Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Strength from others' courage

In which Stephen Lewis reminds me (i) why I admire what he does and (ii) why I'm doing this Dare To Remember.

It's easy to get cynical (I do all the time) about the hype and posturing surrounding "development" and "aid". But I'm a human being, and other human beings I know -- and many I don't -- are dealing with HIV and AIDS in their families and communities. It's not so easy to sit by when we focus on it for a few minutes.

One thing I admire about Stephen Lewis is that he shines through the hype, about issues and even about himself (he's a celebrity, after all). He doesn't let anyone get away with posturing, either.

Here's a recent clip: http://watch.ctv.ca/news/top-picks/inspirational/#clip389095

Thanks for reading and listening. (More posts to come.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Defending human rights

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. This year’s theme is human rights defenders who are working to end discrimination and human rights violations.

Not coincidentally, today's post is about two human rights defenders: Jestina Mukoko and Beatrice Mtetwa.

Jestina Mukoko is a Zimbabwean human rights activist. A former broadcaster with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, she’s the Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), which monitors human rights abuses.

In 2008, during Zimbabwe's election period, Mukoko was abducted from her home by government security forces and held for 21 days before appearing before a court. She was tortured, beaten and charged with attempting to recruit people to overthrow the government. Local and international pressure helped secure her release.

Jestina Mukoko’s efforts to appeal her arrest and to bring those responsible for the violation of her human rights to justice, and her continuing work with ZPP, have led to international as well as local recognition. She received the 2009 Laureate of the City of Weimar Human Rights prize and the 2009 National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO) peace award, as well as a 2010 International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department. This past year she was the 2010 Oak Fellow at the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College in the U.S. She’s returning to Zimbabwe prior to the elections scheduled for 2011.
Beatrice Mtetwa is a Zimbabwean media and human rights lawyer. She’s defended activists, opposition politicians, and Zimbabwean and foreign journalists who have been wrongly arrested or harassed.

For this, she’s been harassed and intimidated herself. She was arrested in 2003, beaten during custody, and released without charge; she was attacked again in 2007.

I heard Beatrice Mtetwa speak at Ottawa’s Carleton University, where she’s also been an Honorary Visiting Adjunct Professor in the Institute of African Studies. In 2009 she participated in a panel at Carleton on the road to democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe. She also gave the convocation address, which includes an interesting account of how she became a lawyer "by mistake".

Mtetwa received an International Press Freedom Award in 2005 from the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2009 and an International Human Rights Award from the American Bar Association Section of Litigation in 2010.

Both Jestina Mukoko and Beatrice Mtetwa defend human rights despite enormous challenges and personal risk.

You can find more stories of human rights defenders around the world at http://www.un.org/en/events/humanrightsday/2010/index.shtml.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can’t stop now…

Believe it or not, it’s been a month since I started my Dare To Remember for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

My Dare was to create this blog and to post on it every day for a month. That was a month ago.

It’s been 31 days -- of remembering, learning about and writing about amazing people. They’re people who, if we listen to them, can change the way we perceive "Africa." The challenges that are part of the context of their lives, like HIV and AIDS, inequity and violence, exist but they aren't the sum of the continent. There's a lot more going on.

For me, this past month has also been a month of many hours in front of the computer, insufficient sleep, new skills like html, lots of coffee, and the hope that I might put words together in a way that would do justice to the people whose writing or art or activism I was writing about, and would be interesting to readers.

And sometimes it did feel like a marathon. Some days, I had an idea of who I’d write about that day. Other days, I’d be up until late at night researching possibilities, or searching for photos or one last bit of information that would clinch a post, or just finding the time to write.

But it’s also been kind of addictive. I’ve learned about and met some great people and been fascinated by what each one has done or has to say. And thanks to you who've read this blog, I haven't felt alone. I'm thrilled that dozens of people have visited this blog, from North America, the UK and Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Russia and Australia.

Some of you have also contributed financially to the Stephen Lewis Foundation through my Dare page -- and thank you for that, too. (It’s not too late to make a donation if you’re so inclined – and it would be much appreciated by the people at the Stephen Lewis Foundation and in the communities they support in Africa that are dealing with HIV and AIDS.)

Obviously, I've been thinking about what happens tomorrow. I'm somewhat relieved to see that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is continuing its A Dare To Remember campaign at least through December (so people can still run marathons or grow sideburns). So I think I’ll continue this blog for a while. I won’t post every day, out of consideration for my family and for those of you who have made valiant attempts to read the posts. But I have a few more interesting people to write about, so please stay tuned.

Until tomorrow (or maybe the next day or two),

Monday, December 6, 2010

Saying no to violence

You might have heard the statistic recently: up to 70 percent of women in the world experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetimes.

If you've heard this or numbers like it, that's because November 25-December 10 are dedicated to raising awareness about and taking action on violence against women.

November 25 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It also marked the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, incorporating International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on November 29 and ending on International Human Rights Day, December 10.

In Canada, today, December 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It commemorates the 1989 murders of 14 young women at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal.

The United Nations’ UNITE to End Violence Against Women campaign underlines that there are many forms of violence against women, and that these are not confined to a specific culture, region or country. But since this blog is about Africa, and in honour of December 6, today’s post will feature 6 groups in Sub-Saharan Africa who are working to address gender violence:

1. Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), Zimbabwe: WOZA is a civic movement advocating for Zimbabwean women and their families. It has over 75,000 members, both women and men. For WOZA, November 29 is not only International Women Human Rights Defenders Day but the date in 2006 when hundreds of its members were beaten and arrested while peacefully launching the WOZA People’s Charter. WOZA has conducted hundreds of protests since 2003 and over 3,000 of its members and leaders have been wrongfully arrested while exercising their constitutional rights.

2. Mothertongue, South Africa:  Mothertongue is an artists’ collective that supports women to tell their stories through performing, visual and literary arts and art therapies. This enables women who are victims of violence to self-heal and gain awareness of their rights. It also challenges society’s silencing of women. Mothertongue cites the example of a woman whose husband infected her with HIV and then forced her out of her home, who started legal action against him. Mothertongue, with support from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women, brought together 28 women in Khayelitsha near Cape Town who were HIV-positive and survivors of gender-based violence to develop performances based on their experiences. This helped them in their own healing and in supporting other women in the community.

3. Tisunge Ana Athu Akhazi Coalition (TAAAC) / Let’s Protect Our Girl Children, Zambia: TAAAC is a coalition of 9 organisations working to fight sexual violence against girls in Zambia. It advocates for judicial reform to stop violence against women and girls, and supports the Safe Spaces program for educating school children about their rights. Safe Spaces teaches girls about HIV and AIDS, puberty, gender stereotypes and human rights, and provides physical space for them to meet together. It also teaches boys about respect for girls, and gender roles. (Let’s Protect Our Girl Children is also a recipient of a UNIFEM Trust Fund Grant.)

4. The New Sudanese Indigenous NGO Network, Sudan: NESI-Network is one of 16 organisations and individuals that the Nobel Women’s Initiative is highlighting during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This 22-member network of organisations throughout Sudan seeks to strengthen civil society and to enhance the dignity of people regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion.

5. Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRRDOC), Nigeria: CIRRDOC supports women survivors of violence and works to halt violence and the spread of HIV through various mechanisms such as the creation of anti-violence committees headed by men, including traditional leaders:

6. Raising Voices, Uganda: Raising Voices is a project that along with the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention in Kampala aims to prevent violence against women. It uses a model of community mobilisation called SASA -- a Kiswahili word that means "now" as well as an acronym for Start, Awareness, Support, Action --  to stop violence and the spread of HIV, by raising awareness of power imbalances and how to address them:

Stopping violence against women requires action at many levels, and by all of us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The literature of Africa

Yesterday’s post featured the creative non-fiction and social and political commentary of Nigerian writer Pius Adesanmi.

Pius Adesanmi
I wanted to write a second post about Pius Adesanmi because he’s also doing some interesting work as an academic.

Adesanmi is an Associate Professor at Carleton University’s Department of English Language and Literature in Ottawa, Canada. He teaches and researches the literatures and cultures of Africa and the Black Diaspora (i.e. people of African origin living outside Africa). Adesanmi’s work encompasses both anglophone and francophone African literary traditions. He did his PhD in French Studies with a focus on African women’s fiction at the University of British Columbia, Canada, after obtaining a B.A. at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria and an M.A. in French at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Adesanmi specialises in contemporary African and Black Diaspora knowledge production in an era of globalisation. His earlier focus on literature has expanded to include the production of culture (such as language, food and aesthetics) in the Black Diaspora. For example, he's examining how dance forms such as soukous from Kinshasa evolve as they come in contact with hip-hop, Acadian and other forms in North America.

Pius Adesanmi, who is cross-appointed with Carleton University's Institute of African Studies, is also the Director and founder of the Project on New African Literatures (PONAL).  PONAL is an online resource featuring literature produced by African writers in the last 20 years, which according to Adesanmi "probably have been the best years for African literary production."

PONAL aims to make this literature more widely known. Adesanmi explains that in North America, people tend to be aware of African authors who win international prizes, and students of African literature study "classical" texts such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But North Americans aren’t aware or don’t have access to most of the literature that’s being created on the continent, particularly what's been written since the 1980s. "The continent is almost one of the most advanced hubs now of global – especially anglophone -- production in world literature. And 90 percent of these works are not known here."

PONAL will feature "third generation" writers from Africa as well as offer an online audio library, a photo gallery and a quarterly literary news magazine, Gboungboun. Through PONAL, people will be able to find new writers, reflect on critical directions in literature, or get recommendations for syllabi. Adesanmi also intends to build a collection of books of creative writing and poetry published by smaller presses in Africa that otherwise wouldn’t be available in this part of the world.

PONAL is one more of Pius Adesanmi's ways of making seldom-heard stories about Africa, as told by Africans, more visible and more recognised.

Earth from Apollo 17 / Photo courtesy NASA

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The concept of Africa

Pius Adesanmi / Photo via

If you’re trying to understand "Africa," you need to have a look at the work of Pius Adesanmi.

Pius Adesanmi is a Nigerian writer of poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic works. He teaches African literature and culture at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Adesanmi is no stranger to awards: his poetry collection The Wayfarer and Other Poems won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001. But in September 2010, he received the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the Non-Fiction category for his manuscript, You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Penguin Books
cover photo
You’re Not a Country, Africa! is a collection of essays inspired by experiences that have caused Adesanmi to reflect on what "Africa" means, after living in the West for 15 years and travelling through 35 African countries. For example, he tells the story of being in a bank in Canada while an elderly woman was chatting unhurriedly with the teller. People in line were impatient and soon Adesanmi, having been socialised to wait for elders, was the only person left behind her. He listened to her explaining that she preferred banking in person to internet banking. "She was speaking English, but I was hearing my language; I was transported back home, in my village, and listening to one of the core philosophies of Yoruba civilisation being articulated by a Canadian woman possibly in her eighties," Adesanmi recalls, referring to a Yoruba proverb that the face is the abode of human discourse. This incident led to an essay on respect for age, communication, and traits that are not so much "African" as human.

Adesanmi explains that the title You’re Not a Country, Africa! conceptualises a dilemma that arises from him living in France, the US and Canada where he’s often expected to interpret and define "Africa" for Western audiences. He says of Africa, "you do not define it; it moves on its own terms, at its own pace." The book title derives not only from a tendency of non-Africans to assume uniform cultures and politics across the continent, but from the last stanza of a poem, "The Meaning of Africa" by the Sierra Leonean poet Abioseh Nicol: "You are not a country, Africa / You are a concept / Fashioned in our minds, each to each / To hide our separate fears / ".

You’re Not a Country, Africa! will be released in June 2011. Adesanmi is working on a novel as well as a second non-fiction book with the working title of "The Habit of Underdevelopment." In it Adesanmi explores the discourse and politics of development, particularly "the aid/charity/development nexus" that fixates on providing for "lack" while ignoring cultural dynamics.

Adesanmi’s social and political commentary and creative non-fiction also appear online at The Zeleza Post, Sahara Reporters and Nigerian Village Square. See, for example, his poetic and compelling reflection in The Zeleza Post on his father and grandfather in Nigerian society.

Pius Adesanmi is someone to listen to, for his insights on identity, politics, cultures, and humanity, and his command of language. His academic work is also worth knowing about -- so I'll write about it in tomorrow's post.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Poetry and then some

I’m overwhelmed by the wealth and breadth of poetry coming out of Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s much to explore, but in today’s post I thought I’d mention the Poetry Africa festival.

Poetry Africa is an international festival that takes place annually in Durban, South Africa. It’s now in its 14th year. Two months ago (October 4-9), 20 poets from 12 countries – including South Africa, Jamaica, Palestine, Australia, India, Uruguay, Italy and Senegal – performed their poetry. Associated events were held in Cape Town, Harare (Zimbabwe) and Blantyre (Malawi).

Here are three of the South African poets who participated:

Gcina Mhlope / Photo courtesy Poetry Africa
Gcina Mhlophe: a poet, storyteller, playwright, director, author, singer, actress and activist whose work addresses themes such as apartheid and patriarchy. She also created the group Zanendaba Storytellers as a means of revitalising storytelling traditions.

Pitika Ntuli / Photo courtesy Poetry Africa
Pitika Ntuli: a poet, artist, sculptor and professor who uses myth and history in his poetry. He’s also played advisory roles on arts and culture, indigenous knowledge and traditional leadership. He’s even written his bio as a poem.

Lebo Mashile / Photo courtesy http://www.lebomashile.com/fanclub/
Lebogang Mashile: a poet, performer, actress, writer, columnist, TV presenter and producer. She sees poetry as a means of changing attitudes in post-apartheid South Africa; her website quotes her as saying, "The enemy isn’t really clear in the way it was before. It’s an incredibly sensitive, complicated struggle with many dimensions, but the site for that struggle is inside. ...The language of poetry comes from a place where that transformation has to begin, that sort of intuitive, creative, spiritual searching place that will be the fuel for any kind of transformation process." Mashile co-founded the Feel a Sistah! Spoken Word Collective, acted in the film Hotel Rwanda, and collaborated with choreographer Sylvia Glasser to create the contemporary dance performance Threads. She deals with issues that include women and violence, identity, and South African society and politics.

Here's a performance by Lebo Mashile earlier this year:

Lebo Mashile - Poet/ Writer/Producer from Thabo Thindi on Vimeo.
The Poetry Africa Festival is organised by the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts. The Centre also hosts the Time of the Writer festival, the Durban International Film Festival,  and the Jomba! Contemporary Dance Festival.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fountain of knowledge

Fountain of Knowledge, University of Nairobi
One of the people who’s had a big influence on my understanding of Africa is Kabiru Kinyanjui.

Kabiru Kinyanjui is a Kenyan education specialist, academic and consultant. He’s written and advised on politics, social policy, conflict and peace, civil society and development – among other things. He’s widely known in the region in these fields, and highly respected.

His bio is impressive: a degree in law, history and sociology from the University of East Africa (Dar es Salaam), and a masters and doctorate from Harvard. He’s authored numerous books and articles, and he taught for many years at the University of Nairobi and was Director of its Institute for Development Studies. He’s been a visiting professor at universities in North America, has served as consultant to several international organisations, and been a commentator on political issues (including for the Voice of America following President Obama’s election).
Book cover, African Perspectives on Development,
edited by Uli Himmelstrand, Kabiru Kinyanjui and Edward Mburugu
Kabiru Kinyanjui has played high-profile roles in education in Kenya, serving as the Chairman of the Public Universities Inspection Board that made recommendations on transforming higher education in Kenya, and as Chairman of the Board of the Kenya National Examinations Council. He’s also been on the boards of for-profit and social enterprises including the K-Rep Group, Juhidi Kilimo and the Family Bank.

He helped establish the Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa, and serves as Chair of its Board. The Nairobi Peace Initiative is an organisation that seeks to transform conflicts and build peace in Africa, by engaging in discussion and in mediation, reconciliation, training and strategy development in countries affected by conflict.

I worked with Kabiru Kinyanjui for several years in the 1990s, when we were both at the International Development Research Centre. He was based in Nairobi, I in Ottawa, but we collaborated frequently. He was senior to me in education and experience but always treated me like an equal.

Looking back, I see that he probably had infinite patience with me. His knowledge of the region, of the diversity of cultures, the history of countries, and the nuances of national and local politics was astonishing. Mine was, let’s say, emerging. It was a privilege to see him interact with peers, and with younger scholars in the region, who clearly looked up to him. He is one of those people whom you could truly call wise – and kind, and principled.

One day, while on a visit to projects in the region, Prof. Kinyanjui and I stopped to watch the television news between meetings. A report came on about global disease patterns and life expectancy. We watched as the life expectancies for our respective countries of birth flashed on the screen. I don’t recall the exact numbers but it was something like 80 for me and 55 for him. The realisation hit: I had about 45 years to go before I reached mine, and he would have been close to his.

The unfairness of it still gets to me. There’s no justification for such inequity. Injustice is a feature of our world, but when it hits close to home, it’s particularly hard to ignore.

But, here we are. I think about Prof. Kinyanjui’s commitment to education and to peace, and his patience, and I smile.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Photo voices

On World AIDS Day today, I’m posting the images and words of a few people who speak for themselves.

The photos below are from the exhibit Photo-Voice: HIV and AIDS Education for Young People in Africa, presented by UNESCO and the Virginio Bruni Tedeschi Foundation. The photos in Photo-Voice were taken by young people, parents and teachers from Angola, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland.

The photographers focused on two themes: students and teachers affected by HIV and AIDS, and young people, sexuality and HIV.

Here are a few of the photos, along with captions written by the photographer who took each picture. (Photos are courtesy of UNESCO.)

© UNESCO/SWANNEPHA, Welile, female student, Swaziland - This is my teacher, she is also HIV positive, like me. She made my life easier by disclosing her status to us in class. She has restored my self esteem. I just love her. She is my pillar.
© UNESCO/SWANNEPHA, Kehtsiwe, 14 years old, female student, Swaziland - I am living with HIV and have been on antiretroviral treatment since 2002. I got sick early in my childhood. At school I faced challenges of being stigmatised and discriminated against by my teacher. She told other children not to play with me and also told me in the face that she was ‘tired of teaching a sick child’. I confronted her and told her that I could not change the situation. She then accepted my situation and wrote a note to apologise to my mother. I pray that other children never get to experience such injustice. I aspire to be surgeon; I already perform operations on frogs.

© UNESCO/RNP+ Angola, Cristovao, 14 years old, male student, Angola - My parents and two of my brothers are HIV positive. Very soon, as a result of their condition, our income started to decrease and I went to study at community school. HIV and AIDS is taught and openly discussed in schools managed by NGOs which have specific activities, but now that I am in public school I don’t hear about HIV and AIDS anymore, with the exception of the biology teacher... It would be good for schools (from primary schools to universities) to speak not only about HIV and AIDS but also about other sexually transmitted diseases. I would like to join a group of activists in my school in to fight HIV.

© UNESCO/LENEPWHA, Peete, 23 years old, male student, Lesotho - Sometimes when I think back on my life for the past ten years, I realise that I did not have enough knowledge on the pandemic to take care of myself. My young friends remind me that life should be enjoyed, and yet I worry that unless they are protected from contracting HIV they will soon have the virus like me and may not enjoy life as they do now. They deserve to be happy and live life with no worries. I believe that they should be adequately prepared now at a very early age so that they will grow into young adults competent enough to take care of themselves and protect others from HIV.

Photo-Voice is part of a UNESCO project funded by the Virginio Bruni Tedeschi Foundation (created by Marisa Bruni Tedeschi in memory of her son Virginio – Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s brother – who passed away of AIDS-related complications in 2006). Photo-Voice organisers say the exhibit uses the power of images to enable participants to "to bear witness" and to raise awareness.

These photos are by African photographers -- but AIDS is a global issue. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 22 million of the 33 million people living with HIV, but HIV incidence has fallen over 25 percent in 22 Sub-Saharan African countries since 2001, while it's increasing in other parts of the world (such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia). In North America and Western Europe, an estimated 100,000 people were newly infected in 2009 compared to 97,000 in 2001. We're in this together.

HIV and AIDS is a human rights issue, and dealing with it is a joint responsibility. It doesn't call for pity; it calls for empathy, solidarity and action.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Global grandmothers

I started this blog to highlight the work of Africans who are providing new or alternative perspectives about the continent. But I also started it to support the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s A Dare To Remember Campaign, which assists communities in Sub-Saharan Africa dealing with HIV/AIDS.

AIDS is not an “African” issue – it’s a global one. Nor is it the only health issue facing Africans. But HIV/AIDS is part of the picture for all too many people.

December 1 is World AIDS Day. So I’m going to write today's and tomorrow's posts about people who are dealing with the challenges of HIV and AIDS in their daily lives.

In yesterday’s post I referred to the value of listening to the stories of communities. Stories are important: they help us imagine ourselves in someone else’s place. Stories allow us to glimpse each other’s realities. That’s the first step in understanding not only how other people’s lives are different, but how they are similar to our own.

Here’s one story: that of Maria Mhlongo, a grandmother in South Africa.

Pius Adesanmi, a Nigerian writer and academic who has written about the idea of “Africa” (and who I'll feature in an upcoming post), commented to me that some things that we think of as “African” are on closer look, human qualities.

Some people reflect those shared qualities. I want to mention in particular the "Kilimanjaro Grannies." They are six Canadian grandmothers living in and around Ottawa who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2007 to raise money for HIV/AIDS. The climb was the idea of Gisele Lalonde Mansfield, who decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in memory of her brother Michel who died of AIDS in 1995. She heard two African grandmothers interviewed on Canada AM and contacted the Stephen Lewis Foundation to offer support.

Mansfield was joined on the adventure by Liza Badham, Trudy Stephen, Tina Cuerrier, Barbara Carriere and Janet Carrière. Together they’ve raised $84,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. They’re also raising funds to build a camp in Eastern Ontario for people living with HIV and AIDS, and their families. The Kilimanjaro Grannies have written a book about their experience, called Kilimanjaro: A Purposeful Journey. More information is available at www.kiligrannies.com.

AIDS is a global issue, and caring and supporting are univeral traits.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Sometimes a human story can tell us more than a whole page of statistics about what’s going on in the world.

Tsitsi Dangarembga / Photo courtesy
One storyteller is Tsitsi Dangarembga. A novelist and filmmaker, she portrays the lives of people, family relationships and women’s situations in Zimbabwean society with candour and sharpness. Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions (1988) and her films Neria (1993) and Everyone’s Child (1996) have blazed a trail in Zimbabwean literature and cinema.

I had the opportunity to see Everyone’s Child in Harare shortly after it was released. The film tells the difficult story of four children whose parents have died of AIDS, and underlines the value of community support.

Tsitsi Dangarembga continues to make films and her novel The Book of Not came out in 2006. She founded the International Images Film Festival for Women in Harare in 2002. In early 2010 Dangarembga was appointed portfolio Secretary for Education for the Movement for Democratic Change - Mutambara in Zimbabwe.

Statistics? Stories? I could tell you that the UN’s just-released figures on HIV/AIDS say that 22.5 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV, including 2.3 million children under 15 years old. Or that although new infections are declining in many countries, 1.8 million people were newly infected last year, or that 1.3 million people in Africa died of AIDS in 2009.

Or, I could suggest that you listen to their stories.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation has information about the organisations it supports that are working to strengthen communities dealing with HIV/AIDS. (They can tell you the stories better than I can.)

One more story before I go. This one is a real-life story about how one community in Kenya is supporting its members coping with HIV/AIDS. (The video features Francis Muiruri, the Nyeri District Coordinator of the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS, and was written, filmed and edited by a Canadian, the multi-talented Jasmine Osiowy, and narrated by educator extraordinaire Rod Osiowy, for the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, Canada.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"thoughts change"

I wanted to feature a poet in today's post – but when it came to choosing someone, well, it wasn’t easy.

I decided to put the spotlight on Njeri Wangari. She’s a Kenyan poet and performer. She’s also a promoter of poetry and other art forms, a blogger and an IT and social media specialist.

Her blog is Kenyanpoet – A Kenyan Artistic Space. She started Kenyanpoet as a place to publish her own poetry, but also offers it as a venue for other Kenyan poets to be published online. As well as poetry, her site features music and musicians, artists, art events, poetry venues, theatre, reviews, guides to spoken word and poetry performing, and more.

Her own poetry covers a wide range of topics, from culture and identity to human rights, gender, poverty, technology and day-to-day life. She regularly performs her poems, but a volume of them has been published as Mines & Mind Fields: My Spoken Words. Her poems are in English, Kiswahili, Sheng and Gĩkũyũ. She's been writing poetry since 2004 and first performed in 2007.

Wangari also writes for Global Voices Online. There she's written about, for example, African poems written for 2009 World AIDS Day, and Nairobi as a hub for technology events. Her articles also appear at Conversations for A Better World.

Here she performs in Nairobi in September:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"A literary and social activist"

I set out to write this blog as a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s A Dare to Remember campaign, thinking that a month would be a long time. Now that I have just over a week left of blogging every day for a month, I’m wondering how I can possibly cover everything I'd like to. There are so many people who are telling us stories of Africa, and suggesting to us the promise of Africa.

So I’ll just start with one person: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

Photos courtesy of http://www.ngugiwathiongo.com/
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of Africa’s most well-known writers -- his biography would fill up more than one blog post.

He’s an internationally celebrated Kenyan novelist, essayist, theorist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and activist. He is currently Distinguished Professor of the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.

His first three novels, Weep Not Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, are classics. He has published several volumes of literary essays and numerous other novels, short stories and children's books.

wa Thiong'o's books are literary achievements, but they are also challenges. His novel Petals of Blood, according to his website biography, "painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya," and his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngugi wa Mirii in "the language of people’s daily lives," was "sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society." After its publication in 1977, wa Thiong’o was arrested by Kenyan authorities and imprisoned without charge until 1978.

While in prison, he made the decision to write only in Kikuyu, his first language, rather than English, even though he was already a well-known and influential writer in English.

From then, his message has consistently been the necessity of writing in African languages. He addressed this in Decolonising the Mind (1984), for example, and in Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009), in which he writes about Africa's "dismemberment" through colonisation during which local languages were suppressed, and the need to reclaim local languages in order to "re-member Africa."

In a speech at the 6th Pan-African Reading For All Conference in 2009, wa Thiong’o remarked that throughout the world, colonisers have replaced local languages with their own. As a result, ..."a handful of western languages…dominate in the production and dissemination of ideas; they dominate in publishing and distribution and consumption of knowledge; they control the flow of ideas. Intellectuals who come from the supposedly lesser languages find that, to be visible globally, they must produce and store ideas in Western European languages, English mostly. In the case of most intellectuals from Africa and Asia, they become visible on the world stage but simultaneously invisible in their own cultures and languages. Global visibility comes at the price of local or regional invisibility."

wa Thiong'o continues: "The death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of its knowledge-producing potential. It is a human loss…. Each language, no matter how small, contains the best knowledge of its immediate environment: The plants and their properties, for instance. Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive."

For wa Thiong'o, "To know one’s language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment. But to know all the other languages while ignorant of one’s own is slavery."

wa Thiong'o published Wizard of the Crow in 2006 (a translation of his novel Murogi wa Kagogo), and Dreams in a Time of War in 2010. He also created and edits the Kikuyu language journal Mutiiri, and continues to write and speak internationally. His website is http://www.ngugiwathiongo.com/.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Promoting health equity

Talking Drum (2005) / Attribution:
When we hear about health in Africa, we often hear about diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS or water-borne diseases, or people without affordable health care, clinics, hospitals or medications. These are of course real and urgent problems. But what we hear less about are the people who are working to improve health in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation supports some of those people – especially frontline health care professionals, communities and families who are dealing with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This post is about another group – one made up of some of the world’s foremost health specialists, who are based in southern Africa. I’m referring to EQUINET: the Regional Network on Equity in Health in Southern Africa.

EQUINET is a network of remarkable people who are promoting an approach to health in southern Africa that is based on equity and social justice. They are internationally-respected researchers, health professionals, civil society advocates and policy makers – municipal, national and regional -- who also have firm roots in local groups and communities.

The coordinator and one of the founders of EQUINET is Rene Loewenson, director of the non-profit Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC) in Harare, Zimbabwe. She’s an epidemiologist (with amazing energy, I might add) with expertise in public health, occupational health, health and employment, and community participation in health. She's worked at the University of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions and with UN agencies in addition to establishing TARSC.

EQUINET’s steering committee is made up of people from over a dozen institutions in the region. Along with Rene Loewenson, they include: Ireen Makwiza, Lot Nyirenda and Bertha Simwaka at REACH Trust, Malawi; Lucy Gilson and Ermin Erasmus at the Centre for Health Policy, University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa; Di McIntyre, University of Cape Town Health Economics Unit, South Africa; Greg Ruiters, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, South Africa; Yoswa Dambisya, University of Limpopo, South Africa; Scholastika Iipinge, University of Namibia; Noma French Mbombo and Leslie London, University of Western Cape and University of Cape Town School of Family and Public Health, South Africa; Aulline Mabika, SEATINI, Zimbabwe; Selemani Mbuyita and Ahmed Makemba at IFAKARA Health Institute, Tanzania; and Mickey Chopra, Health Science Research Council, South Africa. Additional members coordinate thematic work, alliance-building with civil society and parliamentarians, and national networks.

EQUINET chose to focus on equity after observing the persistent inequalities in health and access to health care in the region. For EQUINET, achieving equity in health means that countries must address differences in health status that are unnecessary, avoidable, and unfair, but also the power relations among people that affect who gets health care. EQUINET tries to influence the way that governments make decisions about health and resource allocation, and also how communities participate in that decision-making.

EQUINET members tackle a range of issues, including people’s participation in health, health financing, health policy, human resources, health rights, trade, diseases like HIV/AIDS and their treatment, and food security and nutrition. They also connect people through national networks, a newsletter and a website.

EQUINET began as an idea, that a few individuals shared and then discussed at a conference in 1997 that brought together researchers, community health activists and senior government officials. EQUINET grew from there thanks to the persistence and determination of a half dozen key people. (I have to admit to having been involved with EQUINET in its early phases when I was working with the International Development Research Centre, one of the early supporters of EQUINET's work.)

EQUINET's reach is wide. It has a dizzying array of collaborative partners in Africa and elsewhere around the world. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a key partner. Others include the People’s Health Movement, the Community Working Group on Health and International People's Health Council, the Municipal Services Project, the Global Equity Gauge Alliance, the University of New South Wales, Australia, Medact (UK), and the University of Saskatchewan. Then there’s the African Health Research Forum, the International Development Research Centre (Canada), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the World Health Organisation, the Council on Health Research for Development, the International Society for Equity in Health, the Dag Hammerskjold Foundation, Rockefeller and many others.

Despite its wide range of activities and reach, EQUINET’s members remain focused on their primary goal: promoting equity in health for people in southern Africa.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Today’s post is for my kids, who are tired of seeing me sit at the computer for my Dare To Remember. Their absolutely most favourite song right now is K"NAAN’s "Wavin' Flag".

It’s worth listening to the original version of the song, if you haven’t. Here’s a recorded version, followed by a live performance at Toronto’s Manifesto Festival in 2008 (give both a listen if you can, especially the second which tells an important story from his childhood in Somalia):

Also check out K'NAAN's interview with George Stroumboulopoulos on The Hour on CBC, where he explains where the image of a waving flag came from:

K'NAAN grew up in Somalia and Canada, but what the heck -- he's a pretty global guy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Photo courtesy Maker Faire Africa

Technological innovation is a tricky thing. Often a technology seems great at first, but then when it’s used it has unintended consequences, or doesn't work well in a particular setting. (Like PlayPumps – merry-go-rounds that pump clean water when kids turn them – seemed like a great idea but many that were installed in Sub-Saharan Africa ended up not being used or maintained.)

It’s also easy to put hope in technology rather than address the root cause of problems like inequity or lack of access to resources.

Still, technological innovation can be a good thing. (Aren’t I sitting here with my laptop creating a blog that you’re reading online?)

So in today’s post I thought I’d feature a few of the many people in Sub-Saharan Africa who are innovating and creating. Rather than selecting one or two, I’m going to point to some links and you can go from there. (Today I’ve decided to talk less and let others do the explaining.) So here’s a start – consider this the tip of a very big iceberg:


Afrigadget is a website and blog dedicated to showcasing technologies developed in Africa. Half a dozen editors and contributors from several countries post stories about innovations like biogas systems, or working radios built from scrap parts. Here’s another example, of products made from used flipflops (sandals):
Used Flipflop (sandal) products. Reuse. #MFA10  on Twitpic
Photo courtesy Afrigadget

Maker Faire Africa

This event features "innovations, inventions and initiatives [that] can be brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated etc." Check out the numerous photos and videos, like these ones:

Photo courtesy Maker Faire Africa

Photo courtesy Maker Faire Africa

There are many more blogs and sites with links to innovators but I thought I’d leave you with just one more for now. This is William Kamkwamba, who at 14 developed a windmill from scrap parts for his family’s farm in Malawi (there's lots more about him on the web or in this article from Africa News):

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Bonga story yako"

Thanks to Ory Okolloh’s blog Kenyan Pundit, which I referred to in yesterday’s post, I found out about Voice of Kibera.

Kibera is an informal settlement within Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera is often billed as "Africa’s largest slum." Several hundred thousand people are estimated to reside there. Kibera is frequently associated with poverty, overcrowding and violence. We tend to see images like this:

Kibera, Kenya / Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr [CC-BY-2.5-br (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/br/deed.en)],
via Wikimedia Commons
and this: 
Children and open sewer in Kibera / Photo by hris1johnson (Kibera)
[CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Voice of Kibera presents an alternative perspective. On the Voice of Kibera site, ordinary citizens collect and post news and information about their community. People can add events, information about local businesses and organisations, problems they’re having, and where to find health and other services. They can do so using SMS or text messaging, or on the web. Voice of Kibera includes media reports from community sources such as Kibera Journal and Pamoja FM community radio. People can also add photos and video. They contribute information that is relevant to them, and what is posted is public, open and shared.

Voice of Kibera uses the Ushahidi platform that Ory Okolloh and others developed and that has been used around the world (in the wake of the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan flooding, for example) to aggregrate and map crucial information for residents.

Voice of Kibera is run by an editorial board with representatives from several community organisations along with technical advisors. Members include Douglas Namale, a journalist and editor at the Kibera Journal and a mapper with Map Kibera; Sande Wycliffe, a community leader; Fredrick Bary, member of a community youth group; Josphat Keya, program coordinator at the Hot Sun Foundation, a charitable trust based in Kibera; and Gerry Omondi, deputy administrator with a women's organisation called Mchanganyiko.

Voice of Kibera is an initiative of Map Kibera, a project begun by Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron of GroundTruth Initiative in 2009. Their rationale was that although Kibera has been frequently studied and many development projects have been undertaken there, the information collected by outside organisations rarely makes it back to the community. Kibera, moreover, appeared on government maps as a forest, or as empty space on other public maps.

Young people residing in Kibera initially mapped the area, then entered the information into open-source software called OpenStreetMap, a global map to which anyone can contribute geographic data. Map Kibera mapped locations of roads, health clinics, schools, latrines, water sources, shops, and then began to include other data such as locations of flooding, or information about the quality of health services.

Voice of Kibera acknowledges the challenges of reaching and meeting the needs of the community through its initiative. But it’s already replacing images of poverty and helplessness with alternatives such as these:

Photo courtesy mapkibera

Photo courtesy mapkibera
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mapkibera/4762640019/ mapkibera photostream

Shimalasha Self-help Group
Photo courtesy mapkibera

Voice of Kibera is one example of people taking control of how they are portrayed, and defining their own identities. In other informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa, people are organising themselves to create and tell their own stories.

Nairobi_Kibera / Photo by Schreibkraft (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
(www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Taking an interest in the individual"

Ory Okolloh
By http://www.flickr.com/photos/dci/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dci/243722739/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ory Okolloh might surprise you. She’s a Kenyan activist, and a Harvard-trained corporate lawyer. She’s a blogger and a connector. She’s known for her innovative approaches to crowdsourcing information – but also has words of wisdom about making the world a better place by "taking an interest in the individual."

Okolloh, along with a fellow Kenyan, runs a website called Mzalendo: Eye on Kenyan Parliament. What Mzalendo ("patriot" in Swahili) does is monitor Kenya’s Members of Parliament. It posts information about MPs including their comments in Parliament, the questions they ask, and which Ministries are asked questions. Citizens can submit information on their constituencies. Mzalendo aims to hold Kenyan MPs accountable, and to engage citizens, especially young people, in politics. According to the site creators, "We feel that Kenyans not only have ‘a right to know’ but also need to take a more active role in determining their country’s role – this is our effort to do more than just complain about how things are not working in Kenya."

Okolloh also co-founded Ushahidi ("testimony" in Swahili) with four other Kenyan bloggers. Ushahidi mapped post-election violence in Kenya in 2008-2009, using information coming from people by text message, e-mail and the web. Ushahidi became an important information source particularly when local media reports were unavailable.

The founders of Ushahidi soon realised that the platform would be useful elsewhere. Ushahidi became an open source platform for collecting and mapping information. The software has been used to help earthquake victims in Haiti; to monitor violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Gaza; to track the availability of pharmaceuticals in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia; to map flooding in Pakistan; to monitor elections in Mexico and India; and to organise snow removal in Washington, DC.

Ory Okolloh also blogs at Kenyan Pundit. Check out, for example, her post on Mapping Kibera (and also the list of Kenyan and other African blogs).

I'll leave you with Okolloh's presentation at TEDAfrica in 2007 about herself and her perspective:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Pan-African voices"

Satellite photo of Africa: NASA
Here in North America, it’s not always easy to get news about Africa. There’s the occasional article in the local paper, on TV or radio. Then there’s the internet, which gives us a little more: BBC News Africa, allAfrica.com, and even a wide range of African newspapers. But how to get a sense, from a critical perspective, of what’s happening on the continent?

One option is Pambazuka News. Pambazuka News is a website and weekly newsletter that presents news perspectives from across Africa. It provides analyses of current events by academics, social activists, writers, bloggers and other commentators. But Pambazuka News is also much more. It’s a network with a couple of thousand members, and an advocacy organisation for social justice and human rights.

Every week, Pambazuka News publishes something like 20-30 articles and dozens of links to other sites. On the Pambazuka website, as well as news you’ll find political cartoons, poetry, radio dramas, action alerts, e-newsletters, podcasts, videocasts, job announcements, training materials, distance learning courses, resources for African podcasters and filmmakers – and more.

Over 2,500 authors contribute to Pambazuka News, and half a million unique visitors have been to the open-access site, with over 25,000 subscribers to the newsletter. Pambazuka News is published in English, French and Portuguese. It also actively uses social media.

Pambazuka Press publishes books on social justice, human rights and politics. Recent titles include African Women Writing Resistance: An Anthology of Contemporary Voices; Global History: A View From the South (by Samir Amin); SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa; and Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa.

"Pambazuka" is a Kiswahili word meaning the dawn or to arise. Pambazuka News is an alternative to conventional news sources, describing itself as "a platform for voices that challenge mainstream perceptions and biases….It fosters a community of African citizens who hold their governments to account, supports pan-African campaigns for human rights and social justice, and enables African women and marginalised groups to develop their own blogs, podcasts and mobile phone campaigns."

Pambazuka News has won numerous awards: it was voted several times as one of PoliticsOnline/World e-Democracy Forum’s "Top 10 sites that are changing the world of internet and politics." It also won a Highway Africa award for the innovative use of new media by a non-profit, as well as several other awards for using technology for advocacy and human benefit.

Pambazuka News is produced by Fahamu - Networks For Social Justice -- Fahamu meaning 'understanding' or 'consciousness' in Kiswahili. Fahamu strengthens human rights and social justice movements through use of information and communications technologies, stimulating discussion and debate, publishing news and information, and developing and delivering education courses. Fahamu and Pambazuka News are based in Oxford, Cape Town, Nairobi and Dakar.

Pambazuka News and Fahamu were created by Firoze Manji, a Kenyan who has worked in development, social justice, human rights and health. Manji is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News. He was the Founding Executive Director of Fahamu, where he was succeeded this year by Hakim Abbas. Before Fahamu, Manji worked as Africa program director for Amnesty International, CEO for the Aga Khan Foundation (UK), and regional representative for health sciences in Eastern and Southern Africa for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). He has served on various international advisory and steering boards, is a Visiting Fellow in International Human Rights at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, and has published several books. In addition to his PhD and MSc from the University of London, he has a degree in dentistry from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

I had the privilege of working with Firoze Manji quite a few years ago, when we were both at IDRC. I saw Pambazuka grow from an idea to the pan-African movement it is now, and can attest to Firoze Manji’s remarkable ability to make things happen. He first saw a need for an information and training service for human rights and social justice organisations. Pambazuka began as an email newsletter, then became both a disseminator and a creator of content through its website and other materials. Now, it's a force that is enabling "Pan-African voices for freedom and justice" to be heard around the world.