The 25 best longform articles of 2019

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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.”

Where did African countries get their names?

A map showing the literal translation of the name of every African country

Map of literal place names via Credit Card Compare

Quartz Africa recently had a good article on the unusual origins of many African country names.  A surprising number are colonial mishearings that stuck around.  Take Kenya:

Another mountain would yield a country’s name in East Africa, when the British came upon an imposing snow-capped mountain that the Kikuyu people called Kirinyaga (Where God dwells.) As they struggled to pronounce, Kirinyaga, they called it Mt. Kenya – the country would be named after this mountain.

Ever wonder why Mogadishu and Madagascar sound sort of similar?

Marco Polo, the 13th century Italian explorer, never visited Madagascar, but is believed to be responsible for mistaking it for Mogadishu and including it in his memoirs. This is the first written reference to Madageiscar. Thus, the corrupted Italian transliteration of Mogadishu, Madageiscar, eventually gave the world’s second largest island country its name.

But of course, others draw on more local history.

Zimbabwe would reclaim its name in 1979 just ahead of independence from the 13th-15th century kingdom of Zimbabwe, removing its colonial legacy name of Rhodesia, after Cecil Rhodes. … Ghana on its part would also reclaim its name at independence from the Ancient West African Kingdom of Ghana, after its British colonial legacy when it was known as the Gold Coast.

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.

Africa Update for October 2019

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got Kenya’s first all-female motorcycle gang, pigs on ARVs in Uganda, religious leaders reducing violence against women in the DRC, the rise of the African literary festival, and more.

West Africa: Nigeria is trying to consolidate the 16 different state and federal agencies which currently give people IDs into a single national ID program.  Young people in Nigeria are facing police harassment for reasons as small as wearing their hair in dreadlocks or carrying a laptop.  In Senegal, people who attempted to seek asylum in Europe but got sent back home are finding it difficult to re-integrate.  Ghana overinvested in electricity generation after years of power outages, and now produces more power than it can use.

A sunset seen through palm trees

Evening in Sierra Leone, by Anne Karing

Central Africa: Here’s now the DRC continues to provide state services without much state funding.  Programs to combat sexual violence in the DRC often reinforce the patriarchal norms they’re trying to change.  Rwanda has forbidden students from crossing the border to attend cheaper DRC schools out of concerns about Ebola.  In Uganda, pork farmers may be creating ARV resistance by using the drugs to fatten up their pigs. Here’s what we can learn from Ugandan schools with higher performance on reading outcomes than the national average.

East Africa: This was a really moving piece on the lived experience of displacement in South Sudan, where roughly 40% of the population is displaced after years of war.  Sudan has just opened its first women’s football league.  I just learned that many Kenyan ethnic groups didn’t bury the dead until the colonial era, when the British decided that burials signified an ancestral connection that could be used to make claims on land.  A teenaged Kenyan chess champion can’t compete in international competitions because she doesn’t have a birth certificate, and thus can’t get a passport.  “By law, every student in Eritrea must spend their final year of high school at the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School … [which] is inside a military camp.”

Four Kenyan women on motorcyclesMeet Kenya’s first all-female biker gang, the Inked Sisterhood

Southern Africa: Several homeless people have brought a lawsuit against Cape Town to stop the city from fining people for sleeping in public.  South African miners just won a landmark lawsuit that forces mining companies to compensate them for lung diseases they contracted at work.  Meet South Africa’s Ayakha Melithafa, a 17-year old climate activist who recently petitioned the UN alongside Greta Thunberg.

Public health: The US has warned citizens against traveling to Tanzania amid reports that the country has concealed Ebola deaths.  In Kenya, a teenager killed herself after being kicked out of class when she got her period during school hours.  Postpartum depression is an understudied topic in countries like Sierra Leone.  An Ethiopian university student has invented a non-invasive malaria test after his brother died of the disease.  A new drug which treats extremely drug-resistant TB has been approved after trials in South Africa.

Politics + economics: Nigeria has closed its border with Benin in an attempt to stop imports of rice and promote local production.  A parliamentary report suggests that Kenya’s flagship infrastructure investments haven’t improved growth in the last decade.  This is a great summary of projects mapping paratransit across Africa.  Here are the factors that make African militaries more likely to stand with protestorsduring democratization protests.  Many African countries are building coal-fired power plants despite abundant renewable resources.

Tweet from World Bank Poverty reading In Sub-Saharan Africa, the 10 countries which have reduced poverty the fastest since 2000 are Tanzania, Chad, Republic of Congo, Burkina, DRC, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, and UgandaUpdates on poverty reduction from the World Bank​

Gender: Lack of access to safe abortion is killing Kenyan women.  A group of activists have sued the government in Sierra Leone for its ban on pregnant students attending school.  In the DRC, a study found that religious leaders play a key role in local campaigns to reduce violence against women.  A new study in Kenya finds that cash transfers also reduce rates of violence against women.  Across Africa, women are less likely than men to have access to the internet or mobile phones.

Higher education:  Here’s some good background on the state of higher educationin Africa.  A Kenyan scientist is leading an effort to train 1000 African PhD students in immunology over the next decades.  The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences plans to change math education on the continent with a network of campuses in six countries.  New data science institutions are also popping up across Africa.

Colorful fabric in neat piles at a shop in an old neighborhood in Dar es SalaamDW has a lovely photo essay on the history of East African kanga

Arts + technology: This was a great thread on studying African literature in African languages written for African audiences.  Read about the rise of the literary festivalin Africa.  Here’s how Google created a Nigerian accent for Google Maps.  Check out the best African films of 2019 so far.  Filmmakers in northern Ghana should check out this free training session (applications due Oct. 17).

Scholarships + conferences: Wits University is offering MA, PhD and postdoc funding for studies of urban mobility in Africa (due Nov. 1).  Residents of low income Commonwealth countries can apply for split-site PhD funding for study at UK universities (due Nov. 6).  If you’re in Nairobi on October 24 – 26, don’t miss the African Studies Association of Africa conference!

Interesting academic articles for July 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading these days!

Emmanuelle Auriol, Julie Lassebie, Amma Panin, Eva Raiber, and Paul Seabright.  2018. “God insures those who pay? Formal insurance and religious offerings in Ghana.” Working paper.

This paper provides experimental support for the hypothesis that insurance can be a motive for religious donations by members of a Pentecostal church in Ghana. We randomize enrollment into a commercial funeral insurance policy, then church members allocate money between themselves and a set of religious goods in a series of dictator games with significant stakes. Members enrolled in insurance give significantly less money to their own church compared to members that only receive information about the insurance. Enrollment also reduces giving towards other spiritual goods. We set up a model exploring different channels of religiously based insurance. The implications of the model and the results from the dictator games suggest that adherents perceive the church as a source of insurance and that this insurance is derived from beliefs in an interventionist God. Survey results suggest that material insurance from the church community is also important and we hypothesize that these two insurance channels exist in parallel.

Sudhanshu Handa, Silvio Daidone, Amber Peterman, Benjamin Davis, Audrey Pereira, Tia Palermo, and Jennifer Yablonski.  2018. “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa.”  World Bank Research Observer.

This paper summarizes evidence on six perceptions associated with cash transfer program- ming, using eight rigorous evaluations conducted on large-scale government unconditional cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa under the Transfer Project. Specifically, it investigates if transfers: 1) induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco; 2) are fully consumed (rather than invested); 3) create dependency (reduce participation in productive activities); 4) in- crease fertility; 5) lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation); and 6) are fiscally unsustainable. The paper presents evidence refuting each claim, leading to the conclusion that these perceptions—insofar as they are utilized in policy debates—undercut potential improvements in well-being and livelihood strengthening among the poor, which these programs can bring about in sub-Saharan Africa, and globally. It concludes by underscoring outstanding research gaps and policy implications for the continued expansion of unconditional cash transfers in the region and beyond

Apollo Kaneko, Thomas Kennedy, Lantao Mei, Christina Sintek, Marshall Burke, Stefano Ermon, and David Lobell.  2019. “Deep Learning For Crop Yield Prediction in Africa.”  Presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning AI for Social Good Workshop.  

Lack of food security persists in many regions around the world, especially Africa. Tracking and predicting crop yields is important for supporting humanitarian and economic development efforts. We use deep learning on satellite imagery to predict maize yields in six African countries at the district level. Our project is the first to attempt this kind of prediction in Africa. Model performance varies greatly between countries, predicting yields in the most recent years with average R2 as high as 0.56. We also experiment with transfer learning and show that, in this data sparse setting, data from other countries can help improve prediction within countries.

David McKenzie and Dario Sansone.  2019.  “Predicting entrepreneurial success is hard: Evidence from a business plan competition in Nigeria.”  Journal of Development Economics.

We compare the absolute and relative performance of three approaches to predicting outcomes for entrants in a business plan competition in Nigeria: Business plan scores from judges, simple ad-hoc prediction models used by researchers, and machine learning approaches. We find that i) business plan scores from judges are uncorrelated with business survival, employment, sales, or profits three years later; ii) a few key characteristics of entrepreneurs such as gender, age, ability, and business sector do have some predictive power for future outcomes; iii) modern machine learning methods do not offer noticeable improvements; iv) the overall predictive power of all approaches is very low, highlighting the fundamental difficulty of picking competition winners.

Pia Raffler, Daniel N. Posner, and Doug Parkerson.  2019.  “The Weakness of Bottom-Up Accountability: Experimental Evidence from the Ugandan Health Sector.”  Working paper. 

We evaluate the impact of a large-scale information and mobilization intervention designed to improve health service delivery in rural Uganda by increasing citizens’ ability to monitor and apply bottom-up pressure on underperforming health workers. Modeled closely on the landmark “Power to the People” study (Bjorkman and Svensson, 2009), the intervention was undertaken in 376 health centers in 16 districts and involved a three wave panel of more than 14,000 households. We find that while the intervention had a modest positive impact on treatment quality and patient satisfaction, it had no effect on utilization rates or health outcomes (including child mortality). We also find no evidence that the channel through which the intervention affected treatment quality was citizen monitoring. The results hold in a wide set of pre-specified subgroups and also when, via a factorial design, we break down the complex intervention into its two most important components. Our findings cast doubt on the power of information to foster community monitoring or to generate improvements in health outcomes, at least in the short term.

Thomas Calvo, Mireille Razafindrakoto, and François Roubaud.  2019.  “Fear of the state in governance surveys? Empirical evidence from African countries.”  World Development.

The need to collect data on governance-related issues has been growing since the 1990s. Demand gained momentum in 2015 with the adoption of SDG16 worldwide and Agenda 2063 in Africa. African countries played a key role in the adoption of SDG16 and are now leading the process of collecting harmonised household data on Governance, Peace and Security (GPS). Yet the possibility has recently been raised that sensitive survey data collected by government institutions are potentially biased due to self-censorship by respondents. This paper studies the potential bias in responses to what are seen as sensitive questions, here governance issues, in surveys conducted by public organisations. We compare Afrobarometer (AB) survey data, collected in eight African countries by self-professed independent institutions, with first-hand harmonised GPS survey data collected by National Statistics Offices (NSOs). We identify over 20 similarly worded questions on democracy, trust in institutions and perceived corruption. We first com- pare responses from AB survey respondents based on who they believe the survey sponsor to be. No systematic response bias is found between respondents who believe the government to be behind the AB survey and those who consider it to be conducted by an independent institution. Our estimations suggest that the observed residual differences are due to a selection bias on the observables, which is mitigated by propensity score matching procedures. The absence of a systematic self-censorship or attenuation bias is further evidenced by means of an experimental design, whereby responses from GPS surveys conducted by NSOs (the treatment) are compared with AB surveys sponsored by reportedly independent bodies. Our results provide evidence, at much higher levels of precision than other existing data sources, of the capacity and legitimacy of government-related organisations to collect data on governance as a matter of national interest and sovereignty.

Maya Berinzon and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Measuring and explaining formal institutional persistence in French West Africa.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.  

Colonial institutions are thought to be highly persistent, but measuring that persistence is difficult. Using a text analysis method that allows us to measure similarity between bodies of text, we examine the extent to which one formal institution the penal code has retained colonial language in seven West African countries. We find that the contemporary penal codes of most countries retain little colonial language. Additionally, we find that it is not meaningful to speak of institutional divergence across the unit of French West Africa, as there is wide variation in the legislative post-coloniality of individual countries. We present preliminary analyses explaining this variation and show that the amount of time that a colony spent under colonisation correlates with more persistent colonial institutions.

Benjamin Rubbers.  2019.  “Mining Boom, Labour Market Segmentation and Social Inequality in the Congolese Copperbelt.”  Development and Change.

The study of the impacts of new mining projects in Africa is generally set in a normative debate about their possible contribution to development, which leads to a representation of African societies as divided between beneficiaries and victims of foreign investments. Based on research in the Congolese copperbelt, this article aims to examine in more detail the inequalities generated by the recent mining boom by taking the processes of labour market segmentation as a starting point. It shows that the labour market in the mining sector has progressively been organized along three intersecting lines that divide it: the first is between employment in industrial and artisanal mining companies, the second is between jobs for mining or subcontracting companies and the third is between jobs for expatriates, Congolese skilled workers and local unskilled workers. Far from simply reflecting existing social in- equalities, the labour market has been actively involved in their creation, and its control has caused growing tensions in the Congolese copperbelt region. Although largely neglected in the literature on extractive industries, processes of labour market segmentation are key to making sense of the impacts of mining investments on the shape of societies in the global South.

Benjamin Chemouni.  2019.  “The rise of the economic technocracy in Rwanda: A case of a bureaucratic pocket of effectiveness or state-building prioritisation?”  Effective States and Inclusive Development working paper #120.

The Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) is recognised as the most effective organisation in the Rwandan state. The objective of the paper is to understand the organisational and political factors influencing MINECOFIN’s performance since the genocide and link them to the wider conversation on the role of pockets of effectiveness (PoEs) in state-building in Africa. It argues that, because of the Rwandan political settlement and elite vulnerability, MINECOFIN is not a PoE but only a good performer in a generally well functioning state. The Ministry overperforms first because, unsurprisingly, the nature of its tasks is specific, requires little embeddedness and allows a great exposure to donors, making its mandate easier to deliver in comparison to other organisations. MINECOFIN also performs better than other state organisations because it is, more than others, at the frontline of the elite legitimation project since it is the organisation through which resources are channelled, priorities decided, and developmental efforts coordinated. Given the rulers’ need for an effective state as a whole, MINECOFIN appears only as the lead climber in a wider dynamics of systematic state building.

Africa Update for July 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the CAR’s only pediatric hospital, Zambian superheroes on Netflix, new books on medieval African history, the feminists of Cameroon, and more.

West Africa: Lagos alone accounts for 70% of Nigeria’s tax base.  Check out this reading list on Nigerian political history.  Here are 10 essential Nigerian recipes.  This was a great read about feminist organizing in response to the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.  In response to increasing attacks by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso, the government has adopted a troubling policy of extrajudicially executing suspected sympathizers.

A map of protests in Africa, showing increased activity from 2007 to 2017
Protests in Africa, via ISS Africa

Central Africa: In the DRC, president Tshisekedi’s power continues to be constrained, with a majority of Cabinet seats going to ex-president Kabila’s coalition, and Kabila still living in the presidential villa. In Burundi, the ruling party has begun charging people a new “election tax” as often as they’d like to do so.

East Africa: This was a good profile of Hemedti, the former Janjaweed commandernow leading Sudan.  In South Sudan, decades of conflict has pushed most people away from growing their own food and towards purchasing it at markets.  I wrote about what traffic tickets can tell us about statebuilding in Kenya.  This was an interesting history of economic protectionism in Kenya.  A new Human Rights Watch report documents the disturbing record of extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police.

lamu
A dhow off the coast of Kenya, by Khadija Farah

Southern Africa: So many Zimbabweans are trying to leave the country that the wait time for a passport is more than a year.  Netflix is launching its first original African animated series, about teenaged female superheroes living in Lusaka.  Congratulations to Botswana’s Gogontlejang Phaladi, who joined the ranks of great explorers by discovering a new body of water in Switzerland and naming it Letamo.

Public health: This is a remarkable story about the Central African Republic’s only pediatric hospital.  One of the coordinators of Liberia’s Ebola response team offers unconventional suggestions about incentivizing people to cooperate with Ebola vaccinators in the DRC.  The DRC is also one of the world’s largest quinine exporters, producing 30% of the world’s supply of the anti-malarial drug.  In South Africa, the urban environment in Johannesburg makes it difficult for women to get enough exercise.

aida muleneh
“Denkinesh: Part Two,” by Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh

Research corner: Read about the challenging experience of being a female researcher in eastern DRC.  Check out TMC’s summer reading list on African politics, and this wonderful review of books on medieval African history.  Here’s what needed to improve the quality of research output at African universities.  Researchers in many African countries can get free online access to Taylor & Francis journals through their STAR program.  African students interested in a science PhD should apply to the RSIF PASET PhD scholarship program by July 22.

The arts: This is a great thread on affordable, contemporary architectural design across Africa.  Did you know that Bollywood films are huge in Somalia?  If you’re in Accra this summer, don’t miss the Accra Animation Film festival from July 27 – August 2.  African writers should apply to the Miles Morland writing fellowship by September 30.