“Newzbeat” makes a catchy change from a standard news bulletin: Ugandans call the broadcasters “rap-orters”, a youth team of hip-hop artists-turned-journalists rapping the headlines.
“Uganda’s anti-gay law is making news/Some countries have found it befitting to accuse/Uganda of treating gays as German Jews/Nothing to gain from this and more to lose,” rapped the artists in one recent episode.
That song focused on a law signed by President Yoweri Museveni banning homosexuality, which drew widespread international condemnation. US Secretary of State John Kerry likened it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.
“President Museveni says he won’t bow down to the West/Uganda has a right to decide what’s best,” the rap continued.
Hearing the news in hip-hop style may sound strange. But in Uganda, where the press faces censorship pressures and the country’s huge youth population often takes little interest in current affairs, a programme where “rap-orters” broadcast with “rhyme and reason” has become popular.
“NewzBeat“, screened in both English and the local language Luganda on the popular channel NTV every Saturday afternoon and evening before the station’s traditional news bulletins, took to the air last year.
‘Push the boundaries’
The show is presented by Sharon Bwogi, Uganda’s “queen of hip hop” known as Lady Slyke, the dreadlocked and eloquent Daniel Kisekka, dubbed the “Survivor”, and teenage rapper Zoe Kabuye, or MC Loy.
It aims to “promote diversity and visibility for marginalised groups” and “push the boundaries of press limitations” in Uganda, according to Lady Slyke.
“At first we had some complaints, people were saying ‘We’re not really understanding what you’re doing’,” the designer and artist, who was inspired by church music to start rapping when she was 13, told AFP.
But Bwogi added that today people from all walks of life followed the programme, including businessmen and government ministers.
“People keep asking for more and asking me questions about certain topics,” said Bwogi, 28, who also raps at venues across Uganda professionally. “I think they love the whole flavour.”
“NewzBeat”, which runs for about five minutes an episode, usually features about four local, regional and international stories.
Nothing is off limits. The programme has “rap-orted” stories on Uganda’s anti-pornography laws,the political situation in Ukraine and Ebola updates from west Africa.
Challenging political leaders
Corruption is another favourite topic.
“All around the world this problem remains/The abuse so far is keeping people in chains,” rapped Kisekka in a bulletin on graft. “But lately some signs of hope have made the headlines/Of corrupt officials being handed heavy fines.”
Bwogi said “NewzBeat” talked about corruption since graft was a major problem for Uganda.
“Sometimes if you want to be attended to… you need to pay a little something,” she said.
Often local reporters run into trouble trying to highlight this problem.
Uganda’s Human Rights Network for Journalists and other activist groups have repeatedly warned that the space for reporters to operate freely in the east African country is shrinking.
Last October, one journalist was ordered to pay damages or face jail after accusing a government official of corruption, and there have been other similar cases.
Kabuye, 14, who has rapped on everything from the Egyptian single mother who spent 43 years living as a man to the national identification registration, said many of her friends are disinterested in the news.
“They used to say it’s boring, but when they see ‘NewzBeat’, they’re like ‘what’s the time?'” said the student, who has been rapping since 2009 and now juggles her “NewzBeat” commitments with her homework.
Kisekka, 40, said that in the beginning many viewers dismissed the show as “just entertainment”, but they have come to “appreciate the art form and start listening to the news”.
People were now taking rap more seriously, the artist said.
“It is not just talking about women and booze and all that, it’s delivering the news,” said Kisekka.
For the future, “NewzBeat” staff are looking at recruiting specialist “rap-orters” to cover fields such as science and technology. They are also keen to expand across Africa.
In Tanzania, a mini-season of four episodes recently aired and another four are set to run in the lead-up to the country’s elections, scheduled for October.
“Media belongs to the power of the day,” Bwogi rapped in one episode. “The Chinese have CCTV/the British have BBC/And we too are making our voices heard on NTV.”
Desperate Housewives Africa, the African version of the award-winning US television drama series, will launch on April 30 on EbonyLife TV (DStv 165).
According to the Nigerian network, “viewers can look forward to an enthralling and spell-binding homegrown pilot that takes the Desperate Housewives format as you once knew it to scandalously new dimensions.”
Filmed in Lagos, the series stars Marcy Dolapo Oni as Rume Bello, the dead friend who narrates the series. Her friends must cope with her absence while their own lives unravel in “comedic and dramatic” fashion.
Michelle Dede plays Tari Gambadia, who competes for the attention of a new hunky neighbour with his own ulterior motives.
Nini Wacera is Ese De Souza, a housewife struggling to maintain the perfect family.
Kehinde Bankole plays Kiki Obi, who is caught up in a sleazy love affair.
Omotu Bissong, who stars as Funke Lawal, copes with life as a stay-at-home and exhausted mum of four.
The original Desperate Housewives is broadcast in more than 200 territories around the world. Versions of it have been produced for audiences in Turkey, Argentina, Columbia, Brazil – and now Africa.
The barbs are flying at me faster, flung by a hostile crowd.
Here I am, the lone Western correspondent in this tiny African kingdom that still feels volatile since the August 30 attempted military coup that sent the nation’s prime minister scurrying next door into South Africa.
I am suddenly on trial, as a kangaroo court deals me a harsh lesson – and reveals what a minefield Lesotho is for journalists covering this crisis.
A top government official alleged that Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers-for-hire had slipped into the country, armed to the teeth, to hatch a plot to assassinate Lesotho’s leaders – to throw the tiny nation into even deeper crisis and harpoon the February 2015 elections, already moved up two years earlier by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is mediating to restore some semblance of “lasting peace” here.
For the “mercenaries” claim, I’d asked two people if there was any clue on the identity of these alleged assassins.
Thesele Maseribane, the third leader of the ruling tripartite coalition (who’s also the minister of gender and youth, sports and recreation) floated two nationalities: Nigerians and Ghanaians. Then I spoke to the police’s assistant commissioner of police, Sello Mosili, who confirmed this. So that’s what I reported – their allegations:
Some online media – in Lesotho, too – focused on the nationalities. Even worse, one weekly here turned my story’s allegation into their story’s fact: “Police hunt Nigerian, Ghanaian mercenaries.”
That sensationalist twist unfortunately sparked anxiety among the hundreds of Nigerians and Ghanaians living in Lesotho. They say it’s led to unkind comments from Basotho and feeling threatened on the streets.
When I’d heard about the “unintended consequences” of my reporting, I met a police official and leaders of the two expatriate communities. To help make things right, I suggested a press event: I’ll explain what happened. Maybe the police could discuss the lessons learned – about revealing too much, too soon?
I’m also a journalism trainer here, so I saw the potential for a productive discussion about the dangers of incitement (another real concern) – and choosing words carefully during these tense times.
But I would regret this. Unwittingly, I organised my own public lynching. My good intentions were trampled on.
At this moment, some 30 leaders and members of the two communities have filled the room to debunk the claim.
Even a Nigerian diplomat from Pretoria is here to defend his country.
My defence – that I published allegations, attributed to highly credible sources, and identified the police source by name – isn’t enough.
Indeed, it’s the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) spokesperson seated beside me who pours oil on the fire. He stands to read from an authorised, one-page statement. The police are still pursuing reports of foreign mercenaries, he says, with no nationalities named. Then his final paragraph, with its inflammatory kicker: “The LMPS distances itself from the information appearing in the AFP newspaper [sic] dated 13-19 November 2014 that the mercenaries are from Nigeria and Ghana.”
Comfort the afflicted Not deny the substance, mind you, but distance itself. A vague, carefully chosen term, it seems.
Even worse, the police appear to have confused the article I wrote for Agence France-Presse – a round-the-clock international news agency, not a “newspaper” – with the article that appeared in the November 13-19 edition of that Lesotho weekly, which reprinted my allegations as fact.
“That doesn’t exonerate your actions,” says one Nigerian community leader-turned-prosecutor, facing the crowd, his voice filling with emotion.
From the audience, a community member eyeballs me: “If someone is attacked for this, their blood will be on your hands.”
A third chides me: “You should just apologise – but you seem unwilling to.”
That’s right. I stand by my reporting. In front of this crowd, though, I do pause to reiterate my sincere regret for the “unintended consequences” of my reporting.
I have a conscience, after all, and abide by the journalistic creed: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I’d never want a story of mine to harm innocents. Especially not a minority, given my affinity for them.
Was this a show trial? An inquisition? Verbal vigilantism? I’m still struggling for words to describe what happened to me last week. Was it just a traumatic professional incident?
More importantly, a great revelation slaps me in the face: this whole ordeal illuminates just how dangerous this environment is. Not for me – because I can leave. Even flee.
Instead, imagine my Basotho journalism colleagues, who are woven into the fabric of this monoethnic, monolingual society, perched in a remote mountain enclave completely surrounded by South Africa.
I can handle this public assault adequately. Yet how could a local colleague weather such intimidation? How to cope in this climate? Where the homes of public figures are attacked at night – by grenade or bullet – yet no one is arrested? Where an adversarial radio station is trashed, yet no one is held to account? Where police arrest a prominent editor and reporter for a day – for accurately reporting a criminal case?
A few weeks back, a leading local reporter called me to describe how she was publicly accused of taking bribes from one political faction to report negatively about another. She broke down, crying: “I’m scared, I can’t go anywhere.”
Now, for the first time, I feel this intimidation.
Why does all this matter? Because Lesotho is the latest crisis mediated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Stabilising this little tinderbox is in South Africa’s interest – and SADC’s too.
Sandbag the messengers
However, Basotho society is highly polarised, with duelling accusations of what one side is doing to the other.
Yet there’s no neutral arbiter to separate fact from fiction. What’s true, what isn’t. Who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
In short, the Basotho – and Southern Africa itself – need a robust, confident media, to help connect the dots. Yet if one local journalist – or any member of civil society – were to dare to “get to the bottom of things,” but then angers the wrong person, who would protect them?
Don’t get me wrong: even after this public assassination of my character, I’m still enjoying the adventure of living on the continent the past three years, especially among the Basotho.
Yet the fact remains: at that moment, all three communities needed a scapegoat. To “refute and debunk” the damage purportedly done to the reputations of Nigeria and Ghana, and duress caused for their diaspora communities. From any diplomatic fallout, perhaps the police also felt compelled to deny responsibility.
So I was fingered as the culprit. The true outsider. The foreign correspondent. So expendable. If not shoot the messenger, then sandbag him.
“These were just allegations,” my most vocal defender, Tsebo Mats’asa, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Lesotho chapter, tells the crowd. “We should thank Ntate [Mr] Jordan for being brave to come explain what happened.”
Brave? No, I was foolish.
The most absurd part of this event is that I actually co-organised and invited many of the people – to witness my own public lynching.
As the meeting ends, and they clear the room, several young journalists approach me.
“You see? This is what they do here,” says one. “They’ll tell you something, and you publish it. But if others don’t like it, they’ll deny they told you that. They’ll blame you.”
I’ve learned many lessons from this experience, but there is one worth underscoring: it’d be irrational for my colleagues ever to put their necks on the line. Their trepidation also drives me forward, to continue probing the reality.
Foolish to speak out
Then, as I lick my wounds the next day, I get a call that lifts my spirits. From a Nigerian who has lived here for years – and observed my inquisition, in silence.
“I wanted to tell you that I was very proud of you, that you didn’t chicken out,” he says. “I see you’re a man who believes in what he has done, who knows he was right, and no amount of pressure will make him surrender.”
I listen, speechless. Then express my gratitude for some of the most meaningful and fortifying words of my career.
The Nigerian continues. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in Africa. In this environment we live in, some people, but not everyone, lack integrity and principles. The Basotho journalists would tell you they weren’t surprised like you were, to see what happened to you yesterday. It’s almost a continuous way of life here.”
Then I ask him, respectfully: Why didn’t you speak up? And are you now willing to be quoted in this piece, by name?”
No, he prefers anonymity.
“Because you see the way they came after you,” he says. “That same angry display would be turned against me.”
Indeed, I finally understand. The sad reality is, it would require rare courage – or foolishness – for anyone to speak out. Just when Lesotho needs them the most.
Michael J Jordan is a freelance journalist based in Lesotho. Visit jordanink.wordpress.com for his coverage of the three-month Lesotho crisis.
Nigerian novelist Chibundu Onuzo reviews Half of a Yellow Sun, which premiered in Nigeria on August 1.
I went to two screenings of Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. The first screening was in an obscure Vue theatre, with a largely Nigerian audience, that whooped and called out throughout the movie. The second was in the Bafta building, with a sedate crowd that venomously shhhed me when I whispered a comment to my sister. The first time, I zoomed in on what I believed were the movies fatal flaws: Thandie Newton’s unplaceable accent when speaking English, Thandie Newton’s unplaceable accent when speaking Igbo and the lack of the epic in a movie that is set during the Biafran War, one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. The second time, I approached with a more open mind, ready to accept the movie for what it is rather than what I wanted it to be and I discovered that the director, Biyi Bandele, has made his own film, his own triumph. This is a subtle movie of a large war, intimate and revealing of the personal tragedies that took place from July 1967 to January 1970.
The movie opens with the sisters Olanna and Kainene played by Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose. They are beautiful, rich and fashionable in the stylised chic way of the sixties. The period is evoked with footage from the era as well as a beautifully researched set. Olanna and Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are soon introduced as lovers. Kainene and the English, somewhat spineless Richard (Joseph Mawle), also become lovers. Through these two relationships, the vibrancy of pre-war Nigeria is explored: the highlife music, the Lagos high society, the heated intellectual discussions at the University of Nsukka where Olanna and Odenigbo are both lecturers. And then the war comes.
The Nigerian Civil War was global news and personal tragedy. I know this from my father and my uncles who lived through the war and speak not of genocide and federalism but of exams left midway, school terms disrupted and clothes destroyed. Bandele captures this movingly in the scene where the war arrives on the doorstep of Olanna and Odenigbo’s carefully built citadel of books and philosophers and good wine. They must hastily compress their life into a few suitcases, flung into the back of a car. What to choose? What to take before they must run? Olanna is cooking. She carries the pot with her as they flee.
In my first viewing, I was annoyed by the fact that the Biafran War seemed reduced to the love triangles and squares of these four main characters. General Emeka Ojukwu, leader of Biafra, is seen only in black and white footage. There is no character cast to flesh out this charismatic leader of the Biafrans. General Jack Gowon, leader of the Nigerian army is never mentioned. The grand actors are mostly silent. In my second viewing, I was drawn into the intimacy of these four lives. The brief clips of original news footage; the short radio bursts of famous speeches: this was how those living through the war would have experienced the events now neatly highlighted by History as grand. People lived through the epic in very mundane ways. They got married like Odenigbo and Olanna. Brides fussed over the fit of their wedding dresses and sometimes, wedding feasts were interrupted by bombs. The next day, life went on.
It is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first feature since Twelve Years a Slave and this role is sufficiently different for one to be excited to see what he will do next. I did Thandie Newton a disservice in my first assessment. She may not correctly pronounce ‘kedu,’ a common Igbo greeting, but she is utterly compelling as Odenigbo’s long suffering and contradictory lover, who will not marry him in peace time but will do so in the middle of a war. Anika Noni-Rose and Joseph Mawle also give strong performances, with Noni Rose capturing the hauteur and vulnerability of Kainene with great skill. Yet the standout performance for me, was given by Onyeka Onwenu who played Mama: the mother-in-law from hell.
Onwenu or ‘the elegant stallion’, is better known as a singer. Yet she was perfect for this role of eye-rolling, abuse spitting venom. Eavesdropping on conversations after the Bafta screening, I heard the noun ‘caricature’ thrown around a few times. “Such people exist!” I wanted to say, but I had already been shushed once that evening. In the Vue screening, surrounded by Nigerians, there was only adulation for Onwenu. We all knew women like Mama, who tried to control their families with manipulation and tradition. There was no talk of caricatures there.
The movie is not a facsimile of Chimamanda’s much beloved novel. Most strikingly, in the novel Ugwu, the houseboy, is the main narrator. Yet in the film, the sisters, Olanna and Kainene take centre stage. Biyi Bandele, explaining this choice at a pre-screening, said that too often the African domestic had been given the foreground in films made of the continent. It was time for new stories to emerge. Stories of women like Olanna and Kainene; stories of sophistication and accusations of witchcraft because Africa is not one thing. There will be time for other epics on the war; for gun battles and air raids, for army commanders and young Generals. For now, let us celebrate Bandele’s movie for what it is: a triumph.
Brittle Paper is an African literary blog featuring book reviews, news, interviews, original work and in-depth coverage of the African literary scene. It is curated by Ainehi Edoro and was recently named a ‘go-to book blog’ by Publisher’s Weekly.
Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo, a recent convert to social media, uses pictures to tell the story of Africa’s largest metropolis and beyond.
“I was sceptical at the beginning,” says Esiebo of Instagram. “From what I’d seen about social media, it was all about pictures of parties and holidays rather than a way to tell a story.”
When Esiebo did give the photo-sharing service a go, two of his most popular photos came to include a shot that captures Lagos’s party spirit and another of a child asleep on a beach in Freetown. With an Instagram account brimming with photos that reflect the everyday colourful chaos of Africa’s largest metropolis, Esiebo is one of a crop of rising stars whose mobile-shot photos are helping to revolutionise the way outsiders and local people see Africa.
“Instagram has been quite remarkable in the impact it’s had, especially in the northern hemisphere where people have little idea of everyday life here,” says the 36-year-old Lagosian, whose previous projects range from a series documenting West Africa’s barbershops to a local neighbourhood team of grandmothers in South Africa when the country hosted the 2010 World Cup.
In a continent where mobile phone usage is exploding, Esiebo isn’t the only one who has realised the potential of Instagram. Along with 17 others, he is part of the Everyday Africa project, a collective of photographers who have taken on the “common media portrayal of the African continent as a place consumed by war, poverty, and disease”.
“One of the biggest pluses [of mobile phone photography] is it makes you much more invisible and therefore much more intimate,” says Esiebo. “From a technical point of view it’s more limiting, but the idea of using Instagram for storytelling just makes a lot of sense.”
Appetite has even come from those already familiar with the tapestry of Nigeria. “There are some images I’ve posted that weren’t meant for a Nigerian audience that sometimes got the biggest response [there],” he says.
Esiebo becoming a photographer was remarkable in itself. Nigeria has a vibrant arts scene, but artists work in challenging conditions. Recently a show featuring Esiebo’s work in northern Nigeria’s main city of Kano had to be scrapped after a series of bomb attacks by Islamists Boko Haram.
But it is the daily grind that drags most artists down. Well-maintained galleries are few and far between, and most exhibitions depend on word of mouth for attracting visitors. “Infrastructure is a major problem. There’s no funding, no support networks for indigenous photographers,” Esiebo notes. “Much more attention was paid to westerners, who would document our story and then bring it back to us.”
While working at the French Research Institute in Ibadan, Esiebo was “lucky to have access to photography books”. Then in 2006, he met the celebrated Nigerian photographer George Osodi.
“That was a turning point. It gave me the confidence, that if he could tell our story as a Nigerian, then I could too,” he said. “The best thing about being a photographer is having a chance to tell your own story.”
Challenges of copyright and distribution are magnified in Nigeria, as evidenced from bootlegged videos, CDs and books openly sold in every city. And though mobile photography has other limits, believes it’s only going to grow bigger. “It’s just an alternative way to reach out to people. For me, pictures are not just about quality, it’s about the story behind them.”