Africa is a Country

Save The Children Tries Models and Sex Appeal

Is your NGO looking for innovative tactics to reach new Northern donors? Here’s one for the books. Last week, Save the Children released a video in which they dupe models into advocating for children’s rights. The video opens with a bunch of models on a set, prepping themselves for business as usual. The directors instruct them to sell whatever will appear on the cue cards by being sexy as they can. While the models put their art of seduction to work, the script suddenly changes from “lust is my mistress” to statistics about children’s poverty and death tolls. An obvious turnoff, but the models have to keep it hot. After some initial awkwardness and wonderment (“ehh…are you attracted to me right now?”) the self-rubbing becomes more hesitant (except for one guy, whose arousal—hands down—is the most authentic element of the whole clip), and the spectacle culminates in the models’ heartfelt conclusion that “we can’t make this issue sexy, but it deserves your attention”.

The campaign, apparently, was built on Save the Children’s heightened frustration about the missing link between children’s suffering and sex appeal. As one of their communications people put it, “If only we can get people to hear these issues, but it is hard to make it sexy”. In other words, one of the world’s top independent charities for children thought that it would be a good idea to link trying-too-hard Euro-eroticism and raising money to save poor Third World children. Any discordance between the two was supposed to be eliminated by sentiment alone.

The result: in only 2 minutes and 18 seconds, development advocacy hit a new low. The problem with the video is not that the use of sex antics to save poor children’s lives is out of place. This tactic—arousing donors’ libidos in order to touch their hearts—is hardly revolutionary in the development world. It gained popularity after NGOs came under fire for their reliance on what was dubbed poverty porn: the practice of pathologising hapless and starving children, and using images of this extreme otherness to draw in donors. Critics (mainly those from the South) of poverty porn complained that such images planted a highly essentialized and reductionist image of ‘the unfortunate Third World other’ in the minds of northern public. Another problem with targeting the North through emotional and moral appeals was that the cash flows that pictures of fly-covered babies generated were too unreliable. While these images produced the intended effect for a short time, the ‘difference’ between donor and victim, on which the strategy relied and capitalized, soon lead to donors’ compassion fatigue. The UN’s utterly dry development vocab (sustainability, anyone?) didn’t offer much gusto to get the masses fired up, (and paying up) either.

One solution to the problem was to get celebs on board; you know, the sexy entertainment type. Bono, the ever-shaded rockstar and self-declared poverty authority had of course loudly and proudly claimed a position at these frontlines ages ago. In 2007, having grown quite comfortable with the global prestige and credibility that the development frontlines tend to bestow on elite occupants, he felt comfortable enough to claim that what the world needed was the globalization of the revolutionary mix that he believed he embodied: adding some sex appeal to the business of saving lives. As Bono’s ill-advised logic and depoliticized focus on symptoms rather than causes of poverty were echoed both far and wide, we became accustomed to to watching sexy models and celebs speak on behalf of the poor—whom we learned to refer to as the ‘voiceless’. The problem with the celebrity-as-spokesperson, however, is that celebrities’ loud presences also come with silences and absences. With every shoot, every show and every spectacle of seduction, those crucial absences and silences become less noticeable.

The alternative of offering the children—for whom all this celebrity and sex appeal is being poured out—a platform to be their own spokespersons no longer makes sense to us. The Save the Children video tells their young beneficiaries: “you are simply not hot enough, and your stories are either too shocking or too boring. We have come to accept our inability to represent you, so this time we are not taking any risks. This time we are leaving you, your agency, and your ability to speak and define your own story out of it altogether. It’s for your own good”.

The NGO’s perception of future donors isn’t flattering either. Not even pretending to view them as people who can be educated, moved or mobilized, the NGO appeals to their lust, paternalistic benevolence and their eagerness to share sexy poverty videos on Facebook to quench their own moral thirst. It’s like they are saying: “We know what you want. Now pay like the shallow buffoon you are”.

What the new Sexy Development Discourse doesn’t seem to get is that the problem with the low appeal of terms like sustainability and other dry development talk is due to the fact that they are vague, impersonal and detached. Having unaware models fake sincerity to ‘interpret’ the lives of those who are reduced to one giant statistic is not going to bridge that divide.

(And) It’s not like there are no alternatives. Especially when it comes to children, who are generally perceived as innocent and savable, there are ways to move those who have access to money and power to action. Not by manufacturing and widening the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but—surprise!—by showing that we are not, in fact, all that different. It’s the responsibility and the duty of NGOs like Save the Children to educate potential Western donors on both the causes of poverty and the humanity of their beneficiaries. Is there a place for celebrities at all? Sure. When they’re willing to tone down the egos and their volumes, and are prepared to swallow any misguided slogans, they can do great work. As we have written before, Colin Greenwood is a great example of a rock star who knows how to pull this one off. Let people like him be an example, rather than Bono.

And yeah. We beg you to leave the writhing models out of it, too.

Do White South Africans constitute a tribe and if so, are they guilty of tribalism?

In a recent article published by Africa is a Country, The Story of a South African “Tribe”, Jared Sacks argues that tribalism is alive and well.  Drawing on Thabo Mbeki’s comments on tribalism in October 2013, he suggests that those really guilty of tribalism are Afrikaaners and the English who practice a sophisticated incognito kind of tribalism. They do this in two fragmented camps when voting for either DA or the Freedom Front Plus, but do it all the same with harrowing consequences. Therefore, Sacks’ suggests, it is white people who are the real tribalists and it is their “homeboyism” which poses the biggest challenge to change in this country.

The article seems to me an attempt at uncovering ‘our’ racial and categorical prejudices as well as challenging how we understand tribalism. Sacks seems to be trying his hand at what some have called discursive rupture. He eggs us towards an epistemic break with ideas we have come to accept as matters of fact or historical taxonomies. [Tribes are black people or other uncivilized people. There are different kinds of tribes. These blacks, smeared in animal fat, fought each other with sticks and stones until the arrival of the white man rescued them from oblivion and destined savagery – or so, I imagine, the trope goes].

We are presented with a supposed deconstruction of naturalized anti-black racism – how we think and label black people – whilst the issue of white supremacy is highlighted. But I wonder, is this really a benign white radical anti-racist proposition?

While I also fell for the literary trick by assuming he is referring to the two largest black groups in the country, when he criticizes tribalism, I think this seemingly anti-racist discursive turn is actually a slight-of-hand move that should be read as subterfuge.  I think Jared’s move here, like those of many fair-minded social activists, actually rearticulates white supremacy and necessarily arrives at a problematic conclusion. The problematic claim being: we can lump together prejudice, bigotry, tribalism and white supremacy. The aim is clear. White solidarity and white supremacy is just another form of tribalism equal to and – by his definition – necessarily similar to the irksome tribalism addressed by Mbeki: differing from ‘black tribalism’ only in qualitative terms. This of course does little in the way of conceptual fidelity and has troublesome consequences. 

The juxtaposition of ‘black tribalism’ with ‘white tribalism’ allows for the fallacious claim of parity between oppressors and oppressed. That is to say, black people are guilty tribalism and so are white people. Both are engaged in debilitating and nefarious practices and each for their own narrow agendas.  Sacks subsumes the problem of white supremacy and white solidarity under the notion of tribalism. This unduly stretches the explanatory scope and power of tribalism, even if we allow for poetic license to prove a point about how we think about such concepts. I argue, this re-calibration of tribalism actually obfuscates where the term comes from and masks who did what to whom, in the truest ‘historical’ sense.

It is a willful negligence of how tribalism has come to be understood. Tribalism has been understood as a settler colonialist project nurtured in the bosom of anthropology at pains to disaggregate and atomize the indigenous population as well as continued black resistance incipient in the eighteenth century. It is a mind-set and practice engendered by the conflicts extant between various groups of people, which were ultimately fine-tuned and enhanced by white settler colonialism for the distinct purpose of subjugation. Divide and rule. Therefore, white supremacy and white solidarity whether practiced in dichotomies [DA and FF+] or not, do not equate to tribalism or a form of tribalism. Tribalism is a product of white domination and white supremacy. 

I am not arguing Sacks’ proposition because I don’t have a problem with anti-black epistemes or white solidarity. I do. Rather, my problem is with the lack of conceptual fidelity giving rise to malapropos notions that are irreconcilable with history or the status quo.  

I maintain that that the ‘white tribe’ is not just another group of actors who by and large happen to hold the monopoly on power and wealth. My point is, white society – if you like – invented tribalism to subordinate and subjugate black people. To suggest anything else is toying with sophistry and must be read as such.

What about Sacks’ comments on recalcitrant ‘white tribalism’ viz-a-viz the need to redistribute land and economic power? He says, “Are white South Africans going to change their “homeboyism” anytime soon?…Without redistribution of land, economic power and the complete desegregation of our society on a democratic and socialist basis, tribalism among Afrikaans and English South Africans will continue to prevent the achievement of a truly nonracial and inclusive society [emphasis added]. Does he not recoup himself here?  

No, not at all. I think the approach is altogether wrong and informed by a worldview that still negates the obvious solution that is black power. Such an approach privileges white actors as the master race with the power to free black people economically. While it is true that anti-black racist politics have shaped power relations in this country, the stumbling block or what “prevents the achievement of a truly non-racial and inclusive society” is not a benevolent ‘white tribe’. Nowhere in history do we see a even moderately self-interested and powerful group voluntarily liberating – in the truest sense of the word – a group they oppress/exploit. 

The answer clearly must lie with a demonstrably popular pro-black, socialist and revolutionary political project that will form the antitheses to a white supremacist, liberal democratic, economic system being managed by the ANC and the DA. This of course only rings true if we take seriously a dictum that says “liberation can never be granted or acceded to and must necessarily be fought for and taken, always”. 

This is an edited version of the article,which first appeared in the Conmag. 

@ChiefBoima’s World Cup Diary Day 1: A Tale of Two Copas

World Cup Day 1 — The sun is out in Rio for the first time in days. It’s a national holiday. Anticipation in the air. I’m woken up to the sound of horns.

My first Brazilian national home game of significance is today… but perhaps this one is bigger than many. This is because there are two fields of action. One is on the pitch and the other is on the streets. This is Brazil’s chance to prove itself in many different ways. As a country that’s arrived on the global stage, as a fully developed democracy. It seems like proving themselves on the pitch was the last thing that was on many Brazilians minds in the run up today. ‘Imagina na Copa’ has rung in my ears since I’ve arrived. Well the cup is here and today I’m woken up to horns.

This morning I’m going to be trying to follow the action on the streets, this afternoon I’ll be looking at the pitch. I’ve been following activist groups online for months in the preparation. It seems like one prominent activists’ house was raided by police last night. Sao Paulo is already seen some protest action. Airport workers in Rio went on strike this morning for 24 hours. How else are Brazilian activists and workers going to show their cards today?

My next challenge today is to attempt to become mobile in Rio… I’m dreading the traffic.

For the perfect soundtrack, all the way from Rio de Janeiro, check out @ChiefBoima with AfricasaCountry Radio, Episode 3. You can listen to all the episodes here.

James Baldwin at 90, Part 4: The Brilliance of Children, The Duty of Citizens

At the outset of the essay, I asked “What changes, what constants and what chimeras made the United States the place that elects a black President?” And, “What does black president actually mean?” (You can find the first three parts of this essay here.)

Consider a statement made off hand and in jest by President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 1, 2010. In his remarks, President Obama recognized the presence of the pop group Jonas Brothers. He went on to state the following, “Sascha and Malia are huge fans, but boys don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator Drones. You’ll never see it coming.”

I can see Jimmy Baldwin slipping on his shades. He saw this coming. Everyone knows the President is a persona, highly crafted. It’s interesting to see President Obama, here, consciously playing upon the protective father role. And, he’s twisted the irony of his father/President persona precisely to enlist the deadly military force of the state to his shotgun-at-the-door-on-prom-night purposes as a father. He’s playing with changes and constants. Or, is he working? A father’s love of daughters? Constant! But, do we hear the smack of numb patriarchy, even an echo of the fathers of the white South’s fear for their daughter’s chastity? Change? A black man is Commander and Chief? Change! But, where and against whom are Predator Drones actually mobilized when they’re not metaphorically menacing teen idol pop groups? Constant? 

The threat and use of state violence against “insurgent” forces is nothing new. All American militant groups and many that weren’t militant experienced levels of state terror as well as state apathy in the face of social terror in the 20th century. Baldwin knew such state terror first hand. Baldwin was conscious of state as well as vigilante threats against his life and livelihood. In Istanbul, for instance, he noted the proximity of his house to consulates not aligned with the United States in case he should need emergency political asylum. His family opened his mail, intercepted the death threats and more than once attempted to dissuade him from returning to the U.S. for fear he’d be shot. In his biography, James Weatherby quotes Baldwin from an interview with Italian press soon after the murder of Malcolm X: “He said his own mail had got ‘so horrible’ he had turned it over to the FBI. ‘Maybe they were writing some of it’” (264). These were not unreasonable fears and precautions. The family knew their phones were tapped. Baldwin suspected that his mail was being opened. References to surveillance and tactics and codes for eluding it appear in his correspondence.

Cases prosecuting American terrorists who as employees of and / or with the sanction of local governments menaced and murdered American citizens are currently on-going or recently concluded in Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Chicago and elsewhere. The blogosphere was full of commentary about the international politics of President Obama’s joke before the first correct fork was lifted amid all the comic incorrectness at the Correspondents’ Dinner. Frequent mistaken or collateral killings of Afgani, Pakistani, Somali, and Yemeni civilians and numerous intended murders of “suspects” by Predator Drones immediately struck many as bizarre territory for a joke about a father protecting his daughters. It doesn’t take much to mark the offense.

But, the change/constant structure of Baldwin’s work takes it further. The fact that vast numbers of bloggers stop at marking ironies with outrage—and vice versa—opens and limits our discourse. The fact that the mainstream media often do less than that (ask Helen Thomas why) intensifies our need for clearer, deeper perspectives such as James Baldwin’s work offers. If jokes are often funny because they flout convention, they’re revealing for exactly the same reason. About involuntary confessions hidden in humor, in No Name in the Street, Baldwin wrote: “one’s merely got to listen . . .to what they think is funny, which is also what they think is real” (Collected 469). If I hold a mirror between us at arm’s length, my one-year old son sees my face at the end of my arm, but he doesn’t laugh until he looks back at where my face actually is. Such is the brilliance of children. Such is also, exactly, the duty of citizenship. How about a quick look back at where it’s at? Baldwin can see this coming even from the grave.

Possibly, a small glimpse of what’s change and what’s constant in President Barack Obama’s America appears in this joke. And, more interestingly, the relationship appears between what’s constant, what changes and the dangerous chimeras of confusion between them. Short of two weeks after the Jonas Brothers gag, on May 13, Scott Shane’s story entitled, “US Approval of Killing Cleric Causes Unease,” in The New York Times began like this: “The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism.”

Moving the President’s joke closer to home, by May 13th it was clear that the “suspects” targeted for killing by Predator Drones could also be American citizens. In fact, the American-born cleric / “suspect” in question, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, an American-born editor of the English-language, militant web magazine, Inspire, were intentionally killed in a CIA-led U.S. drone strike while driving in Yemen on Friday, September 30, 2011.

Leading up to the 2012 election, discussions of Nobel Peace Laureate, President Obama’s foreign policy credentials begin with his presiding over the murder of Osama bin Laden. In the vaunted post-racial age that bears his name, “the Obama era,” it’s difficult for me to distinguish this credential from the old-fashioned, time-honored horror of the American political spectacle: the tough man waving his trophy scalp. 

Echoing as it does real time state terror on Earth, President/father Obama’s joke links the human constant of fatherly love with the capricious nature and terror of political power. Fathers and politicians are dangers in their own ways. That’s constant; we can work with it. But, by this kind of gesture, illusory permanence, state power, borrows the universal permanence of a basic fact of life, fatherhood. And, the fact of life, fatherhood, adopts the (to me, a father, destructive) straight-backed, macho force of technologically abstracted military violence. Exactly as Baldwin’s work diagrams, such chimerical traffic between changes and constants is dangerous to democracy and family life. And that’s no joke. Ask a Kennedy. Ask any President/father. Ask any dissident/daughter. 

Historically speaking, this is not “post-racial” territory; and neither is it now. Cloaked in the constants of family, state terror becomes familiar, natural, to people while its ideological, unlawful and error-prone deployment is obscured. This impairs the mirror-and-back vision of citizens and makes the nation more dangerous to the world, and vice versa,  than it has to be. And, dressed in the gleam and ferocity of abstract killing force, the role of fatherhood becomes further dehumanized and abstracted from the lives of actual men and daughters attempting—however over-matched—to live as people. This obscures the privately panic-stricken vacuum of our errors as fathers. And, that makes our houses and neighborhoods more dangerous than they already are. In 1964, in “Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin revealed the hidden transactions that prop up the structure of this chimerical American theater. He wrote: “People who don’t know who they are privately, accept as we have accepted for nearly fifteen years, the fantastic disaster of American foreign policy, and the incoherence of the one is an exact reflection of the incoherence of the other. Now, the only way to change all this is to begin to ask ourselves very difficult questions” (Baldwin Cross 66). Here Baldwin connects the private panic in the American head and home to the forces global terror played out on behalf of so-called American interests in the world. In case this is sounding rhetorical, consider the following image:unnamed

Ask, for instance, the driver of this SUV in Georgia for his views on drone strikes, gun laws, neighborhood watch programs and related social issues. You ask, that is; I’m afraid to. All of this, at each level, driven by private questions the language for which—to say nothing of any answers—is obscured by the whole pageant of guns, jokes, and (by whatever name) drones.

This paradigm is directly applicable, for example, in the relation between the neighborhood watch mentality with its reliance on pro-gun legislation pervasive in much of the contemporary U.S. and the popular support, indeed demand, for preemptive strikes in the American “war on terror.” In this sense, the “war on terror” appears, in fact, to be a kind of “natural” (meaning veiled ideological) extension of the nexus of pro-gun legislation and gated community / neighborhood watch mentality. Bush’s war on terror / homeland security policies positioned constitutionally by John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales and kept basically intact or extended by Eric Holder in the Obama administration, in Baldwin’s lens, operate precisely as a global neighborhood watch program. The system of connections at work here is toxic to lives in ways few are conscious of and, in fact, in ways few want to know anything about. In this, then, as it was in 1964, Baldwin recommends that the place to start may not be located in Somalia or Afghanistan, not even in Washington, but with the lyrical resuscitation of a strangled blues self beginning with difficult questions in the hallway mirrors and across the dinner tables of American private life. And, the proportion of panic in the stricken vacuums produced by these reckonings, I’d bet on Baldwinian logic, will decrease in direct proportion to the level of privileged bankruptcy which have afflicted the persons in the mirrors.

Now. We know some of what the black President has in the bank. And, it’s not because he’s black and it’s not not because he’s black either. We know because he wrote it down, which is exactly the same reason so few of us know it. Which scarcity itself, it appears, is a crucial political (if not survival) tactic. I read Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father while flying to Kenya when the author was a newly elected U.S. Senator. I read parts of the book in shock and disbelief. The author of these paragraphs is a U.S. Senator? My amputation: I’d have never thought it possible. For one thing, we know for certain that Barack Obama understands what Baldwin wrote about gangrene and amputation. Consider the following two passages from Dreams From My Father where Obama riffs on Du Bois and describes what he imagines about a Kenyan waiter in a restaurant frequented by Westerners : 

If he’s ambitious he will do his best to learn the white man’s language and use the white man’s machines, trying to make ends meet the same way the computer repairman in Newark or the bus driver back in Chicago does, with alternating spurts of enthusiasm or frustration but mostly with resignation. And if you say to him that he’s serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what is required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown. (314)

That’s gangrene. And, amputation? Obama writes : 

Then again, maybe that’s not all that the waiter is feeling. Maybe part of him still clings to the stories of Mau-Mau [essentially, revolutionary amputations of these complexities], the same part of him that remembers the hush of a village night or the sound of his mother grinding corn under a stone pallet. Something in him still says that the white man’s ways are not his ways, that the objects he may use every day are not of his making. He remembers a time, a way of imagining himself, that he leaves only at his peril. He can’t escape the grip of his memories. And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition. 

A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you. 

A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground. (314)

The President of the United States wrote those paragraphs. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. If it gets around, he’s finished. And, in his first term in office, Barack Obama’s Department of Justice successfully prosecuted long-time Chicago Police Commander John Burge (notorious for his decades-long campaign of torture and false imprisonment).

But, don’t tell anyone that! News such as that could give his “pro-American” opponents fuel; in American history, and from a perspective, albeit hideous, that Baldwin’s line of sight forces us to acknowledge, such news could endanger the President’s life. At the same time, he jokes about the often mistaken and always extra-legal use of Predator Drones in killings across the globe which turns amputations—in this case the militant urges for revolutionary freedom such as the Mau-Mau—into assassinations. Who now is in dangerous rhetorical territory close to the Kennedys’? Well, this is beautiful, the President has these paragraphs and the sensibility they profile in the bank. And, it’s terrible. He must radically dissemble that sensibility to govern at all if not simply to survive. And, that’s the nature of the view Baldwinian light gives up when we hold our eyes there long enough that they start to adjust. Who can afford such visions? Whose style can, “in a way. . . must,” accommodate them? And, here we are. Truth is, there’s no need for such perceptions to be secreted because the vast majority of Americans’ (life)styles simply can’t accommodate what all this spells out. That’s the trap, that’s the vacuumed panic ca. 2014.  

Comments like Obama’s joke, echoing as they do comments by Baldwin and Kennedy and many others, make me wonder again if this is the country that would elect a black president or not? And, to quote Miles’ sardonic stylized-lyricizing, “So what?”

Do we aspire to clarify and further our shared, blues condition or intensify our chimerical and bankrupt states of mind? Then, I wonder about it, again, vote by vote, person by person, mirror by mirror. What’s changed? What’s constant? And, what would that mean? To whom? And in what way? James Baldwin’s musical attention to this dynamic riding the dynamics of amputation and gangrene offers quite precise and useful guides to these massive and imprecise questions and to much that lurks, in our mirrors, within and behind them. His work also exposes some of why the answers and evidence has been so confusing and suggests some of how the confusion is still so dangerous. It also offers eyes to see, possibly, much more than we’d like to see and places us close enough to touch the living turbulence of political, social and private life. The living turbulence is painful and dangerous but, as Baldwin told Studs Terkel in 1961, the alternative is a treadmill pursuit of a chemirical happiness amid a joyless chaos. The contemporary choice Baldwin clarifies, written backward in the mirror, is clearly between the “Uses of the Blues” and the Bankruptcy of Privilege. There’s no predesigned script. Baldwin offers chord changes and constants. Who’s marked the tonic? And, indeed, at those prices, who can afford to improvise? Baldwin’s ready answer: those who must. 

India’s ‘Africa’ policy

In a speech last October, Narendra Modi argued, “I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy…we have to put our own house in order so that the world is attracted to us.” The need for a robust economy is paramount for Modi’s India. The economy will drive Modi’s government in domestic and foreign agenda, and New Delhi’s ambitions in the African continent reflects this. India’s interests are likely to be bound up more and more with the growth of African economies. It is likely that the language of a ‘Rejuvenated India’ will become enmeshed with the grand and convenient narrative of a ‘Rising Africa’.

India’s engagement in Africa since Independence has been chaotic and incoherent, with a multitude of actors and sectors engaging in Africa continent. The official Indian rhetoric, however, has treated Africa as a monolith, discounting a continent with heterogeneous political economies and varying levels of economic and social development. While India made had long historical linkages with the continent, trade in the postcolonial era lagged behind. Till the year 2000, the volume of trade was a meagre $3 billion. In the last decade, however, there was a dramatic increase in trade between India and Africa, leaving it at $70 billion currently; trade is projected to reach $90 billion by 2015. Despite the multifold increase, India is still playing catch up to the $200 billion volume of China-Africa trade. The reason for this disparity? While Chinese inroads in Africa are state driven, Indian in roads are private sector driven.

All of that is set to change. Modi’s Election manifesto states, “BJP realizes the need to focus on generation and distribution of power as a national security issue, so that the growth is not negatively impacted due to supply issues in the energy sector”, squarely placing energy security under national security. If Modi is to achieve his goal of development, then energy security becomes of paramount importance. And where commerce heads, the military will follow.

In the past decade, India’s strategic presence in the continent has increased; under Modi’s reign these trends will solidify. In 2006, Raja C. Mohan argued that India should “reclaim its standing in the near abroad in parts of Africa”. The Indian Navy has cautiously and steadily extended its presence to cover most of the island states off the eastern coast of Africa since a 2003 bilateral defence assistance accord first authorized it to patrol the exclusive economic zone of Mauritius. This was done under the Prime Ministership of BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Subsequent deals have led to patrols of the territorial waters of the Seychelles and regular presence off the coast of Mozambique. In 2007, India established its first listening post in northern Madagascar, setting up a surveillance station to track shipping in the western Indian Ocean. Attacks on several Indian merchant ships by Somali pirates in 2008 gave an added impetus to keep at least one Indian Navy warship on station in the Gulf of Aden at all times since October 2008.

India’s Economic and Energy Policy will make it imperative to secure the African coast, just as China secures its interest through the “String of Pearls” strategy. Alioune Ndiaye, in “L’Afrique dans la politique étrangère indienne: Les nouvelles ambitions africaines de New Delhi”, calls this geographic regional strategy the “Varuna Triangle”. Here, India will have to contain China through long term strategic investment in African countries located along the Indian Ocean from the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, including African island states of Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. Through naval diplomacy, and the opening of listening posts, India is already aiming at securing its external trade and countering the presence of China in the region. Under Modi, Africa will not just be a continent where India endeavors to expand its economic footprint, but one where it will seek to build, protect and project its power.

Dutch Logic and the New Bruin Pete: Making Something Less Racist by Making it More Racist

As most AIAC readers know by now, the Dutch are having a very hard time letting go of their precious blackface tradition. Well sadly, but not surprisingly, Zwarte Piet (in English: Black Pete) is still amongst us. Obviously there are so many rational and convincing arguments to keep him; the kids would be terribly upset, he’s a symbol of black power, he actually got black because he came down the chimney, and our all time favourite: he’s good for moral reasons…because he demonstrates that black people work too. Asking the Dutch public to get rid of their national blackface hero is just too much to ask in 2014.

But (enter cheers), not all is lost because the Nederlands Centrum voor Volkscultuur en Immaterieel Erfgoed (Dutch folk and heritage centre) decided to talk to about 20 Dutch people, do research and what not, all to figure out what a new Black Pete should look like. Hooray. Their ideas were presented on Dutch public television TV show Knevel & Van den Brink. I’m sure they thought real long and hard about it because Black Pete is now, wait for it, no longer black but brown! His Afro is replaced by black straight hair and the big red lips and the earrings have disappeared. People, let’s all get down on our knees and give praise!unnamed

This seems to be a very emotional loss for many white Dutch folk; we’ve all heard so much about all their thoughts and feelings on the matter, ranging from why black straight hair is clearly less racist to in to why people of colour have too much say nowadays and should be shipped back. But really, in what universe did people think settling for a ‘new’ Black Pete, would be better? People: never seek to find a compromise on racist imagery because it will really only get worse. Replacing blackface by brownface is a move that clearly demonstrates that the Dutch really do not understand how ingrained and pervasive their racism actually is. Let’s face it, only the Netherlands will try making something less racist by making it more racist.

Can an African team reach the World Cup semi-finals?

No European nation has won the World Cup when it has been held in South America, and the potential for teams such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay to pose a major challenge should be taken seriously. Although the marketing campaigns of major multinationals sell the event as a stage for brilliant individual players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, the last few tournaments have seen excellent team performances consistently overshadow outstanding individuals. Less-fancied teams such as Uruguay in 2010, South Korea in 2002 and Croatia in 1998 have all made it to the semi-final stage through discipline, drive and collective effort. This year, perhaps, an African team can make that step too.

On paper it is the Super Eagles, the champions of Africa, who go into the tournament with the best chance of making a big impression out of all the African sides. Nigeria have a strong squad of powerful and skillful players to call on, and have shown no sign in recent years of the kinds of internal divisions which plagued past campaigns. Their secret weapon is undoubtedly their indefatigable head coach Stephen Keshi, the man known affectionately as “Big Boss”. A no-nonsense centre-half as a player, Keshi won the African Cup of Nations as the captain of the Super Eagles in 1994, and after spells in charge of Togo and Mali he took over as manager of the Nigerian national team in 2011, with the team in disarray following its disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup. A man possessed of great natural authority and charisma, Keshi has set about comprehensively rebuilding Nigeria into an attacking force that can once again pose a threat on the continental and global scene.

“My vision is to bring back our style of play, which is attacking football, with speed, power and technique, which I think has been lacking for so many years,” Keshi said in a recent interview. “It’s not going to take one day or six months to get that done. It will take time.”

With Keshi at the helm, many established players — the likes of Obafemi Martins, Taye Taiwo and Yakubu — have given way to fresh blood, with young, dynamic talents such as Lazio’s all-action midfielder Ogenyi Onazi and pacey winger Ahmed Musa bursting on to the scene. Vincent Enyeama, one of the top-performing goalkeepers in Europe this season, remains a bulwark of stability between the posts, while Chelsea’s vastly experienced John Obi Mikel is the lynchpin of the side, deployed in a more advanced, creative role than the holding midfield position he fills at club level.

The good news for Nigeria is that by the time they face the skilful Argentineans in Group F, they may already have qualified, if they can secure good results against Iran in their opening tie, and tournament debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina. A second-place finish in their group would see them drawn against the first-placed team in a weak Group E, likely to be France.

If Nigeria have the best coach of the African teams, Ghana’s strength lies in the depth of their very gifted squad and in the experience built up through good performances at the last two tournaments. Though the Black Stars have stumbled in recent Nations Cups, they have nonetheless looked by far the best equipped African team to challenge on the world stage over the past decade. Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah is a key player, though given the range of midfield options available to coach Kwesi “Silent Killer” Appiah, his single most important squad member remains forward Asamoah Gyan, who is in line to become only the fourth African to score in three different World Cup tournaments.

A winner-takes-all tie against the Portugal of Cristiano Ronaldo looks likely, but if Ghana can rediscover the form that saw them blast six goals past Egypt in qualifying, the slick-haired Real Madrid superstar may be in for a shock.

Perhaps the African side whose performance is hardest to predict are Ivory Coast. Blessed with CAF African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure, who goes into the tournament as the world’s finest midfielder on current form, coach Sabri Lamouchi’s task is to find a system which allows the creative talents of Toure and the effervescent winger Gervinho to unlock defences. The inexperienced Lamouchi faces a major selection dilemma in the striker’s position. Didier Drogba is team captain and retains huge respect within the Ivorian game. But Wilfried Bony, a similar type of forward to Drogba, finished the English Premier League season as the outstanding form striker in the country and looks far more of a goal threat than his aging rival. The ideal solution might be to start Bony and use Drogba as a high-impact substitute — provided the legendary forward can be persuaded to put the team’s interests above his personal pride.Nigerian Rashidi Yekini screams 21 June

For all their high-calibre players, Ivory Coast have been hugely disappointing in recent competitions. This time the draw has been kind to the Elephants, who should have too much for both Japan and Greece. Their second game, against Colombia, should be a superb encounter and is likely to decide the group winner.

Algeria have never made it beyond the group stage, and will face three tough games against Russia, South Korea and much-fancied Belgium. Fans of the Fennecs can take heart from the recent emergence of the elegant midfielder Nabil Bentaleb and the good form of rugged centre-forward Islam Slimani. Their key player is Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli.

Cameroon, who always seem to qualify for the World Cup despite weak performances at continental level, face difficult games against Mexico, Croatia and hosts Brazil. Although their biggest goal threat is likely to be 22-year-old Vincent Aboubakar, all the focus, as ever, will be on Samuel Eto’o as he competes in his fourth World Cup tournament (btw don’t miss Ntone Edjabe’s brilliant piece on Cameroon for the FT). The four-time African player of the year recently dismissed Jose Mourinho’s suggestion that he is in fact older than 33, and promised to emulate his boyhood hero Roger Milla and keep playing until he is 41.

Asked about the challenge of taking on the hosts, “le petit Milla” insists he is undaunted. “We beat the Brazilians at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,” he recalled. “There was a certain Ronaldinho in the team and many others. Eto’o is not scared. Cameroon is not scared.”

Think you know football? Test your skills against AIAC bloggers, top African football journalists and other fans by joining our World Cup fantasy league. Register, pick your team and join our league, “AIAC Superleague” — then invite all your friends to join too. But hurry! The tournament kicks off tomorrow.

We will be tweeting throughout the tournament — for all our football-related coverage follow our dedicated football handle @FutbolsaCountry.

This is an edited excerpt from a preview written for The Africapitalist magazine, and is republished with permission.

Africa is a Country Radio: Episode 3

Episode 3 of Africa is a Country Radio is live on Groovalizacion and the AIAC Mixcloud page. This month is a music only episode because I had been touring the U.S., and only just arrived back to Rio to record the show.

However, there is a still a bit of a theme. Brazil being on much of the world’s minds these days I had to open the show with a dedication to the World Cup host country. A special post-show big up to the Brazilian people — who stay challenging the status quo of global mega events!

Africa is a Country Radio: Episode #3 by Africasacountry on Mixcloud

Interview: On two important exhibitions devoted to African diasporas during the slave trades (Part II)

In this, the second, in a two-part interview with Dr. Sylviane Diouf and Dr. Joaneath Spicer, respectively the curators of two important exhibitions of African diasporas–Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europeand Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers ­—Jean-Philippe Dedieu and Noémie Ndiaye began by asking Sylviane Diouf about the juxtaposition of East African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers.

East African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed in your exhibition. It allows you to explore the question of the African diaspora on a global level. What is at play here?
Sylviane Diouf: Our exhibition doesn’t talk at all about the Atlantic slave trade. What we show, tacitly, is the difference between the Atlantic slave trade and the East African slave trade, whether it be Arab or Indian. We point out the differences. And one of the fundamental differences is Islam. How does Islam define slavery? How does it treat slaves? Slavery in India was more flexible than in Europe, but solely in its Muslim version. For example, slavery carried out by the Portuguese in Goa was the same as Atlantic slavery. With Islam, we see an enormous difference, and it is that which interests and surprises people. The fact that slaves could become prime minister, found dynasties, and achieve important positions, was impossible in the European system, but was possible in the Muslim system. In the European system, the children of an enslaved woman were born as slaves; in the Muslim system it was the opposite, the children inherited the father’s status. When the father was free — which was often the case with owners — the children were born free. Emancipation of slaves in the Muslim system was very easy — it was a means of earning God’s favour. There was no need to complete a large amount of paperwork. With regards to the recruitment of slaves — and they came from Africa as well as Europe, Turkey, and Asia, another difference with the Atlantic world –, there was no requirement for them to work the soil in India because there were already plenty of people available to do so. The people who were taken there – since it was a more complicated and expensive procedure — were generally, in the case of the men, soldiers, which allowed them to rise up through the ranks. Many of the women were domestic servants in the royal courts (in which there were thousands of people working), concubines, nurses, cooks… The concubines had a very prestigious status — well removed from the western view of them –, their children were born free, and the women themselves were generally freed, either at the birth of the children, or the death of the owner. The children were integrated into the family, which was completely different from the Atlantic system. It is one of the aspects, once again, which are of interest in this exhibition: to show people that the western model is not the only one, and that it could have been different.

The case of the African arriving as a slave in India and who, due to the flexibility of the Muslim system, managed to rise through the ranks – this was surely an exceptional case?
Sylviane Diouf: As regards the highest positions — prime minister, nawab, finance minister — the options are limited. But we must think in terms of the culture of those countries. To be a eunuch was very important — not as much as in Turkey, but important all the same. Army general, captain, religious leader or concubine: these were also important positions. Even in the 20th century, the domestic servants of the court who took care of the elephants and the horses were considered to hold significant positions. One of the first well-known Africans was in charge of the sultana’s stables in Delhi, and it is even rumoured that they were lovers. The position of stable master was a very high honour, an important position from a non-western viewpoint.

Is there a specific way to paint and portray an African person in Indian art?

Sylviane Diouf: In Indian art, we find real people, depicted with their true characteristics, shown as they really were. The impression that I have, after having viewed many items, is that Indian art is very realistic and treats Africans in the same way as others.

The Walters Art Museum insists that this exhibition constitutes an attempt to “create an increased sense of a shared heritage” with the African-American community of Baltimore, and to serve a more “diverse audience”. Do you feel that the attempt was successful in this respect?

Joaneath Spicer: Yes, I do. People care about other people, and people care also about their sense of their own role in history. There is a reason that traditionally African-Americans have not come so much to art museums to my mind. We should not be astonished by this. There is a feeling underneath that they are looking back at history. One of the reasons that there is a tendency to look towards more contemporary art or modern art in African-American culture is that the past is not necessarily a comfortable place, and people would rather look forward. African art is not necessarily appreciated more. Not everybody, just because they are of African ancestry, is going to care about African art. There is no necessary relationship there at all. So that leaves you a little bit in a vacuum. What I really want to share is: “I know you were there, I want you to know that you were there, so that we can just go on. Of course I’m expecting you, because this is your heritage too.” Not only does this seem to me absolutely true, but from a museum perspective I also think it is critical for us. One of the reasons that I kept pushing and pushing for this show is that I personally think that it is absolutely critical for how we operate as institutions. There are all kinds of layers here in which something operates, and I will certainly say that we sold apparently a record number of memberships during that show.

According to both of you, what are the contemporary stakes of the representation of the African Diaspora?

Sylviane Diouf: Here at the Schomburg Center, there has been a realisation that, when they are presented with their history, people are absolutely enthralled, sometimes completely incredulous: “We had no idea that this existed! We didn’t even know that there were black people there!” The academic research has been carried out and continues to grow; there is now a need to pass it on, to successfully repackage it, and present it to the public at large. That is what we are doing here, and we have noticed a great interest in the subject. It’s not only a discovery but there is also a feeling of connection to a much larger African Diaspora. And even though the experiences were  different, of shared history.

Joaneath Spicer: I think the stakes are actually considerable. If you are thinking about the Renaissance, just imagine yourself in an upland meadow. There are all these little streams running through it, and it’s all very interesting, it’s beautiful, it’s very lush, many sorts of possibilities here, and they’re all interesting in themselves, but you don’t know which ones, from just focusing on that, are going to be important 200 years later. After all, as a point that I kept having to make, we are not saying that this is a central issue of the Renaissance, this is one small thread within the Renaissance, because the African presence, numerically, was not so great. To my mind, one of the most compelling aspects of this subject, besides just the natural fascination of the untold story, is that I have the advantage of standing downstream. And I can look upstream. And I can see where that stream came from. And what was a little stream is now a river. And, in some degree, it waters our world.

* Image: Portrait of the seventh ruler of Sachin, Nawab Sidi Mohammed Haider Khan, 1930. The Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection.

Modi’s New India

In what has been called a historic general election, India elected Narendra Damodardas Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the highest echelons of power — the Office of the Prime Minister.  Modi was elected by a nation of “aspirational Indians”. His victory is theirs. As he took oath as the country’s fifteenth Prime Minister, men rejoiced on the streets and women cried before their 24/7 news channels. Under Modi, India thinks only of the dreams of the future, not the history of its past.

But, as you may know, PM Modi is a polarising figure. He has been called a strongman by some and saviour by others. Many in India’s intellectual class have repeatedly drawn comparisons to Modi’s emergence and statesmanship to fascism. India’s liberal left-leaning intellectual class—which rightly rallied against him for the atrocities committed in Godhra and the muscular Hindutva propagated by the RSS and its nexus to the ruling BJP Government—has never been able to carry out a dispassionate analysis of Modi and his style of governance. In my opinion, while Modi’s brand of politics is not quite fascism, it definitely shares the same structure that fascism does. It closely resembles what Stuart Hall described as “authoritarian populism”, rather than European fascism of 30s and 40s. Gramsci evokes Machiavelli’s famous metaphor of a centaur from the Prince—half man, half beast—to illustrate the concept of power as a combination of coercion and consent. Modi is like the centaur that both Machiavelli and Gramsci describe: “half man half beast, a necessary combination of consent and coercion.”

The rise of Modi and the mood in India today is not unprecedented or historically unique. History is full of men who have ridden the populist mood, of people who wanted to be saved by an all-encompassing charismatic leader who could get the work done. One only need to look at India’s recent past, when Indira Gandhi was the ‘Empress of India’, to note a parallel moment of projected desire. With her slogan “Garibi Hatao” (Abolish Poverty) she won the 1971 elections with a popular mandate and landslide victory. One of her cronies declared ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’: one that isn’t that far from the slogan that accompanied Modi’s rise to power—”Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar“, which, crudely translated, reads, “This time, Modi’s government” (“sarkar means “The Government” and colloquially refers to a “political overlord”). To borrow from Twain, history might not repeat itself, but can certainly rhyme.

While the event of Modi being elected to the highest office in India not unprecedented, men with the magnitude of power that Modi possesses today will shape and influence the India in an unprecedented manner. What does all of this mean to the country, its foreign policy and its engagement with the outside world ? Predictably, there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing and disagreement about what Modi will mean to India. One camp feels that Modi is no revolutionary figure, and business will go as usual. The other camp feels the rumble of a colossal shift in economic policy. Prof. Manjeri Chatterji, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, stated that Indian foreign policy has been broadly consistent and any changes had little to do with the Prime minister’s political ideology. “Predictability,” she argues, this “also applies to foreign policy.” Prof. Akeel Bilgrami has argued that BJP’s election campaign based on “change” is mere “rhetoric and pretence” and states that “… what it (Modi’s government) proposes as change and novelty is entirely continuous with policies that Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers have put into place.” Prof. Ashutosh Varshney has argued the opposite, that Modi will “reshape the entire political universe of India” and economist Arvind Subramanian stated that “Modi could be India’s Deng Xiaoping”.

Oddly, there are some salvageable truths in all these pronouncements. While India’s foreign policy has stuck to a certain predictable course over the last few years, it is also known for having a powerful Prime Minister who left an undeniable mark on the country’s foreign policy. In the words of Nehru’s (India’s first Prime Minister) biographer, “In no other state does one man dominate foreign policy as does Nehru in India. Indeed, so overwhelming is his influence that India’s policy has come to mean in the minds of people everywhere as the policy of Pandit Nehru… Nehru is the philosopher, the architect and the engineer and the voice of his own country… that foreign policy may be properly termed as his own monopoly…”. If he aspires to mimic Nehru’s levels of global influence, it is likely that people everywhere will begin to see India’s foreign policy as the policy of Narendra Modi.

Modi ran a Presidential campaign in a parliamentary democracy and won. Siddharth Varadarajan, former Editor at The Hindu points outs, “his means of governance might also be Presidential.” For the first time in 25 years, India will be governed by a single party with no real opposition. Prof. Varshney is partially right: Modi with this overwhelming political capital and power, might reshape and expand the powers of the Prime Ministers Office, if not the entire political universe.

Domestically, however, much will remain the same in India, because political change seldom leads to or guarantees social change. Even the greatest of social revolutions and political revolutions hold on to more continuities than usher in immediate change.


Mixed race kids a new phenomenon in the Netherlands? We think not.

This week cultural centre de Balie in Amsterdam will be hosting an event titled ‘ (In)visibly Mixed’ on “mixed race” families and relationships (BTW, the Netherlands uncritically accepts this terminology, along with the assumption that certain people are “pure” and others are “mixed”, thereby reifying 19th century race theories). Loving Day takes the end of anti-miscegenation laws in America in 1967 as its starting point to celebrate the growing number of mixed couples and children in the Netherlands. Mixed children are a growing phenomenon in the Netherlands (up from 30% to 37% from 2007 in Amsterdam) but oddly, the program claims, this growth is not visible in Dutch policy or imaging of the Dutch identity.

Being designated as “mixed race” ourselves, we don’t deny that there’s a lot to talk about, but we were mildly surprised to see that this program completely ignores the historical and socio-economical context of mixed race identities within Dutch colonial history. We say mildly, because it wouldn’t be the first time the Dutch conveniently forgot about their colonial adventures. There were clear strategies to instill and secure Dutch “purity” and a cultural sense of belonging in both South Africa and Indonesia. But of course, there were those “Others” that produced in both former colonies. Indos (people of mixed Indonesian European descent) have existed within the former Dutch-East Indies (and thus the Netherlands) for over 300 years, and the same can be said about the Coloured community in South Africa. Let’s not forget that there were and has been strong Dutch policy surrounding and creating these “mixed” identities beginning with the colonial period and existing well into the present.

The regulation of sexual relations was ingrained in the structure of the colonies and often also after periods of colonization. Many of us already know that in apartheid South Africa, sexual prohibitions were made very clear through the prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Amendment Act (1950) that outlawed marriage and sex across the colour line. But back in the day, Dutch settlers eagerly married or fathered children with Khoisan women. As scholars such as Ann Stoler have pointed out (see here), the regulation of sexual relations was important to the development of the colonies itself. In South Africa. we see that in the initial period of colonization “mixing” was tolerated and even condoned. Actually the sexual relations between European men and colonized women aided the long-term settlement of European men in the colonies. Again, as AIAC readers may know, “Coloured” South Africans descend from European settlers—as well as from Cape slaves, indigenous Khoisan population, and other black people; because of that, they are regarded as being “mixed race” and often seen as distinct from the historically dominant white minority and the African population. There is of course much more to say about the Coloured identity and its fluidity, but the influence of Dutch settlers cannot be denied.

In Indonesia, the VOC and Dutch colonial powers specifically created the Indos (or IndoEuropeans) as an acclimatized, cheap workforce that would be loyal to the Netherlands. Within the colony, Indos had special privileges above Indonesian natives and below Dutch colonials, which ultimately resulted in their expulsion from Indonesia once it gained its independence. Needless to say a people of mixed origin—who were brought up and told they were European and were above the local populace during colonial times, only to end up in Europe where they discovered that they were in fact not European—have some serious identity issues to work through. That is, before they completely disappear off the map of Dutch self-knowledge and history. As with silences inherent in other parts of Dutch history, the Indo, too, is expected to disappear from the present, now that colonial times have ended.

Obviously, South Africa and Indonesia weren’t the only colonial territories that the Dutch set foot on. There is a clear need for more research when it comes to similarities (as well as the differences) between the different colonies and the influence of the Dutch. In the same vein, current Dutch race and gender relations have been greatly shaped by colonial endeavors. It is odd enough that the Netherlands takes on the end of American anti-miscegenation laws as a means to celebrate people of mixed backgrounds within the Netherlands, but it becomes problematic when these issues are presented as something new and unpoliced, when the Dutch have had such strong colonial policies related to the creation of new ‘people’ for their own profit.

Furthermore, current Dutch policies banning and preventing new immigrants from bringing over spouses from their motherland will have an obvious effect on the increase in mixed race relationships and children in the Netherlands. Often the idealized idea of mixed race children with “cute light eyes and curly hair” dismisses the ambiguous feelings of cultural belonging that underlie mixed race identities. For instance, it is not uncommon for a white mother to be asked if she adopted her child. In addition, it is often not recognized how mixed race children are privileged over black children in the media and popular culture, which further enforces the idea that ‘lighter’ children have more status and privilege.

Too bad that Balie and programmers ignore these serious identity issues and prejudices faced by both mixed race couples and their offspring as well as Dutch colonial history and the role it has played in creating people like us. But as usual, the Dutch just like feeling good about themselves as liberal and tolerant—they are happy to “celebrate” but not deal with anything difficult.

*Mieke Weismann: Corporate whore by day, writer by night. Mieke is currently exploring her place in the world as a model minority and the descendant of both the powerful and the powerless in the context of the Dutch-Indonesian colonial past and post colonial present

The State Of African Hip Hop In 2014

In 2014, African hip-hop has graduated from the bedroom and walked into the boardroom. It’s left its cape (baggy jeans) at the door and picked up a pair of tight-fitting pants. In extreme cases, hip-hop has shed the ‘urban’ look completely and chosen shiny suits; it’s lost its assumed roots in the underground and allowed the tastes of corporate organizations to percolate it. MTN runs the Nigerian music industry; alcohol brands own South African hip-hop; Nestle sponsors rappers in Senegal.

The concept of music as service has all but disappeared. “Ngixel’i download link” is the new ‘where can I buy the CD.’ By virtue of it being a niche market, South African hip hop is feeling the pinch. Social media have tilted the fan-artist nexus acutely; people demand free music, the result of a generation which doesn’t grasp the concept of music as a service.

It seemed to make sense – and still does – that giving away music for free makes more people aware of an artist while increasing the probability of retaining die-hard followers who’ll hopefully fork out money for the album. This is a refrain pummeled as chief gospel to anyone who has an Internet connection, five minutes to spare, and an interest in ‘music trends,’ a ubiquitous term which outright dismisses the fact that things are done a bit differently in Africa.

Yes, more people see an artist through free music giveaways.

South Africa-based Cassper Nyovest had his song “Doc Shebeleza” downloaded well over two hundred thousand times when it was released earlier this year. He trended on twitter even! The second part, the one about retaining fans who will want to pay, is flawed! Cassper, or Driemanskap, or any of the artists who’ve managed to push big on-line numbers through offering free downloads may have gained visibility, but there’s yet to be evidence of an increase in music sales. Driemanskap’s “Hlala nam” was, as of May 2013, the most downloaded song on the Kasimp3 portal.

The push has been to partner with big brands over an extended period of time, a practice which raises many moral questions (especially with alcoholic brands) but sustains many an artists’ livelihood.

Maftown Heights, a one-night celebration of artists who are affiliated – even tangentially – to Motswako, partnered with Flying Fish and Blackberry (and other media partners) to produce an outstanding event, all things considered.

In theory, and indeed practice, brand-artist relationships work. But the hippie in me refuses to accept the if sports people are doing it counter-argument which has been posited to me before.

One of the brands which has become vested in South African hip-hop, and hasn’t been afraid to say as much, is Miller Genuine Draft. Not only did they bring Kendrick Lamar to South Africa, but they included a broad range of mainstream South African acts as support.


But this image of smoke and mirrors dressed in sleek television shows and punted as gospel is far from an accurate depiction of the majority of artists who still struggle to record, to get their music onto the radio, and to get featured in on-line and print publications. A war of intimidation happens daily on social networks; ‘struggling’ artists force-feed their followers links to their free music. It’s all still very agrarian down there.

Jozi’s weather can get really miserable really quickly. It’s particularly bad when you’re travelling in the traffic’s direction and stuffed – along with about thirty other human beings – inside a bus whose driver has yet to learn about safe driving.

I’ve a chance to chat to Sarkodie, the Ghanaian emcee whose affiliation to Akon’s Konvict Music label snowballed his already-rising star to greater heights at home and abroad.

I arrive to a locked gate in Houghton, the suburb at which Sarkodie will be shooting a video for ‘Pon di ting with the RnB singer Banky W. Fifteen minutes and two phonecalls later, the gate opens up. Samuel Forson, Sarkodie’s manager, ushers me inside.

“Anything you need to know about Ghanaian hip-hop, let me know,” he’ll later tell me.

Sesan Onguro is exchanging a few notes with Sarkodie and Banky W. Sesan, who’s also worked with D’banj and Ice Prince, is and energetic and easy-going director who, from first impressions, is like by everyone on the set.

Video models criss-cross from one end of the room to the other, up the stairs where the make-up room is located, and around the lounge area where some of the scenes shall be shot. In two weeks’ time, a day before Christams, the video will air on Channel 0 and MTV Base – new-age pariahs/messiahs/saviours of African music.

Prior to the arrival of MTv Base in 2005, Channel 0 had a monopoly on African music programming. That it was carried across different countries over the continent opened people on either sides of the equator to sounds other than the World Music rhetoric we’d been fed henceforth. It was an exciting time; 2Face’s “African girl” was just about the biggest song on the continent.


This past December, Sarokodie concluded the last leg of his Rapperholic tour – Rapperholic being the title of his 2011 album which resulted from the (rumoured) venture with Konvict.

The terms and conditions of the relationship had always been contested. The rumours were finally allayed when Akon himself announced that Sarkodie was never signed to Konvict Music Africa, adding that the artist – affectionately known as the Number One Obidi among his devoted fans – was supposed to be their inaugural signing in Ghana. “Unfortunately we couldn’t get the deal together so the deal never closed,” he said. Regardless, Sarkodie’s profile is the highest it can ever be. His new album Sarkology has garnered him multiple awards at the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards, and he’s been nominated for a BET Best International Act: Africa award, and an MTV Africa Music Award.

He’s also been the brand ambassador  for Samsung in Ghana.

The scope of hip-hop on the African continent is broad. There’s no one definitive sound that is distinctly African. Electro-chaabi is as much African as Didier Awadi’s mbalax-influenced rap songs; or AKA’s latest forays into sampling old-school house music songs. So are Blitz the Ambassador, Baloji, Youssoupha, or any of the myriad rappers across the diaspora.

While booking agents at festivals still yearn for a version of Africa sold to them under the ‘World Music’ banner of yesteryear, African hip-hop is more interested in trying new ideas out – new ways of distributing music, sometimes with no label support.

Blitz the Ambassador has spoken about how constant rejection from labels forced him into developing an independent mindset. Close to ten years since he started rapping, Blitz is one of the most widely-travelled musicians in the diaspora (alongside the Mighty Embassy Ensemble, his fascinating four-piece live band). His album Afropolitan Dreams is a work of wonder.

Hip-hop on the continent is fascinating in that, despite there being no formalized music industry in some countries, and a non-existent hip-hop industry to speak of in others, more artists seem to be emerging, be it through independently-run blogs, or wider-reaching media such as satellite television. Besides Blitz the Ambassador, this first half of the year is likely to witness releases from Tumi Molekane (South Africa), Zone Fam (Zambia), and E.L. (Ghana).

Review: The Square by Jehane Noujaim

The 16th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival opened on Wednesday with The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Egyptian Revolution. The film (available in the US on Netflix) holds the title of being the first Egyptian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It is a filmic triumph and an apt portrayal of our times, both in content and form. Noujaim, who directed 2004’s Control Room about broadcast network Al Jazeera, shot the film on Canon 5Ds (for techie reasons, these cameras regarded as revolutionary by indie filmmakers) and this gives the documentary a distinctly cinematic feel. More importantly, The Square brings to light the complexities of the Egyptian revolution by situating the viewer right in the middle of the protests, the idealism, and the chaos. With Egypt’s recent elections resulting in the questionable landslide victory of former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the film remains a timely reminder of the power and limitations of spontaneous social movements in shaping history.

Werner Herzog once said that the most important aspect of making a documentary was “casting.” Director Noujaim skillfully assembles a diverse cast that allows us to experience the uprising through their eyes, starting with the young revolutionary Ahmed Hassan. Ahmed is instantly likeable; his idealistic exuberance almost literally leaps off the screen. He starts the film by explaining public life under Mubarak as characterized by a lack of dignity, and tells his personal story of having to work from age 8 to pay for his school tuition, only to find that he is unable to find work as an adult. He then introduces us via voice over to Khalid Abdalla, an actor (The Kite Runner) turned revolutionary spokesman, Ramy Assam known as “the singer of the revolution,” and a bearded Islamist named Madgy Ashour, a soft-hearted individual from the Muslim Brotherhood. The energy in the opening scenes is electric; change feels palpable, inevitable. Indeed, as we know, Mubarak steps down and jubilation erupts across Egypt. However, this is just the beginning of the film.

When The Square won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, the film ended with the democratic election of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The revolution did not end at this historical moment, however, and in the summer of 2013 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets when Morsi was accused of grabbing dictatorial powers. Noujaim and her crew decided to go back and continue filming. During this time Remy Assam, who “turned the chants of the revolution into songs” was detained and severely beaten.

While the film does well to communicate the realities of fighting the revolution on the ground, it does have its shortcomings. When the Egyptian military aim their might against the Muslim Brotherhood, the film goes strangely silent. Max Fisher of The Washington Post described the film’s portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood as “one-sided” and “polemic” and that the documentary could further entrench the current polarized political climate in Egypt. However, Noujaim treats the Brotherhood character Magdy Ashour with a great amount of warmth and empathy, and we come to understand his reasons for supporting Morsi and the Brotherhood. While her stance is clear, Noujaim never allows herself to reduce the conflict to binaries of good and evil. By the same account, she overlooks the military’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood in August 2013, where hundreds of peaceful pro-Morsi civilians were killed. The Brotherhood has since been labeled a “terrorist” organization by the military-installed interim government, and all of its major leaders are either in jail or in exile.

Despite being a sobering and sometimes shocking account of the revolution, The Square ends on an upbeat, hopeful note. As Noujaim explained recently in an interview: ”What we’re going through in Egypt is a founding period. It’s not a transition period.” Even though Egypt’s revolution didn’t neatly end with a peaceful democratic moment, that doesn’t mean that this is a failed movement. In his book Networks of Outrage and Hope (Polity Press, 2012,) scholar and activist Manuel Castells names this expectation “a productivist vision of social action,” which seeks to apply economic logic to social movements. The biggest change in these movements occurs in the hearts and minds of the citizens who drive them, and cannot always be shown with clear results or data. As Ahmed says at the end of the film “We don’t need a new leader, we need a new consciousness.”

This is perhaps where Noujaim succeeds most in the film, conveying a sense of hope, resilience and the ongoing process of creating a new consciousness in the face of oppression. As Castells writes, “What matters most is the process, not the product… in fact the product is the process.” Never before has the revolutionary process been so beautifully captured on film (or in HD). The Square is a must see.

#HistoryClass: Nigeria’s Super Eagles

Our British colonial masters brought us a lot of good stuff. Stuff such as education, Christianity and corruption, among others. But probably the best thing the Brits brought to us was football. Today, in homage to the coming World Cup, we take a quick tour of the early years of the NFF and our national team, the Super Eagles.

There are no records of when the first official football match was played in Nigeria, but it started in the 1920s. The Nigeria Football Association’s own records tell us that the organisation was formed in 1945. However, there is evidence that the NFA (which later became NFF) was actually formed in 1933. A Daily Times article from 21 August 1933 invited people to the NFA’s first meeting at 7 pm that night.

This first meeting held at the Health Office in Broad Street, Lagos and was open to the football interested public. As of the 1938/39 football season in England, the NFA had been recognised by the English FA, with F.B Mulford as secretary. But it was not until 1945 before the association was formally inaugurated, and a national team put together.

In 1942, a cup competition, the War Memorial Challenge, limited only to Lagos based teams was started. The War Memorial Challenge was won by ZAC Bombers (1942), Lagos Marine (1943), Lagos Railways (1944 and 1945) respectively.

One of the first points of duty of the NFA was to inaugurate the Governor’s Cup to replace the War Memorial Challenge. The new competition, encompassed the whole country, and the first winners were Lagos Marine. By 1948, efforts were underway to form a national team built around players discovered at the Governor’s Cup. Early star players in the national team were Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Peter Anieke and Teslim Balogun (both of Lagos Railway). Nigeria’s first national team was named the UK Tourists, and after a few, unofficial, warm-up games went to the UK.

The team boarded the RMSS Apapa on 16 August 1949 for a playing tour of England and arrived Liverpool 13 days later. The players who made the trip were: Goalkeepers: Sam Ibiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, Ibadan); Defenders: Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta), ATB Ottun (Lagos Marines), Isiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC), John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson (Lagos Marine), Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey); Forwards: Mesembe Otu (Lagos Marine), Peter Anieke (Lagos Railway), Sokari Dokubo (Lagos Railway), Godwin Anosike (Lagos Railway), Tesilimi Balogun (Lagos Railway), Titus Okere (Lagos Railway), Etim Henshaw (Lagos Marine) and Edet Ben (Lagos Marine). Etim Henshaw was the team captain, making him our first ever national team captain. Teslim Balogun was the star.

The team had no shoes.

Nigeria’s first ever official game was against Marine Cosby, which we won 5-2. During the next game, against an Athenian League XI, the English refused to play if the Tourists didn’t wear boots. The Tourists wore boots and lost, 8-0. The third game, which was generally agreed as the best, was a 2-2 draw with a Corinthians League XI. At the end of the tour of nine games, the team’s record was P9, W2, D2, L5. All five losses were with boots on.

After the tour, Teslim Balogun was signed by Petersborough United becoming the first ever Nigerian football export.

On the return voyage home, the UK Tourists took on the new name, Red Devils, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone. During that stopover in Sierra Leone, Nigeria played her first official game against another country, defeating Sierra Leone 2-0 on 8/10/49.

In 1954, after Tony Enahoro’s motion for independence had been made, the Governor’s Cup was renamed FA Cup. The 1954 edition of the renamed FA Cup was won by Calabar FC who beat Kano Pillars 3-0 in the final. Meanwhile the Red Devils were still active, playing a series of friendlies against Ghana, including a 7-0 loss in 1955. In 1959, the NFA finally joined CAF, then followed this up by joining FIFA a year later as we approached independence.

In 1960, Nigeria played against Egypt in a qualifying game for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, our first ever competitive international. In that game against Egypt, the Egyptians trashed us, the team was made to wear green rather than the red they used to wear. It was from that moment that the name of the team was changed from Red Devils to Green Eagles. Also in 1960,as independence approached, the FA Cup was renamed the Challenge Cup. The 1960 edition of the Challenge Cup was won by Lagos ECN who beat Ibadan Lions 5-2 in the final.

Nigeria first participated in the Nations Cup when Ghana hosted in 1963, but the Green Eagles exited in Round 1. The results of our first AFCON were Egypt 6-3 Nigeria; Sudan 4-0 Nigeria. Okepe, Bassey and Onyia scored for us against Egypt. In the 1970s a new generation of players developed to national team level from the likes Stationery Stores, Rangers International and Shooting Stars. This development was spurred by our first major triumph. We won the gold medal at 1973′s All Africa Games, which we hosted. The likes of Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Muda Lawal, Segun Odegbami and Haruna Ilerika broke into the national team in the 1970s. This new generation of players qualified us for our second AFCON, which was hosted by Ethiopia in 1976. We got bronze.

We qualified for the AFCON again in 1978, hosted by Ghana, and again got bronze, beating Tunisia 2-0. Finally, our first AFCON title came when we hosted in 1980. We blasted Algeria 3-0 in the final match.

Interview: On two important exhibitions devoted to African diasporas during the slave trades (Part I)

Two important exhibitions devoted to African diasporas in the age of slave trades have just closed. The first, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” was organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and then displayed at the Princeton University Art Museum.  Visitors were invited to explore the roles of Africans and their descendants in Renaissance Europe, as revealed in compelling paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the period. The second, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers,” was a unique opportunity to discover for the very first time the lives and achievements of East Africans enslaved in India in photographic reproductions of paintings and contemporary photographs. Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers was set up by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library, and was later on view at George Mason University as well as the Museum of African American History in Boston, before traveling to India. We interviewed the respective curators, Sylviane Diouf and Joaneath Spicer.

How would you describe the genealogy of exhibitions devoted to the African presence in Western Art? What are the main new perspectives offered by the exhibition you curated?

Joaneath Spicer (Walters Art Museum): Well, it is a fairly short genealogy. There have been scattered examples in the past, but the genealogy of exhibitions is very different from the genealogy of scholarship. Moreover, unlike those previous scattered examples, I did not want to do an exhibition about the “Image of the Black in Western Art.” What I wanted was not the image; I wanted to know who the people in the paintings were. I am sure that is part of my orientation: if I had remained an academic, it would not have occurred to me to think about the visitor’s experience and allow it to influence my scholarship. People are interested in other people. I knew perfectly well from talking to friends, museum visitors, and colleagues, that it was their first interest; and certainly, for visitors to the show who themselves are at least in part of African ancestry, the issue of identification was very strong. It seemed to me the absolutely natural reaction and, therefore, I was going to let that guide me. We are still getting requests from high schools, from colleges, certainly from historically black schools, who want to engage with the catalogue of our exhibition, and I am willing to bet it is partially because it is about the people. To me, that is the critical thing.

What led you to organise the exhibition Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers?

Sylviane Diouf (Schomburg Center): My aim was to show people that the African diaspora is not limited solely to the United States, because there is a great deal of that viewpoint here: people are aware of the Caribbean, Brazil at a pinch, but regarding all the rest, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru etcetera, people simply have no idea. So even just considering the Atlantic slave trade, there is insufficient knowledge. There is a distinct lack of awareness about the African diaspora in Europe, let alone in the Indian Ocean area! What I wanted to do was to shed some light on the other diasporas, starting with a digital exhibition  in 2011,which was very successful. Subsequently, I brought Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts of Africans (Siddis) in India; an exhibition curated by Henry Drewal of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was enormously successful too. Two years later, in 2013, I decided to curate this historical exhibition, and that was also an extraordinary discovery for visitors.

3. Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages, by Paris Bordone (1500-1571).The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1973.

What difficulties are encountered by academics carrying out research on this region and on this subject in particular?

Sylviane Diouf: As regards the representation in art, identification is often difficult as opposed to the situation in Europe. In Europe, when you see a crowd in a painting, it is easy to notice a dark-skinned individual. In India, it is naturally more complicated because there is a gradation of skin colours. In Indian art you have people who are depicted as being very dark but who aren’t African, they are in fact Indian natives. In certain cases, Africans have been depicted with a type of colourful turban or particular hat, but that isn’t the case for all Africans. Generally however we are talking about the depiction of particular individuals here. They are often very well-known individuals due to their having attained very important positions. They are thus easy to identify, whether they may have been prime ministers or famous eunuchs.

Do we have a rough idea of the size of the African population in India during the period in question?

Sylviane Diouf: It is more complex than in the case of the Atlantic slave trade where we now have precise figures and databases relating to each ship. For the Indian Ocean area in general, the figures that we have are simply estimations, which range considerably, making it very difficult to be more precise. In saying that however, intercommunity marriage was practised to some extent, and there are therefore certainly some people who are not aware of the fact that they have African ancestors.

The various pieces you exhibited show both slaves and emancipated slaves. What kind of occupations did those free men of color have in Renaissance European societies?

Joaneath Spicer: In the first place, they are what you would normally call high-skilled manual labor, because people received money to set up their business, dowry, etc, but, even in the best circumstances, they hardly ever received an education. So that you often see them entering a subsistence class: they work as bakers, or in transportation, on boats, driving donkeys … Of course there are a few people who did receive really good educations — someone like the noted scholar Juan Latino, for instance, although he is highly unusual in that regard. So you do have some doctors and some lawyers and clerks of all sorts. In terms of religious figures you are much more likely to find the situation of Benedict the Moor, though. He was a Third Order Franciscan. Some free men of color could also be found at court. Within a court environment you could rise much faster than in a regular urban environment, which was ruled by guilds and craft groups — at court, all you needed to rise was the favor and gratitude of your owner or employer, In one painting depicting a scene in Lisbon, we see a black nobleman riding by in the foreground. He is easily identifiable as a nobleman because of the sign of the order that he is wearing on his cape. He used to be a witty court jester: he rose through the ranks, was eventually freed, kept rising, and then — what do you know — he was ennobled!

5. Detail of Sidi Said Mosque in Ahmadabad built by Sidi Said, a formerly enslaved Ethiopian in 1572. Wikimedia Commons

What was the role of black women in Western Renaissance societies? Are there some esthetic features specific to the representation of black femininity in the paintings you exhibited?

Joaneath Spicer: There is no question that what we know about jobs, moving up in the world, specific job descriptions or even a title that seems neutral like “baker” is about free men of color, not women. Black women suffered many disadvantages at this time, and first of all, you can imagine that a lot of the slaves that were bought for urban establishments, homes, would be women for domestic work. In domestic work you are not going to rise up. Additionally, when you have been trained in domestic work – if you are freed, what are you going to do? Probably more domestic work, which does not offer a way of rising up like a carpenter could by opening his own place, for instance. Domestic work does not work that way. And then, of course, there is the other side of the coin, which is that you were greatly in danger of being forced into a sexual relationship. However, in the paintings of the period, I would say that Black women are not necessarily sexualized. I don’t see them so much sexualized as estheticized, really. I think in real life there certainly was as strong exploitative dimension, but I don’t actually see it in the art.

Was there a specific way to paint and portray an African person in Renaissance Art?

Joaneath Spicer: I would have to say no. To my mind, Renaissance portrayal is much less stereotypic than what we have left over from Greek and Roman antiquity, which seems to be operating with very basic types. In the Renaissance, art is dealing with real people much more, and the minute you have real people, you are going to have tremendous variation. This is one of the things I was harping on in this exhibition – some of the general editors of “The History of the Black in Western Art” emphasized that painted Blacks are stereotypes, that there is just a stereotype. That is true in medieval art, but not in Renaissance art.

How were race and status intertwined? Would you say that the status of the subject depicted had any influence on the way they were represented?

Joaneath Spicer: It would be unavoidable that it had some, but on the other hand, some of the greatest and most sensitive expressive portrayals are of people we would have reason to think were slaves. So it can almost be exactly the reverse of what you might expect.

* Images:

1.  Adoration of the Magi, ca 1514. Worshop of Gerard David. Princeton University Art.

2. Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages, by Paris Bordone (1500-1571).The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1973.

3. Detail of Sidi Said Mosque in Ahmadabad built by Sidi Said, a formerly enslaved Ethiopian in 1572. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Kagame’s Rabbi

Shmuley Boteach seems to be everywhere these days. The right-wing rabbi’s new book Kosher Lust has just been released. Last week, he played host to a galafeaturing Chris Christie, giving the New Jersey governor a chance to make amends with Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel billionaire Christie offended when he used the words “occupied territories” in a recent speech.

Last month, Boteach’s mind was on yet another topic, one vastly different than sex or the 2016 presidential race. The consummate self-promoter was thousands of miles away from his New Jersey home, visiting Rwanda to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide that took the lives of some 800,000 people, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic group. He was tapped to deliver a prayer during a memorial service, part of a set of events to pay homage to the victims of the Hutu-perpetrated slaughter that has left an indelible mark on the country.

Boteach was not some random pick to speak at an official event in the presence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is seen by many as a hero who halted the genocide but has been accused of rampant human rights abuses.  In recent years, Boteach has assumed the mantle of promoting Kagame in the Jewish community and to other Americans. He has urged the Rwandan government to continue to strengthen its alliance with Israel, the rabbi’s other foreign cause.

The personal relationship Boteach forged with Kagame has intensified as Rwanda has become a leading African ally to Israel, despite the fact that Israeli dealers sent arms to the military when it was slaughtering Tutsis in the 1990s.  Israeli investors have poured money into Rwanda, which has cast itself as a renewed nation ready for investment after the devastating genocide.  Israeli arms continueto flow into the country.  Rwanda was one of 41 countries that abstained on the Palestinian Authority’s bid to obtain observer status at the UN; and Rwanda has acted as a dumping ground for a small number of African refugees who had fled to Israel, only to be rounded up in detention camps and deported. Rwanda’s alliance with Israel is part of the country’s decisive move into the Western geopolitical orbit, which includes economic ties and sending troops on UN and African Union missions.

Boteach calls Rwandans the “Jews of Africa,” and is one of many in the American Jewish community who sees a resemblance between Israel post-Holocaust and Rwanda post-genocide, though the analogy is flimsy.  As journalist Bill Berkeley points out in his book The Graves Are Not Yet Full, “there had been no Jewish tyranny in Germany, as there were Tutsi feudal tyrannies in Rwanda and Burundi, and there had been no Jewish-perpetrated genocides in, say, Austria, as there were Tutsi-perpetrated genocides against Hutus no fewer than three times in a generation in Burundi.”

The romance with Rwanda began after the rabbi, a “spiritual advisor” to Michael Jackson, saw the pop icon’s nanny return to her native Rwanda. Then, he wrote in 2013, he “finally made the decision to visit [in 2012] after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, met General Charles Kayonga, Rwanda’s chief of staff, who invited me.”  His second visit in 2013 wasbankrolled by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.  Boteach did not return requests for comment on this story.

“Your solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people is important, given that you have a unique understanding of the kind of security concerns that Israel has,” Boteach told Kagame late last year, when the president spoke at Cooper Union along with Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel.

Boteach likes to bring up the similarities he sees between criticism of Rwandan human rights abuses and criticism of Israel’s violation of human rights. And Kagame has met repeatedly with the rabbi, whom The Jewish Daily Forward’s Nathan Guttman called Kagame’s “key contact in the organized Jewish world.”

So when critics of Kagame pop up, the rabbi is there to push back.  Boteach sprung into action in late April, when Howard French, an author and former New York Times journalist who has reported from Rwanda, penned a Wall Street Journalcolumn harshly criticizing Kagame. French laid out the litany of crimes Kagame is responsible for–the slaughter of some 35,000 Hutu civilians and the devastating war waged in neighboring Congo–and argued that the West’s redemption narrative of Rwanda post-genocide has led it to turn a blind eye to these abuses.

Responding to French’s well-documented record, Boteach said forget about it. TheWall Street Journal piece was an “assault” that “re-roasts old chestnuts,” Boteach wrote in the Huffington Post.  He added that while there are “troubling allegations–”

“I raised these subjects with President Kagame on more than one occasion. I told him that as the only man alive to have stopped a genocide he is a hero to me and countless millions the world over.”

For good measure, Boteach called French’s assertion that Rwanda has “pursued coldblooded ethnic revenge” in Congo a “venomous” accusation reminiscent of “Roger Waters’ claim that Israel is now the Nazis,” despite the 2010 U.N. reportthat showed Kagame’s armed forces have killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed Hutus in  Congo. (Waters did not say Israel is like the Nazis, though he did sayright-wing Israeli rabbis’ statements reminded him of 1930s Germany.)  Kagame’s Rwanda has repeatedly meddled in the Congo, saying that the perpetrators of the genocide had fled there. But the brunt of the attacks in Congo have fallen on unarmed civilians.

“The Kagame government has a number of people who act like trolls, basically, who police discussion of Rwanda and Rwanda-related issues online and elsewhere…I took Boteach’s online piece as an example of this,” French, an associate professor at Columbia University’s journalism school, told me in a phone interview.  “Boteach can say whatever he likes, engage in semantics and try to call something an allegation or unproved. But he doesn’t really engage with the evidence, which is quite exhaustive.”

The evidence pile got more exhaustive in early May, when Canada-based newspaper The Globe and The Mail printed an investigation detailing how Rwandan exiles have been recruited by Kagame’s government to assassinate critics who are abroad.  The detailed record amassed against Kagame, though, has fallen on deaf ears in Washington–and in the American Jewish community.

“I became aware at a very early stage of writing critically about Rwanda,” said French, “that this displeased a number of people in the American Jewish community who had become convinced that based on their shared experience of genocide, that there was a special bond between Rwanda and Israel.”

This article first appeared on Mondoweiss.

Louis Henderson’s delicate journey through a real and virtual contemporary Ghana

Lettres du Voyant is a 40 minutes film made by Louis Henderson, a British filmmaker and artist. I met him during a dinner at Berlinale Talents last January, we had a fast chit-chat and after a couple of months I realise that he has done one of the most interesting film and document about Sakawa: a Ghanaian practice based on Internet scams and Akan religious rituals. As Louis mentions in the last part of the interview, Vice did a reportage on Sakawa titled “The Sakawa Boys.” If the Vice report’s reflects their gauche approach to field work, by contrast Henderson’s Lettres Du Voyant is a delicate journey through real and virtual contemporary Ghana. The film also leaves room for the viewer to imagine the Sakawa (un)reality. We touched many different topics throughout the interview besides Sakawa practice: Azonto, filmmaking techniques and post-internet animism.

First here’s the trailer:

How much was written and preprogrammed before you went to Ghana to shoot the film?

This is an interesting question that comes up often when talking about my work, because in fact I don’t write scripts or make storyboards; not in the classical sense anyway. For this film I was obliged to plan it beforehand in some respects, so I wrote a theoretical treatise (or intentional note perhaps) of the reasons behind the desire to make such a film, this was coupled with an outline of the locations I had imagined I could shoot in, and some images sourced from searches on the internet. I had been to Ghana once before as a child when I was 11 years old, but it has changed a lot since then and my memories of it are really foggy, so before going to shoot I was completely unaware of what the reality of Ghana might actually represent to me, but then this is how I make films; I go to a place with a series of ideas about something that are not necessarily fixed in my mind, and I allow the experience of being in the place change my approach to what I had imagined might be there, it is a process of research and discovery through first hand experience. My location scouting always begins on the internet, with google images and google maps, and then when I arrive in the actual place, I begin to shoot almost straight away, I shoot the processes of discovering a place for the first time in order to better reflect on my position to the story I am trying to tell, to configure my understanding of the world through the technology of the camera.

This for me is a method writing — writing with the camera, much Alexandre Astruc’s idea of the caméra-stylo, practiced by filmmakers such as Chris Marker or Pier Paolo Pasolini. I would say perhaps that at the foundation of my practice is the film Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana by Pasolini — a kind of self-reflexive approach to the possibilities of a literary camera, a cinema of poetry in the true Pasolinian sense.  My process is this, to quote Jean-Marie Straub: “First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form… The same goes for the sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, the cracks, all the geological layers in it.”


When I return home again, and get into the editing suite, and start to look back at the images I have filmed and listen to the sounds recorded – I begin to understand what I was trying to do with the camera and the sound recording device. It is then that I start to understand what I am able to do with the editing software, start to understand what parts of the fabric I will weave together to make this fictional tapestry that is based on a documentary reality of the world. And then I start to write the script, in post-production. Post-production is a very interesting term and a way of understanding my approach to filmmaking, that I make sense of the material world through the digital technologies of image manipulation (for a closer discussion of this I suggest the reader turns to Hito Steyerl’s essay Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead) In terms of literature in the case of Lettres Du Voyant, I was reading various texts at the time, particularly certain essays by Hito Steyerl and also a novel by Novalis called Heinrich Von Ofterdingen. This book actually worked its way into the voiceover quite considerably and I used large passages of Novalis, which seems fitting in terms of a certain romantic approach to filmmaking that I adhere to.

The soundtrack contains only one song: “Pum Pum” by Tic Tac (ft. Edem) – how did you choose it? Do you listen to a lot of hiplife or azonto from Ghana? If so, please tell me your favorites.

Whilst in Ghana we heard Azonto being played everywhere, everywhere! Before going to Ghana I was not hugely aware of Azonto, but I knew quite a bit of more old-fashioned hi-life, so for me it was a really amazing discovery, especially hearing azonto played out on a huge sound system as you get to understand the influence on it of certain techno and house rhythms. One evening at a really great ‘night spot’ in a village in the hills above Accra we were treated to some serious sound system battling as each bar would be playing their set within about 5 metres of each other, this resulted in an incredible medley of different tunes and quite a sonic experience as you walked up the road past each stack of speakers.


So the idea of using Azonto in the film came again through post-production. During the shoot we would hear Azonto being played on the radio all the time, luckily I was with my cousins who are Ghanaian and they could tell me what song was playing at any given time, particularly Boafo who is an expert! When we had finished the shoot I had some time off and went to Jamestown in Accra to buy some CDs, I just had a few names of various artists and went to ask at a CD shack what he had. I ended up buying a stack of ripped CDs with Azonto mixes on featuring a few hundred different tunes, and started to play them back at our house in Medina. Here I discovered 4 x 4, Keche and Sarkodie for example, the big names of Hip-life.  However the tune by Tic-Tac I actually discovered back in France in my editing suite, I was watching through my rushes and there was a shot of a gold mine in Obuasi with this song playing in the background, caught off someone’s radio playing out of frame. I loved the song but didn’t know its name, and not having my cousin around I was kind of stuck. So I googled the lyrics that I could hear and luckily the song came up. The song begins with this kind of electronic beeping that sounds like mobile phones of technological gadgets and thus it seemed fitting for the film.

I can’t think of many Azonto recommendations right now, but two tunes that kept on going round my head whilst I was there were “Moko Ni” by 4 x 4

…  and “Aluguntugui” by Keche.

Are you aware of the ‘scambaiting’ phenomenon (this is a good reference: ‘Scambaiting’, DISmagazine)? In your film, you take Sakawa as a form of anti-neocolonial resistance, so ‘scambaiting’ can be considered as a sort of neocolonial answer to Sakawa. Would you like to comment on this?

I was not aware of scambaiting as an actual phenomenon, although I had come across various forms of this through stories on the web etc. I had heard that people were trying to get back at scammers through these rather futile means and attempts at humiliation. I am not sure that scambaiting could be seen as a neo-colonial answer to sakawa, as its interests are not at all based in economic gain (which is the fundamental definition of neo-colonialism).  Rather I would see scambaiting as an entirely racist, primitivist and in fact colonial way of thinking, completely stuck in the western tradition of ontological binary oppositions such as good/bad, honest/dishonest, modern/primitive, moral/immoral, for example. This mode of thinking in an oppositional logic is what partly led to colonial domination in the African continent (and beyond) and is something that needs to be re-addressed and un-thought consistently, it is a mode of thinking that has shaped Western attitudes to the rest of the world and thus needs to be de-colonised from Western thought. Sakawa, as a form of animism, could be argued to be part of a contemporary interest in the processes of this de-colonisation of thought, as it begs a rethinking of our understanding of these binary oppositions and our moralistic approaches to such social phenomena as cyber crime – on an individual level and, more pressingly, a global, hypercapitalist one.


Sakawa as a form of neo-colonial resistance is a problematic and easily refuted subject, as the questions could be asked; how and what are they in fact resisting? Through stealing money from people are they not just falling into the same capitalistic system of thinking that they are apparently rebelling against? On what concrete level does this resistance actually exist in the face of, say, illegal Chinese gold mining in Ghana today? I wouldn’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I would state again that Sakawa as a form of animistic practice, works on the micropolitical level of resistance against a colonial form of thought that represses certain potentialities of subjectivity and agency. (To develop these ideas further I would really suggest the reader to turn to the recent work on Animism by Anselm Franke, and the thoughts of Suely Rolnik and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, particularly in the film Assemblages by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato.) Perhaps Sakawa is more post-colonial revenge than neo-colonial resistance, but currently I am researching into the possibility for a post-internet animism that works as a form of resistance to the colonialization of the internet by large corporations, I have yet to find a strong hypothesis, but I am working on it!


To me, one of the most intense part of the film is after the religious rite, when the image fade into a colorful palette and the percussive sound of the ritual turns into a synthetic one. What’s the idea behind this choice?

From the first moment I thought about making this film I was interested in the question of what a trance-like vision could be. What does one see when one is in a trance and possessed by a spirit? And more particularly what could this vision be in the post-internet position of contemporary juju rituals used for email scams? What can a post-internet animist trance look like? I was particularly taken with the idea that Sakawa boys could travel through the internet by the means of juju-induced trances, so I asked myself what could someone see when travelling through fibre-optic cables or what would one see when spiritually entering a computer? In the end I realised that any attempt at a concrete representation, without having actually experienced said trance/state/travel, would render an impossible image; so I decided to move towards abstraction as a form of representation of the unknown. This becomes aestheticised firstly through the sound of the ritual gradually becoming less and less ‘real’ as such, and moving to a sonic, tonal representation of the recording — as might happen when experiencing a trance induced state; our perception of surrounding sounds would merge with subjective interpretations of the tonal space we are experiencing. Furthermore, the sound you hear actually travels around the room in a repetitive circular motion (this was made possible through post-produced 5.1 surround sound spatialisation) in the desire to produce a kind of trance like effect in the space of the cinema itself. This ties in with the narrative in that after the ritual I wanted to push the idea that the spectator had actually become possessed by these spirits working in the film, that the spirits we encountered when doing the ritual were actual able to come out of the space of the film into the space of the cinema (through digital technology) and put the viewer into a trance. When the viewer is in the cinematic trance they see only a slowly changing palette of colours (that could be said to represent a kind of computer screensaver!), these colours showing the flatness of the screen, the material reality of a projection of light and colour and the potential for depth and transference between spaces and different states of being – again made available through post-produced digital technologies. After this sequence we see the first 3D renditions of the post-colonial independence monuments, as if to work towards a potential outcome for an image of a post-internet animistic trance that has its aim a resurgence of interest in the revolutionary activity of Kwame Nkrumah. These 3D images were made through digital scanning technology that essentially transforms ‘real’ objects into 3D ones to be manipulated in computer animation software – again another form of techno-animistic representation.


Would you recommend any readings or films to deepen the Sakawa practice?

There is in fact not a lot of material on Sakawa, and it is a dying phenomenon in Ghana, so I wonder if any more will come or not. There is a brilliant book by Jenna Burrell — a researcher at University of California — called Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, which is available from the MIT press. She has a chapter on Sakawa. Otherwise I would recommend watching, if you can find it, a series of movies called Sakawa Boys produced in Ghana over the last few years by a Ghanaian director called Socrates Sarfo – he gives an interestingly fictionalised account of what is behind Sakawa, but tends to lean towards a moralistic depiction of the problems of leaving the Christian faith and turning to ancient traditional beliefs etc. Of course in his films the Sakawa boys end up in more trouble than they ever imagined and are essentially seen as corrupt and immoral. Another one to watch, with a huge dose of salt, is the vice documentary called “The Sakawa Boys” — the problem with the Vice video is that of course they fall into a very dubious, entirely primitivist and racist account of Sakawa, with a hugely patronising view on what is actually a very serious phenomenon and practice — so maybe give it a miss in fact.

James Baldwin at 90, Part 3: Black Style in an Age of Sights for the Speechless

In Take This Hammer, Baldwin’s guide, Orville Luster, positions him in San Francisco’s Lower Fillmore District across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel. As they approach the hotel on Fillmore Street, Luster says, “now, off to our left here’s one Negro hotel, that’s owned.” Baldwin, eyes intensifying, looks across the street from the car: 

The only Negro hotel, and it’s called the Booker T. Washington? 



Though at that time Baldwin described himself as a stranger to San Francisco, he recognized the scene as if staring at a stage design: “This is the street that all Negroes are born on. The street all Negroes have to survive. The Booker T. Washington, the Baptist church, and the mosque. There’s really a great history, a great thing to be summed up in that if one could.” Lyrical as Baldwin’s stage set is, he leaves out at least one crucial historical detail. In fact, few of the black adults on that street were born there. Maybe re-born is the word? While touring the district, Luster explains that “redevelopment” means “removal of Negroes,” a phrase still used to describe “redevelopment” efforts by many black residents in the Lower Fillmore in the early 21st century. Luster relates: “in other words now the Negroes who came because the Japanese were pushed out are now being pushed out themselves.” So it goes. The two get out of the car directly across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel, the lounge of which was an important jazz venue in the Lower Fillmore in the years following WWII. Luster asks: “When you look at this street now. . . what comes to your mind about some kind of music or passage of the bible that describes this?” Baldwin responds:

Sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m sure those cats across the street can dance like, you know, like their white counterparts can’t. And the reason they can is because in a way they must. It is. . . it has got to come out somehow. It’s got to come out somehow. You know. And the pressure is great enough that it has to come out in a certain kind of. . .Negroes have great style. . .I think this is true even if it sounds chauvinistic. And white people don’t have much style. And one of the reasons that Negroes have a certain style is because they are aware of the conditions of their lives and they can’t fool themselves about it. You know. And when a Negro laughs or tries to make love or, or eats, or dances, it’s a kind of total action. I don’t mean this in the way white liberals are going to think I mean it I don’t mean that they’re more sensual more primitive or more spontaneous and all this, um, ethnic jazz. I mean that they live on another level of experience that doesn’t allow them as much room for make believe as white people have.

Midway through the comment above, the film cuts to images of a black family dancing on the street. The woman wears a fitted skirt and blouse. The man in dark slacks, white shirt and tie untied under his collar, moves while holding a baby girl in a Sunday-style dress. 

Baldwin is certainly in dangerous water here, and he knows it. He knows he’ll be misunderstood, knows he’s only partially understanding it himself, but he says it anyway. In fact, such working-while-out-on-the-limb is part of the style he’s describing. His points about black style being “a kind of total action” acted out in relation to a “level of experience” that, one, can’t be named according to mainstream American idioms and the assumptions that guide them and, two, that has relatively little “room for make believe” frame much about what we can see but not necessarily easily name in contemporary black aesthetics. It’s a lyrical condition in that it must communicate in ways more directly than conventional conversation and understanding can accomplish. 

It’s just over 50 years and 19 miles across The Bay Bridge and East on 580 from what Baldwin described in the Lower Fillmore to the corner of 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland where dancers, Garion Morgan a.k.a. No Noize, Leon Williams, Jr. a.k.a. Man, Tee “BJ” Stevens, and, the film’s central character, Darrell Armstead a.k.a. Dreal, perform on camera.

The quartet of dancers work in a vernacular dance idiom called “turfin,” descendent of black vernacular dance styles that lead back past the age of vaudeville. The film of the dance was shot (with a handheld, Canon 7D digital camera) and produced by Yoram Savion, the multimedia director at an East Oakland teen center called Youth UpRising. With three partners, Savion also runs an independent film company, Yak Films. 

At 3 minutes 57 seconds, the film is short, the plot fairly simple on the surface. A jam session. Ad hoc. A cutting contest. Baldwin’s lens on lyric and style contradicts assumptions (improvisation, all that ethnic jazz) about such plots and their characters and takes us much farther. The film opens with a pair of young men. One, Man, wears black jeans and a black jacket with the hood of a sweatshirt pulled up over his head. The other, No Noize, wears jeans and an orange hooded windbreaker, hood up with a bandana covering his face below his eyes. The two stand on a street corner in the rain as a soundtrack of synth-chimes and a shrill melody float behind the scene. Police pull up. The film cuts. We see No Noize talk to the police with the bandana pulled down to expose his face. Police drive off. The camera cuts and street signs come into focus through a hard rain in front of wind-tossed trees, MacAruthur Blvd and 90th Ave. The camera pans down to the pair standing beneath a bus stop sign. One early comment on YouTube asked if that was Richmond, CA? Someone else wrote back to say, only Oakland has the tree insignia on the street signs. Man finishes a cigarette, flicks it away. The film splices together moments that suggest (via missing intervals) that the 20 something seconds we see stand in for a longer period of time. Waiting. Still, all appears to be happening in what the computer age calls real time and according to basic Newtonian norms of space and place. The two are hanging out though standing in the rain suggests some kind of motive. Maybe that’s what the police thought? Maybe they’re waiting for the bus?

Then a bass and snare rhythm appears beneath the wind and rain of synths and chimes, No Noize makes the sign of a cross and his movements fall from the am-putative real time / space Newtonian norms of the street corner. He appears to hold invisible bars for a second. His feet twirl beneath him making him seem suspended from the unseen supports. His hands let go the invisible support and he steps into a dance space that seconds before looked like an ordinary East Oakland street corner. In two paraph-style pirouettes made of tai chi, figure skating and karate punctuated by hand gestures, say, borrowed from a ref calling a basketball player for traveling spliced into those of a traffic cop nearing the end of his shift on a Friday, in about ten seconds of film time, No Noize refigures the space between the bus stop and the stop light pole. Saddled with an experience “that’s got to come out” and that can’t be articulated in conventional terms, with relatively little room for “make believe” and where “the pressure is great enough,” the physics of diasporic presence emerge from the Newtonian norms. Lyric space. No Noize pauses against the pole and ends his lyric far enough out in traffic that a Cadillac has to arc wide to miss him while making its right turn. Realism. By the time the Cadillac disappears down MacArthur, Man and No Noize are in midst of an interactive routine where they watch each other’s moves while, at times, gripping hold of each other in such ways that it’s impossible to tell if they’re holding each other up or throwing each other down. Or, both. Breaking the supportive/restrictive mutual grip, Man glides out into traffic in a circle that suggests to passers by pausing in their Jeeps and Pontiacs that they’d not only mistaken a dance for a fight or a fight for a dance, but they’d also mistaken a skating rink for an East Oakland intersection. The two come back together, No Noize makes a no-bone-having wave of his arms and a shimmy of his shoulders and the camera moves across the street.

There we find two other young men, BJ and Dreal, on the corner in jeans and short sleeves. The camera frames the pair between a rusted pole holding a Vitamin Water advert at the boundary of the parking lot for Harry’s Drive-In Liquor and Groceries on the left and the stoplight pole on the right. In this frame, at the entrance of the crosswalk, BJ has already begun to dance. In twenty seconds, he continues the lyric refiguring of the space between the poles initiated by the two across the street. BJ’s space is far more abruptly percussive than were those charted by Man and No Noize seconds before. Using snare beats as markers, he dances, at one point—in a way that’s supposed to look accidental—losing a folded sheaf of papers from his pocket, as if he’s got no time for paperwork and an epic of invisible collisions and confrontations to describe in 20 some seconds. Having charted various of the contours of an invisible and brutal labyrinth, BJ freezes on a snare beat cueing the central dancer, Dreal, to step from behind the concrete support for Harry’s Drive-In’s Vitamin Water pole and into the lyric space. As was often the case for the leader of a jazz quartet, Dreal’s solo is twice as long as were the those of the other three. He’s taller, thinner. And, his footwork allows his long angles to float above the am-putative ground where ordinary people bound by laws of friction and gravity enter the crosswalk in real time. Dreal time takes over. He passes left to right and back and forth within the frame while BJ leans against the stoplight pole to watch though his eyes appear to abstract something fixed that the camera can’t deliver. Dreal’s dance is cursive script, at least, almost Arabic in its calligraphic grace and complexity. His style converts the frame between the poles into a space in which physical statements chart a dialectic of constraint (gravity, bone, what’s up, what’s down) and possibility (concrete acts like ice, feet move in an invisible substance erasing friction, bones and joints flex into rubber) that, finally, operates in the guise of a mathematical elegance in which all statements and functions, no matter the complexity, have been solved, broken down, into their most basic terms. Lyric elegance. Lyricizing “another level of experience,” indeed, Dreal’s dialectics of constraint and possibility write a note into the space as if a graffiti mural could be strung between those poles, written on the air in body language. Apparently it can exactly because, as Baldwin said of black style, “in a way. . .  it has to come out.”

In the first half of the film described above, each of the four dancers summons an unique, invisible realm of condition and possibility into lyric statements framed in the film. As Dreal concludes his first solo, Man shows up in the frame followed by No Noize. In the second half of the film, the dancers trade fours taking a few bars of the song to describe a new move. The others’ no longer abstract their attention into their own unseen realms or into passing cars. Now they watch and respond to the soloist and to each other. Man makes his statement, exits the frame slipping through the space between Dreal and the stoplight pole, goes around the back while BJ dances, picks up BJ’s papers off the wet asphalt, and stands next to No Noize who hands him his cell phone and replaces BJ in the frame. No Noize enters the space in a backward summersault but appears to vault himself to his feet by an action of his neck alone. Dreal, Bj, and Man simultaneously agree that something important, unprecedented, and not simply made up has been said. Lyricized pressure. Joy. Dreal enters again as if he’s skipping puddles, hopskotch or landmines, skates his script back and forth through the frame replaced by Man whose few bars of splits and spins call back to James Brown and Prince. The film cuts, the dancers acknowledge the camera in triumph; it ends while we watch the four exchange elaborate handshakes that seem to introduce the realms danced into the frame to the ones in daily life as much as one person to another. We watch as the young men we saw before the dances begin now talk to each other, listen, and punctuate the statements with glimpses from the lyric realm summoned moments before. The men introduce their characters to each other and each other to their characters in a presence dense with each other that—evinced in millions of viewings and thousands of comments—is somehow widely envied around the world. 

We watch Yoram Savion’s film depict the dancers in East Oakland from a vantage point not unlike that from which Baldwin watched the scene outside the Booker T. Washington Hotel in the Lower Fillmore. Extending his point about style to language, in a 1979 opinion piece for The New York Times, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” Baldwin wrote “A language comes into existence by means of a brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey” (Baldwin Price 651). Of course, diasporic “pressure great enough. . .” is the crux of the brutal necessity; he argues that “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances or in order not to be submerged by a situation that they cannot articulate” (Baldwin Price 648). In “Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin’s depiction of the “passionate detachment” of the lyric pulse in black language by which people “kind of ride with” the texture of their experiences, “commenting on it,” and “accepting it” on a “kind of fantastic tightrope,” does more than describe what Savion depicts in his Turf Feinz film (Baldwin Cross 59). It provides terms through which one can look into the scenes, listen to the moves, look on again and again as the dancers watch each other. And, as with the case in all successful lyrics, one sees and hears the subject address an experience. One also hears, as Baldwin notes in “If Black English. . .,” to the extent one can “afford to,” one’s own experience at the same time.

In the rumor and chaos mill of thousands of Youtube commentaries, one learns a little more about the Turf Feinz film. Some of it’s true, some of it’s not. Rachel Swan’s 2010 piece, “Turf Feinz Go Viral” sets the record straight. Savion and the dancers know each other through association with the Youth UpRising teen center located a few blocks from the location of the film. Savion, a French-born, French-Israeli graduate of U.C.-Berkeley, works at the center. According to Swan’s piece, the film was shot in December, 2009, the day following an auto accident at 90th and MacArthur in which Richard Davis, Darrell “Dreal” Armstead’s brother, was killed. Swan explains: “They wanted to memorialize Davis and sanctify the corner where he died.” 

In so doing, as did Bessie Smith in “Back Water Blues,” , as do all real lyrics, the dancers created a document that not only honored Dreal’s brother and communicated between themselves, but said something to viewers about their own lives. In this case, over 7000 messages have been left on Youtube in over a dozen languages from places as far away as the Ukraine, Mauritius and New Zealand and as near as (and nearer than) Goofster 510 who wrote in “ay, that’s like five minutes from my house.” Among the exclamation marks and notes of all kinds in ALL CAPS, the racial slurs and rebuttals, the rumors (false) that Davis had been shot, that Dreal has been killed, one learns that the song behind the film was produced by Oakland producer Erk the Jerk, it’s titled “Love in Every Move.” That’s true. 

Baldwin’s ideas about the essential role of love in art and life require their own book. The Turf Feinz know, somehow, that sanctifying the location where Dreal’s brother was killed is complex, personal business involving all kinds of things well beyond the personal. Savion’s film over Erk the Jerk’s sound depicts more than articulation of such complexities, it depicts the lyric communication of them. The dancers listen to and see each other, face to face; they do seem to get part of it and enough of it to suggest it makes sense to keep on meeting up, talking and listening. Oh, and dancing. In a radically chimerical, hall-of-mirrors media world, out of which has poured millions of thirsty viewings, that alone suggests something of what’s worth what to human life in an era (as are all eras) of broken gauges and fraudulent markets, of rich people surprised, daily, to find they’ve got nothing in the bank and of others with no bank accounts at all who, because they’re lyrically liquid, make withdrawals and deposits every hour on the hour in a time that’s yet to be named. Till then, let’s call it Dreal standard time.

The Turf Feinz understand plenty about, in part their dances are stylized confrontations with and deft manipulations of, their profiles in the public eye. In an era where the Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin (to name just two) cases in Florida and Oakland has brought hoods, racial profiling, gun laws, and neighborhood watch programs into the public eye once again, I thought it’d be interesting to conclude the essay by turning Baldwin’s notion of changes and constants onto the black president of the nation that’s “not the country” in which Baldwin talked with the men in Take This Hammer. In this case, to comments he made linked directly to a global “neighborhood watch” program called the U.S. war on terror and on the role of Predator Drones therein. 

A Very Short Introduction to Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s new President

After a prolonged dispute, Peter Mutharika was sworn in as Malawi’s fifth president a few days ago. Whatever the ins and outs of the electoral process, nobody is in doubt that Joyce Banda, the darling of the international community, was decisively defeated at the ballot box. To find out more about Malawi’s new president and what we should expect, we asked our very own Jimmy Kainja for his thoughts.

So we hear Malawi has a new President and the voters sent Joyce Banda packing. Were Malawians not impressed by her being listed by Forbes as the 47th most powerful woman in the world 2013?

To be honest, very few Malawians would’ve heard about Joyce Banda’s inclusion on Forbes’ list of most powerful women. And being a country where the rural majority still see their leaders as folks to be worshiped and praised, her inclusion wouldn’t have raised eyebrows. Joyce Banda has lost simply because the glamourous “reformer” Joyce Banda that the international community knew was not the same Joyce Banda Malawians knew. At home Joyce Banda oversaw a government with more corruption scandals than any administration before it. At home she was an arrogant president who toured the country and the world on a daily basis, ignoring her people’s call to cut expenditure. It’s more a case of Banda losing elections than Mutharika winning.

So who’s the new guy? Haven’t we seen him before?

Peter Mutharika is a brother of Malawi’s former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika who died of heart attack on 5th April 2012. Peter is an academic with 40+ years lecturing in American universities. Under his brother’s presidency, he served as minister of education and minister of foreign affairs. These portfolios brought some serious questions about his competency in terms of running public institutions. While at education, University of Malawi (Chancellor College) was closed for eight months due to various disagreements with unhappy lecturers and students – most notably lecturers’ demands for academic freedom. While at foreign affairs Malawi expelled a British high commissioner to Malawi, which sparked a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Malawi. It took Joyce Banda’s presidency to restore Malawi’s relationship with the UK.

Can you sum up President Peter Mutharika in three words?


We heard he was terrible as foreign minister. Any signs he’ll be any better as president?

He was. Whether he’ll be any better only time will tell. He’s an academic and we can only hope he learned his lessons. The team he chooses to work with will be crucial, even more important will be his willingness to take advice.

How old is he really? Is it possible he’s had years taken off his official age “for good behaviour”?

He’s officially 74 years old. I cannot speculate whether this is his real age or not, that’s hard to prove. There were no birth certificates in 1940 to prove it either way.

What were Mutharika’s key policies during his election campaign?

I think he had the best manifesto of all the 12 candidates. I’m being subjective on this because I believe a lot of problems in Malawi have to do with governance structures. He’s promised to have up to 20 ministers and deputies in his cabinet. This is half of what his three predecessors: Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika and Joyce Banda used to have. He also promised to reduce presidential powers, which again is another crucial area, power is too centralised in Malawi. We’ll see whether he’ll do it or not. But these stand out for me, the rest will follow.

Are people hopeful he can lead an effective government? What are the main changes you anticipate under a Mutharika government?

Mind you, 64% of Malawians did not vote for him, so he has a lot of people to convince. He can’t take his victory for granted. He doesn’t come across as a podium kind of a politician, as his brother, Joyce Banda and Bakili Muluzi all were. So he may spend some time in the office and work. He has hinted that he’s interested in building new friendships with the BRICS, alongside Malawi’s traditional donors. This is a give away that he’s not sure of the western support yet. So foreign policy will definitely take a different direction – an interesting one to watch.

What does his election mean for the University of Malawi? We remember Mutharika didn’t have the best relations with many academics during his time as Minister of Education?

Again, we are yet to see what happens now. These are some of the issues that pre-elections debates overlooked or deliberately left out. It would have been wonderful to have these answers. Though on education he has promised to introduce community colleges for people to learn trades and enhance their skills within their own communities.

What would an average Malawian say to Peter Mutharika if they met him in the street?

Pre-election surveys by CCJP (a local Catholic NGO) and Afrobarometer separately indicated that most Malawians were most worried about food security, economic stabilisation and national security. So I guess these would be the areas. Curiously, there’s no education and health but these are areas that also need a serious revamp.

What would an average Malawian say to Joyce Banda if they met her in the street?

It depends on their political affiliation but the truth is that Joyce Banda had the goodwill of a majority of Malawians. If the 20th May elections had been held a year ago Joyce Banda could have won, probably with a landslide. But she took people’s goodwill for granted so I guess she would be told something about that disappointment. Joyce Banda’s loss is an own goal.

Jimmy Kainja tweets at @JKainja

The Friendship Between China and Mozambique Will Last Forever Like the Heavens and the Earth

In Maputo, the “Garden for Sculptors” behind the Museu Nacional de Arte on Avenida Ho Chi Minh has become a kind of prison yard for Mozambique’s various Ozymandiases, a semi-public dumping ground where colonial monuments now crumble quietly away. A marble European baroness reclines in thick robes, the grasses growing up around her base. Both of her arms have been lopped off, but her amputated left hand still touches the midriff of a black male slave crouched in a loincloth by her side. Nearby, a decapitated Lady Justice presides over a small patch of weeds and bare earth. No longer public art, but not quite garbage, these are the monuments which were extracted like rotten teeth from the city’s squares and public buildings when Portuguese colonial rule finally ended, but which nobody could quite bring themselves to destroy.

One August afternoon I chanced upon the newest addition to this miserable collection. Facedown in the dirt lies an enormous bronze angel, wings stretched high over its head like some kind of massive avian Academy Award. Walking around it to its jagged base, ripped from wherever it had once been rooted, I found that the figure was completely hollow. Inside there was a small plaque whose Chinese characters I could not read. Intrigued, I went back into the museum, and asked the receptionist there where this gigantic statue had come from and why it had been dumped here. He answered with the air of someone patiently explaining something very obvious to someone very dull. The angel had been erected in 2011 by the Chinese government in front of the new national soccer stadium, to give the place some character and serve as a kind of focal point. But when Mozambican officials saw that the statue had “a Chinese face”, they decided it wouldn’t do to have a Chinese angel in front of their national stadium, tore it down, and trucked it into town to join the rest of Maputo’s unwanted colonial trappings in the Garden for Sculptors.

Mozambique’s new national stadium, Estádio Nacional do Zimpeto, is on the outskirts of Maputo, not far from the Chinese-built international airport. The Chinese have also overseen the construction of the new parliament building and a new “Palace of Justice” in the last few years. The main institutions through which a sense of Mozambican national life is constructed—the laws of the nation, international departures and arrivals, and its most spectacular public moments of heroism—now take place in Chinese-built structures.

China completed its first stadium construction project in Africa in 1970 with the opening of the 15,000-seater Amaan stadium in Zanzibar, Tanzania. That modest structure marked the start of four decades of so-called “stadium diplomacy” by China across Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the South Pacific. Today there are few countries in Africa that don’t have stadiums built by the Chinese government as gifts or with concessionary loans. There was a noticeable acceleration in construction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Senegal, Mauritania, Mauritius, Kenya, Rwanda, Niger, Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) all got shiny new stadiums. But the real boom has come in the last ten years. Three recent host nations of the African Cup of Nations—Angola, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea—have had all their tournament stadiums built for the purpose by China. All three happen to be nations with significant off-shore oil reserves ruled by autocrats and small elites structured around a ruling family. But countries with more modest natural resources and more democratic structures of government—Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi for example—have also found room for new Chinese-built stadia within the last decade, as part of China’s much-documented program of economic expansion.

The impact of this most concrete form of soft diplomacy is difficult to assess in terms of hard cash. But there’s little doubt about how it’s supposed to work. For relatively small outlays—usually well short of $100 million—China constructs a sterile national arena that can be opened with long speeches and presidents in tailored suits kicking balls for the cameras, in return for sweetened access to natural resources, votes at the United Nations and the marginalization of Taiwan. Domestic politicians point to highly visible new infrastructure as evidence of their success as managers of the national development agenda; China and Chinese businesses gain, at the very least, an entrée into the highest circles of government.

All of this is officially carried out in the name of friendship, of course—there’s one Stade de l’Amitié, in Libreville, Gabon, and another Stade de l’Amitié in Cotonou, Benin. Fortunately, the pious fraternal rhetoric attached to the openings of these stadiums has on occasion been punctured by moments of mutual cultural befuddlement. In 2007, for example, it was gleefully reported that at the opening of the new cricket ground in Grenada in the Caribbean, the Chinese ambassador Qian Hongshan and assorted dignitaries displayed visible discomfort as they sat through the Royal Grenada Police Band’s stately rendition of the national anthem of the Republic of China—a country more commonly known as Taiwan. The bandmaster took the rap. “This unfortunate error breaks my heart,” said the Grenadian Prime Minister.

By 2010, over 50 stadia had been built with Chinese government support across the continent, and despite the always-repeated insistence that another new stadium is “needed” we are now approaching stadium saturation point. If there was a Millennium Development Goal for stadia per capita, Jeffrey Sachs would probably turn up one morning at one of his Millennium Villages and find that the Shanghai Construction Group had knocked up a 55,000-seater next to one of his newly dug wells, christened it Le Stade de la Fraternité, and carted off all the hardwood trees from the forest.

If the “agenda” of stadium diplomacy has been concealed, it hasn’t really been hidden very far from view. Yet all the focus has been on the not-especially-mysterious question of what it is that China expects in exchange for all these stadia, rather than on what this addition to virtually every African capital city means culturally and historically, let alone whether or not they’re actually enjoyable places to watch a soccer match.

It took three separate minibus rides from downtown Maputo to reach Zimpeto. I had arrived from Scotland the previous day and was finding Mozambican Portuguese tough going, but this was match-day, with Mozambique hosting neighbors Tanzania, and it was easy enough to find my way by following the crowds of people in bright red shirts and scarves wrapped around their heads, and the constant parping of vuvuzelas. Inside a vast paved complex ringed with a chain-link fence, a huge grey concrete bowl rose up. When I first saw the new home of Os Mambas, I thought those aliens from District 9 must have finally got their spaceship working and parked it in Maputo. Inside stood a suitably intergalactic prophecy, in Mandarin and Portuguese, written in red letters: “Amizade entre a China e Mozambique irá prevalecer como o céu e a terra.” Translation: the friendship between China and Mozambique will last forever like the heavens and the earth.

Read the whole of this article at Roads and Kingdoms here.

This is an excerpt from Roads and Kingdoms’ “The Far Post” series, in which writers take a look at the world’s game in relation to its social and political concepts. Several Africa is a Country writers have written for the series, including Laurent Dubois (“Afro-Europe at the World Cup” and his magnificent primer for the World Cup), Davy Lane (on Justin Fashanu and on Luis Suarez), Pablo Medina Uribe (on Faustino Asprilla), and Braden Ruddy’s guide to the best places to watch the World Cup around New York. AIAC’s Sean Jacobs also wrote up the incredible history of the Mamelodi Sundowns. Another Africa-related piece was by journalist Idil Abshir, who took a look at the history of Kenyan league football.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Chimurenga Chronic.