Africa is a Country

Tangier’s Jazzmen — and their phantom producer

Dizzy Gillespie and Jacques Muyal. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

He rode on Tito Puente’s float during the Puerto Rican Day Parade of 1969, when the mambo king was given a key to the city by Mayor John Lindsay. He was close to Oscar Peterson and Max Roach, he was pall-bearer at Dizzy Gillespie’s funeral. He was part of a team of engineers that designed the technical Oscar-winning Kudelski-Nagra IV recorder, used in film productions. He designed Oris’s jazz-inspired luxury watches honoring the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon. And he produced a slew of memorable jazz records. 

He is Jacques Muyal – the Moroccan-born producer and aficionado who is one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in the world of jazz. The animated, quick-to-smile 77-year old has been in the news of late for various reasons: because of the release of his latest record “The 4 American Jazzmen in Tangier,” based on recordings he made in Morocco in 1959; the upcoming release of a Swiss-television documentary, Jazz: The Only Way of Life of which he is the subject; and because at the recent Dizzy Gillespie centennial at the Kennedy Center in New York City, he screened a 90-minute film about the late trumpeter, made from previously unreleased home footage. 

Muyal’s singular career, born at the center of French and American jazz initiatives in North Africa, and nourished by Latin and pan-African jazz movements, is in some ways also the story of Tangier, the city where he grew up, and its trajectory from a Spanish-speaking International Zone (1923-1959) to a post-colonial city and node in Morocco’s cultural policy. Inordinate attention has been given to the white European and American presence in this mecca (Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Edith Wharton, Jean Genet). Muyal’s productions sought to highlight a different side of this global city and others. In his lifelong work, Muyal sought to celebrate the black presence not only in Tangier, but also in Paris, Havana and Rio.

Muyal recalls the portentous day in early 1955, when he discovered jazz. He was barely a teenager huddled in front of the family’s shortwave radio, listening to Voice of America, and the show Jazz Hour came on, with its theme song – Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” 

“And then,” recalls Muyal, “Willis Conover’s beautiful voice came on – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight two young piano players Phineas Newborn Jr. and Randy Weston…” Conover played Weston’s debut record “Cole Porter in a Modern Mood.” Little did this youngster know that this show would set the course of his life – and that he and Randy Weston (who would settle in Tangier in 1967) would become fast friends, launching Tangier’s fabled jazz club African Rhythms, and with Muyal repeatedly recording Weston, including with Dizzy Gillespie.

Muyal was in primary school during the International Zone’s glory years, when Tangier was a post-war boomtown, ruled by a committee of eight western powers, its frail legal system, loose tax and currency laws drawing traders and financiers – and writers and artists of all kinds. The city was home to various communities, the largest being Moroccan Muslims and Spaniards. Music aficionados would flock to the majestic Teatro Cervantes – built in 1913 – to hear mostly Arabic and Spanish music. As a young boy, Muyal’s parents took him to the Cervantes, as it’s still called locally, to see world renowned artists, such as the Cuban bolerista Antonio Machín, the Argentinian crooner Carlos Gardell, and the Mexican singer Jorge Negrete, who rode onto the stage on a white horse. Muyal recalls as a boy standing behind the counter at his father’s shop on Rue Essiaghine, the street that cuts through Tangier’s medina. He remembers the flow of people streaming by – the Indian shopkeepers, the Berber women in straw hats, the Spanish lottery sellers, the Chinese men with ponytails peddling bright-colored shoelaces. This boy obsessed with sound would listen to the chatter of different languages and the chants emanating from the Sufi lodges. “I remember the Saturdays vividly – we’re inside the synagogue listening to the piyyutim (liturgical poems) and the call to prayer would echo from a nearby mosque, and the Hebrew and Arabic would reverberate off the medina’s walls.”

As a high school student at the Lycée Regnault, he would hang out at the Danish-owned Club Safari, the most celebrated jazz spot in the International Zone. There he met Robert “Juice” Wilson, the Missouri-born saxophonist and violinist, who had settled in Tangier in 1936. (Muyal would pen a lovely profile of Wilson for Jazz Magazine in 1960). When Wilson and other musicians took to the floor, Muyal would sometimes join them, plucking at a borrowed bass. On weekends, the teenager would take his clunky movie camera and walk around the town filming street scenes. He filmed Tangier’s newly-formed theatre group rehearsing at the Cervantes, and grew close to Bachir Skirej, Morocco’s most well-known comedic actor.

Muyal’s passion for music and bilingualism did not go unnoticed, and in 1955, he was hired by the Voice of America, which since World War II had been based in the American Legation, the Moorish-style building in the medina and the first diplomatic property acquired by the US in 1821. Muyal was recruited to produce Spanish translations of Jazz Hour, which were then transmitted on VOA Spanish. With dictionary in hand, he would listen to Connover, study the vinyl covers (Capitol Records shipped records directly to the Legation) and dream of meeting the artists. His first translation was of a broadcast of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.

The 15-year old would soon become a player in the local and regional music scene. When the State Department launched its jazz diplomacy program in 1956, one of the regular stops for the “jambassadors” was Tangier. When flutist Herbie Mann came to perform in the city in March 1959, with Carlos “Patato” Valdez and Jose Mangual, Muyal was tasked with introducing their concert at the Cinema Alhambra. He would publish a review of the show in the Tangier Times, introducing readers to “[Le] Jazz Afro Cubain.” When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and Antonio Machín was expelled from Spain by Franco – because the singer’s daughter was a suspected Communist – he fled to Tangier, where the young Muyal was his host.

In the International Zone, Tangier was home to a bevy of radio stations — Radio Tanger International, Radio Africa, Radio Maghreb, Radio Pan-America – broadcasting in Arabic, English, French and Spanish. Concerned about growing Soviet influence in the city, the US had set up a Voice of America relay station in 1949. Tangier’s airwaves transmitted a range of cultural and ideological messages. (Radio Africa, for instance, was founded by the notorious Jacques Trémoulet, who ran Vichy’s radio propaganda during the war and after being sentenced to death in absentia in 1946, fled France to Francoist Spain – where he founded Radio Intercontinental Madrid – and then continued to Tangier.) Radio Tanger and Radio Africa both had jazz programs, led by French radio hosts. The French had long invited American artists (Sydney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton and others) to perform in Morocco under the auspices of Hot Club, as Jazz Magazine reported in 1961. The Americans, however, had a different vision for jazz diplomacy than the French (who often wanted to highlight the freedom that African American artists enjoyed in France). As the Americans set up shop in post-war Morocco, they began to butt against the French musical presence. The Dixie Jazz Band of Rabat and the Moon Glows Quartet of the (Nouasser) American base in Kenitra began organizing concerts and lecture series about America’s classical music.

In Tangier, these competing visions would play out in battles to control Radio Tanger International. In 1956, André François, head of jazz programing at RTI, kept clashing with the station’s American head (“Mr Southworth”), and one day he called Muyal to tell him that he was returning to France, and offered him his show. Soon the 15-year old was hosting “Le Club de Jazz” broadcast every Friday night at 8:30pm, and listed on the back pages of the internationally-circulated Jazz Magazine. Soon after, French promoter Marcel Romano – who famously enlisted Miles Davis  to record the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) – arrived in Tangier, and took the young deejay under his wing. Muyal would go on to write the Spanish lyrics for the track “No Hay Problema” (performed by Art Blakey) for Romano’s film, Les Liasons Dangereuses.

A image of Muyal with “Juice Wilson” on the cover of a magazine. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

Like most youth growing up in Tangier, Muyal tried to learn English by listening to the radio. “I listened to Conover, I studied the liner notes – and dreamt of one day meeting the artists on the album covers,” says Muyal. One evening in July 1959, he was walking down Boulevard Pasteur and saw four black men walk past him. “I thought – I’ve seen that face somewhere.” He ran after them, and tapped one of them on the shoulder, “Aren’t you Idriss Sulieman?” Sulieman smiled and raised both hands like he was being arrested.

Muyal had recognized the musician from a Monk album cover — Sulieman was one of the first trumpeters to play with the pianist. The other three musicians were pianist Oscar Dennard, bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Buster Smith. The musicians had traveled to Tangier, looking for gigs and musical inspiration, but also for religious reasons. With the collapse of the Garveyite movement in the 1930s, many politically active African Americans had gravitated towards the Nation of Islam and the Baha’i movement. Tangier is home to myriad Sufi shrines and brotherhoods, and at 20 miles from the Spanish coast, it was the closest point of the Muslim world for American converts visiting Europe. But also, in the mid-1950s, a small Baha’i community had formed in Tangier, led by Helen Elsie Austin, an American foreign service officer teaching at the newly founded American School. [Incidentally, Gillespie would end up converting to Bahaism and reflecting Baha’i teachings name his band “The United Nation Orchestra,” Muyal would in jest often tell him, “you really should have called your band the Tangier Orchestra, because it’s in Tangier where the nations of the world converge.”]

“They came looking for Islamic spirituality,” says Muyal, “Idriss Sulieman was one of the first converts to Islam, Oscar Dennard was also Muslim – his [Muslim] name was Zain Mustapha.” Muyal would book the musicians for a three-month stint at the Russian-owned Casino de Tanger, where they performed as the “4 American Jazzmen in Tangier.” But before that he invited them to the studio at Radio Tanger, where he recorded an impromptu session. “We had a badly tuned upright piano,” recalls Muyal, “I didn’t have money for a band (tape), so I just glued together some tape from broken reels we had.” 

After Tangier, the jazzmen traveled to Tunis and then Cairo, where the 30-year old Dennard contracted typhoid and died. He would be buried at Zein Eldin cemetery in the Egyptian capital, his grave for many years a stop for jazz musicians visiting Egypt. This enigmatic, self-effacing Memphis-born prodigy who had played regularly with Lionel Hampton was widely admired for his dazzling style, but he left no recordings behind – except for the impromptu session at Radio Tanger. And that is the recording that Muyal released earlier this year. In the early 1970s Muyal stumbled upon the tape and sent cassette copies to some of his pianist friends – Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, McCoy Tyner – the word spread and soon his phone was ringing off the hook. 

“Oscar was a prodigy, he was the inspiration for Ahmed Jamal and Harold Mayborn – listening to him it’s hard to believe that there are only two hands playing,” says Muyal, “But I never thought it would become a historic recording.” The recent release “4 American Jazzmen in Tangier: Idress Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard” is two discs: the first is the RTI session recorded in 1959, and the second a recording that Jamil Naser sent to Muyal, 45 years ago, of Sulieman’s quartet and Oscar Dennard playing at a party in Quincy Jones’s Manhattan apartment in early 1959, just before they traveled overseas. The audio of the second tape was not high quality, but new technology has allowed Muyal to shore up the sound. On the Tangier recording one can hear the echo of a small studio and the poorly-tuned piano, but Dennard’s scintillating touch and Sulieman’s mournful trumpet make for a crisp, intimate, bluesy sound.

Tangier occupies a curious role in the American jazz imagination. Tune in to WBGO, New York’s only jazz station, on any weekday morning and at some point you’ll hear whirling wind, faint drums and a voice over, “Imagine yourself in Tangiers [sic] … listening to “Morning Jazz,” as sand blows against wind screens.” Compositions named for the city abound – Idrees Sulieman’s “Tangier Blues,” Herbie Mann’s “In Tangier,” Randy Weston’s “Tangier Bay,” Ornette Coleman’s “Interzone Suite,” Carol Robbin’s “Tangier,” Hot Jazz Club “Swing de Tangiers.”

In the mid-1950s, the eminent jazz critic Albert Murray, then a young captain stationed at the Nouasser air base in Casablanca, delivered a series of lectures (in French) on the meaning of jazz. He stressed that the art form was the creation of the “black American” – l’Américain d’Afrique – adding rather cryptically that “jazz in Africa does not exist, with the exception of Lionel or Armstrong, when they come to Tangier, Casablanca or Marrakesh.”

It’s not clear what the meaning of Tangier is to jazz aficionados and artists – a triumph of American ascendency, escape from western society, an African wellspring – but a succession of jazz artists have spent time in Tangier, from Josephine Baker and Ted Joans to Archie Schepp and Ornette Coleman. And it’s fair to say that the city would not have gained such a prominent place in the jazz world were it not for the half-century partnership between Muyal and pianist Randy Weston. Based respectively in Geneva and Brooklyn, they brought the sounds of Morocco – particularly Gnawa music – to jazz audiences. When Algeria organized its pan-African music festival in 1969, Weston, in response, organized the first pan-African jazz festival in Tangier in June 1972 that brought Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Billy Harper, Odetta, Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers and others to the Teatro Cervantes. Weston’s festival would become the inspiration for the multiple jazz festivals now organized year-round in Morocco.

After high school, Muyal moved to Paris for university, but almost failed out, as he was also working late nights as a jazz promoter. So he moved Geneva, where he earned a degree in sound engineering from the prestigious École Polytechnique in Lausanne. In the mid-1970s, with the rise of the Fania All Stars, he would become a critical link between Europe and the world of Latin jazz, going on to produce documentaries for Spanish television on saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera and the music scene in Havana. (His most recent Latin jazz record is a gem of bossa nova piano, titled Kenny Barron and the Brazilian Knights (recorded in Rio in 2012).

Oscar Dennard and his quartet in Tangier. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

Muyal began traveling regularly to North America. In the US, he found a mentor and kindred spirit in Norman Grantz, the founder of Verve Records, who had sought to use jazz to break down segregation. Muyal’s ability to move effortlessly between identities and communities fascinated his jazz associates – much to his amusement. D’Rivera dubbed him the “Afro-Swiss;” poet Ted Joans would call him “afrospanishjewishmoroccan music/hipster.” The late trombonist Benny Powell would regularly ask: “So Jack, you’re from Tangier right? So does that make you a Moor? You’re sure you’re not a Moor? 

Muyal grew closest to Dizzy Gillespie, and would take time off work to accompany the trumpeter on his tours around the world. After the shows, he would crash in Gillespie’s suite. When in New York, he would stay in Gillespie’s home in Englewood, New Jersey. “Lorraine [Gillespie’s wife] wouldn’t let anyone stay over,” laughs Randy Weston, “And yet this Tangier cat would spend weeks at their house.”

In the documentary, Muyal speaks emotionally about Gillespie’s final days at the hospital, how the musician would beckon his doctors by clapping his hands as he did on stage to direct his band members. When Dizzy, propped up in a chair, drew his last breath, Muyal carried him to his bed. An hour later he called in an article to Jazz Magazine in Paris – “The Bluest Blues,” a tribute to his friend — that was included in the publication’s 100-year anniversary volume.

When not touring the world and being feted like an elder statesman, he returns to his duplex apartment on Lake Geneva. At the entrance to his office hangs a small, intricately-carved bronze lamp, a Moroccan hannukiah, passed down through the Muyal family. Inside one sees a drum set, the various Nagra recorders and weight scales he designed, a framed album cover of Norman Grantz’s first concert at the New York Philharmonic – and lots of Dizzy paraphernalia (Dizzy’s bent trumpet, his necklace-medallion, framed photographs of the be-bopper in Paris, a poster of Dizzy’s film “A Night in Havana,” and so on.) On the book shelf behind Muyal’s desk sits a volume, a Spanish translation of Marshall Stearn’s classic The Story of Jazz (1956), which he was awarded as a prize for his translations of Conover’s show.

“Jazz has taken me around the world. From Japan to Uruguay and back to Morocco,” says Muyal picking up the book, “I dreamed a life and I lived it. I say it’s the baraka of Tangier.”

My Grandmother’s Archive

My grandmother has an almost manic attachment to official documents. For as long as I can remember she has filed and stored them with the meticulous attention of an archivist.  My birth and degree certificates, school reports and the clinic cards that recorded baby Naledi’s milestones, are carefully stored in an envelope which is placed in a blue purse that is wisely hidden in a location I cannot reveal because it is a deeply guarded family secret.

As soon as we were eligible to acquire them, my aunts and I were given taxi fare and sent off to Home Affairs to get our ID documents. Once we came of age, we were given no choice but to use those ID books to cast our votes, because voting is a matter of grave importance to my grandmother.

She once told me about the invisible barcode she says is stamped on to the back of the ID when you vote. This bar code, she said, is something potential employers look for and they have the technology to access it, to verify if you are a responsible citizen.

One afternoon I took the time to comb through the blue purse. I found, tucked between our green ID books, my grand parents’ dompasses (the pass books). My grandfather’s bore stamps from his days working underground in Johannesburg while my grandmother’s, identified her as a citizen of the homeland of Transkei -complete with visa like stamps from times she had crossed the border into white South Africa.

In these dompas stamps I saw the logic of my grandmother’s story of invisible barcodes; the trauma of the dompas mixed with ambivalence about postapartheid technology. Where the dompas had restricted her movement with a visible stamp linked to her employer, the invisible hand of technology now threatened to limit her children’s access to employment, restricting mobility of another kind. Faced with the uncertainty of the postapartheid world, my grandmother protects her children the same way she survived Apartheid, by making sure their papers are in order.

I think of the blue purse as a repository of her love for her children and I find within it the many ways she protects us; like how she nurtures the social bonds we sometimes neglect.

Buried beneath the dompas and ID documents, I find a special kind of inventory in the purse. It is a running list of the gifts people have brought to our family’s traditional ceremonies over the years. It dates as far back as the 1980s, to each of my uncles’ umgidi.  I know that she carefully unfolds it whenever one of her fellow villagers in the Eastern Cape has a ceremony of their own.  I know she then calls a meeting with my uncles to discuss the costs of reciprocating. My uncles may be responsible for representing the family in the gatherings, but she does the memory work, the record keeping that maintains our social ties in the village.

The bag overflows with things I would never know, it gives meaning to social relationships I would otherwise take for granted.

Folded into her Standard Bank life insurance documents are handwritten notes that record payments into various burial societies and village groups – sometimes with names of those who passed away and the families they belonged to. From Johannesburg to Cape Town, I learn of the bonds maintained by migrants across the country by taking responsibility for one another’s deaths.

But it is not only the past that lives in the blue purse.

If I am not travelling, I am required to report to her bedroom, where I promptly hand over my passport for her to keep until the next time I need it. My uncles, who own and drive taxis always know where to find their traffic fines. Copies of my mother’s monthly water bills are well stored whenever she should need them. My grandmother keeps versions of our CV’s and certified ID copies and if we are ever in desperate need of the infamous z83 form, we know there are plenty in the blue bag.

The purse can be a subject of deep frustration because access to one’s documents means one has to engage in extensive negotiations with the owner of the purse before any document is released. My grandmother does not trust us not to be reckless with official documents and so she sometimes over values their importance. Permission to dispose of outdated documents calls for a rigorous process of adjudication where the burden to prove obsolescence rests squarely with the owner of the documents. Upon release, obsolete documents must be burnt or shredded because as far as my grandmother is concerned, there is always the chance that old documents may be used for new nefarious purposes.

If you should ask my grandmother about the nature of this new wickedness, you should hear stories of daughters who were mysteriously married by men they had never met and sons whose bank accounts were emptied by anonymous criminals who used that one document that was carelessly disposed of.

Weekend Special

Image of Nigerien soldiers studying U.S. Army training techniques, 2016. Image Credit: US Army

(1) The writer Binyavanga Wainaina has written a Letter to All Kenyans [Kenyans were supposed to vote this week in a rerun of August’s presidential election, but the electoral commission postponed elections in opposition strongholds indefinitely yesterday]:  “In 1992, I voted for Mwai Kibaki. I was, then, a very conservative Kenyan. I believed in unearned privilege. I believed in English Kenya. I believed in Mwai Kibaki, not Matiba. I believed I was an elite Kenyan and deserved a president who would not rock the boat. I remember that election very clearly…”

(2) In US media, much has been made of the circumstances of the death of American soldiers in Niger. But the larger question is why is the US army in Africa in the first place. If you were wondering, like me, big US military presence is on the continent. This article, with links to stories from 2012 to now will be instructive. 

(3) And according to Pentagon war game simulations, there will be a full-scale invasion of the continent in the near future. 

(4) Another worrying thread, regarding the American “war on terror” on the continent, has been the training of vigilantes

(5) Can we develop the study of Africa so it is more respectful of the lives and struggles of African people and to their agendas?

(6) An increasing number of political PR companies are setting up shop on the continent, and the fact of the internet as a way of reaching more people than in the past, has led to the proliferation of propaganda in the stead of real political communications with constituencies. 

(7) A four-year-old child was raped in Ghana. The local chiefs said nothing could be done because community gods deemed the suspect innocent. National outrage has thankfully led to the opening of a police investigation, but the fact that no attempt was made before speaks volumes about how likely rape is taken.    

(8) A French court has charged Equatorial Guinea’s Vice President (his father is the Life President) with corruption, seizing his assets in the country. How African regional bodies react will tell us a lot about willingness to fight corruption on the international stage.

(9) Watch and learn why we should eat more indigenous African fruits and vegetables. 

(10) An exhibition showing the works of Chief S.O. Alonge, photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria in Nigeria marks the Smithsonian African Art Museums foray into exhibiting on the continent

(11) Meet the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time; and

(12) Finally, for the young survivors of Ebola, cataracts—which usually only afflict the old—are another battle scar.

Goodwill (Ambassador) for WHO?

Empty stores at a health center in Masowe, Zimbabwe. Image via Wikicommons.

The story of Zimbabwe’s once legendary health system is a tragic one. During Zimbabwe’s transition to independence and black majority rule in 1980, the new ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front [(ZANU(PF)], pursued an ambitious vision of modernizing development. Throughout the 1980s, the majority of Zimbabweans gained unprecedented access to education and health care. The government made remarkable progress in the provision of water and sanitation to rural households. According to UNICEF, Zimbabwe’s health sector was, for much of this period, “one of the best in sub-Saharan Africa.” By the 1990s, Zimbabwe could proudly claim a substantial middle class, an educated population, a diversified economy, and a sophisticated public health infrastructure.

In 2008, however, the situation could scarcely look any more different: after a decade-long economic slide, inflation rates – somewhere in the region of 79.6 billion percent – had reached world record-setting levels. Public services had largely disintegrated, while major shortages of basic commodities had been piled on top of political turmoil and violence. The health system was left in extremis. Clinical coverage was inadequate throughout much of the country forcing patients to travel long distances for treatment. At medical facilities, there were critical shortages of essential medicines while frequent electricity outages prevented the use of much hospital machinery. On top of this, a catastrophic cholera outbreak – unprecedented in scale, duration and lethality – was competing for lives with one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

It was thus jarring when President Robert Mugabe, who cynically presided over the collapse of Zimbabwe’s health system, was named as the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against non-communicable diseases at a UN meeting in Uruguay last week. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesushe, the first African director-general of the WHO, motivated this appointment by stating that Mr. Mugabe could use the role “to influence his peers in his region” and described Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies to provide health care to all.”

Within a matter of hours Mugabe’s appointment was met with a storm of international opprobrium from a dizzying array of human rights groups, journalists, many UN member states and Western politicians. Following a tenure of only a matter of days, Mugabe’s position was rescinded.

Who can say for sure why Dr. Tedros thought this would be a good appointment or, for that matter, why he had not anticipated such an awesome backlash? I might speculate that the appointment was a nod to some misguided conception of pan-Africanism, after all Mugabe remains one of the most articulate defenders of African sovereignty against western political-economic and humanitarian intervention in African affairs. More pertinently though, I question the fervor with which the WHO’s decision was condemned.

It is no secret that Mugabe is portrayed in much western media as the archetypal African tyrant whom liberal proponents of good governance and human rights love to hate. Popular media tropes about Zimbabwe as a pathological and pariah state brought to its knees under the brutal regime of the despot Robert Mugabe provide a compelling but ultimately vacuous account of another failed post-colonial African state. Such discourses are not mere rhetorical flourishes, they belie the formidably complex historical, political and economic processes that brought about Zimbabwe’s crisis in the first place. Furthermore, they provoke belligerent counter-narratives in Zimbabwe and embolden Mugabe’s self-serving anti-imperialist posture. This dynamic augments the many difficulties in the country by creating hostile stand-offs between Mugabe’s government and its erstwhile enemies. As I have written elsewhere, the charged moral condemnation of Mugabe over the 2008 cholera outbreak delayed the humanitarian relief effort to fight the disease, promoted non-engagement between Zimbabwe and western governments, and narrowed down the avenues for third-party diplomatic mediation to ameliorate the crisis. As the well-known idiom goes: when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Finally, Tedros was not entirely off the mark when he talked of Zimbabwe’s commitment to health equity. Looking beyond the country’s political leadership, there are a multitude of dedicated civil servants, local NGOs, and conscientious healthcare professionals working, often with little remuneration, to deliver medical care in an economically harsh and politically polarized environment. These are the actors who are ensuring there is universal health coverage as enshrined in the country’s 2013 constitution. From this perspective, the story of Zimbabwe’s health system, while undoubtedly a tragic, is nevertheless a hopeful one.

The continued resilience of the workers at Marikana

Bhele of Marikana. Still from Miners Shot Down.

The history of mineworkers in South Africa is littered with violence, ethnic conflict, clashes with mine security and police. And it did not abate after Apartheid. One such moment came in the early 1990s on the Northwest Province’s platinum belt where a series of political assassinations marked violent clashes — with some workers killed — between the National Mineworkers Union (NUM), which dominated mine worker unionism, and the Worker Mouth Piece Union, which tried to unseat the NUM. Many invoke this memory to describe the rise of inter-union rivalry — sometimes deadly — once again at Marikana since 2012 when police murdered 34 striking miners.

Five years later, there has still been no justice for Marikana. There is much talk about memorializing the people who have been killed and reparations for their families, but there is no talk of justice or who should take responsibility for the massacre. Rather, as Johannesburg based researcher David Bruce has written, the key framing argument of the Farlam commission of inquiry – which held public hearings into the causes the Marikana massacre – has been that violence by the strikers “created” the situation at Marikana.

One positive note in the midst of this multifaceted violence and political competition, has been the barely audible resilience of the autonomous organization of workers and independent leadership in Marikana. One of the leaders of this workers’ movement was Tholakele Dlunga, better known as Bhele for his clan name.

Tholakele Dlunga’s biography reads like most of the workers at Marikana, including those murdered in 2012. Bhele was born in Libode the Eastern Cape on 27 June 1978. He migrated to Rustenburg to look for work like many others from the Eastern Cape. Bhele became a rock drill operator (RDO) at Lonmin Mines in Marikana, in the North West province of South Africa in the early 2000s. In 2012, he was one of the independent strike leaders who led the workers at Marikana and was on the mountain when police opened fire on the mineworkers resulting in a massacre. Some people say he was chosen to be a leader, like all the members of the mountain committee, because of specific characteristics: being firm but understanding and a good negotiator, which, some suggest stemmed from the fact that he was a pastor in a Zionist Christian Church in Libode.

When I first met Bhele in 2012, one of the women from the women’s movement, Sikhala Sonke, in Marikana had organized for him to speak to me. The sociologist Luke Sinwell writes that, on August 7th, Bhele together with other RDOs, many of whom were also from the Eastern Cape had met with RDOs from Western Mine and Karee, and then “proceeded to speak to the management to request basic monthly pay of R12,500.” That’s about $1,250. In Rehad Desai’s film about Marikana, Bhele appears on camera, holding a loud speaker and addressing workers outside the Lonmin office, explaining that the management would not meet with them. Four days after making their wage demand, the workers approached their union, the NUM, with their grievances. As they approached the office, two NUM officials opened fire on the group of workers. When Bhele shared with me the photos from the day of the massacre he told me it was on that day that they knew they would have to go it alone. At the time of the strike, he still a NUM member and safety officer for the union a position he had held for two years at the time.

Bhele relayed to journalist Greg Marinovich how police had banged down the door of his shack at 5:30am on the 25th of October, 2012, just over a month after the massacre and put a black plastic bag over his head to suffocate him while they beat him. They took him to Phokeng police station, after they found his unlicensed gun. Over the next six days he was repeatedly beaten even after he was transferred to another police station. I can’t imagine what his reaction might have been when the trauma of the massacre was still fresh in his mind and whether even as a strong and fierce person who often got impatient and restless during our interviews he would have even attempted to fight back. His was not an isolated experience, Lantier reports that of the 270 mineworkers arrested on murder charges by the South African state under the apartheid Common Purpose Act that 150 reported that they were tortured in prison.

When I saw Bhele again in 2014, many things in Marikana had changed, the central dirt road leading into the settlement had been closed off, barring the entry of vehicles. A community trauma counsellor told me that people were so angry, depressed and paranoid that police were no longer allowed to go into the community of Nkaneng shack settlement, where most of the mineworkers live, because they would probably burn down the van. Everyone was suspicious of everyone. There were other changes too. Bhele had become a shaft steward for Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (AMCU) and the chairperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) branch in Marikana. Both movements are significant: after the massacre the mineworkers at Marikana had joined AMCU en masse and the EFF was formed in the massacre’s wake.

Bhele had also moved onto the property of Ma Nomzekhelo Sonti, one of the founders of Sikhala Sonke who was now a member of parliament for the EFF. There were also many people in Marikana who now wore AMCU and EFF t-shirts. The political newcomers had quickly managed to capture the dissatisfaction of the Marikana residents who felt betrayed by the NUM and the ANC.

The second last time I saw him was in Marikana last year, on the anniversary of the massacre. There was a huge gathering of people and a big stage where EFF Commander in Chief Julius Malema and AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa, addressed the people. I wormed my way into the VIP section because I wanted to see some of the women of Sikhala, a few of them were on the stage already. I found Bhele outside the tent, in a plain formal shirt. We greeted and chatted only very briefly. I wanted to talk more, but he was going back into the crowd. I wanted to ask why he wasn’t on the stage or in a t-shirt of some sorts but I didn’t get the chance. On the night of October 17th, 2017, he was shot in his shack in Nkaneng, for reasons we are still unaware of. In the last three months, there have been six deaths at Lonmin alone, but the figure for the total number of deaths since the start of this conflict has not yet been recorded and some say many deaths are not reported to the police.

The mineworkers who communed on the koppie in August 2012 had organized themselves. They had become critical, for some time, of the NUM and its status as a “sweet heart union.” For the NUM the trouble in Marikana started with Steve, the Chairperson of the NUM branch in Marikana in 2011 who was not reinstated as chairperson after his term ended. This caused mineworkers at Karee to down their tools and embark on an unprotected strike in protest. The NUM said he was trying to amass a following around himself without adhering to the constitution of the union. Bhele and others thought Steve was an honest man who spoke up for his fellow workers and cared about them. After his dismissal, Steve joined AMCU as a recruiter but was killed in 2013 before he could appear at the commission of inquiry.

Violence has become an all too familiar companion to political changes.  The Moerane commission which is responsible for the investigation of political killings in Kwa Zulu Natal, where more than 90 people have assassinated since April 2014, suggests a worrying trend in South African politics where dissent and disagreement are fiercely policed.

The discourse of the “third force” – once pervasive during apartheid to describe shadowy government death squads and proxy armies – permeates the language on all sides of the debate. The third force is always an outside agitator that threatens the unity of the political structure. The result has been a constant deferral of the real political questions about abuses of power, lack of representation, and an unhealthy obsession with consensus. Bhele, one hopes, will be remembered for his independent thinking.

#MeToo

Township Capetown. Image credit Carsteanca via Flickr.

From an early age, I learned how to bargain with my fears. I was 11 years old, and lying alone in our three quarter bed of our council flat waiting in the half-dark with the paraffin lamp turned low for my mother to come back from work. At the time, she was working at a nylon factory, shortly after she left her work as a domestic. I liked that bed — it had a deep indentation in the middle, shaped by years of lying pressed tightly against my mother’s back. Often, she would say, “Ruby, jy gaan my versmoor!” (Ruby, you are going to smother me!). But I would ignore her, because her shift work kept her away from me at odd hours of the day and night, so I needed that warm embrace, to feel that she was there and fully present with me. But for now, I was alone. If I lay on the edge of the bed, it would tilt me into that deep, safe ditch in the middle where no tokoloshes could reach me.

At the time, we lived at Gladstone Street, Matroosfontein, as backyard dwellers with three other families. And everyday, I would wake up early to walk to Bishop Lavis Primary School, past Pikki-baai’s shop, where I used to buy my favorite Wilson’s toffee, then walk across the unguarded railway line, past Waltons supermarket until I reached the small school building. That walk took me about 45 minutes. Our tiny one-room shack contained a bed and a cupboard bought on lay-by from Ellerines, with a curtain separating the bed from the make-shift kitchen — a table with a Primus stove, plates and a salvaged round plastic container to store bread. That plastic container was one of many recycled from the Christmas hamper that my mother saved for by buying weekly Christmas stamps for the festive season. That Christmas hamper was the highlight of my year — biscuits with red jam in the middle, mebos, slangetjies, spekenam canned ham for New Year’s Day. The embossed painting on the plastic bin was faded now, but you could still the red horse and carriage going round and round in an endless circle.

The shack scared me. We used recycled corrugated sheets to build the structure, and it was filled with holes through which unseen eyes could look at us while we were eating, or bathing in the big zinc bath, or sleeping. Dangers lurked everywhere. I had to make sure that my daily task of fetching water from the far corner of the yard was done before nightfall, or I would have to walk there alone, fearfully peering into the shadows while holding the large plastic bucket as close as I could to the broken tap that spouted water in different directions so that I could get most of the water into the bucket. But it got heavier as it filled up, and I would be forced to lower it to the ground, and so water would pool and sink into the sandy black muddiness around my bare feet. Then the effort of carrying it to the shack, water slopping against my bare legs, plastic handles cutting into my hands leaving the same deep, red welts as the heavy OK Bazaar shopping bags my mother and I shared after our weekly shopping trip. But my reward at the end would be waiting for me to enjoy-a pink snowball covered with white coconut with red jam. But carrying water? No reward, just a chore that led to washing dishes later.

Sometimes, when I was scared, I would plot my escape should one come in the form of a man that wanted to do unimaginably dark things to me when my mother was not home yet from night shift. My plan was to slip down the side of the bed against the wall quietly, until I reached the cool floor, and there I would remain until the unnamed he left, safe in the dark shadow between the bed and the wall. Or I could stuff the pillows into the bed so that he would think there’s someone lying there, and then, bam! I would be out of the room like a rocket.

And so I was lying in bed with the scratchy blanket pulled up to my eyes, peering fearfully at the shadows. The cupboard with its sulky, sullen shape squatting in the corner did not look friendly. The pics from magazines that I pasted on the wall looked ominous, even my hero Bruce Lee looked scary and the bloody scratches on his tummy looked like a warning. Pas op, meisie! (Beware, little girl!) But of what? And from whom? I’ve had my share of scary men already – uncles whose tickling went just that side of awkward, and a night when the male boarder from the big house called me inside on the pretext that he needed help with an undefined something. I followed him into the dark house. He sat down, pulled me between his legs, and asked me softly to put some Vaseline on my hands. Vaseline, such a household familiar! But then he took out his angry looking penis that looked like a fat pink worm with one eye, and asked me to stroke it. I looked up at him, bewildered and confused. Just stroke it, he said in a low voice, stroke it now. Don’t be scared. I replied in a shaky voice, “my mum will be home soon from work. It’s almost 11pm. She will be looking for me.” Luckily for me, this was true, because my mother’s shift ended at 11pm, and she would be home by 11.15pm. And he let me leave, scared and shivering and confused.

So when my mother came home that night, I was already in bed and half asleep. I heard her unlocking the door, but this time I also heard a man’s voice. I strained to recognize the voice, and then I relaxed, it was Uncle A, an old family friend whose wife and children I knew well. I heard her thank him for walking home with her, and told him goodnight. He said he wanted to come in for a few minutes because he was tired. She said my daughter is already asleep and I don’t want her to wake up, she’s got school tomorrow. He replied, don’t worry, I will be quiet.

I was listening to them in that relaxed state between sleep and wakefulness, fully at ease because two people I knew were in the room that now made me feel safe, and its shadows were not scary anymore. Then I heard a scuffle. She asked, “A, wat doen jy? (A, what are you doing?)”

He responded, “Ek wil naai‘ (I want to have sex).”

“Nee,” she responded “gaan huis toe na jou vrou!” (No, go back to your wife!) And then a shout, because he toppled her over onto the floor next to our bed where she fell with a soft woosh!

Alarmed. I opened my eyes slightly to peer down and see what was going on. He was lying on top of her. She said, softly, urgently, “A, moenie! (A, don’t!’)”

He responded, “hou  jou mond, dis of jy of dis jou kind!’ (Shut your mouth! It’s either you or your child!)

After this she went quiet. I heard him pull at her clothes. Counted thirteen thumps until he stopped with a grunt. Peered down at her where he was lying slumped on her body, with her panty and stockings bunched around her ankles. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes, held her finger to her lips so that I could understand to stay quiet. I closed my eyes tightly to make it all disappear. It didn’t. Just scary, menacing shadows of dark fears dancing through my head like so many monsters that I couldn’t name. After what seemed like a long time, he got up, pulled up his zip. Left.

My mother locked the door, poured water into a plastic water jug, squatted on it, washed, got into her night dress, crawled into bed, pushed me away when I tried to spoon her. We both lay quietly on the outer edges of the bed. Our safe space in the middle where we used to spoon until we slept a chasm between us that could not be crossed. Eventually, I fell into an uneasy sleep. Something had changed and shifted within me and between us. I was too young to understand what that shift was. Got up the next morning. Went to school. And we didn’t speak about it again for thirty years, when we were able to.

Akin Omotoso’s latest is a masterful experiment in film making

Still from film A Hotel Called Memory.

When a woman announces to her husband, via text message, that she wants a divorce, and insists on retaining custody of their son, what does she do next? Jet off to Cape Town, South Africa, and into the arms of a lover, after trusting her son with the safety of a friend? Repair to the Zanzibar coast to lick her wounds while embracing the hedonistic night life and fending off her husband’s sober entreaties at the same time?

Depending on how one approaches “A Hotel Called Memory,” the intense 49-minute film directed by Akin Omotoso, which had its African premiere at the “Lights Camera Africa!!!” Film Festival in Lagos at the end of September, it could be either of those. Or it could be none of them at all.

And every option is a valid one. The most important element is that the experience, at once singular and collective is ingrained.

Described as a tone poem by Omotoso, “A Hotel Called Memory” concerns itself with elements of mood and scene and downplays aspects relating to plot or story. Sandy beaches, fast waves and ocean waters not only compete with the leads for attention but help to build the world that the heroine Lola (a sultry, confident Nse Ikpe-Etim) likes to immerse herself in.

A Hotel Called Memory trailer.

In Lagos, the beaches may stand as a metaphor for cleansing and starting over, as evidenced by the film’s depiction of white garment worshippers singing and gyrating to the drumbeats of their own making, while a child heads perilously close to plunging into the ocean’s waters. Incidentally, the voices of these worshippers are the only ones spoken aloud throughout the film’s running time. All other characters express their thoughts and feelings in phone chats, typed out on screen, or physically through body language.

In Zanzibar, calm waters and a busy night life offer the heroine the chance of escape, even if for the briefest of periods. Cape Town represents a brief tension, the calm before the storm, the anxious moments just before life happens, and everything falls apart. 

Except Omotoso is not interested in creating actual tensions or resolving them. He is content with gazing detachedly at his actors — himself included — while they busy themselves on screen, doing nothing that successfully pushes a linear narrative.

Omotoso is presently in a fertile stage of a successful career that has had him attempt a wide genre of film projects. He is as comfortable in romantic comedy (Tell Me Sweet Something) as he is tackling inner city immigrant life (Vaya). Born of Nigerian and Bahamian parents, he commenced his professional career in South Africa and has found ways to make art that combines elements from both cultures. His 2011 award winning Man on Ground confronted South Africa’s ugly xenophobic history in relation to Nigerian immigrants and he led a crew of mostly South Africans to direct the television adaptation of the hit Nigerian movie, Fifty, about a circle of middle aged women. 

Produced by Ego Boyo (30 DaysKeeping Faith), A Hotel Called Memory assembles actors, Mmabatho Montsho, Nomzamo Mbatha (South Africa) and Lala Akindoju (Nigeria) to support Ikpe-Etim and Omotoso in giving lyrical life to the screenplay penned by Branwen Okpako [She also edited the film].  

Their characters are ultimately not knowable, purposely so, as they express in living color their frustrations and exasperations. They beguile, seduce and ultimately brutalize one another, but their antics are relayed from a distance as Omotoso keeps each one a blank slate for the audience to project their own backstories or motives. 

Carrying a film with zero dialogue presents the actors with a unique opportunity as they seek to convey the span of emotions with facial and body expressions. Ikpe-Etim rises to the challenge and is eminently watchable as a woman on the edge. She allows herself become a willing tool of the director who in turn, places her in natural environments and just observes her response. Whether she is wandering the markets of Zanzibar or laying on the beach in sweet surrender, her generous expressiveness gives the film much of its power.

Shot intermittently over a period of three years, with the Sony A7S camera on a 45mm swing shift with tilt lenses, and taking advantage of natural lighting as much as possible, A Hotel Called Memory had its international premiere at the 6th Annual Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia, where it won an Audience Award for Favorite Experimental Film.

By letting viewers own their subjectivity and make their own impressions of what they have just experienced, A Hotel Called Memory reevaluates cinematic conventions that have characterized Omotoso’s work in the past and reinvents him as a chameleon, taking on considerable risk and license.

A construct on the nature and power of memory, a study on the pains and perils of starting over, a meditation on divorce, infidelity and the futility of modern relationships, Omotoso’s latest could be any, all, or none of these. Puzzling and bewildering, its proudest achievement is that it makes audiences think. That in itself may be enough victory.

Weekend Special No.1958

Image Credit: AMISOM Public Information, via Flickr.com, 2014.

(1) A big talking point last week has been the lack of media coverage given to the blast in Somalia and its victims. Less discussed has been the unsurprising role of Somalians the world over giving immediate support, especially young tech people. 

(2) Joseph Duo, a former fighter in Liberia’s civil wars is running for one of the 73 open legislature seats and is symbolic of the transformations the country have undergone in the past decades

(3) On the long walks to freedom beat, a sequel to Nelson Mandela’s popular book is out. Some early reviews are already in (like this one in the Guardian by Gillian Slovo, daughter of Mandela confidante, Joe Slovo), while the South African Eyewitness News published an extract on its website. It will be interesting to see his reflection on his years in power (he only served one term as president from 1994 to 1999 before retiring) at a time when eyes are especially trained on the happenings around South Africa’s executive branch, particularly its current leader, Jacob Zuma.

(4) Remembering the generation that fought empire in Uganda and Mozambique’s “East German Africans.”  

(5) It will come as no shock to any woman who has been there that Cairo is ranked the worst city for women, in the world. 

(6) Large-scale farming and agribusiness is being touted as a path forward in Africa, but there are still many concerns. Here is one example of displacements in Zambia. 

(7) Labor costs in Africa is evidently “too high” for the continent to become the next China.

(8) Much has been made of Africans leapfrogging when it comes to tech access on the globe. This week, for instance, it was revealed that more than 2 million people have used Airbnb in Africa. Yet the fact that many of the new innovations have no anchor on the continent means that we don’t keep much of the money here.

(9) Thinking about home-cooked solutions, watch a Ted talk on how Africans can use traditional knowledge to make progress. 

(10) Finally, listen to Mwalimu, and future Nobel Prize Winner (we can dream) Ngugi Wa Thiongo, talk about Shakespeare’s impact on East African culture and literature. 

Wobblies–A new history of a radical union that profoundly impacted Southern African politics

In the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized on every continent and dozens of countries, including in southern Africa. It would grow to become the largest African and coloured resistance movement in pre-World War II South Africa, also spreading into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This month, Pluto Press published Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. This book breaks new ground, with contributors treating this revolutionary union as the global labor union it intended to be, was, and still is.

Though not widely known, the IWW greatly impacted southern Africa in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1910, a local IWW became the first white-majority union to actively fight racism on the Witwatersrand. In 1917, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) the first union for black African workers, formed—explicitly modeled on the IWW. The IWW influenced early socialists along with other unions of black African, mixed race (“coloured”), and Indian workers across southern Africa. Through the IWA, it even influenced the early African National Congress (ANC).

Initiated in Chicago in 1905, the IWW committed itself to overthrowing capitalism, a system dedicated to private profit, under which working and poor people suffered. Within five years, it spread worldwide, influencing millions. Its members, known as Wobblies, wanted to replace capitalism and governments with a bottom-up socialism run by ordinary people. But they were not Communists. The IWW, located in Left traditions like anarchism and syndicalism, insisted mainstream parties and all governments served the rich. Instead of parliament, it wanted One Big Union of all workers – even the unemployed. The greatest power of ordinary people was in the workplace. Through revolutionary unions, education, democratic organizing, and direct action, a new society would emerge through a global General Strike.

The IWW was global in aim and reality, but scholars have neglected studying it as a global movement. Historians generally focus on individual countries. A global history requires money and time for research in many countries and faces language barriers.

However, there is expertise worldwide on the IWW and this new anthology takes a first step towards a global IWW history. It brings together cutting-edge work from ten countries using sources in as many languages.

As elsewhere, sailors and immigrant workers, often from the UK, brought Wobbly thought, examples, and skills to southern Africa. As everywhere, these were adapted to, and enriched by, local circumstances. Wars and capitalist revolution were reshaping the region and entrenching massive inequality, yet most early unions were whites-only—some opposed capitalism envisaged socialism as whites-only as well: “White Laborism.” This ignored the reality that most workers and people in southern Africa were not white.

The IWW swam against the current, starting among radical white workers. It connected up with the local anti-racist anarchist and syndicalist tradition, expressed in papers like the weekly Voice of Labour. Here, the anarchist Henry Glasse of Port Elizabeth insisted on One Big Union: “For a white worker … to pretend he can successfully fight his battle independent of the coloured wage slaves—the majority—is … simple idiocy.”

By 1912, Wobblies had actively campaigned against White Laborism, founded a local IWW union, led strikes by white Johannesburg tramway workers, recruited at Pretoria’s railyards, and organized in Durban.

This early union faltered by 1913, but from 1915 IWW ideas profoundly influenced the International Socialist League (ISL), forerunner of the South African Communist Party (SACP). ISL activists formed the IWA, as well as unions among Indian and coloured workers in Durban and Kimberley, and promoted One Big Union in the white unions as well. While the ISL started among white workers, it soon included militants like the IWA’s Fred Cetiwe and Hamilton Kraai, Kimberley’s Johnny Gomas, and Durban’s Bernard Sigamoney.  A separate Industrial Socialist League organized black African and coloured workers in Cape Town. In 1918, the ISL, IWA, and ANC organized an abortive general strike on the Witwatersrand. In 1919, the IWA organized a mass strike on the Cape Town docks with a new union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). Cetiwe and Kraai, meanwhile, tried to push the ANC leftwards.

In 1920, the IWA merged into the ICU, led by Clements Kadalie. Both ICU and Kadalie were influenced by IWW ideas– the ICU even adopted the IWW Preamble. Although the ICU never was a syndicalist, IWW union, it became the largest African and coloured resistance movement in pre-World War II South Africa, also spreading into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The early SACP, which incorporated the ISL, also retained IWW influences.

The IWW is part of the story of southern African union and resistance history. As contributors to Wobblies of the World demonstrate, the IWW also proved integral to working class and civil rights struggles in the Americas, Australasia, the Caribbean, and Europe.

#StandwithSomalia?

Image credit Tobin Jones via Wikicommons.

In the wake of last Saturday’s horrific bombing in Mogadishu, social media commentators have been quick to point out the hypocrisy in the international response to the devastation. Much like the outcry following the Garissa University attacks in Kenya in 2015, Twitter users on and off the continent have deployed the hashtags #AfricanLivesMatter, #JeSuisMogadishu, and #StandwithSomalia to demand the same levels of compassion and mourning for Black African life that emerged for White European life following attacks in France and elsewhere. Meanwhile, others have observed with appreciation the steps taken by governments that acknowledged the humanity of the victims: on October 17, for example, the lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris were switched off to honor the lives lost in Mogadishu a few days prior. “Some should not be more equal than others. Pain is pain. Human is human,” read one tweet.

By specifically invoking #AfricanLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter in relation to Somalia, some commentators have simultaneously sought to make connections between Africa and the movement in defense of Black life in the United States. Yet the US-based #BlackLivesMatter is grounded in the recognition of difference rather than commonality, relying on hard data and historical record to illustrate that black lives matter less than white lives in the American criminal justice system. To stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter is to recognize white supremacy and black oppression as systemic phenomenon requiring dismantling. It is to recognize that mere invocations of empathy, humanity, and equality are not enough.

What does it mean, then, to appeal to a common humanity in the context of Somalia? What does this appeal obscure? For one, there is considerably less sustained outcry on social media about African life in relation to ongoing forms of structural violence that may be more mundane but just as deadly, enabled by states and their corporate donor partners. Nor, for that matter, is there much talk about the expanding forms of militarism, surveillance, and police brutality that are legitimized under the guise of security. It is worth reflecting on the fact that it is precisely the appeal to a shared humanity that has permitted the emergence of policies that are equally designed to punish and control, with the Responsibility to Protect being the most notable. The now decade-long military occupation of Somalia by foreign forces continues to be rationalized in similar language, as national and international policymakers engage in a delicate dance between illustrating progress made towards stability, all the while insisting that more work remains to be done. As analyst Abukar Arman has observed, this dance leads to “a never-ending process of transitioning out of transition, bloodshed and perpetual dependency.” What, then, does it mean to #StandwithSomalia? Do Somali live matter when the US military drops bombs, when security forces sell arms on the black market to Al-Shabaab, or when young Somali men are held indefinitely in secret prisons and rehabilitation centers in Mogadishu?

While empathy in the aftermath of tragedy has its place, the uncritical embrace of the notion of a shared humanity may work to depoliticize and mask difference and political complexity rather than address it. What kinds of imaginings are possible when we open up the very idea of “solidarity” for scrutiny and create spaces for historically and politically informed conversations about injustice, anti-blackness and internationalism today?

The African churches of South Delhi

Nigerian migrant in Khirkee Village, South Delhi. Image credit Malini Kochupillai.

On any given Sunday in one of South Delhi’s dozens of Pentecostal African church services occurring in various, stuffy rented halls, you might see the following: a Nigerian lady dressed in a bright pink sari; an Indian lady cuddling a curly-haired baby fathered by her Nigerian husband; a small cluster of Indians trying to sing a hymn in Igbo or a tall Nigerian man dressed in a spotless white agbada speaking Hindi. At climactic moments in the pastor’s sermon, the entire congregation shouts in unison, “Amen my faddah, amen my faddah, amen my faddah.”

Every Sunday and even on weekdays, when there are pastors visiting from Nigeria, thousands of Africans living in India’s National Capital Region (NCR) head to these “charismatic” church services lasting three to four hours. The majority of the congregants hail from Nigeria, but in attendance are also Congolese, Ugandans, Tanzanians and various other African nationals, along with Indians, especially from the Northeastern region.

These churches are part of a wider transnational phenomenon. They were born in the USA but are increasingly popular in many African countries and other developing nations afflicted by the brutal inequities produced by global capitalism. In India, however, they also provide Africans with a refuge.

Africans, especially Nigerians, have a bad reputation in India as criminals and drug dealers. In recent years, they have become victims of numerous violent, sometimes deadly, xenophobic attacks. 

“Nigerian Tied To Post, Thrashed By Mob In Delhi, Nobody Helped” reads one typical headline.

Despite the hostile environment or because of it, many African migrants seek comfort in church communities. One Nigerian student I interviewed told me he did not attend church when he lived in Nigeria but does in India because he sees it as “a nation of idol worshippers.” He is also lonely and finds it difficult to integrate into the lower-middle class neighborhood he lives in because of negative stereotypes about Africans.

Of course, the majority of Africans in India are not criminals. They arrive in India on business and student visas and often end up staying years, settling down, marrying, having children, exporting Indian products to their home countries and importing their home foodstuffs, fabrics, and of course, cultural practices such as going to church.

One congregant of the Shiloh Global Worship Centre (AKA Chapel of Possibilities) in Delhi’s southern suburb of Saket has found success as a fashion designer with showrooms in Lagos and Delhi.

Once settled, African migrants bring other family members over for medical treatment because India offers sophisticated care at relatively cheap cost. One Nigerian student who was charmed into coming to India by Bollywood films brought her elderly mother over for a course of treatment that lasted months. This dignified woman always wears traditional Nigerian dress with an elegant head wrap. One day, when she was walking through Khirkee Village’s narrow, winding alleys, someone threw food scraps at her. This experience radicalized her daughter, who laments the fact that Indians are treated so well in Nigeria while Africans suffer such indignities in India.

India is a complex environment. The African experience is over-determined by the country’s general obsession with lighter skin.  As usual, white foreigners enjoy extraordinary privilege. The reverse is true for darker skinned people, those who are associated with being “low caste.” Indians, especially those with less exposure and education, look down on Africans. Many middle-class Africans find themselves living amongst Indians who are less cosmopolitan than those who live in South Delhi’s more upper-class “colonies.”

Dark-skinned Africans and single-lidded Northeastern Indians whom locals describe as looking “Nepali” or “Chinese” are both marginalized groups in the NCR. Both Africans and Northeasterners often experience difficulty finding housing because of xenophobic prejudice and hence, both end up living together in Delhi’s lower middle-class, less regulated, “urban villages” like Munirka, Khirkee, Chattarpur, and Safdarjung Enclave’s Arjuna Nagar.

Hence, a large network of churches has grown up in and around these areas. Ironically, these “born again”-style churches can end up causing even more anti-African antagonism in an environment where Hindu nationalism is on the rise and producing greater intolerance towards India’s large Muslim population and much smaller Christian population.

Like Africans in India, Africans on the continent are turning more and more to these churches. Ironically they may be doing so for the same reasons as African migrants in Delhi: to seek solace from the hostile environment engendered by the endemic failures of African governments to provide adequate opportunity and decent quality of life for their citizens. Which is the reason so many move to India in the first place.

In a film about war, can you leave the politics out?

Still from film The Train of Salt and Sugar

The film The Train of Salt and Sugar, set in 1988 during Mozambique’s civil war, depicts a journey by rail from the city of Nampula, in the northeast of the country, to Cuamba, near the Malawi border. The train’s travelers tell a variety of stories; there are traders hoping to make good money selling salt from the coast for sugar, a rarity during the war; while others are hoping to be reunited with family. Then there is Rosa, a nurse who is on her way to her new job. The travelers are accompanied by a military battalion that is there to protect the train, its passengers and the merchandise. Yet these soldiers turn out to be as dangerous and violent as the combatants who are hidden in the bush.

The film is a Mozambican production, based on a book written by Licínio Azevedo who also directed the film. It is also the first Mozambican submission to Hollywood’s Academy Awards. Following his film, “Virgin Margarida” (2012), about the post-independence re-education camps, Azevedo takes up another controversial topic in Mozambique: the civil war.

The civil war was fought within the context of the Cold War and lasted from 1976, shortly after independence, until a peace agreement in 1992 between the then Marxist-Leninist FRELIMO government and RENAMO, a rebel movement supported first by Rhodesia’s white minority government and then apartheid South Africa, both Mozambique’s neighbors.

The violence of that war is generally silenced. Very little of the war’s history has been written down. Azevedo tells one of these stories, or many in one. At the same time, he manages to turn the movie into a captivating Mozambican western, including a duel and a tragic romance.

The film’s pace is slow, as excruciatingly slow and suspenseful as the pace of the train on its dangerous journey during which, the viewer immediately understands, confrontations with an enigmatic enemy are inevitable. The soundtrack consists mostly of the whistling and rhythmic sounds of the train. The camera lingers on the tense faces of the passengers and moves along through the desolate as well as breathtaking landscapes. The quiet travel scenes are alternated by intervals of sudden shoot-outs with a largely faceless enemy. 

The Train of Salt and Sugar highlights RENAMO’s terror tactics, the military’s brutal treatment of alleged collaborators, the abuse of women by soldiers and the magic of war. The fact that the commander of the “enemy” is able to transform himself into a monkey makes a very topical analogy with the alleged abilities of RENAMO’s leader Alfonso Dhlakama to turn into a bird. The movie’s military commander, “Seven Ways,” seems to have some similar tricks on his sleeve.

Yet politics is left out of the movie. The warring parties, representing the armed forces of the FRELIMO government and the rebels of RENAMO, are not mentioned by name. “Brothers against brothers, not knowing why they fight,” one of the lead characters says at a certain point. This illustrates the film’s message about war as the pointless destruction of life and dreams. It is, as most a film about war or an anti-war film. It shows how both sides are violent, corrupt, and eventually losing, and how the civilians who cross their paths lose even more. 

Yet, while avoiding the politics of war in Mozambique, the film was released last year at a time when the country finds itself at war again. Once more trains have been under attack by armed combatants of RENAMO. This time it is not trains of salt and sugar that are under siege, but the coal trains running from the mines — carrying minerals for multinational corporations — in the center of the country to the coastal ports. This rapid economic and social change in Mozambique comes with poverty, corruption and exclusion, creating new struggles along the “old” lines of unresolved conflicts. This is the larger tragedy of The Train of Salt and Sugar: whereas for some Mozambicans the film is about a distant past, for other Mozambicans it relates a much more recent reality.

Weekend Special No.1957*

See item No. 6 below.

(1) Egypt has more problems to worry about than the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Commentators have read the ability of Ethiopia to push through such a project as a sign of Egypt’s declining power in the region, especially as contrasted with that of Ethiopia. But a journey down Africa’s longest river shows how a combination of climate change, war, and encroaching cities threatens the livelihood millions across countries who depend on it. 

(2) If Egyptians’ thought they caught a break when their men’s national soccer team qualified for the 2018 World Cup— the first time in 27 years. Not so, the military-run government has decided to extend the State of Emergency for another 3 months. 

(3) A new report builds on the revelations from the Panama Papers to reveal the extent of corruption by African leaders, and their links to tax havens. 

(4) People all over the world have been celebrating the memory of Argentine guerrilla and revolutionary Che Guevara. [Remember his adventure in the Congo–ed.] Today, October 15th, marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of “African Che” Thomas Sankara by one of his closest lieutenants. You can read about his violent death and the impact of his work and ideas in our archive; here, here and here. Of Sankara’s many legacies, his push for Burkinabes to wear their local attires (Dan Fani) is making a comeback, popularized in part by current president Roch Marc Christian Kabore.  

(5) On the surface, Raila Odinga’s decision to withdraw from the October 26th Kenyan elections, and rerun triggered by his appeals to the supreme court, looks like political suicide. Yet a closer look at Kenyan electoral law shows it could be a smart long-term plan that would force new elections and allow for additional candidates and parties to be considered.

(6) Liberia, and the rest of the world (especially the footballing world) seem eager to coronate George Weah, Africa’s only winner of the World Player of the Year award [and probably the greatest player the continent produced–Editor], was leading in the voting polls in the first of two rounds of the first election that would see a democratic handing over of power in Liberia since 1944.

(7) As more African countries do away with the need for visas for other African nationals, what would it take to rethink the mental borders we work with—and address the issues of xenophobia prevalent in many of our countries 

(8) South African politician Helen Zille has called for militiary intervention, a la Rio in Brazil, to address the problem of gangs in Capetown. Does the comparison hold

(9) Prophet Shepherd, reputedly one of the 15 wealthiest men in Malawi, runs a ministry in Pretoria, South Africa. As preachers wield more influence outside of the church, it is fascinating to see how they see view their role in addressing big political issues. 

(10) One of the paradoxes of globalization is that wealthy countries practically beg for borders to be open so they and their corporations can access land, cheap labor and bring in their capital to invest for profit. And yet when people from these very countries immigrate in search of a better land, offering their labor to gain some capital to send home there is resistance. Canada is the latest example, targeting Guinean asylum seekers, while simultaneously uniquely benefiting from that country’s minerals (bauxite) and contributing to some of the very problems that cause people to leave in the first place. 

  • Contributor Anakwa Dwamena takes over from me as regular compiler of this list. For more on Anakwa, read his Africa is a Country archive here, follow him on Twitter, or check out other samples of his work here, here and here. And why start at No.1957. It is to commemorate the year of Ghanaian independence.–Editor.

Everyone in Eritrea is desperate to flee, including the President’s son

Image Credit: Joseph Bautista via Flickr Creative Commons

In today’s Eritrea, there is no difference between the jailer and the jailed. The political culture is so violent and desperate that the president’s own son attempted to escape the country.

President Isaias Afwerki’s erratic and mercurial temperament – he has been the head of a one-party dictatorship since independence in 1993 – has culminated in a profoundly dysfunctional nation. A “hit and run” style has replaced any thoughtful long-term planning. Not being able to count on any stable or secure future, many public servants place their energy into amassing as much capital as possible, by any available means. 

The distinctive political culture of Eritrea suffers from an unclear boundary between the abuser and the victim. A guard can switch places with his/her captive at any moment. Some of the most notorious prison commanders and security chiefs who terrorized the nation with unchecked power end up in the harshest dungeons; many of them in prison facilities they have had commanded. Such perilous uncertainty enables the president to keep his subordinates guessing.

In the current Eritrean political landscape, officials are usually promoted to key posts only after being humiliated and pacified through an intricate web of control designed by Afwerki.

For example, Brigadier Gen. Eyob “Halibay” Fessahaye was among the first of the army’s command officers to be incarcerated for alleged corruption in the early 1990s. President Afwerki announced and read the charges against Halibay in a public seminar. Halibay was a sacrificial lamb and his incarceration a warning to the other officers. Shocked at this severe reversal of fortune just as he was preparing to take a new post as internal security chief, Halibay attempted to commit suicide twice while in jail. Later, after his release, in a bizarre twist Afwerki gave him an important post as head of a commission in charge of privatizing government houses.

Having gone through the compulsory dehumanization process, Halibay now commands the Special Forces, the elite commandos. Friends who visited him during his incarceration were later rewarded bountifully after he gained power. Of course, Halibay still has no freedom; he was denied an exit visa for a medical checkup in 2016.

Nesredin Bekhit is another example of the president’s tactic of cutting a rising official down to size and then rehabilitating them as a way to secure his fear-based loyalty. In the mid-1990s, Bekhit was imprisoned on corruption charges that were publicized in the national media. In 2014, after his degradation and release, he became the minister of trade and industry

Unlike other ministers, Bekhit spends his time now on the border with the Sudan, Ali-ghider, where he runs the ruling party’s contraband business. While all imports have been outlawed to regular citizens since 2003, Mr. Bekhit can grant import permits to his close associates and former inmates. He has turned some of his friends into overnight millionaires. 

Corruption among select high-ranking officials, mainly in the army, is not only allowed but encouraged. The president can use knowledge of their corrupt activities as leverage, to ensure their loyalty. With the implicit support of Afwerki, army commanders are protected in their corruption, including involvement in the complex racket of human trafficking, as long as they remain loyal.

Among others, General Filipos Woldeyohannes, the chief of staff and de facto minister of defense, and others such as Brigadier Gen. Tekle “Manjus” Kiflay have the green light from the president to pursue personal gain.

Most organs of the ruling party and the government collaborate in organized corruption, mainly by using intimidation and bankruptcy to control and ruin businesspeople. Yet it’s not easy to keep track of when exactly someone runs out of favor with the president. That happened recently to Mr. Yemane Tesfai, the former manager of the Commercial Bank of Eritrea, who ended up in jail for enabling various forms of corruption.

Another way that President Afwerki maintains and wields power is by fomenting feuds among his subordinates. He keeps close watch on any animosity between military commanders as a primary means of fortifying his own position. It’s no secret among observant citizens that all the top military commanders and most influential government ministers bear deep animosity against one another.

A grievous misreading of the president’s psyche cost Ms. Luel Ghebreab, the former chair of the National Union of Eritrean Women, her job. She mistakenly assumed it was safe to mediate a life-long feud between her husband, Major Gen. Teklai Habteselassie and the late Major Gen. Gebregziabher “Wuchu” Andemariam, when General Wuchu was bed-ridden. After Ms. Ghebreab mediated the dispute, the news quickly reached the president. He called and intimidated her, asking who had delegated her this responsibility. Then he instructed her to immediately conduct congress and vacate her post. Of course, nobody would question such orders from the head of state. Having gone through this public humiliation and left jobless for more than three years, this past July was Ghebreab reinstated as minister of labor and human welfare.

The president’s application of fear and terror are manifested in different forms. He verbally and physically abuses most of his subordinates including ministers and celebrities. For example, in 2010 Afwerki granted a rare interview with Al-Jazeera English. The presenter, the South African Jane Dutton, proceeded to openly challenge Afwerki about state abuses and authoritarianism in Eritrea. Irritated by her questions, the president called the journalist “insane.” (Watch) Post-interview Afwerki struck his information minister, Ali Abdu, who had arranged the interview, in front of his staff. Abdu was once Afwerki’s mentee, whom the president treated like his son. Among the most privileged and close associates of the president, he in turn terrorized the nation’s art community and state news media into abject compliance for a decade. Yet, despite closely following Afwerki’s template of terror and repression in the Ministry of Information, he decided in 2012 that he had to flee for his own safety and sought political asylum in Australia. 

As a management practice, Afwerki employs physical assault to derail confidence and instill insecurity in top government officials. This practice can become life threatening at times. About a year before his imprisonment with an alleged role in the January 2013 military mutiny, Abdella Jabir, the former head of Organizational Affairs and one of the top five executives of the ruling party (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice), was violently ambushed in the capital, Asmara, by supposedly “unidentified” assailants. Never publicized, this assault was neither a robbery nor an attack by political dissidents. Having recovered from his assault, Jabir continued his normal functions in the party until his eventual arrest. 

The president treats family members as he treats his subordinates. He routinely belittles and ridicules his eldest son, Abraham, and reportedly has stopped communications with his youngest son, Berhane, over the last four years. Frustrated with the dysfunctional, corrupt system and his father’s abusive treatment, Berhane Isaias Afwerki attempted to flee the country illegally in 2015. He was intercepted by border patrols while preparing to be smuggled out from the border town of Tessenei. Initially the border security who discovered him were not aware that he was the president’s son. 

It is this complex and enigmatic nature of President Afwerki that has rendered de facto the political culture of today’s Eritrea. The long-term consequences of a new nation with such political culture is not difficult to guess.

* Editors’ note: Sources for this post have not been named for their protection.

With friends like these… how did South Sudan come to this?

Few places in the world have taken a beating like South Sudan. How did it come to this?

At the end of May, the fourth ceasefire in as many years was declared in the South Sudanese civil war. President Salva Kiir, head of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), promised a unilateral end to hostilities and guaranteed the release of all political prisoners.

A little over a month earlier, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the military wing of the SPLM, had sent its notorious Lion Brigade, under the command of Santino Deng Wol, to the town of Pajok. 17 civilians were shot dead and thousands more were driven from their homes. UN peacekeepers were denied access to the area in the aftermath.

On October 4th, fighting between opposition and government forces broke out in Bieh state. The numbers are conflicting, but it appears that hundreds may have died. The violence, it seems, continues.

“The Dinkas are the only people who liberated South Sudan,” Minister of Defence Kuol Manyang is reported to have told a meeting of senior officers last year. It won’t surprise you to learn that Manyang is himself a Dinka, as is Kiir. The people of Pajok, to their detriment, were Acholi.

Pajok and its Acholi citizens are another casualty in the decades-old struggle between the SPLM and SPLM-iO (in opposition), rival incarnations of the same idea. They are acronyms—like IGAD, ARCSS, IGAD-PLUS, and UNMISS—that rule over millions of lives.

The entire country is now a food crisis zone. Reports of war crimes continue to flood in, pushing the boundaries of the grotesque by leaps and bounds. It was reported earlier this year that 1.8 million people had been displaced since fighting began in 2013. Worse, the will of local and international actors to broker an end to the violence has vanished completely. The guns on the ground hold sway, and with increasing boldness, as aid workers are shot and the government in Juba denies further expansion of the UN’s peacekeeping mission.

We have to look to the SPLM and its rival claimants for an answer to this crisis. The SPLM has been the face of South Sudan’s struggle for self-determination since its founding in 1983. After the 2005 helicopter crash that killed John Garang, the charismatic, American-backed (and autocratic) head of South Sudan’s liberation movement, violent factionalism has more-or-less replaced an earlier rhetoric of unitary, national progress. The men who’ve come up behind him—Kiir is 66, Machar, 64—are long-time vanguards of a crude, ethnic sectarianism. Their scores have waited a long time to be settled.

And those scores have a real urgency to them, because for the victor there will be spoils. The problem in this, one of the world’s poorest countries, is that there is a lot of money to be made. When George H.W.Bush—then America’s ambassador to the UN—let it be known to Colonel Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiry, Sudan’s president in the early 1970’s, that US satellite images showed evidence of oil in the Upper Nile, he was delivering the first words of a monstrous tragedy. At least 3.75 billion barrels are known to be untapped, and potential reserves could be much higher. Never mind that war has temporarily turned the taps off; with that much crude in the ground, everyone has an incentive to get them open again.

For the time being, Kiir seems to have convinced the world that he’s their man. The flagship petroleum companies of China, Malaysia, and India all returned to the job this year. And in March, Nigeria’s Oranto, a subsidiary of Dubai-based Atlas Petroleum, scored exploration rights to 25 thousand square kilometers of Block B, the largest unexploited reserve in the country. There they will join France’s Total, already hard at work.

Kiir isn’t wrong to feel bold. Since the collapse last year of 2015’s ARCSS—the IGAD-authored and US-sponsored Agreement to Resolve the Conflict in South Sudan—Machar’s star has been waning. Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana and chairman of the UN’s Joint Monitoring & Evaluation Commission, recommended in a January interview with the BBC that Machar be prevented from re-entering the country. He has been in hiding since fleeing Juba in a hail of bullets after talks broke down in July, first in the DRC, then South Africa. In November of last year, he was stopped in Addis Ababa’s airport while on his way to Sudan for medical treatment and told to turn around. “‘The Ethiopians told him there were two planes sitting on the tarmac – one heading to Juba and the other to Joburg,’” a diplomatic source told Reuters. This was a huge blow to the SPLM/A-iO, because Ethiopia has been one of its traditional safe havens. 228,000 Nuer (the group to which Machar belongs) live in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region along the South Sudanese border.

The problem is that the international community is impatient with the peace process. Comprehensive, multilateral agreements have done nothing but create one of the world’s worst disaster zones. Consensus has gone by the wayside, replaced by bilateral negotiation and the calculation of national interest. Instability reigns and exacerbates the situation on the ground, with no side’s position remaining clear. Machar and Ethiopia’s foreign minister were smiling and shaking hands together for a photograph only a few days into October.

The problem is as always that instability is hugely profitable. Weapons of considerable sophistication have poured into the country from all sides. The SPLA are using Russian Mi-24 military gunships (origin unknown) to attack SPLA-iO positions, even crossing the border into the Congo in August. In 2014, the UN security council revealed a receipt from Chinese defense contractor Norinco for $20 million worth of small arms. That was after the press broke a $38 million contract—Chinese officials claim it was signed before the outbreak of war in 2013—between Beijing and Juba, and the Chinese made a public declaration to arm neither side.

There is evidence to suggest that the SPLA-iO have been searching far and wide for the means to redress these imbalances, and that they’ve found a sympathetic ear in the West. Right now, most of what they’ve got to work with is old Sudanese Kalashnikovs. But in a 2014 report, UK-based Conflict Armaments Research observed two US-made recoilless rifle rounds in their original boxes in a cache of captured SPLM/A-iO weapons. The date at which they entered the conflict is still indeterminate, though their condition suggests that they may have been recent acquisitions. Naturally, a request for comment from the US permanent mission to the United Nations returned nothing.

The fact that these are American guns is important. No country has been more heavily involved in South Sudan over the past half-century than the US. Americans are hardly aware of this, of course—we’ve paid very little attention to the area since the days of Bush the younger, when resistance groups battling Khartoum’s heavy hand were an American cause célébre. But G.W.’s interest in the country was just another thing he inherited from his father. George Clooney may have got to Darfur in 2006, sure, but Chevron beat him there by about thirty years.

Garang was a graduate of American infantry school and had a degree in agriculture from Iowa State. He was a natural with American audiences, playing up the predominance of Christianity in Sudan’s south to great effect: American money poured in, even after his death. From 2005 to 2015, South Sudan, first as part of Sudan and then on its own, was the third-largest recipient of US humanitarian aid, behind only Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the country declared independence in 2011, the moment was celebrated by American observers with great optimism. “We know that southern Sudanese have claimed their sovereignty, and shown that neither their dignity nor their dream of self-determination can be denied,” Barack Obama said at the country’s ribbon cutting six years ago. But as with so many of the Obama era’s assumptions about the impacts of American foreign policy, there seemed to be no sense of history. When civil war flared up just two years later, the White House sounded as if it were regarding it through a telescope from the other side of the universe. “Now is the time for South Sudan’s leaders to show courage and leadership, to reaffirm their commitment to peace, to unity, and to a better future for their people,” a statement put out on December 20th, 2013 read.

Even to the end of its days, the Obama administration continued to behave as if they were outside of history, even their own. “It is the people of South Sudan who will pay an unbearable price,” then US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power told the Security Council after it failed to ratify a US-backed arms embargo in December of last year. If American foreign policy experts had a sense of irony, it should have gone off when an Obama administration official waxed sanctimonious about an arms ban. After all, it was Obama himself who, in 2012, lifted US restrictions on weapons sales to South Sudan.

It was rumored that John Kerry’s State Department took a hard stance on Kiir. If so, there seems to be continuity in the attitude of the new administration. Trump renewed Obama’s 2012 order designating the country a national emergency, which put restrictions on some Sudanese high officials. And in April this year, Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, appearing before the security council, openly blamed Kiir for exacerbating the famine, and called for another vote on an arms embargo.

That may only last as long as the personnel on the ground remain the same. Mary McPhee, sworn in as ambassador in 2015, just as ARCSS was put on the table, has a few months of her three-year FSO turn left. But the appearance of US weapons in SPLM-iO stockpiles may be a sign of things to come. The Trump administration is about to lift sanctions on Sudan, another Obama-era policy. Khartoum is no friend of Kiir. If the US is taking aim at Juba, the SPLM won’t go down lightly. Any attempt to swing the balance of forces in the country can only balloon the war’s already appalling human cost.

“No significant trade with South Sudan”: that’s the State Department’s terse statement on America’s interest in South Sudan. It may be the most telling sign of the US’s willingness to close the book on a war that for nearly half a century it has been the enthusiastic author of. “The United States will remain a steady partner of the South Sudanese people,” Obama told the country in 2013, just as Kiir and Machar’s men began tearing Juba to pieces. If the twentieth century has taught the world anything, it’s that our good intentions often come at a tremendous cost. With friends like these…

Weekend Music Break No. 111 – #DefendPuertoRico edition

Puerto Rico has been in the news because of the recent humanitarian crisis that has become quite politicized by the government of Donald Trump. While many sources have already done good analysis on the political sideshow accompanying the crisis, of particular interest to Africa Is a Country readers may be the fact that the island is one of the hubs of African culture in the Americas. So, to continue the recent trend of humanizing the headlines with Weekend Music Break, we decided to put together a playlist that draws attention to Puerto Rico’s African heritage, its contemporary sounds, as well as its impact on contemporary global popular culture.

If you’d like to assist in Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, we suggest to visit Defend Puerto Rico, a multimedia “designed to document and celebrate Puerto Rican creativity, resilience, and resistance.”

Enjoy this weekend’s music break dedicated to the isla del encancto:

Weekend Music Break No.111

Tracklist: 1) Bomba y plena live at Loíza. 2) Hector Lavoe y Willie Colon – Aguanile. 3) `IFÉ – 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé). 4) El Gran Combo – Mi Isla. 5) India – Dimelo. 6) Tego Calderon – Pa que se lo gozen. 7) Ivy Queen – Yo quiero bailar.  8) Don Omar – Bandolero feat. Tego Calderon. 9) Calma Carmona – 100 Vidas. 10) Big Pun – 100%

Nobel Prizes and Politics in Kenya 

Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o reads from Wizard Of The Crow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2008.

Memories of the past is what makes us evaluate the present, as we plan for tomorrow

Ngugi wa Thiongo

Nobody is entitled to a Nobel Prize and many are deserving of the honor. On October 5th though, Kenyans mourned another lost opportunity. Many expected to celebrate their second Nobel Prize winner in the nation’s history. African literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the odds on favorite for the prize in literature, and would have joined environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan, and African woman to win in 2004.

Ngugi’s hopes were sidelined last year by the controversial pick of Bob Dylan and this week by Kazuo Ishiguro. However, the Nobel buzz around Ngugi points to both his seminal contributions to African literature but also his work to kept the memory of Kenya’s divisive past alive. Comparing the life of Kenya’s perennial Nobel frontrunner to that of the country’s sole Nobel Laureate begs the question, just what do these two luminaries in their respective fields have in common? They were both born under the yoke British colonial rule and forged their careers challenging authoritarianism.

Growing up nearly sixty miles apart during the violence of the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya’s Nobel Laureate and perennial Nobel martyr were shaped by a colonial war against inequality, and became staunch critics of a political system still grappling with this legacy today. Placed in the context of Kenya’s contemporary politics, where historical injustice and electoral corruption dominates the news cycle, Ngugi’s and Wangari’s contributions to political change and historical memory at home, likely outweigh their Nobel worthy impact on the politics of language and conservation abroad.

 

Colonialism and Kenya’s Wars of Liberation

Born in 1938 and 1940, Kenya’s future Nobel finalists grew up during the peak of British colonial occupation among the Kikuyu community. The elder Ngugi outside of Limuru and Wangari near Nyeri, were born into rural farming communities bordered by the racially dominated “White Highlands,” and not far from the colonial capital of Nairobi.

Their mission education challenged local forms of identity and politics. Socialized in a system marked by Christian teachings and colonial evangelism, Ngugi and Wangari recall that children who spoke in their native African language were often beaten by school authorities.

Forced to carefully negotiate their identity in an oppressive system, both went by the baptismal names of James and Mary Josephine during their youth. However, they were also members of the growing class of educated elite, the Athomi orreadersin Gikuyu. On both sides of an increasing divide, the Athomi used their status to challenge and collaborate with colonial authority.

During their formative teenage years, Kenya plunged into a bitter anti-colonial insurgency. Mau Mau as it was pejoratively called, pitted radical “freedom fighters” again colonial loyalists in a war of liberation which was not simple a black vs white affair. Freedom fighters, drawn mainly from the landless Kikuyu poor, attacked white settlers but also fellow Kenyans who worked for the colonial state, labeled as “loyalists” during the war.

From 1952-1956, at least 20,000 Africans were killed and 10,000s more imprisoned and often tortured in squalid conditions. Less than 50 white settlers were killed and the war’s largest single “battle” known as the Lari Massacre occurred just a few miles from Ngugi’s home. While not a single white settler was among the perpetrators or hundreds of casualties at Lari, the divisive local effects of Kenya’s racist colonial hierarchy were evident. Mau Mau was a war of liberation, but also one which reflected the bitter class divides colonial oppression had sparked within Kenyan society.

Ngugi, Wangari and the athomi, were stuck in the middle of this conflict. At times attacked for the symbols of their elite status, the necktie wearing “Tai Tai” as they were sometimes called, often represented a moderate political voice during Kenya’s struggle for independence. As the war ravaged Ngugi’s and Wangari’s home regions, these young athomi were forced to choose sides and their careers challenging elite authoritarian rule reflects the legacy of Kenya’s brutal struggle for independence.

Authoritarianism and Persecution

When Kenya emerged from colonial rule in 1963 it was the moderate athomi who took power and not the landless poor who had risked their lives as front-line “freedom fighters.” Jomo Kenyatta, though imprisoned during Mau Mau, often distanced himself from the movement and dismissed the divisions of the past. At the 1964 national holiday celebrating the independence struggle Kenyatta claimed: “It is the future, my friends, that is living, the past is dead.”

From 1963-2002 Kenya was ruled by just one political party and two authoritarian leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. As a de facto one party state from 1969-1991, Ngugi was a harsh critic of both Kenyatta and Moi. Political detention and persecution in the late 1970s forced him into exile in 1982.

Wangari was also shaped by the authoritarian Moi regime. When her Green Belt Movement advocated for environmental conservation and sustainable development by planting trees, her efforts clashed with corrupt officials who routinely grabbed public land and exploited it for political gain. Most famously, her public protests to preserve Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and Karura forest from illegal development put her in violent conflict with Moi during Kenya’s “second liberation” from one party rule.

This ongoing struggle to deal with the past still dominates contemporary politics and shaped Ngugi’s and Wangari’s careers. The memories of the divisive violence of Mau Mau and Kenya’s postcolonial struggles are still vividly alive in many communities where the struggle for land and opportunity are not just memories of the past.

Memory, Fiction and Politics

For Ngugi, Mau Mau and the oppressive corruption of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes was a reoccurring theme throughout much of his literary career at home and in exile in the U.S. As he famously advocated for the promotion of African language to “decolonize the mind,” Kenya’s ongoing, internal struggle for liberation continues.

More than fifty years removed from independence, Mau Mau veterans are still struggling to reveal the human right abuses of British rule, even as British foreign minister Boris Johnson continues to bask in a post-Brexit nostalgia for “empire.” And in Kenya, stories of national heroes like Dedan Kimathi are still being uncovered and reclaimed.

As a teacher, Ngugi’s writings provide a rich window into Kenya’s complex past but also a bridge to the present. Next week my introductory African history class will be reading Ngugi’s classic 1965 novel The River Between. Set in the early years of colonial occupation, the novel is about the growing internal divide Christianity and other colonial impositions sparked within African communities.

The protagonist and athomi characters of the The River Between represents a moderate political bridge between two communities polarized by colonial divisions. Through the tragic voice of young people we learn that Muthoni pays with her life for attempting to live as both a circumcised and Christian woman, and the protagonist Waiyaki is rebuked by both communities for his efforts to unite the opposing ridges. With only one minor white character in the novel, it is an important story of the internal divides of colonial Kenya, which has eerie resonance with contemporary politics.

On October 26th, the sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President will square off to contest the Presidency for a third time. Historical injustices related to unresolved land claims, corruption, political violence and authoritarian rule have loomed large over contemporary electoral politics. With the Kenyan Supreme Court asserting itself as the final arbitrator of bitter electoral disputes, the politics of memory and a violent past continue to dominate Kenyan lives.

As Ngugi argued it in the wake of Kenya’s horrific 2007-2008 post-election violence: “The solution to Kenya’s problems, then, is long term. But ‘the urgency of now’, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, requires that progressive forces from within and without the warring camps to lean heavily on the leaderships to hearken to the voice of reason and not tear the country apart.”

Ngugi’s elusive Nobel Prize puts a spotlight on the unfinished work of decolonization. His words in 2008 are a firm reminder that the struggles of the past are sometimes dangerously still alive in the present.

Is a Chinese education the best shot at success in Africa?

On a recent research trip to Tanzania, I interviewed an undergraduate student of the University of Dar es Salaam. Soon our conversation descended into a general discussion about life and the future. He, unlike me, was unfazed by life after graduation, having set his sights firmly on employment with the most visible partner throughout Tanzania. “The director of the Confucius Institute said he’d recommend me for a Masters scholarship in China because I’ve been interning in the department; I’ve been learning Chinese there for a year so he knows I’m serious.”

I asked him why he had chosen China over postgraduate courses in Europe or the United States, traditionally the route for ambitious African students: “China is reasonable” was his simple answer. He continued, “and the opportunities are everywhere.”

Image via author.

“Opportunity” was a rationale that dominated many conversations about China I had had both within the university, and amongst young professionals in offices clustered near Dar’s city centre. It is easy to see why, in Dar at least, China had become synonymous with economic opportunity: it feels as if one cannot walk down a street in the city without passing another Chinese backed construction project, often great monoliths which stretch their concrete limbs across the skyline.

Image via author.

China’s growing presence in Tanzania has been replicated in the field of education, with two Confucius Institutes founded in the country since 2013; one in Dar es Salaam, and another in Dodoma, seven hours by car from Dar. CIs are bases from which Chinese language and culture can be promoted in many forms, both within universities by offering elective and BA language courses, and throughout a select number of secondary schools to which CI teachers are sent. Moreover, the growth in Chinese educational investment into Tanzania has been matched with significant increases in the providence of short and long term scholarships for academic study in China.

It is easy to mistake the distinct growth of scholarships offered to African students by China (an estimated 30,000 a year from 2015) as a repeat of policies undertaken by the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War; programs that sought to educate African leaders of the future, and in the process align these students with their ideological leaning. While there are undoubtedly soft power connotations to this growing influence, China’s educational programs in Africa differs by its overt pragmatic motivations: China requires a new generation with Chinese language and cultural knowledge to facilitate the growing political and economic relationship.

Image via author.

Pragmatism dictates how many young Tanzanians I spoke to view a Chinese education. Despite voicing unflattering accusations about Chinese workers and Chinese products, a Chinese education was seen as a logical pathway to securing well-paying reliable employment. This is evidenced by Chinese firms employing students directly through the Confucius Institutes for a growing number of available positions in marketing, sales, architecture, quantity surveying, and law. Many more Tanzanians are returning from China after their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees and setting up businesses which directly trade with the Chinese in a number of capacities. The financial benefits of a Chinese education in the private sector are becoming increasingly obvious, shown not just by the institutional growth of Chinese language education, but also through the advertisement of unofficial language classes taught by Chinese immigrants across Dar.

In short, a generation of young Tanzanians are approaching China’s growing investment with a nuanced mindset, simultaneously swayed by the latent benefits of learning Chinese for future career prospects while continually aware of the unsavory implications of Chinese presence. Perhaps it was this pragmatic perspective that my interviewee in the basement of the University of Dar es Salaam was alluding to when he described China as reasonable: an understanding that the demands of Chinese influence are, at least for now, outweighed by the benefits of cooperation.

Contemporary affairs–on reading Lindiwe Hani, Pumla Gqola & Redi Tihabi

Books by Pumla Gqola, Redi Tlhabi and Lindiwe Hani.

Over the past few months I have been in correspondence with a South African intellectual and academic who is old enough to be my father. Our exchanges have been rich and warm. I have long admired him. When I worked up the courage to share with him my excitement about our conversations and told him I appreciated the time he had taken to read my work, and when I said I was especially grateful because of the place he has long held in my mind as someone of true intellectual integrity, he was kind enough to delve into his archives and share a review he once received from one of his own heroes. He told me he remembered his own gratitude for the attention he had received from this man – a writer and thinker of great stature – whom he too had read and admired from a distance for years. It was a touching act, a reminder to a younger writer struggling with her voice and her place in her society that she was not the first to have jitters; a reminder that even the greats doubt themselves at first. In part, the form and candor of the exchange was possible because of the positions we occupy on the spectrum of our careers. He sits well past mid-age; his most productive years (though perhaps not his best) behind him. I am much younger and so for me the future holds a different set of possibilities.

When I was younger everyone whose intellect I admired was much older than I was. I read people who were published, which 20 years ago when I was reading voraciously as a student, meant they were established. The timeframe between thinking and writing and then between writing and getting published, was much longer then. The spaces were fewer and the options narrower and this meant that to have your name in print – in an era when there literally no such thing as online – you were very talented and connected and lucky.

Writers like Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag and Ursula Le Guin in the United States; Sindiwe Magona and Lindiwe Mabuza who were South African; Ayi Kwei Armah in Ghana and Chinua Achebe who seemed to own the world – they were all much older than me and partly as a function of their age they felt impossibly wiser than I might hope to ever be.

I grew up with pictures of them as models of what “real” intellectuals and writers looked and sounded like. For obvious reasons, the public thinkers who whom I was drawn were primarily African or black, and many of them were women. I was drawn to their minds but I was impressed too with the bodies from which their minds operated – unruly and brown and so different from the mainly angular lean spectacle-wearing bodies of the men who dominated the backs of book jackets that filled the library in my university.

They weren’t my peers. Nothing about them felt within reach. Instead, they represented what, if I was very lucky and worked very hard, might lie in my future.  They were a set of goals. Also, because their own age and experience were ever-expanding; they were also a group of people with whom I could never catch up: They were moving targets.

Of course it would be wrong to give the impression that my admiration for them did not stop me from engaging their work critically. I disagreed here and there with some of their ideas. Sometimes as I read them (because my formative adult years were pre-podcast and Youtube clips, when even commencement addresses had to be published and read in print) I shook my head and called a friend and together we would compare notes. Still, my posture towards each of these greats, was that of a student to a set of wise teachers. So when the esteemed older writer ad I engaged, I assumed a position in relation to him that was familiar and comfortable: I was appropriately and genuinely deferential.

There is a beauty in this. In many ways the relationships that occur across generations are what make humans exceptional. Humans and other primates keep our young close. Our societies are complex because we survive across generations and we cultivate relationships well past the point of physiological maturity. In other words we continue to learn from and love one another long past the biological utility of these emotions.

In contrast of course both literature and history are full of stories about the great friendships and dramatic rivalries that have always existed between contemporaries.  Aunts and uncles play a special role in nurturing and teaching but siblings – ah, siblings are both a source of camaraderie and deep-seated resentment. There is something about being in a similar stage of emotional and physical stage of maturity that shifts the dynamic. Peers – those who are equals by virtue of age and accomplishment and a range of other factors – can both be the deepest enemies and the closest of allies. 

In societies where race operates as a divisive force (which is of course every society where race has any meaning), contemporaries who are raced as “black” are often pitted against one another. There is only room for one spokesperson. The space for black women’s voices in particular is limited. I was told when I first started writing, that I should not approach a certain news outlet as they already had a regular black woman columnist writing for them. For black people there is only so much room.  This is in stark contrast with the space provided to white writers. For them there are no limits, no questions that the white male perspective is already covered. Each white man who comments is already seen as an expert and so his commentary is seen on its own merits.

Charles Van Onselen has written, and Johnny Steinberg and Du Preez. They are not white men: they are themselves. Media managers sometimes think that having two or three or four black voices weighing in on a topic might be “repetitive.” This is of course a standard that isn’t applied for whites, especially for white men.

This law of limited space is applied especially stringently for black people who are contemporaries of one another. The older generation is allowed to have space – but for up-and-coming voices, well, the space is winnowed.

I make these perambulatory comments to explain why I am increasingly drawn to the public display of support for the work of my contemporaries – where it is warranted. For me, the politics of supporting the intellectual efforts of my contemporaries moves beyond the celebration of black girl magic – a term and phenomenon I have critiqued elsewhere.

Instead, I am mindful that while the intellectual work of black people is often celebrated, it is seldom reviewed with any depth or seriousness. The true hallmark of supporting African thinking it seems, ought to be in the extent to which the work is genuinely engaged, debated and taken seriously on its merits. 

Both the volume and quality of work being produced by my contemporaries – black writers in their 30s and 40s – is impressive. The space that was once occupied almost exclusively by the cohort of living writers and intellectuals who influenced my intellectual development – those who cut their teeth in the 1970s and 1980s – is being replaced by people my age. So, while on the one hand there is deep resistance on the part of media owners, universities and established institutions to the multiplicity of our voices, and a real cap on how many of us can be celebrated, on the other hand the demographics are on our side. We have amassed enough experience and credibility – tenuous though these may be – to be on the rise. 

The commentary of this generation is substantively different from the commentary of the past. Those who were in their 30s and 40s in the Mandela era embraced the Rainbow Nation. Indeed, they were authors of the narrative and were deeply implicated in the fight for a discourse of multiracialism. This generation of public intellectuals, writers and activists are more ambivalent about these ideas. They write about their experience of living within this ideology; about the Arendtian notion of the banality of evil that has arisen from the very idea of the rainbow.

Three new books illustrate this especially well. It is no accident that each of these books are authored by African women in their 30s and 40s. The first is Redi Tlhabi’s book Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo about the woman who accused South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma of raping her, and who was let down by a whole chain of people, and indeed by a movement. The second is  Pumla Gqola’s autobiographical collection of feminist essays; Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist. The last is Lindiwe Hani’s book Being Chris Hani’s Daughter which explores sadness, trauma, addiction and independence.

Each book explores the complexity of having grown up with one foot in Apartheid South Africa and being shaped by its pathos. Each book is authored by a woman who was a child during Apartheid but has lived her entire adult life in a “free” South Africa.

In different ways, each of these books is really about the end of innocence – about how each author has marked her departure from the halcyon days when the African National Congress and its leaders were held in high regard, to today, when they are seen by and large as having betrayed the ideals of the struggle.

While the daily news headlines in South Africa are obsessed with the political machinations of the day – with the Guptas and corruption and breaches of the Constitution, these books are about something deeper. Tlhabi, Gqola and Hani write about the emotional manifestations of this mass betrayal. Each of these books is concerned with the psychic effects of the ANC’s callousness and what is has meant for the post-Apartheid generations who have been its collateral damage. In Hani’s case, the turn to drugs – and the “shame” and fear of bringing the family and movement into disrepute because of being Chris Hani’s daughter – offers a rich backdrop for the unfolding and tragic dramas of both the party and her life. For Gqola, the continuation of institutional sexism and racism, in systems she has had to navigate, speak to the abrogation of the new government’s duties. And for Tlhabi, the treatment of Fezeka both during the trail but more importantly, in her difficult childhood in exile, are a testament to the myth of justice that has always surrounded the ANC. 

Over the next three months I will review each of these books. My aim is to examine each book separately but also to talk about the connections made in the analysis proffered by the women who have written them. My contemporaries are engaged in the important work of looking back and surveying the wreckage of the past 40 years of South African history. They are bridging the generation that bred them and the post-Apartheid era that has shaped them.  In the process, they are writing a new future. I hope you can join me as we think together about their work and their words.

‘Kati Kati’ shows us a Kenya in limbo

Kati Kati, the fifth collaboration from One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink productions, is a beautiful movie. Set in the land in between, (literally Kati Kati in Swahili), it focuses on Kaleche, our protagonist, who having woken up in this liminal space, embarks on the journey to find out how she died and the circumstances that keep her suspended in this unknown.

Kati Kati trailer

Though a film about dead people, Kati Kati is not just a film about dead people. Mbithi Masya’s work is rather, a poetic portrayal of little triumphs amidst tragedy, the humor implicit in our foibles and the work it takes for us to let go. What’s more, in eliding the themes common in many films from Kenya (developmentalist, urban violence, big man politics), Kati Kati shines its light instead on us; our internal follies, the performances we take up to run from them and how they leave us suspended, unable to launch ourselves into whatever destinies await us.

While Kaleche is working out how she got here, through the stories of three residents of this afterlife, the film makes us reflect on the deaths whose details we are always so ready to obscure in Kenya; suicide, post-election violence and drunk-driving accidents. These, from my experience, are the ways of dying that are most easily made invisible, not just because they are taboo — especially suicide — but from the pain of their needlessness. This, it appears, is what the film sheds light on: the murky grief these deaths produce. It does  this in ways that also bring out the irony, crassness and irreverent humanities that characterize much of daily life in Kenya. The plot line melds together what I have been trying to understand about Kenyans for a long time; a seemingly simultaneous flagrant zest for life and hesitant fascination with death.

Take one scene in the film in which a bash is called to celebrate the departure of Mickey from Kati Kati; it is all bells and whistles, whisky and DJs; the whole works. At the same time, those in attendance are still disavowing the decisions that would see them proceed to a more certain place like Mikey, and they couch their guardedness over their own mortality with pool parties, basketball games, painting and ordering clothes from unseen hands through notes written on mini blackboards.

Though the environment chosen as the site of this film is austere — Kati Kati is essentially an abandoned lodge in a dehydrated savanna — it is a stunning backdrop for the larger questions being worked out here. The minimalist background, nonetheless, accented with select focus on color, nature and climate, accompany the changes in tone throughout the film. It is thunder that stands out as the marker for the most meaningful transitions between critical scenes and, above all, for the characters.

The acting does not disappoint. A special shout out to Paul Ogola who plays Mikey — a young man who commits suicide just before his graduation — and embodies this character with such intimacy and power, giving us sublime glimpses into the grief, irony, tragedies and triumph that he represents.

Is Kati Kati a metaphor for our present socio-political moment in Kenya? We are after all in a political limbo produced by stolen elections, and dramatized further when the head of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) can make a TV plea to the president to try and be sober.

Whichever directions Kati Kati leads each of us to, we are steered there because of its poesis, originality and generosity towards our various human syncopations — even those Kenyan eccentricities that are thankfully not globalized.

First shown locally at the February 2017 NBO Film Festival (and also now available on Showmax), Kati Kati stands out for its gentle and layered portrayal of the little triumphs amidst affliction that we take on to redeem life and death — no matter how in between these may be.

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