Africa is a Country

Liner Notes, No.6: Villy & The Xtreme Volumes

African music icons of previous generations, such as Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, were and are well known for their ability to speak truth through music. Such legends have inspired many across the world by revealing political realities in Africa through their art and in their lives. Today however, the various national scenes enjoying a boom across the continent tend to accommodate musicians with a pop shine and carefree hooks in order to survive in a global commercial industry. This has created a vacuum in the pop space for socially-aware musicians. Enter Nigerian band VILLY & The Xtreme Volumes, a group who strives to open the world’s eyes to the political and social realities of the continent through a catchy and danceable repertoire.

From their EP Let’s Play released in August comes ‘E Dey Pain Me’ an Afrobeat track with soulful melodies. VILLY cries ‘How you go chop and clean mouth and talk say it good, how you go treat your people like say we b fools’, questioning corrupt systems in Africa. ‘Mama’ covers stories of insecurities and jungle justice that takes place in Nigeria. In this song VILLY talks about rape, attacks on students in reference to Boko Haram, theft by government officials. The message of Gbolaka (gunshot) is clear, “it’s time we start fighting and it’s time we start demanding for our rights.” VILLY suggests that a corrupt act by government is a gunshot at the people and that it’s time the people reclaim power from corrupt leaders. ‘Make Me Mad’, takes people on a frenzy whenever the song is performed. The song is fast becoming the group’s signature revolution song and was recently featured on BBC World News.

In their live performances, such as the one above, VILLY name drops leaders and officials who are thought to have acted or are continuing to act counterproductively toward the betterment of their nations. VILLY & The Xtreme Volumes are on a crusade to champion their cause and are taking the message straight to the people. They might just be that spark that is needed for African Pop to reawaken its political roots.

Tony Blair Saves The Children of Africa

Interventionists across the political class in Europe and North America have comprehensively militarized the humanitarian enterprise in recent years. So there was much more dismay than surprise when Save the Children awarded Tony Blair a Global Legacy Award recently. Yes, the same Tony Blair reportedly now worth £10 million who takes Henry Kissinger as his role model.

Ordinary Save the Children staff explained to bosses, in a letter signed by more than two hundred employees, just how damaging this bizarre award is to the organization’s credibility. Critics pointed out that Blair has strong connections with higher-ups at Save the Children, including two former advisers, Justin Forsyth and Jonathan Powell.

A third Blair apparatchik, his former director of political operations John McTernan, put forward the most robust defence of Blair’s humanitarian merits with an argument that turns on a particular idea of Africa’s recent history. In 2001, Blair claimed Africa was “a scar on the conscience of the world,” and his supporters are now pointing to the continent as the last hope for the dogged (and doomed) PR effort to canonize Blair as a saintly humanitarian. “What, precisely,” asked McTernan, “is shameful about Blair’s record in Africa? Absolutely nothing.” The Iraq war, he insisted, is “a legitimate area of disagreement, but one that has no relevance to the Blair legacy in Africa.”

This is simply nonsense. It is dangerous thinking that repeats the old idea that Africa is somehow exceptional or outside of world affairs, and that its only “issue” is poverty. As with the Cold War and the two World Wars before that, Africa is no less subject to global conflict than any other continent.

Blair has no more credibility in Africa than he has anywhere else in the world.

The so-called “War on Terror,” spearheaded by Blair with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, has had dire ramifications across the African continent. The emergence of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in the mid-2000s opened the way for the current crises in East Africa and the Sahel, including the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi and incessant attacks in Northern Nigeria, most notably the kidnapping of hundreds of girls from the village of Chibok.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram’s rise has been complemented by the establishment of the US Africa Command (Africom), a US military presence in Africa of unprecedented scale, and one that is increasingly significant in national and regional politics. Last year, investigative reporter Nick Turse exhaustively documented the range of US military operations across Africa, which include a permanent military base in Djibouti, and drone bases in Burkina Faso, Morocco, Uganda and Ethiopia.

The “War on Terror” has also seen a sizable diplomatic realignment, with many African governments forging much closer ties to Israel and the US in order to receive “support” in combating terrorism. It’s also worth noting the thousands of Ugandan military personnel working as private contractors for the US government and US multinationals in Iraq — a large segment of the de facto occupying force over the past few years have been Africans.

There’s also the question of Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) and what exactly it has accomplished. It’s noticeable that take-up on Blair’s services has been distinctly thin on the ground — AGI work in only Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda. They don’t work in Malawi any more, withdrawing after the government they were advising (Joyce Banda’s) was submerged in a massive corruption scandal. Recently another client (Liberia) has seriously struggled to deal with the Ebola outbreak, for all the talk of Blair’s expertise in “capacity-building”.

By contrast with other global advisers, such as the economist Joseph Stiglitz who works on tailoring resource contracts to prevent poor nations being ripped off by predatory investors, AGI’s exact function is opaque. The neoliberal rhetoric of “good governance” and “leadership” changes very little — where we’ve seen major social-democratic movements gaining traction in recent years (such as Burkina Faso last month, Occupy Nigeria or the 2011 Egyptian revolution), Blair’s initiative has been nowhere to be found.  In February 2011, Blair defended Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good.” Just a week later, Mubarak was forced to step down.

In Rwanda, AGI is supporting Paul Kagame at a time when the notion of the Rwandan president as a progressive “reformer” seems more and more implausible in light of his autocratic style  and his destructive role in DR Congo. Blair appears to be committed to the failed idea that Africa should be “saved” by a combination of foreign investment and international development agencies — a model that will continue to fail ordinary people.

Save the Children now have a major opportunity: they should revoke the award and explain why. Desmond Tutu says Blair should be charged for war crimes at the Hague. A politician who has done as much harm as Tony Blair should not be allowed to play on Western ignorance of Africa in order to launder his reputation.

The BBC gets Rwanda wrong

Rwanda isn’t simple. Recently, the BBC’s This World documentary series broadcasted what they call Rwanda’s “Untold” Story. The film attempts to rewrite Rwanda’s genocide narrative and calls into question the events leading up to and following those 100 days. The filmmakers question the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s part in the downing of former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane and in ending the genocide. The films go so far as to challenge the conventional death toll estimates and suggest that President Paul Kagame’s forces played a minimal role in ending the genocide. They interview researchers and exiled former members of the RPF to cast doubt on both Kagame’s past and his legitimacy today.

Unsurprisingly, the Rwandan government, along with Ibuka, a genocide survivor’s organization, denounced the film, leading to the suspension of BBC Kinyarwanda broadcasts in the country. The country’s parliament also charged the filmmakers with genocide denial; one of many vague sentiments criminalized in a series of purposefully murky laws used to quell any dissent, political or otherwise.

In rather dramatic fashion, complete with a distractingly cheesy soundtrack more appropriate for a thrasher film than a historical inquiry, the documentary attempts to expose ‘the truth’ of Rwanda’s recent history, as if there is only one truth. The irony is that the film tells us very little of what is in fact unknown. Rather than acknowledge the existence of many co-existing narratives by giving a voice to the voiceless, the filmmakers cherry pick interviews and give haphazard coverage of the events of the genocide, alienating a large swath of Rwandans and creating a film that often frustrates rather than enlightens.

Don’t get me wrong; the film had good intentions and the potential to be something much greater. It pushes us to question Rwanda’s positive development narrative by highlighting the dark sides of the regime and speak up for those thousands of Rwandans—both Hutu and Tutsi—who have indeed suffered at the hands of the ruling regime.

The film questions the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s account of the genocide and Kagame’s role in ending it. But the glib treatment of Rwandan history and the genocide distracts from the validity and severity of the film’s more valid claims. Within the first 10 minutes I was already turned off. The host explains Rwanda’s entire pre-colonial and colonial history in just two sentences (at 6:28), speaking as if ethnic identities were already solidified by the arrival of the Belgian colonialist. Let’s be clear. Ethnic divisions were neither invented by the Belgian colonial administration nor a source of pre-colonial so-called tribal warfare. Rwanda was a changing and complex state, where social relationships and the salience of ethnicity morphed over time and with the help of ruling elites. Ethnicity in Rwanda is difficult to define and cannot be determined by looking at differences in culture, religion, history, or language.*

The film tells the story of the 1994 genocide as if the Hutu Power movement was justified because of a pervasive fear of Tutsi incursions into Rwanda from southern Uganda. The film’s simplistic version of history makes it seem as if the genocidaires were forced to retaliate against Tutsi, coming across as borderline apologist for the perpetrators. The film forgets to mention the hateful and pervasive anti-Tutsi propaganda that payed a critical part is stirring up hatred. It mischaracterizes the RPF as a power hungry movement in yet another baseless ethnic conflict. In reality, the RPF was founded many years before the genocide in response to Tutsi persecution and well-documented waves of violence, starting in 1959. The launch of the civil war was about the right to return home for hundreds of thousands of stateless Rwandans – refugees living in Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi. In his book, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Mahmood Mamdani refers to the incursion not as an invasion but as an “armed repatriation” (p160).

The worst problem with this lack of contextual explanation is that it gives too much weight to the idea that the genocide was a spontaneous event caused by the downing of former president Habyarimana’s plane. The film even suggests Kagame should bear responsibility for the genocide if the RPF was indeed responsible for the crash. What they fail to explain is that who shot the plane down – while a point of wild contention, with proclamations and investigations bolstering both sides – is somewhat of a moot point. The downing of the plane set off the genocide, but it did not cause it. Scholars agree that the genocide was a highly centralized and planned event. The plans were laid before Habyarimana was killed. Even more disturbing is the film’s failure to mention that the United Nations was aware of the planned violence, including the location of stockpiled and imported machetes, grenades, and guns. This is omitted despite the choice to interview the former head of UNAMIR, Luc Marchal. Painting Rwanda as an ethnic powder keg plays into the Western imagination of tribal warfare and conflict for the sake of conflict.

The only real new information about the downing of the plane is from General Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former RPF official who has since survived several assassination attempts. His interview is important and his story is believable. Yet, all he offers as evidence is that he “was in the position to know” and was in meetings with Kagame when the plans were formulated. This isn’t the first time General Nyamwasa has made these claims and though this scenario is plausible, it is still possible that Hutu extremists could have downed the plane and the film does not make this clear. The fact that radical elements of the Hutu administration saw Habyarimana’s acquiescence – the signing of the Arusha Accords in 1993 – as treason goes unstated.

The most important parts of the film, like the rare interview with Nyamwasa and the footage of the Kibeho massacre, get lost amongst the unsubstantiated claims by researchers with dubious data. Alan Stam and Christian Davenport, two researchers from American universities, make the controversial claim that most of those killed during the genocide were in fact Hutu. They claim that just 200,000 Tutsi were killed, a number far below even the lower limits of most agreed upon estimates. Filip Reyntjens, another Rwanda scholar from the University of Antwerp also interviewed in the film, published a critique calling Stam and Davenport’s data collection methods “insufficient”. An even more thorough rebuttal by Marijke Verpoorten easily explains why their numbers are sketchy. Yet, the film offers no counter to these numbers, despite their controversial nature and the existence of a large pool of well-founded, balanced critiques of Rwanda by researchers as equally disliked by the government (i.e. Alison des Forges, Susan Thomson, Scott Straus, Lars Waldorf, Gérard Prunier, Philip Gorevitch, Mahmood Mamdani, to name a few). The BBC’s failure to interview a well-rounded selection of researchers falls far below the journalistic standards it should live up to. Even worse, the use of only Davenport and Stam’s claims certainly gives credence to the RPF’s nebulous policies criminalizing genocide ideology or denial, ultimately strengthening the government’s strict laws and giving the RPF a scapegoat to crack down.

A better version of this film would have taken a critical look at the delicate and contested balance between security and economic and social progress. It would have challenged the prevailing perspective that Kagame’s human rights abuses are justified by stability and peace in the country in a more forceful and balance way. It would have given a voice to a wider range of political dissidents and highlighted the lack of freedom of the press. It would have examined a government campaign of ‘oneness’ with little choice but to opt-in. It would have interviewed critics who are harassed on Twitter by Rwandan government trolls and followed the blogs dedicated to blasting Rwanda researchers. It would have mentioned imprisoned, tortured, assassinated, and disappeared journalists, teachers, human rights advocates, researchers, political opponents, and government critics. It would have mentioned the 40 bodies found in Lake Rweru earlier this year, and claims that none are Rwandan. It would have discussed about the secretive and sudden cabinet reshuffle and dismissal of the prime minister earlier this year. Rather than challenging statistics and events of the genocide with very little new and poorly documented information, it would have focused on the massacres and meddling by Rwandan troops both in Rwanda and in Eastern Congo through late 2013. The complexity and tragedy of this war is enough to fill a documentary 10 times over.

There are many sides to Rwanda’s story. It is an eco-friendly place of hope, innovation, available healthcare, and economic progress, but it is also a place whose government refuses to allow political identities to reflect the diversity of beliefs in Rwandaness. It is a lot to ask the world to accept the multiple truths of Rwanda – including the fact that many people love Kagame just as others fear him – and it was too much for the film to explain this picture in all of its complicated nuance and actually share with us what remains untold about Rwanda’s story.

* The formation of the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa labels began to take shape during the rule of the Tutsi monarch Kigeli Rwabugiri (1860 – 1895). By the end of his rule he had solidified control over almost the entirety of modern day Rwanda. He ruled through a system of forced labor, slowly defining ‘ethnicity’ by political class and economic differences. These differences centered on the Tutsi cattle-owning ‘elite’ and the majority Hutu peasantry. However, ethnic identities did not fully crystallize until Belgian colonial rule, beginning in 1912. The Belgians systematically privileged Tutsi in leadership roles and the education system, entrenching the separateness of ethnic identity. With the use of identification cards starting in 1935, race overtook class as the social marker and conflict between Tutsi and Hutu increased.

+ Image Credit: Veni Markovski (Creative Commons, Flickr)

Book review and interview with Diriye Osman (winner of @PolariPrize); bonus: video of Osman and Binyavanga Wainaina

Every displaced person who’s ever transgressed against the strictures of the culture from which they originated will tell you about that feeling of free-floatingness: others see you as uninhibited, but you know that you have nothing to hold you. You know that some tethers are welcome, and can give comfort; yet, you also know that they are too expensive on the bank account of the soul to afford. So you look at them in the shop windows – other’ lives that seem impossibly out of reach – as you float by. Always, you are mindful of the day on which the raucous laughter, the drugs, the sex, the alcohol, the lovers, the witty wordplay, the dancing, the performance, the ambition to keep moving will not serve to keep you buoyant.

Diriye Osman’s collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, 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: what’s easily available to others is not there for you, but you must make your way, even without. Osman says, to the BBC, that the “the crux of the book is about sexual identity, within the context of being gay, Muslim, African. It is fundamentally a book about freedom”. Each of Osman’s key characters is Somali, living a precarious life in Kenya or England (only the characters in the opening story, “Watering the Imagination,” are still in Somalia), and each of them is gay. None are fully accepted by their blood relatives. They know that family can give one a home, even when one’s country will not; even when one’s nation state disintegrates and ejects, those with whom one escaped can become a nation with borders that re-collect you in the enormity of loss. But what do you do when first, the nation, then one’s family reject you?

We learn about how Diasporic people keep their silences well guarded. And that these silences and repressions are expected – they are part of the bargain one makes in order to recreate a wholeness when one’s family has already lost everything. In most of Osman’s stories, silence is a demand, a tithe too impossible to bear, yet people stay together, “bound by blood and bad history”. In rare instances, however, these silences are about acceptance, about allowing a child freedom to love someone, and experience life in a way that would have been impossible in one’s own generation: in “Watering the Imagination”, the mother of a Somali girl – one who has lived her whole life “near the coast of Bosaaso, Somalia,” and remains steadfast in her loyalty to this strip of liminality between water and land whist others who “are hungry for new homes in places like London or Luxembourg risk their lives on cargo ships” – does not ask where her daughter goes at night, and does not force her to accept the many marriage proposals that come her way. “I respect her privacy, and I allow her to live,” she says. In a way, the silence between them is as lovely as this girl, who comes home night after night, “smelling of sea and salt and perfume,” wrapping her beauty – and her secrets – “around herself like a shawl of stars”.

Not surprisingly, many of Osman’s stories centre around a character who has lost her or his mind. They live in London, so their disintegration is medicalised. They are diagnosed as schizophrenics, given tablets, and provided counselling. But as one character says, the root of their unravelling is post-traumatic disorder, displacement, the shock of arrival in countries that provide little space for them to be, whilst – ironically – giving them a space to become. Kenya is the location that Osman’s characters meet corrupt cops who exact bribes from Somalis, murder Somalis in cold blood, and keep them in a panicked, watchful frenzy (“Shoga”). England, too, is a location of terror, but not because of the fear of literal death. The cities of England, and their immigrant enclaves, are the sites of social death: here, young second-generation women and men come out – albeit tentatively to a trusted sister, a much beloved mother – only to face rejection, and even threats to their lives.

In several stories (“Your Silence Will Not Protect You”, for instance), there’s a lot of talk about the son who is now engaged in a practice that is “haram”, something that is against “our customs” despite there being, of course, Somali words for gay men and women (derogatively used). Creatures raised in the den of immigrant and refugee families – who throng together closer for warmth, even as they are physically removed from the location of their nation-ness – suddenly find themselves with no one. In “Earthling”, a woman decides to marry a “traditional” Somali-British man who will provide her the life she belonging she craves, but this new life has no place for her gay sibling. Her decision comes at the cost of cutting off contact with the one person with whom she shares a lifetime of memories: a childhood of waterpark slides, innocent childhood transgressions (peeing in swimming pools), and of surviving a father’s violent death, and the subsequent loss of their mother to cancer. Though the stories are full of near-saintly lovers who stay steadfast through each respective protagonist’s wrenching breaks with sanity, what all-giving, generous lover (or husband, who might give one the solidity of tradition, custom, and continuity) could replace that magical rope of shared experiences, only available to family? No wonder, then, the madness, the voices telling them that they are trash, the starlings and the inanimate objects who hurl slurs at them.

Osman is the first African author to win the Polari First Book Prize, for a first (UK-published) book that explores the LGBT experience. Binyavanga Wainaina calls Osman the James Badwin of our times: expatriated, diffident, beautiful, full of longing for home, and yet hopeful that home will one day make a place for those it rejects, realising that it itself is unhomed – estranged from itself – if it has no place for those like him. In the meanwhile, whist waiting for that miracle, I’m humbled and inspired by Osman’s flight of words and fancy.

Africa’s a Country asked him for some insights:

Neelika Jayawardane: Often, it feels like your characters are always hungry, and begging unseen masters for a little more; one of his characters, in “If I Were a Dance”, jokes, sarcastically, “Do I look like Oliver Twist’s Angolan brother?” when he’s told that they must work at below scale pay. Can you tell us a little about where that hunger comes from?

Diriye Osman: There are many different types of hunger explored in the book. There is the hunger for new homes, which every Somali is familiar with. There is the hunger that stems from unfiltered sexual desire, as is the case with the title character in the story, “Ndambi”, whose need for comfort and sexual satisfaction is so palpable that it threatens to swallow her whole. I like men and women who fizz and crackle with curiosity, a thrilling and edacious appetite for knowledge and ideas. Because my characters are young and alive, they are constantly courting sparks. They’re constantly trying to maintain a sense of hope and possibility. Also, there is a context for what you refer to as the begging of “unseen masters for a little more”, something which is not explored fully in the book. The mental health system, as it stands in the UK, is an extremely volatile and morbid structure. I don’t write fully about the actual business of being inside a high security mental hospital. Oftentimes, the mentally ill are left to their own devices, are even actively shunned, until they have a full-blown episode. Only then will the system intervene. But what the mental health industrial complex offers is not care. It’s a systemic imprisonment and degradation of people who are too vulnerable to know better. Your family can try to intervene but once you’re in the system, you’re in the system. You’re literally yanked out of your home by police officers and carted off to the hospital like a prisoner. This is not the way to treat someone who is sick. Once you’re inside, the situation quickly devolves into a cat-and-mouse game between personnel and patients where the stakes are, ultimately, the patients’ humanity and dignity. I’ve been in mental hospitals twice in my life and I was effectively a prisoner during both occasions. I was held for six months during both periods and I was legally trapped there – sectioned – even though I posed no threat to myself or to others. In the end, the distasteful joke of it all was that I was ultimately released on the flimsiest technicality: the hospital needed more beds and they no longer had one for me.

This is an environment where grown men and women are stripped and injected with tranquilizers in the ass in front of their families – their parents, their wives and husbands, their children. This is an environment where you’re denied access to basics and you have to rely on family and friends to bring you things like snacks and soap. It’s a repulsive system that’s not going anywhere unless we repeatedly challenge it and fight for reform. To me, it felt like my fellow patients and I were brought to our knees. It’s impossible for such an experience not to leave a haunting impression. The cruellest thing a human being can do to his fellow man is strip him of his dignity. With Fairytales For Lost Children, I was writing my way out of that toxic history. 

NJ: As an immigrant in America, I know what it is like when one’s modest success means that one’s nation-of-origin and family suddenly wants to re-claim you – but only if one plays the right games the “correct” way. For those who’ve already paid too high a cost for freedom, compromising and accepting this poorer form of love is hardly a good bargain. I wonder if you have experienced some of these compromised offers, and how you deal with what often feels to me like a dishonest acceptance…an acceptance that is very attractive in certain ways, but not so much in others? 

DO: I lead a very lucky life. I’m independent, my work is satisfying and my days are full. The people who approach me do so with a sense of respect and I appreciate that. I have found my people and these people hail from all the over the world. And that’s what we have to do. We all have to go out into the world and find our people.

Coming back to that concept of cultural acceptance, again, I’ve been very fortunate. I have met countless Somalis – LGBT and straight – who have been nothing but nurturing and welcoming towards me. I have always loved my culture because it’s an endlessly fascinating culture with a rich seam of history. I sometimes joke that Somalis – rich or poor, young or old – walk around like their shit don’t stink and that’s dope to me. I come from a very confident and beautifully bat-shit crazy community.

NJ: There’s a few instances in which your characters allude to the importance of what Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “self-fashioning” – the ability to shape and re-create oneself according to the signals that one carefully collects from one’s social milieu. But being gay is also about transgressing against – or even being playful with – social norms. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that you yourself are a self-fashioner extraordinaire. I’ve seen you read to audiences wearing a hoodie (one that’s a beautiful shade of purple, though), but you are known for your signature play with Elizabethan dress, face paint, and jewellery: this is a performative present that calls on the past, whist imagining a different future. Will you tell us a bit about the significance of self-fashioning, costuming, and transformation for you?

DO: I’m a strong believer in self-creation. I’m fascinated by individuals who fashion their own identities out of makeshift materials, who improvise with what’s to hand. I come from a large family filled with fully realized individuals. However, everybody has their own role and everybody fits into the mosaic. I always felt out of place within the context of that mosaic, that predetermined pattern. This is a feeling I carried with me from a very young age: the sense that I did not fit. I tried very hard to fit. But I felt adrift at home, at school and beyond those spaces. I remember my sister once telling me, “You do not belong to this world.” She meant it as a compliment flecked with religiosity. I don’t buy into that concept because it’s a way of denying me my humanness. We all belong to this world. We either have to find spaces where we fit or create spaces from scratch. That’s why websites like ‘Meetup’ are so popular. They tap into the basic human need for connection. If we are othered, we want to find people who are othered in similar ways. That’s why the slogan for ‘Meetup’ is so effective. “Find your people.” Self-creation stems from disorder, damage even. I am a product of self-creation.

With regards to the elaborate costuming and makeup that you see in the photos, they symbolize rigid self-control. I wear makeup and I don dramatic attire because I like control. I’m not interested in controlling others but I’m invested in strict self-governance. This is why I don’t do many face-to-face interviews. I don’t like being caught off-guard. It all goes back to that attempt to create order amidst disorder. One of the most frightening things about losing your mind is that you feel like your body, your brain, every part of your essence is being invaded. There is such a palpable helplessness to that narrative and I hate the sense of victimhood that it implies. Certainly, this is how I felt during my moments of psychological disquiet. I felt like my personhood was under attack. Performativity is important to me because I’m the teller of my own stories. I have been performing these multiple roles for so long that they have bled into my identity. I have become the man that I always wanted to be.

NJ: In a “Letter to [Your] 13-Year-Old Self”, you wrote, “You will wear your awkwardness, your aloneness and your alienness in your hair like gold thread”; and “Someday you will create your own family”. The second blessing – the importance of creating a family of one’s own making – is something that one of your characters repeats to himself, remembering his blood-family’s rejection. For many immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, much like many gay people, recognising that one’s “alienness” is “like a gold thread” and that process towards self-acceptance is part of how they’ve created commonality with others who similarly struggled. It is doubly hard for someone who is both gay, and nationally displaced – one does not have the safety net of family nor geography. Will you speak a little about the challenges and alienation that being thus doubly (or multiply) displaced creates? And how does the family you’ve chosen – and your own aesthetic, intellectual, moral, psychological and political choices – “home” you?

My interior life has changed radically since I wrote Fairytales For Lost Children. When I was writing the book, I was engaged in the kind of magical thinking that arises out of trauma and dislocation. I was essentially trying to create a new language for myself out of the detritus of soul-destroying elements. I had been told my whole life that I had a weak character so I was writing in reaction to that false assessment. In many regards, Fairytales For Lost Children is an origin story that charts the development of characters who are initially meek and eventually tap into their power. Ultimately, I realized that I am my own home. If you see my physical home, it’s nice but very spare. There are no paintings on the wall (even though I’m a painter), there are no photographs or personal mementos that are meaningful. Everything is minimalist and basic because I’m satisfied with the fact that I’m “homed” within my own body. That’s the ultimate gift. I have found the freedom to be comfortable within myself.

In terms of family, I’m really happy. I’m surrounded by people who genuinely respect and value me. This is not accidental. We can’t choose the families we’re born into but we can choose the families we decide to make our own. Mine is the kind of alternative family that Alison Bechdel described so wonderfully in her seminal comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. They’re incredibly fun, politically and artistically engaged folks with a sense of joie de vivre. I fit well into this mosaic. I have found my people.

NJ: What’s next for you? What will you be letting us read next?

DO: I’m currently working on a novel that I hope you will like once it’s finished. It grew out of a short story that refused to be contained within the form. It’s challenging but it’s also enormous fun. I’m not going to reveal the particulars of the plot because it’s too far off from completion but I can reveal the themes. It’s a novel about ambition (particularly artistic ambition), class, love, family and how far we are willing to go in order to preserve ourselves. These characters don’t have the issues of balancing out their cultural identities in the way that the characters from Fairytales For Lost Children did. In fact, their identities, which are very complex and interesting, are the least of their worries. It’s a book that’s in conversation with my debut. Fairytales For Lost Children concerned itself with, amongst other things, the pursuit of freedom. The new novel is about what happens when one finds freedom. After all, freedom isn’t freedom unless you do something with it.

Bonus: Video of Diriye Osman in conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘The London Session':

* Image Credit: Bahareh Hosseini.

Sweden’s love affair with Pippi Longstocking and “definitions” of racism

Recently The New York Times picked up on one of Sweden’s latest “race controversies”: The Swedish national broadcaster announced it would broadcast an edited version of a 1969 Pippi Longstocking TV-series. The edited version excludes a scene where Pippi plays Chinese by slanting her eyes and Pippi’s mainly absent dad is just a king instead of a ‘negro-king’.

Despite Pippi’s creator, Astrid Lindgren, confessing in a 1970 interview that she should have called Ephraim Longstocking (who, unable to carve out an existence for himself in Sweden, ventured to the Pacific’s, where he immediately became the ruler of a silly-named island populated by brown people) something else, the intervention caused a backlash among Swedes. Many felt their human rights had been trampled on. The word ‘censorship’ was mentioned, and many swore they would never watch the Pippi-series again. Others vowed to only show their children the original version of the series.

A couple of years ago, the move of offensive Tintin-comic books from the youth and children’s section in a public library caused similar reactions and evoked references to book burnings.

The people with the strongest reactions to both events are neither neo-Nazis nor members of obscure racist movements. They are ordinary white folks who ignore the link between dehumanization and killing in cold blood. It is ordinary people then who when their right to define racism is contested, start foaming at the mouth.

The closer to home – literally and metaphorically – the racism that is being addressed occurs, the more elaborate the strategies for deflection and derailment. Dismissing the concept of race as a construct (which is true but irrelevant) and claiming colour blindness is one. Referring to good intentions (claiming that engaging in blackface every November is not a substitute for cross-burning) is another. Yet others are bringing up reverse racism (as if there were such a thing) and telling people to focus on ‘real racism’ (whatever that is). For example, in defence of white South African artist Brett Bailey’s exhibition Exhibit B, in which black bodies are used to put the spotlight on the exploitation of black bodies, mainly white people have accused mainly black objectors to the oeuvre of mob hysteria.

In recent times, a recurring theme has been good white people telling good black people what is racism and what is not. Good white people rarely said ‘You’re right, let’s change that’ or ‘Let’s stop that’; instead they told black people calling out racism to sit down.

If there’s anything these last years have taught us, it is that smoking weed in public like the Dutch or being sexually super-liberated as the rumour has it that the Swedes are, doesn’t automatically make you cool, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we can trust your morals.

Weekend Special No. 2696

* Weekend Special is all that stuff we wanted to, but did not get around to writing about but shared on social media or things we feel bear repeating. First up, is the impunity of the police in the United States. The last few days here in New York City (and around the country and the world) have been characterized by spontaneous protests (the image, by a neighbor Michael Skolnik, was taken at Grand Central Station last night) against police violence. Here at Africa is a Country we published two pieces on the subject–the first by T.O. Molefe and the second by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza–while I was interviewed by PRI’s The World on comparisons with South Africa. Here’s an excerpt: “At one level, it’s not very different from what many poor black people in South Africa are going through right now. You have the [South African government] acting violently through the police against people protesting about the conditions under which they have to live … There was all this optimism built on a false consensus of a rainbow nation in which somehow just good feelings and good intentions would get South Africa away from the structural apartheid it inherited and they’d create a new society. But I think, in South Africa, there’s a sense that it didn’t work.”

10846159_736963663041186_5491279843969556336_n

* This week was also the first anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela, a man who since he emerged from prison in 1990 have been reduced to a one-dimensional figure separate from the history of the African National Congress. Mandela is now celebrated and co-opted by all sorts of political causes and personalities whose politics he would have opposed while alive, but who now claimed him as one of their own (here’s looking at you Helen Zille). In any case, our Archive is a good place to rid yourselves of such propaganda.

* December 5th was also the anniversary of the birth of another famed South African freedom fighter, Robert Sobukwe. He would have been 90 years old this month. Study up here, here and here.

* For all the hype about Western assistance, “most of the work of tracking, isolating and treating (Ebola) patients, burying the dead and raising awareness to minimize contagion had fallen to the three poor countries at the heart of the outbreak: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone,” reports The New York Times. So it is only proper that @YayaToure, @IdrisElba, @OfficialVieira et al got together to shoot the #WeveGotYourBack tribute to health workers in Sierra Leone fighting the Ebola Virus Disease.

Then the health workers in Freetown got to see themselves on film:

* This comment by former Ghana President Jerry Rawlings on the latest piece of news of some “pastor” in Ghana who kicked and stepped on the stomach of a pregnant woman): “Many too often as we watch our TVs, I don’t think we are putting enough efforts into showcasing some of these cultural traditional festivals – the activities that are going on around the countryside – and yet so much time is spent giving airtime, precious airtime to people like these two prophets I’ve been talking about of late: the one in Tema, called Obinim and the other one called Kumchacha … “

And yes, if you’re wondering, T.B. Joshua has still not produced any evidence of a mystery aircraft attacking his church building where 116 people died.

* Then there’s the liberal use of “Africa” in this TMZ story: “an African Thing,” “his native Africa.” Then there’s the reader comments. That must also be the first time we’ve read that being an African is a valid excuse to stalk someone. Anyway it is a TMZ story.

* Who said derivative pop can’t have pan-Africanist (well, as far as crossing over to capture audiences) ambitions.

* There’s also Iyadede’s new music:

* We don’t care much for the whole TED franchise, but news that legendary Nigerian footballer Sunday Oliseh had given a TEDx (that’s the version where anyone just organize their own TED) lecture in London, make us sit up. Till the video goes up, just watch this and you’ll know why we care:

* British Nigerian writer Ben Okri (winner, Man Booker Prize for “The Farmished Road” in 19991) was awarded the “Bad Sex” award for this love scene:

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour. Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

Okri issued, according to The Guardian, this humorless statement: “A writer writes what they write and that’s all there is to it.”

* Finally, here’s what we think is the Vine of the Week: “Coming home to jollof rice and then you’re told they fried dodo too”

* Acknowledgements to Elliot Ross for suggestions.

Remembering Slavery in South Africa

“I recognized Cape Town the first time I saw it,” Deborah Thomas revealed at a lecture she gave in the city in July 2014. A sociologist who works in Jamaica, she knew instantly that she was looking at a place shaped by slavery.

What do you see when you recognize slavery?

December 1st, 2014 marked 180 years since the abolition of slavery in South Africa. Few remember that apartheid was built on the systemic violence, displacement, racial formation and institutions of social control that marked slavery in the South African colonies from 1658 to 1834.

In fact, for 176 years, slavery was the central form of social and economic organization in the territories that would form South Africa. People were captured in Mozambique, Madagascar, India and South-East Asia to be brought as slaves to the Cape, the first and largest of the colonies that would form South Africa. Though the Dutch East India Company was forbidden from enslaving indigenous people at the Cape, the latter were subjected to genocide and conditions as brutal as slavery. Over the course of almost two centuries of slave-holding, enslaved people came to constitute the majority of the population of the Cape Colony, numbering more than 60,000 people (Ross, 1999, 6).

Slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa, yet we have largely forgotten its role in our history. Our forgetting has now lasted longer than slavery itself.

When will we remember? And what does it mean to remember 176 years of pain and survival.

Forgetting is common even among those people who are descended from slaves, like me. As the writer and literary scholar Zoë Wicomb has argued, this is the effect of the deep psychic costs of almost two centuries of extreme violence, and the further violence of being blamed for inviting that brutality. This has resulted in a phenomenon she unforgettably called a “folk amnesia” born of “shame” (1998, 100).

But it is also the consequence of a sustained system of propaganda that has diminished the meaning of slavery. Studies of South African history written before 1980 portrayed the role of slavery in the Cape as minor and its character “mild” (Keegan 1996, 16), a benign view also reflected in popular culture through texts such as cookbooks, cartoons and landscape paintings. It was only in the 1980s that significant new scholarship demonstrated that slavery shaped all aspects of life at the Cape and its hinterland (Worden, 1985), and slave labor was in fact central to the economy and the culture of the Colony.

The legacy of slavery still permeates South Africa today. Pumla Gqola’s superb and ground-breaking study What Is Slavery To Me? Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa (Wits, 2010) takes up the challenge of articulating the pertinence of this period for the present.  My book, Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-apartheid (Wits, 2014), examines the place of Muslims in the confluence of slavery and the making of race and sex in South Africa.

Once you look closely at the landscape of the country and listen to the people who live there, you see the inward and outward signs of slavery’s legacy everywhere – in ideas about race and sex, in language, even in curses. Terms of abuse like “kaffir” (a racial epithet used to license violence against Black people during apartheid but that actually dates from the colonial period) and “poes” (Afrikaans for “vagina”) form an intimate catalogue of memory of 176 years in which people were property and their lives were marked by brutality. Extreme violence, including systemic sexual violence, became the norm under slavery. Enslaved women were subjected to forced prostitution, and the Slave Lodge, which housed enslaved people owned by the Dutch East India Company, was also the “main brothel” of Cape Town (Keegan, 1996, 20). Today, the Slave Lodge is the national museum for memorializing slavery.

Seen in this light, the slave-holding period is the primal scene for understanding racial and sexual codes in South Africa, and our lack of attention to slavery prevents us from understanding a foundational time in our history. What do we miss by doing so?  The historian Robert Ross writes that “throughout the 180 years of slavery at the Cape, not a single man, slave or free, was convicted for raping a slave woman.” The scale of such sexual violence is part of the reason that South Africa continues to experience epidemic levels of sexual violence today. Because of the high proportion of male slaves to male colonists, colonial society at the Cape had an intense fear of slave resistance and consequently slaves were disciplined through “the massive use of judicial force” (Ross, 1983, 2) and “violent and extreme” punishment (Worden, 1985, 4). It is striking that a system characterized by such brutal control was portrayed as mild and picturesque.

The imprint of slavery is evident today in forms of labor that are crucial yet continue to be undervalued, underpaid and characterized by systemic violence, such as farm labor and domestic labor. After all, as a pattern of appropriation of people’s bodies and labor, control over their movement and constraint over their access to economic independence, slavery was replaced by other forms of exclusion after emancipation.

Wicomb’s notion of shame shows how powerfully emotion causes us to veer away from grappling with slavery’s impact. Yet artists have gone into the spaces fenced off by contempt and the propaganda of the picturesque to recover memories of slavery, for instance, in the visual art of Berni Searle, the novels The Slave Book by Rayda Jacobs and Unconfessed by Yvette Christiansë, and the play “Reclaiming the P…Word,” produced by students and faculty at the University of the Western Cape. The protagonist in Unconfessed, the novel about an enslaved Mozambican woman at the Cape, testifies that through slavery, Black women became “poese up to our chins” (2007, 320). In the present, the word “poes” is a ubiquitous swear word, “scrawled on toilet doors, station walls and schoolboys’ desks,” as a character in “Reclaiming the P…Word” asserts, marking the subsumed trace of the sexual violence of slavery that cannot be spoken of otherwise. To recall slavery beyond the veil of “shame” would allow us to understand the continuing prevalence of sexual violence against Black women, and the meaninglessness that is ascribed to Black suffering generally – the ground on which apartheid was built – as we contemplate the global resonance of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.

And yet of course to remember slavery is not only to remember pain, but also enslaved people’s “modernity” (C. L. R. James, 1962) – their creation of new cultures, their evasion of official strictures and categories, their remaking of received practices, and their splicing of language, food, music and beliefs in ways that would eventually come to shape national culture as a whole. It is necessary to remember slavery to be able to attend to the forms of survival, inventiveness, and flourishing among the descendants of slavery. Yet it remains important to attend to the inter-generational effects of systemic violence and the interior and external signs of pain that it produces. As in other parts of the world, South Africa’s history of slavery continues to shape the present in profound ways.

How will we remember its legacy this month?

Image: Hex River Valley, Western Cape of South African Tourism on Flickr.

#BlackLivesMatter: America’s Racial Degeneracy and Cowardice

The names are added to the long hall of infamy with sickening, stultifying regularity. The latest include Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and all those black boys and men sacrificed at the altar of America’s racism, the country’s enduring original sin.

Each generation of Americans is confronted by the ugly face of this primordial transgression, its staying power, its infinite capacities to make a mockery of the country’s vain self-congratulation as the land of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Proclamations that fall on deaf ears to its minority citizens and the outside world that experience and see the hypocrisies, contradictions, and inconsistencies spawned by the destructive deformities of racism.

The degeneracy of American racism runs deep, rooted in more than two centuries of slavery, the foundational matrix of American society, economy, and politics. It was renewed and recast during a century of Jim Crow. It survived and mutated over the last half century of civil rights. It persists in the Obama era, confounding misplaced expectations for a post-racial society that the election of the country’s first black president was magically supposed to usher in.

Each generation of African Americans faces eruptions of this racial degeneracy, most tragically captured in deadly assaults against unarmed black males by the police that predictably provoke widespread local and national protests. Each moment acquires its symbols and slogans. This year it’s Ferguson and the battle cry “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and New York and Eric Garner’s plaintive cry for life, “I can’t Breath.” Both have become rallying anthems of protests across the nation following the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers that killed the two men.

Outrage is often centered on the altercations between the law enforcement agencies and African American communities because of the racial disproportionalities in surveillance, profiling, arrests, and sentencing. Mountains of data show African Americans are subject to forms of policing that are far more excessive, abusive, and disrespectful than European Americans. This has resulted in the creation of an American gulag of black imprisonment, a prison pipeline especially for black males from the schools, streets, and sidewalks of America.

The broken relations between African American communities and law enforcement agencies and the exponential growth of a black prison industrial complex in the era following the civil rights struggles represent the contemporary forms of America’s age-old racial structures, hierarchies, and ideologies, the country’s new Jim Crow regime of existential, economic and epistemic violence against black lives, black well-being, and black citizenship.

Police brutality and unaccountability for violence against African Americans is facilitated by and a manifestation of the wider society’s values, expectations, and interests. The challenge is not simply to provide the police with better training or technologies, although that would help. Lest we forget, Eric Garner’s death was captured on video, and the grand jury still refused to indict the policeman. In a bygone era, public lynchings were spectacles of morbid public entertainment. The real issue is the value placed on black lives, black bodies, and black humanity by American society.

The discourse by the police and their supporters often taps into persistent racial codes: the bodies of the black victims are full of brawn, not brains, depicted as embodiments of some fearsome bestial power that threaten their police interlocutors, which can only be tamed by superior weapons and intelligence. The police officer who killed Michael Brown described the latter as an overpowering Hulk Hogan “demon” who “grunted” and charged at him like a mindless animal. A Republican Congressman blamed Eric Garner for his own death, saying “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese, he would not have died from this.” And 12 year-old Tamir Rice was mistaken for a 20 year old, a homage to the black man-child stereotype of racial discourse in white supremacist America and colonial Africa.

Each generation of Americans is forced to reckon with the journey it has travelled towards racial equality. It discovers that while progress has been made, the distance it has travelled from the past, from the original sin of slavery, is much shorter than the road ahead. Each generation of African Americans is given no choice but to renew the struggles of previous generations against America’s racial degeneracy.

America’s racial backwardness is marked and sustained by cowardice, the complicity of the wider society in its perpetuation, the cognitive inability to take race and racism seriously, the political refusal to address it systematically, the obliviousness of too many people to its destructiveness not only for its victims but also its perpetrators and beneficiaries. Racism diminishes the entire society, robbing it of its citizens’ full human potential; it leaves in its trail horrendous wastage of human resources and lives.

America’s failure to have a concerted conversation on race and racism is not surprising for too much is at stake for too many people, interests, and institutions. But racism will not disappear by ignoring it, dismissing it, or wishing it away through fanciful invocations of a postracial society or misguided censure against political correctness. Failure to address it will continue to erode the moral, political, and constitutional fiber of the nation, and make it a global laughing stock for the glaring mismatch between what it preaches abroad and practices at home.

At the height of the Cold War and decolonization, the United States lost hearts and minds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America because of the racist treatment of its black citizens. In today’s era of changing global hegemonies marked by the rise of the rest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the ancestral homelands of America’s minorities, images beamed from American cities of police violence against people of color diminish the country’s global soft power that it so badly needs as its hard power erodes. A serial domestic abuser cannot expect to be respected by its neighbors aware of such abuse, as is the case for America in today’s world of hyper connectivity.

In so far as we are all raced, race and racism is our collective problem. It is not a black problem. It is an American problem. We must find the courage and the honest language to address it with the seriousness it deserves in all aspects of our lives at the individual, interpersonal, institutional, community, national, and global levels. Only then will the problem of the color line of previous centuries cease to be a problem for future generations, and can we begin to fully realize the possibilities that lie in the indivisible and interconnected mutuality of our collective humanity to build truly democratic, inclusive, and humane societies.

This is what the lives, tragic deaths, and memories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and countless others before and since mean to me: the imperative that, as we say in Southern Africa, the struggle for liberation continues, for our liberation as peoples of African descent from centuries of Euro-American racism, and for the humanization and democratization of our countries in the diaspora and the world at large.

Image Credit: Twitter

Chespirito: The Latin American Idol

Mexican actor Roberto Gómez Bolaños died last week, aged 85. Chespirito (which means “little Shakespeare” in Mexican Spanish), as he was known, created, scripted and starred on many successful TV sitcoms, such as “El Chavo del Ocho,” “Chespirito” and “El Chapulín Colorado.” These shows were broadcast throughout Latin America. Actually they were broadcast in every Spanish-speaking Latin American country (though only for a few days in Cuba), as well as in Brazil (dubbed into Portuguese).

Even though the bulk of the shows were taped in the 1970’s, and most of them had stopped production by the early 1990’s, most Latin American countries still have networks carrying reruns of the shows and they still return decent ratings. So, even though their characters are unmistakably Mexican–they speak with Mexican accents, use Mexican words, and joke about Mexican geography and popular culture–Chespirito’s shows are ingrained into the patchy and ill-defined “Latin American” identity.

Chances are that, if you grew up in Latin America in the past four decades, you watched Chespirito’s shows and you know–whether you like them or not–most of its jokes. Even if you didn’t pay particular attention to the show, you were bound to become familiar with its tropes somehow. Because the genius of Gómez Bolaños was that he was both simple and repetitive: his characters were practically cartoons, always wearing the same outfits, each with a distinct way of crying and a limited set of catchphrases. They were archetypical, which allowed Chespirito to turn his routine and his characters’ jokes into slang and common sayings throughout the region.

His characters were easily digested because they were  symbolic, representatives not of a person in particular, but of a social type found anywhere. There was Quico (played by Carlos Villagrán), the spoiled kid in the neighborhood; there was La Chilindrina (played by María Antonieta de las Nieves), the smartass brat; and there was Don Barriga (played by Édgar Vivar), the perpetual landlord who is fixated on collecting rent, but not on fixing broken things.

Granted, Gómez Bolaños’s most famous, and probably most beloved character, Chavo del Ocho (played by himself), had very peculiar circumstances: he was a young orphan who lived in apartment 8 of a building in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City, but prefered to sleep inside a barrel in the communal patio, where he could meet other kids to play and find adults to ask them for food in exchange of menial jobs. “El Chavo” happened precisely at a time when many Latin American economies were moving from rural to urban, and when many newly arrived people from the country filled cities’ suburbs. It was the perfect scenario for him to become the proverbial poor kid trying to survive day by day, a hero from the slums for millions of children in similar situations.

Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentinian footballing legend, grew up in Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires, which was, like Chavo’s neighborhood, a shantytown. In 2005, Maradona had Gómez Bolaños on his interview show (yes, Maradona had an interview show). There, Maradona declared Chespirito to be his idol, and he said he thought Gómez Bolaños’s humor was “clean, constructive and harmless.” Later, he confessed that “El Chavo” had helped him get through his addictions. He mentioned that even during bad moments in his life, when he watched ‘El Chavo’, he “felt relaxed and tranquil.”

Maradona-repitio-programa-emocion-Captura_NACIMA20141128_0122_19

This is a sentiment that is echoed throughout Latin American households. Networks air Chespirito’s shows because they are cheap (they have already preproduced), but also because people continue to watch, despite the fact that the jokes will always be the same. And people watch because they feel there is something of them in Chespirito’s characters (Don Ramón, played by Ramón Valdés, for example, perpetually owes 14 months of rent, but he can’t pay because first he has to make sure he and his daughter survive).

Chespirito, more than any sport or any cultural institution, can truly unite Latin American countries. But his death has reignited criticisms to his shows’ legacy, as well as to his own standing as the only truly Latin American celebrity. Yes, we all grew up with his shows. And yes, they have given us a rare common cultural reference. But was that a good thing?

First, most of his humor was based on physical violence, and in particular on physical violence towards children (characters who were children, played by adults, but still children in the eyes of many viewers). This can be problematic from a contemporary viewpoint, especially when many, if not all, Latin American countries have struggled with the issue of domestic violence.

Also, to some commentators, Chespirito’s shows are detrimental for social struggles. Poverty is accepted as an unfortunate, but ultimately immutable fate and any semblance of social mobility is depicted as a mere fantasy. As Mexican researcher Raúl Rojas Soriano puts it, “El Chavo” is “a dire reflection of societal problems, but the show made no effort to address these issues.” Nonetheless, it still remains debatable if the function of TV, or fiction in general, is to educate people on social, or ethical issues.

Others have chosen to focus on Chespirito’s brilliant repetitive narrative structures. This is the case of Colombian Carolina Sanín, who thinks that “watching ‘El Chavo del Ocho,’ which seems like a domestication process and a mnemonic technique, was always to remember it. And when I remember El Chavo, I feel I remember a memory.”

Of course, both things can be true: Chespirito’s shows, and “El Chavo” in particular, have fascinating narratives, with problematic contents. But perhaps more troublesome is Gómez Bolaños’s political stance. A convinced conservative, he appeared in ad campaigns against abortion and in favor of PAN (Mexico’s right-wing party) candidates and eventual presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón.

Also, during the height of his shows’ fame in the late 1970’s, he and his cast toured every Latin American country where his characters were broadcast, including Chile and Argentina, which had been very recently become dictatorships. In his autobiography, from 2005, Chespirito argued that he and his cast were unaware that Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, where they performed in 1978, had been used by Chilean dictator as a political prison just five years earlier. He also said that if they had known, they would still have performed, because the people wanted them there. Finally, he thought that, under that logic, nobody should be able to perform on El Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), where hundreds died during the Mexican Revolution.

So, though disconnected from its social and political struggles, Chespirito and his characters remain Latin American icons, which is why many cities in different countries honored his life after his passing. Yet, while his life and political work will from now on be mentioned only briefly, his shows will still be running on Latin American TVs, with the same jokes repeating ever again, creating new common denominators between different countries and generations.

Hey Ridley Scott, ‘Mohamed so-and-so’ wants his job back

The controversy surrounding Ridley Scott’s casting in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (it opens on December 12th) has reached a pinnacle of absurdity. As if the discussion had not become ridiculous enough, Rupert Murdoch’s decision to chime in with comments that were equal parts erroneous, hilarious and depressing, nudged the entire affair to a new level. But first here’s the trailer:

After months of criticism for frankly predictable whitewashed casting, the famed director decided to respond with a few choice words in an interview with film publication Variety. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” Said Scott, “I’m just not going to get it financed.”

Scott Foundas, who wrote the Variety profile, lauded Scott for not making “any compromises” while making a film “in the most plausible historical terms possible.”

In his biting critique of the film for Medium, the writer and editor David Dennis Jr. calls “Exodus” lazy. This may be a fair assessment, but Scott’s argument about funding points to deeply rooted issues of bigotry and racism in Hollywood that are much larger than a single director; just ask Jack Shaheen. What is extraordinarily lazy is how Scott has chosen to address the backlash aimed at him.

Murdoch’s comments are certainly not helping Scott’s case. On November 29 he tweeted: “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.” The expected Twitter explosion ensued, as did Murdoch’s successful bids at digging himself a deeper hole.

Scott’s argument that “Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe” is not technically inaccurate. However if we’re talking about ancient Egypt at the time of Moses, well then the validity of his statement becomes a little murkier.

Many moons ago, Egyptologist H.W. Fairman wrote about the often-ignored interconnectedness between Egyptology and African Studies, calling for increased collaboration between the two disciplines. In his words: “Ancient Egypt was a part of Africa. The earliest communities that we can trace in Egypt were African communities, of African origin, and it was early African social customs and religious beliefs that were the root and foundation of the Egyptian way of life…in the course of the millennia they changed…but in spite of time and all external influences, fundamentally and essentially Egyptian culture was African, and those African foundations endured.”

The external influences he’s talking about are Asian, initially from Sumerian Mesopotamia, followed by Semites from the same region, large swathes of what is now the Levant and Arabian Gulf. As more than one of my well-humored history professors used to put it: “At this time, most Europeans were still running around in the forest.” The exception were the Minoans, indigenous to Crete but originally from Anatolia (much of modern day Turkey and parts of the Middle East) who thrived during the Bronze Age and engaged in regional trade, and later the Greek Mycenaeans, who engaged in trade, but also warfare with their neighbors to the south.

As has been pointed out over the course of this very public controversy, there is debate around the origins of Ancient Egyptians, but Scott’s casting does not in any way reflect this debate. In fact, one major criticism in the study of Ancient Egyptian civilization has been the tendency for contemporary scholars to look at race and race relations through our modern conceptions of color, as evidence suggests social hierarchies were determined by different measures. An argument that supports Dennis’ observation that Scott’s casting is inherently racist, or as he puts it “cinematic colonialism.”

In defense of Scott, Foundas points out that the same case could be made for many other biblically themed films, including “Exodus” predecessor “The Ten Commandments”, the 1956 film that far surpassed it’s present-day counterpart for whitewashing. The film, to be fair, was made ten years before discourse like this nugget from Fairman was considered acceptable for publication in the peer-reviewed journal African Affairs:

Egyptian civilization as we know it, dynastic, historic Egypt, Egypt of the Pharaohs, was not the logical, automatic development of predynastic Egypt; it was the result of the intrusion…of people of superior cranial capacity and brain power…

Fairman’s eugenics invoking prose and his observations about the research gap enabled by the limited intellectual interaction between those scholars of “African Studies” and those of “Egyptology” shed light on an enduring divide between Egypt and the rest of the (particularly sub-Saharan) continent. This too is history distorted by contemporary notions of what it means to be Egyptian, Arab, and African – and what these identities mean to a British academic of yesteryear.

As for the casting, we can perhaps make the case to forgive “The Ten Commandments” as it was released prior to the great mainstream success of Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. But what’s the excuse today? There are several Arab and African actors who have been working on big budget Hollywood films in recent years. Egyptian Amr Waked famously played the lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s “Lucy”. The film cost a mere 40 million USD when compared to the exorbitant 140 million spent on “Exodus”. That last 100 million, it seems, was contingent on inaccurately representing historical figures.

#DeconstructingFerguson and lessons for black South Africa in black America

There were more people at Chumley’s sports bar during Saturday’s Ohio State University game against archival Michigan than there were days later at the Ohio Union nearby on Thursday night for #deconstructingferguson, a conversation and teach-in that centered around events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. The turnout at the teach-in was tremendous; at least twice the number of people came than the organizers, the OSU history department, expected. It was also standing room only earlier in the week at a panel discussion on the same topic hosted by the university’s college of law.

But these numbers were a fraction of those at Chumley’s on Saturday, which, like the streets of the OSU campus, Columbus and probably every other city in the Buckeye state, even Beavercreek and Cleveland, was overflowing with mostly white revelers in scarlet and grey. It was hard not to get caught up in the revelry, despite being only a visitor.

All eyes were on nearby Ohio Stadium, filled with a record 108,610 people who witnessed OSU run out 42-28 winners, keeping their hopes of a Big-Ten championship alive. The victory was costly. Star quarterback J. T. Barrett broke his right ankle and will be out for the rest of the season. His plays up to that point had seen him billed as a potential Heisman trophy winner, but that dream is now deferred.

***

As I listened to people at the teach-in seated in circles of eight to ten people speak from experience and research of racial stereotyping, police brutality and the US justice system, my mind turned to Barrett and his black OSU teammates. The circle I was in had mostly black undergraduates, mere babies who each had a personal story to tell of their distrust of the police, experience of police brutality and lack of faith in the criminal justice system.

It was in particular a comment from a young woman next to me rejecting the idea that blacks should don on the military fatigues of and go to war for a country that does not care for them that made me think of Barrett.

He, too, no doubt, has his own stories of distrust and police brutality to tell. Yet majority of the hundreds of thousands who tune in to watch him put his body on the line for OSU tune out when his body is endangered by a system of policing that sees him, above all things, as a danger to society. But things are different when he’s on the field in scarlet and grey, aren’t they? Being on the field in scarlet and grey lets white folk and machinery of the state of Ohio and the City of Columbus care about what happens to him because, just for that moment, in their eyes, he stops being just another n—er.

Would Ronald Ritchie have called 911 to falsely report that “a black male, probably about 6ft tall” was pointing a gun at people in a Beavercreek Walmart, “probably to rob the place”, had John Crawford been Barrett in his scarlet and grey? Would the police who responded to the call in a state that has gun laws that allow people to carry openly have shot Crawford on sight? Probably not.

It’s likely, too, that had 12-year-old Tamir Rice had something to act as his scarlet and grey—a shield, albeit temporary, from the stereotype at the heart of white America, American institutions and the country’s criminal justice system that defines blackness as illicit—he might still be alive today. Instead, his family is in mourning. And in Cleveland, as it was in Missouri for Darren Wilson for the death of Mike Brown and New York City for Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, the blue wall of silence is converging with prosecutors’ dependence on future cooperation and electoral support from local police to conspire for the Cleveland police department and Timothy Loehmann, the unfit-for-duty cop who shot Rice on sight, to escape accountability.

Holding up a handwritten sign at a recent protest, University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long asked America and its anti-black institutions: “Are we still thugs when you pay to watch us play sports? #blacklivesmatter”

Long probably knows the answer is no, America’s black football players are, for the most part, loved when on the field and in their jerseys. It’s another matter entirely when they’re not wearing them, as the death of Jonathan Ferrell at the smoking end of police officer Randall Kerrick’s gun illustrated. Sometimes, even putting life and limb on the line for team pride isn’t enough to escape the stereotype that black equals thug.

In a way, every black American has since the 17th century been striving for something they hope will take on the role of a permanent, impervious equivalent to Barrett’s scarlet and grey, something that makes their humanity visible through the shades of anti-blackness nestled on eyes in America. For essayist Kiese Laymon it could have been his Vasser College faculty ID, but it doesn’t always work and as it protects him and him alone, it is thoroughly useless for the general deliverance of blacks from American evil, although it provides that comforting illusion.

For New York attorney Lawrence Graham, as it is for many other black folk, the hope is that attaining status among the elite will protect from anti-blackness. But Graham, too, conceded that this does not work.

Surely even Michelle and Barack Obama must also concede this. When America’s first couple is alone and not performing to alleviate the symptoms of an ailing country built on the bodies of native Americans and people of color, and through an imperialist foreign policy agenda that puts the lives of certain Americans above all others, they, too, must accept that even the title President of the United States does not make a difference to people and institutions who refuse to see you and your kids as anything else but bunch of n—ers.

***

I confess envy. The ease, conviction and singleness of purpose with which the young black Americans in the circle was I in spoke about their social realities and the imperative for justice made me reflect on similar conversations I’d attempted with young black South Africans and my peers in the middle class.

While many of those I spoke to are able to break down the social realities of being black in a supposedly post-apartheid South Africa, many more are insular and believe assimilating into structures and practices forged in the country’s colonial history will protect from its inherent anti-black biases. Black America’s already learned, or is at least learning, that this is not true, and is conceptualizing ways to organize against it. Well, most of black American anyway, excepting for people like Pharrell, Bill Cosby and Don Lemon who preach respectability as the savior of blacks.

There will always be people like that. There were even two who spoke and their arguments rejected on Thursday night. It’s just that among middle-class black South Africans, there seem to be many more people who hold poor and working-class blacks in disregard if not disdain, and believe an unearned sense of entitlement, poorly worded resumes or self-doubt are what holds blacks back. In so doing, they turn the obligation of adopting a change in behavior on black people and not the structures and systems that disenfranchise and devalue them.

Thus when thinking of what troubles poor black people, middle-class blacks in South Africa would do well to heed Ta-Nahesi Coates channeling Steve Biko: “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.”

***

The #deconstructingFerguson circles came together later that night to propose solutions to the problems discussed. Everyone present was onboard with the idea that America is not post-racial, a nebulous term matched in emptiness by its South African equivalent, non-racial. Although both words propose a theoretical future where race is no longer a factor, they provide no means of imaging what the path there looks like and what actions will get us there. And in popular use, both terms have been captured by neoliberal projects that present this future as imminent, attainable and inevitable through the status quo when, in reality, such a future is possibly only through a radical departure from the current.

The solutions proposed were mostly good and centered on organizing and mobilizing around specific issues; special prosecutors in cases involving police, automatic indictment, community policing, reforming the selection and social-awareness training of police officers, turning greater attention to electing local and state representatives who stand in solidarity with the movement, supporting black businesses and targeted boycotts of those that back anti-black policies.

Also suggested was intersecting and working with other movements organized against the same system of oppression: imperialist white-supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

I wanted to read out a contentious tweet sent to Coates, but I was reticent. The conversation intersected with mine, it’s true, but I was still an outsider, so I just listened. The tweet was sent by The National Memo’s Eric Kleefeld and it read: “The single greatest moment of social progress for black Americans was in violent, massive war [the American Civil War]. Worth pondering.”

I think it’s worth pondering because working toward a similar singular moment of social progress should be on the cards as a solution, too—not through war necessarily, but something major that forces America to reconstruct itself from the bottom up under a new, equitable ethos. The long slow grind of gradualist approaches can at times feel (and be) akin to mopping the fevered brow and lancing the boils of the patient that is America, suppurating from the inside out.

Adapting an argument from Coates about the merits of the American Civil War: those who fear that agitating for such a moment could lead to tragedy have likely chosen not to recognize the tragedy in their mid that falls disproportionately, if not exclusively, on poor people, people of color and native American communities, women, queer, transgender and intersex people, immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities.

It is now up to black America to decide what its next big moment of social progress should be and what to do to make it happen.

In South Africa, in averting civil war, we had the negotiations to end apartheid, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Constitution that maintained the status quo with the promise of a better tomorrow for black folk. Theoretically, the approach was sound. But the process was captured by a neoliberal project that injected conservatism into just about every aspect of the transition to democracy and prized economic growth and profits over black lives, as the massacre in Marikana brought into sharp relief.

Through this white South Africa, the apartheid state, and its agents and lackeys were let off the hook. Apartheid corruption metastized into democracy, there were no reparations, restitution is achingly slow and contested doggedly, the effects of redistribution are massively oversold, racist attacks are on the rise, affirmative action is often decried as “reverse racism” or a baby killer (seriously), police protect property at the expense of poor black lives, and transforming the country’s institutions is often left to well-meaning but often clueless liberals. If that’s not enough, the appetite for interaction across the racial divide is waning and only 53% of white South Africans believe apartheid was a crime against humanity. The rest either disagree or have no thoughts on the matter.

There is nothing to suggest any of this will change except the false promise that staying the neoliberal course will birth the promised nonracial future. Thus, by my assessment, black America presently is in the throes of a conversation that, without a radical intervention, black South Africans will be having in another 20 to 30 years, maybe more.

God, Not Again: White People and an ‘Out of Africa’ Wedding in Kenya

Oh no. Africa has “touched” someone “deeply” again. This time, it’s Melbourne-based wedding photographer Jonas Peterson, who has reportedly “shot brides and grooms in all sorts of beautiful places around the world,” but none like this infamous lothario of a continental landmass, which “sung to [him] in a way [he] didn’t know possible, found new chords and played on strings [he] didn’t know [he] had inside [him]”. Africa! You sure know how to make white men swoon.

Surely, Peterson knew what he was getting into when he went to photograph the wedding of Nina, “a wildlife photographer and senior marketing advisor to wild cat conservation organization Panthera – and her fiancé Sebastian” in Masaai Mara in Kenya. This is primal Africa central. White people go there, and bam! They get touched and their chords get strummed. Then they usually end up throwing themselves all over “tribal jewellery” given to them by their close and personal Masaai, dancing about some acacias, taking pictures with smiling African children, and the rest is history.

Peterson’s gushing commentary about the sexy power of Africa was was reported in the Huffington Post. It’s a photoshoot of some random wealthy white people’s destination wedding in Masaai Mara where Massai men are used as props to add interest to photographs. Basically HuffPost is providing free advertising for his photography company (and for Pantera), masquerading as “lifestyle” reportage. Only Twitter and Facebook produced any critique. We’ve said this before, white people. Stop using “Out of Africa” – a film based on a colonial fantasy. The film’s sweeping scenery, and poetic lines rekindle our desire to return to a good ole time, when whites were whites, servants were servants (clearly demarcated by their ridiculous uniforms), and tribesmen were tribesmen (differentiated by their cute, exotic jewellery and costumes). That fantasy still appeals to us because…you know, things were so nice with servants and unlimited power, and swathes of land one could take over whilst one also got to feel like the noble European Madam/Bwana who built a school or clinic and helped the natives get rid of illiteracy and rinderpest or something like that. I’m sure poor Robert Redford and Meryl Streep – and her terrible Danish aristocratic accent – never imagined that when they took on roles as a damaged adventurer and a ruined, lovelorn aristocrat (respectively), racist South Africans would plan weddings with the movie as the theme…only the “wedding theme” is really an excuse to look like tools posing with schlocky “Out of Africa” props, and to also use black/brown people as objects in a colonial fantasy.

But! you say, Wait! This bride, Nina, is not like that! She worked in Masaai Mara. On conservation (bona fide white people credentials for being a good person in Africa). She knew the Masaai so well that one brought her bridal jewellery intended for a Masaai bride. As Nina clearly informed the Huffington Post, “When I first told my closest friend in the Maasai community about our wedding, he came back to me with a necklace and bracelets as a special gift made for me by his family. The stick carried by Sebastian was also a gift from the local Maasai community.”

In case we doubt her exclusive claims on the Masaai, and her extensive Masaai knowledge, she adds, “The bride of the Maasai normally wear a lot of jewelry, and the necklace, called enkarewa, is especially important”. Nice. Good to know that these exotic people are especially exotic because their brides like to wear a lot of jewellery (unlike other brides?).

So I don’t want to waste my photography-analytical skills on these cutesy pics, but ok, fine, there’s a couple that are so hilariously staged that I just have to. There’s the acacia shot: he’s standing there, staring into the expanse of the savanna (existential angst, Denys Finch Hatton-style), and she is on the other side of the acacia, sort of lunging towards him in that white wedding dress and Masaai gear (tasteful, but still, c’mon) … looking forlorn, and all Baroness von Blixen.

slide_386370_4637242_free

Then, the wedding party (all white) poses on a fallen log. Guess who suddenly showed up but two Masaai in full, exotic, Masaai-ish gear?! (Yes, those red blankets came from Scottish missionaries back in the day, and now probably come from Mainland Chinese missionaries nowadays.)

slide_386370_4637244_free

The African as backdrop and prop to white fantasy continues: the couple walk through a double receiving line of Masaai warriors–and for some reason, they are carrying a small, white baby (is it theirs? A friends?).

slide_386370_4637248_free

Then they kiss against an ominous, rainy season storm sky, whilst a Masaai warrior stands around with a spear for no reason. Perhaps his cows ran away because they couldn’t face this charade (image at the top of the post).

Bride Nina also poses fetchingly, one hand chasing the errant end of her veil, whilst a handsome Masaai warrior stands next to her to offset her whiteness and difference. But, something in this fantasy doesn’t work – he’s intended to be there to be the noble savage, to offset her as “civilised” and “white”, and to accentuate her subjectivity (her passage into adulthood and marriage as a powerful, white woman who is rich enough to stage her wedding pictures here in Masaai Mara, and have the event captured by a photographer from Australia). But – bejeweled as he is in beads and an animal-hide wrap that looks so elegant that no European designer claiming to create “ethical” fashion inspired by African tribespeople could even dream of reproducing, and wearing rubber sandals that have a hint of peach in them – there is no one in this colonial fantasy as beautiful and elegant, and…modern as he. Doubtless, he can teach Nina more conservation skills than all of Panthera.

The one thing that remains a constant, reminding us that no matter where these savvy, marketing-minded, narcissistic people held their wedding, they would still be married to the history that produced this patriarchal and colonial fantasy? The bridesmaids’ dresses look terrible.

Digital Archive No. 5–Harvard’s African Sources of Knowledge Digital Library

Two weeks ago, I attended the African Studies Association Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.  As Sean mentioned in a previous post, a bunch of folks from Africa Is A Country got to meet up and get to know each other outside of our usual digital constraints.  I also presented on a panel entitled “Digital African Studies: State of the Field” with some of my MSU professors, Walter Hawthorne and Ethan Watrall, as well as some digital scholars working at Harvard, Carla Martin and John Mugane.  Professor Mugane is the Director of the African Language program in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard, as well as the project director of African Sources of Knowledge Digital Library (ASK-DL).

The ASK-DL project is “a pioneering initiative in the identification, recovery, integration, consolidation, and dissemination of information contained in rare handwritten and out-of-print African language documents of non-latinate scripts.”  The site consists of three main sections: a digital collection, a library, and Odù Ifá, a Yoruba language preservation project incorporating video and text.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 1.38.03 PM

The document collection housed on ASK-DL is composed of mainly hand-written documents pulled from unpublished booklets, poetry, essays, private letters, and other documents in Amharic, Bamanankan, Pulaar, Swahili, Tifinagh, and Wolof scripts.  This section of the site also contains a few printed documents in non-latinate scripts, including some recent documentation on Ebola in Bamanankan.  Additional references on these endangered languages are found in the Catalog, which houses documentation and links to other texts on these highly specialized African languages.

In addition to these great resources, the ASK-DL project also works to preserve these languages in their spoken form.  The Odù Ifá sections contains videos of native Yoruba speakers reciting chapters from the Odù Ifá, a book of wisdom used within the Ifa sacred divination system.

These videos are great resources for scholars interested in the Odù Ifá itself, as well as for students aiming to learn Yoruba.  Hearing the language performed by native speakers, along with transcripts and translations, allows for a unique opportunity to combine aural and visual learning in language acquisition.  Let’s hope that ASK-DL continues to incorporate more projects of this type as they continue to develop this resource.

Check back next week for the first of a two-week series on digital slave trade datasets.

**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.**

How do we judge Nigeria’s Abiola family? New documentary film on the history of Nigeria democracy movement

The documentary film “The Supreme Price” by Joanna Lipper sets out to “trace the evolution of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and efforts to increase the participation of women in leadership roles.” It claims to do so through the stories of the Abiola family.

For much of the 1990s the Abiolas, along with the country’s generals, dominated Nigeria’s politics. The father, MKO Abiola, made his money in telecoms and won Nigeria’s first democratic elections after ten years of military rule on June 12, 1993. Those elections are acknowledged as the freest and fairest in the country’s history. However, 11 days later the military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the elections. Political chaos and protests followed. An interim government was installed in August only to be overthrown by another military coup led by General Sani Abacha in November. Abiola continued to claim the Presidency, but was imprisoned in 1994. His wife, Kudirat, who campaigned for him, was assassinated in 1996. When Abacha died in 1998 and military rule was finally reaching an end, Abiola suddenly (or conveniently) died in prison, assumed poisoned. But the Aboila family’s story doesn’t end there. Their daughter Hafsat campaigned both for her father and mother as a young Harvard University student. She is now back in Nigeria, as a special adviser to the Ogun state government, one of Nigeria’s 36 states and as a campaigner for women’s rights. She is the star of “The Supreme Price.” Hafsat’s main platform is that men have overstayed their welcome as Nigeria’s leaders and it is women’s time. We are meant to think it is her time.

Here’s the trailer:

The film has another bold objective: to “provide a unprecedented look inside of Africa’s most populous nation, exposing the tumultuous, violent history of a deeply entrenched corrupt culture of governance where a tiny circle of political elites monopolize billions of dollars worth of oil revenue while the masses remain impoverished.”

The choice of the Abiolas as poster figures for Nigeria’s democracy movement is an interesting one; but the contradictions of that move are not sufficiently explored by Lipper and ultimately undermined the films claims.

MKO Abiola was a controversial figure. While MKO was alive he presented himself as a self-made man and the film dutifully repeats this script. The effect is that the film glosses over the fact that he made his immense fortune via contracts with a range of Nigerian dictators, not least through leading ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) company. It’s that company and its corrupt dealings which inspired Fela Kuti to write the song “International Thief Thief (ITT),” about how international companies in consort with local elites exploited African resources: Fela sang of Abiola and General Olesegun Obasanjo, 1970s military ruler (and later an elected president), as “thieves” and “men of low mentality.”

Secondly, while MKO Abiola was famous for his philanthropy, he could not have run as president without the blessing of the sitting dictator, Ibrahim Babangida. Though a sense of this complex politics is hinted at, it is far from explicit and definitely not discussed. These connections are not secrets, and surely Hafsat Abiola has talked about them before. But the film does not explore them.

The film’s PR refers to Kudirat Abiola as someone “[who] took over the leadership of the pro-democracy movement, organizing strikes and marches and winning international attention for the Nigerian struggle”. This is a very controversial statement in Nigeria. Yes, she was a leader. For example, she did take initiatives, towards working with unions, civil society and the international community. However, she was not “the” leader of “the” movement. She did approach the oil workers union when her husband was arrested in 1994 to plead for them to go on strike for his release. She probably did this because NUPENG, the oil workers union for blue-collar workers had , had already staged a strike after the elections in 1993 to protests of the non-implementation of the results: NUPENG was a union deeply entrenched in the democracy movement, with a charismatic leader, Frank Kokori, and a committed membership. The strike in 1994 was led by the national federation, the NLC, but dominated by the two oil workers’ unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN. The decision to go on strike was made by a joint leadership after due consultation with regions and members. Nigerian trade unions pride themselves on their political independence. The wife of a president-elect could and did not lead the workers’ strike.

The historian Bolanle Awe sums up Kudirat Abiola’s political role in the 1990s in this way: “She could not be called a the leader of women, per se, like her earlier counterparts; she did not appear to have been part of their efforts to ensure gender equity and fair play, yet she added tremendous momentum to the women’s movement and encouraged women to speak up for their rights.”

It is not just in specific instances that the film overestimates the role of the Abiolas. Missing from the film is the actual pro-democracy movement. To talk of a movement, it implies a variety of actors. I wish the film would have shown us more of these other actors, and discussed how they related to the Abiolas, both as President elect and the wife. I would have liked Lipper to talk to Hafsat about how Hafsat saw her mother: whether as a democracy or women’s activist or as both (Hafsat does talk candidly about her father’s personal failings).

In the same way the film misrepresents Kudirat and MKO Abiola’s political legacy, it hypes that of Hafsat. While Hafsat herself leads a women’s group, it doesn’t look like “a woman’s movement” per se but more like a small group of women meeting.

The idea to make a film about Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement as well as women’s political roles are both important and exciting topics, and could potentially fill gaps in our knowledge of Nigerian politics. Nigeria is conservative and patriarchal, and, with few exceptions, women and women’s stories are rarely part of public life, except as wives and mothers. (The two leading, and realistic, presidential candidates right now are both men.) Yet, despite this women have and continue to play important roles in Nigerian politics, if at times they court the same notoriety of their male counterparts (think Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, finance minister and the bane of subsidy protesters in 2012 or Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi, former minister of aviation implicated in corruption). So, the stories of the Abiola women seem to offer an antidote to this male-dominated political histories.

At another level the film, the film is an important historical document, especially in a country where history is not discussed openly; According to political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim Nigeria is “the only country in the world where the teaching of history has disappeared from the school system. Our children go through the whole school system without learning our origins and struggles as a nation-state.”

One of the probable reasons that history in Nigerian schools has disappeared, is the unsettled national question and conflicts between regions, ethnicities and religions. Nigerians hardly agree on how their history has unfolded, who the relevant actors are and what really happened. (Just take Biafra or current debates over why Boko Haram alludes security forces.) Further, the political and economic elites are so intertwined in history of corruption, political repression and dictatorship that telling any story about Nigeria encounter public disputes.

Though Hafsat Abiola is an intriguing, inspiring and strong character, she is also part of this history. And she would probably be willing to discuss it. But she doesn’t or doesn’t get to or we don’t get to see it because of Lipper’s choices. What we end up with is a story about a family represented as the story of Nigeria’s democracy movement. (Apart from Hafsat, one of M.K.O and Kudirat Abiola’s 6 other children also features; he represents an interesting contrast to Kudirat, which the director could have explored further; instead we only get his backward views on gender.)

In the end, the film amounts to a homage to the Abiolas. That is fair enough, and it is mainly a well-told story (with gaps) with vast historical footage. But it is not the story of the democracy movement, or of the women’s movement. It is a story. And it would be good if the filmmaker helped the viewer to understand what kind of story. Hafsat Abiola is a good choice of entry point, but the filmmaker seems to have been so infatuated, that she comes up with a story line ending in suggestions about her as a presidential candidate. The problem is Hafsat Abiola is not a prominent figure in Nigerian politics. There are suggestions that this is because she is a woman. This may be so, but I would have liked a discussion of the role and potential of women in Nigerian politics.

Anthony Bila’s Black History March

Since the early days of photographic image-making, the camera has been referred to as a “mirror with a memory,” reflecting what it sees and then recording decisive moments through the creation of images.

Anthony Bila, a multi-talented visual artist based in Johannesburg, is thus a creator of memories. In his Black History March series Bila uses his camera to produce memory-infused images of young creatives wearing vintage attire in the streets of Soweto. The two volumes of the series thus far have featured the style collective Khumbula together with Loux the Vintage Guru and more recently, the stylist duo The Sartists paired with arguably Joburg’s most captivating creative muse, Manthe Ribane.

The vintage clothing and weathered aesthetic of the images offer windows into both South Africa’s past and present. Through these windows presented by Bila we see the desire of young South Africans to connect with their heritage while paying homage to people and spaces that had been previously underrepresented.

The images of the Black History March series offer a clear challenge to Eurocentric notions of history. In doing so, they act to reclaim a greater share of history for black South Africans, which like land, has been distributed disproportionately in favor of South Africans of European ancestry.

In many of Bila’s images, the models look boldly at the camera. Their expressions are defiant, unapologetic and piercing, raising the crucial question asked in Santu Mofokeng’s powerful photobook The Black Photo Album – “Who is gazing?” Are we as viewers projecting our own perspectives onto the images or do Bila’s characters return their own set of demands in their eyes?

Following the recent release of his second volume of the Black History March series on his popular blog The Expressionist, we spoke to Anthony Bila to hear his take on South African history, the memory of an image and the cultural significance of the street.

Black-History-March-7

AIAC: You just released your second Black History March collection, what is the concept behind the series?

AB: The Black History March series is project close to my heart in that it was and is inspired by African history particularly and the absurdity that the history of Africa and its diaspora should be commemorated one month every year. Thus, the idea was for me to purposefully launch this project every year succeeding or preceding “Black History Month” in February. I wanted to dispel the notion that Black History needs a ‘special month’, the shortest month of all no less, dedicated to it as commemoration and remembrance of the incredibly vast history of Africa and it’s peoples.

My thoughts about black history are that it should be remembered and recalled just as any other significant part of history is, at every given opportunity, at any point of the year, in fact it should be taught in the same vein European & American History is taught all around the world, all year round, always.

The images in the series resemble family portraits, snapshots and magazine pictures from an older era. What led to this conversation with archival material?

I wanted to reference a bygone time, not specific to a place and time necessarily, but to a feeling. We’re now more than ever bombarded with images of a “new black” and I wanted to remind many of my contemporaries of what has come before them. I plan to go deeper and further into Black History with the next installment and continue to surprise anyone I’m privileged to reach with my work. African History as vast as the ocean and what I’ve touched on is but a drop.

1f231136311953518dde725eceb42fc8

Manthe Ribane and The Sartists (Wanda Lephoto and Kabelo Kungwane) appear as ghostly figures from the past in this new collection. What does their disposition say about present-day South Africa’s relationship to its history?

I think these three are among the most interesting young creative minds to emerge from South Africa in a while, and like myself, given an opportunity to showcase what we’re capable of with resources, there isn’t a thing we could not accomplish. To answer your question, I wanted their disposition to do two things; 1. I wanted the images to serve as a reminder to the youth of the continent and particularly South Africa that we have come a far way from 20 years ago, but the road to true freedom and liberation is still perilous and long. We have not reached the Promised Land just yet, but we can see it beyond the horizon and we must soldier on to reach it. 2. I wanted the second installment in the series to really stimulate a sense of curiosity in young South Africans to interrogate the history of South Africa and the continent to discover and understand simple truths about Africa as a whole that have literally been buried.

For instance, did you know that in the 14th century the city of Timbuktu in West Africa was five times bigger than the city of London, and was the richest city in the world?

This is essentially a collection of black and white images, though they have been weathered with the color of time through smudges, stains and scratches. So they are black and white, but they are not. Can you speak to that?

The images are neither black nor white, but they are. The images like people carry with them memories good, bad and ugly. They have scars that have indelibly become part of their character. The images are also grey because often life is not as clear and dried as it initially seems. There are shades of grey to our history. Time leaves it’s mark on all of us, as individuals and more so as a people if you look at the history of the African continent and we need to more and more as time continues to unfold remember our roots, invest in our continent and tell the stories that the West refuses to. It’s imperative if Africa is to reclaim so semblance of its rich history that’s been suppressed for centuries.

b9cb7f41a4c73b1693467c9be8d2f786

Black History March is set in Soweto, where the landscape has a vibrant character of its own. Do the spaces you operate in influence your work?

The location of Soweto (if you’ll pardon the pun) was suggested by The Sartists as well as the enigmatic, abundantly talented, Manthe Ribane. I myself was born and raised in Tembisa township. The treatment of the images was to show how even with the passage of time, one can remain true to one’s roots and follow a route to self discovery by understand where you’ve come from. The space I operate in is largely influenced by the location and Soweto is one of the most historically rich areas in South Africa, it’s very existence is a testimony and indictment on a bygone regime that sought to thwart the vibrant space of Sophiatown. Yet the people of Soweto and other townships still thrive.

Many of your images are made in the streets. What is special about the street as a locus of urban youth culture in South Africa?

The streets are where authenticity is birthed, where inspiration, trends and creativity thrive under adverse conditions, as only the truest forms of self expression can. Revolutions are not born and bred in boardrooms or privileged suburbs or pseudo “city centres”, that’s where all those things I speak to go to die a ghastly death by culture vultures, those who appropriate youth culture for brands in a blatant and flagrant disregard for the essence and ethics of authenticity. I am currently venturing into studio photography, but street photography will still inform a large component of what I’m interested in capturing. If you really want to understand youth culture, visit any one of the many areas like Tembisa, Soweto and many, many more.

Your images are often layered and hyper-saturated. Are these vivid photographic worlds a reflection of your personal sensory experience as well?

They are, and as much as photography is often a verbatim reflection of the world we live in, I think that’s quite dull. I always want to capture a sensory experience with my photography, the one that I see in my mind’s eye. If you want reality, as it exists, then I’m more often than not the wrong artist to reference. I’m partially colour blind so I consciously compensate for that in the way I treat my images.

Black-History-March-5

Considering you have already created a substantial body of work and the March series deals with the passage of time. What do you envision as your creative legacy?

I am only at the beginning. I plan to explore various other art forms in 2015. I am going to explore videography, scriptwriting, cinematography, fine art, illustration and music production to a deeper degree. I’m more or less better known for my photography and one thing that I despise is being boxed-in, stereotyped or categorised into being one thing. None of us are just one thing, so when someone refers to me as “just a photographer” or worse, “street style photographer”, I take exception to it. All I have ever wanted to do is create and the medium, style and form thereof will always change because I’m a creator. So in essence, my legacy, I hope one day is to be remembered as a modern day renaissance man or polymath of sorts. It’s ambitious, but it’s what I believe with every fibre of my being I’m meant to do and that is what I am working towards. I want the work I leave behind to inspire all kinds of people in all kinds of fields to exist and thrive outside of their comfort zones, to feel the fear and in spite of it to forge ahead.

An upcoming project of yours The BLK SRS, weaves together your talent in various creative disciplines including photography, videography, painting writing and music. How do you find synergy between these different artistic elements?

They’re often one in the same to me, it’s like asking me how do I find the energy to use all five (some say six) of my senses all at once. All I know is that I often feel impelled to create and the elements I use are as interchangeable as words are to a writer, I do it without thinking, and it’s instinctive. My ultimate dream is simply complicated; I want to produce a film in which I write, score, direct a story and exhibit the motion picture alongside paintings and illustrations. There is so much more I would also love to do but I feel that is my first point of call and from there, even the skies shouldn’t be a limit. My dream is for other African talents to be recognised and where opportunities are not present, we seize them.

Black-History-March-12

 

Images: Anthony Bila

The University as a Place to Think?

I was recently asked to be on a panel with the theme of the role of the university, social justice and global change. When the invite came I was in the middle of teaching a course to graduate students, titled Violent Modernities. We were reading an article about the famous Debate at Valladolid between Las Casas and Sepulveda regarding the fate, as you will recall, of the native populations under Spanish Conquest about whether they were property or had souls available for salvation. In the course, we read about the first genocide of the 20th century of the Nama and Herero peoples in South West Africa the early 1900’s, under German Occupation. And we also read about the ways in which, after Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt in 1798, the story of the Biblical Hamitic curse on the descendants of Noah, had to be changed to account for who might have produced the artifacts of Egyptian Pharanoic civilization. This story has a later life in Rwanda under German and then Belgian colonization. In all of these episodes it so happens that intellectuals , and Social Scientific and Humanistic inquiry, feature quite prominently.

The Debate at Valladolid, which took place in 1550 was held at the Collegio de San Gregorio, under the instruction of King Charles V, and brought contending arguments, reason and critical thought to bear on a pressing matter of concern of contemporary relevance. Las Casas was considered a ‘friend of the Indians’ advocating a form of social justice that was outraged at the treatment of the indigenous populations. But as a friend of the Natives he did not disagree with Sepulveda that the Indians, as such, could not be left to their own devices.

Moving on to Egypt: the expedition of Napoleon into Egypt remains interesting not only because Napoleon was not victorious, but because of the novelty of that expedition, which took with it among the military men, a column of some 400 scholars, archaeologists, historians, artists, and botanists and other natural scientists, to draw, map, record and classify. I was introduced to this in a graduate course with Mahmood Mamdani, when we read a classic text by Edith Sanders on the Egyptian excursion undertaken by Napoleon and the scholars he took with him. They produced a 10-volume study on the wonders of Egypt, which more or less helped to consolidate Egyptology as the study of a civilization in Africa but somehow not produced by Africans.

And when we read about the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, we encountered the Kaiser’s appointment there, Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha who said, ‘I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.’ But we also encountered there the figure of Eugen Fischer, who came to Namibia to conduct experiments in genetic theory in the camps where Herero and Nama were being held. Fischer went on to write a famous book on the subject in 1923, which Hitler read while in prison, and later Fischer was appointed the Rector of what is today known as Humboldt University in Berlin.

And just to round off this set of vignettes, it was of course the renewed “Hamitic Hypothesis” that suggested that Egypt was the product of a foreign civilizing European descendent race defined the Tutsi as a foreign race destined to rule over the Hutu majority, the former a race, the latter defined as an ethnic group, setting off a chain of resentments. When the sympathies of Belgian public opinion and the Catholic church shifted to a solidarity with the injustice that the Hutu majority faced, we know that Hutu power articulated its social justice by filling the national university in Rwanda with historians sympathetic to the suffering of the majority, and casting the Tutsi as foreign race forever scheming to re-establish its alien rule over the majority. We also know that this programme of social justice later took a genocidal form. I am of course truncating, being alarmist, and simplifying grossly. But you get my point. Asking about the role of the university, social justice and global change ‘from the standpoint’ as the late Eqbal Ahmad might say, ‘of its victims’, complicates things. And he was talking coincidently about the role of US Cold War intellectuals in counter urgency during that other war on Terror. Intellectuals can be pretty dangerous sometimes when we want to influence the world and make it better.

It is a reminder that almost every intervention that we now look back on as a colonial imposition and frown upon because of its excesses of violence and arrogance, had as its animating logic a good idea, and the desire to be doing good, saving people, saving women, and often in the case of colonies, saving them from themselves. When King Leopold invaded Congo in the late 1800’s it was supposedly to end Arab slavery and bring justice. So there was a very strong humanitarian and just impulse in many a civilizing atrocity. I draw attention to this of course because I come from a continent that continues to be defined as an object of such kind of intervention, differently articulated and differently understood, but where populations remain the beneficiaries of humanitarianism that is sometimes haunted by a future that looks a lot like its past.

That said, mindful of this grounds, if you like, there are ways that the university is always also a more ambiguous space, where its productive thought also encourages a subversive genealogy that works against hegemonic practices. I was reminded of this as I recently signed a petition of African scholars responding to the military coup that is attempting to take over and strangle the popular revolt in Burkina Faso, and in the words of a prominent university scholar Jean-Bernard Oudrago, ‘to return Blaise Campoare to power without Blaise Campaore.’

The modern university in Africa, as many of you know, is largely a postcolonial invention, and has gone through a number of iterations, from nationalist to developmental rationales and a lot in in between. The South African university landscape (where I work) is of course a complex and diverse one too- with both its share of complicity- apartheids intellectual architect Hendrik Verwoerd was the first ever and youngest Chair in Sociology at Stellenbosch University.

But it has its share of a counter-narrative too, if you think of the African nationalists, like Mandela and Mugabe who emerged from what is now Fort Hare University or figures like Dullah Omar at places like the University of the Western Cape; or in the growth of the independent trade union movement in the 1970’s and its relationship to the leftist-oriented philosophy and sociology departments at the largely white Natal University. Or Black Conciousness and its flourishing at that same university. Subversive traditions, all of them.

There are then ways to cultivate a different ethic of thought and conduct in the midst of something else. We are now thinking about that as we produce a new generation of scholars to enter the university, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Demographically, institutionally and in terms of curriculum there is much that remains to be changed. There are questions about how to do that in a way that recognizes the inheritance of apartheid, that is oriented to our locality and geographical affinities—in other words is not the abstraction of placelessness and a kind of ahistorical cosmopolitanism dressed up in second hand modernity. But it should also not be inward, and insular or think that justice simply means that those at the bottom are now at the top.

So what might it mean to think about social justice and social change in a global world? Clearly, there are questions of who changes who, to what end? When we hosted the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne earlier this year at my university, he put to us the proposition of the university as being a space to offer the gift of a ‘truly universal universalism’. He is mindful of a distinction between being global, and the potentially imperial undertones of the hubris that underwrites that, and the aspiration towards a different kind of universalism, in which the horizon is not clearly marked out ahead of time. In the wake of the complicated present and past in the career of universities and global power, it would seem to me to be prudent and modest about how we harness knowledge to the ethical injunctions we uphold against marginality, pain or suffering, on a global scale. We might be mindful then also, that under certain circumstances, and in certain places, the mere time and space to think is in itself an increasingly subversive idea.

Image Credit: Twitter

5 Questions for a filmmaker–Teddy Goitom

Teddy Goitom is a Swedish-Ethiopian/Eritrean content producer and the founder of Stocktown (1998), “a cultural movement celebrating creativity and freedom of souls”, which includes a curated video magazine founded in 2011 as well as the Afripedia-series, which AIAC has covered here. Though his base is in Stockholm, this curious and hard-working creative is constantly shifting between times and places, producing documentaries and creative content online and elsewhere, together with an ever-growing network of creatives. Stocktown has created two TV-series, Stocktown – A Global Underground Journey and Stocktown Africa, and a feature length documentary will be produced in 2015.

What is your first film memory?

I was around seven years old when I found a VHS-tape with The good the bad and the ugly by Sergio Leone. That summer I had the film on repeat and watched it several times a day. I was totally obsessed by it – the music, every scene – and I’d memorize every line and imitate every characters Though my mom used to force me to play outside, I’d always found a way to come back in and watch the film again, and discover something new in it every time.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I never decided to become a filmmaker and never went to film school. I’m actually still in the process of finding out if that’s what I am. I see myself more as a storyteller.

Ever since I started the Stocktown movement in 1998, I have been interested in building new platforms and finding new ways to broadcast untold and inspiring stories. Whether I produce music events, art exhibitions, documentaries or using new technology to stream stories to a broader audience doesn’t really matter. What matters is story.

Which film do you wish you had made and why?

Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly and John Saxon.

As a young kid, to see a black martial arts hero fighting on the same side as Bruce Lee was groundbreaking. Though we never really got to know Williams, who was played by Jim Kelly and who gets killed way too early, he was the reason I became interested in and started to explore the blaxplotation scene. In my remake, Williams’s story would get much more attention and obviously be much more interesting.

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

Beat Street (1984) opened my eyes to the hiphop scene, which I immediately identified with and which inspired me. It was completely different to films like Saturday Night Fever, like a mix between a musical and a realistic portrayal – almost documentary like – of an underground culture scene that was fresh, dynamic  and transcending geographical and other borders. As I connected to it, I realised the enormous power of film.

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

“What motivated you to make your last documentary series Afripedia?”

First and foremost: curiosity first and foremost, but also the realisation that there are so many contexts, perspectives and dimensions out there that no one has ever heard about. We put the spotlight on them and make sure that they become known to the world. Our audience consists of people across the world, who are interested in finding out about and connect to creativity regardless of where and how it appears.

Image Credit: Marguerite Seger.

Remembering Differently

The Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot opens his remarkable work “Silencing the Past” by pointing to the ambiguity of the word ‘history’. History is both ‘what happened’ and ‘that which has been said to have happened’, with this duality containing both an ‘irreducible distinction’ and ‘equally irreducible overlap,’ writes Trouillot. In our participation in this process we are simultaneously actors and narrators, engaged in the act of making history, as action or event, and crafting a narrative that will leave an imprint for those who have yet to come. The power to control this story, what will appear as History proper, is a question that energises the work of scholars of the subaltern, who are intimately concerned with the overwhelming silences and distortions that serve the project of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and Western hegemony.

The act of remembering, in the context of African history, is a complex task, where black histories have been relegated to the sidelines and often eviscerated from popular knowledge. We engage with the past ‘after the break’, as Stuart Hall argues, constructing the past ‘through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth’. And the Ghanaian intellectual Ato Sekyi-Otu writes, ‘all remembering is a political activity’, which requires us to ask: what does it mean to remember in this place, South Africa, for this people, and at this time? Venturing into the silences, working in and with the gaps in knowledge, directly engages the difficulties of memory and the demands of critical historical consciousness.

For a marginalised group, coloureds in South Africa, remembering is a central matter of identity: the act of drawing a map of and to the self that yields no easy routes as ancestral lines are remarkably abbreviated and subjectivities are poignantly absent. As literary scholar Grant Farred comments: ‘Coloured racial difference…registered differently from one historical moment to the next’. Thus thinking colouredness, for this moment, requires an acknowledgement that the identity and concept is palimpsetic in the way that it ‘registered differently’, with each moment leaving a mark for and on the next, which is revealed in encounters with the traces of the past. In this post-apartheid/post-colonial moment the question about what colouredness both delineates and means remains a spectre that haunts race, citizenship and redress, and makes the task of historical excavation salient and politically critical. However, like all marginalised groups, we have to contend with history that exists as fragments.

Writing on Saartjie Baartman, Pumla Gqola comments that despite the fact that she has been extensively written into popular memory, little is known of her subjectivity, and as such she has come to personify an ‘absent presence’. One can extend this critique to the entire battle with coloured memory, and the challenge of how to deal with the absent presence of slave histories and slave narratives in our context – which remains on the periphery of popular and institutional memory.

Two buildings in Cape Town, the District Six Museum and The Slave Lodge, stand as critical markers that allow the past to live in our context. The slave era in the Cape Colony served as the genesis of several founding myths about coloured people and ideas of miscegenation and hybridity, the birthplace of popular logic, and the first known attempts to group together heterogeneous people for political reasons in governance. As such, it is a fundamental site of coloured ontology. Venturing into this space, however, requires working with forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded histories.

Conceptual artist Berni Searle’s work ‘Profile’ (2003) exemplifies this kind of imaginative and creative work required. It dialogues with this uneasy history, as her oeuvre challenges, engages, is frustrated with, expands, condenses and plays with ideas of colouredness, while refusing to be trapped by history and always gesturing towards new imaginings of the self. Using the notion of ‘the body as archive’, ‘Profile’ maps the body, engaging the difficulties of tracing coloured heritage. The work comprises a series of prints in which Searle uses a technique known as “blind embossing: to impress “into her cheek a range of objects loaded with cultural connotations”, which include a Christian Cross, Mulsim rakim, British imperial crown, an apartheid shield, Dutch windmill and African “love letter”. Through this she evidences how research into the archive of coloured history reveals ambiguities and absences, a limited archive that does not yield finite answers as the coloured body is rooted to all, yet tied to none.

Searle excavates a past that shows the complex relationship between colouredness and issues of belonging as the objects she uses denote multiple places of coloured belonging. By drawing attention to multiple roots, Profile bears an intertextual reference to the poet Arthur Nortje’s (1973) existential anguish, particularly a line from Dead Roots that reads: “He who belongs to nowhere/is to nothing/deeply attached.” The double meaning, being attached to the lack of a clear place of belonging or ambivalent to this fact, articulates the historical dilemma at the heart of coloured belonging that arises out of the mutedness of coloured history.

In the act of taking coloured, and greater African, history seriously we should ask ourselves: ‘where do we speak from, and with whose vocabulary?’ The grammar of history is embedded in a power structure, and the task of upending it demands a commitment to tell our own stories, in our own voices, while simultaneously critiquing the manufacturing and appropriation of these narratives. Our task is to ensure that contemporary histories are rescued from the current state that Gqola argues replicates the “sameness and anonymity” that oppressed people faced within “colonial epistemes”. It is not just asking that we remember, but that we remember differently, and in a way that allows the past, and our ancestries, to emerge with full humanity intact. We can take our genesis from Trouillot instructional statement that ‘History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.’

Our relationship with the past is a strange entanglement, a play with light and shadow, what is seen and unseen, there and yet frustratingly elusive. We undertake a mournful dance with memory as we ponder the terms and conditions of who we are and where we have come from. The act of engaging and wrestling with historical memory remains a fraught undertaking. But remember, we must.

* I take this title from a quote about Toni Morrison’s work by Paul Skenazy: “Her ability in that book to move across fantasy and the hard terms of black life; to turn folk stories into palpable mythologies that rule the everyday; to make a quest of forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded history: These are beautifully entangled in that book.”

Image Credit: Flickr

We’re Moving Servers

We’re moving servers so we don’t go down anymore. (That’s been a frustrating experience for about a year now). It’s like moving down the street or countries. We may have a redesign, but we’re not promising anything and there may be glitches, but hang with us. So we’re not posting anything till Monday. Enjoy the break Bono, Bob Geldof, Humanitarians, artists who make Ray Ban sculptures, Zwarte Piet apologists, etcetera, you know who you are. See you next week.

B3X3M4CCUAAvDea

* The artwork is from Larissa Sansour’s project, “A Space Exodus,” and is another attempt by us to get you read our first ebook, “Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy.”

Brazilian Elections 2014, Between Polarization and a Country in Transition

In October, Brazil went through its closest presidential elections since 1989–51.6% to 48.4%. The winner was the incumbent President, Dilma Rousseff, who earned her reelection as a candidate from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Party of the Workers), or PT. From 2003, the PT has ruled the country, with Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva also having served two terms. The loser in the election was Aécio Neves, the candidate of the Partido Social da Democracia Brasileira (Social Party of the Brazilian Democracy), or PSDB.

After the results were announced, Folha, a newspaper from São Paulo, published a map that showed a divided Brazil. Northeastern states (as well as Maranhão and Bahia) were red, the color of the PT. The Southern states (including São Paulo) were blue, the color of the PSDB. A separatist wave became obvious in Brazilian media. Some conservative commentators argued that “poors don’t know how to vote” or that the Northeastern states were victims of the “government’s populism and charity”.

But, of course, we are not so far away from each other. Another map, devised and published by Thomas Conti, disproves that wrongful, binary, overgeneralizing vision:

mapa

 

 

Yet, this panorama created an atmosphere of conflict between two sides, which led to protests and marches, which haven’t stopped since August, expressing hatred and the desire of each side to be as separated as possible from the other.

Indeed, the profiles and the political careers of the two candidates that represent both polarities have been different. Though both are economists, Rousseff has a technical profile, while Neves (who comes from one of the most politically prominent families in the country), has held political positions.

The candidate from the PSDB defends the continuity of the political Project of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who ruled the country between 1995 and 2003. FHC, as he is also known, focused in lowering inflation and relied in neoliberal politics, such as privatizing a series of national companies, and looking to strengthen the economy, freeing it from a strong state control. During her first term Rousseff boosted national public banks, supported unemployment control, the growth of the internal market, and the State became a bigger part in the development of the social structure.

Politics on debt and foreign relationships, especially with the United States, are also a big difference between the politics of the PT and the PSDB. Cardoso’s government made various agreements with the IMF to handle the country’s external debt. But Rousseff looked to pay off the external debt by drawing from the country’s internal debt. She also looked away from the United States, who had been a valuable partner of Cardoso, and looked to create “South-South” agreements, creating pacts with Bolivia, Venezuela and Uruguay. She also promoted the creation of a common fund of the emerging “BRICS” nations, joining Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Nonetheless, the fact that such a polarization between neoliberal and left-wing politics appeared in the electoral contest doesn’t mean that this division runs through the whole country, or that every Brazilian is on one side or the other. The stage is much more complex and its reflected in a series of social changes. Maybe they are recent, as recent as the World Cup, or maybe they come from the protests in 2013 that started in a few big cities, but spread throughout the country. Or they might have begun in the last, crucial, ten years, when Brazil started to be perceived as an economical power, when the level of poverty was reduced, the middle class grew, and some confusing, disorganized developments started to move our country.

The protests from 2013 were too complex to fit just one analysis. Thousands of people took the streets, from all over the country, and from every socio-economical background. Different ideological groups were on the streets and for very different reasons. But one thing was clear: if on the one hand these mobilizations represented the will to recover public space, the right of participation and a feeling of collective power; they also represented extremist and even violent reactionary actions which weren’t striving to open debates, but to take politics “on its own hands.” If part of the population was demonstrating to fight for more rights, other part was out to push a conservative agenda of social, racial and regional discrimination.

As the World Cup (and the elections) came closer, the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) criticisms grew bigger, At the beginning they seemed to be directed towards Fifa and the resources wasted by the cup, which many felt could be better invested on health and education. But it deformed into a confused criticism of the national government. I believe this was made worse by the country’s partial and antiquated news media, which has lost its critical, investigative role, and instead has been very partial in its coverage.

Traditional news outlets always talked down the actual number of people out on the streets, but they were quick to use the protests against the national government, trying to pin on it every complaint the people had. New media, such as blog and online periodicals reflected the environment in which they came to be: a polarization in which each of the extremes reads only the source that fits with its worldview, diminishing the chances of any kind of dialogue.

The gap grew bigger, stronger and more violent. The marketing strategies from both candidates, seeing how polarized the elections had become, turned to personal violence. The main purpose was to throw accusations at the other, not to propose solutions. Furthermore, Marina Silva, the third candidate in the first round of elections, had tried to turn the debate into a depoliticized discourse, simplifying her policy between “good” and “bad”.

In the streets, on Facebook, in daily life, the division was clear. According to philosopher Paulo Eduardo Arantes (close to the PT), the Brazilian right is similar to the U.S. right in the sense that it is “not interested in creating majorities in government. It is interested in impeding other governments, They don’t need votes because they are directly financed by big corporations. (…) That is why they can afford the luxury to have very clear, non-negotiable positions. So they attack, making impossible any change to the status quo. [Meanwhile,] the left can’t do that because it has to govern, to create majorities, to compromise.” There can be no middle ground there.

Yet, for me, it is clear that Brazil, even if it’s still struggling with its enormous poverty and social inequality, has managed to improve tremendously. It has been the direct responsibility of certain PT politics, such as Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa Minha Vida, but also of a great number of scholarships from the ProUni program, of the technical school from Pronatec, the new Federal Universities and of Ciencias Sem Fronteras. It’s the result of the control of the minimum wage, the formalization of domestic employment, the position in favor of diversity and the fight for criminalization of the discrimination towards homosexuals. I think it’s the right path. Nevertheless, a portion of the population is not willing to abandon a series of hereditary privileges, which is necessary to achieve this progress. They find it admissible to pay 6% of IOF (tax on abroad operations), as they find it impossible to leave behind an already settled ideological view, which is blind to this progress.

The political reform proposed by Rousseff (which would happen via popular vote) was denied by Congress barely a week after her electoral victory. Dialogue and the construction of new policies still seem distant. But polarization is inevitable; it is linked to our political and economical model. Diversity of views and creative dialogue can’t come from the reductionist differences between red and blue states, it should be determined by serious and thorough research and by information that actually relates to the problems and the projects that guide our country.

Seiten