Africa Update for September 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the Nigerian space program, trans-African highways, online therapy in Kenya, why the Sahara is bad for infant mortality, and more.

A long pier stretching out into the sea, viewed from aboveA stunning shot of Malindi pier by Peter Ndung’u

West Africa: In Cameroon, Anglophone separatists have been attacking children who attend government schools in an attempt to force the government to negotiate with them.  Political space is closing in Equatorial Guinea with the closure of a prominent human rights NGO.  Here’s a good background read on Equatorial Guinea’s oil-fueled politics.  In Nigeria, the descendants of enslaved people are still fighting for justice and social inclusion.  This was an interesting history of Nigeria’s space program.  Senegal’s sutura culture of privacy and modesty both constrains queer women and gives them space to pursue relationships.

Central Africa: Rwanda has lots of women in national decision-making positions, but their representation drops at more local levels of government.  In Uganda, paralegals are giving legal aid to trans people who have been arrested for not expressing a gender identity that matches their IDs.  Burundi has lost another independent media house with the forced closure of the BBC’s local bureau. The DRC’s dilapidated phone network briefly made it a hotspot for early mobile phone adoption in the 1990s.

A map showing that forced displacement in Africa is highest in Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DRC and SudanMap of forced displacement via the Africa Center

East Africa: This was an informative thread on the challenges of getting access to government IDs in Kenya.  In Nairobi, “informal housing” often includes multi-story apartment buildings, not just shacks.  One year after Eritrea’s peace agreement with Ethiopia, the borders are closed again and little domestic reform has occurred.  I didn’t know that one of Somalia’s major export products is dried lemons, mostly sent to the UAE for cleaning supplies.  Salaries for Somali army officers take up fully 20% of the country’s defense budget.

Southern Africa: South African has given women in customary marriages the right to inherit property.  Harare is running out of water.  3000 students in Mozambique are back in school after the government lifted a ban on pregnant people attending school.

3 trans african highwaysPerhaps one day we’ll be able to drive across the continent on completed highways (via Facts about Africa)

Economics: Six West African countries have committed to adopting a common currency, the eco, by 2020, but the underlying differences in their economies may make this difficult.  What can be done to get more investment flowing to local African entrepreneurs instead of expats?  This was an interesting long read about the state of the Nigerian banking sector.  Uganda’s high unemployment rates come from a lack of decent formal sector jobs, not low skilled job-seekers.  Here’s all you need to know about industrial policy in Kenya.

Health: In the DRC, high school students with Ebola have still found ways to take their final exams.  A corrupt procurement process left Kenyan hospitals saddled with expensive equipment they didn’t need, even as they were short of basic supplies.  Kenya’s national census is counting intersex people for the first time this year.  Wazi is a new online therapy program based in Kenya.  In Ghana, the national health insurance system is being undermined by the fact that the government rarely pays hospitals on time.  Less than half of Kampala’s toilet waste gets routed into water treatment facilities.

4 rose podcastRose Mutiso, Mawazo’s CEO, recording the introduction to the Nairobi Ideas Podcast

Environment: Check out the Mawazo Institute’s new Nairobi Ideas Podcast about African conservation leaders. Here’s how protecting Africa’s elephants could help to slow climate change.  These Kenyan activists successfully fought back against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant that the country didn’t really need.  Dust from the Sahara substantially increases infant mortality across West Africa, because small particulates damage babies’ lungs.

Arts + literature: Check out Dave Evans’ project to read one book from each African country this year.  African Storybook offers free downloads of kids’ books which are customizable in various African languages.  Don’t miss this new book on women’s activism in Africa.

An ad for the Macondo Literary Festival, which brings writers from Lusophone Africa and Brazil to Nairobi, from 27 - 29 SeptemberIf you’re in Nairobi later this month, don’t miss the Macondo Literary Festival!

Conferences + scholarships: Submit your papers on economics in Africa to the Centre for the Study of African Economies by October 18.  Here’s why all academic conferences should be in Ethiopia.  Apply to be a visiting fellow at the African Studies Centre Leiden.  The Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship gives young Africans the chance to work in various international organizations.  Chevening scholarships for MA study in the UK are open until November 5.  Female scientists in Africa should apply to Science by Women’s visiting fellows program in Spain by September 30.

What I’m reading for November 2018

Here’s my latest link roundup, cross-posted from Africa Update.  We’ve got evangelical real estate in Lagos, the Boy Scouts of Bangui, Kinshasa’s dodgy voting machines, Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare, and more.

West Africa: Read about the three women running for president in Nigeria, in the first election which has ever had more than one female candidate.  BudgIT is making strides in using publicly available budget information to track the completion of infrastructure projects across Nigeria.  Here’s what happens when evangelical churches get into the real estate business in Lagos.  This was a great discussion of how the #BringBackOurGirls movement has expanded into other types of activism, thanks in part to a decision to reject all outside funding.  In northern Nigeria, mosque attendance is dropping as Boko Haram’s attacks make people more skeptical of organized religion.  Dakar has elected its first female mayor (in French).  In Cameroon, women and girls are disproportionately bearing the cost of the conflict in the country’s Anglophone region.

A colorful green and pink background with stylized images of Burkina Faso's president Thomas Sankara, surrounded by young men holding pink assault rifles

Via Mohamed Keita: “Artist Pierre-Christoph Gam’s mixed media series pays homage to Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s president from 1983 – 1987”

Central Africa: Rwanda is one of the first African countries to offer cashless payments on buses.  This was a gripping article about the violence of daily life in a refugee camp in the CAR, and how the extreme fragmentation of rebel groups undercuts attempts at disarmament.  Despite the CAR’s challenges, the Boy Scouts continue to support young men in Bangui.  In northern Uganda, citizens are protesting after they were displaced from their homes during the LRA war and their land subsequently gazetted into a wildlife reserve, leaving them without any homes to return to.  Do unions have a future among informal workers in the DRC?  Some good news on the Congolese ebola crisis: experimental treatments have been proving fairly effective at reducing death rates.

Congolese presidential elections: If you read one article about next month’s elections, make it this one on Kabila’s intentional choice of a weak candidate as his replacement.  For a deep dive, read about the politicization of the country’s electoral institutions, its selection of easily hackable voting machines, the new archbishop who promises to hold the government to account (in French), the latest polling results on support for opposition candidates (in French), and the rapid demise of the opposition’s promise to pick a single candidate.

Map of Africa showing the percentage of women in Parliament.  It ranges from nearly zero in Sudan and Nigeria to 50% in Ethiopia and RwandaMap of gender parity in African legislatures via the UN Economic Commission for Africa

East Africa: Kenya is considering privatizing its prisons, a policy which has been roundly criticized as an attempt to profit from prison labor rather than improving conditions for inmates.  The military has been deployed to buy cashew nuts in Tanzania after farmers in an opposition stronghold complained of low prices.  An Ethiopian company is betting on the growth of coffee consumption in China with plans to open dozens of cafés across the country.  Tourism pushed women out of Zanzibar’s public spaces, but one NGO is helping them reclaim their access.  South Sudan wants to build a new capital called Ramciel in an uninhabited area which lacks any infrastructure.  In Somalia, Al Shabaab earns millions of dollars annually by illegally exporting charcoal through Iran.  This is essential reading on the way that the US supported the Siad Barre regime in Somalia in the 1980s even as it killed over 200,000 citizens.  Somalia’s persistent insecurity even affects responses to academic surveys, as people more exposed to violence are less likely to answer questions about their clan identity.

Southern Africa: In South Africa, participating in a peaceful protest for better service delivery could land you in prison without bail. Zambian doctors are warning women to stay away from herbal Chinese contraceptives, which are inexpensive but poorly regulated.  Zambia has also indefinitely suspended all junior and senior secondary school exams after the questions were leaked on social media.  Lesotho’s sheep farmers are up in arms over a decision to ban wool exports and require them to sell all their wool to a single firm.  Zimbabwe is making up for its lack of mental health support by training older women to provide informal therapy to people in their neighborhoods.

Map of eastern Africa showing the proposed route of the standard gauge railway, which would connect inland countries to the coast at Lamu, Mombasa and Dar es SalaamSome context on where the standard gauge railway (SGR) is supposed to extend in east Africa, via Africa Confidential

Industry + infrastructure: Uganda is balking at extending the SGR to Kampala, although Rwanda and Tanzania are pushing on with their portions of the railway.  Several Chinese and American firms have signed deals to assemble mobile phones in Uganda.  The Kenyan government has set up a fund to encourage local mobile production as well.  Kenya’s newest tech jobs focus on creating training data for AIs.  Somalia’s e-commerce scene is tiny but growing.  The Mombasa airport is switching to solar power.  This Kenyan start-up is producing smart meters for natural gas canisters, which should lower the cost of access to canisters and encourage people to switch away from relatively more polluting charcoal.

Arts + literature: Here are five African documentaries you’ll want to see.  Read about the Ottoman heritage of Somaliland’s architecture.  All of the stories by African authors shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Awards are freely available online.  If you read Kiswahili, check out Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare’s works.  This is the essential reading list on African feminism.  Don’t miss Nanjala Nyabola’s new book on digital democracy in Kenya.

A South African woman dressed in a red gown and black velvet cap, with a South African man in a black academic robe standing behind herCongratulations to Nompumelelo Kapa, who is one of the few South African academics who has received a PhD for a thesis written in isiXhosa (via Sure Kamhunga)

Scholarships: Mawazo has a new page with updated fellowship opportunities for African scholars posted each month.  African citizens who would like to pursue a PhD in anthropology should apply to the Wadsworth fellowship.  Encourage the African scientists in your life to apply for the Next Einstein Foundation fellowship.  The Center for Global Development is recruiting post-docs.  If you’d like to apply to Oxford, check out the Africa Society’s Mentorship Programme for tips on navigating the application process.  The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership offers funding for health research by early career African scholars.  East African citizens between the ages of 20 – 30 should apply for the LéO Africa Institute’s Young and Emerging Leaders Program.  Check out the Africa Peacebuilding Network’s individual research grants.

Let’s build African research centers in Africa

The image shows a photo of LSE and text reading "LSE is the perfect setting for a centre dedicated to Africa and the ongoing education of future generations of African leaders" - Firoz LaljiImage from Africa@LSE

Via Duncan Green, I just learned about the new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded with a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.  According to LSE’s announcement, CPAID will “study how families, clans, religious leaders, aid agencies, civil society, rebel militia and vigilante groups contribute to governance, along with formal and semi-formal government institutions. The research will mainly focus on the lives of ordinary people, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups and populations … in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.”

These are definitely important topics, and a good corrective to the type of political science research that focuses overmuch on formal institutions in places where the state is weak.  It’s always great to see more research on the DRC and other states affected by conflict, which tend to be understudied.  And LSE’s got a very strong team of researchers.

And.

Why is it seen as neutral and acceptable to build prominent centers of African studies outside of Africa, managed primarily by people who are not from Africa?

Why does the Africa Centre’s founder, who is himself from Uganda, feel that future African leaders are better off being trained in London than in their own countries?

Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?

Let me be clear: I think it’s really important for every country to have scholars who are interested in international affairs.  Places like the Centre for Africa or Berkeley’s own Center for African Studies do important work making African affairs accessible to their university communities, and to the broader scholarly community.  And I myself am one of those foreign scholars who’s deeply interested in Africa.

My criticism is of the way in which the exclusion of African scholars from knowledge production about Africa is seen as normal and unremarkable.  Even in the field of African studies, where local scholars would seem to have a comparative advantage, only 15% of studies are written by authors based on the continent.  The situation is even worse in the sciences, where less than 1% of the world’s scientific research comes from Africa.  We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics.  Spending £5 million to set up a research center in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.

Fortunately, there are other organizations working to remedy this inequality — and I’m in the process of starting one of them.  Stay tuned for more announcements about this project in the next few days.