Friday, 27 May 2011

postcard from ajdabiya...

Ajdabiya, Libya: Children flash the victory sign while playing in a square

Street Life in (Conrad's) Lagos

This documentary was recently aired on Al Jazeera on the programme Witness, a weekly show that aims to 'bring new stories to light they showcase the talents of a new breed of multi-skilled, frontline journalist.'  Street Life in Lagos is made by Joe Loncraine and it focusses on two migrants from Benin who go to Lagos, Nigeria in search of  a better life. As slum tourism is the in-thing among documentary filmmakers on African cities, this one fits right in. It raises the usual questions of who is telling Africa's story, how and why? How are these Africans telling their story within this documentary, what is it's framing? How is Lagos the city, it's slums and it's inhabitants represented on screen? By the looks of things, not very well. Unlike some of the commenters on AJE's site or the upset multitudes on Nairaland, I think it's really great that these stories are being told and I have no problem with Nigeria or any other country's poor being given a platform to speak. However, when it becomes fashionable for the world's media to tell only one particular kind of story about a city and this becomes the perceieved major, singular narrative of a city, I think it becomes probelmatic and especially so when that narrative (with all due respect to the filmmaker) isn't presented well. A city has many complex, interwoven stories.

The act of giving of voice to stories -by making a film, writing a news article - is as crucial as the telling because the framing, context and intent etc is what also (not solely) gives meaning to a story, determines audience reception and what genre the story falls into. This feels like a cross between observational anthropology and poverty porn, because, despite the filmmaker's most likely good intentions, the film doesn't create a bond with Makoko or many of its people seen throughout the film - they're fleeting, sometimes dragging stories, but the glue that binds a viewer to a character/story somehow isn't there. It feels like you're meant to just get a glimpse and move on. In the role of anthropologist armed with a camera, the filmmaker gives no introduction nor political or social context to Makoko or Lagos - instead the (international) viewer is thrown in the deep end. As a documentary film concept it might be all edgy and stuff, but unfortunately it doesn't work here. 

After the protagonists have told their stories of migration, the anthropologist/filmmaker goes to the school (around 4:00) where poor, non-speaking, inquisitive children are filmed. No explanation nothing, onto the next scene. And so it goes: lots of stories belonging to nameless, ageless people whose characters and circumstance you never really get to know... If Wole Soyinka was outraged by BBC's documentary, Welcome to Lagos, I can't imagine how he'll respond to this. It's a million times worse. And unlike the BBC's one which had the sickest afrobeat soundtrack, this one doesn't have much of that. Instead it invites us to observe (not engage with) the poor slum dwellers of Lagos, all filmed from behind a Conradesque camera lens.

Egypt: How We Did it When the Media Would Not

fisttap @tomolefe
A fascinating back-story on the role of Egyptian bloggers and artists in society in the years before the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the days leading up to his fall and the state of the revolution thereafter.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

From Obama to O'bama

Barack Obama takes a seat for an expanded bilateral meeting with David Cameron and other delegates in the cabinet room
fotocredit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty
jacked from the Graun

Yesterday Barack Obama addressed both the Houses of Parliament (not this pic) as part of his tour to Europe. David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary, now MP of South Shields tweeted:
"Obama speech came alive talking about diverse societies. But not one non-white person on British establishment side of stage."
Though Miliband is part of the very political establishment he derides, this tweet hit home. It's been really weird, surreal even, watching Britain's political elites and media fawn over the Obamas. On Monday Obama was in Ireland visiting the village where his great great great maternal grandfather is said to have come from. And so Obama, or rather O'bama is now an Irishman. To prove it, the Guardian printed an opinion piece with a headline declaring 'Obama finds his inner Irishman.' And the Irish Times ran an interesting commentary by Gavin O'Malley on the political history of the Irish and Black American communities:
"the African American community responded by providing the votes needed to elect the first Irish Catholic president [John F. Kennedy]. The course of history changed. Black merged green and green merged black. Irish-Americans and African-Americans dropped their hyphens... and once again became one."
For those who don't know much, it's informative, but it tends to recall only the good bits about Ireland's past and seems to leave out the bad bits. Seemingly, its o'kay to leave those bits out, as the most of the UK media has done, because on this occasion it's about celebrating the visit of O'bama the 'Irish' President of America. Balance and a more critical approach, would have been a little embarrassing because as there's been plenty of solidarity, there's also been plenty of oppression too. And though present-day Ireland and America certainly paints a better picture of oneness and a people bound by a common identity, it feels strange, but positive, but also weird to watch O'bama being welcomed with a pint of Guinness and a name change. 

Even more awkward was Wednesday. Obama gave a speech in Westminster during which he mentioned his paternal grandfather: 
"It is possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great parliament and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British army to stand before you as president of the United States,"
Indeed Obama has proved it is possible for the grandson of a Kenyan cook to become President of USA, but the rapturous applause he got shows the bi-polar nature of parliament - which as David Miliband's tweet above notes, is quite unrepresentative. This is the same institution trying to wriggle out of compensating the Kenyans tortured under British colonial rule because the government is not responsible for what happened in its colonies. Obama ever the diplomat, didn't mention how cruelly the British treated his grandfather, a subject he oddly never mentions much. It's odd that, apart from Libya, the highlights of Obama's speech and general tone has been one of acknowledging migrant histories and the benefits of multiculturalism and yet this government believes in 'muscular multiculturalism' and ridiculously proposes no right of appeal on visa rejections. And now that immigration figures have just been released showing an increase in migrants coming on, one can expect to see the right hit the panic button and call for tougher immigration controls. So what was parliament clapping for or was it just the lily-livered lefties?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I Am An African

I believe this extends to all of Africa: North, East, West, Central and Southern,
Happy Africa Day.

Democracy, Dictatorship and Disease

Every once in a while, scientists push the boundaries between good and bad science by making controversial claims about the relations between things. This latest theory by Randy Thornhill claims that a. the choice of governing system in a country is determined by the threat of disease b. the rate of prevalence of an infectious disease impacts negatively on the possibility of certain states developing more democratic systems of governance. Though the 'eugenics by any other name' alert went off instinctively in my brain, but then I read it. I think disease prevalence has more to do with climate AND access to resources, which in turn shape the style and level of democracy in a country. But on the other hand, diseases prevail because repressive governments are less willing or financially able to attend to the illnesses. A simple/simplistic example would be the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in 2009 in which +100 people died. The outbreak was due to bad sanitation because of the government's bad administration of Harare and the outbreak was worsened by government's slow response in providing clean water sources and supplying treatment. Though interesting, I still feel this study puts too much reliance on a single factor, yet there are multiple factors simultaneously at play. Anyway, because this article is that interesting/controversial, I decided to lift the whole article from the New Scientist (fisttap @viewfromthecave) because it's only available for seven days and you gotta sign up to access it. I feel this is important stuff that people should have access to, whenever they need to. Free access to information is the law of the digital jungle, paywalls and subscriptions are so elitist and exclusionary. And historically, in the field of science so much has been written and theorized about people and passed off as truth while the people themselves have no access to that information so they cannot verify or rebut anything, let alone speak for themselves. 

Anyway here it is:

COMPARE these histories. In Britain, democracy evolved steadily over hundreds of years. During the same period, people living in what is now Somalia had many rulers, but almost all deprived them of the chance to vote. It's easy to find other stark contrasts. Citizens of the United States can trace their right to vote back to the end of the 18th century. In Syria, many citizens cannot trace their democratic rights anywhere - they are still waiting for the chance to take part in a meaningful election.
Conventional explanations for the existence of such contrasting political regimes involve factors such as history, geography, and the economic circumstances and culture of the people concerned, to name just a few. But the evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill has a different idea. He says that the nature of the political system that holds sway in a particular country - whether it is a repressive dictatorship or a liberal democracy - may be determined in large part by a single factor: the prevalence of infectious disease.
It's an idea that many people will find outrageously simplistic. How can something as complex as political culture be explained by just one environmental factor? Yet nobody has managed to debunk it, and its proponents are coming up with a steady flow of evidence in its favour. "It's rather astonishing, and it could be true," says Carlos Navarrete, a psychologist at the Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Thornhill is no stranger to controversy, having previously co-authored A Natural History of Rape, a book proposing an evolutionary basis for rape. His iconoclastic theory linking disease to politics was inspired in part by observations of how an animal's development and behaviour can respond rapidly to physical dangers in a region, often in unexpected ways. Creatures at high risk of being eaten by predators, for example, often reach sexual maturity at a younger age than genetically similar creatures in a safer environment, and are more likely to breed earlier in their lives. Thornhill wondered whether threats to human lives might have similarly influential consequences to our psychology.
The result is a hypothesis known as the parasite-stress model, which Thornhill developed at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, with his colleague Corey Fincher.

Xenophobic instincts

The starting point for Thornhill and Fincher's thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society - the social classes, for instance - to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease. What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination.
Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. When the threat of disease eases, however, these influences no longer hold sway, allowing forces that favour a more democratic social order to come to the fore.
That's the idea, anyway. But where is the evidence?
The team had some initial support from earlier studies that had explored how a fear of disease affects individual attitudes. In 2006, for example, Navarrete found that when people are prompted to think about disgusting objects, such as spoilt food, they become more likely to express nationalistic values and show a greater distrust of foreigners (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 27, p 270). More recently, a team from Arizona State University in Tempe found that reading about contagious illnesses made people less adventurous and open to new experiences, suggesting that they have become more inward looking and conformist (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 440).
Temporarily shifting individual opinions is one thing, but Thornhill and Fincher needed to show that these same biases could change the social outlook of a whole society. Their starting point for doing so was a description of cultural attitudes called the "collectivist-individualist" scale. At one end of this scale lies the collectivist outlook, in which people place the overall good of society ahead of the freedom of action of the individuals within it. Collectivist societies are often, though not exclusively, characterised by a greater respect for authority - if it's seen as being necessary for the greater good. They also tend to be xenophobic and conformist. At the other end there is the individualist viewpoint, which has more emphasis on openness and freedom for the individual.

Pathogen peril

In 2008, the duo teamed up with Damian Murray and Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, to test the idea that societies with more pathogens would be more collectivist. They rated people in 98 different nations and regions, from Estonia to Ecuador, on the collectivist-individualist scale, using data from questionnaires and studies of linguistic cues that can betray a social outlook. Sure enough, they saw a correlation: the greater the threat of disease in a region, the more collectivist people's attitudes were (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 275, p 1279). The correlation remained even when they controlled for potential confounding factors, such as wealth and urbanisation.
A study soon followed showing similar patterns when comparing US states. In another paper, Murray and Schaller examined a different set of data and showed that cultural differences in one collectivist trait - conformity - correlate strongly with disease prevalence (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 37, p 318).
Thornhill and Fincher's next challenge was to find evidence linking disease prevalence not just with cultural attitudes but with the political systems they expected would go with them. To do so, they used a 66-point scale of pathogen prevalence, based on data assembled by the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Online Network. They then compared their data set with indicators that assess the politics of a country. Democracy is a tough concept to quantify, so the team looked at a few different measures, including the Freedom House Survey, which is based on the subjective judgements of a team of political scientists working for an independent American think tank, and the Index of Democratization, which is based on estimates of voter participation (measured by how much of a population cast their votes and the number of referendums offered to a population) and the amount of competition between political parties.
The team's results, published in 2009, showed that each measure varied strongly with pathogen prevalence, just as their model predicted (Biological Reviews, vol 84, p 113). For example, when considering disease prevalence, Somalia is 22nd on the list of nations, while the UK comes in 177th. The two countries come out at opposite ends of the democratic scale (see "An infectious idea").
Read more: Explore the full data with our interactive graphic
Importantly, the relationship still holds when you look at historical records of pathogen prevalence. This, together with those early psychological studies of immediate reactions to disease, suggests it is a nation's health driving its political landscape, and not the other way around, according to the team.
Last year, they published a second paper that used more detailed data of the diseases prevalent in each region. They again found that measures of collectivism and democracy correlate with the presence of diseases that are passed from human to human - though not with the prevalence of diseases transmitted directly from animals to humans, like rabies (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 8, p 151). Since collectivist behaviours would be less important for preventing such infections, this finding fits with Thornhill and Fincher's hypothesis.
"Thornhill's work strikes me as interesting and promising," says Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who was unaware of it before we contacted him. He notes that it is consistent with his own finding that a society needs to have a degree of economic security before democracy can develop. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with a reduction in disease prevalence to signal the move away from collectivism, he suggests.
Inglehart's comments nevertheless highlights a weakness in the evidence so far assembled in support of the parasite-stress model. An association between disease prevalence and democracy does not necessarily mean that one drives the other. Some other factor may drive both the prevalence of disease in an area and its political system. In their 2009 paper, Thornhill and Fincher managed to eliminate some of the possible "confounders". For example, they showed that neither a country's overall wealth nor the way it is distributed can adequately explain the link between the prevalence of disease there and how democratic it is.
But many other possibilities remain. For example, pathogens tend to be more prevalent in the tropics, so perhaps warmer climates encourage collectivism. Also, many of the nations that score high for disease and low for democracy are in sub-Saharan Africa, and have a history of having been colonised, and of frequent conflict and foreign exploitation since independence. Might the near-constant threat of war better explain that region's autocratic governments? There's also the possibility that education and literacy would have an impact, since better educated people may be more likely to question authority and demand their rights to a democracy. Epidemiologist Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine thinks such factors might be the ones that count, and says the evidence so far does not make the parasite-stress theory any more persuasive than these explanations.
Furthermore, some nations buck the trend altogether. Take the US and Syria, for example: they have sharply contrasting political systems but an almost identical prevalence of disease. Though even the harshest critic of the theory would not expect a perfect correlation, such anomalies require some good explanations.
Also lacking so far in their analysis is a coherent account of how historical changes in the state of public health are linked to political change. If Thornhill's theory is correct, improvements in a nation's health should lead to noticeable changes in social outlook. Evidence consistent with this idea comes from the social revolution of the 1960s in much of western Europe and North America, which involved a shift from collectivist towards individualist thinking. This was preceded by improvements in public health in the years following the second world war - notably the introduction of penicillin, mass vaccination and better malaria control.
There are counter-examples, too. It is not clear whether the opening up of European society during the 18th century was preceded by any major improvements in people's health, for example. Nor is there yet any clear evidence linking the current pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and north Africa to changes in disease prevalence. The theory also predicts that episodes such as the recent worldwide swine-flu epidemic should cause a shift away from democracy and towards authoritarian, collectivist attitudes. Yet as Holly Arrow, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, points out, no effect has been recorded.

Mysterious mechanisms

To make the theory stick, Thornhill and his collaborators will also need to provide a mechanism for their proposed link between pathogens and politics. If cultural changes are responsible, young people might learn to avoid disease - and outsiders - from the behaviour of those around them. Alternatively, the reaction could be genetically hard-wired. So far, it has not proved possible to eliminate any of the possible mechanisms. "It's an enormous set of unanswered questions. I expect it will take many years to explore," Schaller says.
One possible genetic explanation involves 5-HTTLPR, a gene that regulates levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. People carrying the short form of the gene are more likely to be anxious and to be fearful of health risks, relative to those with the long version. These behaviours could be a life-saver if they help people avoid situations that would put them at risk of infection, so it might be expected that the short version of the gene is favoured in parts of the world where disease risk is high. People with the longer version of 5-HTTLPR, on the other hand, tend to have higher levels of serotonin and are therefore more extrovert and more prone to risk-taking. This could bring advantages such as an increased capacity to innovate, so the long form of the gene should be more common in regions relatively free from illness.
That pattern is exactly what neuroscientists Joan Chiao and Katherine Blizinsky at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have reported in a paper published last year. Significantly, nations where the short version of the gene is more common also tend to have more collectivist attitudes (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 277, p 529).
It is only tentative evidence, and some doubt that Chiao and Blizinsky's findings are robust enough to support their conclusions (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 278, p 329). But if the result pans out with further research, it suggests the behaviours involved in the parasite-stress model may be deeply ingrained in our genetic make-up, providing a hurdle to more rapid political change in certain areas. While no one is saying that groups with a higher proportion of short versions of the gene will never develop a democracy, the possibility that some societies are more genetically predisposed to it than others is nevertheless an uncomfortable idea to contemplate.
Should the biases turn out to be more temporary - if flexible psychological reactions to threat, or cultural learning, are the more important mechanisms - the debate might turn to potential implications of the theory. Projects aiming to improve medical care in poor countries might also lead a move to more democratic and open governments, for example, giving western governments another incentive to fund these schemes. "The way to develop a region is to emancipate it from parasites," says Thornhill.
Remarks like that seem certain to attract flak. Curtis, for instance, bristled a little when New Scientist put the idea to her, pointing out that the immediate threat to human life is a pressing enough reason to be concerned about infectious disease.
Thornhill still has a huge amount of work ahead of him if he is to provide a convincing case that will assuage all of these doubts. In the meantime, his experience following publication of A Natural History of Rape has left him prepared for a hostile reception. "I had threats by email and phone," he recalls. "You're sometimes going to hurt people's feelings. I consider it all in a day's work."
Jim Giles is a New Scientist correspondent based in San Francisco

The Global Peace Index

Vision of Humanity has produced this year's global peace rankings. Not sure how this functions as a 2011 index when we're not even half-way through the year and things could look so different by October in places like Tunisia and Egypt (elections) and Southern Sudan could officially be a new country...or not. Depending on what happens in Abyei. From what I can see there seems to be no information on a number of small countries: Lesotho, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Benin, the Seychelles, Reunion Island, Cape Verde, Suriname, Djibouti, Mauritius and Western Sahara. Interesting to note how much the protests in the Arab World have influenced unrest elsewhere, but its still an unfolding story and so I'm not sure how far that can be used as a reliable measure for 2011.  Also, countries like Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria, in different transition stages from violence to stability so they too could look very different in another six months. I doubt whether Spain's protests were included here. Israel won't be too pleased to be 145 - eighth place from last, neither will America be happy at number 82 - below China at 80.  Zimbabwe's 140 - no big surprises there. I think we're now used to being ranked near the worst or not ranked at all in these things. 

But still this is a very, very useful resource, especially when looking at the economic and political factors (like press freedom, GDP, gender equality, internal and external conflict etc). These are used to indicate peace levels and these are also some of the motivating factors for the popular unrest seen in places like Burkina Faso, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen etc. (As we all know) For these people-led movements it's not only about toppling an oppressive regime, but people also want to build better, more peaceful and more equitable societies.

There's more information on the site,but here's the summary of findings from Vision of Humanity:
  • The world is less peaceful for the third straight year
  • Due to an increased threat of terrorist attacks in 29 nations
  • A greater likelihood of violent demonstrations in 33 countries
  • Arab Spring unrest heralds biggest ever change in rankings, Libya tumbles 83 spots
  • Iceland bounces back from economic woes to top ranking
  • Somalia displaces Iraq as world’s least peaceful nation
  • Violence cost the global economy more than $8.12 trillion in 2010
  • US peacefulness shows minimal change

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sunday Music

fisttap AfricasACountry

Michael Kiwanuka is a 23 year old singer from London of Ugandan origins and this is he has mastered the art of representing vintage sound in contemporary times. Longing for days gone by when when R n B was still rhythm n blues, Kiwanuka channels a 60s / 70s sound comparable to Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding etc. Likewise, the video manages recreate the past  - save for the hoodies and pay-phone - this could pass for an old school video. Kiwanuka has opened for Adele, but he's still very much an underground artist the whole world needs to hear (and Liam Bailey too). He's due to release his debut EP on the 7th of June.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

For the River

This song by Ghanaian artist, Wanlov the Kubolor, is part of a clean water campaign begun by the artist in a bid to tackle pollution in Ghana. Here he sings about the problems faced when rivers carry the Ebola virus or are polluted with toxic chemical or electronic waste. This song is inspired by Bathe in the River by New Zealander, Hollie Smith, a big soulful tune which spent 22 weeks in New Zealand's top ten singles charts in 2006. Wanlov's video has been chosen to headline the Environmental Film Festival of Accra from June 7 to 19. For those in Europe, look out for Wanlov in your city when he goes on tour later this June. Some of the scheduled concert dates are: 3 June Würzburg, 5 June Rome, 7 June London, 10 June Iaşi and 12 June Angoulême. Follow him on twitter (@wanlov) for more info.

Also, worth reading is the article in Arise Magazine in which they speak to Wanlov about his pidgin rapping and social consciousness.
About his activism he says:

“I’d say I’m a social-consciousness rapper, but that’s so restrictive because then I go and do a song about some lady’s ass. I like to clown. I sometimes reflect on bad things that are going on but I don’t do foreboding.

...Last year I did a barefooted walk against poverty. A human-rights group asked if I would lead the procession. At that time some major oil contracts were being signed so we were doing the walk to raise awareness about how things went down in Nigeria.

...When I write, things that bother me – slums, sanitation, wars, climate – come out too. My second album was soccer-themed but there were messages. At that time there were many scandals going on; a minister had taken government funds and thrown a party. For people who know what’s going on politically, the cover sleeve is interesting [because it’s a cartoon satire of current scandals].

I’m more into the environment. Pollution bothers me. And I don’t like seeing villages all branded. The whole country is branded in mobile phone colours. Every roundabout or monument is branded by some company. “Pidgin slang is the language that everyone from the shoe-shine boy to the vice president uses with their friends. With pidgin, people start picking out stronger terms, words that sound cooler, and they keep building. 
For some reason there is this inferiority complex where people want to hide their language. I feel it is important that people are comfortable in their skin and environment, because otherwise everybody will become the same. Things will become bland.
I’m being courted by the World Bank. People say the World Bank is strangling Africa and so on, but we strangle ourselves most of the time. If that money is appropriated correctly, it will make things happen.”

Together We Can Build?

This was the ANC's local elections campaign song by kwaito artist, Chomee (video complete with guest appearance from the King of Kwaito, Arthur Mofokate). It's an ironic considering that the ANC failing in public service delivery from decent housing to toilets to electricity and water services.  Here's an extract from a very powerful piece Bastards of a Dream Deferred by Lindokuhle Nkosi (recommended reading). Although it was published a few days before the election - it's still relevant and it provides a sobering contrast to the happy clappy, shuckin' n jivin' video above. 
(sidenote: Compare and contrast Beyonce's dance routine for 'Who runs the world' with this, clearly Bey's moves come from South Africa.)

“We have no water, we have no electricity. The ANC is killing us man. They killed my father. They took my legs.” I want to tell him that alcohol took his father. I want to tell him he lost his legs when the Military truck that he and his drunk soldier friends were in hit a pothole and flipped. Instead, I focus my energies on funneling the boiling water into three small teacups, whilst watching that he doesn’t steal anything to trade for alcohol, like he did last time. I’m cold and hungry. I’m thinking about the slow puncture I got trying to avoid a mound of cement the community had placed in the road when they realised the government would never get around to building speed humps outside the school. The pot slips, water spills on the coals putting out the fire that had been burning for three days now. No worries, the gas stove has arrived, and I managed not to burn myself.

I place the tray on the table next to a few lit candles. The same table my frightened cousins and I huddled under a long time ago, hiding from the police and red-clad Inkatha impis who marched down the street armed with pangas and hatred. “It would get better,” the older ones would say. The country would be free, my uncle would come back from exile. One day, we’d share in the freedoms that were currently only a privilege of the paler skinned South Africans. But there’s no electricity, and the water has been on and off since December, and I still need to change my tire. They say the sub-station burnt. The broken dreams made love to the empty promises and ignited a baptism of fire. The decaying bodies of the poor and the black blocked the pipes and the water can not flow. The desolate tears choke the voice of the oppressed and their cries will not be heard.
Jacob Zuma’s face smiles audaciously off a streetlamp that has never, in my memory, been operational. “Vote ANC!” He grins. “Together we can do more…” A tall vandal has scribbled something in black marker over the ellipses. The campaign poster now reads: “Together, we can do more crime.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Why Rape?

fisttap @texasinafrica

Howard French asks about some thought provoking questions on the recent report on rape statistics in the Congo about how the Congo is constructed in the media and our rather limp global response to the ongoing war which has killed well over five million people to date. I think it's interesting to consider French's critique alongside this extract on the Congo from a longer, interesting piece about the lack of media attention to the protests in Burkina Faso recently published in Pambazuka:
The Guardian's 2010 list of most tagged countries confirms to some extent that history of familiarity with a place guarantees coverage. Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe got tagged more times than the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sudan. Possibly because of its hosting of the World Cup, South Africa had 547 tags, outranking earthquake-stricken Haiti, which had 436 tags. Egypt had 219, while Zimbabwe had 144 tags, and yet the DRC had a paltry 124 tags, Sudan had 122 and Somalia even less at 113. All three are among the most unstable African countries of 2010 and yet they ranked lower than the World Cup host South Africa. The war-stricken Congo is one of the world's suppliers of raw materials for mobile and computer technology and ironically constitutes just over a fifth of the 604 articles on Apple. This is not a criticism of the Guardian as the paper does provide some of the best and insightful international news coverage, but these tags are unfortunately a skewed quantitative reflection of coverage patterns and the consumerist nature of public interest.
Saying this with all flippancy intended, the formula is simple. Reports of anti-British and homophobic comments by the African dictator everyone loves to hate, and shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheik make catchy headlines. Never-ending sagas of jungle wars and mass rapes, unless involving powerful countries, do not. Or unless they're packaged as humanitarian causes fronted by celebrities and award-winning journalists like George Clooney and Nicholas Kristof. Their combined interest in the Save Darfur campaign, malaria awareness and referendum for north–south separation ensured Sudan received frequent coverage in the New York Times. Unfortunately, no similar twin-set of movie star and scribe of Clooney's and Kristof's stature have permanently adopted the DR Congo or Somalia as their primary cause. Although one of the aims of international news is to appeal to as broad a global audience as possible, how broad is our interest and genuine our humanity as people if we suffer war and compassion fatigue towards stories on the DRC, Somalia and Sudan?

But now with all these revolutions and uprisings going on, places like the DR Congo are a distant tragedy. Despite the exceedingly valuable coverage of the uprisings by some news networks, there is an underlying sense of competition within the media to see who can land the best, exclusive interview or provide the most comprehensive coverage. In the face of such fierce competition, taking a few moments in between protest broadcasts to ask the world to remember the 5.4 million (and rising) Congolese dead since 1998 or to take a serious look at Compaoré's megalomanic scheming in Burkina Faso wouldn't be a suicidal gamble with the ratings. Events in Africa and the Middle East shouldn't be placed in competition with each other; what's happening in Nigeria, Syria or Libya can share the spotlight with many other untold or under-reported stories. It’s a question of willingness to pluralise news stories and cover unfamiliar terrain.
Joy Dibenedetto, a broadcast executive and founder of alternative news site, Hum News, reports that in 2009 research conducted by Hum News found that there are 237 countries or territories in the world, and the world's largest news organisations report from only 121 countries or territories. Out of 237 global locations, 116 are not covered. If true, that's just under 50 per cent of the world's stories potentially out of mainstream media focus – almost 50 per cent. Allow that to sink in.

And in the Red Corner... And in the Blue Corner...

This past Saturday I witnessed a spat on Twitter between President Paul Kagame and British journalist Ian Birrell. Kagame was featured in the Financial Times series Lunch With ... (insert name of African politician) in which he claimed that because the UN and the international community (i.e the West) had failed to act on the 1994 Rwanda genocide they had no 'moral right' to criticize him. Birrell tweeted that Kagame was 'despotic and deluded' with a link to the FT piece. Kagame, riled by Birrell's tweet and he immediately responded and you can read the whole exchange, thanks to View from the Cave. What's probably most interesting about this conversation is that it's probably the first time a President and journalist have had such a lively exchange on Twitter - praise be to Twitter for providing a platform for spontaneous engagement which would previously have been at a press conference, a chance meeting or something of that sort... Unlike other world leaders (or former) who talk to no one and probably have their PR staff tweeting news links and press releases like Barack Obama (@barackobama), Nick Clegg (@nickclegg), Jacob Zuma (@sapresident) and Ban Ki Moon (@secgen), Kagame, like Hugo Chavez (@chavezcandanga) actually does it himself and interacts with people.

What was different about this particular exchange is that its one of the few times Kagame's engaged with a critic and it comes on the back of a painfully boring but rosy You Tube World Leaders interview in which as 'Africa is a Country' rightly put it 'Kagame spins You Tube'. It was a PR exercise -soft questions with no further probing from an interviewer who although smart, funny and likable on other occasions, was not the best choice for this gig. Kagame's had this social media friendly Prez rep for a while now (also see this) but after seeing Saturday's exchange the cracks are beginning to show because Kagame's not entirely the affable, savvy guy he's appears to be online. Sure he has his pluses but not where the Congo or political opposition are concerned.

Kagame didn't actually answer any of the questions posed by Birrell about his government's silencing of political and media opposition. Instead it was a slinging match in which the foreign minister, Louise Mushikwabo also got involved. In a rather strange move, she protected her tweets the very next day as if it was an act of self-protection from a threat, but its an act of hiding. Doesn't she know protecting your tweets only restricts who can see them, but those already following you, can still interact with you and retweet your tweets for others to see? Restricting dialogue won't stop truth-seekers and critics, nor does it advance the democracy and openness which Kagame claims his government does, in the YouTube interview.

Apart from a self-censoring foreign minister and an angry President slain by a journalist and a global supporting cast of tweeters and bloggers (:0), another interesting thing to emerge out of this online spat was the reactions of Kagame's supporters which ranged from blind praise of Kagame to the 'British' lack of understanding  of the Rwanda situation to censure of a Western journalist for disrespecting an African leader. It goes without saying that the staunch Kagame supporters would say this, but when seemingly more open-minded Africans also pick on Birrell's Westernness and re-buff his use of the words 'despot and deluded' because they're not fit for an African leader, there is a big problem. Birrell's identity has nothing to do with the facts - that Kagame shuts down debate in Rwanda and has had Congolese and Rwandan blood on his hands since 1996 - and Kagame's Africanness doesn't make him immune to being called a despot. Why do we get so defensive about these terms? When people call Bush and Blair war mongers, genocidaires and war criminals there's no problem, but African leaders are untouchable because they're African? Screw that. I'm a previous sufferer still in recovery mode from Afro-centric syndrome; a state of mind which mainly afflicts Africans raised in Africa: we always defend our leaders against Others (i.e Westerners) in the name of Africanness, even if we're defending the wrong thing, because the defensiveness that comes from the Them/Us relation borne of colonialism and lived neo-colonial experience is so deeply entrenched in our psyche. Not so say this is wrong - but there are times when its completely justified and necessary to take up this position and there are times when it just isn't. This incident and in some defenses of the crimes of people like Mummar Gaddaffi, Omar Bashir and Robert Mugabe it isn't. Sorry.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

New Navy

New Navy are a indy band based in Australia and this is their debut song 'Zimbabwe'. The video  was released yesterday and their album, 'Uluwatu' is due to be released at the end of May. Having previously reached number one on the Tripple J Unearthed charts (discovers new bands in Australia) with their song Animals, this track looks set to take their name beyond Australia. New Navy have also performed with or opened for Cassette Kids (Google them, plse!) and Wolfmother among many others. 

In DOPE Music WE Trust.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Shake the Dust

The amazing clip above is a preview from an upcoming documentary, “Shake the Dust which features hip hoppers from all over the world. Made by emerging film director Adam Sjoberg, the film tells the story of b-boys, and girls in poor communities from Uganda to Yemen to Haiti who all connect through the universal language of hip hop. Acknowledging the universality of music, Sjoberg writes of hip hop culture:
"although separated by cultural boundaries and individual struggles, are intrinsically tied to one another through their passion for break-dancing and hip-hop culture....“Shake the Dust” uses b-boying to show commonality and humanity in cultures that are affected by war, disease, and poverty. It seeks to paint a picture of the struggles the characters have– but only as a backdrop to the real story: one of hope and beauty."
Interestingly, there's a side story that developed out of making "Shake the Dust" in Yemen Sjoberg met up with some Somali hip hoppers who dropped some rhymes about the futility of war, their ancestry and forced migration.

For more on Yemen's b-boy crews, I recommend Tom Finn's article, on Sana'a's breakdancers. Apart from insight into how hip hop as universal livelihood and source of creativity for Yemen's youth, the different class mix and multi-cultural dancers stood out for me. The main group featured in this article is The Blast Boyz who are described as "a motley bunch of refugees and expatriates, harking from Canada, Tanzania, Iran, Somalia and America." This is an important thing to remember at a time when there's so much political focus on Yemen. It is often presented as a monocultural and monracial society and yet Yemen like many other Arab countries is visibly multicultural and thousands of years of interaction with countries on the Horn of Africa. Depending on what you believe, modern humans are said to have migrated out of Africa through Yemen and milleniums later, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba (Makeda) ruled over the then south Arabia and parts of the East Africa. Presently there are at least 700 000 Somalis in Yemen as its one of the closest countries for people fleeing conflict or seeking a better life. Obviously, migrants are in the minority (23 million pop.), but they're some of the small everyday stories which are part of the current, mass anti-government protests which will hopefully topple Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the impact of the protests on hip hop and family life, Finn writes:
"Social stigma, the b-boys say, is the only thing stopping them from joining the ranks of protesters who have been camped outside Sana’a University for the past two months calling for Yemen’s ruler for the past thirty-three years, President Ali Abudallah Saleh, and his family to leave power. “My father would disown me, simple as that,” says Danny Al-Basry, another Iraqi considered one of the crew’s most talented members. “But if things get much worse here, I will have to join them.”
Like many others, the boys say they feel alienated by social expectations that are no longer achievable as a result of the deteriorating economic and political situation. For some of them, b-boying is not only a means of expression but also a vital way of escaping from these looming pressures as well as the monotony and tedium of everyday life in Yemen."

b-boy in yemen
fotocred: adam sjoberg
jacked from
fisttap @tomwfinn

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Late Notes on Swaziland II

A friend sent me this this op-ed on Swaziland and these are the opening lines:

"Swaziland – a bewitching, verdant and mountainous little kingdom in southern Africa – has lately been more troubled than usual."

Like a red rag to bull this sentence has all the Conrad-esque lazy stereotypes that would be written by 'Westeners' of Africa. But its not written by a Westerner, but someone in Swaziland and it was published by the revolutionary Al Jazeera. At least there's a nice little disclaimer at the bottom of this commentary, otherwise this wouldn't reflect well on AJE. If you carry on reading its one depressing, negative statement after another. To be honest, this kind of thing belongs on the BBC or New York Times who've mastered the art of producing depressing narratives on Africa. Don't believe me - search through their 2001-2009 articles on Zimbabwe and there are archives of 'Zimbabwe the basket case' analogies. This on Swaziland, belongs there.
Future opinionistas on Africa, please consult Binyawanga Wainana's How To Write About Africa before writing.

Late Notes on Swailand I

 fotocred: AP

First up is a comment on the Swaziland protests that were held last month. In case you missed that background info is here. For one of the first times ever since the wave of uprisings across Africa and the Middle East one South African paper, the Daily Maverick, had a live blog giving timely, informative accounts from the ground. However, made a curious remark by Manxoba Nxumalo (who has done a good job of covering the Swaziland protests) in an otherwise worthy post-protest analysis:

Facebook has done what would have taken years to achieve in Swaziland had the pro-democracy groups used older and more orthodox forms of mobilisation. The Facebook group spoke to a new generation of youth that is more militant and angry; it galvanised them to action.”

Packaging this latest series of protests as the act of a tech-savvy generation, might be trendy but it is erroneous. Less than 1% of 1.4 million Swazis have access to the the internet. On the morning of the protest, the April 12 Uprising had just over 1600 members – many of whom had been added by friends and were not Swathi or in Swaziland and for some of those that were, they conscripted without consent as some commentors on the group's wall wondered how they were added to the group and even one girl, in a spirited defence of the divine right of kings called the group the 'work of Satan'. It might be en vogue, sexy and radical to write protest movements into 'a social media generation' narrative, but the truth is more complex and contradictory than what the media wants it to be. Its doubtful that the 7000 trade unionists, teachers, youth and veteran activists who marched on 18 March and the 1000 teachers prevented from marching in Mbabane, the capital on April 13 were a majority of young, avid Facebook users. Social media sites are great for garnering media attention for a cause, but it's important that journalists resist taking the easy way out and mythologizing revolutions and uprisings to construct the same image over and over again as if repetition and familiarity would make the cause more worthy. Living in an era with a 24hour news cycle where there is little time to pause and seek to present more complete pictures of these complex, ongoing processes it may seem convenient to attach a pre-existing label to something so 'it fits in with the rest' but truth is there's more to it. Instead of crediting Facebook for making it possible, credit Mohamed Bouazizi and the Tunisians and Egyptians for doing what seemed damn-near impossible. I'm sure Swazi trade unionists and teachers (plenty non-Facebookers among them) were probably more influenced by what they saw and read of north Africa's revolutions.