Africa Update for November 2019

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got a new metro system in Abidjan, culinary imperialism in Kenya, plans to refill Lake Chad with a giant canal, how hospitals in Malawi are getting men to do more housework, and more.

A view of Nairobi with Karura Forest in the foreground

A stunning view of Nairobi, via Kenyapics

West Africa: Follow 5 young Nigerian journalists as they travel across 14 West African countries along the Jollof Road.  In Nigeria, former members of Boko Haram and ISIS trafficking survivors have found it very difficult to re-integrate into civilian society.  Hundreds of children, some as young as 5, have been arrested by the Nigerian police on suspicion of involvement with Boko Haram.  Abidjan is getting a metro system.  A new policy that lets cocoa farmers plant in “degraded” forests could lead to widespread deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire.  This is a great resource on the history of West Africa at a glance.

Central Africa:  This was a thoughtful piece about breaking the cycle of motorcycle theft and violent retribution in the CAR.  Members of opposition parties are regularly being killed in Rwanda, although no one wants to point a finger directly at the government.  Rwanda is also getting a new nuclear research reactor with support from Russia.  The Uganda Law Society has released a new app meant to connect women and girls to legal advice.  LGBT+ rights are under threat again in Uganda, with discussion of another law to make gay sex punishable by death.  Check out this incredible mixed media piece about one family’s experience becoming refugees after the Congo Wars of the 1990s.

A cartoon showing a Chinese dragon scaring the crane and impala away from the Ugandan national crest

Here’s Atukwasize ChrisOgon‘s take on Chinese investment in Uganda

East Africa: In Kenya, the urban middle class is increasingly turning to “telephone farming” to diversify their income streams.  Here’s a wonderful piece about khat and precolonial cuisine in Kenya.  See also this piece about the history of culinary imperialism in Kenya.  Meet the the Jehovah’s Witnesses targeting Chinese immigrants in Kenya.  This is a good overview of Ethiopia’s complicated ethnic and regional politics.  There’s an ambitious plan to refill Lake Chad by piping water in from the DRC via the CAR.

Southern Africa: A novel campaign strategy has been spotted in Botswana, where the opposition handed out menstrual pads with the party logo on them.  This was a heartbreaking piece about sexual violence in South Africa and the #AmINext movement.  Check out this photo essay on the mine-clearing women of Angola.  Here’s an insightful long read about what really happened to the billions of dollars that were to be spent on Angola’s post-war reconstruction.  Why is Zambia planning to finance almost 10% of its 2020 budget through a mysterious “exceptional revenue” source?

Sunset on a beach, with a boat and a person in the foreground

Kismayo sunset, by Said Fadhaye

Gender: Meet Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the first female mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Roughly 1/3 of African businesses have no women on their boards, and another 1/ 3 have only one woman.  In Malawi, a program which gives pregnant women housing close to hospitals before they deliver their babies has increased their husbands’ housework commitments while they’re away.  This is a remarkable portrait of three generations of women who have stood up to dictatorship in Sudan.  Kenya’s Gladys Ngetich is breaking barriers about women in STEM with her PhD on improving the efficiency of jet engines.

Business: This is a must-read piece on the political economy of foreign start-ups in Kenya.  Orange is developing a new feature phone for the African market which includes social media apps.  Uber is launching boat taxis in Lagos.  Africa has 15% of the world’s population, but fully 45% of the world’s mobile money activity.  African cosmetics companies are getting acquired by international corporations which want to offer better products for black skin and hair.  Check out my Mawazo co-founder Rose Mutiso’s TED talk on how to bring affordable electricity to Africa.

Maps showing that there appears to be much more poverty in Africa when it's measured at the district level rather than the country level

The geographic distribution of wealth in Africa looks very different depending on whether it’s measured at the country, province, or district level (via Marshall Burke)

Politics:  Africa Check has a great Promise Trackers page checking on the campaign promises of ruling parties in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.  In many African countries, political parties aren’t obliged to disclose private donations, in an area ripe for campaign finance reform.  In Ghana, the “I Am Aware” project successfully helped people push their local governments to improve the quality of public services like sanitation.  More than 45% of African citizens live in a country where the last census was done more than 10 years ago.  It turns out that most of Africa’s “civil wars” are actually regional wars.

Public health: Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe of the DRC discovered Ebola in the 1970s, but has been largely written out of the historical record, until now.  Check out this incredible photo essay about Ebola first responders in eastern DRC. Also in the DRC, snakebites are an underdiscussed public health crisis. A new study finds that more than 40% of women are verbally or physically abused while giving birth in Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria.  Here’s how toxic masculinity can lead to the spread of HIV in Uganda.

A colorful portrait of a man and a woman on a red and pink printed background

Don’t miss Bisa Butler’s inspiring portraits of Black Americans done in African fabrics

Art + culture: A Togolese vintage clothing dealer is making waves in France by re-importing cast-off clothing previously sent to Togo.  Meet Kenyan sculptor Wangechi Mutu, who’s taking over the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until January 2020.  What can be done about the spike in fake South African art?  Check out the first print issue of Cameroon-based Bawka Magazine, about travel stories.  Let’s celebrate these six inspiring young climate activists from low income countries, including Kenya and Uganda.  Learn about all the unusual ways that African countries got their names.  Here are the rising female artists of Kampala.

The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

Links I liked: women’s activism edition

women's education

Banner at Makerere University (photo by me)

This post brought to you by a number of excellent articles I’ve recently found highlighting women’s activism in Africa and elsewhere.

  • I was put in mind of the banner above by this profile of Dr Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro, another early female student at Makerere and the first woman from east or central Africa to graduate from Oxford.  “When Ntiro joined Makerere College … the male Maths lecturer advised her to ask for and go to where ‘female’ courses like knitting and tailoring were taught.”  She went on to push for women’s access to public education in Uganda and Kenya

 

Links of the day, country update edition

A smattering of updates from around Africa:

  1. Burundi: Conflicting judicial mechanisms for land reallocation and titling after the civil war are keeping the potential for renewed tensions alive.
  2. Central African Republic: An update on the Seleka rebellion and the potential collapse of Bozize’s regime from African Arguments.
  3. Ghana: People who are institutionalized for mental illness were able to vote in presidential elections for the first time in December.
  4. Guinea: The Economist writes about business as usual under reformist president Alpha Conde.
  5. Kenya: An openly gay political candidate dropped out of a senate race over a lack of funding in December, and anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo spoke to the Economist back in November.
  6. Nigeria: Striking photos from an illegal oil refinery in the Niger Delta.