Africa is a Country

Football is Politics in Nigeria

A few days ago, FIFA once again, suspended Nigeria from international football. On History Class today, we will take a look at the remote causes of that, and attempt to compare it with Nigeria’s politics. This will not be the first time that the big stick is being wielded on Nigeria, it probably won’t be the last. Nigeria is a serial offender at so many things, and the shenanigans in Nigerian football can’t be divorced from our bad behaviour. What is happening within the NFF, has strange parrallels to what happens on our political playground as I will show.

Remember that we failed to qualify for Germany 2006 losing out to Angola in a rather foolish manner. Following that failure, the NFA chairman at the time, Ibrahim Galadima declared that qualification wasn’t our birthright. As a result of that statement (made in July 2005), some football “stakeholders” had him sacked from office.

In December 2006, Galadima called for NFA elections in Kano, his hometown, and won. Those elections were conducted by Nduka Irabor. The sports minister of the day, Samaila Sambawa didn’t feel comfortable with Galadima, so a group called “stakeholders” fought Galadima. At the time, Amos Adamu was still a bigwig in FIFA, and he was, err, contracted to put the nail in Galadima’s coffin. He got FIFA secretary, Urs Linsi on board, and Linsi agreed to back the “stakeholders” in a congress which removed Galadima.

In July 2006, at a new NFA election, Sani Lulu cme first, 75/97 votes, Lumumba Adeh came second, Segun Odegbami came last 6/97 votes. Forward two years, and in July 2008, the congress changed the name of the NFA to NFF, and changed ‘chairman’ to ‘president’. The 2010 congress, normally meant to hold before the World Cup was shifted to August 2010, after South Africa 2010. Another twist was introduced in that state congresses were shifted to after the national congress of the same year rather than before.

The 2008 congress also amended the statutes so that the only way to get into the NFF is thru the state FA. So, let us ask a question, what were the implications of the changes made in 2008, how are they a metaphor for Nigeria?.

Under those new changes, the NFF president has sweeping powers since he constitutes both the electoral and appears committees. Note that he, the NFF president is a candidate in the elections of which he is the hidden umpire. Does that sound familiar? In Nigeria’s political dispensation, the President appoints the chairman of INEC, and is responsible for INEC’s budget. This makes it possible for him to pick a sympathetic party to be the head of INEC, sorry, electoral committee. Also, since the national elections are held before the state FA elections, he can guarantee that those loyal to him win at state level. That way, in the 2015 elections (blame my keyboard, sorry) in the August NFF election, his return is virtually guaranteed.

To be fair, it was not the incumbent that put those rules in place, Obasanjo started it. Sorry, I meant Sani Lulu. You see, OBJ in 2007 shifted state elections to April 14, so that his guy could take advantage of incumbent governors on April 1. I’m so sorry, my keyboard keeps misyarning. Sani Lulu wanted to stay beyond 2010, so he made sure that state elections were after national. As a sweetener, Sani Lulu’s board sponsored over 300 people (state FA bosses and their wives/babes) to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Unfortunately, fate intervened and the Super Eagles had a disaster in South Africa. It opened the door for new “stakeholders”. This new set of “stakeholders” led by Chris Green sacked the Lulu-led board, and held elections that produced Aminu Maigari.Out the door went Lulu and his henchmen, Amanze, Ucheagbulam and Ogunjobi. In came Maigari, Ogba and Green.

However, Goodluck Jonathan continued Obasanjo’s tactics of swapping election. I’m sorry, Maigari continued Lulu’s tactic of swapping elections. As it were, in the 2014 World Cup, congress members, and their hangers on, got a joy-ride to Brazil. Maigari even went a step further.

With the congress in his pocket, his more serious opponents were even banned from contesting. His second term was virtually in the bag. Rumson Baribote, is serving a 15-year ban from all football related activity. Even Luciano Moggi didn’t get that much. Taiwo Ogunjobi is serving a 10-year ban. Both bans began in October 2013. For clarity, neither man is a saint. Had the drama of the last two weeks not happened, Maigari’s second term was lock, stock and barrel assured. Barring any drama in the next few months, GEJ’s second term is lock, stock and barrel assured. That Baribote’s wife, has instituted a court case, and is backed by their, err, countryman, the minister, isn’t a shock.

All in all, the drama that has plagued Nigerian football, I hope I’ve shown, is a template that can be used in the 2015 elections.

The film about the small businessman who took on the bread cartel

“Crumbs–Toppling the Bread Cartel” is the inside story of a Cape Town businessman, Imraahn Mukaddam’s fight for social justice and the personal cost of blowing the whistle on corporate greed.  To fill you in: in late 2006 Imraahn Mukaddam, a local businessman, is told by his supplier that the price of bread is going up by 30 cents, and that all the other suppliers would also be raising the price by the same amount. Faced with possible destitution and the knowledge of the flagrant swindling of the public, he decides to report them all to the authorities, launching a legal battle that continues until today. The central theme of the documentary is that challenging the costing of bread has taken a huge toll on Mukaddam’s life, yet the bread suppliers continue to thrive, unhindered despite paying fines ranging between R45 million and R1 billion rand. 

“Crumbs,” written and directed by local filmmakers Dante Greeff and Richard Finn Gregory (and produced by , recently premiered at the 2014 Encounters Documentary Film Festival.

Here’s the trailer:

While focusing on Mukaddam’s personal trials the documentary tries to emphasise how artificial price inflation feeds into issues of corporate ethics and food security. We are told about South Africa’s entrenched history of corporate collusion and corruption—a system that really is built on a culture of theft, as one media expert puts it. This is reflected in the findings of the Competition Commission, which showed that “between 1994 and 2006 (local bread companies) Tiger, Premier, Pioneer and various independent bakeries increased bread prices “by similar amounts at or about the same time”, and between 1999 and 2001 agreed to close certain bakeries.”

The film also shows how price inflation disrupts the food security of the poor, revealing the ethical dimension to this sociological problem. They use vox pops to let ordinary working class folks tell us, in all colours of the Cape linguistic spectrum, about their dependence on bread and its burden on their pocket. There are solutions and alternatives. We are introduced to a community working plots of land cultivating greens for Abalami Bezekhaya, and talking heads who opine about food solidarity rather than food security, and government’s drive for one household, one garden.

The struggle over the price of bread is the struggle over adequate nourishment, and securing the right of the poor to flourish. Imraahn Mukaddam’s struggle therefore concerns a struggle for human rights. And it’s a task as monumental as the grain silos of Pioneer Foods in Salt River. But he finds help from a number of NGO’s lawyers and organisations who rally around him for change. They make for a refreshing cast of characters.

This is also a story about rampant inequality. And Crumbs succeeds in showing this by crafting its narrative against the stark mise-en-scene of social life in Cape Town. Images slice between the rust and dust of townships and the vintage chic of the inner city; shots of diners delighting in the cornucopia of artisanal food at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, and the hungry and homeless enjoying their basic, bland 5 cent meals, not far away at the Service Dinning Rooms in the inner city.

This angle is also the documentary’s weakness. Sometimes it comes off as smarmy, overwrought. And it does so through eyes familiar with a landscape that others may find difficult to interpret. The sentiment reaches its zenith in a religious theme explored towards the end, one that amplifies an appeal to morality that does not cut it when fighting corporate nemeses.

Mukaddam is a fighter. His is a story is about working the levers of the law to compel corporates unswayed by such appeals to sentiment. It’s about risking financial ruin in pursuit of changing an unjust economic system. It’s a story that resonates in post-apartheid South Africa.

And his struggle goes on. The bread cartel may have been toppled but economic justice was not equitably met. But there is a bit of a happy ending. In 2013, Mukaddam got a break when the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor for a class action suit. It opened the way for distributers and retailers affected by the collusion to sue the bread suppliers. Through pioneering this legal action they may yet force the hand of corporates unwilling to share their sometimes ill-gotten wealth.

* Go check out the film, the project online, and support Mukaddam’s work at Consumer Fair and Cape Town TV.

Another lazy South Africa ad

Africa is a Country has written plenty in the past on problematic advertising, particularly that which rides on racial and sexist stereotypes, and tropes about the African continent. Invariably, the common thread that runs through many of these ads—especially the ones that ostensibly promote a social cause, like SAB’s victim-blaming‘You Decide’ billboard or Woolworths’ black labourers-white consumers tribute to Nelson Mandela—is that the people who thought them up were incredibly lazy and uncreative.

Cape Town agency Ogilvy’s ad for a local NGO, Feed A Child South Africa, is yet another example of this phenomenon, which is why the agency was forced to withdraw the ad after an outcry. But, somehow, Ogilvy appears to believe all was well and that it was “controversy” that caused it to be withdrawn, not their own failings. Let me try to disabuse them of that notion.

In the ad, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 plays while a white woman is shown in different scenes treating a black child like a pampered dog: petting and feeding him while he rests on her lap; feeding him “treats” when he fetches her newspaper; letting him lick her fingers while she cooks. The choice of cast, which was no coincidence, inscribes South Africa’s racial dynamics into the ad’s message. The ad eventually ends with the pay-off line: “The average domestic dog eats better than millions of children. Help feed a starving child. SMS “child” to 40014 to donate R20.”


Unsurprisingly, the ad was widely panned as racist, an affront to the dignity of the boy made to play the role of a dog, and a perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Richard Poplak wrote in the Daily Maverick:

We come now, as we must, to the question of gaze: who is looking at the black boy/dog? Is this advert meant for, um, black people? I’m sure Feed A Child would be happy to include the black middle class in its donor demographic. But I suspect that the images are meant to shake and shock white folk from their torpor—to remind them that their lifestyles are not just unethical, but unsustainable and cruel. But by employing this element of racial trickery, by dangling the bait of the black boy, the advert is not undermining but reinforcing stereotypes—it is simply anotherimage of black subservience fed to whites who have gorged on them for generations.

There’s also something to be said about how the ad continues a mass media tradition of presenting black bodies as those most suited to denigration and abuse.

But to reduce the ad to a problem of racial stereotypes only is to let the supposedly creative folks over at Ogilvy off the hook for their laziness.

It’s their laziness that led them by the nose to the racial stereotypes. They mindlessly called on a common trope that plays the well being of black people off against the well being of dogs, rhino, elephant, or whatever animal white folks are said to care more about at that moment. As a rhetorical device, this trope can be powerful in the right hands. But, as responses to Feed A Child’s ad show, it can also be, to paraphrase writer Athambile Masola, as awkward and prone to misunderstanding as a supposedly liberal white person showing how liberal they are by attempting to rehash Trevor Noah jokes.

To examine the laziness more closely, let me begin by calling bullshit on the ad’s claim that the average domestic dog eats better than millions of children. Maybe they mean the average dog in a white household, given the disparities in household income by race.

The average South African household gets by on $930 per month, whereas the average white South African family earns $3,000—almost six times more than the average black household. Thus, assuming an even distribution of dogs per household, the average dog eats how the average South African household that owns it eats: poorly.

avg hh income by race

Even without assuming an even distribution of dogs across South African households, it’s safe to say that the well being of domestic dogs is inextricably linked to that of the household that owns it. This is enough for us to conclude that Ogilvy’s and Feed A Child’s claim is very likely untrue. The truth is that a dog in an average white household is sitting pretty, like its owners. And a dog in an average black household, despite whatever efforts its owners might put up, suffers the same indignities as the rest of the household, including frequent, often hidden hunger, particularly in the former apartheid-era “homelands”.

The laziness is also apparent in false dichotomy the ad establishes between the well being of hungry (black) children and the well being of animals as a category of thing well off (white) people spend money on and direct empathy towards. Why not rich (white) people’s own kids? In fact, I think the ad would have been more provocative if Ogilvy had applied their minds and played the well being of rich kids off against the well being of poor kids, Hunger Games style. That would have established the moral complicity of the wealthy in the hunger of poor children, and it would have done so without any of the unnecessary noise in the current version of the ad.

But, no. Instead, the minimum threshold Ogilvy and Feed A Child chose to establish for what is just and fair for the black child is the same treatment afforded a pampered dog, not the treatment the better off afford their own kids. Guaranteed, on the whole, they treat their kids better they do their dogs.

Thus the false dichotomy guaranteed from the start that Ogilvy would be made to withdraw the ad. There’s just no way to look at it that escapes the equivalence of black kids to dogs. Considering how much Feed A Child likely spent on it, Ogilvy might as well have added a disclaimer at the end: No child was fed through the making of this commercial.

The least Ogilvy can do at this stage is refund Feed A Child for the ad, or agree to create a new, better ad for free. If they accept payment for this withdrawn ad, they are stealing food from the mouths of children.

All of that said, South Africa does have a troubling history with Inja Yomlungu (The White Man’s Dog). That’s the title of a documentary written and directed by Sipho Singiswa. The documentary explores the disparate ways in which white people treat their dogs compared to how they treat black people, and how white people use dogs as a fear-instilling weapon against black people. Parts 1 and 2 of the documentary are available on YouTube.

Christmas Day

We’re all poised for the World Cup Final later today (Elliot describes it as Christmas Day for football fans, just better). It’s been a magical month. But it is also basically the last time (till the next World Cup in four years) for journalists and pundits (yes, that’s a real profession now) to trot out cliches for a while about Messi’s “magic” versus the “German machine.”  Tomorrow we’ll all have a hangover, especially Brazilians especially as they have to pay for FIFA’s party. Bring on the a summer of expensive meaningless friendlies between top European club teams featuring their reserves playing in Asia and North America and the English media convincing us all over again of the superiority of their Premier League. Which is a good time to remind ourselves that must people play the game away from advertising boards or without pundits and close-ups. So it’s a good opportunity to posts these images of pickup game and players warming up or practising dribbling skills taken at various sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal by photojournalist and Africa is a Country contributor, Ricci Shryock.








Get Your Football T-Shirt On

Last year, while on a visit to LA, Sean met artists Carolyn Castaño and Gary Dauphin at a friend’s house in Echo Park. Of course, conversation veered to futbol. Sean had known about their work for a while (Back in the day, Gary–who also reps for Haiti–was one of the key figures at–a sort of Africa is a Country 1.0, and Carolyn’s built a solid rep for her art exploring aspects of Latin American identities in LA). They introduced their project (actually, they showed him a t-shirt of Andres Escobar designed by Carolyn) , “CARGA1804 is Art, Politics, T-Shirts, Fútbol, Play, Repeating Islands.” Of course they weren’t new to this. Carolyn had by then already held an exhibit in LA built around t-shirts of assassinated footballers, Asesinados United, and was later part of LACMA’s critically acclaimed exhibitions, “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game and Phantom Sightings” and “Art After the Chicano Movement,” which traveled to the Museo Del Barrio, New York City and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City, amongst other venues . Sean was interested. The idea was to collaborate on working together on producing a series of t-shirts with the World Cup in mind, one which includes a healthy representation of players from the African diaspora. The shirts are here now. Available for sale on Etsy. Each shirt is silkscreened by hand by Castaño and come in men and women’s sizes. Africa is a Country will get a cut from every shirt sold. So you won’t just look good, you’ll feel good about yourself too. Go on, buy your shirt. 


We collaborated on a few: Mohamed Aboutreika (most probably Egypt’s greatest player, who defied FIFA bans on players making any statements–apart from declaring your undying love for Jesus, like most of the Brazilian players–by declaring his support for the embattled Gazans),  Didier Drogba (the lodestar of Cote d’Ivoire’s greatest generation and now inspiration for Turkish protesters), and  Mario Balotelli (“I am Italian, I feel Italian, I will forever play with the Italy national team”). There are also shirts for Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderrama, Radamel Falcao and Jozi Altidore.

The Final Report

Today the 2014 World Cup in Brazil ends. It was a fun ride, and I don’t think that anyone will disagree that this has been an unforgettable month of international sport, politics, and drama both on and off the field. The video below is my attempt at showing another side of Rio de Janeiro and a few of the contrasting faces of this megacity. It takes place in different locations in the city on three different days of the World Cup:

In doing these periodic reports from Brazil on Africa is a Country, I set out to try and show a side of the country that perhaps would go under covered in the mainstream media. I suspected back in February that visitors to the country would be perplexed by its unique local nuances and many contradictions. Luckily there have been some great local projects and organizations working to amplify underrepresented voices in the country. However, while there has been some great reporting on the ground, the country’s inequality (especially evident in the areas where FIFA activity was concentrated), its team’s ugly and violent play on the field, and their embarrassing loss to the Germans have contributed to a growing unease with Brazil as a growing global super power (and perennial footballing one.)

I, for one, can’t help but feel that feelings of unease towards certain more-visible aspects of the country just work to continue to marginalize those less-visible aspects of the country that we may learn from or find solidarity with. Brazil has been described to me by friends as the country of a future that never quite seems to arrive. This is what the mainstream media is referring to when they say Brazilians are mourning the death of a dream in the wake of their loss to Germany. But, we’ve been here before.

While some Brazilians use the Minerazo as a place to channel their frustration, for many others their government’s deals with an international body like FIFA in the run up to the Cup was all they needed show that the dream wasn’t being realized. For even others yet, the death of such a dream is a reality that renews daily, regardless of any mega event, as they come up against a host of impermeable social boundaries. The collective inferiority complex that seems to continually characterize Brazil is something that I can relate to in my own way. Ultimately, in the game of (both personal and national) global belonging I am not just ready for some new winners, I’m ready for new rules. Because those dreams that plague the Brazilian people often cause a state of limbo. The dreamer is stuck between heaven and hell as they await their ultimate judgement from those who made up the rules. Tomorrow, after everyone else has gone home, that’s the state that Brazil will be left in, again.

Did Cameroon’s police interrogate Samuel Eto’o and take away his passport over the World Cup? Who knows

Did Cameroon’s police really quiz national soccer team captain Samuel Eto’o and seize his passport in connection with a government investigation into the terrible performance of the Indomitable Lions at the World Cup? After brouhaha of claims and denials in recent days, the answer seems to be another question: who knows? But Far less ambiguous are an insider’s perspective on the raging frictions, bags of cash and political considerations that define the outlines of national soccer in Cameroon, and elsewhere in Africa for that matter.

The idea that the General Delegation for National Security (DGSN), a branch of the Cameroonian police, questioned Samuel Eto’o on June 27th and confiscated his passport does sound like a fitting Kafkaesque twist to the decision by Cameroon’s ruler of 32 years, Paul Biya, to order a government inquiry into the poor performance of the Indomitable Lions at the World Cup. The report first appeared on the front page of the June 30th edition of leading independent daily Le Jour before spreading to international news outlets and eventually social media. Eto’o’s lawyers immediately denied the allegations in a press release, criticizing Le Jour’s reporting as “the fruit of the fertile imagination” of political desk editor Jean-Bruno Tagne, the author of the article, “and his masterminds hidden in the shade.” In response, Tagne’s editor, Haman Mana, issued a press release of his own defending his journalist and standing by the reports: the information was crosschecked by four sources, he said. On July 3, Tagne appeared on leading independent station Spectrum TV as the guest of broadcast journalist Thierry Ngogang’s evening program “Entretien” (Interview). Tagne firmly defended his reporting and his integrity.

Thankfully, the discussion on the Eto’o sideshow was the shortest segment in the program. More interestingly, the program offered a TV moment for Tagne to very publicly go through the dirty laundry of Cameroonian national soccer.  The journalist is a respected authority on Cameroonian soccer based on his years of intimate access to the team. He followed the Pride to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the African Nations Cup in Angola that same year and most recently to Brazil. In 2010, he published a book about the Lions entitled Programmés Pour Échouer (“Programmed to Fail”).


Tagne spread criticism evenly among every stakeholder in Cameroon national soccer: from the players’ egos to the Cameroon soccer federation’s interference with training schedules, to officials’ use of public funds to enjoy personal time at the World Cup, to the government’s failure to invest in stadium. “You cannot handle honey without licking your fingers,” he said, citing a local proverb to criticize the attitude of soccer federation officials tasked with distributing bags of cash payment to the players. He talked about the imposition of political considerations over training schedules, and the clashes of egos among the players tearing the team.

These practices will not surprise anyone familiar with the business of African soccer. After all, one of the iconic images of the World Cup remains that of Ghanaian defender John Boye kissing a stack of cash distributed to the players. The Ghanaian government has defended the practice of airlifting cashto players and Ghana President John Mahama has also called for an investigation into the circumstances of the Black Stars dramatic elimination from the World Cup amid a pay dispute and infighting. What is remarkable is how these embarrassing patterns are becoming banal, with African teams more entertaining off the field than on the field at the World Cup.


An interview with director Takeshi Fukunaga of new feature film about Liberian rubber workers

Last month a friend posted a link to the Kickstarter page for Out of My Hand, a feature film shot primarily in Liberia. The plot follows a rubber tapper named Cisco who, after taking part in a heated labor dispute that goes nowhere, attempts to move to New York city where he becomes a cab driver. In the second part of the movie we see Cisco navigating the fractured Liberian community in New York, meeting characters that force him to confront his identity. Or something like that. It’s not finished yet. The Kickstarter was to raise funds for the American portion of the shoot. Here’s the Kickstarter video: 

The trailer, since taken down, had a beautiful melancholic quality I’d never seen in a film shot in the country. Most films about Liberia are gritty documentaries focussed almost perversely on the horrors of the civil war, or Johnny Mad Dog, a fiction film that does basically the same.

There are some other intriguing things about Out of My Hand. First, it’s based partially on an unfinished documentary about labor activists on the Firestone rubber plantation. Firestone, a “state within a state,” is the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world and has historically played a nasty corrupting role in 20th century Liberian politics, manipulating national finances for its own ends and relying on forced labor—see the famous account by W.E.B. Dubois in Foreign Affairs. More recently, Firestone was cited for relying on children to meet production quotas. I tracked down the filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga in Brooklyn to chat about the project. Here’s an edited version of our talk.

I’ve seen a lot of stuff come out of Liberia and it usually has the same narratives about war and trauma. Your trailer had a fresh look to it. Are you consciously working against narratives?

Well, yes. We were consciously being more unique, not just an “African narrative.” It’s a fiction movie. We know about harsh realities in the world. And while this movie is also based on very severe working and living conditions, the goal for me and my partner who wrote together, was to always portray people them the same way we portray ourselves. To be an outsider looking in, of course, it’s challenging. When I was writing it I’d never been to Liberia.


Why Liberia?

I first knew about Liberia and the world of the rubber plantation from working as an editor on a documentary made by my brother in law, who unfortunately passed after we came back from the shoot. But what I saw in the footage was the strength and dignity of people there despite really hard situations. That was really moving to me. So that was a connection I made. It wasn’t particularly about rubber. It was always about human beings. Those were the people I was moved by so I needed to go to Liberia to tell this story even though there are many other places that have huge rubber plantations.

What is the status of the documentary?

The doc has never been finished. But we will finish it.


I notice on your Kickstarter page that some of the scenes are recreated shot for shot.

One is a rubber tapping scene and another was a union meeting scene. I shot it in a way that was almost a recreation of what was in the documentary. The story starts from that setting but then goes in a totally different direction from what happens in the documentary.

The documentary was specifically about the workers and the actions taken by the union. Particularly in the Firestone rubber plantation. We never wanted (Out of My Hands) to be unnecessarily political. In the film we don’t intend to make any political statement per se. Simply, we are trying to tell a universal story. Of course Liberia is a big part of it and the rubber plantation is a big part of the story but it’s not about criticizing mass production or whatever. The focus is always human nature and a guy who is trying to go beyond his limit.

What is the Liberian movie union?

I was lucky to be connected with a Liberian living in the US who had worked on the first international narrative fiction movie made in Liberia, Johnny Mad Dog. About child soldiers and made by the French director (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire). He connected me to the Liberian movie union. Basically, to conduct any shoot you need to get permission from the government. All that stuff went smoothly through working with the movie union.


Did they connect you to Liberian actors?

They helped us by setting up auditions. They made all the announcements on radio, TV shows and consequently many hundreds of actors came to the auditions. I was really impressed by how many talented actors there were there. It’s just unfortunate that there’s no way you can make a living by just being an actor in Liberia because there’s no industry really.

So everyone is a professional actor?

There are also a few actors for whom this is their acting debut. They never acted before. We made the call open because we knew that the options would be limited if we made it for people with experience. So it’s a mix of actors and first time actors. For example, when we shot in a village we often casted people who were living in the village as an extra or taking a small role and there’s this particular scene featuring this really famous guy named Joshua who is known for his name General Butt Naked.


Yeah, I wanted to ask you about him. How’d he get involved?

Well, Liberia is a small country so when I told the movie union and the assistant I had there that I wanted to meet with him it was easy. He tours around preaching. That particular scene he is basically being himself. We just set up the environment and brought in extras but what he did wasn’t really acting. He was being himself within this environment that we created.

Were you filming on the Firestone plantation?

No, it was a plantation run by a French company. Firestone never gives out permission to shoot in the plantation. They’re very sensitive about media.


In the movie it’s Firestone?

No, unnamed. Although the cup to catch the latex attached to the tree is red and people see the red cup and recognize it as the Firestone plantation but in reality there’s some other plantations that use the red cup it just seemed cinematically that it was the best option visually. It’s not like we had the intention… It’s tricky. At the same time the documentary was shot in Firestone and is about the workers who work in the Firestone plantation.

How does the plot move from Liberia to New York?

The main character is working under these severe working conditions. They unionize and call a strike. And basically it doesn’t go anywhere and he just kills time with a bunch of his friends. And then through his cousin who has been living in New York for many years he decides to move to New York to become a cab driver. But just as many Liberian people think of America as a land of milk and honey, so does the main character. Once he comes here there’s of course other struggles and challenges that he has to face. But the main thing that happens is he meets with two Liberians. One is a former child soldier and another is a wealthy businessman who put him in a situation basically to confront his own sense of self. His own identity. It’s all very character driven.


Did you do research in Staten Island?

Yeah, a little bit. Well, I read the book (Little Liberia) and visited Staten Island a couple of times. Read articles about it. That’s how I found out about the situation where former child soldiers and their victims live next door to each other and the complicated situations they face.

Do you consider yourself a Japanese or American filmmaker?

It’s hard to say. Of course I was born and raised in Japan but I started my career here. The reason why I’m so attracted to filmmaking is its universal nature. I always want to tell a universal story no matter where I’m shooting or what kind of subject matter I’m tackling. So like aesthetically of course, it’s my Japanese aesthetic that is going to be there but to say I’m a Japanese filmmaker or an American filmmaker, I don’t know.


Did you see any Liberian films while you were there? 

Yeah, the domestic films just aren’t up to international standards. It’s like a soap opera and the production to be honest is like a student film. Although there is some demand for it—there are people there who still watch it—it’s not a movie in the international sense. They have extraordinary talent they just need to be exposed to a different type of movie to develop their sense. There’s not even a single movie theatre in Liberia. I mean there’s one run by an Indian guy that plays Bollywood but it’s not really publicly known. I only found out about it when I came back here.

* Images Credits: The film’s Twitter and Kickstarter pages.

This Studio Of A Life–The Tale Of A Great Producer

Inyambo Imenda is the birth name of producer Nyambz (or Nyambo). He went to high school in the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’ — a small town called Harrismith in South Africa’s Free State Province where him and a rapper friend started making music. “There wasn’t any hip-hop scene; nobody was making beats,” he says of the place. Necessity, therefore, birthed the behemoth Nyambo would later become.

He met Thapelo Ramatlhodi, a fellow hip-hop head who ran an independent label called Fro-Pick records, while in university in the early 2000s. “He was running his production company called Haunted Fort productions with [the rapper] the Sceptre,” recalls Thapelo.

Together, they set about building a mini-empire which connected emcees from different corners of Pretoria; Mamelodi, Sunnyside, Arcadia, and Brooklyn converged at the altar of Nyambo’s beats. Fro-Pick released PTA Unlimited, a two-disc compilation which featured the scene’s mainstays such as Malik (of the group Ba4za), Urban Militia, and Damola. Rappers Sifiso Sudan and Tumi’s seminal ‘Once upon a time in Africa’ was also featured on the compilation.

Nyambo invited me over to document a recording session in Brooklyn, a formerly whites-only, ironically-named suburb east of Pretoria’s CBD, recently. He became somewhat of a beat-god in the mid-2000s, producing for every one one of the troika of South African hip-hop — Tumi, Proverb, and Zubz — at pivotal points in their music careers. ‘Microphone sweet home,’ Proverb’s melancholic lead single to his debut album Book of Proverb, remains the most leftfield rap single out of that era to have received any widespread recognition.

Nyambo’s knack for crafting head-nodding yet soulful soundscapes wrapped around muted bass lines, with expert sampling to boot, put him right at the centre of most heads’ sonic palettes. I will still lose my shit to his beat tape from 2006.

Nowadays, the beat prodigy spends his time supervising music projects. It’s always something he’s been into — he oversaw aspects of Tumi’s albums at one point, and also crafted an identity for an entire city (he ‘put Pretoria on the map’ so to say). He’s not too comfortable with that last point.

“Pretoria always had different sounds. [There were ] people [in] Mamelodi, Attridgeville, or Sunnyside that had different sounds to what…the camp that we worked with were putting out. That’s what people were exposed to, but for Pretoria there was always a variety,” he points out.


Located 60 kilometres north of Johannesburg, Pretoria’s the last place anyone would expect to find a thriving hip-hop scene. It’s there that producers like Nyambz and Mizi (Mtshali, one-time editor of Hype Magazine); rappers like Maliq and Hakeem (now Flexx Boogie) of Ba4za; and many more deejays and event organizers gave their souls to build a movement. The city became, if for a short time, the focal point of South African hip-hop.


“[Pretoria] was like this little gold-mine [that] no one knew about. The Joburg deejays would never come out; the scene was on its own level, with its own people,” says DJ Kenzhero of his days in Pretoria during the early 2000s. He now owns an exhibition space in Newtown and remains a highly sought-after deejay.

The way Kenzhero feels about Nyambo hasn’t changed since the two first met through rapper Sifiso Sudan.

“He would come to my place and play me his beats. I’d never heard anyone make music like that in this country, ‘til today!” declares Kenzhero.

He isn’t alone. Mizi stresses the importance of Nyambz to the Pretoria rap scene: “What happened was that [every producer] would be at Nyambz’s place. He basically set the tone of hip-hop in PTA…he made the beats.”


A different set of characters are in Nyambo’s presence today. He’s overseeing a studio session for Drop XVI, a one-shot viral video platform which aims to showcase a cross-section of South African hip-hop artists. All of the emcees present have either been working with him on-and-of for the past ten years or more, or were directly influenced by the music of Nyambo. Goliath Studio’s vocal booth is in the basement of an elegant building located opposite the Brooklyn Mall.

When the already-recorded tracks are played back, necks snap and everyone lets go of any hold-backs the prim and proper space may have induced. Mycbeth, a well-respected emcee and one-time member of the indomitable duo The Anvils with N’veigh, has recorded a song. Emcees in the room haven’t heard a Mycbeth verse in forever, so everyone’s elated. Clenched fists knock the air in tandem with the drums’ pattern; faces contort into unimaginable shapes and forms. In this moment, Pretoria hip-hop becomes alive again.


Ask anyone familiar with South African hip-hop, anyone who was active in it — even from the sidelines — in the mid-2000s about Nyambo and they’re going to attest to his genius. Alas, he couldn’t keep giving forever. The scene collapsed into itself once him and other stakeholders decided that life was leaving them behind; that hip-hop wasn’t going to pay the bills; and, most importantly, that people can be weird and thankless.

He tells me that he tried to make a beat just the other day but couldn’t; I joke that maybe it’s time to pass the tools onto his children.


I’m not interested in rapping that much anymore. I figured that telling stories about the artform I love and capturing hip-hop moments as they unfold, and displaying that as honestly as possible across many media — I figured that doing so was a better idea than being a rapper.

The session by Nyambo felt like a continuation of the journey I inadvertently set on all those years ago in Maseru when studio-hopping was a part of me.

I sometimes wonder how South African hip-hop would’ve shaped up had Nyambo and many others not been made to feel that their capacity to sacrifice their time to build a scene had been exhausted.

*Thank you to Sara Chitambo. Her interviews with Mizi, Kenzhero, and Thapelo Ramatlhodi were an invaluable source to writing this article.

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

There’s something about the Youtube “ghetto prank” genre

On the Ock YouTube channel, two young men introduce themselves and say “they’re going to the hood” to play pranks. These pranks consist of things like fake farting on peoplestealing peoples’ phones to check the time, stealing people’s gas, or just yesterday, “Selling Guns In The Hood Prank!” Combined, the videos have been viewed close to a million times. While the prank genre has always been popular in the U.S.–from the 1990s slapstick humor of ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos to MTV’s elaborate Pranked to the latest homemade, endless iterations on YouTube (what we’re writing about now)–a disturbing trend has emerged. Increasingly, the most popular “pranks’  on YouTube all go to the “ghetto”–which seems to translate solely as black, working-class neighborhoods.

The “pranks,” all essentially pass themselves off as “social experiments” to see the reactions of ‘poor black people’ when an outsider threatens or provokes them. In the Ock YouTube farting video, the guy approaches a young woman, asks her where he can find a bathroom and then makes a loud farting noise. She responds that the man is harassing her, and asks him to stop–yet he continues to make farting noises and engage her.

At other times, the pranksters appear to celebrate being attacked. It makes for more views. Take the “Selling Guns” video which ends with victims of the prank punch and, worse, pull a gun on the pranksters:

A few frustrated commenters suggest some of these pranks are staged.

In general, these prank videos are about black people proving themselves as either freaking out (this seems to be the point of the videos and is presented as the norm) or in the minority of cases laughing it off (but this coolness is presented as exceptional, despite that like all prank videos, they’re being selectively edited for the most extreme reactions).

And then there is the popular Roman Atwood’s N-word prank, viewed 976,318 times on YouTube. In the video, Atwood (we presume; he also did the stealing gas prank) sets up the prank: “I’m going to go around and introduce myself in the neighborhood by using the n-word – neighbors.” Atwood is white (like most of the pranksters), with a dirty-blonde Mohawk and tattooed arm sleeve. As he walks down the street, a soundtrack of hip-hop beats blares. At every black person he encounters, he says, “What’s up my neighbor,” but dropping his voice at neighbor or speaking quickly as he walks by – so that the black people interpret it as “What’s up my nigger.” Then he waits for the response, and to let them know they’ve been pranked on film.

Isn’t that funny?

Film Review: “The Good Man” and relegating good intentions to the dustbin

In Chicago literary scholar Lauren Berlant’s formulation, cruel optimism describes an object of desire that is, in her words, “actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” This optimism becomes cruel, she explains, “when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” One example she gives, drawing upon the 1999 French film Resources humaines (director Laurent Cantet), involves a son whose father urges him to do well in school to avoid the menial path to factory work taken by his father. Yet precisely in excelling at university and gaining a foothold in a managerial position, the son undermines his father’s already precarious employment. His task, presented of course as technical necessity, is to carry out what we now understand as a typical regimen of neoliberal restructuring. The result? His father’s termination.

But what happens when the object of desire involves the fate of another in such a way that it doesn’t affect the fate of the desiring subject? Let’s call it the liberal paternalist inflection of cruel optimism: precisely in attempting to uplift another, one undermines that individual’s own capacity for flourishing. Or maybe it’s better understood as a case of simple irony, finish and klaar.

In either case, imagine this scenario, and let’s take the welfare of “the African” as the liberal paternalist’s object of desire. This might play out collectively, such as in cases of US-provisioned famine relief: The dumping of American agricultural surplus drives down prices and reproduces precisely the conditions of starvation intended to be overcome. Meanwhile, Americans can pat themselves on their backs for their open-handedness and generosity.

Or take private sector “development” projects. Imagine a scenario in which an isiXhosa-speaking boy on the Cape Flats is scheduled to receive formal housing from the state after his family has been on the waiting list for years or even decades. Evictions and electricity disconnections are proceeding apace in his neighborhood, to the point where land invasions and illegal reconnections appear to be the only solution, however provisional.

Meanwhile, a man working at a firm — let’s say an Irish firm, as Irish real estate capital really does have substantial holdings in Cape Town — presides over the building of a factory in a peripherally located township. He is convinced that this will uplift the boy, saving an African child from a life of misery. Yet while the Irishman celebrates over a drink with his coworkers in Belfast, the Xhosa boy’s housing project is put on hold to make way for the factory. Hopes dashed, he’s again stuck in his shack. Meanwhile, the Irish project manager toasts the boy — “To Sifiso!” — assuming that his work is helping him out.

This is the marvelous intervention of Irish filmmaker Phil Harrison’s low-budget film The Good Man, shot over the course of a fortnight in Cape Town and Belfast.

In many ways it’s the perfect corrective to the orgy of ersatz postracialism on display in a movie like Crash (2004, director Paul Haggis). Rather than that film’s obsession with rendering racism about personal affectation, Harrison does a proper job of relegating good intentions to the dustbin. History and, above all, white monopoly capital are what matter.

As in Crash, seemingly disconnected narratives coincide. The Irishman in question, played by Littlefinger from Game of Thrones (Aiden Gillen), is convinced he’s responsible for the death of another man. He nabs another man’s taxi, and the poor guy goes running after him, right into the road. He’s immediately pummeled by a car and dies on the spot. Michael (Gillen) witnesses the entire thing. He goes into a stoic depression, to the point that his wife nearly leaves him. In proper masculinist fashion, he doesn’t tell her what he’s seen — at least not for a while.

Michael can’t overcome his guilt until finally he makes contact with the deceased’s parents. Initially furious, they finally make peace, explaining that the dead man had been supporting a child in Africa — South Africa, it just so happens — his entire life: little Sifiso. Michael takes on Sifiso as his personal project of expiation.

Meanwhile, throughout all of this, we see Sifiso’s (Thabang Sidloyi) struggles in school and above all, in his informal settlement in Gugulethu. (While filmed in Gugs, the site appears to be Khayelitsha, as Mandela Park is referenced once or twice. I wasn’t certain.) Rather than the flat figure of the African child imagined by Michael, Harrison presents what must be the most nuanced account of post-apartheid housing politics on film — documentary or otherwise. We see how South African housing delivery works, get a taste of the disarming experience of life on the waiting list, witness the politics of the Anti-Eviction Campaign, and more. Sure, the AEC is presented a bit too individualistically, less as an organization, and more as a single individual rallying the troops in his area. To be fair though, if Harrison caught the AEC amidst its dying gasps, it’s unfortunately probably an accurate representation. And when security forces are called in to remove a shack and evict its occupants — Red Ants? Anti-Land Invasion Unit? — residents get into a fistfight with these storm troopers. This is probably an overly dramatized version of very mundane relations that occur on daily basis. Absolutely, they are violent, and absolutely, fights break out, but the real tragedy is the dull relations of eviction and forced relocation rather than the occasional conflagration.

In any case, Sifiso and Michael finally meet — never face to face, but through relations of cruel optimism. This is the greatest strength of Harrison’s film. Michael knows a single photo of Sifiso, and he’s convinced that his firm’s development project is going to lead Sifiso to a better life. Yet as in most cases of capitalist development, profit wins the day, and the factory leads to displacement. The state-provisioned home promised to Sifiso and his family is indefinitely deferred. Sifiso is back on the waiting list.


While Harrison’s portrayal of the intersection of the two life trajectories is quite striking and I couldn’t get enough of the South African scenes, the last third or so of the Irish plot suffers from needless flattening. Perhaps this was intentional: it’s not the African child who turns out to be the cookie-cutter figure, but the clichéd liberal paternalist from the metropole. But there are times when I wished for a less lifeless account. What is this factory they’re building? Why in Cape Town? There are also a couple of scenes related to the project that made me cringe. “Municipal land? But doesn’t that belong to the people?” one naïve coworker asks Michael. This approach struck me as out of place, oddly unimaginative, given the robustness of the rest of the film.

But these are minor gripes. My biggest qualm is that the film is a sparse 74 minutes, and I was left wanting more. With an extra half hour, the expedited scenes at the Irish firm could have been given time to develop, and the film could be a masterpiece. But I have to say, for a film shot on a shoestring budget in two weeks, it’s pretty damn impressive, especially for a director without formal training. If you have the opportunity to see this film, don’t go alone. Be sure to assemble all of the “Save Darfur” types you know and bring them to a screening near you.

Photoscapes in Accra: Ofoe Amegavie Speaks

As photography in Ghana continues to gain recognition, Ofoe Amegavie is definitely one to watch. At 26 years old, Ofoe’s work has quickly gained an international audience with folks across the continent, Europe and North America, checking for his latest additions. The photographer is still finding his voice and evolving into his craft, but this freedom is also part of his aesthetic.  Ofoe shoots in a state of unlimited inspiration, working with what currently intrigues him and avoiding what he finds repetitive and tired. With projects like “Studio of Colors”, an ongoing photo series dealing with diverse representations of African print, he aims to show subjects in a fresh way, distinct from how “Africa-ness” is commercially marketed. Ofoe instantly knows what he does not like. This opens the portal towards a constant, adventurous search for what might break the mold.

Below are excerpts from a conversation ACCRA dot ALT had with Ofoe where we discussed the evolution of his work, the current state of photography, and the role he plans to achieve, undoubtedly, as one of the most prominent figures in Ghanaian art. Like his photography, the introvert artist is very aware of what is not working in the country’s creative industry. By using the lens of his camera, Ofoe hopes to find out what might.

Tell us who you are as a photographer. What do you photograph?

I think I’m still exploring. I’m not boxed up so I don’t really describe myself as a particular kind of photographer. Based on how I’m feeling, where I am, what I’m seeing, I just photograph.  The project I’m working on right now is more spiritual. So I’m kind of like drawing away from everybody. I don’t go out much.

I prefer black and white images any day. I feel there is too much going on with color. But when it’s black and white, it’s straight to the point. You get exactly what you want whereas with color there is so much taking your mind away from the main story being told. 


Can you talk about some of the Ghanaian photographers whose work you admire or find inspiring?

I don’t really follow the Ghanaian scene because to me it looks stagnant. Not to say it’s bad, but they all stop at the kind of equipment to use, the right lighting and all of that. I think it takes away from creativity. I don’t have a lot of equipment. I have just a 5D and a 50MM. I just work with it. So I don’t really follow what is perceived as ‘happening’ within the circles.

But the person who got me into photography was Bob Pixel. I’m not really moved by the present cadre of photographers. A few people are working hard but there is also a lot of copying and fluff. Everything is “the girl standing by the tree in the nice light”. It gets boring. I like stuff that is original, stuff that is fresh. Not stagnant.


How are Ghanaian photographers reshaping perceptions about who Ghanaians are? Or is this even happening?

Slowly it’s happening. Even I was lost when I started. I was photographing without any thought to the process. All that changed after I started paying attention to how my images represent my space and environment.  But now a lot of people are going towards the documentary thing. That’s what I feel tells the true story. But yeah, slowly it’s changing.


The photography industry in Accra is so dominated by men. Who are some of the females that Accra should know about?

There’s Charlene Asare - she shoots for Christie Brown, a fashion designer. There’s Teresa Mika–her name sounds Nigerian but she’s Ghanaian.


How can you, as a Ghanaian photographer, make your work more diverse and sensitive? How can we have some gender balance within the Ghanaian photography circuit?

Well for one – let’s get down to the basics. I don’t think even the male photographers are together. Recently, there was a meeting. Insta-meet is just a platform for instagrammers in Ghana to meet. We go on a photo walk, we take pictures, we upload them. We talk about how we can use the platform to promote whatever business we are in, and just one girl showed up. Even then, she only came the first day.

For years, photographers have been trying to put together a group so it would be more like an organized collective. It has not been working because everybody feels somebody has to do it, but nobody does. If you put out a call for a meeting, it’s the same five people that show up. Out of the five, it’s the same three that started before. So now we have an account on Instagram called IGERES Ghana. We recently did one down town, Danquah Circle. I think four girls showed up If we promote this more it would develop that interest for people to get into it and gradually the women would come. But I think there has to be more than just one community. If there were more groups like that, not just for professionals but also for anybody, people would develop an interest to get into it.  Personally I would love to see more women participation and that means women need to start seeing photography as important work not just for historical archiving but as a means of making a proper living.


Very few photographers are exhibiting their work in public spaces. A lot have a great presence online. Is that deliberate?

In answer to your question, I’ll share a story:

I’m organizing an exhibition in August, and it’s not easy. I’m trying to get a big space. Usually you call about the spaces and either people don’t get it or charging ridiculous money or are not interested. I tried to do this project. See, when there is construction in the city, they put up barricades. I just thought, put up pictures of random people on the barricade. I wanted to do something like the “Inside Out Project”. Basically, you take a statement. Say, you are against racism. So you take pictures of random people that are in support of it and then you put those around. So kids need education. I want to identify kids who need education. I would go to Nima [a famous Muslim settlement in Accra] take a picture of a kid who’s not going to school, put a picture on the wall where he lives. That’s going to be the statement. There’s a child here that needs education and there he is on the wall.

I wanted to do it on those barricades, cause all you see is these churches being put up. I just approached them and they were like, no. I don’t think it’s just about exhibitions. It should be free. I think art should be free. It’s kind of frustrating, sometimes.

I want to go to Sodom and Gomorrah [shanty town of rural migrants from the North of Ghana] and take pictures of the people that live there. Not put them outside but inside. Make the place look beautiful. If they’re not going to do anything, then make the place look nice. Get a bunch of paint – do the City of Colors thing. First I want to start by putting pictures on the wall – just random stuff, like everything. I want people to feel the presence of photography in their community.

Studio of Colours

Knowing how young Ghanaians are struggling with their identity, how can photography reshape perceptions about who we are as people? 

That can only happen when photographers show people something outside of what they see on TV. People here [in Accra] know weddings look a certain way. There is a beautiful bride in a white gown, the most expensive shoes etc. I don’t think that’s us.

I went to the Volta region [Eastern Ghana] and shot a very traditional wedding. It was nothing like what I see in Accra. They used kente, beads, Shea butter. Personally I think that’s nicer than what I see in the city. That wedding took less than 30 minutes.  The drinks were presented to the bride’s dad to show you can take care of the daughter. Everybody then shares drinks to show it’s our responsibility to make sure the marriage works.

As opposed to Accra where everybody comes and drinks expensive drinks and eats expensive food. I thought it was beautiful.

That’s what it is, that’s who we are. If stuff like that is shown more, people will be able to move away from what they see on the Internet. People will have a different side of what they see. I think we need to show the other side. Go outside Accra. Sometimes when I go out, I don’t want to come back. It’s void of what somebody tells me life is supposed to be.


What projects are you working on at the moment?

The main project I’m working on is just putting stuff together for my exhibition. Right now the space I’m in is looking to be very spiritual.

At the moment, majority of Ghanaians are Christian and Islamic, but what about the other side? What did people believe in before all of these religions came in? Over in the Volta region, they have ceremonial dances that evoke certain deities. The people are transformed right when they put on a costume. It could be anyone, but the minute they put the costume on, they take on the essence of whatever deity the dance evokes.  I want to experiment a sort of form the shows how it works.

I’m going be doing installations there, so it’s not just about me. Say I work with a costume designer. Whatever costumes we use will be displayed there.

Basically the theme is spirituality. I’ll also be doing a short film. I’m working on something with a musician in Ghana. So I’m gonna take the aspect of the spiritual dances so they dance to music. The music is more like the bridge, the movement and the costumes. Those are what transform the humans from being normal beings into deities. Then, there are the pictures. The pictures I haven’t figured out. But I’m working on it.

Shooting Lagos

In February of 2013, I made a hurried decision to head to Lagos, in an attempt to shoot a pilot season for My Africa Is,  an ongoing web documentary series, that aims to dispute the one dimensional portrayal of the African continent. We had been seeking funding for quite some time, and it just wasn’t panning out.  I was in the process of virtually organizing an event for Social Media Week Lagos, and realized what a missed opportunity it would be, not to head out to my home city, and shoot some stories out there, as a first attempt to see what My Africa Is could look and feel like.

The weeks leading up to the trip were focused on research, locating a crew, and reading The Art of the Interview. As this would be the first full scale shoot for my documentary on the continent, I was trying to avoid ruining our chance at creating solid content that would be indicative of what My Africa Is is.

To give you a sense of Lagos it is divided in two parts, the Island and the Mainland. The island is where the super rich and expats settle, in huge houses and luxury apartments protected by guards. The mainland also has gated communities, but it also houses the middle class neighborhoods, and “slums” of Lagos.

I was quite proud of myself waking up at 5am for the first shoot, where I would prove my directorial chops. My cab guy came to get me on time, which was the first surprise, as punctuality is usually not the norm, call it African time. Anyways, I hopped in the front seat, with jotting down the questions I would ask Bilikiss. Why Wecyclers? Why do you care about plastics? How long do you think it will take to clear the garbage hills in Lagos?  Focused, was the word. As we drove past the traffic, and I thought to myself what a good decision it was to leave early and beat Lagos’s mind numbing “go-slows”. I looked up, from my questions and shot list, taking in the scenery of streets that used to be mine to roam as a kid, thinking back to the trouble we would get into leaving home without permission. As we got on the expressway passing one of the most popular housing estates, I noticed something curious.

A guy lay on the side of the road, my immediate thought was that he may have been crazy or drunk and has somehow passed out on the expressway. However, not too far away from him lay a woman, lifeless in the middle of traffic, making me realize they weren’t just laying there. The silence and focus of the cab ride to Ikeja was broken. “What the FUCK???,” came out of my mouth. The cab guy looked at me with a knowing smile, “Na wetin?” We definitely were not the first to drive past them, tens if not hundreds of cars had certainly driven past their lifeless bodies. My cab guy looked at me like I was crazy, when I asked why didn’t we stop? (Definitely a reaction of someone who’s been gone too long from Lagos): “Stop and do what?” He asked. My mouth opened and closed searching for an answer, when I knew there wasn’t one. Who were we really calling? 911? “That one na government matter,” was the one liner he used to dismiss my confusion. He was right, the only hope was that a police car would eventually drive by the bodies, and stop to take them to a prison or a morgue, where they probably wouldn’t be identified, unless they carried around their passport, as the concept of national IDs is still one that is but a dream.

I was shaken, not because I didn’t think something like that was possible in Lagos, but because I didn’t expect to come in such close contact with this underbelly of Lagos; the Lagos you are able to avoid, and shake your head in hopelessness, when protected by concrete walls and armed guards.

We eventually made our way to get our videographer, and then headed to the Wecyclers compound, in Surulere. The roads leading up to the compound, were probably the shittiest roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to drive on, I eventually asked the cab guy to park for fear that his Toyota would fall in a crater parading as a pothole. As I walked in we were greeted by whom we thought were area boys (neighborhood thugs) looking at me with what I like to call my “kidnap me” backpack, and my videographer with his moccasins. We tried to look hard, until we met up with Wale Davies who helped set up the shoot. Wale broke the tension, as he had a natural manner and kindly declined their offers for mary jane, and but politely accepted a card for a herbalist. Dr. Fix-ya-life at your service.

I eventually realized I was fearing for nothing as our friendly area boys were actually some of the Wecyclers, and talking to them afterwards, they were obviously just kids  trying to make some scratch to pay for school, or take care of their families.  I loved that Bilikiss chose this neighborhood to set up her recycling outfit. Providing her WeCyclers with jobs, probably prevented them from engaging in more harmful activities than slinging pot.  The Wecyclers shoot was a smooth one, although my tshirt tan was official by the time we were done. Bilikiss was easy going, and eager for us to meet her customers, and we were homies with the crew by the time we left.

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 1| The WeCyclers:

One of my big goals when I was in Lagos was to shoot some cool aerial footage. Thankfully I had Ahamefule a.k.a. Jimi Tones as my videographer, who suggested an abandoned skyscraper that he often went to get pictures of the Lagos skyline. Off we went to climb up 25 stories for the money shot. The building was in Lagos Island, a neighborhood that used to be Lagos’s commercial center, and home to the Brazilian quarters. Several banks set up shop there in the 80s and 90s during the reign of dictators that had institutionalized corruption, although most  banks and businesses had relocated their headquarters to more highbrow Victoria Island.

Jimi led me and our cab guy, who was now part of the crew, through a sea of hawkers and street vendors, to the abandoned building. We knew what the deal was. We were probably going to have to cough up some loot for access, as it had become a spot that other film-makers had discovered as a great shooting location for Lagos aerials.  I initially rode in on my anti-bribery high horse, determined not to cave in. The guard who was playing a card game with some of his boys saw us and immediately put on his uniform shirt to assert some kind of authority, before coming to greet us.  Once we explained that we intended to take some pictures, he informed us of his need to protect this building and his fear of his ogas (boss) at the top. Translation: how much are you willing to part with. I realized that while this guy was trying to ask for a bribe, which I clearly am against, I looked around and saw that this abandoned skyscraper was their home, and their imaginary boss was probably not paying him any real kind of salary. We ended up greasing his palm with what came up to about 20 dollars. Not bad for the awesome shots we ended up getting, along with a clutch Facebook cover photo. Being on top of that building was everything, as I stood above the chaos that is Lagos, and with the events of the day it, was the best way I could imagine wrapping up my first day of shooting.

Day Two of shooting, was within pretty controlled environments, minus the obvious occurrence of power outages, and incredibly high temperatures.  Nonetheless ending, in a good hang with photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo, and the music producer E. Kelly whose episode fell victim to the roaring engines of okadas (Lagos’s now defunct motorcycle taxis).

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 3| Lakin Ogunbanwo:

The final shoot of the Lagos Chronicles captured the floating school, this time working with a different production team, namely 37th state, and employed the videography talents of Nkechi Bakare. I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to the anxiety I experienced prior to this shoot. As an ajebutta (spoiled kid) the floating slum of Makoko is not my usual Monday chill spot. I tried to hide my trepidation as we walked through the muddy alleys of that led to the main canal. However we were greeted with smiling kids shouting “ Oh yeah, oh yeah” over and over, and waving at us, immediately setting me at ease.  According to Kunle Adeyemi, the architect behind the Floating School, they were repeating something they’d heard some white folk say, and it just happened to be something they chanted out when they saw the fish out of water expats walking around.  As we got in the canoes, and cruised along the waterway to the floating school, I felt my mind blow in a million pieces, as I was smack dab in the reality that is Makoko. The community was literally one that floated, as the only way of getting around was by canoe, or swimming in water with a less than sanitary rating. Yet people were going about their lives, and happy. I didn’t feel unsafe, or completely out of place as we hung out on the school, that had become a meeting place for the people of Makoko, with kids sleeping on the main floor as the lagoon breeze cooled them.

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 2| The Floating School:

The Lagos State Government condemned the floating school as an illegal structure. Makoko has been a thorn in the side of Lagos State, as it is conveniently located in close proximity to the island, and furthermore sits right behind luxury apartments being constructed (the sounds and smells of Makoko, would leave much to be desired from the potential wealthy tenants). To this day, the state continues to attempt to evict the residents of Makoko, and demolish the floating slum, in order to make way for more accommodation, for Lagos’s upper middle class, while providing no plans for the relocation to the 200,000 plus residents that would be left homeless.

A year after shooting the Lagos Chronicles, with the bad news that continues to flow out of Nigeria (the missing Chibok girls, and the recent dubious Ekiti State election results). Lagos, and Nigeria in general, is truly the tale of two cities. I stayed on the island where it is the best of times, and people make/find enough money to power diesel guzzling generators, and the Lagos movers and shakers rub elbows, within their closed off 5% society. The shoots however allowed me to see deeper into another perspective, where bodies of loved one can be driven by as though their lives meant nothing, parts of the city where most residents probably don’t own jet skis, or ocean front real estate, well, outside of our friends in Makoko.  This is how the majority of Lagos lives, and this majority is the heartbeat, that is ultimately going to decide the future of Lagos.  The need for outfits that create employment like the Wecyclers, or a structure that makes it possible for kids to actually go to school regardless of weather, is one that is real and of the essence.

You probably find it strange that I start off on this note as I talk about shooting a documentary series that aims to show a “different side” of Africa. Well this will probably help to clarify the misconception of our little show that could. The point of My Africa Is, isn’t to say that our continent is perfect, on the contrary it is still quite flawed. The individuals we shot in Nigeria are creating these projects because of those flaws, and the extreme capitalistic nature of the government. They are filling the gaps and trying to provide solutions to Lagos’s major problems. This will be the tone that most of our pieces takes on. We invite our audience to take note of what their peers are creating, and hopefully get a surge of inspiration to think up their own solutions to problems within their communities, wherever that may be.

* The next season of My Africa Is will be available in September of  2014, and will feature three amazing stories from Dakar, Senegal.

On being young, black and queer in South Africa

Umlilo (previously profiled on Africa is a Country here) continues to push societal boundaries, crushing the norms of sexuality and gender roles with ‘Magic Man’, a track from his latest album, which will be released in July 2014. Watch the making of the music video and hear his thoughts on circus troops, being an outcast and how his music has become his freedom.

Follow Umlilo on Twitter and on Soundcloud.

Buckingham Palace, Cape Town

My Word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace, is a one-man play, written by SylviaVollenhoven and performed by co-writer and actor, Basil Appollis. It is based on the life and work of the writer, Richard Rive, who grew up in District Six and wrote about the community and it’s characters such as Mary Bruintjies, who ran a brothel next door; Zoot, the local gangster; and Mr. Katzen, the landlord of the row of houses that came to be known fondly as ‘Buckingham Palace’. The play portrays Rive on the eve of his death, reminiscing about the people and places of District Six before the forced removals of the 1970s.

District Six was one of the first non-racial communities in the heart of the city of Cape Town. In the 1970s, the apartheid government declared it a white area under the Group Areas Act (1957) and forcibly removed residents before bulldozing down their homes. Many were sent to live on the outskirts of the city. “District Six was the start of a really vibrant, non-racial South African and that’s why it had to die,” says playwright Sylvia Vollenhoven.

Vollenhoven has a personal connection to Rive. He was her high school teacher in the 60s. “Whenever we had a double period he would say, okay now lets have Latin history, or Roman history, and that was code speak for telling us the real history of South Africa and reading from his books, all of which were banned at the time,” she says. “I learned more from those clandestine lessons that I did in any library or any other regular lesson.”

As a writer and journalist, Vollenhoven strives to keep the memory of Rive and other black writers alive, especially those who survived the banning of the apartheid state, or continued writing despite it. “Where do we find ourselves in the history of South Africa? Can we locate ourselves? If we can’t locate ourselves in the books and libraries and archives we have to manufacture that history, write the books and the plays and redress that absence,” says Vollenhoven.

The play has just returned from the South African season at the Jermyn Street Theater in London with high praise from critics. The theatre showcased five-weeks of South African performances in celebration of 20 years of democracy.

* The play is currently showing at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa until 12 July. Image Credit: Publicity still


Dreadlocked Rapunzel

Lately, there’s been some good rumbling about the dearth of stories that include characters of color (a New York Times critique, a “Top 10 Guide” in The Guardian, 30 Classics on The Griot) . As a father with a young daughter who’s been asking those difficult questions about her place in the world and how she sees herself through what’s around her, I know that this is a conversation that’s way past due.

At the beginning of the year, my daughter, Kavya, was utterly distraught she didn’t have “yellow hair” like Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled, and that most of her favorite characters didn’t look like her. This realization did not actually revolve around hair color: Merida has red hair, as does Ariel; Cinderella and Aurora are blonde; Snow white has black hair; Belle has brown hair. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocohontas, the three brown girls usually shoved in the back are irrelevant as they’re from the 1990s and show up in cameos in other princess’s shows or storybooks. What my daughter was experiencing was the same feeling that millions of other young girls also deal with: most of the stories in which she longs to play the lead are populated exclusively by white girls. That’s why this dad is on board with two very important social media movements: #DadsRead and #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Since January, I’ve been actively diversifying our bookshelf with non-traditional princess narratives – Pirate Princesses, Princeless Princesses, even boys who are princesses, and books with characters of color. But the one thing I couldn’t find until a few days ago was Rapunzel with black hair. The closest I came was Rapunzel: A Groovy Tale by Lynn Roberts, which came out in 2003ish. It’s a modernized retelling of Rapunzel where she has flaming red hair and is held captive in a crappy apartment with a broken lift by her evil lunch lady Aunt. I liked it. Kavya liked it. It is a good introduction to breaking the stranglehold of the golden haired Rapunzel narrative.

Last weekend, we went to Books of Wonder, the only bookshop in New York City dedicated just to children. There, I found an African retelling of Rapunzel by Rachel Isadora–this heroine has black hair. There’s even Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel by Patricia Storace, another Rapunzel with black hair. Both books have a familiar storyline with a few twists, and are well illustrated with nice artwork.

Hands down, the most original retelling that has just come out in South Africa from local publisher, Jacana Press: Refilwe written by South African novelist and children’s book author, Zukiswa Wanner, and illustrated by Tamsin Hinrichsen from Cape Town. It’s an exciting retelling, where the author adds some lovely originality to the tired old story (oh, unlike the Lion King, it’s not set in an ubiquitous, one-nation Africa). Instead of Rapunzel, Wanner changes the mother’s craving to morogo, pumpkin leaves, and thankfully doesn’t name her character after it. And: “Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair,” says Wanner. The story is set in the Lesotho mountains, the geographic setting playing a major role in  the narrative with the most striking change being the absence of a tower, replaced by a cave high up on a craggy cliff. This leads to a very catchy rhyme that kicks the ass of anything that ever came before it:

“Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks, so I can climb the scraggy rocks.”

When the witch finds out about this act of betrayal, scripted things happen: the prince is blinded and Refilwe is banished to the Northern Cape (how awful!). He finds Refilwe again by hearing her singing and the two are united, where we can assume everything ends happily ever after.

There is a great post (here) where Wanner talks about the inspiration for taking on this particular folktale and the secret to her particular adaptation: it comes down to the relationship she has with her own hair:

When Jacana asked me to take part in the project of adopting traditional fairy tales, it was natural that I would want to do Rapunzel. I was that young girl who fantasized about having long, flowing locks. I was that young girl who begged my mother to allow me to visit my aunt’s farm, not so much because I loved my aunt and cousin but because I would get the opportunity to spend hours brushing my cousin’s Barbie or Cindy dolls’ hair (I was deprived as a child. I never got any dolls and only ever got books for presents).

I was that young girl who felt in my early teens that being able to hold my hair in a pony tail was a major achievement and so, I would relax hair with Dark & Lovely, braid it overtime, and the moment it was long enough, stay for days on end with it in a pony tail.  But I wanted to make Refilwe (Jacana 2014)  something that I, as a young African girl, would have liked to read so that I wouldn’t have the sort of hair issues  that I had growing up. And so it was that my Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.

The earliest existing versions of the Rapunzel story was from Italy, written in an obscure Neopolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile in 1634: Petrosinella, a type of parsley. The Germans then translated her name to Rapunzel. Cabbage. The Brothers Grimm’s version popularized the story, where Rapunzel became the girl with long, flowing golden hair. Even though none of the many versions of this story describe her with dark skin, it would be great to see more originality to the retelling, like what Jacana Press and Zukiswa Wanner are doing by Africanizing folktales that have been thought of as “owned” by a rigid European narrative, and along with that, European aesthetic expectations. As a Papa to a beautiful and intelligent daughter, I am down with expanding our notion of story. Now, can someone please bring back the acorns, ogress, and magic—all of which has been edited out?


Pretoria’s Forgotten Hip-Hop Scene

In 2010, documentary filmmaker Sara Chitambo packed up five years’ worth of life in Cape Town and relocated to the eGoli, ePitori to be precise. Among her long list of priorities was to immerse herself the Pretoria hip-hop scene which, at its peak, had various artists from the city featuring regularly in the South African hip-hop publication Hype Magazine. She’d been an active participant in Cape Town hip-hop – whether as an avid attender of shows, or through her television career as an entertainment producer/reporter on ETV where she compiled, among other pieces, an insert on Pioneer Unit’s first ever compilation project Planetary Assault.

Arriving in Pretoria, however, Chitambo found a rap scene in limbo. The hype sold through glossy magazine covers manifested its true colors, and they were on the left side of bright. The State Theatre shows that she’d attended on a once-off mission up north while still located in Cape Town had all but died down. There were hardly any musicians making noise on radio and television. Feeling somewhat robbed of a unique experience, Chitambo decided to make The Capacity Of Capcity, a documentary dedicated to tracking the rise, fall, and possible indicators of a hip-hop renaissance in the land of Jacaranda trees.

Sara Chitambo

After a year and some of filming, she lost a hard drive’s worth of footage on a trip to Rwanda. Undefeated, she kick-started another shooting schedule–a solitary, taxing, but fulfilling task.  When I met her in 2012, she’d all but given up on the project. It didn’t make sense; after countless interviews with tastemakers (DJ Kenzhero, Nyambz), magazine editors (Mizi Mtshali, Simone Harris), and the actual emcees, vocalists, and producers who helped build the scene (Maliq, Fifi, Thir[13]teen), why stop?

She also had rough drafts and nuggets about how she wanted the story to develop. On a whim, I offered to lend a hand in the editing process, an exercise which not only involved countless hours of learning, but instilled in me a deep appreciation for hyper-local scenes and the importance of documenting what happens within them.

The Capacity of Capcity is one such document – a case study in the intricacies underpinning untold stories; a session for artists to vent, reminisce, or suggest a way forward; and ultimately a labour of love created for no other purpose but to interrogate what a long-standing fan found weird and odd about her newfound home.

*Chitambo agreed to share a chapter from the 40-minute documentary with us.  This article is part of Africasacountry’s series on South African Hip-Hop in 2014. You can follow the rest of the series here.

Black Europe and Body Politics

BE.BOP (Black Europe & Body Politics) presents yet another important edition titled Spiritual Revolutions & “The Scramble for Africa” this year. For those not familiar with this groundbreaking project, BE.BOP is a curatorial project, in co-production with Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, that includes exhibitions, presentations, screenings and roundtables by artists (amongst others) from the Black European Diaspora. This project seeks to fill a gap when it comes to deconstructing the coloniality of western art and aesthetics in Europe.  It provides a space to discuss and create a dialogue around (collective) self-liberation and healing.

Through this project a certain decolonial way of thinking about the visual arts has been introduced in Europe and Africa. In the Decolonial Aesthetics Manifesto 2011, curator Alanna Lockward and other BE.BOP affiliated members such as Walter Mignolo write that,

The goal of decolonial thinking and doing is to continue re-inscribing, embodying and dignifying those ways of living, thinking and sensing that were violently devalued or demonized by colonial, imperial and interventionist agendas as well as by postmodern and altermodern internal critiques.

In this edition, healing and healing through drawing the spiritual map of Pan-Africanism before and after the so-called “Scramble for Africa” are central. Through various artworks and performances (more below) the various meanings of healing are explored.

Recently Framer Framed, an initiative to discuss the politics of representation and curatorial practices in the 21st century, hosted BE.BOP in Amsterdam for a special five-hour event. A range of documentaries and performances were presented during these five hours that clearly showcased ways in which artists deal with the theme of spirituality and healing. Check out some of the inspiring and beautiful results of BE.BOP participants below:

* Patricia Kaersenhout, Stitches of Power. Stitches of Sorrow


During slavery and the colonial period embroidery was a passtime for white women of higher social rank, while in the colonies black women were facing daily horrors like rape, being separated from husbands and children and hard labour. White women were embroidering innocent images on white fabric. The needle symbolizes literally the penetration of a Black female body. Filling in the ‘empty image’ emphasizes the historical non position and neglect of Black women in West European written history. Embroidering a gun is a paradox in itself. Embroidering as an re- enactment of innocence symbolizing an act of violence.

* Alanna Lockward, The Allen Report: Retracing Transnational African Methodism

An interesting account of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and their role in the liberation of Namibia from South Africa. The whole film will be out in July 2015, read more about this great project” target=”_blank”>here.

* Anika Gibbons, Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology and Womanist Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, 2013

Filmmaker Anika Gibbons has created a moving and inspiring documentary that tells the radical spiritual story of four Womanist scholars. The stories give insight in the scholarship of Womanist theology and Womanist ethics through interviews with Dr. Emilie Townes, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, Dr. Kelly Brown and Dr. Katie Cannon and current Union students. The interviews are beautiful and give plenty food for thought on issues related to social justice, spirituality and womanism.

* All images by Nikolaj Recke, courtesy of the artist and Art Labour Archives.

Thank You, Associated Press

We published “Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey” (to coincide with the World Cup in Brazil) on June 17th. The story included a list of race-colors from a 1976 study done in Brazil. On June 22 the big-time news agency AP published a “story” which basically consisted of the list. That story’s been repeated /shared / published / syndicated in a lot of places. Here’s the problem: the AP list is our list: it was originally translated by Lilia Moritz Schwarcz from University of Sao Paulo (who has done lots of work on race in Brazil) and edited by Achal Prabhala (who wrote our piece) and published by AIAC. It’s the same list, down to the last word, including Lilia’s very specific language (‘burro quando foge’ translated as disappearing donkey, for instance) and Achal’s editing–he changed some of the original entries for brevity and clarity. So it’s interesting the AP’s editors think they can turn an AIAC essay into an “original” AP article without any attribution whatsoever. We’re just a small website that runs on zero money, and we guess AP thinks it’s fine to take our stuff. Though, of course, it’s not at all fine if you take their stuff (reference: Shepard Fairey).

* Image Credit: Screengrab from CBF video of Neymar after he was injured. That’s what we feel like right now.

Some young Danes thought they’d have some fun with colonialism

At this year’s edition of Roskilde Festival outside Copenhagen in Denmark, guests were invited to join a group of brave, self-declared, male Imperialists from Denmark on an African Expedition, circa 1814. The themed festival camp entitled Afrika-Expeditionen was set up by a group Danish of experts in various scientific fields, such as (French) Security, Medicine, Ethnography, Anthropology, Ornithology, and offered festivalgoers the opportunity to join their journey of ‘scientific’ inquiry into local customs, rituals and dancing. As with all great “explorers,” the Danish Imperialists set out to explore the Dark Continent with a suitably re-drawn and re-named map of Africa.


On Tuesday, July 1st, the brave men of Afrika-Expeditionen hosted a “Lion Hunt.” After several months of exhausting exploration the Danish Imperialists claimed not to have the strength to conquer the beast they have discovered near to their camp. Hence they appealed to Natives for assistance (because we all know that these large feral felines are a real hazard in the Danish countryside…).  In exchange, generous bounties will be awarded to the best hunter, followed by a real ‘hunting party’ to ‘hot African beats.’


Continuing the perverse collapse of festival revelry with ‘scientific’ inquiry of the African territories of Gongo and Jongo, Afrika-Expeditionen appeal to Danish saviour complexes and offer festival-goers with humanitarian inclinations a ‘Malaria Party.’ On this night, Danes determined to conquer the dangerous disease plaguing Natives and Imperialists alike, will administer a special medicinal concoction of Gin and Tonic to those in need.

In a Scandinavian context shaped by notions of humanitarianism and multiculturalism, supposedly humorous endeavours such as Africa-Expeditionen sustain claims to colonial innocence and non-participation in colonial projects in Africa. These kinds of ‘artistic’ and ‘creative’ projects close down the possibility of meaningful engagements with historical and present reality of Scandinavian- African relations.


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