Africa is a Country

What is it like to be a refugee in Germany?

“Gitmo in Germany?” and “German Abu Ghraib” were two of the headlines across news wires in late September after photos and a video documenting the abuse of Algerian asylum seekers by security officers in an asylum center had circulated. The photo shows a guard standing next to an asylum seeker who is lying on the floor with his hands tied behind his back; the guard put his foot on the asylum seeker’s head, as if to keep the man down. A video showed a man lying in his own vomit, while he was verbally attacked by the guards.

With the escalation of war in Syria, the number of asylum seekers in Germany reached a 20-year high, and Germany expects to receive a total of over 200,000 new asylum seekers this year. But German cities are not prepared to receive that many people, and, as has become clear once more, they resort to cost-saving measures that backfire. The asylum center in which the abuse occurred (Burbach in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia) is managed by a private company, and the security officers charged with the abuse were from a sub-contractor, a private security firm that apparently did not put much effort into careful selection and training of the officers. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, some of the officers had links to the neo-Nazi scene.

Officials promised rapid documentation and clarification of the events, as well as prosecution of the perpetrators. They fired the sub-contractor and vowed to tighten background checks of security personnel. But German civil society actors and media outlets kept asking what is being done to address and solve the underlying issues: overcrowded asylum centers, the lack of resources to build new facilities, the privatization of security in these centers, and the dubious background of security officers and their links to right-wing parties. “The plight of refugees is used for business,” the NGO ProAsyl (pro asylum) criticized. Opposition leaders called for a “national refugee summit.”

Indeed, the latest abuses are not isolated incidents. In 2002, state security identified four Neonazis working for security firms in facilities in Brandenburg. In 2013, journalists, based on official reports, estimated that ten percent of the 1150 active Neonazis in Brandenburg worked in the security sector. As some point out, part of the problem of the lack of response to these incidence is that only when the security service identifies such right-wing tendencies, politicians listen; there is much less reaction when civil society initiatives point to instances of discrimination and abuse by right-leaning officers.

The general trend has been to make immigration more difficult, rather than improving the conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Conservative politicians even make it their explicit goal to keep conditions precarious in order to send a message to “Africa” that coming to Germany as a refugee is difficult and burdensome. None of the 16 states requires shelter operators to hire social workers. When numbers of asylum seekers were relatively low, at around 20,000 between 2006-2009, municipalities—that are responsible for providing shelter—blocked attempts at renovating asylum centers, and the tendency was to close as many “superfluous” facilities as possible. As a consequence, the city of Duisburg announced in August that the city would shelter asylum seekers in tents.

More fundamentally, even at a time when Germany is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and exodus of East German refugees who had gathered at the West German embassy in Prague, few people think back and compare their own situation with that of the asylum seekers and refugees in Germany today. Media reports looking back at the situation 25 years ago celebrated the high level of solidarity with which West Germans welcomed those who had fled from the GDR. Today, asylum shelters are surrounded by anti-refugee rallies organized by far-right groups. And when a member of parliament from the Christian Democratic Party recently suggested to settle asylum seekers in families instead of anonymous shelters, he received outraged responses.

The photos and video of the abuses will surely change how Germans think about refugees among them, but not for long—a couple of weeks after the publication of the photos, few still talk about them. What’s needed is a much more thorough change in attitude towards migrants and solidarity for their situation.

How do we talk about the memory of Apartheid

In 1966 the South African government declared District Six—a high-density, mostly coloured residential area intrinsic to the fabric of downtown Cape Town for at least a century and situated on prime land beneath Table Mountain —to be a white “Group Area.” The state promptly set about forcefully removing District Six’s “non-white” residents (eventually about 60,000 of them) to land up to 30 miles further to a flood plane known as the “Cape Flats,” which consisted of mostly swamp land and sand dunes populated by invasive vegetation.

Despite the fact that nowadays developers and the city council (governed by the mostly white Democratic Alliance which relies partly on the votes of poor coloureds who now inhabit the Cape Flats) would sooner forget that District Six ever existed (they want to remake that part of the city into a Maboneng-style district for hipsters and whites with money), and despite the fact that nothing but an ugly gash on the hillside near the city is the only evidence of razed buildings, its historical significance has been extensively memoralized. There’s a downtown museum—a few blocks from the original neighborhood—dedicated to its memory and District Six, and its former inhabitants have been the subjects of scores of books, novels, films and photographic exhibitions.

What we get from the Museum and these media are celebrations of a multiracial milieu: it was, after all, the neighborhood that started as a home for free slaves and black migrants to the city, a place which also attracted poor European—mostly Jewish—immigrants. We also see, in the objects and photographs of remembrance, evidence of the residents’ resilience—of how the mostly poor and working class renters made it in a city that made life difficult for them already. Finally, we see how, through forced removals, these people who built a vibrant place of possibility were condemned to various parts of the desolate Cape Flats.

Though District Six also had other black residents, it is coloureds that primarily lay claim to District Six (most coloureds don’t identify as black, but many trace their ancestors to Mozambican and Angolan slaves or Khoi and Xhosa unions). District Six is for them a lament for a lost city and a lodestar in reconstructing a more integrated metropole. And because the land where District Six stood has not been occupied much since, the area still stands as a monument for racial inequality and exclusion. Even as you drive above it on the elevated highway that takes you from the suburbs into central Cape Town, you can’t miss the presence of its empty expanse

The result of its lasting absence/presence is that popular memories of District Six—though it is punctuated by occasional stories of deprivation and communal violence (the infamous Cape Town Mongrels gang originated there)—generally celebrate those who lived there. (My father, who was born in Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—but grew up in Newlands and Kirstenbosch—has the same nostalgia for “die Distriek.”).

The now-razed neighborhood also had profound influences on the city’s cultural life. The writer Alex la Guma (he died later, an exile, in Cuba) brought the quarter to life in his books (“A Walk in the Night”) as well as in his journalism for the Communist papers, The New Age and The Guardian. Musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim honed their skills in its clubs.

Yet, occasionally, residents recall more complicated memories, like how they remember or care to forget the history and legacy of institutions like the Eoan Group.

Eoan, a derivative of the Greek word for dawn (Eos), was founded by a white British immigrant, Helen Southern-Holt, in 1933 as a kind of ethnic uplift organization—a “culture and welfare organization” aimed at coloureds in District Six. Its politics was hardly radical. The emphasis was on teaching “the Coloured race” how to speak “proper,” have good posture, manners and hygiene. More importantly, they would also learn the arts, especially ballet and opera. The group used a building, the Liberman Institute, donated by a Jewish philanthropist.

Led by conductor Joseph Salvatore Manca, an Italian immigrant to Cape Town who worked as a bookkeeper for the city council, the all-coloured company (in terms of the performers; most trainers were white) performed from the early 1940s onwards, and gained some local and national fame. Condescending white critics were fond of declaring the group up to their high standards and some group members took this as genuine praise. But Eoan was a genuinely talented company of performers, conducting national and, later, international tours (especially to the UK).

Eoan was a performance company that consisted of talented members; it was not a charity for half-baked dancers. Were they born somewhere else (free from race prejudice or dictatorship), they would have been celebrated for their work. What is remarkable is that a number of Eoan members would go on to prove themselves on global (meaning European and American) stages. They include the ballet dancer David Poole, who passed for white (one Eoan member remembers: “he went to London coloured and came back white!”) and joined the Sadler Wells Theater Ballet as well as the Royal Ballet in London; Gordon Jephtas, a pianist and arranger, on occasion accompanied famed Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi at the Royal Albert Hall in London. One of the male lead singers, Joseph Gabriels, a former municipal worker, became the first South African to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

By the time the government had bulldozed District Six to the ground in 1968, the Eoan Group had moved to Athlone coloured township on the Cape Flats, where they made their home at the Joseph Stone Theater, built as a theater space for coloureds. (Any visitor to Athlone will recognize the theater situated on Klipfontein Road, a main thoroughfare close to Athlone Football Stadium). By the late 1970s, however, Eoan was in decline. Though it retained the quality of its performances, a mix of factors contributed to its eventual decline.

Manca (who could be ornery, but was admired by Eoan performers for his high quality of coaching) dueled with Eoan’s coloured administrator, Ismail Sydow, over who should manage the group’s affairs and direction. Sydow was a local coloured grocer whose wife sewed the group’s costumes. Sydow eventually won out over Manca but soured inter-group relations in the process. But as race politics in Apartheid South Africa went, that was an inconsequential victory since both men shared Southern-Holt’s vision. In fact, such rivalries and minor coups happen in performance companies everywhere.

More important to Eoan’s fortunes were the group’s choice of political patrons and its compromises over racism and Apartheid.

Perhaps, it is only in hindsight that we can see how much racial politics and the changing laws affected the group’s dynamics. But at some level, the Eoan Group appeared doomed to controversy and political compromise right from the onset. It originated in Southern-Holt’s white, Conservative, Christian-based rhetoric and her disavowal of any “politics.” However, as the National Party came into power in 1948 and made law out of already discriminatory social practices, Eoan members couldn’t escape being politicized. (Remember this was the period of the “Defiance Campaign” when resistance to Apartheid increasingly took a mass form.) Group members had always vowed to not perform to segregated audiences. However, by the late 1950s, they had given in and were performing to audiences that were divided by a rope: two rows of coloured patrons and eight rows of mostly rich whites. Members rationalized—or so Manca made them think—that they needed the money.

Before long, Eoan applied for money from the Department of Coloured Affairs, a very unpopular arm of the state set up after 1948 to “govern” coloured education, social welfare and housing similar to “Native Affairs” and the Bantustans. Manca also encouraged Eoan to play concerts for white Cabinet ministers. Soon Eoan was going on overseas publicity tours for the Apartheid state. Ada Jansen, one of the senior coloured administrators of Eoan, went to the United Nations on a visit arranged by the regime and its defenders to try and break the cultural boycott and weaken international solidarity in opposition to apartheid. The company also went on tours of Western Europe. (Eoan was certainly not the only group used by the South African regime in this way, of course.)

For Eoan’s critics, the group had gone too far with compromises. The coloured middle classes, whose best qualities Eoan claimed to represent, now despised the group: Most coloureds that cared or noticed (especially the literary elites, political activists, andthe professional classes) now openly resented Eoan.

In 1956, the writer Alex la Guma (charged with treason that same year in a mass trial which included Nelson Mandela) wrote a letter to Eoan about receiving government funding to perform to segregated audiences:

People can … conclude, therefore, that the Eoan Group supports Apartheid. In fact, the whole idea remains one of the slave period when the farmers hired Coloureds to perform for them, their masters. Today in the 20th century we do not recognize the white man as our master. This is the land of our birth and we demand government support for ALL cultural movements. BUT WITHOUT APARTHEID STRINGS (La Guma’s emphasis).

By the late 1970s, most patrons had deserting Eoan’s shows. Opponents like the South African Council on Sports (they concerned themselves with more than games), was openly calling on people to boycott Eoan. In 1979, SACOS, who championed the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society,” in a piece of Gramscian theater, declared Eoan a “banned organization.”

Alex La Guma and SACOS—which between them represented competing strands of antiapartheid organizational politics—had a point. During Apartheid, the National Party worked hard to court moderate coloureds as a buffer against African demands. Some coloureds were willing participants in these schemes. The belief among some coloureds to see white people as their natural allies and patrons, of course date back further and implicates slavery, colonialism, mission Christianity, and various government “reforms.” However, throughout South African history, this hardly paid off: social conditions for the majority of coloureds approximated those of their African neighbors. Nevertheless, this paternalism stuck and may also explain why most coloured voters relate to white parties in the city and the Western Cape province. By the late 1950s, Eoan were thus charter members of divide-and-conquer policies.

It can be very difficult for someone with little or no time or even any understanding of the nuances of race, politics and identity in Cape Town to fully grasp the conundrum of groups like Eoan Group and its achievements and controversies. It also doesn’t help that Eoan is a part of a past that few want to revisit in South Africa.

This is why the appearance of a book (Eoan: Our Story) and a film (An Inconsolable Memory) about Eoan is a significant event. “An Inconsolable Memory” and “Eoan: Our Story” both trace their origins to about 100 odd containers and 75 folders filled with documents and information donated by the Eoan Group to Stellenbosch University. From these documents, the university created an Eoan Archive in its Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS). A group of mostly white researchers sifted through the documents and looked into the prospect of publishing a book out of all this. DOMUS staff were joined on a steering committee by Ronald Samaai, the brother of a former Eoan Group member, and Ruth Viljoen, the widow of Eoan baritone, Lionel Fourie. The filmmaker Aryan Kaganof was invited to film the proceedings and go along on interviews.

The film and book set out to tell the story of the surviving Eoan group members.

The material in the book and film often overlap, with the book sometimes serving as a written transcript for the film.

“Eoan: Our Story” (the book) is organized into themed sections (“Beginnings,” “In Rehearsal,” “Playing Roles,” “Final Curtain,” etcetera). Conversations jump back and forth over time. Much of it is verbatim testimony by Eoan members compiled during interviews (45 in total). However, there’s little context, except for brief descriptions by the editors. This may be consistent with the book’s stated objective to let the Eoan members speak (“our story”), but leaves the reader in the dark about the weight of certain decisions or events. Everything is important and we just have to trust the editors.

Most Eoan members insist they only wanted to practice their art and could care less for “politics” (whether for or against Apartheid). They want to remember a time of glamorous costumes, triumphs and the occasional stage mishap. In general they are proud of the group’s legacy. Some read a progressive legacy into the past: In Eoan they could stop being, say factory- or dockworkers. Talent was what mattered.

Not surprisingly, the resistance and condemnation they faced for taking Apartheid’s money or playing to segregated audiences, still hurt. They want recognition for their efforts. They want people to see that they could perform and that they could create art regardless. For them, being black or coloured, had nothing to do with their abilities or talents. They were also acutely aware of the limitations of Apartheid. They don’t remember their involvement as transgression or collaboration.

Occasionally, some of them recognize the charged environment within which they operated, including within the group itself. Many of them point to slights at the hands of the conductor Manca and other white teachers at Eoan. Manca, for example, discouraged coloured chorus members from learning how to read music, and one of the Eoan trainers, the soprano Emma Renzi, to this day disparages Joseph Gabriels as a “little Cape coloured” who only got invited to sing at the Met in New York City because of his likeness to the more famous Enrico Caruso. That Gabriels enjoyed a fairly stable and successful career in Europe escapes her.

But what seems to hurt (and rankle) surviving Eoan Group members more was the criticism they got from other coloureds. Eoan members relied on the “community” to reinforce their sense of themselves; to validate them and when that validation was withdrawn—slowly from the 1950s onwards–they suffered.

The twin effects of the “testimonies” in the book and the film are that it is hard to deny the coloured members of Eoan the pleasure of wanting to produce and practice their art given the oppression of their daily lives. It wasn’t like they had the pick of opera companies; and until the mid-1980s, they could not perform in whites-only opera houses and theaters. By the time political freedom arrived in 1994 many of them were retired or had died (Gordon Jephtas died in New York City in 1992). They were too old to enjoy freedom.

Between the book and the film, it’s Kaganof’s approach that points to more promising possibilities for getting at some of the unease and murk associated with Eoan. The Stellenbosch researchers probably felt the same way as they indicate in the front of the book. (“And then there was (Kaganof’s) presence behind the camera: filming, moving, filming, winking, filming, laughing soundlessly. How much of what transpired was directed by Aryan Kaganof? I suspect more than we think.”) Kaganof’s film makes you wonder whether documentary film is better suited at getting at our fragmented, complicated pasts. In an interview after I read the book and watched the film, Kaganof told me that “… the film permits itself certain territory that is forbidden to the book. The nature of the academic contract locks the book into the terms of the release form. The film operates outside of that contract and hence shows us that, perhaps, ‘official’ history is only part of the story, and perhaps the least interesting part.”

Kaganof’s film opens with this message: “Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even at the archive, but rather at the word memory…” The emphasis in the film will thus be on fragmented memories. The pace is deliberately show and long, uninterrupted, shots dwell on interviewees as they read the release form for example or offer him tea in mostly overstuffed living rooms (the film also gives a sense of the class politics of Eoan). Kaganof is always present in the film. You see or hear him occasionally as he prompts interviews and in the editing choices he makes.

Then there are the lengthy archival sequences of District Six—mostly street scenes, people milling about or hanging over balconies of run-down tenements, and of children playing among ruins. The overriding sense is one of poverty and neglect. These scenes are overlaid with original recordings by Eoan’s opera company. I counted a total of about 30 minutes worth of these scenes. Some elements in these scenes are often repeated. Three shots in particular: the first is of a (white?) man, probably a security policeman, loafing around a street and who looks straight the camera; and the second, footage that Kaganof shot of a white homeless man lingering outside the Cape Town City Hall (where Eoan performed during Apartheid) as well-dressed patrons arrive for some performance. These shots are jarring—they are the only shots of whites in the film despite the heavy footprint of whites on how Apartheid worked—and you can’t help noticing that. Finally, there’s a slowed-down sequence of a bulldozer about to demolish a house. The sense of loss, anger and disorientation produced by these scenes stays with the viewer for a while after. In contrast, the book has a breezy quality to it in the way it presents the testimony of Eoan group members.

There’s a moment in the film, right at the end, where Ada Jansen, a key organizer for the Eoan Group mentioned earlier, asks Kaganof to put off the camera and he doesn’t and she gives her most honest answer about how people felt about Eoan: “They (other coloured people) hated us for being collaborators.” In this moment, Jansen comes across as proud of what she did, unrepentant and resigned about her position. But also hurt and coming to terms with that past. It is quite revealing. One can debate Kaganof’s ethics and whether it was justified to reveal the truth, but it gets at some of the questions any person interested in Eoan may want to broach or are fascinated by.

One thing the film and the book made me think about is that there must be more productive ways to write or think about black people whose lives or work were compromised by colonialism or Apartheid in South Africa. The popular, default position is usually to label the most disgraced amongst them as traitors or quislings. Some within the ANC and the United Democratic Front publicly promoted singling out and shaming collaborators. In extreme forms, collaborators were executed (e.g. municipal policemen, Askaris, informants) or their houses firebombed or burned down. Sometimes they or their families were shunned or worse physically attacked or murdered. Of course, some black people compromised by Apartheid (homeland leaders, tricameral politicians), were “rehabilitated,” with a number of them even turning up later as ANC MPs in a postapartheid parliament. But in general, the compromised have been written out of history through a mix of shame and a tendency to focus only on those who individually resisted the system. Curiously, the tainted ones end up in a worse place than that reserved for whites, the beneficiaries of those systems.

In a new article in The American Historical Review, the U.S. historian Dan Magaziner (he has previously written a book about South Africa’s black consciousness movement) tackles some of the puzzles thrown up by this history. Specifically Magaziner writes about a group of black South African art teachers (products of Ndaleni, a legendary all-black art institution in Kwazulu-Natal) who worked in racially segregated schools after the imposition of Apartheid.

In Magaziner’s telling these teachers attempted to carve out their independence, producing art that went against state directives, while in the process training generations of black artists and art teachers. Yet by the 1980s, many of them were ostracized, and in extreme cases paid with their lives (one of them, working in the Ciskei Bantustan in 1980, was murdered by his own students who identified him as a direct representative of the oppressive state).

Magaziner concludes that for historians it is important to recognize what kinds of lives were possible for these art teachers. “The state, its educationists and their racialist ideologies were (the) reality (of these teachers) and limited the form of their lives. So they chiseled that reality and tried to make something beautiful of it.”

Yet Magaziner argues that to reduce these art teachers, and others in their position, to history’s victims—“to dwell on such cold, objective facts”—also denies them “the dialogue with reality that constituted the art of their lives.” Magaziner’s solution is to pursue the “echo” of Ndaleni: “a distortion in time, voices that do not say exactly what we expect to hear and whose sense we struggle to discern.” As Magaziner writes about one of his subjects: the challenge is to see “the complexity of his experience, the fine-grained, everyday negotiations of satisfaction and struggle that doubtlessly marked his life.”

Chances are appreciation, and a more critical understanding of Eoan will probably grow if this book and film gets a wider distribution (though the latter is unlikely) and when historians (and other researchers) revisit the social life of black people under colonialism and Apartheid.

The best contrast to Eoan’s fate is how African American performers of the Jim Crow and segregation eras are viewed now than when they played for segregated audiences in America’s clubs and theaters, donned blackface or performed humiliating sketches on radio, television and in film. For example, later generations of civil rights campaigners despised the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong, for his bug-eyed performances in front of white audiences and trips on behalf of the US State Department in the 1960s to counter Soviet criticism of persistent racism in the United States against blacks. (Armstrong, also controversially, performed in blackface as “King of the Zulus” in the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras.) Malcolm X said of Butterfly McQueen, a black actress who played a servile maid in “Gone with the Wind”: “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.”

However, with time, some of these same critics have been kinder to performers like Armstrong, 1920s singer Bert Williams (he performed in blackface in minstrel shows) or Butterfly McQueen. Armstrong, for example, it turns out often veered off script during those State Department trips and quietly supported the legal defenses of civil rights campaigners.

Yet, for all this, we can’t help but feel uncomfortable with groups like Eoan that made major compromises with Apartheid. At the same time we have to recognize that there weren’t any easy good choices for blacks living under Apartheid who wanted to be creative. Yes, there were artists who resisted heroically and who suffered greatly for it. But as someone who doesn’t want to suffer in his own life (and I lived my formative years under that system), I find it hard to expect anyone else to do it. The fact that the choices were either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of Apartheid. Why should blacks always have to be so much better than everybody else?

The Rusty and Golden Radiators are back!

The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), the organization responsible for the brilliant Africa for Norway campaign, is back with their annual awards for the worst and best fundraising videos by international development organizations:

…and, like last year, Africa is a Country is on the jury! Judging for the Rusty and Golden Radiator Awards will commence soon, however we need your help dear Africa is a Country readers.

The committee is still looking for nominations, so if you have any ideas please share it in the comments on this post, or if you prefer, submit directly via email here: For inspiration, check out last year’s winners on the Rusty Radiator Awards website.

#SAHipHop2014: Rapper Flex Boogie Live At Fingo Festival

As member of the hip-hop quartet Ba4za, Hakeem Lesolang presided over one of the most fertile yet under-appreciated eras in South African hip-hop. Capcity Rapcity as it was referred to by the bundles of heads scattered across Mzansi, fed our collective appetites the fuzzy memories of yester-year hip-hop through a steady stream of boom-bap rap music.

Flex Boogie is the artist that emerged when Hakeem decided to explore what lay beyond the jazz-leaning loops and banging drums characterized by production from the likes of Nyambz.

His career took a fashion-conscious direction, a decision which had the unintended consequence of giving him the distinction of the largest fedora hat-collecting rapper in the country. It’s the tenth year since Ba4za’s introduction to the South African hip-hop scene. The four Muslims – two brothers named Malik and Muhajir, and Hakeem and Abdul Qadir – still maintain a strong brotherhood but haven’t recorded music collectively in years.

Flex Boogie is growing his network as an independent artist. He had performances lined up for the full duration of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and shall soon be on a tour which will have him play dates in London, New York, and the UAE.

This is what he had to say post his performance on the second last day of the Fingo Festival.

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

The great Thomas Sankara was murdered on this day 27 years ago

It is the 27th anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara, and once again we mark the passing of one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary in the last years of the Cold War, a Pan-Africanist when the Pan-African project was at its lowest ebb, a committed feminist long before so-called “global civil society” started to preach about “empowerment” of women, a leader who sought to organize the uplift of a whole society long before elites began to boast about “Africa Rising”.

Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading. Here’s what Fela Anikulapo Kuti (don’t let anyone colonize Fela btw) said after Sankara’s death:

“His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad (Long silence) but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders.”

You can look at Blaise Compaore’s record in power since Sankara’s murder, and decide for yourself if he’s a “bad leader”. Back in 2008, AIAC life-president Sean Jacobs remembered Sankara in the Guardian. Here’s a snippet (read the whole thing):

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.

We remembered Sankara last year and called for a great political biopic to be made that could fire the contemporary political imagination:

A revolutionary leader possessed of a towering intellect and extraordinary magnetism, Sankara had rejected the orthodoxies that still today ensure that African nations are structurally dependent on old colonial powers and their global financial institutions.

Like Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Steve Biko, Sankara’s appeal (to young people in particular) has endured precisely because his transgressive radical politics have proved impossible to subsume within a liberal narrative which is all about the heroism of moderation and non-violence and is in fact predicated on deep racist anxieties. Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela were treated as dangerous pariahs by the Western establishment, but in time their histories have been absorbed in popular culture within a bland politics of respectability based on non-racialism and willingness to compromise.

A Thomas Sankara biopic would work partly because there is no white man in this story (except the various shadowy figures of Francafrique). In “Cry Freedom” (1987) Richard Attenborough managed to present Steve Biko’s life as a story in which the hero is white.

There’s the Shakespearian denouement of the trusted lieutenant (Blaise Compaoré) murdering his great friend, usurping his position and tearing up Sankara’s great social project.

But we don’t want to see a film about what might have been, however seductive that aspect of Burkina Faso’s history is. The point is that Sankara’s visionary politics of African sovereignty and unity — like Lumumba’s — remain as impossible today as they were within the context of international affairs towards the end of the Cold War.

We want to see a film showing Sankara’s commitment to feminism and women’s rights, his environmental projects against desertification in the Sahel, his reform of traditional leadership; a film about how his rejection of “support” from the World Bank and IMF enabled a project of galvanizing Burkinabe society that is unimaginable today where these structures of dependency and Western control have come to be the “common sense” basis for all politics in countries like Burkina Faso.

The best film about Sankara is a fantastic 2006 documentary, “The Upright Man” by Robin Shuffield. Watch the whole thing here:

It’s also well worth your time watching Sankara’s famous speech “Against Debt”:

Finally, here’s his unforgettable speech in Harlem, New York:

[Image at the top of this post is piece of artwork by Jona Ras Tarzan]

AIAC Music Revue: Is DJ Lewis’s “Stop Ebola” his “Grippe Aviaire” pt. 2?

DJ Lewis recently released a “Stop Ebola” song and video that reminds me of “Grippe Aviaire”, a song he released during the global Bird Flu pandemic some years ago:

As I mentioned in my Cultural Anthropology contribution, “Grippe Aviaire” was more making fun of the disease, with a popular dance mocking the bird’s behavior more than trying to be educational about it. Perhaps that’s principally why Lewis’s attempt at an Ebola awareness song doesn’t sit quite right with me. Sure, there’s a cute no touching dance, but it all seems a little too playful, not really effective in any attempt to sensitize audiences. Plus, with all the fuss made over the role of traditional healers in the initial spread of Ebola, what’s the meaning of the last part of the video?

To be honest, most coupé-décalé artists would be too decadent (in their regularly scheduled programming) for this kind of message to be taken seriously by audiences anyway. Tiken Jah Fakoly summed this view up pretty nicely in an interview with Afropop in 2011, when he was asked about his role as a voice for the oppressed:

Yes, it is very hard. It is not easy but I chose it. I chose to do reggae music so I have to do this. If I didn’t want to, then I should’ve chosen “coupé-décalé” or something (laughs). For me reggae music is a fight, it is a mission so it’s not easy but it is our mission.

DJ Arafat and Soum Bill are two of the artists I have seen make sincerely socially conscious coupé-décalé, and I do believe coupé decalé is political in an “Of mimicry and membership” kind of way. But DJ Lewis kind of comes off as more of an opportunist in this case than anything else. Siddhartha sent over some great insight about the larger context of the genre after visiting Abidjan this year:

The bigger context here on the music side is that coupé-décalé is pretty stale at this point. It’s been around for 10 years now which is a long time for a style that isn’t exactly built on complex messaging. And coupé-décalé is fun but it’s derivative to begin with (of Congolese music and party style in particular). So DJ Lewis is also coasting on past glory here, not just the glory of his (awesome) Grippe Aviaire song, but the glory of the whole genre.

In Abidjan last January I didn’t hear a ton of coupé-décalé. I mean, it was there in the background, and I wasn’t really in the clubs (I did go to a few smaller, “bar-climatisé” spots, but they had mostly Congolese music on, and also some Naija jams) so I didn’t have a full panoramic view, but still, it feels like the genre is long past its prime.

Meanwhile zouglou which has been left for dead on previous occasions is chugging along, probably because it has more to say. But there’s space for a new Ivorian party music to rise up, for sure.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Jahmil X.T. Qubeka

The South African filmmaker and screenwriter Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who made his feature film directorial debut with the stylish noir, “A Small Town Called Descent“. has over a decade long career spanning an entire spectrum of styles and genres. His documentary and feature film work has enjoyed screenings at various prestigious international film festivals i.a. Rotterdam Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival, Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival, Cannes Film Market and Stockholm Film Festival. In 2005 “Talk to Me”, a documentary on HIV/Aids which Qubeka directed for Sesame Street, won several awards, among them the prestigious Peabody Award for best actuality programming. Follow him on Twitter here.

What is your first film memory?

I was six years old in1985, residing in Mdantsane Township, in the then “Republic” of Ciskei. One day my father brought home a VHS machine and two flicks. One was a spaghetti western called The Unholy Four by Enzo Barboni and the other was a kung fu picture called Little Superman by See-Yuen Ng. He arrived with them quite early in the day and just left the package without connecting anything.  Having gone back to work he left me reeling with curiosity and anticipation for his return. All I had to work with was the two movies’ covers. I must have spent the better part of the day ogling the artwork. I was so enthralled by the premise and promise of the films’ cover art that I started imagining what would happen in each film. I played out both films in my head purely based on the artwork presented. By the time my father came home, he found me passed out on the floor by the TV with two VHS tapes clutched in my arms. Point of the story is that I fell in love with film iconography way before I had even watched a film.   

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

When I was eleven or so I came to the conclusion that cinema and making movies was the definitive form of artistic expression of the 21st Century and I was going to be Africa’s answer to Steven Spielberg.  I remember stumbling across a behind-the-scenes video-diary made by my then all-round boyhood-hero, Mel Gibson during the filming of Franco Zifferelli‘s Hamlet. The video enlightened me to the process of making a picture and the intensity of the transformation actors often have to undergo when taking on major roles.  For me it was the ultimate form of storytelling, the absolute pinnacle of expression because it somehow encompassed the other mediums such as writing and music.

Which film do you wish you had made?

Hands down, it has to be Oliver Stone‘s Alexander. Not because I like the film, but because it’s such a missed opportunity. I readMary Renault‘s The Alexander Trilogy  a few years before the film was made. It is such a sweeping yet accessible epic that I was totally enamored by it. For years I fantasized about directing it. For one thing I wanted to do it in Alexander’ smother tongue and not in English. The film was such a let down and it drove home the sad fact that such an epic could never be realized without it being in English and having a peroxided, over-age Irish superstar play an ancient Macedonian Conquerer.

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

John Slesinger‘s Midnight Cowboy is definately one of my all-time favourites. I came  to it quite late. For a very long time it was one of those classics that you should have seen but I just never got around to doing it. When I finally took the plunge it was love at first sight. What a perfect picture, in every way. Performances, script, direction, cinematography, editing. Everything is on point in this film. It set a very high standard that I will always measure my work by.

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

‘Are you an African Filmmaker or a filmmaker who is African?’ I consider myself to be the latter.  I’m driven by the art of storytelling, therefore my context is African but my language is global. When I write I aim to connect with humanity  not just a particular group. I’m fascinated by what makes us the same rather than what sets us apart.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here. Picture Credit: Timmy Henny for the National Arts Festival.

The majority of Burkinabé favor progressive change on gender rights

For those interested in gender equality, women’s rights, and even women’s power, these are heady day on the African continent. In Tanzania, a Constitutional Assembly has sent forth a proposed new Constitution that would codify “equal citizenship rights” for women, including the right to own land, the ability to bestow citizenship on their children, equal employment rights and maternity leave. It would also define children as those under 18, which would go a long way to outlawing so-called child marriages. It also proposes 50/50 representation in decision-making bodies. Meanwhile, in Kenya, the National Gender and Equality Commission is formulating a gender policy that will be used to guide the two-thirds gender rule in public institutions. The 2010 Constitution mandated that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies, including the National Assembly, could be of the same gender. In 2012 the Supreme Court of Kenya upheld the constitutionality of this provision, and then proceeded to strengthen it.

And in Burkina Faso, people, a lot of people, are demanding and working toward formal and real gender equality.

Afrobarometer recently released a study suggesting that a majority of Burkinabé think that, while progress has been made on gender equality, they want much more to be done. When presented with a choice between “equal rights and … the same treatment” or “traditional laws and customs”, 69% preferred the former. 39% strongly favored equal rights and the same treatment for men and women. Burkinabé were presented with the following scenario: “If funds for schooling are limited, a boy should always receive an education in school before a girl” or “If funds for schooling are limited, a family should send the child with the greatest ability to learn.” 66% supported sending the child with the greatest ability. 41% strongly favored sending the child with the greatest ability, and, to be clear, 43% of male respondents felt that way. 67% of respondents felt that women should have the same chance of being elected to public office as men. 57% thought traditional leaders treat women unequally. A majority felt that the police, courts and employers are treating women more or less equally.

For Afrobarometer, this is an example of the aspirational power of a Constitution. The First Article of the Constitution of Burkina Faso reads: “All the Burkinabé are born free and equal in rights. All have an equal vocation to enjoy all the rights and all the freedoms guaranteed by this Constitution. Discrimination of all sorts, notably those founded on race, ethnicity, region, color, sex, language, religion, caste, political opinions, wealth and birth, are prohibited.” That Constitution was first passed in 1991, and, through the various amendment cycles, that article has remained untouched. The power of that Constitution is in its capacity to enable the citizenry to continually strive to expand their rights and improve their collective situation. For Augustin Loada, the author of the Afrobarometer study, the implications of his findings are pretty straightforward. The majority of Burkinabé favor progressive change on the gender front, the government should catch the wave and invest more in promoting gender equality, in particular among traditional leaders. In Burkina Faso, a majority of people seem to feel the time is ripe, a quiet decades long revolution in gender equality could be coming to fruition.

Photo Credit: Julien Falissard on Flickr.

LagosPhoto is Five Years Old

Four years ago I interviewed Azu Nwagbogu, director of Lagos-based African Artists’ Foundation and the annual photography festival LagosPhoto. At the time the interview appeared in Guernica, LagosPhoto had just finished its second year and Nwagbogu’s ambitions for photography in Africa’s most populous country were still developing. On the occasion of LagosPhoto’s five-year anniversary, I spoke to Azu again to get a sense of how far the festival has come and how much work there is left to do. 


It’s been five years since the first LagosPhoto. You’ve written “one of our stated goals was to establish a community for contemporary photography which will unite local and international artists through images that encapsulate individual experiences and identities from across all of Africa.” How do you feel about that statement now, after four years of shows covering a wide range of topics?

We were never going to achieve that after the first edition nor would we after the 5th.  It is one of those goals institutions have to ensure that you never stop searching, striving, seeking because once the goal is fully attained then there’s nothing more to be done.

About the progress? We’ve set a standard for local and international artists, photographers interested in working in Nigeria and Africa, and we’ve demonstrated that there is a need and interest in well-thought-through photographic projects that do not hold up the usual stereotypes.

Also, one of the best things you can do as a facilitator is to give people the opportunity to create. I’m not the one creating these things, but when you get people like yourself or Mario Macilau, Chantal Heijnen, Glenna Gordon, Peter DiCampo, George Osodi, Andrew Esiebo, Nana Kofi Acquah, Akintunde Akinleye together, in the same space at the same time, then you can get things that are powerful and useful, like Everyday Africa on Instagram, for example. Everyday Africa led to Everyday Asia, Everyday ME and Everyday Whatever. It is actually because LagosPhoto, I imagine, provided that platform for people like Peter and Austin Merill, photojournalists and photo-enthusiasts who have an interest in Africa to unite and to support their interest with the capacity and ability.

The Everyday movement really took off because not only are these photojournalists giving commentary of Africa that is unusual, but also they engage people like Nana Kofi Acquah and Andrew Esiebo and other local photographers. All of these guys first met at LagosPhoto. We’re not trying to control it or dictate it because we don’t have the capacity to do all of that. But what we can do is get the right people in the room, then open the door after a while, and things happen.

In the second year we had an open call for entry, so the curatorial team actually selected work based on potential. And we’d like to think that our judgment was right, because a lot of the individuals we invited four years ago, three years ago, were not even on the radar, but today they are taken seriously as photojournalists and artists. We can be proud of that achievement.

It’s important for me to think of LagosPhoto as a platform for people to dialogue. Last year we launched a photo book project. Photo books I believe are crucial in evolving contemporary photography on the continent because it gives photographers a real target beyond “What magazine am I going to get this work published in?” or “Who is going to show this work in a gallery?” or whatever else it is. You have a target that is very personal. But technical expertise in doing this is crucial. You don’t want to say “I’m making a photo book” because you have InDesign for your pictures. We got Teun van der Heijden to come to Lagos and he gave a workshop and met with local photographers. I believe he also met with Bisi Silva of CCA whilst in Lagos and I’m happy that there will be a quality world-class monograph on J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, based on a retrospective of his work.

Anoek Steketee & Eefje Blankevoort

How has photography in Nigeria changed in the course of five years?

It has exploded. I think photography in Nigeria has become so powerful and important to many more people. Access to it has been made easier with smart phones and more affordable cameras too. The cultural landscape of Nigeria is so vast now. We’ve got music, literature, film, performance, photography and the plastic arts in general booming. And there isn’t a creative expression or medium or genre that photography does not do justice to, grant depth to, explore; that it does not illuminate, does not inform.

Photographers are now playing a more active role in the creative industry, in the creative space, and saying “I’ve got the idea to make your work important or to give it deeper penetration,” and this has improved since LagosPhoto. The role of photography in contemporary culture was somehow relegated. I think that photography is embracing contemporary culture; contemporary culture is embracing photography. And this is empowering and providing opportunities for local photographers. Do not get me wrong: all of this existed before LagosPhoto, but I believe the festival has been a catalyst.

Bayo Omoboriowo - Red Gold

What are some of the obstacles to the expansion of photography?

As a general rule I only think about obstacles when we can create an intervention. We need a physical space where photographers can meet and get information, get books, a learning center for photography like a media center.

There needs to be a space in Lagos like FOAM in Amsterdam or the ICP in New York or the Photographer’s Gallery in London. LagosPhoto happens for only a month. That month has amazing possibilities and ramifications but if we had a physical space that was dedicated to photography and we were able to do all of things that we want to do like bimonthly exhibitions, workshops round the year, then we would be able to empower a lot more photographers. We would have a better discourse between local and international photographers on a year-round basis. And the infrastructure to do that is important. AAF has been able to manage to this alongside our other projects but at this point a clear disambiguation and demarcation of resources is necessary.

Another issue that requires an intervention is the problem of archives. There are extant images that relate to Nigeria and Africa from nearly 200 years up to 30 years ago that are rapidly deteriorating and not properly archived. Restoring, indexing and archiving these images is crucial and urgent. I went to the National Museum and they are in plastic bags. The heat emanating from the bags is deteriorating the film. This is a terrible situation. We want to be able to archive all of these images and keep them because they are part of our national history and heritage.

Bayo Omoboriowo

I remember at the launch of the World Press Photo exhibition at Freedom Park a photographer came up to AAF staff and complained that there were no Nigerians in the exhibition, asking why are you just promoting foreigners? Do you feel like expectations in Nigeria are difficult to live up to?

It’s a number of things. The first and most important thing is education. AAF is open to everybody, but people are intimidated to walk through the doors because they think it’s elitist and that we’re exclusive. But our doors are open: they are never locked. We welcome everyone. The second problem is people parroting. A lot of people just basically rehash something they’ve heard someone say. They’re wearing their opinions like it’s fashion. They haven’t understood that you have to apply for World Press to get selected for World Press, and that we do not decide who gets selected as winners in any of all the categories on exhibit.

Nigeria has over 5,000 photographers working part time or full time. But each year we never get more than 30 Nigerians applying for World Press. This year there were 10 or 11, last year there were maybe 8. Then you have India with 200, 300 people. You have the US, with 1000 people applying in different categories. So they don’t understand the way it works in the first instance. But someone has said to them, don’t mind AAF, AAF is only about foreigners. We need time to make them aware of what we’re trying to do.

Sometimes with LagosPhoto people say we don’t show enough Nigerians. And I say well, that’s up to you guys, that’s not just up to LagosPhoto. Contemporary visual culture isn’t relative: it is vicious, relentless, and reductive. You have to do your part. The world is shrinking around us. Your work should be good enough to stand up to scrutiny in Lagos as it is in London, Paris, New York and wherever there is an interest to view. This is the loudest criticism leveled against LagosPhoto and the crowd rarely ever sings out of tune.

We’re going to give you the tools to develop your craft and your art but we will not show your work just because we have an obligation to show Nigerians. I don’t think in that way, I don’t believe in it. I think we do an injustice to the George Osodis and the Akintunde Akinleyes, the Nigerians we’ve exhibited, if we support the view of people who say: “well, we’ve got to show these Nigerians with inferior work because they are Nigerians.” The other guys are working hard and we show them. So you want to be like them, work hard. It’s right there for you, it is up to you. But we don’t do so in isolation, we do it with the right sort of support.

We have many layers of support for Nigerian photographers. Right at the elementary level, we teach photography in schools, in secondary schools. We have an intervention in Makoko, in Mushin, in schools where they have no art training. We have interventions in universities, we have “The Maker,” where we invite young people to come and we have workshops for them. Most of the workshops we organize are free. The most relevant names in contemporary photography come to give workshops to help support their own industry.

Cristina de Middel 2

Today the dominant news narrative in West Africa is the Ebola virus epidemic. How do you see coverage of Ebola affecting images of Nigeria and Africa in general?

With every story, you have the start, you have the middle and you have the closure. And if you’re not in charge of your story, you cannot narrate your experience. The Ebola story in Nigeria is actually a brilliant example of lack of proper communication, lack of proper story-telling. Because if you tell the Ebola story in any accurate fashion, you will understand that there are so many heroes within this story. That Nigeria is more or less free of Ebola is due to a few people, and this story needs to be heard. The doctor who insisted that the Liberian patient not leave the hospital, she saved countless lives by her actions, and unfortunately she lost her life in the process. She followed best practice in public health guidelines for cases of infectious and communicable diseases. This is what I’m talking about, empowering local photographers, local journalists, training them in best practices, following the story.

There are so many heroes in this story. But as I say, we’re not telling our own story. We’re not telling it in a way that people have confidence in our system. So the story is going to be told with a tainted brush where people blend Nigeria with Guinea, with Sierra Leone, with Liberia—and it’s too much, just call it West Africa. “Ebola is ravaging West Africa.” The sad thing is that it is not constructive and the learning points are lost with this lazy narrative.

If we were controlling our own narratives, the world would have a lot more confidence in our health professionals, despite our failing healthcare system—they will understand that we are able to deal with it. That’s the thing about Nigeria; we are able to rise to the occasion when the chips are down. We have a population of people who are always willing to rise to a challenge, always willing to push the envelope. And this is the kind of story we should have been celebrating rather than all the money that has been lost, all the business that has been lost.

Governor Fashola’s intervention has been remarkable. You talk about images, he posed with the Ebola survivors, people who actually had Ebola and recovered. He took group pictures with them. They shook hands. That image has done more for businesses and the image of Nigeria, than anyone can quantify.

Cristina de Middel

Why are other people still controlling the narrative?

In truth, we need to reformat our thinking. We need to start thinking African; we need to start thinking from within. We can learn a lot from China, Japan or from more insular countries about how you retain your own culture whilst getting the best from the rest. That’s what innovation is about: you borrow the best ideas, but you imbibe yours to make it your own. But here we discard ours and we just swallow hook, line and sinker the ones from the West, and it doesn’t help us. We need to be innovative and creative. We keep our own things and we get the best tools, the best brains. And until we do that and build capacity, this is going to be the same story. And it’s not just photography, it’s in movies, it’s in music, it’s in lifestyle, it’s in fashion, it’s in everything. Our identity is evolving but we need it to evolve in a way that we can understand and in a way that is authentic, intelligible and coherent.


The topic for 2015 is “Documenting Fiction.” Why is it important to include narratives of fiction and fantasy?

Because we feel like we have made gains in other areas but imagination has been discouraged (in Nigeria). Imagination is the first step in creativity. If we’re going to create any kind of intervention, if we’re going to have a better future, we need to stimulate our minds. I think stories that are more fantastical can be just as informative as what we call reality. A lot of what we learn in the world about our culture is through fiction—fiction in literature, in music, in drama, in poetry and in photography. It’s important for us to allow our minds to run wild a little.

Hollywood is America’s biggest cultural export. So you can imagine that Nollywood is ours as well because Nollywood is huge all over Africa and even parts of your ‘hood in Brooklyn. But what are we really exporting? Are we exporting our culture? No, we’re exporting borrowed fetish culture that is not based on any reality on the ground here. So a lot of people you meet from the West or from Cameroon or other African countries, they’ll tell you that Nigeria is such a fetish country from looking at Nollywood; it’s all superstition, it’s all wickedness, it’s all adultery.

So we’re promoting something that’s actually not an accurate representation because we’re not conscious of its power. And this is the thing: when we become conscious of its power then we can begin to create a new narrative. More fantasy, more fiction, more stories that are based on things we can imagine to improve our welfare and our well-being.

Image Credits: (1) and ( 2) “Turn It Up” by Jide Odukoya; (3) Anoek Steketee and Eefje Blankevoort; (4) and (5)  “Red Gold” by Bayo Omoboriowo; (6) and (7) Cristina de Middel; (8) “Nigerian Punishments” by

Ebola in Perspective: The role of popular music in crisis situations in West Africa

Cultural Anthropology published a series of articles last week called “Ebola in Perspective.” Curated by Danny Hoffman and Mary Moran, two experts on crisis in the Mano River region, the series is an attempt to give deeper insight into international crises making headlines today. I contributed my own entry looking at the role of popular music in crisis situations in West Africa, and the specific types of songs that have come out of the Ebola crisis:

If there was ever a barometer for the mood of the people towards a specific event, outbreak, or crisis in West Africa it would have to be popular music. The Mano River War in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Guinea was exemplary of this. During the war, music took on a central role as a form of expression, escape, information sharing, and political contestation for average people on the ground. The post-war period in Sierra Leone and Liberia especially saw short but intense music industry booms directly related to the nation-building process. A host of factors influences such creative booms in West Africa. Not only do social factors lend themselves to the need for the young and marginalized populations to express themselves but also the proliferation of recordings has been assisted by the advent of digital recording technology and digital distribution forms via the Internet and mobile phone technology. In the age of the mp3, broadband, Youtube, and Soundcloud, any outside observer can see the mood and opinions of local communities reflected in real time. In the case of Ebola, such real time transfer of information in the form of popular media is able to give outsiders a more in-depth perspective on the general population’s sensitization to and feelings about the disease, as well as giving locals an important platform to be heard from.

Although things are moving so fast that some of my song samples may already be a bit “out-dated,” finish reading “Beats, Rhymes, and Ebola” on the Hot Spots website, and check out some of the songs referenced and more below:

Shadow’s famous “Ebola Coming” out of Liberia:

Senegal’s rap superstars with a sensitizing message:

Sierra Leone’s Black Nature with a prayer home:

Diaspora based Liberians Mr. Monrovia, AG DA Profit, and DDDYCool with a political take:

Sierra Leone’s Kao Denero with both a prayer and a political message:

Cote D’Ivoire keeps with it’s strong tradition of socially conscious reggae:

Just out this week, Takun J gets political on Rasta Beach in Monrovia:

Xuman does a Rihanna parody:

And finally, for fans of @Futbolsacountry, Liberian football superstar George Weah does his part on a pan-African sounding tune:

Africa is a Radio: Episode 6

(photo via NBC news)

Africa is a Radio episode 6 opens up with a transnational blend, combining remixes of Dotorado Pro’s “African Scream” with its sample source: DJ Sbu & Zahara’s “Lengoma.” From there we travel around the world -from Ferguson to Havana to Monrovia- touching on the sonic imprints of the contemporary news cycle. We end on a lighter, danceable note.

Israel’s arms exports to African countries has more than doubled

Despite an overall drastic decline in Israeli arms exports, trade with Africa had reached a four-year record, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Interestingly, African countries spent $223 million on Israeli arms in 2013 compared to $107 million in 2012.

The report that was given to Haaretz by the Israeli Defence Ministry doesn’t detail specific countries so there is no official comprehensive information on which country imported how much and what. Despite past demands and petitions Israel refuses to reveal the full list of the countries it sells arms to. As Haaretz reported in January 2014, when ordered by an Israeli court, Israel’s Defence Ministry would only reveal that it had sold arms in 2011-12 to the United States, Spain, Kenya, Britain and South Korea, “but its other customers can’t be named.” As Haaretz pointed out at the time, this was “like a bad joke. First, the ministry itself boasts of the great achievements of Israel’s defense industry and the billions of dollars of business it does worldwide. Second, every international defense journal or website reports at length on the deals of Israel’s defense companies.”  In addition, a 2013 British government report was very detailed about Israel’s customer list:

The British report, covering the years 2008-12, listed India, Singapore, Turkey, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Portugal, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Holland, Italy, Germany, Spain, Thailand, Macedonia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, Ecuador, Mexico, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Argentina and Egypt as Israeli customers. Even countries that have no official relations with Israel appeared on the list: Pakistan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. The report also said Britain refused to approve components for products destined for Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. In total, that’s 41 countries, and there are others not listed in the British report.

In June, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman toured West and East Africa (that’s him in the photo above in Cote d’Ivoire after being crowned honorary chief), accompanied by 50 executives. The delegation visited Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Ruanda and Kenya. Among the delegates were representatives of Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel Military Industries, and the defence electronics firm Elbit Systems, Israel’s leading defence contractor, which provides arms and services to the IDF in hundreds of millions of dollars.

In April 2013 it was announced that Elbit had won a $40 million contract to provide an anonymous African country with “intelligence analysis and cyber defence.”

Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola

Wherever I turn, there is Ebola. In the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, and across the ubiquitous social media. Ebola. I sweat, shake, and cringe in mortal fear. Such an ugly word, fearsome in its primal sound, so African, so dark, so black. Since Africa is one country, beware of going to Africa, the media screams. Never mind those who occasionally mention the disease is currently confined to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, three out of Africa’s 54 countries. But what do they know about world geography, Africa is Africa. That’s the problem with political correctness, denial of inconvenient truths. This is an African disease. It afflicts Africa, that benighted land of biblical agonies, of inexplicable scourges, of unimaginable suffering, of epidemics and pandemics, of AIDS.

I am afraid of Ebola because I am an African. I am not one of the nearly 1.1 billion Africans actually living on the continent. What difference does it make that all of western and eastern Europe, China, India, and the United States would fit into Africa; it is one sorry place home to all those hapless people living in trepidation of Ebola. I am part of Africa’s large global diaspora numbering in the tens of millions. But I remain an African, so I am scared of my susceptibility to the disease that is so African. I live in the United States, and I am terrified because, as of today, months after the panic started Ebola has already killed one person, an African who had travelled to Africa, and infected one health care worker.

I wonder how many people have since died of other diseases—heart disease, malignant cancers, lung disease, brain disease, accidents or unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, the ten leading causes of death in the United States, responsible for nearly 1.86 million deaths in 2011, three-quarters of all deaths in the country. Where is the panic on all these deaths, some of which were surely preventable and premature. But that is beside the point. These are normal deaths. Ebola is terrifying in its monstrosity. It is a disease out of Africa.

I am afraid of Ebola because I, too, come from Africa. I watch the gory images of deaths from Ebola in Africa. I listen to the pundits pontificating about the millions it will kill in Africa, the need to close US borders from Africa. I shudder at seeing President Obama whose father came from Africa (or is it Kenya) being called President Ebola. I am stunned when a student refuses to go on a study abroad trip to Spain because it is close to Africa. Hasn’t one Ebola case already been diagnosed there? I am speechless when well meaning colleagues wonder why I’m going to Africa; they never hear the names of the actual countries I am going to.

I am afraid of Ebola because it is robbing me of my African authenticity when I fail to give special insights into the nature of the disease from inquiring colleagues or the media. About the culinary delights of eating monkey meat that apparently sparked Ebola and the strange primeval customs that helped spread it like wildfire. The fact that I am not a medical doctor, or from the three affected countries doesn’t matter. I am an African. Or have I become too Americanized to understand my African disease heritage? Maybe I am not Americanized enough to speak authoritatively about things I know little about, not even when it comes to that simple place with a single story called Africa.

I  am afraid of Ebola for bringing back to the center stage the Afro-pessimists with their perennial death wishes for the continent. In recent years they had lost some traction to the narratives of a ‘rising’ Africa. I am afraid of Ebola because it has quarantined me in the denigrated Africa of the western imagination, in the diseased blackness of my body. Ebola has robbed the American public of Africa’s multiple stories, of the continent’s splendid diversities, complexities, contradictions, and contemporary transformations. Ebola is indeed a deadly panic. It threatens civilization as we know it.

Or are my fears about Ebola misplaced? Is it about something else deep in the western psyche I can’t understand, perhaps going back the Black Death of the 14th century that decimated nearly one-third of Europe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people, or the genocide of native peoples in the Americas brought about by European diseases? But questions offer little solace in the avalanche of grim stories about the African plague of the year, Ebola. As someone who earns a living as an educator, I am afraid of Ebola because it is an enemy of critical and balanced thinking about Africa, about disease, about our common humanity.

What’s the matter with … Stellenbosch University

One afternoon, during my final year of high school, I first found myself at Stellenbosch University (also known as University of Stellenbosch) on a tour of potential universities in the Western Cape, South Africa’s south-western province. Walking around the various buildings on campus and after a quick stopover in the Neelsie, the university’s mall, I hesitated at the thought of studying there–besides, they didn’t offer what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life at the time. So I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Cape Town instead. However, a decade-and-a-bit and some career adjustments later, I am back at SU as a Masters student in the Visual Art department.

In line with the typical Apartheid urban planning practices of many South African towns and cities, Stellenbosch consists of a town center, reserved for “white” people during Apartheid by the Group Areas Act (1950) surrounded by spatially disconnected and racially segregated suburbs and townships. In Stellenbosch, the Group Areas Act was implemented through forced removals in thriving neighborhoods like Die Vlakte (English: The Flats) in the center of town where “black” and “coloured” people lived. The land in Die Vlakte was subsequently acquired by SU after the communities who lived there were evicted and displaced to Kayamandi, Cloetesville and Idas Valley on the town’s margins.


Legacies of colonialism and apartheid are etched into social dynamics of the town in the way its inhabitants occupy public space – real and imagined boundaries are still constructed according to race and class. Spending a significant amount of time there has reminded me that the architecture of a place, both in the physical and social sense, is always deeply embedded in relationships of power.

The ‘dop’ (tot) system, where farm laborers were paid in alcohol in return for their labor led to generational alcoholism and left visible marks on the town’s psyche. Stellenbosch could be viewed as a microcosm of contemporary power relationships among race groups in South Africa – a wealthy “white” minority with access to cultural capital, a “black” elite and growing yet small middle class and disenfranchised poor “black” majority. In a discussion on poverty and inequality in Stellenbosch, the sociologist, Joachim Ewert suggests that between 1996 and 2009 (roughly coinciding with the first decade and a half of of democratic rule) poverty in Stellenbosch increased within all race groups, except the “white” population, and that poverty in Stellenbosch may be greater when compared to other towns of similar size.

In the ten years since my first visit, the university seems to have made some transformative strides in terms of race representation on the surface. That said, 2013 enrollment statistics show that “white” students make up just over 65% of the student population in a town where the overall “white” population is 18,5%. University projects like the HOPE project, an initiative by the late University Vice-Chancellor, Russel Botman, attempts to address issues of transformation at SU and has identified several core focus areas intended to facilitate institutional redress.

However, recent events in Stellenbosch show that there is room for robust dialogue around race and transformation at the university. These include, most notably: the university’s failure to act against two white students photographed in blackface at a party in September. Then there’s the eugenics kit belonging to a SU scientist close to Adolf Hitler and discovered by researchers in the university’s Anthropology department in 2013 (the university spun it as the basis for a new “innovative” project about the find). Finally, there’s the death of Russell Botman, the university’s first black president, in 2014.


Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State and one of a new generation of black university presidents, among others have hinted at the difficulties and pressures surrounding Botman’s tenure (which may have led to his death) and has publicly called on those who contributed to these pressures for “introspection and acknowledgement of their contribution to the immense difficulties the rector had to absorb as he tried to transform this rock-solid cultural monolith.”

It’s with that background that recently, from 29 September to 3 October, the university held its annual “Diversity week” celebrations, a week-long event organized by SU’s Centre for Inclusivity with the intention to “reflect the University’s view that a variety of people and ideas is an asset for a 21st-century higher-education institution”. The program included a lineup of local comedians and celebrities and a series of discussions called “Critical Hour” on various topics affecting the university, like “Women in Leadership – Must Have or Nice to have?”

The event was opened with a flag bearing ceremony supposedly representing multicultural, Pan-African unity and inclusivity. This was followed by Vicky Sampson’s opening performances of “African Dream” and a cover of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s “When you believe”– a confusing choice for the mostly millennial audience. The event logo and slogan “Glocal is Lekker” (Glocal is Cool) seems to suggest that by embracing a global outlook, the university is aspiring to position itself as a “world-class” tertiary institution and cultivate perceptions of itself as multi-cultural and progressive. (This seems to be a strategy of most South African universities; unfortunately, becoming “world class” often excludes coming to terms with racial and class inequalities inherited from Apartheid)

Browsing through Diversity Week’s twitter feed, and confronted with video-tweets reminiscent of post-1994 Mandela-era rainbowism, I wondered aloud whether university-sanctioned efforts at celebrating “diversity” are premature in place where non-Afrikaans speaking students are still excluded through language (While it is the official language policy of the university to have a dual-lingual approach to tuition i.e. Afrikaans and English, Afrikaans is often the preferred language of lecturers in class) or subjected to forms of institutional and physical violence. For example, stories of incidents involving violent racist insults are commonplace against black students. The university administration proves slow to react. Then there’s the commemorative bronze plaque to H.F Verwoerd, one of the founders of Apartheid and prime minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966 which adorns the foyer of the Accounting and Statistics building on SU’s main campus.

Although advertised as somewhat subversive of the prevailing ethos on campus, there was nothing transgressive about “Diversity Week” and many of the events I went to were poorly attended. It seemed like little more than a week-long marketing opportunity for the university and a diversion from the real challenges facing the institution. A friend remarked that there were proportionately more photographers to students at the opening ceremony looking for opportunities to capture the “diversity” of the institution. To cultivate a sense of gees or institutional spirit among students seems very important to the culture of this University. Historically, this institutional spirit played an important part in cultivating Afrikaner nationalist identity in building institutions like the Broederbond (the secretive organization which controlled the National Party) and affirmed Stellenbosch’s position as the cultural seat of Afrikaner Nationalism for much of the 20th century.

Given the context of the socially engineered polarization of the town, how can we begin to facilitate a spirit of inclusivity? The Stellenbosch literary Project (SLiP) supported by SU’s English department is a student-led initiative trying to negotiate these challenges in addressing topical issues of inclusivity, inequality and race in Stellenbosch through poetry.

A regular at their InZync poetry event at AmaZink, a bar/restaurant in Kayamandi and one of the few social settings I feel comfortable in in town, I was surprised that they weren’t included on the “Diversity Week” bill. (AmaZink, ironically, was also the setting for a party where two white male students dressed up in blackface as the Williams sisters recently.)

Pieter Odendaal, one of the founders and project manager of SLiP says the idea behind the project was to create an inclusive space where poets performing different styles of poetry, from paper poets to spaza rap could get together to meet and perform their work. SLiP has 3 main projects: InZync Poetry sessions, The INKcredibles—a weekly youth poetry workshop—and an online literary blog,


InZync sessions happen monthly and probably attract the most diverse audience in Stellenbosch. Each session is an exhilarating mix of regular student acts with visiting poets like Cape Town poet/musician Jitsvinger and young poets from the INKcredibles poetry workshops. It has become a space where participants can become entangled in one another’s narratives and perspectives, through addressing the big questions relevant to our time and place like identity, transformation, economic freedom and also the shared human experiences that connect us regardless of race or socio-economic background.

It was important for SLiP to situate the project in Kayamandi, as opposed to a space like the university auditorium to connect students at SU to the wider Stellenbosch community. Crossing boundaries remains a core value of the project. Events are free, which allow anyone to enter the poetry session at AmaZink and shuttles transport students from SU to Kayamandi and vice versa when sessions are held at the university or at Cafe Art in town. Adrian VanWyk, student, poet and Events manager for SLiP adds that while they have been successful in bringing students to Kayamandi, they have been less successful in attracting people from neighbouring Cloetesville. “Black” and “coloured” communities of Stellenbosch remain socially polarized and physically divided by a road – another Apartheid hangover, certainly not unique to Stellenbosch, but hyper visible in a town of this size.

SLiP fulfills an important role in building a spirit of inclusion in a context where “black” students often talk about feeling unwelcome and where they are often excluded outright from entering the town’s bars and clubs. I question whether “Diversity Week” in its current neatly-branded form is really addressing and challenging issues of race, homophobia and sexism at this institution. Transformation is a messy process which may need to involve confrontation and contestation that can’t be limited to a single event for 5 days of the year.


Germany has its own “Sinterklaas Scandal”

The Oktoberfest in Munich may be over, but a curious debate sparked by the annual Bavarian bierfest is lingering like a bad hangover. Is it racist to put up targets portraying black people for fairgoers to shoot at? Yes, in Germany this is treated as a question to be answered with yes or no. This curious “debate” was kicked off by an article in the Munich-based national newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, on an attraction at this year’s “Wiesn” where visitors could shoot at iron figures portraying a black soldier and a black man in “civilized” clothing with air guns firing lead pellets.

Maximilian Fritz, who runs the stand, clearly knew that something was wrong with his attraction. He expected Wiesn organizers to question him about it, and was surprised when they didn’t. His justification for setting up shop anyway? “It’s about tradition, that’s how it was done in the past!” Oh, and of course he adds another line from the playbook: “I’m definitely not a racist.” Why? Because he removed the iron figure of a man resembling a Jew. In his mind, accusations of racism were “boring and narrow-minded.”

The stand was part of the “Oide Wiesn,” the “old Oktoberfest,” a section of the Wiesn that puts on display artefacts of Oktoberfest’s past. But make no mistake, it’s not a museum. It celebrates the history and tradition of the Oktoberfest, but there is no critical commentary on what is exhibited there. After the Munich newspaper contacted the Wiesn organizers, they did attach a plaque to the stand explaining that shooting at black people was not about racism; it just had to be understood “in the context of the colonial history of the time.” Clearly, the organizers have a high tolerance for contradiction.

The newspaper article triggered what Germans like to refer to as a “shitstorm” on social media. A look into the streams and comment sections is instructive about the level of public debate in Germany. The Süddeutsche Zeitung’s question, “Is this racism or tradition?” prompted many people to comment that it’s both, a “racist tradition.” But many other comments reveal that people think like Mr Fritz, the stand owner. “We have more important problems to discuss” was a usual response—fighting ISIS, for example. Some people even suggested exchanging the black figures with figures of Islamists.

Comments conveyed all the well-worn tropes of reactions to charges of racism. For many, it was a “typically German” debate. Germans overreact, they cause alarm for no reason, and they are too dramatic. Some complained that critics were too quick to “wield the Nazi cudgel,” a term recalling a debate around renowned author Martin Walser’s rightward shift in the 1990s. Many commenters were concerned that soon “it won’t even be allowed to shoot at animals and flowers, lest we upset animals rights activists.” Finally, the whole thing couldn’t be racist because some targets were white figures and players don’t actually shoot at the figures directly but at moving clay pipes attached to the figures.

The level of ignorance these comments convey is alarming. Commentators did not recognize that the other figures probably portray outcasts and other marginalized people of the time. And many people cited in their comments their happy childhood memories of singing the song “10 kleine Negerlein” (10 little N***), playing with their N***-puppet, and eating N***-kisses, a type of chocolate-glazed sweets. In those times, “no one thought this was racist,” and that’s why apparently it should be OK today. Some thought placing things in historical perspective made things worse. If the explanatory plaque hadn’t been attached, their reasoning goes, nobody would have made a connection with race discrimination.

The most disturbing comments were those characterizing people who raised concerns about racism as “fascists of political correctness,” “sharia public order officers,” leftist idiots who always complain, smartasses, and “Gutmenschen” (do-gooders)—a term linked to right-wing populism that was declared the second-worst term of 2011 (“Unwort des Jahres 2011″). Many commentators felt that those who raised concerns were people who felt the need to distinguish themselves.

At a time when Germans are concerned once more with the “refugee problem” and fears of a rising tide of anti-Semitism, this debate is troubling. As in many other contexts we wrote about, tradition is used as an excuse for racism.  People don’t see a problem with the usual justification that it’s not meant to be racism. Hamado Dipama, member of the Panafricanism working group and of Munich’s Council for Foreign Residents, rightly wonders “Why is it so difficult to understand when we Africans say that it’s offensive?”

* Image Credit: Twitter.

5 Questions for a Filmmaker … Moussa Sene Absa

Moussa Sene Absa is a Senegalese filmmaker, artist and songwriter.

What is your first film memory?

It happened during the school holidays the year I turned ten in 1968. As a reward for my good grades my uncle took me to the cinema to watch <The Lion from Saint Marc. At one point when a lion looks straight into the camera I was terrified and tried to run away, but my uncle grabbed me and said “It’s just a film.” The scene haunted me for days.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

I fell in love with movies as a teenager, but before that, when I was ten, I used to make Chinese shadow films at our house in Tableau Ferraille. Kids would pay me to tell them stories, which I had read in comic books or seen on film, like ‘Blek’ and ‘Zembla.’ Story telling is my way to make the world a better place, to dream and allow others to do the same. I’m a Griot and a storyteller, who grew up in a family of musicians and singers. I started in theatre before turning to film. I was fascinated by both art forms and I’ve always considered the stage to be the best storytelling platform. Film is the perfect tool to tap into other realities in order to make sense of the world, and to portray people and their stories. I became a filmmaker to tell both great and decadent stories, and to make people cry and laugh out of fear and joy.

Which film do you wish you had made?

There are many films that made a huge impression on me and that I wish I had made, like Once upon a time in America, Rome, open City, Breathless, Hyenas, The little girl who sold the sun and In the mood for love. But if I had indeed made them they would be different as they would have reflected my personality and culture in terms of music, costumes, casting etc.

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

In its simplicity and the way the story is told, The little girl who sold the sun is the most accomplished film, which talks about life and the future. It’s such a pure and humanist story, and without ever becoming sentimental, it portrays the protagonist – a young girl – as a hero.

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

‘Where is African cinema heading, and what are you working on now?’ Africans have made films for half a century, and the continent has produced many great filmmakers, who made films rooted in Africa while also reflecting a universal vision, However, during the last couple years, our film language has become increasingly uniform, and with a structure that originates from the West: “Introduction and development followed by conclusion”. Africans usually begin with the end, saying, “He is dead” and then trace the life of the dead person and the people concerned. This storytelling structure is hardly applied on our films.

I’m hoping that our filmmakers embark on a search for our identity and our cultures. You could easily think that some Africans films were made by British, Germans or Americans, with a gaze that is truly problematic.

At the moment I’m working on a project called Sangomaar, which explores how we adapt to our turbulent world. According to Senegalese tradition, Sangomaar is where the sea meets the river and where the Gods gather to discuss mankind and suggest solutions to our problems, as well as scolding or rewarding us. It’s the place where our destinies are formed.

‘Sangomaar’ is the second film in a trilogy about black people that starts with my film ‘Yoolé’ (The Sacrifice). I’m applying the principles of Kurukan Fuga (the ancient Malian constitution) to judge whether we as human beings are moving forward or backwards.

I ask questions about where we come from, how we are living our lives, and alternative ways of living and thinking. I also explore the painful moments of our rich and poor continent. Africa is indeed a place of contrast and paradoxes.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here.

Let’s talk about ethnicity and nationalism in Ethiopia

So much of the discord and paralysis in the pro-rights movement in Ethiopia and the Diaspora comes down to one factor: ethnicity. Politics related to Ethiopia has become so heavily “ethnicized” that we have a difficult time distinguishing between ideology and identity. Conversations about change cease to center on shared concern (like justice, human rights and democracy) and turn to disputes over ethnicity. While recognizing that we shouldn’t sweep these issues under the rug, it is clear that currently no one benefits more from this fragmentation than those who are interested in maintaining the status quo—chiefly, the ruling regime which has inflicted injustice and repression on people of all ethnic groups, including its own.

Increasingly elites in Ethiopia are using ethnicity as a basis for political organization, infusing linguistic and cultural differences and competing historical narratives with new political meaning. In recent years, there has been a rise of ethnic consciousness and ethno-nationalism, most notably amongst Oromos—the nation’s largest ethnic group (estimated at over 25 million people within Ethiopia, larger than most African states), which has historically been disproportionately underrepresented in national politics. Under the existing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, power has been wielded predominately by elites from the minority Tigrayan ethnic group, while in the past—with the noted exception of the Derg regime during the 1970s and 1980s—it shifted mainly between Amhara and Tigrayan monarchs.

Despite having introduced ethnic federalism, a system of decentralization that, in theory, distributes power and resources to regional states based on ethnic majorities, the EPRDF government views ethnic nationalism of any sort as a threat to its centralized rule. In fact, the intention of this new system was never to share power but to maintain political dominance. According to a 1993 EPRDF manifesto:

The interests of the majority of the population would be fulfilled only through our revolutionary democratic lines. So the objective condition requires the establishment and continuity of our hegemony”. The way that the EPRDF seeks to establish this hegemony is by institutionalizing ethnic divisions: “The mission of these nationally-based organizations is, on the one hand, to disseminate in various languages the same revolutionary democratic substance, to translate this substance into practice by adapting it to local conditions (history culture, character, etc.).

Though the EPRDF envisioned ethnic federalism as a means of maintaining control over an ethnically-diverse state, when groups assert their autonomy, the government’s response to ethnic mobilization around political grievances—similar to its response to any type of political opposition—has been harsh and swift. For instance, earlier this year, Oromo students took to the streets in the town of Ambo to protest the government’s plan to expand the administrative boundaries of the federal capital, Addis Ababa, into parts of the Oromia Regional State. According to the government, 11 students died in Ambo when they encountered police who were deployed to quell the protests, although eyewitnesses say that dozens of students were killed. As protests spread to other towns, hundreds more students were arrested. Although human rights groups and activists rightfully condemned the brutal massacre and crackdown, there was scant national or international coverage of these deaths or arrests—not surprising given the state’s control of the media.

Within the vocal Oromo Diaspora community, the state violence in response to the student protests has been described as more than an attempt by a repressive regime to crush opposition to government policy. Instead, it is understood as part of a systematic and long-standing history of oppression against Oromo people by the Ethiopian State. The expansion of Addis Ababa into 1.1 million hectares of the Oromia Region demonstrates blatant disregard to the authority of the Oromia Regional Government and is viewed as legally and morally indefensible. Mohammed Ademo explains: “For the Oromo, as in the past, the seceding of surrounding towns to Addis means a loss of their language and culture once more, even if today’s driving forces of urbanization differ from the 19th century imperialist expansion.”

Conversely, for some non-Oromos, the fact that the protestors were advocating for upholding Oromos’ regional autonomy over federal planning priorities is viewed as “anti-Ethiopian” and an impediment for national development. This idea is aided by the government’s response that the protesting students were “anti-peace forces.” While seemingly laughable, re-focusing the debate on whether Oromo nationalism is “threatening” Ethiopian stability has quietly shifted attention away from the government’s egregious actions against peaceful protestors.

Beneath the recent dispute over urban expansion, federalism and the government’s common use of excessive force against protesters is a boiling debate about identity, history and state legitimacy in Ethiopia. One typically encounters two competing narratives on the question of Oromo national identity. The first is a narrative of imperialist expansion, in which Oromos have been marginalized politically and economically for centuries and continue to be oppressed under the current regime. In this version, what is promoted as Ethiopian culture—food, music, language, and traditions—is largely Amhara and Tigrayan and does not reflect the unique contributions of Oromo people.

The second is the multi-ethnic nation narrative, where (similar to South Africa) Ethiopia is construed as a multi-ethnic nation that accommodates and embraces its cultural diversity. Under this framing, all ethnic groups have equal standing in politics, and those who complain of marginalization are portrayed as being “anti-Ethiopian” – promoting their own self-interest above what’s best for all. Repression, injustice and inequality in Ethiopia under this narrative are not issues related to ethnicity but rather to class and political affiliation.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification, but that these two narratives dominate many conversations in Ethiopia today is revealing in demonstrating how a lack of open debate and dialogue begins to dangerously cloud the truth. Ethiopians should really be discussing how to respond to a government that feels the need to kill peaceful student protestors. The less we converse—and the more we compete to have our narrative told over others—the more dangerous our silences become.

‘Niçoise with sweet potatoes’

What is more surprising than a mix of traditional Congolese music and European baroque music? What is more powerful than someone who makes another culture’s codes his own? “Coup Fatal” (currently on tour in Italy and Germany) is a collaboration between the Congolese baroque singer, Serge Kakudji, the Belgian choreographer, Alain Platel and the Belgian jazz musician, Fabrizio Cassol. A bit tongue-in-cheek, the makers explain that they have made something like a salad; mixing a bit of Europe and a bit of Africa. This “niçoise with sweet potatoes” brings thirteen musicians and dancers from Kinshasa plus the counter-tenor to the scene, under the musical supervision of Rodriguez Vangama. Here’s the trailer:

I saw the show in Brussels. After the show, try to explain to a friend what you saw and I bet words will fall short to describe this inexplicable experience. This performance appeals directly to the senses and the emotions invoked. The absence of a clear story, logic or structure forces you to be guided by your instincts.

When I asked Serge Kakudji what Coup Fatal is about, he simply answered: “Coup Fatal is like the Congo River, you expect a wave to arrive but you never know when and how it will manifest itself.” I would even go as far as saying this show intelligently represents several facets of Congolese daily life: a day-by-day-existence enveloping the absence of thoughts about “tomorrow,” poverty, political corruption but above all, a determination to overcome hardship. According to Alain Platel it is remarkable how much that determination lacks in Western society.

Alain Platel smartly let the dancers’ bodies express in their own individuality the contradictory phenomena we can find in Congo; for instance, poverty opposed to the dandy movement better known as “sapologie.” This paradox is even present in the setting. In fact, the sculptor, Freddy Tsimba, offered an incredibly beautiful curtain made of war bullets for the show.

I think the paradox is everywhere in “Coup Fatal.” Perhaps, the main lesson here is that differences can be harmonious and allow people to come together despite their background and roots.


Angola’s Forgotten Massacre

In her famous tract on literature and trauma, Cathy Caruth writes: “If Freud turns to literature to describe traumatic experience, it is because literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing…” Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (2014) is literary reportage that flirts with memoire. It tells a slice of the complex and violent events on and after the 27th of May, 1977: the date of a supposed coup d’etat in Luanda, Angola. As the coup (or demonstration, depending on who is speaking) was initiated by internal dissenters of the (still ruling) MPLA party in the early years of Angolan independence, it has been scarcely acknowledged within Angola, and absent from discussions outside the country. In the years following the events of vinte-sete de Maio, thousands were purged from the MPLA, including many who were demonstrably innocent of collusion with the opposition, led by Nito Alvez, a former government minister. The numbers killed are only surmised, and the wide disparity of numbers each party claims tells of the darkness that shrouds the vinte-sete: claims are anywhere from four to 2000 to 90,000.

Now, if literature provides a key to traumatic experience, the historical content in Pawson’s book includes overviews of historical writing, witness and victim testimony, confession, and description: both hers and others’. The confessionary model has been used in modern truth and reconciliation hearings, but this book, however, is the struggle of a reporter and a sympathizer to come to terms with what happened in a country far from her home in Britain. As she was paid to witness events in Angola as a war correspondent for the BBC in the 1990s, the events of the country haunt her in an oblique and powerfully confusing way. In fact, one of the many crises that emerge in the course of the narrative is that of the public sphere, especially given the media networks within which Pawson moves. If, as Graça Francisco insists (reprinted in the opening of the book), this is Angola’s history alone, what are the affiliations, strings, attachments, and collusions that allow someone like Lara Pawson to engage? Pawson answers: “Someone has told me a story. Why do I believe it? Will anyone else? I just want to stay very still, to let the heat fill me up, and to know that Maria [a victim of the vinte-sete] is beside me, that we are together, sewn into each other’s skin by an immense effort to revisit the past. Before I met her today, I believed that cultivating the memory was an obligation: now I’m beginning to understand that it’s also an art.”


There are two major crises the book lays out: political and historiographical. Therefore the question that immediately presents itself is whether this book should be considered a contribution to existing (though scarce) literature on the vinte-sete or whether it exists more as an elegy and reverberations of the vinte-sete. Politico’s José Pedro Monteiro points out that the tactic of confession and the subjective textures of memory can also immunize Pawson from the burden of facticity. If these are just stories from particular points of view, what is the point of trying to determine the truth of this set of events?

Perhaps, then the book spells out what historian David William Cohen called “the risks of knowledge.” It has become, in fact, common in Angolan historiography to turn to memory because of the lack archival evidence and the obscurity of official documents: in the vinte-sete case, there are very few documents or official statements outside of the sixty-five page pamphlet published by the MPLA in 1977. And consider the archival reliability of the publication. The pamphlet ends with a whole page block letter quote from the Political Bureau of the MPLA, a purist Leninist sentiment:

We will apply the Democratic Revolutionary Dictatorship to finally finish with saboteurs, with parasites, and with opportunists.

In this quote is the seed of contention, which rages on today, about who were the peasants and proletariat that were to be the beneficiaries of the “new Angola”. If the vinte-sete has a particular valence today, then it is perhaps the ghosts of the MPLA that are emerging as the country moves on from the 2002 ceasefire and manages an economic boom.

But if one of the criticisms of the book is that Pawson blows the vinte-sete out of proportion in relation to the millions who died in the war with UNITA, it is because the war has been the only history told about the MPLA; it is the only one that for the party is verifiably “heroic” and moral. It is in this vein that the issue of numbers of dead becomes important. She asks whether it would be any less horrifying if the number were 2000 instead of 90,000. Of course it would be less of an “event,” still abject, but comparatively insignificant given the overall level of trauma and numbers of dead in the years since the 1961 insurgency against the Portuguese. Counting the dead and determining the official cause and labels has become the political plague of modern war worldwide.

A major contribution of the book is the refusal—poised on an inability—to discuss this event on the level of official history. The most riveting moment for me was when Pawson describes sitting at a beachside café watching while two men might be murdering a man; she’s not sure. I read it several times, attempting to process the same scant amount of information she gives. This sense of alarm and absurdity—sitting comfortably on a beach while feet away someone violently loses their life—discernibly shapes the affect of the book. The vignette is telling of the positionality that so clearly troubles her: she sits comfortably and safely in a space demarcated by money, status, a labyrinth of laws, and international intrigue, while gazing in horror at what happens just on the other side of that boundary. She is a witness.

A museum in the middle of the street

Three towering moko jumbies stroll up behind the stage, as if on cue, dressed in suits of glow-in-the-dark yellow and electric blue. The sun is setting on the second and final day of ChaleWote, Accra’s annual street art festival, but energies show no sign of fading as Burkinabe band Siaka Diarra (image immediately below) streams the “polyrhythmic madness” promised in the festival program, djembe gyrating slowly-quickly-slowly against unpredictable percussion.

The sudden appearance of men on stilts swings eyes and cameras away from the music, but the moko jumbies do not steal the show; only enhance it as they walk casually around the stage, past the food and drink stalls that line the perimeter of the concert space and out into the festivities beyond. At ChaleWote the time/space lines between different performances and exhibitions, and the larger space in which they are situated, constantly blur and stir into one pulsating continuity of creative expression.


When the Takoradi Masquerade parades by a few minutes later, Siaka Diarra spontaneously swings their tempo towards the passing beat. As the show comes to an end, a cross-dressing dancer jumps on stage to drop moves that twerking can only hope to dream of becoming one day. This is not a festival for those who like experiences folded neatly, or art served with hors d’oeuvres via a stick up their buttocks. That said, it’s a festival for everyone.

ChaleWote takes place at the seaside site of the first Ga settlement in the Accra area–a spiritual mecca for several centuries, known as Ga Mashie until it became the capital of colonial invasion and was christened Jamestown. The festival has been organized every year since 2011 by the “subversively African” arts collective Accra[Dot]Alt. It brings together artists from Ghana and beyond, and thousands of merry makers, for a weekend of visual art/music/fashion/theatre/extreme sports/photography/spoken word/film that run down a long stretch of Jamestown’s John Atta-Mills High Street all the way to the shore.



A painful history rests beneath the festivities. “Under Jamestown is another town,” explains Mantse Aryeequaye, Accra[Dot]Alt co-founder. “There was a lot of resistance from the community to the slave trade, so they didn’t want people to see that they were transporting humans. There are houses with secret tunnels that lead all the way to the shore where they would put the slaves on a ship.”

Today, above ground, Jamestown is a mix of fishing neighborhoods, local enterprises and dilapidated colonial structures. Its history as a hub of oppression – but originally, of pre-colonial spiritual symbolism – lends itself to what Mantse describes as “a new expression, to reimagining the space”.


The theme of ChaleWote 2014 is “Death: An Eternal Dream into Limitless Rebirth.”

“Why Death?” asks the festival program. “It surrounds us in Ghana. Funerals every weekend are important social affairs.” Festival-goers need not worry about missing out on the weekend funeral scene – Death is exquisitely represented at ChaleWote 2014. Collaborative artworks portray perceptions of death and rebirth. An eerie-beautiful procession of pallbearers carries fantasy coffins designed by Ghanaian sculptor Pa Joe. “Enjoyment after death”, a performance installation by Serge Attukwei and GoLokal, examines Ghanaian funeral culture and celebration of the dead.

Rebirth, too, is celebrated through the art, which seeks to “breathe life into new histories, possibilities, hopes and desires…. stories that are thrilling, passionate and charismatic”. It is this spirit – the spirit of born-again creativity rocking in beat with history – that makes ChaleWote what it is: free, in many senses of the word.


At the lighthouse end of High Street, across from the main concert space and against a backdrop of art and poetry murals, Rolla Wondaland skaters create a runway. Dozens of people line up along the street to cheer gravity-defying champions, or whoosh a collective wince if one crashes into the ground. On the adjacent beach, Action Accra’s “Eco playground” showcases art made from recycled objects. Transforming discarded objects into objects of beauty is a recurrent theme in the festival: ranging from Maame Adjei’s “Crate-ive Seating” that repurposes obsolete crates into quirky benches, to a parade of brides clad in fashionably recycled plastic bags, designed by Ghanaian artist Fatric Bewong.

The post office building is draped with Ibrahim Mahama’s “Social Reality”, an installation made from coal sacks and wax print panels and described in the festival program as a work of “relational aesthetics…an extension of the body irrespective of its ‘true relationship’ with the site and its history”. I’m not sure what that means, but my god, it’s beautiful. “If only street art give orgasms…lol!” reads one Facebook comment. Well if it wants to learn, this might be a good place to start…



Throughout the day, Social Reality and other artworks double up as backdrops and props for a series of impromptu photo shoots. While dishing up orgasmic art, #ChaleWote2014 multitasks as unabashed host of the selfie Olympics. From supermodel poses with theatre troupes to tongues reaching for nipples in murals, there is a spontaneous energy around the art that encourages interaction on any level at all.

The children of Ga Mashie, inadvertent hosts of the festival, are no exceptions to this. Be it through curious stares or hawking goods, clambering over artwork or clinging to the bike of Wanlov the Kubolor, one pillar of the visionary Ghanaian hip-hop duo FoknBois, their presence is felt strongly. A new acquaintance warns me against getting too friendly: “these children who live in Jamestown are the most stubborn children in Ghana …” he stops and thinks about it “… in the world. Everyone knows about them, they are so stubborn!”



Their presence sometimes creates friction, some people shooing them away harshly when they get too excited. There are those who, Mantse comments, “don’t have the approach of minding the space because it belongs to other people, so if the kids are bothering them, they tell them to fuck off.” But the children of Ga Mashie, he points out, “are not regular kids. That comes from their surroundings – they are forced to be tough at a very early stage. So they come into a space and do what they want to do”.

In that sense, too, the kids at ChaleWote are right at home. Come into the space and do what you want to do seems to be one of the many unofficial mottos of the festival. “Artists who did not even answer the call use the space as a platform,” muses Mantse. “Things more or less follow the schedule, but what makes it even more exciting are these random performances that are not planned, are not part of the official program, just people coming in and expressing themselves. As we grow, we will need to find creative ways of accommodating that, because it’s important – to make space for schedules, but also for spontaneous things to happen. That’s what helps to create this really intense energy that the festival has. It’s just people showing up and creating.”


Outside Bible House, the YoYo Tinz hip hop booth serves gospel from 10 in the morning, DJs giving way to a range of live performances as the day progresses. Graffiti artists – and anyone who cares to join in – paint the adjoining street. Flamenco dancing and motorbike stunts, acrobatics and theatre, capoeira and street boxing, are among the acts popping up at various times and spaces across the festival. A mini film festival with colorful fabric for walls is constructed in the middle of a compound. There, in my search for yet another installation, I stumble upon a crumbling but stubborn staircase, which ambles down to a serene nook by the sea. Blissfully lost, I sit still for a while.

ChaleWote is best played by ear. When I surrender and stop studying the schedule and map like some kind of neurotic Swiss navigator, it’s a pleasant confusion that ensues. Why are these incredibly dapper gentlemen walking past me as though on an invisible catwalk, with boom boxes under their arms? Is that chocolate sitting on the outstretched palms of that gold-painted man? To where are the writers from the poetry workshop I visited earlier marching in fluid synchronicity? (“We’re performing our poems at all the stages, come! You were at the workshop, aren’t you a writer? Don’t you want to read something?”)

Afro district1


Several years ago, recalls Mantse, “the creative community in Ghana was mostly concentrated in hotels, museums, embassies – that’s where you found art. It was all very elitist, very exclusive…it does nothing for people to have a few in one small space who are supposed to represent everyone else. That’s why ChaleWote is important – it’s public, it’s free, you’re creating a museum in the middle of the street, and everyone can take part.”

It also creates employment, as the residents of Jamestown – who are extensively involved in ChaleWote’s operations and performances – benefit from the festival and from the spike in tourism that it has generated. “This is one of the ways we can create opportunities, especially at a time when Ghana went from being an ‘Africa Rising’ star to getting an IMF bailout,” says Mantse. “The government doesn’t support artists, so if we want a thriving creative community it’s up to us to build structures for that. And because of the DIY nature of the festival, it also has this DIY energy around it – people think of amazing stuff, it encourages them to create outside their comfort zones.”

The practical organization of ChaleWote also lives outside the conventional comfort zone. “I doff my hat to Accra[Dot]Alt for birthing such an enthralling event”, says Eugene Owusu, a self-proclaimed “arts freak” whom I meet at the festival. If only it was well supported by the government of Ghana and corporate organizations, he adds, “ChaleWote would become the world’s number one festival that all and sundry would look forward to every year”. Currently, ChaleWote is mostly funded out of pocket by Accra[Dot]Alt, with contributions in kind from various institutions. Corporate sponsorship is conspicuous in its absence – at least, its physical absence. Outside the small stalls set up by food and fashion vendors, no branding is visible anywhere.

But cyberspace is an open playground. So when sponsorship talks between Accra[Dot]Alt and Guinness come to an unceremonious end, the international beer brand still pushes its #MadeOfBlack online ad campaign on the back of ChaleWote, by contracting prominent Ghanaian bloggers to attach the hashtag to their pics and updates of the festival. I believe the official legal term for this is “swag-cyberjackery”– the arrogance with which corporate money appropriates community creativity – but still, the show must go on.


And on it goes, and on. In the courtyard of Brazil House (which has a history of Brazil’s African slave industry mounted on the walls) Bright Backwerh presents “Immaculate con-tra-ception/Race 11/Untitled”: an installation of wooden silhouettes and news clippings that tell stories of racism in football and life. Around the corner, Sabolai Radio – the music-centered sister festival of ChaleWote – gives us a taste of things to come in their upcoming festival (19 – 21 December 2014). Across the road, Pretty Period, a photography exhibition made of portraits of festival-goers, celebrates the beauty of dark-skinned women. The fashion market is Satan to my wallet, the food market Lucifer to my belly, both in the most heavenly of ways.

“How much did you pay for that? [laughter] Hehhh, chale tomorrow you will cry! I’ll take you somewhere you pay just 10 cedis for the same thing!”

“Let me tell you where Ebola came from – whites made it in a lab. Think about it…”

“Are you on Facebook? Write your name here so I can tag you in my photos. Can I come visit you in Rwanda?”


As evening falls, the festival is supposed to be winding up but the crowd only gets thicker. I am slightly overwhelmed by everything I’ve absorbed in the past 8 hours, which is still not everything the festival had to offer, and curiosity drives me up the street for one final lap. The official events are winding down and melting into several parties clustered on different corners, each blasting their choice of music to an animated crowd. This is where tehning up comes to tehn up, and by the time I tehn back, I have experienced such an acute overdose of good times that I have to go home immediately.

Yes, home. Abruptly like that. Because there’s only so much a woman can take before exploding into infinite shards of creative bliss. So I can’t say how ChaleWote2014 ended, but my sources tell me they jammed past the witching hour, and as for me, I can tell you this: start saving if you can, and planning where you can. Because if you miss #ChaleWote2015, hehhh, chale. You will cry!



* Photo credits: Accra[Dot]Alt and Walter Adama n Selorm Atikpoe,, Ghanyobi Mantey, Live 91.9FM.