Africa is a Country

How to say Joseph Kony’s name

Between 21 and 27 January, far away from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the small town of Gulu in the northern region of Uganda was engrossed in the confirmation of charges hearing for alleged rebel commander Dominic Ongwen. It is one of the few public criminal proceedings for crimes committed during the 20 year Lord’s Resistance Army-Ugandan government war, so when public screenings of the hearing were organized, people came in their numbers to see it for themselves.

On the first day, an ICC lawyer began the prosecution’s opening by outlining the war and, in particular, the role LRA leader Joseph Kony played in it. As he made his presentation, there were whispers among the people gathered in the screening hall. A few people were confused by the prosecutor’s anglicized pronunciation of the names of northern Ugandan people and places which made some of what he was saying difficult for them to follow. One mispronunciation that stood out was the name Kony.

Following mass international coverage of the war, Joseph Kony has become one of the most well-known Ugandans in the world – famous, in particular, for abducting young children to serve in his army and for the gruesome ways his forces mutilated and killed civilians. In 2012, an eponymous campaign by Invisible Children brought his name to even more front pages. (In fact, Invisible Children’s goal was to “Make Kony famous.”) That campaign was challenged by many for presenting a simplified message about the war. So it comes as a surprise to many people here in Northern Uganda that in spite of this many still cannot say his name and in some cases, actually advise others to pronounce it as the prosecutor initially did, “Coney, like Coney Island.” The word kony is actually the Luo word for “help.” It is only one syllable and is not that difficult to say with some effort.

Complaining about the pronunciation of a name probably seems petty but it actually speaks to a larger issue: how detached people in and outside of Uganda are to the North’s experiences. Given how ethnically, politically and economically divided Uganda is today, this is especially real. There is stigma towards people from the lesser developed North by people living in the South, with them labeled as killers, cannibals or Kony’s name as insults. Politics rarely touches on reparative mechanisms for victims of war here and when it does, it takes too long (the passing of a government policy meant to “address justice, accountability and reconciliation needs of post conflict Uganda” has lagged for years).

When I tweeted mine and others in Gulu’s reaction to the opening presentation, I was met with resistance from fellow Ugandans who felt the tweet was making a big deal over nothing. Part of me agrees – how Joseph Kony’s last name is pronounced does not seem that important when we’re dealing with the pre-trial hearing for someone that is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. On the other hand, one realizes that over the past ten years northern Uganda, and in particular Gulu, has been welcome to numerous foreign researchers intent on gaining expertise on the LRA war, international agencies eager to gain success stories from their contributions to addressing its impact, and even Ugandan politicians playing on the hopes of the war’s survivors to gain support. Now prosecutors at the ICC are working to ensure the trial of Dominic Ongwen, someone who is alleged to have carried out Kony’s orders. One would assume that the process of exploring the dynamics of this war would have involved numerous visits to the region and interaction with the people here  listening to them express their views. And while doing this they would have, in theory, noticed that no one says anything remotely close to Coney, right?

Through Ongwen’s case the world has said that it wants to provide justice for survivors of the war in northern Uganda. To do this it is hugely important to demystify the simplistic and sometimes misinformed narratives that often surround the war and its effects. Demonstrating basic knowledge about a central figure in the war may not provide all the solutions, but it’s a start. Fortunately it seems that the people at the ICC agree: seven days after the hearing began, while making his closing remarks the prosecution lawyer made a conscious effort to say Kony’s name correctly, often apologizing and correcting himself when he mistakenly said coney. Perhaps the ICC isn’t so far away, after all.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #15 – World Carnival 2016 Special!

The first Africa is a Radio episode of 2016 goes to Carnival with special guests Hipsters Don’t Dance! This month we run down some of the sounds of the World Carnival sound from Trinidad to Rio to Lagos and back!

Tracklist

Samito – Tiku la Hina
Baiana System – Playsom
Buju Banton – Champion (Maga Bo Remix)
Angela Hunte – Mon Bon Ami
Machel Montano & Timaya – Better Than Them (Jambe-An Riddim)
Runtown & Walshy Fire – Bend Down Pause Remix ft Wizkid & Machel Montano
Olatunji – Oh Yay
Patoranking – My Woman, My Everything… (feat. Wandecoal)
Banda Vingadora – Metralhadora
Delano – Devagarinho
Eddy Lover – Baja Pantalones feat. Aldo Ranks, JR Ranks & Mach & Daddy
Wizkid – Final (Baba Nla)
Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band – Amaehu

Our Ivanka, our America: a story of Latino immigrants

To the family she is just “Ivanka.” Not “Ivanka Trump,” not “Miss Trump”—simply “Ivanka.” As if the millionaire’s daughter and my family in New York of Latin American immigrants were old friends. In some way they are.

Some years ago, my mother told me on the phone that my cousin Marcela—who has been living in the States for almost ten years but only two years ago became a legal citizen—was working for Ivanka. “Who’s that?”, I asked my mother – to which she replied, indignant: “Well, Ivanka!”

Last year, as I was planning a visit to the family in Jackson Heights, their bustling neighborhood in Queens, my mother called to tell me that if I wanted to see another member of the family—whose name I should better not mention here, since after twenty years in New York he is still an “illegal”—I should change my route, because, “as you know” (I didn’t) “on Sundays he is with Ivanka.” That meant that he was working for her in one of the luxury stores she owns.

Actually, none of us has ever spoken to Ivanka in person. However, the word “Ivanka” has a very special meaning for my family. For us, the mere mention of the name reminds us that those of us who went to “America”—a word that most “Americans” use but no Latin American does—have, somehow, made it there.

Almost half of my family on my mother’s side left Colombia betweenen the late 1990s and the early 2000s for New York, New Jersey, and other cities along the East Coast of the United States. First that relative whose name must not be spoken, then three of my mother’s six younger siblings—uncles Pablo, Fernando, and Gonzalo—and, finally, cousin Marcela, who is two years younger than me.

They are part of the tremendous exodus happening in Latin America since the 1970s. Due to the follow-up immigration of partners and children, some marriages and the birth of a couple of sons and daughters, the five original relatives have built a vast extended family, which today is indeed bigger than the one that stayed in Colombia. Their story is that of millions of others. So-called “Hispanics” are nowadays the largest ethnic minority in the United States. Around 54 million people, 17 percent of the total U.S. population, have a Latin American background. In 2060 they will account for 31 percent.

Most of the approximately eleven million people that live and work in the United States as illegal immigrants are Latin Americans. I have no idea about what Ivanka makes of that. My cousin Marcela, in any case, does not want to accuse her of anything. Usually, when I talk to Marcela I get the feeling that she, in general, does not like to talk in a negative way about other people.

Marcela went to New York when she could not find work after getting her degree in Psychology in our city, Bogotá. When she still was an illegal alien she worked for almost three years as a clerk in one of Ivanka’s jewelry stores. At times she was responsible for the transportation of jewelry worth thousands of dollars, she told me recently. Aside from the meager salary, which was her final reason to quit, Marcela said this experience was a quite positive one. “Ivanka seemed like a good, polite person. Of course, I only saw her twice. But anyway, she didn’t seem to be arrogant,” Marcela told me in the timid way in which uses to answer to my questions every time we talk about her life in New York.

What Ivanka’s father, Donald Trump, the magnate and presidential pre-candidate for the Republican Party, thinks about Latinos in the United States (the word he uses to talk about them is “Mexicans”), and especially about those who are illegal, became clear some time ago. In one of his explosive speeches in the summer of last year, Trump famously said that when Mexico “sends its people, they’re not sending the best”. They’re sending “people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

To avoid a nasty generalization, Trump considerately added: “Some, I assume, are good people.” To this day, Trump’s public statements about Latinos—as well as about a quite long list of other ethnic and religious minorities—have remained along similar lines.

After Trump’s statements, the U.S. Congressional Research Service noted that the majority of illegal immigrants behave quite differently; crime rates within the first generation of immigrants are lower than in the rest of the population.

In an open letter to Trump, a young Mexican woman wrote that her father, who has lived illegally in the United States for years, and who “has worked 5-6 days a week since I was a child and I’ve never heard him complain about it one time,” was the greatest man that she knew.

Latin American politicians, artists and a starred chef from Spain criticized the billionaire. However, polls show that for many voters Trump appears as the best Republican candidate. I ask my cousin Marcela what she thinks of Donald Trump. Her answer to this question is slightly more vehement than the others. “I think that he has no idea what he is talking about,” she says. “Maybe he does not know that almost every waiter, every cook, every cleaning person in the restaurants and hotels he frequents is a Latino who probably was or still is illegal.”

I ask whether she believes that our emigrated family belongs to “the best” of our country. “I don’t think so!” she replies with a laugh. “But we are people who came here to live a decent life, and whose only dream is being legal. Of course, bad immigrants do exist. And the problem is that all of us are being discriminated against because of those few. That is just not right. We came here to work.”

My relatives belonged to Colombia’s lower-middle-class, which usually holds hard work, cleanliness, respectability, and family values in high regard. They have built a productive life in the U.S. And, like a huge number of immigrants in the States, they send money back to Colombia almost every week.

That’s how Marcela paid back the debts her mother had incurred to send her to college. None of my relatives has ever committed a crime (except, of course, being illegal themselves) and they would very probably perceive any trouble with the law as a disgrace for the whole family. Despite the common Colombian stereotype, none of them has ever been involved with drugs—except for Uncle Pablo, of course.

As a young man, Pablo was an notorious stoner who built his joints in such a masterly manner that his buddies used to call him “the architect.” Once I asked him about his infamous past. He told me, still ashamed, that he had lost many years to drugs, “and caused your grandmother many headaches.” But thirty years ago he found Jesus and became a pastor in one of the evangelical churches born in Tennessee or Alabama and that are now flooding all of Latin America. In the early 1990s Pablo and his wife were ordered by their church to go to Philadelphia and save the souls of Latinos. Today they live in Atlantic City with two daughters in college.

My other uncles emigrated for more mundane reasons. Fernando—known in the family for his calm temper and his funny dance moves when he has had something to drink—worked as a cab driver in Bogotá for years. One day he saw himself in his constantly vacant cab, surrounded by countless other vacant cabs and their frustrated drivers who had fled to the capital to escape the violence and lack of perspective in their provinces.

His two sons were in high school back then. Fifteen years ago, when I visited my family in New York for the first time, Fernando, still illegal at that time, had three jobs: from five to one he worked for a demolition company in New Jersey; from three to ten at night he worked at a recycling yard in New York; and almost every weekend he worked in a factory producing radiators. Today one of his sons lives and works in Newark, the other one studies in Bogotá. Fernando’s marriage, however, did not survive the long distance.

Uncle Gonzalo—a neat, diligent, and sometimes too serious man who is always the first one to congratulate me on my birthday every year and has the peculiar habit to tell waiters how to set the table correctly—was doing well as a bank employee in Bogotá. In the late 1980s he was laid off as part of a mass dismissal. He started working for a construction company that went bankrupt. So he opened a restaurant and then a bar—both failed.

One of his daughters was in college, the other one just born. In the first years after his arrival, Gonzalo—who was always proud of having an account with the Chase Manhattan Bank, which one can get as an illegal—worked as help in the kitchen of a yacht club on Long Island. Today he is the head waiter there. Both his daughters live close to New York; the elder married a Jewish lawyer some years ago and has now three children, the younger is in high school. Gonzalo’s marriage however, did not survive the long distance either.

My cousin Marcela tells me that getting the chance to work for Ivanka came “as a kind of liberation” from the first hard jobs, from cleaning toilets, from feeling like an extraterrestrial in the United States.

At first, she remembers, she was afraid to go to Manhattan: “I barely spoke English and all these people seemed so important! But it got better with time.” I ask how is it even possible for an illegal person to find a job. “That’s easy. You always know someone who knows where people are needed.” And how come they let you work? “Well, we are the perfect workers. We get minor salaries and if someone finds out that we are working with fake papers we get fired right away. After that the next immigrant is waiting in line and the whole process starts over.”

And what would my cousin reply if someone called her and the rest of our family criminals? “I would tell that person that we are no criminals. Yes, we have lived as illegals, but none of us wanted to be that.” I dig deeper: “But you knew that you were doing something illegal.” She is quiet. I ask again: “What would you say to that?” Then she says in a sad voice: “I don’t know what to say. I really don’t know what to say…” And then I feel very ashamed. We come from the same place. One day I also decided to leave Colombia, in my case for Germany, and to look for new perspectives, to begin a new life. I just had more luck.

A few years ago my cousin married a U.S. citizen. Last year they had a baby girl. Ivanka’s father stated some months ago that, should he become president, children of former illegal immigrants would not be accepted as U.S. citizens. I ask my cousin Marcela if she is afraid of that. “No,” she answer, “I am not afraid. My daughter will have it better than we did. There are more and more Latinos who are shaping this country. This is, too,” she says with a timid smile, “our home.”

This article appeared originally in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, August 23, 2015. Translation by Elisabeth Brenker and Hernán D. Caro.

Africa is still front and center at The Hague

2016 is off to a very busy start for the ICC. And yes, Africa is still front and center at The Hague. Here are a few developments to help you stay updated on what’s happening.

Last December, the ICC finally moved into its permanent headquarters, leaving the small space that they had rented since it was created in 1998.  Long gone now are the tiny IKEA courtrooms, or “the Swedish sauna,” as one lawyer once called them. Moving into new offices on the shores of the North Sea that have costed 204 million euros is certainly an indication that the ICC isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It is a permanent feature of international justice – and of international politics, regardless of what its officials say.

The trial of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo – along his ally Charles Blé Goudé, has just started, four years after Gbagbo was transferred to The Hague.  This is the first time in history that a former head of state stands trial before the ICC (the charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped before they reached the trial phase).  Gbagbo and Blé Goudé are each charged with four counts of crimes again humanity, in relation to the political violence that erupted in Côte d’Ivoire after the 2010 elections.

The confirmation of charges for former Lord Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen  have just concluded.  (The confirmation of  charges is a procedure at the ICC where the prosecutor presents to the pre-trial chamber the preliminary evidence that it has; the judges then issue a ruling whether the evidence is satisfactory enough to move to the trial phase or not.)  Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Abducted by the LRA at age 9, Ongwen was a child soldier who later moved up the ranks of the LRA command structure.  As such, Ongwen’s case is both one of a victim and an alleged perpetrator, blurring the lines between the two, as British journalist Michela Wrong has documented.

The confirmation of charges against the Malian Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi will start soon.  It is argued that during the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali, Al Mahdi participated in the destruction of religious monuments, notably Sufi shrines, in Timbuktu.  This is the first time someone is pursued by the ICC on charges of war crimes related to the destruction of religious symbols.  The prosecution of these types of crimes is still lagging in international law, following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001, and the ransacking of Palmyra by the ISIS last year.

The case against Al Mahdi, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Turab, is one to watch very closely for many reasons, as Mark Kersten has written here.  To complicate the matters further, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has abducted the Swiss Béatrice Stockly in Timbuktu last month, and they just released a video featuring her and requesting among other things that the ICC let Al Mahdi go.

The trial of former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda opened last September and is still ongoing.  In 2014, Ntaganda walked into the US embassy in Kigali and asked to be taken to The Hague. He was the deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). His group was active in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Ntaganda is charged with 18 accounts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last December, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga, whose trials had been complete at The Hague, were transferred to the DRC – their home country – to serve their prison sentences.  Lubanga has been sentenced to 14 years of prison after being found guilty of recruiting child soldiers.  Given that he had been in ICC custody since 2006, he has to serve four more years.   Katanga should have been freed a couple weeks ago, after having served 2/3 of his 12-year sentence.  But the Congolese government has expressed the intention to prosecute him and keep him in jail, which, of course, raises a host of questions.

Finally, is it possible that the ICC is at last seriously setting its eyes outside of Africa?  Last week, Pre-Trial Chamber I gave the Prosecutor the green light to open a full investigation on crimes allegedly committed in Georgia during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.  This will be the first full investigation outside of Africa.  Other situations under preliminary examination – which have not reached the investigation phase yet – include Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Guinea, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine.

Weekend Music Break No.91

We’re back with the first Weekend Music Break of 2016. A series of videos for you to enjoy as you ease into relax (or catchup) mode:

Our selection this weekend starts off with a video directed by AIAC film editor Dylan Valley — Niko10Long hips us to the real Politrix going down in Cape Town, South Africa; Brooklyn staple with Guyanese roots, Jahdan Blakkamore ushers in an upliftment anthem to end all sufferation; The multi-talented, Boston-based Sierra Leonean scientist/rapper David Moinina Sengeh brings a positive Afrobeat jam and video; Mozambican-Canadian singer Samito releases a dance art video for his epic Tiku la hina; Keeping it in the Mozambique realm, Spoek Mathambo reveals Batuk, his new partnership with Aero Manyelo, a deep house project inspired by the Afro-luso house scene based out of Maputo; Daniel Haaksman proposes to Rename the Streets in the former colonial capitals (his being Berlin) to not celebrate the war criminals and crimes of the nation’s past, #NamesMustFall — respect Daniel; Stephen Marley celebrates the great innovations from African history, alongside Wale and the cast from the Fela! musical; Renown coreographer Maimouna and Les Ambianceuses out of Paris call for all women to take their power back via a little “Booty Therapy”; Christain Scott aTunde Adjuah brings us back to an age where Jazz and politics were one, via an integral #BLM lens, at NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series; and finally, Seattle based Zimbabwe-DRC crew Chimurenga Renaissance reveal their new EP Girlz with Gunz via a beautifully executed thematic streaming video.

Have a great weekend, and enjoy!

How to make and find theaters to show your movie if you’re a black filmmaker in South Africa

It is telling that the four top-grossing South African movies of all time are all films in which the actor and director Leon Schuster (who made a career out of doing broad slapstick candid camera movies) wears blackface. Also telling is the fact that South African critics barely notice this as an offense (for example, check this reviewer.) It’s no secret that what passes for South African cinema is not representative of the population. (“South African film” effectively exists on television.) In reality, the South African film industry mostly exists as a cheap location for Hollywood and Euro budget films and commercials. Nevertheless, once a black filmmaker enters the system and gets past the money phase, they need to get their films seen. But apart from festival screenings, it is still hard to crack the distribution dilemma. Visit any South African multiplex on any given weekend and look for the local content. Usually not much, unless it is set in an English boarding school or its an Afrikaans musical comedy (mostly thinly disguised rip offs of Hollywood musicals), and you won’t find dramas exploring the social world of the country’s black majority. The rationale is usually “there wasn’t an audience for black South African films.” Last year the South African filmmaker Akin Omotoso–on his previous output, see here–set out to challenge this status quo when he released his romantic comedy, ‘Tell Me Sweet Something.’ The film was a departure for Omotoso, who is known for the hard-hitting social realism of ‘God is African’ and ‘Man on Ground.’ In this feature, a refreshing take on Johannesburg as a place of romance, Omotoso takes a page out of the rom-com playbook and aims for a wide South African audience. Here’s what happened. Below we republish Akin’s public letter on his experience followed by a profile of Akin by Danielle Bowler who has contributed here before–Dylan Valley, Sean Jacobs.

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Open Letter by Akin Omotoso

Dear Stakeholders,

I am writing this email to bring you up to speed on the situation regarding the movie Tell Me Sweet Something currently in cinemas.

Please permit me a bit of background. In the process of raising funds for this romantic comedy, we are constantly told there wasn’t an audience for black South African films. Our response was, we don’t think the right kind of films are being made for black audiences. Instead of the constant problematizing of black lives we wanted to give audience a positive experience a film about successful, handsome black people falling in love in Joburg, a Joburg re-imagined as a city of love. In other words we set out to disprove this myth.

Tell Me Sweet Something opened on the 4th of September on 47 screens and in five days had reached the million Rand mark and was the number three ranked film by screen average. This article by Destiny testifies to its success. As does this article that first appeared in City Press on Sunday 20th of September.

Films traditionally drop about 40/50% in their second weekend. Tell Me Sweet Something dropped by 23% and finished at no. 5.

Having made the economic case for films like Tell Me Sweet Something, we found ourselves reduced from 47 screens in our third week to 27 screens. Despite this drop in the number of screens Tell Me Sweet Something remained in the Top 10 at no. 10 and still performed better than some of the new titles.

The exhibitor states that it was taken out of sites where the film was not performing and this is totally understandable. However it has now started to be taken out of key sites such as Gateway and Sandton, where the film is performing extremely well, this will have a big impact on the films bottom line. When asked why it was being taken out of site, this was the reply from Mr. Clive Fisher the GM of AcquisitIons and Scheduling replied,

I understand the film is still performing at Sandton, however with only 10 screens and the amount of titles releasing every week we do not have space for the title anymore.

I had another look to try and see if we could load a few shows for the film but unfortunately there is no space.

Sorry.

Thanks

So I’m writing this letter to you to highlight the struggle local films face when trying to build economic arguments. What is the point of an Emerging Filmmaker’s Initiative to boost the industry if this is the response to a film that is performing well? What is the point of local filmmakers growing audiences for our content when the decision to move successful films from key sites is treated like this? What is the point of all the effort the team from Tell Me Sweet Something have put into filling cinemas, when this is the response we get.

This action perpetuates the myth that black films do not do well. What Tell Me Sweet Something began to demonstrate in its first two weeks was that this is not in fact the case.

We need your help to get the exhibitors to re-think their decisions to remove the film from its well performing sites, and to not just treat this as another film, but to contribute to the advancement of South African film in general and to give Black films a fair chance in particular.

What we‘re appealing for is a change in attitude. We will not have economic success if the exhibitor does not change its attitude to black films that are performing well, to understand that it’s the responsibility of us all Filmmakers and Exhibitors to transform the cinema landscape in this country.

 

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“Akin Omotoso’s Hustle” by Danielle Bowler

Akin Omotoso is standing at the top of the escalators.

I gather my cool, calm my inner stan, and prepare to walk past him. It’s Monday night in Johannesburg and I’m at Rosebank’s The Zone cinema to watch his new film Tell Me Sweet Something, starring Maps Maponyane and Nomzamo Mbatha. A cloud of hype has surrounded the film, and I am curious about whether it will envelop me in its excited air, or merely dissipate the moment my eyes make contact with the colossal screen.

In that moment, however, my eyes are locked on the five-inch screen of my Samsung S4, as I try to find something to avert my attention from the fact that Khaya Motene, Akin’s Generations alter-ego, is a few meters away from where I’m standing.

Aimlessly pacing and waiting for my friends to arrive, I sink into my oversize army-green jacket, observing Akin from a distance. My cool is disrespectfully deserting me, because, my brain is constantly repeating one refrain: “Akin Omotoso is at the top of the escalators,” like the exasperating chorus of a paint-by-numbers Top 40 song that I can’t ignore.

To every passing person, he calls out variations of one question: “What film are you watching? Are you watching my film? ‘Are you watching Tell Me Sweet Something?,” in that familiar baritone. Someone hesitantly responds that they are about to see the feted Southpaw, a story of a troubled boxer trying to get his life and career back on track. Akin responds: “Jake Gyllenhall doesn’t need your money.” I laugh, and fire off a text to my tardy friends.

And it’s true. To date, the globally released Southpaw has grossed $52,169,310 so far, shown in thousands of theatres. A dizzying number. Jake Gyllenhall doesn’t need our money. In South Africa, it has apparently taken $119,313 at the box office, while the same site claims Tell Me Sweet Something has seen a $157,391 return. Its open weekend grossed over close to R1 million, with the film currently closing in on the R2 million mark.

But it’s been cut to 19 screens, from an initial 47.

This week discussions about the local film industry and the structures that support it, or rather don’t, have erupted, spurred on by conversations around Omotoso’s film and concerns about it being removed from cinemas where it was performing well, particularly in Johannesburg’s Sandton and Durban’s Gateway shopping centers.

Ster Kinekor representatives have allegedly countered this claim over email to Omotoso, claiming the film was only removed from cinemas where it was not performing well, with a representative saying: “I understand the film is still performing in Sandton, however with only 10 screens and the amount of titles releasing every week, we do not have space for the title anymore. I had another look to try and see if we could load a few shows for the film, but unfortunately there is no space. Sorry. Thanks.” Support for the film and the local industry, from a distributor’s perspective, seem to be driven by business concerns. “Sorry. Thanks” seems an indifferent synonym for a resolutely delivered “shem for you.”

Frank Ocean lyrics ricochet through my head as a kind of internal rallying call, as I read those words: “Please recondition yourself / It’s not just money.” I start to wonder about how we are sometimes blind to things that are beyond our perspective or the world we move in, which so comfortably accommodates the few it is built for. Frank croons through my consciousness, philosophizing: “why see the world, when you got the beach, and the sweet life.” I nod my head in agreement.

This is what we mean when we say that things are structural, which can often sound like academese – that language spoken solely by the academy, which is insular and exclusionary, even if it’s an unintended consequence. The structures that are designed to support or run various industries, cemented over centuries, cannot address what would be involved in truly developing, growing and taking seriously the local film industry and audiences, if they run on the idea that they operate in a meritocracy. When they assume local and international films exist in the same world and environment, able to stand side-by-side and succeeding on the same terms and conditions, they miss how the scales are unequally weighted. These films cannot be treated equally, in an environment where Jake Gyllenhall and the makers of Southpaw and other economic centres of the global industry don’t need our money, but Akin Omotoso and others really do.

The familiar, vanilla centre still holds, and we move to its beat, trying to attune it to the rhythms of our frenetic dance. But it was never calibrated to hear the frequencies we operate on.

Kagiso Lediga and Refilwe Modiselle are standing outside the cinema, ready to interact with the exiting audience, as we step outside our cinematic sojourn, into the stark lights of the Cinema Prestige foyer. Seeing the two supporting thespians appear before me, as if they apparated from the celluloid world to reality in a split-second creates a strange kind of pleasurable dissonance. Another one of Akin’s unique marketing strategies. It’s hyperreal. They interact with the viewers, takes pictures with us and discuss our opinions on the film, inviting both critique and praise. We share our views, punctuated by the haze of having just viewed it and it only having partially condensed in our minds.

The film did not reinvent the rom-com genre, but operated within its neatly scripted confines, albeit in stunning high-definition, centralizing Joburg’s gentrified inner-city areas of Maboneng and Braamfontein. Nomzamo Mbatha has a natural ease to the way she performs, filling the role of the moody writer, Moratiwa, trying to write “the great African love story” like slipping into a second skin. But I’m caught up in Thomas Gumede’s scene-stealing performance as the hilarious side-kick Gordon, Thembi Seete’s on-screen effervescence as Lola: a foil to Moratiwa’s seriousness and Thishiwe Ziqubu’s extreme comfort and believability on camera as Moratiwa’s best friend Tshaka – not to mention arresting beauty.

The musician in me, however, is preoccupied with how Omotoso centralised South African music in the film, and I comment on how much I enjoyed hearing Shekinah Donnell and Kyle Deutsch playing through the standard emotional climax of the rom-com. Akin smiles and nods.

There is a silent, inner dance of delight at seeing familiar surroundings and hearing familiar voices on screen, as well as watching a narrative about love headed up by black characters play out. As I think about it, it reminds me of an article about US television in an unprecedented era punctuated by Lee Daniels’ Empire and Shonda Rhyme’s well, everything, which commented on a time gone by “When You Had To Flip To The Back Page Of ‘Jet’ To Find Black People On TV.” Some things are shifting, but many are remaining the same, particularly the rules of the game in our location, which keep Jake Gyllenhaal and people who look like him and have similar GPS coordinates rolling in cinematic cash dollar.

Akin explains the politics involved in making the film later, at the bottom of another set of escalators. It’s past 11pm, and we have been talking for over an hour. He talks us through the creative ways he sourced funding for the film, how Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones is embedded in its inception, animatedly taking us through the process of rehearsals and improvisation and providing a backdrop to the one hour and thirty minutes of cinema that we just viewed. We laugh about his unorthodox, hustler approach to getting people to see his film, as he tells us that he personally attends many screenings, trying to drive sales. My cool is slowly returning, but I’m a little in awe of that dedication, which colours how I start to see the film – as a necessary and important intervention, even if positioned in a comfortable, money-spinning genre and not flaw-free.

*This post is part of a new regular series on Africa is a Country called #MovieNight

The militant philosopher of Third World liberation

In 1953 Fanon moved to Algeria to work in the small town of Blida, about 50 miles from the capital Algiers. He applied for a position as a psychiatrist, having recently qualified. Fanon did not leave France for Algeria because he predicted the future publishing success of The Wretched of the Earth, or that a war and revolution against France was about to break out. Algeria transformed Fanon. At the large hospital in Blida he experimented with therapies that he had seen at Saint Alban and developed with the Spanish revolutionary psychiatrist François Tosquelles. After 1954 the hospital was quickly drawn into the war.

The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution

The hospital that had been for a brief period a sanctuary for those physically and psychologically injured was sucked into the maelstrom. Members of Fanon’s staff were arrested, some beaten, others had joined in the strike action called by the Front de Libération National; others went to fight in the mountains. As Fanon’s colleague Alice Cherki remembers, ‘the hospital was considered to be a veritable nest of fellaghas. Fanon was certainly a target … a sweep up was being prepared.’ There was no neutrality. A repressive noose was tightening around Blida’s hospital.

Fanon’s working life was also overturned. His was now seeing patients who were suffering from torture, or inflicting it. Despite Fanon’s post-1961 image as an apostle of violence, he treated, with great humanity French-Algerian torturers – some of these stories appear as case notes in the final chapter of his last book. Both torturer and tortured in Fanon’s psychiatric practice were victims of the Algerian war.

One story illustrates the Fanon’s humanity. A patient, a policeman, was referred to Fanon. He complained that he could not sleep at night. Each time he fell asleep he was woken by the sound of screaming. Each scream, he explained to Fanon, he recognised as the screams of a man beaten up, hung from his wrists for two hours, and the final highest pitch was the scream as a person was being electrocuted. Fanon helped to secure the policeman sick leave after which he returned to France. In the middle of one consultation Fanon was called out. Josie, his wife, suggested to the policeman that he wait in their house inside the hospital grounds. Instead the policeman decided to walk in the hospital grounds. A short time later Fanon saw the patient doubled over dripping with sweat. He had passed one of his victims in the hospital. Fanon gave him a sedative and calmed him down. Fanon then went in search of the tortured Algerian. Eventually he was discovered cowering in a toilet, terrified that the police had been called and he would be arrested and tortured again. Finally, Fanon convinced him that he was mistaken and that he had not just seen the policeman.

Such was the work of this apostle of violence. After leaving Algeria in 1957 Fanon and his wife Josie move to Tunisia. Tunis had recently become one of the bases for the FLN (National Liberation Front) outside Algeria as militants and cadres were forced to flee the country with the defeat of the Battle of Algiers. Increasingly Fanon was absorbed in his work for the FLN and focused on building support and practical solidarity for the Algerian cause in sub-Saharan Africa. He also developed lasting links with other militants in national liberation organisations on the continent. Frequently Fanon championed the FLN way of doing things: an insurrection followed quickly by an escalation to the armed struggle. In this respect Fanon shared a naive belief in the ‘armed’ route to liberation with Guevara.

Dangerous Voluntarism

While there is much to distinguish Fanon from Che Guevara; Fanon’s understanding of revolutionary transformation, his sophisticated grasp of national liberation, but in his advocacy of the armed struggle (no matter what), the two men were remarkably and tragically similar. In Guevara’s laughable and tragic – though courageous – attempts to export the Cuban model to the Congo in 1965 and Bolivia in 1967, he made the same mistakes as Fanon. Both men shared a dangerous voluntarism that saw action and armed revolutionary struggle as a simple act of will. Fanon was a far more sophisticated thinker and theorist than Guevara but he shared many of the Argentinians belief in the heroic guerrilla. As Guevara sought a simple exporting of guerrilla war in the mid and late 1960s, so Fanon had earlier.

Yet Fanon would not have subscribed to Guevara’s belief that it was the duty of a revolutionary to make revolution, that became a rallying cry of many ‘true’ revolutionaries in 1960s and 1970s, but he did slip disastrously into a similar voluntarism with his fervour for the Algerian model. Still the differences between the men need to be restated, in case there is any confusion. While Guevara celebrated small bands of guerrilla fights, Fanon saw mass involvement of ordinary people essential for making the revolution and remaking – recerebralising – the people themselves. Revolution as an act of self-emancipation resides deeply in Fanon’s revolutionary thinking, but is not present in any meaningful sense in Guevara’s writing or practice.

As we have seen, Ghana in the late 1950s was a place of exciting meetings and possibilities. Accra was both host to pan-African conferences and a HQ for nationalist leaders and parties. Fanon loved it. He met other men – sadly mostly men – as driven and possessed as himself. Fanon did not like people who held themselves back, went to bed early instead of talking and arguing through the night. Before and after the diagnosis of Leukaemia, Fanon would repeatedly state that he did not like people who limited themselves – in French ‘s’economiser’ – literally ‘economised’ on their output of energy, conserving and limiting their activity and engagement. He criticised Simone de Beauvoir, after he had met her with Jean-Paul Sartre in Rome in July 1961. De Beauvoir was, according to Fanon, ‘one of those people’ who held themselves back. He knew and understood this side to himself, describing such exuberance, his total commitment to life as ‘doing a Fanon.’ In Ghana he met many such ‘Fanon’s’ but none with his penetrating and unyielding vision.

Liberate the north from the south

In late 1960 Fanon received authorisation to carry out a reconnaissance of a possible West African supply route into southern Algeria, but also an entry point for an African Legion to attack the French from the south. ALN troops needed to be supplied with extra forces and armaments. Supplies were cut off by the French but ALN troops fighting the French in the south could, hypothetically, be reached from sub-Saharan Africa. Fanon set out to prove this could be done.

The mission revealed a basic historical and geographical fact about the continent: at no point was the desert an impenetrable divider of the continent separating the civilised north from the barbaric south. The view that sub-Saharan Africa was populated by savages dominated the European thought throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. In reality there had existed for many millennia a continual flow of goods and people between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Gold travelled north, as certain handicrafts, salt and meats travelled south in a vibrant trade that crisscrossed the expanse of desert.

Fanon wanted to find out if a route could be used by the African Legion to replenish combatants in Wilaya V and VI. In October 1960 Fanon set out. He kept a field journal that he intended to use when he returned to write a report for the FLN leadership on the prospects for a Southern Front. What is remarkable about the report – which is found in his posthumous collection of writings Pour la Revolution Africaine – is that although these were rough notes written in the difficult circumstances of an uncomfortable and clandestine trip across 2000 miles, the language was powerful and passages beautiful. It seems Fanon was incapable of writing plain prose. The journal starts with a series of bullet points, ‘To put Africa in motion, to cooperate in its organisation, in its regroupment, behind revolutionary principles. To participate in the ordered movement of a continent – this was really the work I had chosen.’ He then gives a continental survey: Mali was ‘ready for anything’ offering a ‘bridgehead’ to ‘precious perspectives.’ The Congo ‘which constituted the second landing beach for revolutionary ideas’ but is now caught up in an ‘inextricable network of sterile contradictions.’ He then stresses the need, though now delayed, to ‘besiege the colonialist’s citadels known as Angola, Mozambique, Kenya and the Union of South Africa.’

The field journal expresses Fanon’s commitment to African unity distinct from the hollow sloganising from much of the nationalist movement on the continent. Fanon’s Africa was not the continent ‘of the poets, the Africa that is sleeping, but the Africa that stops you sleeping because the people are impatient to be doing something, to speak and to play.’ Fanon states the objectives of his mission – a declaration of determined will, ‘We must immediately take the war to the enemy, leave him no rest, harass him, cut off his breath. Let’s go. Our mission: to open up the Southern Front. To bring in arms and munitions from Bamako. Stir up the population of the Sahara; infiltrate our way into the high plains of Algeria. Having taken Algeria to the four corners of Africa, we have to go back with the whole of Africa to African Algeria, towards the north; towards the continental city of Algiers. That is what I want; great lives … cross the desert. To wear out the desert, to deny it, to bring together Africa and to create the continent … take the absurd … the impossible, rub it up the wrong way and hurl a continent into the assault.

Fanon’s contribution

For Fanon it was not enough to celebrate the achievements of decolonization, it was necessary to educate, to strain at the limits of national freedom and to provoke and generate debate. The All-African Peoples Conference in 1958 in Ghana was the place to do this, and to learn about the movements on the continent. Ghana was both a sub-Saharan headquarters for movements on the continent still reaching towards independence and a laboratory for real-existing nationhood and independence. The country was already a collection of vivid and painful contradictions. Many white people had stayed on to assist the new government. Even the Ghanaian army was run by British officers who were on lease to the new country until its own officers had been trained. At the same time the Nkrumah was an outspoken advocate for pan-Africanism. For a generation of young militants he was a figure to emulate. Fanon would learn much from his temporary posting in Ghana.

Three years later, in 1961, recently diagnosed with leukaemia and understanding severity of the prognosis, with life ebbing from him Fanon dictated his masterwork, The Wretched of the Earth to his wife, friends and secretaries. When he seemed to recover temporarily and find some strength after a new round of treatment he travelled to the Tunisian/Algerian border (Ghardimaou in Tunisia) and spoke to the assembled troops of the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). Many were illiterate, readying themselves to fight the French (and enter a free Algeria). He spoke to them from his recently drafted and now most famous chapter in The Wretched of the Earth about the pitfalls of national consciousness. He described how the national bourgeoisie after independence is only too happy to accept crumbs thrown to it from the departing colonial powers. Without social reform, without political and economic transformation, national liberation would be an empty shell. Fanon’s parting gesture in his last public appearance was a warning to militants of the anti-colonial struggle: make this independence for yourselves, ensure that the self-organisation and confidence you have developed in the fight against the French becomes a sustained and continuous programme of revolutionary transformation after the Algerian flag is raised. On the threshold of victory Fanon said be warned of your leaders, ‘No leader, however valuable he may be, can substitute himself for the popular will; and the national government … ought first to give back their dignity to all citizens, fill their minds and feast their eyes with human things, and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign men dwell therein.’ Fanon’s final act was to the revolutionary movement that he devoted the last and most important years of his life, but he was also subversive of that revolution.

After Fanon’s final and exhausting resurrection from his terminal sickness he accepted treatment in the United States and flew there in October 1961 from his exiled Tunisian home. Fanon had stubbornly refuse treatment in the United States, condemning the country for its lynching and discrimination of black people. He crossed the Atlantic for the last time, but to no avail. On 6 December 1961 he died. He was 36 years old.

* Leo Zeilig’s biography of Frantz Fanon, The Militant Philosopher of Third World Liberation, has just been published by I B Tauris.

Why did French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resign?

Last week, France’s Minister of Justice, Christine Taubira (known for introducing the 2013 same-sex marriage law in France) resigned from the government, contesting French President François Hollande’s new ‘terrorist law.”

Shortly after the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande, along with the Prime Minister Manuel Valls, pledged to conduct legal reforms that would allow taking away the citizenship from convicted terrorists with dual nationality. Hollande’s proposal to ‘loosen’ the laws on revoking citizenship is to be reviewed by the National Assembly this coming Wednesday and is part of a package of security measures the government proposed after the November attacks.

The proposed law (known as the “loss of nationality”) has been criticized mainly on the grounds that it would create a two-tier state in which citizenship is precarious for some, a privilege that can be taken away.

Taubira highlighted the dangers associated with creating categories of sub-citizens within the French Republic and resigned from her role in the Government in protest. On her Twitter account she announced, “Sometimes you remain in place to resist. Sometimes resisting means you go.” (She’s also been posting quotations by Aimé Césaire.)

Hollande’s “loss of nationality” policy is only the latest episode in France’s identity crisis. Citizenship- or it’s revocation- has been a tool used by the French state to delineate the boundaries of it’s national identity. Marine Le-Pen of the French extreme right-wing party the National Front also advocated for similar policies over the years, asking to strip dual citizens of French nationality. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy also expressed his support for such policies in his 2010 speech in Grenoble, during the 2010 riots in the French banlieues, threatening to revoke the citizenship of rioters. Sarkozy stated that ‘immigrants’ who put the lives of police officers in danger should not longer enjoy the privileges that come with being a French citizen. While his announcements never turned into laws, on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, Hollande seeks to enshrine conditions for ‘loss of nationality’ into the Constitution itself.

It is estimated that there are currently 3.3 million French citizens who are dual-nationals, many of which are citizens of North African countries and other former French colonies. Behind the security discourse that dominates the new proposal lies the message that citizenship is now conditional, and that certain identity markers (such as being recent immigrants, or second generation immigrants) might prevent you not only from enjoying certain rights, but from bearing the duties and responsibilities that come with being a citizen. Hannah Arendt famously argued that citizenship is “the right to have rights”, a legal-political framework which allows the person to access his rights and duties and to belong to a community. Denationalization, Arendt argues, prevents the individuals from belonging to a framework “where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.”

The new ‘loss of nationality” policy, while presented as a security measure, should be viewed as part of France’s struggle to address a long history of failed integration policies. If citizenship is meant to protect from attempts to impose divisions on social groups, taking it away removes the obligation to treat individuals as equals before the law, or as Arendt argues, as part of the community. By revoking the citizenship of convicted terrorists, France also removes its responsibility of addressing urgent social issues within its borders. There will no longer be a need to ask what causes individuals – French nationals – to engage in terrorist acts because they will simply no longer be part, at least legally, of French society.

In honor of Rose Lomathinda Chibambo

(8 September 1928 to 12 January 2016)

In a sense, the fate of Rose Lomathinda Chibambo is that of the perpetual female outsider, always encroaching into male enclaves, white and black alike. In 1952, she starts organising women in Zomba, the then capital of Malawi, to protest against the colonial government because the men via the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC, later Malawi Congress Party), including husband Edwin, are not highlighting their plight in the struggle. In 1953, just before the imposition of the much hated Federation which brings under white rule Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, she encroaches into a meeting between chiefs and pro-Federation agents. She protests before she is told of the place of the woman.

Later, two Malawians are put into the Federal Parliament in Salisbury (today’s Harare) to ‘represent’ the interests of Malawians back home. Rose is a vocal critic, calling for their removal, when she is not agitating for the secession of Malawi out of the Federation. As Treasurer of the Nyasaland African Congress – Blantyre branch, she rightly points out that some of the ‘moderates’ leading NAC are still under the Chilembwe shadow, hence their reluctance to remove the two Federal MPs. Chilembwe led the abortive uprising of 1915 against imperial Britain. The response from the latter was harsh.

Five years into the fight against the Federation, Kamuzu Banda is brought back to Malawi to lead the fight for independence. Rose is now in charge of what was to eventually morph into the powerful Women’s League in post-independence days. NAC travels the length of Malawi denouncing ‘the stupid Federation’. Things get out of control and rumours fly that the colonial government is plotting to kill Kamuzu.

In January 1959, NAC calls a secret conference (now called the Bush Meeting) and typically, Rose is the only woman there. After the meet, there is panic in the white settler community because of a rumour to kill all whites if Kamuzu is taken out. The country is ungovernable.

Governor Robert Armitage declares a state of emergency on the 3rd of March 1959 as armoured trucks make their way into the country from Rhodesia. Thousands of arrests follow. Kamuzu is picked up in his pyjamas and driven to the airport where he is given his suit before being flown to Gweru prison in Zimbabwe. Rose is spared because she is heavily pregnant. Still, she continues the fight, visiting political prisoners and plotting.

On the 23rd of March, Rose delivers a baby at a mission hospital in Thyolo District. The next day, her husband Edwin is arrested at home. Two days later, Rose is paid a visit by two white officials, a man and a woman. She collects her belongings and her two-day old baby girl and they are thrown into a jeep. Four jeeps are in front, five are at the back, all full of soldiers brandishing their guns. She is driven to Zomba Prison, where she is joined by two other women, Mrs Mthenda who led NAC activities in Zomba and Mrs Mdeza from Thyolo. She names her baby Gadi (guard) due to her prison circumstances. Kamuzu later names the baby Mtamayani, after his sister. A Good Samaritan, Mrs Kayes, brings Rose baby food and clothes throughout her 13 months stay. Back in the British Parliament, her arrest is highlighted by the Labour Party. She is released when negotiations for independence start in 1961.

Malawi is independent in July 1964, Kamuzu is the prime minister and Rose Chibambo serves as the only woman member of parliament and the parliamentary secretary to Kamuzu in his role as minister of several portfolios. Two months later, she is a backbencher, fighting to defend her name against the same Kamuzu in the now famous Malawi’s Cabinet Crisis of 1964.

Kamuzu was invited back to Malawi by young radical politicians like Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume who needed a father-figure to rally Malawians behind NAC’s goals. Kamuzu’s conservatism was bound to clash with his young emissaries. It was all a matter of time. Post-independence, pragmatic Kamuzu makes alliances that are anathema to his young cadres: diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa, who pay Malawi handsomely by, among other things, building the capital of Lilongwe; recognises Portugal, ‘owners’ of neighbouring Mozambique; and recognises Formosa (Taiwan) instead of Peking (Red China). The breaking point becomes the ‘tickey’, a three-pence payment Kamuzu introduces in the public hospitals and reduced perks for some civil servants. Kamuzu is confronted by his young Ministers, threatening to resign in the process. He then calls for an emergency parliament sitting where he gets the vote of confidence. Rose Chibambo finds herself a casualty of this crisis, hearing the news of her dismissal as parliamentary secretary via the radio.

The next day in Parliament, on her birthday, she tries to clear her name (“I was Rose Chibambo before [Kamuzu]” came here) in a speech punctured with rude commentary from her male counterparts. When she tries to raise her voice, the speaker of parliament reminds her that she “cannot shout. This is our House”. Again, that encroaching business.

Soon she, like other freedom fighters on the wrong side of Kamuzu, flees with her family to Zambia, only to return 30 years later after Kamuzu is dethroned. Largely ignored in democratic Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s third president, rekindles her memory by, among other things, inserting her face on the MK200 note, the third powerful bank note after the MK1000 (Kamuzu Banda) and the MK500 (John Chilembwe). Three male faces come after her including, ironically, her Inkosi ya Makosi (Chief of chiefs) the late M’Mbelwa 2.

When news of her death breaks, the youth, mainly in social media, connect with her as “that pretty face on our bank note”, nothing more. In one of the last interviews she gave, ironically to a local youth radio, she lamented how freedom fighters are side-lined in key government events, highlighting the 50-Year Independence celebrations in 2014; inevitably, the 50th anniversary of the cabinet crisis.

Thanks to the legacy of Rose Chibambo, Malawi boasts, in Joyce Banda, Africa’s second female president who pays a tribute. Rose has been buried at the recently established Heroes Acre, in the north of Malawi, in Mzuzu. For once, other heroes will find themselves budging into her enclave. Talk is that Chakufwa Chihana, the freedom fighter who invited Rose back to Malawi in 1994, will be reburied there.

As a Malawian born in freedom (a born free, to borrow Kamuzu’s term) I can but raise a fist to her courage and her legacy.

*Featured image via

The trials of Jelili Atiku

In early December last year, the performance artist Jelili Atiku was conferred with a Prince Claus Award in Amsterdam in the The Netherlands. The citation by the jury lauded Atiku for his “… provocative spectacles use striking attire, unsettling body language and unusual props to open up dialogue and influence popular attitudes.” Atiku, they continued, “drops himself right into the heart of Lagos [Nigeria’s commercial capital], into the realities of the streets, of densely populated, poor areas, and entices people to interact and respond to his visual presentations.” His subject matter “… include commentary on Nigerian human rights … politically charged critiques of the ruling class and Boko Haram; site-specific interventions on climate change, e-waste and fuel subsidies.”

This may all have been a bit too much for some Nigerian political and economic elites, because last week (on January 18th) he, along with some performers and audience members, were arrested in Lagos on the order of a local traditional leader.

It seemed a performance of his most recent creation, “Aragamago Will Rid This Land of Terrorism,” four days earlier near his home in Ejigbo rankled the traditional ruler of the town, the Elejigbo of Ejigbo, Oba Morufu Ojoola.  The king felt that the performance was targeted at him, and promptly got Jelili, four of his aides and audience members arrested (they were violently manhandled by police) and thrown in jail.

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This is the video documentation of my performance that led to my (and five others’) incarceration in Kirikiri Medium Security Prison in Lagos, Nigeria. The performance, titled “Aragamago Will Rid This Land Off Terrorism” was enacted on Thursday January 14 2016 at Ejigbo.

Posted by Jelili Atiku on Monday, January 25, 2016

This is the video documentation of my performance that led to my (and five others’) incarceration in Kirikiri Medium Security Prison in Lagos, Nigeria. The performance, titled “Aragamago Will Rid This Land Off Terrorism” was enacted on Thursday January 14 2016 at Ejigbo.

The performers, especially Jelili, were accused of “conspiring with four other persons to commit felony to wit public disturbance.” The King complained the performance was conceived and staged  “… to disseminate information that could lead to negative public opinion about his control of the community’s resources.”

Atiku’s arrest and then brutalization, was greeted with wide disbelief in the arts community and raised anxiety and panic about possibilities of rising repression of freedom of creative expression.

There’s of course a local context to the king’s outsize reaction and abuse of power. As Jelili detailed in a press statement, the Oba and Jelili both belong to different royal families of the town and they have had a long, sustained conflict over the land and material resources of the community. Jelili, a member of the Ifoshi royal family and the eldest grandson of the late regent of the town, has been at the forefront of clamor by his lineage to reclaim perceived “unjust usurpation of the family land” by the traditional ruler. The Oba didn’t spare Jelili’s family. When Jelili’s case trended on social media, a militia group known as Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), reportedly acting on the order of the traditional ruler, went to Jelili’s house and terrorized members of his family.  Rofiat Azeez, his 13-year old niece, and others were brutalised.

A key factor that led to Jelili’s release on bail three days after his arrest (the hearing is set for February 1st), was pressure on social media and campaigns by CORA/Arterial Network Nigeria (the local arm of the pan-African Arterial Network, which launched an online petition with 10,000 signatures) and the Society of  Nigerian Artists.

In the current dispensation, the peoples of Nigeria (including artists), who had endured over three-decades of military regimes, including the maximum dictatorship of the late General Sani Abacha (1993-1998),  ought to be enjoying dividends of democracy. But this has not been the case as a number of instances of repression of artistic freedom proves.

For example, on December 15, Nenghi IIlagha,  a writer based in Port Harcourt in the south of Nigeria, was arrested and subjected to a kangaroo court-style trail, without the right to appeal — and summarily sentenced to the gallows.  Incidentally, Ilagha’s accuser is another powerful traditional ruler, the king of Nembe town, who claimed that a section of the writer’s latest book injured his interests. The Bayelsa State government, where the writer had once served as a Senior Information technocrat, has not intervened. Appeals by the family, friends and executives of the National Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) to get the king to withdraw the case and free the writer has not yielded any effect.

And just as the agitated artists community were breathing some relief from the frenetic campaign to get reprieve for Jelili Atiku, news broke on Saturday, January 23 that the famous Artists’ Village located in a section of the National Theatre complex in Iganmu, Lagos had been levelled. The general manager of the Theatre, Kabiru Yussuf (who claimed to be acting on the order of Lai Mohammed, the Federal Minister of Information and Culture) ordered and supervised the demolition. With bulldozers and armed policemen, he and his gang invaded the Village at 5am, when he was sure most of the artists would not be there to salvage their properties. The action led to destruction of artistic materials and properties worth several millions of Naira. The Minister of Information and Culture, whom the General Manager claimed directed him, has since denied and denounced the claim; he has visited the Village to commiserate with the artists, promising to pay compensations. The General Manager of the theatre, Kabiru Yussuf, had been persistent in his attempts to sell off the lucrative landmass surrounding the theatre building to businessmen from Dubai, who had visited the country on several occasions in pursuit of purchasing the land with an eye towards “developing” it.  Whatever the truth behind who actually ordered the demolishment, the actions were a clear case of vendetta against the community of artists, who had stood stoutly against the sale of the land.

Elom 20ce aims to bring his politics to the masses

I can’t think of many rappers anywhere on this planet who pick their references as meticulously as Togolese rapper Elom 20ce. In every medium he works, he sprinkles numerous historical and cultural references, laying out his political orientation. A quick glance at his videos shows that the references and symbols are multifaceted, from ceremonial masks and stilts to carefully chosen Kente patterns. The Lomé-based MC choses to rap in French to reach out to the broadest audience possible, and sees his work as a mission to pique the curiosity of Francophones around the globe, particularly those located in that swath of land sitting between Dakar and Antananarivo.

Being a rapper, the main canvas for his mission is his music. In a recent chat, he took time to break down the second verse from his new song Vodoo Sakpata, off of his new album Indigo, which helps to clarify his mission in general:

Can you explain: “couper la tête aux colons en véritable asrafo” (genuine asrafo cutting colonists’ heads)

Asrafo is a reference to warriors in Ewe tradition. They are said to hold mystic powers. We’re told that on the battlefield, “they have the power to have their enemies swallowed by the earth. When the head remains on the surface, they come to chop it off.”

“Couper la tête aux colons en véritable Asrafo” is a métaphore to say we need to put an end to those who humiliate and deplete Africa: the colonists.

Chilembwe, Kimathi: Can you tell me what they represent for you, and for your audience?

John Chilembwe was a Baptist educator and political leader who organized the uprising against British colonists in Nyassaland, today Malawi.

Dedan Kimathi was the Mau Mau leader, warriors who fought for Kenya’s independence.

They understood the importance of getting organized to fight against the system which oppressed them. They understood the importance of educating the masses. Chilimbwe created a network of African schools. They also understood that violence is necessary to liberate a people from systemic exploitation which itself uses violence. To rely on the colonists’ good conscience would be totally naïve.

Despite being both killed, their struggle contributed to the independence of both Kenya and Malawi.

Can you tell us what “Gnawoé, mila wô doakaka di la vôlé n’ti, élabéna, miabé djéna bé dô wom miélé” means?

The truth is we will accomplish our task efficiently, because our rights are at stake

Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra: besides the rime, why these particular cities?

Lomé because it is my home town. The other cities, because I am linked to other engaged artists there, working towards enhancing the conscious of their people. Besides, Ouaga because of Sankara and his heritage, Conakry because of Amilcar Cabral, Sékou Touré and their heirs, Accra because of Kwame Nkrumah and his legacy. At the time, they all worked together. Today, we have consumed and digested the balkanization of Africa. These cities to abolish the borders drawn in Germany during the Berlin conference.

Who do you mean by compadores? People working for major multinationals?

Not only. There are people working for multinationals who are not compradores, or at least not intentionally. I’m talking about those chosen by the imperialists, those they put in place to support their vision and handle the dirty work on the ground. Basically, relays of the imperialists among the oppressed population.

Gobineau, Ferry, Foccart: how do you see their role and impact on Africa?

They are all racists from different generations, who stole Africans like animals, who worked towards dehumanizing and destabilizing Africa.

Arthur de Gobineau wrote an essay about the inequality of human races in 1853. Apparently he inspired Hitler. Anthénor Firmin responded with his book about the equality of human races in 1885.

In 1885, Jules Ferry held a speech at the French National Assembly to defend colonization. I learned this from Kwame Knrumah’s book Africa Must Unite. Here’s an excerpt from his speech of July 28, 1885: “Colonies are an advantageous capital investment for rich countries […] For the crisis faced by all European industries, the foundation of a colony creates a new market. Gentlemen, we must speak louder and more truthfully! We must say openly that superior races have a right in regards to inferior races […] because they have an obligation to them. They must civilize the inferior races.”

Foccart was the man in the shadows for De Gaule, Pompidou and Chirac. He was the man behind the coups and other detabilizing operations in Francophone Africa, even in Angophone countries as well: during the Biafra war in Nigeria, the French backed Ojukwus and armed them via Omar Bongo’s Gabon and Houpouët Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire.

“Crois-tu que je m’égare quand je dis que les miens sont pris pour cible? Regard Haiti” (Do you think I’m confused when I say my people are a target? Look at Haiti) – What link do you see with Haiti?

What I’m saying is imperialists are organized, and often work strategically so that Africa, and even the Caribbean islands, do not develop. I am using Haiti as an example because it is a country they tried to asphyxiate from birth. When it freed itself from its chains in 1804 after defeating Napoleon’s army, the cost for its independence became paying the “colonial debt”: in 1825, 21 years after independence, Charles X [then King and ruler of France] asked that Haiti pay a compensation of 150 million gold francs to be left alone. In other words, reimburse former colonists and guarantee privileged commercial trade with France. The country was born dead, and it’s no coincidence. If you say no to France, you become its enemy and it crushes you. I could have said in my lyrics, look at Guinea, in reference to Sékou saying no, and all of the operations of sabotage that followed. For instance the fake Guinean franc bills poured into the country to destabilize the Guinean currency. But I already mentioned Conakry earlier, and wanted to also insist on my opinion that Haiti is a part of Africa.

Sharpeville, Marikana: do you think most people in Togo, or elsewhere in Africa you’ve traveled to, are aware of these incidents, and do you think they impact their concerns and conversations?

Within a certain milieu, yes. Within pan-Africanist networks. Such events remind of Cabral’s speech, “Like a Fish in the water”: the enemy is not the white man, but the oppressor, no matter the color.

Can I ask you the same thing about Biko or Shaka Zulu?

Biko, Chilimbwe, Kimathi are not all that known in Lomé. But I am addressing my words to the entire world, not just to the Togolese. I’m referring to people who did a lot for Africa’s emancipation, yet who aren’t always so well known. We often hear about mandela, etc. There are others. My goal with these references is to tease people’s curiosity so they go and find out who they are. The title of the album, Indigo, is a reference to the seventh color of the rainbow, which is not actually visible to the naked eye. I want to make room for the unknowns. This explains the photo of my mother on the CD cover, and the image of the lady with a weapon in her hand and a rifle in the other on the CD itself.

Shaka Zulu however is known in Togo, thanks to a TV show directed by William Faure, which many African stations broadcasted in the late 1980s.

This is the latest post in our music series Liner Notes.

The oil curse

‘So rich, and yet so poor’—that’s the juxtaposition most journalists turn to when they decide to report on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Slaves, rubber, metals—the DRC has been looted for these things on an almost continuous basis since the 17th century. The legacy of this exploitative process has been the endemic violence and instability that defines the Congo in the collective imagination. And unfortunately, that process isn’t even close to completion: $24 trillion worth of mineral deposits still have yet to be tapped, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. And, as we’ve learned recently, the soil has one especially important gift left to give.

Two announcements over the past year and a half have begun a new, and potentially lethal chapter in the history of resource exploitation in the Congo. The first is that Netherlands-based Fleurette, owned by Israeli billionaire (and, according to Haartez, Congolese citizen) Dan Gertler, said in August of last year that up to 3 billion barrels of oil were sitting under the DRC’s side of Lake Albert. If it was all recoverable—no one knows for sure yet if it is—that’s a haul almost the size of South Sudan’s entire reserves. The second is that UK-registered, US-founded SOCO international said earlier this month that (never mind the public pledge it made last year to cease exploration) seismic data has confirmed that yes, there is in fact oil under Virunga National Park.

The Congolese government has already begun prodding UNESCO to detach the relevant drilling areas from Virunga (which is a World Heritage Site, and therefore closed to drilling). Production currently stands at around 20,000 barrels a day—about as much as Albania, if you were wondering. Opening up Lake Albert alone could triple that number; if dedicated operations were extended across the entirety of the DRC’s Great Lakes territory, the potential profits would be huge.

But the potential violence would be devastating. “The abduction in 2011 of an oil employee in the Virunga Park, in the Kivus, is a reminder that exploration is taking place in disputed areas where ethnic groups are competing for territorial control and the army and militias are engaged in years of illegally exploiting natural resources,” the International Crisis Group said in a 2012 report. More than 20 militia groups—7 alone in and around Virunga—still operate in North and South Kivu, the eastern provinces that have seen the heaviest fighting. The government has not established anything close to effective control: in just one day last month, 30 soldiers died in battles between the Congolese army and Ugandan Islamists. The militias need sources of revenue to fund their continued survival, and foreign interests have never been shy in coughing up; one of the numerous accusations of misconduct leveled against SOCO is that it colluded with rebel group M23 to gain access to Virunga.

Inter-provincial power balances are at risk, too. Katanga, the southeastern-most of Congo’s provinces, has been the country’s mining center for decades. It won’t give up its economic primacy easily—especially given that its former governor, Moïse Katumbi, has been tapped to be the DRC’s next president. And that’s not even to speak of the international implications. Both Uganda and Rwanda have been heavily involved in the Eastern Congo for years; troops from both countries have been spotted crossing the border into the Congo this year. With Burundi mired in crisis, the risk that the region will descend into full-blown war has grown exponentially.

Drilling will start at some point—the economics are inevitable, and no one at the table has any incentive to prevent it. The only question is whether the Eastern Congo is already too much of a disaster for extractive infrastructure to be laid. Unfortunately, that won’t be much of a consolation to the countless numbers of people whose lives are brutalized by the extraction economy. After all, those same interests proved over the last 20 years that they were willing to do anything—including ending the lives of 6 million people—to satisfy the appetites of global commodity markets.

*Image Credit: Martin Harvey (World Wildlife Fund)

Artists in Accra are using kiosks to rethink space in the city

Zoom down the Kanda Highway in Accra at night and you might miss the series of kiosks that line the pavement, facing the grand mosque that overlooks them. Crawl through traffic on that same road the next morning as cars head towards the government ministries and head offices in Accra Central and you’ll see those kiosks transformed. From light bulbs and plug sockets to biscuits and soft drinks, collectively the unassuming structures – often used for lodging at night – become a centre of commerce during the day.

Ghana has a housing crisis and Accra – the country’s capital and the most favored destination for urban migration – with its luxury high rise apartments and cookie-cutter townhouses is increasingly marginalizing those who are far from able to get a piece of the real estate pie. When government and politicians fail to address social issues that tend to have a more lasting effect on those with the least resources who picks up the baton to make note of these issues?

At the end of October 2015, writer and cultural historian Nana Oforiatta-Ayim opened her research centre, ANO, with an exhibition ‘KIOSK Culture’. The exhibition sought to address how the country can alleviate its housing shortage by capitalising on the structures that already exist rather than execute suspicious reactionary demolitions across the capital that render thousands homeless.

Works from architects and artists who seek to explore and investigate ways in which kiosks and containers can be upgraded and utilised for living, trigger thoughts on how a very real societal problem can be viewed through the prism of art. “The whole idea of the centre is to show how culture impacts society and how society expands by culture,” says Oforiatta-Ayim. “You can say things in art that can reflect on what’s happening in the bigger picture, in all of society, in this clear and concentrated way,” Oforiatta-Ayim reflects. “When it goes back into society something happens. It’s like alchemy. Sometimes you don’t feel the effect straight away but I still think it’s still powerful.”

The exhibition in Accra is a starting point but a key factor is that Oforiatta-Ayim plans to move it across the country, building on existing structures to make it accessible to the wider population in what could be described as an open interactive exhibition.

The kiosk in the ANO exhibition is immediately recognisable for many. Transformed from its normal function it becomes a gallery in its own right, recognisable and approachable to its visitors. Inside the kiosk are case studies by the architect Latifah Idriss whose work took her across the country to study and develop blue prints for sustainable kiosks for living and working in.

Another architect DK Osseo Asare displays his sketches of existing structures he has created by up-cycling bamboo to fabricate water tanks, performance stages and canopies. Next door, artist Yaw Brobbey Kyei drawings wallpaper the room with his drawings of a myriad of kiosks on cardboard canvases. All the while, the familiar sounds of Accra fill the centre courtesy of a sound installation by Lawrence Baganiah. A film directed by Oforiatta-Ayim following her on her journey through Accra as she curates items from Ga culture for her first kiosk museum, is projected on the walls of the house converted research centre.

These artists are not alone in their quest for social activism. “My work is about the people,” states Ghanaian performance artist Serge Attukwei Clottey whose work highlights political, religious and environmental issues that affect the country. Less focused on getting his work into galleries than he is showing his work publicly he adds: “I invite people to see my work, to touch and see the process.”

When transporting his gallons – sometimes 30 or 40 at a time – from the beach side to his studio Clottey does so on foot with a team of assistants with the gallons on their backs effectively evoking a performance piece that stirs his neighbours and causes them to ask questions about what he is doing.

Festivals like ACCRA[dot]ALT’s Chalewote Street Art Festival brings together contemporary narratives about how the country is developing and how the citizens want it developed through artistic expression that touch on human technology, the environment and reimagined futures.

Back at ANO, if conversation is one step then action is the next. Oforiatta-Ayim hopes to hold discussions beyond the art world that would involve the main stakeholders: those living in kiosks, urban planners and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, then take it to the radio. “The artist is a social educator,” Clottey affirms. “Creating relationships and awareness between objects and the audience.”

Architect and Urban Planner DK Osseo Asare DK Osseo Asare Latifah Idriss' photos of kiosks from around Ghana Sound artist Lawrence Baganiah Yaw Brobbey Kpei's kiosk drawings Nana Oforiatta Ayim travelling museum kiosk

*All images credit ANO Ghana

Can Lesotho survive more development?

In Lesotho, the state and the development industry often see development and macroeconomic growth as synonymous. This simplification represents the easy consensus that neoliberalism has won for a very specific view of how aid should benefit poor people.

This view puts economic growth front and center in conversations about development and assume growth is the driver of poverty alleviation: Economic growth is seen as the antidote to terrorism, the goal of foreign development assistance, and a result of lowered inequality. It also valorizes macroeconomic growth and argues that Lesotho is a success story in the neoliberal ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. This is marginally better than a racist, neocolonial Afro-pessimism that darkly hints that Africans are unable to govern or develop themselves, but not focused on policies that help bring about overall gains in life outcomes for poor people in Lesotho or anywhere else.

US development policy toward Lesotho has always focused on macroeconomic growth. During the Cold War this was the idea behind Modernization Theory—get growth to ‘take off’ and you will keep countries away from communism and move them toward a prosperous, industrial future.

This continues today with two major US development programs in Lesotho, the recently-renewed African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), both focused on macroeconomic indicators and ‘growth.’ AGOA explicitly links growth and opportunity in its name, while the MCC’s development philosophy is embedded in its motto, “poverty reduction through economic growth.” AGOA does directly benefit some 40,000 Basotho with formal sector employment in textile mills (owned mostly by Chinese, Taiwanese, and South African companies). Most of the textile employees are women, and a sizable number are migrants from the rural areas who were forced to leave their families behind.

The MCC, whose infrastructure improvements are ubiquitous throughout the country, pumped nearly $360 million into Lesotho from 2008 to 2013, with more planned. Much of the MCC’s work has focused on fairly unimpeachable water and health infrastructure projects. Another sizable portion, however, has focused on market-led land reform, which is having negative impacts on some of Lesotho’s vulnerable people.

Despite post-Millennium development programs like MCC and AGOA, most Basotho still live in poverty, and average life expectancy is 49 years. The purchasing power of Basotho has dropped as the South African Rand has cratered recently. Even $360 million in MCC money did not prevent a GNI decline in Lesotho last year. Recently, the IMF told the government to cut spending as revenues are dropping—in other words, even growth is not happening right now.

Lesotho’s economic issues are exacerbated by political and military tensions – an attempted coup in August 2014 happened after nearly two years of targeted violence. In the midst of this unrest, SADC brokered negotiations that brought about early elections in February 2015. Early glimmers of optimism in the electoral results have been snuffed out by the continuing security threats, with the former head of the army killed and the opposition boycotting Parliament, claiming its leaders cannot safely return from South Africa in the current climate. The US, through the American ambassador and other US diplomats, is attempting to leverage aid to pressure the government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to ease political tension in the country. High-ranking State Department officials have made clear that the continuation of AGOA and the MCC in Lesotho is contingent on relative peace and stability in the Mountain Kingdom’s politics and security forces. These threats have heartened the opposition and demoralized government supporters, who all accept the basic premise that aid is political and that those controlling the funds get to call the shots in Lesotho.

As a result, people have lost faith in the ability of government to bring about development, with strong majorities in the latest Afrobarometer survey data saying that government is underperforming in creating jobs, supplying water, ensuring access to adequate food, electricity, and roads. The general perception is that development monies are skimming and funneled to friends, or that companies have to pay bribes to receive tenders for infrastructure contracts. Hence, citizens do not trust the government to deliver on the aid and development they desperately want to see in the country. With such widespread dissatisfaction with the services provided by a government that most identify as corrupt, it is not surprising that only 32% of Basotho are “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with how democracy works in Lesotho, as ordinary citizens perceive development efforts as only benefitting the rich and connected. This perception was recently reinforced by the SADC-run Phumaphi Commission which unearthed unseemly details about how politicians and the security forces spend their time jockeying for power instead of governing.

The philosophy of the MCC and AGOA too often rely on the unproven logic of trickle-down economics and assume competent governance. This primary focus on growth as the driver of poverty reduction is especially troubling when direct cash transfers have proved remarkably effective at providing opportunity and poverty reduction in Lesotho, and providing free health services has dramatically increased the number of women giving birth at hospitals and thus decreasing maternal and infant mortality.

The now-public critique of development only benefiting the well-connected in Lesotho needs to be taken seriously. Addressing this has the potential to help rebuild trust in government and reshape power structures in a deeply unequal society (in addition to making the delivery of aid and development more effective). But even more important to Lesotho’s economic viability than American aid packages are the labor and border policies of South Africa that contrive to keep out Basotho workers. Real “development” would address this border impasse, focus aid on raising household income for the poor and otherwise vulnerable, provide direct health and education services with fees eliminated, and provide an opportunity for substantive poverty reduction and increased life expectancy in Lesotho.

Cooking for the New Year with Chef Pierre Thiam

When you leaf through chef Pierre Thiam’s Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, you’ll be rewarded with sumptuous images of food that will draw you back to the kitchen, armed with a renewed desire to be adventurous – and healthful – with flavorsome food. But you’ll also read for the pleasure of learning about a whole way of life in a way that no food blog or Youtube video on the Internet will be able to fulfill. There are recipe for various fish stews and vegetables with subtle differences in seasonings, but also  accompanying stories about the problems caused by illegal, commercial trawl-net fishing that is depleting the food sources that the Senegalese have depended on. There are recipes that trace the influence of Vietnamese cuisine to that of Senegal, as well as the ways in which Senegalese staples, like seafood-okra stew, soupou kandja, has clear linkages to Louisiana gumbo. And there is the story of Diallo, the octogenarian from Casamance with rippling, lean muscles of a body-builder-cum-yogi, who still climbs palm trees as tall as fifty feet to collect palm fruit clusters weighing up to ten kilos (or twenty-two pounds), then processes the fruit by boiling it and pounding it to extract palm oil.

Thiam is a natural cartographer and historian of food, aware of the fact that his global (and mainly American) audiences won’t know about regional specifics, never mind that each region of imagined “Africa” has specific food chemistries determined by trade routes, traditions culled from immediate neighbors and occasional visitors, proximity to sea and rainfall region, and yes, to the presence of the colonial past. He begins by explaining that the bowl is the central metaphor for Senegalese – and African – food traditions: “Teranga is what Senegal is,” he noted; “The bowl is the vessel from which we eat. We eat around the bowl in Senegal…Eating is something that’s not done in a separate way…You always stop everything when it’s mealtime and everyone gets together.”

Thiebou Jenn: fish, vegetables, and rice. This is the national dish of Senegal, and is traditionally eaten from a communal platter. Image courtesy of Evan Sung.

Thiam emphasizes the fact that long before the arrival of the French, Senegalese people had developed intricate food traditions, and could always feed themselves well. Their cuisine is based on seafood, grains local to West Africa (indigenous to both wet and arid regions), and fresh greens in which the umami of fermented conch, smoked fish, and the burn of scotch bonnet peppers came together in complex sauces. He refers time and again to pre-colonial foods that continue to feed Senegal, but are largely forgotten in urban areas. The grain Fonio, for instance – a gluten-free, protein-rich grain that does not “embarrass the cook” – is now rarely found in the city, though it is still eaten regularly in the countryside.

“Diallo from Casamance, the octogenarian palm-oil producer. Image courtesy of Evan Sung.

Modern city people believe, explains Thiam, that what came from the West was better; so they eat baguettes, and broken rice (this is rice that is discarded in Asian markets) that began to be imported to Senegal from France’s East Asian colony, Indochina (Vietnam). He is quick to note that the Senegalese have done “beautiful things” with broken rice (witness thiebu jenn or thieboudienne, for instance), but points out that they had their own varieties of rice – including the prized grains of the variety Oryza glaberrima, originating in the south of Senegal, in Casamance, where his family is from. This variety was taken from coastal West Africa to the Americas during the slaving period, and became a significant crop in the Carolinas. (Analyses of the genome sequence of O. glaberrima support the hypothesis it was domesticated in a single region along the Niger river; it is also a different species from Asian rice, according to research published in the journal Nature.)

Besides being a skilled interpreter of culture and history, Thiam is able to do that miracle that most trained chefs cannot – translate traditional methods for what a modern home cook with somewhat limited resources and skills can put together. His recipes are blueprints for what I plan to cook in the New Year. If you are lucky, and can reciprocate in some way, you might be able to wheedle an invite to a meal at my home, guided by Thiam’s deeply knowledgeable, yet joyful and easy-to-follow instructions.

*Read ‘kola’s interview with chef Pierre Thiam, back in 2013, here.

They herded us into the aircraft like cattle

Traveling while African is a new series of commentaries, articles, and artwork about the vicissitudes of carrying an African passport—inside and outside Africa. Our hashtag is #TravelAfrican. Send your visual and written reflections of no more than 750 words to series founder and curator, Robtel Neajai Pailey at travelafrican@africasacountry.comTo launch the series, Robtel reflects on her recent journey from Senegal to the UK via Spain.

I thought I’d become immune to the indignities of traveling with an African passport, but an encounter last month proved me wrong.

After a series of meetings in Dakar, I travelled back to London via Madrid on a red-eye Iberia Airlines flight. Disembarking from the plane in Madrid in the early morning hours, I got separated from my white male European colleagues—an Austrian and Brit—and was directed by a stern-looking Spanish security agent to the “RSU” section of the airport to await a connecting flight to the UK. The flashing information screens designated “HJK” as the lounge area for my departure, however, so I resolved to go there.

In the surprisingly empty “All Other Passports/Non-EU Citizens” line, I approached two immigration officials dressed in dark uniforms wearing looks of disapproval. One of the officers, a bearded man with a cropped haircut, directed me to the “RSU” section of the airport. It was way too early in the morning for mishaps, so I tried to explain in my very broken, secondary school Spanish that according to the departure screens mounted in the air like flying saucers, I was supposed to be at the “HJK” gates instead.

Visibly annoyed, the bearded man flipped through the pages of my passport and informed me that I was clearly in the wrong place. He scribbled “RSU” at the bottom of my boarding pass and motioned for me to go back from whence I’d come.

Confused, I felt like a child who had been unfairly scolded. This man had no doubt seen the blue Schengen visa in my passport, which was valid for another seven months. By law, I was not only authorized to transit through Madrid but I could have gallivanted around Spain if I so chose. Nothing should have stopped me from passing through that immigration threshold undeterred.

Yet bigotry did.

I walked through the winding airport corridors to “RSU”, found an information counter and asked the cheerful woman at the booth which gates generally served London flights. She directed me to S48, but I was still unconvinced. When I received an e-mail alert from Iberia announcing H8 as my departure gate, I finally felt vindicated.

Moments later, however, the gate changed to S48, where I observed that the dozen or so passengers milling around were all black, all African. Suddenly, a petite woman barked at us aggressively, “Hurry, because you are going to delay our flight!!!” We had been sitting patiently for at least 15 minutes waiting to board the plane, so her outburst seemed misplaced. We were led down a nondescript stairwell to a bus, and the driver meandered through the airport tarmac with a succession of sharp turns. The whole thing felt eerie and clandestine at the crack of dawn, as if we were smuggled contraband.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind of clumsy movement and activity. The flight attendants herded us into the aircraft like cattle, insisting that we quickly prepare for departure. Confronted with limited overhead storage and a cramped aisle passage, we struggled to stash our luggage and find assigned seats swiftly. I caught a glimpse of my British colleague, and whispered that I had no idea what was going on. I also noticed the sea of mostly white faces staring back at me in confusion.

Then it hit me like a forceful blow to the head.

The Spanish authorities had deliberately erected two access points to the aircraft at diametrically opposite ends of the airport: one for people who looked like me (S48), and the other for people who looked like my colleague (H8). I felt rage and sadness first, followed by amusement. It seemed both appalling and laughable that they would go to such lengths to demean us, especially when Europeans generally travel effortlessly to and through Africa with their humanity intact.

Novelist Taiye Selasi gave an interesting TED talk about how our nationalities should not define how we engage with the world and how the world engages with us. Nina Glick-Schiller, a prominent migration scholar, previously took the argument further by arguing that academics should refrain from practicing what she calls “methodological nationalism” by privileging the Westphalian nation-state as the sole unit of critical analysis.

But no matter how much we believe nationalities are social constructs that keep certain people in their place, we can’t escape migration regimes sanctioned by nation states. We can’t ignore geo-politics that rank countries along tiers of importance, in which the unconscionable actions of some nations appear more legitimate simply because they have economic and military might. We can’t dismiss mobility restrictions that deliberately humiliate one group while honoring another.

Truth be told, the age-old desire for movement is under threat more than ever before for Africans and some non-Africans alike. Muslims across the globe have understood for decades that even a Western passport does not shield one from explicit profiling or proposed bans. And as much as I’d like to be considered a “human being” first, inside and outside of international travel, my Liberian passport and all the social qualifiers that come with it—my race, gender, class—will continue to determine how I experience the world.

Yet, I neither pledge allegiance to the 50 stars of the United States nor genuflect to the queen of England, so the world must also engage with me on my own terms. Call me impractically defiant or defiantly impractical, but I don’t think I should have to change my nationality to travel with dignity. I simply will not.

Instead, it’s the built-in biases of international migration that must be interrogated. Not my passport. Mobility is my birthright.

The world already had a refugee crisis

On December 16, 2015 Jordanian police stormed a makeshift camp of Sudanese refugees located in central Amman outside the offices of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They rounded up some 800 men, women and children and forced them into a detention center, beating those who resisted and later reportedly using tear gas.

The next day, Jordan started deporting the Sudanese refugees with military precision to Khartoum. To force asylum-seekers back to the country they fled is a brash violation of international law. But Jordan didn’t seem to care much about the unenforceable dictates of international human rights standards, perhaps calculating that the international community would be afraid to rally around the Sudanese in fear of the repercussions for the 600,000 Syrian refugees also living in the country. By all accounts they were right – despite a few public statements, including a noticeably weak one from UNHCR – no one exerted significant pressure to prevent the deportations.

The Sudanese refugees had camped outside the UNHCR offices in Amman for over a month to demand improved living conditions. The Sudanese protestors originally entered Jordan hopeful that the war and persecution they fled in Sudan was behind them, that after a perilous journey, they entered the perceived warm embrace of the international refugee system, with its new papers and asylum and promises of a life free from the icy-clutches of fear. Clearly, the Jordanian government wanted to send a signal that its hospitality had limits – refugees should be silent and orderly and thankful, not audacious enough to ask for what they were entitled to.

It seems everyone working with, for or against refugees is making a trade these days. Whose lives count as refugees is up for debate across Europe as countries try to tinker with asylum policies and to kick certain people out for those they publicly accept as legitimate. But such equations never take into account what it would mean to actually provide resettlement for the thousands of refugees waiting in the Middle East, Africa and Asia—people who have no chance of going home in the near future and may spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps.

According to UNHCR, there are now 14.4 million refugees worldwide. Over one million of these refugees urgently need resettlement. Most of these refugees are from 14 countries: Myanmar, Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia and Columbia. (And while UNHCR’s numbers take into account some Palestinian refugees, they leave out 5.1 million Palestinian refugees living in neighboring countries, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.) We do not often hear about the refugees from some of these countries, but they are there waiting for resettlement nonetheless.

If you are a refugee, resettlement means you are moved from a refugee camp to a new country that has agreed to offer you residence. Resettlement is the opportunity to re-build your life; for your children to go to school continuously, for adults to have work permits, and the knowledge you are safe, or at least safe in a certain sense, as hate crimes are also on the rise. Resettlement does not always mean your family can come with you – Sweden for instance, does not continuously recognize the right to family reunification, and there are indications other European countries are going to do the same.

For the past three years, the U.S. has accepted 70,000 refugees for resettlement – more than any other country. The Obama administration announced in 2015 that the U.S. would increase this number to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, which many found contemptible because the U.S. could afford to take many more. But being able to afford refugee re-settlement and having the political capital to do so are two very different things. Norway, one of the world’s wealthiest nations with only 5 million people and extremely low population density, normally accepts only 1,620 refugees a year (outside of the additional refugees they pledged to take in from Syria). Some countries – including the Gulf nations – have not signed the UN Refugee Convention and officially accept 0 refugees per year.

With chances for resettlement globally slim without major political and policy change from wealthy countries, and the likelihood dwindling that refugees from many countries can safely return to their homes in the next several years, the only other option for these refugees is the hope that host countries will allow them to become real members of society – able to work, live in apartments, study and leave the camps behind.

But this too is increasingly a dream. Over and over again, host countries refuse to allow refugees freedom of movement or the chance to integrate. Ethiopia for instance, requires all refugees to live in camps. In Gambella, these camps are often on undesirable land in flood-prone areas. Kenya has forced Somali refugees who settled in Nairobi back to the infamous Dadaab camp. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon deny refugees the right to work. Each region is playing a face-off with the other. Just last week, Jordan admitted thousands of Syrian refugees were stranded at the border.

Does the fact that the media only covers certain refugees and refugee crises feed into these games, or is it just that our compassion has limits, or both? It’s enough to care about one refugee population. It’s enough to make a donation to help one group of refugees, and then go about the day without a care for the rest. Charity is easier than political change –a spare room rather than a building, a donated jacket instead of a movement.

Some Eritrean women are so desperate to make it to Europe as opposed to staying in a refugee camp that they first receive injectable contraception before undertaking dangerous smuggling routes – because they are aware they are likely to be raped. We often do not hear their stories, but they are accumulating, forming the history of a singular crisis and of the crises, one we are all bearing witness to, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

On Safari

For all the serious stuff we wrote or filmed about, tweeted or Facebooked this year (we’ll have a “Blogging Gold of 2015” in the new year, promise), this was undoubtedly the year that Prince Akeem, Queen Aoleon, King Jaffe Joffer and the “African” Kingdom of Zamunda made a spectacular comeback. Whether it was Snoop Dogg’s wife throwing a “Coming to Africa” birthday party for their son (TMZ has the video evidence), rapper Jidenna (!) throwing his “Nigerian Renaissance Ball,” Action Bronson reprising the whole film as a music video (Chance the Rapper played the Cuba Gooding Jnr. role) and, most notably, the Knowles-Carters borrowing not once–but twice–first in May (we couldn’t help noticing their inspiration) or at Halloween (above), everyone seemed to be in on Eddie Murphy and John Landis’s 1988 send-up of African stereotypes. Well, not everyone: For example, Kandi from TV’s Real Housewives of Atlanta recreated scenes from Coming to America, including rose petals and real lions, for her wedding: “I wanted to do something inspired by Africa,” she said. Nevertheless, the upshot of all of this is that it is so 1988 to go after bad Western media representations of Africa and Africans. We dispense with that on Twitter. There are more important things going on. Of course, someone is probably planning to write a blog post (calling out celebrities who can’t find Zamunda on a map) or a dense academic paper (quoting Baudrillard or Stuart Hall) about what Zamunda stands for or to decipher Randy Watson’s homilies. While they figure that out (we’re onto something else in the meantime, just check the Archive), I’ll take the opportunity to say thank you to our editorial team and contributors (everybody works for free with some trips, speaking engagements or paid freelance work thrown as occasional reward, but mostly we work because we believe in this project) for staying the course. We’re exhausted. So, we’ll be on a break from tomorrow till January 13th. Here’s to 2016.

Hipsters Dont Dance Top World Carnival Collabs of 2015

After doing a year of monthly roundups for the best in the World Carnival sound in 2015, we have noticed that Afropop in particular has had a stellar year. Perhaps most noticeably, it was Wizkid exploding onto the international stage that drew our collective attention, and we expect bigger things from him next year. Another noticeable trend was South African producers becoming the go to guys for Afropop hits, helping shape the sound across the continent and diaspora. Additionally, so many other great inspiring African sounds from Lisbon to Lagos became staples in clubs across the world.

Much of the successes in 2015 for African artists have come from high profile collaborations. These became the go to strategy for artists trying and become the next break out artist in markets unfamiliar with them or their national sound. This trend has been the general order of the day for artists from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and beyond, landing music from the continent in markets as far removed from the sphere of daily continental influence as Colombia, Trinidad, The UK, and that great specter: USA.

Since so many artists from across Africa and the diaspora ended up working together to bring us some of the most exciting tunes of the year, here are our top ten world carnival collaborations of 2015. Here’s to 2016 being even bigger!

1. Wizkid feat Drake & Skepta x Ojuelegba Remix

2. Ayo Jay & Fetty Wap x Your Number

3. Kwamz & Flava feat R2Bees x Wo Onane No remix

4. Frenchie Feat Naira Marley x Cele

5. Boddhi Satva feat Nelson Freitas x May Heart

6. Edanos feat Timaya x Whine For Me

7. Rundown feat Wizkid x Bend Down Pause

8. Patoranking feat Wande Coal x My Woman My Everything

9. Leriq feat Wizkid x Say You Love Me

10. Frenchy Le Boss feat Giggs x Flexing

Fanon at Ninety

“In no way is it up to me to prepare for the world coming after me,” Frantz Fanon writes in his classic first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). “I am resolutely a man of my time.” Yet, over sixty years later, the presence and influence of Fanon appears to be everywhere, from student movements in South Africa to racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and other parts of the United States. Fanon’s interrogation of racial attitudes—white and black alike—and his commitment to the Algerian independence struggle—a country not his by birth—continue to offer lessons for our political present. His arguments speak to the persistent problem of racism, but, more significantly, the importance of activism beyond our own, often self-imposed, limits. I want to stress this last point in particular. Fanon remains vital not only for his bracing anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but equally for the less-recognized, empathetic politics of solidarity he cultivated and exemplified. 

Born on the island of Martinique in the French Antilles, Fanon died from cancer at the age of thirty-six in 1961. This year marks his ninetieth birthday. Despite its brevity, Fanon lived a full and complex life, studying under the famed Negritude poet Aimé Césaire, serving in the French resistance during the Second World War, earning a medical degree at the University of Lyon, and circulating with esteemed intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He completed three books, most famously The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which detailed his argument for anti-colonial revolution based on his experiences serving the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during its long struggle against French rule. Published just days before his death, The Wretched of the Earth established Fanon’s reputation.

But Fanon has remained a polarizing figure for many precisely because of his advocacy for armed struggle. His rationalization of anti-colonial violence has served as a source of inspiration and condemnation both, with Hannah Arendt, among other critics, remarking on the “rhetorical excesses” and “irresponsible grandiose statements” of Fanon and his supporters like Sartre, who wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth. Violence has consequently been a troublesome topic for Fanon’s admirers—an issue intrinsic to his politics, yet one often handled carefully. Many have correctly pointed out that Fanon defined violence in a specific sense, as a distinct response to the sheer violence of French colonialism. Anti-colonial violence was, in a Sartrean manner of speaking, an anti-violence violence. The colonized of Algeria were faced with a decisive choice: either accept continued dehumanization by a colonial power or fight for their dignity.

But this focus on violence also obscures Fanon’s other contributions. Indeed, his critics often overlook his practice as a psychiatrist in Algeria and Tunisia and his deliberate inclusion in The Wretched of the Earth’s penultimate chapter of medical cases regarding the physical and psychological trauma of total war. Fanon was all too aware of the costs borne by both Algerians and the French, combatants and civilians, women and men, and adults and children, as his diverse set of patients attested.

This recognition of a shared dehumanization is first explored in Black Skin, White Masks. Less appreciated when it first appeared, this book has arguably surpassed its famed successor. As examined by Lewis Gordon, Ato Sekyi-Otu, and Reiland Rabaka, Black Skin, White Masks is primarily concerned with the limits of French citizenship—the fact of blackness in the face of French nonracial claims to the contrary. Though citizenship had been granted to all Martinicans, regardless of race, following the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, Fanon understood, similar to his African-American contemporaries like Richard Wright, that equality was not possible due to his “epidermal” condition.

It is on this point—the juridical promise, yet social limits, of citizenship—that continuities can be drawn between Fanon’s world of the 1950s and our world today. Indeed, the problem of race cut both ways for Fanon. Similar to the mutual dehumanization that resulted from colonialism, Fanon emphasized the mutual dehumanization that resulted from racism. “The black man is not. No more than the white man,” he declared, underscoring the illusory, damning qualities of race, whether as a source of imposed inferiority or feigned superiority.

Black Skin, White Masks is undoubtedly a complex work—his most psychiatric by far—and he does not call for decolonization in the direct manner of his final book. It marks an internal civic critique of France, in a manner akin to Wright and his fellow expatriate James Baldwin toward the United States. Fanon, though fully aware of systemic racism, believed in classic psychiatric fashion that change should begin at the individual level—a point later embraced by Steve Biko, also a former medical student before founding the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s.

Yet Fanon would move beyond this early position as reflected in his personal movements from France, where he studied medicine; to Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist; and, finally, to Tunisia, where he spent the rest of his life, except for a brief stay in Accra. By the time of his death, he believed that revolution, at the societal level, was the ultimate solution to the ills introduced by colonialism. But to conclude that Fanon thought violence alone would bring change is both a misreading of his writings on violence, as well as a reductive take on his personal politics.

A less addressed, if conspicuous, aspect of his political life is how Fanon identified with a cause beyond his own background. He was not Algerian, nor an Arab, nor a Muslim by birth. Indeed, he was middle class, received an elite education, and was a French citizen, as cited. Fanon was not of the wretched of the earth. Yet he developed a deep sense of solidarity with the Algerian struggle, based on a mutual history of racial discrimination and colonial chauvinism. An outcome of his contingent internationalism, this radical empathy not only had practical effects on his life direction. This solidarity also forcefully disrupted a politics of difference—by race, nation, culture, and class—established by colonialism. This form of empathetic politics that was grounded in his medical work, informed by his readings in philosophy, and expressed in his political journalism and diplomacy for the FLN actively undermined a colonial order that sought to divide and circumscribe the free will of colonial subjects. Radical empathy thus provided a subterfuge for problems of difference and inferiority introduced by colonialism, beyond the tactics of armed struggle alone.

Fanon did not use the expression “radical empathy.” Though this ethic implicitly emerges in his later writing, its most meaningful expression appears in “actional” (to use a word of his), rather than written, ways. Indeed, philosophy, African and otherwise, too often privileges the written text. Yet this unspoken practice supplied a foundation for Fanon’s understanding of a “new humanism”—a recurring expression in his work that pointed to a world without social distinctions, whether on the basis of race, class, culture, or nation.

In this sense, Fanon’s project remains unfinished—and still relevant today. While some may dismiss such politics as utopian and, thus, too impractical, such criticism neglects the price of non-action, as well as the acute severity of political alternatives—whether violence in its oppositional or institutionalized forms. From Ferguson to South Africa, we can see the continued effects of political indecision, how tragic events that initially appear isolated and contingent can form part of a pattern, become part of a dehumanizing routine. Transcending differences by empathizing with one another—not simply embracing pre-given solidarities of soil or descent, which are often deeply colonial in their inception—provides a different option. Among many principles, perhaps this is Fanon’s most enduring lesson.

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