Tuesday, January 28, 2014

12 Years A Symbol

As the saying goes, success has many fathers. The meteoric rise of actress Lupita Nyong'o from relative obscurity to global sensation has spurred a bitter exchange within Kenya as to what her success means.

Most have celebrated what they see as the triumph of a can-do Kenyan attitude in the face of massive odds, and proof that all is possible if only one stayed true to oneself and was prepared to do the hard work. Others, while acknowledging and celebrating her admirable effort and undeniable talent, however point to her privileged background as a scion of Kenya's elite and see in her story evidence of the massively skewed access to resources that denies many other "Lupitas" their chance to shine. Unfortunately, the latter take has been interpreted by some as an attack on the actress herself.

Interestingly, this debate did not attach to that other global start that Kenyans have laid claim to. When Barack Obama ran for and was elected President of the United States, there was near universal celebration of the achievement, despite the obvious fact that his association with Kenya is rather tenuous. There was also near complete unanimity that had his father brought him up in Kenya, his chances of rising to the highest office in the land would have been close to nil.

Just compare his fate to that of his younger step-brother, George. They share a biological father but have different mothers. Both were raised continents apart by their mothers and grandparents. While one went to ivy league schools and ended up in the White House, the other dropped out of school, joined a gang, went to prison and dwells in rather more humble surroundings on the outskirts of Nairobi. As would write: "If there was a leading light in the Obama clan, then [Barack] was it; and if there was a shadowed place that no one liked to talk about, then I guess that was me."

Of course, as Lupita demonstrates, living in Kenya is not necessarily a sentence to the hard labour of poverty (or a one-way ticket to criminality). However, for very many, and perhaps for the majority, it comes very close to that. Dr Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute and assistant professor at Aga Khan University, describes Kenya's as "a tale of three countries: the obscenely rich country; the gasping middle-income country, teetering on the precipice; and, the miserably poor country." It is a country where two-thirds of the population survives on less than 3 dollars a day and the lowest ten per cent of households control just one per cent of national income. On Lupita's side of the fence though, the outlook is much brighter. Here, where the richest ten percent who control nearly half the national income live, opportunity abounds.

Needless to say, none of this is her fault and neither does it detract from the magnitude of her achievement. But having stated it anyway, one must also admit that she has benefited handsomely from this set of circumstances. Acknowledging this is important because it is necessarily because it allows us to understand that behind the beautiful Kenyan facade she presents to the world lies a "shadowed place that no one likes to talk about."

The existence of this dark place, where most Kenyans are condemned to eke out their existence, is a direct consequence of the existence of Lupita's world. The Kenyan elite's history of theft, oppression and marginalisation has produced this state of affairs. It is a terrible and a terribly unfair burden to place on her young shoulders, but it is nonetheless one she will have to bear along with the accolades. It is the unfortunate shadow of her success and cannot be divorced from it.

Given that, is there a connection between the Kenyan discomfort with acknowledging privilege and our reluctance to confront the elite who benefit from it? I think there is. The depredations of the elite have created an impoverished society where most operate on the brink of existence and must constantly court its largess and patronage. In this circumstance, the many are reduced to sycophancy not only to curry the favor of the wealthy few, but also to vicariously experience the material success that they are too often denied. The conspiracy of silence is abetted higher up the food chain with few wishing to rock the boat. As one of my tweeting friends put it, acknowledging the privilege "is facing it & for most of us, admitting we accrue some benefits from the system that we just don't wanna give up."

Like it or not, Lupita's success, and the dispute it has engendered, are therefore symbolic of the contradictions inherent in Kenyan society. She is both an inspiration to millions of young people who dream of joining the stars, and a reminder of the system that suffocates those very dreams.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Gay Bans in Africa Are About Control, Not Culture

In his famous 1996 speech delivered on the occasion of the passing of the new Constitution of South Africa in Cape Town, Thabo Mbeki, then the country’s vice-president declared: “I know that none dare challenge me when I say - I am an African!” If some on the continent had their way, however, then it appears that someone could take him up on that.

Last week, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a bill that outlawed gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relationships, and belonging to gay groups. In doing so, he joined a wave of officially sanctioned homophobia that is sweeping the continent. From Angola to Zimbabwe, persecution of gays is on the rise fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments and homophobic politicians.

The war on gay rights is waged on the battleground of culture and identity. Its most committed troops regularly declare that theirs is a fight to defend African values from the encroachment of Western attitudes. “It is un-African because it is inconsistent with African values,” declared Ugandan MP David Bahati, who in 2009 introduced legislation to make homosexuality a capital crime. As reported in the Washington Post, Nsaba Butoro, the country’s minister for ethics and integrity said: "You are talking about a clash of cultures. The question is: Which culture is superior, the African one or the Western one?"

But the rhetoric of a culture clash masks an effort to own and define what it means to be a human being in Africa. It posits the existence of a common African Culture, a mystical commonality that supposedly underlies the traditions and practices of the thousands of communities on the continent. This is, of course, fiction. What is supposedly being defended is little more than a figment of the Victorian imagination.

The idea of descent from childishly simple and primitive people, unsoiled by the complexities of modernity and living in harmony with nature on an Edenic paradise, a by-gone society of wizened sagely old men sitting under trees spewing maxims surrounded by overly-sexualized women shaking their well-endowed butts – this is not the creation of the people who inhabit the continent. In fact, the notions of common ancestry and common fates were forged far away from the continent’s shores, in the capitals and classrooms of Europe and America.

This invention has been employed by colonial and post-colonial tyrants across the continent to insist that their subjects are uninterested in concepts of knowledge, truth, justice and human rights, that they need to be protected from the horrors of the female brain and body, and the decadence of love, romance, sex, joy, imagination and fun. After all, the African was created to work, to obey, to conform, to donate his labour and resources for the benefit of his betters.

African Culture is an imposition created to define and therefore dehumanize and enslave the continent, to deny its inhabitants their history and their agency. Thus the historical fact that homosexuality was practiced and tolerated in many traditional African societies is wished away. Particularly revealing in this regard is the practice of justifying strictures against gays by appeals, not to traditional religion or practice, but to Christianity and Islam and the invented “cultures” of artificial nation-states. African Culture is articulated from the pulpits of foreign faiths. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu once joked: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”)

According to Africa Report, the United Nations has warned that Nigeria’s legislation undermines, not just gays’ safety, but also their humanity. They, and others across the continent who refuse to conform to the dictates of African Culture –including human rights workers and pro-democracy activists- are marked as un-African, stripped of their humanity, beaten, jailed, tortured, exiled or murdered without too much fuss.

Their real crime is they dare to challenge the right of a small but powerful elite to define what an African is and in doing so pose a direct threat to the systems of control and privilege that have been built around that right. The refusal to be defined, to be silenced or hidden away, is terrifyingly subversive as it opens up new horizons and new avenues to self-knowledge and, ultimately, generates new centres of power.

As people, especially the youth, on the continent –buoyed by rising incomes and the revolution in communications technology- become increasingly impatient with the one-size-fits-all constriction of humanity, it will become more difficult for the governing elites to continue to exploit the trope of African culture to keep their populations in check. Already, on the internet and in other forums, one can see feminists and gay and governance activists challenging the conceptions that underlie it. Through these conversations, Africans are reimagining themselves in new, refreshing and empowering ways, and creating spaces for authentic cultural expression.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Meanwhile, recently at the High Court...

Monday, January 06, 2014

Why Does African Media Get Africa Wrong?

Nanjala Nyabola, Kenyan writer and graduate student at Harvard Law School, recently caused a bit of a stir with her Aljazeera article asking “Why Do Western Media Get Africa Wrong?” Reading through the piece, which was both interesting and informative, I couldn’t help but wonder: Just who does get Africa right? Is there even such a thing as getting Africa right?

From the outset, let me state that I agree with many of Nanjala’s criticisms of media coverage of events on the continent. As she says, much of it is devoid of nuance and context and seems oblivious to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as the “danger of a single story” – the reductio ad absurdum of the tale of a continent of over a billion people and 54 countries, their existence, history and stories compressed into one simple, superficial, easily regurgitated cliché. “The hopeless continent.” “Africa rising.” “Magical Africa.”

However, it is not just Western media (itself a rather obtuse concept) that is guilty of reporting in this manner. African media commits many of the same sins though, given the fact that most only broadcast to discrete home audiences, it is easy for them to escape censure. While Africans in almost every country on the continent have opportunity to be regularly appalled by their portrayal on CNN, Aljazeera and BBC, it is rare that Kenyans will flip the channel to check what Nigerian journalists are reporting about them.

Few African media houses are actually trying to cover the continent for the continent. Many have their hands full reporting (or not reporting) news at home and do not think of Africa so much as a story that needs to be covered, but as part of the rest of the world and take their cue on reporting it from the Western outlets. As South African photojournalist and film maker Greg Marinovich notes, “most African media stories on Africa are from international wires.” Few have bureaus or send reporters outside their home countries, choosing to rely on the same Western reporters they delight in bashing.

Look at the coverage of South Sudan, CAR, DRC or Somalia, for instance. Most media on the continent remains supremely oblivious to happenings there. Even in neighbouring nations such as Kenya, which has paid a huge price for Somalia’s instability, media only seems able to regurgitate the Western tropes about fighting terror and Islamic extremists. Few journalists bother to understand the genesis of the two-decade long anarchy or to explain the reasons and wisdom of Kenya’s intervention. In October 2011, many were too busy beating the patriotic drum of war and most have since lost interest in what Kenyan troops are doing across the border.

Nanjala also points out that most Western reporting of Africa, “the Rest is necessarily set up in opposition to The West” resulting in coverage where “issues or situations are rarely, if ever, analysed for their intrinsic impact or worth. Events or situations are analysed as what the West is not.” But that too cuts both ways. Sometimes, African media will mirror this and set up the Rest in opposition to the perceptions of the Western press.

Another example from Kenya. As the elections last year approached, the country was inundated by Western journalists, many undoubtedly there in anticipation of a repeat of the 2007/8 post-election bloodshed. Most Kenyan media-folk were appalled, having themselves determined to practice something called peace journalism. In any case, their resultant, overly uncritical reporting of the election seemed at least partly motivated by the desire to prove to their Western counterparts that Kenya was not another African basket case.

To be fair, when assessing their performance, one has also to consider the environment that African media operates in. Many operate under severe government restrictions, with limited resources. Shrinking budgets are, however, a worldwide phenomena. Much has been made about the phenomenon of journalists parachuting (not literally) to crisis spots for a few days and filing reports with neither context nor understanding. However, as Suzanne Franks noted nearly a decade ago, “an important gap in the way that Africa is reported is not just the disappearance of regular correspondents, but also of longer more considered television documentaries.”

“As current affairs coverage has declined, the only television outlet left for factual programming about Africa is on the news. So the kind of explanations and background context that would once have been contained in a thirty or forty minute programme, if they happen at all, now have to be compressed into a two or three minute package. It also means that the nature of what is covered will be dictated by news priorities. TV news, which is how most people find out about the world, is an event driven operation. Contemporary news reporting in Africa is invariably of the ‘fire fighting’ tendency. In the absence of resident correspondents, a highly professional reporter - well attuned to the needs and expectations of the various outlets- is flown in when disaster occurs and expected to deliver something within days if not hours.”

Remember that African news outlets are dependent on Western-based international wires to tell Africa’s story. Also recall that they take their cue on what their audiences need to hear from Western news outlets. That means they are in no position to pick up the slack. In fact they are part of the problem, perpetuating and disseminating as they do Western perspectives, biases and stereotypes. (Let me hasten to add that by no means are all Western journalists or all journalists working for Western-based outlets guilty of this.)

Perhaps the answer lies in an approach that does away with the idea of covering Africa. Since, like Chimamanda, most people on the continent do not primarily identify themselves as Africans except in opposition to those that aren’t. As the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once observed, “Africans all over the continent, without a word being spoken either from one individual to another, or from one country to another, looked at the European, looked at one another, and knew that in relation to the European they were one.”

To cover Africa is necessarily to step outside of it, to see it in relation to “the European.” Such a perspective is hardly going to reflect how Africans see themselves. It is not an invalid perspective though. Just, again to borrow from Chimamanda, an incomplete one.

Maybe media, whether Western or African should just cover stories in Africa, as opposed to seeking African stories.