Africa is a Country

Germany on safari: A new military scramble for Africa?

In June this year, I attended a public discussion on ‘Crises in Africa’ organized by the PR Department of the German military (Bundeswehr) in Berlin. Since scrapping conscription in 2011, the army of Europe’s most populous country has been struggling to attract young recruits, as few are enthusiastic to serve in the armed forces.

At the forefront of this ‘hearts and minds’ offensive is the “Bundeswehr Showroom”, a sparkling flagship store in central Berlin: modern, tidy, militaristic. For its African crises event, the organizers left nothing to chance. There were decorative images of fighter jets, submarines and tanks. An eloquent, youthful Navy lieutenant with a degree in political science spoke to us about Africa’s security challenges and possible German military strategies for the future.

Germany’s concern for ‘African security’ is no surprise, especially with the media’s recent focus on Ebola, Boko Haram, and the rising numbers of (African) refugees landing on European shores. The German electorate demands reassurances and the military’s growing budget of nearly $40bn – the second largest in Merkel’s government – needs to be spent.

In April 2014, Germany’s Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a strategic shift to more military engagement in Africa, neatly dressed in the cushy language of “assuming responsibility” for solving the continent’s conflicts. In the post-WWII years, Germany had adopted a policy of non-deployment beyond its own borders, also because a vast majority of the population has traditionally been strictly averse towards military adventures overseas. But with the country’s reunification in 1990, the German government’s position changed. Soon followed contentious military operations under the guise of NATO obligations in the Persian Gulf (1991), Turkey (1991), and Kosovo (1999). This trend now continues with Von der Leyen’s vision of more boots on African ground, as in Mali, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan. Militarizing its foreign policy is Berlin’s newest panacea, even deploying Bundeswehr soldiers to assist in containing Liberia’s Ebola epidemic in November 2014.

But German soldiers are no strangers to Africa. The inglorious history of Germany’s colonial protection force (Schutztruppe) is well-documented, a history of coercion, genocide and “theatrical colonial rule” in today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Namibia and Cameroon. In World War II, Nazi Germany again fantasized about reclaiming these colonies, and restoring Germany’s imperial grandeur. Hitler’s backing of Benito Mussolini’s colonial ambitions drove the German Africa Corps (Afrikakorps) into the soon abortive North African Campaign (1940-1943). Eventually, Germany’s 1945 defeat in World War II marked the end of these imperial dreams. While France and Britain were confronted with Africa’s decolonization movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Germany had become a mere spectator.

Paradoxically, while Germany’s recent history of militarism and Nazi fascism in theory led to more sensitivity towards such dangerous tendencies, the country’s colonial heritage seems inconsequential for its newly-militarized engagement with Africa and debates in society at large. Today, Germany participates with some 570 soldiers in nine missions across the continent, of which the EU’s anti-piracy operation ATALANTA is the largest.

The “Bundeswehr Showroom” is sanitized of these painful colonial memories, infused instead with Von der Leyen’s vision of a new German role in Africa. In government statements, Berlin indicates its desire to mimic some French policies towards Africa and seek closer security cooperation with Paris. However, this aspiration ignores the fact that French ties with former African colonies – known as Franҫafriquerepresent a neo-colonial dependency relationship on unequal terms. As the world’s fourth largest arms exporter, Germany’s arms manufacturers already pocket great portions of African capital and ensure the continuous flow of weapons into conflict zones, despite targeted bans on exports. A commentator in the weekly Die Zeit argued that Germany is “caught between [its] hard interests and soft values”. Considering the Merkel government’s increase in the defence budget and more recent European policy proposals, such as military action against smugglers in North Africa, I am pessimistic about which of the above two options will prevail.

In Berlin that evening, the message was clear: the Bundeswehr is increasingly being deployed for humanitarian emergencies (and it does so along with other militaries) – for instance by rescuing asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean. Without doubt, saving lives is commendable, yet we forget that armies are no substitutes for civil emergency response, coastguards, or humanitarian agencies. Germany’s government civil protection mechanisms, such as the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) – which was supporting anti-Ebola operations in Sierra Leone – are based on voluntary work, understaffed, underfunded and not equipped with adequate technology for sustained world-wide operations. By overfunding the military, successive governments have made the Bundeswehr logistically indispensable for emergency situations.

This mix of militarized humanitarianism, arms exports and security-centred development strategies is embodied in the government’s approach of “comprehensive security” (Vernetzte Sicherheit), a thin disguise for making security – and inevitably military engagement – a new priority in dealing with development issues. In some ways, Germany’s military shift, and its renewed search for a “place in the sun” in a contemporary scramble for Africa, represents the country’s belated entry into a “colonial present“. However this is not an inescapable future without an alternative. It is high time to de-militarize our minds, as well as government budgets.

What can Africa learn from the Greek crisis?

In recent days many of our readers have requested analysis of the Greek/Euro crisis and how to relate it to Africa’s long and bruising experience with major international creditors.

So we put the following question to a range of thinkers and commentators: What can African politicians learn from the Greek crisis and Syriza’s approach to dealing with creditors? What wider connections do you draw?

Grieve Chelwa, PhD candidate in economics, University of Cape Town

1. Greece’s experience with the troika (IMF, European Central Bank and the European Commission) is yet more confirmation of what we in Africa have been saying about how punitive austerity measures are. The Greek economy has contracted by about 25% since the Troika began effectively calling the shots in Athens around 2010. The austerity pill was administered for far longer in most parts of Africa, starting around the late 1970s and running all the way through to the 1990s. Only the heavens know the magnitude of the wreckage that this left in its wake.

2. The second lesson is that international creditors are the enemy of democracy. The Troika, which really has been weighing heavily on the side of creditors, tried to bully the Greek government into not consulting with its people, as democracy requires, over further austerity proposals. In a blatant display of elitism, Yanis Varoufakis, the outgoing finance minister, was once asked: “How do you expect common people to understand complex issues“?

Robtel Pailey, Liberian academic, activist and author

In its recent vote to reject austerity measures proposed by international creditors, Greece has shown that economic might does not always make right. Syriza’s tough stance has mirrored the approach that Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso had to structural adjustment, so this is nothing new. Perhaps a potential Grexit might be a sign of the times and Africans may evoke this as a clarion call to reject odious debts accrued from kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes of the past.

Steven Friedman, scholar and public intellectual

The key lesson for African politicians is that, in the fight against economic bullying, the people are the most potent source of power. Giving voice to the people is rarely if ever a core strategy in the fights for economic justice which are waged across the continent – Greece shows that it needs to become that. What is so important about Greece is that the fight for justice is being waged using the methods made available by formal democracy. Regardless of the outcome, this shows that formal democracy is not a plot by the powerful to tame the powerless: it has often been that only because too many people have been excluded from democratic participation and too few issues have been up for popular decision . By pushing the boundaries of what the people can decide and who should decide it, the Greek government is hopefully beginning a new era of democratic politics as a weapon for social justice. It is essential that Africa become a part of this.

Patrick Bond, scholar and public intellectual

We have witnessed what are termed “IMF Riots” in Africa over the last third of a century – most successfully in reversing the January 2012 petrol price increase in Nigeria – but if these have not worked in most of the continent, there’s a lesson for future leftist electoral politics last Sunday. If Syriza can break through not only by its January election with nearly 40% of the vote but now with the 61% vote against banker logic, it suggests a strong latent support for anti-neoliberalism. Here in South Africa this is a sentiment that has bubbled away for years but hasn’t found an expression like Syriza, uniting such a large share of society. But it’s surely the future of politics.

Cassandra Veney, political scientist, Quinnipiac University

“Lessons from Africa for Greece”

Greece, like many African countries, is simply facing structural adjustment.  By the 1990s, most African countries were under structural adjustment superimposed upon them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

The cornerstone of SAPs include:  devaluing national currencies, eliminating subsidies and price controls, reducing tariffs on imports, selling off state enterprises, retrenching state workers, freezing wages and salaries for state workers, introducing user fees in clinics, hospitals, schools, and universities.  Governments are to design and implement policies to achieve these goals with little input from its citizens.  In other words, African governments have had very little leverage to negotiate more favorable loans as pressure is put on them to spend scarce resources on servicing the debt at the expense of housing, education, and healthcare.

The IMF and World Bank also tie reducing corruption and instituting transparency measure to loans.  Angola serves as an example. One of the conditions of Angola’s loans over the years was it had to become more transparent in terms of its oil revenues. Angola complied when it was desperate for money and it ignored the conditions when its finances improved.  Angola was in the position to do this because it has oil and diamonds to sell.  Angola has a record of entering into negotiations with the IMF, refusing to implement conditions, breaking off negotiations, and turning to the Chinese for loans.

Most of the countries, not just African countries, that were brow beaten into imposing SAPs experienced economic and social upheavals for all sectors of society except for perhaps the super rich.

African governments can explain to Greek citizens what will happen when the government no longer funds, or funds are decreased for, infrastructure that all countries need if they have any hope of meeting the basic needs of its citizens, let alone developing and becoming a part of the global capitalist economy.  SAPs have now proved that one size does not fit all—there is no magic pill that all sick economies can swallow to make them all better. There is nothing wrong with the Greek government calling for a referendum and letting the people decide if they want a debt bailout or not.

Greece may want to take advice from some African countries if it wants to lessen its dependence on the IMF–borrow money from the Chinese as it comes with fewer onerous strings attached.

What Greece is experiencing is not different from what African countries have faced in their attempts to balance austerity with humane policies toward their vulnerable. The troika is quick to place Greece’s economic problems at the feet of the government.  It cannot admit that it had a role to play in creating this economic mess. African governments were also accused of engaging in corrupt practices, not selling off state enterprises in a timely manner, and dragging their feet in the implementation of some austerity measures. What is wrong with this? One of the most important functions of a state is to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Greece should be applauded and not vilified for standing firm in its efforts to provide for the vulnerable. The problem is Greece is alone in its stand on a continent that is awash in contempt and distain for the downtrodden. Africans, even as their governments implemented structural adjustment programs, were united in their contempt for the measures and took to the streets to demonstrate. Hopefully, Greece like several other African countries will rise from the ashes of this economic abyss not because of the IMF but despite international financial institutions that do not have the best interest of Africans as part of their agenda.

Siddhartha Mitter, journalist and consultant

I would be cautious about drawing direct lessons for African or other debtor states. For one thing, we don’t know yet where this story ends: Greece could yet get forced out of the Eurozone. Irrespective, the Greek crisis is as much a political crisis as it is an economic one. Greece is bound to its creditors by a double layer of political institutions: those of the EU, and those of the Eurozone. The transfer of Greek debt to the Eurozone governments and ECB, and the relatively small share of IMF debt in the overall Greek portfolio, only add to the political and intra-European nature of this crisis. The genius of Syriza, in calling the referendum, was to force the political stakes, and the need for a political resolution, to the surface.

Debtor states in Africa or elsewhere face a very different problem. They aren’t bound to their creditors in a political union. Much of their debt is commercial, and their official debt is largely to multilateral lenders. Bilateral debt is rarely the problem. Moreover, the austerity terms that the IMF and World Bank typically require are not quite as draconian as they were 10 or 20 years ago. And there are new lenders available, particularly China and the Gulf states. So it’s really a different game.

With that said, the political message from the Greek referendum — that there is a limit to austerity beyond which people cannot and should not tolerate further hardship — is one that will resonate worldwide. If it is to have an impact in Africa, I think that will be more among opposition parties, grassroots activists, and “civil society,” emboldening opposition to fiscal policies that governments may initiate to satisfy their creditors’ terms. In this short term, this risks making life more difficult for African governments, not easier. In the medium term, it should encourage them to do what smart ones are already doing: diversify their debt portfolio, and improve technical management of the economy no matter which policy orientation they favor.

Benjamin Fogel, writer and doctoral student in history, NYU

The Greek resistance to the EU’s austerity regime could only be possible after years of sustained struggle both within political parties and social movements since 2008. These are struggles are further drawing on the great traditions of Greek resistance beginning with the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman empire and later the resistance to both the Italian and German invasions during WW2 and the various Military Juntas of the last 50 years. This has produced an eclectic and militant left political scene in what there are a multiplicity of strong intellectual and political tendencies which combine to produce a left intelligentsia and activist scene capable of building hegemony over a large swathe of Greek society. It should be noted this resistance has no real solidarity from any other state in the Eurozone.

Debt peonage is something experienced by many African and third world countries, Greece and similar resistance and Latin America shows the need for us in South Africa to develop our own political movements and allied intelligentsia not only capable of building political power, but battling for hegemony, in the sense of providing an alternate vision of society, too often ‘resistance’ or ‘debt’ gets caught up in the depoliticised rhetoric of bourgeois NGOs masquerading as the political resistance to neoliberalism or as ‘civil society’, movements exist as fundraising tools, Greece shows both the courage and strength of working class based political movements and the ability to offer a model of resistance that breaks with depoliticised social justice rhetoric. 

Dennis Laumann, historian, University of Memphis

The gospel of neoliberalism is manifested not only in global capital’s insane insistence on “austerity” in the face of unemployment, homelessness, and hunger, but also in the perverted bourgeois morality that condemns, belittles, and silences any criticism of it.

At a recent, exhilarating and triumphant concert in Memphis by the Afrobeat star Seun Kuti, son of the late Fela and leader of his father’s band Egypt 80, the concert organizers felt compelled to apologize for his politics. Though “IMF,” a standout song from Kuti’s latest album, A Long Way to the Beginning, stands for “International motherfuckers,” it was his good-natured, often funny, but sincere bantering between songs, mostly about poverty and corruption and a few times laced with a swear word or two, which offended the venue management. First they displayed an impromptu and incomplete message on the giant stage screen – in the middle of Kuti’s set! –  apologizing for Kuti’s language and assuring the audience that they do not endorse the his political views. Then the same woman who enthusiastically introduced Kuti at the start of his set returned to the stage after his standing ovation to verbally reiterate the apology. Like the Greek “no” voters, however, the audience responded to her with loud boos and later insulted Levitt Shell, the concert venue, on its Facebook page (One of my favorites was the comment describing the giant electronic message as “Orwellian”).

It seems obvious the concert organizers knew nothing about Kuti’s politically-charged music when they invited him– not to mention his father or in fact his family lineage going back to his grandmother, the anti-colonial fighter Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti! Moreover, they somehow believe there are artists who do not have politics and audiences that cannot handle the truth. International motherfuckers, indeed. 

Flying to Frankfurt with a Super Eagle

I arrived at Murtala Muhammed airport after my last trip to Lagos dressed for the heat in drop crotch pants and a loose tank, both in varying shades of mottled grey. I kept my lowtop Chucks loosely laced, so I could slip them off at security. After the customs official who glanced through my bags advised me to get married instead of focusing on school, two men tried to chat me up, asking if I was a footballer. When I said no, they switched their guess over to basketball. I figured it was because of my tattoos—I always consider covering them up at the airport just to avoid the trouble they’ll cause, but Nigeria is too hot for sleeves. So instead I get my passports rechecked and rechecked, even when I’m cleared and waiting in the security line, because there’s always some immigration official who singles me out and demands to see my papers again. I’ve long since given up on flying under the radar.

Consequently, when the man I was standing behind at the gate casually glanced over at me, I wasn’t surprised. I know what I look like to Nigerians. Instead, I glanced back at him, noting that he was tall and well dressed, evaluating his shoes like New York taught me to. When he handed his passport to the agent, I noticed the cloud of dark freckles splashed over the bridge of his nose and cheekbones and I tried to guess if he was a redhead. He turned towards me and smiled a little, asking if I was going to the UK.

‘No, I’m going to the US,’ I said, and he winced.

‘Sorry,’ he said, and I made a face back.

‘I know.’ America. These days, it didn’t need extra words. We continued chatting and he told me that he lived in Belgium, close to Germany. People kept interrupting us to greet him and shake his hand, until I turned to him, too curious to ignore it.

‘You have to tell me how everyone knows you.’

He smiled. ‘I’ll give you three guesses.’

I thought of my brother. ‘You fly a lot.’


‘You work for Lufthansa.’

He laughed. ‘I’m too Nigerian for that.’

‘You…work for the airport.’ He winced again and I laughed. ‘Fine, what is it?’

He hesitated for a moment. ‘I used to be captain of the national football team,’ he admitted, and I slapped my palm to my face.

‘I should’ve guessed you were someone famous! What’s your name?’

‘It’s very easy to remember. It’s one of the days of the week, Sunday.’

My face stayed blank. ‘What’s your last name?’

Sunday laughed like he didn’t quite believe me. ‘There’s only one footballer with my first name. Look it up.’

‘Ah please, you want me to go and Google you? That’s not going to happen.’ He gave in.

‘Oliseh,’ he said, and the name clicked into my head like a sure thing.

‘Oh, I know you!’ I exclaimed and he laughed. ‘I’ll pretend like I believe you,’ he replied, but I meant it. I tend to remember names in their fullness and his name was stored there like Kanu Nwankwo or Jay-Jay Okocha.

Football is Nigeria’s national sport and you could feel it through every thread of my childhood. I remember our street erupting in screams when we scored goals or won, the roar pushing in through our windows. I was seven when Rashidi Yekini scored that first World Cup goal, and the memory of his face screaming into the net with his arms bent and clutching is permanent in my mind. I grew up in Enyimba City and our football chant made it out to a stage in Lagos where I watched Bantu singing ‘Nzogbu Enyimba, nzogbu-zogbu, Enyimba-enyi’ like we were all in Aba. Just a few weeks ago, I was having dinner at Yellow Chilli in Lagos as the Nigerian women’s team played on TV, and before I knew it, I found myself shouting and groaning at the screen with the other people in the room. I am Nigerian. I believe in the magic of football.

I had also bragged about the Olympic gold we won in ‘96 enough times, so I was duly impressed to be in casual conversation with one of the medalists, but I played it cool. As boarding started, we chatted about Sunday’s family in Belgium, his work with FIFA, and some trouble around the current captain Vincent Enyeama that he’d had to address. Once in the isolation of my seat, I Googled him and texted a few of my friends, laughing at myself for not connecting his last name.  When the plane landed in Frankfurt, we discussed racism in European football over croissants and before we parted ways, I whipped out my camera and made him take a selfie with me because, come on.

It’s Sunday Oliseh. I’m only Nigerian, after all.


The dream is free

I must have been looking elsewhere at first, because all I remember was moving closer to the screen at one moment, saying to myself: “Who is this and how did I miss him?” The person in question was Serge Ibaka. His magnetic presence had appeared on my screen at the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, as he stepped into the flashing lights and cheers, the NBA AFRICA flag flying behind him. It meant wherever the cameras pointed, the word ‘Africa’ and its most recent ambassador was being beamed around the world.

I wasn’t alone in my admiration. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, commentating on the Dunk Contest remarked: “Tell you what, that kid has a great body.” That comment led the other commentators to tease Barkley about his body when he was Ibaka’s age. Barkley said they needed to come over to his house and watch old Barkley tapes. Ibaka then dunked from the free throw line. No seven-footer had attempted that dunk before. It was always left to the realm of the guards, especially Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving and The Greatest Michael Jordan. Ibaka dared to fly with the gods of the court and he soared.

In April of 2015, xenophobic violence spread throughout Durban in South Africa, and later spread to other parts of the country.

Back in September 2006 at a youth tournament in Durban, a young Serge Ibaka won MVP honors at The Afro-Basket Tournament. He was the top scorer, top rebounder and top shot blocker. Two years later he was playing in the NBA. His journey there was not anything like the journeys of the 700 Africans who perished at sea in April 2015 and the many others before and after them.

For every soul driven to a watery grave on the journey to seek a better life, there are a few that break through. That is the premise of the story of Son Of The Congo directed by Adam Hootnick and produced by the sports and culture website Grantland.

It’s their first documentary and it follows Serge Ibaka on his return to the country of his birth, The Republic of Congo.

The documentary also tries to tell the story of 15-year-old Ricardo. A boy, who dreams of the hardwood and of the United States. He plays barefoot (what else?) and wants to be like Serge. This story runs parallel to Serge’s visit home. While admirable Ricardo’s presence in the film is problematic – or unsatisfying – because we never know what will happen to Ricardo. The legendary 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams had the benefit of time – we follow the young protagonists and aspiring basketball players for years. This documentary doesn’t allow for the time and patience needed to do justice to Ricardo’s story and motivate his presence, other as the mirror of the young Serge. There is a scene where the two meet but for it to really ring true and for us to really sense who Serge used to be, and equally important who Ricardo is today – we need to know more about Ricardo. To use an example, this famous picture of Clinton meeting JFK only has resonance because we know that years later Clinton became President.

I understand why Ricardo is there but as Ibaka says the dream is free, so why not include more Ricardo’s – who deserve to be more than a mere story device – dream and journey too?

I thought of a few things while watching the documentary on Serge Ibaka. The documentary premiered as a full feature at the SXSW festival in March, and is available to be watched in episodic format on Grantland.

When Serge walks the streets of Kinshasa, he is greeted with a chorus’ of people asking him for money: ‘Give me the money and I’ll go!”, “I never get to see you, so give me the money so I can”, “Give me some money man”, “Give me something so my kids can have something to eat”, “Tell him to leave something”. In these scenes there are people that are happy to see him, but the pressure to drop something reigns supreme. What the film doesn’t provide, and maybe it doesn’t have to is the context of this poverty, beyond the spectacular. It’s the context that leads people to say I’d rather die at sea than stay there. It doesn’t mean that the film must tell the entire story of the Republic of Congo, but again, it means treating context and juxtaposing elements as more than just backdrops.

“There” is where most people live. And people look to folks like Ibaka to lift them out of “there”. Ibaka understands that. He lifted himself out of “there” against incredible odds. To hear his grandmother, Mama Titi tell the story, she uses Serge’s Christian name of Jonas. As Jonas sacrificed himself to save the sailors at sea and lived in the belly of the whale for three days, Ibaka, she maintains has returned from his journey to save the family.

Both Serge’s parents played for their national teams. His father Desire is a legend in Congo and his late mother Amadou represented her country, The Democratic Republic of The Congo on many occasions. The story of his mother is fondly recalled by his grandmother in a touching scene when the family reunites.

Serge’s mother died when he was very young. He grew up to a soundtrack of guns and death. This did not deter him. Basketball was the way out. He woke up at 4 A.M every morning to jog, sometimes with no food in his stomach. He kept his dream alive. His father, Desire, who worked in the ports of Brazzaville and Kinshasa was captured as a suspected anti-government rebel after crossing the Congo River in 2001. He was held without charge for two years and Serge had to fend for himself, first staying with his uncles. After an argument, he was kicked out of the house. He roamed the streets doing menial jobs, until he went to live with his grandmother. These same Uncles are the one’s he supports today. He forgave them. I thought of footballer Emmanuel Adebayor’s famous letter on Facebook in which he basically accuses his family of robbing him blind, which he posted, as he says: So other African families learn from this.

Ibaka’s family problem doesn’t seem to be at that level but scenes in the documentary reveal his frustration with his family at times. Along with the people of the streets and his family, Ibaka is the genie that they all wish to rub. Like others before him, his money goes into the community in other ways. The documentary shows him supporting Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo’s Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa where he witnesses a young girl through the help of hearing aid that he puts on her, hear for the first time, his own money goes to support The Pediatrie De Kimbondo orphanage, he set up The Ibaka Games which are a series of clinics and exhibitions he created to help young Congolese basketball players get training and visibility with foreign scouts and he oversees the reconstruction of the Avenir du Rail basketball court, where his parents once played and where a young Serge first learned to play basketball.

He also learned something else on his journey, that he had a daughter, Ranie. This section of Son Of The Congo is where the documentary sizzles because Ranie, like her dad is a force of nature. Her mother, who remains nameless, was Serge’s girlfriend before he left. He left not knowing she was pregnant. When the news about the pregnancy reached Ibaka’s family, his father Desire told the family that he would take financial responsibility for Ranie. Not wanting to put more pressure on a son that had left home for foreign lands, Desire kept her a secret for five years. The scenes between Ibaka and his daughter are the strongest scenes in the documentary as they reveal rare moments of intimacy in the context of a sport where the image of black male is both lauded and exploited to the maximum and where stories of caring fathers don’t really fit in. The Riley Curry press conference when MVP Steph Curry brought his two-year-old daughter to the podium is another such moment, which has become legendary. For me, its moments like Riley with Steph, Ranie with Ibaka that their true characters are revealed and one cannot help but smile.

While I am touched and moved by what Ibaka does to empower others, I’m more interested in his budding relationship with his daughter. Given his history, his upbringing, he is faced with the challenge of now raising a daughter. The image of African families torn apart by colonial exploitation and war is a real one that permeates today and so positive reinforcement of an attempt to redress that image is welcome. It’s something Brain Windhorst, Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless may never understand.

Documentaries like this live and die by their subject. In Serge Ibaka, the film has the perfect host. Charming (his nickname is Mister Avec Classe), funny (He states that the crocodiles of the River Congo know him by name) and a genius on the basketball court. He sacrificed a lot and gives a lot, for me, his greatest gift is his daughter.

Shake the Dust: How Break Dancing Unites the World

Shake the Dust is a documentary film directed by journalist Adam Sjöberg, and produced by American rapper and producer Nasir “Nas” Jones. The movie is a showcase of the break dance culture of Bogotá, Colombia; Kampala, Uganda; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Sana’a, Yemen.

The crews of dancers that are the protagonists of the film have no relation to each other, except for their shared b-boy culture which, as many of them mention, has helped them find purpose in life and escape from dark moments in their past. Most of the dancers featured come from humble, if not depressed, backgrounds: slums, drug addiction, or criminal lives. But break dancing has given them a community of friends, teachers and students to rely on, and a way to re-purpose their urban settings.

The dancers speak little in the film, which is heavier on the dance scenes, but their moves are more than enough to put the movie’s message across: there is not only movement, but also history, art, community, family and friendship in break dancing.


I briefly interviewed Sjöberg on the choices he made for this film and the hip-hop community of Latin America:

Why did you choose these countries in particular?

I was tired of seeing the same kinds of stories out of the so-called “developing world.” Documentary film is a powerful tool to be able to show people important social and political injustices, to illuminate the darker sides of things that we don’t often see. But I felt that the genre as a whole—as well as mainstream media in general—was doing a terrible job at painting holistic pictures of a lot places in the world. My own experiences traveling were very different—they were so rich, and I had had so many positive experiences in places that are traditionally seen in a negative light.

Do you think there was something that was connecting the countries you included in the movie?

I picked Cambodia, Colombia, Uganda and Yemen, because they had interesting, robust hip-hop scenes, and because I wanted to choose countries from different regions around the world that symbolized the misunderstanding we often have of places we only think about when we see them on the news. Colombia is often associated with the drug trade or conflict, Yemen with terrorism, Cambodia with poverty and the Khmer Rouge, and Uganda—like many other African countries—war, disease, and poverty. I picked these places precisely so that I could begin to build a more complete narrative around them.

What in particular attracted you about the hip-hop culture in Colombia?

I wanted to cover South America in general—originally, I was going to go to Brazil. There is such a rich hip-hop culture in the entire region but the opportunity to film in Bogotá came up when I got connected with Don Popo and Familia Ayara—a hip-hop non-profit working in Bogotá.

What I discovered was what felt like, at times, a hip-hop Utopia. I saw some of the best dance moves, and most beatiful graffiti, and we threw a huge “Shake the Dust” cypher in the streets that made me feel like I was in The Bronx back in the heyday of hip-hop.


What do you think is the current state of Latin American hip-hop and what do you think about its future?

Throughout my travels and research I’ve experienced hip-hop in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and all over the Caribbean, including Haiti. But, as I mentioned, Colombia had one of the most impressive hip-hop scenes of anywhere I went.

There were multiple government-funded programs (locally, countrywide, and even UN-backed programs). Colombia’s street art scene rivals few and is possibly one of the best in the world. Most importantly, the culture has maintained a purity in its form, a socially conscious core – but has found it’s style within the context of Colombian culture. My experiences in Latin America as a whole have been similar. I’m impressed, moved, and incredibly excited to see how hip-hop continues to grow and spread and impact people throughout the region.

Shake the Dust is available on iTunes here.

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Morocco joins the miniskirt wars: #mettre_une_robe_nest_pas_un_crime

On June 14, Sanae and Siham, 23 and 29 years old respectively, identified as students and professional hair stylists, went to shop in Inezgane, south of Agadir, on the southern part of Morocco’s Atlantic Ocean coast. A shopkeeper attacked them, claiming their skirts were too short. Soon they were surrounded by a more than threatening mob. Terrified, they sought shelter in a boutique and waited for the police to arrive. The police did arrive … and arrested them for “indecent exposure”, or “gross indecency.” Their trial was heard Monday, June 6. If convicted, the two women face up to two years in prison.

And so begins another chapter in the miniskirt front of the global war on women, from New York to Kampala to Jakarta. In May, Algeria had its “affaire de la jupe”, when a security guard barred a law student from her exams because he decided that her dress was “indecently” short. Earlier this year, it was Zimbabwe’s turn, which produced #DontMinimizeMyRights. The year before that, it was Kenya, where women organized around #MyDressMyChoice and #StripMeNot. Before that, in the same year, women in Uganda responded to an assault against women with #SavetheMiniskirt. The year before that, Namibian women responded to an anti-miniskirt campaign with “Rape is not NAMIBIAN.” And the year before that two teenage girls were attacked by a crowd of 50 or 60 `adult’ men `because’ one of them was wearing a mini-skirt. Four years earlier, Nwabisa Ngcukana was stripped and assaulted for exactly the same `crime’, at exactly the same taxi rank in Johannesburg.

In Morocco, the real story is once more that of women organizing, pushing back and pushing forward, creating new spaces precisely where others try to shut them down. Moroccan women, with male supporters, organized a campaign, using the hashtag #mettre_une_robe_nest_pas_un_crime. Wearing a dress is not a crime. First, they pushed to have the police investigate those who had harassed and threatened the two young women. Finally, the police gave in, investigated and arrested two young men. Demonstrations were organized all over Morocco. Women organized July 6 as a National Day for Our Individual Freedoms, with demonstrations in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Agadir, Tangiers, and beyond.

Women’s associations mobilized. According to Fouzia Assouli, President of the Federation of the League of Women’s Rights, LDDF, “It’s outrageous, arresting the two women rather than those who surrounded and threatened them. This is about sexual harassment and violence against women. Now, violence in public space has been institutionalized and approved by the justice system.”

Feminist activist Boutaina Elmakoudi posted a video that went viral, in which she argues that this affair touches on all Moroccan women and that it’s not only the story of these two women but rather a general threat to all individual freedoms.

The judge will render his verdict on July 13. Meanwhile, the two women are staying away from the press, because one is engaged to be married and the other is afraid of her parents. In 2001, Zimbabwean activist Tafadzwa Choto was asked about the events that had shaped her as a feminist socialist revolutionary. She answered, “The first one was when a woman at the University of Zimbabwe was stripped of her skirt. It was said to be a miniskirt and was publicly ripped off her. I was disgusted.” That happened in 1993, and fueled and informed Choto’s lifelong struggle for women’s freedom, justice, and power. Wearing a dress is not a crime.

New Music Series #RespecTheProducer – Battlekat On Working With Flabba

This article is part of a series of articles on music producers throughout the African continent called #RespecTheProducer. Check out daily updates on tumblr and follow the Instagram account. 

Tongogara “Battlekat” Ntlokoa was the most sought-after producer of his era. As in-house soundcrafter for Outrageous Records, he oversaw production duties on a handful of the indie label’s releases, many of which now occupy classic status in the hearts of many a South African rap fan.

His work on Maximum Sentence and Expressions, two compilations released in a period of frantic output between 2002 and 2003, stand as testament to his ability to hop from chopped-up and pitched-up loops backed by hard drums and crusty snares, to soulful cuts with deep, pervasive and enduring basslines. He contributed music to Zubz’s Listener’s Digest and Proverb’s Book of Proverb — debut albums by revered emcees who’d cultivated a small but cult following. This helped further cement Battlekat’s place as a noteworthy producer in South African hip hop’s broader context. Add to that his work with Optical Illusion (or Optical Ill), the four-man rap clique in which he was both rapper and chief producer, and it becomes evident that this cat single-handedly ran an era.

We meet with Battlekat at Flabba’s memorial service. The two had worked together on a song called “Accelerate” which appeared on Skwatta Kamp’s Khut en Joyn album. Flabba, an emcee who’d figured out how to mix street smarts, cut-throat lyricism and shock value to astounding effect, passed away after being stabbed following an altercation with his partner on 9th March 2015, a Monday morning. The woman accused of his murder shall stand for trial in August.

Below, Battlekat speaks about the session which bore not only the Flabba track, but a feature on Optical Illusion’s pre-label project called Thoughts Illustrated.

Rapper Flabba performing @ Maftown Heights 2014

Wasn’t there an album between you and Flabba that was supposed to come out?
Well, it was a thought, not an album. It was a thought that we had.

So the “Accelerate” joint, was that just a single cut?
What had happened with “Accelerate” was, it wasn’t even a single. At the time, we weren’t even planning albums or anything; we were in college. At the time I wasn’t even…I was still practicing, you know, beats and everything. It was just a matter of ‘yo man, I’d like to give that joint a beat.’ He [had recorded] over a Cypress Hill beat; I think it was a Wyclef/ Cypress Hill beat. It wasn’t necessarily for Skwatta; it was just me knowing him from college, I just wanted to lace his joint with a beat. For that, he gave me a verse for the Optical Illusion album. Since I knew him for being vulgar and extreme, there was a song I wanted to do. I got influnced too much by Eminem, and I knew Flabba would be…we just went crazy. He was just too bare man, and for that song I knew [that] he was the dude. On the day that we did the song for Optical Ill, I gave him one of the beats that I had for that joint. He was also looking to do a solo [project] at the time, before Skwatta.

Were you in the same session, or did you just give him a beat?
He came to the studio with Initial M on the day. [Initial M] was supposed to be on another Optical Ill joint. He recorded the verse, [we] actually lost the material for that song. It was called “Impossible to picture.” Initial M was on that one, and then Flabba was doing “Crack a finesse” and his joint as well on that day. It was a cool session; everyone was there! Well, except for Opticall Ill — it was just me, Jerrah, Intial M, I forgot who else.

Where did you record that joint?
Braam. There was some…I think it was an NGO or NPO called Joint Centre for Political and Economic studies. My dad worked for that company and he’d persuaded them to have a studio there, because I was doing sound (at Allenby College, where Proverb also studied). After school, that’s where I would go and record with dudes like Optical Ill, Mad Scientist, everyone!


Weekend Music Break No.79

An abbreviated music break for the weekend of July 4th, 2015:

Joey B and the Akwaaba Sound System do an impressive live interpretation of his international hit “Tonga”; Blitz the Ambassador has a new track “Shine” produced by Soulection crew member IAMNOBODI; Kwaito continues it’s resurgence with “Mr. Party”; Iba One from Mali declares his status as a “Rappeur International”; Kendrick Lamar says in spite of everything “We gon be Alright”; and Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux represents for the global South alongisde Palestinian Shadia Mansour.

Chile’s Copa América – Can Football Still be Political?

Copa América, the South American football championship, is over and, for the first time ever, Chile are the champions. To lift their first-ever piece of silverware, Chile, who also hosted the tournament, beat neighbors Argentina yesterday in penalties, after a tense and tactic goalless final match.

Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez delivered the final penalty kick in cheeky fashion and, despite a not-so-memorable performance during most of the cup, he instantly became part of national folklore. La Roja finally has a title to show for, and the image of the wonderkid from Tocopilla calmly putting the ball past Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and then running erratically and euphorically until he is finally embraced by his teammates will for long remain in the consciousness of Chilean football fans.

Chile finally rejoiced in the football pitch and the usual rhetoric of winning national teams doing it “not just for themselves, but for the whole country” came quickly. But so did the accusation that this was merely a smoke curtain distracting from the country’s ailments. For example, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was omnipresent at La Roja’s matches, even when protests were breaking around the country to demand changes in the education law.

Was anybody paying attention to that? The stadium was full every time Chile played. TV ratings (about 36 for Canal 13, about 11 for TVN, about 3 for Chilevisión and about 1 for Mega) showed that more than half of the country was immersed watching the final yesterday. But does that mean that Chileans didn’t care about anything else?

Of course not. Football fans are people and people are complex beings. Some organizers of the protests said that they didn’t want to miss the games, and that they had scheduled the manifestations around the time of the cup not to protest it or rival it, but so their demands could have a bigger media impact. Some demonstrations even were football-themed for maximum effect.

So, could this Copa América be political? Could the tournament which debuted back in 1916 introducing, on its first match ever, the first black players fielded in international play (for Uruguay against Chile – who back then complained of the “unfair” use of “African” players, by the way) still go beyond the football pitch?

As the competition started, the chances of that happening seemed bleak: Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani was so out-of-touch with the world outside the field that he thought that his rivals Jamaica were an “African country.” Then, Chile’s star Arturo Vidal crashed his fancy car while driving drunk and, despite harsh laws regarding this kind of behavior in Chile, he was essentially pardoned (freed with only a confiscated license) and let back into the team. Football was above anything else.

But as the tournament advanced, there was at least one interesting thing in this regard. The Peruvian forward Claudio Pizarro started to tweet messages in Quechua (one of Peru’s indigenous languages) following his team’s games. This seemed like a small gesture, but it was an acknowledgement, an inclusion of oft-segregated Quechua-speakers into the larger idea of “Peru” and the Peruvian fans of its national team.

After Peru drew against Colombia and secured their qualification for the knockout stages, Pizarro tweeted again in Quechua, and he was recognized by the indigenous Mapuche community of Chile for giving a voice to an often ignored community. A few days later, Peru eliminated Bolivia in the quarter-finals. Pizarro tweeted in Quechua and in Mapundungun – the language of the Mapuches – this time. Maybe football can indeed be a positive force for unity.

Yet, despite everything else, it was the Chileans who made the biggest statement. Not just by winning the tournament, but by where they won it. Chile’s defender Jean Beausejour (whose father is Haitian, and whose mother is Mapuche) put it perfectly after the final game:

“I’m barely starting to realize how big this is. A few days ago I got a call from a cadet instructor and he said ‘I hope that we can have some joy in this stadium where so many were tortured and suffered.’”

Indeed, Chile played its six games in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, the country’s biggest stadium and a venue with a documented tragic history:

On November 21st, 1973, the Soviet Union was scheduled to go to Santiago for a playoff game that would qualify one of the teams to the West Germany 1974 World Cup. But on September 11th of that year, Augusto Pinochet had staged the coup that ousted the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Since then (and until 1981), Pinochet had used the stadium to incarcerate political dissidents, who were tortured there, and sometimes sent to be executed elsewhere. In total, over 40,000 people were detained in the stadium. At one point, the regime had 7,000 detainees there at the same time. The USSR national team caught wind of this and refused to play the game at the Estadio Nacional. They would have accepted a different venue, but the Chilean and the FIFA authorities wouldn’t be moved, so the Soviets declined to travel to the country.

The whole thing ended in a pathetic spectacle forced by then FIFA president Stanley Rous, who staged a match with only one side (a very reluctant, but also very scared of the consequences of disobedience, Chile), in which the team passed the ball around idly, until Francisco “Chamaco” Valdés scored a goal into an open net, qualifying the Chileans for the World Cup.

The act of defiance came later. During this Copa América, a small sector of El Nacional, behind one of the goals, was enclosed and empty. You could see it from most angles on TV. It was under its wooden bleachers that most political detainees were held, and it was above them that the prisoners were paraded to prove to FIFA officials that they were being kept “humanely.”

On September 11th, 2003, thirty years after the coup, that sector of the stadium was declared a historical monument, and it has been left untouched on stadium renovations. It has, instead, become a sanctuary, a museum dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet regime, a vivid and concrete reminder of how bad things can get when a country is divided. That Chile played all of its successful cup run here meant that this was a victory not only for the present Chile, but also a symbolic defeat of its past.

Surely this championship won’t heal any of the political or social issues Chile is dealing with. And obviously football is not the way to go about solving them. But, as the sign above the stairs to the enclosed tribune reads: “A people without memory is a people without future,” and for a brief moment, thanks to 11 men clad in red, the future of Chile looked bright.


“Liniersgate” – Is This Cartoon Wrong?

The image that you see above was circulated often on social media last week after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all of the 50 states of that country.

The image is obviously a reference to the iconic picture of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos receiving, respectively, the gold and the bronze medal for the 200 meters race in the Mexico 1968 Olympics.

Image #: 13530908    American athletes Tommie Smith (middle, gold medal) and John Carlos (right, bronze medal) at the Award Ceremony for the 200m race at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, October 16, 1968.  The Olympics Black Power salute was a notable black power protest and one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games.   DPA/LANDOV

Image #: 13530908 American athletes Tommie Smith (middle, gold medal) and John Carlos (right, bronze medal) at the Award Ceremony for the 200m race at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, October 16, 1968. The Olympics Black Power salute was a notable black power protest and one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games. DPA/LANDOV

The image in the photograph was immediately dubbed the “Black Power Salute,” for Smith’s and Carlos’ pose and race, even though Smith would say later in his autobiography that his was a “human rights salute.” Nonetheless, as this picture was taken in 1968 (the year when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, no less), many in the United States and abroad came to identify it as one of the most powerful symbols of the civil rights struggle.

Because of this symbolism, the cartoon upset more than a few people, as many saw it as a way of appropriating and whitewashing the history of U.S. Black struggle to celebrate an event mostly unrelated to it.

Yet the cartoon was also mostly unrelated to the United States Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. It was drawn by Argentinian artist Ricardo Siri Liniers, known simply as “Liniers,” and it was originally published in early 2014 on his twitter, with the message “Winter Olympics are coming up in the homophobic Russia of Putin #GayPower.”


Se vienen las Olimpiadas de invierno en la Rusia homofóbica de Putin. #GayPower

— Liniers (@porliniers) January 28, 2014


This was of course a reference to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics (thus the snow) and the Russian “LGBT Propaganda” law, which came into effect in mid 2013, and was widely discussed in Western media during the sporting event.

Regardless, many people complained that, even if the message of the image was positive, the seemingly white skinned figures in the cartoon erased a long history of African-American oppression.

When the image was originally published, few, if any, seemed to mind it. But Liniers (who for long has been one of the most famous cartoonist in Latin America) has recently become well-known elsewhere, with his drawings, for example, landing on The New Yorker‘s cover three times in the past two years.

So, coming from Argentina – where discussions on race are practically invisible – Liniers (whose work I regularly find interesting and engaging, and usually socially committed) surely wasn’t aware of all the sensibilities of other types of audiences.

He spoke on his twitter last Sunday about this controversy:

It was supposed to de a double homage. To the iconographic nature of that great photo and to the advances in USA gay civil rights.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

The good thing that came out of this is many people in Latin America who didn't know of this photo, got to.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

Important moments of struggle and overcoming injustice in human history are the heritage of the entire human race.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

I think appropriation would be to think Anne Frank belongs to the Jews, Gandhi to the Hindus,Malala to the Pakistanis

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

Human history is first and foremost, human. It's not "my people" or "their people". Their all our people.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

I'm very sorry if the drawing caused grief, specially in the racially charged USA that we've been watching in the news all over the world.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

But I can't apologize for the drawing. It comes from mi ideas of social inclusion, stands against bigotry and disgust from discrimination.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

Probably cultural differences between Argentina and USA generates the misunderstanding.For that I feel bad but hope you try and understand.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

Yellow Marley says "Peace"

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

And let's not forget what policing ideas of who should draw what brings…

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 27, 2015

I understand that the drawing offends some people so I took them off twitter and Instagram because it was not the intention I had doing it.

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 28, 2015

He ended the discussion with a new drawing, saying “Let’s hope this one has better luck…”

Esperemos que este tenga mejor suerte…

— Liniers (@porliniers) June 28, 2015

What do you think?

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Why is Facebook asking me how to pronounce my name?

I love meeting people. When it comes time to say my name, I pronounce it slower and louder than my normal speech, with a punch of pride to sweeten the moment. Sometimes, people repeat it back for me, with a touch of anxiety because they know they’ll forget it a moment later. That’s always ok. I’ll once again say this lovely moniker (Sha-mee-rah) with as much enthusiasm as I had the first.

This is why Facebook’s new name game perplexes me. I mean, I get it. The millennials who run the site want to be as politically correct as they can. Avert a crisis before there can be one, I imagine them imagining, and let’s teach ourselves to be as worldly and ready as possible when confronting people with weird names. But that doesn’t work. Because you still may not get it right. You won’t hear the twang in my voice, and you won’t hear the inflexion I love so much. And best of all, you won’t learn that when it comes to names, it’s ok to be wrong. But this is weird. I’m not teaching a computer, and new Facebook friends, how to say my name by spelling it out phonetically. I couldn’t if I tried. But in the aim of being politically correct, Facebook has of course underscored that my name is weird and hard and it’s up to me to prevent awkward situations by teaching my “Friends” on how to say it right. And I’m not going to do that. But if you do want to learn how I like to be called, we can always just do an old-fashioned introduction.

A Look at Hillary (and Bill) Clinton’s Past in Haiti

Hillary Clinton might have some explaining to do before she can claim the top spot in the Democratic primary. Any pro-Hillary voters who prioritize moral plans for American foreign policy should probably look into the candidate’s past in Haiti.

The Pulitzer Center hosted journalist Jonathan M. Katz on June 22nd for a discussion about the Clintons’ influence and rather infamous legacy in Haiti and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. It’s surprising how little the failures and destruction of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s presence in Haiti have been brought up so far. Hopefully by 2016 this topic will be making headlines.

First, some background on the topic: on January 12, 2010, the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the hemisphere, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, devastated Haiti’s southern peninsula and killed 100,000 to 316,000 people.

Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the Haitian reconstruction effort and vowed to help the country “build back better,” so that if another disaster struck, Haiti would be able to respond more quickly and with more efficiency. Hillary described their efforts as a “road test” that would reveal “new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”

The Clinton Foundation alone has directed $36 million to Haiti since 2010. Another $55 million has been spent through the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, and an additional $500 million has been made in commitments through the Clinton Global Initiative’s Haiti Action Network.

But what does Haiti have to show for all of these investments? Not much, according to Katz. “Haiti and its people are not in a better position now from when the earthquake struck,” he said. The hundreds of millions of dollars and the years of reconstruction efforts have yielded negligible results. For a project so expansive, Hillary has kept relatively quiet about Haiti thus far in her campaign. Her spokesman declined to comment on how Haiti has shaped her foreign policy, saying Hillary would address that “when the time comes to do so.”

Hillary’s big plan for how she would “rebuild” Haiti in the wake of desolation was characteristically American: through business. With big corporate plans on the horizon, Bill and Hillary became exceedingly familiar faces in Haiti leading up to the 2011 presidential elections.

It’s not surprising that the candidate who vowed to make Haiti “open for business” was ultimately the victor. Former Haitian pop star Michel Martelly eventually won the race, after Hillary salvaged his candidacy when he was eliminated as the number 3 candidate by convincing the parties to accept him back into the race.

Katz said that this vote was fraudulent. Martelly, a businessman and strong proponent of foreign investment in Haiti, was “attractive” to the U.S. State Department, Katz noted. He very much had a “Clinton view of Haiti and a Clinton view of the world.”

That’s how Caracol Industrial Park, a 600-acre garment factory geared toward making clothes for export to the U.S., was born in 2012. Bill lobbied the U.S. Congress to eliminate tariffs on textiles sewn in Haiti, and the couple pledged that through Caracol Park, Haitian-based producers would have comparative advantages that would balance the country’s low productivity, provide the U.S. with cheap textiles, and put money in Haitians’ pockets.

The State Department promised that the park would create 60,000 jobs within five years of its opening, and Bill declared that 100,000 jobs would be created “in short order.” But Caracol currently employs just 5,479 people full time. “The entire concept of building the Haitian economy through these low-wage jobs is kind of faulty,” Katz stated on Monday. Furthermore, working conditions in the park are decent, but far from what should be considered acceptable.

Not only did Caracol miss the mark on job creation, but it also took jobs away from indigenous farmers. Caracol was built on fertile farmland, which Haiti doesn’t have much of to begin with. According to Katz, Haitian farmers feel that they have been taken advantage of, their land taken away from them, and that they have not been compensated fairly.

Hundreds of families have been forced off the land to make room for Caracol. The Clintons led the aggressive push to make garment factories to better Haiti’s economy, but what it really created was wealth for foreign companies. This trend was echoed when the Clintons helped launch a Marriott hotel in the capital, which has really only benefited wealthy foreigners and the Haitian elite.

Mark D’Sa, Senior Advisor for Industrial Development in Haiti at the U.S. Department of State, said that many of the Clintons’ promises remain unfulfilled and many more projects are “half-baked.” Haiti remains the most economically depressed country on the continent.

If Hillary wins in 2016, U.S. policy geared toward Haiti will undoubtedly expand, meaning even more money will be funneled to the Caribbean nation to fund the Clintons’ projects, for better or for worse. According to Katz, the truth is that we don’t actually know how much money has been thrown into the Caribbean country to “rebuild” it, and that with economic growth stalling and the country’s politics heading for a shutdown, internal strife seems imminent.

The introduction of accountability for the foreign aid industry is the most important change that can be made, according to Katz. Humanitarian aid does nothing positive or productive if there are not institutions in place, managed by individuals who actually live in these countries, to oversee that aid is serving rather than hurting the people it is supposed to “help.”

Hillary Clinton’s efforts in Haiti have fueled political corruption, destroyed arable farmland, and have forced hundreds of families to leave their homes and their jobs to make room for a factory that has not given even a fraction of the amount to Haiti as it has taken. If the introduction of accountability is the way to go, then we first need to start talking. So Hillary, what do you have to say about Haiti?

This article was originally published on Law Street Media.

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A meditation on that space I need for my rage, or, an independence manifesto

The space I need for my rage was taken from me long ago. I have spent the better part of my adult life recognizing both its social and personal absence with fierce determination to carve it out as I attempt to re-learn my entitlement to it and experiment with ways to express and relish in it especially on the stage.

Years of talk therapy have taught me the extent to which my conditioning influenced how I behave and negotiate this world in which I live. In this white world, as a black (Haitian) woman, I have had to negotiate my blackness within African-American communities where my additional otherness is invisible. We do not always see each other or align collectively around shared struggles. I am past the age and or the phase where this tore me up as a young immigrant in this country. I made peace with the reality that in the expanded scope of racial hierarchies, my race/color precedes my national identity. I became a U.S citizen a decade ago. I am simply black in the face of the white power that I sometimes dread for the ways that it categorizes and seeks to destroy blackness as some misappropriate it as CG writes, while others keep that blackness in an unhealthy state of awareness that denies us a social luxury of being, precisely because, as June Jordan puts it, “I am the wrong skin.”

The first thing I did the morning after the massacre in Charleston — I went for a run. An observer, from not so far away in CT, these times have been trying. I watched events surrounding the capture of Dylann Roof developing in the news while upholding an all too predictable narrative and quickly became conscious that my heart was beating too fast, faster than usual. The urge to run while standing still is a feeling I have come to associate with another anxiety that I have had in those moments when fear is setting in and there is no place to run for cover. I had an appointment but simply did not want to go outside. (Indeed, it dawned on me that I first fully absorbed this feeling in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.) I did not want to leave the comfort of my home space and risk an encounter with anyone in denial about the targeting of black bodies and the state of racism in this hemisphere, and in the world.

As the families of the AME9 victims forgave the killer of their loved ones, I retreated in a combination of awe, respect and self-protection. I had neither the religious conviction nor faith to take this high road anymore than I could so clearly express its opposition as Roxanne Gay so poignantly did. I was preoccupied with the fact that this was taking an all to familiar physical and emotional toll, which has become conversation on my FB and Twitter feeds of late. Advice and notes about ways to be vigilant about self-care in these times. Ways to circumnavigate the psychic violence from a terror so close and so random that it will re-trigger and re-traumatize us as we live, knowing as Hari Ziyad asserted: blackness cannot be saved. But we can try to take care of ourselves to assure its collective survival. Anti-blackness knows no geographical boundaries. For Harriet wrote “If #BlackLivesMatter, we need to talk about the Dominican Republic” as she urged us to “Breathe. Heal. Organize. Because Ferguson is New York, is Baltimore, is Santo Domingo, is Port-au-Prince.” Stateless citizens are self-deporting. Living in limbo. The current situation in the DR is a time bomb that’s getting ready to blow as Jonathan Katz recently wrote in the NYT. And churches are being burned again and again keeping all of us on alert.  There is a target on our back. (please don’t shoot) calls on us to: “make some noise around a situation that has gone from unacceptable to unbearable. More overwhelmed every day by the unrelenting and unapologetic brutality against people of color, we have had enough.”

If there is one thing that I have learned from my years of therapy, healing is a process that takes its time. It cannot be rushed and it certainly cannot begin when wounds are still open. Still bleeding. Indeed, unprocessed trauma will become archived in bodies unless it is recognized, faced, confronted and worked through. Not everyone has the luxury of time and resources to commit to our certain types of self-care and protection, which is paramount to weather living with this ongoing terror. Audre Lorde said it best “caring for myself is not self- indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” 

Full expression of our humanity, rage included, remains a site (too often) of (deadly) contention. We should be held not responsible for the social limits and ideologies that undergird legal structures, which reduce us to mere caricatures and stereotypes. It took me a long time to learn that I have as much a right to individuation as anyone. For me to live, the space I need for my rage has become non-negotiable. I no longer have any desire whatsoever to debate anyone about it. My aliveness and spirit depend on it so I can keep trying to do to this life thing, despite the fuckery, with some meaning, and a lil swag, albeit on my terms.

“Permanent readiness for the marvelous”

                                                   –Suzanne Césaire

Echoes of Zaire: Popular Painting from Lubumbashi, DRC

In the 1970s, a Congolese painter named Tshibumba Kanda Matulu began to paint a history of what was then Zaire. This history, as the anthropologist Johannes Fabian pointed out when he collaborated with Kanda Matulu on a book some years later, was “not just a story, but an argument and a plea.”

History is of course never “just a story,” and the extraordinary exhibition 53 Echoes of Zaire that just opened in London, showing some of these paintings by Kanda Matulu and four other painters from the Congo, makes very clear that these painters’ version of history is indeed an emotive, impassioned plea to tell their side of the story, to insert narratives into the vacuum left by official versions of history that circulated at the time.

The exhibition was curated by Salimata Diop from the Africa Centre in London in cooperation with the Sulger-Buel Lovell gallery. It comprises 53 paintings by artists Louis Kalema, C. Mutombo, B. Ilunga, Ndaie, and Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, belonging to the Belgian collector Etienne Bol whose late father Victor Bol collected these works while spending time in Zaire in the 1970s.

Lumumba 1960 – NdaieThe artists are all self-taught and the exhibition shows a series of works all executed in a style similar to what is sometimes called the Zaire School of Popular Painting. The most famous of this so-called school is probably Chéri Samba, who shot to fame after he was included in the Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of Earth) show at the Pompidou in 1989. These works are painted on flour sack rather than canvas, often with a limited palette of poster paints and with thick brushes. But whereas Samba and his colleagues from Kinshasa tend to record everyday events, the works on the current show are all from painters around Lubumbashi, in the south, with a focus on historical topics. This is probably as much the result of the collector’s keen eye as anything else – the catalogue tells us that these works were made for a local audience and were mostly sold to local people, so one may surmise that these artists probably also painted genre paintings for a local clientele.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that has reproductions of all the paintings, but unfortunately does not tell us much about individual works. Granted, very little biographical information about these artists is known and none of them could be found in the lead-up to this exhibition – we don’t even know if they are still alive. Efforts to reach Kanda Matulu – by far the most proficient of the group – have been unsuccessful; his last works date to 1982–83. But the catalogue does not explain or contextualize individual images or events, and viewers are left piecing together the history for themselves. This is a shame, as these works were clearly meant to inform and educate their viewers. It would be nice, therefore, to be able to partake in this project knowing more about the incidents being memorialized and their significance in this indigenous history of the Congo.

It is quite interesting, for instance, to know that the aforementioned academic and anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a book in 1996 containing a series of a hundred history works by Tandu Matulu, entitled Remembering the Present. The two became friends in 1973 when Tandu Matulu was around 27 years old and needed a sponsor to execute his aspiration to tell the history of Zaire in a series of paintings, rather than stick to the genre paintings so popular with the local public. Fabian mentions that while he and Tandu Matulu were working on this project from 1973–74, he “found amongst my expatriate colleagues a few buyers for several shorter versions of this series.” This is probably how Bol acquired his collection.

Le 30 juin 1960, Zaïre indépendant – Tshibumba Kanda-MatuluSeveral works from Fabian’s book are repeated in Bol’s collection, making it clear that the artists repeated the same images, focusing on key episodes. The exhibition is organized around five themes representing Belgian colonization, the mines around Shaba (now Katanga), the independence of Zaire, post-independent moments of conflict, and the pre-colonial past. Clearly these painters are imaging a shared system of memory. The same image crops up over and over again under the heading “Congo Belge” (Belgian Congo): a white official in a white safari-style uniform overseeing a black uniformed man, whip in hand, flogging a black subject lying on the ground in front of him. Often women in traditional dress are onlookers, and in quite a few works black subjects have chains around their necks. These are images of such horrific dimensions that they are ingrained in the popular imagination; memory becomes a people’s history.

Another popular topic repeated by a few of the artists is the beheading of Msiri, the king of Katanga, by King Leopold’s army in 1891.  Some official European histories published in France related that after Msiri was killed by gunfire, his head was put on a pole as a lesson for his people. Indigenous oral history relates that Msiri’s body was returned to them without a head and no one knows what happened to the head.  The exact details are imprecise, but it is clear that this episode plays an important part in the popular narrative about colonial occupation and resistance.

La Tête historique de M’siri, Msiri fût coupé la Tête – Tshibumba Kanda-MatuluThe works of Kanda Matulu clearly stand out, so often showing a wonderful eye for detail and a gift of observation here: the uniforms of colonial officials is painted in precise painstaking detail in his “Colonie Belge 1885–1959” (also repeated in Fabian’s book), buildings reveal an architectural sense of structure, and his many portraits of Lumumba are unmistakable likenesses. The black-and-white portraits of Lumumba in particular – probably taken from newspaper photographs – are some of the most interesting in the exhibition and reveal Matulu’s keen interest in aesthetics and representation. His works are richly annotated, similar to Cheri Samba’s, so as to inform his audience unambiguously about whatever he is referring to and how these images should be interpreted. This sentiment – so foreign to the Western art world, which is probably why Chéri Samba remains so popular in the West – reveals how much these works are intended to document and memorialize, to stand testimony to a history all too willingly forgotten.

Congo Belge II – KalemaFor this reason alone – and many others to do with the works’ cohesion– one hopes that the collection is sold to an institution open to the public. This is a powerful document that needs to be seen in its entirety.

The exhibition 53 ECHOES OF ZAIRE: POPULAR PAINTING FROM LUBUMBASHI, DRC is on view from 27 May – 30 June 2015 at Sulger-Buel Lovell gallery, London, UK.

Colombia and the search for truth in Latin America’s longest running conflict: lessons from the South African experience

Negotiators from both sides of Colombia’s longest running war met last month in Havana, Cuba, for the 37th round of peace talks. The primary outcome of these talks was an agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group to establish a truth commission, an agenda point which has been in discussion for approximately a year.

The agreed upon mandate of the commission is for it to facilitate the “construction and preservation of historical memory and achieve a broad understanding of the multiple dimensions of the truth of the conflict” and “lay the foundations of coexistence, reconciliation, and non-repetition.” Uncovering truths buried by 50 years of war, which has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives, will be a formidable task. Moreover, the commission’s establishment is contingent on both parts signing a final peace agreement; which, after two and half-years of negotiations, is still some way off.

For the past few weeks, negotiations have been ongoing without an official cease-fire. FARC revoked their unilateral truce on May 22nd, after aerial bombings and raids by government forces killed 40 of their members. These actions where in reciprocity for an attack by FARC on a government military column the month before, which killed 11 soldiers.

Despite these setbacks, ongoing negotiations have made some considerable achievements: both sides have signed preliminary accords on political participation for the opposition, reforms on drug policy, and rural development. However, perhaps the most difficult issues for negotiations still lay ahead: the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants; and a reparations framework for victims.

The recent agreement to establish a truth commission is another positive step towards the chance of a lasting final peace in Colombia, and other elements the negotiated settlement will be contingent on its success. Whether this peace comes in a year from now, or five, it is better to begin a conversation now on what a Colombian truth commission should seek to achieve. In doing so, lessons can be learnt from both the successes and failures of the South African experience.

The current social climate in South Africa—with its heated contestations around cultural symbols, outbursts of xenophobic violence and malignant political stage—may encourage one to overlook the successes of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Without some ordering of the past, former belligerents cannot begin to look to developing a peaceful and shared future. In this regard, the TRC was successful in beginning the important project of creating an authoritative historical record. It brought long-standing enemies together around the same table, provided an important platform for victims to tell their stories, and was responsible for providing a measure of accountability to victims. The TRC also provided us insights from which to build more nuanced corrective structures and legislation. Two clear markers of its success are that firstly, no civil conflict has broken out. And secondly, the TRC has become a model for a number of African states trying to transition to and consolidate their own democracies.

Perhaps a lesson from the TRC most applicable to Colombia revolves around the issue of amnesty. A crucial decision the country will have to make is whether those found responsible for crimes revealed through a truth commission, should be granted amnesty. The joint report outlining the recent truth commission agreement makes no mention of this issue, but states that the commission will be an extrajudicial mechanism; meaning its activities will have no legal basis, will not involve any criminal charges against those who appear before it, and information received during hearings cannot be transferred to judicial authorities.

In Colombia, this has been a heated political debate. The right-wing opposition to the peace talks, lead by former president Álvaro Uribe (now a senator), has constantly put pressure on media and Congress to claim for long prison sentences. This has forced current president Juan Manuel Santos to repeat often that there will not be “impunity in the peace agreement.” But the divided rhetoric, and the renewal of FARC attacks, has lead many sectors of Colombia, supportive of the peace talks, to ask for a time limit to it.

There is a natural trade-off between the need to encourage national unity on the one hand and fighting impunity on the other. Despite its number of troops being stale, FARC still holds many military advantages in the country, and it seems unlikely that it will keep the peace if the government seeks prosecutions. However, failing to address impunity can rob victims of a sense of justice, it does not help to encourage a just and equitable society, and it creates stumbling blocks for reconciliation. South Africa pioneered a third way where instead of a blanket approach, amnesty was only granted on the condition that perpetrators fully disclosed their crimes. Tying amnesty to the truth commission in this way could effectively be utilized by Colombia.

South Africa had little time for consideration before establishing the TRC. With hindsight, the commission’s failures become clearer, and lessons can be learned. Like a Colombian commission would, the South African TRC had to uncover and document stories pertaining to decades of violence; established in 1995, and delivering its final report in 1998, it had only three years to achieve this. Logistically, this was simply impossible. The decision to not keep the commission operative in an ongoing capacity has meant that thousands of important South African stories will never be heard. Furthermore, it has closed a still very much needed avenue for social dialogue around contentious issues. The Colombian report has specified that the commission will, including production of its final report, run for three years. Uncovering the truth is not an end in itself but should be seen as a part of an ongoing dialog towards reconciliation. Giving a truth commission a time frame of just three years risks rushing a process that should be seen as open-ended.

By focusing on the relationship between political perpetrators and individual victims, the TRC also failed to give enough attention to the underlying socio-economic conditions created by centuries of inequality. South Africa is slowly realizing that political reconciliation has not translated to economic reconciliation.
While the focus on overt forms of violence and civil conflict is understandable, creating lasting peace through inclusivity cannot truly be achieved without giving proper attention to the structures which generate social antagonism, and which are often themselves implicitly violent. Colombia’s truth commission will therefore have to find a way of addressing FARC’s key grievances around land ownership and economic opportunity in the territories. To this end, in addition to political actors, the role of institutions and business in both recent and historical causes of Colombia’s conflict needs to be central to hearings.

The released joint report outlining the mandate of the proposed Colombian truth commission has “committed to ensuring the mainstreaming of gender in all the scope of its work, with the creation of a working group to contribute to gender specific technical tasks, research, preparing gender hearings, among other.” The fact that gender is already being considered is a positive sign.

The South African TRC failed terribly in this regard. Questionnaires which victims claiming for reparations had to answer in front of official TRC statement takers (and which statement takers were ordered to closely stick to) contained no questions relating to gender based violence. This meant that, for example, a woman raped by apartheid security officers could not even get this on an official record. Furthermore, these statement takers, quickly trained by the TRC to take victim reports, were often woefully ignorant on conducting gender sensitive interviews.

Violence resulting from conflict often falls especially heavily on women and LGBTI individuals. South Africa missed an opportunity to begin to address deeply entrenched and gendered social structures which contribute to the country having some of the highest levels of gender based violence in the world.

Most crucial to the success of any truth commission is whether the government is willing to act on its recommendations. The South African TRC recommendations were largely ignored by the Mbeki government. Commission findings may call for the establishment of programmes and commitment to changes which outlasts the term of a single president or political party. If a truth commission and its subsequent recommendations becomes politicised, rather than a social commitment this transcends political patronage, it is bound to fail. Colombia will have to find a way to maintain the social and political will needed to support their truth commission and fulfil its recommendations.

Uncovering the truths behind more than 50 years of war will be a pain-staking process, but it is a crucial endeavour in order to ensure the future coexistence between rivals, non-recurrence of conflict, and ultimately, reconciliation. Former adversaries need to view a truth commission not as mechanism for the vindication of cause and attribution of blame but as an opportunity to see in the “other” the mutual loss and suffering such a war has wrought on all.

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Africa is a Radio: Season 2, Episode 5

Discussion on this episode of Africa is a Radio features a report back from Sean Jacobs on his recent trip home to Cape Town, a discussion on Kagame’s Rwanda and its relationship to the international courts, and finally a visit to the Americas centering in on Charleston, South Carolina and the Dominican Republic. The music selection from Chief Boima touches on all these corners of the world and more.

Japanese Designer Goes Full Rachel Dolezal at Paris’ Museum of Immigration

While we were busy celebrating a Supreme Court decision this week (we can’t make this up – CNN reported that a black and white flag held aloft by revellers in London was an ISIS flag. It turned out they mistook a graphic of dildos and buttplugs imprinted on the flag for Arabic; the original video of reportage has now been taken down), and Bree Newsome’s ascent up South Carolina’s statehouse flagpole to remove the state’s Confederate flag, a fashion show took place. Like most fashion shows, no black models were in evidence at Japanese designer Junya Watanabe’s show at the Museum of Immigration. In light of landmark decisions recognising equality, as well as the ongoing struggle to remove dehumanising symbols, why does something as inane as a runway full of white models matter?

Véronique Hyland was the first to describe the problem in NY Mag and reach out to the designer’s people for comment:

Japanese designer Junya Watanabe showed his men’s collection in Paris today, at the Museum of Immigration. The collection drew on African influences — including colorful Dutch wax fabrics and Masai-style layered necklaces — while managing to feature exactly zero black models. Much noted on social media was the hair — several white models appeared to wear dreadlock wigs. (Watanabe has done this before, as seen in his spring 2014 women’s collection.)

The space of the Museum of Immigration has its own problematic colonial history, contributing to this modern narrative of oogling otherness as the primary means of constructing one’s own subjectivity whilst deriding and erasing the other. Architect Albert Laprade famously collaborated with Léon Jaussely and Léon Bazin in building Palace of the Colonies, the Palais de la Porte Dorée for the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition in which zebras, snakes and other ethnological wonders were exhibited. The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is now housed within the Palace.

But no one really talked about the location, because the gigantic braids-and-dreads wigs worn by Watanabe’s models sort of blinded commenters on Twitter:

who wore it best: junya watanabe s/s 16 or rachel dolezal?

— Four Pins (@Four_Pins) June 26, 2015

Shoutout to Junya Watanabe on his Rachel Dolezal collection

— Marcus Jones (@MarcusJonesNY) June 26, 2015

We’ve said the obvious before. But every fashion season (and every wedding season), it seems we need a reminder: appropriation of blackness in order to ooze cool is exploitative, plain and simple. Attempting to reproduce, imitate, or otherwise artificially signal black physical traits, or pile on prominent “tribal” jewellery that instantly associates white tourists with a trip to Maasai Mara or some mythical “Zululand” is a problem. Why? Because actual black people don’t get to mix and match their physical traits in order to show that they are culturally powerful on one day and abandon blackness the next; even more importantly, they have to grow up with the day to day and systematic oppression that those traits bring in worlds that are largely run on white supremacist principles. These are worlds that view anything to do with blackness (including braids and jewelry) as inferior.

But yes, we know, European and American people sometimes want to show that they like these nice, African things. What’s wrong with homage? As Chimene Suleyman noted so succinctly in Media Diversified year last, “What happens with appropriation is a suggestive scalping, a vogue bounty hanging from trendsetting bridle reins”. When there’s not even one black model on that runway, the exploitation and exoticism of “native” Africanness is made even more plain: we love your colourful garb, but we wouldn’t want you to be employed and present here. If you were, that would mean that this stuff isn’t really meant for us to take as we want. Also, if you were here, we wouldn’t really look good with braids and dreads. tried to explain the lack of black models with this possibility:

…the decision to use only white models may have been in order to communicate a message about colonialism, some suggested, especially since the collection was created in collaboration with Vlisco. The Dutch company, which has supplied fabric to West and Central Africa since the mid-19th century, is considered instrumental in having shaped the region’s cultural identity, reports, with British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare using the company’s fabrics in his work to challenge Western colonial history.

Amazing how Shonibare’s brilliant questioning of “authenticity” and “native purity” could be derailed by a fashion writer, who explains here that his is a simple “commentary” on colonialism. But what exactly is the comment? Is it just that “colonialism exists”? And that when colonialism happens, black people disappear, and their cute stuff gets appropriated by those who colonised them?

And that wasn’t the end of the absurdity. NowFashion noted that the “patchworking” was vintage-true of Watanabe’s style, where the “[t]ypically Western fabrics competed for attention with wax prints, wools, with linens.” Ok, that’s so nice. But then we get the horrible emptiness we come to expect of fashion writing, which almost moves towards critiquing racism and sexism, but quickly giggles and then dismisses it away in cringe-worthy pseudo-theorising:

At first, it seemed as if the Ivy Leaguers had gone native in the Museum of Immigration, built in 1931 by Albert Laprade. Much like Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Watanabe’s collection reflected on colonialism, and exploited the in-roads between preppy and native African culture. From last winter’s Sapeurs re-appropriating Western masculine codes to this season, the parallel felt natural…Much like the African man in his traditional outfit looking down onto an apparently preserved landscape, Watanabe usually reflects on oft-overlooked dignity. Here, it was delivered in the form of kikoy wraps and throws wrapped around the shoulders. “Look” said a blue crocodile on one. The designer pointed at the mutual fetishizing of foreign dress, and some would only look at the proffered necklaces.

Using this inane word, “reflection”, allows this writer to remove responsibility and accountability from Vampire Weekend vocalist Ezra Koenig and Japanese designer Watanabe. They get to travel physically and metaphorically through former colonial landscapes – and cherry-pick the pretty bits that others made. As Koenig said of his own efforts, he got to “think” about “aesthetic connections between preppy culture and the native cultures of places like Africa and India” (never mind that these are vast continental masses with innumberable “native cultures” which were neither as static nor as “native” as appropriation specialists want such people or their cultural products to be). This sort of “thinking” allows one to be a tourist of the colonial imaginary – and not present (historical or contemporary) reality; they don’t have to engage critically with what such symbolic appropriations have done to objectify the “native” as something to be subjugated, marginalised, and erased through genocide.

Watanabe, like many before him, has plunked some “native” goods on some white people. Those goods, once removed of power and history, are now safe being used as an homage, as long as the black people have been disappeared from the stage.

Also: anyone wanting to add that some Japanese, called B-Stylers, admiringly wear blackface, should read Nina Cornyetz’s “Fetishized Blackness: Hip Hop and Racial Desire in Contemporary Japan” in Social Text (1994).

No country for widows

Massacres happen fast and slow. Ask the survivors and their survivors. Last week, Jacob Zuma finally shared his version of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, aka the Farlam Commission after its chairperson, which has, after a fashion, investigated the August 16, 20102 massacre of striking mineworkers at the Lonmin platinum mine in the North West. There were little to no surprises in Zuma’s presentation, which emphasized those points that were meant to absolve the President and his friends.

The only surprise, if it was a surprise at all, was the lengths to which the State went to demean and diminish the miners, dead and living, and their loved ones. The nation was given five hours’ notice, and then the President went on. The widows weren’t given prior notice nor were the surviving mineworkers nor their attorneys or supporters. They found out the about the event as they returned from work, ran about looking for a tv, and finally found a laptop, in a Longmin board room, only to have the feed not function. Some say it was load shedding.

But why were the widows treated in this way? Surely it couldn’t have been too difficult to have given them prior notice? More to the point, surely they should have been sitting in the gallery, right there. Surely South Africa has the wherewithal to bring a few grieving women from the North West to hear the President deliver his understanding of the meaning of their husbands’ deaths?

Betty Gadlela, widow of Sitelega Meric Gadlela, now works as a miner to support her family, commented, “Our husbands died like dogs for R12 500 which is nothing considering the amount of work that is done in the mines. Our eyes are still filled with tears and we still mourn the deaths of our husbands. Now that I also work in the mine, I see why our husbands went on strike.”

Noluvuyo Noki, widow of strike leader Mgcineni Noki, `the man in the green blanket’, added, “The police who killed my husband are given the opportunity to work and take care of their children. What about my daughter? What about the children of the other miners who were orphaned because of that shooting?”

From the day of the killing, and actually before, the women of Marikana, incandescent with rage, pushed, organized, protested, organized, refused to stay in the dark. Some sat for two years at the Farlam Commission hearings. As one widow explained, she left her children for two years, hoping for a definitive answer of what happened to their father. They sat through almost three years now of empty commemorations without any discussion of compensation. The President also “forgot” to mention compensation in his rendering of events.

And now?

Ntombizolile Mosebetsane, widow of Thabiso Mosebetsane, sighs, “What do you want me to say? I have no words. There are no words… The report says nothing about who killed my husband or why the police believed that any of them should have died. Would it be too much to ask Zuma to come to us personally, as the president of this country, to address us? Because this cannot be the final chapter of our people’s lives.”

And now the widows go back to court, and for them, the struggle, and the massacre, continue. This cannot be the final chapter of our people’s lives.

Durban Pride 2015: What Does Democracy Feel Like?

Taking the microphone at Durban Pride, Foundation for Human Rights LGBTI Coordinator Virginia Magwaza shouted a question to the two hundred or so participants who had initially gathered at the Snell Parade Amphitheatre on the city’s North Beach:

“What does democracy feel like?”

This is what democracy feels like!” The crowd shouted back in excitement.

So what was the feeling of being at Durban Pride?

Durban’s 2015 Pride march took place on a grey, drizzly afternoon on Saturday, June 27th. The area immediately surrounding the Sunken Gardens and Amphitheatre in Durban’s North Beach area was fenced off, primarily due to the sale of alcohol at the event. The event, only in its fifth year despite Durban’s presence as South Africa’s third largest city, was initially sparsely attended, although attendance later swelled to about 2,500 by the end of the afternoon. Durban’s event offered a marked contrast to many other pride events—the attendance was relatively small, and the event was markedly free of commercial branding and sponsorship. Entrance to the area was free and sale of kitschy gay paraphilia was at a minimum — indeed, the Amphitheatre offered far less rainbow imagery than any American’s Facebook feed 24 hours after the SCOTUS decision to allow gay marriages. Most of the affiliated stalls skirting the Amphitheatre were service-oriented, indicating the event’s primary relationship with the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre. Participants could receive free HIV testing, learn about LGBT organizations, or pick up copies of the constitution and lists of their rights.

Durban Pride 2015 didn’t fit neatly into many of the pre-existing narratives about pride celebrations. The event was not a large commercial and apolitical presence offering simply a large party space, nor could it be easily classified as solely a local grassroots queer movement, like those seen in the alternate responses in Cape Town and Joburg. Durban stubbornly resisted either category. The attendees were a wide mix of racial, gender, and age groups.  Yet the event was also deeply structured by local histories and sensibilities.  Participants frequently broke out into struggle-era songs; marchers frequently shouted “Amandla! Awethu!”

Durban Pride 2015 felt simultaneously local and diffuse, not an unfamiliar feeling in a city of over 3 million host to both incredible diversity and recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence.

The pre-march speeches returned repeatedly to the continued reality of hate crimes and social violence as the most salient reason to continue Pride parades. Organizer Nonhlanhla Mkhize took the microphone to bluntly ask local ward councilors and government representatives, “Tell me, what are you all doing to make eThekwini [the isiZulu name for Durban] safe for moffies?”  Government officials offered speeches aimed at protecting queer members of the community. Perhaps most indicative of the multiple directions of the event, the final speaker was Craig Maggs, Mr. Gay South Africa, a hunky, muscular white man who flashed his abs and offered a moment of simultaneous consciousness raising and pinkwashing. The KZN-born Maggs called on the crowd to take on the responsibility for making South Africa a better place for LGBTI people while simultaneously admonishing them to appreciate their freedom, something unavailable in nearby places like Zimbabwe. Good-natured hectoring aside, the invocation of Zimbabwe as a negative comparative space invoked some of the tensions of the year’s earlier violence.  After a final call to celebrate, we began the six kilometer march along the Durban beach and back to the Amphitheatre space without incident.

As the post-march event shifted into high gear with drag performances, dance-offs, and community appeals, Virginia Magwaza’s words rang in our ears.  What did democracy feel like? Was Durban Pride a space where democracy was being lived, debated, and understood? How did it all fit together? The clearest place to begin seemed to be with Durban Pride’s organizing theme, “On Common Ground.” Asking participants how they understood the theme offered both a way to gauge people’s feelings about the event and the larger purpose of Prides in general.

Amongst the organizers, Director and Advocacy officer at the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre Nonhlanhla Mkhize explained that the theme signified not only a sense a unit, but a continued commitment to work together beyond the day’s events. She stressed that “on common ground” provided a way to think about continued interlinked struggles for justice throughout the year, implicitly linking struggles against xenophobia to those against homophobia in Durban. 

Jason Fiddler, an organizer and Director of the Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, argued that ‘On Common Ground’  worked as a theme because it allowed people to fill in “whatever they wanted afterwards,” creating a place where people take the theme and craft their own significant and individual meaning for the event. This is almost exactly what happened. The expansiveness of the theme allowed people to simultaneously individualize their concerns while thinking about a collective movement in Durban here and now. 

While many Pride participants we talked to were not aware of the theme or did not have any particular interpretation, several participants did share specific thoughts on the theme.

“I’m going to look at it from myself and my profession,” offered one participant. “Black, African, lesbian, born and bred in one of the roughest townships in Durban where hate crime is a common occurrence. [But I work for the police so] I feel like, I’m safe. From the ground a policeman, I feel safe. I wish that everybody there — I wish I would share that common ground with them. I wish that they would feel as safe as I do. I am very lucky. I do have a decent enough job. I do live in a safe neighborhood. I wish I shared that common ground with a lot of the queer people who are at this event today.”

This response offered a particularly keen observation of the contradictions within South Africa’s two decades of neoliberal democracy. Recognizing the uneven transformation of the post-1994 world under an ANC-led government, this participant saw a ‘common ground’ as a space that mediated between those who had access to resources and protection, and those that didn’t. She saw herself as embodying these very contradictions, having moved from her place of origin (while marked by histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality) to her “good job” in a “good neighborhood.”  The ‘common ground’ she saw offered a potential to link people across material divides within a ‘New South Africa’ that has inconsistently raised people’s standards of living.

These views were not universal. As one white female participant explained, “I think what has been missing from Gay Pride Durban is the fact that — everything is so theme oriented with political issues that we’ve missed the whole thing, which is that we are all on common ground. [But] what I’ve found this year, everybody is just mingling and having fun and being happy and being out, loud, and proud because there are no issues, there is nothing that defines us except our sexuality. That’s it.”

This view saw Pride as an apolitical gathering, a “happy” gathering with “no issues… except our sexuality,” a strong claim in a city that so recently experienced xenophobic violence and has continued histories of unemployment and gender-based violence. Such a claim reveals the tensions in organizing Pride in Durban — should this be simply about celebrating LGBTI sexuality, or should this connect to other, inter-related social and political issues?

By contrast, another white female participant couched her interpretation of the theme in recent political events in South Africa. She shared, “It means a lot things actually, considering the recent xenophobic violence that we experienced. So I think for me the theme speaks about that or about kind of tolerance versus hatred, generally. Maybe it was because one of the ‘say no to xenophobia’ slogans was similar, like African unity — we are all here together. To me it relates LGBT struggles of rights to other foreign nationals in South Africa, gender rights, those kinds of things.”

For this particular observer, ‘on common ground’ did several things at once. It not only linked to politics of shared sexuality and organizing, but it also revolved around larger questions of inclusion. The ‘ground’ itself can refer to the highly contested ground of a (post)colonial state, where apartheid histories linger on in de facto segregated spaces, and where xenophobic violence polices who gets to claim to belong on the common grounds of eThekwini, of South Africa, of the larger continent. 

As we walked around the wind-swept beach, watching all manner of people dancing to the pulsating rhythms emanating from the Pride stage, we asked once again, what does democracy feel like?

Democracy feels… strange. It feels like a constant tension between individualism and social consciousness. It feels like increased LGBTI visibility and increased backlash. It feels like one of the many facets of a daily life impacted by gender, race, class, and the many challenges of history. It feels complex and incomplete, where the common ground shifts and tilts beneath you on a windy winter afternoon.

Cameras and the Indian Ocean

In 1883, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, commissioned a camera obscura room in the tower of his new palace, the House of Wonders. Royal family members were early enthusiasts and collectors of photographs, part of a fervor that swept the Indian Ocean’s urban enclaves. 

It may be surprising to realize how quickly photography became an indispensible form of expression in East Africa. Today we have new access to these earliest images ranging from Zanzibar’s royal wives and concubines to poor, newly-freed people from Indian Ocean islands at the dawn of abolition. Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean, an online exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian, highlights these photographs from east Africa and beyond.  Most are on view for the first time ever. With these, we have access to a wider array of the “citizenry of photography” (Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography).

 Antoin Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Gift of Katherine Dennis Smith, 1973-1985

Sevruguin, Antoin,; b&w ; 18 cm. x 17.9 cm.; Myron Bement Smith Collection: Antoin Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Gift of Katherine Dennis Smith, 1973-1985

Today, many of us are unaccustomed to seeing photographic portraits that are  starkly gorgeous. A portrait of three royal women, their names unknown, offers a glimpse of the vast dimensions of style brought together and melded in Zanzibar’s royal harems. Here, we can see sartorial influences brought by the women who would become the Sultan’s wives and concubines; they layered elegant styles – from India, Oman and the Gulf, Circassia (present-day Georgia), Ethiopia, and as far as Zambia – into Zanzibari courtly attire.

Photographers like A.C. Gomes, Coutinho Brothers, and Pereira de Lord, themselves the sons of myriad diasporas, created portraits befitting their subjects. One commenter tied the extravagance evident in these portraits to a long-standing pride in fashion and beauty: “Swahili women have always been so fashion forward, and we take pride in looking good,” noted ‘bantujustmeanshuman’ (qtd. by streetetiquette and psaltftheblog).

Fashion is all about creation, and accelerating the new; if looking good is an aesthetic assertion, fashion cannot be disentangled from the political ambient. For instance, in 1890s Zanzibar, portraits of women in kangas and heads covered in showy kilemba heralded abolition. Recently slaves, women could now dress as those who were free-born. Moreover, the act of walking through city streets, and into photo studios, marked a revolutionary freedom. It also marked a huge shift from the private to the public: Muslim women were forging a new visual economy of cosmopolitan style.


The exhibition also shares new visions of slavery and diaspora, subjects that are especially complex. These include portraits of people who were captured, then ‘freed’, only to be transported to again to become indentured servants. These are valuable records of individuals, revealing, through their portraits, something of what it meant to exist under harsh conditions; though they were taken for bureaucratic purposes—as a way of maintaining records of the indentured—and though they were not a means of “self-fashioning”, as were the photographs of wealthy Zanzibari women, these photographs nevertheless defy and alter our expectations of what precisely constitutes a photographic portrait. It makes us question the ways in which photography has offered a means of creating versions of, and fictions of, selfhood and portrayal.

Gandor, 18 years old, son of Aoliath. Liberated at Port Victoria on the 7 October 1871 (H.M. Ship Columbine). Registered under no. 87 on the 13 October 1871.
Assigned to V. Morin
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Port Victoria, Seychelles 1871

Gandor, 18 years old, son of Aoliath. Liberated at Port Victoria on the 7 October 1871 (H.M. Ship Columbine). Registered under no. 87 on the 13 October 1871.
Assigned to V. Morin
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Port Victoria, Seychelles 1871

Other aspects of the exhibition explore the conditions of travel and migration. These include among the earliest daguerreotypes ever taken in east Africa (Guillain’s Atlas), Sevruguin’s lush portraits of African advisors at the Persian court of Nasir Al-Din Shah, and diaspora communities in the port city of Muscat, Oman. 

Underlying this exhibition is an idea familiar to most readers here: globalism is nothing new. For centuries, the Indian Ocean tied together a web of distant cities–Zanzibar, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Mauritius, and Muscat among the many metropoles navigated upon monsoon’s seasonal winds. In the long durée of exchange, photography’s global histories fundamentally undermine our outmoded understandings of what ‘modern’ means: these photographers took up new technologies, making use of those practices deemed relevant and useful, and aesthetically domesticated the camera and its contents.

Zanzibar, c. 1890
TZ 20-25. Photographer unknown
. Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Zanzibar, c. 1890
TZ 20-25. Photographer unknown
. Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Since the exhibition is an exclusively online affair, you don’t have to make the trek to the Smithsonian to see these extraordinary photographs. Physically bringing together early photograph collections and albums from across the globe wasn’t possible, but the fragility of these materials posed one advantage. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of admiring an albumen print with a magnifying loup, you’ll see how well these photographs are served by a digital platform. The vivid beauty of these prints demands we zoom in with a leisurely eye, take a rare and considered look. 

How do we best share and learn about these kinds of images and histories?  These are the stakes in moving these photos out of the hyper-secure archives and rarely-seen collections in Chicago, Berlin, Johannesburg, Washington, D.C., the Seychelles, and Réunion. At a time when there is ever more digitization of image archives, we very rarely see these efforts increasing access to global publics.

Boat-Cistern, built alongside of the Beit al-Sahel, in Zanzibar Stone Town 
Water Trough in Shape of Boat /
Lighthouse in Background
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1880-1900 
73-23 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Boat-Cistern, built alongside of the Beit al-Sahel, in Zanzibar Stone Town 
Water Trough in Shape of Boat /
Lighthouse in Background
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1880-1900 
73-23 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Another great advantage of this on-line platform has been the real-time response by those who may never set foot in the U.S. The intensity of online activity—commentary, writing, sharing—around this exhibition leaves the experience of looking at photographs in a museum gallery seem comparatively remote, rushed, fragmentary.

Instead of remaining in faraway museum archives and galleries, these photographs were shared and posted widely. Online audiences from Addis Ababa, Muscat, Secunderabad and Austin were quick to bandit these photos. The images multiplied online, shared and forwarded towards countless unanticipated aesthetic and intellectual projects. The chic women from Zanzibar scroll now next to streams of street photography, creative and political discussions, family pages, theoretical and feminist and fashion sites. Etched in silver and light, these photographs are going places. 

Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean is an online exhibition curated by Erin Haney, assisted by Xavier Courouble. It is part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa project, supported by the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, DC.

With thanks to Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Dabney Hailey, Wendy Grossman, and Wilcox Design/Green Interactive.