Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Why Studying African History is Good For You

with 2 comments

by Bronwen

I’m teaching about the post-war African colonial empires at the moment, and came across NYU Professor Fred Cooper’s lecture for the Stanford Humanities Centre while putting together the ‘further reading’ materials for my students.  I highly recommend this podcast.  (Number 29 here).

Listening to it, I was reminded why African history should not be a niche subject, but should be integral to all history curricula: the shape of how we think about the world owes a lot to how the world has engaged with Africa over the past 400 years. From humanitarianism to ‘development’, from ‘modern’ warfare to understandings of agricultural technology, from acceptable capitalism to unacceptable exploitation, concepts that we take for granted have emerged from our engagement with Africa.  What is the state for?  Are political parties inevitable in a democracy?  If ethnicity is defined by a shared cultural heritage and language, where does that break down territorially? What are the smallest and largest effective political structures?  All of these questions are raised by studying African history.

But even more fundamentally, studying African history is important for challenging the narrative of progress, as Cooper does so effectively in this lecture.  Yes, in some ways learning history is about learning how we got here.  But in other, equally important ways, it is about the roads not taken.  Learning African history can help demonstrate that the nation state has never been an inevitability, for instance, and that citizenship is a pretty arbitrary category.  The shifting categories of citizen, subject, and national in French Africa (the subject of the podcast) were not different ways of getting to the objectively ‘true’ form of citizenship as now practiced.  Citizenship, national identity, and supranational identities have always been negotiated and what we have now is just as arbitrary and negotiated a category as the forms that existed in the nineteenth century empires or in the mid-twentieth century Unions or Federations or Communities or Commonwealths.

This is particularly relevant teaching in the EU, where despite the contested nature of that body within English opinion, national and supranational citizenship are part of daily life.  But I imagine it would be equally relevant in both the EU and the US, where countries increasingly cling to an ‘origins’ notion of citizenship and nationality in an attempt to define the limits of social citizenship and its entitlements.

There are so many reasons to study history more generally.  But African history can provide a unique insight into the assumptions we all make about the ‘modern’ world, how we got here, and how completely different fundamental conceptions about how the world operates could be if one small thing were different.

Written by apini

February 24, 2012 at 04:52

Third Chimurenga

with 3 comments

by Bronwen

Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately.  Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class,  it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans).  The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.

In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’  (Again, in the mainstream media.  Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.)  As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.

The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’.  It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press.  In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue.  The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project.  They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date.  They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities.  All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.

But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans.  Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

February 3, 2012 at 03:25

Joe Frazier’s Historical Significance

leave a comment »

by David

I’m a big boxing fan, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who passed away last night at the age of 67. There has been a remarkable moment of sadness coming from all corners of the boxing community, from the classy Lennox Lewis to the controversial Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has promised that his “Money Team” will pay for the funeral. I share that sadness. And that’s why I want to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted about the disappointing New York Times obituary, “Not really an honor to Frazier to start an obit claiming he was a ‘better man’ than Ali.”

Of course, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are inextricably linked. But the obituary’s author dwelled too much on comparing Frazier and Ali as fighters and as men, while completely ignoring Frazier’s political and historical significance. He notes that Ali called Frazier “a gorilla” and “stupid.” As this far better Christian Science Monitor tribute notes, Ali also called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” while Frazier called Ali “Cassius Clay,” his “slave name” that he renounced upon joining the Nation of Islam and changing it to Muhammad Ali in 1964.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represented the most important theme of African American history, the struggle between separation and integration. When Frazier and Ali first fought, in 1971 (clip above), African Americans had overcome slavery and Jim Crow, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and Black Power was on the rise. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of his title while in prison for refusing to serve in the military  during the Vietnam war. He represented the spirit of Black separatism. Frazier, on the other hand, was the establishment fighter, the “white man’s” champ.

When the lighter-skinned Ali called the darker Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” the moment was rich with irony. Frazier, a descendent of share-croppers, was one of 12 children born in rural South Carolina. As the NYT obit notes, he grew up “picking vegetables for 15 cents a crate when not helping his father, a handyman who lost his left arm in an auto accident.” He brought $200 with him when he took a Greyhound Bus to New York to find better opportunities. He then went to Philly, and found occasional work in a meat locker, where he punched hunks of meat like a heavy bag, inspiring Sylvester Stallone to include a similar scene in Rocky.

The NYT piece fails to mention Ali’s upbringing. Though hardly wealthy, the Clays lived a relatively comfortable and secure lower-middle class life in Louisville, Kentucky. Both of Ali’s parents were regularly employed, and he graduated from high school before heading off to the Olympics. Nonetheless, he became a symbolic hero to Blacks in America and Africa, as demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. The movie chronicles Ali’s trip to Zaire in 1974, where he upset then heavyweight champion George Foreman. Though now more famous for his grilling machine, the Houston-born Foreman was once a ferocious fighter. Like Ali and Frazier, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, and like Frazier, had grown up in poverty, yet he could not seem to win his people’s hearts the way his charismatic opponent could. Indeed, many of the Zaire locals thought Foreman was white before he showed up. Perhaps this degree of detail on Ali would have been too much for a Frazier obit, but some contrast of Ali and Frazier’s background helps place their historical significance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

November 8, 2011 at 12:17


with 5 comments

by Bronwen

There is a new, serious crisis in East Africa.  I recently saw a facebook meme that expressed what is officially referred to as ‘aid fatigue’ or ‘crisis fatigue’.

BREAKING NEWS: We need to send money to the following country: USA. There are many without food, shelter, and clean drinking water. Residents are going without heat for the winter, no a/c for the summer. Millions are without jobs. Need health care for the sick. Stop sending money overseas. We have people here that lack basic human needs. Do you have the guts to re-post this?? AMERICA FIRST!

In a time when life is uncertain for so many Americans (see Peter’s post on this blog last week), it’s not surprising that this should emerge.  Middle class life is perceived to be (and could very well be) perched on the edge of a steep decline.

So these Americans would probably be delighted to know that they do not have to carry the whole burden by themselves.  The Daily Nation also has an interesting, and a number of letters to the editor that point out a side of the crisis which will probably not make it into the US or UK news:  Kenyan contributions to the relief efforts through a variety of initiatives, like Kenyans for Kenya.

A number of recent projects have been dedicated to stories about the emergence of an African middle class.  This one is particularly good, although its choice of sample countries is perhaps a bit odd.  The blog Africa is a Country focuses on ‘everyday’ Africa.  The FT has also recently started a quarterly magazine, This is Africa, which brings business and investment stories and interviews from the continent to readers in the US and Europe.

However, in general there is both less interest in and a certain discomfort about the African middle class.  Why?  I think there are a couple of important reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 5, 2011 at 07:23

Posted in Academia, Africa, class

Underdeveloping a Libertarian Paradise

with 4 comments

by Bronwen

I’m currently on a research trip in Kenya, so have been following the news of the debt crisis from afar.  In a country, and a region, currently facing a real crisis of famine, in part caused by the inability or unwillingness of various regional governments to prepare for the third drought season in a row, the fake crisis manufactured by extremist politicians in the US does seem a bit silly (silly, but still with wide ramifications, as an article in the Kenya Daily Nation argues).  But in both cases, the unwillingness of governments to put governance before politics is marked, as this political cartoon reveals.

Not long ago, a blog I follow posted this video, a tourism video for a ‘libertarian paradise.’

When travelling or working in Africa, Asia, South America, and other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, the things that mark countries as ‘more’ or ‘less’ Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 2, 2011 at 11:47

An Unlikely Pair

leave a comment »

by apini

This week’s Economist and Weekend FT both feature articles about the newest candidate to enter the Republican nomination contest, Michele Bachmann. As papers that regularly point to the celebrity reality show nature of Sarah Palin’s past (and potential future) candidacy, the papers treat Bachmann remarkably seriously.  They refer to her polling numbers in Iowa, where she is only behind Mitt Romney by 1 percentage point in the Republican nominating contest.  They refer to her religious convictions, and although it’s clear that they are not shared by the authors of the pieces, the tone is markedly different from those aimed at Palin, or even Newt Gingrich.  ‘Authenticity’, ‘conviction’, ‘credentials’ seem to be the buzzwords surrounding Bachmann.   She is genuinely passionate about her religious convictions, the papers argue.  She’s the opposite of Romney’s transparent faux conservativeness, and therefore will appeal to real value voters, they say.  She is ideologically pure, as well, ridiculing the Republican establishment with as much vigor as she ridicules Democratic opponents.  But they also emphasize that she’s no lightweight.  Although she has a limited political track record, they are keen to highlight that unlike Palin, she’s smart.  Not just shrewd (though there’s that too: ‘And Mrs Bachmann certainly knows how to play Iowa;’ ‘She is a gifted public speaker, with a knack for rousing a crowd;’ ‘ her appetite for provocative stunts;’ etc), she is portrayed as genuinely smart, presidential material: The Economist says ‘ She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously.‘  The FT says that ‘In Republican circles she is seen as having the potential to outshine Palin by being a smarter and more disciplined candidate.’  Clearly the comparisons to Palin are easy for journalists: they are both ‘values’ candidates, they appeal to similar voters, and they are both women.

What is more intriguing about this coverage, though, is its potential for international comparisons.  A regular feature of the Economist (and its only regular Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

July 2, 2011 at 09:45

Aid and Intervention

with 3 comments

by apini

Humanitarian rhetoric has ramped up recently.  Do we have a moral duty to intervene on the behalf of those civilian populations in Libya being targeted by Qaddafi (or in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Egypt, or Cote d’Ivoire)?  Is it our responsibility to respond to the ‘humanitarian’ disaster following the earthquake in Japan (or New Zealand, or Haiti, or Chile)?

Accompanying this increased (over)use of ‘humanitarianism’ has been a growing reaction against it.  Pundits from Fox News to the Guardian who pointed to a humanitarian crisis before the intervention are now questioning its relevance – do we need to intervene because it is a humanitarian crisis?  Or is it a humanitarian ‘crisis’ because we need to intervene? And once we’ve intervened, what comes next?  State-building? Humanitarian relief? Regime change?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

March 24, 2011 at 05:17

Imperial Realism

with 3 comments

by apini

To begin, an admission: I am a liberal historian/academic who likes Niall Ferguson.  His most recent article, though, really disappointed me.  He deals with the reasons why Americans should be less than enthusiastic about spreading revolutions in the Islamic world.  He also criticizes Obama’s administration for a lack of strategy in dealing with these revolutions.  I agree with the general premise that revolutions are not always good, even if they are sometimes necessary, because frequently they become dominated by orthodox radicals.  I agree that violent, destructive, and protracted wars are not good for anyone (though I would count amongst those wars the ‘wars of liberation’ in Iraq and Afghanistan…). I like that he points out, fairly eloquently, a lot of the strange contradictions about America’s own bourgeois revolutionary spirit.

But for someone who has looked at both the British and American Empires, Ferguson seems to miss one of the key features of how empires work (and their limited ability to promote a consistent ideological message).  This is not too surprising given the lack of focus on collaboration and the practicalities of empire in these books, in favour of a focus on the ‘civilising mission’, democracy, the rule of law, and the gift of ‘modernity’ and capitalism bestowed on empire’s grateful populations.

Ferguson states that

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

March 3, 2011 at 13:46

The men who would be president

with 2 comments

by apini

I guess I’m starting with an obligatory Egypt post: I’m ambivalent.  It’s a complicated, messy situation with lots of political, social and economic causes and even more potential outcomes.  I am cautious about revolutions because after all the adrenaline, after the excitement, who will really want to go back to life as usual?  And I’m cautious because I don’t really see how a military take over is any more democratic than Mubarak’s sham elections.

But this post isn’t really about Egypt.  It’s about Cote d’Ivoire.  It’s about another place where democracy had been thwarted by a power-hungry president.  Cote d’Ivoire’s elections were the first since the end of its civil war in 2004.  Significantly, they had already been postponed once in 2007, and then again a week before, finally, runoff voting actually began in November.  When the electorate’s decision was announced by the Electoral Commission in early December, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.  This despite the fact that his opponent, Alessane Ouattara, had what in most Western Democracies would be considered a mandate: 54% of the vote to Gbagbo’s 46%.

Since early December, there has been unrest in the country.  Supporters of both candidates have been involved in violence.  Gbagbo sent the military to surround the hotel where Ouattara and his staff are staying.  In the most recently reported developments, Gbagbo has banned UN radio in the country.

Okay, they’re not really a strategic ally in the same way as Egypt.  As the world’s largest producer of cocoa, though, they aren’t insignificant, particularly given the importance of rising food prices to the beginning of these “Middle Eastern” revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.  The BBC has not had any significant coverage of Cote d’Ivoire since the Egyptian crisis began.

So what does this mean?  Well, I have two takes on it: one pessimistic, and one more optimistic, in a pessimistic kind of way.

I suppose the reason I’m outraged by this coverage is that I see it as reflective of the West’s general long-standing attitude toward Africa.  Divisions are described as “tribal” and ancient and written off.   This is part of a wider problem of what I call “media path dependency,” but which Philip Curtin more lengthily (and elegantly) explains as Africa’s image problem in The Image of Africa. Journalists’ (and academics’, and politicians’, and civil servants’, and the publics’) shorthand for understanding and describing what is going on in other parts of the world seems to rely fairly heavily on understandings and descriptions that have remained almost entirely unchanged in meaning (if not in exact language used) since the nineteenth century.  So when writing about political change in the Middle East, the people are staging a revolution against ‘tyrants’; in Africa two sides are described ethnically and their leaders are portrayed as rival ‘Big Men’ or tribal leaders; and in Asia, people rarely rebel, but when they do, it’s against ‘technocrats’.   And so desire to write these stories follows these paths as well: the Middle East is about politics; Africa is about humanitarian intervention in times of tribal chaos; and Asia is about trade.  So unless mass killing starts to take place in Cote d’Ivoire, it’s too confusing a story.  And even if it does, it will only be ‘natural’ and then of course the aid will follow to help the victims.  Africa’s politics are not taken seriously, and neither are the legitimate, democratic demands made by African citizens.  A recent article in The New Yorker pointed out that even opposition leaders resort to shocking stunts in order to draw international attention to ‘developing humanitarian crises’ that in many cases are just political problems gone wrong.

However, there’s another way to think about this that might be more positive (though probably not).   That is, that the West has been messing with Africa’s politics for far too long.  And people who study Africa and know what little media coverage it gets, see themselves (ourselves) as championing the continent and bringing it to the world’s attention.  But does Africa always need our help?  Does Egypt even need our help?  Or are we just getting in the way?  The African Union seems to be taking the lead in Cote d’Ivoire, and maybe that’s not a bad thing (although they now seem to be supporting Gbagbo).  In a lot of situations, the UN and Western countries seem to think they have a moral responsibility to intervene in Africa, even when they don’t (see hand-wringing/excuse-making re: Somalia, Rwanda, DRC, Biafra).   But this isn’t new either: those who felt guilty about the slave trade kept trying to intervene on the slaves’ behalf throughout the 19th century, bringing Christianity, capitalism, and ‘civilization’ and ultimately, colonial rule.  Replace those with development aid, fair trade, and democracy and perhaps a lack of interest from interventionist governments like the US and UK starts to look like a refreshing break with the past.

Obviously this is a difficult position to take if you believe that democracy and liberalism are universally good.  But if you believe that, then I guess you should be outraged that Cote d’Ivoire’s struggle for democracy has been seen its priority fall as politicians and most media outlets turn their attention to the more technologically exciting revolution (popularly supported coup?) in Egypt.

Written by apini

February 14, 2011 at 12:37


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 139 other followers