In what African country can people get brought to court for writing a fable about a fictional president and a female lover who is not his wife. The correct answer is Mali.
The Malian court, which held its proceedings in secret, displayed the government’s enlightened attitude towards free-expression by handing suspended jail terms to the five journalists and one teacher accused of insulting Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Toure.
Toure was re-elected as president last month to a new five-year term. The chances are high that he will feel insulted again before he leaves office.
Before the ruling, the advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, smartly observed: “Mali was hailed as an example of democracy in Africa, but as this case goes from bad to worse, it is looking more and more like an authoritarian regime, crippled by taboos and dangerous for those who show a lack of respect for an untouchable president.”
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“A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere — on sufferance, watching arily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility.” — Peter Godwin
A grim new statistic from South Africa: for every person who started taking antiretroviral treatments for AIDS last year, five others contracted the HIV virus. The UN reports that this 1-5 ratio applies not only to South Africa, but to the African continent as a whole. Craig Timberg concludes in today’s Washington Post that “prevention programs have mostly failed….” A bleak specter now hangs over those doing battle against AIDS in Africa: despite billions of dollars in funding for treatment, the disease maintains momentum. Yet an awareness of this situation is slowly building, and the higher the awareness the better, an AIDS expert tells me today. The expert writes in an email, “At last people are facing the reality that treatment, though a good thing, won’t stop the epidemic.”
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A friend who recently visited East Africa examining prospects for investment sends me some fascinating reflections on options open to people of good will who want to assist Africans in imaginative ways. Here’s an except from his letter, with name of country deleted:
“Which brings me to another paradox I wrestle with. There’s investment and
there’s charity. Is there an in between? Can I feel as good investing in [a certain African country] as I would donating money to an orphanage in [the same country]? Will I feel guilty if I do too well in investing? If I’m only willing to donate 10k but am willing to invest 100k for a reasonable return, isn’t [the country] better off with the
investment? I think so. Some speak about social entrepeneurship as filling the
void between charity and investing. Not sure thought what social investing or
social entrepeneurship is.
One can imagine drawing a continuum of investing in poverty stricken countries.
On the extreme hard radical right, you have vulture investors who buy defaulted
debt of deeply impoverished countries and then litigate in international courts
for recovery against the limited cofers of these countries. Such has happened to
many countries including congo and zambia. On the other side of the spectrum are
“social entrepeneurs” who’s url end in “org”. Deeply subsidized microlenders who
distribute profits to back to the country might be an example. But an org is an
org, and I don’t consider them investors, social or otherwise.Â What I’m looking
to do is more “com” than “org”, but I want to be comfortable that my investments
are helping the country (and not just a select few entrepenuers). Since [the government] has stated that private sector investing is a key foundation of development, I feel I can invest and still feel that my activity is springing from my
charitable side and not my profit maximizing side. I’m doing good, even if I do well.
I still believe in charity. Investors will never replace doctors without
borders. Likewise you can’t charge market rates for water for poor villagers.
Education and healthcare when not donated, have to be heavily subsidized for the
poor.Â But charity has its limitations. And where there are limitations,
strategic investment can fill the gap.”
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“I think this choice between aid and entrepreneurship is false. If we wait for trade, it will take generations, and people need help now. On the other hand, only entrepreneurship can make us rich.” — Herman Chinery-Hesse, Ghana
NYT columnist Joe Nocera draws sensible conclusions about the pell-mell rush on the part of Big American philanthropists and their corporate supporters to throw money at anti-malaria programs in Africa. As he writes in today’s newspaper: “And maybe thatâ€™s the best way to think about what Mr. Sachs â€” and Western companies â€” are trying to do. Theirs is not a solution but an experiment. It will surely do some good, but it is impossible to know how much. It is a worthy effort, but probably not as profoundly transformative as he likes to portray it. And it is probably best not to get too excited, no matter how inspiring the speeches at New York fund-raisers. Because someday malaria is no longer going to be the pet cause in American boardrooms. And then what?”
What Nocera doesn’t say — perhaps because he hasn’t visited any part of malaria-ridden Africa — is that the hard work of eliminating malaria will fall on Africans themselves who face a difficult set of trade-offs over how they attack the task of prevention.
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“It is my business as a writer to teach that … there is nothing disgraceful about the African weather, that the palm-tree is a fit subject for poetry. Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse — to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of the word.” — Chinua Achebe
What follows is an excerpt from my liner notes to Osita Osadebeâ€™s final American release, the CD called â€œClub America.â€ Osadebe died last month. My words, written in 2003, still stand:
Osita Osadebeâ€™s music springs from the lives of his people, so â€œClub Americaâ€ is a natural fruit of his labors. He is the master of the lilting lyrical Highlife â€“ and Nigeriaâ€™s foremost musical poet. Listen to this record â€¦ you will be taken instantly to a faraway place: to the frenetic, joyous, topsy-turvy world of West Africa â€¦ You will feel instantly at home. Osadebeâ€™s music is at once global and local, irresistibly cosmopolitan and yet grounded in the tastes, smells, emotions and authenticity of Osadebeâ€™s beloved Igbo people â€¦.
Osadebeâ€™s lyrics are straightforward and quickly get to the essence â€¦. He sings of renewal, of hope, of the human capacity for moving ahead even in the face of poverty and disappointment. â€œNo matter how bad [things are], we must live,â€ he sings in the song, Makojo. â€œNo matter how much it rains, it must stop raining someday. The sun must shine.â€
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Sympathy for African victims of HIV/AIDS is necessary, but not at the expense of comprehension. The epidemic in Africa, experts are now starting to realize, has been grossly exaggerated and mis-represented by international relief agencies, especially the U.N. Yet still the sob stories dominate writing about AIDS in Africa. A review of mine of a fresh example of such writing was published in Sunday’s SF Chronicle.
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Ousmane Sembene’s death, at the age of 84, robs sub-Saharan Africa of a stylish voice on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. Sembene’s keen ability to ridicule striving African elites, aping the very Europeans who still sought to control them, surely will stand as a classic statement on the peculiar situation facing the first generation of African leaders following the end of British and French colonialism. Sembene’s visual mastery of his traditional Senegal, combined with his profound sense of the collision between Africans and the contradictions of modernity, made him a singularÂ artist whose shoes no one can fill. Sembene’s sense of outrage, combined with an almost innocent romanticism about ordinary Africans, is no longer possible given the widespread cycnicism engendered by the failures of the African elite post-independence and the spread of global forces — notably consumerism and a muscular evangelical religiosity — that are hurling Africans into a hybridized world that touches even remote villages. African identity in Sembene’s world was pure, hard, tangible. His version of African-ness was rooted in the wisdom of the soil. His moral compass drew on the wisdom of the ages even as he presented his words and images in the idiom of contemporary culture. In a fitting tribute to him, Mali’s culture minister, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, told the French news agency, AF-P, “The man only worked in and for Africa” and “led Africa to understand its identity and build its cultural horizons.” Yet Sembene’s unitary conception of Africa — his exploration of the “essence” of his people — was built on a different contradiction than the exploitative, European-led modernity that he so gracefully opposed. For a moment, Sembene’s sense of the one-ness of African identity held sway; in the political realm, Pan-Africanism also had many admirers. Yet by now, the very paradox Sembene’s art can be viewed against the backdrop of a growing awareness and appreciation of African diversity, heterodoxy and indeed difference. Where is this unity that Sembene extolled, in a region encompassing Ethiopia to the East, Nigeria to the West and Botswana to the South? Imbued with Western notions of nationalism and racial identity, Sembene built his art on a belief in the commonality between all Africans. Yet this commonality was itself a fiction, and the increasing exposure of this fiction marginalized Sembene as an artist, yet opened the way for younger, fresher voices who have the courage to both posit African solidarity and at the same time explore highly-specific notions of African identity (in the manner of Chinua Achebe’s frank embrace of his own Igbo ethnicity).
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