Archive for June, 2010


Africa Pushes Back

I have been asked many times a variation of the same question: “Why do Africans wait until it is too late?” For most Westerners, Africa is hunger, war, despotism, AIDS and poverty – full of Africans who are either helpless victims, or who choose to sit on their hands, only lifting them up to accept Western handouts.
But there’s another side of Africa, the one that pushes back. This side is comprised of political and social organizations and activists, school teacher organizations, journalists, and health professionals, as well as women, worker and youth organizations that patiently chip away at Africa’s problems, usually with no funding, media coverage, or national and international recognition to speak of.
These Africans work against great odds to prevent famine, war, human rights abuse, the spread of AIDS, and a host of other urgent issues. When tragedy strikes, they work hard to ameliorate the effect. But even when they aren’t facing political persecution, they are under-funded and without the protection that comes with media coverage. They are the unseen, under-supported and unrecognized pillars of African societies.
When I was in South Africa  attending a conference, the Center for Civil Studies at Kwazulu Natal University organized a Durban Reality Tour to counter the “be happy, don’t worry” tourist tours of beaches, cultural dances, and national wildlife parks. We went to one village where we found little children with discolored feet because of playing barefoot in contaminated fields – chemicals having seeped into their playfields from nearby factories owned by the new black elite. The reality tour took us to visit with shack dwellers living in fields after being forcefully evicted from their homes by the South African government.
Meet Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement that has been at the forefront of organizing the residents against evictions. The work of Abahlali baseMjondolo is all the more complex because the poor from neighboring Zimbabwe and Mozambique also trickle into the poor settlements to compete for already scarce resources. When South Africans attacked other Africans in poor townships and settlements in May 2008, killing over 50 immigrants, Abahlali baseMjondolo rose to the defense of the African immigrants. They declared, “A human being cannot be illegal.”
While the rest of the world this past July was celebrating Mandela’s birthday, giving millions of dollars to pet causes and celebrating the fall of apartheid, Abahlali baseMjondolo trudged on fighting evictions and xenophobia, under-funded and unrecognized.
Then there is the AFRICA 15% NOW! Campaign that is pushing African governments to commit at least 15% of their annual budget to health issues. In a continent where thousands of Africans die daily from preventable and treatable diseases, this is an urgent and worthy campaign. If they are successful in making African governments take responsibility for the health of their citizens, instead of leaving it to international NGOs, millions of lives over generations will be saved. Yet in the West, the AFRICA 15% NOW! Campaign is absent from any discussions on the short- or long-term solutions to the health crisis.
Meanwhile in Kenya, women from Kibera, the slum worst hit by the political violence following the flawed elections in early 2008, formed an organization to deal with police and ethnic violence. The organization, Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, has over the last few months, evolved to deal with issues of AIDS, violence against women, and other social justice issues.
Then there are several U.S. based organizations such as TransAfrica and Africa Action that work shoulder to shoulder with these courageous African NGOs. These organizations have been involved in practically every issue affecting the continent, from AIDS drugs patents that benefit pharmaceutical companies at the expense of the dying to the crises in Zimbabwe, Darfur, and the Congo.
Activists in the United States and Africa have formed, Resist-AFRICOM. The U.S. African Command Center seeks to coordinate U.S. military operations in Africa but the activists see this as a further militarization of U.S.-Africa relations. Better equal trade than more guns and bombs.
So the question isn’t whether Africans sit on their hands waiting for Western handouts. Rather, the question is why it is much easier for us to listen to philanthropists talk about what is wrong with Africa rather than the serious and dedicated political activists on the ground. Why are we not helping those who are helping themselves?
We love glossy packages that promise big bangs and super solutions. Take the Bill Gates Initiative, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that promises super seeds for super plants to end famine in Africa. A simpler and more long-lasting solution lies in organic African farming, growing more food crops over cash crops, the diversification of African agriculture, and the depoliticization of food and other basic human necessities.
The point is that every little bit of support counts and it can come in many forms – moral solidarity, awareness-raising, or financial support. But this help should not be afraid of the Africa that pushes back – or come at the expense of long-term solutions. One helping hand should not kill dreams with the other.

A Break_Trough For Africa’s Banking Sector

From focusing on money transfer in Kenya, where there has been a lot of development and competition especially in the area of mobile money transfers, it now moves on to what about across Africa? From country to country?

Today in Nairobi Ecobank formally launched their Rapidtransfer which was rolled out in October 2009 is now available in Kenya. With Rapidtransfer one can send money to families members e.g. school fees, pay for goods, send cash to another account in another country, and have the funds available instantly in local currency.

An illustration used was for how one can now transfer money from Mombasa Kenya to Dakar Senegal – and with Rapidtransfer, an individual can send a maximum of $10,000 per day between the two points on opposite sides of the continent instantly! It is also open to non-account holders and can be used for intra-country transfers as well. The product works only within the Ecobank network, which now covers about 30 countries. They get around the foreign currency restrictions in some countries by making and receiving payments in local currency (no forex exposure to customer) and all at a competitive rate compared to Western Union or Moneygram.

Rapidtransfer was was launched by Kenya’s Central Bank Governor who chided the media for wanting too much from the product already. On whether Rapidtransfer will be on mobile phone, he gave tales about trying to buy a car in 1992 when money would take a week to be transferred from a Nairobi account to a Mombasa account and this was also at a time when branches were not linked and one could only transact at a particular branch.

Rapidtransfer is unique in that many because banks don’t talk to each other across border e.g. a bank in Kenya and a bank in Uganda may share the same parent or name but customers who cross borders are not able to transact (except using visa). However, Ecobank customers are also able to use their ATM bank card in all the 30 countries they are present to fully transact across borders.

I'm super connected!


Magic Of The African Mask

African Masks are among the most fantastic works of African art and their variety and magic is unique. Ancestors in particular, but also nature spirits, use the medium of the mask to reach the living and to make their wishes known.

The African imagination reaches is climax in the mask dance. Out of a collaboration of carvers, costume makers, specialists in ritual, musicians and dancers a group art form emerges, whose complex structure of ritually defined choreography, noises, rhythms and music achieve a considerable degree of fantasy and intensity.  In the old masquerade traditions, the urgency of each dancer’s performance derived from the conviction, “I am not myself.”  It was not he who danced; it was he who was danced.  A being or spirit entered his body, thus assuming the outward form and communicating in this physical embodiment with the circle of living and visible onlookers.  States of possession and trance, still an everyday occurrence in the voodoo religions of the Republic of Benin or the Caribbean suggest the nature of this mental transgression to borderlines.  In other words, dancing a mask was ideally not an expression of individual skill but a veritably religious act, of devotion to a supernatural power.  In many regions this devotion was and still is expedited by ritual regulations governing the carving of masks and the preparation of the dancers for their performance.  The dancing of masks is surrounded by an entire liturgy, designed to encourage the entry of the supernatural into the mundane world.

This mystical interpretation may not be to everyone’s taste and the extent to which a mask dancer in fact identifies with some transcendent being is controversial.  For this reason it would be advisable to assume a range of variation, extending from complete embodiment through various degrees of inspiration to an “actors portrayal” of a supernatural mask spirit.

In contrast to the institutionalized world religions that dominate today, African religious beliefs often differed from one area to the next.  The uniformity of these official churches in both the East and West has always been foreign to the strongly regionally or locally colored African forms of faith. The lack of a written language proved an advantage when it cam to the individual religious imagination, since it worked against the emergence of any form of bibliolatry or dogmatic rigor.  African oral traditions left great leeway for personal interpretation.  In many cases, Africans have even succeeded in integrating imported Western religions into their older cults, expanding the spectrum of religious forms of expression.

Instead of a supreme being or a canonically established pantheon of divinities, the African heavens are populated by innumerable spirits and beings.  This so-called animism, fought by Christian missionaries and Moslem marabouts, is rich in transcendental forms of existence that populate the continuum between this life and the life beyond.  The continent of ancestors alone is enormous, and savannah, woodlands and waters abound with nature entities and spirits.  These are augmented by more clearly defined notions of gods, as with the Yoruba, whose beliefs recall the polytheism of European antiquity.

In many depictions of animals, or depictions of spirits in animal form, not only actual species of the bush or savannah may be represented but mythical animal beings as well.


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June 2010