Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Beauty of African Literature, Ready to Be Explored

Welcome to the Africa Reading Challenge. This will be the fifth time that I’m hosting the Africa Reading Challenge. Details and requirements are the same this year as for the 2012 Africa Reading Challenge, which started with: “I have absolutely no reason for hosting nor urging you to participate in this challenge save for the […]

via 2017 Africa Reading Challenge — Kinna Reads

This is a great blog post about African literature. Take the Kinna challenge and read up!

Advertisements

The West and East African Slave Trades, Compared

For those with an interest in colonial history, the West versus East African slave trade is a compelling comparison. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Fort Jesus stands as probably the best-preserved site at which to understand the difference between the two different slave trades on the opposite coasts of Africa. Here is what I considered during my visit, and some thoughts I had on the differences between West and East African slave history. All of these facts are taken from written citations, signs, or conversations with local experts, and not confirmed in publications, so they should be considered carefully.

640px-fort_jesus-map-xviis

1. Routes: In the West, slaves were sent to the Americas as part of a triangle of trade. Men and women were kidnapped from West Africa and sent to North America, South America and the Caribbean. Then, the raw goods they produced, such as cotton and tobacco, were shipped to Europe. In turn, refined goods, such as lace, liquor, weapons, etc. were used to buy further slaves in West Africa. This sustained the triangle of exploitation.

However, slaves in East Africa were sent primarily to Middle East, and to Asia to a lesser extent, in more linear routes. Fort Jesus is important because it fortified the first Western domination over the Indian Ocean slave trade, by Portugal over Oman.

2. Mortality Rates: In East Africa, 4 out of 5 slaves died just during the journey from the interior to the coast, not including shipping. During the West African trade, 2 of 3 captives died during the entire passages across the Atlantic, including shipping. This means that the East African trek across land had a higher mortality rate than the entire transcontinental passage.

I would guess that the Portuguese and the Arabs had to venture farther into the eastern interior to get their captives, perhaps due to less densely populated coastlines in East Africa. Populations tend to congregate and grow around port and coastal areas. Or, because countries like Nigeria have an ample network of connecting creeks, using the creeks as transport routes would have facilitated kidnapping coastal peoples via boat from the deep interior. The East African trek was simply longer due to population spread over more challenging land routes. Having to travel further inland would also require Middle Eastern and Portuguese slave traders to expend more resources per slave, decreasing the overall quantity they could take from the east. This would just be my hypothesis.

kenya

3. Duration and Intensity: The West African trade was shorter in duration and more intense in terms of number of slaves shipped per year than the East Africa one. The West African trade lasted about 300 years, with Portugal being the first trader in the 1400s, finally ending right around the time it lost control of Kenya in 1700. Perhaps the West African slave trade was more “professionalized” and thus able to export more slaves per year because each European power had its own territory and business venture clearly defined.

In comparison, the East African trade was lower impact, but sustained for longer.  Arab settlements in places like Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which was the largest source of slaves for Arabs, created the Swahili culture and language. Arabs established an African slave trade to the Middle East long before the Europeans did, as early as the 7th century. Trade reached its peak in the 18th century, but there is even a story of the Sultan of Oman bringing slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, long after the trade had ended.

It is important to note the difference in the nature of the two slave trades.  The transatlantic trade was chattel-based and slaves were worked to death with hard labor in the Americas. Those slaves, owned by Christians, were rarely able to keep their families together or buy their own freedom.  Slaves in the Arab world often had families and were able to possibly buy their own freedom over time, based on Quranic principles. East African slaves had a small degree of rights, and much of the female labor came in the form of domestic servitude rather than agricultural.

4. From Slavery to Independence: While exploring Fort Jesus, I wondered why West African countries seemed to gain independence just slightly before East African ones.  Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria gained independence in 1957, 1958, and 1960 respectively, while Tanzania didn’t become independent until 1961, and Kenya until 1963. A possible explanation for this is pan-Africanism and the effects of the American Civil Rights Movement. The exchange of ideas, ala Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, was geographically easier between West Africa and the U.S. than it would have been between East Africa and the U.S. simply because of proximity. Conversely, East Africa has much stronger ties to the Arab world, where slavery was still even practiced into the 1950s, e.g. Yemen, Oman. In other words, the Arab influence slowed down the independence movement in East Africa.

One of the true pleasures of being in the field is the freedom to consider history as it lies in front of you.  There seems to be less pressure to make sure your ideas are always “right,” and there is greater space to allow your thoughts to meander through the centuries.

Nollywood: The Cultural Importance of Nigerian Cinema

*This also appeared in the Language Compass published by the National Language Service Corps. 

I saw the filming of a “Nollywood”, or Nigeria’s highly profitable film industry, movie for the first time a week after moving to eastern Nigeria. I was passing through a neighbor’s grassy yard on my way to a party one evening, and I heard heated yelling that alarmed me. I was surprised to peer around a corner and find a camera crew flooding lights on two young actors filming a dramatic fight scene. As I watched, I was impressed with the innovative electrical set up of the camera crew, attention to detail of the makeup artists, and vibrant energy of the actors. I was in Nigeria to learn a local language and was pleased to overhear that the characters’ names were of that tongue, Igbo.

I gained a greater appreciation for Nollywood during my time in Nigeria. I think it makes the cinematic representation of Nigerian life feel accessible to the audience. Unlike Hollywood, Nollywood movies are made on small budgets, often in people’s homes using amateur actors, and without any visual or special effects. It was easy for me to have friends point out filming scenes to me as we explored Lagos. Also, because of their modest funds, scripts often focus simply on the dynamics of human relationships—marriage, parenting, siblinghood, etc. Although these relationships are highly dramatized in sometimes silly ways, they are still ones that many of us have.

I saw that Nollywood gives Nigerians a way to tell their own stories in their own way. Historically, so much of what the rest of the world has understood about them was narrated by Europeans, by outsiders. This was the basis of my academic research before I arrived. However, these films are a way for Nigerians to be their own storytellers. Then, at the same time that it narrates what West African culture is like, Nollywood also helps create it. Often, the clothes that I saw friends wearing there were fashionable because of a certain Nollywood star, and I heard idiosyncratic phrases in daily conversation that I knew had been popularized by a local movie.

Years later, I still try to watch Nollywood cinema to practice listening to Igbo. I also do so because it reminds of the moment I realized that I was no longer watching Nigerian films from the U.S. as a way to understand a foreign culture, but actually living that culture.

Here is an excellent short documentary on Nollywood:

Nigeria of Superlatives

At a recent talk I gave on oil protests in the Niger Delta, an audience member asked me about my interest in Nigeria during the question and answer session. More specifically, he asked, “So, why Nigeria?”

If you are fascinated by social science, then a country that embodies the exaggerations of all social phenomenon is nothing short of intriguing. I am fascinated by culture, conflict, power, history, race, gender, and all social dynamics, and Nigeria demonstrates the dramatic extremes of all of these. It is the most and the least, the best and the worse, of so many measurements.

It produced the most victims of the transatlantic slave trade. It is the most populous country in Africa and is the third most ethnically diverse country in the world. Lagos is one of the top ten megacities of the world, and is growing faster than any other in Africa. It produces the most oil and has the fastest growing economy of any country in Africa. Nollywood surpasses Hollywood to be the planet’s second largest movie producer. To get more obscure in the statistics, it has the fifth highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world.  It is even has the world’s largest singing choir. A survey several years ago even ranked it as the happiest country on earth. How could I not want to learn more about a country that is such an amalgamation of fascinating facts?

In short, I love Nigeria because it is a puzzle I can never solve. 

For the PPT of the presentation, click below. Please feel free to contact me for the audio recording.

Continue reading

Are U.S. border officials really qualified to test IT knowledge?

The following story has just emerged about a Nigerian software engineer who was made to answer computer engineering questions at New York’s JFK airport, as a way of testing the validity of his work visa to enter the U.S. This is a bizarre and untested way of confirming the validity of a visa, a product of the new “Wild West” of U.S. immigration policy.

It is troubling because it targets a highly skilled professional with the ability to fruitfully contribute to the American economy and human capital. To have been hired by this American firm, Celestine Omin must have valuable IT acumen. To impede his work for a U.S. company is a detriment to the American IT sector, the  spread of knowledge across borders, and the millions of consumers who benefit from IT development. The story is below.

                               ____________________________________

US immigration officials force Nigerian software engineer to complete written test to prove his computer knowledge

It looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like: ‘Questions to ask a software engineer’

US immigration officials forced a Nigerian software engineer to complete a written test on binary search trees to prove his computer knowledge.

Customs and Border Protection officers, took Celestine Omin, 28, into a room for further

He told them he worked for Andela, a tech start-up with offices in New York, Lagos, Nairobi and San Francisco, which claims to take “the most talented developers on the African continent” and link them with potential US employers.

The firm has offices in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, San Francisco, New York and the Nigerian city of Lagos, which was visited by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the  officers then presented him with  a piece of paper and a pen and told to answer these two questions to prove he is actually a software engineer:

“Write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced.”

“What is an abstract class, and why do you need it?”

In computer science, binary search trees are a particular type of data structure that store items such as numbers or names.

Omin told Linkedin that he thought the questions could have multiple answers and looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like: “Questions to ask a software engineer.”

After spending about 10 minutes working on them, he handed in his answers only to be told they were wrong.

As time passed, he said that he expected to be sent home to Nigeria, only for the official to let him go.

“He said, ‘Look, I am going to let you go, but you don’t look convincing to me,’” Omin said. “I didn’t say anything back. I just walked out.”

It later emerged that the officers had phoned Andela to verify his story.

Nigeria is not one of the included in US President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Kids from Makoko Stilt Village Photo by Joanna Jurewicz — National Geographic Your Shot

Kids from Makoko Stilt Village in Lagos, Nigeria

Source: Kids from Makoko Stilt Village Photo by Joanna Jurewicz — National Geographic Your Shot

A Dash in Lagos

Although not about Nigerian politics, a travel story I wrote was published in Somewhere, Sometime. My chapter is about navigating the complex social terrain of “Area Boys,” or unemployed young men who try to make money in unconventional ways in Lagos. I came across a group on a day off from field research, and it was one of the greatest learning experiences I have had in Nigeria.

Link: A Dash in Lagos

Ethics in Journalism about Africa

Westerners trying to transmit information and facts from Africa to the rest of the world is messy. It was an ongoing challenge for me as a researcher, and I can only imagine how exaggerated those challenges must be for a reporter with a deadline. There are too many stories that deserve coverage and simply not enough Africanists to cover them all. The economics of journalism require stories that are immediate and sensational enough to capture attention (and sell). Language and cultural barriers are immeasurable when securing both sources and geographic sites that can be accessed comparably safely. Despite these issues, news from Africa deserves the same stringent standards as any piece out of the West. It just requires more work.

camera

Foreign Policy‘s Laura Seay wrote a penetrating piece, “How to Not Write About Africa.” It made me think about the lens through which I consume news about Africa. Here is her take:

“It’s hard out here for us old Africa hands. We are desperate to see more coverage of important stories from the continent and for our neighbors to become more educated about the places where we study and work. Yet when we get that coverage, it tends to make us cringe.

Take, for instance, the current violence in northern Mali. In the last six weeks, Mali has experienced a coup d’état and a declaration of independence from rebels who now loosely control half its territory. The recent conflict has displaced approximately 268,000 people as various groups of Islamists and separatist rebels jostle for control of desert oasis cities as a drought-driven food crisis looms with the arrival of the country’s hot season. The situation in Mali is by far the worst unfolding humanitarian crisis in the world today, but compared with say, Syria or Afghanistan, you probably haven’t heard much about it.

Or consider the flurry of coverage of Central Africa that followed March’s “Kony 2012” phenomenon. First of all, it is frustrating that it takes a viral Internet video or the involvement of Hollywood celebrities to bring attention to the depredations of groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even worse, many Africa correspondents file stories that fall prey to pernicious stereotypes and tropes that dehumanize Africans. Mainstream news outlets frequently run stories under headlines like “Land of Mangoes and Joseph Kony,” seemingly without thinking how condescending and racist such framing sounds.

Under President Sanders, the Planet Will Feel the Burn
While he calls global warming an “unprecedented” threat, Bernie Sanders’s energy proposals could actually raise, not lower, U.S. greenhouse gas…

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for “Congo” and “heart of darkness”yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticize the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

To Africa-watchers, there is a clear double standard for journalistic quality, integrity, and ethics when it comes to reporting on the continent. It’s enough to make us want to scream, or at least crawl into a corner and long for the days when Howard French covered West and Central Africa for the New York Times. Although he had to cover some of the continent’s worst post-Cold War violence, French’s mid-1990s reporting for the Times was nuanced and balanced, and reflected the reality of Africa as a place that is not simply a land of war and poverty, but rather a complex system of societies like any others filled with normal people doing their best to make a life.

Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa? Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent — more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment’s notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country.

This is insane. Africa is a continent of 54 distinct states, all with multiple languages and ethnic groups and unique political dynamics. Nowhere else in the world — not even in undercovered Latin America — would one person be expected to report on so many complicated situations. Yet in Western media coverage of Africa, such a state of affairs is common. It could be argued that these limits are the product of declining revenues for traditional media outlets in the age of the Internet. It is true that foreign correspondents are expensive and revenues are down, but that ignores the fact that Western media coverage of Africa has always been done this way. Twenty years ago, most major Western media outlets also only had one to three Africa correspondents. Very little has changed.

There is an easy solution to this problem: Hire local reporters. One notable exception to the history of poor coverage of Africa is the BBC, whose World Service has long maintained correspondents in most of the continent’s capital cities. Although the World Service’s budget has been slashed repeatedly due to declining government support, the BBC has managed to keep much of its Africa coverage afloat by relying largely on local reporters to get the story. This has been particularly important in Somalia. For two decades, it has been nearly impossible for Western reporters to fully and freely report from Somalia due to safety concerns, but the BBC Somali Service’s team of local correspondents and producers do an excellent job of getting the news out from their own country. There’s no reason that other major media providers couldn’t hire local reporters to improve their coverage as well. Rather than relegating them to second-tier or co-author status, why not hire Africans as country or regional correspondents? A reporter does not have to be Caucasian to provide objective and well-written reporting from the continent, and in many cases, this reporting is more nuanced than that of an international correspondent who spends five days reporting a story. For example, by far the most thoughtful reporting and analysis on Ugandan reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video came not from American journalists, but from Ugandan reporter Angelo Izama who, to the New York Times‘ credit, was able to publish an opinion article in its pages. Why can’t the Times hire Izama or someone equally qualified to report on Uganda full time?

Hiring local reporters also addresses the problem of language barriers, another key reason so much reporting on Africa is so bad. This is evident in the Anglophone-Francophone divide: Coverage of the Mali crisis by outlets such as Agence France-Presse and France 24 has been considerably better than that of much of the English-language media. They had the best information from the battlefront and were able to interview non-Anglophone Malians with ease. The problem is not simply that reporters cannot be expected to speak all of Africa’s 3,000-plus languages; it is that foreign correspondents tend to rely on the same small group of fixers to arrange interviews, interpret, and manage logistics.

Yet fixers tend to take reporters to talk to the same subjects, over and over and over again. An echo chamber often results, as the same interviews are done with essentially the same questions and the same answers. The echo-chamber problem is much worse in conflict zones, where NGOs often arrange safe travel for reporters in a bid to get their stories out (and to raise funds for their humanitarian operations). Given the challenges of reporting in the midst of open conflict, this symbiotic relationship works well for both parties: The journalist gets the story, and the NGO gets good press for its campaign.

The problem is that this tends to produce very one-sided and nonobjective reporting. For example, much of the recent coverage of the conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains has been facilitated by the U.S.-based NGO Samaritan’s Purse. Many of the reporters traveling with Samaritan’s Purse have used the same fixer for their stories, Ryan Boyette, a former employee of the group who is married to a Nuba woman and runs a local effort to document atrocities occurring there. In the space of just a few weeks, Boyette also became the subject of a fawning New York Times profile by Nicholas Kristof, was a centerpiece of Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the same publication, and was interviewed by Ann Curry for NBC’s Today. This is not to question Boyette’s credibility or challenge his analysis (though he is far from a neutral observer), but rather to point out one of many examples of the way the West’s Africa reporting becomes biased due to a lack of access and local language skills. As Karen Rothmyer noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article, many reporters working on Africa rely “heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources.” It is thus no wonder that much reporting on Africa is so heavily focused on crises and that many pieces read like little more than NGO promotional materials.

Another major issue many Africa hands have with media coverage of the continent is the lack of journalistic ethics employed by some reporters working in the continent. Standards for the depiction and identification of victims of conflict, rape, and child abuse are frequently handled very differently from how they would be were the victims American or European. It is very common to see pictures of starving children or rape victims in the pages of Western newspapers. The most egregious example was Kristof’s 2010 identification of a 9-year-old Congolese girl who had been gang-raped. The New York Times printed the girl’s real name along with a facial photograph and even a video of her online. After a firestorm of controversy, Kristof blogged a response in which he promised not to do it again, but disagreed with critics who accused him of putting the child in danger by identifying her. He acknowledged, however, that printing her name violatedTimes policy, even though he obtained permission from a woman acting as her guardian.

It is hard to imagine a situation in which any editor would have let such a “slip” occur had the story been about a Western child-rape victim. Such a story never would — or should — have made it to the publication stage without changing the name to an alias, removing the photograph, or replacing it with a non-identifiable shot and noting that the Times does not print rape victims’ names as a matter of policy.

It is precisely these kinds of double standards that infuriate Africa-watchers and those who care about the ethics of reporting on victims of violence. Yet such abuses are too often tolerated in the Western media when it comes to Africa. Is it because Africa is still in many Western minds the exotic “other” of movies and imagination? Or perhaps because many Western reporters still approach Africa with a mixed sense of excitement at being somewhere so “unique” and fear of the Heart of Darkness? Or is it simple ignorance about an Africa that, as Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina notes, is never going to look like what the West wants it to look like? I don’t have a definitive answer. But I do think we can do better.”

Insightfully said, Laura Seay.

newspapers

March 31, 2016

http://blog.apimages.com/2016/03/31/march-31-2016/

 

africaphoto

Nigeria: Do You Know How Great Nigeria Is? – allAfrica.com

Thoughts?…

Source: Nigeria: Do You Know How Great Nigeria Is? – allAfrica.com

nigerian_diaspora