Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Praise of Fiction

Zoe Heller's The Believers tells the story of a family full of people I wouldn't normally care to know.

Audrey Litvinoff, the woman who has just lost her husband, is insufferable and uses her words like armor. Rosa Litvinoff is too stupid to know the limits of her intelligence. Karla, insecure and eager to please though she is, I found too annoying to even merit sympathy. Still, it's one of the my favorite books recently, because I would never go out of my way to hang out with these characters. I walked in their footsteps, heard their thoughts, and understood how they became the way they were. And because I hung out with them, I can't hate them. Ignorance allows for the strait-jacket we put people in, never letting them roam beyond the corners of our impressions of them, sometimes not even allowing for the thought that there could be evidence to the contrary. But getting to know someone confronts one directly with their individuality. You can't hate someone you know.

In a world where people keep to their respective corners of the proverbial high school cafeteria, literature is more important than ever in showing how the other half lives. Without literature, we would never know who that girl was across the hall that lives in that neighborhood you've never heard of, from that country we didn't even know existed. We would regard the strangeness of our world, surround it without our own myths, and never be humbled into questioning our own wisdom.

Elif Shafak makes this point so well in the TED talk. Watch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pilgrimages Made

For no reason but because Funmi Iyanda is amazing.

As we drove through beautiful KwaZulu Natal, I thought that South Africa is such a physical beauty, a beguiling supermodel of a country with befuddling complexities. Here l am forced to see colour so l take in Straun’s austere earnest whiteness in comparison to Yvette’s coloured bubbly cautiousness. Struan and Yvette are my guides and babysitters for this pilgrimage.

Lizzie is Zanele’s sister, a slightly furtive full figured black woman with the purposeful stride of a doer.

As we packed in front of a cluster of shanty buildings she tells us not to worry. I did not feel threatened because this was not the worst slum l had seen although l did feel a slight discomfort because of the hostile stares.

We walked through the sand and dirt and l noticed the little grave like herb garden in front of the house right before l ducked into the dark room. I noticed the sparse furniture, the curious girls and the bare floor in the first room before l walked into the bedroom where l stopped short. The room was dominated by a big bed with shabby but clean royal burgundy damask bedding lovingly made up with four pillows as befits any luxury hotel.

One after the other, the girls came in, one giggling, another with a swagger, a third quietly and the last with her head bent..

TV host and all-round amazing Nigerian superwoman Funmi Iyanda went to South Africa and wrote a bunch of really awesome reflections on her trip for the Pilgrimages project. This project is the brainchild of The Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists, who sent 13 writers to 13 African cities. Each writer went everywhere from Timbuktu to Lagos, Johannesburg to Kinshasa, Hargeisa to Luanda. Among the writers are prominent voices in contemporary African literature: Chris Abani, Binyavanga Wainana, Uzodinma Iweala, Olufemi Terry. All of these writers are thoughtful and measured. All of them write with humor and compassion, with an eye for where their thread of story fits into the technicolor mass of fabric that is contemporary Africa.

I'm such a sucker for good, thoughtful, searching pieces of writing. Read all of it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More on Bashir and the AU's Side-Stepping

It's always a good rule of thumb to ignore flowery pontification on African solidarity and all whatnot. That's as much as one can say about Malawian President Mutharika when he waxes poetic about why he's not interested in arresting Omar Al-Bashir. Behind the yarn is usually something more akin to "We'll leave you alone, just promise to keep your people out of my country - the last thing I need is refugees and more street-kids and beggars on the street". At least Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete is more honest about it.

Still, in light of my prior post on Gration decrying the ICC warrant for fear of hardening Khartoum's position on the south, this -- concerning Bashir's absence from the AU Summit -- is worth noting:
Wassil Ali an editor at the Sudan Tribune, says his absence from Kampala is not a question of a personal snub.

"When he went to Chad he was given that assurance that he would not be arrested," he says. "Kampala did not give him that assurance."

Bashir was similarly absent from a peace and security council for the African Union in Abuja last year. Sudan responded by diverting the aeroplane of a Nigerian senate leader just before a pre-scheduled visit and saying he did not have the right to enter Sudanese airspace

Worth noting, indeed. Still, you can't tackle a problem you can't name. It's definitely a small victory for the ICC that Bashir looked before he leapt -- well, traveled -- but the facts are as they are: the AU is divided on how best to handle Sudan; the US doesn't want to hurt Bashir's feelings lest he take a temper tantrum out on the south; the activists are rightly shaking their fists and (perhaps unrealistically) hoping the man gets arrested; and Sudan's neighbors are preaching solidarity (like Chad, who recently let Bashir travel with the guarantee he wouldn't be arrested) or simply making extra certain to stay out of it.

It just looks like people are waiting with baited breath for January 2011 and hope that nothing (much) blows up.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ghana-Nigeria Movie Industry Protectionism

Some folks have started getting queasy about inroads being made into the Nigerian film industry by Ghanaian actors. First it was the Ghanaian superstar Van Vicker getting slammed with $2,000 per fee to make him more expensive to hire, now it's a blanket 250,000 naira clearance fee in addition to cost of hire per Ghanaian (and presumably other foreign) actor. This seemed petulant to me, but it seems as though the Ghanaians may have started all this by instituting a $1,000 fee first:

In a statement sent to the Actors Guild of Nigeria [AGN] Board of Trustees, the Ghananian said, henceforth, any Nigerian actor participating in any of their productions will be compelled to pay $1, 000 (One Thousand dollars) or risk losing the job. This development, according to the Ghanaians, is to give ample opportunities to their local actors, and as a result, develop their movie industry to an enviable height.They are of the opinion that their Nigerian counterparts seem to be dictating the pace in the Ghanaian movie scene, and they want to address the issue before it gets out of hand.

But their counterparts in the Nigerian movie industry see this as a ploy to stop Nigerians from working in Ghana. They may be right because Ghanaian artistes and artisans have insisted on no longer being called Nollywood practitioners and have even gone as far as coining their own name Gollywood. This is being seen as a move that threatens to wipe out the gains of Nollywood.

Many in Nollywood feel that the Ghananias are ingrates that have no sense of gratitude.

The feeling of any average Nollywood practitioner was voiced by the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Actors' Guild of Nigeria, Prince Ifeanyi Dike, who informed that he and his executives are already addressing the issue.

He expressed shock on receiving the news because he never believed that devilish decision could come from their next door neighbours.
“I never believed such decision could come from the Ghanaians. Nollywood has done a lot to improve their movie industry and what they have done now is a clear indication that they are ingrates. How could the Ghanaians insist that Nigerian actors must be paying $1, 000 before participating in their productions? A lot of our popular artistes have been calling me on this issue and I have assured them that we are going to make the necessary moves. It was Nollywood that made Ghanaian actors like Van Vicker, so it is absurd for them to be creating hurdles for our own actors now.”

Ghanaian movie marketers, in a bid to save their industry's skin, are apparently making it difficult for Nigerian films to be marketed in Ghana if a Ghanaian actor isn't involved in the production. Jealousy? I suppose it could be that. Or maybe a mixed Nigerian-Ghanaian cast of characters makes the movie more profitable:

Reacting to this development, Nollywood marketers who also double as financiers, have once expressed the view that while sale of movies had declined in recent times, the need to recoup their investments prompted the use of Ghanaian faces in our films.

According to them, high sales of movies occurs whenever Ghanaians acted alongside Nollywood actors. Recently, the swing in the production pendulum from the Nigerian marketers to their Ghanaian counterparts has also been given as one of the reasons for the invasion. Marketers in Gollywood (Ghana's movie industry) were said to have insisted that for Nollywood movies to be marketed in Ghana, such movies must feature their own stars, definitely not roles relegating them to the background but those that would put the spotlight on them.

Besides, the N1 million 'upfront market orders' bait by the Ghanaian marketers, dangling temptingly before their Nigerian counterparts to be used by Nollywood producers prior to the shooting of the movies (if Gollywood actors are used) have been eagerly swallowed by the Nigerian marketers.

People would make of this what they will ('Those jealous Ghanaians' and all that) but a tax on foreign actors and paying some money upfront to sweeten the deal if movie makers use Ghanaian actors seems like business savvy to me. Ghanaian film marketers know that the demand for Nigerian films is very much there, and so they're piggy-backing off the Nigerian film industry to garner more recognition for their stars. I ain't mad at that. The free-market lover in me is decrying a tax in either direction, but Ghana seems to have struck a nice balance of carrots and sticks in this case. Especially since many Ghanaian actors have become stars in Nigeria, the demand for the Vickers and McBrowns is now there and it's not clear to me that the Nigerian filmmakers can do much more about the situation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Freshly Ground and Drummer Queens

Via Okayafrica. She's the one you saw hangin' with Shakira on that surprisingly cool, not as cheesy as one would expect "Waka Waka" World Cup song. Check out her band.

Thanks to OkayAfrica, I'm also really into Muthoni the Drummer Queen. I don't speak a lick of Swa, but damn...

Gration Lets the Poker Face Slip on Sudan

Obama probably isn't happy Scott Gration said this:

After the ICC's most recent decision, Obama said he was "fully supportive" of the court.

But the president's point man on Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, said last week that the new charges will have a damaging effect on his ability to work with Bashir's government. Speaking at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he expressed dissatisfaction with the ICC's latest move.

The decision "will make my mission more difficult and challenging, especially if we realize that resolving the crisis in Darfur and [the] south, issues of oil, and combating terrorism at 100 percent, we need Bashir," Gration was quoted as saying by Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language radio station run by the U.S. government.

"Also [regarding] the issues of citizenship and referendum, the north holds a lot of influence, so this is really tough. How will I carry out my duties in this environment?" he reportedly asked. [emphasis mine]
The problem with the above statement is not that Gration is wrong (Yes, I know Obama said he's cool with the ICC arrest warrant, but what else is he going to say? I bet Gration's sentiment is exactly Obama's). As I understand it, Bashir holds all the levers as far as who runs the government, who has any voice in dealing with the militias tormenting the South. The janjaweed militia who did such damage in the South have strong links to Bashir's government, after all. It doesn't seem that, with Bashir as head of government in Sudan, there will be any peace without his say-so.

Activists may not like it, but I'm just not sure that this is an issue that the US has any legs with which to stand on in terms of leverage. John Prendergast of the Enough Project took on the leverage question in a recent op-ed. It seems to him that the US operates "on the premise that confidence-building measures and incentives are the best way to impact Khartoum's behavior, but there has been no agreement on which incentives to offer." In contrast, he offers -

Enough's Alternative View: U.S. efforts to build unilateral and multilateral leverage points may be the greatest potential contribution to peace in Sudan the United States can make. Leverage can be built through intensive and high-level diplomacy and the building of a package of multilateral carrots and sticks that are robust enough to get the attention of the parties. Enough is outlining what some of these pressures and incentives could be in a forthcoming publication from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. As soon as the United States begins to build that package, and signals to the parties its commitment to seeing real change in Sudan, it will gain greater influence on the outcome of the efforts to support peace in both Darfur and the South.
What strikes me about this is that, from Enough's characterization of the Obama administration's position, both the US and the Enough Project basically agree that the there's no leverage on Sudan. If the US has had relations with the country before and had had some sort of rapport with the country before, then perhaps things would be different. That doesn't seem to be the case, however, and that is why I think the US doesn't know what incentives to offer. Making things especially difficult is the fact that if the US decides to shun Sudan, there are other powers in the world (China and Brazil come to mind, as we saw in the case of Iran) who are willing to do business with the country in the event of an American attack of conscience. I'll be looking forward to that Woodrow Wilson paper Prendergast mentioned they're coming out with soon, but basically, Prendergast's answer to the "we have no leverage" argument right now is "Go build some, then!" which is simply not enough of an answer.

This basic agreement on leverage is why I think that what really enrages the activists among us is not that Obama cannot see what is wrong with the picture; it's that he is owning up to the futility of the effort instead of resorting to bluster or UN-like kumbaya platitudes. Some people would attribute this to soft bigotry in the form of low expectations in Africa. Others will say that he truly does not care. I have no idea which it is, and really, neither does anyone who isn't an infallible mind-reader. I will say this, though: There's no guarantee that the referendum will be followed by years of peace, and if you still can't come up with a reason why Sudan should care what your position is by now, then I doubt you should even be at the table at all. Gration knows the US has no leverage and is acting like it. Such statements don't make folks happy and people aren't used to the US not putting a brave face on in a card game however bad their hand. Still, I'm not sure Gration is wrong on this one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Africa is Open for Business

So says the FT:
Economic stagnation in the last two decades of the 20th century in Africa was followed by annual gross domestic product growth of 4.9 per cent a year in 2000-08, says McKinsey. Today, Africa has a level of urbanisation nearly as high as China’s with 52 cities of more than 1m people.

Collective GDP in 2008 was $1,600bn (£1,057bn, €1,266bn) – equivalent to that of Russia or Brazil – and combined consumer spending totalled $860bn.

“If you visit Nigeria, you can feel the energy. You can smell it,” says Funmi Akinluyi, investment director for sub-Saharan equities at Silk Invest, breathing life into the dry numbers.

Global executives and investors “must pay heed” to this vibrant continent, McKinsey has said, and pay heed they have.

Africa regional funds attracted inflows of $484m in the first half of 2010, according to EFPR Global, and total investment fund allocation to Africa was a record $1.39bn.

Against a difficult global economic background, Africa regional funds have enjoyed 43 consecutive weeks of inflows totalling $579m since September 2009.

“In terms of sustained interest in Africa, this marks a real turning point,” says Cameron Brandt, global markets analyst at EPFR Global.

And it's all because of South Africa's success of the World Cup apparently.

“The South African World Cup has been a major window of opportunity to shed light on Africa and rediscover it,” says Koffi Vovor of Kusuntu – Le Club, an association of diaspora executives that promotes change and investment through private equity in Africa.

“People have started to realise they are perceiving the continent with a 20 to 30 years old lens.”

Read all of it (And it's free to register w/the FT!).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

'GRA Women' and the Men That Love Them (or Not)

We're getting a new soap opera!
Beyond the glitz, glamour, facade of exotic cars, apparels and lifestyles, people, albeit women, who live in posh neighbourhoods, do have their own fair share of challenges, just like the average individual. This is the idea behind ‘GRA Women’, a soap opera that was premiered at the Protea Hotel, Ikeja GRA, in Lagos, on Friday July 9.

Written and produced by Nigerian filmmaker, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, the event had an array of stars in attendance, many of whom said they could not get enough of the highly intriguing drama.

Speaking at the premiere about the idea behind the soap opera, Anyiam-Osigwe said, “GRA Women is an idea I had all along for a long time now, but decided to produce after I got the right team to work with. A lot of families who live in the GRA have old family connections, as such you see that everyone is connected to the other in one way or the other. Those old family connections and things that happen in GRA are some of the things I want to showcase with this family drama.”

Sounds a bit like Sex and the City (hold the sex) meets Real Housewives of... Lagos. Or something. Among the cast of characters is "an adulterous pastor, and wife who do not have a child; girls on the fast lane; a philandering senator and his lonely wife, amongst many others." So basically, easy to typecast and sell as familiar. Unless the writing is good and the emphasis is places less on leather chairs in the living room and more on the quality of the work. And there have been some good Nigerian soap operas. I remember being a huge fan of "Domino" when I was in Nigeria and who in their right minds didn't like "Checkmate" when it aired?

"Superstory" is where it ends, though. Don't know whether it's still running, but I can't stand "Superstory".

Maybe I wouldn't be so inclined to make fun of this if the filmmaker hadn't said she wants this to be a "family drama". At its best, this should be like every bad edition of National Encomium (or other Lagos-based tabloid article) come to life, full of gossip and cattiness and hilarity to no end. But that would be awesome. I would love to watch that.

More seriously, I'm always on edge whenever Nigerian filmmakers have to depict Nigerian women. I don't care that this filmmaker is a woman -- the trouble with chauvinism is that it makes its convinces the people being shoved aside that they deserve it. I bristle when I hear women saying that they'd rather not have female bosses, and that women are more likely to drag each other down. The trouble with women in Nigerian cinema is that they're never personalities, just caricatures. The long-suffering wife who is thus revered by her children as some kind of saint, the university good-girl-gone-bad, the good girl who is demure and goes to church, to bad one who smokes cigarettes and goes to clubs. I don't know this filmmaker's work -- I'm most familiar with Emem Isong among the female Nigerian filmmakers -- but I wonder to what extent she buys the narrative, and how she will take it on in this series.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Terrorism as Self-Hatred

By now, I'm sure we've all read reports on the Somali armed group Al-Shabaab and the bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people.

Somali militant group al-Shabaab, on Monday claimed responsibility for Sunday's twin-bomb attacks in the Ugandan capital on Sunday night and slaughtered people watching the World Cup final at a restaurant and a sports club, authorities said.

One bombing targeted the Ethiopian Village restaurant, a popular night spot that was heaving with soccer fans and is frequented by foreigners, while the second one struck the Kyadondo Rugby Club that was also showing the match.

Coordinated attacks are a hallmark of al Qaeda and groups linked to Osama bin Laden's militant network.

I'm not always a Barack Obama fan, but I basically co-sign with what he says here:

Obama, leveraging his African heritage and popularity on the continent, took direct aim at the Shebab and Al-Qaeda after attacks on crowds in Kampala glued to the World Cup final on Sunday killed at least 76 people.

"What you've seen in some of the statements that have been made by these terrorist organizations is that they do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself," Obama told the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

"They see it as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents without regard to long-term consequences for their short-term tactical gains," he said, in the interview to be broadcast early Wednesday.

Acts of terrorism by these kinds of groups (in the Middle East and in Africa) have always struck me as a manifestation of a twisted kind of self-hatred. Think of it: They would accept the deaths of 100 of their own people by car bomb in a market square as a victory if they managed to kill 2 American soldiers. They believe that the best way to rise for those that history has never spoken for is to muzzle them forever with death. They accept the deaths of hundreds of their own people, people they claim to stand for, as collateral damage. And if it's true that they stand for the downtrodden, and are downtrodden, then these insurgents have bought into the narrative of their own lack of value. They regard their own lives with recklessness, and that of those that live around them with even less care. How does one look in the mirror and see someone of an expendable class? It's baffling.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Nigeria a Failed State?

Next's editorial board seems to think so:

We have now grown used to commentator after commentator expressing fears and concerns about Nigeria. Last year US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described Nigeria’s situation as “a heartbreaking scene.” Earlier this year former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell warned of the possibilities of severe crisis as the fallout of the intrigues that accompanied late President Yar’Adua’s illness and subsequent abdication of office.

None of these “foreign concerns” can however match the ones that Nigerians themselves have cried themselves hoarse expressing. The truth is that the average Nigerian does not need a listing by an international organization to convince himself or herself that Nigeria is a failed state. Any citizen who has to provide electricity, water, security and justice (often expressed as jungle justice) for himself knows what state failure is with far greater certitude than the best-equipped international pollster or researcher.

Nigeria is not a country that acts like it is. We have money, but you couldn't tell from the inequality abound. We've got tons of oil in the Delta, yet the people are perhaps the most miserable of all. We beat our chests about how great we are, the giants of Africa and all that, yet we are among the ones who flee from our country the most. As instinctively protective a lot of Nigerians are in defending Nigeria, they would be blind or crazy (or both) to deny that there's something seriously wrong with the country.

Nigeria is not a failed state the way, say, Somalia is a failed state, but I'm still not sure the characterization is wrong. We can quibble with whether or not Failed State is too harsh a characterization -- never mind a no.14 on the list of Failed States -- but we can all agree that the state is failing it's citizens.

Lagos Town!

Afrikan Boy wan' kill us o...

Not bad.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Women Run This Town

Writing for the Atlantic, Hannah Rosen calls it, and puts out South Korea as an example:

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.


As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalized. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success.

We can quibble with specifics, of course -- women certainly don't set the beauty standard, for instance, in Korea or anywhere else -- but it makes sense to me that a combination of cultural shift and economic empowerment plays a role in the advancement of women. Read all of it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Next thing you know they'll turn Anne Frank into a Comic Book

And did they ever!

Spokeswoman Annemarie Bekker said the publication was aimed at teenagers who might not otherwise pick up Anne Frank's diary, the most widely read document to emerge from the Holocaust.

"Not everyone will read the diary," she said. "The one doesn't exclude the other."

There has to be some connection to this pervasive anti-intellectualism in modern pop culture and a constant need take big, weighty solid topics/stories/histories and juice it up into baby food easily digestible for those amongst us who don't want to pick up a real book.

You know, with words on it. In less-than-12 not-Comic-Sans font.

I really shouldn't mock too much. I understand the desire to bring impressionable youngsters into a reality and time much grimmer than their own, and make them see what can happen when we forget the wages our humanity. It makes sense to try to make Anne Frank as accessible as possible -- cool, even -- to everyone. And still, it feels wrong to me.

It's not like this hasn't been done before. Maus was also an autobiography of someone who lived through the holocaust and was turned into a graphic novel for much the same reason. Anne Frank, I contend, is different, because many people have actually read the book, and thus have something to compare it to. I don't have the same concerns about the graphic novels with its images reaching the wrong audience, my concern is more for whether a graphic novel can plumb the same emotional depths that a novel or a film or play can. Graphic novels, by their design, drive home the fiction of the stories they tell, whereas the point of depicting lives of those that lived who through the Holocaust is to drive home the point that it happened here, not too long ago, in this universe. Human beings like us did this to other human beings. This, for me, is the key difference between the graphic novel and, say, a play or film, where we can make the connection to this world, and this time, and that point can be made more clearly. I cannot imagine a graphic novel doing for the story what Martin Sherman's 'Bent' achieved as a play, or Ellie Weisel's 'Night'. Heck, not even 'Schindler's List.'

The main problem I have with turning Anne Frank's diary into a graphic novel is this need we seem to have to evangelize that which we hold in high esteem by any means necessary, even at the risk of stripping out the core that makes the story to poignant in the first place. Are we going to turn Homer's 'Illiad' into a picture book? Beowulf into a rap song? This should be funny, but it really isn't -- the Bible is already available in picture-book form for goodness sake!

Does everything need to be made accessible?

Anne Frank held my imagination when I first read her diary at age 12, and still does. I would love for the whole world to read it as a reminder of how to step outside of ourselves and regard humanity, but having met a lot of people, I don't want that. Part of me wants Anne Frank to stay in a book, in severe font, atop a bookshelf. Part of me, a large part, wants her to stay accessible only to those who care to reach for it on the top shelf, and read it. Maybe if you feel like you can only read Anne Frank in an uber-cool graphic novel, then you don't deserve to read it. You're not doing her a favor by reading her diary. If anything, it's the other way around.

Monday, July 5, 2010

TED time, baby

Clay Shirky explains the idea of Cognitive Surplus. I'll let him explain it.

The Boateng Brothers and the Trouble with Africa

Guardian First Book Award winner for her collection of short stories "An Elegy for Easterly" Petina Gappah reflects in the FT on the Ghanaian Boateng brothers, fluidity of African identity (whatever the hell that is, or has even been), and brain drain:

Beyond the razzle and the dazzle and the vuvuzela din of the tournament this strikes me as the most telling lesson of Africa’s first World Cup. Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Michael Essien and other African stars all live abroad, as do many other African professionals. If the continent is to overcome the brain drain of this emigration, African countries must find ways to tempt them home.

The Boatengs’ story is not just one of the fluidity of identity, a poignant theme for Africa’s diaspora in the post-colonial era. It is also even a pointer to how Africa can use the brain drain that has so debilitated its professional classes to its advantage.

Read all of it.

What's in a Name?

So apparently we're in danger of having a famine in Niger. But what exactly is a famine? Depends on who you ask, apparently.

"There is no clear boundary or definition [of a famine]," said Christopher Barrett, a food aid expert who teaches development economics at Cornell University, in the US.

"Clearly, 1984 in Ethiopia was a famine [a million people died and an estimated eight million were on food aid]; equally clearly, 2009 in the United States was not [the US Department of Agriculture said on average 33.7 million Americans received food vouchers each month in 2009, the highest number ever].

Barrett said the typical explanation of a famine was "greater than usual mortality that is caused by insufficient availability of or access to food, whether directly due to starvation or far more commonly, indirectly, due to disease or injury associated with severe under-nutrition."

Stephen Devereux, author of Theories of Famine, a definitive reference book on the subject, noted that dictionary definitions such as "extreme scarcity of food" described a "few symptoms of famine" and selected some factors to "suggest causes", but failed to provide a "comprehensive and concise" definition.

"A good working definition of famine must describe a subsistence crisis afflicting particular groups of people within a bounded region over a specified period of time," he wrote.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers, academics and humanitarian aid workers have tried defining it. Devereux quoted an academic as saying that "Famine is like insanity: hard to define, but glaring enough when recognized."

Let's take this even further: How would media people or aid agencies define 'war'? 'conflict'? 'instability'? 'Religious conflict'? Nobody will ever see the tea party protests against the US government and gun-totting rallies close to the National Mall in DC and conclude that the whole of America is unsafe for travel. That is because it will be cast in its proper light in the US and Western media. I doubt such allowances would be given if the same happened in an African country. It'll be tagged as 'political instability' and the country will be deemed unsafe. My more cynical friends like to say that media loves stark language for clicks on their stories, and aid agencies love such stark language to generate attention to their cause. Perhaps that is the intention in some cases, but I've never been one for conspiracy theories, especially since I have met people who work at much-maligned the World Bank and much-maligned NGOs who truly believe in their work and are not monsters. Rather, I will say that putting situations in their proper context and having a half-baked understanding of history will always lead one to oversimplification. A real shame, really, because what we call things is important, and we should be especially careful when talking about places our audience knows little about.

Back to the famine in Niger, this is not to be deliberately obtuse. Of course when you see enough skeletal-looking children with flies in their eyes you might have an inkling as to whether or not a food scarcity is afoot. But I submit that we should think carefully what we name things, yes, even with famines. Improperly characterizing things can get in the way of what is truly needed to alleviate the situation. It may paint a pathetic picture that would stir hearts, but it will also rob the people on whom the camera focuses of any agency to help their situation.

I can't deny it though. Stark characterization often helps draw attention to an issue, isn't it? And attention translates to aid dollars for cash-strapped aid organizations, many of whom truly want to do their work for the betterment of people, isn't it?

And I said I wouldn't play cynic.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

David Goldblatt's Photography, Search for Humanity

Joseph Lelyveld writes in NY Review of Books about photographer David Goldblatt's upcoming exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NY and his pictures from Apartheid-era South Africa.

The photographer, without being in the least soft-hearted, manages to extend that sympathy to Afrikaners, the people in whose name the oppressive system has been decreed. He can identify with their attachment to the land and comes to share it, even as he chronicles the disfigurement of the landscape and the racial injustice the system has wrought.
I always say that it's important to understand people in the full color of their humanity, warts and all, including their propensity for oppression and how valiantly they struggle through hardship. Still, I submit that there are sometimes I just can't walk the walk. I found myself trying not to be indignant at the photographer's search for humanity in the face of an oppressor even as it is a reminder of people's complexity, and thus a history's complexity. We are all human and thus full of trip wires and contradictions. That's at once a good and a bad thing.

Nigerian Movies Are Products Not Art

Abena P.A. Busia has a speech at a forum on the representation of Nigerian women in the Nigerian film industry that's worth a read. This, on the Nigerian film industry in general, caught my eye.

The Nollywood film industry, willingly or unwittingly, carries on its shoulders the hopes and expectations of a people. Perhaps the situation can be compared to the burdens placed on the shoulders of African-American writers in the middle of the twentieth century who had to grapple with the interface between artistic freedom and social expectations. Was Richard Wright justified in creating a monster like Bigger Thomas to prove his ideological point that desperate social circumstances beyond one’s control produce desperate people, or did he merely validate the negative stereotype that all young Black men are brutes and rapists? A generation later when Alice Walker gave us Celie in The Color Purple was she showing how no matter what the degradations, women’s sisterhood and solidarity could lead to personal emancipation, or was she, justly accused of merely adding further fuel to the fire engulfing the besieged masculinity of Black men.

It is not insignificant that the furor over the Color Purple blazed more furiously, leading to demonstrations against the actors and the picketing of the Oscars, when it was turned into a successful film by Steven Spielberg. It is not necessary to say, especially in a forum such as this, that in terms of contemporary entertainment, film is arguably the most popular art form of narrative communication around the world today. Something that causes a spark when published in print can turn into a forest fire when presented on the screen. Controversial as the novel The Last Temptation of Christ was when published in 1960 by Nikolas Kazantzakis, that uproar paled when compared to the fury unleashed when it was made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese which reached a much wider general audience in 1988. It can also work the other way; I am sure J.K. Rowling the writer of the Harry Potter series of children’s books today goes to the bank quite happy that she need never write another word in life if she doesn’t choose to!

Nollywood faces the same agonies and choices as all the other ‘woods’ have faced. The point I am emphasizing is that the question of the responsibility for images is not peculiar to Nigeria or to film-makers, but is the concern of all artists; however that responsibility becomes magnified when the medium is an influential and popular one, such as film is.

I almost spat out my mint tea when she started talking about Bigger Thomas in "Black Boy" and "The Color Purple". However badly done, I think you can argue that Nigerian films do not ignore the social context in which they exist. Film after film talks about gold-digger wives, gold-digger families, single women who are sworn to never find a man until they cover up their boobs and find Jesus, university "Bigs Girls" with their rich husbands,etc. She's obviously more concerned about the quality of the product than the content of the product itself. She is right that the quality of the work is a problem, but I'm not really sure that Nigerian film industry players understand their responsibilities as anything other than to entertain.

Industry players are business-minded, and business-minded people are inherently risk averse. When you've got something that works, why on earth would you branch out and try out a model that may or may not work? People like Usofia and the twins and the Iya Rainbow type characters. Give them what they want and you'll continue to make money. And that's the purpose, by the way. To make money.

Chris Abani once said that "If there's nothing at stake, it cannot be called art". He's right. And there is nothing at stake here in Nigerian film, not because people just don't care a damn, but because, well, the art doesn't make money. Pouring tons of money into a production, taking care of it like a new-born child, ensuring the acting isn't below par, tightening that cinematography, putting in excellent directors that bring out the best in their actors, putting in actors that may be unknown but are truly mind-blowing..... that's investment in art. Investment that a risk-averse businessman would prefer to minimize so as to maximize profit. An investment a businessman need not make at this point in the film industry because, seriously, no one expects Nigerian movies to be as good as the best Indian or Italian or American movies. We have low standards for Nollywood, so they will continue to be met. And it's just as well, too, so the businessman doesn't have to raise the bar and he can laugh to the bank. The object of Nigeria's film industry is not to create art, but to create a product that will sell.

And you know what? I don't even knock the hustle. Just don't expect me to go out of my way to watch.