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.

Africa Update for February 2019

Here’s my latest link roundup, crossposted as usual from Africa Update.  We’ve got Sudanese clones of Nigerian politicians, books on ancient West African empires, the hidden toilet taxes of Tanzania, Uganda’s “herbal Viagra” which is actually just Viagra, and more.

A young Ghanaian man in a colorful jacket standing in front of a black star against a pink backgroundLove this photos series done around Accra by Prince Gyasi

West Africa: Here’s how false information spreads in Nigeria ahead of elections, including rumors that the country’s president has been replaced by a Sudanese clone.  Follow all of these female Nigerian political analysts for your election updates.  New research in Senegal finds that people who have better political connections benefit more from policies to get informal businesses to register with the government.  Senegal and Gambia have just opened the first-ever bridge between the two countries.  Liberia is considering a controversial amendment to its citizenship law, which currently states that only people of African descent can become citizens or own land.  This was a fantastic summary of the dynastic politics of the Northern Ghanaian kingdoms.  Here’s what’s going on with the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.  Read all about urbanization in West Africa with this new report from the Center for Democratic Development.

Central Africa: The government of the Central African Republic has reached a peace deal with 14 major armed groups — the fourth such agreement the country has had since 2014.  Ugandan postgrad students must often stay enrolled in their university for months or years after they submit their theses to be examined, as the examiners are not paid for their work on time.  The DRC’s contested election ended with Félix Tshisekedi in power even though he lost the popular vote — a result which was rapidly accepted by the United States out of concern that challenging the results would lead to violence.

IMG_0871Here’s a photo of the beautiful Kenyan countryside from a recent trip on the Madaraka Express

East Africa: People with albinism in Tanzania say that beauty pageants and improved media coverage are lessening stigma against them, but they still face the risk of violent witchcraft-related attacks.  In the urban markets of Tanzania, male and female traders pay the same market taxes, but women pay up to 18 times more per day to use the toilets.  Kenya has banned several companies from producing peanut butter after finding it to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold that grows on improperly stored grains and legumes.  A new report finds that minority communities in Kenya face greater difficulties getting state ID cards, which are necessary for access to many public services.  Muslim students in Kenya may also be forced to remove their hijabs if they want to enroll in public school.  Check out this set by the first female Kenyan-Somali comedian in Nairobi. Read about the reintroduction of paper currency in Somalia, after yeras of the exclusive use of mobile money.  This was a good article on the regional geopolitics of the fight against al-Shabaab in East Africa.

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe’s government has ordered public hospitals to provide renal dialysis for free, which increased uptake rates but strained the underfunded hospitals.  South African law says that schools must provide transport for disabled pupils, but many are being left behind as schools say they live too far away or don’t have maintenance money for their vehicles.  This was a fascinating profile of the mineworkers’ trade union in Zambia, which operates more like a business than an advocacy group.

ebola drc“The Ebola outbreak in DRC is really several distinct outbreaks in different areas,” according to Peter Salama

Public health: Restrictive opioid policies mean that cancer patients or people who need palliative care rarely get sufficient pain relief in African countries, although Uganda is a rare exception.  This report finds that nearly 25% of Ugandan women have given birth by the age of 17, and over 50% by the age of 19.  In other Ugandan health news, more than half the “herbal” aphrodisiacs in the country are actually mixed with the drug used in Viagra. This was an insightful article about the ways the DR Congo and its neighbors are trying to prevent the spread of Ebola across borders.  Read these profiles of activists in six African countries working to end female genital cutting.  Listen to this podcast about the politics of abortion in Kenya.  Aid agencies and government need to provide better mental health support for refugees in Africa.

Politics and economics: This book looks like a fascinating economic history of pre-colonial West Africa.  Check out the latest Afrobarometer report on African citizens’ attitudes towards immigration.  African industrialization is unlikely to follow the European experience because of the coercive techniques European countries used to restrict wages at home and forcibly open new markets abroad when they were industrializing.  This was an unusually even-handed discussion of China’s multifaceted approach to diplomacy in Africa.  China also helped Nigeria build a nuclear reactor for research purposes in the 1990s, and they’re now helping remove the fissile material so that Boko Haram can’t access it.  This article points out that internet service providers in African countries have to obey government orders to turn off the internet because their staff might get imprisoned if they don’t do so.  Ghana is encouraging members of the African diaspora to relocate to the country in the “Return to Africa” project, on the 400th anniversary of the kidnapping of the first enslaved African people to the US in 1619.

A cloth printed with blue cherries on a purple background

This kanga honors the LGBT community in Tanzania (via Kawira Mwirichia)

Academic updates: Apply to this conference on African feminisms by March 31, and this one on gender and justice in Africa by April 30.  Submit a contribution to this edited volume on “The Gambia in Transition.”  The University of York is offering scholarships for African students doing the MPA degree.  SOAS has scholarships for two African studentsdoing PhDs in the social sciences.  Strathmore University in Kenya is offering five PhD scholarships in health management for African citizens.  Check out Mawazo’s monthly list of opportunities for African scholars.  Nominations are open for the Royal Africa Society Prize for African scientists.

Africa Update for January 2019

Here’s my latest link round-up from Africa Update.  We’ve got Angolan goat delivery apps, contraception compromises in Rwanda, a deep dive on the Congolese election, postdocs for African physicists, and more.

A skyscraper with fireworks exploding behind itHappy New Year from Nairobi!  (Photo by Sarah Kimani)

West Africa: Meet the only bookseller of Guinea-Bissau.  Read about one Nigerian man’s horrifying experience in captivity in Libya as he tried to emigrate to Europe.  This all-female biker gang in Nigeria drives around the country doing health education for other women.  Here’s some useful background on the current protests in Togo.  Listen to this podcast on statelessness in West Africa from the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana. Across West Africa, women are increasingly likely to ask for divorces if their marriages aren’t going well.

Central Africa: In Rwanda, where the Catholic Church runs many hospitals, the government has come to a compromise with them about birth control by providing access to contraception in tiny clinics right outside the hospitals.  Tim Longman recommends this profile of Rwanda’s Kagame (in French) as balanced and insightful.  Burundi has officially moved its capital from Bujumbura to the small city of Gitega.  North Korean soldiers are training elite army forces in Uganda.  Secondary schools in Uganda are also piloting new Mandarin language classes before rolling them out nationwide.  In the Central African Republic, carrying out surveys is a dangerous pasttime.  Check out these data visualizations of Kinshasa’s population and flight patterns.

Congolese elections:  Here’s a detailed overview of the political landscape in the DRC in the runup to the Dec. 30 election.  Human Rights Watch and Christoph Vogel have written about widespread human rights abuses during polling. Election monitors organized by the Catholic Church have announced that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu gained a majority of votes.  The government complained that the Church shouldn’t have announced their results before the official results, widely expected to favor the president’s preferred candidate Emmanuel Shadary, were in.  Laura Seay and Jason Stearns have both shared informed speculation about how the situation will evolve on Twitter.

Map listing uprisings against colonization across AfricaMap interlude: this is a remarkable map of selected anti-colonial uprisings from Paperless History

East Africa:  Kenyans are speaking up about extrajudicial killings by the police.  In your unusual political dispute for the day, Kenyan salt companies are complaining after the water regulator said they should have paid for the use of sea water in their factories.   Here are some good overviews of the last year in politics in Kenya and Tanzania.  Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have accused UNHCR of demanding bribes before they can be listed for resettlement elsewhere.  What can the popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985 tell us about Sudan’s current protests?  The Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen is hiring teenage soldiers from Darfur to fight on the front lines.  Eritrea’s secretive president rarely tells his ministers anything about policy before it’s implemented.  This is why cycling is so surprisingly popular in Eritrea.

Southern Africa:  This was an insightful post about the politics of cholera control in Zambia.  In Mozambique, pregnant students at secondary schools can now attend classes during the day instead of being forced to attend night classes “where they cannot be seen.”  Madagascar’s prisons sound really horrifying.  As the tobacco market shrinks, farmers in Malawi are considering switching to marijuana instead.  Angola now has an app for delivering live goats to your door.

Politics + economics: Apolitical is curating stories of young people’s experiences in the civil service across Africa.  Don’t miss this new book about the rich histories of medieval trade in Africa.  African activists are taking on climate change.  Here’s why medium-scale farms have quietly been on the rise across Africa.

Research + conferences: The National Academic Digital Repository of Ethiopia is a making all research from Ethiopian universities available online.  African physicists should apply to this Fields Institute postdoc by January 31.  Apply to the East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative at Berkeley by March 1.  Read about why conferences on Africa should be held in Africa.  Nigerian magazine The Republic is soliciting essays about the experience of conducting research in Africa.

The Kan festival requests artwork related to Pan Africanism. No fee required. Submit to kanfestival dot com by Jan 15Calling all African artists!  (Via KAN Festival)

Art + innovation: The Nigerian publisher Kachifo has a call for manuscripts open till March 31.  Check out five inspired inventions from African engineers.  Africa Science Week Kenya produced a lot of fascinating material, including the Faces of Kenyan Science and this book of interesting facts about Kenyan science.  African edutainment programs for kids are on the rise.  Here are the must-read books of 2018 by African authors.

The 25 best longform articles of 2018

Text on a green background reading "6.8 million words" and "92 books," and an image of a badge saying 'Pocket reader 1% club"

My year in Pocket

Continuing my tradition from 2016 and 2017, here are the 25 best articles I read last year, in no particular order.  I share lots of snippets from the interesting things I read at Pocket if you’d like to follow along.

An Internment Camp for 10 Million Uyghurs.  Meduza.  “I was able to find a couple of surviving mosques, but locks held their ancient doors closed. Not far from the madrasah, which was also closed, a furrier sat at an intersection in traditional dress and crafted an Uyghur hat. Both the furrier and the hat were made of bronze. Real fur hats were sold in the city’s souvenir shops, but real furriers were now impossible to find. The marvelous ancient knives that had graced the city on people’s belts and in market stalls had also disappeared. When I greeted a few salesmen and used the word ‘pchak,’ they recoiled, and only one antiques dealer could find a heavy knife case in his stand. Inside were several sumptuous, ancient knife handles — the blades themselves had been cut off. Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains.”

How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.  The New Yorker.  “Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the ‘toy plane.’ But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: ‘Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.'”

Everyday Politics.  Aeon.  “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.”

“Give Us His Breath or His Body.”  Roads and Kingdoms.  “In August 2004, twelve men left their village in Nepal for jobs at a five-star luxury hotel in Amman, Jordan. They had no idea that they had actually been hired for subcontract work on an American military base in Iraq. But fate took an even darker turn when the dozen men were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists. Their gruesome deaths were captured in one of the first graphicexecution videos disseminated on the internet—the largest massacre of contractors during the war. Compounding the tragedy was the reality that their deaths received little notice. Why were men from a country so removed from the war, in Iraq? How had they gotten there? And who, exactly, were they working for?”

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut’s Electricity Brokers.  Wired.  “‘We cover where there is no state,’ says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. “Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise,” he says. But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.”

She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too.  The New York Times.  “Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting. In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.”

My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader.  The New Yorker.  “My grandmother Helen, who helped establish a local church, is buried near the study. My umbilical cord is buried on the grounds, as are those of my four siblings. My eldest brother, Nnamdi, was born while my parents were studying in England, in the early nineteen-seventies; my father, Chukwuma, preserved the dried umbilical cord and, eighteen months later, brought it home to bury it by the front gate. Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. ‘He was a renowned trader,’ my father told me proudly. ‘He dealt in palm produce and human beings.'”

What Putin Really Wants.  The Atlantic.  “But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. ‘We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just funny; how much Americans attribute to him.”

A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe.  LA Review of Books.  “The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache.”

Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry.  Rolling Stone.  “All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.”

Safe House.  California Sunday Magazine.  “Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law. Silvia had stayed at Valentina’s house for a week, and now Valentina has taken to checking on her. She’s hoping Silvia will leave her partner, but she can’t predict if she will or how long it might take.”

Signs and Wonders.  1843 Magazine.  “López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out. Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. ‘I didn’t identify with those signs,’ López says. ‘I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.’ As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.”

Could An Ex-Convict Become an Attorney?  I Intended to Find Out.  The New York Times.  “After the 15-minute ceremony, I turned to everyone, without thinking, and began speaking as my uncle kept recording: ‘The last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison.’ I wanted to say something about the journey. I’d already revealed too much. Miles, sitting beside his brother, paused and looked up. I could tell something confused him. He had questions in his eyes. He stared, listening, as I confessed the thing that I’d been holding back. What man wants to tell his child he’s done time in prison? But I had. And, in that single breath, I’d given him this: an image of his father as both a convict and an attorney.”

The Waiting Room.  The Marshall Project.  “The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County–issued check that is unusable for the “release and run,” as it is known. Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a 13-minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it’s not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff’s department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right.  Politico.  “But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Híyoge owísisi tánga itá (Cricket egg stories).  Carte Blanche.  “Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.”

Embarrassment of Obscurities.  Times Literary Supplement.  “Although NASA was at great pains to present these suits as the pinnacle of modern technological achievement (and indeed each comprised twenty-one layers of fabric, mostly new synthetics such as nylon and spandex), the reality was a little different. Each suit was also a marvellous example of skill and creativity; and it was, almost exclusively, the handiwork of women schooled in the frequently undervalued craft of textiles. The sub-contractor responsible for their assembly was ILC, a firm best known for making Playtex bras, girdles and nappies. Teams of deft-fingered seamstresses and pattern-cutters, working on Singer sewing machines, assembled the spacesuits stitch by painstaking stitch. When the firm received feedback that the prototypes were chafing, they began inserting sections of fluffy material usually used to line girdles; the nylon mesh used to prevent the rubber layer from ballooning in zero gravity had originally been developed for bras.”

The Untold Story of NotPetya, The Most Devastating Cyberattack in History.  Wired.  “Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown.”

Ready for a Linguistic Controversy?  Say “Mmhmm”.  NPR. “Once upon a time, English speakers didn’t say “mmhmm.” But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa’s influence on the Americas. In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say ‘yay’ and ‘yes.'”

Orange or Fruit?  On the Unlikely Etymology of “Orange.”  Literary Hub.  “What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as ‘golden apples.’ Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.”

Slivers of Sciences in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  Discover.  “One of the most common arguments is that Circe was feeding the crew jimson weed. While that sounds innocent enough, Datura stramonium, as it is known in the scientific world, belongs to the deadly nightshade family and contains high levels of anti-cholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These compounds block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. When this neurotransmitter is blocked, we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy, we exhibit bizarre behavior, and we can suffer pronounced amnesia. ‘Patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious,’ says Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf.”

Tea if by Land, Cha if By Sea.  Quartz. “With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and teein Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi. Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.  The Guardian.  “Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martin’s technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isn’t wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into ‘Raphaels’.)”

A Birth Plan for Dying.  Longreads.  “River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.”

Migration is What You Make It: Seven Policy Decisions that Turned Challenges Into Opportunities.  Center for Global Development.  “No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what ‘the’ effect of ‘immigration’ is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration. But the world’s wealth of experience in regulating migration can still be a useful resource for setting better policy. We must ask a more fruitful question: how can different policy choices generate positive economic effects from immigration and avoid negative ones? Immigration is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Its effects depend on the context and the policy choices that shape it.

What I’m reading for December 2018

Cross-posted from my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got positive masculinity in Mali, the triple-taxed business owners of Somalia, a bridge on the River Congo, the perils of not participating in the census in Kenya, and more.

christmas

Musical interlude courtesy of Laura Seay

West Africa: An innovative community counseling project has reduced rates of intimate partner violence in some towns in Ghana.  Mali, Togo, and Benin are using men’s clubs to promote ideas about positive, non-violent masculinity.  Here are some lessons for scaling up cash transfer programs from Burkina Faso.  This was an insightful article about Nigeria’s worsening seasonal flooding problem.

Central Africa: In Uganda, LGBT+ people are finding that rural family members can be surprisingly accepting.  Uganda is also arming local defense groups in places with a limited police presence, leading to concerns that they’ll cause more problems than they’ll prevent.  This was a good summary of how Uganda’s Museveni has managed to hang on to power for 32 years.  The Burundian government is trying to kick UNCHR out of the country after two years of refusing to work with the human rights body.  As the DRC’s elections draw nearer, dissidents who say they were tortured by Kabila’s government are speaking out.  Displaced people in eastern Congo are flocking to wartime boomtowns.  In a historic first, Kinshasa and Brazzaville are going to be linked by an AfDB-financed bridge.

East Africa: Sudan’s parliament is considering legislation that would let President Bashir, who’s already been in office since 1989, stay past the current end of his term in 2020.  In Somalia, business owners complain that they’re paying triple taxesto al Shabaab, ISIS, and the government.  New research shows that cash transfers increase recipients’ trust in local government in Tanzania.  Check out this new edited volume on post-liberation Eritrea.  South Sudan is planning to relocate thousands of citizens away from newly operational oil fields.

Graphic showing that some African countries offer visa-free entry or visas on arrival to almost all nationalities, while about 2/3 of countries require visitors to get a visa beforehand

Graph of visa openness from the AfDB, via Ken Opalo

Kenya focus: In an interesting twist on the standard narrative of multinational corporations grabbing land in Africa, Kenyan governors are trying to reclaim land from large companies as their leases expire, claiming that the British colonists didn’t have the right to sell the land in the first place.  The Africa Prisons Project helped one Kenyan inmate teach himself law behind bars and get his case overturned.  Here’s the background on the politics of welfare expansion in Kenya.  This is a remarkable piece of writing tracing the decline of one Kenyan family’s fortunes under the Moi government through the quality of their daily tea.  Kenyans who don’t want to talk to census-takers next year might face enormous fines.

Southern Africa: Malawi is considering an onerous bill for the registration of NGOs, with penalties including years in jail or fines of $20,000 for those who don’t comply.  Congrats to Shamila Batohi, who just became the first woman to serve as South Africa’s chief prosecutor.  Zambian firms are willing to pay more taxes if they actually see improvements in public services afterwards.  In Zimbabwe, urban authorities are promoting cremation as room in cemeteries runs low, but many people are concerned that their dead ancestors will be angered if they’re not buried properly.

All about museums: Belgium just re-opened its African museum, newly revamped to be less racist, but the DRC is now calling for it to return artifacts for a proposed future museum in Lubumbashi.  When Western museums try to keep African artifacts with claims that they’ll be better protected, “who are they guarding the artifacts from?”  I can’t wait to visit the Museum of African Civilizations in Dakar.

A middle-aged Haitian man in a dark suit jacket and jeans stands in front of an exhibit of his black and white abstract artwork

Haitian artist Philippe Dodard next to his work “Memory in Motion” at the Museum of African Civilizations

Public health:   In Zambia, transgender and intersex people are falsifying prescriptions for hormones and self-administering them when the formal healthcare system proves too difficult to navigate.  Community health workers in Uganda are more effective when they can cover their costs by selling basic medications on their home visits.  Access to toilets is improving in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi, but many women still don’t use them out of concerns over cost and security.  In Burkina Faso, a non-profit is helping sex workers avoid HIV by bringing confidential testing services right to the streets where they work.   Africa is the fastest-growing region for contraceptive use, likely because its baseline rates of usage remain quite low at only around 25% of sexually active women.  Rates of female genital cutting have dropped significantly in East Africa over the last two decades.

My writing: I’ve been doing more writing lately.  Check out some reflections on the politics of African archives, the economics of political transitions in autocracies, and why Nairobi banned the mini-buses which are its most popular form of transport.

Cover of a book titled "the postcolonial African state in transition," by Amy Niang

Looking forward to reading this book, via a suggestion from Robtel Neajai Pailey

Podcasts: Check out the Nairobi Ideas podcast, produced by my great team at Mawazo!  CSIS has a new “Into Africa” podcast which looks promising.  “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing” is a new podcast for East African women in business from Kali Media.

Twitter: Interesting people I’ve followed recently include Franklin Amuakwa-Mensah(Ghana), Belinda Archibong (Nigeria), Oyebola Okunogbe (Nigeria), John Tanza (S. Sudan), Sabatho Nyamsenda (Tanzania), Chitata Tavengwa (Zimbabwe), and Ismail Einashe (Horn of Africa).