Friday, October 14, 2011

People behind the numbers

This post is about four courageous men: Mr. Mkoko, Mr. Sagati, Mr. Ndlagamandla and Mr. Mahaba.

It’s also about the remarkable thing they did that allowed me to find out about them: they all agreed to be featured in Jonathan Smith’s documentary film, They Go to Die.

The four men worked as gold miners in South Africa, and all contracted tuberculosis (TB) and HIV while working. After they were declared unfit to work, the mining hospitals discharged them to their homes in rural South Africa and Swaziland.

The problem? The mining companies sent them home without further treatment or provision for their future care. And they returned to areas with inadequate health care and resources that would help prolong their lives. Sent home to die – hence the film’s title, “They Go to Die” – which actually comes from public health references to the all too common practice of sending miners home when they become too ill to work.

Smith was an epidemiologist from Yale doing research on TB and HIV infections in the South African gold mining industry when he decided to make the film. He wasn’t a filmmaker, but he realised that decades of studies and statistics weren’t making any difference in the outcomes for miners – miners were still becoming infected, and they were still dying, and the industry practice was still continuing.

So Smith asked Mkoko, Sagati, Ndlagamandla and Mahaba if he could tell their stories, and they and their families agreed. They invited Smith to live in their homes and film their daily lives. Not only did they agree to open their homes to him, but they did so when they and their families were going through very difficult times.

By doing so, they’ve allowed Smith to put a human face on a shockingly neglected situation in which unacceptable numbers of miners contract TB and HIV as a result of their work, yet receive no compensation or care. Says Smith, “these men were my friends, and they died of a preventable, curable disease. But they were by no means outliers. In fact, they were representative of tens of thousands of men each year.”

Smith is now working to complete the film. He’s looking for resources and partnerships that can help him finish it – and help prompt industry and government action to prevent and deal with the epidemic. Part of this effort includes crowdsourcing to enable others to support the film, through a Kickstarter page. (If you do nothing else, please check it and the film trailer above out.) It also includes finishing the film in time to screen it at a meeting of mining sector CEOs and decision-makers later this year.

Smith notes that despite the film’s topic, this is not a film about death and disease. Its focus is the men and the relationships that sustain them, and the power of human connections. And it’s not just a film. Smith intends to use it to call for mining companies, unions and governments to be held accountable for mineworkers’ health and health care.

Statistics can be powerful. Studies show us, for example, that mineworkers are infected by TB at 28 times the rate of a WHO-declared emergency. Yet the numbers alone aren't changing the situation. Smith believes that if people understand how individuals have been affected, they’ll respond: “If we turn an epidemic into an emotion, then we motivate change.”

It’s an ambitious and important undertaking. Please check out Smith’s website, and his crowdsourcing site (before October 24, 2011 if you can). You’ll find out more about Mkoko, Sagati, Ndlagamandla and Mahaba and their families. And help lend a voice to people affected by this tragic and preventable situation.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Windows and mirrors

Chang'ombe Primary School, Children's Book Project Burt Award Readings
Christine Earnshaw (courtesy CODE)

In previous posts I’ve referred to the importance of people having and hearing stories that are their own – that reflect their realities and relate their lives – rather than having others tell stories about them.

Mkama Mwijarubi and Asungushe Kayombo are Tanzanian authors who are filling a gap in the availability of such stories. Both have recently written novels for young people, novels written in English that have locally-relevant settings and characters.

The need for English language books for young adults may not seem obvious, but in many Anglophone African countries, students start school using local languages but switch to English in later elementary or early high school. This shift to a new language is made more challenging if interesting reading material isn’t easily available. (Think about what you wanted to read at that age.) Young people need stories that engage them, and characters and settings they can relate to, where they can see themselves and their preoccupations reflected. Non-fiction alone, or fiction set in England or North America, just aren’t sufficient.

Asungushe Kayombo’s book, The Best is Yet to Come, is the story of Daima, a young woman who escapes her strict home in order to achieve her dream of attending secondary school. This isn’t a sugar-coated tale, though. Daima makes her way through complex relationships and sometimes disturbing situations, experiencing the powerlessness of a child in an adult world but also the power of perseverance and of friendship.

Mkama Mwijarubi’s novel, Treeland: the Land of Laughter, creates a fantasy land, Treeland, “where trees grow and people laugh.” Treeland’s King Majabe and his daughter, Princess Zuri, must come to grips with a changing world as well as with each other. Treeland is told simply, but its characters and the challenges they face are intricate. The novel brings insights into what it means to respect tradition yet still find a new path.

Mwijarubi and Kayombo have been able to publish their young adult fiction with the help of some African organizations and a Canadian program that supports local book publishing. Mwijaribui, Kayombo and several other writers in Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya are recipients of Burt Awards for African Literature. The Burt Award is sponsored by CODE, a Canadian non-profit organisation that promotes children’s learning by supporting book publishing, libraries and teacher training in Africa and the Caribbean. The Award is named for and funded by Bill Burt, a Canadian who noticed a lack of engaging books for young people while travelling with CODE to Africa in 2007. He and CODE created the Burt Award to support local authors and publishers to produce and distribute English-language books that are meaningful to young readers in Africa and that can get them enthusiastic about reading.

Local partners – the Children’s Book Project for Tanzania, the Ghana Book Trust, CODE-Ethiopia and the National Book Development Council of Kenya – manage the Awards. In Tanzania, the Children’s Book Project, which received a UNESCO International Literacy Award in 2007 for its local language publishing work, published Mwijarubi and Kayombo’s books.

To be considered for Burt Awards, authors submit manuscripts that are dramatic, humorous or suspenseful, have strong characters, and deal with the social challenges that young people face. A 6-member jury of experts in literature, linguistics and publishing selects the winning stories. With the Awards, everybody benefits: authors receive cash prizes and a publishing contract, CODE and its partners distribute several thousand copies of each book to schools and libraries, and the publishers sell the books commercially.

The International Board for Books for Youth (IBBY)-Canada, which promotes access to children’s books in Canada and internationally, also supports the Burt Award by contributing jurors and co-facilitating writing workshops for authors. Says Scott Walter, CODE's Executive Director, of the partnership, "Our two organizations share a common belief in the power of reading to transform people's lives. We know that children need windows into other worlds and mirrors that reflect their own experience. We recognize the importance of offering children access to engaging, high quality, locally written books and share an understanding of the continuum of writers and illustrators, publishers, libraries, book distributors and teachers in getting stories told -- and books produced and connected with their readers."

The Best is Yet To Come is the first novel for Asungushe Kayombo, a health professional with degrees in medicine and public health. Treeland: the Land of Laughter is the second children’s book by Mkama Mwijarubi, who has a diploma in journalism and a business degree.

Additional Burt Award winners are listed at More information on CODE can be found at CODE is looking into making the books available in Canada – which would be welcome for those of us interested in accessing engaging African stories in other parts of the world.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Let the lion speak"

I know, it's been a long time since I said I'd be back soon.... But here I am, with lots of ideas and more posts in the works.

First, I just have to tell you about Maya Wegerif. I learned about her poetry thanks to an article by Chambi Chachage on “The Dar es Salaam Renaissance” in Pambazuka News (see my Nov. 21 post for an overview of Pambazuka News). Chachage writes about the cultural movement taking place in Dar that’s giving rise to a new social consciousness, and Wegerif is one of the artists profiled.

Maya the Poet is from South Africa, and has lived in Tanzania and the United States. Her poetry is amazing – clever and profound. She writes about political, social, feminist, technological and personal issues. You can find her poems and spoken word performances at her website (and the earlier and on YouTube.

I couldn’t resist posting her TEDxDar performance of “Who Tells Our Stories.” It gets right at the heart of one of this blog’s themes -- understanding how we choose to perceive “Africa” and “Africans” and why we need to think critically about who writes and tells Africa’s stories. And, borrowing from Maya the Poet's much more convincing words -- hear the lion speak.

(You can find the words to the poem at