Meet the sapeuses of Congo-Brazzaville

Two women and a young boy wearing sharply tailored suits walk along a dirt road

Two sapeuses and a young sapeur (middle) in the streets of Brazzaville

Al Jazeera just published a fantastic photo essay about the female sapeurs of Congo-Brazzaville.  The Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) is a long-runningaesthetic and social movement which privileges extreme elegance in the face of poverty.  Historically, it’s mostly been practiced by men, but this essay highlights the sharp style of the sapeuses as well.

A woman in a suit and dark sunglasses with a traditionally carved wooden pipe in her mouth

Celmantine inherited this pipe from her father, who was also a sapeur

Le Journal International provides more context for the movement’s social appeal:

Although there has been a long history of dandies in the Congo following the slave trade and French and Belgian rule, the social movement as we know it today was revived in the 1970s by musician Papa Wemba, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He promoted la Sape culture, placing a heavy emphasis on the smart dress of all Congolese men, regardless of their social differences.
An ethos centred around respect, peace, integrity and honour accompanies the wardrobe of la Sape. This holds that a Sapeur has to be non-violent, well mannered and an inspiration through their attitude and behaviour. Wemba used this with a political motive. It gave birth to a wave of popular resistance to President Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime of “authenticity”, which prescribed a condemnation of symbolic ties with the coloniser and a return to traditionalism, following the recently regained independence. Wemba made use of la Sape’s culture of extravagant dress to challenge the strict dress codes which outlawed European and Western styles, imposed by the government.
A woman in a suit poses next to a large sign for Prisca Coiffure, with another woman sitting in a chair braiding a girl's hair in front of the sign
Le sape extends to hairstyles as well

On the long run effects of colonialism and slavery in Africa


A 16th century depiction of the capital of the kingdom of Loango, in what is today’s Congo-Brazzaville (via African Agenda)

Stelios Michalopoulous and Elias Papaioannou have a new working paper out reviewing the literature on the long-run effects of colonization and the international slave trade on African state capacity.  They’ve summarized their findings in a piece at VoxDev.

Most of their discussion of colonial infrastructure investments and the slave trade was familiar to me, but I hadn’t previously seen much work on the role of African states’ arbitrarily-drawn borders in provoking conflict.  They make a compelling case that borders which divided ethnic groups tend to increase local conflict.

Homelands of partitioned ethnicities are disproportionately affected by conflict between state forces and rebels that have an explicit agenda to overthrow the government.  …  Partitioned ethnicities are more likely to engage in civil wars that have an explicit ethnic dimension. Since the early 1960s, roughly a third of split groups have participated in an ethnic-based civil war, while the share of non-split groups that have engaged in an ethnic war is around a fifth.  …  Survey data show that education and public goods provision is significantly lower for individuals of split ethnicities, even when compared to Africans from non-split groups in the same town/village.

Definitely worth a read.  I’ve previously discussed some of their earlier work on the long-run effects of precolonial political centralization in Africa.

Meet the door-to-door family planning salespeople of Nigeria

A Nigerian woman in a blue hijab printed with the words "child spacing saves lives" holds a blue box labeled "choice kit," in the courtyard of a house with green walls

Aishatu Abdullahi at work, via the CSM

Over at the Christian Science Monitor, Ryan Lenora Brown (who’s quickly turning into one of my favorite journalists) has a fantastic piece on alternative delivery mechanisms for birth control in northern Nigeria.

In another time, in a different place, [Aishatu Abdullahi] might have been an Avon Lady, unzipping her bag to reveal tiny samples of lotions and lipsticks to neighborhood homemakers. But in northern Nigeria, in 2019, her powers of persuasion are directed toward unloading a very different kind of product.

“There are condoms, there are pills, there are implants, there is a shot,” she says cheerily, unsnapping a box of samples to show two potential customers. “It all depends on the type of method you’re looking for.”

Mrs. Abdullahi is part of a team of door-to-door contraceptive saleswomen hired by the family-planning charity Marie Stopes International to bring birth control to women here who can’t – or won’t – get it elsewhere.

The program is sensitive to local cultural norms and gendered power relations as well.

[Abdullahi has] learned to hustle her products at the few public events that bring women together, like weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, where she often sidles up to women she doesn’t know and asks them, quietly, if they know about child spacing.

That’s the way she phrases it, she says, because the idea isn’t to wag a finger at women who want big families. Abdullahi herself has seven kids, and says her only goal is to give women control over when they get pregnant.

That choice has proved powerful. Local women now pass her number furtively among themselves, so that Abdullahi’s phone is constantly lighting up with unknown numbers. Can you come to my house tonight? Can I have it done at your place? I can’t pay, can you help?

Africa Update for March 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the professional mourners of the DRC, Somalia’s unique mobile money ecosystem, the Lagos art scene, Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon, and more.

A Ghanaian man and his young daughter, with text superimposed next to the reading "justice is what love looks like in public" - Cornel West

Thought for the day, via Òman Baako

West Africa: This was a difficult but important read about rape culture in Ghana.  In Nigeria, “men are always having transactional sex, and they are fine with it as long as they are the ones setting the terms of the transaction.” Technology is making it more difficult to rig elections by stuffing ballot boxes in Nigeria.  Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency over high rates of sexual assault of teenage girls. Survivors of the West African Ebola epidemic are complaining after it emerged that their blood samples have been shipped worldwide for research without their consent.

Central Africa: Uganda is running sting operations to catch healthcare providers who ask for bribes.  If your career is lagging in eastern Congo, you might consider becoming a professional mourner.  This is a remarkable story about how one Congolese doctor worked closely with armed groups to vaccinate people in a remote town against Ebola.  Rwanda has launched a new University of Global Health Equity to train future doctors.  Read this moving piece on Burundi’s tiny lesbian community.

Two young boys sit at wooden desks inside an ornate, palatial room

Apparently the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s former palace in Lisala was turned into a school at one point (via Nicolas-Patience Basabose)

East Africa: Here’s some background on the case currently being heard in Kenyan courts that could decriminalize homosexuality.  Kenya’s new educational policy will give students several more years of instruction in their local languages before switching to English, which should boost their overall literacy.  Read about the rise of rollerblading culture in Nairobi. Two Eritrean brothers are bringing solar panels to markets which big Western solar firms won’t touch. Tanzania has begun offering land titles to people in poor neighborhoods, rather than driving them away for lacking titles.  Here are the historical precedents of the current uprising in Sudan.  This is a great profile of the unique mobile money ecosystem in Somalia, where as much as 98% of all paper currency in circulation may be counterfeit.

Southern Africa: More than 900 people, most of them children, have died in a measles outbreak in Madagascar.  A hospital in Malawi has carried out its first-ever brain surgery.  Malawi’s healthcare system calls for women to get regular medical care for themselves and their children, but some are questioning whether this disconnects men from care.  South Africa has passed a law which would require disclosure of political parties’ funding sources for the first time.  Zambia just made a rare move to revert from a value-added tax (VAT) back to a sales tax, which will probably increase tax evasion.

An overhead view of a pick-up truck painted with camouflage, with several Sudanese men sitting in the back, and a very large Sudanese flag waving overhead

An artistic interpretation of Sudan’s current protests by Jaili Hajo, via Shado Magazine

Conflict: Read this critique of the NYT’s reporting on armed groups and US counterinsurgency operations in Burkina Faso.  France is carrying out airstrikes in Chad against “terrorist” groups which some say are just the government’s political opponents.  Years of attacks by armed groups have shaped Kenya’s public architecture with a focus on (often ineffective) security features.  This is a remarkable story about the Kenyan citizens who went to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab.  Here are the roadblocks to integrating rebels into the army in South Sudan. In the Central African Republic, a high profile panel of religious leaders calls for peace but faces obstacles in convincing the public that they’re credible.

Politics + economics: African governments are increasingly likely to tax mobile money transactions, but even small taxes may drive so many users back to cash that the revenue effects are null.  Here’s a good summary of the expansion of welfare programs across Africa.  The children of immigrants in Africa face the risk of being stateless, as neither their host country nor their parents’ country of origin may recognize their citizenship.  Read about the political business cycles which make elections expensive undertakings in many African countries.

An Ethiopian woman with the bottom half of her face painted blue, wearing a red cape, in front of a blue background

Check out all of the wonderful female photographers highlighted by Sarah Waiswa on Twitter.  This photo is from Ethiopia’s Aïda Muluneh.

Women’s empowerment: Check out these books by Nigerian authors on the longlist of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Maria Obonyo of Uganda gave new meaning to “life-long learning” when she enrolled in primary school at the age of 80 to learn how to write.   OkayAfrica has released their list of 100 influential African women for 2019.  A protest at a Nigerian market has encouraged male vendors to stop catcalling women in order to get them to buy their products.  Meet Claire Karekezi, who is Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon.

Arts + culture: This library inside a converted mosque in Niger is beautiful.   Nigeria’s burgeoning art scene looks amazing.  This is a wonderful piece about the place of kitenge fabric in a contemporary pan-African aesthetic.  I can’t wait to see Blitz the Ambassador’s magical realist film “The Burial of Kojo” about one family’s life in Ghana.  Bakwa Magazine is seeking submissions by March 15 for an issue about the experience of traveling while African.

An infographic about scientific research output in Africa

Facts about African research output via the Mawazo Institute

AcademiaThe 2nd African Evidence to Action Conference is being held in Accra from July 11 – 12.  Submit a manuscript to the Working Group in African Political Economy by March 27 for a meeting held in Cape Town, also on July 10 – 12.  African scholars are encouraged to apply to the Africa Research Development Group at the American Political Science Association annual meeting (due March 10; meeting from August 28 – September 1).  If you’re looking for research collaborators, check out the newly launched Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa.

Political business cycles across Africa

A crowded political rally

An APC rally in Nigeria ahead of the recent election (via Quartz)

Another of my favorite African news sites is Quartz Africa, which has consistently insightful reporting on relatively underdiscussed issues.  This recent piece on political business cycles across Africa is a great example.  As authors Abdi Latif Dahir and Yoni Kazeem note,

It’s a recurring theme across Nigeria, Kenya and many other African countries where elections and the accompanying political uncertainty have usually had adverse effects on big and small businesses—impacting short-term growth

Having contracts stalled and major projects abandoned is “very common” in Nigeria leading up to the polls, the Lagos consultant tells Quartz. “Election becomes a priority, and all money goes into that,” he adds. In the months leading up to polls in several African countries, governance is practically deferred with politicking largely taking over at significant expense. This holdout has even made phrases like “after elections” a colloquial mainstay during voting periods. Amid the uncertainty, businesses and investors also often adopt a wait-and-see approach—dampening economic activity.

The ambiguity over regulatory and policy direction during elections can also have an adverse effect on economies. In election years, governments can either be parsimonious or generous, depending on their desire to complete legacy projects. This affects how companies and investors, working directly with the government (through public-private projects) or indirectly (sourcing, from say, farmers who receive government funding), make plans, says Kenyan angel investor Stephen Gugu.

Read the whole piece, and don’t miss out on their weekly Quartz Africa Brief email as well.

Why Global Press Journal banned the word “ethnic” in its coverage

A map of the world with the initials

I’m a big fan of Global Press Journal.  They work with local reporters around the world to cover the type of stories which are really important for daily life in low- and medium-income countries, but which might not otherwise get much international media attention.  And they’ve just won even more of my admiration for banning the word “ethnic” in their reporting.

As their news director Krista Kapralos explained, “ethnic” can have so many different connotations that it actually interferes with the core goal of journalism: clear and insightful reporting.  She went on to note:

The word isn’t inherently evil. If a source in a Global Press Journal story uses the word in a quote, it’s left as is. But, in every case, it’s imprecise. At best, it doesn’t give readers the information they need. At worst, it compounds stereotypes.

If violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is described as “ethnic tension,” a reader might assume that the conflict pits one tribe against another or that political divisions boiled over. In reality, a spate of violence might be due to a land dispute between two neighboring communities. The phrase is shorthand used by newspeople and academics who either aren’t sure of the origin of the violence or don’t believe readers have the tolerance for more precise descriptions.

The article has several more brilliant points about the importance of not compounding stereotypes about places experiencing poverty or violence.  Definitely worth a read.