Africa is a Country

My favorite images: Magee McIlvaine

My photographic work is and always has been deeply personal to me. The majority of my childhood was spent in Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I grew to be comfortable with being marked as different, whether in Lusaka or in Washington D.C., and found hip hop as a point of common ground, as a way to connect beyond language and location.

The “Comunidad” photo exhibit explores more than ten years of work within the global hip hop community. An exploration of friendship, collaboration, identity, migration and diaspora, these photographs represent a small visual record of Nomadic Wax, and of hip hop’s influence around the world. Each person photographed is a close friend and collaborator, someone that I’ve known and worked with for years, whom I admire and respect, people whose family I care about. And the variety of locations and settings represent that. Many of the photos were taken when crashing at each other’s homes, after exhausting video shoots, or on the road; experiences that have woven together a close-knit community around the world, the very crux of what Nomadic Wax, originally a record label, is all about: create, support, and collaborate as friends.

As a result, my photos are less about photography and more about deep and longstanding friendships. They are about the memories and experiences that I am reminded of when I see these faces. They are about a diverse and vibrant group of artists. People who embrace geographic, cultural and linguistic differences, and have forged ahead to create a beautiful community and beautiful art together.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

Bocafloja is one of Mexico’s most influential hip hop artists, progressive thinkers and creative minds. We met at the very first Trinity College International Hip Hop Festival way back in 2006, and have been friends and collaborators ever since. His generosity is unconditional and his ability to make and share space, whether in his home or on stage, is remarkable. This photo was taken during the music video shoot for Memoria that my wife and I did together with Bocafloja in NYC in 2012. Shot in-between Harlem and the Bronx, this photo represents the memories and shared experiences that build community.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

Emile YX?, is founding member of the legendary Cape Flats hip hop crew Black Noise (Cape Town, SA). In a lot of ways, he is the godfather of South African breakdance culture, and his influence has been felt across the continent. We’ve coordinated numerous exchanges both in DC and in SA, shot multiple music videos together, and he introduced me to Gatsby sandwiches and Bunny Chow. His work in the Cape Flats community through his organization Heal the Hood is nothing short of extraordinary. He’s a father, a mentor, a teacher, a b-boy through and through, and I’m honored to be his friend. This photo was taken in 2010 during the SA2DC exchange/mini-tour.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

Kokayi. What can I say? One of my favorite emcees, period. One of my favorite producers, period. One of my favorite singers, period. My personal allegiance/bias to DC artists aside, I am a huge fan of his artistry, and appreciative of the fact that he’s been supportive of Nomadic Wax from day one. Whether it’s facilitating global exchanges or hosting emcees from abroad, Kokayi is down to break bread, jump in a cypher and educate. He’s a wild character, a father, a husband, a great friend; he’s family. And if you are passionate for the true craft of freestyle, then he is someone you need to know about. The photo was taken in DC in 2016 when he asked me to hook him up with some new press and promo photos. We always collaborate like this, with a mutual appreciation of each other’s’ craft. This location is one of my favorite ‘secret’ DC locations. It’s a beautiful red brick wall in an alley behind a house I lived in for seven years in northeast DC. Whenever I track back through old material, I can find many different photo and video shoots that I did in that alley. I always come back to it.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

This is one of my favorite photos. Keyti is an OG of Senegalese hip hop. His first group Rap’Adio were pioneers that broke down a number of cultural barriers and helped popularize rapping in Wolof, as opposed to the colonial language of French. We met in 2007 while filming the Democracy in Dakar documentary, though he had been close to Ben and Nomadic Wax since our first project: African Underground Volume 1. Keyti steered our team through the complexities of Senegalese politics and its relationship to hip hop. We’ve been friends for 10 years now, and his spirit and passion continue to inspire me. Plus, there’s the genius project Journal Rappé that he and another OG Senegalese emcee named Xuman started. Trust me, if you haven’t heard of the project, look it up on Youtube. The photo was taken in Marché Sandaga in downtown Dakar back in 2010. We had just filmed an accapella video in the middle of one of the city’s busiest corners. We were packing up the gear and about to head out when I snapped this photo.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

Comrade Fatso is a pioneer of the remarkable and unique spoken word poetry scene in Zimbabwe. I learned about him and this scene in the mid-2000s, during some of the worst times politically and economically in Zimbabwe. I was stunned to hear about this scene, revolving around the incredible Book Cafe in Harare, that somehow existed under Mugabe and full economic collapse. As I learned more, I realized that this was a very politically savvy community of artists. Often times using satire and humor, they were at the cutting edge of underground political activism in Zimbabwe. That cheeky sense of humor is spelled out in Fatso’s name. In 2009, we organized the first US tour for Fatso and Outspoken, two of the top artists of that scene at the time. We drove across the east coast in my Honda Odyssey and the entire band stayed with my parents in Maryland. In 2011, I had the opportunity to go to Zimbabwe and see them in action in their hometown, and to make my own personal pilgrimage to the Book Cafe. Harare remains one of my favorite cities in the world today, and the hip hop and poetry scene in Zimbabwe is perhaps my favorite in the world. Fatso and the organization he cofounded called Magamba has since put on one of the best annual hip hop festivals on the continent: Shoko Festival. We took this photo in an abandoned train yard outside of Harare, as we were shooting a music video for the song “Korokoza” (“Hustle”). Shortly after this photo was taken, we were rounded up by local police; detained and released after several hours with cameras still in hand.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

Nomadic Wax coordinated Poetic Pilgrimage’s first US tour in 2009. Once again, we traversed the east coast in my old minivan; a recurring theme we all look back on fondly. These two women are brilliant, creative, and effervescent. We have been friends ever since, with different visits both in the UK and in the US. When my wife Stacey went to grad school in England, we stayed with Sukina and her husband (the emcee Mohammed Yahya), and Muneera visited Stacey in Brighton. They are all family members. The photo is of Muneera and Sukina on my parents’ ATV in PG County, MD. Having a ball. Taken in 2009.

Image credit Magee McIlvaine

In 2010, I travelled to Port Au Prince with Montreal-based supergroup Nomadic Massive. They were conducting a series of workshops with youth in the neighborhood of Carrefour-Feuilles, and I was there to document it. This was less than a year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, so it was an especially personal and emotional trip. A number of the members of Nomadic Massive are Haitian and for many, it was the first time they had been back since the Earthquake. Despite the physical and emotional devastation of Carrefour-Feuilles, the workshops abounded with energy and excitement. As part of the project, the 45 workshop participants wrote and recorded an anthem. This photo was taken during the marathon recording session. The line of kids from the workshop stretched out from the recording booth, through the waiting area, into a courtyard, out through the front door, and onto the street. In the photo, you can see Butta Beats and Waahli troubleshooting cable issues with the computer. Nomadic Massive is my favorite hip hop group on the planet. They embody the essence of international hip hop completely. Each member speaks and raps in multiple languages. They are firmly rooted in the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic intersection of all the crisscrossing migration paths that come through Montreal. We’ve travelled the world together. They’ve done farm chores with my parents, we’ve toured and crashed together, and they were the sounds of my wedding in 2016.

* The “Comunidad” photo exhibit runs through September 29, 2017 at ReCreative Spaces: 3501 Perry Street, Mount Rainier, MD 20712. 

Why is Liberia’s Government rushing to sell its public schools to U.S. for-profits?

When Liberia’s Minister of Education, George Werner, announced last spring that he was inviting foreign education companies and non-profits to run our public schools, our country came under the international spotlight, both in Western media and for education activists.

The Minister and the supporters of the government’s plan excitedly championed the notion that clever thinking and technology could turn around our troubled school system. However, the broader education community warned that the consequences of turning an impoverished country’s school system into an “experiment” would be grave, and could lead to lasting damage to Liberia’s ability to run its own public services and provide free education.

Quickly, Liberia was turned into a battlefield between those who see for-profit “charter” schools as the solution to the problems that plague public education across the world, and those of us who point to underinvestment and poor management as the true culprits.

At first, Minister Werner wanted to outsource all of our public schools to one company – US-based Bridge International Academies, which has come under sustained criticism in Kenya and Uganda for operating substandard schools and flouting government oversight.

Pushback against this plan – which violated our national anti-corruption laws – resulted in the government inviting other companies and providers to take place in what was described as a pilot, which was to be judged independently at the end of the first year.

In all, 93 schools were taken over by foreign providers, with Bridge remaining the largest beneficiary of the pilot, managing 25 of our schools.

Now, the first year has concluded. But instead of waiting for the results of the Randomized Control Trial presently being conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Global Development, the Liberian government is pressing forward with another expansion.

In fall 2017, we are told, an additional 107 public schools will be incorporated into the pilot. Contrary to assurance by the minister that there would not be any significant scale-up in the absence of evidence, that represents more than doubling the so-called pilot.

As the national representative body of Liberia’s teachers, we don’t agree that student test scores alone should be used to decide whether to dismantle our public education system. But the fact that the Liberian government is planning to expand the pilot before it receives the results of a study it commissioned is a clear sign that it is not interested in thoughtfully weighing the consequences and impact of its radical plans.

In fact, while high-profile delegations of celebrity visitors and expensive symposiums have been used to trumpet the “successful” outsourcing of our schools, the story on the ground is much more concerning, and does not align with the rosy picture being painted by the Liberian government, Bridge, and other providers.

Investigative reporting has shown evidence that parents in some towns where outsourced schools are located are furious that their children were left without access to education due to limits on class sizes in pilot schools, which were hastily implemented without a plan to assist students who were left out.

Parents were also promised that extended school hours would be supported by the implementation of school lunch programs that have failed to materialize, leading to large numbers of dropouts in some schools.

These and other harmful impacts of the pilot are easy to find. One simply needs to go to the towns where the schools are located and speak with parents and teachers. Any objective observer will almost certainly discover that there are serious problems that must be addressed before an expansion is even considered.

But far from being serious about methodically and responsibly measuring the effects of the pilot, our Ministry of Education seems determined to increase its scope.

In recent weeks, our global federation, Education International, was informed by the Ministry that a team of American academic researchers hired to provide a critical analysis of the pilot would not be allowed access to any of the schools or the administrators who supervise them. This begs the question: what do they have to hide?

Simultaneously, senior leaders of our teachers’ union have been fired by the government for speaking out against the pilot, and teachers working for Bridge have been told there would be consequences if they spoke to their union representatives or journalists about their concerns. Our union has come under attack not just by the government, but also by those who see us as an impediment to the effort to bring our school system under outside management and control.

Ultimately the key question is this: why is our own government so incapable of managing this critical public service that it must give the keys to our children’s future over to foreign companies and charities who often seem to have little to no understanding of our country and culture?

As teachers, we have a profound interest in seeing a well-financed, responsibly managed, modern school system that grants all of our students the best chance to succeed in difficult circumstances. But we believe this is best achieved through robust public investment, better administrative management, and stronger accountability for teachers as well as the ministry officials that supervise them.

The government’s reluctance to honestly assess the effects of the first year of this radical initiative should give pause to anyone who thinks that it represents the best hope for Liberian children.

What’s missing from feminist readings of Nollywood romantic comedy ‘Isoken’

Still from ‘Isoken’

You are bound to be inundated by all manner of readings of Isoken, Jadesola Osiberu’s new Nollywood rom-com, the majority of them feminist. Those readings will recapitulate society’s pressure on single women. They will critique the near-universal acceptance in Africa of marriage as the crowning achievement of a woman. They will point out subtle and blatant patriarchies. They might miss the inexplicable, self-inflicted assumption of an image based on what a gaggle of women approximates to be a man’s desire. (Some extra-feminist readings will rightly concentrate on the interpretation of the contrast between Osaze and Kevin’s cultural relationships with Africa.) These (feminist) readings will be vital of course, but here’s something outside the sometimes cloying box.

In 1962, J.P. Clark, then a journalist, was tapped to Princeton University’s year-long Parvin Program, one of those weapons of elite instruction deployed in and on Africa to counteract Soviet ideological influence. Things didn’t go as planned. Clark would prove a difficult customer to brainwash, and nine months in he was expelled from the program, and subsequently departed from the United States.

In 1964, Clark exacted his revenge. America, Their America, his travelogue and memoir of the fiasco, was published (the book was re-issued in the run-up to the 2016 elections in the United States). With it, J.P. Clark would unwittingly take part in one of the stranger postcolonial phenomena of the 20th century.

One of the hallmarks of imperialism in Africa has been its arrogation to itself of the ability, through literature, to define a people and their location through reported observation enabled by travel. In America, Their America, it is Clark who erects this imperial observatory on foreign soil. Where the usual postcolonial program was defensive against sly and blatant imprecations of the subjectivity of Africa and Africans, Clark went on the offensive. Thus, the United States and what it meant to be American became “other”, were defined through Clark’s sensibilities. The imperial gaze had been inverted. Postcolonialism had itself become imperialism.

But stranger things were yet to come.

In 1984, Professor Robert M. Wren, once of University of Lagos’s Department of English, would publish J.P. Clark, a book-length study of Clark’s oeuvre. Wren was interested in Clark’s plays and poems, but to get at the poems in America, Their America, their provenance had to first be accounted for. Wren, mind you, was white, American and a Princeton alum. What followed was a “postcolonial” critique of Clark’s imperialistic portrayal of America, a critique as indignant as any of Achebe’s trenchant critiques of colonial literature. Imagine that: Clark as center and America as the margins that, through Wren, wrote back.

Just this kind of strange upending of categories is what Isoken participates in.

Still from ‘Isoken’

In her 34th year, the successful, eponymous center of the movie finally – somehow – finds a man who is worthy of her attentions. That man is Osaze (played by the squint-eyed Joshua Benjamin), a suave returnee Afropolitan born of good Bini stock who has recently raised US$3million for his business.

It’s classic. One man’s sustained attention begets another. Where were they before now? is probably a question many women (and men) have been forced to ask the heavens. Isoken Osayande, played by the slinky Dakore Akande, runs into Kevin (Marc Rhys) – a wise-cracking English photojournalist with the Associated Press who will not smell US$3million in three life times – in farcical circumstances. (Is a lot of money the new white skin?)

Things develop – or degenerate. Isoken eventually acknowledges that she finds Osaze enervating and Kevin energizing. To proceed as the world wants is to die. Cue bedlam.

Nothing has exactly been out of place so far. But at the meeting called to resolve – or at least make sense of – the bedlam, Isoken is forced to reveal the centrality of Kevin to the state of things. What – another man? No, not just another man. An English one. The one true love of her life. A white Englishman.

There’s shock. Played by the preternaturally beautiful, ever theatrical Tina Mba Isoken’s mother Yesoken’s reaction is particularly telling. It’s an unusual reaction, the sort of alarm a mother might emote upon finding out she’s been housing a collaborator with the invading Brits in Overanmen’s Benin. Or the sort of reaction a white Alabama woman marrying a black man might have elicited in 20th century (who am I kidding?) US of A.

Still from ‘Isoken’

A lot has happened since Overanmen was king. By design, Africa has largely been centripetal, a votive vortex to a grasping, overbearing West, blackness to whiteness, barring some occasional tokenisms – like independence.

In a place where whiteness is what is usually culturally aspired to, it feels very gratifying that Isokenlike America, Their America, has marginalized whiteness, has once again made whiteness the subversive choice, something that instinctively arouses startling shock, not drooling, starry-eyed admiration. Yesoken’s instinctive reaction in particular made Kevin something like that black man, and the choice something like his marriage to the white Alabama woman, a subversion of the reified status we often ascribe to whiteness.

The film is a rom-com and the moment soon dissipates, but with Isoken, we are back to basics. For a tiny little bit.

Jonathan Jansen’s lopsided view of #FeesMustFall

Students at UWC during #FeesMustFall protests. Image Credit Barry Christianson.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa likes to project himself as someone who does not like beating about the bush. He often uses his prominent media profile to make strong statements about the state of education in the country. The decisions he made during his tenure as vice-chancellor were controversial at times. His withdrawal of charges against the “Reitz Four” – racist students who humiliated five black workers – shortly after Jansen’s appointment there in 2009 in particular received a great deal of criticism.

During his inaugural speech, Jansen argued that punishing individual racists would not solve systematic racism, and he even went as far as apologizing on behalf of the University for the students’ horrific actions. This argument resonated with the one put forward at more length in an earlier book, Knowledge in the Blood: namely that accountability for racism or the humiliating initiation rituals at historically Afrikaans universities should not be shifted onto individual students, but that instead its historical and structural roots should be examined.

Surprisingly, Jansen was much less forgiving of students of the #FeesMustFall movement during the 2015 and 2016 protests. Jansen was quite outspoken in his condemnation of the movement on social media platforms. In this new book, Jansen elaborates on his criticism of #FeesMustFall, and in line with his previous work, he doesn’t see the protests as originating from individuals or individual groups (although he does map the fragmentation of the movement as an overarching national protest in 2015, to a more campus-bound one in 2016). Instead, he sees the uprising as stemming from greater societal issues: an unwelcoming institutional culture; structural inequality; a lack of preparation for tertiary education in primary and secondary education systems; disillusionment with government’s moral bankruptcy; corruption; and declining support to universities.

As indicated by the book’s subtitle, however, Jansen does not view the student protests as a positive response to these varied and immense challenges; he believes the movement has sparked a cycle of disruption and destruction that could mean the end of public universities.

Jansen’s framing of the student protests as violent conflicts (instead, perhaps, as a difficult but important contestation about fundamental constitutional rights), is clearly illustrated by the presentation of the book: a type of war report, dispatches from the trenches, from the viewpoint of the generals of one side of the battle – the vice-chancellors affected by the protests. Jansen interviewed the university leaders to get an insider’s view of how their distinct institutions were affected by the protests, but also – and this is the most intimate part of the book – how the vice-chancellors personally reacted to the stresses and danger of the protest actions, how their lives and the lives of their families were affected and how they managed that impact. These interviews are revealing, and highlight the effects of the tension around the fragile situation and personal attacks on vice-chancellors, often in a touching way.

Jansen is also critical of the rhetoric around “decolonization” of the curriculum that often lacks intellectual depth and precise definition. He also has it in for the media, both mainstream and social, that often sat in wait for conflicts to erupt on campuses rather than conduct in-depth analyses of the problem.

Another issue Jansen tackles is the “welfarisation” of the South African university: the increasing role that universities play in providing socio-economic backing to students – from psychological support to accommodation or meals – and the expectations this creates among students. Add these expenses to a balance sheet that is increasingly skewed due to declining support from government, pressure on students from rural and poor areas to succeed to embark on a career that could help them support family members, and demands on institutions to decolonize in ways that often amount to racial essentialism, and you have a recipe for a nearly impossible task for universities to remain sustainable and internationally competitive.

The picture Jansen paints is indeed a worrying one – not only because of the tactics the protesters started resorting to, but also precisely because of the depressing underlying range of economic, political and social factors that he outlines. Yet, one can’t help but wonder whether the tone of his criticism, which sometimes borders on contempt or Afro-pessimism, exposes something about his own exhaustion and frustration arising from the position he held.

Regardless of how informed Jansen might be, by only interviewing vice-chancellors and no student leaders or lecturers who are more sympathetic towards the student movement, the book provides a one-sided image of the events. Although Jansen refers anecdotally to his interactions with students, the book’s focus on the experiences of the vice-chancellors privileges the institutional perspective. The principle of audi alteram partem falls by the wayside, and one can but wonder what the book would have offered had a more representative range of interviewees been sought.

What motivates a student to face teargas and armored police to march to Parliament and the Union Buildings? Is it really simply disillusionment and anger that maintained the movement, or is there a hopeful message to find here as well, namely that this generation of young people considers their education important enough, and corrupt governance contemptible enough, for them to put their bodies on the line for those beliefs?

These are the questions which Jansen’s dystopian book unfortunately does not provide the answers to. Although the reader of this book will be provided with an insider’s insight to the institutional side of the conflict, the questions asked by the protesting students require a multi-leveled answer, one that will have to draw on all the knowledge and experiences that scholars and students can provide.

The students have confronted us with a range of political, economic and intellectual questions to be answered – not merely posed a problem that needs to be managed.

* This review first appeared in Rapport, a publication of Media24.

How do you write about a flawed film?

Still from Waithira

“What are the ingredients that make up a life?” wonders filmmaker Eva Munyiri at the beginning of Waithira, a film that, in her words, is “a portrait of family, and a study of migration, assimilation and generational spirit.” Here she patches interviews with family members across various geographies and generations–from Dresden in Germany, to Mutuini in Kenya and North Wales–to reflect on the impact they believe their grandmother Waithira, who the film is named after, has had in shaping all of their lives.

I’m not a sophisticated film watcher, but some of the ingredients that made up my concerns while watching and reviewing this film are how to applaud the important subject, capturing images and creative bricolage that feature in this project made by a vibrant African female filmmaker, while also critiquing some of what I see as its limitations.

A film that is anchored in the portrait of a resilient grandmother, who has raised many generations through great sacrifice and determination is, undoubtedly, much warranted. The tributes to her by all of those who recall her here offer tender insights into this fearless matriarch. At the same time, for the most part, it seems that what is most valued in two of the three members of Waithira’s family interviewed, progeny of more or less the same generation and from whom we compose a portrait of Waithira the senior, is their intelligence, sure, but also their ability and desire to live in northern metropoles far from home in Kenya.

It is wonderful to see all of these beautiful women charting new paths in different places, and whose freedom and possibility are, so we are to believe, an inheritance from a righteous grandmother. At the same time, better linkages between these scenes was required as we have to clutch at many tenuous strings in order to make our own connections (perhaps this was the intention?).

It seems there are very many sub-themes in the film; displacement and exile, non-traditional women, the filmmakers excavations of herself, freedom as inheritance, pasts that are buried deep but that can never fully disappear, family disintegration and even Mau Mau. Unfortunately, they never fully come together in a way that brings all of these memories through one central nervous system. Though some scenes are offered similar staging – such as when all three Waithira’s are doing their nails or traveling by bus in three different spaces – for the most part they remain visually effective but disassociated recollections that leave the viewer grasping.

When the sole male protagonist, her uncle, is interviewed about his experiences during the 1952-1960 state of emergency, he talks about the immoderate beatings, denial of education, the confiscation of family livestock, imprisonment of fathers and other ways this time was registered by a child watching imperial violence unfold in his family. It is not so much the words, but the embodied way that he narrates this period – simultaneously a pain-laden contortion and parsimoniousness – that critically establishes the experiences of Mau Mau and their supporters. We need to hear these stories. Especially since (against the irony of a president like ours named Freedom and the fact that Mau Mau (also known as The Kenya Land and Freedom Army) and their descendants are likely the most over-researched group in Kenyan history but are still landless, the recent monument in their honor seems to signal an imposed foreclosure, (an imperial “dusting shoulders”), to prevent greater discussion into how they have been forced from our past and present.

My concern with these references to Mau Mau, however, is what I perceive as the overwhelming focus on Kikuyu loss during this period. I fear this contributes to the unproductive pile of Kikuyu nationalist kaka responsible for many of the circumstances we are in at the moment. When uncontested statements such as “other tribes were free and they were loyal to the British” are voiced by a protagonist without further elaboration, or the filmmakers narration, from an unnamed source, that “the Kikuyu could easily be described as the most exploited group of Africans in Kenya” proceed unchallenged, I fear it reifies Kikuyu exceptionalism and this, in my opinion, has a range of dangerous implications. Is an uncritical nostalgia to blame for these musings? Should we attribute it to artistic navel gazing? Whatever the motivation, it remains (at least for me, a Kikuyu, most uninterested in Kikuyu nationalism) deeply unsettling.

The first two lines of the film proclaim: “The knots are untied and I go off untethered.” Poetic. Definitely. But maybe if Waithira’s story was presented as a symbol of other grandmothers and women in Kenya and beyond – those who had to encounter the worst of colonial and postcolonial violences through their bodies and spirits – it would have allowed for more texture and breadth. Perhaps if there was more recognition of the middle-class privilege that permits for the worldliness of most of the female characters presented here, it would help us discern many more of the complex layers that assemble women’s experiences across multiple generations.

Ultimately, while we get to see some of the ingredients that make up Waithira’s life, and vivid cinematography of the places where her life and memory have been extended, as a viewer I would have preferred more knots to be tied and a little less untethering.

Sunday Read: For us, Zimbabweans, South Africa is home

Image of Johannesburg’s skyline by Babak Fakhamzadeh. Via

“Zimbabwe” is fodder for all kinds of rhetoric, whether populist or conservative, that now swirls among South African political and economic elites. You just have to declare someone a Zimbabwean or use Zimbabwe as some kind apocalyptic future. It has become a potent political takedown. Take for instance, the allegation by Vytjie Mentor, a former MP of the ruling ANC party, that new finance minister Malusi Gigaba is a “Zimbabwean.” In another case, the discredited general secretary of the powerful South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU) and ANC branch member, Zenzo Mahlangu, faced the same fate. Mahlangu suffered a worst fate: His political enemies made sure he was deported.

Even President Jacob Zuma is measured by how much he is leading South Africa to emulate Zimbabwe. Since coming into office in 2009, his government has careered from one corruption scandal to another. In the latest scandal to grip his administration, Zuma is accused of allowing financial and political dealings between the state, his sons and the shady Gupta family. To some, this is a stark reminder of the rampant patronage politics in neighboring Zimbabwe that contributed in turning the country into a corruption-filled cesspool.

“Zimbabwe” is also a bogeyman. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that, if not addressed with the urgency they deserve, or if left in the hands of opportunistic politicians, morally imperative questions like the struggle for land and its redistribution, can go terribly wrong. Again, some populist outfits, often with undefined agendas, are quick to take “Zimbabwe” as a launch-pad for their incendiary and racially charged rhetoric. For example, Andile Mngxitama of the “Black First Land First” movement delights in posturing as a champion of black people who will “follow Zimbabwe” and take land from whites “by force.”

Yet, when “Zimbabwe” is not used as a synonym for insults, contempt, and scapegoating, we, from the lands north of the Limpopo river, have always braved the bone-jolting tracks of the savanna to Johannesburg, Durban, Kimberly, and Cape Town to leave marks that are not easy to ignore on the social and political landscapes of those places. We have pursued education, sport, religion, and various forms of activism – in short, we have actively engaged ourselves in all markers of civic life. For us, South Africa is just across the river. We consider ourselves an indispensable and integral part of its national life, because it is our home.

Clement Kadalie, the godfather of black trade unionism in South Africa, born in Malawi, honed his skills in Zimbabwe and arrived in Cape Town an accomplished proletarian. The celebrated ANC stalwart, and first black African Nobel laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, gazed at the sun for the first time in Bulawayo. In song, poetry, stories, and other genres of popular culture, we leave indelible spoors. Men and women, black and white, from Johannesburg to New York, were dazzled by August Musarugwa’s saxophone as he churned out hits like “Skokiaan” (or when it was covered by musicians like Louis Armstrong – Ed.). Dorothy Masuka’s perfect vocals took her from singing in the eating-houses of Bulawayo to being one of the most formidable anti-Apartheid voices. Born to a Zimbabwean father, Dj Oskido’s influence in the emergence of the popular “kwaito” music genre can’t be overlooked. The same can be said about Anesu “Appleseed” Mupemhi, who made his name as a chanter in the kwaito trio Bongo-Muffin. These artists built a religious following among music- loving southern Africans during careers spanning more than two decades. Others wedged themselves into television and film studios. Alyce Chavhunduka, Peter Ndoro, Leeroy Gopal, Simba Mhere, Tendai Chirisa and Luthuli Dhlamini are easily remembered and much-loved faces of South Africa’s prime-time television.

The raw physical strength of Tendai Mtawarira made him a household name in South African rugby. Popularly known as “Beast”, Mtawarira will be remembered for as one of the few black players to honourably don the green and gold colors of the South African national team, in a sport that is notoriously allergic to racial transformation. From the mid-1990s, Zimbabwean-born football players also captured the imagination of sport-crazed South Africans. We can count on the list, Ian Gorowa, Wilfred and William Mugeyi, Cleopas Dlodlo, Robson Mtshitshwa, Alois Bunjira, Adam Ndlovu, Benjamin Mwaruwaru, Tinashe Nengomasha, Khama Billiart and Knowledge Musona, among others.

Many of us, however, never made it onto the front pages of newspapers and magazines. “Shosholoza, Shosholoza kulezo ntaba” (“go forward to those mountains”) sang our migrant workers, in awe of the train that that took them through the forbidding mountains and across the Limpopo River, to labor on the mines of Johannesburg. We crossed, and continue to do so, the crocodile-infested river and the unpredictable Kruger National Park. We brave the guma-guma highway men who patrol the bushes of Musina, the unceasing road accidents, the pesky police and boarder officials. We sustain transnational households on both sides of the river, ignoring those geopolitical lines scribbled in Berlin of 1884. Even when vulnerability mars our movements, we calculate all that before crossing to either side of the river. We turn the tragic into the jocular. It is home after all.

“Xenophobic pogroms” must be a “rude reminder” that one had to visit the other side, someone once joked, and the gumbakumba deportation trucks from South African police are the “free transport”. Clamp downing down on us in Hillbrow, under the pretext of “managing immigration” just  sends us under the radar. We render ourselves invisible or present fake chidhuura documents. For us, that Berlin line is “fake” and deserves “fake” legitimation.

We won’t quit, because for us, Zimbabweans, South Africa is home. We’ll jump that apartheid era fence, with or without the dompas.

Biafra as memoir

In 2005, a former diplomat from the Republic of Biafra named Godwin Alaoma Onyegbula reflected in his memoir on what being Nigerian meant to him: “I was born in this country, over seventy years ago, and know no other country better than I know Nigeria. I have lived through colonial Nigeria, independent Nigeria, Biafran Nigeria, and present Nigeria.” Onyegbula continued, “We think we have lived through [this], [as] one country, but experience suggests otherwise. It is becoming more difficult to find an ‘authentic’ Nigerian; that is, someone whose ‘Nigerianess’ is obvious, and clearly distinguishable, to himself and others.”

In the last 50 years, hundreds of people like Onyegbula who supported Biafra or fought against it have written their memoirs, ranging from small hand-printed pamphlets to thick, heavily-footnoted volumes. In various ways, all address what it means to be Nigerian in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. In the long period of military rule that followed the end of the war, closed archives and an officially enforced silence meant that few historians openly reckoned with Biafra’s legacy.

Fiction was one site where Nigeria worked through the meanings of the war, especially in the work of well-known novelists, such as Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Cyprian Ekwensi. Today the younger fiction writers, Chinelo Okparanta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta are helping to bring debates about the war back into public discussion.

But by volume, the most significant body of writing on Biafra is neither history nor fiction, but memoir. A vast number of memoirs on Biafra circulate in Nigeria, and only a fraction of them are available outside of the country. The topics they address vary, from fiery political screeds on the causes and consequences of the war to intimate recollections of suffering and loss. Many, though not all, are written by people who supported the Biafran side. Some blend genres, mixing rumor with recollection, and a few take liberties with the war’s plot. As Onyegbula candidly warned in his own memoirs, “biography becomes boring when entirely true.”

Virtually every important military figure on both sides wrote accounts of their lives (some, like Olusegun Obasanjo, wrote more than one). A fair number of these were ghostwritten or “as told to” someone else; penning memoirs for prominent people has become a cottage industry for Nigerian historians and journalists. The recollections of well-known figures in the war – government officials, officers, scientists and intellectuals among them – are widely read and discussed in Nigeria today. Some are hawked in bus stations and taxi ranks, alongside self-help books and prayer manuals. The contents of one unpublished autobiography by Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a 1966 coup-plotter turned Biafran officer, generates enormous speculation about the conspiracies leading up to the war.

But what is most remarkable about Biafra’s autobiographical literature is the number of ordinary people who wrote their memoirs. Most are privately published in tiny editions, intended for personal distribution rather than sale. They contain greater moral shading than most writings on the war – far more than the records of international humanitarian organizations and foreign governments, which are quickly becoming the go-to source for historians of Biafra. Their authors include market women, rank-and-file soldiers, farmers, bureaucrats and teachers. Deserters and small-time war profiteers wrote them too, suggesting that there is more than self-aggrandizement to the war stories that ex-Biafrans tell. Their anger is often tempered with regret, and few are tales of unmitigated bravery or heroism. As a Biafran private named Thomas Enunwe recalled of his time in uniform, “going to fight in the battle field was like going to be tied up for the firing squad.”

Enunwe and others like him wrote to instruct future generations, to stake claims (political and otherwise), and to set the record straight about their actions during the war. They argue sharply with one another, and with the versions of events that both the Nigerian government and new Biafran movements like the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) would prefer to tell. As Biafra comes back into the headlines, it is worthwhile to look at how those who experienced the war accounted for themselves in its aftermath. Both sides of the debate will likely be surprised by what they find there.

South Africa’s Very Own David Brooks

Jonathan Jansen. Image by Penn State University, via

Jonathan Jansen’s celebrity has always struck me as a bit of a throwback in contemporary South Africa, a final remnant of the preemptive post-racialism of the 1990s. To be fair, it was no mean feat for a black man to waltz into the University of the Free State, one of the country’s most notorious bastions of troglodyte racism and set about wanting to transform it into a symbol of reconciliation, let alone a majority black university. The previous vice chancellor (the equivalent of a university president in an American context)  resigned after four white students filmed themselves forcing five black workers to eat food upon which the boys had just pissed, and Jansen took over. As the story goes, he forgave the students (without, I should add, getting the workers’ consent to do so) and invited them to return after they’d apologized. They didn’t, and they never returned. Jansen then used the incident to launch a program of reconciliation on campus.

Yet what’s so odd about Jansen’s brand of post-racialism isn’t his emphasis on reconciliation. Save for actual racists, no one’s against reconciliation where such a thing is possible. But that’s the key phrase: where such a thing is possible. I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

Jansen recently released a book on the ongoing student struggles across South Africa, but from the perspective of the administration. For As by Fire: The End of the South African University (reviewed here), he interviewed eleven vice chancellors  across South Africa. As he opened his talk on Wednesday, he told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

He then took a step back: actually, Booysen’s volume doesn’t speak on behalf of all students — just protesters. And it leaves out a second major constituency: these students’ parents and alumni, who have a stake in the image of the university. This was huge for Jansen, who repeatedly returned to his alma mater — Stanford University — as a point of comparison. (Jansen, who grew up in Cape Town, did his undergraduate degree at the University of the Western Cape; he subsequently obtained a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford). He told us that other than Harvard, no school in the U.S. has as much money as this private university, and that it was constantly constructing new buildings, not to mention investing in Silicon Valley. Of all the signs of academic success, he picked a construction boom and investment in the private sector? And of course all of this was beside the point. Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?

Jansen during the book launch at the Book Lounge. Image by the author.

But Jansen was obsessed with the American comparison. He complained that South African newspapers are kak, but in the US, they have The New York Times. He asked if anyone had read David Brooks’ column yesterday. It was, he insisted, better than anything ever published in a South African paper. I snorted a little, assuming he was joking, but then I realized: Jonathan Jansen is totally the South African David Brooks. The column he was citing was about how what appear to be class divisions in education aren’t really about structural barriers at all, but about culture. (Brooks went on about how his friend with a high school education couldn’t recognize certain kinds of ham.) And the persistent segregation of South Africa’s public education system isn’t about racism, racialism, or racial capitalism, Jansen would echo; it’s about a failure to truly speak to one another!

I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling — but he answered my question before I could finish asking it. We don’t want to quash individualism and turn our higher education system into a factory. Universities should be for cultivating leadership skills among the best and the brightest, and other such snooty platitudes. In other words, South Africa’s last surviving champion of post-racialist reconciliation didn’t seem so intent upon transformation after all.

And race? It didn’t even come up until the Q&A period. Not once. As a proxy though, Jansen did rail against the concept of “decolonization” that characterized South African student struggles in what we might call their third phase. To project my own periodization upon his telling, it all began with #RhodesMustFall. A coherently organized student movement at the University of Cape Town worked not only to topple the Cecil Rhodes statue, but they did so in a way that was immediately intelligible to the (white) middle class public. This was good.

Phase 2 was also good. Until 2015, he explained, the movement was nonviolent, and even better, non-racialist. For this, he insisted, student activists should be applauded. This of course maps onto #FeesMustFall, a student-worker alliance against fee hikes and outsourcing on campuses across the country. Or in other words, this was the moment of united struggle in the name of class.

But then #FMF gave way to a third period — decolonization struggles — in which students turned violent, racist, and misogynistic — all words he specifically attached to this movement. It was obvious that his emphasis was on his perception of these student mobs as racist, by which he seemed to mean that they articulated their demands in terms of race at all. “We’re all subjects of a great colonial plot,” he joked, before launching into a pedantic lecture about the concept of “decolonization.” It comes from three authors, he insisted: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi, and they were all writing in and about the 1960s and 1970s. Context is essential. We’re no longer colonized, nor is South Africa recovering from the immediate aftermath of colonization, and besides, even if it were, all three of those authors wrote in response to French colonial atrocities.

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

When it came to the Q&A, only one person challenged anything Jansen said — a young black man who implied that he’s a student at the University of Cape Town. He asked a pointed question about post-racialism, asking how we can talk about reconciliation and such when segregation persists and has even been augmented in many cases. He asked why we’re trying to discuss strategies for “fixing” public education in a room full of old white people. Why aren’t our parents here? he asked, gesturing to his group of friends. Look out the window! See all of the black parents walking to and from work down Buitenkant Street on the side of the Book Lounge? That’s why they’re not here. How can we discuss this problem as if it’s simply a question of reason, he was suggesting, when material conditions prevent the majority party from even being at the table?

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

No education crisis wasted: On Bridge’s “business model” in Africa

The dream is wonderful: provide a good education to millions of children growing up in poverty. That’s why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the World Bank and the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs are pouring millions into a company that aims to turn that dream into reality. Investigations show, however, that both the children and their teachers get a raw deal.

Shannon May is clearly emotional when she walks onto the stage in early February 2017. The founder and strategist behind the world’s largest chain of kindergarten and primary schools is about to speak to a room full of women. She will talk about education, motherhood and the reasons why she founded her company, Bridge International Academies, with her husband Jay Kimmelman in 2008.

May and Kimmelman are in Nairobi, the city they live in and where Bridge has its headquarters. About 70 percent of the more than 100,000 pupils attending Bridge schools live in Kenya and around 6,000 staff work and live there. It was also the company’s base for expanding into Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.

In her speech, May tells the story of the founding of Bridge: “I was speaking with mothers and with fathers, about their struggles… two things came up across hundreds of conversions I had… the first was health… the other thing was education.”

This made May think about her own childhood: if she hadn’t had good teachers, she would never have been admitted to Harvard and she would probably never have worked at Morgan Stanley. She would certainly never have come up with the idea of ​​setting up Bridge, the “edu-business model” that aims to provide affordable, high-quality education to millions of children from families who have to live on less than US$2 a day. When the couple founded Bridge in 2008, their dream was to emancipate these children.

The exact number of children involved is unclear.  Sometimes her husband talks about 700 million children, at other times it’s around 700 million families.  According to the World Bank, 767 million people worldwide currently live below the poverty line of 1.90 dollars a day. Whatever the exact figures are, they are high and education opportunities fall short of what is needed. There are not enough good state schools and private schools are often too expensive. May and her husband have spotted a gap in the market: education needs to be better than what state schools offer, and provided at only 30 percent of what the state currently spends per student.

May, close to tears, continues her speech in Nairobi: “Bridge is different because it exists for only one reason, it’s so that every child, not just the rich kids, not just the kids in the cities, not just the kids who have mothers and fathers who can look after them and teach them at home but every kid no matter what else is going on in their lives can go to a great school.” She is even more positive in an interview: “We fight for social justice, to create opportunities.”

And for profit. According to her husband, the “global education crisis”  is worth about US$51 billion a year. In 2013, Kimmelman explained in a presentation how, for less than US$5 in tuition fees per pupil per month, Bridge could grow “into a billion-dollar company” and “radically change the world.” Earlier he and May promised that they could do this for US$4 per month per pupil.

Big dreams and even bigger promises. However, my research and research done by others shows:

  • that their quality claims have not been supported by any independent research;
  • that the education provided turns out to be more expensive than promised;
  • that underpaid teachers have to recruit additional pupils;
  • that they have dismissed criticism from non-governmental organizations and trade unions;
  • that critics are silenced;
  • that a PR offensive has been launched in order to continue selling the education services provided.

Furthermore, €1.4 million of Dutch taxpayers’ money has been poured into the company. Dutch support was provided because Lilianne Ploumen of the country’s Labor Party, currently caretaker Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, believes that Bridge uses an “innovative and cost-effective education model, which is able to keep tuition costs per child down.”

How do you improve education, make it cheaper and also make it profitable? May and Kimmelman have come up with an “innovative pedagogical approach.” The possibility of setting up a few thousand standardized schools within a few years is to be the first innovation. The profit made from each school may be low, but once half a million pupils are recruited — the number of enrollments that Bridge needs to break even — business really takes off. The plan is to reach two million pupils by 2018 and 10 million by 2025.

This rapid growth would be made possible by using Bridge’s second innovative method, namely its very own approach to the role of teachers and their salary scale. May believes that “qualities such as kindness” are more important than diplomas and this allows for significant savings. In Kenya, where the starting salary for qualified teachers is around US$116 dollars a month, Bridge teachers usually earn less than US$100 a month. However, as Kimmelman explains in a presentation, teachers can earn bonuses by recruiting new students themselves. Marketing is a core task for both teachers and school principals.

A third innovative aspect, explains May, is the smart use of technology. It works like this: a team of “master teachers” designs digital “master lessons” that are so detailed that all a teacher needs to do is read them from a special Bridge tablet (know as the Nook).

Leaning how to use the Nook is therefore a key component of the crash course that Bridge teachers must complete. Over three to four weeks, they learn how to download new lesson material, how to present it, and how to record daily scores and progress made with the lessons.

This last skill is crucial, says May. It allows Bridge to see “hundreds of thousands of assessment scores” every day and to find out “what works and what doesn’t.” The “extremely robust data” can then be used to “continuously improve the teaching material.”

Setting up schools from scratch, paying teachers and developing and maintaining technology all cost money.

“One of our challenges when we were first pitching Bridge to investors was getting them to… see people living in poverty not just as beneficiaries but as customers,” May explains in a 2015 World Economic Forum video. It must have been a convincing argument because May and Kimmelman have attracted more than US$100 million in support since Bridge was set up in 2008. Supporters range from venture capitalists, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to development agencies such as the World Bank.

My request for information under the Dutch Freedom of Information Act revealed that the Dutch government, too, invested nearly €1.4 million in Bridge between 2015 and 2016 via contributions to the Novastar East Africa Fund. Minister Ploumen says that this “indirect support complements the weak public education systems in these countries.”

Support is not only provided through funding. In 2015, the World Economic Forum named May “One of Fifteen Women Who Changed the World.” That very same year, the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim lauded the Bridge business model as one for the future. And a few months ago, Bridge won the Global Shared Value Award, a prestigious prize awarded to companies that have a social mission.

It has made May and Kimmelman extremely self-confident. We have “definitively proven that it is possible to provide high-quality education […] and in doing so solve an increasingly urgent crisis for families, communities and countries,” May wrote in February of this year. Kimmelman even believes that international research shows that Bridge “students already perform better than others in six months.”

If that would be true, why have they still not reached those millions of pupils? Anton (a former academy manager with Bridge, who did not want his real name published) is familiar with the darker side of Bridge’s “innovative pedagogical approach.” Anton was fired after a year in the post when a quality assurance manager and a regional manager made an unannounced visit to his school and discovered three pupils attending in contravention of school fees policy.

The children were registered with Bridge, but were no longer allowed to attend classes because their parents had fallen behind with the payment of tuition fees. Anton knew that he was supposed to turn pupils away if their parents had not paid. He had already had his salary docked once and was at risk of losing his job if he continued to allow those pupils to attend.

Apparently, the children had returned because their parents were not at home and they didn’t feel safe outside. So, their class teacher had allowed them back into the classroom without getting Anton’s permission. But the visiting quality assurance and regional managers did not agree that this was a good enough reason and Anton was told to clear his desk.

On reflection, Anton says he is relieved that he is no longer working for Bridge. He was under too much pressure to attract new pupils and the “rigid payment system” put him in uncomfortable waters with parents. Every month, about half of the parents couldn’t pay their fees on time, and would get upset with Anton when their children were, again, sent home from school. These tensions made it even more difficult to attract new customers and to persuade existing customers to bring in new ones.

“We promised them heaven” says another former academy manager. John (name changed) says it was the only option, “otherwise, you lost your job.” He worked at Bridge for two and a half years before he handed in his resignation. The low salary and the heavy work load (60 hours a week, according to John) were contributing factors. His pangs of conscience were the deciding factor: he felt that he was “constantly deceiving parents.”

It wasn’t because Bridge had directly instructed him to “only mention the basic price to new customers and avoid mentioning additional costs, such as exam fees and uniforms.” But since his salary was partly calculated on his success rates, he often told half truths.

If parents weren’t happy with the strict payment arrangements and threatened to transfer their children to a school with more flexible system, John would think up an argument in an attempt to keep them, telling them for example “that there would soon be a sponsor for them who would pay the tuition fees on their behalf.”

How representative are these reports from these two former academy managers? Juul (name changed) can tell us more. Juul, a researcher, was part of a team that in early 2016 completed nearly four hundred interviews with Bridge parents (128), pupils (65), teachers (21) and academy managers. The research was carried out on behalf of Education International, an international trade union for teachers, which is not a competitor of Bridge.

The academy managers and teachers who were interviewed expressed the same frustrations as Anton and John. They described the marketing work as annoying, demoralizing and underpaid. The Nook script was considered to be restrictive and almost half of those interviewed said that they did not use the Nook as intended or sent “meaningless data” to the headquarters.

“You hear such sad stories,” said Juul. “Some parents took out loans to pay the tuition fees and were evicted from their homes because they were unable to make payments on time.”

Bridge, however, doesn’t agree with the research. In a statement, the company called the report nonsense. It claims:

  • Bridge internal data shows that 64 percent of Bridge teachers enjoy teaching in Bridge classes;
  • 100 percent of them would like to grow with the company; and
  • 96 percent of teachers appreciate the community engagements responsibilities assigned to them.

According to May, the study is therefore proof of the witch hunt that Education International started against her company. The organization had already published a similarly critical report on Bridge in Uganda. May continues to believe in her dream: “Changing the status quo is inherently a challenge to entrenched interests and existing models.”

But those “entrenched interests” aren’t finished with Bridge yet. Angelo Gavrielatos led the Education International research project. He shows me a short film in which Kenyans from various national educational institutions and former Bridge staff criticize the company’s infrastructure, facilities and teaching materials. For example, a former staff manager says that “people are being misled” with promises about an “excellent lesson package.”

A package, it should be noted, that has never been approved by the Kenyan authorities. A leaked letter from the Ministry of Education reveals that a Kenyan inspection had deemed Bridge’s teaching material “largely irrelevant to Kenyan teaching objectives” and that the teaching methods don’t allow teachers enough room to tend to pupils with special needs.

Education International is not the only organization to criticize Bridge. At the start of 2015, 116 non-governmental organizations sent a letter to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. They stated that there was no evidence at all that Bridge had succeeded in delivering better results than competing state schools and criticized Kim for blindly accepting Bridge’s unverifiable “internal data.”

What’s more, Bridge is by no means as affordable as the company claims. In Kenya, the cost per student is between US$9 and US$13 a month once exam fees, uniforms, books and administration costs are included. The situation is similar in Uganda, the organizations write.

According to Bridge, the organizations’ calculations are entirely wrong. However, when asked, the company does not deny that, in practice, tuition fees are higher than the promised fees of US$4-6. May, meanwhile, continues to insist that Bridge’s prices are reasonable. Because, she writes, by sending their children to Bridge, parents have “determined for themselves that Bridge is affordable” and that they feel that the tuition fees charged by Bridge “are an appropriate rate.”

However, voices within the United Nations have also started to speak out against the Bridge model. When it was announced at the start of March 2016 that Liberia was considering outsourcing its entire primary school system to Bridge, the Special Rapporteur on the right to education stated that “public schools, their teachers, and the concept of education as a public good, are under attack.”

Questions are also being raised by the Ugandan government. Following an inspection, the Ministry of Education found that Bridge schools “showed poor hygiene and sanitation which puts the life and safety of the schoolchildren in danger” and decided that the company had to close 63 schools. May puts this setback down to troublemakers who have “sold lies to the Ugandan government.” Lies that “unfortunately the government has taken seriously.”

It’s Kenya where May’s dream really begins to turn into a nightmare. In August 2016, the Ministry of Education sent the company an ultimatum. Bridge was given 90 days to adapt the curriculum to Kenyan guidelines and ensure that at least half of the teachers had a diploma. If they didn’t meet those requirements, Bridge was at risk of having to close down all of its schools.

But Bridge won’t be beaten. It is trying to silence Kenyan critics, as shown in two leaked letters. One was addressed to the head of the national teachers’ union, the other addressed to the director of a national school association. The first was sent by Bridge’s law firm, the second by Bridge’s in-house lawyer. In both letters, the recipients are threatened with a defamation lawsuit if they continue to speak out against Bridge and portray it as a company that “is only interested in profit.”

Steps have also been taken in Liberia to counter negative reports. Anderson Miamen from the Liberian Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education described the situation to me in an e-mail. When he wanted to interview Bridge teachers at the start of this year as part of an assessment study, he discovered that they had apparently been “warned against speaking to visitors or researchers. Especially not about their welfare or that of the children.”

Bridge has also launched a PR offensive. The company opened a London communications office earlier this year and has advertised several vacancies for PR professionals who should have good contacts with the media in order to “promote and protect” Bridge’s reputation.

Since then “Bridge’s success” has been widely praised on Twitter. For example, “A survey shows that 87 percent of the Bridge parents believe that Bridge teachers are well trained and that their teaching method is the best.” There is no link to the survey, only photos of smiling pupils in Bridge uniforms. The new PR manager, Ben Rudd, did not want to send me the survey either. He did, however, send promotional material that refers to the same internal data and mysterious studies. He also offered to arrange a “high-level quote.

And the data that May earlier described as “robust?” They are up for sale. At least, that’s what a leaked Bridge presentation, meant for investors, from 2016 suggests. In this presentation, Bridge outlined new profit-making opportunities, including the sale of customer information to lenders and insurance companies, and increased profit margins on school lunches and student uniforms.

What has happened to May and Kimmelman’s dream? Opposition from governments, non-governmental organizations and trade unions seems to have slowed down Bridge’s growth considerably. It also looks like the company is not going to reach its planned target of two million pupils by 2018. The company wrote me that it currently has just over 100,000 pupils.

Not all of Bridge’s innovations are bad, of course. Absenteeism among teachers appears to be lower at Bridge schools than at state schools. Juul says that other schools could also take Bridge’s electronic payment methods as an example as a way to tackle corruption.

As for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its investment of €1.4 million, spokesperson Herman van Gelderen informed me by e-mail that compliance with quality standards and affordability are part of “our involvement and dialogue with Bridge. The findings in the article serve as a basis for discussing these issues with Bridge.” The same applies to the teachers’ workload and remuneration.

Van Gelderen points out that the quality of the education provided is better than at state schools. To back up his argument he refers to a national test  in 2015 and 2016 on which Bridge students apparently scored slightly higher than the national average. But even if Bridge performs better than state schools, it still doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the education provided by Bridge. Because — and May also admits this herself in an article — the poorest and, therefore, often weaker students, who bring the average exam scores down, mainly go to state schools. Moreover, Bridge is a private school and can therefore also influence scores by not accepting weaker pupils or by unnecessarily making them repeat a year. In Education International’s report, teachers admit that this kind of selection occurs.

High-quality education cannot simply be provided using a universal script, and meaningful learning outcomes cannot be summed up in self-assessed evaluations. Especially not if they are part of a business model that does not tolerate transparency or independent evaluations, and where profit incentives, branding bluff and promotional spiel are rewarded more than honest, critical reflection.

This is a translation of an article originally published in the Dutch news magazine De Correspondent (contact). Some names have been changed to protect identities. However, true identities have been verified by the editor-in-chief of De Correspondent. The leaked documents have also been reviewed and verified by the editor-in-chief of De Correspondent. This article has been translated from Dutch to English by Johanna McCalmont – translator;  Tina Vonhof – reviser, provided by Translators without Borders.

Somalia, People of Football

Somalia has never qualified for the World Cup. For a long time, whether by lack of organization, money or crippled by civil war (1966-1978 and 1986-1998) they just didn’t enter. More recently the national team had to play “home” matches in Kenya and Ethiopia. Some players have been threatened by Al Shabaab, who, like the Taliban, considers football sinfull. But, as the the President of the Somali Football Association says in the documentary film, Men in the Arena: “Our people are a people of football.”

The film is directed by American J.R. Biersmith. The main characters are two promising, young footballers, Sa’ad Hussein and Saadiq Mohamud. The first lives in Somalia (where he has been attacked and threatened by Al Shabaab), while the second lives as a refugee in Kenya. Fleeing war, they want to make it to the West and play football. The film follows their separate, and often connected, journeys (beginning with their participation in a regional tournament in East Africa) between Somalia, Kenya and the United States, becoming in the process a classic sports film, but also a corrective to one-dimensional portrayals of Somalis and Somalia, as well as political refugees. The film is now available on most on-demand services, including Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Youtube and Hulu [from July 10th]). Here’s the trailer:

Men in the Arena official trailer

We interviewed Biersmith over email.

The film’s title draws on a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909 in Paris. It so happen that he gave the speech after spending one year hunting in Central Africa and given that Roosevelt was also quite conservative in what he thought of Africans or how he related to them, why the title?

Ambassador Fred Ngoga-Gateretese, of the African Union Commission, referenced Roosevelt’s speech when he shared his thoughts about the Somali national team’s performance in the 2013 tournament that opens the film. When you spend the kind of time we did with these guys and fully grasp what each has been through, you quickly realize they don’t care much about critics. They care about their teammates, their families and the Somali fans that come in droves to support them. We thought about Roosevelt’s expedition and the hunt that took north of five hundred animals in the name of science, but we also thought about Mandela who had passed away during the tournament and the story of his giving the ‘Man In The Arena’ passage to the Springbok rugby squad at the 1995 World Cup. The Somali Football Federation lacks the resources, technical training and medical care to compete at this level but it didn’t keep them from showing up and leaving it all on the pitch.

How is your film, say in conversation with Western films and media coverage of Somalia, like “Black Hawk Down” or the many “pirates” films and documentaries?

Sa’ad was born just outside of Mogadishu in April 1993, just six months before the October battle in Mogadishu that became the basis of Mark Bowden’s best selling book and eventually an Oscar winning film. Saadiq was born three years later in 1996, but his mom had fled Mogadishu to join his father in Kenya late in 1993. That single event changed American foreign policy and subsequently changed much of what the West came to know about Somalia. Then Captain Phillips came along, and Barkhad Abdi was nominated for an Oscar. That was a wonderful story but his character played into the single story narrative of fear. We set out to try and broaden that lens and offer up a look at the young people that have called Somalia home since the war broke.

What would you say are generalizable about the experiences of Sa’ad and Saadig?

If you’re born into a failed state I don’t know that anything is generalizable. Each family is doing their best to survive and youth grow up believing the only way to better their lives is to leave the country. Tahrib, trafficking, is all too often the path chosen despite the inherent risks. Sa’ad and Saadiq’s journey is somewhat unique because of their reputations as footballers in Mogadishu. We grew increasingly concerned about their participation in the film and inability to protect themselves given how candid they were – candor that we feared would make them targets.

In the film, the President of the Somali Football Association says Our people are a people of football.” Can you briefly outline the history of football in Somalia?  It’s highs and lows, achievements and prospects?

There is a professional league based in Mogadishu with a rich history that reached peak popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s. The sports archives were destroyed in 2010, so it’s always been a challenge to fully wrap my head around the strength of the league, but through photos and accounts shared by fans and former players we got the sense that Mogadishu stadium was once the place to be. There’s been a number of interruptions and a number of people who have taken advantage of funds allocated by FIFA towards Somalia football but I’ve come to respect the commitment by the federation to keep the league going. Without a league it’s much more difficult to draw the talent required to put a competitive national team on the field.

Watching the film, we get a sense that you went beyond reporting and became involved the lives of both Sa’ad and Saadig. Is that a correct assumption?

We knew going in this would be an extraordinarily complicated endeavor, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how difficult it would be. After the tournament in Nairobi, we knew we wanted to build the film around Sa’ad and Saadiq and that wasn’t going to be easy. I had to dig deeper to fully grasp where their lives were headed and how we could best capture their journey. When you do that, the walls come down, trust develops and truth emerges. It’s that truth that gets tucked away because of the fear of repercussions. I felt it was imperative that I deliver on the trust they placed in me.

When Saadiq came to America, he was 18 and knew nothing about this country or how he was to operate inside it. He needed support, he needed family, he needed time to grow and I along with my sister and brother-in-law realized just how important it was for him to get that support with each month that passed. Then I had to start working to get Sa’ad on safe soil because there’s no way he could stay in Mogadishu sharing what he did in the film. I never dreamed it would be the US, but once we got him in front of UNCHR in Kenya and the US State Department stepped in he was coming to America. The six months it took for him to get vetted was a nightmare. He didn’t speak Kiswahili, corrupt police got to him eight separate times chasing bribe money of which he had none, and he was surviving on food and shelter provided by Saadiq’s friends. When UNCHR called saying he was clear and he needed to make a decision about where to go in America, he said he wanted to be with Saadiq.

What are the current prospects for the Somali football team? Have things improved for the team since the election of Farmaajo as the country’s president earlier this year?

Banadir stadium has undergone extensive renovations and that’s a real source of pride for the federation. They’ve also developed another site with artificial turf so that’s a step in the right direction. Of course a return to Mogadishu stadium is the dream in large part because of what that would signal in terms of peace.

What has happened to the people (both Sa’adSaadiq, their parents and their close friend, Liban, who lives in the US and helped promote their soccer potential) profiled in the film since it was made?

Sa’ad, Saadiq and Liban all feel a constant pressure to get money home to loved ones. Much more so for Saadiq who is still learning how to meet the demands of being a Division 1 student athlete. Sa’ad is working and continuing to chip away at his English at the International Institute in St. Louis. He plays in a pick-up league on the weekends. Liban is in the process of getting his citizenship, which is exciting because now he can go after the cyber security jobs he’s long dreamed about. In the meantime he’s driving for Uber.

What are the prospects for Somalia, in terms of its political future?

Good people and good intentions can get compromised in the political theatre, and that’s certainly the case for a place like Somalia where oligarchs cling to chaos for profit and tribal alliances are given priority. Having said that, Farmajo’s election in February felt like a real moment in the long road back to peace. To see images of people pouring into the streets to celebrate was encouraging, but he has a giant task before him.

We made two trips to DC to screen the film and on both occasions the Somali Embassy in DC was extremely supportive – especially Thabit Abdi, who was recently appointed the Mayor of Mogadishu. When I think about a man like Thabit and a woman like Hadiija Diiriye, the new Minister of Youth & Sport, I’m hopeful for Somalis future. I know we are excited about the prospect of working with both to get the film in front of Somali youth.

Do you think national football teams matter? If so, how does it matter for a place like Somalia?

There are few things more instinctual than finding an object to kick around as a kid and then trying to lure another kid to join to make a game of it. Football is the global game because anyone can play as long as you can form a ball and find some open space. Somali’s love football not only because it’s what they know but because it’s an outlet for fun.

There’s a scene in the film where the Somali national team coach is speaking to all of the players in a team meeting and we thought it was important to include because it’s a window into how coaches are teaching more than just football. They’re preparing these young people to be good teammates and leaders on the field and that translates to actions off the field. The coach was constantly reminding them that the nation was watching and it was important for young people to see how they conducted themselves.

Finally, what has been the reaction to the film, and its international reception, including in Somalia itself? Do people there generally agree with its portrayal of the country and its football?

Storytellers make choices in the editing room that can help shape what an audience can feel inside of a given scene. So the very nature of that process leaves room for critique. It also opens up the opportunity for discussion and inspiration. We did screenings across the country and that was great because we got to engage in thoughtful Q&A’s and witness just how much Sa’ad and Saadiq’s story impacted people.

There’s an old adage that says journalism is first rough draft of history and we took that very seriously especially in light of the destruction of the sports archives in 2010. We approached this film by focusing on the dreams of young people and the backdrop in which those dreams were experienced.

Sa’ad and Saadiq’s  journies are a draft of Somali history. It’s their truth and that can’t be destroyed this time.

Nigerians: Gays, as long as they’re not our gays, are okay.

For a week in April, Richard Quest was in Lagos, Nigeria. I have always been fascinated by him. Quest has a hoarse voice, an odd demeanor and a presentation style that isn’t a common sight on television. He draws you in, even if you are not interested in business. I have been a fan since the first time I saw him delivering the business report on CNN years ago. Until his visit, I did not know that he was gay. The truth is, even if I had known, it wouldn’t have mattered. “Quest Means Business” is a brilliant show – and the sexual identity of its presenter makes not one jot of difference.

I was however, fascinated by the many Nigerians hobnobbing with him.

Quest was at Oshodi, the heart of Lagos mainland. He visited Tejuosho market, the main market on the Island. He spoke with industry experts. He took selfies with cleaners on Lagos roads. He ate jollof rice at a local arts center. He jogged on Lekkoyi Bridge with media entrepreneur, Mo Abudu and interviewed key Nigerian ministers. He was welcomed so warmly that he even took to Twitter to talk about Nigerian “friendliness.”

I would like to see this as a win in the fight against homophobia. It could be interpreted as a huge step forward that Nigerians interacted with an openly gay person without contracting “gayism” – one of my personal favorites in the informal homophobia dictionary. Nigerians breathed the same air as Quest, an openly gay man and no one died.

Sadly, this sudden “friendliness” of a largely homophobic society has raised several questions. Nigerian-born LGBTI activist Bisi Alimi, who lives in United Kingdom, suggests there is more at play. In a Facebook post, Alimi wrote, “Richard Quest is in Nigeria and getting a hero’s welcome. Lest we forget, he is a man living openly as gay, but what we do to our LGBT? Either kill them or imprison them. Shame on you hypocrites!”

Loaded in this are questions: would Nigerians still have welcomed him if they knew he was gay? Would they still have shone their teeth into the cameras for selfies? Quest’s visit to Nigeria perhaps may actually be pointing a finger at the double standards in Nigeria, especially for the LGBT bashers aware of his sexuality.

As many Nigerians who have been open about their homosexuality in Nigeria can attest, once you are out, the doors to opportunity start shutting. Alimi knows this all too well. In 2004, he came out on television show called “New Dawn with Funmi.” That singular act triggered off series of (re)actions. Firstly, it killed his acting career. As if that was not enough, he was physically assaulted on numerous occasions, and victimized to such an extent that he was forced to leave the country. It had a wider effect too: New Dawn was pulled off the air, and viewers were denied the opportunity to explore crucial issues that affect the rights of all Nigerians.

In 2103 Nigeria adopted the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which effectively legalized homophobia. Recently, Romeo Oriogun, a Nigerian poet who identifies as queer won the Brunel International Poetry Prize; he was celebrated by many in the literary community. Yet at home in Nigeria, he experienced a wave of hatred. So it is fascinating that within weeks we have two stark examples of intolerance towards a fellow Nigerian who happens to be gay, and high levels of acceptance and tolerance towards a gay British man. Reports of the effects of the SSMPA leave a bad aftertaste. With increasing mob violence, there are few places LGBT people can go for shelter and legal support.

After his visit, Quest tweeted, “The youth of Nigeria are the country’s secret weapon. I’ve been impressed with the young people I’ve met there.” Quest is right about youths being Nigeria’s secret weapon. It is something many Nigerians know. However every weapon has both the power to protect and the power to harm. Homophobia is on the increase, even among young people. Recently, there were reports of attacks at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Like Alimi, and Kenny Bademosi – the founder of Orange Academy who left in 2015 after coming out – too many young talented Nigerians are getting on the next boat, bus or plane to escape homophobia.

As he filmed “Nigeria at Crossroads,” Quest interviewed the who-is-who in Nigeria. Each of them suggested ways for the country to move forward – pointing out new directions for the economy, for education and health, even the environment. The one issue Quest and his guests did not touch on was human rights. For the LGBT people in Nigeria, navigating these crossroads may not be as easy as Quest made it seem as he meandered the Lagos markets. The truth is, most LGBT people in Nigeria can’t simply walk through our streets as Quest did with their rights protected. Few LGBT people can simply be who they are – as Quest is – and just wander into our hearts. Quest may mean business but the question is, does Nigeria? Countries that mean business keep their citizens’ humanity intact. They certainly don’t ostracize their best and their brightest.

Of gag rules and global partnerships

Secretary Kerry Visits PEPFAR-Supported HIV Clinic in Ethiopia. Image via US Dept of State Flickr.

On his third day in the White House, Donald Trump signed an executive order barring U.S. funding to international organizations that discuss abortion as a family-planning option. Women’s rights and reproductive health advocates immediately pointed to the grave effects that reinstatement of this policy, first introduced by the Reagan administration in 1984, would have in Africa. Several cited a 2011 study that offered evidence that enforcement of the “global gag rule” under the George W. Bush administration had the perverse effect of increasing abortion rates in much of sub-Saharan Africa by reducing women’s access to family planning services and causing some women to substitute abortion for contraception. The Trump-Pence administration delivered to their conservative Christian and pro-life voters by expanding the global gag rule to apply to all U.S. global health assistance, not just funding for family planning. Whereas the U.S. government’s current spending for family planning overseas amounts to approximately $600 million, its pot for global health aid totals more than $8 billion.

Together with the reactionary populism of “America First” that helped bring Trump to power, the expanded gag rule presents a challenge to the future of global health work in Africa and to one of its most touted ideals: partnership. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the vexed history of that work and to reclaim partnership’s progressive political potential.

Over the past fifteen years, global health has emerged as one of the most prominent faces of American influence in Africa. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration paired the expansion of anti-terrorist military operations in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel with the extension of global health work through the establishment of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The U.S. government funding for global health more than quadrupled while a number of private organizations, most notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began devoting significant resources to improving health in sub-Saharan Africa.

Partnership was a keyword that accompanied this dramatic expansion. Global health leaders argued that their efforts differed from previous approaches by rejecting paternalism and advocating for equal, collaborative partnerships between wealthy and poor nations. As some declared in 2009, “The preference for the use of the term global health where international health might previously have been used runs parallel to a shift in philosophy and attitude that emphasizes the mutuality of real partnership, a pooling of experience and knowledge, and a two-way flow between developed and developing countries.” Partnership thus became a programmatic priority and affective ideal that global health practitioners struggled to make a political reality.

The privileging of partnership, like the expanded global gag rule, is importantly rooted in the troubled history of reproductive and sexual health initiatives in the Global South and especially in postcolonial Africa. American involvement in such initiatives dates back to the 1960s when the U.S. Rockefeller Foundation, inspired by neo-Malthusian concerns, sought to foster population control and family planning programs in newly independent African countries. The government soon joined their efforts so that by the mid-1980s such programs were the single largest recipients of U.S. international health funding. These programs, which largely entailed the promotion of modern contraceptives, faced mixed reactions in places like Kenya, the first African country to adopt a population policy in 1967. On the one hand, some women embraced the pill, IUD, and Depro-Provera injections, especially as tools for spacing births. On the other hand, some critics argued that population policies were an affront to pro-natalist African values and a piece of racist, neo-colonial relations.

Partnership emerged, in part, as a keyword for some international health practitioners in the late 1980s as a way to avoid the political critiques that plagued family planning programs while attending to the unfolding HIV/AIDS epidemic in Haiti and East Africa. Through partnership, progressive medical clinicians and researchers sought to signal a deep, shared and ongoing commitment to improving health and a rejection of top-down, short-term models. They also sought to signal a rejection of colonial and neo-colonial approaches that cast poor and black communities as sites of promiscuity and disease. Paul Farmer and his colleagues, working in Haiti, gave the term pride of place in 1987 by naming their organization, Partners In Health. Similarly, a team of researchers from the universities of Nairobi, Manitoba, Antwerp, and Washington used partnership to describe their work treating and studying sexually transmitted infections in Kenya during the early 1990s.

Partnership also took hold in the broader realm of development. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the World Bank used partnership to indicate a softening of structural adjustment policies, and a new appreciation for the need of governments, donors, international financial institutions, and NGOs to collaborate in crafting and implementing development policies. As Danny Hoffmann, Ben Gardner, and Ron Krabill document in their essays for this series, by the new millennium, partnership had traveled even further afield to become a keyword of U.S. military policy in Africa as well as university study abroad programs. Yet, in all these realms where partnership talk has proliferated, inequalities persist. In global health work, these inequalities are most evident in who controls the purse strings and makes programmatic decisions, and who earns comfortable salaries and gains professional credibility.

In the 33 years since the Reagan administration first introduced the global gag rule, the scale of U.S. funding for reproductive and sexual health initiatives in Africa has expanded dramatically. Despite often professing partnership, these initiatives have been structured by power imbalances. Yet, they have also been buffeted by progressive political tides. Across the sub-continent, countless civil society organizations now advocate for diverse forms of gender, sexual and reproductive health rights. Over the past two decades, thirty countries, including some in Africa, have liberalized abortion laws while only a handful have made them more restrictive. Just four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, under the First Amendment, a regulation that barred PEPFAR funding from organizations that advocated for the legalization of sex work. This ruling against the “anti-prostitution pledge” has left the door open for a similar freedom of speech challenge to the expanded global gag rule. Moreover, the Women’s Marches of six months ago in U.S. and other cities worldwide demonstrate a newfound commitment to protest movements that combine opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia with demands for economic, environmental and immigrant justice.

We live in times when talk of partnership abounds while wealth disparities deepen and backward-looking populism breathes new life into bigoted and isolationist elements within national politics. The Trump/Pence administration’s expanded global gag rule is a product of these times but also the culmination of a much longer history of U.S. initiatives abroad regarding reproduction and sexuality. That prior history and our current times are structured by profound imbalances that resonate with colonialism. They are also filled with people who recognize those resonances and, in some cases, seek to forge alternative futures.

* This series of essays emerges from a project based at the University of Washington that explores “partnership” as a programmatic priority and affective ideal in initiatives between the United States and African countries. We consider the politics of partnership in three different realms of US-Africa relations: military training and disaster relief, reproductive health initiatives and study abroad programs.

African military partnerships in the age of the enemy disease

U.S. Army Africa familiarization event on maintenance for Armed Forces of Liberia, Monrovia, Liberia, May, 2010. Image via US Army Africa Flickr.

One of the most disturbing developments in the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the decision, in late summer 2014, to place armed Liberian security forces around Monrovia’s West Point neighborhood. In an effort to contain the disease, the Liberian government deployed an urban warfare tactic against its own citizens. The cordon sanitaire was short lived and tragic: at least one person was killed (Shakie Kamara, shot by officers manning the barricades); trust in the government’s ability to manage the crisis was further eroded; and the action exacerbated the disease’s overall toll on the city.

Just weeks later, President Barack Obama ordered US troops to deploy to West Africa to partner with other agencies in fighting an Ebola outbreak spinning rapidly out of control. Critics decried the use of US forces as first responders, arguing that Operation United Assistance constituted a neo-colonial occupation and represented the securitization of a public health emergency.

But the critical emphasis on large-scale deployments like OUA distracts from careful analysis of a more impacting and worrisome kind of partnership. The fact is that by the time OUA was announced, US armed forces had already had a long partnership with Liberia’s military.  Military-to-military relationships have become the dominant mode of US engagement with the African continent, and these relationships are overwhelming cast as institutional partnerships. (To wit, ten of the twelve areas of security cooperation are described by AFRICOM on its website as partnerships.)

In the Liberia case, that partnership is especially close. The peace agreement that ended the long running conflict in 2003 called for the dissolution of Liberia’s national army and its complete reconstitution under US supervision. The agreement outlined a plan to make the new Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) a multi-talented force that could not only perform traditional defensive operations against external threats, but could more importantly “respond to natural (and other) disasters, assist in the reconstruction of [Liberia] and support and participate in regional and international peace.” The goal was to produce a “force for good” in Liberia, as a 2015 Michigan National Guard report put it.

To that end, the Michigan Guard (the lead US military agency in the Liberia relationship for the past several years) has sent public affairs officers, lawyers, medical teams and engineers along with its combat trainers. Liberia has participated in a range of multi-nation AFRICOM institution building programs, including (ironically), an initiative launched in 2008 to help African militaries plan their response to pandemic disease outbreaks. As is the case with a number of national militaries in Africa, military-to-military partnerships with US troops were intended to bolster African forces’ capacity to be first responders to a wide variety of future crises, including the effects of climate change, resource shortages, poverty, proliferating criminal gangs and political corruption.

Yet, in Liberia, as elsewhere across the continent, this broad human security approach to partnering across militaries has in practice been subsumed by preparing for the “kinetic” demands of counterinsurgency. In a September 2016 interview with African Defense, Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, the head of US Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA) made clear that the non-human challenges facing African partners are simply threat multipliers for the most pressing concern: that “violent extremist organizations” (VEOs) will make use of Africa’s chaos to recruit disaffected youth (especially young men). In other words, the broad human security mandate to which African partner forces are supposedly being supported to respond is, in the end, only of concern to the extent that it enables the more pressing problem of fighting a very human enemy.

This is a worldview in which disease, poverty, corruption and natural disasters are problems primarily because they can be exploited by human enemies. And it is a worldview that continues to prioritize war fighting as the ultimate skill set for both US and partner forces.  As a consequence, the capacity of the AFL to be a “force for good” in addressing broad human security goals has been structurally undermined. Sean McFate, one of three DynCorp contractors hired to design and implement the first AFL restructuring programs, has described the gutting of civil/military relations classes from the earliest days of the program. Non-combat peacekeeper training, for example (the kind of training that might have helped stabilize, rather than aggravate, an urban crisis like Monrovia’s Ebola outbreak), has been a consistently underfunded and under-developed aspect of military re-structuring.

It is a problem exacerbated by the tendency to focus not on training African forces in their entirety, but on elite commandoes. Special forces and anti-terror units have received advanced training in specialties like urban warfighting and counter-insurgency at the expense of training the bulk of African partners in skills such as non-lethal crowd control or disease tracking.

“By helping Africans help themselves,” said Maj. Albert Conley III of USARAF’s Counter Terrorism bureau, “it means that we don’t have to get involved ourselves. If Africans are solving African problems, then the U.S. government doesn’t have to use the U.S. Army to solve African problems.” What exactly solving African problems means is generally left unstated in that oft-repeated slogan. But the West Point cordon sanitaire may well be its inevitable, logical conclusion. African military partners are regularly promoted as “forces for good” whose writ is to deal with all manner of threats. But if in practice military partnerships are designed primarily to combat the spread of terrorist networks, to keep Africa’s perceived chaos in its place, then urban warfare tactics like the armed cordon will be the only response to every problem – human, environmental, or pathogen.

  • This series of essays emerges from a project based at the University of Washington that explores “partnership” as a programmatic priority and affective ideal in initiatives between the United States and African countries. We consider the politics of partnership in three different realms of US-Africa relations: military training and disaster relief, reproductive health initiatives and study abroad programs.

Against the romance of study abroad

Are study abroad programs best understood as a neocolonial activity? In what ways might a typical neocolonial critique, while accurate, cause us to overlook other possibilities of how study abroad does or could operate?

We both teach at the University of Washington (UW), where we lead study abroad programs to Tanzania, South Africa, and Spain. The idea of global partnership is central to every aspect of study abroad programs as practiced at our university and many others. The university partners with faculty to create programs from the course content to the logistics. Faculty are expected to find local partners to facilitate learning experiences that will transform their students. Once abroad, local partners activate their personal and professional networks, as well as give of their time, to facilitate not only the learning of US-based students, but also their safety and comfort. Local partners are often compensated for lectures and sometimes as coordinators, but at rates that reflect salaries in their countries, therefore at a much lower rate than their US-based partners. Partnership becomes an idea invoked often in theory, yet referring to very different types of transactions in practice.

The term global partnership, whether applied to research, business, education or even activism, implies a kind of equality in agency if not in resources. Thus, the frequent mobilization of the term – particularly in connection to the African continent – seeks to convey that the individuals or institutions involved in those partnerships have moved beyond the inequitable relationships of the past: slavery, colonialism, structural adjustment, Cold War military domination and cultural imperialism. According to the discourses of global partnership, our relationships are no longer ones of exploitation or domination – in short, neocolonialism – but rather ones of reciprocity and mutual benefit.

We call bullshit. Global partnership, as the term is currently used, has become so ubiquitous as to be vacated of meaning. Nearly any kind of agreement or relationship, contractual or informal, is now being described as a partnership, regardless of the degrees of reciprocity involved. We recognize that any formal or informal partnership, or any relationship for that matter, will contain varying degrees of reciprocity or mutual benefit at different times, and rarely is any relationship perfectly reciprocal at any moment, or even over the long term. Yet we hold out the ideal that reciprocity and mutual respect should be at the core of any partnership, and that to achieve these goals, one must keep dynamics of power and privilege at the fore. The discourses of global partnership, however, mask dynamics of power relations in the name of equality. They allow individuals and institutions to reinscribe unequal power relations with so-called partners in Africa while deflecting attention away from claims of reciprocity and histories of accountability.

Let us give an example. In the summer of 2016, we co-led a study abroad program called “Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism in Tanzania.” As part of the program, we hired a tour company to provide transportation throughout our time in rural Northern Tanzania. As a result, students and faculty spent many hours in small vehicles with three guides, who worked as drivers, nature guides and cultural interpreters. As is often the case with travelers of all types, the three guides built significant rapport with our students – sharing food, jokes, stories, and swapping nicknames. They became the closest relationships many of our students had with any Tanzanian individuals. After a day of game driving, the group settled into a hotel in northern Serengeti. Students were shocked and appalled to learn that the guides would not be staying or eating with us, as they had been previously, but instead would lodge in the bare-bones quarters reserved for staff of tour companies.

Why was this so upsetting to our students? Was it upsetting to the guides? Or was it a relief for the guides to spend some time “off the clock” and free from having to interact with our group? Was the lack of luxury in the staff quarters something that bothered the guides as much as the students?

What this experience most profoundly did for our students was disrupted the illusion of an easy, uncomplicated friendship or equality – a true partnership – between them and the guides, and made visible privileges in many forms: of travel, mobility, leisure and comfort. The experience also highlighted the very different approaches to the relationship taken between our students and the guides, wherein the students approached the relationship in a spirit of and desire for friendship, knowledge, and access to an “authentic” Tanzanian experience, whereas the guides approached the relationship as work, as part of their chosen profession and business, and as something in which they took pride but had no illusions of equality or simple reciprocity. In short, this experience reminded the students that the guides were doing a job.

Conceptualizing the guides as “doing a job” provides a very different valence to these relationships than “forming a partnership.” This is not to say that the guides did not enjoy their friendships with our group, or for that matter, that the students (and certainly we as faculty members) did not still see ourselves as doing a job. Our argument is not that these roles or experiences are dichotomous and cannot occur simultaneously. What it does point out, though, is the masking of unequal power relations through the claim of global partnership is not an unintended consequence or an unfortunate side effect of the discourse, but rather its point.-

It is relatively easy to critique our group’s western gaze or the students’ narratives of discovery and redemption. But our students’ concepts of study abroad are individual manifestations of the larger institutional fantasy of the joys and benefits of setting off to study abroad. The fact is that US institutions benefit immensely from partnerships that exploit existing unequal relations of knowledge and power. In this way study abroad programs recast global partnerships as a nostalgic form of exploration (our programs at UW are even called Exploration Seminars). When pushed to use their authority and finances in more reciprocal ways, US institutions often revert to a narrative of transforming their own students to one day change the world for the better in some abstracted future, while at the same time using financing models that rely on student fees to pay for direct student costs, actively precluding broader reciprocity.

We cannot expect that US institutions will embrace a more radical project of reciprocity without pressure. If UW and other institutions of higher education really want to build more equitable global partnerships, we suggest treating our partners as co-faculty with appropriate titles and compensation; supporting reciprocal exchanges and opportunities for students from host countries to participate alongside our US students in their home countries; and finally, situating reciprocal study abroad squarely in university efforts to address diversity and equity. This final step would not only address issues of access for US-based students, but begin to engage with the neocolonial power relations that continue to benefit US institutions of higher education, often at the expense of our “global partners.”

This series of essays emerges from a project based at the University of Washington that explores “partnership” as a programmatic priority and affective ideal in initiatives between the United States and African countries. We consider the politics of partnership in three different realms of US-Africa relations: military training and disaster relief, reproductive health initiatives and study abroad programs.

Nationhood not forgotten in struggle for Biafra

Biafran activists protest in London outside the British parliament. Image Credit: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr.

Since the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), by the operatives of the Nigerian Department of State Security (DSS) in October 2015, public protests have intensified, both in Nigeria and its diaspora, calling for the independence of Biafra. The demands include an appeal to the Nigerian government to conduct a referendum on independence. Kanu has since been released from prison (in April this year), but the protests continue: the goal, after all, is the separation of Biafra from Nigeria.

The demand for Biafra and the clampdown on the agitators by the Nigerian government brings the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War back to individual and collective memories. On May 30 2017, a stayaway call by Kanu, dubbed “Stay at home”, paralyzed five southeastern states of Nigeria where Igbos predominate. The day marked 50 years since the declaration of independence of the Republic of Biafra by Xolonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in 1967. The continuing struggle for the sovereignty of Biafra 50 years after only suggests that nationhood is not a forgotten idea among the Igbos.

Four years after that declaration, Ojukwu fled into exile and a new commander-in-chief, General Philip Effiong, surrendered to Nigerian president, General Yakubu Gowon. By then about three million Biafran lives had been lost in the genocidal war. General Gowon declared his “No victor, No vanquished” slogan and announced a three-point agenda of “Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.” The objective was to maintain a united Nigeria.

It can be argued that Gown’s three point plan did little to promote any of the three Rs. Igbo properties in other parts of the country were confiscated or seized in cases of “abandoned properties”;  bank accounts of most Igbo men and women who had declared for Biafra during the war were frozen; and as B.J. Audu states, military officers and men from Eastern Nigeria, who, out of no fault of their own, fought on the Biafra side, found their names either removed from the lists of officers of the Nigerian army, air force and navy or were not entitled to either pension or gratuities.

Nevertheless, the Igbo have come out of this sordid experience stronger. Collectively, they have rebuilt their communities and surpassed other groups in Nigeria in at least four areas: technological innovation, international migration, intellectual prowess and economic prosperity.

Before and during the war, Biafrans locally manufactured most of the weapons and other machineries used against Nigerian forces. They refined petroleum crude locally, built roads, airstrips and bunkers, and repaired vehicles. Igbos emerged as the only manufacturers of cars and other electronic products from Nigeria. As far back as the 1980s, it was common for Nigerians to refer to local technology products as “Ibo made.” Igbos are also known among the wider Nigerian population to be adept at commerce and entrepreneurial pursuit. As Ndubisi Nwafor-Ejelinma notes, more than any other Nigerian group, Igbos own businesses and conduct commercial activities in every part of the country and around the globe.

The war caused the displacement of a great number of Igbos from their ancestral homes to many parts of the world. Post war economics in Nigeria have seen this migration trend continue and remittances from expatriate Igbos are used to rebuild Igbo communities, while contributing to the Nigerian economy as a whole. The Igbo well represented in the faculties of many universities around the world. Many Igbo writers engaged the Nigeria-Biafra war in their works, as way of documenting the tragedy for the future generations and to remind the world of the effect of genocidal war on the human psyche.

For two decades, there has been a sustained agitation for secession of the Biafra by a vanguard dominated by Movement for the Actualization for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and IPOB. Smaller groups like Eastern Peoples Congress (EPC), Biafra Peoples National Council (BPNC), Biafra Liberation League (BLL) and, recently, the Biafra Independence Movement (BIM), add their voices to the call. Anti-secession groups are also active. Igbo youths against the call for Igbo nationhood have formed the Igbo for Nigeria Movement (INM) under the leadership of Mazi Ifeanyi Igwe. The Njiko Igbo Movement (NIM), founded by Igbo politicians and led by Orji Uzor Kalu, works to secure a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction.

Still it is probable that an independent Biafra may be realized if the current wave of non-violent protests is sustained. Since neither the MASSOB leader, Ralph Nwazuruike nor Kanu are beneficiaries of political position or financial gain to date, their sustained demand for Biafra nation may be genuine after all.

#Fallism as public pedagogy

UWC protests. Image Credit Barry Christianson

Clenched fists raised above their heads, the cast of The Fall occupy the black, naked stage bathed in light. Their lips are sealed with masking tape; their eyes filled with recalcitrance. Art imitating life, imitating art. Seven University of Cape Town (UCT) graduates relive their experiences as members of the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement weaving together powerful narratives of student activists who used Cecil John Rhodes’ statue as a symbolic focal point in their demand for a decolonized education. What The Fall conveys unequivocally, is that the RMF movement had an important pedagogical dimension; it was a moment of learning.

While we tend to associate learning that is often procured at significant cost from a university with innovation and creativity, pedagogical practices have largely remained anachronistic within these ivory towers. Most university classrooms look the same: someone with knowledge stands in front of the class, while students sit in rows of chairs absorbing this knowledge through osmosis. The most creative professors get, is to rearrange the chairs into a circle.

For those of us privileged enough to have purchased a formal education, we recognize the limits of this kind of learning. The corporatization of universities compels professors to spend most of their time publishing papers in peer reviewed journals that only five and a half people will read. There is little incentive to teach; let alone be a good teacher. But here’s the kicker: as recipients of this kind of education who know that sitting in a crowded lecture theatre is largely a waste of time (and money), we continue to believe and invest in this traditional system of learning. Worse still, we dismiss any other form of education that fails to imitate the antiquated classroom model.

While watching The Fall, I learnt more about patriarchy and decolonial thinking than I did during several years of law school. And for those who think that law schools should not engage with questions of patriarchy or decolonial thinking in the first instance, your struggle for wokeness may take a little longer. But for those who recognize that learning can take place in eclectic spaces, I would like to push this idea a little further. Acts of disruption, such as when shit was thrown onto the Rhodes statue by student protestors at UCT, buildings were occupied and art was burnt, constituted moments of learning.

While you may not agree entirely with the disruptive tactics employed by the students, their actions compelled us to think critically about symbols and their meaning; symbols we may have otherwise accepted as incongruous vestiges of our colonial past (and present). And is that not essentially what education is about: teaching us to think critically, to question and challenge?

Adopting the conceptual framework of public pedagogy, the Fallist movement can be reimagined as interlocking moments of knowledge creation that simultaneously challenge the academy’s epistemic deference to Euro-American knowledge. Fallists serve as pedagogues who draw on scholars such as Frantz Fanon, activists like Steve Biko, and concepts such as intersectionality, to weave together a decolonial framework that attempts to make sense of black pain and white violence. Fallism is therefore not only about the destruction of old symbols, but it is also predicated on the creation of new knowledge and ideas that enable the humanization of black bodies.

As darkness slowly envelops the intimate theatre pierced by the defiant glow of a few mobile phones, the audience comprised primarily of young black and white South Africans rise enthusiastically to applaud the sold out performance. The young black woman sitting next to me responds to the student activists’ call for a decolonized education by snapping her fingers approvingly. It’s the final day of The Fall’s second run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, not too far from where the Rhodes statue was eventually removed. The cast emerges from back stage after the show to warm embraces and requests for selfies from audience members.

The Fallists are not uncritical of their movement; they recognize the internal struggles of queer people and women who fought to have their voices heard within RMF. These frictions are symptomatic of unresolved agitations deeply embedded in the genetic constitution of South Africa and its peoples. The rise of Fallism as an epistemological orientation, not only in South Africa, but also on campuses across the world, demands that we rethink our understanding of what constitutes knowledge and how this knowledge is transmitted. It compels us to center black pain and offers spaces for new ways of learning and being.

As Fallism rises, so must we.

Sunday Read: Friends in a Ship

Image Credit: Merseyside IT on

I.  Tesiro

All my mates are married with children. They have made human connections to last a lifetime. They have formed partnerships with people who have chosen to be with them.

They have begun their journeys into mid-life crisis, legacies and death. They know their friends who will lend them money and who may take care of their children in their absence. They have moved into the secondary worries of life while my soul wrestles with primary emotions like love and companionship.

Decades of camouflaging the nature of my heart and erections has robbed me of pleasant opportunities to honestly connect with other souls. Throughout my years of academic learning and societal upbringing, I never had a friend who knew my thoughts, the candid details of my escapades and how I felt about guys. I disguised the identity of my heartbeat and the footsteps of my spirit. Even my shadow was not my own.

It was a lifetime performance of lies and false living. I played the role of a homophobic straight guy while I craved to hold the hands of a guy. I worshipped at the temple of homophobes while I prayed for a man to call my own. I encouraged the affections of women but preferred the hugs of a man. I wasted decades of my life building connections with people who hated my kind, my heart and the things that made me whole. I discriminated against effeminate guys, badmouthed gay love in straight circles and avoided people with homosexual inclinations. I killed every honest emotion in my heart and disavowed everyone with the ability to fall in love with my soul. Because the Bible said so, I agreed to hate myself.

Everything changed when I lost an old friend in 2015. He discovered the duplicity of my character and chose to cut me off. That was when I realised that my friends were acquired based on false pretences. I didn’t give them the choice to evaluate my soul and decide if they liked me for who I was. A friendship based on a misconception is a fraudulent acquisition. Like fake jewelry, it will fail every examination and test of time.

In 2016, I renounced the acquisition of fake friends and fraudulent relationships. I began to build real ships based on truth, trust and total honesty. I began to entrust honest people with the truth about myself. And I have started accumulating friends who love me as I am, men who understand the nature of my affections and have connected with my soul in ways I thought was impossible.

II.   Prophet

I met him on the bench where wise-inhalers relaxed beside our neighbourhood canal. His fingers were beautifully crafted, his nails ripe for biting and his hand drawing a splendid sketch of a futuristic African man in a rural setting. His bad boy grin emanated from white teeth in burnt brown gums. I loved his lumps of Nazarene locks and would later enjoy digging my fingers into his bed of virgin-black dreads. I was stunned by his neo-liberal intelligence, non-conformist opinions and free-hearted disposition. I never expected to find someone like him at an impoverished bunk in an under-developed suburb of Lagos.

I was days away from completing my memoir, in need of a neighbourhood confidant who appreciated literature, and chilling by myself in a ship without friends. Our conversations were easy, laughter was plenty and our encounter seemed like a case of artistic serendipity. He was uncommonly generous with his smokes, respectfully considerate of my age and genuinely impressed by my literary hustle. His validation restored my waning confidence in my art and I began to see myself through his doting eyes at a time when my hopes were dependent on the success of some grants and residency applications.

I tested our friendship by reading portions of my memoir to him. That was how he learnt about my sexuality. He was flabbergasted but our friendship continued. I fell in love with his mind and the way he permitted the rights of my soul to co-exist with his heterosexual heart. He was confident in his masculinity and wasn’t threatened by my homosexuality. He listened to my past like a priest and wasn’t disgusted by the nature of my sexual expressions. He accorded me the rights of a fellow human being, the respect of a fellow man and he dignified our fellowship. I felt no shame or embarrassment discussing my same-sex affairs with him. He did not sneer at my sexuality or try to condescend to my emotions. Affairs of my heart were simply affairs of another heart. It was the strangest friendship in my homophobic world. His honesty was very strange.

I’m jealous of his girlfriend and make no attempt to hide my feelings. He doesn’t give a fuck about my jealousy and has probably told her about my existence in his life. Maybe that’s why she calls him every bloody second to speak for hours. At this stage of my life, a good friend is better than the best lover. I do find him sexually attractive and wouldn’t mind exploring his body.

But that’s because I’m a bloody motherfucker. And I think he knows this and that everyone has a friend who wants to fuck them. Hence the creation of the friend zone for safety purposes.

I feel safe with him, in spite of my sexual stirrings for him. He has made me believe that every gay man will find straight friends who understand them, heterosexual men who are not threatened by homosexual love, in a bold new ship where all men are free to express different shades of masculinity, and where everyone has acquired the grace to love gay men with no strings attached.

That is why I call him Prophet. He’s my gift from Ago, the Lagos suburb that robbed my soul.

Decolonizing philosophy

Wits University Campus. Image credit: Paul Saad via Flickr.

Many philosophers consider their field to be the mother of all disciplines. The popular picture is that philosophy, like a fertile womb, gives birth to other sciences and fields of inquiry which then move on with their own methodology and concerns (and they never call their parents!). Naturally, if there is any credence to this methodology, then decolonization of the curriculum or academia needs to start with philosophy.

On the global level, the discipline has been riven with controversy recently. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, Yale philosopher Chris Lebron exposed the lack of concern for including issues surrounding Black Lives Matter within the remit of an otherwise all-encompassing publication. The issue was sparked when a (published) symposium was eventually conducted by the journal, with one significant omission, namely there were no black philosophers invited to participate despite relevant expertise.

Across the ocean, a similar occurrence caused ripples within the South African philosophical community when a panel was configured on the topic of “South African Identity” which notably neglected philosophers of color, even those actually working within related areas. Again the outcry, both global and local, was that Black Voices Matter philosophically speaking.

In the wake of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, questions of curriculum change became pertinent and stentorian in South African academia. Whether we are questioning the colonial legacy of specific disciplines (see here for economics and here for mathematics, traditionally thought to be held to standards of exigency or abstract reality respectively) or the university as a whole (see here for discussion), the role of philosophy requires special treatment. I think this is the case even if we do not accept the birth-mother story since philosophy is still often associated with critical thinking and engagement with other disciplines.

In fact, transformation in philosophy has been slow and rocky. Most of the departments in South Africa are predominantly represented by a privileged minority (at both the graduate and faculty levels). In response to these concerns, philosophers such as Raphael Winkler, at the University of Johannesburg, argue that a more pressing issue is the phenomenon of “white guilt” and who in society has the right to be an authority on matters of race and/or national identity. There are no doubt interesting philosophical questions here, however, I think such debates are red-herrings to the curriculum issue. The issue of transformation and Africanization of the philosophical curriculum is an issue of structure, content and composition not only personnel.

There are a number of options available to any project aimed at reconstructing the philosophical curriculum in South Africa. As noted in one particularly poignant response to Winkler’s article, the history of South African philosophy is a battle between two western traditions. On the one hand, we have continental philosophy. These are the departments, mostly located at historically Afrikaans universities, often associated with existentialism, psychoanalysis and literary criticism. On the other hand, we have the analytic tradition. These are the departments that follow a tradition closely linked to the birth of mathematical logic and the philosophy of language in the early 20th century in Britain. There is not much communication between these schools of thought. But in either camp, much of the agenda, questions and methodology have already been set by the parent countries in the West.

One path to confronting this situation is the path of inertia. We can just keep on keeping on until acted upon by a rational force of nature. Perhaps alter the personnel with a more representative sample but leave the issues and methodology largely unchecked. There is nothing wrong with the possibility of African philosophy per se, but it needs to show its worth to be considered a serious contender for default status. I think there are two worries with this kind of position. One is that it could unduly deculturalize philosophy. Analytic philosophy, despite often using techniques of investigation such as deductive logic, is not an objective science (continental even less so). It has historical and cultural baggage (like many other disciplines).  Its topics are informed by many of these erstwhile positions (would Descartes or Rawls have put so much weight on weightless disembodied individual thinking if they had strong communal ties as expressed in the Southern African concept of Ubuntu?). Another issue with this sort of view is that it assumes African philosophy is a final product. But to me the excitement of the possibility of an African philosophy is precisely located in its inchoate nature.

Another strategy could be the formation of a comparative discipline, such as comparative politics, which examines western and non-western philosophical thought side-by-side. I think that this possibility is promising. But it suffers from feasibility issues, namely that if the philosophers who are teaching this new field are mostly trained in analytic philosophy, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting comparison will reduce African philosophy to a curiosity or an “exotic” side thought. This is a nontrivial worry (but also not insurmountable).

The last option is that we make a genuine attempt to Africanize the curriculum. By this I mean we question the content (kinds of questions we ask), the methodology (how we ask and answer those questions) and our sources (who is saying what and what their positionality is). This would be an exploratory project and might lead us to many points of contact with other traditions, both analytic and continental, and further abroad, Indian and Chinese or even lesser explored traditions. Of course, this path is beset with complexity. Is there any such unified object as “African” thought or philosophy? Need there be (the West may have done quite well without a similar unified object of “Western thought”, see Appiah’s account)?

Perhaps in following a dictum of Edouard Glissant (that “the West is not the West: it is a project not a place”) we can appreciate an African philosophical project not bound by geography or history but not ignorant of them either. These are surely the questions that would engage the brilliant minds of our future scholars and attract the collaboration of others further abroad. Continuing to exclusively exist within the same western intellectual atmosphere seems to me like a much less exciting prospect.

Museums–another “sight” for struggle

The exhibition Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 17 to  May 21) may be over, but it is sure to carry long-lasting effects. The curatorial statement described this exhibition as intending to explore “what took place between 1652, when Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape and Mandela’s visit to Amsterdam in 1990.”

Framed by the museum as a critical showing of the “relationship” between South Africa and the Netherlands, the museum’s promo video made it seem that the curatorial team had set out to expose the colonial dirty laundry of the Netherlands and the crimes of their “distant cousins,” the Boers and Afrikaners, some of who are descendants of Dutch colonial settlers.

Goede Hoop preview trailer

My interest in this exhibition is two-fold. First, the Western Cape province,  where my family is from, was once a Dutch colony named Kaap De Goede Hoop (Cape of Good Hope), founded in 1652 until1806 when the British took control. The colony’s economic base was built on slavery. In the surnames that form part of my family tree and the language spoken by my parents, Afrikaans, there are traces of this history. Second, I am currently working on a Ph.D. proposal focused on how European museums and curators approach the subjects of colonialism, decolonization and coloniality. As a black South African woman, it is important to me that I also come to terms with the fact that part of this bloody, violent collective history is entangled with my personal history and parts of my identity.

Walking through the exhibition was like making my way through a hall of mirrors: what’s reflected feels familiar but the image has been distorted and obscured. At the entrance to the exhibition is a panel titled “Thanks and Acknowledgements.”  Under “Curators” I expected to see some collaboration with South African curators, artists, scholars or researchers, but there are none.  Surely an exhibition looking at contemporary South Africa would involve at least one South African curator. Who is telling the story is as important as what story is being told and the omission of South African voices at the onset is deeply problematic. From this point onwards I become conscious that in this exhibition my voice doesn’t matter and that perhaps this exhibition is not for me at all.

The first room is supposed to speak of the Indigenous people of the region of what is now the Western Cape. No mention is made of the hunter-gatherer San societies that were exterminated by the impact of the arrival of the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 to coordinate the Dutch trade and colonial expeditions to the East Indies. I guess the panoramic landscape representing the land that was to become the Cape of Good Hope colony didn’t speak of Dutch pastoralists’ murderous land-grabbing and ecologically damaging farming practices that ensued.

Another area of focus is the “Genesis of the Afrikaaner or Afrikander,” which doesn’t explain the historic complexity of the terms Afrikander or Afrikaaner, but reinforces narrow understandings of who this group of people are and their history. What complicate this identity and the idea of the Afrikaner as “white” and “European” and troubles notions of racial purity which led to the Apartheid system is that the first people who identified as Afrikanders were African or of both African and European descent. Klaas Afrikaner and his son Jager Afrikaner were members of the Orlang community that formed part of the broader Khoi Khoi society. In the mid-19th century, emancipated slaves, and slaves born in the Cape Colony were known as Afrikaners, whereas the settlers of Dutch descent referred to themselves as “Boere,” “Christene” and “Nederlanders.”

The narrative jumps between periods and centuries and as a result I feel like I must have missed something. Who were the enslaved? How did they get to the Cape? Why are they portrayed as subjects without agency: voiceless, silent and other. This is another missed opportunity to explore how slavery and slave history shaped present-day South Africa and how the psyche of the Western Cape in particular is still deeply rooted in the relations between master and slave.

The “Influence of Islam” display reads as an unimpressive footnote, especially since it had such a massive impact on Cape society and connects Cape Town to the Indonesian Archipelago (another Dutch colony). The earliest Afrikaans text was a Qur’an written in Arabic Afrikaans script, and research into the work of the historian Achmat Davids and into his archive would have provided a great deal of material for the exhibition. (For more on this, see an article I co-wrote with Dylan Valley in 2009.)

A few days before I left, the Dutch activist, Marjan Boelsma (she had been involved in the Dutch anti-Apartheid movement) wrote an open letter to the Chair of the Rijksmuseum (posted on Facebook) which critiqued the exhibition as a “missed chance.” The letter was signed by numerous  activists, scholars, artists and curators. They charged that the exhibition plays down the Netherlands’ role in colonialism in South Africa, excluded black South African curators, and relied on Eurocentric archival documents, among others.

It didn’t help that a few weeks after the exhibition opened, a former leader of the second largest political party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance, tweeted her appreciation for colonialism’s supposed positive legacy. Helen Zille, who is white, governs the Western Cape, which has a violent history of slavery and colonialism. Random, often fatal, violence against black South Africans, especially in small farming towns and communities outside of major urban centres, also proves that relatively little has shifted regarding the colonial power relationships amongst the white and black populations of the country.

Others critical of this exhibition have already commented on its problematic use of language, both in the Dutch text and its translation into English. What I found particularly bizarre was the use of the word “hotchpotch” (possibly as a stand-in for the less desirable miscegenation?) which trivializes experiences of violence, erasure and centuries of oppression. Terms like “savage warrior” are also not problematized and unpacked critically.

In another room there is a large display of what can only be described as ethnographic caricatures of South African people by Robert Jacob Gordon. This display is arranged from the perspective of the colonial gaze – colonialists living in Cape Town in the 18th and 19th centuries. This work also gives the impression of the Western Cape region as uninhabited empty land, up for grabs. The label accompanying these caricatures suggests that the Dutch treated slaves badly, but we see no visual evidence of this. And did I miss the significance of Jan Van Riebeeck as a symbolic figure used by the nationalist, Apartheid government? Surely this is important to show because it was fundamental in historicizing Afrikaner nationalism and its claim to a European identity.

The next display, “1806: British Empire Annexes the Cape” fast-forwards to the British Invasion of the Cape. Subsequently, we arrive at the Anglo Boer war. A label describes the Dutch calls to support their “distant cousins”, the Boer. The exhibition then briefly mentions Afrikaner support for Nazi’s during the Second World War and that Dutch Social Nationalists moved to South Africa after the war. At this point, I notice the landscape paintings on display by the artist Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, who was heavily influenced by Afrikaner nationalism and its desire to carve out a unique identity following the Anglo-Boer war, and critiqued for depicting empty landscapes void of indigenous South African homesteads or life outside of that of the Afrikaner.

We are catapulted into the anti-Apartheid movement and struggle, highlighting Dutch support for the end to Apartheid. In this room, Nelson Mandela is deified as the representative of both struggle and freedom and most-importantly, reconciliation. What’s unsaid, is how Apartheid rule (1948-1994) allowed the Netherlands a pass to ignore its colonial past. The exhibition flirts with the attempt to acknowledge that some of the deep-seated socio-economic political issues we are dealing with in South Africa in the present have something to do with the lingering effects of Dutch colonization. But the argument made is rather muddy and instead, the Rijksmuseum presents a simplistic and palatable exhibition for Dutch (and other western audiences).

Although these national European exhibitions on colonialism can be read as an attempt at symbolic reparations to educate their publics on colonialism, the exhibitions themselves often fail to do this by resorting to tropes of indigenous peoples. They reinforce skewed power relations through curatorial practices that erase or omit local voices. For example, no young black artists are included in the “contemporary art” display supposed to represent the future generation of South Africans. Instead here we see the works of photographer Pieter Hugo and painter Marlene Dumas.

This exhibition proves once again that as Africans, we need to take charge of how our history is represented and set the historical record straight.

This is a site of struggle in itself.

Africans want in on the Virtual Reality game

Still from ‘Let This Be A Warning’ by The Nest Collective

The human desire to experience another perspective, place or reality has a long history in the visual arts. Recent innovations mean 360° video is now frequently available on social media, with content from news outlets and humanitarian organizations. With the advent of this increasingly accessible technology, the storyteller’s toolkit is suddenly more powerful. The ability to create an immersive experience for the audience changes how narratives are constructed and received. Africans also want in on the game.

Virtual reality (VR) technology provides another a form of storytelling for filmmakers.

Four new VR films were recently showcased at the 19th annual Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. Let This Be A Warning by The Nest Collective, The Other Dakar by Selly Rabe Kane, Nairobi Berries by Ng’endo Mukii, and Spirit Robot by Jonathan Dotse. This was the second year that the festival included a Virtual Encounters Exhibition.

When I watched Let This Be A Warning, I recognized the common technique of using science-fiction to critique society from an alternative view point. The Nest Collective tells an African story through the often white-dominated genre of sci-fi because of its potential for commentary. The premise is around the arrival of a presumably white space traveler landing on a colonized black world and the reaction of that society to this visitor. The filmmakers wonder whether future black worlds will be as welcoming to “westerners” as they were before. The first person point of view, like a video game, makes the audience look through the unwelcome visitor’s eyes. I am curious how different audiences receive this social question. How does this film play to an audience of color versus a white audience? What kinds of conversations about the past and potential future are initiated?

The Other Dakar is a strange journey of magical realism, described as an homage to Senegalese mythology. The creator, Selly Rabe Kane, known worldwide for her fashion designs, uses her talents to build a stunningly beautiful and surreal experience. Otherworldly fashion driving the story reflects Kane’s sensibilities as a designer. This world of Dakar, as explored by a little girl in the film, is full of symbolism with striking colors, and patterns. Although I was somewhat disoriented in the fantastical 360° video, the central message was clear: artists are at the core of Dakar’s cultural soul. Watching this film triggers reflection on the role of artists in cities throughout Africa and beyond.

A poetic dreamscape in Nairobi Berries is a representation of filmmaker N’gendo Mukii’s feelings about living in the city of Nairobi. Two women and a man are seen passing through each lyrical scene. Themes of beauty and darkness, so common in urban life, struggle with each other at every step. N’gendo uses bold colors, animations of butterflies, water, and fire as visual metaphors of her emotions. She taps into the powerful nature of immersive media that cuts through a viewer’s intellectual analysis of an experience. The themes of the beauty and hardness of daily life in Nairobi can be universalized to the common urban reality.

The use of public spaces is a constant battle in every city. The Chale Wote Street Art Festival transforms the streets of Accra, Ghana, into open spaces of dance, music, painting and other art forms. Jonathan Dotse, from Afrocyberpunk, explores the 6th annual Festival in the film Spirit Robot, named after that year’s theme. The event, as explained in the film, was organized to address the lack of infrastructural support for art. The viewers are transported through the streets of Accra to experience several art pieces as they learn about the festival’s story. I was captivated by the art in each scene, particularly when hearing the mural painter mixing his colors and seeing an audience watching an elegant dancer. I enjoyed learning about the festival, but the narration was hard to follow in the VR environment and I wanted to invest more time to fully absorb what was happening around me.

Without the constraints of traditional video, narrative structures must be transformed to effectively communicate to the immersed viewer. New artistic possibilities are boundless for 360° film as the technology becomes more accessible.