Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

(edited by David Mosse)

Adventures in Aidland is a collection of articles by anthropologists looking not so much at the social effects of development policy on “beneficiaries” in the developing world, but more at the knowledge producers themselves. The book provides fascinating insights into the construction and constructers of knowledge about global poverty. It concerns the lifestyles and dilemmas of development practitioners in “the field”, a generic term encompassing locations across the entire developing world.

Given the authors’ background, the broad field of study and the structure of such an academic reference book, the ten chapters presented cover a diverse range of subjects. Naturally a sense of coherence is lost, but this is a book for non-specialists to dip into and enjoy passages of illuminating analysis.

In his introduction the editor David Mosse illustrates how “field”-based development professionals’ identities, if at all visible, are rendered homogenous by the universalizing content and transmission methods of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’, the orthodox approach to global poverty reduction. Mosse also explores the paradox of development practice that, under donor pressure, claims to promote unprecedented levels of community participation and local ownership and yet simultaneously makes itself increasingly ‘technicized’ – and therefore removed from those communities – in order to fulfil donors’ demands for accountability.

Rosalind Eyben, a former head of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) country office in Bolivia, describes her need to take ‘reality checks’ to parts of the country to actually learn about Bolivian people and their social and economic institutions at the local level. But this mildly anthropological approach to enhancing her professional work made her expatriate  co-workers suspicious,  vaguely reiterating the same doubts that surrounded those colonial administrators who spent time in the bush a hundred years ago, whispered by colleagues to have ‘gone native’.

Dinah Rajak and Jock Stirrat’s chapter, titled ‘Parochial Cosmopolitanism and the Power of Nostalgia’ illustrates the complex, yet banal, lifestyles of many expatriate development professionals. Their argument is compelling: that while outwardly, “their peripatetic existence, their continual exposure to varying and ever-changing cultural and political milieux” and their international agenda would make development workers appear to be ‘cosmopolitan’, in reality, their insulated, isolated expatriate worlds, and the standardizing effect  of neoliberal thought, which denies difference and historical specificity to countries, makes them somewhat parochial. In extension to this, as Renato Rosaldo has argued, we learn that development professionals “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”, bringing an “imperial nostalgia” to their imaginings of the countries in which they work.

The disillusion which many aid workers feel is caused by an acknowledged epistemic disconnect between centralized, universalizing development bureaucracies and their diverse recipient clients. By denying developing countries history, culture and specificity, aid agencies arrogantly perpetuate their own insularity. Further, they deny their cohorts on the ground two key motivations which can make them effective: humanity and curiosity. This is fascinating and under-explored territory for anthropologists and development theorists alike, making this an important collection.

Times Literary Supplement


Jonzi D


The name of the upcoming Sadler’s Wells dance festival is both a memorable pun and acknowledges that substantively, it’s breaking the conventions of both genres of performance art it has adopted. Breakin’ Convention  is hip hop theatre; a fascinating affront to both contemporary dance and standard b-boying (break dancing). Somewhere between the stagecraft of bourgeois theatres and the busting energy of South Bronx dancehalls, curator and host Jonzi D has found a beautiful niche.

But what of hip hop being ‘produced’ at a venue like Sadler’s Wells? What of a movement that was once so raw, rooted in the street, moving into the realms of ‘high art’?

“Breakin’ Convention  is an extension of hip hop” Jonzi tells me. “It keeps the real hip hop dynamics: graffiti, ciphers, circles, breaking… We’ve gone to the art and culture of the form, not the swagger side. We’re going deeper than the cosmetic side.”

Jonzi is one of those people you instantly warm to. We’d first met by chance at a house party in Kampala, Uganda, and then coincidentally again at Entebbe airport before sharing a flight back to the UK.

Now we talk at the Sadler’s Wells cafe. Beneath a huge bulbous hat filled with dreadlocks is a rounded, thoughtful face. Jonzi likes to enunciate words that are important, stretching them out and emphasising their syllables. He is clear and convincing. Yet still I question the philosophy of putting hip hop into theatres.

“You see, when I started getting into it, in the 1980s, hip hop was about doing something different” he says, drawing out the word, “Rappers didn’t do the same tracks. You’d be called a biter, someone copying from someone else. For me, bringing hip hop into the dance and theatre scenes was doing something different.”

Jonzi’s story goes right back to the origins of underground British hip hop, b-boying and MCing with the UK’s first wave from 1982. Increasingly drawn to breaking, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1993 and set up his first Hip Hop Theatre in 1995.

“I was bringing together two polarised entities in my life” he says. “I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. I felt like I was a bit of a hip hop missionary.”

Jonzi began touring a production called Lyrikal Fearta around Europe that year and realised that others were also onto this hip hop dance combination; it was a genre unto itself.

In 1999 Alistair Spalding, then working at the Royal Festival Hall, saw Jonzi’s production of Aeroplane Man, about a displaced young man of Grenadian origin living in east London. Spalding recognised the significance of Jonzi’s work and five years later, as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells, he commissioned Jonzi to develop a hip hop dance festival. Breakin’ Convention was born.

They hit it off immediately. Spalding gave Jonzi free license to fully capture the essence of hip hop culture, revolving around its four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti.

“When Alistair Spalding supported our guys spraying graffiti on the walls of the mezzanine at Sadler’s Wells, I thought… this will work! The rest is history. We’ve been here every year. We’ve had three national tours. We’ve received money from the Arts Council. We’ve worked with the greatest breakdancers in the world: The Electric Boogaloos, Ken Swift, Mr Wiggles… We’ve become the pioneers of this culture.”

In this eighth successive year at Sadler’s Wells, Breakin’ Convention promises to capture the truly global nature of hip hop, with dancers representing France, Korea, Japan, the UK, US and Uganda.

“Chuck D pointed out that hip hop is developing faster outside the US today. We live in a global world now, with the internet and so on. Hip hop represents the culture of the world…”

One of the highlights of the programme is Ugandan crew, Tabu-Flo, the first time a group from sub-Saharan Africa have been involved in Breakin Convention. The group met at Kampala’s Breakdance Project, a non-profit organisation working to promote social change.  In a country where hip hop culture is phenomenally popular, it’s a direct way to connect with young people.

The piece Tabu-Flo created for their London show is inspired by the story of a battle with malevolent spirits. “Tabu-Flo are working with a local myth called the night dancers: that humans go into trances at night; they possess people; they dig up freshly buried bodies at night and eat them… it’s extraordinary”, explains  Jonzi.

Jonzi’s passion for Africa is obvious. “Africa is the cradle of so many artistic forms. To go near to central Africa, near to the Nile, and find an idea that relates to our concept is too exciting!”

Under the creative control of Jonzi, and amid the dynamics of global hip hop and diverse ethnic cultures, the possibilities are endless. The impetus is to keep exploring; to do something different. So far, Breakin’ Convention  is living up to its name.


Tiken Jah Fakoly: Political War

This was a concert with an edge. Circumstances conspired to lift this performance from one of beautifully arranged and composed music onto another level; here crowd and artist shared not only in each others’ sounds, but in their souls too.

Arguably Ivory Coast’s most political contemporary musician was performing his most politically conscious album, at a time when his country had sunk into a civil war that has cost some 1500 lives.

“Nobody hoped the situation would reach this stage. Il faut cedez le fauteuil, le pouvoir  [literally, you must hand over the ‘presidential armchair’, power]” Tiken Jah Fakoly tells me, in reference to Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election to Alassane Ouattara but refused to cede control. At the time of this interview, Gbagbo was desperately clinging to power whilst hiding in a bunker under his house in Abidjan.

That night, 4 April 2011, the Barbican theatre was almost entirely on its feet, swaying to reggae melodies layered with distinctly West African sounds drawn from the charms of the kora, ngoni, and balafon (all recently added to his band). An Ivorian fan from the crowd, draped in his national flag, ran across the theatre and up onto the stage, handing Tiken the emblem in a purely symbolic gesture.

“The European Union, the United States, the African Union – they all demanded Gbagbo leave, and he refused. In history, sometimes force is the only way. Negotiating didn’t work. Sadly we arrived at this situation” laments Tiken, whose rusty voice in itself seems to carry the pain of a nation’s suffering.


One could be forgiven for believing Tiken Jah Fakoly had been building his entire career up to this moment. African Revolution was released in late 2010. Perhaps the album’s most memorable song is Political War, featuring Nigerian soul singer Asa, who performed alongside Tiken at the Barbican. It’s a plaintive story of political disillusion based on their parents’ experiences in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Their eponymous chorus rings in the ears like the wailing of the bereaved. Tiken was performing for the first time in London just as the violence in Ivory Coast had intensified into one of the world’s worsening humanitarian crises. This was a concert that mattered.

But in fact, lyrically, Tiken’s music has been politically conscious for some time. From 1993 he began to move away from the metaphor traditionally adopted by griot musicians, which is his heritage, into more direct political attacks after the death of Ivory Coast’s long-standing president Félix Houphouey-Boigny.

“I think if the politicians had listened to me years ago, things would not have turned out this way. In Le Caméléon (first released across West Africa in 2000, then internationally in 2008), I made it clear to people in West Africa that things were bad, that they had to stop, and I wasn’t alone – Alpha Blondy and Ismaël Isaac were also saying politicians needed to be checked.

This approach has both increased his regional and international popularity and risked him his life. Subjected to death threats, he left Abidjan in 2003. He was then banned from Senegal after criticizing its president in 2007 and over the past few years exiled himself in Bamako, Mali, due to the political instability blighting the Ivory Coast.

In the complex world of international politics and advocacy in which Tiken now operates, which would be the one change he would like to see in African politics.

“The struggle against corruption in Africa. With corruption, development is difficult. The wealth of natural resources cannot go to the people. Politicians need to stop talking about ending corruption and put together effective laws and acts that will prevent it from happening.”

What of the role of the external actors, the western donors?

“I don’t think the international community needs to help us. We are not children. We are sovereign. We can take our own route.”

If any artist could embody this route, it would be Tiken Jah Fakoly. Musically, African Revolution is a conscious statement. It encompasses his early adoption of roots reggae, particularly Bob Marley’s, and indeed was partly recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston. But the bulk of the album was produced and recorded in Bamako, under the instrumental influence of West Africa, his homeland. Ideologically, he’s clasped the torch of Peter Tosh, Marley and Ivorian reggae musicians to become a ‘truth teller’, speaking up against injustice. And for sheer on-stage bravura – with statuesque Black Panther salutes, cross-stage sprints, jumps, and flying kicks to drum beats – I saw him as African reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger.

“The role of the reggae musician is very important” he says. “The role is to wake up our children. Music can make people understand what is happening, when politicians say one thing and something else is happening.”

Tiken has developed an enormous following in West Africa. His 2003 Victoires de la Musique Award is a testament to his popularity in France. The growing fanbase across the world support him not just for his wonderful music but for his courage.  At the time of writing, his country’s erstwhile despot has reportedly fallen and the curfew has been lifted. Perhaps a new chapter is opening for Ivory Coast. Everyone is hoping it won’t be one of violence. Come what may, Tiken’s voice will continue to sound, loud and clear.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traoré looks poised. The Malian songstress sits thoughtfully at the edge of her seat. She considers my questions backstage at the Maison des Arts in Paris. In a few hours she will be performing her rich, soulful music to another rapt audience. Traoré has amassed a sizeable following since breaking onto the scene over ten years ago with her first album, Mouneïssa, released in 1998. 40,000 copies were sold in Europe. Traoré became an African music sensation. But one senses that fame means little to her.  “I could never do anything commercial” she says. “I don’t think like that. I just do what I feel.”

Traoré is complex, intelligent and sensitive. She ‘feels’ a lot in her speech. She tells me “sometimes I react more to peoples’ way of behaving than what they say. I’m very sensitive to people”. Her experience as a diplomat’s daughter, growing up in Nigeria, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, gave her the time and experiences conducive to seek avenues for creative expression. “I started by writing. Travelling a lot, I had lots of time and began using music as a way of expressing myself,” she pauses, “it was a kind of therapy. There’s a paradox, as singing is both selfish and generous.”

Traoré grew up listening to the music of legendary Guinean griot Sory Kandia Kouyate and British group Dire Straits. Traditional West African and guitar-based western music were already becoming broad sources of musical inspiration.  But ironically it was rap that made Traoré’s name in Mali. Influenced by the likes of Public Enemy and Snap! Traoré and her brothers formed a hip hop collective called “Let’s fight”. Two of their songs were aired on national TV.

Following her mother’s advice, however, Rokia returned to her roots. By 1997 she was collaborating with Ali Farka Touré, who would become a major figure in her life, and over the next six years Traoré produced three critically acclaimed albums. The latest, Tchamantché, won her the best artist award of the 2009 Songlines Music Awards. The album is an intriguing collection of music, sensuously combining bluesy Gretsch guitar licks with West African ngoni plucks to produce a distinct sound, softened by jazz drum patter and Traoré’s feminine voice that can somehow sound forceful yet fragile.

Traoré sings mostly in Bambara, yet the album includes songs in French and English. Her dazzlingly original version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ reflects her willingness to invert existing standards. This same characteristic saw Traoré construe Mozart as a thirteenth century griot of the Mande Empire for director Peter Sellars at the New Crowned Hope festival in 2006. Held in London and Vienna, the festival was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Austrian composer. Traoré’s artistry clearly doesn’t shirk from the big occasion.

Her continuing desire to experiment sees her touring the UK in April and May with Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the Mercury Prize-nominated British trio likened to Radiohead for their wistful art-pop pieces. They and Traoré performed beautifully together at the Barbican last year, and the upcoming shows promise to be especially intriguing. “I’m very happy and excited about the idea. I love collaborations, especially with people with a music background so different from mine as it means I will learn.”

As we near the end of our interview, I understand that Rokia keenly wants others less fortunate to have the chance to learn too. Since December 2009 Traoré has invested her energies in Passerelle, (meaning ‘bridge’ in French) her foundation which aims to help develop Mali’s music industry by providing artists with greater opportunities to play. She has the advantage of her childhood upbringing, giving her know-how when it comes to forging third sector partnerships. The Fondation Passerelle’s first live event will take place on the Niger riverside by Mali’s capital in mid-May. If she can achieve a fraction of her success as a singer songwriter in this endeavour then Bamako’s young hopefuls should be counting themselves very lucky.


Seun Kuti: The Beat Goes On

“Music can do anything” says Seun Kuti. His eyes flash with a youthful energy, dominating a round face with grizzly scrubs of facial hair.

Seun Kuti

“Look back at history” he says, “art in general. Governments have always tried to buy artists. Art inspires you. If I was to become really big and win like two or three Grammys, the government would become afraid of me. I wouldn’t be a billionaire; I wouldn’t have an army, but people would listen to me. Art has power.”

Few African artists would understand this better than Seun Kuti. Born into a Yoruba family of unusual cultural and political engagement (writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is a relation), the Nigerian 28 year-old’s fate is unique. He’s the youngest son of the legendary founder of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti, whose reputation as political rebel is virtually without equal in the history of modern African music.

Fela Kuti’s 1977 album Zombie was a scathing attack on the complicity and brutality of Nigerian soldiers working under the country’s military ruler General Olesegun Obasanjo. The release and popularity of the record caused such controversy that Fela’s commune and recording studio, the Kalakuta Republic, was attacked and burned by a thousand soldiers, with several killings and Fela suffering torture.

After his death from AIDS in 1997, more than a million people attended Fela Kuti’s funeral at the site of the Shrine, his old nightclub, which had also been destroyed by the military in the late 1970s. While Afrobeat was a tremendously exciting genre musically, this kind of following came from the way Fela Kuti spoke to, and for, the masses. Fela’s appeal was extraordinary because he voiced the biggest political and social problems that no-one had previously even dared to do, let alone so directly, publicly and emphatically.

Seun Kuti is clearly a proud son. “I’m lucky to come from my father’s sperm, my father’s jingo”; I look up from my notepad and his eyes glint with a mischief that streaks through his conversation. “My father’s ideology was to confront tyranny” he says. “He didn’t believe in using arms, but he did believe in standing your ground.”

Seun is standing his ground across the treacherous political landscapes that blight so many African countries. To him the perfidious role of the ‘international community’ is as aggravating as the corruption that mars national development on the continent.

“Laurent Gbagbo is a tyrant. He needs to go. But Laurent Gbagbo is a product of policy in Africa. He was a government puppet placed there to support the interests of European and US multinationals. He forgot that he should be serving the people. Shell provided boats with which our own people could kill each other.”

“They are all dancing in Africa to tunes being played in the West” he concludes forcefully.

On Obama, he says, “I was a fan. Not now. An African man ordering bomb strikes on African soil? He should be ashamed of himself. Protecting Bengazi from a massacre…” he wrinkles up his face, “Come on, why didn’t they protect Nigerians when our leaders were killing their people? We suffered two genocides…”

Would he choose a career in politics? “I’m already a politician. Not a professional politician. I’d like to create a group of authentic African politicians [reviving Fela’s Movement of the People party has been cited as an idea]. I love my role as a critic” he says.

But isn’t the real challenge in making tough political decisions?  “If you have political responsibility for a long time, you get tunnel vision” he responds, adding, “a leader is only as good as his advisers.” His conversation is compelling; insightful, provocative and humorous.

Seun has recognised that he can be more than his father’s son. Since becoming the lead singer of Fela’s old Egypt 80 band at the age of 14 in 1997, he’s embraced his heritage but adapted himself both musically and politically to our times.

His latest album, From Africa With Fury: Rise with Egypt 80, still includes many of the old musicians, and still channels jazz, funk and high-life-inspired Afrobeat music, but has been produced in London with Brian Eno, a production legend in his own right and pioneer of Ambient music. And whereas Fela would mostly rile against military dictatorship, today Seun is attacking multinationals like Monsanto and Halliburton.

Seun’s political diatribe is offset by a lighter exuberance to his personality. Clearly an entertainer in the mold of his father, Seun has a habit of performing half naked on stage with just a sax slung over his neck. We talk about hip hop production in Africa and he feels disappointed by “people promoting bubblegum hip hop” and sneers at “David Guetta on the beats!” adding “but I love it when I’m in a club and I’m drunk, [laughing]”.

If anything, being Fela’s son and part of such a family seems to have taught Seun that he can be anything he wants, and simultaneously be all these different things. Like his father, Seun, I sense, will make people laugh, cry, love and rage all at the same time. Which of course makes him a fascinating and powerful individual, and one well worth listening to.


City Sounds Kampala

When Okot p’Bitek, a Ugandan poet, took over as Director of the National Theatre in Kampala in 1967, he promptly and ceremoniously replaced the British Council’s grand piano with a drum post driven into the ground outside, announcing “Our national instrument is not the piano – tinkle, tinkle, tinkle – but the drum – boom, boom, boom!”

The drum has always been central to this region’s musical heritage. The drum would beat at ceremonies among the kingdoms of Buganda, Busoga and Bunyoro across these lands before foreign traders, missionaries and colonists arrived.

The cow-hide drum still resides in churches and village bomas, where it sounds to the rituals of adulthood, marriage and death. And today the beat goes on, from the village to the dusty street, through genres rooted in the urban music culture of America’s African diaspora: hip hop and dancehall. Kampala’s mainstream music culture rests squarely around the beats, loops, cuts and samples that have come to define the first truly ‘global’ urban music genre.

Artists such as Bobi Wine combine the visual performance of US hip hop MCs with melodic dancehall delivery. Wine is the president of the Ghetto Republic of Uganja, a crew based in the Kampala slum called Kamwokya. The vice president is another artist called Buchaman. Their ‘cabinet’ includes a Defence Minister, a Minister for Disaster Preparedness and a Minister of Agriculture (whose policy, unsurprisingly, is to legalise cannabis).

The Ghetto Republic of Uganja might seem a frivolous endeavour, but these guys are national figures, with huge influence over their fans and politicians desperate to secure their patronage in the run-up to the general election in February 2011. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni has inadvertently had a rap hit, after hip-hop producers remixed part of a speech featuring renditions of Ugandan folk songs by the leather-faced incumbent. Youngsters nationwide have adopted it as their ringtone. There are serious doubts Museveni himself can count on that level of popularity when it comes to the youth vote next year.

Wine wants to motivate people. “I call it edutainment. I want to reach out to the ghetto youth, and teach them about issues like condoms, but still keep aggressive and still keep entertaining…” Nightfall descends as we talk from the balcony of his recording studio, a bungalow covered in grasshoppers. In the slum nearby, a ‘farm’ made of white electric lights and huge cones of corrugated iron sheeting attract spectral clouds of the insects, which are cooked and sold as snacks.

Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan youths have also been drawn to the bright lights of the capital, exposed to a lifestyle so at odds with the rural, traditional lives of elder generations. Wine is the torchbearer of this brave new world. He offers pride and a sense of community to the scores of dispossessed, the slum kids fighting for a living. “We call it urban” he says. “Whereas rural music is narrative… informative… passive, urban music is more active and aggressive.”

As if p’Bitek’s words still hang in the ether, the city’s youthful hip hop culture can be experienced behind the National Theatre, at the ‘Bonfire’ outdoor gathering every Wednesday night. Bonfire comprises a hundred or so Kampalan b-boys and b-girls reciting poetry, and when the beats get dropped, rapping rhymes and hip hop verse in English or the preferred ‘Luga-flow’ (i.e. in the Buganda dialect, Lugandan). As the night progresses, beat boxers, break dancers and amateur acrobats emerge, shifting the emphasis from cerebral to corporal.

Breakdancers KLA

But Luga-flow, dancehall and reggaeton don’t entirely dominate Kampala’s city sounds. Rock, jazz fusion and traditional music have their niches. A seemingly incongruous Ugandan rock band called The Uneven, led by the sexy, charismatic Rachel K, gave a blistering performance at this year’s Bayimba Music Festival.  The jazz fusion scene revolves around Qwela and Baxmba Waves. Afro-fusion big band Qwela have developed a following after a succession of hugely popular all-singing hip-shaking concerts at bars and hotels across the city. Baxmba Waves are an accomplished jazz quintet, blending indigenous rhythms with contemporary jazz. But they play in Bubbles O’Leary, Kampala’s Irish pub, whose owner Declan shipped the interior out of a pub from the emerald isle. With sport showing on surrounding TV screens, even the all-consuming passion of their singer Ken Musoke fails to dispel the regular pub vibe. It begs the question: where’s the city’s ‘gig’ venue?

Kampala’s traditional music scene has no such dilemma. The Ndere Centre provides an ideal setting for traditional music lovers. Established in 2003, the spacious theatre and open air auditorium are located in parkland in the north of Kampala. Or there’s the National Theatre, with its unchanged 1960s interior. National kora maestro Joel Sebunjo will perform there in his annual “diplomats tour” concert next month.

Joel Sebunjo

“More and more musicians in Uganda are drawing from their traditional roots and blending it with contemporary urban music” says Sebunjo. “Artists like Mesach Semakula or rapper Navio are using traditional themes in their songs and fusing that with an urban approach.” Sebunjo recalls a hugely popular song Mesach produced that referred to the Kabaka (King of Buganda). “When artists sing about something from their culture, people respond so much more than to songs with abstract ideas, where people can’t relate.” Sebunjo is a passionate promoter of more traditional African music. “I’m proud to see that major world music artists are coming to Kampala,” he says, “Salif Keita was here in October, we’ve had Oliver Mtukudzi, Miriam Makeba – they inspire people to discover the world music scene.”

It may not have the vibrancy of Dakar or Kinshasa just yet, but Kampala is undergoing a quiet musical revolution. The city’s hip hop, dancehall, rock, jazz fusion and traditional world music scenes are developing fast. Improved production and recording equipment, a burgeoning market, and an ambitious, outward-looking collection of artists are making it happen. Tinkling they are not.


Bayimba Cultural Foundation, Kampala

Evolution of Visual Art in Uganda

Across sub-saharan Africa, contemporary art remains particularly influenced by the agglomeration of historical and political forces that have shaped the country in question.

In Europe art patronage has been dominated by the tastes and demands of bourgeois collectors for centuries: the art market. Given the relative fluidity of European culture and tastes since the 20th century, and the transition of art into a marketplace of ideas and concepts, today’s British contemporary art is increasingly conceptual, and cannot be recognised as distinct from, say, the German equivalent in terms of form.  Expressions of cultural or national difference have been replaced instead by highly individualistic, polymorphous pieces that may ‘represent’ specific ideas pertaining to contemporary Western society.

Start Journal

In black Africa this kind of art market and its vagaries has not developed to the same extent. Only in the past few decades has an urban middle class consumer emerged. But where sustained royal patronage did exist in Africa, patterns of artistic production have largely resisted recent economic developments.

Countries like Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire and Congo, held robust patronage networks based around strong, centralized traditional patterns of authority. Under such powerful systems of rule the arts could flourish. The kingdom of Benin, for example, covering parts of contemporary Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, reached its imperial and artistic zenith in the 15th century, producing the famous bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads of their Obas of Benin (King). Even after the kingdom’s decline from the 16th century, a deeply-rooted culture for anthropomorphic sculpture and design had been developed.  The Ga people of contemporary Ghana claim their descent from the kingdom of Benin and have continued to produce stunning face masks through the 19th and 20th centuries up to today.

Neither Kenya nor Uganda’s precolonial ethnic groups had the unified, centralized organization or the sustained political and economic strength to develop such lasting art patronage networks.

“Uganda is not very well known for having a strong plastic [figurative] arts tradition” says George Kyeyune, Ugandan artist, scholar and teacher, and former Dean of Makerere University School of Fine Art.

“If you start with West Africa and Congo, we [Uganda] don’t have the masks, we don’t have the masquerades, we don’t have the bronze casts. We didn’t inherit that”.

Relatively few precolonial statuettes and masks have been discovered in Eastern Africa compared to those along the heavily forested southern belt of West and Central Africa. But this dearth of traditional production has allowed Uganda and Kenya more scope to create afresh, as literacy, urbanization and a growing consumerism brought new kinds of artist, art and collector to the scene.

Kyeyune, who holds a PhD on ‘Art in Uganda’ from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), gives me an overview of the evolution of Ugandan art since independence. He speaks quietly from his office-cum-studio on Makerere campus, where he continues to write, paint and teach.

“In the 1960s, some felt we should dispense with the past and embrace the new, forge forward, whereas others felt ‘no, we’ve been cheated for such a long time out of our inheritance, we need to recover aspects of our past that are still relevant and important’. Others chose a middle ground, combining the past and the future…”

“From the 1970s onwards, when Idi Amin took power, a lot of things went to the dogs…” he reflects. “The subject matter changed. It became morbid. The colours used were very dark”. Art became a tool for protest.

“Artists criticised the leaders a lot. Not directly, as this was dangerous. They would use myths and legends to disguise their criticisms to the corrupt and inepts leaders. And they would also use the bible to speak about the injustices in their government”

Kyeyune told me skeletons were commonly depicted in 1970s visual arts. The 1980s became a decade of “self-reflection”, where artists “showed disgust with their leaders”, emphasising Francis Nnaggenda’s work in particular. But by the 1990s, Yoweri Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, had brought stability and a liberalised, growing economy.

Artists reacted positively to this freedom; they began experimenting in form and style, using new motifs, textures and colours. If a period can, the 1990s represented “some kind of avant garde for Ugandan art” says Kyeyune.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s work conveys the diversity and complexity of Uganda’s new generation of artists. Short and wide-eyed, Ronex shows me around his house and studio near Makerere as dusk falls upon Kampala. It’s a temple to creativity; inside, a photography studio, walls covered in paintings and rooms filled with home-made furniture. The actual studio is crammed with mixed media artistry: pixelated images, collages, barkcloth, rollers, powder and binder liquid, acryllic – these are the diverse media and textures he adopts to conjure his visual art. Around the grounds outside lie metal carcasses: sculptures or furniture half-produced.

TindiArtists like Ronnie Tindi also promote the new vibrancy in Ugandan art. Tindi hails from western Uganda, from the Banyankole (President Yoweri Museveni’s clan), but has lived in Kampala for years, now working at the Njovu Studio in Bukoto district. Tindi’s most striking paintings are strange, fantastical African faces, an indigenous take on pop art, with bright red lips and a brash originality that’s perhaps at odds with his gentle demeanour.


Donald Wasswa is another young artist whose work is abstract but milder on the eye. For the past few years he’s been painting or what he calls ‘masking’ magical, childish scenes of floating elephants among trees.  The originality of these pieces, sometimes using pen, coffee, magazines and acrylic, reflect his desire to move beyond an art scene that deals in the tourist or ex-pat trade, confined to commercial pictures of cockerels and African women in primary colours.

“Lots of artists today find shortcuts” says Kyeyune. “They use colours with rollers, iconic features – geckos, fish – in some cases it becomes a bit of a cliché. There is little attention to detail”.

“Artists are starting to realise some of the problems that need to be rectified” says Wasswa. “Five years ago, many artists were mass-producing work that began to look very similar.” Wasswa says he realised you can’t produce work solely in view of where it could sell. Though he recognised you have to “evaluate a little”.

“It’s fine for a gallery to take your work but they need to promote it, which they are currently not doing” says Wasswa. Currently the city’s galleries will hardly inspire major collectors anyway; most are a few small rooms inside cramped bungalows with little if any lighting. Kampala urgently needs a large building with clean bright white spaces to honour its artists’ work.

“Some of us are thinking of developing a contemporary art gallery. We’ve looked at converting an old soap factory in Mbuya [a Kampala suburb]” he says. This was used in a one-off exhibition by the Goethe Institute some years ago and could be an interesting prospect.

We talked about the practical and touristic appeal of a Village des Arts (Dakar) equivalent in Kampala. Referring to tinga tinga, the Tanzanian art movement, Wasswa tells me he and some artists are looking to buy land down in Masaka district, west of Lake Victoria, to construct a series of large studios.

Clearly underfunding and government mismanagement means most of Uganda’s artists struggle to start, let alone survive. Wasswa describes the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, where artists were asked to submit their work which would be displayed around the city.

“Pieces were lost. Artists didn’t get rent fees. I lost a piece of work somewhere in Entebbe airport” he says. “Money does go to the Ministry of Culture but doesn’t trickle down to artists” Wasswa concludes.

Bruno SBruno Sserunkuuma could be seen as one of the old guard, who has survived working in Uganda. Originally a painter, Sserunkuuma became a potter who benefitted from his association as pupil and graduate fellow with Makerere University, a critical source of sustainable funding and resources as well as technical instruction.

Sserunkuuma’s artistry has clearly been influenced by the vision of the original founder of Makerere’s School of Fine Art, Margaret Trowell. Director of Makerere Art School from 1939-45, Trowell represented a colonial pedagogy. She wished to respect existing traditional methods while introducing technical knowledge as a pragmatic way to develop the visual arts in a region where representational art was rare. ‘We start from it, study it, and honour it’ was her dictum.Makerere School of Art & Design

The ceramicist’s output is a product of this philosophy. He produces pots and vases that demonstrate both acute cultural sensitivity as well as clear technical mastery.  Women feature heavily in his tall, minutely-detailed vases and pots.

“I was very close to my mother and as a result the role of women, particularly in rural settings, is very prominent in my work”. These pieces earned him 2nd prize in UNESCO’s Craft Prize for Africa in 2000. He has since exhibited globally.

Bruno is a kind of national ambassador for visual arts. His work is founded on good draftsmanship. When I asked George Kyeyune what was the fundamental strength of art in this country, he replied: “resilience”. “Lots of European artists have stopped painting images. Here we are still very traditional. We value drawing as a foundation for artists. To me that’s a strength.”

With further state and market investment as well publicity (a need identified by Kyeyune) an artist like Sserunkuuma could develop a genuinely global renown. Others would surely follow.

South Sudan Referendum

Queue in S Sudan

Millions of southern Sudanese took small steps towards their own independence this week as they queued in lines across the region to vote in the historic referendum.


On Saturday 8th January a fleet of a dozen buses packed with Sudanese exiles drove up through Uganda’s dusty roads and crossed the border on Sunday morning to reach Abila, a village that lies at the very south of Sudan.  The buses could have been filled with revellers or football fans after a cup victory. Horns blasted out of the windows. South Sudan flags waved gleefully. On arrival they found and embraced their family members.  In a more solemn mood, they queued and cast their ballot that morning.

“I want to vote for separation so that tomorrow, I’ll be free to do anything” said James, a Sudanese student living in Kampala. He said he would move back to Sudan as soon as he completes his studies. He may have an eye on the business opportunities that independence will offer.

Later that Sunday Abila saw traditional Dinka dances scuffing up the dust, casting golden clouds around us in the late afternoon light. Christians paraded through the town with banners and crosses. Women ululated throughout the day, their shrill cries catalysing the sense of exhilaration.

Dinka dancing

“Home is home” said the student, “being away from home, you’re like a river without a source”.   “Today is a very wonderful day” smiled Santino Garang, a southerner from the Dinka tribe. It was Sunday 9th January, the first day of voting.

The results will be announced next month. The required 60 percent turnout to validate the vote has reportedly been achieved. The vote for secession is assured. Southern Sudan has suffered from deliberate neglect by successive Arab-dominated, Muslim governments. And two north-south civil wars lasting 37 of the 54 years since independence have shattered what little infrastructure existed in the region. Most of those voting were Christian or animist. Should the country remain peaceful, secession will split Africa’s largest country, making South Sudan the world’s youngest country. Africa will become home to 54 states.

The referendum is the culmination of the six-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement that started in January 2005. This deal between President Omar al-Bashir’s ruling party, then called the National Islamic Front, and southern rebel leader John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) ended a 21-year conflict that resulted in some 2 million deaths and 4 million people – half the population of southern Sudan – becoming displaced.

Santino was one of the homeless. “I was born in 1983, during the war. I grew up in the bush” he said. His childhood was inextricably linked with war. “I became a child soldier. I was taught under the trees” he said.  Eventually Santino moved to a refugee camp in Yei, a town in central Equatoria, southern Sudan. Now he’s in exile, living in Kampala, Uganda. Soon he hopes to return to an independent South Sudan.

“Goodbye Khartoum! Goodbye Khartoum!” ran one of the chants among Sudanese exiles who had travelled from Uganda and gathered outside Abila on the first morning of voting. “Goodbye northern government” a man exclaimed as he dipped his finger into an inkwell to prove his vote at one of the town’s polling stations. The sentiment is clear but opposition to Khartoum may not form an adequate basis for effective national government. Southerners have little experience in governance.

The region is particularly ethnically diverse, with a history of inter-ethnic feuds with the other southern tribes. The Nuer and Shilluk, for example, fought against the Dinka during the second north-south civil war.    The country is landlocked and one of the world’s poorest. South Sudan will inherit 80 percent of the country’s oil, but this could be more of a curse than a blessing for ordinary southerners, with huge potential to create corruption and political instability.

“The Dinka and Nuer will be unified after the referendum” says Juach Deng, a young observer for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the political wing of the SPLA. “The oil issue won’t be a problem” said Deng confidently.

It may be for the North. President al-Bashir is under pressure from oppositionists who have long disagreed with his hostile stance to non-Muslims. Many feel he ‘lost’ the south, and with it, significant oil revenue.   “We feel an incredible sadness that a … very loved part of Sudan will separate from us,” said Sara Nuqdullah, a northern opposition Umma Party official.

Leaving aside future worries, fighting threatens to break out between the North and South. Violence blighted the first day of voting with over 30 people dying in clashes between the Massiriya and Ngok Dinka in Abyei, an area which lies on the envisaged border between North and South Sudan. The following day a bus carrying voters in South Khordofan state was ambushed, killing 10 people.

In spite of this, southerners enjoyed their moment, when history finally seemed to be on their side.



Locust Control in Madagascar

What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.

It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.

This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition,  or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.

Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.

Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.

Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.

The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.

At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.

Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.

The East African

Kampala’s African Film Festival

Kampala’s National Theatre was abuzz. Crowds gathered in the floodlit surroundings of the colonial-era theatre, milling with anticipation. Pockets of young, glamorous and arty types in close circles; excited voices in animated conversations; beer bottles checked at security clearance, (which remains tight since the 11 July bombings). Why? This theatre was playing host to Kampala’s 1st Annual Maisha African Film Festival (13-15 August 2010). A sense of occasion carried outside its doors.

The festival is a new part of the Maisha Film Lab programme – the brainchild of Mira Nair, acclaimed director of films such as Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. Maisha was conceived as a non-profit training initiative for emerging East African filmmakers and has been running workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya since 2004. Their international board of advisors and mentors includes directors Spike Lee, Raoul Peck and Sofia Coppola, and Rwanda Cinema Centre founder Eric Kabera. The Kampala film festival is part of their vision to stimulate the growth and development of African filmmaking and hopefully generate the investment local artists need.

Sadly technical mishaps meant the opening film petered out. The film started to skip and freeze. Distinct tuts and whistles from the crowd. The place was rammed. And it became hot and frustrated.  After forty minutes the opening film, Caroline Kamya’s iMANi, which showed three separate Ugandan lives in tandem (a la Magnolia) – a child soldier returning to normality, a woman fighting for the release of her sister from jail, and a dance troop leader trying to get through a hometown performance – was no more. We squeezed out into the cooler air. It was a great shame since this award-winning film was beautifully shot and captured some strong performances.

“Kampala’s a cosmopolitan city” says Mugisha, “You have lots of different tribes; people from the east, west, north and south. People from Kenya, Tanzania, Congo. That’s good in a way. It makes you liberal, accommodative… but in a way you lose your background.”

The contrast between rural tradition and urban modernity clearly interests Mugisha. His previous film Divisionz was shot in Kampala and also starred national hip hop stars Bobi Wine and Buchaman, who come from the capital’s slums or “ghettos”, as Mugisha calls them. These guys were cheered when they came on screen. Their characters conform to type; dealing in a raw and humorous dialogue, they gladly smoke ganja and offer no illusions about their sexual desires. “It’s a balance” says Mugisha “You want the spirit of the countryside and the spirit of the hustle”, he smiles.

The range of narratives and imagery being screened at Maisha was impressive. Such productions attest to the richness of storytelling traditions and tremendous visual potential for film on the continent. Baganda tribal myth, trans-African road trips, a satire on dislocation, femininity and sexuality in the Sahara – these were some of the fascinating themes coming out of the films. Despite the first night hiccup, the Maisha film festival looks set to have a bright future and we look forward to next year’s edition.