Africa is a Country

Weekend Music Break No.101

It’s the last music break of the year, and we leave 2016 with the 101st edition. It’s been a pleasure for me to do these playlist. If you’ve been enjoying them as well, make sure to donate to our end of the year funds drive, so we can continue to expand our coverage of the global African pop culture map!

Weekend Music Break No.101

1) This edition we kick things off with Blitz the Ambassador who has a new album out this week. The above video, shot in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, is the final installment of his self-directed Diasporadical video triology (we’ve featured part 1 and part 2 here before). Be sure to check out the album that perfectly accompanies this video short collection. 2) Next up, we head to Nigeria with Santi and Odunsi and their “Gangster Fear” video, shot in Lagos’ streets and teenage house parties. 3) After that we get some rhythmic fire from Cameroon’s Reniss, who teaches us about the joys of Cameroonian cooking. 4) We have a habit of posting Booba videos here on the Weekend Music Break, why break with tradition? Headed to DKR (and once again linking with Sidiki Diabate) to represent his Senegalese roots, Booba certainly shows he has no intention to. 5) UK Afrobeats og Silvastone teams up with Frank T Blucas in the video for “Remedy” showing a warmer side of London that is probably being missed by that city’s residents right now. 6) Teddy Yo and Joe Lox take us to Addis Ababa showing what might be the exciting growth of an indigenous Ethiopian Hip Hop scene? (Take back those samples brothers!) 7) A UK-raised Sierra Leonean, Brother Portrait reflects on the Black British experience in this video poem for “Seeview/Rearview”. 8) Next up Ghalileo attends a funeral in Ghana, and channels a history of pan-African leadership in the process. 9) Then, Vic Mensa takes on police brutality in Chicago. 10) And finally, Star Zee takes on “2 Much” corruption and general social malaise in Sierra Leone.

Have a great weekend and a very happy holiday season wherever you are, and whatever you believe!

Making Europe White… Again

 Bestimage via NYTimes.French police officers citing a woman wearing a Burqini on a French beach. Image Credit: Bestimage via NYTimes.

Zygmunt Bauman, the renowned Polish sociologist, calls them the emergent precariat. Shaken by the false promises of global neoliberal capitalism, the emergent precariat is a significant class of white Europeans living in constant fear of losing their positions of privilege. Their lives are characterized by a sense that they are in a constant state of crisis – the death of multiculturalism, the moral panic about terrorism, the collapse of the European Union and continued European economic paralysis. The global crisis of 2008, in particular, rapidly expanded and intensified their anxieties. Stalked by these, and material precarity, refugees and migrants have become the embodiment of their greatest fears – a change in a nation’s color and the real specter of economic meltdown in Europe.

Against this growing “influx” and increasing visibility of non-Europeans, right-wing populist politicians, aided by the moral panic induced by mainstream western media, appear to be urgently summoning the emergent precariat to defend their “ancestral lands” against threatening “hordes” of migrants. The words of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to “bring back authority and defend the French Republic,” (to kick start a failed second presidential bid), are eerily similar to those as say President-elect Donald Trump’s to “make America great again,” and as geographically proximate as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands who summons the Dutch to make the Netherlands Ours Again.” Indeed, much of this rhetoric is about the restoration of economic nationalism and a purported disdain for the nefarious political elites in Brussels and Washington.

But there is something more sinister at work. The true power of this ideological production is not dictated by what is really said but rather by what is omitted. Both in Europe and the United States, there is a nostalgia for when Europe and the U.S. were whiter – a supposed return to former glory and greatness – and an accompanying fear that particular migrants are rapidly diluting the whiteness of their countries. Central to this rhetoric, is a coded racial grammar directed largely at Arab and or Muslim and Black Africans. By using the phrases “ours” and “bring back,” while simultaneously omitting any references to race, they are tacitly signaling the idea that Europe excludes those historically categorized as non-European; those that are not white. In the case of America, making it “great again” is a direct reference to eight years of leadership under a black president, whose birthplace was relentlessly questioned by Trump.

These leaders are communicating that even if you are indeed here, you don’t really or fully belong. Your sojourn is temporary, you may even be “born in, but [are] not of [this] society” as critical theorist David Theo Goldberg reminds us. Sarkozy, in a speech to launch his re-entry into French politics indicated precisely this: “Being French means having a language, a history, and a way of life in common.” And in specific reference to public contentions about the burqini (the bathing suit worn by many Muslim women): “People cannot say ‘I want to be French, but in my own way’.” Here we see rhetorical strategies that continue to support “national fantasies” and reinforce the characterization of migrant populations as deeply suspect and potentially disloyal; this manifest in their apparent unwillingness to integrate as prescribed by French authorities. Sarkozy went on to note: “Wearing a burqini is a radical, political gesture, a provocation…  the women who are choosing to wear it are testing the resilience of the Republic.”

Crucially, this kind of rhetoric invokes violent cultural induction, internal boundary making and the expansion of illegality. Earlier this year, we saw French Muslim women interrogated by French police for wearing burqinis on the beach. In the pursuit of apparently sustaining secularism, French authorities remain steadfastly opposed to veiling, to the point of dramatically curtailing otherwise “benign liberties of self-expression”. In Germany, Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD – Germany’s Far Right party – in April of this year demanded that headscarves be banned in schools and universities and minarets prohibited. Succumbing to this pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Interior Minister called for a partial ban on burkas in a range of public contexts, noting that it would apply in “places where it is necessary for our societies to coexistence.”

But what is really at play here? When asked by French broadcast media about the burqini, Marine Le Pen of the French National Front party said: “The burqini is a symptom. One of the multiple symptoms of the rise of fundamentalist Islam in France for many years… it is about demands that are designed to say ‘We Muslims, though not all are in agreement with this, we want to eat differently, we want to live differently, and we want to dress differently’.”

Differently from whom precisely? Therein lies the revealing point of departure for Le Pen. Women in burqinis – “consenting victims” as she calls them – represent an affront to whiteness, white aesthetic comforts and more generally mainstream western culture. It is this that Muslims want to be different from. And in western societies structured by racism, the state and the politically powerful engage in disciplining immigrant difference and mobility into “commensurable citizens and commodifiable cultures”; cultures which are innocuously referred to as “authentically” French or German.

Worryingly, these racist discourses serve to legitimate increasingly stringent immigration controls and mechanisms of refugee incorporation. In the current European migration policy regime, migrant’s integration is seen as precondition for achieving formal rights of residence and finally citizenship: formal tests for citizenship were practices in six countries in 1998 rising to nineteen by 2010. However, this testing – and other forms of control – are not only practiced at entry, but consistently after supposed “inclusion.” In Germany for instance, a new Integration Law gives the state power to determine where refugees can live – either by allocating or banning them from certain areas; this will supposedly “avoid the emergence of social hotspots.”

The effects are in fact to place people under a glare of general suspicion until they prove otherwise. Migrants are in turn deprived of the self-evident fundamental right of the freedom to choose where they live. Thus institutionalizing the “exclusionary incorporation” of migrants; the relative lack of educational and employment opportunities, the residential segregation, the public media denigrations, the police profiling, the public humiliations etc. This ensures that they remain second-class citizens and on the margins of the economy, despite being granted citizenship or asylum.

Kabila’s impasse

Joseph Kabila, image via MONSUCO Flickr.Joseph Kabila, image via MONSUCO Flickr.

There is a nervous crescendo building up on the streets of Kinshasa ahead of December 19, the day President Joseph Kabila is supposed to step down. Diplomats are sending their families on early Christmas vacations and the Congolese franc has depreciated by about 25 per cent against the US dollar. On social media and even in the streets, signs of “Bye Bye Kabila” and “Eloko Nini Esilaka Te?” (What thing never ends?) denounce what is increasingly looking like a power grab: Although scheduled to leave office after 15 years at the helm, Kabila and his administration have created artificial delays in the electoral process, making it impossible to hold presidential elections on time. Public protest in response to these delays has been suppressed often violently. In September, police and presidential guards cracked down on protests in the poor northwestern neighborhoods of Limete, Masina, and Matete, with tear gas and live bullets, killing at least 53.

It would be easy to look at the streets of Kinshasa and think that we’ve seen this before: A president clinging to power, restive and frustrated youth, streets barricaded with burning tires, and abusive soldiers cuffing, beating, and taking what they want. The Congo is a generous purveyor of African stereotypes, often making it difficult to see the politics through the thickets of hyperbole.

But there is something new afoot, making this uncharted territory. The country has never seen a peaceful, democratic transfer of executive power in its history. There is no Léopold Senghor or Julius Nyerere – leaders who were in power for over twenty years but eventually stepped down peacefully – to serve as a model or blueprint for how to navigate this turbulence.

At the core of the impasse is the political future of Kabila. Parachuted into power following his father Laurent’s assassination in January 2001, Kabila cuts an enigmatic figure. A reclusive president who dislikes the public stage, he presided over the reunification of the country after the war and has overseen an average GDP growth of more than 6% since 2010. Notwithstanding, he has done little to reform an abusive state apparatus or spread economic growth – which is largely driven by industrial mining – more evenly.

Only 45 years old, Kabila now faces an extremely uncertain political future. At times over the past two years, various members of his inner circle have floated the idea of changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term; after all, this is what Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso and Paul Kagame did last year, and what Yoweri Museveni, Sam Nujoma, and Paul Biya did in years past. These ideas have been met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church, the international community, and civil society. In a nationwide opinion poll conducted jointly by the Congo Research Group, where I work, and the Congolese polling firm BERCI, 81% of respondents said they were against a constitutional revision. Kabila seems to have abandoned this approach for now.

He does not have many other options. Having used political fragmentation and weakness as a means of rule for more than a decade, Kabila has become a victim of his own strategy. He is now confronted with an extremely fractious inner circle, in which no one is both popular and loyal enough to be a viable successor. Advisors say that he is worried that if he names someone, his coterie will erupt in infighting. In our poll, when asked whom they would vote for if elections were held this year, only 7.8% named Kabila.  And only 17.5% said they would vote for an individual who is currently in the ruling coalition.

This leaves Kabila dead-ended. Unable to change the constitution and lacking a dauphin, he is forced to play for time – a strategy known as glissement (slippage). Members of government are experts at stalling. The government only disbursed 15% of the election budget in 2012, and 25% in 2013 and 2014, making it difficult for the electoral commission to do its job. Several rounds of negotiations have also been a means of co-opting opponents and playing for time, first in the wake of the deeply flawed 2011 elections and most recently with the dialogue politique, which culminated in a deal with opposition politicians that offered them the prime ministry in return for postponing elections until April 2018.

However, the two most popular politicians in the country have boycotted this deal. In our poll, Moise Katumbi, the wealthy former governor of Katanga province won 33% of the potential vote and Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader, 17%. They are now planning a series of nationwide protests aimed at unseating Kabila.

A resolution of this crisis is not likely soon. Katumbi, who left for exile when the government issued a dubious arrest warrant for him in May 2016, is barred from negotiations, and Tshisekedi is not known for compromise. They are bolstered by an energized donor community, which has threatened sanctions – the US has already imposed a travel ban and asset freezes on three security officials – and has been uncharacteristically united. On the other hand, Kabila appears to believe that he can muddle his way through by repressing street protests and hiving off opponents with money and positions in government. Last month he named a former Tshisekedi loyalist prime minister, and diplomats suspect that part of the drop in the Congolese franc has to do with “patronage inflation” – the premium Kabila has to pay for loyalty during this crisis. There do not seem to be any divisions within the security services that could present a physical threat to himself or his government.

Meanwhile, his African peers, after some wavering, appear also to be grudgingly backing him. A summit of regional leaders met in Luanda this week and endorsed the deal that Kabila had hashed out with the opposition. South Africa has been particularly feckless: though it brokered the historic 2002 peace deal, its current leadership has remained silent in face of the turmoil in Kinshasa.

Over the next two years, the Congolese political system will enter a new phase, with a new relationship between the population and its elites. The framework of the past 13 years was defined by a peace process that culminated in a new constitution, the Third Republic, which forged new democratic institutions and set the terms for political competition. The current impasse is testing that document to its core. It will either be jettisoned, or maimed to such a degree that it will be nothing more than a series of laws, or will survive as a stronger, sturdier foundation.

Africa is a Country joins Jacobin!




Dear readers,

We are happy to announce today, that Africa is a Country is joining the Jacobin family of publications.

We couldn’t be more excited about this new partnership!

Over the past five years, Jacobin has become the leading intellectual voice of the American left. But more than that it has invigorated intellectual culture online. Jacobin’s achievements have also been noted in features in The New York Times, The Hindu, and the Guardian, among others.

For almost nine years, Africa is a Country has been doing much of the same, on a smaller scale, for coverage of Africa and African politics and culture. We started as an outlet for founder and editor Sean Jacobs to challenge the received wisdom about Africa from a left perspective, informed by his experiences of resistance movements to Apartheid. Since then we have grown in size to include a larger geographic scope and, crucially, launched the careers of a number of young African and diaspora writers, scholars and artists to a point where as the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian concluded: “Try as you might, it is hard not to turn an online corner in Africa without bumping into Africa is a Country.” All of this has been done with contributors and editors putting in long volunteer hours.

As part of the Jacobin family, the editorial direction of Africa is a Country will largely remain the same. However, with more resources and help, we will be able to grow as a publication and organization. One major project we are hoping to pull off in the next year or so is the launching of the Africa is a Country print magazine. Our coverage on the site will reflect this direction, as it will be more thematically oriented. Moving in this new direction will require even more resources, which is where you our loyal readers come in.

During our nine year run, we haven’t asked for much from you. However, today we are going to make that ask. For our initial fundraising goal we would like to raise $10,000 by the end of December.

Around this holiday season, please consider giving to Africa is a Country, so that we can continue bringing you the new perspectives from across the continent. United States donations are tax-deductible and can be sent either online here or via check to Jacobin Foundation, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11217. Please include “Africa Is a Country” in the memo line if mailing in your contribution.

What happens in the Democratic Republic of Congo after December 19th?

The presidential term of Joseph Kabila, in power in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2001, is suppose to end in less than two weeks on December 19th. Kabila is barred from running for another term. The next day Congo should have a new government.

For the last year, opposition groups have demanded the electoral commission organize elections. They have mostly met with violence and obfuscation. At least 100 people have been killed in protests in 2016 and hundreds more arrested. Opposition party offices have been torched and one of the opposition candidates have been forced to flee the country. Meanwhile, Kabila’s party insist that no election can happen until 8 million potential new voters are added to the voters roll, knowing full well this could take years.

Joseph Kabila took power—he wasn’t elected; he inherited the office—in January 2001 after the assassination of his father Laurent D. Kabila while nearly half of the country was occupied by foreign troops and rebels. Among the foreign armies on the ground in the Congo, were Rwandan and Ugandan troops who earlier helped Laurent Kabila take power in May 1997. Following disagreements between Laurent Kabila and his former Rwandan and Ugandan allies who warned him against becoming too independent, the latter wound up occupying a large part of Congolese territory along with rebel groups.

The Congolese met in the South African resort, Sun City, to find a solution to the country’s crisis. They drafted a constitution accepted by referendum in December 2005 and promulgated on February 18, 2006. According to article 70 of the Constitution, the president of the republic is elected by a direct, general vote for a five year term that is renewable once. Article 220 of the Constitution is a safeguard stipulating that “… the term length of the President of the Republic” cannot be subject to constitutional revision.  

In 2006, Joseph Kabila was elected for a five-year term. Before the 2011 elections, Kabila changed the rules of the game by imposing a single round of elections. This was made possible by paying large sums of money to members of the Congolese parliament. In so doing, Kabila trampled on the Congolese constitution and disregarded the separation of executive and legislative powers. The 2011 elections were particularly flawed and lacked transparency. Despite the objections by the Catholic Church of the Congo, the Carter Center, and the European Union over numerous electoral irregularities, the CENI declared Joseph Kabila the “winner.”

The country plunged into a grave political and institutional crisis. Nevertheless, the opposition expected Kabila to organize new elections at the end of his second and final term, leave power, and make way for a new president. Instead, Kabila stepped up his delay tactics in order to avoid holding elections. That’s when his excuses started. At the same time, he revived an old project to double the number of provinces, adding to the challenge of holding elections. Understanding this climate gives context to the current crisis.

There are currently two camps in conflict. On one side is the “Rassemblement,” which consists of the following political parties: the UDPS of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi; the G7 supporting football club owner and former governor of Katanga province, Moise Katumbi; “Congo Na Biso (Our Congo)” of Freddy Matungulu; the Dynamique de l’Opposition; and “l’Alternance pour la République.” Tshisekedi’s Rassemblement argues that Kabila is primarily to blame for the current political crisis and thus cannot take part in its resolution. Therefore, the Rassemblement is calling for “inclusive” talks to determine the conditions and means for Joseph Kabila’s departure from the presidency later this month.  The Rassemblement also seeks to select an interim President until new elections can be held and seeks to find the technical and financial means for instituting a new electoral schedule and planning the next election.

On the other side are Joseph Kabila and his supporters, who want to keep the incumbent in power past December 19, 2016, in violation of article 75. Article 75 states that: “In the case of a vacancy, as a result of death, resignation or any other cause of permanent incapacitation, the functions of the President of the Republic … are temporarily discharged by the President of the Senate.” Nevertheless, the Congolese president held talks, led by African Union mediator Edem Kodjo, a Togolese diplomat, on the crisis. Only a small portion of the opposition, which included Vital Kamerhe a former ally of President Kabila and president of the Union pour la Nation Congolaise, participated in the talks. The Rassemblement did not join in the talks for several reasons, including, firstly, the rejection of Kodjo who is seen as being too close with the presidential majority; second, the government’s current judicial proceedings against Moise Katumbi, who is in exile in the United States (the government accuses him of hiring mercenaries and sentenced him, in absentia, to three years in jail for fraud); and, finally, the government’s incarceration of political prisoners and a media blackout. The Catholic Church who initially participated in the “talks” withdrew following bloody protests in September 2016.

Despite the fact that the main political parties did not participate in these talks, Edem Kodjo continued consulting with a very fringe part of the opposition and reached a “political accord” that allows Kabila to remain in power after the end of his term this year. In exchange for accepting what the Congolese people are calling “glissement,” the French word for “slippage,” Vital Kamerhe was expected to be named Prime Minister. Instead, on November 17, Kabila gave the position to Samy Badibanga, who had been excluded from the UDPS in 2012. Observers of Congolese politics note that the “political accord” reached by Kodjo and Badibanga’s nomination do nothing to resolve the country’s crisis. With the support of the U.S., the European Union, and the UN, the Catholic Church of the Congo continued engaging in consultations with the Kabila camp and Rassemblement. On December 2, the Catholic Church proposed that the presidential majority (MP) and the Rassemblement coalition meet, in a less formal setting, to discuss their differences. Such discussions would focus on adherence to the Constitution, the electoral process (including the scheduling of elections), the functioning of institutions during the transition, or what a possible political compromise might look like. Joseph Kabila visited with Catholic bishops on Monday, December 5, and the question remains whether the Congolese president will make any concessions with respect to the Rassemblement’s positions. The Catholic Church insists that this is a critical hour and has called for all parties to share responsibility and exercise good political will in order to keep the country from falling into an out of control situation. The Rassemblement is bound to spill out onto the streets on December 19 to demand that Kabila abide by the constitution and step down from office. Maman Sambo Sidikou, the head of MONUSCO, told the United Nations that there are real dangers in DR Congo’s descent into chaos.

“I Will Become A Straight Girl”

noluvaNoluvo Swelindawo.

In May 2015, Zakwe, a 28 year old woman from Soweto, in Johannesburg,  told ActionAid: “They tell me that they will kill me, they will rape me and after raping me I will become a girl. I will become a straight girl.  Earlier this week,  the body of Noluvo Swelindawo, a 22 year old lesbian young woman was found discarded near the N2 highway near Khayelitsha, the largest township in the Western Cape.  Noluvo was shot dead after being abducted from home and gang raped. She was known in her community for her LGBTQI activism.

Her friends are convinced she was targeted by a group of “well known thugs and gangsters in the community,” specifically because she was lesbian.

unnamed-1Novulo’s death was likely a homophobic hate crime and her killers are statistically likely to never be found or brought to justice (for lack of investigation).

Absolute numbers are hard to come by, but somewhere between 15 to 37.5% of South African men have admitted to raping a woman – whether an intimate partner, or a woman with whom they had no previous relationship. Basically, at best – at best – one in six South African men is a rapist. In Diepsloot, an informal settlement in northern Johannesburg, a recent study showed that 56% of men admitted to either raping or beating a woman in the last 12 months, and of these, “60% said they had done so several times over the past year.” Let that sink in: Almost four out of five had raped their first victim before the age of twenty. 

One in three women (worldwide) has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

One in three. For those of you who have a mother, a sister and a female friend all at the same time, let that sink in: one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Maybe it’s time to start talking to each other.

In South Africa, over 25% of all women will be raped in their lifetime and 75% of all rapes are gang rapes. I am not sure that there are italics enough in the world to express what I feel about these statistics. For every 25 ‘men’ brought to trial for rape, 24 will be acquitted. And those are just those who are brought to trial.  

Here’s the testimony of Nomawabo, 30, from Limpopo, South Africa:

At school I was betrayed by my best friend. He told me to come to his house for a school assignment but when I got to the house we fought until he hit me so hard I collapsed, and then he raped me because he said I needed to stop being a lesbian. Afterwards I got pregnant and had a baby. The second time my soccer friends and I were kidnapped at gunpoint and they took us somewhere far away and did what they wanted with us for three days. We told the police but the case just disappeared. Nothing happened because they all thought I deserved it. These men are still walking free.

“The second time”…

unnamed-5The term ‘corrective rape (as opposed to regular rape?) was introduced into the common vernacular when it became a widespread practice for (South) African males to attempt to rape the lesbian out of their victims. South Africa was the 5th country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. For South African (and other African) lesbians, this has proved to be more of a target on their backs than a civil rights victory.

I thought he was going to kill me; he was like an animal. And he kept saying: ‘I know you are a lesbian. You are not a man, you think you are, but I am going to show you, you are a woman. I am going to make you pregnant. I am going to kill you–Gaika, South Africa 2009

In their 2010/2011 Annual Report, The Triangle Project, a South African organisation whose stated mission is challenging homophobia and appreciating sexual diversity, wrote this:

Our understanding is that rape is a form of gender violence that is rooted in patriarchal and hetero-normative systems of control and power. Rape is a means of maintaining control and power over women and their bodies and of policing gender and sexuality norms. These norms prescribe what a woman is, how a woman should behave and stipulate that women’s bodies belong to men. It is precisely for these reasons that lesbian women in particular are targeted.

Rape is a violent, inhumane, incomprehensible abomination. If not a hate crime, it is certainly hateful. I do not subscribe to the idea that rape can be classified by circumstance or by motivation. To the victim, does it really matter if the rapist was motivated by lust and power rather than by a sick desire to change his/her sexuality? By classifying different “types” of rape and by extension, assigning different sentences for what is essentially the same crime, are we not introducing yet another shade of grey into a conversation that needs to be completely black and white? Responding to my question by email, Melanie Nathan, Executive Director of the African Human Rights Commission said:

These are woman who might not otherwise have been raped and these men may not have committed the rape but for the vengeance factor of the woman being a lesbian and the anger it invokes in the man.  The idea of a lesbian – a woman not needing a man – often emasculates a man and so he is proving his power over her… it goes to the core of who she is. Of a perpetrator purporting to control her sexual orientation under the false notion, perpetuated by religious and cultural dogma, that she can be changed. I believe that because of rampant homophobia in some cultures and especially now in Africa and South Africa, it must be prosecuted as a specific hate crime.

I disagree. I believe that making distinctions based on the motive of a specific rape muddies the waters. All rapes are about the subjugation of women and men trying to assert their physical and sexual superiority over women. Yes, being a lesbian (a population already living through social discrimination) certainly adds a layer of “motivation” for these rapists, but so does wearing a short skirt, or being flirtatious, walking down a street, rejecting a man’s advances or breathing while female.

In South Africa, between 15 – 37.5% of men admit to intercourse with a woman without consent and 1 in 4 women have been raped (and those are the women we know about). Perhaps lesbians are more at risk than heterosexual women (there isn’t enough research to say definitively), but with those statistics, is that difference in risk significant enough to justify a separate class of rape and the subsequent clouding of the conversation and dilution of law enforcement that comes with it? There is no such thing as ‘corrective rape’; there is nothing about rape that is correct.

unnamed-4‘Corrective’ rapists are motivated by the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. We should be teaching African boys (and shouting it from every rooftop) that every rape is inarguably unnatural, that the perpetrator forfeits their membership in the human family and is worthy of maximum punishment.


The grapes of wrath

grapes-of-wrath-photo-credit-photo-lotte-la-courImage Credit: Lotte La Cour

“For me personally, it seems as if modern day slavery is practiced on many farms, and the farmworker is almost viewed as ‘the property’ of the employer.” These words are not mine, but those of a prominent member of the wine industry, and they represent the culmination of a long and arduous research into the South African wine industry.

The South African wine industry contributes R36 billion (US$2,5 billion) to the South African national budget. It has seen booming exports in recent years, especially to Scandinavia, where the rise in imports of South African wine has increased by 78 % in Denmark alone in just 10 years. In Sweden, South African wine has been second or third in wine sales for years, often outselling French wine. Annually, we Scandinavians drink more than 50 million liters of wine.

But despite this apparent success, there are grim, but well hidden realities of the wine industry that have been ongoing for many years. So, perhaps South Africans needed a foreign journalist to show them just how bad it is.

Bitter Grapes UK Trailer

The nasty truths about how wine is produced in South Africa are not new, and the South African wine industry has been warned repeatedly about abuses occurring across vineyards in wine producing areas of the country. In 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Ripe with Abuse,” that focused on the same issues that my film dealt with, and four years later, the ILO published an equally damning report. Both reports were serious critiques of the working and living conditions of South African farm workers. Several local and foreign NGOs and unions have addressed the same issues.

Yet, these reports failed to make headlines in Scandinavia and South Africa. In December 2015, I traveled with a film crew to the Western Cape province to document conditions on farms — filming and interviewing workers. We were commissioned by three Scandinavian public service broadcasters in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and also partly funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Danish international development agency, DANIDA. In total we made three trips to the area.

In anticipation of our arrival for the last of these trips in June 2016, a so-called heads-up warning was sent to 133 stakeholders in the industry accusing of us putting “…unethical questions to workers and changing the angle to a negative.”

Indeed, we were asking critical questions, not only to the various farm owners and industry bodies, but also to the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta). This is an organization which has almost half of all wine producers in South Africa as members, and an organization that many Western importers and consumers must rely on to ensure that the wine we buy is produced under reasonable conditions.

Their label, “Certified Fair Labour Practice,” adorns many bottles and pap-sacks (wine in plastic containers) on supermarket shelves in Scandinavia. But is a label that is issued by an organization whose board gives the industry a majority say, a guarantee that everything is fine?

Or is it as a former member of its board writes in an internal e-mail to the board:

“…We clearly have a case of power imbalances at play here and producers, especially those with deeper pockets, seem to think they own Wieta as their marketing tool.”

This was just one of many e-mails we obtained, following a final meeting with two top-executives from the wine industry. A meeting that was ultimately fruitless, as all the involved farm owners and their industry bodies refused to be interviewed on camera and told us openly and frankly that we were wrong. They even refused to shake our hands in parting, instead sending us off with the words: “You are a disgusting piece of rubbish.”

After a couple of months of editing, the documentary was aired in Sweden and Denmark in October and in Norway in November. This was when the metaphorical explosion began, and conditions in the South African wine industry suddenly began making headlines around the world.

In addition to the many critical points about the working and living conditions among the approximately 100,000 permanent farm workers struggling to survive in the South African vineyards, the documentary also explores how a rapidly growing number of migrant workers from countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe ended up at the bottom of the global labor pyramid. Desperate workers live in cardboard houses, with families and children back home who are trying to survive on four US dollars a day. Not an easy task, given that four dollars a day is half the absolute minimum wage in South Africa.

But they have no choice and they have no voice, especially since only a very few are members of a union. Many don’t even have a work permit and most don’t even know if there is room for them on the back of the labor broker’s truck or bakkie the next morning.

Another alarming thing that the documentary unveiled was the gruesome heritage of the Dop-system, where workers are paid in alcohol instead of money. This system was banned in 1960, but according to researchers at various South African universities and organizations, the Dop-system still exists today, just in other forms, where farmers allow alcohol-dependent workers to buy alcohol on credit. As a result, South Africa has one of the world’s highest levels of children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), with more than 60,000 children born with severe brain damage annually, a condition they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

We met several of these children, both on the farms and in crèches. One of them was Robyn. She is ten years old, but has the mental development of a child aged four or five. Luckily, she is now in good hands with a foster mother, but thousands of other children like her are not so lucky and face an uphill struggle in life.

After having made headline news for weeks (see here, here, here and here), and after the industry has done its best to “shoot the messenger boy” by claiming that the documentary is “biased” and “one-sided,” both local and national governments intervened.

Recently there were unannounced inspections at five of the farms that we visited in the documentary, and as a result of these inspections, all five farms were served legal notices to improve the conditions of their workers. Some of the breaches include that housing was illegal, the official Health and Safety Act was violated, and that workers had not been trained or equipped with the necessary protective clothing when using hazardous pesticides that for many years have been totally banned in Scandinavia. One of the farms was also in breach of the national wage policy.

The authorities have promised that many more farms will be inspected in the future. Is this good news for the farm workers? Will the wine industry and its respective bodies understand that Apartheid is over and that they must treat the workers as they would like to be treated themselves? Will the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian state-owned retailers and supermarket chains understand that their ethical values and Corporate Social Responsibility policies are more than nice words on a piece of paper.

In the management buzzword dictionary, this is referred to as to “walk the talk.” I would advise the South African wine industry to tie their shoe laces and start walking, and to be assured that we will be hot on their heels for the duration of the journey.

Inheritances of our fathers


There’s History, with a capital ‘H’ – the one you find written up, memorized and recited as facts, dates, inaugurations, wars, victims and statistics. And then there is the one in small caps – the history that gets under your skin: when great political systems are embodied in the tiny details of everyday life; when policies made in the soft cushions of parliaments have a devastating impact on your daily lived experience; when great power struggles are mimicked in the blood and guts of the most intimate of relationships.

Three recent books about South African history display the latter version: Marianne Thamm’s autobiography Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of SortsBill Nasson’s  History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016 and Wilhelm J. Verwoerd’s edited collection of tributes to his father, Verwoerd: Só onthou ons hom (“Verwoerd: This is how we remember him”). In all three these books we see History echoed in the personal histories of people, their relationships, and their life choices.

The title of Marianne Thamm’s autobiography already places her next to three great historical figures of the twentieth century. The shadow of Adolph Hitler falls across her childhood, Hendrik Verwoerd’s ghost stalks her adolescence and adulthood, and then, finally, Nelson Mandela’s legacy brings her the hope she needs to keep going in this bleak, bewildering, beloved country.

Throughout Thamm’s life she has been wrestling with the legacy that she inherited. Until shortly before the death of her father, Georg, Thamm struggles to make peace with his Nazi past and his apparent inability to adapt to a changing South Africa. Initially the constant repetition of her daughterly rebukes becomes somewhat jarring, as if the reader is brought in to observe a personal therapy session. In the former Nazi Jugend member, Thamm sees a manifestation of the intolerance, racial supremacy and ethnocentrism that diagonally oppose the values she has pursued as journalist and activist. But gradually the reader comes to realize that this relationship between child and father also serves as a larger metaphor for the continuing struggles of a younger generation of white South Africans to come to terms with their political and cultural inheritance – the historical guilt, or at least collective responsibility, they carry with them.

Thamm’s ability to tell a story is what made her a respected and popular journalist. The anecdotes of her adolescence in the suburbs, the fumbling discovery of her sexuality, and her hesitant first steps into motherhood are told with compassion, insight and self-deprecating humor, and are bound to resonate with many readers who have had similar experiences. But it is her ability to contextualize these personal experiences within the racist, homophobic, and paranoid South African society that imbues them with a much broader resonance.

A similar ability to make links between seemingly everyday events and the bigger historical maelstrom one finds in Bill Nasson, even though his is a more academic register than Thamm’s. Nasson, a historian who has taught at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, is a historian to the bone – someone who constantly experiences the present through the prism of the past, for whom the smallest of daily experiences are projected onto the large canvas of history. His anthology is an enjoyable assortment of scholarly articles, book reviews and personal recollections. His own teenage years are drawn upon to take stock of the ideals of non-racialism, while the Leitmotiv of resistance to oppression is woven through chapters on historical figures, such as Abraham Esau, a Coloured blacksmith from Calvinia who died cruelly at the hand of marauding Boers during the South African War, and in the drawing of historical comparisons such as the one between the 1916 resistance in Northern Ireland and the Boer rebellion. Culture and politics are close companions throughout, and even braaiing and cricket form part of the passing parade. Nasson also reflects on the discipline of historical writing itself, and laments the inability of many historians to make history come alive in accessible language. This is not a limitation Nasson himself suffers from.

A stark contrast to the relationship between Thamm and her father emerges in the anthology (in Afrikaans) about Hendrik Verwoerd, edited by his son (who, in his foreword, takes issue with the “clichéd accusations of Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism and more”). The book, an updated version of a commemorative collection from 2001, has now been republished with additional contributions to mark the 115th anniversary of his birth and the 50th of his death. The anthology does not attempt to provide any critical perspective, serving rather as a hagiography aimed at painting a picture of a strict, but humane “Doctor,” who could provide rational grounds for his policies of racial discrimination. You have to pinch yourself to realize that you’re actually reading this rose-tinted remembrance of Verwoerd in the year 2016, without so much as a hint of irony.

Whether anecdotes of Verwoerd as a patriarch – who chastises his son because his friend showed up at the official residence in shorts, or who gives his grandson a spoonful of sharp mustard in order to end his insistence to play with the condiments on the table – succeeds in bringing to life a kinder persona than the one associated in the history books with the design of Apartheid, is for the reader to decide. But what does feel like a historical slap in the face is the thinly veiled attempt at ameliorating Verwoerd’s legacy through a reflection on his intelligence and upright personality, as if to suggest that history judged him unfairly. After all, “Doctor didn’t easily make a mistake” (p. 283).

Tell that to Thamm’s adopted daughters, for whom racism, skeptical looks and uncomfortable questions have been part of their experiences growing up. It is in those casual comments at the nursery school, those stares at the supermarket, and in the unchecked callousness of friends that one once again hears the echoes of great historical narratives resound through the small dramas of the everyday. In his son’s eyes, Verwoerd might have been a good father and a family man, but that doesn’t make the smallest of dents in his political and social legacy. No amount of banal tales of how he interacted with his family, colleagues or friends can undo the indisputable historical fact that he was the architect of an evil system of which the tentacles can still be felt today in every aspect of our public and private lives. There is a line by the Afrikaans poet D.J. Opperman that, roughly translated, goes: “always remember, around your actions borders an eternity.”

History, as told by these three authors, reminds us that the past is not something that can or should be left behind. Rather, as History echoes in the histories of our daily lives – in the supermarket, at the pre-school, on the cricket pitch, beside the fire at a braai – we are morally obliged to keep reflecting on them. Didn’t a verse in the old Nationalist anthem Die Stem ask for the inheritances of our fathers to remain inheritances to our children?

Be careful, as they say, what you pray for.

  • This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in Afrikaans in the Media24 publication Rapport.

Memory of the Present

Every time I visit the prison, I try to notice as much as possible. The attitude of each of the guards I meet as I go through the different levels of security, the names on the form that show how many visitors arrived before us, the words on the faded notices – printed and handwritten – along the way, how much sky shows between the windows and bars and walls, the sound of buzzing that releases the heavy steel gate and its banging behind us so the guards can hear it click shut, the posture of the inmates’ bodies in the big room where we all sit, everything controlled and everything subtly revealing.

This is what I think about on December 1st these days. Though many of us do not mark the day, on December 1st 182 years ago the institution of slavery was abolished in the colonies that made up South Africa.

Slavery was a prison the size of the world.

It made us not human while building a definition of the human out of those who enslaved us. As a result, to be human was to be not us. And the brutality that exclusion unleashed against us made the world we still live in today.

In the past we tried to forget slavery just to abolish the enormity of its violence against us. But, as Audre Lorde said in another place of slavery and about another kind of silence, forgetting does not protect us.

So we must urgently remember. Slavery and its legacy is a deep well, and we climb out of its steep walls slowly. Enslaved people built the economy of the early South African colonies. This is so indisputable that dominant culture can benignly afford to recall slavery as part of a vaguely picturesque past that left us with beautiful colonial houses, award-winning wines and tourism. A form of forgetting, in other words.

But on every one of those estates, the slave bells and the slave quarters summon a hidden history like bones protruding from the ground. In reality, slaves brought from East Africa, India and South East Asia formed the majority of the population of the Cape Colony and every aspect of colonial society relied on the daily brutality of those stolen bodies and their stolen labour. The Slave Lodge in central Cape Town, now a haunting museum of slavery, was also the main brothel of Cape Town. To be enslaved was to be treated with daily, intimate and public violence for 176 years.

The memory of that violence hovers over us like a threat and yet is also used against us in a cruel sleight of hand as evidence of our inhumanity, the way women are accused of being responsible for the sexual violence against them. The legacy of slavery is in the normalization of violence against certain people, as is clear in our rates of sexual violence, poverty, unemployment and incarceration. For whom are such figures normal, inconsequential, no national crisis?

So that is why we need to take hold of this past. But is remembering apartheid 22 years after the transition is not enough?  Yes, apartheid is more than enough, but apartheid took its grammar, logic and laws, like the pass system, from slavery and the colonial period.

Two of the men across two generations in my family have been in prison, that I know of. Some things you don’t speak about. I think of them when I’m signing in to visit another woman’s son. Apartheid’s focused violence, poor schooling, poverty, the moral violence of patriarchy and the availability of drugs seemed to make their path to jail almost inevitable, and the shame caused the rest of us to draw our boys and girls closer, protect them more, and watch the world continue as it does. African American scholars who study the aftermath of slavery in the US argue that the institutions of state that were built by a slave-holding society adapted to abolition as simply new conditions for forced labour. They call this the Prison-Industrial Complex and the School-to-Prison pipeline, which today delivers more Black men to prison than higher education. They are calling for a new abolition.

They say that clanging sound reverberating around us is the world still shaped like a prison.

Is your mobile phone company seeing like a state?

In September 2014 streams of people flowed into Kenya’s largest stadium, located a few miles from downtown Nairobi on the much-celebrated Thika Superhighway. This arena is typically host to major sporting events and political speeches; Barack Obama recently addressed “the Kenyan people” there. But on this day, it was the site of a more unorthodox event. The crowds, dressed in their Sunday best, disembarked from their buses and walked toward the grounds, now peppered with new signage. The first of these gave a hint of what was to come: a large billboard identifying the destination as Safaricom Stadium Kasarani.

The occasion was the 2014 annual shareholder meeting for Safaricom, a mobile network provider that is the country’s largest and most profitable company. Like other publicly traded corporations around the world, Safaricom stages this yearly event as an occasion to distribute information and receive feedback. It invited shareholders to celebrate their company’s successes, critique its perceived failures, and weigh in on the policies that will drive the corporation’s strategies in the year to come.

But if annual shareholder meetings are a global form, Safaricom’s meeting was particularly Kenyan. On that September day, the signs of the corporate body and the signs of the body politic were brought together in a way that distilled a doubling of meaning increasingly common in Kenya, where Safaricom holds considerable cultural cachet, political import, and economic significance. Every few feet, as the national anthem played, one was confronted by Safaricom’s telltale green logo. Although this marketing blankets the country—across billboards, shops, and news media—within the stadium it existed in telling cohabitation with a highly charged symbolic palette: the forest green, blood red, and dark black of the Kenyan flag. Most strikingly, the “Kenyan green” of the flag—which symbolizes the land lost to white settlers, gained through decolonization, and subsequently the source of (sometimes violent) ethnic politics—was juxtaposed against a green of a lighter hue. This shade, Kenyans will tell you, is “Safaricom green.”

If the iconography of the stadium sought an uneasy conviviality between Kenyan nationalism and commercial branding, there were also indications of a more thorough entanglement. The stadium itself, a historically important sign of independent Kenya, had only recently received its corporate name, which came on the heels of Safaricom’s large injection of capital to revive the site. In a few discreet places, however, the old name remains in a smaller, red font: Moi International Sports Centre. It is the name of Daniel Arap Moi—the strongman who ruled Kenya for nearly a quarter of a century—that previously greeted citizens’ arrival at this venue of national and sporting spectacle. Today both he and a state that once seemed omnipresent are sidelined, their importance mediated by a company that, as one informant told us while patting his pocketed phone, “has an intimate relationship with millions of Kenyans.”

In his influential account of the aesthetics of postcolonial power, Achille Mbembe emphasizes its banality: it is through the everyday proliferation of an autocrat’s presence—through required portraiture, inscriptions on currency, and ubiquitous media coverage—that political hierarchies are reproduced. Through the mobilization of national symbols and corporate iconography, Safaricom today is replicating such patterns of statecraft. Although the resulting formation differs in important ways from the dictatorial regimes studied by Mbembe, a close examination of Safaricom’s operations in Kenya reveals how new configurations of capital and politics shape life in Kenya today. It is not only through advertisements that Safaricom impresses its symbolic order upon Kenya—though it does so considerably—it is also through the pomp and circumstance of new store openings, the sponsorship of cultural events and philanthropic initiatives, and the routine use of text messages to remind, nudge, and discipline users. Tracing the stylistics of Safaricom’s power reveals more than the aesthetic registers at play in Kenya. It demonstrates how corporations—often in close relationship with states—are able to shape the intimacies and banalities of everyday life in Kenya and elsewhere.

Safaricom is not just another mobile phone company. Both in Kenya and abroad, Safaricom has carved out a conceptual and material presence that far outweighs such a generic description. Across the world, it is widely lauded for its innovations, most notably the mobile money transfer service M-Pesa, which today is used by 20 million Kenyans. Within the country it is the most profitable company and largest taxpayer. By most accounts, Safaricom was established in 1997 as a subsidiary of the parastatal Telkom; in 2000, the United Kingdom-based Vodafone acquired 40% of the shares and the authorization to autonomously manage the firm. Today, the government maintains a 35% share, while the rest is traded publicly on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). In addition to providing mobile infrastructure to nearly 70% of Kenyans and many government offices, Safaricom was tasked with building a multimillion-dollar surveillance system for Kenya’s national security apparatus in 2014. But one regulator gave perhaps the best summary of its importance: if Safaricom’s network goes down, he told us, “everything else stops.”

The unwieldy entangling of this multinational corporation and the postcolonial state are refiguring notions of citizenship and bringing Safaricom into a direct, even intimate, relationship with Kenyans. Many Kenyans will tell you, with a hint of pride, that their countrymen are “peculiar,” and Safaricom invests considerably in the cultural work of fitting this distinctiveness. In doing so, Safaricom has established itself as a corporation deeply attuned to a national milieu, in large part through the calling forth of Kenyan publics as new markets. Put another way, as it extends its infrastructures to a growing body of paying customers, Safaricom invokes a seemingly noncommodified public: the nation.

Consider an example. In dialogue with a wider network of development aid organizations and researchers, Safaricom invests considerably in multiple forms of market research, much of which resembles the fine-grained knowledge work associated with ethnography. Indeed, the company routinely attributes its success to its capacity to map vernacular practices and preferences in a bid to simultaneously create new markets and secure the “public good.” Many of its commercial innovations rely upon this acuity. For example, an oft-cited early success was Safaricom’s proactive cultivation of cash-strapped users through the introduction of per-second billing. More famously, the employees credited with designing M-Pesa initially imagined it as a microcredit repayment scheme; it was only by monitoring the unexpected behavior of the pilot populations that M-Pesa became what it is today: a person-to-person money transfer service, mimicking in digital form the already existing networks of domestic remittance (Morawcyznski 2009). Cultural expertise is thus generative of new forms of commercial infrastructure that many see as crucial to Kenya’s vibrant future as the continent’s “Silicon Savannah.”

In other cases, Safaricom engages in practices and invokes idioms with long genealogies in Kenya’s patrimonial politics. For example, if the 2014 shareholder meeting was a performance evocative of Kenyan politicking, this was a staging borne of criticism. In preparation for the first shareholder meeting in 2009, Safaricom announced that the cost of providing lunch, printed documents, and branded gifts for the thousands of expected attendees was prohibitively high. Shareholders reacted vocally. As one wrote to the Daily Nation, not providing free lunch was a sign of “disrespect”:

I have an issue with the contention that [these shareholder meetings] “are not social events.” This view is snobbish; what’s wrong with mixing business with interaction? Don’t managers routinely meet at leisure spots to do business while partaking of fun and food? Are ordinary shareholders lesser investors?

Here, the author was drawing on an enduring expectation in Kenya (as elsewhere) that solidarities in business or politics be marked through gift exchange. If this has been most evident historically in political rallies and electioneering, it is an idiom that readily incorporates Safaricom. These, in other words, were critiques emanating from a public conceiving itself in the registers of both shareholders and citizens.

Safaricom has learned in the years since how their shareholders expect to be treated. When they entered the stadium in 2014, attendees were provided a boxed lunch and a Safaricom T-shirt. Investors expressed approval. One gentleman rose to ask about financial accounting but received applause for beginning his question by congratulating the company for becoming attuned to shareholders’ expectations: “Mr. Chairman, we have been entertained today. We have had transport, we have had some lunch, we have had some giveaways. This meeting is a big improvement in the history of Safaricom. Thank you very much. Asante sana. Asante sana.”

It is a common—and justifiable—fear that the privatization of infrastructure removes the capacity of citizens to make demands upon providers; the case in Kenya, however, suggests more subtle processes are at play. While Kenyans are first and foremost customers of Safaricom, more than half a million of them are also shareholders. Moreover, and because Safaricom’s corporate strategy includes national branding, sometimes these publics make their critiques not as shareholders or customers: they make their claims as Kenyan nationals, demanding the company acknowledge theirs as a relationship of reciprocal obligation and respect.

While Safaricom relies on foreign capital, expertise, and infrastructure, our emphasis on the peculiarity of Safaricom belies any straightforward notion that the liberalization of markets and the privatization of infrastructure engender a deterritorialized, homogenous space of flows. Instead, the formation of capitalism visible in Kenya relies on nuanced translations and heterogenous forms of capture. This puts the historical and cultural specificity of place at the center of Safaricom’s ability to generate profits.

It also means that Safaricom reflects and responds to ideas about the social good and public interest that are both firmly embedded in Kenya and circulating globally in development thinking and corporate strategizing. One of the crucial ways this plays out is through Safaricom’s extensive investment in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Like many companies, Safaricom has a philanthropic foundation that provides goods traditionally considered the responsibility of modern states: education, health services, clean water. And it is important to note many Kenyans expect Safaricom to step in to provide services that the Kenyan state is either unwilling or unable to provide. As one Safaricom employee told us, when something terrible happens, people ask, “What is Safaricom doing” to help? Through CSR, in other words, Safaricom engages in state-like actions.

Globally, CSR is now big business, but it is not always good business. Instead, it is often seen as a necessary expense stemming from relatively selfless commitments to philanthropy or an interest in managing public image. In Safaricom’s case, however, CSR and core commercial services often exist in a zone of indistinction: what qualifies as philanthropy and what qualifies as business is not always obvious. For example, their enormously successful and profitable mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa, was originally promulgated as a CSR initiative. For a contemporary development industry that sees connectivity as a human right, simply selling airtime bundles is framed as a means of securing the public good. For Safaricom, however, while this indistinction requires vigilant management, it is not a problem to be solved, but rather a strategic stance. It is through the work of “building communities” and “transforming lives” that new markets and new profits result.

CSR is concurrently a global corporate strategy and a means of more firmly embedding Safaricom within a particularly Kenyan milieu. However, proximity to Kenyan particularity can be a liability for the company. Although Safaricom can parlay its state-like actions into profits, it cannot predict how Kenya’s multiple publics will register their claims and critiques. In a country where the reach of infrastructures often maps onto ethnoregional patterns of stratification, Safaricom’s role as provider of infrastructures and services—its state-like actions—are always open to accusations of engaging in ethnic politics. This happens in ways significant and mundane: the public even scrutinizes promotional giveaways for signs of ethnic favoritism, requiring Safaricom’s CEO to publicly insist on the company’s objectivity. It is Safaricom’s efforts to manage these contradictions to which we now turn.

If Safaricom’s importance in Kenya suggests the emergence of something like a corporate state, it is a stature dependent on the savvy enactment of corporate nationhood. Understood as a unifying, emotional bond, nationalism has a precarious status in Kenya. Often loyalties are more circumscribed, leading to moments of intense fragmentation along the lines of ethnicity, or what John Lonsdale calls “political tribalism.” As Safaricom seeks to don the mantle of the nation, its position is similarly fraught, but the company does much to address this. For example, other large corporations in Kenya are considered biased due to their management’s ethnic affiliation. Safaricom, in contrast, employs foreign management to avoid accusations of favoritism. In its public performances, too, it does its best to present itself as an undifferentiating national force, such as in its advertisements, which soar through landscapes of natural vitality and human productivity.

In both cases, it is through a strategy of distance from certain aspects of Kenyan business and politics that Safaricom seeks to achieve a national identity unencumbered by the ethnic politics that have characterized postcolonial Kenya. Thus, although we argue here that Safaricom relies on an intimate relationship with Kenya’s distinctiveness, that relationship is calibrated to maintain a distance from some of Kenya’s more divisive aspects. Indeed, maintaining this distance is critical to its profit-making capacities.

Safaricom’s success in Kenya is widely celebrated as an emblem of “Africa rising,” an aphorism that signals an end to “the hopeless continent,” its patronage politics, and the uneven service delivery that are said to beleaguer the continent’s progress. Less noted, however, is how Safaricom’s success has been dependent on the uneasy management of the dialectics of intimacy and estrangement, of proximity and distance. It is by working these unwieldy middle grounds that new relations of power among “the public,” “the private,” and “the philanthropic” become visible. It is here that the lines between market making and the public good, enacted through infrastructure, come to the fore and change the terrain on which Kenyans can make claims for services, redistribution, and recognition.

  • This post was first published on Limn. It is republished here with kind permission of the editors.



If Africa is a country, then Fidel Castro is one of our national heroes.

After fronting the Cuban revolution against a corrupt, American-sponsored dictatorship in 1959, Cuba under Fidel worked hard to develop its own distinct foreign policy independent from its more powerful neighbor, the United States, or its supposed ally, the Soviet Union. Africa became central to that foreign policy.  For me, and people of my generation, Fidel Castro entered our consciousness as a hero of our liberation. He wasn’t just fighting for an abstract cause. He was literally fighting for us.

One of Castro’s central foreign policy goals was “internationalism” – the promotion of decolonization and revolutionary politics abroad. This involved sending troops to fight in wars against colonial or proxy forces on the African continent, as well as supporting those movements with logistics and technical support. Cuba sent troops, but it also sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, dentists, nurses, health-care technicians, academics, teachers and engineers to the continent and elsewhere. That a significant proportion of Cubans trace their ancestries to West and Central Africa (owing to slavery) contributes to this politics. It is important to note that critics of Cuba have pointed to the paradox of this policy: while Cuba has a progressive foreign policy on race, at home Afro-Cubans have often been at odds with the Communist Party’s failure to reflect the full range of Cuba’s racial diversity in its leadership structures or to fully address race politics. Nevertheless, this doesn’t detract from Cuba’s Africa policy.

Cuba’s involvement in Africa started with the Congo (later renamed Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC) following the murder of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, by a conspiracy of western intelligence agencies (the strong hand of former Belgian rulers), and local elites. In 1964 Castro sent his personal emissary, Che Guevara, on a three-month visit of a number of African countries, including Algeria, Benin, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Tanzania. The Cubans believed that there was a revolutionary situation in Central Africa, and they wanted to help, argued historian Piero Gleijeses, who studied Cuba’s Cold War foreign policy in his books, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa 1959-1976 and  Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991. Crucially, Guevara established relations with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), then based in Congo-Brazzaville. In 1965 Cubans instructors trained MPLA fighters to fight Portuguese colonialism. Later that year, Guevara and a group of exclusively black Cubans joined Lumumbaists, led by Laurent Kabila, in a revolt against Mobutu Sese Seko’s government (then backed by South African and Rhodesian mercenaries). This revolt was crushed due to a mix of factors: naiveté, unpreparedness, and the poor quality and lack of commitment of Kabila and his men.

Successes did follow elsewhere, however. Even as Cuba’s intervention struggled in Congo, Amilcar Cabral, leading a guerrilla struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, asked for Cuban assistance. Between 1966 and 1974 a small Cuban force proved pivotal in the Guineans’ victory over the Portuguese. Following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau finally won independence. This time Cuba’s involvement also stretched to medical support (Cuban doctors) and technical know-how. After shifting their to Guinea-Bissau  and Capo Verde, the Cubans were critical to the MPLA’s success in taking the capital city of Luanda and declaring independence on November 11, 1975.

Cuba’s involvement in the freedom of South Africa from white minority rule was even more dramatic. Twice – in 1976 and again in 1988 – the Cubans defeated a US supported proxy force of the South African Apartheid army and Angolan “rebels;” these instances were the first times South Africa’s army was defeated, a humbling experience that the Apartheid regime’s white generals still have trouble stomaching in retirement.

As Gleijeses told Democracy Now! in December 2013, at the time of Mandela’s passing, black South Africans understood the significance of these defeats. The black South African newspaper, The World, wrote about the 1975 skirmishes: “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban victory in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of achieving total liberation.” Gleijeses remembered how Mandela wrote from Robben Island: “It was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.”  (Another excellent account of Cuba’s African policy is Egyptian director Jihan el Tahri’s film Cuba: An African Odyssey.)

Ultimately, Cuba’s successful battle against South Africa in Angola also hastened the Apartheid regime’s withdrawal from Namibia after 70 years of occupation, and that country’s subsequent independence.

In a 1998 speech, Fidel Castro told the South African Parliament (it was his first visit to the country) that by the end of the Cold War at least 381,432 Cuban soldiers and officers had been on duty or “fought hand-in-hand with African soldiers and officers in this continent for national independence or against foreign aggression.” Many Cubans also lost their lives in these wars.

Given this history, it was no surprise that one of Mandela’s first trips outside South Africa – after he was freed – was to Havana. There, in July 1991, Mandela, referred to Castro as “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people,” adding that Cuba, under Castro’s leadership “helped us in training our people, gave us resources to keep current with our struggle, trained our people as doctors.”  At the end of his Cuban trip, Mandela responded to American criticism about his loyalty to Castro and Cuba: “We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the Apartheid regime these last 40 years. No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.”

That loyalty to Cuba led to Mandela being boycotted by Cuban exiles on a 1990 visit to Miami, Florida. The local African-American community, however, supported Mandela’s stance.

The Cold War ended a long time ago, but Cuba continues its involvement on the African continent, including training Africans in Cuban universities. During the Ebola outbreak in three West African countries, even Cuba’s American critics had to acknowledge the Cuban contribution to alleviating the crisis. The Washington Post, a newspaper hardly favorable to Cuba’s government, conceded that Cuba’s “official response to Ebola seems far more robust than many countries far wealthier than it.” The Post noted – via Reuters – that Cuba had around 50,000 health workers working in 66 countries, including more than 4,000 in 32 African countries.

At one point during the Ebola crisis, Cuba – a country with only 11 million people – had supplied the largest contingent of foreign medical personnel by any single nation working alongside African medics.

Altogether fitting was Cuban President Raul Castro’s address at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. In Johannesburg, Raul reminded his audience: “We shall never forget Mandela’s moving homage to our common struggle when on the occasion of his visit to our country on July 26, 1991, he said, and I quote, ‘the Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa’.”

If Raul Castro decided to give all the credit for that love to his older brother Fidel, well, no one would blame him.

The Nigerians are coming

 Still from the film. Ramsey Nouah in director Izu Ijukwu’s historical drama ’76 (2016). Credit: Still from the film.

The prominence of Nigerian film on the 2016 film festival circuit represents something of a sea change. Long withheld even from Pan-African film festivals and institutions, Nigerian cinema is finally being embraced on the international stage for its sheer diversity and capacity to adapt to dramatic technological and infrastructural shifts. The dam broke when in 2013, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) finally abolished its controversial “no-video” policy, which had long excluded Nollywood films shot and distributed on VHS, VCD, and DVD. More recently, with the rise of the so-called New Nollywood, video formats have been supplemented with a capital-intensive return to celluloid film (both 16mm and 35mm) as a technology of production, distribution, and (in rare instances) exhibition.

Boasting a “Spotlight on Nigerian Cinema,” the 24th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), which runs from tonight to December 11th in New York City, features the U.S. premieres of four Nigerian films—all of which were recently presented at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of its Lagos-themed “City to City” program.

Shot on 16mm by the great cinematographer Yinka Edward, Izu Ijukwu’s historical drama ’76 (2016) is set against the backdrop of the abortive coup that led to the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s head of state for just six months in 1975 and 1976. In an Army barracks in Ibadan, Captain Joseph Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) lives with his pregnant wife Suzie (Rita Dominic). Their interethnic marriage (Joseph is from Nigeria’s Middle Belt, while the Igbo Suzie is from the southeast) is repeatedly tested by Suzie’s father, a veteran of Nigeria’s civil war, and by her brother, a self-serving bigot who derisively refers to non-Igbo ethnic groups as “those people.” The theme of tribalism places ’76 in a venerable Nollywood tradition, and Ijukwu, whose 2004 film Across the Niger depicts the Biafran War, is attuned to the historically specific dimensions of ethnic prejudice.

Set just 6 years after the defeat of the Biafrans, ’76 explores some of the civil war’s cultural and political reverberations, as when Suzie’s father, who has vivid memories of wartime atrocities committed against the Igbos, confronts her about Joseph’s ambiguous past and possible role in the conflict. Mostly, though, he falls back upon an ethnic-nationalist aversion to anyone who isn’t Igbo, as he defiantly informs his daughter, who replies, in Igbo, “Love has no boundaries.” As Suzie, Nollywood star Rita Dominic gives what may be her greatest performance to date in a role that, in quintessential Nollywood fashion, requires her to juggle multiple languages. Her costar, Ramsey Nouah, plays a man who, against his will, gets swept up in the attempted coup, as its architects privately engage in debates about inflation and denounce Mohammed for “abandoning our traditions and ideology” and appearing to serve Communist interests.

As a period piece, ’76 is a thrilling success. Edward’s 16mm cinematography cannily evokes an earlier era of image making—elegantly grainy and muted, with the look of old color photographs. (The celluloid factor represented a welcome change for Ijukwu, who, in order to approximate the look of 1960s documentary, had to digitally add grain to his film Across the Niger.) Shot on location at the Mokola Barracks in Ibadan and on Bar Beach in Lagos, ’76 is full of impressive, period-specific details best appreciated on a big screen: an array of Afro wigs, bell-bottom pants, and platform shoes; historically accurate military attire; vintage bottles of Star lager; and sporadic evidence of Nigeria’s oil boom, including a palatial movie house where Joseph and Suzie enjoy a raucous Indian comedy. In addition, Ijukwu incorporates archival footage of the coup and its aftermath, along with snippets of actual radio broadcasts, which contribute to the film’s docudramatic power. And then there’s the music: Bongos Ikwue, Nelly Uchendu, Fela Kuti, Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafils, and Miriam Makeba provide the intoxicating sounds of the 60s and 70s.

The three other Nigerian films in ADIFF’s lineup are set in the present. Steve Gukas’s 93 Days (2016), starring Bimbo Akintola, Keppy Ekpenyong-Bassey, and Danny Glover, tackles West Africa’s Ebola crisis, dramatizing the medical response to a diplomat (played by Ekpenyong-Bassey) who brings the virus to Nigeria after becoming infected in Liberia. Elegantly shot by the prolific Yinka Edward, and featuring dazzling images of Lagos, 93 Days is among the best Nigerian films to seriously consider the local effects of Ebola, and it is the first to dramatize the extensive (and ultimately successful) efforts to contain the virus in the country.



Part of a growing trend in Nigerian cinema, Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration (2016) is set in the high-stakes world of tech companies, where the worst imaginable fate is to cede a modicum of corporate control to an ambitious rival (while remaining a multimillionaire, of course). Adesua Etomi plays Dara, an up-and-coming tech professional who accuses her boss, Gbenga (played by O.C. Ukeje), of rape. That Dara was involved in an often-volatile affair with the married Gbenga complicates her case, as she quickly discovers, bitterly observing, “Apparently, the mistress of a married man can’t be raped.” The question of consent is soon eclipsed by financial considerations, however, as the eponymous mediation comes to focus on ownership and management of the 115-million-dollar company of which Gbenga is the CEO.



Rounding out ADIFF’s program of Nigerian films is Daniel Oriahi’s remarkable Taxi Driver (Oko Ashewo, 2015), an urban comedy that is at once uproariously funny, unsettlingly mysterious, and profoundly beautiful.

The setup is familiar: a village man moves to the big city (in this case, Lagos) in order to “make it.” The execution, however, is electrifying, as the hapless Adigun (a superb Femi Jacobs), derided as a naïve new arrival—a “Johnny Just Come”—must learn to navigate the streets of Lagos at nighttime, having inherited his late father’s taxicab (dubbed Tom Cruise). Guided by the swaggering Taiwo (Odunlade Adekola), Adigun encounters a range of memorable characters—some comical, others threatening—in Oriahi’s exuberant tribute to Lagos Island.

Don’t call me Toubab

Author in front of Kanifing Estate, Gambia via Instagram.Author in front of Kanifing Estate, Gambia via Instagram.

It is mid-September. I am walking alone in the streets of Old Jeswang, a small neighborhood in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, where I have been working as a health promotion intern for two weeks. I am wearing an H&M black and white stripped dress, an African print head wrap and pendant earrings.

“Toubab, Toubab, Toubab!” White person. People passing by shout, smiling and waving at me.

I am black. I am African. I am Rwandan. I look around. But there is no one but me. I stop. Partially shocked, partially amused. I wave and smile back. I think to myself, they are just kids. They don’t know. I walk.

Two weeks later, I head to Mustapha’s shop to get chicken and onions for the Yassa Gannarr I am about to cook for the first time. The Mauritanian shop keeper greets me. Amused and as if to provoke me, he calls me “Toubab”.

Not again, I think.

“Duma Toubab!” I am not a Toubab, I reply smiling, to hide what’s boiling inside of me.

As a Rwandan diasporan living in Montreal, my coming to The Gambia means a lot of things. Not just a break from Canada, but my first trip back to the continent after forcibly leaving Rwanda behind in 1994. It means experiencing what I always thought of “home,” but away from Rwanda.

Like many other Africans living in the diaspora and traveling to the continent for the first time, my trip to The Gambia symbolizes a long-awaited return: familiarity, comfort and kinship that is somewhat hard to find in places where we are constantly othered. For the first time, I am not a visible minority. Back in Canada, my blackness goes unquestioned. I am dark. My hair defies gravity.

My trip also means that I can see and experience The Gambia without Eurocentric lenses; on my own terms, not defined by some anthropological jargon-filled book. I am well aware of the many privileges I wear. As an African studies major however, I have grown critical of both overly pessimist and romanticized misrepresentations of Africa as an academic subject.

How dare do they call me Toubab? I am not here for it. I can’t bear to be othered.

I am not one to preach the romanticized unification of Africans or black people as “one people,” or fervently defend nationalism and patriotism. I know I am “other”. I am Rwandan and raised in Canada. But somewhere deep down, I wish they recognized a little bit of themselves in me. It is their association of me with whiteness or the West that I can’t take.

When I ask my Gambian friends about the meaning of the term, especially targeted at me, they reply that it is custom to refer to visibly white people and foreigners raised in the West as Toubabs. For them, it is more my lifestyle and habits that define me as a Toubab than my mentality. I am the typical “western lazy student”. I don’t wake up at 6am on weekends to clean my house or cook for the day. However, I adapt fairly easily, eat all local meals with no refrain, and hang out mostly with locals unlike my fellow western friends. Locals call Indians, Lebanese or Chinese people by their respective nationalities regardless of their western upbringing, so why not me?

I reflect a lot on authenticity. What does it mean to be truly “African”? More so, to be a “real African” woman? I surely do not meet the local criteria. Non-African foreigners aren’t expected to enact “authentic Africanness,” but I am, because of my heritage. I have failed at the test and thus, I am Toubab. Some won’t even acknowledge my Rwandan background, because I have never seen Rwanda. To them, I am Canadian. Period.

I surely was raised in Canada, but having spent most of my teenage and adult years fighting against skewed beauty standards, ideas of modernity and superiority rooted in white supremacy, I just couldn’t accept it. Even so, because for many, it meant that I was rich, that North America was better than The Gambia. Sure, our living conditions are different, but it is those romanticized ideas of the West that hurt the most.

I do not blame them, though. I realize how much we as diasporans, have a duty to bridge the gap. No more faking that we “made it.” No more romanticized African immigrant tales. As much as I am privileged, being called Toubab also signifies the erasure of my blackness and what it means to be black in white spaces. It signifies the erasure of my upbringing in the West as a Rwandan child, by Rwanda parents, who tried their best to inculcate in me the traditions, culture, history and language of our homeland while navigating exclusion, discrimination and feelings of not belonging.

Taiye Selasi, in her TED Talk (“Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”) proposed that home is where one grew up, lived or worked. As a “multi-local,” she (with British and American passports and living in Rome) rejects the concept of “coming from one country” as countries are merely concepts, their boundaries often unfixed, artificial. But what if my hometown, the country I grew up in hasn’t embraced me as local yet? Where am I local? What if I find solace in the resilience, the culture, the traditions of a land I have never seen?

As a diasporan, the constant quest for authenticity and belonging is one I grapple with on a daily basis. Longing for a land I have never seen. Not being western/White enough. Not being African/Rwandan enough. Processes of identity-making are complex. Ultimately, the hurt is rooted in constant feelings of not belonging. However, I now find solace in knowing that my acceptance is mine alone.

Many Missing Bodies

Mathare, Nairobi. Image via Wikipedia.Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Image via Wikipedia.

Gideon Njuguna’s mother called us in early October 2015 because she needed help following up the case of her son, Gideon, who had disappeared a couple of months earlier on August 4. He was one of the many young men employed in the informal boda boda industry that offers motorcycle transport services at negotiated rates. Gideon was last seen ferrying two passengers to a destination not too far from where he lived. His body was found by boda boda colleagues several days later in the main city mortuary. He had been shot four times, twice in the face.

Through her own investigations his mother discovered that her son and his two passengers were killed on the day they disappeared. She believes that Gideon was shot by the police because the people he was transporting were deemed “suspected gangsters” – a now normal appellation for those whom the police cannot prove have committed any crime except for being young and poor. Although she has managed to find witnesses who confirmed the involvement of police officers in the deaths of the three, all of them fear coming forward.

Gideon’s mother is from Korogocho, but she came to us at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) because we have a reputation for calling for widespread community documentation of the many extra-judicial executions (EJE) that happen in the poor, and predominantly, eastern urban settlements of Nairobi.

Despite their historical normality in city ghettos like Mathare, where we work, extra-judicial killings are not confined to these spaces and are also widely reported in North Eastern Kenya, Mombasa, Nyeri and elsewhere, as numerous journalists and human rights organizations have documented.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) reports that between January and December 2015 126 people were killed by the police. Similarly, the Daily Nation Newsplex database shows that the police killed 122 people in the first eight months of 2016. While we are encouraged by these recent statistics, we believe that they are far from being a complete picture of the levels of police killings that happen in Kenya. In fact, they are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

From our own local ongoing research, and I emphasize that the circumstances of these cases are still being verified, at least 60 youth have been killed in Mathare alone this year. The extent of these killings in this one location highlights the impossibility of only 126 executions country-wide by the police in 2015. This wide discrepancy between community and official data is likely because official statistics are gathered, principally, when cases are taken by victim’s family or friends to relevant organizations. Unfortunately the distance of these organizations from the communities where the killings happen makes reporting such executions a complicated task (while also highlighting the classed spatial dimensions of human rights practice).

Furthermore, the “intermittent” success of cases brought against the police and the lack of protection for those who come forward undoubtedly diminishes people’s confidence in following up the cases. As the important case of Willie Kimani, Josphat Mwenda and Joseph Muiruri shows, professional organizations respond much faster to the executions of one of their own than to the everyday killings and disappearances of young poor people in many parts of the country.

Gideon Njuguna’s mother cannot read, nor did she know, until we took her there, where the offices of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights (KNCHR) and Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) are located. As a vegetable seller in Korogocho, who is now tasked with taking care of the family of her son, she does not always have the bus fare or phone credit to embark on these formal, and usually complicated documentation processes. So, such deaths are more often registered by the missing generations of young men in poor urban settlements who are now only present in family photo albums, and in the weekly funerals of young, predominantly, male citizens around the country.

Elsewhere I documented how the entrance to Huruma ward in Mathare constituency is marked on one side by coffin makers and on the other by a police station. This cannot be accidental.

Many generations have been lost in what are essentially state-sanctioned pogroms motivated by a mixture of colonial and neoliberal hyper-policing and the criminalization of poor youth. The much feted jobs given by the National Youth Service (NYS), the recent state house youth summit, or even the highly publicized 10% of government tenders reserved for youth do not persuade us to believe in the government’s purported youth agenda, especially when these killings go on unabated and are deemed to be merely the infrequent actions of just a few  “rogue” police officers.

To get a more comprehensive picture of the gravity of the situation, we need to look for and listen to the stories of mothers selling vegetables in markets, the classmate who has lost his whole peer group, and the accumulated bodies of the poor in the city mortuary.

We also need to look for the ledgers filled out by the families who are made to pay for the bullets that killed their children, and the fears and traumas of communities who feel under siege. Without a concerted search for these bodies, official statistics will never be enough.

Do informal workers’ lives matter?

Informal fish markets of Soumbedioune. Image credit Aïda Ndiaye.Informal fish markets of Soumbedioune. Image credit Aïda Ndiaye.

In February 2008 in Dakar, Senegal, a pregnant fish trader, who remains unnamed, was fatally hit by a police car. The car was attempting to displace her and her fellow fish traders from selling on public roads near the national highway. The story of her death was casually reported in local newspapers, with off-hand commentaries on the brutality of police forces and the poor working conditions of informal workers. There was no significant outrage surrounding her death. A week later, her fellow sellers were back on the road where her death occurred, selling fish as if nothing had happened.

The casual tone used to describe the fish seller’s death was perplexing and alluded to a politics of exclusion, whereby the suffering of some people is acknowledged and mourned while other people’s tragedies remain at the margins. Exclusion is a lived reality for most informal workers in sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom are women who live at the periphery of global and local production systems that have no use for them. In fact, the death of thousands of informal workers would have little to no effect on the global market.

While conducting research on informal fisheries in Dakar, I met Awa, an informal fish trader who has been involved in the business for more than 20 years. Awa dropped out of primary school and started selling fish at the age of 16, to help out her mother who was also a fish seller. Awa’s husband is currently unemployed, and so she is the main breadwinner in her family.

Awa’s average daily income is unpredictable, due to the nature of the fish-selling business. The day I met her she had travelled from Keur Massar, a shantytown in Dakar where she lives, to buy fish in Terrou-Bi Sougui, a beach located in an upscale area of Dakar. But she arrived too late, and found the fish boats docked along the beach empty. It would be a day without income. Days like this happened often, she told me, but giving up selling fish was not an option.

It is tempting to romanticize the work of women such as Awa as a manifestation of the courage and tenacity of third world workers, or under the trope of the courageous African woman, surviving despite poverty. It certainly requires courage and even ingenuity to sustain a family on informal work. However, such narratives tend to obscure the deep historical and socio-economic reasons that compel women to engage in informal trade as a survival mechanism in the first place. Informal trade resulted from the marriage of the Senegalese economic crisis in the 1970s, ill-timed neoliberal policies and weak exploitative institutions inherited from colonialism. The majority of Senegalese, struggling to find jobs in the liberal formal economy, resorted to the informal economy to survive. During the past 40 years, Senegal has been unable to absorb the surplus labour.

Awa describes herself as “banna-banna” a Wolof expression meaning businesswoman or entrepreneur. The women I met in informal fisheries are defiantly proud of their condition, as though implying that pity would infantilize and lessen the value of their work. Women have their own tontines to help each other save in times of needs. They are not waiting for the miracle of a functioning government to save them. While the pride of Awa and her fellow co-workers is admirable, the reality of their suffering cannot be denied. Informal workers do not have access to health care, safety, reliable revenue, and are often victims of police brutality. The Senegalese government regularly sanctions police raids to displace informal workers from public places.

Yet, what is the death of a pregnant informal fish seller in Dakar or Awa’s struggles to the suffering of sweatshop workers in Bangladesh or refugees at the borders of Europe? The magnitude of suffering seems to anesthetize us. But anesthesia is not on option. People like Awa are real. Their lives and struggles are meaningful. It is time as a global community to recognize our complicity in suffering and advocate for global policies that recognize the humanity of those at the margins.

Crisis and the meaning of money

August 3rd protest at Chinamasas. Image via author.August 3rd protest at the offices of Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa. Image via the author.

Robert Mugabe Junior has the word “melanin” in his Instagram biography. I discovered this when I went to his profile, a little indulgence I allow myself every few weeks to see just how well the eldest son of our 92-year-old leader is living in Dubai. This time, his profile was locked. Maybe someone had told him that it is gauche to floss on social media when your father’s 36-year rule has impoverished an entire country. But “melanin,” appearing in bold capital letters, still struck me. It’s pretty funny, this gesture of owning one’s blackness — popularized by American teens — being performed by the scion of a family that has caused so much actual harm to black lives.

But of course, all sorts of countercultural, even radical signifiers have been ransacked of their meaning in Zimbabwe. In the past 36 years, the language of decolonization and black empowerment has been stripped of its potency, serving to enrich the new black elite rather than benefit the masses. To counteract this, we’ve had to come up with our own vocabulary of struggle: tajamuka, zvakadhakwa, makwikwi.

We do this so well because we are now experts at semiotic rupture. In 2008, Zimbabwe famously went through an economic crisis, experiencing hyperinflation levels at 79.6 billion percent. During this time, the value of money could be extinguished in a matter of minutes. Someone told me the story of a family member withdrawing a sizable chunk of their life savings to buy a car. The next day, the US dollar was introduced as a measure to stop the downward spiral of the Zimbabwe dollar. They still have bags of the now worthless currency in their house.

Once you have gone through something so traumatic, guarding against its reappearance becomes second nature. This vigilance lives in the bones of Zimbabweans. As the signs of crisis reappear, people begin to steel themselves for the inevitable: queues, shortages, endless hustling. In May of this year, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) announced that it would be introducing bond notes, a “surrogate currency” that would only circulate domestically. This was in response to the local shortage of the US dollar, a “cash crisis” that already began to cause panic.

In a beautiful macroeconomic fiction, the RBZ declared that this new currency would exist on a 1:1 basis with the US dollar. “Nothing would change,” they insisted. But people are now wise to these rituals — press statements filled with improbable assertions, denial masked as confidence, and endless clarifications. When they think they have worn you down, there are PR campaigns with catchy jingles to sell the impending crisis. The public received this announcement with a grim knowingness. We were going back to 2008 again. Back to scrambling, back to uncertainty, back to indignity.

Two weeks ago, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa warned that although the currency wasn’t going to be released for a few more weeks, counterfeit notes were already being printed by “gangs” intent on sabotaging the RBZ’s reputation. This, he claimed was all “in order to confuse the situation.” This confession of ineptitude was roundly met with derision. All currencies rely on a fiction, but Chinamasa had accidentally let slip that ours was going to be backed up by a particularly weak one. After all, how do you counterfeit a counterfeit?

In the months following the initial announcement, people have protested, they have attended Reserve Bank “public consultations,” they have released sharp and hilarious macroeconomic analyses that have gone viral on WhatsApp. But we know that this government will not listen to us.  So we brace ourselves for impact. Mobilities and survival tactics that had lain dormant are now being reactivated. People are moving. Their savings, their bank accounts, anything that can be kept out of the reach of the kleptocratic state. Those who do not have the privilege to move — civil servants, elderly pensioners — sleep outside the banks, waiting to withdraw as little as USD $20 each day.

Even as we are constantly reminded that we already exist in the glorious postcolonial future, Zimbabweans are resisting being thrown back in time. People’s memories of the struggle of 2008 are not romantic things, no one is better off for having experienced it. Our own resilience, a long-praised national quality, has been weaponized against us. For a while now, people have been resisting the narrative that long-suffering makes us virtuous. And yet, it is challenging to disrupt longstanding relationships — to the state, between ourselves as citizens, to our own identities as “resilient citizens.” Resisting requires moving in new ways, and we are constantly improvising the steps. In a final push, a coalition of activists is calling everyone to the streets of Harare later today in a massive anti-bond notes protest. Rambai makashinga.

The myth of Donald Trump’s white working-class support

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image via Gage Skidmore Flickr.Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image via Gage Skidmore Flickr.

Whiteness is the biggest single factor that emerges from the US presidential election. The majority of white voters across gender and most income groups who went to the polls voted for Donald Trump, someone who does not hide his white supremacist views, condones sexual assault, and built his campaign on openly anti-immigration, anti-Latino and anti-Muslim themes.

Yet sectors of the Euro-American left adamantly stress the role of the white working classes in facilitating Trump’s victory, and dismiss race as “identity politics”, not completely explaining the Trump phenomenon.

Two leaders of the left, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, were quick to frame this election as a kind of “popular revolt” – very much like they did with Brexit a few months ago. For them, progressives should pay attention to Donald Trump’s anti-establishment narrative, so that we can offer alternatives without the “divisive rhetoric”. Sanders went as far as offering to collaborate with Trump on select issues that will help people come out of the crisis, as long as the president-elect does not engage in racism, sexism and xenophobia. Trump has just announced that he will immediately deport three million migrants, but that has not weakened the Vermont senator’s resolve. Influential commentators say that the anti-establishment left alternative to Trumpism should begin from white workers who supported Trump.

This story of an aggrieved “white working class” who joined Trump in huge numbers to rebel against neoliberal elites and neglectful Democrats is less an objective appraisal of working class voting trends, than a reflex of leftist common sense, inflected perhaps by a yearning for the heyday of (white) union solidarity in the Rust Belt.

Add to this the vicissitudes of the electoral college, and it is no wonder that some on the left focused on the behavior of about four hundred thousand voters in the Great Lakes region –Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and ignored the rest of the country. Closer analysis reveals that Republican support in the Midwest grew predominantly in rural areas, and in areas where whites are the overwhelming majority – these include both low and middle income areas. From our own data analysis in the three states above, Donald Trump’s growth compared to Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012 is significantly higher in counties with the biggest concentration of white residents than in the most racially mixed ones. This is not surprising, because negative attitudes toward immigration, non-white populations, gender, and LGBT issues are highest when whites live in racially homogeneous communities, and support for racism and anti-immigrant views are the strongest predictors for support for Trump.

Although the ballots are still being tallied, it looks like Hillary Clinton will be receiving the third highest number of votes in the political history of the United States. People of color voted for Clinton. Moreover, Clinton won the support of most voters earning under US $50,000 a year. Far from a popular rebellion against a neoliberal elite, then, a vast majority of voters who have endured structural economic and political disenfranchisement as well as the negative effects of the recent economic crisis, chose Clinton – the “establishment” candidate. Surely, they too have economic anxieties and grievances about the system, but did not vote for Donald Trump.

The gender dimension is also glossed over. The vitriolic sexist rhetoric Clinton has had to face is easily dismissed. Women have suffered from the recent financial crisis too, and like all disadvantaged groups, they bear the brunt of it more than better positioned groups. White women supported Trump by a smaller majority than white men, and women of color voted for Clinton more than men of color, but these trends are largely ignored. Not to mention, an estimated 30 to 40 million US residents are politically disenfranchised and could not vote.

These larger facts are important context for interpreting Trump’s decisive but marginal gains in a few key states. But commentators downplay them both to bolster a tidy narrative of working class rebellion, and to dismiss the importance of race and gender. This story veers dangerously close to the long-standing caricature of the “poor white,” which elites have used to avoid a reckoning with their own complicity with economic and racial inequalities. This dismissal disregards the suffering of groups who have experienced centuries of structural discrimination and marginalization, both in the US and abroad. It reinforces racial, ethnic and gender divisions, and thus undermines the possibility for broader solidarities.

What is also left out is that many whites – many of whom are not impoverished working classes – now feel under attack as “whites.” The election of Barack Obama, the first African- American president, contributed to a feeling that the world is becoming hostile to their very existence. Some believe that a conspiracy of minorities, leftists, feminists, and multi-billionaires, often Jewish, have allied to marginalize the “common white folk.” White racial anxiety is not a new problem in the history of American politics. Even perceptions of economic insecurity are filtered by racial anxieties, which makes race and economics impossible to separate. Racism is neither false consciousness nor mere bigotry, but an ideological and material structure that confers social privilege and material benefits onto a group, and mobilizes that group against any attempt to take away their benefits.

Disregarding the advances made by queer, feminist and critical race theories and social movements, many (mostly white) leftists do not recognize that racism and sexism are structures that regulate the distribution of economic, social, educational and other resources. Instead, they treat racism as rhetorical baggage left-over from the bad old days of colonialism and Jim Crow, allegedly used by elites to “mislead” the working classes. Workers who are white must be included into a wider coalition, but to think that a mere change in messaging will do the trick vastly underestimates the forces that the left is up against. Proposals cannot avoid tackling white and male privilege simply because “that’s our base”.

Nobody doubts that the establishment is in crisis, and something must change.

But why is this becoming common sense only now when it affects white Americans and Europeans? Why should a core of emboldened Trump supporters be the starting point for constructing a broad alliance against the devastating effects of a racial and gendered capitalist world order?

The role of the left should not be to focus its efforts on bargaining with the often misrepresented and caricatured concerns of a small sector of the working classes. It is to mobilize a broader intersectional alliance that can effectively tackle various forms of discrimination, and that addresses the differential levels of exclusion experienced by various groups.

Framing the Trump phenomenon as the wrong response to the right concerns goes in the opposite direction. Knowingly or not, it feeds the growing wave of white nationalism and xenophobia that is taking America and Europe by storm.

Shutting down Dadaab endangers refugees

Faces of Dadaab, image via Riyaad Minty FlickrFaces of Dadaab, image via Riyaad Minty Flickr

Kenya plans to shutdown the world’s largest refugee camp later this month. If the closure goes ahead on November 30, 2016 it will endanger the lives of thousands of people. The initial plans were announced in May this year along with the closure of Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs. However, Ethiopia’s recent decision to withdraw its troops from Somalia has allowed al Shabaab to gain ground. As the majority of Dadaab’s refugees are from Somalia, they are expected to return to an increasingly unsafe country.

Kenya’s plans are based on security fears that have been at the forefront of national concerns, since the country invaded Somalia in 2011, and the highly visible attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and on the Garissa University campus that followed. Frequently, the response has been to conflate Somalis with terrorists. Dadaab has been labelled a nursery for al Shabaab, and the UN has been accused of aiding terrorism. The construction of a security wall along the Kenya-Somalia border has been proposed, and Operation Usalama Watch saw urban refugees in Nairobi rounded up and forcibly relocated to Kenya’s remote camps. In the fight against al-Shabaab, those seeking refuge from them have become a convenient scapegoat.

According to the Government of Kenya, repatriation is voluntary and to safe parts of Somalia. However, the Norwegian Refugee Council has recently criticized the returns process as “no longer voluntary, dignified or safe.” Amnesty International has accused the Government of Kenya of coercing refugees, despite their claims that the process meets international standards for voluntary return. In Somalia, returnees face severe food insecurity, an already serious concern currently affecting five million people. It is only four years since the end of the famine that killed more than a quarter of a million people in Somalia and sent thousands of new arrivals to Dadaab. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned last month that Somalia currently has a “dangerous absence of medical care” and that “the conditions necessary for a safe and dignified return are not present” in any part of the country. If the planned closure of Dadaab goes ahead, “hundreds of thousands of lives will be put at risk.”

In July and August 2016, MSF conducted a survey of residents of Dadaab and found responses at odds with the claims of the government and the UN. The Kenyan Government argues that Somalia is safe, while the UN has said that one-quarter of refugees are willing to return. MSF found that 97% of refugees felt the risk of sexual violence was high in Somalia and 86% said they were unwilling to return. The Kenyan government also argued that Dadaab is unsafe for its inhabitants, yet 96% of responders to MSF’s survey said they felt the camp was “very safe.”

Earlier this month the NGO Refugees International released a new field report that called the humanitarian situation within Somalia “dire”. There are more than one million internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country – half that number since the start of 2015. Some refugees have already left Kenya to take advantage of the financial support offered by the UN and avoid being forced across the border later. Government officials have reportedly told refugees that they risk forfeiting financial support if they do not leave voluntarily by the end of November. Many of these people are now struggling to survive in Somalia and have traded Dadaab for the IDP camps in Jubaland. Aside from Somalis, Dadaab is also home to thousands of Ethiopian and South Sudanese refugees. Ethiopia is in a state of emergency and South Sudan is facing widespread famine, neither providing safe circumstances for refugees to return to.

There is still the possibility that Kenya pulls back from enforcing the November 30 deadline. A spokesperson for the Government of Kenya has said this week that they now expect to miss the deadline, due to issues in Somali. This is not the first time that the government has claimed it would close Dadaab. In the wake of the Garissa attack in April 2015 it said it would shutdown the camp within three months. Threatening to close it served as a useful means of attracting increased international funding from countries fearful of further migration. It also worked as a way to distract citizen’s attention from other domestic issues, such as widespread corruption. Some commentators questioned if this was just another case of the Government of Kenya engaging in brinksmanship with the UN.

On November 7 a petition was filed by two human rights organizations, Kituo Cha Sheria and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. They hope the High Court of Kenya will declare the government’s attempts unconstitutional. This would not be the first time the High Court thwarted anti-refugee moves in the country. In July 2013, the High Court upheld refugees right to reside outside of camps. Kenya has also been reminded that the forced return of refugees would violate its obligations under international law.

The pressure for refugees to leave Dadaab has already had grave consequences. One refugee, quoted by Refugees International, condemned the supposed voluntary nature of the repatriation efforts. “But what is my choice? This is about fear. It’s not about choice.” The closure of Dadaab this month will bring about a humanitarian disaster. Refugees in Dadaab will be faced with the prospect of returning to an extremely insecure country. Last week the UN reported that, “the security situation has not improved in Somalia,” while al Shabaab will exploit the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. Those born in Dadaab, since its creation in 1991, could be sent to a country they have never known. Others will face the prospect of moving to Kakuma, Kenya’s other refugee camp in the northwest of the country. While Kakuma will remain open for now, it is struggling to support the thousands of new arrivals from South Sudan. Yet more will embark on the dangerous journey inwards towards Nairobi or move elsewhere on the continent. To avoid a new displacement crisis, Kenya must reconsider the imminent closure of Dadaab.

Ramadan in Khartoum

 A Sudan MemoirImage from Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir book cover.

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985) was a Sudanese religious reformer and leader, who had also played a significant role in Sudan’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1940s. After a series of spiritual experiences in the early 1950s, Taha converted his political party, the Republican Party, into a social/religious reform movement known popularly as “The Republican Brotherhood.” The movement attracted a small group of dedicated followers from all over Sudan’s vastness, who concentrated on finding a respectable place for women in Islamic society and on moving closer and closer to what Taha conceived, in his seminal work The Second Message of Islam, as the path of the Prophet Mohamed which would lead to universal enlightenment and peace. Taha’s radical thinking lead to his trial on charges of “apostasy” by the Sudan government, and he was executed for this capital offense in 1985.

Steve Howard is a sociologist who directs International Studies at Ohio University and first came to Sudan as a doctoral student collecting data. His bigger Sudan agenda had been to “become a Sufi,” and his quest landed him in the middle of the Republican Brotherhood. The younger brothers lived communally near their teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and the book describes Howard’s learning how to think in the Sufi manner while immersing himself in Sudan culture. This excerpt describes Howard’s confronting the challenge of Ramadan in hot, dusty Khartoum—Oumar Bar.

My accepting the invitation to move into one of the houses of the Republican Brotherhood coincided with my learning that the cohesive and consistent body of thought taught by Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was applied every day in the lives of his followers. The most intensive laboratory for this application was the collection of “brothers’ houses” scattered around the southern part of the Omdurman neighborhood of Thawra, and serving effectively as an experiment in democratic living. These houses were where the credo from Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s book The Second Message of Islam—reconciling the needs of the individual with those of the community—was made concrete on an experimental and daily basis. Men, some single, some married migrants to town, lived communally in these houses to be as close as possible for daily exposure to their teacher. There were brothers’ houses in other towns as well, including Wad Medani, Atbara, and El Obeid. A small group of the sisters had a communal living arrangement in Ustadh Mahmoud’s home. While Ustadh had told me at our first encounter that, unlike the conventional Sufi sects, the Republican Brotherhood did not have an initiation ritual for new members, I felt that my first Ramadan with the Republican brothers and sisters more than served that purpose. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that is one of Islam’s most fundamental practices, introduced me to a Republican life of discipline in a very physical way. My first Ramadan was also my initial exposure to the seriousness of every element of the Republican message. And Ramadan was a public stage on which the Republicans could demonstrate—in a context well known to all their neighbors and countrymen and women—that the Republican ideology provided the best blueprint for modern life.

I had been exposed to Ramadan’s rigors as a high school teacher in neighboring Chad, where I had learned that it was mighty difficult to keep a class of adolescents focused on my lesson when half its members got up to spit out the window just about every minute. My Muslim Chadian students’ understanding that swallowing saliva constituted breaking the fast was certainly not part of the Republican perspective on spit. But in that torrid Sudan June of my first Ramadan fast, saliva did not go far to make a day without food or water an easy obligation. As the temperatures in Sudan reached 100 degrees or more, I confess that I considered delaying my total embrace of the Republican way of life until after that first Ramadan was over. But after meeting Ustadh Mahmoud and many of the other brothers I was so drawn to the movement and moved by its hospitality that I jumped into my first Sudan Ramadan during Khartoum’s most searing month. While the very young, frail, pregnant, and ill are exempted from the Ramadan fast, I realized that it would not have been possible for a healthy person like myself to avoid fasting in such close living quarters; Islam is an intensely social religion. God in His mercy had made Ramadan a movable obligation, a month in the lunar calendar so its dates moved up eleven days each year in the Western calendar. A cooler Ramadan in Sudan was years away at that point.

Ramadan was associated with fasting before the coming of Islam to Arabia. But the revelation of the Qur’an made Ramadan one of Islam’s five arkan, or “pillars,” that must be followed by observant Muslims, meaning complete abstinence from all food, drink, and sex from before the sun rose to sunset. I found poetry in the scriptural test of when the day begins: when the dawning light allows one to distinguish a white thread from a black one. Like prayer, another one of the pillars, fasting has the dual nature of individual practice combined with the aggregate of community participation, an equation that can give the believer enormous satisfaction. In other words, I eventually learned that it is difficult to sustain either prayer or the fast by oneself, particularly as I moved back to my life in the secular United States. The Sufis who sought refuge for prayer and fasting in isolated spots in rural Sudan believed that they were earning extra baraka for this feat of deprivation.

The sacrifices required of the Muslim during Ramadan were tests of the limits of human physical endurance. If we were waiting for God to come, what better way to prepare? There were many Republican exercises that prepared and expanded the mind for its contests—the lectures, the readings, the discussions among themselves and with men and women on the streets. But the test provided by Ramadan, particularly when it fell in Sudan’s heat, was all about the most basic of human needs: nourishment and water. Belief in Islam is thought of as faith, an exercise of the spirit. But Ramadan shows us how Islam is also about how physical endurance is the essence of humanness. This issue works into Ustadh Mahmoud’s progressive consideration of Islam as well, that Islam evolves with human beings’ understanding of it themselves. With intense prayer, intimate knowledge of God increases, until the desire for food and other animalistic aspects of our nature fade away.

But my test in the heat was in the here and now, and was not to be joined alone. And when there are young men involved, there will be a competitive element. Perhaps not as crude as the Ramadan spitting contests of my Chadian students, but certainly one that stimulates our endurance. My residence, the beyt-al-akhwan, the “brothers’ house” resonated with the question all through Ramadan: Saim wala fatir? saim wala fatir? (Are you fasting today or not?). And conversation among the brothers often moved toward how many days one has fasted this Ramadan versus how successful one had been the previous year. Improving on one’s performance of faith was another Republican hallmark.

Of course, I stumbled myself a number of times in my own pursuit of Ramadan perfection. I remember that my first trip to visit brothers in Wad Medani took place during Ramadan. In Wad Medani I stayed as a guest in the home of Medani’s Republican leader, Ustadh Saeed. There was less commotion in that family home in the morning—no early communal prayer or meeting—so I slept through the morning’s call to prayer. The first thing I did after waking was to take my antimalaria medication (a precaution eventually abandoned as I gained more baraka). A brother in the room saw me swallow the little pill and asked, “So Steve, you’re not fasting today?” I replied that of course I was. And he quickly provided the new information that taking medicine broke the fast, God’s point being that one takes medicine if one is sick. And the sick were excused from fasting. I did observe the fast the rest of the day out of solidarity, but was disappointed to have my record spoiled so early in the fasting month.

The spare cuisine that accompanied the sunset breaking of the fast for the brothers from the houses in Ustadh Mahmoud’s neighborhood suited the Republican/Spartan design of the whole month. Plenty of baraka for everyone. That June, my first attempt at fasting, was also the time of school holidays, which meant that Republican schoolteachers from outside of Khartoum: the Gezira, Kordofan, maybe from the East or the North, came to spend the holidays near their teacher, which meant that they would lodge with us in the already cramped brothers’ houses. As the hour of sunset approached, the brothers would ready themselves for the evening by bathing and dressing, activities that often followed a late afternoon nap. Then, from each of the four houses a procession (masira) of brothers would march—chanting the name of God—through the neighborhoods to the home of Ustadh Mahmoud. They would form a half circle in front of the house, joined by the sisters who grouped to one side, and thirsty, hungry, and hot they would continue the chant for the forty-five minutes to one hour before the sunset azan signaling the end of the day’s fast. Brothers and sisters who lived outside of the network of ‘brothers’ houses’ would also start to arrive and join the dhikir. The standard expectation of practicing Muslims during Ramadan was that the fast should not be an excuse for lightening one’s daily load of work, but I did find this late-in-the-day dhikir an additional test of membership in this intense community of believers. The heat and my intensely dry mouth would sometimes force my willing spirit to just sway with the chant with my mouth closed. It was perhaps a test—within the limits of the fasting day—of our potential to forget about food and just focus on God. It was a practice for the time that Republicans were waiting to come.

But not yet. This world was still hot, and many hungry people had just chanted to bring the sun down. So labor was divided and tasks shared to get ready for the meal. Some of the brothers would bring the long straw mats out from Ustadh Mahmoud’s house and lay them in rows ready for prayer in the empty lot just west of the house. Other brothers would bring out the heavy aluminum pans filled with a large mound of asida (sorghum or millet porridge) and many spoons. The dozen or so pans were placed here and there on the mats, and brothers crouched around them, perhaps eight to ten to a pan. The tin pan descended from the ancient gada wooden bowl, still used by many good Sufi communities around the country for their communal meals. Then, a third group of brothers would come out of Ustadh Mahmoud’s kitchen—where the sisters had been fasting and cooking—with large pails of mulah, a meatless okra-based sauce to be poured over the porridge. Everyone would then dig into the porridge with the spoons provided, while some of the brothers would go around with the sauce pail to try to replenish the dish until there was no more. Off to the side brothers could help themselves to lemonade or karkedeh, the popular Ramadan drink made from dried hibiscus petals that had been prepared in large plastic barrels to quench the brothers’ thirst. If a particularly large crowd came for this simple meal (everyone was welcome, so the numbers were not necessarily predictable), a garden hose would find its way into the barrel in order to serve more guests. Loaves and fishes, Sudan style.

I found this sunset scene at once warm and overwhelming. In order to eat from the pan I had associated with what we were using in the brothers’ house to washing clothes by hand, I had to squeeze into the circle of brothers gathered tightly around it, all crouched on one knee, and balance like that while stabbing at the wobbly porridge mass in the pan—if I had been lucky enough to find a spoon! Those with more fortitude than I (or longer arms) could eat this steaming hot concoction with a bare right hand. I admired those who saved space around the circle by looping their free left arm over the shoulder of the next brother. In my weakened state—new to fasting and to the heat—I often was able to get only a spoonful or two before the dish was gone. The multitasking required—crouching and balancing while scooping asida—was beyond my skill set at that point. I did receive a great deal of encouragement from around the pan, but the brothers were hungry, too.

*This is an excerpt from Steve Howard’s new book, Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir (Ohio University Press, 2016)

Trump’s America

Image via WikipediaImage via Wikipedia

The world and many Americans are reeling in shock and anxiety at the election of Donald Trump as the next president of this mighty, but deeply disunited and disoriented country. All but a handful of opinion polls pointed to the victory of the incomparably experienced Hillary Clinton, to the historic possibility of electing America’s first female president. But they were utterly, unforgivably, embarrassingly wrong. They couldn’t pick up Trump’s ‘silent majority’ of ordinary white voters, not just the unapologetic alt-right that quietly cheered on the boisterous candidate, who openly said in public what Republicans and racist whites say in private.

The postmortems will be brutal on the other failures of America’s collective imagination that resulted in this stunning election result: on the rapacious role of the media in selling Trump for ratings and earnings; on the shortfalls of the candidacy and campaign of Hillary Clinton; on the relative turnout rates of the Trump and Clinton supporters; on the perfidious role of Russia, Wikileaks, and the FBI. In this popular American political sport of endless punditry and second guessing, few will take real responsibility for having enabled Trump, few in polite circles will own up to having voted for Trump, much as many whites in South Africa denied ever having been ardent supporters of Apartheid as the noxiousness of the system attracted international opprobrium.

Americans chose Donald Trump, a dangerous buffoon, ill-prepared and ill-tempered for any serious job, let alone the presidency of a superpower, even if it’s one in decline. It is no prediction to expect that America’s slide into global ignominy will accelerate under Trump’s predictably inept leadership and the country’s apparently irreconcilable tribal polarizations. What does it say about a country that could elect such an unsavory character; that could turn all three branches of government to the stewardship of the Republican Party; a party that should have forfeited its right to rule for its glaring political sins of bigotry, obstructionism, myopia and incompetence.

Countries get the leaders they deserve. Only a racist electorate could vote for such an unabashed racist candidate. Only misogynists could find such an irredeemable misogynist appealing. Only xenophobes could go for such a dangerous xenophobe. Only those who don’t realize American citizenship is premised on allegiance to an idea, not common bloodlines, can vouch for a proponent of racialized notions of citizenship. Only enraged and deranged white nationalists could pick such a frighteningly enraged and deranged white nationalist. Only nativist bigots and bullies could endorse such an insecure nativist bigot and bully. Only narcissists could show preference for a tax-dodging conman with no history of public service. Only unethical people could be attracted to a pathological liar and serial philanderer. Only those who don’t believe in the rule of law could support such a lawless man. Only deplorables could elect such a deplorable leader.

Clearly, Trump’s victory is a horrible reflection to the country itself and the world at large the tragedy and farce that is America. The tragedy that such an unfit man could succeed America’s first black president, a man of such remarkable talent and uncommon integrity, decency and commitment to public service. In a revolting twist of fate President Obama will be replaced by the godfather of birtherism, the racist lie that Obama was not American-born, a real American. Obama’s legacy will be dismantled by his nemesis. The tragedy is evident in the country’s inability, and in the Euro-American world more generally as illustrated recently most graphically with Brexit, to deal effectively with inclusion, integration, and inequality; the inclusion of racial, ethnic and religious minorities; the integration of nations under rapid social change; redressing the inequalities engendered by the economic injustices and inanities of neoliberalism, the dangerous dogma that has reigned supreme since the turn of the 1980s and robbed tens of millions of people of decent livelihoods and even their lives, of opportunities and the promises of democratic society.

And so the increasingly pauperized and neglected social classes left behind by the draconian injunctions and destructive interventions of neoliberalism turn to demagogues adept at riding on the misguided fantasies of the common man; demagogues who rail against the establishment and old or new marginal others; demagogues molded from the same cloth of neoliberal zealotry that have wrecked the lives of working people and the middle classes; demagogues who are least able to resolve the crises of well-being for their fellow citizens.

This is to suggest that some of the biggest losers from the dangerous infatuation with Trump will be his most ardent followers. African Americans have never been major beneficiaries of America’s largess, not even under President Obama, nor have the millions of Latino immigrants who toil in the underbelly of the American agricultural and service economy. Trump will not “make America great again”, but will make it hate again with impunity. He will not bring back factory jobs that assured high school educated white men middle-class lifestyles. He will not restore their racist supremacy and deformed masculinities in a world so transformed by civil rights, feminist and gay rights struggles and victories in popular culture and imagination. Indeed these struggles will be given a new lease of life by the antediluvian values, attitudes and policies of the Trump coalition in the White House, Congress and the judiciary.

For the world at large, Trump’s looming presidency elicits different fears, perspectives and expectations. There are fears that post-war internationalism will be appended by isolationism as the United States, its champion, wallows in rabid white nationalism in a world where the ‘colored nations’ are on an inexorable rise. International trade agreements, the structural face of neoliberal globalization, are under threat from a potentially protectionist administration. The recent global compact on climate change, upon which the very future of humanity and our fragile little planet rests, will face renewed obstacles from one of the world’s greatest polluters. Some predict apocalypse that the Trump presidency will lead to the demise of the West as we have known it. Some even doubt the future of the NATO alliance under President Trump with his “America First” doctrine.

Rightwing populist forces will be emboldened, especially in European democracies already rocked by Brexit. Dictatorships will cheer the triumph of Trump, the admirer of dictators and an aspiring autocrat. Putin’s Russia that has done its best to influence the US elections through cyber destabilization will be especially enchanted. The shambolic and invective-ridden US elections have been godsend to Chinese propagandists about the bankruptcy of American democracy and superiority of the Chinese system.

The same sentiments will find expression in African and other democracies and dictatorships around the world. The structural and ideological underpinnings of US-Africa policy will not change much from the swings of the humanitarian and security paradigms that have been dominant over the past half-century. However, the developmental and democratic inflections that sanitized these policies in the last three Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations are likely to lose their currency.

Overall, the loss of the US democratic model may be a good thing for democrats and democracies in other parts of the world especially in the global South including Africa. The Trump conjuncture detoxifies democratic theory and governance from the intertwined tyrannies of American universalism and exceptionalism. It demonstrates the hollowness that there exist ‘mature’ democracies that African countries should import as turnkey projects. It opens up space for serious and creative construction of African modes and modalities of inclusive, integrated, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. With Trump’s election, everyone now knows if they didn’t before, that the American democratic emperor has no clothes. Let’s proceed to make our own democratic clothes befitting our histories, struggles and desired futures.

On a more personal note, I found the election of Trump shocking but not entirely surprising. Shocking because like many people I believed the polls. Unsurprising because having lived in the US for two decades I came to realize how deeply racism, sexism, and xenophobia are entrenched in American society and imaginary. That is why I was so relieved to relocate to Kenya when I was fortunate enough to get a university leadership position where I could do my job and live without the debilitating psychic costs of always defending my humanity and professionalism as a black person. But when I lived in the United States, whose citizenship I carry, I also came to value, and will always do, the traditions of struggles for a more inclusive union by the marginalized minorities and women. These struggles are likely to be rekindled and reenergized by the retrogressive and historically renegade Trump presidency.

History is indeed a house of many mansions, where tragedies open new avenues of struggle and possibility. The Trump presidency won’t be an exception.