Writing systems across Africa

The African history blog Lisapo ya Kama has written an interesting post about precolonial writing systems in Africa. One of the best known, of course, is the Ethiopian script Ge’ez, which has been attested since the 8th century CE, and is still widely used within Ethiopia and Eritrea.

geez

Image source: Ethioforum

In Nigeria, nsibidi inscriptions date as far back as 400 CE.  (They play a prominent role in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch series, if you’ve been following your Afrofuturisic sci-fi.)

Nsibidi.-Pinterest-e1521719448267

Image source: Wikipedia

And here’s the Bamum script from Cameroon, which was used at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

Shumom-text

Image source: Wikipedia

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).

On the long run effects of colonialism and slavery in Africa

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A 16th century depiction of the capital of the kingdom of Loango, in what is today’s Congo-Brazzaville (via African Agenda)

Stelios Michalopoulous and Elias Papaioannou have a new working paper out reviewing the literature on the long-run effects of colonization and the international slave trade on African state capacity.  They’ve summarized their findings in a piece at VoxDev.

Most of their discussion of colonial infrastructure investments and the slave trade was familiar to me, but I hadn’t previously seen much work on the role of African states’ arbitrarily-drawn borders in provoking conflict.  They make a compelling case that borders which divided ethnic groups tend to increase local conflict.

Homelands of partitioned ethnicities are disproportionately affected by conflict between state forces and rebels that have an explicit agenda to overthrow the government.  …  Partitioned ethnicities are more likely to engage in civil wars that have an explicit ethnic dimension. Since the early 1960s, roughly a third of split groups have participated in an ethnic-based civil war, while the share of non-split groups that have engaged in an ethnic war is around a fifth.  …  Survey data show that education and public goods provision is significantly lower for individuals of split ethnicities, even when compared to Africans from non-split groups in the same town/village.

Definitely worth a read.  I’ve previously discussed some of their earlier work on the long-run effects of precolonial political centralization in Africa.

Africa Update for February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cloth printed with blue cherries on a purple background

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

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

Africa Update for January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting academic articles for January 2019

Here are some recent papers which I’m looking forward to reading.  They include updates on the DRC, the political economy of social protection programs in Kenya, taxation in Zambia, and bureaucracy in Peru.

Christoph Vogel and Jason Stearns. 2018.  “Kivu’s intractable security conundrum, revisited.African Affairs 117 (469): 695 – 707.

During this past decade, four developments have altered the contours of the [Congolese] conflict, contributing to a perpetuation of violence and insecurity. First, Congolese political and military elites have become increasingly invested in conflict, rendering it an end in itself. Instead of promoting cohesion and discipline, the government has perceived its security apparatus primarily as a means for distributing patronage, only occasionally prioritizing stability. Second, with the end of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) rebellion in 2009, and more dramatically since the defeat of the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) in 2013, regional involvement has decreased and the Kivus have seen few foreign-backed rebellions. This, combined with the national political crisis, has led armed groups to switch the focus of their bellicose rhetoric away from Rwanda towards Kinshasa. Third, there has been a dramatic proliferation of belligerents from a few dozens to over a hundred, while at the same time armed groups have coalesced into often unstable coalitions. Fourth, and most recently, insecurity is becoming increasingly politicized as political turmoil reverberates in the Kivus, prompting elites to bolster their influence through armed mobilization.

Alexander de Juan and Carlo Koos. 2018.  “The historical roots of cooperative behavior — evidence from eastern Congo.”  World Development 116: 100 – 112.

Cooperative norms and behavior are considered to be essential requirements for sustainable stabilization and development in conflict-affected states. It is therefore particularly important to understand what factors explain their salience in contexts of war, violence and displacement. In this paper, we assess the role of historical political legacies. We argue that precolonial processes of nation-building have strengthened people’s communal bonds to an imagined community, and that these bonds continue to positively impact present-day cooperative norms and behavior. We investigate this argument using the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as an empirical case. We combine historical information on the location and the main features of the precolonial Bushi Kingdom with original georeferenced survey data to investigate variation in cooperative norms within and outside of the boundaries of the precolonial “nation.” We exploit information on people’s awareness of proverbs associated with the original foundation myths of the kingdom to assess the role of long-term norm persistence. We find evidence in line with our argument on the historical roots of cooperative behavior.

Marion Ouma and Jimi Adésìna.  2018. “Solutions, exclusion and influence: Exploring power relations in the adoption of social protection policies in Kenya.”  Critical Social Policy.

Power, and how it is exercised within social relations is pivotal in explaining policy change. However, its analysis as an explanatory variable in understanding social protection policy uptake processes in developing countries remains unexplored. Using two cases of cash transfer programmes in Kenya, we examine the dynamics of power relations in the uptake of social protection policies. This article contributes to recent scholarship examining the adoption process in African countries but in departure demonstrates that asymmetrical power relations between actors are/have been central to the uptake of the programmes. The study found that within social relations in the policy space, agents exercised power in three ways. First, by controlling the policy agenda by insertion of experts; second, by excluding other actors through a process of depoliticisation; and third, by influencing the preference of domestic actors through social learning.

David Evans, Brian Holtemeyer, and Katrina Kosec.  2018.  “Cash transfers increase trust in local government.”  World Development 119: 138 – 155.

How does a locally-managed conditional cash transfer program impact trust in government? On the one hand, delivering monetary benefits and increasing interactions with government officials (elected and appointed) may increase trust. On the other hand, it can be difficult for citizens to know to whom to attribute a program and reward with greater trust. Further, imposing paternalistic conditions and possibly prompting citizens to experience feelings of social stigma or guilt, could reduce trust. We answer this question by exploiting the randomized introduction of a locally-managed transfer program in Tanzania in 2010. Our analysis reveals that cash transfers can significantly increase trust in leaders. This effect is driven by large increases in trust in elected leaders as opposed to appointed bureaucrats. Perceptions of government responsiveness to citizens’ concerns and honesty of leaders also rise, and these improvements are largest where there are more village meetings at baseline. One of the central roles of village meetings is to receive and share information with village residents, providing some evidence on the value of a high-information environment for generating trust in government. We also find that records from school and health committees are more readily available in treatment villages. Notably, while stated willingness of citizens to participate in community development projects rises, actual participation in projects and the likelihood of voting do not. Overall, the results suggest little reason to worry that local management of a conditional cash transfer program reduces trust in government or the quality of governance—especially in high-information settings.

Moizza Binat Sarwar.  2018.  “The political economy of cash transfer programmes in Brazil, Pakistan and the Philippines.”  ODI working paper.

Pro-poor policies, such as cash transfers, hold wide appeal for politicians in times of economic crises because of the visibility and high level of international support available for such measures. The political returns to politicians from a widespread pro-poor policy are significant: they potentially expand their voter base. The highly visible link between the politician and cash transfers has mobilised politicians to invest in state capacity and reach eligible citizens. Methods of selecting eligible participants and delivering cash has allowed local politicians to gain electoral mileage from central government actions. In the longer term, it can be very difficult for subsequent regimes to dismantle far-reaching propoor programmes without risking high levels of unpopularity. Consequently, future governments try to establish ownership over the programmes by improving and/or expanding them.

Danielle Resnick.  2018.  “Tax compliance and representation in Zambia’s informal economy.”  IGC working paper.

What drives tax compliance among informal workers and does it affect demands for political representation? While these questions have been posed previously in political economy scholarship, there are few studies that examine these dynamics among informal workers, who constitute the majority of the population in developing countries. Contrary to assumptions that informal workers fall outside the tax net, they often encounter a variety of taxes collected by national and local authorities. Based on an original survey with over 800 informal workers across 11 markets in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, and interviews with relevant policymakers, this paper finds that compliance tends to be higher among those workers operating in markets with better services, providing support for the fiscal exchange hypothesis. Moreover, using a vote choice experiment, I find that those who pay taxes, regardless of how much they pay, are more likely than those who do not to vote for a hypothetical mayoral candidate interested in improving market services and stall fees rather than one interested in broader social goods, such as improving education and schools in Lusaka. The results suggest that even among a relatively poor segment of the population, tax revenue can be mobilized if the benefits of those taxes are directly experienced and that just the process of paying taxes can affect an individual’s demand for representation by policymakers.

Andrew Dustan, Stanislao Maldonado, and Juan Manuel Hernandez-Agramonte. 2018. “Motivating bureaucrats with non-monetary incentives when state capacity is weak: Evidence from large-scale field experiments in Peru.”  Working paper.

We study how non-monetary incentives, motivated by recent advances in behavioral economics, affect civil servant performance in a context where state capacity is weak. We collaborated with a government agency in Peru to experimentally vary the content of text messages targeted to civil servants in charge of a school maintenance program. These messages incorporate behavioral insights in dimensions related to information provision, social norms, and weak forms of monitoring and auditing. We find that these messages are a very cost-effective strategy to enforce compliance with national policies among civil servants. We further study the role of social norms and the salience of social benefits in a follow-up experiment and explore the external validity of our original results by implementing a related experiment with civil servants from a different national program. The findings of these new experiments support our original results and provide additional insights regarding the context in which these incentives may work. Our results highlight the importance of carefully designed non-monetary incentives as a tool to improve civil servant performance when the state lacks institutional mechanisms to enforce compliance.