your uncle’s homophobic musings. Here are some recommendations from AIAC contributors for some books we enjoyed in 2014 (not exhaustive by any means, please add your own favorites in the comments).

Sean Jacobs: Barnaby Phillips’ Another Man’s War. Promoting the release of his World War II film, Miracle at St Anna, director Spike Lee upbraided Clint Eastwood who did two films about Iwo Jima “back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films.” Lee’s outburst was part self-aggrandizement and also expressed frustration with the erasure of black, or African, soldiers’ involvements in “the Great Wars.”  Which is why Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten Army (2014) by journalist Barnaby Phillips is my best book of 2014. Another Man’s War covers the extraordinary tale of a 16-year old Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who volunteered for Britain’s colonial army in Southeast Asia (at least 100,000 Africans went to fight), whose company is routed by the Japanese and manages to survive the war through a mix of guile and kindness and protection of local people. But the book is more than that: it is a window into the workings of British colonialism in Nigeria and a corrective to “Greatest Generation” myth-making.

Honorable Mention: Clicko, The Wild Dancing Bushman (2009) by Neil Parsons. The story of Franz Taibosch, a Korana (Khoi) from what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who was a fixture of 1920s and 1930s traveling circuses in the United States.


Neelika Jayawardane: I See You, Ishtiyaq Shukri. If you want to know how African writers are engaging with the long-term effects of the War on Terror, and how African governments, African nations have become central to rendition, outsourced torture, this is the novel to go to. Lyrical, gorgeous writing that I spent a whole wakeful night reading, only to close the last page feeling a vast emptiness. It’s a book so lovely that it will become a companion in life. If the War on Terror, and how its taken a firm foothold in Africa is something you want to read about (better than half the self-serving “post-911” drivel written by Phillip Roth and Jay McInerney), also read Passage of Tears by Abdourahman Waberi.

Fairytales for Lost Children, Diriye Osman’s collection of short stories, is an exploration of how those who are multiply displaced create family, stability, love, and home; it is also an exposition of pain, and the escapes one might seek – through fairytale and fantasy – in order to live with that unbearable understanding. Gorgeous.

Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid. Gabeba Baderoon’s critical text will undoubtedly become one of the most referenced texts on South African matters. Baderoon analyses the ways in which South African Muslims – who trace their ancestry back to slaves transported from South and South East Asia by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), and who were subsequently instrumental in building the infrastructures on which South Africa’s wealth was built – have been constructed by colonial rulers, the apartheid government, and present-day democratic political structures. She addresses a wide range of materials through which Muslim identity has been fashioned – including fine art, in which Muslims are shown to be largely picturesque and docile, and political narratives, in which Muslims are nearly always depicted not as threats, but as agents and actors in the journey to freedom. By laying bare the inherent contradictions within such contrasting narratives, Baderoon invites scholars of literature, art, and the political culture of South Africa to question their easy assumptions.

Emmanuel IdumaDouble Negative by Ivan Vladislavic, which put in perspective the dialogue photography has with the history of Apartheid. Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, with the strange emotions of its characters, defined elusiveness for me. Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a truly human and liberating book of prose poems. Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, at once a thriller as a meditation on estrangement and belonging. Finally, I am indebted to Intimate Stranger, Breyten Breytenbach’s book on writing, which has helped me clarify what I mean when I say I am writing. I had other favorites, which I mention here.

Julianne Okot Bitek: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote Dust for me. For once, I’m a perfect reader; both my creative and academic curiosities are satisfied. Dust tackles some big questions inside the story of a family tragedy — a man is killed right at the beginning of the novel and his sister wants to know why. What does Kenya mean? How do English, Swahili, Silence and Memory serve as national languages? Ah, but the beauty of the novel lies in Owuor’s excellent ear. She uses Luo, Kikuyu, Swahili, Turkana among other Kenyan languages liberally and nails local accents so beautifully it makes me want to cry. Msee, and I can hear it. Mzee, and I know that it’s someone else and where he or she is from. If Kenya is a colonial construct, it’s also a collection of myths. “You can’t live in the songs of people who do not know your name,” is a cynical refrain, but perhaps, some day we can. For those who need verbs to temper the lyrical prose, be assured that I found three: see, feel, hear. It’s a very good novel. Read it.

Chika Unigwe: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is an intense meditation on the nature of friendship. Elena and Lila are best friends, although they are not always so. The novel follows the trials and joys of this friendship,from childhood into adolescence and then womanhood. Ferrante’s writing is subtle and powerful. There is not a single superfluous word.

Katarina Hedren: Ethiopian/American Dinaw Mengestu’s brilliant third novel, All Our Names, spans over two continents and tells of the intertwined lives of Ugandan rebel Isaac, his multi-nicknamed Ethiopian refugee friend and Helen – a young American idealist, who, despite having never left the town where she was born, is as rootless as the other two.

In his both factual and personal second book, One day in Delhi, my friend, Swedish/Indian historian Henrik Chetan Aspengren, reveals a slice of little-known shared history between his country of birth and his adoptive country, as well as his own quest to belong. Petition for it to be translated into English.

Tseliso Monaheng: The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. I like Masande’s book because he renders familiar settings onto paper, then uplifts them into extraordinary shrines which all of a sudden feel very important. A taxi ride from one side of Cape Town to another becomes this trippy experience dripping in a haze of self-loathing, drugs, and the inanity of making it in life as a young adult with no immediate end in sight. And don’t get me started on the sentences! He crafts these beautiful, self-contained objects which make his debut novel, The Reactive, feel like a breathing, living being which can only blossom fully through regular visits by the reader inside its pages. Masande, the don!

Jeremy Weate: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard. Submergence tracks the last days of James More, an Englishman captured by Al Shabaab in Somalia.  Its a sublimely reflective novel, with some memorable passages on a painting by Bruegel, the essence of jinns and our nature as photosynthetic beings. Submergence also offers a profound critique of Islamism, as refracted through the separation between two lovers. A real treat.

Chandra Frank: Willful Subjects by Sara Ahmed. Highly recommended for all the feminist killjoys and other willful subjects out there and for those with a general interest in the field of cultural studies, feminist theory and philosophy. In Willful Subjects willfulness is explored through literary and philosophical texts and grounded in feminist, queer and anti-racist politics. “A history of willfullness is a history of those who are willing to put their bodies in the way, or to bend their bodies in the way of the will” (161). Warning: after reading the book you might see willful arms and other willful subjects pop up everywhere!

Achal PrabhalaThings We Found During The Autopsy by Kuzhali Manickavel. This is a small book from a small publisher by a quiet writer with a fanatical following. Kuzhali Manickavel writes dense, dazzling prose that is thick with local grit and soars in a cosmopolitan wonderland. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and also completely bonkers. You will find yourself flailing, whether reading her intermittent blog, her first book, or this one, her second, but rest assured that this is the best kind of bonkers; she is incapable of making anything less than perfect nonsense.

Marissa Moorman: Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. This book is beautiful inside and out. Hofmeyr sketches the work of Gandhi’s Indian Printing Press, founded in Durban (in 1898) and then located at his Phoenix ashram just north of Durban. Hofmeyr elegantly traces both Gandhi’s anti-industrial and anti-commercial reading and printing practices (a satyagraha rooted form) and the disjunctures of this intra-imperial world; noting, for example, the lack of solidarity and communication with John Dube’s Ohlange Institute, just miles away.

Adam Shatz: The best book I read this year was The Good Spy, Kai Bird’s gripping and rueful biography of Robert Ames, a CIA Arabist who died in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. The story of how Ames forged a relationship with the Fatah security chief Ali Hassan Salameh, only to be sabotaged by the Israelis and his own government, is a heartbreaking reminder of opportunities squandered by short-sighted politicians. Bird’s book is also a masterpiece of real-life espionage literature, with a cameo by John Le Carré himself, wandering around the Shatila refugee camp with the model for The Little Drummer Girl.

Abdi Latif EgaAmerican Civilization by C.L.R. James. James’s discussion on America in the 1950s is a breathtaking collage of interdisciplinary genius. Its range is as breathtaking as his prose and ideas are. In 2014, i came back to this again, again and again. I want everyone to read the enlightened text.


Pablo Medina Uribe: I think the only 2014 book I read was The Last Magazine: A Novel by Michael Hastings, the journalist. It’s pretty good, but it is evidently not finished (Hastings’s widow discovered the unfinished manuscript after her husband’s death and edited it for publication). Still, it is a great peer into the workings of American print journalism, and especially into The Magazine, a fictionalized version of Newsweek (where Hastings worked), during the early days of the 2003 Iraq war. It shows how disconnected American editors are from what happens elsewhere in the world, and how none of it matters as long as they have the ego (and reluctance to change their opinions) needed to be on cable TV and become famous commentators.

The book is fascinating in its depiction of a war correspondent slowly going crazy and being duped by his bosses–who care more about appearances, than about content–and in its satire of Fareed Zakaria (in the character of Nishant Patel) and Jon Meacham (in Sanders Berman). But it’s also on point in its depiction on the rise of the relentless news cycle brought forth by new online media and the incompetence of print journalism to cope with it. At some point it drifts into a pointless sexual tourism adventure in Thailand, but other than that, it’s a very interesting read.

Jesse Shipley: Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice by David Scott. Focused on the demise of the Grenada Revolution in the 1980s, it examines conjunctures of American Empire that get layered on older colonial-racial regimes of rule. The book uses notions of tragedy and the dramaturgical to think about the experience of time and the past with an eye to re-imagining political futures and social justice.

Kathleen BomaniEvery Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole. I initially bought it for a friend but found myself engrossed. All I thought I was doing was glancing, but I could not put the book down. Teju’s ability to paint pictures of everyday Nigeria with words is refreshing and not only that as the book is accompanied by his photography, a true work of art, perhaps the only missing element is the soundscape but then again, he tackles that part by arresting our imagination.

Connor Ryan: Ato Quayson’s Oxford Street, Accra. For years now, the biggest names in African studies have been clamoring for us to “do theory” from the global South. How might scholars clear a space for the example of Africa to contribute something new and unexpected to our understanding of the world we share in common. Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism, Ato Quayson’s new study of street life in Accra, Ghana, rises to meet their calls. His study draws together an archive of “texts” that actually reflect the diversity of African urbanism: brand advertisements, subtle changes in the street’s infrastructures, novels, the body-builder’s physique. There is no tro-tro slogan too frivolous, no bodily gesture too minute, and no verbal exchange too banal to escape Quayson’s effort to learn what street life in urban Africa has to teach us.

muhammad-ali-psychologyZachary Levenson: Keith Breckenridge, Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (2014). This is one of those rare books in which the empirical object of analysis is simultaneously the work’s major theoretical contribution. Breckenridge masterfully engages literatures on state formation, bureaucracy, and the African state, all in the service of developing a biopolitical theory of an emergent state-form rooted in empire, surveillance, and technologies of identification. While the empirical chapters are specific to South Africa, the implications are discussed in relation to regimes across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

T.O. MolefeLong Division, by Kiese Laymon, and its sort of metatext, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, are important books for black writers and others who want to write for people like them but can’t because they are told such books won’t sell. Why? Because hegemonic whiteness and systems like it have a standard audience to appease. The first book is a fiction story set in the American South and follows a protagonist named City, a black teenager living in 2013 who is reading Long Division, a book about another young black protagonist named City living in 1985 who discovers a portal in the nearby woods that allows him to travel to 2013 and 1964. The book-within-a-book set up is complex but it does not in anyway impede the storytelling, which is often laugh-out-loud funny and lush with dynamic sentences that bring into sharp relief the intractable nature of white supremacy, from its grotesque Ku Klux Klan forms to its insidious, well-meaning-white-liberal forms. Like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which I also recommend highly, Laymon’s Long Division can be classified as being for young adults but in the same way that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird would have been had it been published today—which is to say the classification is a misnomer.

The second book, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, is a timely collection of new and previously published essays from Laymon, with topics ranging from Kanye West and black male feminism to racism and police brutality, and the struggle the author went through to publish a book he wanted to read.

Jill Kelly: Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account is the fictional memoir of an enslaved Moroccan man who took part in the 16th century Spanish expedition to Florida. While students of American history may be familiar with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of this trip, Lalami imagines the journey from the point of view of America’s first black explorer, known only in the official historical record as “Estebanico” or “el Moro.” Lalami gives Estebanico a name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, and a history, drawing us into his travels and flashbacks to his youth in Morocco. It is a powerful and complicated account of enslavement and colonization that suggests the ways in which enslaved persons shaped early American encounters. I read it on Thanksgiving day and could not put it down. Read an interview with her on it here.

Zachary Rosen: Based on a recommendation from writer Bongani Kona, I picked up a copy of Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: a book about jazz at Cape Town’s Open Book Festival this year. Diving into it, I was blown away by how Dyer composes lyrical literary portraits inspired by the lives of legendary jazz musicians including Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington and more in a freeform jazz-like fashion. A master of metaphorical style, Dyer finds wonderful ways to illustrate how deeply jazz artists’ lives and character echo their music.

Another book that resonated with me this year was At the Edge of Sight by Shawn Michelle Smith. Published in late 2013, Smith’s most recent commentary on the social relevance of photography wrestles with the unseen in images. In examining the creation and interpretation of photography, Smith reveals how people and concepts, intangibly present within an image’s frame, have been historically projected and hidden within a society. Notably, the first chapter offers an inciteful racial critique of philosopher Barthes’ much adored Camera Lucida.

Jessica Blatt: Josh Freeman’s Working Class New York is an account of working people in New York struggling and in many ways succeeding in building a social democratic city for a brief period in the post WWII era. Given the cramped political universe of the last few decades (do you want a lot of austerity, or a whole lot of austerity?), it induces a certain amount of nostalgia. And as people are mobilizing to insist that #BlackLivesMatter, the book is a link to a deep–if often racially problematic–history in which people have reshaped this city from below.

Benjamin FogelThe Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Originally published in 2009 in Spanish by the Cuban novelist Leonardo Fuentes, the book was finally translated into English this year. The Man Who Loved Dogs tells the story of the murder of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent, from the perspective of three characters, a failed Cuban novelist working as a vet’s assistant, Trotsky’s murderer Ramón Mercader and Trotsky himself. The book reads like a synthesis of Isaac Deutscher’s legendary biographies of Trotsky and James Ellroy at his most paranoid. The book delves into the horrors of Stalinism and the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, in a way which moves beyond smug anti-communism and liberal moralism. Trotsky is presented as a tragic figure, a revolutionary Hamlet, Ramon is a murderous Idealist trying to please his psychotic mother and later towards the end of his life, somebody to confess his crimes to. Honourable mentions: A Colossal Wreck by Alexander Cockburn, Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin.

An Impatient Life by Daniel Bensaid. Perhaps the most important memoir of the 68-generation, by a key militant and theorist of the French Left. It moves seamlessly between theory, literature and political history, from May 1968 in Paris, to the Buenos Aires during the height of the Dirty War and Brazil during the early years of the Worker’s Party (PT). A memoir of a revolutionary, in which ‘the hasty Leninism’ of the 60s and 70s doesn’t culminate in the cynicism brought upon by defeat that led so many of his comrades back into establishment politics.

Elliot RossThe Book of Scotlands by Momus. I spent much of the year following Scotland’s independence debate from a distance, and found Gerry Hassan‘s writing indispensable for understanding what exactly is at stake. Hassan’s main reading recommendation, The Book of Scotlands, by Momus (artist Nicholas Currie), was written several years before the referendum debate took over Scotland’s public sphere. But it endures as a rich, finely textured sequence of 156 attempts to imagine an expanded set of social and political futures for a society that often seems to have permanently settled into a very narrow sense of its own possibilities. Not everyone is that interested in the Scottish situation, of course, but there is inspiration to be had from Momus for anyone who feels their range of conceivable futures has diminished. I would love to read The Book of Nigerias or The Book of Kenyas or The Book of Malawis — what else can be imagined?

Digital Archive No. 7 – Slave Biographies

Last week, I discussed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and two of its offshoot projects, the African Names Database and the African Origins Project.  While the focus of my piece was meant to be on the quantitative data on slaving voyages, readers responded most strongly to these connected projects, which aim to recover lost names and identities of peoples sold in the slave trade.  I had already planned to discuss Slave Biographies, a project with a similar aim, but this seems all the more important given the reactions last week.

Slave Biographies is an open-access data of the identities of enslaved peoples in the Atlantic World, combining data compiled from communities in Maranhão, Brazil (collected by Walter Hawthorne) and colonial Louisiana (compiled by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall).  Included in the data are the names, ethnicities, skills, occupations, and illnesses of individual slaves.  Like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Slave Biographies is completely downloadable in its entirety; you can download all 108,500 entries to the database (100,000 of those from Louisiana and 8,500 from Brazil).  You can also analyze the entries that you find using the search function through the site’s analytical parameters which allow users to explore each individual data set, sorting entries by owners, race, skills, health, region, and age.

The next phase of the project aims to expand on the initial datasets from Brazil and Louisiana.  Inviting researchers to contribute their own sources (more information on the contribution process is available here), the project aims to “make data about Atlantic slavery widely available to scholars, teachers, and the public.”  Though the list of resources provided shows the wide range of data on the slave trade available online (a list that will be of great interest to researchers, in particular), it is pretty exciting to think about what is still out there, waiting to be digitized and made available online.  Thousands of people, lost in the historical record, waiting to be discovered.  It’s a thrilling thought.

I’ll be taking a brief break next Friday for the holidays, but I’ll be back in 2015 with World War 1 Africa.  As always, feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you want us to cover in future editions of Digital Archive.

**This post is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Guy, a brilliant historian who reveled in the thrill of historical discovery and recognized the value of digital scholarship.**

Decolonising white Berlin

The myth of an all-white, Christian German society largely persists. So does the idea that anyone who is black only arrived here in the late 20th century or the 21st as refugees, or for economic reasons. Though many Germans actually remain unaware or do not acknowledge it, German colonialism did exist—and no, it was not a “benign” form of colonialism, either; German forces were responsible for the genocide of indigenous Herero populations in Namibia (to find out more: see here and here). These are facts that are difficult for Germans to bear, especially since they also bear the responsibility for the trauma and genocides during World War II So colonial atrocities – and the fact that the nation was involved in slave trade and exploitation of Africans – are, for the most part, happily forgotten. And since German society represents itself as racially white, black lives and bodies are invisible and voices of resistance against this dominant narrative of Germany – those that question Germany as a “white space” without a colonial history in Africa – are hardly ever heard.

This is why the recent “Black Diaspora Arts and Activism” symposium in Berlin is so significant. To American or British readers, a symposium like this might not seem like a big a deal. There is plenty around for them. But I have hardly ever attended such an insightful event in Germany on the black diaspora; for a white German like me who has spent the last ten years traveling to and living in South Africa, engaging with Germany’s silent footprint in places like Namibia, the importance of interdisciplinary and creative spaces like this cannot be over-emphasized.

The Black Diaspora–Decolonial Narratives (see here for a list of contributors and the full programme) also places Berlin at the forefront of creating a space of struggle and negotiation, forcing Germans to look at their blind spots and compelling Germany to decolonise existing power structures in the country. Alanna Lockward, Founding Director of ArtLabourArchive author, and curator (see the amazing BE.BOP events and a review about it here) and Julia Roth organised the symposium, bringing artists, academics, educators and activists together at the Volksbühne in Berlin. Their aim: to resituate the legacy of black and African diaspora in the German cultural imaginary, and to emphasise the presence of the black diaspora in the city of Berlin.

The symposium began with a Theodor Michael reading from his book ‘Being German and also Black: Memories of an Afro-German’, followed by a screening of the documentary ‘Audre Lorde. The Berlin years 1984- 1992’ by Dagmar Schulz. The film gave insight into a collective of young, black women in Berlin as they negotiated for space in German society. We get to see how the term “Afro-German” slowly replaced deeply racist descriptions such as Mulatte, Mohren or Neger – which was once the only exiting vocabulary to refer to a black person in Germany.

Jamie Schearer, activist and board member of Initiative Black People in Germany.

Jamie Schearer, activist and board member of Initiative Black People in Germany.

Adding to the political and cultural invisibility of black bodies is a hypervisibility: hardly any white German seems to look at young, black men in Berlin without prejudice. If you have been to Berlin, you know that the possibility of ‘getting drugs at Görlitzer Park’ in Kreuzberg is not only common knowledge, but associated with blackness; for many Germans, “A Black man in the park equals a drug dealer with no rights”, as the Haitian artist Jean-Ulrick Désert pointed out in his presentation. Based in Berlin, his work explores notions of Germanness in a playful yet poignant way. Take a look at his projects ‘Negerhosen’ or ‘Voices from the heart’ and you know what I am talking about.

The Savvy Contemporary Gallery was represented by Ismael Ogando, 
Archive Manager & Curator. The gallery, based in Berlin Neukölln, is currently showing “Wir sind Alle Berliner: 1884-2014” curated by Simon Njami; Ismael Ogando stresses the importance of a art gallery in Berlin that creates a space for black artists’ work: “It is a question of memory and remembrance, to write history and interpret it, to decolonise and create archives”. In addition, artist and activist Yoel Diaz Vazquez spoke about the project Tumbenlo (Tear it down) run by Cuban hip-hop artists. The collective is resisting against the memorial of former Cuban president José Miguel Gómez who ordered the massacre of members of the first black political party in 1912. (for more information click here and here). Danish artist Jeanette Ehlers shared her performance piece Whip It Good! and reflected on the way she addresses the hidden history of slavery in Denmark in her work. Quinsy Gario, spoken word artist and activist (you probably heard of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign? If not, you should find out), and Patricia Kaersenhout made their way from Amsterdam to take part in the discussion and to perform. Kaersenhout’s Stiches of Power was a part of the evening programme of this one-day symposium.

Jamie Schearer, Activist and Board Member of Initiative Black People in Germany talked about the history, political work and commitment to international solidarity such as their contribution to the #FergusonisEverywhere campaign. The actor, theatre pedagogue and founder of the initiative ART VAGABONDS, Christel Gbaguidi, asked for one minute of silence of in remembrance of all the deaths at the borders of Europe. It was a moving moment of mourning and silent reflection of the suffering endured by those who attempt to escape one set of unliveable conditions, only to meet the horrific conditions of their journeys and the impenetrability of privileged nations’ borders. Gbaguidi’s project “Die flüchtige Republik” at the protest camp Oranienplatz in Berlin, is a theatre play created by refugees who employ art and theatre as a way of coping with their daily struggles. Refugees wanted to speak at the event, but it was too dangerous to do so without papers as their status as undocumented persons in Germany makes it impossible for them to partake in public events of this nature. Even for an organisation to invite them would may legally incriminate them, to support undocumented people renders Germans complicit, thus criminal. So it was up to Gbaguidi to declare that Germany’s approach to refugees – by criminalising their bodies – is inhuman. He concluded, simply, ‘I want to speak to every single one of these politicians to convince them that this is not right. To make this stop.’

I’m so happy in Cape Town

Cape Town is such a beautiful city. I mean, look at it: those majestic mountains, the deep blue sea, world-class vineyards, a new consmopolitan zone of creative hipsterdom, and not to mention the penguins swimming amongst the boulders!

Everyone worth anything wants a piece of this city. People from Johannesburg coming down to party in December, the Americans coming on their exchange visits, and the Germans doing whatever it is Germans like to do here. David Beckham, Roman Abramovich and Jack Nicholson all have holiday houses here. In December and January, Cape Town is a worldwide attraction that rivals any other city on Earth.

And now its beauty and tourist value is being augmented by a range of initiatives designed to inch our experience that much closer to paradise. We’ve got amazing new arts programs such as First Thursdays, Infecting the City, and that bright shining star in Signal Hill that keeps us excited and fascinated.

Strong local policing protects our mountains from rubbish (and homeless people), our beaches from violent dogs (and black youth), and our city from anti-social tagging (and those who tag). We have massive new office buildings going up and an extended convention centre in the works – not to mention our world class and picturesque stadium.

And District Six–oh I mean The Fringe–is so trendy now that one could even forget it has such a negative history!

We, the privileged classes of this wonderful city, have it so damn good. We are so happy in Cape Town (in contrast to the blight of the rest of the continent) that we now have a string of celebratory parties named for this very fact.

So, Happy in Cape Town?, which began as a November party in a massive Constantia house at the cost of a paltry R500 entry fee, has now upgraded to a 16th of December extravaganza at the Enigma Mansion in Camps Bay with a more respectful entry fee of R1,500. Attendees are “part of an epicentre of luxury, flair and effortless elegance that rival the continental European Summers.”

And, no doubt, it is a celebration. A celebration of what though?

The hard (or not so hard) work of maintaining the ill-begotten wealth of one’s family throughout the year.

The ability of this City’s top 5% to socially and physically separate themselves from almost any link to the hellish conditions of the significantly darker population of the City’s townships.

The construction of an elite and exclusive social network within the City and internationally, on which business and therefore profit is increased.

But most important of all, this is a celebration of the security elite Capetownians feel as a result of building a successful middle-class buffer between them and poverty.

It is not those who live in Bishops Court or Camps Bay who feel the angst so typified by the new Suburban Fear tumblr, which has exposed the shear level of racist anxiety of the black encroachment on white middle class suburbs. Unlike the elite, the inhabitants of white middle class suburbs don’t hire personal security guards to remove that “suspicious bm [read black male] looking at houses” but instead must do it themselves via vigilante civic organisations.

Which brings us to the reason why some Capetownians are so happy here that they have their own self-affirming events production company to prove it.

Hidden behind all this self-congratulating elite propaganda that infuses directly into popular culture, is the clear fact that, as the old anti-racist slogan goes, We’re over here because you’re over there.

Their happiness is because of others unhappiness.

In other words, poverty as well as other forms of inequality, are the direct consequence of elite and middle class wealth.

One does not have to read Das Kapital and understand how labor is accumulated to realize this (though it doesn’t hurt).

All one needs to do is look at this city; look at how the poor have been absolutely dispossessed from land, from access to water, and from other basic needs. One merely needs to open one’s eyes to how hard the poor workers slave in factories, in restaurants, and as servants for big fancy mansion parties merely to make the rich richer and happier.

The poor are working harder (both in the formal and informal economies) than ever before. But their income can buy less and less despite even greater pressure to consume. How expensive is bread these days? – and these loaves have never been of such deficient factory produced quality. How expensive are homes now? – and they’re falling apart at a faster rate than during apartheid.

It’s simple then, people are poor in order to make others happier – or at very least to create the facade of happiness because we all know that 25 year old driving his father’s Ferrari is so fucked up that he needs to celebrate his wealth snorting mounds of cocaine in order to hide his emotional angst.

In the end, we’re all in this together – we can’t pretend that wealth comes from anywhere else than the exploitation of other people’s labor and natural resources. There can be no celebration (or reconciliation for that matter) without revolutionary justice.

So, if after reading this, you’re not so happy in Cape Town after all. If you’re feeling that tinge of white guilt or that sense of alienation from such dishonest celebrations, a good place to start on something positive is checking out a farmworker’s union that has been hit with a cost order by a mean old Labor Court judge (whose son is probably dying to go to the party in that Camps Bay mansion).

CSAAWU has organized thousands of the most vulnerable, underpaid and abused workers in the Western Cape. If they do not raise R600,000 in the next few months, the union closes and the farmworkers lose just about the only thing which they have to organise themselves a better deal.

So click here and give what you can to support CSAAWU

Can an African language literature prize be inherently Pan-African?

Last month we announced the new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at the Ake Arts & Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. The prize has the express goal of recognizing writing in African languages and encouraging translation from, between and into African languages.

The prize is named after its primary sponsors, Mabati Rolling Mills (a subsidiary of the Safal Group), a roofing company based in Kenya and Cornell University, an Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. That one of the major sponsors is based in Kenya, shows that African philanthropy can lead the way in underwriting African cultural production. Cornell’s support is through the Africana Studies and Research Center and the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs and falls under the broader vision of internationalization so that the Cornell community can be immersed in a globalizing world.

All African literature whether in European or African languages serves as a tributary to the greater ocean of the African literary tradition. A Kiswahili prize for literature is as Pan-African as a Yoruba or isiXhosa prize. If we can accept that a French and English prize is African, should we not see an African language prize as inherently Pan-African? It would be ironical to consider European language prizes to be more African than those honoring work in African languages. We need to dismantle the framework established by the Makerere generation in the 1960’s of the higher Pan-African and national literatures being in English and lower and divisive ethnic literatures being in African languages. There is a need for African literature in African languages to enter a global conversation with literatures around the world on a more equal footing.

The 15,000 dollar prize will be split into four and awarded to the best Kiswahili unpublished manuscripts or books published within two years of the award year across the categories of fiction/short fiction collection, poetry and memoir, and graphic novels. Recognizing that a major impediment to the growth of writing in African languages has been what to do with the manuscripts once written, East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) will publish the winning fiction entry. And the best poetry book will be translated and published in English by the Africa Poetry Book Fund. We are still looking for publishers interested in translations across other languages, African and non-African alike.

We believe that rewarding writers and translators of different African languages with prizes, scholarships, teaching posts, influential editorial and publishing positions would breathe life and most importantly salaries in to a new generation of professional multi-linguists. Instead of seeing the thousands of African languages as a problem, we need to see them as a resource. Imagine if every single African university had a translation center.

Imagine what these busy towers of babel would do for African literatures. Translations between African languages and between other world languages would enrich our literature while contributing to the larger body of world literature. Translations centers would give literatures multiple lives in different languages. It would enable us to identify skilled translators and professionalize translation. Rewarding writers and translators of different African languages with prizes, scholarships, teaching posts, influential editorial and publishing positions would breathe life and most importantly salaries in to a new generation of professional multi-linguists. Translation is the future that has always been with us.

Africa as a whole has a population of over 1 billion people. Yet even for African literature in English for example, there are only a handful of literary journals, prizes and publishers. And the situation is much more dire for writing and publishing in African languages. If we are to grow the African literary tradition, and increase literacy, we need more of everything. We need more prizes, more literary journals, magazines, newspapers, translators, publishing houses and more readers.

Back to the practicalities of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. The award winning ceremony will be held at Cornell University, Africana Studies Center. The winning writers will be invited to take up residencies at Cornell University and partner institutions. The second and third award ceremonies will be held in Kenya and Tanzania respectively in 2016 and 2017.

For more information, see here.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker: Philippe Lacôte

Philippe Lacôte grew up in Abidjan, next to a movie theater named The Magic. After linguistic studies and a stint in radio, he started making film at age twenty-two. Among his films are The Messenger, The Libinski Affair, Cairo Hours and the essay/documentary/diary Chronicles of a War – a personal portrait of the neighborhood where he grew up during the first weeks of the civil war in 2002. Lacôte produced the much talked about feature Burn it up Djassa by fellow Ivorian filmmaker Lonesome Solo, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, and he directed the Ivorian contribution To Repel Ghosts to the short film compilation African Metropolis released in 2013. Philippe Lacôte’s acclaimed feature debut, Run, starring Abdoul Karim Konaté, Isaach de Bankolé and Reine Sali Coulibaly, premiered at Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section and is opening in Côte d’Ivoire and France today, December 17.

What is your first film memory?

My first film memories are from our neighborhood cinema in Abidjan. When my mother had to run errands she would drop me there and pick me up 20 or 30 minutes later, with the result that I never got to watch an entire film, just snippets. One sequence that comes to mind was of two cowboys drinking whisky and talking around a fire. I don’t remember the name of the film, but I’ll never forget the shadows and the unreal atmosphere.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

It wasn’t really a choice, but rather something that I had to do. There was this time when I was watching a Bruce Lee film at The Magic (the neighborhood cinema) with my friends. At one point in the movie, when a crook was chasing Bruce Lee, this guy got up and stabbed the screen to save the hero. In hindsight, I think that’s the day when I knew I was going to become a filmmaker. I discovered, in this art form, a way to be an artist without being seen, which suits my personality

Which film do you wish you had made?

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which is based on the filmmaker’s own dreams. I just rewatched a part of the film, about a boy who disobeys his mother and sneaks out to watch a procession of foxes on their way to a wedding. I love when the fantastical infiltrates the real and I love Japanese cinema.

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

It’s either Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter - Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of a fanatic pastor is amazing – or Indian filmmaker Ritwik Gattak’s A River Called Titas. Both films are beautifully shot in black and white and both are extremely evocative and emotionally charged.

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

Why do journalists always have one question that is impossible to answer?

Because they think that filmmakers have an answer for everything!


Why we can’t breathe

Unlike with the protests after George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in 2013, the nationwide protests following the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death on Staten Island, show no sign of losing momentum. Many wonder why the protesters’ rage is boiling over at this particular moment; after all, state and state-sanctioned violence against black bodies in the United States is not new.

The Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict Daniel Pantaleo was seemingly the last straw, a week after Darren Wilson escaped being indicted for Mike Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, MO. It follows countless other police killings or their families denied remedy by the American criminal justice system. Black rage against these injustices has been brewing very publicly–particularly via social media–for quite some time, and has now boiled over.

The last few years have revealed that, particularly at the state level, justice for Black Americans is an impossibility. Indeed, white supremacy flourishes under American federalism, which gives states the jurisdiction to terrorize disempowered citizens pursuant to state law. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law somehow empowers random white people to shoot black people of whom they are afraid, but not black women defending themselves against domestic abusers who boast, under oath, of their abuses. In North Carolina, police refused to conduct a thorough investigation into Lennon Lacy’s suspected lynching. In all of these cases and more, unless the federal government intervenes, the case is closed and justice is permanently unserved, It is all perfectly legal, perfectly racist, and perfectly American.

For many black Americans, the shame of realizing that no amount of compliance and achievement will guarantee you the protections of American citizenship, or even the most essential of human rights–life–has left them short of breath.

Neither voting nor higher education, nor a black president, can keep black people alive in 21st century United States. Negroes had no rights white men had to respect in 1896, and Eric Garner’s widow will live out the rest of her days knowing that the same was true in 2014. And so, there is revolt, because white supremacy cannot be reformed, but only overthrown, les it continue to choke the life out of its permanently disfavored citizens. Because there is no justice in the law, protesters have taken to the streets, in search not of equality within an oppressive system, but liberation from it.

Interview: The entanglements in Imran Garda’s debut novel

Every woman remembers that guy: the one that sidled up to her at her friend’s party (she was trying to look busy with a drink), sat by her side while other women made eyes at him, and—and without giving a thought to the fact that he should try to butter her up if he wanted to sleep with her—told her frankly that she’d based her opinions about pet political causes on erroneous information. You remember that guy? The one that was cocky enough not to care that his searing intelligence might burn you, and yet so vulnerable that you didn’t know whether you wanted to melt into him or throttle him? That man is the protagonist in Imran Garda’s debut novel, The Thunder that Roars.

Don’t get me wrong here: The Thunder that Roars isn’t a bodice buster, and Yusuf Carrim—Garda’s protagonist—isn’t a Barbara Cartland hero. Carrim is a South African-born investigative journalist who’s already made a name for himself by his innovative, insightful coverage of the Arab Spring. He’s currently based in New York, and professional opportunities are pouring in. Having no real ties to home or family, he’s able to go anywhere, take risks at which others with more responsibilities would balk. We already know that Carrim’s commitment is to his work, to the tangled political knots produced in conflict zones. His drive is built by a deep sense of loss and abandonment—an insecurity that’s perhaps born from having lost his mother at an early age, along with a defiant bravado created by having to prove that he didn’t, in fact, need to depend on anyone’s love.

Yes, he’s a conflicted, complicated man. When we meet him, he’s just bedded Michelle, a “half-Honduran-half Ethiopian siren” who matches him in complexity, but who comes across as politically shallow next to his savvy scepticism. Clearly, Carrim’s interest is driven by things that yield few avenues of entry; Michelle’s desire for him means she poses little challenge. When his father—a wealthy supermarket chain owner—writes him an email asking him to ferret out information about their missing Zimbabwean gardener, he returns to Johannesburg. Sam, the gardener, and the beautiful Lina, the family’s South African born maid, were Carrim’s companions though a childhood that was otherwise marked by loneliness and loss. Whether it is duty or guilt that takes him back “home”, or just the need to be away from the inane conversations that mark his life in New York City we don’t know.

We learn that the Carrim’s long-time gardener, Sam—after years of harassment and even a stint in prison for being “illegal” in South Africa—had decided to go to Libya, in an attempt to “earn good money” (16). Yusuf Carrim’s search for Sam unravels a story about the realities that those Africans with few privileges must face in the twenty-first century—we see that one’s nationality is nothing but a hindrance for people like Sam, whose nation state provides no place for one to make a living; we learn that that to be from such a place means that harassment and the fear of being reported by one’s neighbours are one’s lot. That instability can wear people down so much that they may take risks as great as uprooting themselves to go to Libya—a country that is so foreign to a Zimbabwean that Sam might as well have gone to the steppes of Russia—with little information about what they will be asked to do there.

I interviewed Imran Garda about his debut novel:

This is a story that reveals multiple types of “unhoming”: in Yusuf Carrim’s case, it is a psychological unhoming; he is born in a time when he and his family will no longer have to fear being dispossessed by the apartheid state, but can hardly call the palatial house in which he grew up—or even his body, one marked by scars for which he cannot account—a “home”. In Sam’s case, we see that being “unhomed” in a political sense continues for those who were not born within the borders of South Africa—with real repercussions. Can you speak a little about bringing these two types of dispossession—psychological and political/legal—together? One obviously seems far more privileged than the other, but theorists of exile often write about the impact of both forms.

Yusuf is young enough to be free from the kind of rampant injustices any of his older family members might have experienced under Apartheid. He also comes from money. His sense of dispossession stems mainly from his own family history (that which he knows about and that which he does not, yet) rather than the political and macro-economic factors at play. His actual home, as opposed to his country. And Yusuf has choices. This is the crucial difference between Yusuf and Sam.

Sam has few choices. He must keep moving, hustling, adapting to avert danger in a physical sense and the looming possibility of some authority taking away everything he has, everything he has worked for. He is a product of an unjust age. Internally disempowered in Zimbabwe and an economic refugee from the country — then treated like dirt in South Africa, no matter how long he’s been there for. He is married to a South African woman, has South African kids, has lived and worked in Joburg for years. But he’s still a Zimbabwean, stealing a job from a local.

Sam’s layers of identity – Ndebele, Zimbabwean, working-class, father, gardener… only serve to worsen his lot in life.

Yusuf’s situation is the opposite: The Arab Spring is blooming, journalism is changing and more diverse voices are getting the platforms that only Tom Friedman owned in the past.  Yusuf being South African is a plus. Indian another plus. A liberal Muslim a triple plus. It adds authority to his work (which is good, no doubt) and the power of this zeitgeist combined with social media propels him to a platform he might not have been ready for.

I wondered why you chose to saddle (accompany?) Carrim with a lover (Michelle)—a woman who is in love with him before she ever even has a conversation with him—before he embarks on his epic journey to find Sam. She’s not the traditional hero’s anchor figure, because she doesn’t really create enough of a tie for him. And (without giving too much away), you make it clear to the reader that when Yusuf returns, the return to her is not without challenges – it’s not a sigh of relief; it remains complicated.

Michelle is smart, also figuring herself out. A child of immigrants. She’s a beautiful and fascinating individual. But – we get to see her through Yusuf’s eyes in this book. So we are never quite sure of what to make of her.

Michelle has always wanted Yusuf. He knows this. He brings her into his orbit not because he’s always wanted her too, but because he can. And she was convenient.

It’s clear that Yusuf has mother issues. He cannot commit to any woman. Cannot bring himself to fully making a connection. Michelle comes back into the equation because, in real life, such men do so not because of any deep underlying love – but, as I said, often just because they can.

Readers begin to understand what drove Sam (the gardener) to take such a risk, going to Libya based on a rumour of a possible job. Carrim enlists a partner-in-crime, Professor Odinka (a Kenyan-born academic who provides humour, as well as intellectual analysis when Carrim’s journalistic mind is too dense to get finer points). Together, through some sleuthing, they glean bits of information from various reluctant informants. Much of what Carrim learns from both Odinka and Sam’s family members forces South African readers in particular to reflect on their prejudices and their ignorance. They may love the way their Zimbabwean or Malawian gardener coaxes roses out of the Highveld soil, or how well they care for the children, but there, they draw a line: if you get into trouble with the authorities, there’s only so much such loving guardian-employers will do. Beyond the transactional relationship, beyond platitudes about how much the gardener and the maid are “part of the family”, there’s little knowledge about those family members’ day-to-day lives. However, in The Thunder that Roars, you create entanglements that don’t allow us—or the Carrims—to pretend to a distance. Can you speak about why you added those complications and entanglements into these characters’ lives?

Great question. I love the entanglements. A big part of doing this was a desire to explore the nuances in post-Apartheid SA and how it relates to similar parallels in the global village. We often got to see work on SA (film, literature) that shows a white guy and a black guy, a racist Apartheid backdrop, some sort of Invictus-inspired Madiba-blessed catharsis. The white guy ceases to be racist. The black guy forgives. South Africa rides off into the sunset happily…

I wanted to dismantle this through the prism of Indian-Black relations, Black SA-Black Zimbabwean, SA relations to foreigners in general, Rich-poor, City-Rural…and “Prof” is one of the voices of conscience in the book. I love him dearly. Maybe someday I’ll write about him as a lead character.

We go from South Africa to Zimbabwe to Lampedusa…any reason for picking that particular trajectory?

Lampedusa, hanging there in-between Africa and Europe, a place of transit, a place most migrants never get to as they drown to their deaths, a place of refuge, a fortress defending Europe (or even the idea of Europe from the rest of the third world) was far too interesting to ignore.

Migration and displacement. It perfectly encapsulates the inner and the outer displacements that are crisscrossing each other throughout the novel. I also included it for its strong narrative links to Libya during the revolution.

You are well known for your journalism—working for Al Jazeera. Any trouble with readers thinking the novel is actually autobiography? What parts of your experiences as a journalist helped you create this character, add depth to the issues that Carrim learns about as he searches for Sam’s whereabouts?

Well known journalist”? Thanks! Not totally true though. AIAC has far more readers.

Yusuf is not me. Perhaps he has parts of me. Undoubtedly there are strong demographic and bits of biographical similarities. But I would like to think of Yusuf as an amalgamation and a composite of other little bits chipped off the psychologies of many different men that I know, have known and have come across. The book was in part inspired by an irritation. Noticing how many young journalists were, like Yusuf, faking it to a certain extent. Capitalize on your brownness to be an expert on the Middle-East and speak with a sort of authority and gravitas that is not entirely deserved. Boost your twitter following too! As Yusuf journeys (internally and externally) I absolutely relied on many of my own experiences. Both as a young, flawed man who sometimes takes himself too seriously – and as a journalist trying to make sense of the world.

Plans for a next novel?

I have an idea for something that isn’t as close to home, I guess I’m deliberately unhoming too. Unfortunately I have a day job! Therefore, so far these have just been some preliminary scribbles in my notebook, a few tabbed pages, and a couple trips to the library. At least a third of it will be based here in San Francisco where I live. But it won’t be a contemporary setting. Will let you know once I’ve figured it out.

Remember Invisible Children?

Remember “Invisible Children” ? We don’t either. Yesterday they announced they’re winding up. Time to recall some highlights from the bullshit files. They were, frankly, full of it. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, if you gave Invisible Children an enema, they’d be buried in a match-box.

* We didn’t enjoy the viral video. At all. This is what we wrote the day it dropped.

* If anything what Jason Russell, who has a background in musical theater, got out of the build up to Kony 2012, was a series of bizarre music videos:

* If you can remember, the mainstream media aided and abetted Invisible Children’s attention seeking. Like The Guardian, even after Invisible Children’s campaign was exposed for what it was.

* They called themselves the Invisible Children. We called them out as the Invisible Christians.

* They made instant Uganda experts out of everyone, including random musicians. Like Soulja Boy who raps over some terrible beat and audio of Jason Russell. Like we wrote at the time: “If you want to be tortured (go listen to it). This is not even a song. It’s like a monologue set to some vague drum beat. And he drops the word ‘swag’ a few times'”

* They also spawned Henry Morton Stanley fantasies.  A while after the author of the book The World’s Most Dangerous Places and rugged man’s man, Robert Pelton, who went on Kickstarter for an “Expedition Kony” like it was the mid 19th century.

* Among all the Invisible Children BS, there were also great steaming helpings of bat-shit to be had. For example, here’s Jason Russell’s review (?) of a Dr Seuss movie:

[We] went out to see a movie, The Lorax, a Dr Seuss film. And I thought it was talking directly to me. I thought it was all about me. The character is wearing a stripy top like the one [his son] Gavin is wearing in the film and I was like, ‘That’s so weird!’ And the character is trying to protect these trees, and I thought it was me, and the trees were Rwandans.

* Ugandans saw right through it. Here’s journalist Rosebell Kagumire or people affected by Ugandan state violence. And months before the video was posted on Youtube, they could have asked Ugandan journalists and opposition activists what they thought about Kony or why Life President Yoweri Museveni and the US government focused so much on him.

* The last word goes to Charlie Brooker (he’s not American) who made the most sense:

Feel The Rainbow with Akosua A. Kumi of A.A.K.S

I can not begin to describe the joy, lust and energy, I experienced when I came across A.A.K.S handwoven bags on Instagram. I immediately had to know the who, what, where, why, and when of these amazing products. So, I did a little Internet research to find contact details, and sent a few questions to Akosua Afriye-Kumi, the “Colour-obsessed designer creating a range of eclectic handcrafted bags in ritzy colour spectrum of brights” who indulged us from Bolgatanga,a town situated in Ghana’s North East region, where her and a group of women have teamed up to birth these skittle shaming, eye-popping goodies.

On how she got started Akosua:

I have always had an interest from a very young age, scribbling, illustrating, collage work and painting as a favorite past time. To incorporate what I loved: art, colour, photography, patterns, illustration, I pursued a fashion program at Kingston University in London. I then followed my studies with interning at Peter Pilotto , Matthew Williamson and worked for William Tempest. This was a great foundation for me to work alongside young exciting brands and extremely talented designers.Their willingness to think off their feet, create new ideas, meet deadlines and control of style left me inspired. I knew I wanted to build something on my own, which would push me to wake up every day and give it my all. This thought process aided with the possibilities of creating in Ghana, my home, made it an easy decision to return and build a luxury brand which was proudly African.


On what inspires her:

A lot of designers take or find inspiration from  Africa, I want to do the same but actually be in Africa doing it. It is of complete importance for me to contribute to the creative economy in Ghana, along with pushing a new conversation at how we innovate and design in Africa as a whole.With this in mind,  I wanted to create a product which utilises locally sourced material such as raffia coupled with the traditional art of weaving, this is what is most appealing to me as it fully informs my design aesthetic, and brand ethos. Weaving is a skill and an art which is passed down generationally to the women weavers of Bolgatanga who create AAKS handbags.

On her Eureka moment:

It all began with my yearly trips to Ghana to see my family while i was in London. Having  grown up around basket bags I use to give them as gifts and also use for storage. I remember having a lot of  ‘I wish it was more like this , ‘I wish it was more like that’  moment… I wanted it softer, almost foldable and also more colourful with more vibrant blends of colours, coupled with beautiful detail and finish. Taking on this idea, I started researching into fibres, I knew raffia was soft, malleable and could create a different experience in the type of bag I desired. More importantly raffia’s attributes of being an organic, natural, biodegradable fibre which worked with my desire of creating an ethical product.

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On her dream team:

Finding my weavers was a tremendous challenge which I am still reeling from everyday. In my first year, I  traveled all over Ghana: from Kumasi, Accra to Tamale with raffia in hand looking for weavers. Most weavers had no idea what it was even after close inspection, nonetheless I was determined to find a group of women who would bring my ideas to life and push my design endeavour forward. I stumbled across a weaving community through my travels in the Northern region of Ghana -Bolgatanga and I knew immediately their skill set (which i’d never seen before) was beyond exceptional and was one bring my concept to reality. Though a language divide existed, I being a native Twi speaker and the women being Afrafra speakers their willingness and excitement to take on a new challenge of working with a new material, raffia (instead of  straw), together we form a formidable and evolving partnership continuously challenging each other creatively.

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On the process:

The dying process in finding our A A K S seasonal colours are achieved by boiling raw twisted raffia in a  hot bath of water, the dyes of colours  are then dropped in mixing them to achieve bright or dark colours and seeing the natural colours come to life is exciting, I plan my whole collection around colour effects on the eye. The process is simple but intensive. We source natural organic dyes in Ghana and test them accordingly for fastness. Sometimes the very dark looking wood dyes changes colour and turns bright yellow or dark red. I love this part of my design process as I feel it is an endless possibility of beautiful colour spectrums.


On Life observed in Bolgatanga:

Bolgatanga is an unexplored dry land in the Northern region of Ghana extremely hot day to day temperatures can be as high as 37 or 40 degrees in the dry season which is 8 months of the year. Women, men and children sit under trees to get some fresh air and weave to subsist their farm work and provide additional income. So basically they tend to farm in the rainy season and weave in the dry season.The women walk for miles or on bicycles and motorbikes to neighbouring slightly developed towns and markets to sell their woven straw bags. Locals normally use the basket as everyday bags or storage and the bigger communities come together and weave for export to neighbouring towns and big cities in Ghana.

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On sustainability:

A.A.K.S. is a purpose driven, lifestyle brand for the conscious and stylish consumer, who is is willing to invest in a beautifully, quality skillfully handcrafted bag in turn countering the perception of made in Ghana/ Africa products which always seem to have a charitable/pitiful tune.  We pride ourselves in creating unique and well crafted bags, backed by mindful production for social impact.

We can be placed under the ethical or sustainable umbrella because we use organically sourced raw materials, raffia which is biodegradable and renewable. Its an inherent quality and very important part of my business ethos as all the choices we pursue now will affect everything in the future. With hopes of contributing greatly towards the struggling textile and materials industry in Ghana.


On cultural preservation and future plans:

Weaving is a dying art in Ghana unfortunately. It’s been relegated to a small scale industry with few communities in the south weaving Kente cloth and in the north weaving baskets and bags using straw. I hope that our brand acts as a catalyst and contributes to a revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art. By renewing and creating demand for some these endangered old skills and techniques in turn preserving them, by innovating and modernising them to meet today’s standard.

In the bigger picture I plan on having a permanent production base in northern Ghana, which will provide employment, promoting weaving to be seen as a source of livelihood, instilling pride in the technique whilst  ensuring continuity of weaving as an art and that can be passed unto the younger generation.

For more on A.A.K.S please visit her also beautiful website