Africa Update for May 2020

The latest edition of Africa Update is out! We’ve got mental health in Ghana, home brewing in South Africa, vintage Somali May Day celebrations, Nigerian digital art, and more.

Photos from last year’s Lamu dhow race, by Roland Klemp

West Africa: In Ghana, activists are encouraging men to speak out about their mental health issues.  Ghana is also using drones to efficiently transport coronavirus test swabs for analysis.  Lockdowns are hitting countries like Senegal hard, where 85% of people in a recent survey said their incomes had dropped.  

Central Africa: Uganda has banned the import of used clothing over concerns about coronavirus.  Uganda has also prohibited the use of public transport during the pandemic, even though this is cutting many people off from medical care and increasing rates of domestic violence.  This is a strangely beautiful drone video of Kampala’s empty streets during lockdown.  Here’s how a financier of the Rwandan genocide was captured in France 26 years later.

Some interesting data on revenue performance across the continent, via Amaka Anku

East Africa: Somalia has launched its first ever government-run cash transfer program for over 1 million vulnerable citizens.  Somalia also has few reported coronavirus deaths, but informal reports from gravediggers suggest the real toll is higher.  Kenya has created a new state corporation meant to profit from the labor of people in prisons.  Tanzania appears to be covering up its real number of coronavirus deaths, even as the president has refused to take basic safety precautions.

Southern Africa: Malawi is one of the few countries without a coronavirus lockdown, after the high court blocked it over concerns of its economic impact on poor citizens.  South Africa banned alcohol sales during the lockdown, leading supermarkets to just coincidentally leave all the ingredients for home brewing next to each other.  South African Airways will be divided up amongst its competitors after going into bankruptcy.

Art interlude: check out this amazing vintage Somali May Day Poster, via Faduma Hassan

Coronavirus: Many African countries have limited scientific lab capacity, and had to use it for testing instead of genomic sequencing, which means that any eventual vaccine might not be as effective for viral strains on the continent.  There’s some interesting data here about the varied nature of lockdowns across Africa, including the fact that most countries imposed them unusually early, with fewer than 10 domestic cases.  Reporting on coronavirus in Africa should do more to highlight the many mutual aid groups supporting their communities.

Other health news: A new malaria vaccine being piloted in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi could make the virus less severe.  Only 18 African countries have adequate systems for recording births and deaths.  Putting chlorine dispensers next to communal water sites is an easy way to improve sanitation in Uganda. 

Agriculture: Here’s a good summary of how the pandemic is affecting food systems across Africa.  People used to respond to locust invasions in East Africa by eating them, but new research says that this strategy doesn’t work any longer as the bugs are exposed to too many pesticides. How can regional rice market integration help avoid shortages in West Africa?  Exports of medical marijuana and hemp are growing across Africa, even as many countries still ban recreational smoking.

Countries vary widely in the percentage of their citizens without access to national IDs, via Carlos Lopes

Economics + technology: Global remittance flows are expected to drop by more than US$100 billion as immigrants abroad are affected by the pandemic.  African tax collectors don’t have very many good options for making up lost revenue due to the pandemic. On the bright side, the virus is driving innovations in technology across Africa.

Gender: Check out the great resources at the African Feminism website and the African Feminist Archive.  Meet the female athletes breaking barriers in Somaliland.  Nigeria has some of the world’s strictest abortion laws, and over 60,000 women die annually from illegal abortions or complications during childbirth.  Rwanda has pardoned 50 women accused of having illegal abortions, but hasn’t changed its restrictive abortion laws.

I’m loving Adekunle Adeleke‘s creative digital portraits

Immigration: In China, African immigrants are facing discrimination over fears that they’re spreading the virus.  Israel has nullified a law which discouraged people from applying for asylum by forcing them to deposit 20% of their monthly salaries in savings accounts.  Meet the scholar studying the global fashion history of the African diaspora.  And Astrid Haas and I have written about whether safe rural migration programs could support urban safety nets in African countries during the pandemic.

Africa Update for April 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  I’m going to guarantee you a nearly coronavirus-free edition, because I collect links for the newsletter over the course of roughly a month and can’t put it out fast enough to keep up with the pandemic news.  So here are some other notable things that have been happening recently, plus a few coronavirus links covering underdiscussed aspects of the crisis.

Nairobi’s new skyline is taking shape, via Sam Muchai

West Africa: Cameroon has introduced new ID requirements for making mobile money payments after the services were used to pay ransoms.  Here’s how colonial understandings of the gender binary erased Igbo traditions with a very different relationship to gender.  Meet the Nigerian judge who’s liberating people in jail who have spent more time waiting for a trial than they would have served if convicted.  In Ghana, the question of whether people who are dual citizens with neighboring Togo can vote is hotly contested.  Ghana has legalized marijuana for health and industrial purposes.

Central Africa: Religious conservative organizations from the US have begun setting up “crisis pregnancy centers” which discourage contraception in Uganda.  In the DRC and Uganda, colonial-era understandings of the role of local chiefs are skewing policy interventions.  The DRC is about to pass its first law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

East Africa: Meet the young Somalis who are changing the fact of the country with online shopping and ambulance services.  Kenya’s flower industry had a bad track record on workers’ rights even before the pandemic basically ended exports. Also in Kenya, a 2015 program to import medical equipment has been criticized after over 1/3 of the equipment ended up in hospitals without staff trained to use it.  East Africa is bracing for another locust invasion in May, even worse than the one in January.

Here’s where the locusts are coming from, via the Mail & Guardian

Southern Africa: In South Africa, the Gautrain project which serves the middle class receives state subsidies, but the minibuses which mostly serve poorer people don’t receive any.  Some women in Zimbabwe are finding new opportunities as bus drivers, while others are moving back to rural areas in order to escape the country’s long-lasting economic crisis.  Why is the insurgency in northern Mozambique getting worse?

Economics: By joining the proposed new eco zone, West African countries might give up control over their currencies in ways that are bad for growth.  Dollar Street is a fascinating new project which shows how families all around the world, including many in Africa, live on different levels of income.  In Uganda, big infrastructure projects have benefited foreign investors while sometimes literally walling off local communities from accessing them.

Interesting map of the oldest companies across the continent, via Ken Opalo

Climate + agriculture: Here’s how women in Kenya are re-introducing traditional crops to promote food security.  How are drought in Australia and floods in Kenya connected?  An American tractor company is working on a plan hailed as “Uber for tractors” in Kenya.  If plans to drill for oil in central DRC go forward, the destruction of the peat bog on top of the oil could release as much carbon as Japan produces in a year.

Research + education: Ugandan kids could learn to read more quickly if they were taught using local plants and animals for phonics lessons, rather than “A is for apple.”  Here’s how to use Shaka Zulu to decolonize the teaching of math in South Africa.  Check out this list of free online academic journals about African issues.

Young women leading the way in Namibia, via Sarah Anyang Agbor

Art + culture: I’m excited to read about all the inspiring women on OkayAfrica’s 100 Women 2020 list.  Did you know that the Senegalese national archives are an unusually good resource for historical research?  Somaliland’s informal national archives started with a crumpled napkin.  Once we can all leave our houses again, do check out the new Yemisi Shyllon Museum for African art just outside Lagos.

Coronavirus: Meet the leader of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, who’s dramatically scaled up public health capacity across the country after just two years in office.  One important lesson from the Ebola epidemic in Liberia is that door-to-door canvassing makes people more likely to comply with public health rules.  Research in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic shows that governments are likely to see much lower tax revenues as economic activity drops.  In East Africa, coronavirus has driven gambling revenues down by 99% as people save their money for immediate needs.  Here’s a great list of articles on the pandemic from African authors.

Africa Update for February 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update!  We’ve got 1.4 million resumes to review in Nigeria, the (possible) end of tsetse flies, Kenya’s first online archive of LGBT+ life, anti-colonial acronyms, and more.

West Africa: Ghana is trying to raise US$3 billion in investment with a new bond targeted at the diaspora.  Unfortunately that money might go to vanity projects like replacing all of the country’s still-functional electronic voting machines. Burkina Faso is taking a big gamble in arming local vigilantes to fight Islamic rebel groups. Unemployment is a serious problem in Nigeria, where 1.4 million people recently applied for 5000 civil defense jobs.

Central Africa:  Rwanda is still trying to make English the official language used in schools, despite rich evidence that students learn best in the language they speak at home.  Rwanda is also locking up and abusing children living on the streets in the name of “rehabilitation.”  Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza isn’t running for president again in the next elections, but he is getting a golden parachute with a lifetime salary and a luxury villa after stepping down.

orthodox christmas
Loved this beautiful photo of an Ethiopian Christmas celebration, via Girma Berta

East Africa: Sudan is opening up its gold market and doubling civil servant salaries while slashing fuel subsidies in an attempt to jump-start its moribund economy.  Check out this a great cartoon about the upsides and downsides of urbanization in Ethiopia.  In Kenya, gambling is increasingly seen as a chance to learn a livelihood outside of state-funded patronage networks.  Kenya’s foreign policy towards Somalia has grown increasingly bellicose over recent years.  This was a heartbreaking piece about the civilians killed by US airstrikes in Somalia.

Southern Africa: A new law means that South Africa can block refugees from seeking asylum if they engage in political activism in their home countries.  Meet the activists fighting for the rights of domestic workers in South Africa.  In Lesotho, the prime minister has resigned after evidence came out that his current wife may have had his ex-wife murdered so that she could be the official First Lady.  The billionaire Zimbabwean owner of Econet is paying the country’s striking doctors to return to work out of his own pocket.  Zimbabwe has run out of money to deport undocumented immigrants, leaving many of them languishing in jail for months.  In a landmark ruling, the high court in Malawi has ordered the country to re-run its recent election.

taxes
Tax revenues are quite low in many African countries compared to the OECD average of 34% of GDP (via The Economist)

Politics & economics: Check out this interactive map of upcoming elections across Africa.  Here’s a good summary of the political history of African states before colonization.  What are some reasons to be optimistic about economic growth and life expectancy in Africa?  This is some useful background on West African countries’ plan to replace the CFA currency with the eco.  As transport routes with China are shut due to coronavirus fears, many Ugandan traders are also facing shortages of imported goods.

Environment & resources: Climate change is almost uniformly a bad thing, but one possible exception is that rising temperatures might kill off the tsetse fly and end the spread of sleeping sickness across Africa.  In Uganda, people in gold mining communities are being poisoned by the mercury used to refine the gold.  The DRC’s long-delayed Inga III mega-dam project has just been pushed further down the road with disputes among the major contractors about the dam’s design.

research
Research interlude: here’s some interesting data from Joy Owango

Health:  A new study in Liberia finds that motorcycles are still more efficient than drones for transporting medical supplies.  In Zambia, rates of stroke are rising as the population ages, but there are only five neurologists being trained to deal with this.  Meet the researchers who are coordinating the African fight against coronavirus at the Institut Pasteur in Senegal. This Nigeria researcher is working to develop anti-cancer drugs from indigenous African plants.

Gender: Meet 14 inspiring women in science from across Africa.  What can African governments do to reduce the burden of unpaid care work for women and girls?  Women who run for political office in Uganda can increasingly expect to face online harassment from men.  In Tanzania, women often don’t ask to use contraception because they feel that their husbands won’t approve.  Climate change might increase the risk of premature births in countries like the Gambia, where many women are subsistence farmers who work outside all day and can’t avoid increased temperatures.

colonization
BRB, ROFL, SMH (via Suhayl)

Globalization:  The Oxford English Dictionary is adding dozens of words from Nigerian English in recognition of the language’s global use.  Here’s how American consulting firms helped Angola’s Isabel dos Santos try to legitimize the money her family had corruptly acquired.  Meet the Soviet-era architects who shaped the visual landscapes of Accra and Lagos.  Read about the 10 critical issues which will shape China-Africa relations in 2020.  Here’s why the Gambian Minister of Justice sued Myanmar at the ICC to force the country to stop persecuting the Rohingya.

Culture: Check out KumbuKumbu, the first online archive of LGBT+ life in Kenya.  What are the top 10 things to know about getting young Kenyans engaged in politics?  This was a lovely essay about polychronic time-keeping and food in South Africa.  Meet the first professor with a PhD in African indigenous astronomy.  I can’t wait to watch the Netflix adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy!

The 25 best longform articles of 2019

A drawing of a rocket with the text "top reader, one percent" next to it, and the text "you're a top reader" below it
A snapshot of my year in Pocket

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles!  If you’d like to read more articles like these, come follow me on Pocket where I share the most interesting things I read throughout the year.  (Previously: best of 2018, 2017, 2016.)

White Words.  Popula.  “At the same time, ‘did you know that the Hopi only have one word for flying things?’ never became a thing either, nor did ‘did you know that the Aztecs, etc.’ And the reason is pretty random, basically; as Martin shows, ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’ became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”

How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger.  NPR.  The culture views scolding — or even speaking to children in an angry voice — as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. ‘When they’re little, it doesn’t help to raise your voice,’ she says. ‘It will just make your own heart rate go up… With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.'”

US Workers Are Paying High Taxes. But Without Any of the Benefits.  Jacobin.  “The OECD may not be able to include employer-based health insurance premiums into its model, but I certainly can. And when I add them into the OECD model, I find that the average American worker has one of the highest compulsory payment rates in the developed world.”

How ICE Picks Its Targets in the Surveillance Age.  New York Times.  “The winter after Donald Trump was elected president, strangers began appearing in a parking lot on southern Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula, at the port where the oyster boats come and go. Rather than gaze at the bay or the boats or the building-size piles of bleached shells, two men — one thinner, one thicker — stared at the shellfish workers. The strangers sat in their vehicle and watched the workers arrive in their trucks. They watched the workers grab their gear and walk to the docks. The workers watched them watching, too, and they soon began to realize that the men were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the workers made eye contact, the officers nodded politely, but they said very little. For weeks, they just watched. Then the workers began to vanish.”

Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts.  Emergence Magazine.  “My grandfather raised pigs and cured hams that hung from the rafters in the smokehouse. My grandmother was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses for white folks. Before and after she went to work, she fetched water from the well. She slopped the hogs. Canned vegetables and stored them in the cellar. Fed chickens. Milked cows. Shucked corn. Sewed clothes for herself and me. Quilted. But still there were always three meals on the table. Precise. Orderly. Delicious.”

Dial Up!  The Verge.  “Participation is what keeps Hmong conference line radio alive. A caller dials the conference call number, usually shared through word of mouth or on Facebook groups. The lines have hourly programming and themes: call in the afternoon, and you might find someone singing traditional Hmong folk songs. In the evening, maybe it’s business advice from Hmong entrepreneurs. Whatever the topic, the shows are all in Hmong, a key factor that’s both unique to the medium and essential for its survival. An oral culture for much of their history, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950s, and only 40 percent of foreign-born Hmong Americans were English-proficient as of 2015.”

Yaa Naa Rides to Yani: A Saga of Restoration.  The Scarab.  “The Asantehene intentionally invoked the ancient tributary treaty by referring to certain Dagbon royals as his ‘children’. This was obviously provocative, considering that Dagbon is nearly 300 years older than Asante, but it was meant to play back Manhyia’s ancient pact with Naa Ziblim and send coded messages to key actors within the Dagbon establishment: the steel axe is falling; realpolitik is here.”

Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa.  The Open Notebook.  “In some respects, a fossil find was the perfect subject for my first foray into reporting in Zulu. That’s partly because South Africa is rich with paleontological finds and research. But also, paleontology is a storytelling science—one that lends itself to imaginative tales about origin and how things came to be. Such stories are a staple of Zulu culture. To Zulu speakers encountering dinosaurs through the lens of their native tongue for the first time, the ancient creatures seem like mythical beings straight out of a fireside folk tale.”

Bombay Nights.  Aeon.  “While workers fought battles against employers for a shorter workday, they were also attending night schools established in cooperation with social-reform organisations. As soon as the mills closed and the dusk descended, many workers turned into students. Though tired, many went straight to night school at 7pm, and spent two hours enjoying the pleasure of reading, listening to the teacher and holding a book. The night became reserved for aspiring.”

The Coming Fight for the Dalai Lama’s Soul.  Foreign Policy.  “That makes the next life of the Dalai Lama critical. Beijing claims that the Chinese government has the sole right to determine both whether the Dalai Lama, officially the 14th in an ancient spiritual lineage, will reincarnate and in whom he will reincarnate. This might seem a contradiction in terms for an atheist state, but it’s part of the messy legacy of China’s religious-imperial past under the Qing Dynasty. Since Beijing’s claim to Tibet rests largely on the Qing-era borders, picking the lamas ostensibly comes with the territory.”

Four is ForbiddenChinaFile.  “It was the first and last time I asked about June Fourth while in China. For a Chinese family like mine, politics and death were the two biggest taboos. Seven years later and 7,000 miles away, I finally understood the full meaning of the ominous phrase. Now, another decade has gone by since I moved to the U.S. Every time I see a mass demonstration take place, my mind rushes to that fateful night in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government sent three hundred thousand regular troops with tanks and machine guns to crush a student-led pro-democracy protest. Born after the tragedy with no family members involved, I am nevertheless a child of Tiananmen, its aftermath shaping my life and education from the moment they began.”

Ghost Ships, Crop Circles, and Soft Gold: A GPS Mystery in Shanghai.  Technology Review.  “Nobody knows who is behind this spoofing, or what its ultimate purpose might be. These ships could be unwilling test subjects for a sophisticated electronic warfare system, or collateral damage in a conflict between environmental criminals and the Chinese state that has already claimed dozens of ships and lives. But one thing is for certain: there is an invisible electronic war over the future of navigation in Shanghai, and GPS is losing.”

The Strange Story of Hay Fever in Japan: Construction, Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change. Gaijinpot.  “Artificially planted cedar forests make up 18 percent of the nation’s forests, while artificial native cypress trees, or hinoki (檜), make up around 10 percent. The unluckiest cedar hayfever sufferers also develop an allergy to cypress pollen, too.  In 1964, Japan’s lumber market was opened to cheaper, foreign imports and consumption of domestic timber dropped from roughly 90 percent to less than 30 percent. Turnover of the trees slowed and vast areas of cedar were left to mature to around 30 years of age when they began to produce pollen – in vast amounts.”

It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel.  Wired.  “Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. ‘I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,’ Nelson says.”

Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy.  Discard Studies.  “In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously (and controversially at the time) declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Stouffer’s idea addressed an emerging problem for industry. Products tended to be durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style). With this mode of design, markets were quickly saturating. Opportunities for growth, and thus profit, were rapidly diminishing, particularly after America’s Great Depression and the two World Wars, where an ethos of preservation, reuse, and frugality was cultivated. In response, industry intervened on a material level and developed disposability through planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption. These changes were supported by a regimen of advertising that telegraphed industrial principals of value into the social realm, suggesting the difference between durable and disposable, esteemed and taboo. American industry designed a shift in values that circulated goods through, rather than into, the consumer realm. The truism that humans are inherently wasteful came into being at a particular time and place, by design.”

A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body.  The Cut.  “Having a mutant LHCGR gene leads to what doctors now call familial male-limited precocious puberty, an extremely rare disease that affects only men because you have to have testicles, which is why it’s also called testotoxicosis. The condition tricks the testicles into thinking the body is ready to go through puberty — so wham, the floodgates open and the body is saturated with testosterone. The result is premature everything: bone growth, muscle development, body hair, the full menu of dramatic physical changes that accompany puberty. Only instead of being 13, you’re 2.”

Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s.  Science.  “Don’t like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v,’ opening a world of new words.”

I Assure You, Medieval People Bathed.  Going Medieval.  “And yeah, some holy people didn’t bathe, notably saints who would forego bathing themselves but bathe sick or poor people. But if you bring that up you are missing the point. Medieval people thought that bathing and being clean was really nice, so giving it up and living with your stank was a sign that you had given up on the corporeal world and only thought of heaven. It was holy because it was uncomfortable, like wearing a hair shirt, or eating vegan, and hitting your chest with rocks and sitting in the desert trying not to wank. You know, standard saint stuff. It is mentioned because it is uncommon and uncomfortable.”

One Couple’s Tireless Crusade to Stop a Genetic Killer.  Wired.  “Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Sonia had expected to take a temporary sabbatical from her real life, but soon textbooks and academic articles weren’t enough. “The practice of science and the classroom version of science are such different animals,” Sonia says. She wanted to try her hand in the lab. She found a position as a technician with a research group focusing on Huntington’s disease. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-­crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure.”

Hyperinflation and Trust in Ancient Rome.  Notes on Liberty.  “Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to ‘print’ money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best ‘test’ of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.”

Why Do so Many Egyptian Statues Have Broken Noses?  Artsy.  “‘The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,’ Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively ‘killing’ it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm—most commonly used to make offerings—is cut off so the statue’s function can’t be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings)… Even if a petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing the precious objects, he was also concerned that the deceased person might take revenge if his rendered likeness wasn’t mutilated.”

The Kitenge Route: The Algorithms and Aesthetics of African Fabrics.  The Elephant.  “Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, ‘African fabric’ is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.”

Was Shakespeare a Woman?  The Atlantic.  “Bassano lived, Hudson points out, “an existence on the boundaries of many different social worlds,” encompassing the breadth of the Shakespeare canon: its coarse, low-class references and its intimate knowledge of the court; its Italian sources and its Jewish allusions; its music and its feminism. And her imprint, as Hudson reads the plays, extends over a long period. He notes the many uses of her name, citing several early on—for instance, an Emilia in The Comedy of Errors.  (Emilia, the most common female name in the plays alongside Katherine, wasn’t used in the 16th century by any other English playwright in an original work.) Titus Andronicus features a character named Bassianus, which was the original Roman name of Bassano del Grappa, her family’s hometown before their move to Venice. Later, in The Merchant of Venice, the romantic hero is a Venetian named Bassanio, an indication that the author perhaps knew of the Bassanos’ connection to Venice.”

What Do so Many Global Cuisines Have in Common? A Bright Yellow Package of Maggi Magic.  Washington Post.  “Peek into homes and restaurants in China, Poland, the Philippines, France and Australia, and you’ll probably find Maggi products — most often a seasoning sauce, bouillon cube, noodle or soup mix — on one of the shelves. The seasoning sauce Maggi Würze, which is reminiscent of the flavor of lovage, has become so popular and beloved in Germany that Germans often colloquially referent to lovage as ‘maggikraut.’ Like salt, fat, acid and heat, Maggi is one of the few great unifiers of the world’s kitchens and may be Switzerland’s largest and most influential culinary contribution.”

The Understory.  Emergence Magazine.  “That day I read aloud a poem that was important to us both, ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost, in which climbing the snow-white trunks of birches becomes both a readying for death and a declaration of life. Then he told me about new research he had recently read concerning the interrelations of trees: how, when one of their number was sickening or under stress, they could share nutrients by means of an underground system that conjoined their roots beneath the soil, thereby sometimes nursing the sick tree back to health. It was a measure of my friend’s generosity of spirit that—so close to death himself—he could speak unjealously of this phenomenon of healing. He did not have the strength then to tell me the details of how this belowground sharing operated—how tree might invisibly reach out to tree within the soil. But I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees into forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there took root. Over the years I would encounter other mentions of the same extraordinary idea, and gradually these isolated fragments began to connect together into something like understanding.”

Africa Update for December 2019

Welcome to the latest edition of Africa Update!  We’ve got the competitive rollerbladers of eastern DRC, the Nairobi governor’s prison break, African women on boards, the health threats of kids’ facepaint in Uganda, and more.

West Africa: This was a wild story about a Nigerian sailor who got hijacked by pirates, forced to work for them, and then arrested for piracy himself.  Older Nigerians find WhatsApp easier to use than other social media or internet platforms, but it also leaves them less able to check on false news before spreading it.  The Senegal-Mali railway line has slowly been falling into ruin, with workers showing up though they haven’t been paid for nearly a year.  An ECOWAS court has ruled that Sierra Leone must stop kicking pregnant students out of school.

Central Africa: Meet the competitive rollerbladers of eastern DRC.  In Burundi, the president continues to consolidate his power and crack down on civic space.  Qatar Airways has acquired a 60% stake in Rwanda’s planned new international airport.  Agro-processing accounts for almost 70% of Uganda’s manufacturing sector, but many factories are still sitting idle.

A mural of a colorful blue and pink face on a cement wall
Art at the Nairobi Railway Museum, via Nanjala Nyabola

East Africa: This piece debunks a lot of harmful stereotypes about northern Kenya.  The leading Janjaweed commander in Sudan exported almost a ton of gold to Dubai in a single month in 2018.  South Sudan has stopped paying civil servants but is still spending lavishly on the military and perks for MPs. Here’s some useful background on ethnic politics in Ethiopia.  Somalia’s president is stacking the deck to get re-elected in 2020.

Governance in Kenya: The Kenyan Red Cross collected almost US$10 million after a 2011 famine, but a new investigation shows that most of the money never reached the victims.  The governor of Nairobi is in trouble for failing to disclose that he escaped from prison in 1998.  Kenya may be losing up to 1/3 of its national budget to corruption every year.

Southern Africa: In South Africa, climate change protests often discuss environmentalism as an individual responsibility rather than a need to rethink the structure of the economy.  Private CCTV networks are creating a new type of racial apartheid in South Africa.  This was an insightful illustrated guide to Zimbabwe’s ongoing currency crisis.  In Mozambique, kids as young as four are forced to mine mica, which is used in electronics and makeup.

A graph showing the gender and national breakdown of startup founders in Africa
Women are still substantially underrepresented as start-up founders across Africa, according to Forbes

Human rights: A militia leader in eastern DRC was convicted of war crimes less than two years after they occurred, in an unusually rapid turnaround for the Congolese courts.  On Congo’s palm oil plantations, workers are consistently being exposed to toxic chemicals.  Who is policing the police in Kenya?

Politics + economics: Here’s an insightful overview of the state of judicial systems in West Africa. I’m looking forward to reading this new book on the politics of social protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.  A new study shows that giving cash transfers to families in Kenya is very good for the local economy and doesn’t lead to inflation.  Tullow Oil has seen its stock price crash after problems with its oil investments in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.  Jumia has pulled out of Tanzania, Cameroon and Rwanda in the last few weeks.

Environment:  In northern Uganda, conflict is leading to deforestation.  But are movements to plant more trees in Africa to fight climate change just a new kind of colonialism?  In Ghana, fisheries observers are facing threats for reporting illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers.  Read about how four African mega-cities are adapting to climate change.

Lake Malawi, with a large mountain in the background
Scenic Lake Malawi, from Kim Yi Dionne

Health: Most African countries still haven’t banned lead paint, leading to concerns that kids are being exposed at home and via facepainting.  Burkina Faso has a controversial new plan to wipe out malaria by sterilizing mosquitos.  In Zimbabwe, doctors are striking over missing medical supplies and inflation which has wiped out their salaries.  Millions of unsafe abortions are performed annually in Nigeria, where the procedure is illegal in most circumstances.

Gender: TheBoardroom Africa is connecting African women with corporate and non-profit board positions.  Kenya’s national homicide data doesn’t list the gender of victims, but one MA student is working to change that.  Many African countries have laws which protect women and children, but don’t address the specific risks faced by young girls.  These were moving ethnographic interviews with women doing sex work in Uganda.

Education: Check out this review of research on African education by scholars based in Africa.  A Nigerian effort to make Igbo an official language of instruction is running into opposition from parents and students, who feel that English and Pidgin are better languages for business.

 

A portrait of a young woman on a colorful pink and purple background
I’m loving Kenyan-French artist Evans Mbugua’s colorful portraits

Research roundup: The latest round of Afrobarometer data is out, for all your opinion polling needs.  The British Journal of Political Science has ungated a selection of articles on African politics until the end of December 2019.  The Africa Science Desk has an open call for scientific journalism.  What does impact evaluation capacity look like across Africa?  I agree that the African Studies Association of Africa should get to be the main “African Studies Association,” and the existing ASA should be renamed “African Studies Association of America”!

Art + literature: Did you know that Nando’s is the biggest collector of South African art? Here’s a great interview with the founder of Bakwa, Cameroon’s first literary magazine.  The Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic has a new grant for publishing in local African languages.  Read about the history of Hausa feminist literature in Nigeria.  Nairobi has a vibrant literary house party scene.  Check out this open access sound archive of Nairobi.

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.