The latest edition of Africa Update is out! We’ve got Africa’s 100 largest cities, debates on gun policy in Nigeria, 13 films on the queer African experience, an ambitious plan to refill Lake Chad, and more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Forbidden. ChinaFile. “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.”
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.