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Youssou N’Dour

Youssou N’Dour

Senegalese-born N’Dour talks about his career and “I Bring What I Love“, the new documentary film about his music, on Canadian TV program, Studio Q.

(I went to see the film earlier tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: the film is built around N’Dour’s recording of the album, “Egypt,” and the negative reaction to it within Senegal. Some Senegalese could not reconcile N’Dour status as a pop singer with his desire to sing (Senegalese) Sufi Islam devotional music.

Though I was occasionally put off by the National Geographic feel of parts of the film and found it too long at times, I was drawn to the recordings of live music and the recounting of N’Dour’s early musical career (the film includes some grainy TV footage from 80s Senegalese TV, among others), his central role in cultural life in Senegal and N’Dour’s relation to his family (a number of whom work for him).

‘The beginning of Afrikaans’

Beginning of Afrikaans

I’ve now watched “Brother with Perfect Timing“–the 1987 documentary onAbdullah Ibrahim, directed by Chris Austin–several times. (Ibrahim, if you haven’t figured it out by now is one of the most influential jazz musicians of our time.). Everything I see the film, I see something new. Like in this clip which is of a live performance of the tune “Tuan Guru”with his band Ekaya in the mid-1980s at his New York City Club, Sweet Basil (used to be on 88 Seventh Avenue South, above Bleecker Street in Manhattan). Normally I concentrate on the music. This time I also listened closely to what Abdullah is saying. In the clip, the band’s playing is interspered with Abdullah telling the rich (if often violent) history of the Cape, focusing on the life of Tuan Guru, banished from Indonesia to the Cape as a political prisoner by the Dutch and who became a key figure in establishing Islam in South Africa. It’s then that Ibrahim makes a linkage between Tuan Guru and the origins of Afrikaans. It’s worth watching.

* BTW, I only know of one other documentary about Ibrahim by a German production company which revolves a trip he makes to South Africa to see old friends: Abdullah Ibrahim a struggle for love“

The African mind at work

African Mind at Work

In light of my earlier celebratory mood on the appointment of the openly gay Judge Edwin Cameron to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, see this defense of gay rights by one Mfonobong Nsehe (posted by Charles Mudede on Seattle newspaper, The Stranger’s arts blog, The Slog):

“Don´t get too excited. Let me start by stating categorically that I am NOT gay. I am not a big fan of gay folks either. If anything, I try to avoid them the most I can. Once, during a trip to Norway, a homosexual man in his mid-thirties tried to make advances at me. I almost broke his jaw. However, in 2002, when the then-President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo signed the bill that forbade the same-sex marriage of Nigerians, I could not help but ask: What right does the President of the country have to tell his people who not to marry. The president did not give birth to them. And then, the same scenario was repeated in Kenya recently. The Kibaki-led administration announced a ban on same-sex marriages in the country, calling it illegal. The punishment for same-sex marriage in Nigeria is five years behind bars. For some reason, Africans want to be too sacred, and rather than our government solving the most pressing issues that affect Africa today- poverty, Health issues, Corruption, lack of accountability, ethnic clashes, and the sorts, our governments spend their time in parliament deliberating on laws that would make life harder and worse for the common man. In an Africa that is full of so many problems, if a man decides that he will find solace spending the rest of his life in the arms of another man, why disturb him? Why have our Parliamentarians forgotten the Universal rights of human beings to express themselves in whichever way they deem fit?”

The trouble with Congo


Since August this year at least 250,000 people have been left homeless in Eastern Congo in the latest outbreak of a civil war described here as between government troups and a rebel group claiming to protect ethnic Tutsis. At least 2 million people are refugees from that war which dates back to 1996.

Trying to get good analyses of that conflict in American newspapers or from US television news, is a useless exercise. There’s a better debate in British papers as to what’s at stake in that war and also how we look at it.

Two opinion pieces are now circulating widely: one by the prominent British journalists, Michela Wrong, a former BBC and Reuters Africa correspondent, and the other by Johann Hari of The Independent.


Writing in The Guardian, Michela Wrong suggests:

“.. The spell the word ‘Congo’ continues to cast over Western audiences should prompt some self-examination. Behind every well-meaning ‘isn’t it dreadful?’ reaction lies a host of unstated and unappetising assumptions about Africans.”

Hari, who has reported on the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa for The Independent, writes:

“… When we glance at the holocaust in Congo, with 5.4 million dead, the clichés of Africa reporting tumble out: this is a ‘tribal conflict’ in ‘the Heart of Darkness.’ It isn’t. The United Nations investigation found it was a war led by ‘armies of business’ to seize the metals that make our 21st-century society zing and bling. The war in Congo is a war about you.”

I asked a friend Ingrid Samset, a political science graduate student from the University of Bergen in Norway on a Fubright at Columbia University who does research in the Congo and Angola, what she thought:

Ingrid thinks Michela Wrong is right:

“… This is exactly my point of view as well. Congo has become “our” ultimate other. The media coverage of the Congo again and again repeats, almost on auto-pilot it seems, this myth about the heart of darkness. As I said in an op-ed I wrote about this last year (in Norwegian), “Africa’s darkness is not about Africa. The heart of darkness is not about the Congo. It’s about us.” It’s about how “we”, the dominant discourse, choose to represent Africa and its “heart”. One reason why I have trouble reading the Western (and even African!) press coverage of the Congo is that this myth about the Congo as the heart of darkness so permeates it. The idea affects our ability to see the Congo as it is, in all its variety. And as is often the case in coverage of Africa they also often don’t bother to ask the Congolese what they think. One myth within the myth is that, as The Economist says in its current issue’s editorial, “There is a scant sense of nationhood in the Congo“. That’s simply not true, there is a strong national identity among most Congolese. The Economist also informs us that the Congo “is a hideous mess and always has been”. How helpful.

So when Western politicians go to the Congo today they tend to portray it as the white man’s burden. One may ask though who’s shouldering the heaviest burden. If the so-called international community could simply start treating Congo not as the ultimate other but as a country just like any other country, with a troublesome history to be sure, but a history that can be fully understood and where internal and external actors all contributed both problems and solutions, then this international community would do the Congo a much greater favor than by continuing to portray the country they want to help as helpless, hopeless and dark.”

And her view on Johann Hari:

“… My main reaction is that you cannot dichotomize the debate into two poles and call the one pole a set of lies and the other pole all truth. The conflicts are not only about natural resources. Appetite for those resources can be a driving force, but what I found in my own research investigating the links between resources and conflict in the Congo and Angola was that the resources are more important in explaining why wars continue and last as long as they do than why they break out.

It’s important to get this right because this economic reductionism has been very fashionable in both research and journalism over the last ten years. Yet though a lot of the ensuing policy recommendations have been tailored to respond to those economic aspects – e.g. conflict diamonds, Kimberley Process (a joint governments, industry and civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds ), the Extractive Industry Transparency Ininitiative (which sets a global standard for companies to publish what they pay and for governments to disclose what they receive), etcetera. – the conflicts continue in eastern Congo.

Just to take one example, Hari is wrong when he says that Rwandan forces did not go after Hutu refugees when they first invaded the Congo in 1996. Those atrocities are documented. I think his chief mistake though is failing to acknowledge two things: how the character of any armed conflict changes over time, i.e. how resources can explain different things and be more or less important in explaining conflict at different stages of the conflict. Secondly he ignores how resources would not have been a part of the explanation had it not been for a whole bunch of other issues in the Congo case, related to the Rwanda genocide, to unresolved issues regarding land and citizenship, to the general absence of state authority in eastern Congo, to gender roles, and to generalized, deep poverty. Though it’s catchy in an op-ed, it simply doesn’t hold to say that the conflict is all about us and the insatiable demand of the global rich. It’s part of it but that explanation does not explain why there is not the same level and types of violence in other resource-rich areas of the world. It doesn’t explain the timing of the different incidents and periods of violence, and also it doesn’t explain why some resource-rich areas within the Congo are far more violence-prone than other, similarly resource-rich but more peaceful areas.”

Film Review: ‘Thomas Sankara. The Upright Man’


Upper Volta was a very poor country in West Africa and hardly merited any mention outside that region until Thomas Sankara overthrew the country’s corrupt military leadership in 1984 and renamed the country Burkina Faso, translated which means “Land of Upright People.” Sankara then embarked an a political course that amounted to a “third way” which did not necessarily correspond to big power interests (France, the United States and the Soviet Union in that order).

However, like Patrice Lumumba—an earlier principled political leader who was a violent casualty of the Cold War—Sankara’s penchant for creativity and unconventional politics, resulted in a complex legacy where those who praise his social and economic reforms during his short tenure have a hard time squaring it with his often undemocratic politics. It may also have led to his downfall and violent dead.

As British filmmaker Robin Shuffield’s recently released documentary film, Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man, distributed by California Newsreel in the United States, show, Sankara openly challenged both French hegemony in West Africa as well as his fellow military leaders (Sankara labeled them “criminals in power.”

The film shows how Sankara called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks and to their former colonial masters. He also preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. (There’s a classic scene in the documentary where he had the whole Burkina delegation to an OAU meeting decked out in local textiles and designs).

Domestically, women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labor to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, and promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy. He often made his point through media stunts. Like the time, he told women to stay at home and let the men do the shopping. His administration instituted a massive immunization program, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programs, tackled river blindness, and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. Sankara earned a small salary, refused his picture to be displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.

It was today twenty-one years ago on October 15, 1987 that armed men burst into his office and murdered him and twelve of his aides in a violent coup d’état. In events that eerily paralleled those in the Congo 27 years earlier when Lumumba was executed, the attackers cut up Sankara’s body and buried his remains in a hastily prepared grave. The next day Sankara’s deputy, Blaise Compaoré, declared himself President. Compaoré has ruled that country ever since and has both attempted to co-op and distort Sankara’s memory.

Shuffield’s film details how Sankara made tactical blunders and underestimated the strength of his opponents. This might be why unlike Lumumba among third world nationals or Nelson Mandela among Western elites, Sankara is not much talked about today, whether in Africa or in the West. One West African historian suggested to me that he was a 1960s figure trapped in the politics of the 1980s.

But Sankara was also undemocratic. He banned trade unions and political parties, put down protests (most significantly one by teachers in 1986). Many people were the victims of summary judgments by Peoples Revolutionary Tribunals, which sentenced “lazy workers,” “counter-revolutionaries” and corrupt officials. Sankara himself would later admit on camera that the Tribunals were often used as occasions to settle private scores.

By 1987, he was politically isolated. His enemies—a mix of the French political establishment (he had humiliated President Francois Mitterand in public on a few occasions), regional leaders (like Ivorian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny)—began to tire of him.

Compaoré is widely suspected to have ordered Sankara’s murder and do the French and regional dictators a favor. Though Compaoré publicly grieved for Sankara and promised to preserve his legacy, he quickly set about purging the government of Sankara supporters.

In contrast to the cool reception given Sankara earlier, Compaoré was welcomed by Western governments and funding agencies. Within three years Compaoré had accepted a massive IMF loan and instituted a Structural Adjustment Program (largely seen as one of the major causes for the ongoing economic crises in Africa). Compaoré also reversed most of Sankara’s reforms. (Not surprisingly this included the insistence that his portrait hang in all public places as well as buying himself a presidential jet.)

For the last twenty years Burkina Faso’s government have proved reluctant to investigate Sankara’s death fully. It wants to “move on.” And Compaoré is in a hurry to do so. Compaoré —whose regime has been implicated by researchers in the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia—is having a make-over as a “democrat” and is now a staunch ally of the United States. In November 2005 he was re-elected. That means Compaoré will have been in power uninterrupted from 1987 to 2012.

This year, according to the UN Human Development Report, life expectancy in Burkina Faso stood at 51 years, 23% of adults can read, three in every ten children are under weight for their age, and more than two-thirds of its 13,5 million people live on less than US$2 a day. Many of the gains under Sankara has been reversed.

Sankara’s short four-year reign—for all its faults—as Shuffield’s film show, pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans.