August 26, 2009

Darfur's Skeleton on DVD

One of the best documentaries about the Darfur conflict, Darfur's Skeleton moves beyond all the 'genocide' talk of 'experts' to get to the people themselves and what they are saying about the situation. Darfur's Skeleton avoids the racist 'Arab vs. African' narrative to probe into the envirornmental causes of the crisis. Directed by Haj Hisham Omar, this documentary is not to be missed.
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The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba (videos)

Crucial documentary. Watch it. Learn. 'Nuff said.


August 25, 2009

Is Yemen Chewing Itself To Death?

By ANDREW LEE BUTTERS (for Time Magazine)

By 4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana'a are high, or about to get high - not on any sort of manufactured narcotics, but on khat, a shrub whose young leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. Khat is popular in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, but in Yemen it's a full-blown national addiction. As much as 90% of men and 1 in 4 women in Yemen are estimated to chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as the khat slowly breaks down into the saliva and enters the bloodstream. The newcomer to Yemen's ancient capital can't miss the spectacle of almost an entire adult population presenting cheeks bulging with cud, leaving behind green confetti of discarded leaves and branches. (Read "Can Amphetamines Help Cure Cocaine Addiction?")

For its many devotees, khat is a social lubricant on a par with coffee or alcohol in the West. Indeed, because chewing the leaf isn't forbidden by Islam, "khat is alcohol for Muslims," says Yahya Amma, the head merchant at the Agriculture Suq, one of the largest khat markets in the city. "You can chew it and still go to prayers." The leaf's energy-boosting and hunger-numbing properties help university students focus on their homework, allows underpaid laborers to work without meals and, according to local lore, offers the same help to impotent men that Westerners seek in Viagra. Evening khat ceremonies - regular salon gatherings (usually only of men) to chew and chat about matters great and small - are the country's basic form of socializing. (Read "U.N. World Drug Report.")

But khat's detractors say the leaf is destroying Yemen. At around $5 for a bag (the amount typically consumed by a single regular user in a day) it's an expensive habit in a country where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. (Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to government figures.) A khat-addled public is more inclined to complacency about the failings of the government, khat ceremonies reinforce the exclusion of women from power and, as is obvious to anyone finding a government office nearly empty on a weekday morning, khat is keeping the country awake well past its bedtime.

"You sit up discussing all your problems and think you've solved everything, but in fact you haven't done anything in the last four hours, because you've just been chewing khat and all your problems actually got worse," says Adel al-Shujaa, a professor of political science at Sana'a University and the head of the Yemen Without Khat Association. Plus, he says, "all the decisions you've made are bad because you've made them while on khat."

But the worst thing about khat may be that it is sucking Yemen dry.

The plant thrives in the high hill country outside Sana'a, where nearly every patch of irrigated land is covered in khat. Unlike coffee, which Yemenis claim was first cultivated here, khat is easy to grow and harvest. And though cultivating and dealing the leaf doesn't generate the kind of instant wealth associated with growing poppies in Afghanistan or coca in Colombia, it certainly provides a steadier income than growing vegetables does - that's why nearly all of the country's arable land is devoted to khat. And khat needs a lot of water, which is scarce in Yemen.

Khat fields are typically flooded twice a month, consuming about 30% of the country's water - most of which is pumped from underground aquifers filled thousands of years ago, and replenished only very slowly by the occasional rainfall that seeps through the layers of soil and rock. A recent explosion of khat cultivation has drawn water levels down to the point where they are no longer being replenished. The option of pumping desalinated water over long pipelines from coastal plants is too expensive for such a poor country. Yemen is in real danger of becoming the world's first country to run out of water.

"I tell UNHCR that they should start buying tents [for the communities that would be forced to move in search of drinking water]," says Michael Klingler, a hydrologist and the local director of GTZ, the German government's technical-assistance team, which is advising Yemen on water-management issues.

A massive drought - accelerated by khat cultivation - and the resultant population displacement could have a devastating impact in one of the most fragile countries in the Middle East. A separatist insurgency in the south is threatening to break the country apart, while pirates from Somalia are menacing the coast. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has long seen the lawless tribal lands in the northern mountains as a potential sanctuary.

Quitting khat would double the amount of household water available, says Klingler, but that may only slow the onset of crisis. The hydrologist argues that Yemen needs to revert to consuming only as much water as it collects from rains - and to import most of its food from abroad.

Despite the danger, Yemen isn't about to go cold turkey anytime soon. Not only are most of the country's leaders landowners deeply involved in khat production, the leaf may be one of the few things still holding Yemen together. Says Ashraf Al-Eryani, one of GTZ's local program officers, "Khat plays a big role in keeping people calm, and keeping them off the streets. But it's also delaying change. It's hard to convince people to act now."


August 24, 2009

Somalia's President Calls for Ramadan Ceasefire

President calls for Ramadan ceasefire

Somalia's government has called on warring parties in the conflict-torn horn of Africa nation to stop fighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a spokesman for the presidency said yesterday.

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former Islamist rebel, said the ceasefire call was motivated by the need for peace during the religiously significant month.

"The president made this call since it is necessary to not stop people going to Islamic centres, worship Allah any time without fear, and we hope the opposition will accept it without condition," Abdulkadir Osman told Reuters by telephone.

Opposition groups said they would discuss the ceasefire call.

The President's U.N. -backed government has been facing a stubborn insurgency from the al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam rebels, dashing hopes of an end to 18 years of instability.

Western intelligence says the fighting and chaos is exploited by al Qaeda linked groups, exposing the entire region.

On Saturday clashes continued, as insurgents attacked a government-controlled Mogadishu checkpoint in the early hours.

"Al Shabaab men have attacked our positions in Ex-Control Afgoye (checkpoint). We repulsed the attackers and killed more than 10 men," Abdifatah Shaweye, deputy mayor of Banadir, told Reuters by telephone

Al Shabaab's information office denied the claim and said they took control of the base and killed nearly 10 soldiers from the government side.

Al Shabaab also said they had agreed to work together with Hizbul Islam fighters in the South Western region of Gedo.

"We had agreed to join all our forces and take orders from one command. The number of Hizbul Islam fighters (who) joined us are in the hundreds," Commander Bare Adan Khooje told Reuters.

About 100 people died last week in different parts of the country as pro-government militias and insurgents engaged in various battles.


August 7, 2009

African artists poor unlike their cousins

Interesting article...Doesn't this confirm that the bourgeoisie class is the class that begins to 'collect' art? And that the African bourgeoisie is not numerous enough to support African art? Or could it be that African art fetches a better price outside the continent where it is snapped up by 'exotic seekers' and amateur anthropologists? There is an abundance of creativity in the continent; shouldn't African artists be able to cash in in the same way? What do you think?

African artists poor unlike their cousins

The failure of African artists to cash in on the current international windfall cannot be blamed on machinations by ‘blood sucking western capitalists’ but on Africans’ own failure to cotton on to a good thing – even when it stares us in the face, writes Osei G. Kofi.

Among the many godchildren of Globalization is the art business. It has grown from several hundred million dollars a year into a multi-billion dollar industry in a little over a decade. Bad news is that Africa is missing out on this bonanza.

Today art, especially contemporary art, brings together a vast, growing community of savvy artists, dealers, curators, galleries, museums, auction houses, publishers, film makers and internet designers in an exciting new marketplace where everyone seems to gain enormously. Unfortunately Africa and Africans are sadly locked out of this burgeoning business.
And this time it is not due to any machination by “blood sucking western capitalists” of the post-colonial order but by Africans’ own failure to cotton on to a good thing — even when it stares us in the face.

The just-ended Art Basel, the world’s biggest art fair, held every June in the Swiss industrial city of Basel, is a case in point. For five action-packed days last month the three hanger-size exhibition halls at Messeplatz on the banks of the sleepy Rhine, throbbed with feverish activity as the who-and-who of global art cut deals over an array of eye popping, heart thumping goodies.

A piece by Yinka Shonibare. PHOTO BY OSEI KOFI

There were fine samples from the usual suspects — Klimt, Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti, Warhol, Kandinsky, Dali, Picabia, Pollock, Jasper Johns, Chagall, Calder, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Bacon and many more.

There were fresh offerings from the latter-day gang – Jeff Koons, Hockney, Niki Saint Phalle, Lucian Freud, Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge and the tragic Haitian prodigy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose just after hitting the big time. There were mirthful splashes from post-Mao Chinese warriors, including the irrepressible Yue Minjun. There were modern-day Samurais, such as Takashi Murakami.

Art Basel 2009 hosted 300 tightly vetted art galleries showcasing some 2,500 artists. It drew 61,000 visitors and attracted 50 state museum groups on the hunt for additions to their collections. It was covered by 280 media representatives from Rio de Janeiro to Wellington; from Reykjavik to Johannesburg.

Showbiz personalities, fashion icons or moneyed folks who came to the annual feast in the plush carpeted booths included Brad Pitt, Naomi Campbell, Pharrell Williams, Roman Abramovich, Larry Gagosian, Christian Boros and super collector, Eli Broad of California — the man who moves the global art market like no one does. The last three personalities, for instance, plus London’s Charles Saatchi and Hong Kong’s David Tang are the Warren Buffetts of the art world.

Towering over the throngs of rich and perfumed glitterati in his signature faded slacks and polo shirt was Michel Pigozzi, the Swiss entrepreneur who, with curator Andre Magnin, are the forecourt of the enterprise to bring African contemporary art to western palates via their Africa Remix project. Pigozzi owns one of the largest collections of African contemporary art and has loaned several pieces to the UNAIDS to enliven the corridors of the Geneva headquarters.

Despite the global credit crunch, business was brisk in Basel. Martin Kippenberger’s I Am Too Political sold for $1.4 million (Sh106 million). Two of Paul McCarthy’s stainless steel sculptures, Piggies, sold for $1.5 million (Sh117 million) each. The bargains included Kirchner’s Two Reclining Female Nudes which bagged a buyer at $200,000 (Sh15.2 million).

Mickalene Thomas’s canvas, Kerry On, a gravity-defying bosomy woman in a yellow blouse, went for $65,000 (Sh4.9 million).
The Chinese, Japanese and Latinos are all said to have done well. The thing with art fairs is that many moneyed buyers insist on anonymity and only a fraction of the sales are released to the press by the galleries.

Now, where is Africa in all this? Nowhere. So much of western contemporary art, as showcased in Art Basel, Venice Biennale, Berlin Forum, Frieze London and New York or on the walls of many an American or European gallery today bear the DNA of African classicism. That Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Calder and the other cubists, surrealists or post modernists owe a huge debt to Mother Africa is now a cliché.

At the risk of sounding a tad chauvinist, I dare say African artists beavering away in their modest studios or lean-to shanty homes in Kampala, Ile Ife, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Maputo, Dakar or Khartoum are the most innovative, accessible, refreshing and prodigious among their generation worldwide. And yet hardly any African artist was found in an important market such as Art Basel. Artists like Uganda’s Jak Katarikawe, dubbed “Africa’s Chagall”, South African Charles Sekano, Rwandan Sekajugo or Kenyans Kivuthu Mbuno, Sebastian Kiare and Tabitha Mburu all eke out a living on the margins of poverty after decades of dedication to their craft. Why?

Putting money on the wall?
The reasons are quite banal. Africa has been slow, too slow, in professionalising art. Our colleges offer art degrees but how many of the graduates can make a living as professional curators, gallerists, dealers or even understand the concept of an auction house? The entire East and Central African region has two commercial galleries of international standards, the venerable Gallery Watatu and its comely upstart, Ramoma, both in Nairobi.

A crucial factor is that Africans, rich Africans, refuse to buy art. The concept of “putting money on the wall” is alien to them. A while ago a major US business magazine did a cover spread on one of the newly minted billionaires of the Black Economic Empowerment class of post Apartheid South Africa. The paintings on the walls of the sumptuously appointed homes were distinctly run of the mill. There were no Jak Katarikawes, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridges, E. Saidi Tingatingas, Lilangas, Malangatanas, or Cheri Sambas. And yet these are some of the African artists slated to join the Rothkos, Modiglianis and Picassos of posterity.

Anyone who thinks that only frivolous people fork out thousands of dollars to acquire an art piece to adorn the home or litter the garden should think again. More than at any time since our ancestors drew fanciful images on cave walls and the Medicis were patrons of Florentine or greater European artistic creations, art, today, is gilt-edged investment, in fact the ultimate redoubt of a global financial system gone haywire.

Gallery Watatu’s hard times
Take for instance the Lauders, of the American cosmetics industry fame. Three years ago scion of the family plunked down $135 million (Sh10.3 billion)for Gustaf Klimt’s 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer at auction at Christie’s, New York. That painting today has a market value of at least $150 million (Sh11.4 billion). Seriously.

Just imagine if the Lauders had put the cash into Bernard L Madoff Investment (In)Securities, Lehman Brothers, or in AIG.
Take the case of Adama Diawara, owner of Gallery Watatu. The self-taught wily art supremo from Cote d’Ivoire is a veteran among the handful promoters of art in Africa. His Nairobi gallery, the oldest private gallery in sub-Sahara Africa, with impeccable pedigree, has fallen on hard times, largely due to the drop in the art buying expatriates visiting Kenya, failure of local patrons to make up the gap and, above all, the crippling rent charged by Lonrho House, downtown Nairobi.

However, Diawara is the proud owner of the largest single collection of the works of Tanzanians Lilanga and E. Saidi Tingatinga, the latter being the only African to have found an international art movement that now bears his name. If Diawara’s gallery was located in London, New York or Tokyo, banks and financial houses would not only pay him a monthly fee to hire some of his paintings to display in their premise.

They would also accept his Tingatingas and Lilangas as collateral for loans that would allow Diawara to construct his own gallery and buy advertising space in the Daily Nation and specialised art magazines abroad – all being the window to international art sales.


Pambazuka - Wangari Maathai on the Kenyan TJRC

I've commented on this before in my book review of Odinga Odinga's Not Yet Uhuru. The fact is that those who fought most tenaciously for Kenya's freedom were shut out of negotiations for power in the newly independent state. Maathai connects the dots of power arrangements post-independence to the recent election crisis.
Pambazuka - Impunity is a way of life

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Pambazuka - End repressive laws targeting women in Sudan

Pambazuka - End repressive laws targeting women in Sudan

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Pambazuka - Quotes from Mwalimu Nyerere

Quotes from the late great Mwalimu Nyerere, still applicable today.
Pambazuka - To stay silent would be a disgrace

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Pambazuka - Tanzania: A tale of two governments

You gotta check out Chambi Chachage's take on 'the Zanzibar question'--the federation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar that was created after the 1964 Revolution.
Pambazuka - Tanzania: A tale of two governments

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