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.

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 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).

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.

The 25 best longform articles of 2018

Text on a green background reading "6.8 million words" and "92 books," and an image of a badge saying 'Pocket reader 1% club"

My year in Pocket

Continuing my tradition from 2016 and 2017, here are the 25 best articles I read last year, in no particular order.  I share lots of snippets from the interesting things I read at Pocket if you’d like to follow along.

An Internment Camp for 10 Million Uyghurs.  Meduza.  “I was able to find a couple of surviving mosques, but locks held their ancient doors closed. Not far from the madrasah, which was also closed, a furrier sat at an intersection in traditional dress and crafted an Uyghur hat. Both the furrier and the hat were made of bronze. Real fur hats were sold in the city’s souvenir shops, but real furriers were now impossible to find. The marvelous ancient knives that had graced the city on people’s belts and in market stalls had also disappeared. When I greeted a few salesmen and used the word ‘pchak,’ they recoiled, and only one antiques dealer could find a heavy knife case in his stand. Inside were several sumptuous, ancient knife handles — the blades themselves had been cut off. Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains.”

How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.  The New Yorker.  “Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the ‘toy plane.’ But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: ‘Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.'”

Everyday Politics.  Aeon.  “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.”

“Give Us His Breath or His Body.”  Roads and Kingdoms.  “In August 2004, twelve men left their village in Nepal for jobs at a five-star luxury hotel in Amman, Jordan. They had no idea that they had actually been hired for subcontract work on an American military base in Iraq. But fate took an even darker turn when the dozen men were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists. Their gruesome deaths were captured in one of the first graphicexecution videos disseminated on the internet—the largest massacre of contractors during the war. Compounding the tragedy was the reality that their deaths received little notice. Why were men from a country so removed from the war, in Iraq? How had they gotten there? And who, exactly, were they working for?”

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut’s Electricity Brokers.  Wired.  “‘We cover where there is no state,’ says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. “Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise,” he says. But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.”

She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too.  The New York Times.  “Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting. In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.”

My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader.  The New Yorker.  “My grandmother Helen, who helped establish a local church, is buried near the study. My umbilical cord is buried on the grounds, as are those of my four siblings. My eldest brother, Nnamdi, was born while my parents were studying in England, in the early nineteen-seventies; my father, Chukwuma, preserved the dried umbilical cord and, eighteen months later, brought it home to bury it by the front gate. Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. ‘He was a renowned trader,’ my father told me proudly. ‘He dealt in palm produce and human beings.'”

What Putin Really Wants.  The Atlantic.  “But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. ‘We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just funny; how much Americans attribute to him.”

A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe.  LA Review of Books.  “The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache.”

Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry.  Rolling Stone.  “All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.”

Safe House.  California Sunday Magazine.  “Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law. Silvia had stayed at Valentina’s house for a week, and now Valentina has taken to checking on her. She’s hoping Silvia will leave her partner, but she can’t predict if she will or how long it might take.”

Signs and Wonders.  1843 Magazine.  “López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out. Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. ‘I didn’t identify with those signs,’ López says. ‘I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.’ As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.”

Could An Ex-Convict Become an Attorney?  I Intended to Find Out.  The New York Times.  “After the 15-minute ceremony, I turned to everyone, without thinking, and began speaking as my uncle kept recording: ‘The last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison.’ I wanted to say something about the journey. I’d already revealed too much. Miles, sitting beside his brother, paused and looked up. I could tell something confused him. He had questions in his eyes. He stared, listening, as I confessed the thing that I’d been holding back. What man wants to tell his child he’s done time in prison? But I had. And, in that single breath, I’d given him this: an image of his father as both a convict and an attorney.”

The Waiting Room.  The Marshall Project.  “The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County–issued check that is unusable for the “release and run,” as it is known. Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a 13-minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it’s not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff’s department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right.  Politico.  “But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Híyoge owísisi tánga itá (Cricket egg stories).  Carte Blanche.  “Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.”

Embarrassment of Obscurities.  Times Literary Supplement.  “Although NASA was at great pains to present these suits as the pinnacle of modern technological achievement (and indeed each comprised twenty-one layers of fabric, mostly new synthetics such as nylon and spandex), the reality was a little different. Each suit was also a marvellous example of skill and creativity; and it was, almost exclusively, the handiwork of women schooled in the frequently undervalued craft of textiles. The sub-contractor responsible for their assembly was ILC, a firm best known for making Playtex bras, girdles and nappies. Teams of deft-fingered seamstresses and pattern-cutters, working on Singer sewing machines, assembled the spacesuits stitch by painstaking stitch. When the firm received feedback that the prototypes were chafing, they began inserting sections of fluffy material usually used to line girdles; the nylon mesh used to prevent the rubber layer from ballooning in zero gravity had originally been developed for bras.”

The Untold Story of NotPetya, The Most Devastating Cyberattack in History.  Wired.  “Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown.”

Ready for a Linguistic Controversy?  Say “Mmhmm”.  NPR. “Once upon a time, English speakers didn’t say “mmhmm.” But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa’s influence on the Americas. In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say ‘yay’ and ‘yes.'”

Orange or Fruit?  On the Unlikely Etymology of “Orange.”  Literary Hub.  “What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as ‘golden apples.’ Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.”

Slivers of Sciences in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  Discover.  “One of the most common arguments is that Circe was feeding the crew jimson weed. While that sounds innocent enough, Datura stramonium, as it is known in the scientific world, belongs to the deadly nightshade family and contains high levels of anti-cholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These compounds block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. When this neurotransmitter is blocked, we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy, we exhibit bizarre behavior, and we can suffer pronounced amnesia. ‘Patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious,’ says Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf.”

Tea if by Land, Cha if By Sea.  Quartz. “With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and teein Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi. Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.  The Guardian.  “Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martin’s technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isn’t wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into ‘Raphaels’.)”

A Birth Plan for Dying.  Longreads.  “River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.”

Migration is What You Make It: Seven Policy Decisions that Turned Challenges Into Opportunities.  Center for Global Development.  “No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what ‘the’ effect of ‘immigration’ is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration. But the world’s wealth of experience in regulating migration can still be a useful resource for setting better policy. We must ask a more fruitful question: how can different policy choices generate positive economic effects from immigration and avoid negative ones? Immigration is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Its effects depend on the context and the policy choices that shape it.