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.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Africa paradise

Scene from Africa paradis
Photo courtesy http://www.africaparadis.com/

One of the themes of this blog is people who are challenging common perceptions of "Africa".

Filmmaker Sylvestre Amoussou did just that, in his 2006 feature film Africa paradis ("Africa Paradise").

Africa paradis turns our view of the world on its head. In the film, Africa of the future is a world economic power, prosperous and united. Europe, on the other hand, has gone through economic and political crisis and Europeans are clamouring to immigrate to the "United States of Africa." The film centres on the story of an unemployed French couple whose immigration applications are unsuccessful and so they enter Africa illegally to find work. The film depicts their experiences as illegal immigrants and the politics of racism and tolerance.

Scene from Africa paradis
Photo courtesy http://www.africaparadis.com/

The tone of Africa paradis is often humourous, but Amoussou has a serious point to make. Observing prejudice in Europe made him want to encourage tolerance, as well as challenge African leaders to take responsibility for the continent's future. He has said that he wanted to portray Africa differently, and to encourage people to have pride in themselves.

Amoussou initially had trouble obtaining support for the film, so he made a short version to show what it would look like. He also found distributing the film a challenge, because it didn’t fit what distributors thought would sell. Yet it has been popular.

Amoussou was born in Benin. He trained as an economist, then became an actor. Living in France, he decided he wanted to tell stories that appealed to him, so began to make his own films. He made several short films before making Africa paradis, his first feature film. His film Un pas en avant, les dessous de la corruption about humanitarian aid, democracy and corruption was released in 2009. He continues to act and produce as well.

The trailer for Africa paradis (in French) is available at the Africa paradis website and on Youtube. It's worth a look.

I learned about Africa paradis and Sylvestre Amoussou through Aboubakar Sanogo, a film studies professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Sanogo showed the trailer for Africa paradis during a conference at Carleton’s Institute of African Studies. Sanogo used it as an example of how African film can contribute to envisioning Africa’s future, by presenting alternatives that are something other than crisis, underdevelopment or poverty. In Africa paradis, Amoussou suggests one alternative vision that might not be so unrealistic.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The power of music

Emmanuel Jal by David Shankbone
Emmanuel Jal at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival / Photo by David Shankbone
Emmanuel Jal is a Sudanese musician.  He tours internationally and has released several albums. He’s also an active campaigner against poverty, war, human trafficking and the use of child soldiers.

But for the first part of his life, Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier himself.

When Jal was about 7 years old, he was taken from his home in southern Sudan and trained as a soldier for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). His father had joined the SPLA and his mother had been killed. He and several hundred other children eventually escaped the fighting, travelling for almost 3 months, most of the group dying on the way. Jal survived and was taken in by a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who was married to an SPLA commander. She took Jal to Kenya for schooling. She was killed shortly after in a car crash, but friends continued to support Jal.

While living in Nairobi, Jal began singing. He found in music a way to express the horrors he’d lived, and was particularly drawn to rap music. He released his first album, Gua, which means "good" in the southern Sudanese language of Nuer and "power" in Sudanese Arabic, its name symbolically linking opposing sides in the Sudanese conflict.

Jal’s songs focus on his experience as a "war child" and on his wish for peace and reconciliation. His story is one of seeming contradictions. He’s a Christian rap artist who was once taught to hate Muslims but who collaborated on his second album, Ceasefire, with the Sudanese Muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim to promote reconciliation. He’s an emerging international star who sings frankly about how he could have ended up: "You would’ve seen my face on the telly / fat hungry belly / flies in my eyes / head too big for my size / Just another little starving child…." But he’s clear in his purpose: "I believe I survived for a reason / to tell my story / to touch lives."

Jal says that "What energised me and kept me going was the music I do." He says that music is like therapy, and that it "is where I can be a child again."

Jal founded Gua Africa, an organisation that promotes education in Sudan, Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. A documentary has been made about his life and his return to Sudan to reunite with his remaining family. More recently, on his website, he is encouraging people to call for peace in the upcoming southern Sudan referendum. Emmanuel Jal continues to demonstrate "the power of music".

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Sam Nzima is a South African photographer whose work for a long time went unrecognized – but he also has a place in history.

On June 16, 1976, Sam Nzima was in Soweto working as a photojournalist for The World newspaper. On that day, thousands of school students in Soweto took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. As the children gathered, police used tear gas to stop them, then started firing.

Sam Nzima took several photos that day, but one captured a moment that hasn’t been forgotten. The photo shows a young man carrying a child. The child is limp, and the young man is crying. A girl, pain etched on her face, runs beside them. The child being carried is Hector Pieterson, twelve years old and one of the first children to have been shot and killed that day. The boy carrying him is Mbuyisa Makhubo, while the girl running beside them is Hector’s sister Antoinette.

Sam Nzima’s photo was published by The World and then flashed around the world on news wires. It made people realize what was happening in South Africa, and helped prompt greater international action against apartheid. Yet Nzima was forced to hide from the police and he declined further work as a photojournalist because of concerns about his security. It also took him years to regain copyright of his famous photograph. He ended up opening up a shop, serving as a homeland member of parliament, and then opening a school of photography in Bushbuckridge.

I’m privileged to say that I once met Sam Nzima. I was in Johannesburg in the late 1990s, visiting projects for the development organization I was working for. I and a colleague from Ottawa took some time to go to a spot in Soweto near where the Hector Pieterson Memorial, which opened in 2002, is now.

We entered a three-sided structure housing a display of photographs. Some of the photos showed scenes of Soweto. Others were of then-President and Hillary Clinton in a recent visit. But the photo which caught my attention was black and white. I recognized the image immediately. It was the photo of Hector Pieterson, his friend and his sister.

As I stood taking it in, a man who had been standing near the display came over. He said, quietly, "I was the photographer who took that picture."

As his words sunk in, I realized that he had taken this famous photo; he had been at this scene. He was the person who had informed the world about Hector Pieterson and the other schoolchildren who had been so brutally killed. I gathered my wits enough to begin to ask him questions about the circumstances of his being at this place on that day.

Overhearing our conversation, a fellow visitor came closer. She was an American woman who had been commenting loudly on everything in the area so far. She piped up with what I imagine was her most pressing question: "Were you here when the Clintons came?" Yes, answered Nzima. "Did you meet them?" she was desperate to know. Then, "What was Hillary Clinton wearing?"

At that moment, I saw the chasm between this woman’s world view and mine. For me, the history of deep injustice that pervaded this soil, and the profound changes that had taken place to allow us to be standing as tourists on this spot, were what was significant. That we were meeting the photographer, Sam Nzima, who had galvanized the world to take notice of South Africa was an enormous privilege. For her, the meetingwas a way for her to get a closer glimpse of her own celebrities.

As I looked into this later, though, I realized that the Clintons’ trip to South Africa was the first by an American president. To an American, the experience of meeting Sam Nzima might well have symbolized a bridge between South Africa and her own country. I guess we each have our own markers of significant events and people in our lives.

For me, one significant person will always be Sam Nzima. You can see a short BBC video of Sam Nzima and an exhibit of his photos here. You can also read more about him.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song of life

Vusi Mahlasela performing at FIFA World Cup Opening Ceremony
Photo courtesy http://www.vusimahlasela.com/
I first heard Vusi Mahlasela’s music after returning home from a trip to Johannesburg. I’d picked up one of his CDs at the airport before my flight out, not knowing exactly what to expect. I figured I’d chosen well when during my stopover in Nairobi, one of my trusted Kenyan colleagues expressed his approval for my choice. But it was when I got the CD home that I realised how lucky I was. Mahlasela’s voice and guitar blew me away.

Mahlasela grew up during apartheid in South Africa. He became active as a boy and then a young man in the anti-apartheid movement. He also began singing and playing guitar as a boy and his songs and poetry took on political and social themes.

Mahlasela’s website describes him as a "singer-songwriter and poet-activist." His songs are moving, joyful and full of hope. Mahlasela speaks out about racism and intolerance, and works for change. He created the Vusi Mahlasela Music Development Foundation  to promote African music. He is also an official ambassador to Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaign called 46664 (Mandela’s prison number during his 27 years on Robben Island).

Vusi Mahlasela continues to tour internationally, and is releasing a new album called Say Africa in early 2011.

But enough from me. You have to listen to him:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Supporting science

Aklilu Lemma
(photo courtesy Right Livelihood Award)

Back in 1964, an Ethiopian scientist named Aklilu Lemma was investigating a species of freshwater snail that transmitted schistosomiasis. His observations led him to a discovery of potential benefit not only in his own country but also globally.

Schistosomiasis, or bilharzia, is a chronic disease caused by parasites – blood flukes, or trematode worms – that are carried in the snails and released as larvae into water, where they can come in contact with humans. Adult worms can live in blood vessels or body tissues, causing abdominal pain, diarrhoea and damage to internal organs, and sometimes death.

Over 200 million people in Africa, Asia and parts of the Caribbean and South America are infected by schistosomiasis, with many more at risk, especially in communities that depend on agriculture or fishing, or where people do domestic chores or children play in lakes and streams, or where safe drinking water and sanitation are lacking.

While studying the snails in the north of Ethiopia, Aklilu Lemma found high numbers of dead snails in water downstream from where people were washing clothes. They were using a berry plant called Endod, or African soapberry, for soap, as people there had done for generations. Lemma collected some live snails in a container and asked one of the women to put some of the Endod suds into it; the snails died.

Lemma and his colleagues went back to their lab and did further studies on the Endod plant. Two years later, in 1966, Lemma founded the Institute of Pathology at Addis Ababa University and continued his research on the berries. The potential for Endod as a molluscicide was significant because although alternatives were available, they were manufactured elsewhere and were prohibitively expensive. Lemma’s hope was that simple techniques could allow people to grow, process and use Endod to control schistosomiasis in their communities.

For the next ten years, Lemma’s studies on Endod showed its promise as a natural, biodegradable, safe and effective substance for preventing schistosomiasis, and other possible uses. His research with scientists in North America led to the discovery that Endod was also effective against zebra mussels which were infesting the Great Lakes and other waterways.

In the 1980s, though, they ran into roadblocks in the development and testing of Endod, because of the need to verify Endod’s safety for humans and the environment and lack of funds and support for the necessary tests. Lemma's mission to develop a low-cost and locally available control for schistosomiasis remained incomplete.

Nonetheless, in 1989, Aklilu Lemma along with Legesse Wolde-Yohannes, also of Addis Ababa University, were presented with the Right Livelihood Award "for discovering and campaigning relentlessly for an affordable preventative against bilharzia".
Their long experience raises several questions, including how best to support science in African countries through development, testing and application, and how to ensure that communities with local knowledge benefit from scientific discoveries.

Lemma’s view was that indigenous knowledge should be respected, and that African capacity for scientific research needed support. In his acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award, Lemma said, "I believe that the best future course for Africa is to invest in efforts to build on the endogenous capabilities of its own people."

Aklilu Lemma had a doctorate in pathobiology and held senior academic and advisory positions in Ethiopia. He also worked in various capacities with the UN and at Johns Hopkins University. He and Wolde-Yohannes created the Endod Foundation in Ethiopia in 1992. Lemma died in 1997.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Planting Ideas

Wangari Maathai, Kenya, October 2004
Photo by Mia MacDonald
It’s 10:30 at night and I have until midnight to write today’s post. That’s the deal I made with myself – to write one blog post every day to raise funds for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

Well, the day is almost over and all I can think of is the immensity of the task I set for myself. What was I thinking, that I could even scratch the surface of African insight? Every topic I’ve thought of today is complex, every person on my list of people to write about has such significant contributions that I don’t see how I can do them justice.

But, that’s the reason for doing A Dare To Remember, I guess. Pushing oneself, doing what seems "impossible".

So, I thought I’d go back to the source. Back to my first encounters with the work of people that led me to new ways of seeing, to new possibilities.

Back to Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Maathai, environmental and political activist, and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. The first African woman recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact. And the first woman to earn a PhD in East and Central Africa (in 1971) and to head a university department in Kenya (the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, in 1976). And founder of the Green Belt Movement.

I first learned about Wangari Maathai when I was doing graduate studies on social aspects of agriculture and forestry in Sub-Saharan Africa. I learned about the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit organisation which Maathai started in Kenya in 1997. Then, it was a grassroots organisation that promoted tree planting. It became a pan-African movement, and then a global one.

The Green Belt Movement continues to promote environmental protection but in doing so also advocates for human rights, democracy and peace. By planting trees -- over 40 million across Africa so far – the Movement has restored forests and reduced erosion. Moreover, according to the Green Belt Movement, "hundreds of thousands of women and their families are standing up for their rights and those of their communities and so are living healthier, more productive lives."

Wangari Maathai’s accomplishments are astounding. She has won a long list of international awards, and sits on numerous international committees and boards. She served in Kenya’s parliament and as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003-2007. In 2005, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2006, she founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with several other Nobel Peace Laureates.

She’s written several books, including Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010), The Challenge for Africa (2009), Unbowed: A Memoir (2006), and The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003). She continues to publish articles and to speak on environmental issues.

See what I mean by not being able to do justice to a person's contributions?

"The planting of trees is the planting of ideas. By starting with the simple act of planting a tree, we give hope to ourselves and to future generations." – Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai planting a tree at
the Outspan Hotel, Nyeri, Kenya to mark
the launch of her autobiography,Unbowed
Photo by Wanjira Mathai, 2006

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Education

Mrs. Letela (centre) and some of her staff
Mrs. Letela was my boss for two years. You couldn’t get much past her. When she disagreed with you she would give you that direct, expressionless stare that made you want to look somewhere else. But she had a ready laugh, too, and was quick to adapt if she saw a way to improve things. Her focus was unfailingly the well-being of the students who attended the high school where she was principal.

Molly Letela’s school, where I went to teach in the late 1980s, was just outside Teyateyaneng, Lesotho in southern Africa. My husband and I were two of four Canadians who worked as teachers at Assumption High School then. Mrs. Letela employed several expatriates, not because Lesotho didn’t have qualified teachers but because many local teachers got jobs in the South African bantustans in those days. Mrs. Letela, an expatriate herself, came from Swaziland but had made her home in Lesotho.

Fields near Assumption High School, TY / Credit: Dave Smith
Assumption High School’s compound was a rectangle of low brick buildings set in a wide valley. Beyond the surrounding fields, where yellow cornstalks struggled out of dry red earth, were the dreamy blues and purples of the distant mountains. Behind the school lay a dusty road along which boys herding cattle, men wrapped in wool blankets, and women balancing lumpy packages, wooden crates or even single bars of soap on their heads passed by.

Mrs. Letela was energetic and ageless. You could count on her to support you. Once I asked her if she could come to my history class to do a lesson on local history that was based on oral tradition; somehow I didn’t feel right teaching kids about stuff that they probably knew from their grandparents. Mrs. Letela didn’t hesitate to do that for me. I remember when after a few months of working there I mentioned that I’d been mildly nervous about standing in front of a class of fifty Form A students, most of whom knew little English. She laughed and replied that the students would have been even more nervous about their first day in high school, and with me.

Mrs. Letela knew what was important for her students: to study hard, get a regular meal every day, learn agricultural and other skills, and if possible to move up through high school. It wasn’t an easy context in which to build a school, but Mrs. Letela did everything she could, including finding local and donor funding for equipment and programs. When I checked recently there were indications that at least a few years ago she was still doing so, although I can’t be sure.

Back then, people in Lesotho were just beginning to talk about AIDS. Today, almost a quarter of people in Lesotho between ages 15 and 49 have HIV/AIDS. I can’t imagine what it’s like there now, what the disease has done to families, communities, and schools. I wonder about the kids I taught, how they’re faring.

I hope that they have the opportunity to watch their own kids go through school. I hope that at least some of them are sending their own children to Assumption High School. I hope that Mrs. Letela, or someone with her drive and commitment, is still at the helm. If not, I hope she's enjoying retirement and her own grandchildren.

Form C, 1987 / Credit: Denise Deby

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Art is political"

"Art is political. Without art there are no free men."

Sembene Ousmane is considered the "father" of African cinema. His La Noire de… (Black Girl) released in 1966 is said to be the first feature film by a Sub-Saharan African director. His Mandabi (1968) was the first film made in a local language, Wolof, rather than in French in his home country, Senegal. He is credited with influencing subsequent generations of filmmakers with his film style and his portrayal of an African identity that asserts the dignity of people.

Sembene Ousmane wrote several novels and short stories before turning to film. His movies and books are renowned for their depictions of ordinary people, their social commentary and their challenge to authority – whether French colonial rule, traditional authority or post-independence government.

He worked as a fisherman, mechanic and bricklayer and served in the French army in World War II, and was also a dockworker and trade union activist. Many of his books draw from these experiences, like his Le docker noir (The Black Docker, 1956). At age 40 he began making films in order to reach more people.

Sembene Ousmane's pioneering work is remarkable, but also noteworthy is the fact that for a long time I hadn’t heard of it. Maybe it was because much of his work is in French and I grew up in an English-speaking environment, but it also raises questions for me. How is it that someone who reached out to and moved so many people, like the filmmakers who subsequently took up his challenge to make indigenous films, or the Kenyan I know and admire who named one of his children after Sembene Ousmane, is not a household name around the world? How is it that my wonderful local library with its over 2 million books and other materials appears to have only one of his works, his last film before his death in 2007, Moolaade?

The library did help me track down a copy of Sembene Ousmane’s 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood (Les bouts de bois de Dieu). It’s a fictionalised and vivid account of the strikes that took place on the Dakar-Niger railroad line in 1947-48, in which Sembene was involved. Sembene’s characters are complex and sensitively portrayed – the railway workers and their families as well as the railway bosses. The novel is striking also in that it has several significant characters, and dozens of additional characters -- men, women and children -- rather than a single main character. As his African Film Library biography states, "the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights." Reading God's Bits of Woods helps understand the enduring appeal of Sembene Ousmane.

(Tribute to Sembene Ousmane by Thiago da Costa)

Friday, November 12, 2010

"It takes children to raise a village"

A grandmother from Nyaka
Photo: Tinyan Outomagie
Courtesy Stephen Lewis Foundation
I was working on today’s post when I received an e-mail message from the Stephen Lewis Foundation – intended, I think, as moral support for those of us doing A Dare To Remember (which was the impetus for this blog – see "About A Dare to Discover" on the right).

The e-mail message contained a report from Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, the executive director of the Nyaka AIDS Orphan School in Uganda. Nyaka is one of the grassroots projects that the Stephen Lewis Foundation supports. It runs schools for children orphaned by AIDS and support groups for the grandmothers who look after the children.

Twesigye Jackson Kaguri writes:

"I just came back from meeting with the Grandmothers. One of the Gatherings had more than 7,000 grandmothers. I was overtaken by tears watching these women who have worked so hard but never had any breakthroughs in their lives. When they thanked Nyaka for helping them build their houses, I told them about the Foundation. The grannies then took us to see their new homes. It started raining while I was standing in one grass thatched house. A grandmother said to us, ‘Whenever it rains, I go to the toilet.’ It was the toilet that Nyaka had constructed for her. It was the only structure with an iron sheet roof, the only refuge from the rain for her and her grandchildren. I often hear from the grannies that their grandchildren sleep with their shoulders hunched over their school uniforms so they can protect their uniforms from getting dirty and wet from the rain coming in through holes in their roofs. As we come close to finish visiting their homes, we are reminded of those who are still in need. Our hope is to raise more funds so we can continue to build more needed houses for these lovely grannies. Thank you for your love, care, and support. The best is yet to come."

I did a bit more research and discovered that Nyaka has a website. Twesigye Kaguri also has an interesting story. He was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in the U.S., with a promising career ahead of him, when he learned that his brother had died of HIV/AIDS. He returned to Uganda to look after his brother’s children, and then the child of his sister, who died the following year. He and his wife built a school for local AIDS orphans, then realised they also had to provide health care and other services for the community so that the children could stay in school. The Nyaka website quotes Kaguri putting a new twist on a familiar saying: "It takes children to raise a village."

I don’t know the Nyaka project, but I do know that HIV/AIDS is a heavy burden on people in the region. When I was working with a development organisation a few years ago that had projects in Uganda, I watched not one but two colleagues – both university department heads – become ill and pass away. I was at a loss as to how to help their families; but I know it has something to do with strengthening support systems in communities, and improving access to health and social services, not just for people who are ill but for their families and extended families as well.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation’s message to me ends by saying, "the money you raise has a concrete and long-lasting impact on the lives of grandmothers, women, and children orphaned by AIDS. Your money goes directly to these projects that resurrect life and restore hope. Now that is something courageous worth doing!"

I don’t feel too courageous except when I ask that you consider making a donation to the Foundation through my Dare page. Or look through some of the other dares and support someone whose dare appeals to you – or sign up for your own dare! Or at least come back and visit this site again. I’m grateful for any time you can spend here!

And the post I had been working on before I got the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s e-mail message? Well, let’s just say I have a head start on tomorrow’s post.