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blackorpheus01

I’ve always been interested in other countries and cultures and have tried to read books from afar if they are written in English or translated into English. Years ago, the works of Africa writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka were among my favorites. I have continued to read other African writers, but none have interested me as much as those two.

Recently I learned that some new authors have complained that African literary magazines — often the place to launch a writing career — have not been open to younger voices.

An article in Okay Africa provides an overview of the magazines that publish African literature and explains why the number of outlets has been increasing.

Tadiwa Madenga writes, “African literary magazines and journals don’t just shape literary culture, they offer the most rebellious responses to political and social movements. They not only respond to the cultures they’re in, these magazines also create distinct cultures of their own that reflect the personalities of their editors.

“Some are experimental and bold, some are satirical and polemic, some can also be aesthetically conservative, but they all find beautiful ways to confront the most pressing issues in society. Magazines archive stories that might not always gain the attention that books will, but are sometimes the most thrilling work in a writer’s career. Here are five of the most notable literary magazines that have shaped contemporary African literature.

“Based in Nigeria, Black Orpheus was groundbreaking as the first African literary periodical on the continent publishing works in English. It was founded in 1957 by German editor Ulli Beier, and was later edited by Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Abiola Irele. The magazine stopped printing in 1975.

“At a time when African writers needed spaces where they could simply gather and enjoy each other’s works, the magazine was started to promote African literature, publishing the works of literary giants like Chinua Achebe, Ama ata Aidoo, and Christopher Okigbo in their early career. The best part of the magazine was that it introduced literature from French, Spanish, and Portuguese speaking regions to an English speaking audience …

Transition was founded [in 1961] by Rajat Neogy in Kampala when Uganda, like other African nations, was gaining its independence. Like Black Orpheus, the magazine published notable writers like Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, and Taban lo Liyong when they were new writers.

Transition … has had fearless takes on politics that eventually forced it to be transferred to Nigeria when Soyinka was editor, and later to the U.S. Transition is now housed at Harvard University and is still producing provocative work …

Kwani? began after a group of Kenyan writers, artists, and journalists became frustrated with the slow publishing scene in the country that mostly accommodated earlier writers like Ngugi from the Transition and Black Orpheus generation. A new publication was created in 2003 for emerging writers that has led to the incredible literature we enjoy today from Kenya. The journal has published works by writer like Yvonne Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Andia Kisia, Uwem Akpan and Billy Kahora.

“Edjabe is a Cameroonian journalist and a DJ who engages literature, music, and politics with a rebel spirit [in the magazine Chimurenga]. Edjabe founded Chimurenga in 2002 in Cape Town at a time where South Africans were having lively discussions about life during and after political and social revolutions. What makes Chimurenga unique is not only the amazing writing that they publish, but the ways the platform evokes other mediums with literature. …

“While the other literary magazines and journals where mostly print magazines, JALADA represents the digital moment where African literature is thriving on online platforms like Saraba, Enkare, and Brittle Paper. JALADA began after a group of writers from various African countries published their work on their own website which became so popular they began receiving submissions from other writers.”

Read more here.

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Photo: Tim McDonnell /for NPR 
Samuel-Richard Bogobley holds a GPS-enabled tablet to capture the location of one corner of an underwater clam “farm.” Collecting data is the first step in protecting indigenous livelihoods.

I love reading about how people around the world come up with constructive ways to use technology. This story is about clam farmers in Africa enlisting GPS data as a first step in protecting indigenous rights.

Writes Tim McDonnell at National Public Radio, “Samuel-Richard Bogobley is wearing a bright orange life vest and leaning precariously over the edge of a fishing canoe on the Volta River estuary, a gorgeous wildlife refuge where Ghana’s biggest river meets the Gulf of Guinea.

“He’s looking for a bamboo rod poking a couple feet above the surface. When he finds it, he holds out a computer tablet and taps the screen. Then he motions for the captain to move the boat forward as he scans the water for the next rod. …

” ‘Before you can start to recognize a fishery, you need to have a lot of data,’ says Bogobley, a researcher with Hen Mpoano, a Ghanaian nonprofit that supports small-scale fishers. ‘These people don’t have any platform to fight for what is theirs.’

“The Volta River is rich with clams, harvested year-round by a bustling community of several hundred fishermen and women. The meat is packaged for sale across West Africa, while the shells are ground into an additive for whitewash and chicken feed.

“The riverbed itself is divided into intricate real-estate parcels, each one an underwater clam ‘farm’ with its own caretaker.

“The farms have become a flashpoint in a broader conflict over the land rights of indigenous peoples in Africa: The clam fishers have no legal claim to their farms, and are under increasing pressure as they compete for prime real estate with the booming tourism industry and cope with the impacts of climate change. …

“[Clam farmer Kofi] Amatey spends most of every day working here about ten feet below the surface, gathering clams into a basket. Wearing eye goggles and a weighted belt, he breathes through a makeshift scuba apparatus that pumps air from a compressor on his canoe.

“It’s a subsistence living: Amatey estimates that he earns less than $1,000 per year. And in recent years, it’s gotten even harder.

“A crop of new luxury resort hotels now crowd the riverbanks, forcing the clam fishers off of land where they used to live, dock canoes and process clams. Tourists’ speedboats and jet skis churn the water, threatening to topple the narrow dugout canoes loaded with clams. …

“Without a formal, legal claim to the clam farms, Amatey and his neighbors say they have no way to protect themselves from hoteliers and other developers who acquire deeds from the government. …

“Many indigenous land rights lack protection because of a scarcity of data. …

“That’s where the GPS tablets come in. A growing number of research groups and international aid organizations are rolling out software aimed at making it easier for anyone with a tablet or smartphone to accurately map community-held land and record basic information about its proprietors. This data alone doesn’t offer any legal protection, but it’s an essential starting place.”

More here.

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Photo: Vincent Francigny / Sedeinga archaeological mission
A large cache of recently discovered texts offers insight into one of Africa’s oldest written languages.

Archaeologists, whether professionals or amateurs like those in a recent post, keep discovering new wonders. They remind us never to make the mistake of thinking that everything has been discovered.

Jason Daley writes at Smithsonian magazine, “Archaeologists in Sudan have uncovered a large cache of rare stone inscriptions at the Sedeinga necropolis along the Nile River. The collection of funerary texts are inscribed in Meroitic, one of Africa’s earliest written languages.

“As Charles Q. Choi at LiveScience reports, the find is full of potential. … The archaeological site of Sedeinga — once part of the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe (which were jointly referred to as the ‘Kush kingdom’ by their ancient Egyptian neighbors) –- includes the remains of 80 small brick pyramids and more than 100 tombs created during a cultural period from about 700 B.C. to roughly 300 C.E.

” ‘The necropolis’ miniature pyramids were initially inspired by Egypt’s massive monuments, but during a later time, Meroitics refashioned the tombs and pyramids to include chapels and chambers where they could worship the dead. …

“In addition to the funerary texts, archaeologists also found pieces of decorated and inscribed sandstone. … One of the more interesting new finds from the dig is a lintel, or structural beam from a chapel with a depiction of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of order, equity, and peace. This is the first time archaeologists have found a depiction of Maat with black African features.

“Another find of note, a funerary stele, describes a high-ranking woman by the name of Lady Maliwarase and details her connections with royalty. Similarly, a lintel uncovered during the excavation explores the lineage of another woman of high rank, Adatalabe, who counts a royal prince among her blood line.

“These kinds of inscriptions are sure to help historians continue to piece together the story of Meroe. For instance, as Francigny tells Choi, the aforementioned finds reveal that in Meroe kingdom matrilineality — the women’s lineage — was important enough to record.”

More here.

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Photo: http://www.a-r-e-d.com
The Mobile Solar Kiosk, invented by Rwanda’s Henri Nyakarundi, is one of 10 renewable energy startups highlighted by Africa.com.

Great ideas for renewable energy are blooming in Africa, where it’s important that energy be both accessible and affordable. Africa.com recently rounded up ten of the most promising technologies.

“Africa has an immense energy crisis,” says the website. “In a continent with a population of close to 1 billion, over 625 million people are without power. According to the International Energy Agency, that makes up 68% of the population. This is ironic considering the fact that Africa has an abundance of natural resources available.

“For instance, the continent has a large coastline where wind power and wave power resources are abundant and underutilized in the North and South. Africa has much greater solar resources available than any other continent because it is the sunniest continent on earth.

“Energy is an essential factor for the reduction of poverty and economic growth. Major sectors like agriculture, education, communication, and technology all require abundant, consistent, and cost effective energy to spur the much needed development of the continent.

“Currently, many African nations already have small scale solar, wind, and geothermal plants that provide energy in rural areas. These modes of energy production are becoming very useful in remote locations, because they bridge the gap created by the excessive cost of transporting electricity from large-scale power plants. …

“Here we look at ten startups that are utilizing the vast amount of the continent’s renewable energy potential. …

“Mobile Solar Cell Phone kiosk is an alternative solar-powered mobile kiosk that charges phones and connects communities in Rwanda. It was founded by Henri Nyakarundi — a Rwandese who lived in the United States — after struggling with charging his phone whenever he went back to Rwanda or Burundi for holidays.

“He also noticed that even though many people had cell phones, they faced a challenge with charging their devices. It is estimated that over 70% of the population in Rwanda own a cell phone; however, at the same time, World Bank estimates that less than 25% of the Rwandan population has access to electricity.

“Prompted by this need, Henri sketched his first design on a piece of paper. He devised a solar-powered kiosk that can be towed by a bicycle and provides concurrent charging for up to 80 phones. The Mobile Solar Cell Phone Kiosk uses a franchise model that is low income and motivated by entrepreneurial objectives.”

Others on the website’s list include M-Kopa, which “sells solar home systems to low-income earners by allowing them to pay in installments over the course of a year using mobile money”; Shakti, “a South African startup that provides an alternative energy solution to thousands of households that do not have access to electricity”; electric vehicles; LED lights; and “batteries in a bottle.” More at Africa.com.

(I need to mention that the website seemed to slow down my computer, but no real damage was done.)

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Photo: Serena McKinney
Ludwig Göransson, composer to the
Black Panther music score, spent a month in Africa, returning home with “a totally different idea of music.”

I’m looking forward to seeing Black Panther when we can get it on DVD. In the meantime, I’m reading a lot about it. This story by Jon Burligame in Variety is on the development of the movie’s musical score.

“Ludwig Göransson, the Swedish-born composer who was charged with scoring Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ movie and has worked with director Ryan Coogler on all of his films, didn’t just visit a university library or look at YouTube videos: He spent a month in Africa.

“The result was life-changing, he tells Variety: ‘I came back with a totally different idea of music, a different knowledge. The music that I discovered was so unique and special. [The challenge was] how do I use that as the foundation of the entire score, but with an orchestra and modern production techniques — infuse it in a way that it doesn’t lose its African authenticity?’ …

“Nearly all of the unusual sounds in the ‘Black Panther’ score were recorded in the West African nation of Senegal, where Göransson spent two and a half weeks accompanying singer-guitarist Baaba Maal on tour. Maal introduced Göransson to other Senegalese musicians, and many performed on the soundtrack.

“The music that pairs with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), monarch of the film’s fictional African kingdom Wakanda, is led by six ‘talking drums,’ which Göransson explains as ‘a small drum you put on your shoulder, one that does what no other percussion instrument does — it breathes.’ The drummer squeezes, then loosens it to change the pitch. …

“For the theme associated with usurper Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the composer used another West African instrument, the Fula flute: ‘It sounded sad but also aggressive, energetic and impulsive,’ he says, and with the flutist speaking and even screaming into the flute, ‘it really resonated with the character.’ …

“Having recorded hours of music in Senegal, the composer flew to South Africa, where he spent a week studying at the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown. There he sought out recordings from across the continent and played dozens of instruments.

“At the same time, says Coogler, the score had to work as a superhero movie … ‘Ludwig is so well versed in orchestral composition, he could find a way to merge the two, and know when to go with one or the other.

“After months of writing, Göransson recorded more than two hours of music with a 92-piece London orchestra and a 40-voice choir in October and December, augmenting the African recordings and even using the orchestra to echo the multiple layers of rhythms in some of the complex drumming he first heard in Senegal. The choir sang in Xhosa, a South African language. …

“Says Coogler: ‘Ludwig really set the table for the emotion that we were trying to get across, whether it was excitement or reflection or sadness.’ ” More at Variety, here.

Have you seen Black Panther? If you are knowledgeable about African music, I’d love to hear what you thought of the music. Even if you aren’t that knowledgeable.

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Are you familiar with the journal Aeon? It’s a nonprofit website that has long, thoughtful articles from the world of ideas. Recently, I saw an article on a brilliant Ethiopian thinker — from the 17th century.

Dag Herbjørnsrud, founder of SGOKI (the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas) in Oslo, writes, “The ideals of the Enlightenment are the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality. …

“As the story usually goes, the Enlightenment began with René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637), continuing on through John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant for around one and a half centuries, and ending with the French Revolution of 1789, or perhaps with the Reign of Terror in 1793. By the time that Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason in 1794, that era had reached its twilight. Napoleon was on the rise.

“But what if this story is wrong? What if the Enlightenment can be found in places and thinkers that we often overlook? Such questions have haunted me since I stumbled upon the work of the 17th-century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob (1599-1692), also spelled Zära Yaqob.

“Yacob was born on 28 August 1599 into a rather poor family on a farm outside Axum, the legendary former capital in northern Ethiopia. At school he impressed his teachers, and was sent to a new school to learn rhetoric (siwasiw in Geéz, the local language), poetry and critical thinking (qiné) for four years. Then he went to another school to study the Bible for 10 years, learning the teachings of the Catholics and the Copts, as well as the country’s mainstream Orthodox tradition. (Ethiopia has been Christian since the early 4th century, rivalling Armenia as the world’s oldest Christian nation.)

“In the 1620s, a Portuguese Jesuit convinced King Susenyos to convert to Catholicism, which soon became Ethiopia’s official religion. Persecution of free thinkers followed suit, intensifying from 1630. Yacob, who was teaching in the Axum region, had declared that no religion was more right than any other, and his enemies brought charges against him to the king.

“Yacob fled at night, taking with him only some gold and the Psalms of David. He headed south to the region of Shewa, where he came upon the Tekezé River. There he found an uninhabited area with a ‘beautiful cave’ at the foot of a valley. Yacob built a fence of stones, and lived in the wilderness to ‘front only the essential facts of life’, as Henry David Thoreau was to describe a similar solitary life a couple of centuries later in Walden (1854).

“For two years, until the death of the king in September 1632, Yacob remained in the cave as a hermit, visiting only the nearby market to get food. In the cave, he developed his new, rationalist philosophy. He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male and female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes that the most rational option.

“In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632.”

Read more about the remarkable 17th century Ethiopian at Aeon, here.

 

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An African writer’s gratitude to a generous book lover in his childhood city has inspired an online bookstore geared toward African authors.

Daniel A. Gross writes at the New Yorker, “Magunga Williams grew up in Kisumu, a Kenyan city that’s home to more than three hundred thousand people but to only two major bookstores. There, Williams told me recently, ‘people depend on books that they find in supermarkets.’ Most of these books come from the United States and Europe. ‘These supermarkets do not have a rich African collection,’ Williams said.

“But there was one place where he could always find a wider range of books. It was the personal collection of a local man, whose house became a neighborhood meeting place and an unofficial sort of public library. …

“Williams moved to Nairobi and began an undergraduate program in law, but he never forgot the way that a house full of books, in a city with too few, became an escape. …

“So Williams, while he was in school, started a literary blog, Magunga.com, and … he made it his mission to create a space like that library—not in a house but on the Internet. The result is a fledgling online pan-African bookshop: the Magunga Bookstore.

“In becoming a bookseller, Williams was, in part, following in the footsteps of his girlfriend, Abigail Arunga. A few years ago, Arunga, a Nairobi-based freelance writer in her late twenties, stopped by a few local bookstores and asked if they would stock ‘Akello,’ her self-published collection of poems.

“At one shop, she was told that Kenyans don’t read poetry. At another, an employee claimed that her ninety-three-page book was too short. ‘They told me that my book had to be at least a hundred pages,’ she said. So she decided to sell the book herself — at poetry readings, literary festivals, even family gatherings. …

“An epiphany came last winter, when Williams was reading an article in the Guardian and noticed that the newspaper operates its own online bookstore. He told Arunga that they were going to open a bookstore, too. …

“Williams earns his living by writing sponsored posts on his blog, which attracts around five thousand readers each day. He asked his Webmaster, David Mabiria, to add a new tab to the Web site, which would offer books for sale. … He and Arunga requested book donations from writer friends, who provided copies of their own work. They launched the feature with ten titles in stock, under a simple slogan: ‘Spreading the Word.’

“Word spread slowly. The Magunga Bookstore made its first sale in December, 2015, when Williams was out of town — he had to ask a friend to deliver the book. ‘He was telling me he was in traffic,’ Williams recalled. ‘And I was, like, “I don’t care. Just go get a boda-boda ride.“ ‘ (Boda-boda is East African slang for a motorcycle taxi.) He remembers telling the friend, “I’ll pay you even if it costs me double the price. Just to make sure the client is happy.” ‘ ”

More at the New Yorker. And while you’re clicking, take a look at the Magunga Bookstore site, here.

Photo: Facebook/Babishai Niwe Poetry
Abigail Arunga and Magunga Williams at the 2016 Babishai Poetry Festival, in Ntinda, Uganda.

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