Africa is a Country

Uganda’s chemical elections

Tear gas – the English term – is frequently overheard in everyday conversation in Kampala. Its chemical formula is a semi-permanent climatic feature in the capital. Residents exchange advice on prevailing winds at taxi stages prior to planning their journeys through town. Customers leave online reviews of local businesses that read: “safe place, [no] tear gas or rioting.” Levels of familiarity are such that a local police womens’ rugby team in the nearby town of Jinja is named “Jinja Police Teargas Rangers,” while the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija, recently cited the government’s decision to import rather than manufacture tear gas as a reason for the poor performance of the Ugandan shilling.

Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s opposition leader, is widely thought to be the most tear-gassed man in Kampala. His multiple arrests and detentions have become quotidian event that inspires rolling of the eyes en masse in the capital (he has been under house arrest since last months elections). In 2011, police officers fired a tear gas canister directly into his car during a protest against the rising cost of food and fuel. Apparently disappointed by its effect, they then expended a can of pepper spray in his face, leaving him temporarily blinded.

Tear gas comes in a variety of chemical formulas designed to irritate the mucous membranes, causing coughing, crying, sneezing, breathing difficulties and severe pain in the eyes. Its deployment dates back to the First World War, when xylyl bromide was used to force disoriented soldiers out of their trenches, exposing them to artillery fire.

The proliferation of tear gas around the world owes much to the work of the US General Amos Fries, who spearheaded the creation of an international gas market after the war. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Anna Feigenbaum refers to a 1921 article in the trade publication, Gas Age Record, that explains how gas is “admirably suited to the purpose of isolating the individual from the mob spirit,” and is equally effective at dealing with “savages” – a versatility that enamored it to both colonial administrations and law enforcement agencies.

The US remains the largest exporter of tear gas today, due to a sustained alliance between the defense industry, government and the military. Feigenbaum recorded 314 cases of its use around the world in 2013 (not including unreported incidents) – the vast majority of cases being against nonviolent protesters. Uganda came sixth in this global league table and was the most frequent offender in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Ugandan government began to import tear gas from China in 2011, in line with its shifting economic alliances. A large shipment containing “more than a dozen new tear-gas vehicles” arrived last month, one of which fired at market traders present at a pre-election rally.

Edward (33), who works as a produce vendor in Nakasero market, says he has been exposed to tear gas on five occasions, while David (36), a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver, reports having witnessed 30 separate incidents while driving around the city.

Kampala’s markets have responded to the repeated gassing of the city centre by electing their own defense committees, responsible for keeping lookout, transporting afflicted persons to safe areas and administering towels soaked in water and lemon juice.

Asked about the origins of tear gas in Kampala, Edward doesn’t hesitate: “Museveni is the big man – he is the one that orders it.”

Agnes Nakasujja (49), a spice vendor, interjects: “We feel bad, because we know what is next; we don’t want to have war.” Unlike Edward and David, she remembers the conflicts that afflicted Kampala in the early 1980s, and is unwilling to risk stability by voting for the opposition.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the increased deployment of tear gas and military equipment on the streets in Kampala is in the fear that it invokes in the electorate, providing a reminder of the close relationship between the president, the police and the military. As Museveni begins his fifth term as President of Uganda, the growing “mobs” of politically disaffected people in Kampala are likely to be left rubbing their eyes.

The ‘Big Man’ Syndrome in Africa

Why do so many African leaders overstay their welcome or break electoral rules? In the recent elections in Uganda, 30 year incumbent Yoweri Museveni won a fifth five-year term. Opposition activists are contesting the results. This has raised again that eternal post-independence question. Museveni is seventy-one years old and has governed since he took power in a military coup in 1986; longer than the majority of the country’s population have lived. Some Ugandans console themselves with the fact that the country’s constitution has an age limit for the presidency of 75 years. But as the South African television anchor Imran Garda joked on Twitter: “Yoweri Museveni declared the winner of Uganda’s election. And the one after this. And the one after that one too.”

Museveni is not alone. More recently Rwanda’s Parliament voted to change electoral rules that would mean Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda since 2000, could govern till 2034. A parliamentary commission that traveled around Rwanda eliciting comment on Kagame’s third term plans, strikingly could only find ten people who disagreed with the proposal. Although questionable, Kagame is genuinely popular, but it is unclear why no one else in Rwanda is qualified to lead.

The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) just extended the total 32-year rule of Denis Sassou Nguesso via a referendum marred by irregularities. Elsewhere popular unrest and resistance have followed incumbents’ desire to illegally extend their tenures, as witnessed recently in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this behavior, is that of the so-called “big man” syndrome, which sources it to African “culture.” However, this disease is rather a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for “indirect rule,” but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Post-independence African presidents have just perfected these systems.

So how do these African leaders retain political power?

The short answer is: Because they can. Electoral systems operate at the discretion of the President. In practice, the President make the rules, breaks them and changes when he wants to (yes, it is normally a he). Museveni, for example, effectively controls the electoral commission and the coercive apparatus of the state: Who controls the count, wins the election and in the lead-up, the police and the army harass and intimidate the opposition, while the president campaigns uninterrupted.

Furthermore, equating popular will with the president’s person is key. The President is always patriotic, and it is only the President who is willing and able to do what is needed. Paul Kagame’s defense was that it was not that he wanted to extend his rule: “It’s the people, you see, they want me to stay on.” And the President always needs more time to fulfill his agenda.

Museveni needs five more years to do something he could not accomplish in the previous thirty.

Furthermore, the Presidency is a family business and there is no future or monetary gain outside politics. Accumulating wealth and business opportunities are tied to controlling the state. So, is the economic fortunes of your allies, party officials and, crucially, the President’s family. Once you are out of office, you lose your ability to steer contracts or get a cut from profits. After tenure, the then former President—or, even more so, his allies—also risk prosecution either for embezzlement or human rights abuses.

Also key is the role of outside forces. The African Union (AU) rarely sanctions leaders who break electoral laws. It is striking that the current AU chairperson (a rotating one-year symbolic post among African presidents) is Idriss Deby of Chad (in power since 1990), that his predecessor was Robert Mugabe (in power in Zimbabwe since 1980) and before that Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup in Mauritania in 2005, filled the seat.

Don’t expect the African Union to expel or sanction Museveni. Four hours after Museveni’s victory, neighboring Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta posted on Facebook: “The people of Uganda have spoken, and they have spoken very clearly.” The rest, even those elected in open, free elections–like Jacob Zuma of South Africa–fell in line.

As for the United States and the European Union, criticism of electoral processes sounds hollow if you keep investing in extractive industries that fund illegitimate rules of Presidents of resource rich countries (as in Angola) or let “War on Terror” considerations (in Uganda, for example), trump democracy. Although the fall in the oil price has dramatically reduced the Angolan state’s income, the revenues from oil still accounts for close to half of the state budget. Which is the source of President Eduardo dos Santos and his family’s personal wealth. There is a joke about Angola: “Who is the public in Angola?” “The President.” “Where does all the money go?” “To the public.”

Just as outside forces do, the political class and the military and police guarantee the president’s rule. But they can also precipitate the president’s downfall. In the DRC, Joseph Kabila is frustrated by members of the political class who are deadlocked over whether to legitimize his illegal efforts to prolong his rule. Even more dramatic were recent events in Burkina Faso and Senegal. There the police and army were used to harass the opposition, yet proved crucial to ending impunity. In 2012 when Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, was outvoted two to one by his opponent Macky Sall, he considered declaring himself winner up until the point when emissaries from the security forces—mindful of the popular opposition against Wade—came to warn him that he would not have their support and that they would respect the election result.

In this context, it is significant that Senegal’s current president, Macky Sall, recently announced a referendum to reduce his mandate by two years. “Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate?,” Sall is reported as saying. “Well I’m going to do it. We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself.” The actual truth, as Sall (who is facing criticism with the slow pace of change in Senegal) himself when he was running for office told Yen a Marre, the Senegalese youth movement that played a key role in Wade’s exit, was that he, Sall, didn’t want to face the kind of revolt Wade faced.

Africa is a Country’s Pan-African Space Station transmission archived

Last November, Africa is a Country teamed up with Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station library-of-people installation at the Performa 15 Hub in New York City. We were able to curate three panels over the course of a weekend, hosted by: academic and writer (and non-academic soca specialist) Rishi Nath; immigrant rights activist Thanu Yakupitiyage, otherwise known as DJ Ushka of Brooklyn’s Dutty Artz collective; and AIAC photography editor Zachary Rosen.

We wanted to make sure to archive the conversations, so you could listen if you missed them when they went live. So here are the embeds via our Soundcloud for you to enjoy again and again!

Block The Road: The Sound of Afrosoca

An exploration of the recent explosion of cross-Atlantic exchange between Caribbean and African musicians, with Rum N’ Lime Radio co-hosts – Queens-based writer and academic Rishi Nath, and DJ, producer, and Trinidadian Soca ambassador DLife.

Adrift: A soundtrack for migration

A current and former member of the Brooklyn DJ collective Dutty ArtzDJ Ushka (Thanu Yakupitiyage) and Lamin Fofana, talk about Fofana’s recent EP as a jump-off point to discuss migration — from what the Western media has dubbed a European “migrant crisis” stemming from Africa and Syria — to other examples of being “adrift.” The two draw on their personal experiences as immigrants to the U.S from Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone respectively to discuss how they’ve incorporated heavy themes of (im)migration into their work as musicians and activists. What turned into a two-hour podcast, features both Ushka and Lamin’s musical selections as a soundtrack to being adrift – both physically and geopolitically.

Seeing voices: Reflections on African photographic portraiture

Zachary Rosen moderates a discussion with Delphine Fawundu, a Brooklyn-based photographer. In her work she focuses on identities through cultural expression; incorporating themes of social justice, music and history.

All you need to know about Uganda’s 2016 elections (and aftermath)

President Yoweri Museveni came to power after a civil war in 1986 and some Ugandans had hopes this election would be different. Initially the signs weren’t good. The police regularly harassed opposition supporters. In January, Museveni refused to participate in the country’s first pre-election television debate (on domestic policy) between presidential candidates, because “such events were for schoolchildren.” Then in early February he changed his mind and took part in a second debate on foreign policy. The debate was a tepid affair, but raised hopes about a more competitive, open contest. Those hopes were soon dashed. The leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was arrested a days before voting day, stopping him from addressing yet another packed rally at Makerere University.

Image via TwitterImage via Twitter

Then on Election Day, the Electoral Commission (EC) did not deliver materials to polling stations where the opposition was predicted to dominate. The police and military (who can’t be separated anymore) arrested Besigye again. Since then, Besigye has been under non-stop detention, sometimes driven from his home to police cells, and returned to spend nights at home.

The EC declared Museveni the winner with 60%, omitting results from opposition strongholds in the tally. Meanwhile, the military had occupied Kampala and its environs and to date does not show any signs of a withdrawal plan.

When Museveni was announced winner of the election, no crowds hit the streets to celebrate. The air of tension refused to dissipate even when social media, which had been blocked has been reinstated.

The reactions of other African leaders were crucial. Kenya became the first country to send congratulations to the chagrin of many Kenyans and Ugandans. Burundi, North Korea and Russia followed.

The United States in a statement criticised the poll and mentioned that Uganda deserved better. The opposition called the election a sham and asked the youths to take to the streets to protest. Former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo, on behalf of the Commonwealth Observer Mission called for dialogue, to resolve the impasse. Botswana criticised the poll and called for a peaceful resolution of disputes.

Image via TwitterImage via Twitter

Commentary has been flowing since the election. Here’s what I’d recommend you’d read:

In an article written for, Clair MacDougall focuses on the disconnect between the words coming off the US government’s lips condemning the election while the same country continues to line the pockets of Uganda’s military. The Ugandan American Editor of Black Star News, Milton Allimadi, in an open letter to the US President detailed the extent to which the Obama administration has gone to entrench the Museveni dictatorship.

Jamie Hitchen, a researcher at the Africa Research Institute, has a good take on the Electoral Commission’s institutional credibility. He also gives an overview of the numbers. Even better is Development Seed.Their report maps the rigging and ballot stuffing trends.

The journalist and filmmaker Kalundi Serumaga compares the 2016 election to the 1980 election that was so heavily disputed, Mr. Museveni, a candidate who came a distant third took up guns and headed for the tall grass, where he spent five years killing, till he overthrew the ‘elected’ government.

Senior journalist Daniel Kalinaki explains the difference between winning the hearts of the people, and actually taking power in an op-ed column for Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

General David Sejusa, who is in jail over engaging himself in political activities while still a serving soldier writes from his prison cell and provides an insightful analysis of the generational tension in the country’s political space.

Ugandans in the diaspora are also responding to the crisis through protests. Those in Canada were the first. And Boston followed.

Museveni via ReutersMuseveni via Reuters

As for popular culture, the singer Matthias Walukagga has released a song, “Referee” criticising the Electoral Commission (dominated by Museveni loyalists). When musician Bobi Wine released a pre-election song calling for peace, titled “Ddembe,” (peace in Luganda), it was rumored to have been banned. After the election, the musician removed the gloves and released “Situka (Rise)” whose lyrics capture the mood of the times.

When leaders become misleaders and mentors become tormentors, when freedom of expression becomes a target for suppression, opposition becomes our position.

Chrisogon Atukwasize’s cartoons depict the tensions that existed during the campaign period and show no signs of disappearing soon. In one cartoon, Museveni’s party secretary general threatens that the ‘state’ shall shoot any youth who dare to protest the election result. In another, he portrays Electoral Democracy as dead in Uganda.

As for social media, The Kampala Express, a Facebook newspaper edited by journalist Timothy Kalyegira has perceptive post-election updates that show a growing trend of violence in the country. The medical anthropologist Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook timeline has some of the most well-written opinion and reportage about the entire electoral season. Often colored with sexual imagery, Dr. Nyanzi’s writing proves that the lines between the personal and the political do not exist in today’s Uganda.

What about books?

As for the rivalry between Besigye and Museveni, according to many a regime propagandist it is personal. Daniel Kalinaki’s 2014 biography of Besigye, who is considered the country’s President-elect by many disgruntled Ugandans, provides an extensive background to the opposition movement against Museveni. The book can be ordered via Amazon.

Four years before Kalinaki’s book, Olive Kobusingye, a blood relation of Besigye’s published The Correct Line?: Uganda under Yoweri Museveni, which juxtaposes Museveni’s 1980s and 1990s statements about democracy with his deeds in power following Besigye’s first public confrontation of the system in 1999.

Museveni, as usual, gets the last word. It is important for one to read from Museveni’s own pen to put the Besigye (or opposition) perspective in the right context. Sowing The Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda gives a glimpse into how the man who has ruled Uganda longest, the country’s only living leader (all past leaders are dead) viewed his own contribution to ‘liberating’ Uganda before he took to the bush to fight a five year war, during the war and after he won it and became president.

Finally, we would recommend these people on Twitter: @amgodiva (lawyer-activist), @Natabaalo (journalist), @cathkemi (journalist), @enamara (twitter personality), @bkabumba (lawyer – academic), @asiimwe4justice (lawyer – activist), @RosebellK (blogger), @tomddumba (political strategist), @IsaacImaka (journalist) and @FrankWALUSIMBI (journalist).

It’s the economy, N°4

Yes, this is a weekly series. Barclays Bank dominates this week’s missive. Oh, what is 16 plus 6? Don’t tell us yet. Hold that till the end.

(1) This past week, the British bank Barclays announced plans to exit the African market after a formal presence of about a 100 years. The bank currently employs about 40,000 people across the continent.

(2) The initial reaction for many was to think that Barclays was passing a vote of no confidence on the continent’s future. But closer inspection reveals that the African business is being sacrificed (surprise, surprise) to save the mothership. Barclays needs extra capital and some of that will come from selling its Africa business. “It’s not an Africa problem; rather it’s a Barclays problem”.

(3) One cannot even begin to imagine how many of the 40,000 workers feel right now. They’ve worked hard for the bank. Delivered impressive results. And now the future seems uncertain. What will happen next? Will the bank be broken up into smaller bits? Will someone buy the business as a whole? Will the new owners maintain current levels of employment or maintain employee benefits? So much uncertainty.

Africa, foreign capital is not your long-term friend.

(4) Bob Diamond is in talks to buy parts of Barclays’ Africa business. Who is Bob Diamond, we hear you ask? Well, he was in-charge of Barclays during the time that the Libor manipulation scandal was unearthed (Libor is a crucial interest rate that ultimately determines interest rates on mortgages, credit card debt and so on). As a result, he was forced to resign his position as Barclays CEO in July of 2012.

Diamond has been busy buying up banks in Africa since leaving Barclays. Ah, capitalism. Heads I win, tails you lose.  

(5) In Zambia, the Ministry of Finance confirmed that a team from the IMF will be visiting the country this coming week to discuss, among other things, the possibility of an IMF Program. “IMF Program” is IMF lingo for a bailout package with strings attached.

Zambia has in the recent past borrowed heavily on international debt markets and is now experiencing the beginnings of what appears to be a sovereign debt crisis.

(6) Buoyed by high commodity prices and plain-old irrational exuberance, many African countries (like Ghana and Zambia) borrowed on international debt markets beginning in the last decade. Commodity prices are now falling making it difficult for countries to service their debt.  Some analysts think that debt traps typical of the 1980s and 1990s might be on the horizon. Back to the future, anyone?

(7) Still sticking with the issue of international debt: there is growing debate about corrupt practices associated with either the contraction of debt (see the case of Standard Bank in Tanzania) or with how the proceeds of debt are spent (for example in Kenya and Zambia).  

(8) Some more on debt: Carlos Lopes, the head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in Addis, had an insightful op-ed in the Daily Maverick this past week. In the piece, Mr. Lopes tackles some of the myths surrounding Africa’s past indebtedness. For instance, Cold War geopolitics were just as responsible for the debt build up as were domestic factors. Lopes concludes the piece by suggesting ways of managing current levels of debt stress on the continent.

(9) We were shocked to learn this week that only 60% of “economics studies published in the field’s most reputable journals are replicable”. And it appears that authors are exaggerating, by quite a bit, the magnitudes of their results. (And yes, the replication exercise only looked at 18 studies from laboratory experiments published in two journals. Even then, we still think this is cause to worry).  

(10) Happily, the movement to reform how economics is taught in Western universities seems to be gaining ground. We would also like to see a similar movement to reform how economics is taught to students in many parts of Africa. The discipline is currently taught through a Western lens and hardly reflects nor sufficiently exposes students to African development realities. The dominant textbooks are chockfull of examples on the market for lattes and cappuccinos. As an undergraduate economics major at the University of Zambia, our resident economist had no clue what a latte or cappuccino was. But he sure as hell knew what the market for munkoyo looked like.  

(11) Finally, should we be worried that Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, cannot correctly add N6 billion to N16 billion?    

Uganda Belongs to Us

“I was born here/I will live here/And I will die here.”
– G.N.L Zamba, Uganda Yaffe (Uganda Belongs to Us)

You must have heard the leopard say that he works for himself, his children and grandchildren when a cheeky Kenyan journalist asked him about retirement from the presidency.

Here is Liz Abwooli, a young Ugandan calling on fellow Ugandans to organise nonviolent campaigns until the leopard’s dictatorship falls. Young Ugandans are knocking on the leopard’s door. They want their country back. They no longer care about which part of the leopard they are touching, they want their country back.

Have you seen these children pelting the leopard’s campaign poster with rocks and stones because they are tired of being tear gassed? Uganda is theirs, too. Uganda is ours. It is not the personal property of the leopard.

The Ugandans may not put their bodies on the streets to be shot by the leopard’s armed gangs. It does not stop their hearts from bleeding from inside. They do not stay away from public protests because they love a 71-year old, who has been in power for 30 years, has cheated elections since 2001, shot his way around opponents and bombed neighbouring and far off countries into supporting him.

The Ugandans have not given the country to the leopard. Even when he continues to treat it as his personal property. Even when he talks of its resources as though they were his personal resources. He even says that he owns the country’s currency. The people went to the ballot, aware that the leopard would steal it. But they went. They told him that they are tired. They told him that this is their country. This is our country.

Who are the people?

Ssekandi Ssegujja Ronald. Young man. In his 20s. Born when the leopard had already taken power. Forget what they say about young people. Ronald is building the country. He is committed. He is training young people in debate. Running activities through an organisation he started with age mates. The leopard’s government does not even think it is their responsibility to do what Ronald is doing. But he is doing it. Building the country. His country. Their country. Our country.

Ronald and his friends have created a platform to mould young people into good citizens. It is Ugandan. It has branches into Rwanda. And Kenya. It is East African. Uganda is his. He has travelled the world, Germany, the United States. He is Uganda. This is his country. His colleagues, Wamala Emmanuel Ssonzi and others own Uganda. This is their country. They are calling. They want their country back. They may not be on the streets carrying branches, it does not mean that they do not want their country back.

Go home, old man. Stop blabbering about your opponents. Slandering them. Your robots may insult Besigye, your armed gangs may humiliate him, the PR company you hired may send automated social media accounts to troll his wife, but hey, the people are saying that they want him for President. Uganda is not your personal property. It is for all Ugandans and they are telling you that the office of the President is Besigye’s. They have appointed him. Go home. Stop threatening to burn everyone. Keep quiet and go home.

Uganda is King Godiva‘s. Fiery feminist, academic, lawyer, consultant. She is in her 20s. Building Uganda. Educated in Uganda and in the United States at top universities, she wants you, Mr. Leopard to go home. She voted. She stood under the sun for hours. Waited. Your man Kiggundu’s plans to disenfranchise her failed. You blocked social media. She bypassed your blockade. She tweeted throughout the day, shared videos with us, updates about everything. Even told us the results. You lost at her polling station. As you did at thousands other polling stations. Uganda is hers. Respect her. She has built Uganda. She is building Uganda. Go home. She wants her country back. She has chosen to hand the job of President to someone else. Go home. Respect her. Uganda is not your personal property.

Young people are putting work into this country. They are building this country. They are not hooligans. They are not idlers on social media. They are building this country. Respect their labour. Respect them. Go home. Uganda is not your personal property. Uganda is ours.

No bullet can paint love in the hearts of Ugandans. You disgust some Ugandans who feel that they can’t tolerate you anymore. They have been patient enough. Some stopped recognising you as their president in 2001, others in 2006, others in 2011, and now many more are saying that you are not their president. Despite our non-recognition of your presidency, we continued to build our country. Respect our labour. Respect us. Our humanity. Our dignity. There is a difference between love for country and support for your illegitimate rule.

We want you gone. Even if Stella Nyanzi prepares to take her children to school a day after the sham electoral result is announced, you are not her president. Her President is Kizza Besigye. You can’t shoot yourself into her heart. Go home, old man. Uganda is not your personal property. Uganda is ours. We have built this country. We build this country daily.

You are an old man. Go home and maybe we will even want to hear your stories. Write books. Develop your pseudo theories about African languages. Leave Uganda’s state properties. Get a life! You will be fine.

We have been building this country despite your corruption, nepotism, greed, name it and you have it. Your unquenchable thirst for blood has not stopped us from building this country. Your war mongering has not stopped us from connecting with people whose countries you have destabilized. We have ignored you for long. We are saying that enough is enough. Go home, old man. Uganda is ours. It is not your personal property.

Young women, professionals, men, Ugandans, unemployed, self employed, business people, the middle class, the lower classes, people in urban areas, people in rural areas, Facebook and Twitter masses, we, the people, ordinary soldiers in the national army, we have chosen Besigye as the President of our country. Of Uganda. Legally. We are telling you old man, that you should go home.

Our hearts have no space for your lies. Your guns will not win our hearts. You have already killed some of us, including a twelve year old! Shameless man! You want to stay in power at all costs. No single life is worth your greed and megalomania. We may stay indoors because your ego and greed blinds you. It is not worth our lives. We are not giving this country to you. We are disgusted. Our President is Besigye. Go. Home. Old. Man. This is our country. We will continue to build it.

We are not grateful to you for anything. We build this country ourselves. Do not tell us no nonsense about things you have brought. We have paid for them. We have contributed. In fact, you have underperformed as president. We are firing you. Go home. Uganda is not your personal property. It is ours.

We are young, we are women, men, from rural areas, urban areas, on Twitter, on Facebook, some of us do not even know about social media. We all are saying, go home old man. This is our country. We may not put our lives on the street for you to shoot. But you know that we want you gone. We shall not cooperate with your regime. We shall continue to build our country while defying your dictatorship. Millions of Ugandans call Besigye the people’s President. Why don’t you go? Go.

This is our country. Leave. Even if you leave tomorrow, or next month, or next year, or even in ten years’ time, you can’t be the people’s President in 2011. GO! Leave. This is our country.

Scotland is a continent: Ten years of Africa-in-Motion

2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the Africa-in-Motion film festival, the showcase for African cinema in Scotland, which its director Lizelle Bischoff has described as being a wider, more-encompassing arts festival. The festival’s home has traditionally been the Edinburgh Filmhouse, an independent cinema in the city centre. From 2007 onwards, the festival began to take its programme to Glasgow, which is now a fully embedded element of the programme. These two cities combined are home to 32% of Scotland’s minority population, although Glasgow is the city most associated with diversity. The program has in the past gone on tour in rural parts of Scotland, and participated in UK-wide touring programs, such as 2014’s South Africa at 20.

The festival works across multiple venues, from academic spaces to  pop-up venues, bars and, and community spaces. The festival is realized through an array of partnerships but principally funded through the arts council, Creative Scotland. The theme of 2015 was ‘Connections’ which was to be understood in a number of ways including ‘political connections, artistic collaborations, generational ties, lost and restored cultural links, and pan-Africanism.’ Additionally the ‘From Africa with Love’ strand featured a number of films and events programmed as part of the British Film Institute’s nationwide ‘Love’ season, and there were Nollywood industry events and premieres sponsored by the current British Council UK-Nigeria 2015/2016 initiative.

It might seem laborious to sketch out this kind of basic organizational framework here, but throughout my attendance of last year’s 10th edition, the question of how to review a film festival holistically was been at the forefront of my mind.  In such a programming format and location, where I am seeing the film, who I am seeing it with, who is producing the program, who is and is not speaking to me, and who is funding it (and why) are all very present components of the experience. I am unsure whether it will be of interest to the readership of Africa is a Country, but certainly for me on an individual basis at least, the positioning and responsibilities of Africa-in-Motion in its local context are also primary concerns. I have been going to the festival over this ten year period, and so this review is inevitably informed by an experience accrued over that period. It is worth saying that without Africa-in-Motion, my access to African cinema in Scotland then and now would be limited.

The stand-out film at this year’s festival was Phillipe Lacôte’s Run. The film follows our protagonist through his three lives, which in the question and answer session the director revealed came from a conversation with a former member of the Young Patriots, often classed as a youth movement and militia, active in the recent civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire. Our central character, Run, lives up to his name, and from each of these three lives, he ends up running. In Run’s first life, he is an apprentice and named as successor to the village rainmaker. Despite the role of the rainmaker being all that Run dreamed and wished for, the village elders soon demand that he kill his teacher, which he refuses. Fleeing the scene, he is picked up on the road by Greedy Gladys, a professional eater, who takes Run on as her manager and emcee. Her show tours from town-to-town, in an eating competition to consume as much food onstage as the locals provide her with. Gladys is depicted as being from Burkina Faso – a ‘foreigner’ – a fact which is to play its part in her downfall.

Still from Run, Phillipe Lacôte, 2015, Ivory Coast.Still from Run, Phillipe Lacôte, 2015, Ivory Coast.

Lacôte discussed the film as being a portrayal of violence in the aftermath of the civil war, not yet able to discuss forgiveness and reconciliation. A major theme of the film was that of Ivoirité – a nationalistic term that took on xenophobic ideas during the civil war and was used as the basis to exclude the migrant population. I saw this aspect of the film as holding wider resonance, speaking to many nations worldwide currently struggling with the resurgence of right-wing movements and similar issues of rhetoric around nationhood and citizenship.

The opening film for the 2015 festival was Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes (Hyenas, 1992), which had previously been shown in the 2007 festival. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece and a satirical take on the relationship between post-independence Africa and neo-imperialism in a globalised, capitalist world. The film tells the story of Linguere Ramatou, an aging woman who returns to her home village of Colobane seeking revenge on her ex-lover.  The film was programmed in the Love strand yet despite the storyline, I read this film as neither about love nor revenge. Whilst it is always a welcome opportunity to watch the classics of African cinema, the opening film defines the tone, and in this sense, I found Hyènes to be an unsuccessful choice as it sat awkwardly within this thematic context.

The following evening the programme continued with Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s biopic of Ousmane Sembène. Such a film is an important act and educational tool: a means to make the details of Sembène’s life accessible, public and to continue the process of historicising his contribution and output since his death in 2007. The film was split into thematic chapters, with short animated markers separating these out, which I found to interrupt the flow of the film. Initially, the film felt one-dimensional; very much in praise of the film-maker, and infact more a document of the biographer’s own relationship with the filmmaker than a document of Sembène himself. However towards the end, a more nuanced picture emerged, particularly through the interviews with his son and live-in housekeeper. His housekeeper was one of few female voices heard in this film; it is largely a film about a man, told by other men. Documentary footage is used of his second wife speaking about him whilst they were still married, his first wife is never named, and I found this female absence, somewhat ironically, very pervasive.

Still from Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène, 1966, Senegal.Still from Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène, 1966, Senegal.

Sembène! was followed by a Q&A session with producer and director Samba Gadjigo, before a screening of the filmmaker’s first feature film from 1966 La Noire de… Frequently translated into English as ‘Black Girl,’ the translation misses the significance of the ‘de,’ implying ownership. It was a real highlight of the festival; the copy screened a recently restored edition. Shot in black-and-white, the film is saturated in style and is equally poetic and melancholic. The story follows a young woman, Diouana, who obtains her first job as a nanny for a French family in Senegal who move back to France, taking her with them. Cooped up in their apartment on the French Riviera, she is maltreated by her employer and suddenly burdened with all the household chores. Receiving no pay to send home and cut off without communication with her family, she commits the ultimate act of defiance. Relatively short for a feature at 65 minutes in length, the film is perfectly paced, deftly communicating all it needed to say and more in its succinct duration.

Another film of note was Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s Things of the Aimless Wanderer. The film is accomplished and beautifully shot, using only a BlackMagic Cinema Camera on this small budget production. It has an unconventional structure, divided between four ‘working hypotheses’ all merging into one another with no resolution. We follow at a distance three nameless central characters: a local man, a local woman and a white male foreigner. The foreigner is visiting whilst producing a travelogue, and gives the film its title ‘from Bantu accounts of early European explorers renowned for getting lost in their wanderings.’

Still from Things of the Aimless Wanderer, Kivu Ruhorahoza, 2015, Rwanda.Still from Things of the Aimless Wanderer, Kivu Ruhorahoza, 2015, Rwanda.

Described as being a deconstruction of ‘masculinity and territoriality’ and the ‘relations between “Locals” and Westerners… paranoia, mistrust and misunderstandings,’ it was set against the context of the Rwandan genocide by the director during the Q&A. A prominent point of discussion in the conversation afterwards was the silence of the female protagonist; unlike the two male characters, she speaks not one word during the entire film. There was a disjoint for me between how the director described her power and gender equality in Rwanda generally, and what I saw onscreen.

Mixed messages were overlaps in two of the films coming towards the end of the festival’s run, Dis Ek, Anna (It’s Me, Anna, 2015) and L’oeil du Cyclone (Eye of the Storm, 2015). Dis Ek, Anna follows a young girl Anna Bruwer, whose step-father sexually abuses her, eventually impregnating her, causing her as a teenager to flee the family home. Later, now working as a seamstress, she is found by her younger sister, who has suffered the same abuse and commits suicide that night in Anna’s home. In revenge, Anna returns to her childhood residence, and shoots dead her step-father. The film unfolds through flashbacks as Anna hands herself in at the station, discloses long-held secrets to her lawyer and psychologist, and in the duration of the court case. I found it difficult to balance this depiction of her harrowing childhood experience with the presence of certain privileges and the privileging of her narrative within the film and its South African context. Without money to pay for her lawyer, a schoolfriend turned lawyer steps forward (they later develop a relationship), she is bailed out of prison, accommodated in an apartment and sees two psychologists.

A second problematic narrative emerges, a sub-plot to Anna’s story, receiving a minority of screen time. The same police officer who first interviews Anna upon handing herself in is also investigating an instance of baby rape and murder in a black township. Despite the community knowing the perpetrator, a repeat offender, he is in hiding and protected. It was unclear to me whether this ‘sub-plot’ was within the original books or was added for this film adaptation. I think it is right that Anna’s experience was contextualised within the wider landscape of South Africa, but the manner in which this was done was very troubling. Furthermore both narratives here involved the rapists, killers and paedophiles being murdered, which I would consider to be an irresponsible message to send to audiences. At Africa-in-Motion the film was described as part of a new generation of Afrikaans filmmaking which also felt questionable.

In a similar vein, L’oeil du Cyclone tells the story of a defence lawyer, who successfully represents in court a rebel army leader against charges of war crimes. Their meetings take place in his cell, where he – at first silent – begins to communicate with his female lawyer. Through the process of defending him, the lawyer uncovers high-level political corruption, even implicating her own father. Despite their progress, the rebel continues to frequently and unpredictably burst out into violence. It again seemed to present a mixed message about reconciliation in a post civil-war landscape.

 the author.Exhibition, Ways We Watch Films in Africa, Edinburgh Filmhouse, 2015, Photo Credit: the author.

Out with the film-programming, events as part of the 2015 festival included musical performances, storytelling, industry events, public debates and an exhibition in the Filmhouse cinema café, titled Ways We Watch Films in Africa. The works in the exhibition were selected through an open call, for ‘photographers, professional or amateur, to capture film-viewing habits across the African continent [and which brought submissions of] stunning images of street pop-up cinemas, crowded film parlours, mobile phone cinema, film festival screenings and more.’ The exhibition was displayed in a seating area aside to the main café space, in which an exhibition of vintage Polish cinema posters was being exhibited, in line with a concurrent festival. It felt very problematic to me, to be invited in a voyeuristic way from the comfort of the independent cinema space to look at the different ways in which ‘the African continent’ watches cinema. I say this especially when questions are raised regarding the place of an African film festival in Scotland, and the responsibility towards the infrastructure of African cinema on the continent that should come with screening these films in the West.

Criticisms have previously been directed at Africa-in-Motion and African film festivals in Europe more generally, and these have been responded to substantially. However many of the questions already posed are different to my own, which are in a sense questions about how Africa-in-Motion sits within its locality and immediate, visible actions that could be put in place. And so I conclude this review, looking back on ten years and projecting towards a future ten years, with my own series of questions: where has the previous space for experimental films gone; how can the organisational team of the festival be diversified; how can Africa-in-Motion (and the wider film network in Scotland) work to promote more African cinema in other film festivals and mainstream programming across Scotland; and what opportunities can Africa-in-Motion offer to PoC filmmakers in Scotland, especially young practitioners? There may not be a substantial number of filmmakers of colour in Scotland, but if this is not encouraged and invested in, it is unlikely to change.

It’s the economy stupid, N°3

On Twitter, T.O. Molefe announced that our new weekly series #ItsTheEconomyStupid is “My new favourite thing.” And you know, we love affirmation. So, here for T.O. and the rest of you is number 3. 

(1) This week we read the transcribed version of an incredible speech given by Alex De Waal in Addis Ababa. The speech was given to the 2015/2016 Cohort of the Next Generation of Social Sciences in Africa fellows. In the speech, De Waal “outlines systematic problems with framings of African political and economic issues” by western academics working on Africa. He takes particular aim at economists and political scientists:

“[T]he state of knowledge about African economics and politics is poor because in the higher reaches of the western academies, the focus is not on generating accurate information, but on inferring causal associations at a high level of abstraction, from datasets. And that those datasets are in fact far too weak for any such conclusions to be drawn.

Second, the structure of academic rewards and careers systematically disadvantages those who either do not have the skills or capacities for this kind of high-end quantitative endeavor (although it is profoundly flawed), or have serious misgivings about it. One result of this is a severe dissonance between actual lived experience, and academic work validated by the academy.”

Frequent readers of Africa Is A Country know how much this bothers us.

(2) Relatedly, we are currently re-reading Charles Chukwuma Soludo’s and Thandika Mkandawire’s edited volume from 1999 “Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment”. One of the recommendations of the book, based on the disastrous results of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), was a call for African voices to be at the front and center of development thinking about the continent. After all, many African intellectuals (economists, political scientists, civil society, etc…) opposed SAPs right from the beginning but their voices were drowned out.

Sadly, as demonstrated by De Waal’s speech above, little has changed in the 16 years since Soludo’s and Mkandawire’s important volume.  

(3) In an attempt to preserve scarce foreign currency and help the struggling economy, authorities in Nigeria have embarked on a #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira Twitter campaign. If you (like us) can’t read hashtags, then what you simply need to know is that the campaign seeks to stop the free-fall of the Naira (Nigeria’s currency) by encouraging Nigerians to buy locally manufactured goods.  

(4) Nigerian economist Nonso Obikili thinks the #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira strategy won’t work. And it’s not because most Nigerians are not on Twitter. 

(5) To compound Nigeria’s economic woes, President Muhammadu Buhari in a meeting with the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia this past week said “the days of Nigeria as a big oil producer with plenty of money are gone”. He’s probably right. The price of oil, Nigeria’s biggest export, has fallen precipitously. There’s little hope that  the price will recover anytime soon.     

(6) The Zambian Parliament this past week approved an increase in the external debt ceiling from K60bn (about $6bn) to K160bn (about $14bn). The external debt ceiling should, in principle, limit how much external debt is accumulated by the government. However, this is the second time in under a year that the Zambian parliament has approved a lifting of the ceiling – this time around, the ceiling has more than doubled. This begs the question: why even have a ceiling if it’s going to be lifted anyway?

(7) This is the general problem of forcing the copying of what looks like a great thing from somewhere else in the world and pasting it in a place where the context is likely to be different. A parliament should offer checks. But how effective is this mechanism for offering checks if MPs, especially in some of our countries, tend to be easily “persuaded” to vote with the ruling party?

And we are almost 100% certain that an external clipboard-carrying consultant happily ticked-off “yes” on the questionnaire asking whether Zambia had a debt ceiling rule.

Thandika Mkandawire has called this copy and paste mentality “institutional monocroping”.   

(8) We are not surprised by the obnoxiously high earnings of corporate executives in South Africa as revealed in the table below from Moneyweb (the table shows total annual earnings for executive directors whose companies are listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange).



Hendrik du Toit, Executive Director at financial services company Investec, received total annual compensation of R80million (we think this is for 2015 but Moneyweb doesn’t make it clear). For comparison’s sake, the most generous minimum wage stipulated for domestic workers in South Africa implies an annual pay of around R30,000. Do the math. Notice also how underrepresented certain demographic groups are on this list?  

(9) More on inequality, a new publication called “The Origins of the Superrich: The Billionaire Characteristic Database” covered on the blog Conversable Economist finds that “extreme wealth is growing faster in emerging markets than in advanced countries”.

(10) One of the biggest concerns in applied economics (especially with Randomized Controlled Trials) is the issue of external validity. That is, are the results of obtained from a sample of households or villages in Kenya generalizable to the entire continent? Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics last year, doesn’t think they are. But are academic economists packaging their journal findings as if their results were generalizable? In other words, do academic economists think that Africa is a country?

David Evans over at the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog has crunched the numbers and doesn’t think so. We are convinced by Evans’ number crunching that Africa is mostly not a country for academic economists. But we wonder how many “policy consultants” or “policy-trepreneurs” are going round selling Rwanda’s evidence to Zambia or vice-versa. We can’t count the number of times we’ve sat in policy seminars or in policy meetings and someone has said “Malawi should do A because A works in Kenya”.   

(11) Finally, last week we had much to say about the ambiguous impact of corruption on economic outcomes. Now comes a new book written by Kaushik Basu, who’s currently the World Bank’s Chief Economist and former economic advisor to the government of India, arguing that petty corruption saved India from experiencing the full brunt of the financial crisis.

Weekend Music Break No.92

It’s time again for another Weekend Music Break with Africa is a Country! Enjoy this round of tunes and visuals from the continent and its sphere of cultural influence.

The music thing that excited me most all week was coming to find out that Booba joined Sidiki Diabate on stage last December in Paris during his rendition of “Inianafi Debena“, and launched into a live mashup of that song and “Validée“, making all right in the world of Africa-Europe sampling/inspiration/dedication relations; another Bambara-themed hip hop collaboration, Kinté, Le Prince Héritier and Zarkawi Djatta are a revelation out of Cote d’Ivoire (h/t Afropop); Saharawi singer Aziza Brahim releases a video for “Calles de Dajla” to promote her latest album, and to celebrate her people still forced to live outside of their rightful land; A more explicit call to political action is embedded in the video for Jackson Wahengo’s “Eliko la Namibia”; Sammus delivers a sermon on higher education (and mental health) that I’m sure some Africa is a Country readers can relate to; Show Dem Camp, show up with a sunny love-pop video; Throes + The Shine add a third leg to their team up in the form of DRC via Montreal rapper Pierre Kwenders, on their song “Capuca”; the remix of YCEE’s monster hit “Jagaban” featuring Olamide, gets its own video to go alongside the original; I missed the video for this Samini and Popcaan collaboration from two years ago, so here it is now!; and finally, Runtown last year teamed up with Uhuru for a really smooth Naija and South Africa collaboration to take you into Sunday morning!

Happy Weekend!

Rearranging the furniture at Stellenbosch


Stellenbosch has been a crucial part of the decolonization drama that swept South Africa in 2015. The past year has highlighted how this town in the Western Cape struggles with the contradictions of its selective historical amnesia. Stellenbosch persists in allegorizing itself as a banal blend of pastoral and techno-futuristic progress, at the heart of which lies a university whose ivory tower is stained by its past incubation of Apartheid’s grand designers and its present parochial protection of white Afrikaans culture.

But while one narrative of the town’s history is proudly made visible via Cape Dutch buildings and old vineyards, there is an insidious will to forget the inconvenient meanings Stellenbosch has had historically. Nobody here wants to say too much about how the university incubated racists, or how the spatial politics of the town bear the very visible marks of forced removal and unjust dispossession. Beneath the narcotizing whitewashed farmers markets and the cack-handed gestures towards placing itself in the present, a deeper and more richly sedimented history lies buried.

This sediment is so deeply buried that it only seeps out when pressure is applied. 2015 was the year that political activism shook Stellenbosch’s windows and rattled its doors. Amid the wider seismic jolts experienced around South Africa, as the Rhodes Must Fall movement and other coterminous groups brought to the nation’s attention how many of our public spaces are decorated by problematic memorializations, Stellenbosch was not spared.


Indeed, Stellenbosch’s bewilderingly phantasmal position in the story white Afrikaans South Africa tells about itself was rudely jolted when students took to the streets. The town and the university’s cosy relationship with white Afrikaner nationalism means it harbours a particularly stubborn streak of ahistorical nostalgia for a glorious (misremembered) enterprising, resourceful and entrepreneurial white Afrikaans past, one in which the stories of Black and Coloured people formed desultory footnotes.

The conscious and unconscious claim of ownership lodged by white Stellenbosch was brought into uncomfortable conflict, then, during a year when the literal and figurative whiteness of the space was brought under extensive scrutiny. Given the sackcloth-and-ashes weeping that followed, it was easy to assume that this was the first time that anything might be termed “political” had disturbed the sleep of Stellenbosch’s privileged. What was happening was a vigorous disruption of the thuggish racialized mythmaking that dominated Stellenbosch’s cultural memory.

The measures to correct the misremembering that has shaped Stellenbosch have been vigorous, and equally vigorously contested by those who would have the town remain as it was: a paean to a South African history, a history those who defended it had claimed as unassailable. In ways that embarrassed and dismayed, the young and old rushed forward in demented and parochial ways to protect Stellenbosch as symbol. The rest is social media history.


What these developments demonstrate is the pervasive power that comes in occupying space, filling it with your symbols and shoring it up against loss. The currents of thought that sacralised racial separation in twentieth-century South Africa persist in places like Stellenbosch, though their exponents may have been excoriated. These currents do so because they are consecrated in museums, where things are exhibited until they cease to please, at which point they are relegated to storerooms.

Museum storerooms are their own exhibits, of course. They shelter things provisionally (the statue of Rhodes that was removed waits in a shrouded room), keeping what still has value for someone. The decision to archive a statue, a bust, or the myriad items that signal a lived history – a pen, a chair – is a curatorial one. When Stellenbosch University removed a plaque honouring HF Verwoerd from one of its buildings, it declared that the item would be lodged in the university archives:

The removal of the plaque forms part of the assessment of all visual elements and symbols on campus, among which the names of buildings, to determine obstacles in the path of unity that should be removed or contextualised.

Note the oddly neutered language (“visual elements and symbols”) that yields nothing (and thus a lot) of the university’s ideological position, and the banality of “the path of unity”, a path seemingly littered with historical bric-a-brac to trip up the unwary. The gloss misleads, drawing our attention away from the fact that these objects continue to be given safe harbour.



Greer Valley is a conceptual artist whose latest exhibit, The Chair, seeks to shift the logic structures that work to obscure Stellenbosch’s past. Currently running at the Sasol Museum until the end of February, The Chair performs the self-reflexive work of making visible what has been hidden from view for hundreds of years. Valley’s polemic takes particular aim at Stellenbosch University’s Museum, its displays and collections. The Chair presents alternative readings of these collections, the better to expose how museums collude in the foregrounding of certain kinds of knowledge production.


Valley’s installation opens up intriguing questions around how archives are conceived of, constructed and curated. In particular, the exhibition examines how material culture – the historical flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the shore of the present – is often encoded with non-neutral meanings, by constitutively derailing the artifacts so encoded. Valley’s installation forcefully foregrounds the intellectual indolence that lurks behind the ways that traditional African knowledge was defined as the vaguely monstrous Other of a supposedly civilized Europeanizing centre.


The installation asks what might be at stake when a museum draws delineations between Social Anthropology and Cultural History. In so doing, it challenges the processes that legitimized Apartheid and the regime’s supporting white Afrikaans histories at the expense of other cultural paradigms.

The exhibition opened on a balmy Stellenbosch night, with a performance by the Inzync collective, an ebullient outfit who perform their resistance to Stellenbosch’s conservatism via spoken-word poetry. The collective is part of a changing poetic economy in Stellenbosch, derailing the town’s solipsistic and narrowly defined ideas of what constitutes poetry. The four poets lead us through the exhibition, each of their poems a calling card that recontextualizes the violence of the original museum curations.


In the main room, a forbidding wooden table with a leather top dominates. A grey picture on the wall compels notice: white men, staring out at us. On one side of the table sits a chair that belonged to DF Malan – therein lies the name of the installation. It’s challenged by a traditional Nama carved stool, a thematic that runs throughout the installation. In another part of the room, emcee Adrian Different stages a rap battle against a bust of DF Malan. The performance of resistance via the figure of the emcee is particularly well-struck, connecting the histories of emceeing and rapping to this very white space.

What this exhibition has to say about objects is worth hearing. Malan’s chair – decentralized in the installation – is a site of meaning production. As Visual Arts lecturer Ernst Van der Wal argues, “It is a witness, it is a supporting object as it helped to upkeep and maintain a person and his ideologies at a certain time, and after that it was bestowed to this university with the idea that what he, Malan, as politician and bureaucrat did for South Africa was worthy of being protected, remembered and saved for posterity.”


The Chair exemplifies a broad social shift that compels us to look beyond the frames, that we might better see the set of structuring ideas at work behind the reordering of the historical shards. It does this with an invigorating urgency, drawing its animating impulse from the youthful politics coursing through South Africa’s veins.

After #MuseveniDecides

RUB Studio

This past week Edward Ssebuwufu opened his Friday evening radio show his usual music, a Ugandan pop song simply titled “Africa.” The lyrics are a wry commentary on the politics of his native nation—“who can buy our country, we’ve put it up for sale” — and for Ssebuwufu they had once again proven to be prophetic. It was February 19th, the day after Uganda held presidential elections, and despite allegations of corruption and fraud it appeared that Yoweri Museveni would be back for a fifth term in office.

Ssebuwufu was not actually in Uganda last week, nor were most of his listeners. The show was on Radio Uganda Boston, which broadcasts worldwide on the Internet from a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts—a historic mill city in the northeast United States that has become a major center for the Ugandan diaspora.

But while the audience is scattered, their attention and sentiments are not. Once Ssebuwufu took his place behind the broadcast desk and announced the latest election figures, he opened the phone lines — punching two buttons on the mixing board to bring the first guest on air. It was a man in Norway asking which polling centers were reporting Museveni’s purported victory. A second caller in Maryland wanted to know what could be done next to challenge the results. A third claimed that the government was just waiting for everyone to go to sleep so that they could swap the numbers in Museveni’s favor. According to Ssebuwufu — who had been at the station for seven hours already that day — this has been the general tone in the diaspora: frustration, and disappointment.

And not without good reason: the elections in Uganda this past week have been mired by irregularities. Radio stations were censored and social media blocked; opposition candidates were repeatedly arrested and protests quelled while state funds fed the incumbent’s campaign; and reports of vote-buying and pre-checked ballots led the US State Department to announce: “The Ugandan People deserve better.”

Despite Museveni’s history of election tampering many in the diaspora had hoped that this time would be different. As Ssebuwufu describes it, that hope is a personal one. “If you ask any Ugandan, they will tell you: ‘I am here, I’m working—one time I want to go back home.’ That means that most of the Ugandans are living outside Uganda not because they want to, but because the situation back home is not good.” For now at least, that situation is not likely to change.

Edward Ssebuwufu

There was a lot of disappointment in Waltham on February 19. Freddie Kibuuka works the counter at Karibu, a Ugandan restaurant just off the city’s main drag. He is 29, which means that he has only known one president in his lifetime. “We felt this was our time to take power. We thought 30 years is too much.” Kibuuka spoke softly, the sense of defeat showing on his face.

At one of the tables, John Nsubuga expressed a more cynical view. Gesturing with a paper coffee cup, he announced: “You can never vote them out, only fight them out.” I heard a similar sentiment next door, where Gerald Mutiaba works as an accountant and manages his own Internet radio station. “I don’t know why people got so surprised when he came out to be the winner.”

Mutiaba placed Museveni’s reign in a larger context: “It is a trend, it has been happening. Look at Mugabe, he did it, Gaddafi did it, Saddam … Maybe we need to learn a lot from history, because it tends to repeat itself.”

But whether surprised or resigned, hopeful or skeptical, everyone I met was also concerned for  Uganda’s stability, and wanted calm, despite the injustice. Ssebuwufu told me that he has been closing out his radio show with a different song: a version of “Give Peace A Chance” released last year by the aging South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

Ssebuwufu’s message to his listeners—whether in Uganda or the diaspora—is simple: “We are Ugandans. This is a process which comes every five years. It comes and it goes.” He adds: “Please don’t fight each other. I think we’ve walked that path for so long, enough is enough.”

The Friday night broadcast wrapped up at 9:30pm. Seven thousand miles away the sun was about to rise over Kampala. That immense distance is not as far as it once was, as Ssebuwufu’s program illustrates. The election unfolded in real time—so even though diasporic Ugandans could not vote from abroad, they could still follow official announcements, instantly share reports with relatives, and air their own views.

I had previously spent time at Radio Uganda Boston researching their music programming and its ability to connect the stations’ dispersed listeners, but coming back during the election season really drew out for me the extent to which Internet technology affects the meaning, experience and limits of being in the diaspora.

The very concept of a diaspora has always been defined in part by the existence of a shared homeland—whether real or imagined—that is preserved as a memory or myth. But for Ssebuwufu’s generation Uganda is much more than a myth; it’s a reality that they can see, hear, engage, and influence. And yet, they are still removed—protected to some degree, and also powerless; it’s still “back home” as Ssebuwufu likes to say. The election seemed to highlight that paradox of being both intimately connected and physically separated. Ssebuwufu’s listeners couldn’t take to the streets and most could not even cast ballots, so instead they called in and asked him: “What can be done next?”

“What can I do?”

Ssebuwufu didn’t have all the answers. There wasn’t much he could do either, except to keep broadcasting, to give his community an outlet for their frustration, and to hope for the best. “We are just waiting to see what happens, and we keep on praying that it’s not so bad.”

Abdi Latif Ega and the rejection of the ‘African’ novel

 Zachary RosenAbdi Latif Ega in Harlem. Credit: Zachary Rosen

It’s not an uncommon sight to find Abdi Latif Ega, cup of steaming tea in hand, strolling through the streets of Harlem in the afternoon sun, stopping to converse with a range of acquaintances along the way. Ega, a contributor to Africa is a Country, is a Somali-American novelist whose first book Guban breathes life into Somalia’s vast and intricate cultural landscape through the journeys of its characters. It’s a refreshing contrast to the barbaric representations Somalia frequently experiences from the Western media.

Now in the process of writing his second novel, Musa, Ega has launched an Indiegogo campaign to support the creative production of the book. More than just a writer, Ega embraces being a cultural worker who subverts the pigeonholing of African narratives in the mainstream publishing industry by self-publishing his work. In doing so, his writing transcends limitation by not being beholden to what a publisher deems is the  marketability of Somali and immigrant lives.

Consider contributing to this fiercely independent thinker’s campaign to create Musa and read our interview below where Ega speaks about creating complex characters, the relationship of images to creative writing and the state of African literature today.


What kinds of issues move you to write?

My writing comes from being moved to say something about injustice. It’s almost reactionary to it, as a reflex to it. There is a colossal, almost belligerent continuum through history of the elite who everything seems to be working for at the cost of most of humanity. So I don’t see myself particularly as a writer, but part of many things that involve culture; a cultural worker meaning averse to the idea that the writer is put on this pedestal on the back of a book where no one encounters him unless they come to an event or something like that. A cultural worker is a part of the village that creates to enhance the village. In essence as a cultural worker there’s some fundamental injustice or wrong narrative that I’m trying to amend, represent, change; there’s activism and it’s sort of like “writing is fighting” which Ismael Reed says all the time.

When people are coming to appreciate a collection of writing, they’re often invested in the lives of the characters. How do you conceive of your characters? And, how do they accomplish the visions that you have for your stories?

Well I think it’s not difficult for me to find characters. My characters are generally composites, sometimes caricatures of maybe 40 or 50 different types of traits. Perhaps one character can encompass three or four different kinds of bad traits that you feel in one person, like greed and avarice. Sometimes it’s toned down, sometimes exaggerated, but nonetheless a lot of the ingredients come from things that I have seen or intuitively add.

So they’re not alien to our existential, but at the same time the empty page has its own magic and sometimes you find that a character will veer off and do other things. At that point the plot will work as a harness to keep them in a certain vision so that they don’t run away completely from what it is you want to say. So there’s many ways where the character is unknown to you and they speak to you not necessarily by talking, but by inserting themselves in the work. I generally see such; shadows, silhouettes. A lot of it is also in the subconscious, that comes into play; the excavation of the archive.

Things we don’t remember that are locked in our subconscious and we need to delve into that place where the story will open up to you. That’s why it’s an excavation.

So as you’re excavating the archive, do you find yourself in conversation with writers whose work you have been influenced by?

Yeah, I think we’re somewhat collections of what we’ve read. I believe the writing is a legitimate son, or daughter of reading. So you are influenced by many people and certain lines and how that previous author did a certain thing in a description. And this doesn’t really revolve only around writers but it also revolves around poets, who are also writers in another form, musicians, artists, certain paintings you have seen or photographs or movies that capitivate your imagery.

How do photographs in particular move you? How do you translate your experience of looking at images into your writing?

Well, I think it relates in the sense of the reality of the photographs. There’s nothing closer to reality in that moment, that second or two seconds, it’s still life. And so when you’re writing an entire story from a period which is historic, you’re also in some ways creating a much larger photograph with much more detail.

So images are some of the ingredients from which the story coalesces. It seems when the reader experiences that story, they’re also recreating those images again on their own. Images are reborn then through the imaginative process of reading.

It’s a dream sequence. That’s why sometimes your imagination looks better than the movie that’s made of the book because your imagination can be so much more fascinating than what the director decided.

So what is Musa, in your new work, fighting for?

Musa is a spoof on white supremacy. It’s called Musa after the prophet Moses and it deals with a lot themes; racism, institutional marginalization of immigrants particularly of African descent, which I am. The problems of immigration; which means paperwork, legalities during, before and after the war on terror, and how one pays into the capitalist coffers of the system. There’s a duration of eight years or nine years where you might not be able to visit your family or leave the country. Those are definitely the different sides of this which have a lot of problems. I want to represent myself and the activism behind this is that there is a particular story that has not been done to even approximate the colorful lives that we’ve lived. I’m not a son of a diplomat or anything like that. I’m not from the upper class so this is a very different approach. I don’t think any experience is less than the other, but I think the question of representation, where one becomes the representative of everybody, is the issue.

You seem to also take a strong stance against more traditional publishing houses and a style of writing that some writers may perform to be published. There’s a sense that you are not interested in fitting that corporate mold. So what is your relationship with the publishing world?

My relationship is from my previous work, Guban for which I got a traditional agent.

The problem then was that what mainstream publishing was excited to publish were things in my view that were demeaning to African personalities, and particularly the image of Africa. They were more interested in producing works that had a lot to do with child soldiers, works that have something to do with pornographic famine, poverty, violence those things. In the case of Somalia it was all about warlords, pirates and terrorists. Guban is basically a response to all of that caricature and demeaning of the African personality. This is the 21st century, it is not Treasure Island. This marriage between mainstream publishing and media has often determined the things being published. So when Guban started off to actually pose a counter-narrative to these ignoble caricatures of African people, it didn’t fit what people were looking for. That is the relationship between me and mainstream publishing.

I think that [self-publishing] is something that is becoming more and more available. The people who are doing literally criticism whether they are academics or not are going through this amnesia as if it doesn’t exist. People are buying and reading more than in any other time, works that are independently published. Imagine a place like The New York Times will not review a self-published book. How realistic is that in this day and age? My experience has taught me that I think nothing in my life has been mainstream. I’m happy to put out my own work, in that I have no regrets over the work itself. There’s a certain amount of integrity in the work. That it is aligned to my politics, it’s aligned to the things that I want to speak about and I am not necessarily changing anything to pander to any market place.

You’ve alluded to corporate media feeling very comfortable with boxes and one of those contested boxes is the mythical beast of ‘African writing’. Over the last few years there’s been a lot of conversation about ‘African writing’ means.

Some writers and artists of African heritage want to say their works are art first and then ‘African.’ They don’t want to be put on the African shelf, they want to be put alphabetical. Another faction claims their ancestry and speaks of how they define for themselves what an ‘African’ experience can be. Where do you see this conversation now?

There’s a lot of projection onto the African writer in that there’s always someone trying to define what they should be doing. I think there’s an inordinate amount of paternalism that is directed towards African writing in general. The second thing is there are sort of hardened divisions between orality and also a simplistic view of African writing as beginning with Heinemann [African Writer Series], which is textual. How do you look at something in the Somali language, which is oral, or in any other language which is African and disassociate that literature with its Africanness? That’s a very difficult proposition. You cannot say a book in Somali, written from Somali poetry that comes from a long line of centuries, is not Somali. It’s difficult to remove yourself. But the appraisal of it is where the problem is. How, for example, somebody who’s writing in Chicago, all of a sudden becomes a writer who’s universal, rather than provincial and no one says this is not a universal work? I think that’s also where the problem is linked to white supremacy in that, certain literatures are not considered universal as the European or the Western one. In other words, the human condition seems to be located only in the North or the West. If all was fair and there were no limitations of universality as a writer, then of course there would be no problem. So, I don’t think it’s a negation of being an African, I think it’s a negation of being thought of as less than any writer from any country or continent. It’s a rejection of limitation.

The Free State

There are so many lessons from (and horrors) from the violence against black students at South Africa’s University of the Free State (for background, see here)  but here are my own observations:

(1) While movements like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have been powerful and poetic, the willingness by white Afrikaner youth at theUniversity of the Free State (UFS) to resort to brute violence to protect their interests and the level of organization displayed (availability of weapons, etcetera) suggests that the kind of decentralized, non-hierarchical, diffused, and seemingly “leaderless” mode of organization may well be inadequate for unsettling the much more organized economic and near-paramilitary concern that has dared to make itself visible in a public higher education institution 22 years after the fall of apartheid. And this is a broader issue concerning who, politically, fully demilitarized as a concession to democracy and who disbanded structures of local and grassroots organization and who did not. I think UFS shows us who’s been waiting and preparing for the moment of violent racial confrontation in South Africa and who will not be swayed by the poetics of an alternative mode of engagement
(2) The rise of#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, as I argued a few months ago, although necessary, its location in Cape Town (like at UCT) and Johannesburg (Wits University) and at Rhodes University not only eclipsed the ongoing struggles of poorer students at schools (the former technikons and “historically black universities”) like Vaal University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Tswane University of Technology, but also the struggles of students in the vocational college sector, who have been raising issues of financial and academic exclusion for years. The bodies, lives, and experiences of Wits University and UCT students were ‘sanctified’ in ways that the bodies and hardships of poorer students in the countries post-school system were not.
(3) Linked to the above (and here the parallels with the French peasantry in the wake of the French Revolution are instructive), what UFS shows us is that the shoes that have done the disproportionate and possibly more sordid pinching of the toes of black students in South Africa’s universities has not, in fact, been at the leafy Cape Towns and and Johannesburg schools, but has remained largely unchanged and unchallenged in the quiet enclaves where the level and type of racism backed by the ever-present threat of force and violence has been much more acute. Like the French peasants, who became the squeakiest wheel in Europe, lending their weight to revolutionary fervor, the students at Cape Town, Grahamstown, and Johannesburg, as we can see, have hardly had to live in a context of such abiding physical threat and they could in fact be as vocal (and daring) as what they have been precisely because the nature of their beast operates at the level of symbolic and structural violence, not sheer force. Like the French peasants, these students ( and this is not intended to diminish the validity and urgency of their cause) can hardly be said to be the most oppressed.

(4) Finally, what’s emerged at UFS can’t be addressed by the UFS’s Vice Chancellor Jonathan Jansen or by the students and I wonder even whether or not it can be resolved by means other than violence and greater force. Those images of black students volleyed between the kicks of burly white boys have stirred a different kind of feeling inside me, and one that I would not have expected to experience 22 years after democracy. This takes me back to Point 1 above: who demilitarized and did so far too soon?

Football and power in Colombia: in bed since 1948

When thirty years ago Noemí Sanín – then Minister of Communications of Colombia – asked the directors of the main news media outlets in the country to stop their reports from the burning Palace of Justice and, instead, to broadcast a boring Millonarios-Unión Magdalena game, she was not being innovative. Football has been, throughout the country’s political history, an uncontested panic button for those in power.

We only have to remember the origin of the professionalization of Football in Colombia in 1948. A great deal of it was due to the necessity to give the people a civilized, weekly entertainment to ease the atmosphere that had been heating up since the murder of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán — and the resulting riots on April 9th of that year.

So what did the government do? It allowed team owners to use the state’s infrastructure, and sold them dollars at a preferential rate, so the professional tournament could begin by August. Months later, news arrived of the strike in Argentina, which opened the door to poach star players from that country’s teams. Thanks to the dollars given by the state, along with other resources, Di Stéfano, Pedernera, Rial, Pontoni and others arrived to Colombian football. Ours was an openly pirate league between 1949 and 1953, which meant, among other things, that clubs were created without enough assets to face lean periods.

Years later, in 1984 when the Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was murdered by narcos, the Belisario Betancur government wanted to show its claws, so said it would take steps to eradicate the mafia influence in many areas, including sport. But they were only words that didn’t become facts. Especially in an era when, as we now know, drug cartels controlled directly or indirectly a good amount of the Colombian league teams.

Five years later, on Friday August 18th, 1989, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was murdered. The qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup in Italy were scheduled to start the following Sunday in Barranquilla. Francisco Maturana’s Colombia was to play Ecuador, and many thought that the game should be played as a balm to calm the pain of loosing the president. It was out of the question to mention the paradox that that National Team was made up of players that had reached a superlative level thanks to the investments from “controversial businessmen,” who were the same people that had fueled the death machine that caused the end of Galán.

It took the murder of a referee, Álvaro Ortega, in Medellín weeks later for the government to feel that they had enough, and the Colombian league of 1989 was cancelled. Criticisms poured in from everywhere. Maybe the fiercest one came from Francisco Maturana, who said in his biography, Hombre Pacho, that Football and politics were separate issues, and that the show had to go on. A plethora of good intentions followed, along with the announcement of requirements each team would have to meet to guarantee legality and transparency. But good intentions were just good intentions. Months later, the 1990 tournament began, and the same people were still doing the same things.

There were other milestones. The 2001 Copa América “of peace,” was used to resuscitate the agonizing peace talks with the Farc guerrilla in El Caguán. Up until ten days before its start it was uncertain if the tournament would take place. This was due to a series of terrorist attacks  happening around the country, in particular in Bogotá. Years later, Vice President Francisco Santos thought that there would be nothing like a World Cup to introduce Colombia as the Eden-like society we would become, thanks to President Álvaro Uribe’s seguridad democrática policies. And so the U-20 World Cup came to Colombia in 2011, a tournament for which the government invested 210,000 million pesos (equivalent then to 112 million dollars) to, mostly rebuild VIP areas in stadiums, including elevators that could lift the prominent bellies of FIFA  executives. All of this was done, let’s not forget, by order of Jack Warner, the former Concacaf head now in jail. And how could we forget that Angelino Garzón – the first Juan Manuel Santos Vice President – helped to secure a 50,000 million pesos loan (25 million dollars) in 2010 from the Financial Development Fund Findeter to save the Colombian league teams. Would he have done the same for pig farmers?

And between milestones, there were also those little details that guarantee strength in a relationship: invitations from the world of Football to the officers responsible for the surveillance and control of teams; presidents that welcomed teams under legal investigation into their offices; high-ranking officers that would intercede so that an extradition order doesn’t ruin their beloved toy; and honorable court justices that let slip legal suits that seek to protect fundamental rights, so they don’t lose on ticket sales, while they were  part of Dimayor – the Colombian football governing body.

It is a sick relationship, but very few, not even fans, want to be aware of it. Just like sausages, no one wants to know what are their team’s victories made of. Opinion leaders showcase high ethical standards in their usual platforms, but in the stadium they are much more flexible.

The biggest problem is that someone’s sons are the ones effected by this arrangement. They are footballers, in particular those of low or medium profiles, that when their rights are not respected, and they ask the state for assistance, they are met with the message that the corresponding officer is  on a trip to Barranquilla, invited by the Colombian Football Federation.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in FútbolRed and is translated here with permission.

It’s the economy stupid, N°2

Here’s episode 2 in our new series. If you missed the first instalment and the rationale behind, click here.

(1) Suppose you are a poor country that also has wide-scale corruption, what should you do first? Target scarce resources to fight corruption and hope that growth follows thereafter or grow first and then hope that corruption declines? It appears that the empirical evidence doesn’t give much guidance on what to do. This from Bjorn Lomborg’s Project Syndicate column this past week: “[E]xperts do not agree on whether good governance or development should come first. Historically, good institutions such as secure property rights and the rule of law were seen as the single most important factor driving variation in the wealth of countries, and more corruption was associated with lower growth. But more recent analyses have shown that it could just as easily be that higher wealth and economic growth lead to better governance.”

(2) Even more, conscious efforts at fighting corruption are hardly successful. This again from Lomborg: “A study of 80 countries where the World Bank tried to reduce corruption revealed improvement in 39%, but deterioration in 25%. More disturbing is that all of the countries the World Bank didn’t help had similar success and failure rates – suggesting that the Bank’s programs made no difference.”

(3) More on corruption: A few weeks ago, Transparency International released their 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index report and African countries were singled out as being some of the most corrupt in the world. This is not to deny that corruption is a big issue on the continent, just as its more sophisticated nature is a big issue in Western countries. But what all this discussion neglects to mention is that there is currently a scholarly debate as to whether the Corruption Perceptions Index tells us anything meaningful about the extent of corruption, particularly in the developing world. (We also wrote about this in 2010).

(4) Is all this focus on corruption a red herring? A sort-of “Anglo-American fetish”? After all, who can confidently say corruption was nil when the West was rising?

(5) We were disturbed to learn that Malawi has a 60 year old Colonial-era Tax Treaty with the U.K. that makes it easy for U.K. companies to limit their tax obligations in Malawi. The treaty was “negotiated” in 1955 when Malawi was not even Malawi yet. Malawi (or Nyasaland, as it was known then) was represented in the negotiations, not by a Malawian, but by Geoffrey Francis Taylor Colby, a U.K. appointed Governor of Nyasaland. You can’t make this stuff up.

(6) Back in 2007, the cognoscenti were lauding Ghana as the next African star performer. Ghana then followed this up by going an international borrowing binge. It turns out that much of Ghana’s performance was built on pillars of sand, well sort of.

(7) Over at the LSE Africa Blog was this thought-provoking piece on the informal sector in Africa. The piece argues that the informal sector is important for Africa’s development. Whereas we don’t deny that thinking about the informal sector should be part and parcel of a broad development strategy on the continent, we are a bit apprehensive about the potential for the sector on its own to drive self-sustaining growth. We wrote about this last year.

(8) Another one, from the LSE Africa Blog about the “brain drain” in Africa.

(9) Here’s Dani Rodrik talking about some of the adverse effects of so-called “Free Trade” Agreements.

(10) Talking about the adverse effects of free trade, there appears, sadly, to be a link between free trade and mortality.

(11) Who knew that China, a big creditor to the world, was itself heavily indebted.

(12) Finally, Admiral Ncube, a Zimbabwean aid worker has penned this brilliant poem on aid work as an insult to the poor. An excerpt:

Experts have risen who have not been poor
Whose studies and surveys bring no change
Whose experiments and pilots insult the poor
Whose terms and concepts, tools always change
An industry of sorts – an insult to the poor.

 The part of Ncube’s poem talking about “experiments and pilots” as insults to the poor, reminded us of this story from last year on a most indignifying economic experiment conducted in villages in Western Kenya. We weren’t pleased.

The Fire This Time

While the fight for the 0% fee increase commanded an amazing breadth of support, the subsequent, more radical trajectory of the South African student movement is jilting many sympathizers – including progressives (if you have South African friends, just check your Facebook feed.)  This was certainly the case with the latest action at UCT – in which students erected a shack on campus and burnt colonial, artwork amidst a brutal crackdown by police and private security. While the “Fuck Whites” t-shirt campaign at Wits University only got a few people exercised, the sight of paintings going up in flames has many more debating.

Social media was alight with complaints that students had gone too far, that they were squandering sympathy and that such actions undermined their cause. The latter in particular is a common form of outside commentary: assuming a firm understanding of the students’ long-term goals and the best way of reaching them, and then adjudicating every event in purely tactical terms–whether or not it furthers the cause and thus whether or not it is justified.

It’s quite natural for the Left and for the public in general to debate and prognosticate over movements in which the whole society has a stake. But the above is not a helpful way of doing so. In the first place, it seems premised on erasing the context in which events unfold. It treats the students as a unitary agent – freely choosing its own path and thus morally culpable for all outcomes and externalities. This does violence to the reality of a decentralized, horizontally organized, mass movement – one that erupted suddenly out of wellsprings of suppressed rage, and that has shifted and evolved in response to repression and subversion. Like all radical movements, methods are not always clean or neatly pre-figurative of new ideals, nor should they be. For activists on the ground it’s imperative to fight for them to be aligned with ultimate aims. But for those outside, holding a moral compass to everything that transpires, rather than analyzing real distributions of power and calling attention to the disproportionate violence of the state, is not the course of someone genuinely sympathetic to the aspirations of the movement.

The most unhinged critics suggested a slippery slope from the burning of paintings to Nazism or Fahrenheit 511. Such notions do not bear serious engagement, but since a great many of commentators seem exercised by moral absolutes on the sanctity of art – it’s worth stating the obvious on why context matters, even here. The systematic suppression of art or literature is not something any progressive movement would want to condone – it signifies degeneration and counter-revolution. But no such thing was taking place at UCT, this was not the actions of a state or militarist organization deliberately trying to erase a culture, but another symbolic act of anger on behalf of an subaltern movement persecuting a legitimate struggle for decolonization – a central domain of which is aesthetic. Of course we may wish for a more temperate solution, the relegation of those turgid paintings to some dusty museum, but the reality is that we don’t always have a choice – mass action obeys its own logic. To project a veld fire out of a bonfire on this issue, when the realities of police brutality and exclusion are so immediate, seems not only pedantic but a complete corroboration of what protestors are claiming – that black lives matter less than white insecurities.

Thankfully, the students themselves do not seem much perturbed by these responses – they are viewed as just another predictable instantiation of attempts to police black rage by a sordid establishment. It has been my honest view that such arguments have been overused by some activists – with the result that fraternal critique is not adequately distinguished from hostile denunciation. But those pressing to uncover colonial hangovers behind all of their critics have sadly been validated time and again, and this latest incident will be viewed as no exception. None of this is to suggest that the movement is beyond reproach, that we can totally separate its cause from its means, or that tactics need not be seriously dissected within the ranks and extremist elements held to account. Torching offices and buses is reckless and likely to lead only to further repression – but to equate the rage of the protestors with the official brutality of the state is the bedrock of conservatism.

Boutros-Ghali, more than an Ali G punchline

How to mark the passing of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary General and a major figure of late 20th Century global affairs? Perhaps by appraising the lessons to be learned from his life and work. The world in 2016 presents a set of problems distinct from those faced by Boutros-Ghali as the Cold War fizzled out in the early 1990s. He had hopes for a more just international order, hopes which were thwarted and cast aside, as the US and its NATO allies careered towards a new norm of “humanitarian intervention,” the unending, spreading wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the new migration crisis. So while his contribution to the international political landscape cannot exactly be appraised as a triumph, perhaps the lessons to be learned are from his dashed aspirations. With all of that in mind, we asked a few scholars in international relations to reflect on Boutros-Ghali’s life and career.

Oumar Ba

Boutros-Ghali – the first African to become UN Secretary General, started his tenure at a time of tumultuous world events that left the UN still incapable of creating an efficient organization for a new era. In 1992, the Berlin Wall had already fallen, the East-West divide had dissipated to the point of making it easier to pass UN Security Council resolutions, but the world also entered an era where complex humanitarian crises meant that peacekeeping operations meant no longer merely sending blue helmets to monitor cease-fires. These were the times of Boutros-Ghali.

Somalia and the US response to it in 1993 pitted Boutros-Ghali against the Clinton administration. The following year, Rwanda revealed the extent to which inaction had paralyzed the UNSC, eager to issue mandates without appropriate resources.  For instance, as the Rwandan genocide was unfolding, the UN decided to reduce its presence from 2,500 to 200 troops, with the mandate of helping the parties negotiate to stop the killings. This failure certainly can’t be squarely imputed to Boutros-Ghali, but rather to the UNSC members. In 1995, Bosnia proved what everyone already knew: the UN was utterly incapable of delivering on its promise to preserve international security.

Yet, Boutros-Ghali had the perfect profile to be UN Secretary General, if there ever was one: African, Arab, Christian, Francophile, seasoned diplomat, international law scholar. His ambitious 1992 Agenda for Peace provided a blueprint for UN reforms, to address the new challenges of the post-Cold War politics and conflicts. It called for a more robust peacekeeping force on standby, with wider mandates and responsibilities in not only preserving peace, but also creating it, where necessary. But it would soon be obvious that the powers to be were not interested in implementing such agenda.

With the Clinton administration’s decision to bar him from serving a second term – and Madeleine Albright as the executioner of that decision – Boutros-Ghali left a UN that still struggled to draw a new blueprint for the 21st century. The man who wanted but failed to make the post of UN Secretary General more secretary than general later returned to the francophone world as the first Secretary General of the Organization Internationale de la Francohphonie.

AR-160219727Boutros-Ghali and Mandela

Lina Benabdallah

That Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s legacy is tainted with major failures in humanitarian interventions is a mischaracterization of his role within the bigger picture. The pitfalls and disappointments of the post-Cold War United Nations should be placed within the context of larger issues that permeated that era. From a Western-centric perspective, the Cold War (not universally all that cold) was a success since no bullets were fired. From a non-Western perspective, conflicts such as the one in Somalia or Cambodia were direct echoes of the realpolitik going on between the two superpowers. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the first UN secretary general of the post-Cold War global order and inherited a completely different organization. Was he set up for failure?

In hindsight, it is clear that the UN’s transition from a Cold War sabbatical mode to a more proactive international role had to face a few bumps along the way. Boutros-Ghali walking into his term viewed the early 1990s not as a time to celebrate the end of the Cold War; but as the duty of the international ‘community’ to repair the damage done at the Cold War’s margins, in Africa (mainly). He writes in his book Unvanquished: a U.S.-U.N. Saga “I had been elected as Africa’s candidate to take “Africa’s turn” in the job of UN secretary-general. Because of this, (…) I committed myself to try to advance the cause of the continent.”

In my view Boutros-Ghali treated the UN as a post-colonial body which was tasked to respond to issues primarily in the Global South, and specifically in Africa. He reiterated in several instances, controversially, that loss of life to conflicts in Europe and North America should not be valued more than those in Africa and Asia. He reportedly described the conflict in former Yugoslavia as “the war of the rich.” Needless to say such statements earned him heavy criticism.

His stand with the ‘wretched of the Earth’ in the Global South was admired by many, but the existential dilemma of his organization and its financial dependence on U.S. congress tied his hands. For US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Clinton administration, Boutros-Ghali had taken a little too seriously his title as general (as in secretary-general) more than secretary. In any event, Boutros-Ghali’s provocation and pressure on the US to pay its dues to the UN did not bode well, and was one of the cards used against reelecting him for a second term, and contributed to his disenchantment with the institution.

Yet, more controversy followed Boutros-Ghali’s legacy even long after his relationship with the UN. Recently, in an interview with Jeune Afrique, Boutros praised Egyptian president Al-Sissi as a selfless man who “only took over power because there was no other solutions,” adding that by doing so he “saved Egypt.” This support, and blunt denial of the existence of any political opposition in Egypt, earned Boutros-Ghali a lot of criticism at home and abroad as Al-Sissi’s regime has been denounced for severe violations of human and political rights.

Muhammed Korany

As we mourn the loss of Boutros Boutros Ghali. We should remember his tireless efforts to promote diplomacy as the beacon of light in the darkest times. He showed us that even when war seems unending, there is a path to light. It’s important that even in the turbulent times that we live in today that we remember peace and prosperity are just over the horizon.

We highly recommend checking out Vijay Prashad’s superb piece for The Hindu. Here’s an excerpt:

During his tenure at the UN, Boutros-Ghali laid out an Agenda for Peace (1992) and an Agenda for Development (1995). In the former, he argued for more robust UN action towards the sources of instability in the world. It was not enough to increase UN peacekeeping missions — to send out the blue helmets to police the world. That was merely a symptomatic approach to crisis. The UN needed to tackle the roots, to understand how the “sources of instability in the economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields have become threats to peace and security.” To get beyond symptoms, Boutros-Ghali hoped to drive a new “agenda for development,” which would counter the tendency to allow unfettered corporate power to undermine the interests of the millions. Impoverishment created the conditions for insecurity. A secure world would require the human needs of the people to be taken seriously. Debt of the Third World had to be forgiven. No International Monetary Fund-driven recipe for growth should be forced on weak countries. “Success is far from certain,” he wrote of his agenda, which seems charming in light of what followed.

Boutros-Ghali warned, in 1992, “The powerful must resist the dual but opposite calls of unilateralism and isolationism if the United Nations is to succeed.” He had in mind the U.S., which believed that it need not heed the diversity of opinion in the world but could push its own parochial agenda in the name of globalisation. Boutros-Ghali went unheeded. In 1993, at a lunch with Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and with Warren Christopher, U.S. Secretary of State, he said, “Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from U.S. policy.” He recalled that Ms. Albright and Christopher “looked at each other as though the fish I had served was rotten.” They said nothing. There was nothing to be said. The sensibility of the moment was that the Secretary-General of the UN needed to take his marching orders from the White House. The Americans do not want you merely to say “yes”, he would later say, but “yes, sir!”.

The Burning

At the University of Cape Town (UCT) this week, a group of students protested the housing crisis that has affected the university for as long as black people have been present as students on the campus.  Every year black students students starve and drop out because they cannot afford campus accommodation. The #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement, from which South Africans have come to expect uncompromising and hard-to- watch displays of anti-colonial symbolism, decided to erect a shack to disrupt the complacency that says shacks must stay in their place.

The appearance of a small corrugated iron shack where it doesn’t belong.  It was jarring; incongruous amidst the pristine and manicured elitism of UCT.  It looked malignant; a growth where tidiness normally masks exclusion.

It was a powerful statement but the protesting students were not content with just ruffling feathers.  They wanted to make a pyre: to burning paintings the way one might an effigy.  It was a send-off to all the dead white men whom history has covered in glory instead of blood.

The fact that the UCT art collection continues to house so many of these sorts of portraits was laid bare.  The flames licked at history.  The colonial exploiters were framed in gilt and the fact of them, the idea that there are so many homages to this past, was sickening.

So I looked at the pictures and felt sick.  I felt sick at the fact of them, and I felt sick at their being burned.  Then I learned that the Vice Chancellor’s office had been petrol bombed and I felt very very sick indeed.  What if there had been, in there a black woman cleaning.  What would we then say about the collateral damage?

The events at UCT unfolded after weeks of tension at Wits University. Last week, a student Zama Mthunzi who was reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for hate speech over a t-shirt he created during a protest over the financial exclusion of poor students from Wits, and the presence of security personnel on campus.

Art, it seems, has contagious qualities, as does violence.

At both UCT and Wits, at the University of Kwazulu-Natal and at the University of Johannesburg, indeed at many of the historically white universities in South Africa, private security has been heavily present since the beginning of the academic year in late January.   University administrators have dug in their heels, as have activists.  Both sides accuse one another of violence.

The university of course, has institutional and structural weight on its side.  It has far more “respectable” power than the students.  It has the logic of the status quo in its corner and so it is easy to see it as ‘rational’ in the face of irrational and angry students.

I take this as a given.  I do not suggest that the university and students have commensurate power.  Perhaps my problem is that I expect more from emancipatory movements than I do from the academy.  I want the movement that is building and growing to be ‘clean,’ and untainted by the decay and rot of violence, by accepting that the winning side gets to erase all traces of their enemy.

More to the point though, of what really worries me, is the sense that our national debates about these issues are so starkly polarized. Too many of us insist on scorn and derision, and yet these issues are critical for our common future.  South Africans, it seems are increasingly engaged in violent rhetoric and action.

So this is not a note aimed at berating #RhodesMustFall though the blowing up of the office is chilling.  I have disagreements with some of the tactics they have used of late.  More broadly though, as I look across the political and social landscape, I am concerned that our activists should not succumb to the either/or thinking that seems to have gripped other quarters in our country.  I fear though, that many amongst the student movement are veering in this direction.

Responses to the t-shirt and to the tactic of burning the Vice Chancellor’s office and also the art have been so frighteningly unequivocal.  You are either totally with the students, defending their right to burn art and buildings because people’s lives matter more and ‘who cares about those dead whites and rubbish art anyway?’ or you hate the students and dismiss their concerns because they are wanton and dangerous property destroyers.

Something is wrong.   Similarly, in the case of the t-shirt, there is an important debate to be had.  Is saying “Fuck Whites,” a useful or a diversionary tactic? Where does the violence of masculist language take us?  Yet in too many quarters, simply asking these questions makes you a sell out.  On the other end of the divide, it makes you anti-white, a hate-monger for daring to support a student’s speech as fair comment in a racist society.

The false need for agreement, and the vitriol spread around when people disagree – with university management, with politicians, and with activists – is starting to worry me.

But let me be clear about my own views on some of this. On RMF, and specifically the UCT issue, it is shameful that students have not been guaranteed the right to housing. Part of the project of making universities spaces of liberation and genuine learning includes supporting poor students to be fully functional students like their elite peers.

Also, art must not be burned.  Supporters of the burning of the paintings have argued that this is yet another defense of western notions of respectability; that art is sacrosanct because European democracy says that it is.  I find this view too narrow, and indicative of how much work we still have to do to decolonize our mentalities.

In African societies the griot, the dancer, the woman who painted her home or beaded, or who drew paintings on the inside of a cave –  have been important and in some instances sacred people in our communities.  So I am skeptical of the idea that ‘art’ is only valued by people from settler and colonizing societies. It seems to me that we ought to value art precisely because our acts of creativity have been so under-valued and mis-recognised for so long.

Burning colonial artifacts might feel good but in the end it seems like an act of woundedness rather than an act of strength.  It does symbolic violence to the colonizers and that may be okay, but more than that – and this is where I have real questions – it seeks erasure. I want to believe that a movement for justice is one that rages against forgetting, not one that enables it.

I continue to believe that the students who have brought Rhodes’ statue down and continue to insist that we look his legacy in the face, are some of our finest and bravest minds.  They have found a way to demonstrate the symbolism of the colony and to shake this country out of the complacency of accepting the intolerable. They must also know that when you begin to destroy art (regardless of its quality or who made it) the collateral damage is always, always far more bloody and self-harming than you can immediately see.

In the end a movement is not simply the sum of its ideas; it is spoken for by the actions of its members. A movement marks its progress by what it has created and not just by what it destroys (although destruction has its place).

A movement must see beyond the here and now; beyond the catharsis of immediate disturbance. Catharsis has its own power but it must not be mistaken for power. What is done in the name of a movement either builds it, or haunts it.

The task for this generation of activists is to reimagine power and this means resisting the impulse to use power in a way that demeans and cheapens and exploits. This means refusing to use the master’s tools. Violence is the favourite tool of the institutions and structures that do the most harm to black and poor and marginalized people everywhere in the world and so I will continue to repudiate its use, even as I recognize that it takes place in the context of greater and often disproportionate violence. I know this is not popular amongst those with whom I spend intellectual time but it is a position I have considered carefully.

I would like the RMF movement to employ ever more creative and energy-giving means to fight power as it is currently understood in this country. I would like RMF and other student groupings to also aim their ire at the liberators who are also black, because they have betrayed the dreams of millions and they command a trillion rand state budget. #FeesMustFall began this focus on the state but I am deeply interested in where it goes and what that also builds. I would like RMF to widen its scope while also continuing to aim at those who have always run the colony and who still today continue to administer a system of intellectual apartheid.

I know that this is not my movement and that I am almost old enough to be a mother to some of the protesting students, so these are just wishes. I am aware that this is a lot to ask and that it has its pitfalls.  Still, given everything I have witnessed this past year, I am hopeful. I continue to watch this generation and to be awed by its energy and dynamism and bravery. I remain an ally – critical; worried at times; on my feet with excitement at others – but an ally nonetheless.

Akin Omotoso’s NBA All Star Weekend diary, Toronto

Wednesday 11th:  In Rum We Trust

All that snow that Alejandro G. Inarritu said evaded them in Alberta, Canada during The Revenant shoot finally turned up in The T-Dot with full force.

I thought I would escape writing about the weather this year but it dominated all the narratives. Even the Lords Of The Court weren’t immune. Commissioner Adam Silver’s joke about the weather was the best for me, he joked to reporters that the game was played indoors. And indoors on College Street at Free Times Café was where I found myself on arrival. I asked the waiter for their house special telling him I had journeyed from far. The Hot Apple Rum cider was presented to me. As I sipped on it, I asked why he recommended this drink. He smiled and said: “when it’s cold like this, in rum we trust.”

2016-02-16 14.20.30

Thursday 12th: Giants Of Africa

Masai Ujuri has a lot to be proud of as the world arrives in Toronto for All Star weekend. The All Star Game will feature two of their players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the Raptors are the number two team in the Eastern Conference behind a team led by the King.

Kicking off the festivities was a premiere screening of a documentary on Masai’s work on the African continent called Giants of Africa. The premiere was at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the official home of the Toronto International Film festival. The invite called for smart casual, let’s just say I dressed warmly which to me was the smart thing to do. It was a red carpet affair, with all the guests walking onto the red carpet with the sounds of Baba 70 playing. The Fela Playlist was strong and I nearly burst out dancing when my one of my favorite Fela songs came on. In fact, I wanted everyone to stop for a minute and listen to “Army Arrangement.” I remember once watching Seun Kuti perform the song at a gathering in Lagos a few years ago, and even though Fela wrote the song in the 70s, and Seun was singing it in the present, he didn’t have to change a single sentence. That’s genius.

2016-02-12 02.11.08

The documentary, directed by Academy Award nominee Hubert Davis, follows Masai and his team as they try to make an impact in the lives of basketball players in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda through the Giants Of Africa program and the basketball camps they hold. The film is very moving and powerfully told. Especially because of the players, and their histories, and the wars some of them have overcome to make it to playing in the camps — you can really get a sense of the salvation this hoop dream can bring. Cinematically, it presents a basketball poetry hardly seen from the point of view of Africans. There is a sequence where a character tells the most gruesome story of his upbringing, while the camera tracks beside him dribbling the ball on the darkest of nights — it was cinema at its most visceral.

2016-02-12 02.52.05

Friday 12th: Ice Cold 6

The first thing that I realized today was that whatever I had brought for warmth wasn’t going to cut it. Never mind wardrobe malfunction, I needed a wardrobe overhaul. Basically my South African jackets were vests compared to what I needed to deal with in The 6. I had to get Mammoth type furs.

It was the Rising Stars Game. To celebrate the first NBA All-Star game taking place outside of the U.S.A., the NBA made Team World the home team instead of Team U.S.A.. Representing Canada were Andrew Wiggins, Trey Lyles and Dwight Powell. For the continent, Denver Nuggets Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, whose story going from DRC to China to the NBA has to be told on film some day. And even though Jahlil Okafor was playing for Team U.S.A., we still ‘throway salute’ as they say in Pidgin English. Mudiay came out smoking, and despite his best efforts Team U.S.A won by three points.

After the game, walking through the pathways from the Air Canada Centre — built to keep visitors like myself out of the cold, someone said that tomorrow was going to be colder. I asked myself how that was even possible?

2016-02-12 22.39.39

Saturday 13th : Negative 31

The lady told me, “No one gets accustomed to negative 31 wind chill,” as she fetched her jacket from the coat check. “I might be Canadian but I ain’t crazy!” she added. Originally, when I planned this trip I thought it would be a great opportunity to get the see the city from a different point of view. Usually when I’m in Toronto I just use the taxis. This time I thought I’d explore the bus routes, do some walking etc. Then Revenant Part 2 snow happened and I realized a few things about my life: 1) I have nothing to prove to anyone 2) From now on I am limiting the steps I take in actual snow. 3) I now know how fast I can get from the house to the Uber, and how fast I can get from the arena door to the front seat of the taxi. These are the things that start to consume my mental and physical energy, because the cold is real.

Klay Thompson paid attention when his father told him not to come home if he didn’t win the three point shoot out. And then, the event that had been low on everyone’s radar turned out to be a history making one. To be in the arena and watch Aaron Gordan and Zach LaVine go at it in ways that the contest hasn’t seen since the Air Jordan and The Human Highlight Film was the one time, for a brief moment, that Negative 31 was the last thing on my mind. To watch such a history making event live was surreal, and as someone on Twitter said, “They should have had them dunking till Monday!” To think I had even dared to suggest that the dunk contest be moved from the highlight of the evening to the middle section and the 3-point contest turned to the main event. How dare I?

Sunday 14th: Kobe

The score was never the thing about today’s All-Star Game. It was all about Kobe.

The fans at the Air Canada Centre gave him a great send off. The custodians of the game, those Lords Of The Court, kept it free flowing. The jump ball between Kobe and Lebron was a nice touch. And, with different players taking turns to guard Kobe, the mood was light, and the audience was appreciative. This is why we watch, this is what we play for and this is why they play.

And while Kobe had the night, Steph Curry reminded everyone that he and the Warriors are still the team to beat, the team to watch and bring on the second half of the season.

*All photos by Akin Omotoso

Capturing Brazilian Candomblé through the lens of Mario Cravo Neto

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

There is a silent story when studying global history in the UK. This is the history of the slave route from the African continent to Brazil. Led by Portuguese colonisers, the route between Africa and Brazil saw ten times more slaves crossing the ocean (around 5.5 million in total, of which 4.8 made it across alive) than the ones forced by the British to work in the U.S.

Most of the people taken to Brazil were forced to work in Portuguese plantations, with the central hub being the city of Salvador in Bahia, founded in 1548. This city is also the birthplace of photographer, Mario Cravo Neto.

Born in 1947, Cravo Neto is one of Brazil’s most widely acclaimed photographers. Rivington Place—one of London’s foremost art centres—is now hosting Cravo Neto’s first UK solo exhibition. He passed in 2009, but this exhibition shows how much he will be missed.

Cravo Neto’s work is important to understand the religious practice of Candomblé in Brazil. Candomblé is a religious practice based on West African beliefs, specifically from the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu people. From the 16th Century, many of these people brought their traditions and oral histories on the slave ships, weaving them together (combined also with the colonisers Catholicism) to form what refer today as Candomblé.

Portuguese colonisers tried to end the traditions of Candomblé, which explains why the first Candomblé church was only founded in the 19th Century. Candomblé followers were still frequently persecuted until the 1970s, but this was perhaps more to do with its role as a religion that is essentially racialised and tied to ‘blackness,’ which many Portuguese demonised.

Case in point, the initial colonisers were intensely aware of this majority non-white population, thus systematically encouraged and implemented a migration of white Portuguese population to Brazil. Miscegenation—the mixing of different racial groups—during the period of slavery was also a lot higher in Brazil than in the U.S.: whilst this may be attributed in part to promiscuity, it also reads as a dissemination of the white, Portuguese ‘seed’ into the black population (whilst the British feared miscegenation, the Portuguese seemed to encourage it).

cravoMario Cravo Neto, ‘Sacrificio ‘V [1989], Courtesy of Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zurich & Rivington Place, London.

Candomblé as tied to blackness was seen as an act of resistance against the coloniser. This was literal in the case of quilombos: communities founded by runaway slaves, where Candomblé is most often practiced and to this day undergo frequent raids by police. A quashing of Candomblé thus becomes a quashing of blackness, and vice versa.

Cravo Neto’s photographs therfore become a site of resistance. He understands the importance of Candomblé to Brazilian identity, and puts it at the forefront of his work. His images are imbued with references to the spiritual practice: Sacrificio V (above), the sacrifice of animal, which is said to feed the deities, existing as an explicit example.

Less clear are some of the other more nuanced black and white portraits that make up the first half the exhibition named The Eternal Now.  In this instance I think of Deus de Cabeça (Head of God; see photo below). An integral part of the belief is the following of orixas (orishas), the deities underneath the supreme creator, Oludumaré. Each person is said to have their own orixas, based on their personal character, who they then communicate with and worship throughout their lifetime. Parallel to orixas are nkisi, objects which contain a spirit. Deus de Cabeça is a coming together of both orixas and nkisi. The subject holds the spirit, represented here in turtle, to their face—their bodies becoming a patterned symbiosis—amalgamating the nkisi, or the orixas (whichever way you want to see it) with their human counterpart. 


Laróyè is the second portion of the exhibition. The word is a greeting to éxù, the messenger of all the orixas. As Argentinean curator Gabriela Salgado writes:without his [éxù’s] consent, the other entities would not manifest or connect with humans, as he holds the key to open the gates of the intangible.”

In her salient essay she also goes on to point out that éxù is an entity that patrols the street and protects those that inhabit it, “the homeless, the stranded and children.” Cravo Neto’s colour photos here come as manifestation of éxù, the camera eye reflecting that of éxù’s own. The messenger’s colours are black and red and this colour scheme is leitmotif that runs throughout the photographs that Cravo Neto made for Laróyè. Whilst the shadows in these photos are strong, the bodies of the Salvador population exude the prevailing black. They become the ‘earth’ and clad in red cloth, the ‘fire’ too, that the black and red of êxù are said to symbolise. They are the human counterparts of éxù – both the life force of Salvador and the messengers of the Gods.

CravoMario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

But what if, like me, you have little knowledge of Candomblé when you enter Rivington Place? What I was reminded of first was the musings of novelist, essayist and photographer, Teju Cole, in his essay, “A Truer Picture of Black Skin.“ In the black and white works of Cravo Neto, but even in some of his colour photographs, there is not always an attempt to illuminate black skin. I mean that literally—some of these photos are dark, the shadows, as aforementioned, are strong. Teju Cole writes similarly about the photographer, Roy DeCarava: “His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows.”

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

What DeCarava was shooting, says Teju Cole, was black identity under question. The same could be said of Cravo Neto, even if imagined differently. Both are documenters of the black experience in their respective countries (DeCarava’s in the U.S.). Both use the shadows to help illustrate their point. They differ as photographers all over the place: framing, colour, abstraction vs. realism. But the shadows remain, and talk of untold or invisible experiences.

There aren’t many fixed statistics regarding the numbers of Candomblé followers in Brazil. In 2010, around 5% of the population declared themselves spiritualists—one can only imagine some of these follow Candomblé, but not all.

In a country that declares itself a racial democracy (something to explore another time), I believe it important to understand the history of Candomblé (even if the numbers are small) to the Afro-Brazilian experience—as both a cultural practice, a form of black unity, and as colonial defiance. In this sense, the photographic works of Cravo Neto are increasingly important: as documentation, as art, and as resistance.

‘Mario Cravo Neto: A Serene Expectation of Light’ is on at Rivington Place, London till 2nd April 2016, and is free entry. Do also check out the exhibition there on Maud Sylter—it is equal importance.