Africa is a Country

The Edge of Wrong

Edge of Wrong - Niklas ZimmerEdge of Wrong Festival via Facebook. Image Credit: Niklas Zimmer

“The closer to the edge you are, the more you see of the beautiful valley.” These words, roughly, were attributed to South African composer, Carlos Mombelli, and they inspired the name for The Edge of Wrong music festival (EoW), a South African-Norwegian collaboration for uncompromising, improvised noisemaking.

The 10th edition of this festival took place from the 21-24 April in and around Cape Town, and included a film screening, microphone-building workshop, music hacker lab and two concert nights at the Atlantic House in Maitland, and Moholo Live House in Khayelitsha.

“Experimental music” is, as the term suggest, not so easily categorized, and the event’s line-up mirrored this. From melodious violin improvisation to room-shaking, ear-drum-testing electronic noise and strange pitches, EoW’s ethos was curated, but not elitist. There was a pay-what-you-can cover charge, a make-shift bar and intimate setting, so it was not set up to be a money-maker. What’s more, the accompanying workshops, aimed at making the technology accessible, created a strong community spirit. Using materials that cost less than R20 each, for instance, Norwegian musician and sound artist Arnfinn Killingtveit showed attendees in Khayelitsha how to build a microphone.

There was also a focus on unconventional electronic sounds that, if you weren’t used to hearing them, might sound like random tinkering or unpleasant noise – an excuse to make music badly under the guise of experimenting, some might say. I was interested in understanding these sounds.

I sat down with founders, Morten Minothi Kristiansen (Norway) and Righard Kapp (SA), to find out. Morten had spent some years studying jazz at the University of Cape Town and, although there was a more established scene for experimental music in Norway, he happened upon like-minded musicians here. Righard was one. Together they put on the first, “quite badly organized” festival at the Labia Cinema in 2006. They went on to build a community of experimental musicians in South Africa.

Righard explains that you don’t listen to experimental music the same way you would listen to a catchy song; if this is your expectation, then you might be quite turned off. He believes it is music that not only accepts failure but invites them. It’s “a different kind of theatre,” stripped of embellishment, rooted in performance and very self-aware.

It’s a visceral, immediate thing… that let’s one feel quite empowered… removed from these machinations that keep our lives in bubbles. The best things I have facilitated, I didn’t feel, ‘Wow I did that.’ It was like, ‘Wow it happened.’

Just like a relationship counsellor would tell you to “embrace your mistakes,” Morten believes that mistakes can lead to great music.

We have scientists who get paid a shit load of money to cure cancer… They do experiments… because they’re on their way to something. It’s a bit like that with this music. Of course it’s not about playing badly either.  There are ways to define quality in experimental music, and there can be a lot of structure too. A good improviser is somebody who knows his shit, who knows his instrument.

Edge of Wrong

Arnfinn Killingtveit’s performance at the Atlantic House exemplified this expertise and use of structure. He performed, solo, a generative algorithmic composition that would have required about 20 hands if he had to play it conventionally. Through tapping on a table and connecting the motion to timers, calculations were generated according to the interval between each tap. Every time he hit the table, some numbers would stay the same and some would change to create a complex score of physical sounds computed through synth models. By removing human intervention, at least to a certain extent, the composer himself couldn’t be sure of the outcome, producing an otherworldly arrangement.

Exploratory, DIY approaches like the Edge of Wrong festival add value; especially in places where radio airtime has until very recently been monopolized by the American pop genre. Droning noise crescendos are not for everyone, but a free, open space that allows for play and experimentation is. In the same way that we acquire a taste for whiskey or become accustomed to the burn of chili, perhaps we can discover something amazing by sitting and listening to the noise.

A Ugandan Spring

On a lunch break with a group of friends last month, our conversation was suddenly interrupted by the roar of a group of fighter jets flying over the hills of Kampala. The seemingly new Russia-made Sukhoi Su 30-MK2 war jets twisted and turned in the air, leaving the residents of Kampala musing at this unusual sight. That very afternoon, the Minister of Information, Jim Muhwezi, addressed a rushed press conference, announcing a government ban on any further media coverage of the newly-announced opposition-led “defiance” campaign. The police chief nodded. The message was clear.

The jets have since become a common sight. Meanwhile, since February, columns of between eight to 10 soldiers can often be seen strolling the streets of Kampala any time of the day. The now all-too-common police vehicles are strategically positioned around the city, well equipped with teargas, policemen and sometimes plain-clothed operatives. At the headquarters of the key opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), garrisons of armed men daily stand still, their mean-looking faces sending a warning message to any potential protestor. Homes of key opposition politicians have routinely been placed under siege, and social media has been frequently switched off in recent weeks.

This has been the regime’s grim response to the defiance campaign, which calls for civil disobedience until the government cedes to an independent audit of the election results released in February, which gave the 72 year-old president Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party – in power since 1986 – a controversial victory, with 60% of the vote, and a fifth term in office.

So far, the regime’s response to the planned protests has revealed its deep-seated fears of a possible “Ugandan spring.” When, in 2011, demonstrations broke out in nearby Egypt, the media – especially social media – proved an indispensable tool to the thousands of youthful protestors in Tahrir Square. The protests spread like a wildfire. Mubarak fell. Soon after, inspired by the Tahrir protests, Kampala witnessed the first serious protest against NRM rule, constituted in the Walk-to-Work protests. They were eventually crushed, largely because the protestors framed their demands purely in economic terms, focusing merely on the escalating prices of oil and foodstuffs. Nevertheless, the protests left an indelible mark on Ugandans’ political psyche.

The recent defiance campaign in Kampala, coming five years later, is a reincarnation of the Walk-to-Work protests, albeit bolder in its objectives. Unlike its predecessor, the defiance campaign is unapologetically political in its demands, challenging the very legitimacy of the Museveni regime, and thus approaching the Egyptian revolution, at least in purpose. That the regime has in no way missed the real message behind the demand for a special audit of election results is evident in the harsher response the campaign has so far received. This, however, has made the future of the planned protests very uncertain, and many Ugandans have been hesitant to identify with them for fear of retribution.

The regime’s message has been clear: the government will take no chances. Any protest movement will be nipped in the bud before it crystallizes. The strategy has paid off – at least for now. The streets have been largely clear. Yet, the recent narrowing of political space, far from containing popular dissent, has made it even more likely that any popular demands in future will have to find expression outside the formal mechanisms of the political system. With faith in the electoral system significantly eroded, popular protests outlawed and the media banned from covering opposition activities, it might only be a matter of time before popular energy erupts in a new movement, one perhaps even more dramatic than that in Tahrir. After all, the North African protests were driven not by the media per se, as NRM logic has it, but by the politics of repression.

The future of the current defiance campaign might be bleak, but the radical nature of its demands, compared to its predecessor, calls for deeper reflection on an important contemporary lesson: the more political space shrinks, the more likely it is that popular discontent will seek for alternative channels through which to articulate itself, sometimes even at the risk of violence.

Weekend Music Break No.97

Here’s another Music Break to soundtrack your weekend! This round up is the “other countries” edition with a selection of tunes starting out in Latin America from Cuba to Brazil, and ending up around the rest of the African diaspora. Check it all out via the Youtube playlist below!

Music Break No.97

1) We kick it off with what I’ve been told is Cuba’s biggest tune of 2016, “Hasta que seque el Malecón.” 2) Then we go to Puerto Rico with Ifé and their Orisha-tronica sound (h/t Pablo Medina Uribe). 3) Next up, inspired by the movie “Manos Sucias,” and one of the most heartwarming scenes about music I’ve ever seen recorded on film, Grupo Niche and their classic salsa tune “Buenaventura y Camey.” 4) Then we move from Colombia’s Buenaventura, to the Chocó and rap group ChocQuibTown’s “Nuqui (Te Quiero Para Mi).” 5) I love the idea from a recent article in Globo that Funk is more Baiano then ever — MC Menor da VG runs with that idea and visits Salvador da Bahia during carnival, at the same time showing how o cavaquinho ta conquistando o Funk. 6) UKs Afrobeats don, Fuse ODG, turns in a new video for his tune “Only.” 7) Brussels residents Badi and Boddhi Satva team up on an Afro-Hip-House anthem on “Integration.” 8) South Africans scattered about the world Mo Laudi, Gazelle, and DJ InviZAble unite in the Pantzula dancer featuring “Speak Up.” 9) South African originated Norweigian Nosizwe teams up with Georgia Anne Muldrow on “The Beat.” 10) And finally, Nigerian-American Tunji Ige takes it from Philly to LA with both a West Coast visual and sonic vibe on “War.”

Have a happy weekend, and sports fans, enjoy the many tournaments going on around the world!

The Uber driver and Muhammad Ali


The Uber driver has never heard of Muhammad Ali. I am flabbergasted.

I always sit in the front, even when I am alone in an Uber. It makes me feel more egalitarian. Also in Johannesburg there is the taxi drama and it would nice not to be entangled in violent fights between a dying industry and one that is just being born. Anyway, when I am up front I feel obliged to talk and so a few minutes into our ride, as I am scrolling through my phone looking at Facebook, I say to him, “It’s so sad, Muhammad Ali has passed on,” in a conversational tone.

But he seems confused and asks me who that is. I am equally confused and so I say, “Muhammad Ali. You don’t know him?”

The Uber driver is older than most. He might be around sixty and I wonder why is he driving and where he comes from but his name is Owen and that tells me nothing. He is not from Zimbabwe. This man’s Zulu is not Ndebele. But then I think to myself that if he were from Zimbabwe he would have heard of Muhammad Ali.

Surely – no matter where he is from, he should know who Muhammad Ali is. What kind of person doesn’t know Ali?

I persist. This issue is now becoming more important to me than it ought to. I show him a picture on my phone.

“Him.”  I say.

He shakes his great head and there is not a hint of recognition. I tell myself that it’s because he is only half-looking. He is trying to keep his eyes on the road instead of looking at a picture of a man he’s never heard of.

“No, I don’t know that guy.”

I flick through my phone looking for a younger picture of Ali. I find one of the boxer in his prime. Ali is standing over an opponent looking triumphant. I am distracted for a moment because I have just seen from the caption underneath the picture that the Rumble in the Jungle was in October, 1974. I am surprised. I remember everything about that night. I remember my dad and his friends drinking whiskey in the living room. I remember the cloud of smoke curling under the lamplight. I remember the flicker of the TV screen playing on their faces. I even remember his skin was caramel, even through the black and white of the TV. I remember the crowds screaming and screaming. Ali Bomaye! Ali Bomaye!

But these are not real memories. They are just pieces of nostalgia and other people’s recollections woven into my heart. They have been inserted by the cultural milieu in which I grew up – a product of the privilege of growing up with a television in the house and a father who was mad about boxing. I was barely born when that fight took place. I can’t believe that all of these years I have been carrying around this idea that on the night of that match I was a child curled on father’s lap when in reality, I was only a few months old, asleep in a crib next to my mother, blissfully unaware.

Anyway, this is all a distraction. The matter at hand is the driver.

He doesn’t recognize the younger version of Ali either.

“Anim’azi,” he says. “Is he from South Africa?”

“No, from America.” I tell him, still incredulous but trying not to seem so.

Suddenly I want to cry. I cant ask, “Like where have you been dude?” because I know the answer. He has been here. Or perhaps, put differently, he has never been anywhere and this is not his fault. He has no idea that Ali was the greatest and he doesn’t know anything about Zaire (now Congo again) or Mobutu Sese Seko and I am beginning to understand the full import of this. He may have never heard of the Vietcong and maybe he doesn’t know about the Black Panthers either.

None of this is his fault of course. Still it is remarkable and it troubles me. He is driving a Toyota Corolla Uber and using GPS and he has never heard of Muhammad Ali.

Everyone on my Facebook timeline knows who Muhammad Ali is, but then again everyone on my timeline has been somewhere. Many of them have been pretty much everywhere. Everywhere that counts at least and it is obvious that this Uber driver is from nowhere; at least nowhere that counts. Although he has the app, he is not a citizen of Online.  That country, it seems, is a faraway place.

Maybe, all of these years while the Uber driver was alive but walking around this Earth not knowing who Ali was, he has had other things to worry about. Maybe his eyes were fixed too firmly on keeping one foot in front of the other for him to be looking for Muhammad Ali on the horizon.

I – on the other hand – have been to America and back. I read the New York Times. I am part of the New World and I travel to Online frequently. I am plugged in and I am beginning to understand that even though I thought Uber was a signifier of citizenship, I was wrong and so I say to him, quietly and without a hint of the incredulity that I am feeling, “Oh, okay. Well, he’s famous. Anyway, ushonile izolo.”

“Awu, shame.”  He says.


You assume – because you are both plugged in and you both have smartphones – that you and the Uber driver are the same. You think that somehow you are participating equally in the technological revolution and so you erase your class position and his and in your mind you are sort of like a single being. You turn him into your friend because he has your cell number and you have his and this is a slippery place to be and it is dangerous too because to him your chumminess is also accompanied by your willingness to pay R6 a kilometer and that must feel like a knife in the chest.

Every time you sit in an Uber and ask, “How’s business?” you want him to say, ‘It’s busy, my sister!” and when he doesn’t disappoint you; when he tells you a story about the peak times and how long he has been driving, then you are relieved and soon you begin to believe that Uber is democracy because his car is clean and he is chatty and ‘smartly’ dressed and you can call him by his first name and he can do the same, because…um, the app.

You begin to think that you are just the same and that Uber is justice and economic freedom because he does not smell like mahewu and firewood and there is not even a whiff of his sweat when you get in even though he sits in this car all day long.

You rate him and he rates you and so you begin to believe you are both the same. You forget that you are in the car because you have a credit card and he is driving the car because he probably does not have a credit card. You even forget that he is talking to you and being nice because he needs the money and at the end of the ride you will have to rate him.

You forget that Uber is a brand and using it does not transport you both to Silicon Valley because somehow somewhere along the way Uber came to mean Google and Twitter and all of these things that are very cool and very modern and you forgot in all your coolness and Uber-ing that you are paying a laborer for a service.

It is easy to forget the transactional real-world issues that are at stake when you never have to fumble and touch someone’s hands over rands and cents at the end of a cab ride. You can act as though there was never a transaction at all – as if you just had a momentary casual friendship.

Uber is a fantasy that lets you pretend that your fingertip is not more powerful than your driver’s entire body. You can pretend that he isn’t steering you through the city and across its highways; driving so that you can have your hands free so that you can keep writing and stay connected and get ahead while he drives the same routes over and over again – in a loop that may never take him forward. It is easy to pretend that you aren’t engaging in digital exploitation when it’s all on your phone and on your card and in the ether.

But when your driver has never heard of Muhammad Ali suddenly you realize that you are not his friend and you and he occupy different worlds and you wonder whether you should count yourself lucky that he does not yet see you as his enemy.   

The G.O.A.T.


The emotions run high when I think about Muhammad Ali and what he meant to me, to us, as children, growing up during apartheid in South Africa. There were days when it felt like the violence and oppression would never end, that we would not win, that the system was too big, too strong.

We were kids. White supremacy was all around us, on the streets, in Casspirs and Buffels, dressed in army and police uniforms spraying teargas and rubber bullets at us as we walked to school. Nelson Mandela was in prison and his image was banned. We were black and we were being beaten and the system was against us – as it was against millions of others around the world.

During those years, Muhammad Ali was part of what gave us hope, part of what shaped and inspired a psyche of defiance and resistance. As a child schooled in black consciousness and from a Muslim home, here was this black man, a Muslim, with whom I shared a first name, Muhammad, standing up to Empire. Years earlier he had told the most powerful racist establishment on the planet that he would not go and fight their war. And he did that in a way and at a time when it was unimaginable:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. 

There can perhaps be no modern equivalent of that statement, given what the world was like then.  Ali’s audacity, courage, defiance and strength became part of our collective consciousness. I was too young to have witnessed his feats in the ring but to me his iconic status was about the fight outside the ring. From the witty verbal jabs to the powerful political statements, Ali used his status to challenge, to provoke, to speak truth to power. And he did that with a mix of charm and humor as well as anger and strength. When I think back to those days growing up, he was a superhero. He inspired, gave us courage, made us laugh, gave us permission to dream and provided hope during some very dark times. In that sense, Ali was indeed the greatest. A champion of the world and a champion of the streets.

The Nsibidi Institute Memory Project

In the previous installment of the Digital Archive, we spotlighted Liberian Journeys, a digital nationalist archiving project, collecting key artifacts from the country’s complicated history and combining those with reflections from contemporary Liberians to convey the importance of preserving the nation’s history. Other projects featured here on the Digital Archive, like Nigerian Nostalgia, show the potential for more contemporary histories to be preserved digitally. This week’s featured project, the Nsibidi Institute Memory Project, is yet another endeavor attempting to use digital forums to preserve memories of Nigeria, in addition to promoting the importance of capturing these histories before they disappear.

The Nsibidi Institute, based in Lagos, Nigeria, is dedicated to preserving Nigerian heritage through “homegrown knowledge creation.” These innovative materials are intended to be used to “foster a better understanding of Nigeria — its history, people, knowledge systems and possible futures.” In pursuit of these goals, the Institute works in numerous capacities, using their organization as a platform for rethinking space (as they did with their Open Lagos project and Makoko-Iwaya Waterfront Economic Opportunities initiative), Afro-futurism (read more about Lagos 2060 here), and the communication of culture through various mediums (for instance, check out the Nsibidi Film Hub). The Institute also focuses on the preservation of memory. Initially, their work on memory was funneled through the Between Memory & Modernity project, but has expanded into the Nsibidi Institute Memory Project, launched in 2015.

The Nsibidi Memory Project

The Nsibidi Institute Memory Project’s main goal is to “archive Nigerian history through the people’s voices.” Focused on creating dynamic interactions through audiovisual memory preservation, the project hopes to contribute to broader understandings of “the dynamic between our relative histories, as well as forms of memory and identity within Nigerian society.” The results of this initiative have produced multiple YouTube videos, including montages of responses to evocative questions to one-on-one interviews. In the interviews that have been made available on the Institute’s YouTube channel thus far, the topics of conversation have ranged from the personal (favorite television shows, first jobs, choice of hairstyles, bride price) to the political/historical (the effects of the civil war on their families). Check out a montage of the first year of the project below.

The Memory Project Nigeria: The Journey so Far

Follow the Nsibidi Institute on Facebook and Twitter. Users can find more information about submitting their own videos here. As always, feel free to send me suggestions via Twitter (or use the hashtag #DigitalArchive) of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

*This post is No. 25 in our Digital Archive series covering African archives on the web.

In Africa, there should be djembe drums

For the last three months, we have been working on the sound design of my first feature-length documentary, Taking Stock, a film about my father and our third-generation family business in Benoni, a city to the east of Johannesburg. I brought a crew of close friends I had met at film school in the USA to spend a month talking with my father about work, legacy, generational divide and South Africa. This included Jan, our sound man from the Czech Republic.

It’s often only when a sound designer has done a bad job that a casual viewer notices the design; a “clunk” or “buzz” that sounds fake or misplaced or too loud. When done well, few in the audience will think about how the sound contributed to the experience, and fewer understand the process: during the shoot, Jan focused on getting “clean” audio from the people filmed. But, at the same time, he carefully noted the unique flavor of the different spaces we visited, from the busy streets of the Jo’burg central business district, to the outskirts of the Drakensberg, Limpopo’s villages, the walled suburbs of Houghton, and the buzzing Sunday afternoons of Daveyton township. Each of these places sounds different, and each needs to be reflected as such, or it might read false to a viewer who knows the place, if only on a subconscious level.

After the cameras have stopped rolling, it falls to the sound designer to create a world through sound that is both engaging and natural. They will reengineer spaces by adding backgrounds, effects and music, while saving auditory “room” for dialogue, always in service of emotion and story. Someone who has been to Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, knows that it sounds unique, even if they can’t put their finger on the balance of voices, atmosphere and the things that makes it so. When you’re recording on the day, you can’t capture all that, so Jan and a team “build” it, sometimes long after the shoot, in post-production.

After 18 months of picture editing, we began the sound work, with a team of three designers. We met for a review session. Watching a scene outside the family store, I noticed a weird, faint beat. In the background, one of the designers had layered a subtle track of djembe drums. She told me that she had wanted to add something with an African flavor. I laughed and told her that the drums are African, but they don’t make much sense being in the background of a scene downtown. We put in some house music from a passing taxi’s radio instead and moved on to the next scene.

When making a documentary, you live between trying to tell a real story and trying to entertain. But there is sometimes a gulf between these two because entertainment relies to some extent on fulfilling the expectations of a pre-existing genre, regardless of reality. The conventions of these genres are often simplistic: for romantic comedies, the guy and the girl should live happily ever after; likewise, in Africa, there should be djembe drums.

A South African film is operating within a broader international narrative that already has expectations about the concept of “Africa.” These can manifest as expectations about certain kinds of music or voices, certain visual cues, certain people, and more generally, certain kinds of stories. The international success of a documentary can sometimes seem reliant on the extent that it lives up these expectations: stories about poverty in Africa, war in the Middle East, drugs and gangs in Central and South America. If you want to make a film about the Far East, and you want to put butts in seats, you better make it about some kind of human rights violation.

Obvious evidence for this comes from looking at the bodies that provide institutional support. Today there are very few places to apply for documentary production grants if you are not making work about a social justice issue. It can feel like a film taking place in Africa is looked on skeptically by funders if it doesn’t address race or poverty directly. Take a look also at the Oscar nominees for documentary over the last 10 years. The majority of them are about social justice issues, and those which take place in developing countries are far more likely to be so. This holds true for selections at many major film festivals too.

Social justice is an important part of documentary filmmaking, but these stories are not enough on their own to create a realistic sense of a place, person or culture. The documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson notes how journalists tend to look for the “gems” – the facets of a person or event that are most sensational – and then put these all together to make a gripping story. In films, there is a focus on the extreme elements of a society, like genocide, collapse or revolution. This is dangerous, because it doesn’t paint complete pictures of issues or people. A topic is not exclusively described by its extremes.

This incomplete description is more acute in developing parts of the world because there are simply fewer opportunities for stories to be told – with less funding and fewer people in a position to independently spread a unique story. So, a film about a mother and daughter’s eccentricities (Grey Gardens), or about pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), or a strange but brilliant artist (Crumb), might struggle to find funding and an audience even more if it comes from a developing part of the world, because it’s not the familiar (read: marketable) international narrative… “If this is a movie about Africa, why am I watching a story about a shoe salesman… we have those here.”  Ultimately I think this is a tremendous loss, because these less “extreme” stories challenge preconceptions of elitist difference, while still providing a window onto the unique social fabric of a place.

On a personal level also, the preconceived narrative of “Africa” is tricky for me to navigate because I am not the ideal person to make a story about that Africa. I’m white, Jewish, a descendant of European immigrants to South Africa. I identify completely as South African, but I don’t speak a black language, and I don’t listen to the same music as most South Africans. That’s embarrassing for me to admit, but worse to fake. During the design, I started asking if maybe I should have djembe drums in a scene, and then I had to Wiki-check if djembe drums really even come from South Africa, because I grew up hearing Neil Young at my house, and when I Googled “current music in South Africa,” I found hip hop, not African percussion.

What options exist then while reporting on life from somewhere with a preconceived narrative? Maybe you go after your truthful narrative above all, at the expense of potential marketability – telling your story, say, of a town in India with a love of Superman (Supermen of Malegaon), without unnecessarily mentioning the war with Pakistan, or poverty or Mahatma Gandhi. Or, maybe you look for a middle ground – framing a story in a digestible way for an audience that will never totally grasp the complexity of a whole other life anyway, but at least will be able, here, to interact with some new part of the world (as in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s series on CNN, Parts Unknown). Or should you cynically, accept that “narratives of truth” are decided by individuals anyway, and just give funders whichever narrative they want? I admit I feel tempted to do that sometimes.

Ultimately, it’s the representation of the complexity of truth that I respect most in documentary, and it just feels wrong when that plays second fiddle to entertainment. Sometimes it is frustrating when broad narratives don’t line up with reality, however this seems all the more reason to keep pushing for those stories that correct, improve and enrich the narratives we have from all over the world. And when it’s entertaining on top of that, all the better.

Olu’s Omniverse from the African Future(s)

It was 1991 the last time I was in Nairobi. The Athletics World Championships were happening in Tokyo. We stayed up late at my uncle and aunt’s house watching Mike Powell and Carl Lewis duke it out for the gold medal in long jump. It’s funny, the stuff you remember. It was my first time in Kenya, and I’d had a whole bunch of new experiences. I’d eaten ugali and chapati. I’d taken a sleeper train from Nairobi to Mombasa, and had woken up to giraffes outside the window – still the only ones I’ve seen in real life. I was eight years old, and not used to staying up past midnight. So, even with all those other experiences, my enduring memory of the trip is of watching sports. That, and my three-year-old brother accidentally suffocating a little baby chick on our grandfather’s farm. A tale for another time, perhaps.

My 2016 trip to Nairobi also involved staying up late, this time for very different reasons: African Futures. I was drawn to the name as soon as I saw the Facebook message from the Goethe Institut in Nairobi. I liked it even more when they told me it was an interdisciplinary festival happening in Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg and Berlin. It appealed to the Pan-African in me as well as the diasporan. Is diasporan a word? It is now! You cannot understand what it is to be Nigerian, or Kenyan or South African in 2016 without factoring in the diaspora. Perhaps as a Nigerian who has lived England for 18 years, of course I would say that. But, I really believe it to be true. There are just so many of us moving back and forth between our home countries and the furthest flung corners of the globe. I also thought the internationalism would suit my DJ sets. For example the mix below, edited from my full live set on the closing night of the festival’s Nairobi edition, features tracks not only from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa but also from the US, UK and Europe.

Besides my international predilections, that night an interdisciplinary curiosity was also satisfied. There were academics, film directors and fashionistas in attendance. During my set, I got a kick out of thinking there would be a professor in the audience getting down to “Mentasm” – a reissued rave classic from the early 90s. I also met clothing designers 2manysiblings (and then returned to Brighton to find one of them staring out at me from a poster).

However, it wasn’t until the morning after I suppose, that things came full circle for me in Nairobi. I met my Uncle Bob in the center of town as football supporters danced and played drums around us. We boarded a matatu headed for his post-retirement home on the outskirts of Nairobi, and there he explained what was happening in town. We had been in the midst of the Green Army – supporters of Gor Mahia Football Club. So once again my memories of Nairobi are of late nights and sports.


Stuffa – “Oustide of You” / Justin Timberlake – “Suit and Tie (Four Tet Remix)”
Aero Manyelo – “DNA Test”
Baba Stiltz – “Cherry”
Itz Tiffany – “Dance (Neke Neke)”
Menchess – “Mitsubishi Song”
Gorgon City – “Saving My Life (Warehouse Dub)”
Stella Mwangi – “Koolio”
Bicep – “Rays”
The Deejay Fast Eddie – “Clap Your Hands”
Joey Beltram – “Mentasm”
Bleaker – “Hype Funk”
Redlight ft. Melisa Whiskey – “Threshold (Redlight’s Fast Flamingo Remix)”
Fake Blood – “I Think I Like It”
Skepta ft. JME – “That’s Not Me (James Hype Remix)”
dJJ – “Just A Lil’ (Suda Remix)”
DJ Mujava – “Mugwanti / Sgwejegweje (Schlachthofbronx Remix)”
Janet Jackson – “If (Kaytranda Version)”

*This post is part of our Liner Notes series, where musicians talk about making music.

“Are you an African artist? …”

Spoek Mathambo (2011)Spoek Mathambo (2011)

There’s a strong (European) mainstream that is still secretly seduced by the idea that poor black people, especially those in African slums, can’t or won’t make great art or if they do, it’s the exception. They (that’s some English media producers and western audiences) need to believe that great art happens with harps. So opera singers emerging from Khayelitsha in Cape Town are a much bigger “story” than opera singers in Hampstead Garden or Norwood Suburb.

Last year, I was tasked with writing about “Wonder Welders,” a group of people in Tanzania with varying degrees of disability, i.e. mental and physical, who make commercial sculptures to support themselves. A well-meaning British publication, which commissioned the piece, then panned it. Why? Because the interesting bit – the incredible levels of jealousy and sexual affairs that prevailed in the workplace – was too complicated for their audience. The story of African disabled people who make a living welding sculptures should be one of triumph, the virtues of NGO charity and victory.

Like imported mangos, African art for European audiences loses its juiciness and is hijacked by a mix of not enough honesty, a desire to put bums on seats, and global narratives that favor tales of exotic lives and resilience. Instead of asking the much more interesting questions they go for the “cheap shot”: colonialism, slavery or exoticism. The bottom line is that the exotic/victim binary of colonial yore is very much alive and kicking in representation of African arts and music. But people living and working in Africa have moved on from this.

Take the case of Fredy Massamba, a pop singer from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. In 2012 I happened to be at the Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar where Freddy was performing at an 18th century British fort.

Fredy is the Congo’s equivalent of Robbie Williams- he is hugely popular, something of a legend, but unlike Robbie, he has no concerns about involving himself in contentious, and potentially reputation-damaging conversations. Standing on a stage enthusing thousands to think about who they vote for, Fredy uses his magnetism and cultural leverage to galvanise discussion and change. It’s the kind of the Central African equivalent of One Direction asking us to challenge austerity politics and poverty porn.

Later, sitting on the floor with the rest of the band chipping in—in French and English—our conversation drifts onto post-colonialism. In the background the Nigerian singer Nneka urges us to challenge the big men in power: “Vagabonds in power, VIP!” The audience is delirious with recognition. That’s when Freddy and I discuss whether the French were less brutal in their empire grabbing than the English.

Hang on. We are sitting on the floor of a Zanzibar fort that was used by British Imperial forces to defend their slavery trade. Eating a chips and egg omelet (“Chipsi Mayai”),  Freddy is teasing me about him being richer than I will ever dream, and in which quarter of Paris he’ll buy an apartment. This is not a conversation I can imagine happening in England – not ever. There’s never a suggestion that I will trot out the standard BBC question: “Are you an African artist?” None at all. I promise to send Freddy a copy of the article. He giggles and says, “Yeah! Of course I wanna know how I am portrayed in Europe, of course I do! If  you help me do well in Europe I’ll buy that apartment in Paris.”

Fast forward several years later to the SouthBank Center, London for Africa Utopia Festival. Spoek Mathambo, the brilliant, left-field producer, MC and DJ, is asked whether European media has started to grapple with representation of Africa or about Africans and whether they’ve moved beyond exotic/victim binaries:

I think the question itself is as problematic as the dynamic it’s trying to tackle. To be frank, I don’t care. As an African we have our own battle of representation to fight. Our independence means we can fulfill our potential and live our lives without being worried about a myopic foreign gaze.

Part of me gets it: Why the hell should he be bothered how Europe views him? He’s got enough to think about.

Near London Bridge, in a dreary corporate hotel lounge of pastels and enlarged photos of vulva-esque tulips, South African film-maker Khalo Matabane is promoting his film, Nelson Mandela: the Myth and Me.

Matabane is friendly, relaxed and smiley, as he delivers his careful, thoughtful intellectual darts. He has little or no time for the parameters of the film industry, the global socio-economic elites that drive and determine how Africa is represented:

We have a limited palate of tropes. Ubuntu, the resilient forgiving African, or the political black, it’s all a construct. It serves an elite. It’s irrelevant what the national debate is, what the masses think. We are film makers, we don’t fit, we’re critical, bizarre, weird, we stand outside… we’re difficult… we get it wrong sometimes…..that’s why I do what I do. It requires absolute honesty with myself, if I think my critique is not driven by an outside agenda I can sleep at night! But there are probably dictators who sleep at night too. For me, it’s important I don’t betray my interviewees too. The question should be, am I happy with my films? Any film I’ve ever done?

Running through or behind all of these conversations with African intellectuals, creatives and artists, there is a constant profound recognition that the Global North plays far too big a part in defining what Africa is. The space for arts, music and film, has been defined and severely limited by existing stereotypes of victimhood, violence, chaos, corruption. All ably perpetrated by that unmanageable cypher “The Media”, its unwieldy bed mate the Academy, and of course the grand puppet master, global economic trade relations or information flows. In all spheres, the Global North is still  far too keen to gallop towards the equally simplistic notion of the happy resilient African in the face of ridiculous obstacles and natural hazards.

Resilience is such a problematic, vacuous, anythingy kind of word that even the New York Times had an essay about it, and TED Talks abound on the topic. From parenting to surviving teen bullying, “resilience” is what individuals have in the face of structural disasters. It obliterates systems, politics or intent. Resilience is an individual reaction to a one-off problem. And this determines what is culture worth reporting on coming out of the 52 different countries in Africa.

Why then, are we so averse to acknowledging complexity, difference, subtlety and agency when it comes to music, film, poetry and dance that emerges from different regions in Africa?

Of course there are exceptions:  British-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili’s work is complicated and interesting: he intelligently examines beauty and goddess culture and primitiveness. Zambian singer Namvula sings in Chichewa to global audiences, and brings together folk, oral cultures and contemporary pop. Equally, Phoebe Boswell, the multiple award winning conceptual artist – who is currently looking at what it means to be child of a fourth generation, White Kenyan father and Kikuyu mother and at the spaces in between – asks where home is, and does huge beautiful works that question the diaspora and what it means to be dislocated. She embraces frailty and privilege – personal and social – often, and she’s not afraid of banging witch doctors up against Hackney artists. She is aware that what she is doing is completely new, and quotes James Baldwin: “The place where I fit does not exist until I make it”.

This is more than a gripe, or a whinge, or a fancy-pants version of  “Oh shock! England ain’t that interested in intellectual complexity coming out of Africa.” Because actually, at some level it is: witness the recent British Library exhibition that lovingly explored the massive literary traditions of West Africa.  No, this then aims to ignite a debate that needs to be happening in bigger spaces, outside of just the academy or the bar late at night in a side street in Arusha (or in the carefully curated British Library exhibit). We need to ask who is shaping the debate about African arts in the Global North. Why is the power balance still so skewed, the worlds still so separate? Is it just about the cash dólar or Euros, (get the gig, the record deal, the film funded) or are there ways we can educate audiences (globally) to be significantly more demanding and interested in what is emerging out of Africa?

Why is the US defending the honor of the International Criminal Court?

Two weeks ago, Uganda’s President Museveni inaugurated his fourth decade in power. And as strange things happen at swearing-in ceremonies around the continent these days, this one was no exception. Officials from the US, Canada and Europe walked out of the ceremony when Museveni mocked the International Criminal Court (ICC), calling its officials “a bunch of useless people.”

To be sure, it must also have been quite uncomfortable for the western diplomats to share the stage with Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir, an ICC fugitive who is wanted for alleged crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. (We have previously written on the drama that accompanies Bashir on his travels here.)

But, what if the US diplomats walked out just because their European cousins did? This is a serious question, because, frankly, it’s hard to entertain the idea that the US could be offended by someone criticizing the ICC. Successive US administrations fought tooth and nail for the ICC not to see the light of the day as we know it, although it is true that the Obama administration is a bit friendlier to the Court than previous ones. But the fact remains that there are still laws and policies in Washington that are specifically designed to make the ICC’s work impossible, if it ever decided to go after US interests.

David Scheffer, the first US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes – or “Ambassador for Hell” as some people called him – wrote a fascinating memoir in which he recounts, among other things, the US delegation’s attempt to tailor the ICC during the drafting of the Rome Statute in 1998.  As head of the US delegation in Rome, Scheffer wrote,

I struggled to avoid the train wreck at Rome only to embrace certain defeat. I would have risked my own removal from the negotiations if I had pressed too openly or too hard on the Pentagon or on Senator Jesse Helms, so I had to maneuver in ways that steadily built broader circles of support for the policies that stood any chance of adoption at Rome… The stubbornness of various Washington agencies and officials in seeking full immunity from prosecution for American soldiers and other citizens, regardless of whether the United States joined the International Criminal Court, seemed at times to be forged in Alice’s Wonderlands (p. 413).

The bone of contention here is that the US administration was hell-bent on ensuring that no American citizen would face the ICC, ever. And when efforts to place the ICC prosecutor under the supervision of the UN Security Council failed, the Singapore Compromise provided for a middle ground, where the Security Council may refer cases to the ICC and also defer them for periods of 12 months. But even that was not good enough for the US.

Although this compromise gives the ICC a virtual universal jurisdiction (in the sense that even states that are not parties to the ICC may be referred to the Court by the UN Security Council – Sudan and Libya, for instance), it also places the Court at the center of political calculations that underpin the Security Council. After all, you can’t get any more political than the Security Council. It also shields any non-party state that has a P-5 guardian from a UNSC referral. There’s a reason why attempts to refer Syria to the ICC have failed, after of course the Libya ICC referral and its aftermath.

After the Rome Statute was drafted, President Clinton signed it, albeit very reluctantly, and with the full knowledge that the US Congress would never ratify it. The Bush administration later “unsigned” it – Secretary Colin Powell claiming that the Court undermines US judicial authority. The US also went around the world forcing the hands of countries into signing Bilateral Immunity Agreements, which means that those states would never surrender any US citizen to the Court, even if their ICC membership required them to do so. Heck, the US Congress went even as far as passing “the Hague Invasion Act”, which authorizes the use of force to liberate any American held by the ICC, in the Hague.

This  defiant stance against the ICC explained also why the US abstained to vote in the UN Resolution 1593 (2005) that referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC. These days the US government is friendlier towards the ICC when the Court’s agenda matches US strategic interests – for instance, voting yes to the UN Resolution 1970 (2011) that referred Gaddafi’s Libya to the ICC, and supporting a resolution that would have referred Assad’s Syria to the ICC.  Let’s also keep in mind that the Libya referral included a clause that bars the ICC from prosecuting any NATO personnel in relation to their intervention in Libya, even if they have committed crimes.

It is odd then that the US delegation at Museveni’s inauguration would walk out because of the latter’s verbal attacks against the ICC.  If actions speak louder than words, and if we are to judge the US by its actions, no country has gone to greater length to safeguard itself and its citizens from the reach of the first permanent international criminal court.

To be clear, there is no higher form of hypocrisy than Museveni’s current stance against the ICC. Museveni has used the Court to defeat the LRA both politically and militarily, and now uses any opportunity he has to insult the institution. But, we will get back to that in a future post.

Is “Happiness” the new benchmark in South African cinema?

The comedy “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” arrived amidst the celebration of a new kind of female subject in African films and television. Most of these media feature independent, glamorous, girl-power characters and borrow stylistically from “Sex in the City.” Recent examples include the Ghanaian web series “An African City,” slick Nollywood productions about “MILFS” and Akin Omotoso’s “Tell Me Sweet Something.” In the South African context, the latter perhaps serves as a trailblazer for films like “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word,” currently a box office success in the country.

“Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” revolves around three young women grappling with personal and professional lives in suburban Johannesburg.  Here’s the trailer:

Happiness Is A Four Letter Word (2016)

I saw the film with an audience of mostly young black women in a cinema at the Cavendish Mall, in Claremont, a mostly white middle class suburb of Cape Town. The screening was accompanied by murmuring, ululating, grins, grunts, giggles and exclamations from the audience. This conversation between the movie and the audience, something a lot of movies (local or Hollywood) only barely achieve, was interesting to witness. The film is an emphatic success in this regard, reflecting the audience on the screen, so much so that they can recognize the characters and their journeys.

The film has grossed more than R10 million (about US$700,000) to date, and is being hailed as turning point for South African cinema. Although the financial success is great news for the cast, crew and South African cinema in general, it could set the bar (an not a particularly high one) for South African films.

Nandi (played by Mamabatho Montsho), the main character, is trying to make partner at a law firm, taking the patriarchal structures at work head-on, while trying to organize a wedding and forget an ex-lover. Zaza (Khanyi Mbau) is a stay-at-home mom to two boys, and a wife to a husband who is neither a husband nor a father. The third character is Princess (Renate Stuurman), a young curator living a progressive lifestyle.

The three protagonists swap important scenes, turning points, points of no return and climax, with distinctly recognizable inner personal, interpersonal and extra-personal conflicts. The three women are flawless, giving solid performances, with Khanyi Mbau, previously a “celebrity” and reality television star, delivering a surprisingly good performance as the trophy wife with a strong sexual appetite. The filmmakers seem more concerned, however, with repeated camera pans of her lingerie.

Nandi navigates being a career-focused woman who is about to be married. The audience appeared to be responding to the kissing of an ex and a fight with her fiancé more than the patriarchy she is fighting at work. Her character is similar to Thelma in the 1991 classic film by Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise. She embodies Thelma’s weakness for men, but without any of the naivety. Though she is promoted to partner in her firm through hard work, the general impression is that a woman needs to organize her life – professional and personal – around the needs of men. Nandi’s fiancé, played by Chris Attoh, is in control of his emotions whilst Nandi is falling apart, unable to control hers.

Princess’ storyline is a narrative that needs to be told more often. In the beginning, she appears sexually liberated, comfortable to have numerous casual partners rather than a long-term relationship. Then she meets Leo, played by Richard Lukunku. Princess falls pregnant and feels like she is being punished for her “promiscuity.” This is where this narrative reverts to an all too familiar pattern of thinking about women who have numerous sexual partners or liaisons – that, unlike men, they are guilty and should be “punished” accordingly – by getting pregnant or contracting HIV, for example.

The characters in “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” are ordinary but it is in this ordinariness of the characters that the film succeeds and fails. They are not ordinary in the sense that they are plebeians, far from it. They are, in fact, the quintessence of the black upper middle class, far removed from the social realities of the black working class South African majority.  The characters make frequent visits to the spa, shop expensively, dine out and live in lavish homes. There is a sense of appearing unmindful of the realities around them.

The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by author Cynthia Jele. The relationship between films and books, a merging of two mediums is a precarious one. Each book adaptation comes with its own demons. In this movie, the adaptation to screen works because of the strength of the cast, an excellent script by Busisiwe Ntintili and equally stellar direction by Thabang Moleya and cinematography by Lance Gewer.

“Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” succeeds because it does not try to do anything unconventional, it remains simple, and delivers a stylish and convincing rom com, while grappling with topical issues of patriarchy, sexual freedom, marriage and drug abuse, among others.

Is it too late to say sorry? IMF Edition

This past week, the IMF, in their quarterly magazine Finance and Development, published an essay with the rather surprising title “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” Written by IMF economists, the piece is meant to be a critique of the neoliberal agenda, an agenda that’s been pushed, almost relentlessly, by the IMF, World Bank and other allied institutions over the last couple of decades.

Should we believe this attempt at a mea culpa and what exactly is the IMF saying sorry for?

(1) To begin with, the IMF’s not saying sorry for the entire package of neoliberal reforms. They think that some (read: most) of the reforms have actually been a godsend:

There is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments.

One can quibble with some of the blanket statements made here. For example, most of the reduction in the absolute number of the global poor has come from China, a country that is hardly the archetypal neoliberal state.  Second, whereas privatization has made previously state-run companies more “efficient,” the efficiency gains have only accrued to a tiny elite. For example, in Zambia, the privatization of water utilities has led to a situation whereby the urban poor are no longer a priority in the provision of water services. You do well to focus your energies on those most capable of paying if your only objective is profits.

Anyways, what exactly is the IMF saying sorry for?

(2) The IMF is unconditionally saying sorry for its dogged insistence, particularly in the 1980s and 90s, that countries’ capital accounts needed to be liberalized to allow for the free flow of capital across borders. Previously, central bankers, particularly in poor countries, kept a tight lid on the movements of foreign capital. A false rumor about a presidential assassination could lead to a sudden outflow of capital with devastating consequences for the exchange rate.

But the IMF, supported by a plethora of research pushed for a complete doing away of capital controls – a world free of such controls would lead to the “efficient” allocation of capital towards its most “productive” uses. Liberalizing the capital account became an important “conditionality.”

We now know that much of that research was useless – no more useful than the types of studies that say homeopathy works. The world, post-relaxation of capital controls, has been a highly unstable world. Common sense would have predicted this much.

(3) The other mea culpa is the insistence on austerity. In the 1980s and 1990s when a poor country was in financial trouble, the IMF would swoop in and immediately put into action a plan for slashing government expenditure. The burden for such cuts often fell on those parts of expenditure important for the poor – publically provided healthcare, education, housing, etcetera. Now the IMF says their inflexible insistence on austerity was a mistake:

[E]pisodes of fiscal consolidation [austerity] have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point and raises by 1.5 percent within five years the Gini measure of income inequality.

So what to make of all this?

(4) First, it gives one hope that the IMF is finally coming round to the position that its policies caused a lot of damage across the world. Perhaps the Fund will be more cautious this time around as it intervenes in resolving the nascent debt crisis in Africa. Although even here there’s much to be disheartened about if Ghana’s recent interaction with the IMF is anything to go by.   

(5) Second, the apology, if one can call it that, seems half-hearted. The IMF’s appraisal of the failings of its policies is largely based on the narrow metric of GDP growth. At times there is an allusion to “unemployment” or “inequality” but that’s it. We know, however, that the Fund’s neoliberal agenda, particularly through Structural Adjustment Programs in Africa, had far-reaching social consequences. The mass lay-offs following Zambia’s fast track privatization program in the 1990s devastated families – depression became commonplace among household heads who had lost jobs. Luanshya, a town on Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, collapsed after its biggest mine was sold to a group of scrap metal dealers pretending to be miners. There’s little time for due diligence when you are selling companies faster than you can keep up.  

A full apology would need to reckon with the full-scale violence visited upon the poor by the neoliberal agenda.

(6) Finally, going by the studies referenced in the IMF’s mea culpa, a visitor from Mars would be forgiven for thinking that we all lived in a world where we thought neoliberalism was the bomb until the IMF began to question it. The references section mostly cites “IMF Working Papers”, “IMF Staff Position Notes”, “IMF Occasional Papers”, etcetera. But this debate has been going on for at least two decades with academics and activists from the Global South making some of the most profound critiques of neoliberalism (think here of the many studies referenced in Mkandawire and Soludo’s timeless book from 1999). And many of the original critics, particularly those in the economics profession who dared to defy the Fund, were caricatured as crackpots and ostracized to a life on the fringes of the profession. They deserve acknowledgement and an apology if this attempt at a mea culpa is to mean anything.

Same DIFF?

As with our last movie night post, we need to start with the bad news.

1. The Durban International Film Festival (or DIFF), one of the most important film festivals on the African continent, has been through some turmoil lately. With only a couple months to go to DIFF, the festival manager Sarah Dawson as well as long time DIFF programmer Jack Chiang have resigned over alleged interference from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) who runs the festival. The dispute was around the decision to not screen ‘Shepherds and Butchers,’ a film about a white teenage apartheid executioner (starring the comic actor Steve Coogan as a lawyer defending the killer), as the opening night film. Here’s the trailer:

Shepherds and Butchers (2016)

In a post-resignation open letter, Dawson explained that the film, despite its artistic merits, was not well suited for an opening night film, and shows graphic depictions of violence on black bodies which mostly serves to drive the narrative of white protagonists:

The decision was in consideration of the idea that imposing the film upon a diverse audience, many of whom are compelled professionally to be present and who might be unprepared for images of violence upon black bodies within the context of a narrative elaboration of a white man’s trauma, had the potential to be overwhelmingly emotionally distressing.

Dawson’s decision to have a separate gala screening for the film was overruled by UKZN deputy Vice Chancellor Cheryl Potgieter, after producer Anant Singh (credits range from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” starring Idris Elba to the films of local comic Leon Schuster) complained in an email to Dawson about not making opening night.

We back Dawson’s reasoning and for the independent curatorship of film festival programs. We’ll stay glued to what happens next.

2. On a more positive note, there are a few exciting African films to look forward to at DIFF this year. One of them being As I Open My Eyes, the feature debut from Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid. The film follows a young female rock musician who realizes that one of her friends and bandmates is working for the dictatorship. Set on the eve of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the film subtly paints a portrait of the atmosphere of fear created by Ben Ali.

As I Open My Eyes (2015)

3. Another one we’re excited about at DIFF is Naked Reality, the latest from the prolific Cameroonian auteur Jean Pierre Bekolo (Les Saignettes, Le Complot d’Aristotle.) The film is described as an afro—futuristic cinematic fable, and centers around a mysterious character named Wanita, who is positioned as a savior in a dystopic world, where African cities have become one huge metropolis. There is no trailer yet, but you can follow the blog here.

4. Speaking of Afro-Futurists, There’s a new video out featuring Spoek Mathambo. Shot on the streets and in the internet cafes of downtown Johannesburg, and featuring some classic pantsula moves, the video is a fitting ode to South Africa’s urban jungle. Daniel Haaksman’s remix of a classic Soul Brothers mbaqanga track and Spoek’s playful flow create a synergy bound for success on dancefloors and music blogs alike. Well done to Capetonian director Chris Kets and The Visual Content Gang.

Akabongi” (2016)

5. Nigerian filmmaker and University of Southern California graduate Ose Oyamendan has created a new comedy web series called Oh! Bama which follows “America’s #1 right wing detective” as he travels to Kenya to find proof that Barack Obama was born on the continent, in an effort to impeach the US president before he finishes his term. The series has some funny moments, albeit a little old school stylistically, with a lot of dude humor and Kenyan women mostly presented as floozies or shady tricksters. It’s been getting a lot of love from Nigerian and Kenyan blogs however.

Oh! Bama (2016)

6. Fans of horror, take note. London-based Nigerian filmmaker Ogo Okpue has written and directed a new feature called Catface, about a “vigilante born through supernatural means that decides to take revenge on a cult of violent internet serial killers.” The teaser trailer is pretty creepy. We’d be interested to see more.

Catface (2016)

7.  Disney has teamed up with Lupita Nyong’o and Mira Nair (award winning director of Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding) for a new film called Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who went from selling corn as a young girl on the streets of Uganda to becoming an international chess champion. A colleague watched the trailer and sent this impression: “The trailer opens with an inspirational quote from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (why?), a misplaced Leona Lewis pop song (they couldn’t find Ugandan musicians?), and homilies, which I assume represents some kind of politics for the poor in Kampala, Uganda: ‘Use your minds and you’ll find safety,’ ‘Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place where you belong’ and ‘You belong where you believe you belong.’ It’s like Akeelah and the Bee in Kampala.” Too harsh? Watch for yourself:

8. Finally, if you haven’t yet, check out our Kickstarter campaign for our first feature documentary film, Africa’s Premiere League, a film about Africa’s obsession with English football. To those who have donated so far, thanks for getting us to our original goal! We have extended the target so keep sharing and get it out there!

Weekend Music Break No.96

Back to our regularly scheduled music break for your weekend! Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that what we’re taking a break from, so this week labor is a theme. However, so is liberation, and therefore perhaps fittingly, Haiti is too.

To kick the series of videos off, we have a nice premiere from Burkina Faso’s Art Melody, exclusive to Africa is a Country! Check that out and the rest of this week’s music break via the Youtube playlist below.

Music Break No.96

1) Like mentioned above the first video is a special premiere of Art Melody’s “Ki Kanga”… it’s a song about life’s hard times, with visual imagery in the clip that likens the struggle of life to hard labor, but Melody as having the focused drive for liberation of a professional fighter. 2) Up next, a really nice surprise out of Nigeria from Dremo, I’ll let you reveal that one on your own. 3) Then, Stonebwoy goes global reggae with a shout out to the various Black Atlantic cultures the genre has touched down, as well as drawn from. 4) Chance The Rapper has what might be one of the most surreal major label debuts I’ve seen, turning in the most positive song I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear 2 Chains or Lil’ Wayne grace. 5) Then we change pace a bit and head to Haiti… Lakou Mizik warms us up with a bit of a live jam, and visual preview of their album. 6) Then, Poirier and Fwonte leave the Montreal cold and head to Haiti showing us a side of Port Au Prince we might not be used to seeing. 7) Next, we get to a little more mainstream fare from the island of Haiti, with X-Men and Carimi and their Zouk-dancehall cross over party jam. 8) Finally, from Haiti, the island goes afrobeat, tying Yoruba to Voodoo culture on this monster jam from the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra. 9) Switching pace once again, Afro-Mexican rapper Bocafloja riffs on the liberation theme in a new video with “Dystopia” featuring Immasoul. 10) And last, but not least, Filastine’s “The Cleaner” bookends our theme with a dance meditation on domestic laborers.

Enjoy your weekend!

If you love me, help me grow Ghana


In Adum, in the center of Kumasi – Ghana’s second-largest city – an old warehouse stands as a beautiful letdown. It has been over ten years since the loco shed was used to full capacity. It is neglected and yet somehow humming with life.

In years past, faulty trains were sent there to be repaired. Now, only a handful of staff remains at the station. From the roof, old lamps hang from where they once shone light. Plants have occupied windows and walls. Families occupy old offices, turning them into places of residence. The platform is a resting place for the homeless. Growing shrubs sprout from the withering machines. The workshop is now a transitory place for passers-by looking for a shortcut to somewhere else. Its inhabitants and activities spill out into the neighborhood around it.

During the exploitative years of colonialism, the British established the railway to extract precious metals, minerals and cocoa from the hinterlands and send them to the coastal ports for export. The lines would pass through the Ashanti Region, of which Kumasi is the capital, the Western Region to the port in Takoradi and also the Eastern Region to the port in Accra. When Ghana gained its independence in 1957, the railway was renamed the Ghana Railway Company and over the next 40 years the Kumasi Railway would house and be a place for the repair of equipment, vehicles, engines and carriages from Japan, Germany, America and Britain, each piece gradually wearing away with time.


In April, the blaxTARLINES KUMASI curatorial collective held an exhibition entitled “if you love me…” , featuring 30 artists and a number of their collaborators. From painters and sculptors to horticulturists and engineers, the artists – many of whom practice in Kumasi – exhibited their interpretations of the theme at the locomotive shed of the Kumasi Railway.

The artists and curators contemplate the possibilities in the space and the linkages across the country. For instance, Eugene Edzorho’s collection of rocks gathered from small-scale mining sites hang in an old carriage, a reminder of the significance of trains to mineral ore transportation. Edzorho and his collaborator, Rex Akinruntan, are working on a similar installation at the Takoradi Railway Station, which is currently under construction.

The shed’s current state poses some questions. Do any of us here – loitering, mingling, living – know of or remember the station in its former incarnation?  And do we care? Should we? In a bid to reconcile the aspects of life and living in the locomotive shed, the curators – Robin Riskin, Selorm Kudjie and Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah – along with the artists, attempt to weave the artworks and the environment together. So much so that even a floating locomotive doesn’t seem out of place as it hangs as though in zero-gravity. Like a spaceship, the suspended styrofoam blocks inside it, with tessellated patterns drawn on by artist Lois Selasie Arde-Acquah, oscillate gently with the breeze.


The exhibition takes its title from the work of Eric Okwei Nii Noye, whose fabric with the inscription “if you love me let me know” can be found hanging in the windows and on drying lines like that of the clothes and fabric of the people living in the warehouse.

People stream through the shed going about their day, sometimes stopping to read artists’ inscriptions on the walls or old buses and other aspects of the exhibition. Some are impressed, others unfazed. Two young men linger longer than most. Encouraged by the unfamiliar visitors to give their opinion on the exhibition – “It is interesting” – they say eventually before scuttling off.


Just outside the warehouse on a large billboard, grinning cyborg Medusas greet drivers and their passengers on the Asafo interchange as they go by. Bursting with color, Adjo Kisser’s instantly recognizable cartoons signal transformations across space and time as the environment changes. On an adjoining billboard, Deryk Owusu Bempah’s vanishing-point display alters perceptions, causing the viewer to consider the immediate space and question where it really ends, if at all.

Black and white painted soft drink cans, styrofoam plates and takeaway boxes installed by Francis Anim-Sakyi are littered along the tracks and platform. They differ only slightly to the plastic waste strewn around the area. Easily overlooked, Anim-Sakyi’s work highlights how we can get used to seeing discarded rubbish out and dumped thoughtlessly.

Rainbow tapestries of one pesewa coins hang over the platform wall onto the crushed stones and ballast. For this work, the artist Yaw Owusu puts the coins through oxidization, heat and chemical processes to achieve the multicolored effect, effectively speeding up the ageing process. Like the railway, the tapestries themselves represent something of little use. The coin, the lowest value in the currency, is accepted nearly nowhere.


In one of the rooms above a windowless opening, a headless statue alluding to the figure of Kwame Nkrumah – Ghana’s first president – is painted over the cracks of the wall by Afia Prempeh, as though telling of a loss of leadership. Without a head, what use is the body?

Observing the warehouse and interacting with its occupants and the exhibition – itself a sort of occupation – it’s hard not to imagine what could have been, or indeed could be if the political will and right management was in place. A thriving railway would transform the country, least not in the economies of the regions it would run through, with people and goods crossing the country with relative ease.

Recent and present governments have all pledged to rehabilitate and build new lines to the outstretches of the country, as far up north as Paga in the Upper East Region on the border with Burkina Faso. Work in Takoradi-Sekondi and along the Western Corridor has begun, but the Kumasi line remains idle. And, as such, the workshop is somewhat removed from its old life. It continues to transform, morph, expand and be expanded.

Perhaps then, a possible closing of the title of the exhibition could be “if you love me… help me grow.”


Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead

Their voices, sharp and angry, shook me from my slumber. I didn’t know the language, but I instantly knew the translation. So I groped for the opening in the mosquito net, shuffled from my downy white bed to the window, threw back the stained tan curtain, and squinted into the light of a new day breaking in South Sudan. Below, in front of my guest house, one man was getting his ass kicked by another. A flurry of blows connected with his face and suddenly he was crumpled on the ground. Three or four men were watching.

The victor, still standing, appeared strong and confident. His sinewy arms seemed to have been carved from obsidian. Having won in decisive fashion, he turned his back and began walking away with a self-satisfied swagger. The other man staggered to his feet, his face contorted with a ragged, wounded-animal look — the one that seems to begin as an electric ache at the back of your jaw, drawing your lips back into a grimace as tears well up in your eyes. And what he did next seemed straight out of a movie. I couldn’t believe I was seeing it.

The vast, rutted dirt field below me was filled with trash: half-burned water bottles, empty soda cans — and glass. And that furious man promptly did what I had previously only seen on screen. He grabbed a bottle by the neck — it might already have been broken or he might have shattered off the bottom with a quick rap on a rock — and in an instant he had himself an equalizer.

The ass-kicker spun around to find the tables turned and he knew it. The man with the bottle knew it, too. He was shouting and jabbing, though he wasn’t actually close enough to do any damage. Nonetheless, with fear spreading across his face, the ass-kicker backpedaled, still talking loud but unmistakably in retreat.

It seemed clear enough that the man with the bottle didn’t really have it in him to punch that jagged glass through the other’s taut skin. His fury seemed to fade fast and he didn’t press his advantage. Or maybe he was just afraid of what might happen if he were disarmed. Whatever the reason, cooler heads prevailed. The onlookers got him to drop his weapon and the combatants walked off in opposite directions. It was over, even if nothing else was in South Sudan.

At one point, as the two fought, I glanced back at the bed where my cell phone lay and nearly fetched it. The impulse to shoot a few pictures or some video footage of the unfolding scene was powerful and hardly surprising since I come from a culture now built around documenting and sharing even the most mundane happenings.

I didn’t move, in part because I had no idea what was going on. If I recorded it, what then? What accompanying story could I tell? I knew that, short of one man killing the other, it was unlikely that anyone would be around by the time I threw on my clothes and got downstairs. Real-life fights rarely last long. And what, even if they spoke English, were these men going to tell me? Would I write about a personal skirmish over money or a woman or some drunken insult?

Thinking about it later, I came to see the episode as a metaphor for my situation. It was the summer of 2014 and the dawn of my first full day on my initial trip to South Sudan. I was there to get an on-the-ground look at a failing nation in the midst of a months-old civil war; a complex, partly tribal conflict that, in some ways, boiled down to a backyard fight between two men. And frankly, as with the morning struggle I had just witnessed, I had little idea of what was going on. Sure, I’d talked to humanitarian experts and South Sudanese in the United States. I’d read news articles and substantive reports by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and others. On the flight over, I’d finished a very good book on the country and a couple marginally useful ones before that, but I couldn’t have been more of a neophyte standing there in the capital of a new nation, convulsed by a conflict that had already killed more than 10,000 people and left millions homeless or displaced.

Still, I came with a history that seemed suited to the situation. I’d spent parts of the previous decade wandering around post-conflict countries in Southeast Asia, unearthing evidence of horrendous crimes committed by the United States and its allies. I had traveled to remote Vietnamese villages no American had visited since my country’s combat there ended in 1973, hamlets where the villagers might never have met an unarmed Westerner. I talked to people about rapes and murders and massacres, largely by American troops. I interviewed them about living for years under bombs and artillery shells and helicopter gunships that hunted humans from the sky. I spoke with women and men who saw their families cut down by American teenagers with automatic rifles. I talked with those who had lost limbs or eyes or were scorched by napalm or white phosphorous — incendiary weapons that melted faces or left the victims with imperfectly mended swaths of skin. And back in the United States, I spent endless hours with the men who had done these sorts of things to Vietnamese and Cambodians, as well as others who had refused to take part.

After more than 10 years immersed in atrocity, I needed a change so — obviously — I headed for a war zone filled with atrocities about which I knew next to nothing. But to me, it felt different. I wasn’t about to repeat my work in Vietnam. I had landed in a place where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim. This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons. It didn’t take me long, of course, to realize that there was something unnervingly familiar about the work, about the grim tales I began to hear of suffering, privation, and loss (with women and children, as always, hit hardest). In talking to people in those sun-drenched limbos — refugees in their own country — it took next to no time for stories I recognized well to begin seeping into the interviews, tales of family members gunned down in the streets, of rapes and assaults, the sort of hideous acts that form the fabric of modern war, no matter what country, what area of the world.

I spent a couple weeks in-country talking to ordinary South Sudanese and humanitarian workers, taking stock as best I could — part of the time on the outskirts of Malakal, a war-ravaged town 515 kilometers north of Juba.

I traveled there, in the heart of the rainy season, to find a United Nations base drowning in a sea of muck and squalor. And I wiled away an evening with a couple of local journalists who had, in the wake of the war, signed on with the U.N. Bathed in an unnatural fluorescent glow, we talked shop after hours in their office. I wanted the inside story of South Sudan’s crisis and they, in turn, wanted to know about me. Perhaps unsatisfied with my answers, one of them decided to consult Google for background. My book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, popped up instantly and he looked up from his monitor astonished. He had, after all, just told me about how a member of his family — a man of some standing — had apparently been the victim of a targeted killing in the opening salvo of the civil war. If I specialized in investigating crimes of war, the journalist wanted to know, why the hell wasn’t I investigating war crimes in South Sudan? I came up with excuses, but my new acquaintance found them unconvincing and, in truth, I wasn’t that convinced myself.

I spent that night on a cot in the back of a deserted office on that U.N. base thinking about what he had said and was still thinking about it the next day when I arrived at a nearby airport to catch a U.N. flight back to Juba. Of course, to call it an airport is a bit of a misnomer. By the time I arrived, it had devolved into an airstrip. Nobody seemed to use its vintage blue and white terminal building anymore. Instead, you drove past cold-eyed Rwandan peacekeepers, U.N. troop trucks, and an armored personnel carrier or two, right up to the tarmac.

That’s where I was when a large, nondescript white plane arrived. That in itself was hardly remarkable for Malakal. If it isn’t a World Food Program flight, then it’s a big-bellied plane hauling in supplies for some nongovernmental organization or a U.N. plane like the one that brought me there and would soon take me away.

This nondescript white plane, however, was different from the others. When the Canadair CRJ-100, with “Cemair” written across its tail, taxied up and its door opened, a group of young men in camouflage uniforms carrying assault rifles and machine guns emerged. And they were met there by scores of similarly attired, similarly armed young men who had arrived in a convoy just minutes before.

I’d never seen anything like it, so I pulled out my phone and tried to surreptitiously take a few photos. Not surreptitiously enough, it turned out. A commander spotted me and promptly headed my way, visibly angry and waving his finger “no.” As I glanced to my left, a boy holding an AK-47 and following the officer’s gaze turned toward me and with him came the barrel of his rifle.

I didn’t think he was going to shoot me. There was no anger in his eyes. He didn’t draw a bead on me. His finger may not even have been near the trigger. Still, he was a boy — he looked about 16 — and he was holding an assault rifle and it was pointed in my direction, so I stepped lively to put the commander between him and me, while quickly shoving my phone in my pocket and apologizing profusely if not quite sincerely.

By the time my plane arrived and I was heading back to Juba, I was sure that I needed to return to South Sudan to talk to boys like that teenaged soldier; to spend more time on United Nations bases with people trapped in squalor; to try to understand how a new nation only years before “midwifed” by my own country and hailed as a great hope for Africa could be laid so low that people were starting to whisper “Rwanda” and talk about South Sudan as a possible next epicenter of genocide.

Even though I’ve spent considerably more time in the country since, I still don’t claim to know much about this hot, land-locked, Texas-sized country, only a few years old, inhabited by 60 ethnic groups, and a population whose median age is 17. But, there are people who do know it intimately and I sought them out. For several weeks in early 2015, I spoke with U.N. officials and humanitarian workers, military officers and child soldiers, politicos and “big men,” but mostly with ordinary people whose already tragedy-tinged lives had been blown apart by a violent power struggle that began on a military base in Juba and spread like a pandemic into the neighboring streets, then through the capital, and finally into rural hot zones to the north.

No one knows how many men, women, and children were slaughtered in Juba’s streets that first night, December 15, 2013, or how many died in the following weeks as war flared in the towns of Bentiu, Malakal, and Bor, or in the spasms of violence elsewhere in the months that followed. Nobody knows where all the bodies went; where all the mass graves are located. But when so many die, others in similar situations do survive and I sat down with scores of them in plastic-tarp shanties, dimly lit bars, deserted workplaces after hours, or under the welcome shade of sun-scalded trees, or we spoke by phone or on Skype in Africa and the United States. With a vividness that often astounded me, they described their stories of hardship and horror and sometimes even told me of small victories.

There is a chance that by the time this book is published a peace deal signed as the manuscript was being completed will take root — unlike the many ceasefires before it that shattered, some within hours — and that the world’s newest nation will be on a path to reconciliation and prosperity; a chance, that is, that the promise of that country’s Independence Day in 2011 will finally be realized. There is also the potential for so much worse, the possibility that recent reports of government forces raping girls and burning them alive, castrating young boys and allowing them to bleed out, or crushing people with armored vehicles are a prelude to an even more brutal, sadistic spree of violence on an even more massive scale, a chance that “Rwanda” could become a reality in South Sudan in the months or years to come.

Whatever happens to the country and its long-suffering people, the voices in this book serve, I hope, as a testament both to the struggles and the courage of the victims of violence there and as a cautionary tale of the sort of chaos and mayhem that may lie ahead.

This is the introduction to Nick Turse’s new book, “Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan,” published by Haymarket Books. The book can be purchased here and here.

Kenya’s Refugee “Problem”


Earlier this month, the Kenyan Interior Ministry declared its intent to shut down the country’s refugee camps, citing concerns about security and the threat of terrorism. The last time the government indicated its plan to close the camps in April 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced $45 million in additional aid, and the camps remained open.

This time, policymakers and domestic and international rights activists have noted with grave concern Kenya’s recent revocation of prima facie refugee status for Somalis, who constitute two-thirds of the nearly 600,000 refugees in Kenya. This change means that those fleeing Somalia will need to apply for refugee status on a case by case basis—made more complicated by the decision to shut down the Department of Refugee Affairs—and in the interim, they will be subject to removal and abuse by security forces.

Commentators have pointed out that the Kenyan government has never substantiated its claims that refugees were responsible for violent attacks in the country. Instead, they argue that the government is using the refugee population as a diversionary tactic domestically, and as a bargaining chip for more aid from humanitarian institutions internationally. As European states are now willing to pay for other governments to assume the burden of hosting refugees, Kenya seems to be positioning itself not simply to attract more funds, but also to challenge the moral authority of Western states when it comes to international obligations.

Integrally tied to this pending humanitarian crisis is the global architecture of counter-terrorism. The Kenyan government is but one actor among many who produce, and profit from, the specter of terrorist threat, which allows for the discursive slippage from civilian, to potential Al-Shabaab sympathizer, to potential terrorist. Readers unfamiliar with the region are led to believe that ‘Kenya’ is an inward-looking political entity with little connection to the situations in neighboring states, beyond its position as the recipient of refugees. The ‘international community’—led by the world’s most powerful states—is viewed only through the prism of aid, with little consideration of these actors’ own role in exacerbating, rather than mitigating the very violence leading to displacement in the first place. Viewed through this polarizing lens of ‘Kenya’ vs. the ‘international community,’ we fail to grapple with the array of conflicting cross-border interests and entanglements at play, and to contextualize the dilemma as it unfolds.

In 2009, the Kenyan government initiated plans to create a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia. Working closely with both the Ethiopian and Somali governments, Kenya recruited roughly 2,500 youth both from within Somalia and from north-eastern Kenya, including Dadaab refugee camp. Luring them with false promises of financial remuneration, this militia was trained for a possible assault on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in southern Somalia. Yet disputes soon unfolded between Kenya and Somalia about where to deploy these forces, confirming the range of interests at play. The whereabouts of these young men remains unknown, raising important questions about the mobilization of armed actors for the objective of ‘counter-terrorism.’

Yet this number pales in comparison to the nearly 22,000 troops now occupying Somali territory as part of an internationally funded ‘peacekeeping’ operation. Formed in 2007 following the US-backed Ethiopian-led invasion of Somalia, the African Union Peacekeeping Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) troops hail from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, with police contingents from Nigeria and Ghana. AMISOM receives logistical and financial support from the UN, and is funded primarily by the EU, US, UK, Japan, Norway, and Canada.

Few analysts have inquired about the violence and displacement generated by the introduction of these armed ‘peacekeepers,’ despite the publication of UN and other reports documenting such effects. In 2014, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that AMISOM troops abused their authority by preying on women and girls, who constitute the majority of those displaced by violence. Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group Report observed in October 2015 that offensive military operations by AMISOM and Somali security forces have exacerbated insecurity. The rush by various actors to capture resources in the wake of territorial gain has threatened to undermine peace and state-building efforts, while the territorial displacement of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region.”

African Union troops are not the only actors shaping dynamics in Somalia. Private security firms operate largely with impunity despite documented abuses. In 2015, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict expressed concerns about the unlawful detention of children, reportedly formerly associated with armed groups, in a ‘rehabilitation’ camp run by the Serendi Group in Mogadishu. And in March 2016, the US military launched a drone strike that killed 150 people, citing Al-Shabaab plans to attack both US and African Union forces.  While US officials insist that the precision of these airstrikes ensure minimum civilian casualties, the Intercept recently reported that the US possesses limited intelligence capabilities in Somalia to confirm that the people killed are indeed the intended targets. Between AMISOM and private security abuses, and the growing use of drone strikes, Somalis may not necessarily feel more secure in the hands of foreign armed actors than they do in the hands of local ones. And as those who have documented the conditions inside Kenya’s refugee camps have indicated, we should perhaps think twice about calls by humanitarian agencies to simply maintain the status quo.

But Somali experiences and perceptions are of little interest to the more powerful external players who make daily calculations about how to justify their continued role.

As Alex de Waal observed in his recent book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, the ‘war on terror’ has enabled “an exceptionally well-financed rentier-political-security market with the added bonus that counter-terror patronage also comes with intelligence technologies and a legal vocabulary that is perfectly suited for justifying secrecy and repression.” Former Somali Special Envoy to the U.S. Abukar Arman uses the term ‘predatory capitalism’ to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany state-building efforts, as ‘capacity-building’ programs serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights, and as senior military officials profit from the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal.

Cognizant of the potential for critical questions about their own role in ongoing instability in Somalia, the AU and UN have employed consulting firms to ensure that we, as outside observers, continue to conceive of only a select few actors (Al-Shabaab) as part of the problem, with others (UN, AU, peacekeepers, donor states, and private firms) painted as entirely outside the frame and therefore best-placed to offer solutions.

Recent developments have led to the temporary placement of the Kenyan government in the ‘problem’ category. But rather than conceive of humanitarian agencies and the ‘international community’ on one end and the Kenyan state on the other, perhaps it is time to think more critically about their entanglement. As governance in the name of humanity becomes intertwined with the violence of ‘security,’ it becomes less and less clear what ‘humanity’ is. Simply insisting that the refugee camps in Kenya remain open distracts us from more difficult but important considerations: namely, the ongoing participation of an ‘international community’ that includes Kenya in the production and reproduction of violence in the region.

Racial nationalism and the political imagination

We are an African people

In 1976 the historian and activist Walter Rodney spoke at Howard University on the then-unfolding civil war in Angola. Noting that in the late 1960s and early 1970s many African-Americans had been compelled by the then-nascent UNITA movement’s seemingly Africanist-centered opposition to the socialist-aligned MPLA, Rodney cautioned that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.” “The Lessons of Angola” he suggested, were that racial solidarity needed to be tempered with ideological solidarity in order to fashion a more effective weapon. The tension between left- and race-based politics has been a constant issue in transatlantic solidarity for decades, as have issues of race, decolonization and education.

The Cornell University historian Russell Rickford examines the historical intersection of these concepts in in his remarkable new book, We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination (published by Oxford University Press). Rickford’s study tells the little-known story of how US-based Pan Africanists responded to white racism and a corrupt school system by founding and funding their own schools, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last few months, Rickford and I had exchanged periodic messages about his book, historical antecedents to contemporary debates about education, and the fault-lines of Pan-Africanist and African diasporic politics. We began by considering the career of Howard Fuller, who founded the Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969.

Tell me about Howard Fuller, a.k.a. Owusu Sadaukai. 

Owusu Sadaukai (aka Howard Fuller) was one of the most influential U.S. Pan Africanists of the Black Power era. He was a community organizer who was deeply involved in antipoverty work when he founded Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) in Durham, North Carolina, in 1969. The post-secondary school, which eventually moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, was widely regarded as the leading Pan Africanist/black nationalist institution of the period.

Sadaukai is significant for a number of reasons. One of his main contributions was helping to increase black American awareness of and support for armed struggles against settler colonialism and white minority rule in Southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies. Sadaukai made a very influential journey to Mozambique in 1971, where he spent a month embedded with Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) fighters. The experience helped transform Sadaukai’s vision of Pan African solidarity. He began to see the fight against U.S. imperialism as the main priority for black American internationalists, because Portuguese colonialism was propped up by U.S. aid.

Sadaukai also played a leading role in founding African Liberation Day (ALD) in 1972. This annual fundraising and public education effort on behalf of ongoing anti-colonial struggles on the African continent greatly increased Pan-African consciousness in the U.S. It also accelerated the political growth of many U.S. Pan Africanists by hastening the transition from Racial Pan Africanism (a philosophy based on notions of global racial linkages) to Left Pan Africanism (an approach based more on anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-racism).

However, Sadaukai followed a very strange path in the decades after the Black Power movement. Ultimately he became a major spokesman for “school choice,” or voucher programs that enable parents to use public education funds to enroll their children in private schools. “School choice” has been a major goal of the privatization movement, and is widely criticized by defenders of public education, the system upon which the vast majority of black children rely. Thus, Sadaukai (who has now reverted to his original name, Howard Fuller) has traveled full circle from integrationism to black nationalism to Marxism-Leninism to staunch advocate of free market policies. In the closing chapters of my book I trace a larger retreat from the radical elements of Black Power politics during the post-civil rights era.

That’s quite an intellectual journey. I want to keep the “end” of Sadaukai / Fuller’s journey in mind as we continue our conversation, but for now let’s go back to the beginning. How was Sadaukai’s political activism and especially solidarity with Frelimo and other liberation movements consistent with his critique of the American educational system?

Sadaukai and other Pan-African nationalist organizers and intellectuals believed black America had been socialized for subservience and sociopolitical dependency.

They were strongly influenced by postcolonial and radical theorists who condemned Western education for “colonizing the mind” of oppressed peoples throughout the world. They joined a host of figures, from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere to Guyana’s Walter Rodney, in arguing that subject peoples (including African Americans) needed to reject the principles of individualism, materialism and white supremacy on which Western education was based in order to reclaim their humanity and achieve cultural and political autonomy. These were guiding principles for  MXLU.

However, Sadaukai’s view of revolution changed in the early 1970s. As he traveled and interacted with revolutionary movements, he developed a more materialist vision of the reconstruction of society. Rehabilitating consciousness remained a major priority, but he began to see anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as struggles for land and for the reconstruction of political economy. He developed a critique of global finance capital as the engine of political and economic exploitation not just in the Third World, but also in the United States.

As Sadaukai’s politics evolved, MXLU developed a more internationalist and leftist orientation. Equipping African Americans (and other black people) with technical skills so that they could assist in the modernization of developing nations (especially those seeking to travel a socialist path) emerged as the institution’s primary mission. Before it closed abruptly in 1973 amid severe financial trouble, MXLU also attempted to revive its original emphasis on serving local African American communities within North Carolina.

Could you talk a bit about the distinction you made earlier about the difference racial Pan Africanism and left Pan Africanism?

In the book I try to distinguish between a Left Pan-Africanist orientation rooted in a fundamentally anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and “Third Worldist” outlook and a racial Pan-Africanist trajectory, more wedded to principles of racial fundamentalism, cultural nationalism and the politics of all-black unity.

The complex realities of ideology often stretch the explanatory value of these categories, but over the course of the 1970s sharp conflicts erupted in black progressive and radical circles over these and other ideological distinctions.

The story of the decline of the more radical tendency is complicated. One would have to talk at length about external factors (including state repression) and internal factors (including bitter ideological feuds.) But I think it is fair to say that by the 1980s, racial Pan Africanism was more widespread. It emerged as a more inward-looking form of Pan Africanism re-emerged as a major black political alternative to integrationism. This iteration of Pan-African nationalism took a less hostile stance toward global capitalism than had the radical varieties of the 1970s. It was also more firmly based in the academy and less closely tied to ongoing struggles in Africa and the Caribbean. In my epilogue I make the case that this bourgeois nationalism entered into a kind of detente with corporate capitalism and the forces of privatization. But forms of Left Pan Africanism never fully disappeared, and continued to influence campaigns like the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Black Radical Congress.

Responding to your striking title, I’m wondering what lessons your book offers about the African Americans’ relationship to “Africa” (as a fact, as a concept) both during your time period and today? 

The question of the relationship of African Americans to Africa is a thorny one, of course. The historical relationship itself has been torturous. From the African-American perspective, I would have to say that black folk need to understand the history of what I call “Africa in the African-American Mind” (I teach a seminar on the topic at Cornell). A good place to start is by reading Middle Passages by James Campbell and Proudly We Can be African by Meriwether.

But in general, I still think some of the lessons of the Black Power era are relevant in terms of African-American consciousness. Most of the figures in my book start from a position of romanticizing African politics and culture in the context of the 1960s revalorization of African identity. My book’s title, “We are an African People,” comes from a very popular slogan of the late 1960s/1970s, which makes this point quite clearly.

As these activist-intellectuals traveled throughout Africa and the Diaspora, they were forced to confront some of the political and social complexities of societies and governments that they had previously viewed through a very simplistic lens. At best, African Americans rethought the basis of their connection to Africans, moving away from racial mysticism and thoroughly western essentialism and moving toward solidarity based on common circumstances and political perspectives/objectives. They began confronting the complex problems of neocolonialism. They began considering questions of class and gender in both African-American and African contexts. This is part of what I characterize in the book as “political maturation.” Yet, realistically, I must concede that at the end of the day, a push for African and African-American solidarity based on racial romanticism is probably superior to an outright rejection of the idea of shared political fate. The African and African-American cultural encounter seems to work best when both sides recognize multiple historical veils of stereotype and misunderstanding as well as historical ties of solidarity, inspiration, and struggle.

Julius Malema’s Tailored Image

President of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, at his party headquarters in Johannesburg, 31 March 2014. Image via Jerome StarkeyJulius Malema, at his party headquarters in Johannesburg, 31 March 2014. Image via Jerome Starkey.

At the end of April this year, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), launched its local government elections manifesto in front of 40,000 people in Johannesburg’s Orlando Stadium. Julius Malema, who serves as both the party’s political and sartorial “Commander in Chief,” led the proceedings, sporting his now iconic red beret and jumpsuit. This carefully constructed image is central to the EFF’s populist allure, one the party hopes will prove strong enough to overthrow the ANC in the upcoming local elections.

The color red, berets, and plain workers’ clothing have all become potent aesthetic symbols for the EFF. Standing in monochrome defiance of the ruling African National Congress’s black, green and gold, Malema and his red band use the color to commemorate “those who have died during the struggle for economic freedom.” The color also serves to remind the nation of the 2012 Marikana massacre, which occurred under the watch of the ANC. Berets and the occasional military fatigues convey a revolutionary Guevaran spirit, while overalls and jumpsuits show solidarity with the working class.

But Malema’s closet would surely tell a different story. Somewhere under all the layers of EFF apparel sit past political skeletons. Not so long ago, the South African media rightfully called out the disparity between Malema’s everyman speech and designer shoes. After the media salvo, it’s no mystery why Malema ditched the Gucci suits for something more palatable to the proletariat and better aligned with his platform. Although the media has since eased off, stories of “Malema’s millions” are still fresh for many South Africans.

Beyond media fodder for contradiction between walk and talk, a politician’s outward appearance can convey several messages: defiance, humility, and status among others. Leaders use their outward appearance to elevate themselves above the masses or, in Malema’s case, to walk among them. Physical appearance as political messaging is as old as politics itself. Brown University’s Jeri DeBrohun writes that Greeks and Romans alike appreciated the “potential of the body . . . as a means of marking social, political, religious, and even moral distinctions.”

But one doesn’t have to look to the ancients to witness the power of dress. In Malema’s home country, it’s now the stuff of legend. Nelson Mandela’s outfits were as numerous as his identities: camouflage to flex his strength as leader of the ANC’s military wing, a tailored suit to show his brilliance as a lawyer, and traditional Xhosa garb at a 1962 trial for inciting a work stayaway and leaving the country without a passport. That reference to tradition made deliberate connections between his royal lineage and his emerging role as a black nationalist leader. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup, then president Mandela famously donned the green jersey and cap of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team and former personification of apartheid. Many whites at the time saw this symbolic gesture as an important step towards reconciliation and unification of the fragile new democracy.

Mandela’s successors continued this tradition to suit their own political needs. Thabo Mbeki’s choice of more conservative wardrobe, often suited demurely, reflected his alignment to the West. Although normally also dressed in suit and tie, Jacob Zuma built his public persona in post-apartheid society as a Zulu traditionalist, particularly in his off-duty fashion choices on public holidays.

However, Malema’s red beret does not give one a sense of reconciliation or cultural identity. For better inspiration, we have to look outside South Africa, just as Malema did. The most obvious visual comparison comes from Venezuela’s Chavistas. Before he formed the EFF, Malema expressed his admiration for Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, visited the country and copied, wholesale, Chavistas’s use of the color red as well as the red berets.

An even better historical example for Malema’s stylistic motivations comes from another beret-wearing revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, who EFF leaders often invoke. Until his assassination in 1987, Burkina Faso’s charismatic leader only wore clothing made from cotton grown, dyed, and woven in his home country and exuded the type of self-reliance and national pride he reflected in his anti-foreign aid policies.

In a memorable scene from the documentary “Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man,” Sankara is seen seated, smiling wide, surrounded by a group of men and women listening to him intently. Sankara lifts an arm and beckons a comrade from the crowd to come forward.

See, you’re wearing an advertisement for Levi’s,” he says playfully, as laughter ripples through the crowd. “Yes it’s well made – it’s Levi’s. But it’s American. Don’t you think we have weavers able to make them here?

During his presidency, Sankara launched the Faso Dan Fani, Burkina Faso’s national cloth, and required all public servants to wear homegrown Burkinabé clothing. But this nationalist sentiment could not stem the tide of globalization, even in the 1980s. Public servants often brought the Faso Dan Fani in a bag to work and only took it out during one of Sankara’s infamous surprise visits to government offices. Soon, people dubbed Faso Dan Fani’s as “Sankara’s coming.”

Interestingly, political dress spanned the ideological spectrum. Even more rightwing African leaders tied clothing politics to their ability to reproduce their power. In the early 1960s, Mobuto Sese Seko sought to offset his regime’s dictatorial rule through dress. He decreed a strict African dress code, later known as Authenticité, for the Congolese, to portray himself as a cultural nationalist.

Sankara’s Faso Dan Fani would probably play well with Malema’s comrades today. Amid service delivery and outsourcing protests, especially on university campuses, Malema’s worker jumpsuits complement the manifesto’s main points. If elected, the EFF promises to ensure that a “minimum of 50% of basic goods, services and products consumed in the municipality are manufactured, processed or assembled within the municipality.” Here, the EFF hopes to bring Sankara’s self-reliance to a local level.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the public and the media have bought into Malema’s image and policies. The EFF will find out in August, when South Africans head to the polls to decide whether red is their color or not.

Intersectionality and economics

Intersectionality is all the rage in social movements. I am a former student at the University of Cape Town and the movement informed by intersectionality that I have observed most keenly has been the #RhodesMustFall movement there. As a result of my interest in economics, I have been wondering the ways in which what has emerged at South African universities relates to demands for economic redress and development more broadly. I hadn’t found a clear link until recently.

That there is a lack of clarity between the student movement and questions of economic transformation, is because the dominant ideological frameworks in the emergent movements — postcolonial theory and theory around intersectionality — tend to suffer from the absence of an economic analysis. (Sociologist Vivek Chibber’s work on the limitations of postcolonial theory in explaining the evolution of the Global South and his more recent critical commentary on the use of the language of intersectionality in the US presidential election speaks to this.)

Two recent developments have challenged my views. Firstly, I recently heard Feminist/Marxist economist Nancy Folbre (she is based at the University of Massachusetts, Armherst) outline her forthcoming work on “The Political Economy of Patriarchal Systems,” which seeks to push intersectionality into political economy and challenge the binary that only class relates to economic interests while gender, race, citizenship and sexuality (among others) relate merely to issues of identity.

Folbre’s work attempts to put forward a relationship between intersectionality and economic analysis, beyond looking merely at the traditional economic domain of production and exchange. It does this principally with reference to the notion of “dynamic intersectionality” and the idea that “different identities may become more salient as different opportunities for collective action to emerge.” While there is a lot more work to be done in sketching out under what terms identity relates to economic interests, the skeletal outline of “dynamic intersectionality” seemed to me to hold the prospect for an exciting positive account of a formalized representation of intersecting inequalities.

The second is the emergence of the Decolonise UCT Economics movement in South Africa, which excites me in its ambition. It is an antidote to the suffering I endured through four years of economics at UCT. Ideas like “trade unions are to blame for South Africa’s high unemployment rate” or “education is the only solution to the country’s status as the most unequal country in the world” – are all unquestioned dogmas among professors there.

An intersectional economic theory, rooted in, but also moving beyond, the traditions of radical political economy might precisely be the development left students need to pursue in countering the role of orthodox economics in perpetuating the continuing social crises that are the lived experience of South Africans (or even here in the United States where I am currently based) of different oppressions.

For me, an intersectional political-economic theory has great potential to provide a working basis for social movements that draw strength from powerful alliances of oppressed groups. This can be seen in the US presidential primaries, where we can speculate that had Bernie Sanders contested Hillary Clinton’s appropriation of the language of intersectionality to her own cynical ends, Sanders may have stood a better chance at speaking to Black and Latino voters.

In the South African context, the potential for a student-worker alliance that speaks to the intersections between worker exploitation and the issues that students have taken as their central causes (fees, racism, the continuation of colonial culture, rape culture) represents to me one of the best prospects for a united front, that up to now has not been utilized productively. In other words, it would be exciting to see what could be built on the back of the tremendous achievements of movements like #RhodesMustFall alongside university workers in winning concessions like the scrapping of outsourcing, against the backdrop of years of neo-liberalization at the university.

The ambivalence of students to participate in regressive, opportunistic movements like the #ZumaMustFall campaign suggests strong and principled analytical capacity. (#ZumaMustFall emerged soon after South Africa’s sudden currency depreciation, bringing about public uproar from mainly white South Africans, who took to the streets, with their poodles and slogan marked yoga mats, to protest their trips to Europe becoming more expensive.) This mirrors in some senses (perhaps through a shared critique or general skepticism of those who wish to venerate the South African constitution as the basis for all efforts at realizing progressive change) the interventions of more principled members of the union movement (see here). It would be exciting if these forces could be united in the aim of more consistent public left opposition to social crises of national importance.

Economics has an important role in the analysis of the contemporary national and global order, it thus holds an important role in questions of ideological orientation and strategy for social movements. An intersectional economic theory holds the prospect of informing the development of a more complete analysis and strategy for social movements that speak to broad coalitions of oppressed groups interested in furthering progressive agendas. That such a theory doesn’t seem to exist damages the coherence of both, movements that seek guidance from an analysis emphasizing a ‘class first’ approach, and those that pursue a ‘race first’ approach (either explicitly or implicitly). These tensions are clear from recent public debates about reparations for slavery in the US (see here and here).

Another way of making this point is that an intersectional economic theory cannot be truly intersectional without successfully challenging the false binary, discussed above, that seems to be the main aim of Folbre’s forthcoming work. Further, developing such a theory ought to be a central goal of progressives interested in dismantling multiple oppressions and would be a valuable addition to the exciting social movements that have emerged recently. With this in mind, I hope movements like Decolonize UCT Economics will move forward in centrally pushing for a revised curriculum with a bigger place for radical political economy. It will only be through a better informed public debate that the aforementioned tensions can be resolved, and if done successfully, it will be to the benefit of meaningful progress in realizing truly emancipatory political projects.