Sunday, 28 February 2010

Perspectives on Apartheid - An extract from Lunch with the FT: FW de Klerk



"So apartheid was wrong, I say as we push back our chairs. Even now this National Party scion chooses his words carefully. The idea of separate homelands for South Africa’s black tribes – “nation states”, as he describes them – was “morally defensible”, he says. But it failed for three reasons: the whites were too selfish; as the economy grew so the races became intertwined – “we became an omelette and you can never unscramble an omelette”; and the ANC did not want to accept division along tribal lines. “In the end, because we failed we ended in the place which was totally morally unjustifiable.”
It is classic de Klerk. Most modern politicians would have concocted a more disingenuous response but he doggedly insists apartheid in its purest form just might have worked. At dinner that night, I ask my oldest South African friend, a liberal Afrikaner lawyer, about FW. He was not an inspirational politician, the lawyer reflects. And yet, at a critical moment in his country’s history, he conquered his fear of the unknown and acted in the best interests of his country and not of his party – and that, we agree, marks him out with greatness."

Perspectives on Apartheid - Dennis Brutus, Poetry and Protest.



"You have to decide which side you are on: there is always a side. Commitment does not exist in an abstraction; it exists in action”. -- Dennis Brutus, 1975

Somehow we survive – Dennis Brutus
Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.
Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;
over our heads the monolithic Decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;
boots club the peeling door.
But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.
Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,
most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
but somehow tenderness survives.
Who was Dennis Brutus?
For almost half a century, Dennis Brutus was at the forefront of the campaign to bring down the apartheid system in South Africa, the place that exposed him to racism, poverty and injustice, and informed his work subsequently.
In 1963 Brutus was shot by the police in South Africa and later imprisoned for 18 months, alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island- a notorious, escape-proof facility off the South African coast. During his imprisonment, his first volume of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963) was published. In 1965, Brutus was released and allowed to leave South Africa on the condition that he would never return. He emigrated to England in  1966 and then to the United States in 1970.
One of the most profound and lasting ways in which Brutus carried this torch of experiences was through his poetry. In his poetry, Brutus returned powerfully to his traumatic experience of punishment and isolation on Robben Island. They contain some of the most harrowing descriptions of daily prison life, a season in hell that left a lasting mark on Brutus both physically and mentally. 
To use poetry as a means of fighting back against the forces of oppression and exploitation was not just an intellectual choice, but an existential cry from the heart for social change. These autobiographical writings not only provide unique documentation of the cruelties of an oppressive system; they also help us understand Brutus' determination to convey the lessons of the past to those who are struggling for a better future.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Education



Nietzsche’s philosophies on education and culture can be applied to Africa  - particularly how the increase in well-educated Africans (on the Continent and in the Diaspora) has not necessarily translated into greater levels of collaboration and cultural progressivism. Although Nietzsche’s philosophies were borne from observations of the  German educational system in the 19th century, arguably elements of his arguments are applicable to modern day African education.

Nietzsche’s lifetime concern was education and culture, and during his years as a professor at an elementary school, he began to look into the concrete problems of German schooling. He observed that the system had abandoned the humanist outlook in exchange for the scientific. Education was consequently vulgarized, its objective having become to form useful and profitable men, not harmoniously matured and developed personalities. This is based on his work produced between 1870 and 1874, especially his lecture The Future of our Educational Institutions (1872), Untimely Meditations - On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874) and Schopenhauer as Educator (1874).

In Nietzsche’s thoughts, education and culture are inseparable. There can be no culture without an educational project, nor education without a culture to support it. Education in German schools springs from a historicist conception. Culture and education are synonyms of "selective training", "the formation of the self"; for the existence of a culture, it is necessary that individuals learn determined rules, that they acquire habits and that they begin to educate themselves against themselves, or better, against the education forced upon them.

In his lectures on The Future of our Educational Institutions, Nietzsche examines the entrails of the educational system of his time. He perceives that the State and businesspersons are primarily responsible for the impoverishment of culture. They block the slow maturation of the individual, the patient formation of the self - that should be the finality of every culture - demanding a rapid formation so as to have efficient employees and docile students at their service, youngsters that will learn how to earn money rapidly. When they demand a more profound education, allowing for in-depth specialization, they do so in order to make even more money. This indecorous haste leads students, at an age when they are not mature enough to ask themselves which profession they should pursue, to make bad choices.

Nietzsche argued for students understanding the importance of studying native languages in depth - for if it loses its vital strength, culture itself will tend to degenerate. If the professor is not able to impress on his young students a physical aversion to determined words and expressions which journalists and bad novelists have grown them accustomed to, it is better - according to Nietzsche - to renounce culture. Therefore, it is imperative to analyze the classics - line by line, word by word - as well as to stimulate the students to try to express the same thought several times, improving this expression each and every time.

Education begins with habit and obedience, with discipline. To discipline the youngster linguistically does not mean to overburden him with historical knowledge about the language, but to make him build determined principles from which he can build on, both internally and externally. It means to turn the student into the master of his language and to give him the possibility to construct an artistic language, starting from the works that preceded him. This, according to Nietzsche, is the only way to revive German education and culture.

The growing disregard for the humanistic formation and the increase in the scientific tendency in school; schooling guided by historical and scientific questions and not by practical teachings; the abandonment of teaching that aims to form an individual in an artistic sense of language, in favor of a doubtful journalistic style; the emphasis given to professionalization, that aims at forming people prepared to make money - all of this prevents the educational system from turning itself towards culture.

To what extent would an increasing focus on the arts translate into an increasing ‘humanist outlook’ in Africa? To what extent has moneymaking contributed to impoverishment of culture on our Continent? Nietzsche’s arguments are certainly not 100% applicable to Africa, however the parallels are intriguing.

Who was Nietzsche?

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Röcken, Prussia. 
After excellent studies at Pforta College, known for its teachings inspired on the humanist tradition, Nietzsche took up theology at the University of Bonn.
 In 1865, he abandoned theology and took up philology at the University of Leipzig. 
Recommended by his professor, Ritschl, Nietzsche was nominated professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, where he taught from 1869 to 1879. 
In 1879, he was forced to resign from his post due to a serious illness. 
From then on, he lived an errant and lonely life, living in small boarding houses and always searching for more favorable climates due to his delicate health. 
The books "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (1883-1885), On the "Geneology of Morals" (1887) and "Ecce Homo" (1888) were written at this time.
 In 1889, after a mental breakdown in Turin, Nietzsche ended his activities. 
He died on August 25, 1900, in Weimar.

i-Muse The Arts: The Holy Virgin Mary - Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)
'Modern Master of radiant colour' - Daily Telegraph





Chris Ofili (1968) a renowned British artist of Nigerian heritage, was born and raised in Manchester and studied at the prestigious Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He is a Turner Prize Winner and is one of the few black members of the “Young British Artists”, a term coined by the Saatchi Gallery in 1992 referring to prolific artists who incorporate shock tactics in their work.

In his art (which is largely collage based), Chris draws in elements of his African heritage, working with materials such as resin, paint and glitter. It is also often splattered with elephant dung; although Ofili claims that the dung is “tactfully arranged”. His art explores pornography, ‘blaxploitation’ and racial/sexual stereotypes, often sparking controversial outcry like “The Holy Virgin Mary” display in the 1999 Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. It was a consciously shocking image which endeavoured to de-Westernize the quintessentially white, Renaissance figure and propel viewers towards supposed illumination.

This infamous collage depicted the Virgin Mary as a very black woman, with a broad nose and thick lips, surrounded by cut outs of pornographic images, female genitalia and images from blaxploitation films;, formed into small cherubims and seraphims. The mantle of her blue robe is opened to reveal a breast composed entirely of elephant dung. The collage also rests on two mounds of elephant dung on either side inscribed with the words, ‘Virgin’ and ‘Mary’.

Perhaps its sheer grotesqueness (in which visual dissonance and distortion are exploited), aimed at pushing the viewer to move beyond the superficially beautiful plane that is so prevalent in Renaissance art (in which the Madonna resembles a more placid Kate Winslet) and onto a higher stratum of divine contemplation. 

This raises a few questions:, What exactly is this divine contemplation and what caused such an objection? Was it the ‘Africanization’ of one of the ultimate Western biblical icons, or his idiosyncratic use of dung that “defiled” a holy figure? Probably the former, seeing as other erstwhile artistic materials have been more scandalous. Was it for the purposes of some sort of deeper spiritual connection with the Virgin Mary?; Are Africans supposed to be able to identify with this biblical titan now moreso because she is Black?

According to a critic, ‘Ofili uses elephant dung to connect her in a basic way to the African earth and its people. After all, Mary is as much theirs (Africans') and his (Ofili's)’. This statement causes some unrest within me although I cannot quite pinpoint the locus of offense:. In saying ‘Mary is as much theirs’, is this critic somehow suggesting that whilst we are allowed to worship the figures of Westernised religion, a practise which has been oh-so-generously bestowed unto us, there is no scope for interpretation, at least on our part? We must accept what we’ve been given submissively and without question? I won't even begin to try to dissect the critic's perverse association of dung with African people.

Remember in 1989, Madonna and the black Jesus in ‘Like a Prayer’ and the hullabaloo that inevitably ensued. Would Africans be affronted if Damien Hirst depicted Amadioha or Shango as Caucasian, complete with opalescent skin, aquiline nose and thin lips? Or even a more modern iconic figure like Fela Kuti or Bob Marley? 

This painting has since been the victim of vandalism, misinterpretation, harsh criticism and even harsher invectives. It is by no means a masterpiece and the only source of marvel, on my part at least, is how this work has managed to remain in existence until now. 

‘It’s about the way the black woman is talked about in hip-hop music. It’s about my religious upbringing, and confusion about that situation. The contradiction of a virgin mother. It’s about the stereotyping of the black female… It’s about beauty. It’s about caricature. And it’s about just being confused.’

Chris Ofili features at Tate Britain Ending May 16 2010
'Hip, cool and wildly inventive' - The Guardian

Chris Ofili’s paintings are on show at Tate Britain in a major survey of the artist’s career. One of the most acclaimed British painters of his generation, Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998 and represented Great Britain at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. 

Ofili's early works draw on a wide range of influences, from Zimbabwean cave painting to blaxploitation movies, fusing comic book heroes and icons of funk and hip-hop. These are presented alongside current developments which continue to draw on diverse sources of inspiration, and are full of references to sensual and Biblical themes as well as explore Trinidad’s landscape and mythology. 

Highlights include No Woman, No Cry, 1998, a tender portrait of a weeping female figure created in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and The Upper Room 1999–2002, a darkened, walnut-panelled room containing thirteen canvases depicting rhesus macaque monkeys. Each is differentiated in bold colours, and individually spot-lit.  

Sunday, 14 February 2010

i-Muse debates: Celebrities hijacking the development process in Africa

ARGUMENT AGAINST

 This article responds to the argument proposed on i-Muse Debates last week on the role that celebrities play in setting the agenda for international cooperation in economic assistance to developing countries. I believe that the judgments passed on celebrities for their advocacy on behalf of African economic development are ridiculous. Although the performance of this self-selected cast of performers remains highly contentious, it must be accepted that this activity is a crucial signal that the traditional script of international relations is changing. This article testifies in favor of the authentic importance of 'celebrity agency', recognizing it as a step in the right direction.

Attempts to trivialize celebrity engagement, reducing it to feel-good activity, or worse still a mere ‘fad’ may paradoxically feed an image that in itself trivializes the serious issues they are voicing. The “I Am African” was established to unite Hollywood celebrities in order to raise money for African children affected by AIDS. These celebrities were featured in magazines such as LIFE and GQ, forums which would typically be closed to the cause. Furthermore, in naming Bono Person of the Year, Times labeled him a good Samaritan. But this powerful biblical image misses the point of Bono’s significance as a celebrity leader. He goes beyond being a high-profile good Samaritan - he stretches the moral imagination of his musical audience so that they, too, see the need to reach out to their global neighbors. "We're talking about building constituencies of interest,” these A-listers are reaching a much wider crowd, drawing more press attention to pressing issues than non-celebrity aid workers ever could.

Attempts to caricature this type of agency, without highlighting their distinctive contributions is dangerous. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jessica Lange and Angelina Jolie visited burgeoning camps of people displaced by a decade of civil war, where perhaps 4 million were killed. Bono set up a Washington-based pressure group called DATA, which lobbied in the halls of Congress and in European capitals for debt relief among Africa's poorest nations. In South Africa, in the township of Soweto near Johannesburg, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey built her own school, hired her own teachers, and interviewed the hundreds of girls who would attend. "This is not to sideline the governments and the people on the ground doing real work, but when a celebrity comes to catapult an issue into people's consciousness, that has to be applauded."

Finally I fault the House's motion not only for misrepresenting the nature of celebrity activism but also for distorting the weight of celebrities as agenda setters. While individual agency outside the usual orthodox sources matters, the hold of political forces as determinants of policy outcomes cannot be neglected. Agreed, it is a sign of the times that an Irish pop singer becomes one of the most visible persons attacking global poverty. Where are the African political and religious leaders? Why have they not already headed a more successful effort of their own? … In the absence of any satisfactory answers I will shift my attention to the unavoidable fact that society in this day and age is shaped more by entertainment than by politics and is more enamored with celebrities than moved by leaders. Popular culture like it or not has a crucial role to play in creating awareness of world issues, in persuading World political leaders to take action on these issues. 

To conclude I propose to you that ‘Celebrity Activism’ in itself is not a problem. The issues arise when African leaders and policy makers abdicate their responsibilities to these stars. Africans should stop seeing themselves as ‘victims of ‘Western celebrity activism.’ These celebrities are merely setting the stage and grabbing the attention of a global audience for the true architects of development with whom the responsibility is bestowed upon to step in. Rather than feeling afflicted, Africans should embrace the newly found media attention on a Continent which has been so readily been for far too long relegated to the ranks of the Forgotten. Africans need to take full advantage of the momentum created by the ‘Development Buzz’ to set their own agenda.

ARGUMENTS FOR

Celebrity activism in Africa seems to be in fashion at the moment: A pseudo-famous person attempts to rejuvenate their profiles by affiliating with an NGO or charity and suddenly becomes an expert on African development. Should we not as Africans be ashamed of this trend of non-elected individuals berating our democratically elected governments? Further, what relevant expertise/qualifications do these celebrities have that indicate their competence at formulating economic policies?  Are we not capable of designing, implementing and evaluating policies - to address poverty alleviation, without expert singers setting the trajectory of our development? These are questions we as Africans ought to take more seriously.

During the noughties, Africa fell victim to the rising exports of Western celebrity activism. 2005 especially was a banner year and put African development on the international agenda. The term “Development buzz” was coined by Paul Collier to encapsulate this movement. Celebrity rock-stars such as Bono, backed by the American economist, Jeffrey Sachs (whose austerity measures helped wreck Bolivia, Poland, and Russias' economies) pushed for the cancellation of debts and advocated increasing Western aid and aid-related assistance. Ironically, it could be argued that rising aid has had an adverse impact on Africa’s development over the past few decades: Dambisa Moyo argues in “Dead Aid” that Western aid has crippled Africa’s development rather than stimulate it. Further it has increased the level of dependency on the West as our economic saviour, severing the link between the state and civilians: a crucial link in fostering accountability.

In addition to the negative impact on our economies, I worry about the adverse impact this celebrity trend has on Africa’s "brand". It is reminiscent of the “White Man’s burden”, and only serves to emphasise the notion that Africans are helpless, reinforcing the only story repeated about us time after time (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A single story”). The blame can only be laid on us as we allow celebrities to search for personal meaning and purpose in the deserts and grasslands of our continent, instead of starting a meaningful debate about how to take Africa forward. What message are we giving out to young Africans?

A third concern of mine is that celebrities’ interest in Africa seems to be a fashionable pastime. Historically, Africa as a continent has been abysmal at saving for a rainy day. As we are emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression, Western fiscal budgets are being squeezed inevitably; and International aid is sliding down the political agenda as domestic issues take priority. Africa may soon become out of fashion. Further, celebrities oversimplify remedies to seduce and "entertain" the average Western consumer. However the reality is far more complex than portrayed, and requires heterogeneous solutions to each country or region.

I shall conclude with an excerpt from Paul Collier’s book, "The Bottom Billion": “Development buzz has to keep its messages simple, driven by the need for slogans, images and anger. Unfortunately, although the plight of the bottom billion lends itself to simple moralizing, the answers do not. It is a problem that needs to be hit with several policies at the same time, some of them counterintuitive. Don’t look to development buzz to formulate such an agenda: It is at times a headless heart.”


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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story | Video on TED.com




THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY - Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice - and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Adichie comments on the pitfalls of a monotholitic image of Africa as a site of catastrophe: she cautions that limiting ourselves to a 'single story' flattens experience and creates stereotypes. Western media often treats the African continent as a malignant appendage, rather than as an integral systemic part of the earth and all its natural functions in accordance with universal laws. With a stroke of a journalist's pen, the African, her continent and her descendants, are pejoratively reduced to nothing: a bastion of disease, savagery, animism, pestilence, war, famine, despotism, primitivism, poverty, and ubiquitous images of children, flies in their food and faces, their stomachs distended.

Africa's image in the Western media is not a self-portrait. It is not a "what you see is what you get". As media-conditioning shapes moulds and monopolizes those images, references to Africa are received sometimes with disdain and contempt. Even African descendants, who have virtually no cultural competence, actually contribute to how Africa is projected globally. Ashamed of their "heritage and historical past", they side with media characterizations projected through stories, newspapers, and propaganda campaigns. This attitude, while supremely disturbing, also pervades the psyche, pre-empts behaviors, infers worthlessness, disregards African humanity, and devalues the mind. Therein one falls victim to Adichie's criticism of not questioning the single story of Africa. Failing to provide an alternative story in itself surrenders Africa to the prescribed identity as a "Shackled Continent" (Robert Guest).  

To apply this homogenous view to such a diverse and heterogeneous group of people representing unimaginable multicultural, poly-ethnic, polyreligious, multipolitical, and megaeconomic groups is shocking. It is a gross injustice to a Continent which birthed the first human civilization; harbours 50% of the worlds precious metals; has 1/6th of the world population, speaking over 2000 languages. Little is said about Africa's strategic importance to industrialized nations; her indispensability and relevance to world development, global technology, and the wealth of nations, derived from involuntary African largesse are not acclaimed in the media.


The time has come to re-brand Africa; to tell another story.

Western Perceptions of Africans - Lord Lugard, 1926



"In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person. Lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight. Naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music and loving weapons as an oriental loves jewellery. His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from the apprehension for the future, or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animals' placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the State he has reached. 

Through the ages the African appears to have evolved no organized religious creed, and though some tribes appear to believe in a deity, the religious sense seldom rises above pantheistic animalism and seems more often to take the form of a vague dread of the supernatural" "He lacks the power of organization, and is conspicuously deficient in the management and control alike of men or business. He loves the display of power, but fails to realize its responsibility ....he will work hard with a less incentive than most races. He has the courage of the fighting animal, an instinct rather than a moral virtue...... 

In brief, the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children, whose confidence when it is won is given ungrudgingly as to an older and wiser superior and without envy.......Perhaps the two traits which have impressed me as those most characteristic of the African native are his lack of apprehension and his lack of ability to visualize the future." 

Ninety years on would Lord Lugard have a different account of Africa and its Leaders today? To what extent are Lugard's observations applicable to modern day Africa? Share your thoughts on i-Muse.

Who was Lord Lugard?

His full name was Frederick John Dealtry Lugard.
He was born on 22 January 1858 and died on 11 April 1945.
He was a British soldier, colonial administrator and explorer of the African continent, having explored Nyasaland (modern day Malawi), Uganda, Niger and Nigeria.
He was Governor of Hong Kong (1907-1912) and Nigeria (1914 – 1919) under British rule. 
He created University of Hong Kong in 1911.
The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa’ was published in 1922 by Lugard : He discussed reasons and methods recommended for the colonisation of Africa by Britain, including spreading Christianity, curbing ‘barbarianism’, and pushed for native rule in African colonies.

Western Perceptions of Africa: Expecting the Exotic


There’s a Zzigima track from the 1980s by the once-popular Nigerian musician, Bright Chimezie, in which he recounts a visit to "obodo ndi ocha", which translates as "the white man’s land" and is a generic term for any Western country. Chimezie explains that he had on him some portions of eba, a Nigerian staple made from milled cassava, and ogbono soup, a traditional accompaniment that is fabled for the thickness which causes it to stretch (known commonly as ‘draw soup’).

The first reaction by onlookers is that he is performing magic, since the act of dipping a dull-coloured ball into liquid that hangs off it inexplicably would seem to be a conjurer’s act. This is not inconsistent with some of the ideas that are quickly formed about some African practices which do not gel easily with Western perceptions of workaday life: the styles of dance, body art, song chants. The energy and vivaciousness of these elements, the trills and whoops and hoohah that are commonplace to an indigenous African are sometimes viewed as slightly too spectacular to be a natural part of the mundane activities of a day.

It is in this vein that the average Westerner, especially one who has only come across African expression in a theatre or other entertainment venue in the form of shows like "The Lion King" at the Lyceum or the famous "Umoja", will come to expect the exotic from an African as his basic modus operandi. In pop culture, the African is often represented as a mass of bright colours and vibrant colloquialisms. Take Sister Act 2, a movie I love, as an example. "Ahmal" loves Africa and wants everyone to know it. So what does he do? He dresses in wild dashes of rainbow hues and talks in long-winded sentences that would shame even Tony Blair.

The consequence is that there is often a tendency to expect a little too much of the outlandish from Africa, to stereotype the African as gregarious, excitable and his land as a vast resource of mysticism. This is why non- Africans often visit the game parks of Kenya to co-mingle with nature, their safaris for them a step into the untamed world of fantastic African foreignness. As a rule of thumb, African countries are expected to include in their tourism manuals some sites of deeply symbolic significance- some WahWah mountain here, some LahLah river there- to satisfy this thirst for the extraordinary that comes with expectations of Africa.

Unfortunately, where this expectation is failed, things could quickly go sour. A friend of mine once had to work through fifteen awkward minutes to persuade her neighbour that she had drunk tea everyday of her life so no need to be upset that that was all she had to offer. I wish I could put on paper the look of astonishment my friend described as her neighbour’s response which quickly dissolved into a slouching disappointment. Africa, and Africans, are not expected to be bland, or dull, or normal, whatever that term means. So when Bright Chimezie explained that he was, in fact, doing no more than eating a very average meal, his audience gasped: "Police eh! Police eh! You are committing suicide o eh!".