Africa Update for May 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the export of Ugandan mercenaries, Kenya’s geothermal energy investments, Cameroonian refugees in Mexico, Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, and more.

West Africa: Political tensions continue to simmer in Sierra Leone as the current government has set up a commission to investigate corruption under its predecessor. I can’t wait to read this book on empires in medieval West Africa.  Learn about why the ubiquitous “Ghana-must-go” woven plastic bag takes its name from a conflict between Ghana and Nigeria in the 1980s.  Anglophone refugees from Cameroon who have fled into Nigeria are struggling to survive with limited support from the government or aid donors, whilst others have fled as far as Mexico in their quest for asylum.

Central Africa: Distrust of the state and the inability to perform rituals that will appease the spirit of a dead person are among the many reasons people in the DRC have been resisting Ebola treatment.   This was an evenhanded look at why it’s so difficult to source “responsible” minerals from eastern DRC. Uganda has doubled its military spending for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, and is now officially exporting more mercenaries than coffee.  In Kigali, Burundian journalists are still trying to publish their news in exile.  The Rwandan Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a crime to insult President Kagame.

Chart showing that a majority of Kenyans say the high cost of living is the biggest problem in their countryKenyans are really concerned by their country’s high cost of living (via Twaweza)

East Africa: Drought and crop failures have left many people in northern Kenya on the brink of famine, but neither the government nor other citizens seem to be paying much attention.  This was an insightful long read about Kenya’s many unsuccessful attempts to create reliable national ID and credit reporting systems.  Former US diplomats are lobbying the Trump administration not to push for the creation of a war crimes court in South Sudan, even though this is mandated under the current peace deal.  Sudan’s revolution shows the importance of trade unions in organizing civil dissent.  Saudi Arabia is offering funding to Sudan’s interim government out of concerns that regional revolutions could spark unrest at home.

Southern Africa: The UN is investigating allegations that community leaders in Mozambique have forced women to pay them or have sex with them in order to access aid after Cyclone Idai.  In South Africa, news coverage of protests tends to assume that poor people won’t participate unless they’re manipulated into doing so, which denies them political agency.  Read this summary of a very good piece about Mandela’s legacy, 25 years after the end of apartheid.  Studies in Zimbabwe have been key to challenging the assumption that depression doesn’t affect people in low income countries.

Map showing that elections will be held in 15 African countries in 2019Map of upcoming African elections via Africa Research Centre

Spotlight on urbanization in Nairobi: Check out this new documentary about the social justice working groups which are documenting human rights abuses in poor neighborhoods across the city.  This was an insightful piece about the Sudanese history of Kibera.  Meet the Kibera woman running one of the neighborhood’s only therapy centers for children with disabilities.  In Mathare, perpetual water shortages mean that residents must choose between drinking water or bathing their children.

Health: Senegal’s air pollution, caused by cars and harmattan dust, is sending increasing numbers of people to the hospital.  In Kenya, low quality healthcare and easy access to antibiotics mean that antibiotic-resistant diseases are on the rise.  Nigerian doctors are increasingly moving abroad, frustrated with a national healthcare system which pays less than US$600 per month.  Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are rolling out pilots of a new malaria vaccine.  Kenyan soldiers who’ve developed PTSD from operations in Somalia have been court-martialed for misbehavior rather than receiving treatment.

Four young men push a barrel of oil up a sandy beachThis Guardian photo essay on the black market for fuel in Togo and Benin was really gripping

Doing business: Read about the first running shoe company designed by and for Kenyans.  This looks like an interesting ethnography about Heineken’s phenomenal business success in Africa.  New studies in Ghana and Tanzania find that people overestimate how much time they spend working on their farms if they’re asked at the end of the planting season, rather than week by week during the season.

Environment: Meet the Nigerian women tackling urban waste disposal problems by starting recycling companies.  Kenyan scientists are developing low cost solutions to help fishermen avoid catching endangered or low value species of marine life.  Kenya is increasingly switching to geothermal energy, and could be one of the biggest producers in the world once a new plant opens in July.

Social protection + poverty reduction: This was an interesting piece about the process of distributing cash transfers in Liberia, where low-denomination bills are common and many people are still outside the cash economy.  Nigeria’s national cash transfer program has finally gotten off the ground.  Are patronage handouts and national cash transfer programs really all that different in Nigeria?  Experience from Niger suggests that people’s unwillingness to talk about their savings may lead researchers to overestimate poverty rates.

A Sengalese man carrying a sleepy baby on his back
Senegalese men are challenging gender stereotypes by carrying their children for a photography project (via BBC)

Gender equality: Studies in Uganda and Nigeria have found that “edutainment” TV shows can reduce rates of gender-based violence among viewers.  A landmark legal case in Kenya has allowed an intersex child to be issued a birth certificate without a gender marker.  This is a remarkable piece from Kenyan activist Rahma Wako about her experiences with early marriage and female genital cutting.  Women in the Ethiopian diaspora are discussing gender-based violence on a new Instagram page called Shades of Injera.   Meet Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi.

Food + travel: If you’re in London, don’t miss the delicious Ghanaian food at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.  Nairobi’s Mexican food scene is expanding.  Here’s what to do for 36 hours in Dakar.

Academia: The Evidence to Action 2019 conference is being held at the University of Ghana from July 9 – 12, with travel bursaries available.  The East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative is holding a research summit in Nairobi from July 22 – 23.  If you’re an African woman who studies economics, sign up for FEMNET’s new database!

Roads, funerals, and the risk of Ebola in West Africa

Note: this is a guest post from D.S. Battistoli.  We were chatting about the Ebola vaccine in the DRC, and he sent me an email that was so interesting that I asked to reproduce parts of it here.  D.S. is an international development specialist who has worked around West Africa and the Caribbean.  He managed field operations for a healthcare NGO in Liberia starting in November 2014, just before the outbreak there peaked.

After the West African Ebola outbreak started, there was the infamous rediscovery of Knobloch et al 1982, which found Ebola antibodies in the blood of 6% of assayed Liberians less than a decade after the virus was first identified in Zaïre.  This indicates is that in late twentieth-century Liberia, Ebola was both present and less likely to spread uncontrollably than it was at the same time in the Congo.  Conversely, by 2014 Liberia was a place seemingly more convenable to uncontrollable person-to-person spread than the DRC.

The rub lies in what changed in the interim. There are a number of factors at play, including the growth of the natural resource extraction industry, which increased rates of human-animal contact; marginally improved transportation networks between urban and rural areas; and of course the civil war, which gutted the healthcare and other governance systems and reduced trust in what remained. Shifts in funerary practices may also play an important role. I believe that many pre-colonial funerary practices once “priced in” the risk of mortality arising from contact with the corpses of people who died from hemorrhagic fevers and other deadly communicable diseases, and helped survivors minimize the risk of transmission.

As a point of comparison, let’s take the funerary practices of Surinamese Maroons, an Afro-American people living in that part of the Amazon rainforest spread over the Guiana Shield. They still have a number of ritual praxes which their ancestors brought over from West and Central Africa in the eighteenth century, including funereal praxes of corpse-washing, corpse-divination, and delayed interment. Over the last century, even as changes to core Maroon funerary practice have been only fairly minor, certain praxes that are barely even classifiable as funereal have changed in a way that would increase societal risk if they were in an Ebola-endemic area. For example:

  • Prior to the 1960s, before transport and communication revolutions made it so that related people would be expected to travel halfway across the country to make it in time for a person’s funeral, attendance at funerals was lower, and fewer attendees then travelled great distances to get “home”.
  • At the same time, it became more normal to transport corpses across-country to be buried, whereas earlier, there were clear distance horizons beyond which only hair and nail samples would be moved.
  • The set of “dangerous deaths”, types of decease requiring immediate burial, without transport to a cemetery, and almost without ceremony, decreased to near nothingness, as economic development made it possible to accord almost everyone full funeral honors.
  • Norms preventing gravediggers and corpse-washers from cohabitating and otherwise socializing with other villagers during funerals also fell by the wayside; before this, non-gravediggers were forbidden from cohabiting, socializing, or even sharing food with gravediggers and corpse-washers until after the “second funeral”, which was usually several weeks after the interment of any adults.
  • More than a few adult deaths in a short period of time would cause the total abandonment of the village where the deaths took place; it would often be months or years before a “broken” village’s diaspora would rejoin permanent settlements (this was prior to the 1880s, at which point new norms of the amount of property by households made such relocation increasingly uneconomical).
  • And starting in the 1990s, thanks to advances in Western medicine, it became far more common to transport the critically ill from one place to another to seek treatment.

During my eighteen months in Liberia, I wasn’t able to fully establish beyond any doubt that local rural populations had similar perifunerary practice adaptations that would have increased their risk, but there were strong indications that such was the case, including the fact that Ebola transmission rates were lowest in the counties with the lowest HDI (an exception to this correlation was Bong County, where the way of life was transformed by intensive mining operations). Thus traditional funereal praxes weren’t in and of themselves as dangerous as mixtures of tradition and modernity that often left people between two stools when it came to protection from this disease.

Admittedly, social praxes vary from one people to the next, and even from one village to the next, and Surinamese Maroon funereal and funeral-adjacent praxes are not direct total-system transplants, but rather amalgamations of praxes sourced from all over West and Central Africa.  However, it remains important to understand that the fact that nothing like Ebola ever, in 400 years, entered the historical record as a disease of which Arabs or Europeans were aware. All this combines to suggest that in the past, “traditional” African funerals included infection-risk-management procedures whose efficacy was greater than contemporary medical professionals assume.

Updates on Tshisekedi’s DRC

A heavyset Congolese man in a suit standing in front of a blue background

(Photo source: Daily Maverick)

There’s been a lot going on in the DRC since Félix Tshisekedi came to power in a transparently rigged election.  Here are a few key updates.

Ex-president Joseph Kabila is technically out of the picture, but behind the scenes he still holds a lot of authority.  Members of his Front Commun pour le Congo alliance won 80 of the 100 seats in the Senate, which is the upper house of Parliament.  Tshisekedi initially refused to seat the Senate at all, ostensibly over allegations of vote-buying, but eventually backed down.  However, Tshisekedi did win a victory in turning down Kabila’s preferred candidate for Prime Minister, a former head of the state mining company named Albert Yuma.  The PM position is still vacant one month later.

Meanwhile, Tshisekedi’s political allies are complaining that they’re not being given enough government jobs.  Martin Fayulu, who appears to have been the real winner of the election, has been sidelined and is touring Europe speaking as the country’s “president-elect.”  In an interesting development, Tshisekedi’s government has dropped an investigation into opposition leader Moïse Katumbi which was preventing him from returning to the country.  Katumbi supported Fayulu, which makes this sudden leniency a surprise.

In other news, Tshisekedi’s been focusing on improving Kinshasa’s infrastructure during his first 100 days in office.  A number of armed groups in the east have recently surrendered, although this probably doesn’t indicate coming drops in overall levels of violence.  Mistrust of the medical system has led to major setbacks in attempts to contain the Ebola epidemic in the east, although the use of a new vaccine against the disease does show promise.

Africa Update for April 2019

Here’s my latest edition of Africa Update.   We’ve got the extremely loud churches of Accra, the CAR’s only mental health clinic, the 154 perks enjoyed by Kenyan civil servants, Zambia’s first school for children with autism, and more.

Tweet saying that one in five American cowboys in the 1880s was black, and that they drew from the experience of West African Fulani cattle herders
Interesting historical note of the day, via Karen Strong

West Africa:  What’s life like as a female investigative journalist in Burkina Faso?  This piece debunks six myths about electronic waste recycling in Accra.  Also in Accra, 70% of noise complaints are about churches.  In Niger, EU-funded crackdowns on refugee flows to Europe have put smugglers and local restaurant owners out of business.  Many northern Nigerian states have restrictive morality laws, but actually enforcing them isn’t very popular.  One Nigerian state is piloting community service instead of prison time for minor offenses.

Graph showing that South Africa's government revenue as a percentage of GDP is around 26%, and Kenya's around 18%, while Nigeria's has dropped to only 6%

Nigeria’s revenue generation problem in one graph, via Amaka Anku

Central Africa: A new study finds that giving performance pay to Ugandan teachers improves their students’ test scores.  Here’s how public service announcements reduced rates of violence against women in Uganda.  In the DRC, potential senators are being asked to buy votes from members of regional parliaments for up to $50,000 per vote.  This was an insightful article about cyclical demobilization and remobilization among former rebels in eastern DRC. Look inside the only mental health clinic in the Central African Republic.

East Africa: How do people in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi think about dignity and photograph their own lives?  Read about the challenges of urban planning and the securitization of public space in Nairobi.  Check out the 154 different allowances given to civil servants in Kenya.  In Djibouti, salt is still mined by hand and transported by camel.  Chad has now spent a whole year without social media.  South Sudan’s rival leaders have met at the Vatican to work towards a peace deal.

A group of young Sudanese women in black and red graduation regalia
I loved these photos of everyday life in South Sudan from the Washington Post

Southern Africa: How are people getting by in South Africa, where blackouts often last up to 20 hours each day? Also in South Africa, sex workers are calling for the decriminalization of their profession.  Next door,  Botswana is planning to decriminalize homosexuality.  Netflix has picked up its first animated series from Zambia.  A new media company in Zimbabwe is producing kids’ books in local languages.  Here’s a good summary of the fall of the Dos Santos regime in Angola.

Politics & economics: Check out this interesting work on long-run institutional development in Africa.  This dictionary of African politics will teach you all about “skirt and blouse voting” and “watermelon politics.”  In Germany, two African women who requested asylum because of homophobia in their home countries saw their petitions denied for not being consistent about their lesbian identities — which they sometimes downplayed because of the aforementioned homophobia.   Here’s a thought-provoking piece about the important role of middlemen in informal markets in Africa.  Africapolis has created an interactive map of urbanization across the continent.

A map of central and northern Africa, showing high population density along the North African coast, in West Africa, and in the Rift Valley in East Africa

Facebook has taken on an incredibly ambitious project to map every building in Africa using AI, in order to support its projects related to internet connectivity in poor countries

Public health: This was an interesting profile of community health worker programs across East Africa.  Here’s how sexism is preventing people from accessing proper TB care in Tanzania.  Dakar’s serious air pollution levels are sending people to the hospital.  Across Africa, c-sections are incredibly dangerous — but paradoxically their overall rates are also probably too low, since many women don’t get proper prenatal care and have high risk pregnancies as a result.  Here’s a related piece on how African countries can ensure safer surgeries.  Zambia has opened its first school which specializes in teaching children with autism.

Women’s rights:  Two firefighters in Ghana successfully sued the fire service for firing them when they became pregnant.  Here are the barriers to women’s participation in politics in Ghana.  Zambia plans to open a museum of women’s history.  Check out the anthology New Daughters of Africa, with short stories from over 200 women.  Have Africa countries forgotten the female leaders of their independence struggles?

12 colorful portraits of black people

Art interlude with these fantastic portraits from Temi Coker

Arts & culture: If you’re in Nairobi, don’t miss Nairobi Tech Week from April 24 – 26!  Also in Nairobi, check out Book Bunk’s grants to host public events at local libraries.  The David Hill Gallery in London has a very fun exhibit of photos on Burkina Faso’s nightlife in the ’60s.  Check out this great post about Africa’s indigenous writing systems.  I can’t wait to visit the Savanna Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Ghana.  Don’t miss the Routledge Handbook of African Literature.  Here are nine ways to select a child’s name from across Africa.

Fellowships & conferences: Don’t miss the monthly fellowship opportunities posted by my colleagues at the Mawazo Institute.  African researchers should apply for Future Leaders – African Independent Research fellowships (deadline May 15).  The University of Durham offers a Lioness scholarship for female MSc students from low income countries.  Apply to the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford as a visiting fellow (deadline May 31).  Submit a paper to the African Studies Association of Africa conference, held in Nairobi in October 2019 (deadline May 15).

What do we know about air quality in Nairobi?

A road packed with buses in central Nairobi

Packed streets at rush hour in downtown Nairobi (via the New York Times)

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole on Nairobi air quality the other weekend, after I went for a long bike ride, and ended up chugging up a steep hill alongside a matatu emitting black smoke directly into my face.  I wanted to know if I could pick specific areas or specific times of the week when it would be safer to ride.  (Research suggests that the health benefits of cycling probably outweigh the costs of pollution exposure in all but the most polluted cities, but I’m still not keen on breathing in matatu exhaust.)

What I found is that there’s a strong consensus that Nairobi’s air quality is poor, but very limited data about variations in air quality by neighborhood or time of day.  An MIT project shared data from five locations around the city collected from 2016 – 2017, and found that timing of the highest levels of pollution varied significantly between sites.  (Thus, no possibility of making a uniform recommendation like “avoid cycling in the afternoon” across the city.)

Three graphs showing pollution by time of day in Kibera, St Scholastika, and the United Nations in Nairobi

What about real-time data?  Air-quality.com offers data from two sensors in Kilimani and Kitisuru.  They’re currently suggesting that the air quality index is around 54 by US standards, which stands for “moderate pollution with mild impacts on extremely sensitive groups.”  However, these are also relatively wealthy neighborhoods that don’t see much traffic from buses and trucks, which tend to be the worst polluters.  We clearly can’t extrapolate from this to the whole city.

Another project called sensors.AFRICA is supposed to be launching an air quality monitoring network with 22 sensors across the city.  However, they don’t appear to be operating yet.  In short, Nairobi has a lot of work to do to provide adequate real-time data on its air quality.

Depression and recovery, one year on

A green journal with a pen on top of it sitting next to a cup of tea on a wooden table

Morning journaling

Almost a year after my earlier post about my experience of depression in grad school, I wanted to discuss some of what I’ve learned about recovering from depression.  I expected that recovery would be nonlinear, with good days and bad, and that’s been accurate.  I also expected that at some point, I would pass an obvious milestone labeled “fully recovered,” and would go on feeling happy and engaged with the world without needing to consciously work towards that goal.  This doesn’t actually seem to be the way that recovery functions.  I’ve come to find that preventing relapses of depressive symptoms requires consistent and active work on my part, and I suspect that it always will.  I wanted to share this in case it might be useful for anyone else in a similar position.

The Half-Life of Depression

One thing that really surprised me during the earlier stages of my recovery was that even after I’d dealt with some of the underlying problems which were leaving me depressed, I would still have days when I felt inexplicably sad or unable to focus.  I suppose I’d assumed that I would bounce right back to my usual self once my stress levels had gone down.  However, I’ve noticed three ways in which the effects of depression can persist beyond an immediately stressful situation.

First, untreated depression changes your brain.  In the short run, it shrinks the hippocampus and makes it more difficult to form new memories, although these effects appear to be reversible once the depression improves.  In the long run, it increases inflammation in various parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which helps to govern executive function and reasoning skills.  I’ve found that while I can still produce high quality work, I can’t maintain intensive focus for quite as long, and I need to take breaks more consistently.

Second, depression can lead to shifts in your habits which require some effort to undo.  At my worst, I was ignoring my email, letting all the dishes go unwashed for days, and so forth because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I’ve had to consciously work to re-develop all my previous good habits of time management and organization.  This has also led to some interesting new challenges.  For example, if I’m consistently washing the dishes and keeping on top of my email, this helps me to focus on my other work.  If I let the dishes pile up a bit, however, I’ve found that this sets off an anxiety klaxon in my brain saying “Look at this mess!  You’re getting depressed again!  You’ll never recover!”  Over time I’ve learned to acknowledge that klaxon and then think about all the ways that I am recovering, rather panicking over it, but that was another totally new habit to develop.

Third, the process of recovering from depression might also bring up other mental health challenges that you hadn’t previously dealt with.  For me, a big part of my recovery was journaling about my emotions, and trying to figure out why I was feeling sad or stressed rather than just ignoring those feelings.  In the process, I realized that I’ve probably had a mild-to-moderate anxiety disorder for most of my life.  It’s ultimately been good to address this more openly, but at the time it felt like a big setback as I tried to reach my goal of Being Mentally Healthy, and led to a relapse of depressive symptoms for a while.  (As it turns out, most of the steps for dealing with depression also work on anxiety, at least for me.)

Rethinking Recovery and Productivity

The other thing that’s struck me about recovery is how much more sensitive my moods are to my general level of self-care.  If I’m getting enough sleep, exercise, and time to journal, then I can bounce back from stressful events pretty quickly.  If I’m not, stressful events can quickly lead me to feel depressed again.  I’ve come to think about self-care not as something indulgent, but as a process of investing in resilience.

This has required some fundamental shifts in how I think about my productivity.  There are strong narratives within American academia and American culture more broadly about how productivity can only be achieved at the expense of one’s physical and emotional health.  When I was younger, before my period of severe depression, I absolutely lived into this.  I was regularly overcommitting myself at school and at work, and skipping sleep and social events so that I could finish my projects.

In some ways, that mindset has been the biggest reason why I don’t think I’ll ever arrive at “fully recovered” — because my idea of what being fully recovered looks like is actually an unhealthy one.  I’ve held on to the perception that “recovery” means being able to work extremely long hours without ever having to take care of myself, and without suffering ill effects.  Uprooting this deeply held belief is still a work in progress for me.  In particular, I’ve had to really work to not compare my current rate of productivity to the unsustainably high rates I could produce in my teens and twenties.

One thing I’ve found helpful here is trying to focus more on process than on outputs.  If I get too focused on how soon I’m going to finish a report or an article, I end up falling back into unsustainable habits, like working late or skipping the gym.  I can do this for a few days, but I’ve found that I inevitably crash after that, and will then lose the next few days to another wave of depressive symptoms.  Conversely, when I prioritize meeting my standards for self-care, this leaves me feeling rested and focused for the rest of the day.  I’m trying to remind myself that working consistently is more sustainable in the long run than working intensely, if the latter pattern forces me to alternate between working intensely and not working at all.

Self-Care Suggestions

Here are the aspects of self-care which I’ve found most helpful during my recovery.  Everyone’s experience is different, and I don’t mean to claim that this is the royal road to mental health — simply things that have worked for me.  Also, I’ll note that I haven’t to deal with very inflexible work or caregiving responsibilities, which would definitely have made this more challenging.

  • Getting enough sleep.  I cut down on caffeine and stopped using an alarm clock if I didn’t have any early meetings, both of which help me to get the amount of sleep my body actually needs.  (The tea in the photo is caffeine free!)
  • Regular exercise.  Doing some moderate cardio every other day helps me to feel much more focused.  Being outside for a workout also seems to help, although if I’m working out indoors I’ll try to spend a bit of time outside at another point during the day.
  • Journaling.  If I wake up with something on my mind, I’ll write about it right away, so that I’m not worrying about it for the rest of the day.  I try to use the journal for immediate problem solving during the week (like “how should I handle this challenging conversation I’ve got coming up?”), and take time to write about bigger issues on the weekends.
  • Solving small problems right away.  If I notice a small issue that I need to resolve, I try to handle it promptly, so it’s not distracting me.  This seems trivial, but I’ve found that I otherwise get stuck in a cycle of being distracted, then blaming myself for being distracted about something small, then being even more distracted.  Something about the experience with depression means that I have a hard time snapping out of these cycles if I get into them, so I try to just avoid them.
  • No mind-reading.  Lots of people hesitate to bring up difficult topics with their partners or colleagues.  When I do this, I find that I often end up trying to guess at how the other person feels, or imagining worst-case scenarios for the conversation, and that’s a definite trigger for depressive symptoms for me.  Raising difficult topics directly and trying to resolve them helps me avoid that outcome.

Also, lots of other things haven’t worked for me!  Among them are giving up alcohol, cutting back on screen time, and meditating, none of which seemed to have any correlation with my mood.  I also haven’t tried any medication, although I’m open to that in the future if my current set of self-care practices no longer seems to be enough to keep depression at bay.  Recovery is definitely a trial and error process.