Looking for a hero to #BringBackOurGirls

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night

I was a black schoolgirl once. I studied for exams, rode buses. While growing up, I ran the risk of ending up on the side panel of a milk carton. Have you seen me? But whatever my fears of kidnapping during my childhood in the US, I never could have imagined the mass abduction of over 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, 276 of whom were still missing at last count, some reportedly sold as slaves in other countries.

Earlier this week, I was in Twitter conversation with Dr Britney Cooper  and others. Cooper and I were conflicted about US military intervention but hoping something good could come of President Obama getting involved in responding to the abduction. Others in the conversation cited recent instances where concern about women and girls was used as a pretext for military invasion. I noted that when President Bush invaded Afghanistan, it was an obvious sham because he and the conservatives backing the invasion were notorious for their opposition to policies for women’s rights, both domestically and internationally. Cooper cited the “the political dangers of US imperialism” and the “need [for] a moral schema that allows us to protect Black women and girls” concluding that “we must hold these things in tension”.

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure, he’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life, larger than life

US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)

I want to believe Obama is different. Isn’t he black enough, Kenyan enough, progressive enough? And I opposed US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and Syria and Korea… but maybe it could be different this time. I could not accept that hundreds of young Nigerian girls could just be carted away. One leader of a Nigerian elders group spoke out against Nigeria’s own military inaction: “The free movement of the kidnappers in a huge convoy with their captives for two weeks…is unbelievable.

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light

Obama has a black wife, black schoolgirl daughters, a Kenyan grandmother. Can’t we trust our Soul Brother commander-in-chief to rescue the damsels and not slip in Shell oil slicks? Isn’t it possible that the same US military with an epidemic history of rape problems could somehow be a rape solution in Africa?

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong, he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight

I should know better. I’m Puerto Rican, a daughter of the US’s eyesore present day colony since 1898.  So before I could take a definitive position, I turned to my friend and trusted colleague, Kenyan poet and playwright Shailja Patel.  She sent me this article from Compare Afrique, titled ‘Dear Americans, Your Hashtags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls. You Might Actually Be Making Things Worse‘. I could clearly see that my perspective had been skewed by a lifetime of conditioning to see the US as a potential rescuer. This, in spite of my opposition to all the military intervention in my lifetime, Vietnam, Guinea-Bissau, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq…

We progressives in the US, particularly those of African heritage, can be swayed by Obama’s public stances and record of improvement in various domestic social issues. However, progressive social policies at home do not correlate in any way with anti-colonial foreign policy.

Yet I had wanted to believe. I envisioned a Blaxploitation remake of Rambo that would bring Obama striding home against a backdrop of flames, fiery red bomb blast turning to smoke behind him, fainted schoolgirl limp in his arms (saved!). But I need to remember black girls will never be the Lois Lane of this tired movie. The story of black women and sexual violence has not been a tale of rescue. Ain’t nobody gonna spin the world backwards, restore our hymen, return the blood to the capillaries in an unlacerated vulva. Our story is of endurance, and survival, and healing.

To remix Audre Lorde: the coloniser’s army will never dismantle the legacy of the coloniser’s brutalityPerhaps all of us Afro diasporans in the US, hearing about the abduction and violence against African girls, wanted something other than silence, other than business as usual. We have nightmares of our own, from the recent outrage with R. Kelly’s Black Panties album, and the latest in-depth revelation of his one-man sexual violence crusade against black girls in US, we are desperate for someone in a position of influence to notice and intervene. We want someone powerful to #BringBackOurGirls. If only it were that simple.

And we already have our heroes: 53 girls who escaped from the gunmen. When the bus broke down, “some of us jumped out of the vehicles and ran into the bush”. According to the 17-year-old girl who spoke to the LA Times:

“I and two other girls were close together [cooking], speaking softly, and we came up with a plan.”
The girls told the gunmen they needed to relieve themselves….
“As soon as we were out of sight of the gunmen, we fled…”
Eventually, the three stumbled across a group of Fulani herders, who rescued them.

The Fulani herders didn’t rescue them. Those girls rescued themselves when they decided to run. I claim Nigerian schoolgirls – scared teenagers who jump off buses, who stick together and plot escape while cooking for their captors, who stand up to and outwit grown men with AK-47s – as the heroes of this story.

I just hope that if one day one of them is in a position to be the first woman president of Nigeria, and proposes economic measures that would uplift her people – at the expense of US and multinational corporations – that whoever is president of the US doesn’t send the military in to assassinate her.

Aya de Leon (@ayadeleon) is on the faculty of the Afro Diaspora Studies Department at UC Berkeley.  She writes, blogs, and tweets frequently about issues related to race, gender and colonisation at ayadeleon.wordpress.com. This post was first published on Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

Solar lighting revolution underway in Sierra Leone

In the face of inadequate provision of power by the Sierra Leonean government, companies are stepping in to provide solar electricity systems that ordinary Sierra Leoneans can afford.

Since the 1980s Sierra Leone has been unable to reliably provide electricity to its citizens. Its capital Freetown, once dubbed “the world’s darkest city”, experiences daily power cuts. Outside the major cities the situation is far worse, with just one in 10 Sierra Leoneans having access to the national grid. That figure drops to 3%  in rural areas, according to government and World Bank figures.

For now in much of the country it is only the privileged few who can afford to run costly and breakdown-prone diesel generators. Instead, for light, most people rely on kerosene lamps, candles or cheaply made battery powered plastic lights shipped in from China.

But in recent years the country has embarked on something of a solar revolution – at least for lighting and mobile phone charging. Main roads in the larger towns are now lit by solar streetlights. A Laos-based firm, Sunlabob Renewable Energy, is building 13 off-grid solar plants to supply lighting to universities and other community facilities.

Up to 60 health centres now get their lighting and power some electrical equipment thanks to “solar suitcases” installed by We Care Solar, who aim to reduce maternal mortality – Sierra Leone has the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio – by lighting hospitals and clinics. Meanwhile, in February Mulk Energy won a contract to construct a 6MW solar park in Freetown, which is set to be West Africa’s largest. It aims to provide electricity to hospitals, schools, and to 3 000 households by the end of 2014.

Solar energy still supplies a small fraction of Sierra Leone’s energy needs but the Advanced Science and Innovation Company, involved in setting up the solar park, hopes that in two years time one quarter of the country’s electricity can be supplied through renewable sources.

Indigo pay-as-you-go system
But one particular project has found a way to make solar energy affordable to individual households using a pay-as-you go system. Azuri Technologies (who have partnered with rap musician Akon’s ‘Akon lighting Africa’ project) describes the product, Indigo, as “solar-as-a-service” and says it can cut energy bills by as much as 50%. To avoid the prohibitively high costs of buying the system outright, Indigo customers use scratchcards to buy it over time. They pay an initial US$12 to have the unit installed, and then 10 000 leones ($2.30) weekly for 18 months.

All those spoken to by IRIN said the Indigo lights were saving them a significant amount of money.

“Yes, we have been saving a lot,” said Aminatta, whose shop selling fabrics, a few rough cut diamonds and cigarettes remains open long after dark.

Aminatta uses an Indigo pay-as-you-go solar powered light to run her shop in Tombo village. (Pic: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN)
Aminatta uses an Indigo pay-as-you-go solar powered light to run her shop in Tombo village. (Pic: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN)

She was the first of 300 people in the fishing village of Tombo in western Sierra Leone to invest in the device. In five months her weekly payments will cease and her shop will be lit for free.

Mr Benga, also from Tombo, bought two. “Now my children can study here at night,” he told IRIN, pointing to a covered courtyard with a large Indigo LED light dangling against one wall. “I even gave one to my daughter to use in the dormitory at school.”

Liberia’s lost generation of child soldiers comes of age

Abdul Sesay used to carry an AK-47 in jailed Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s notorious “Demon Forces” militia, which tortured, killed and raped its way through the country’s second civil war.

Now he sleeps rough, with no steady job and little chance of ever finding one, scraping together what money he can to buy the drugs that help him forget.

Sesay was one of thousands of children conscripted as fighters, ammunition carriers, cooks and sex slaves during two ruinous back-to-back civil wars which pulverised the west African state between 1989 and 2003 and killed 250 000 people.

 A pick-up with young soldiers loyal to then Liberian president Charles Taylor escorts Taylor's armoured SUV on a tour of the Monrovia defence line in June 2003. (Pic: AFP)
A pick-up with young soldiers loyal to then Liberian president Charles Taylor escorts Taylor’s armoured SUV on a tour of the Monrovia defence line in June 2003. (Pic: AFP)

Brutalised by conflict, the youngsters were both victims and perpetrators of the most sickening abuses, but as adults they find themselves fighting a new battle, against poverty and drug addiction.

Sesay says he was 15 when Taylor’s men came for him as he was heading for school in the northern county of Nimba.

“They abducted me on the street and bundled me into their car and later gave me a weapon to start fighting,” he told AFP.

He was placed among the ranks of the feared paramilitary anti-terrorist unit, commonly known as the “Demon Forces”, led by Taylor’s son Chuckie.

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the brigade in 2006 of “torture, including various violent assaults, beating people to death, rape and burning civilians alive” from about 1997 through 2002.

Sesay, now 33, denies committing any rights abuses or killing anyone, saying his war involved supporting roles behind the frontline, but he admits regular drug abuse.

“It used to make me brave to keep carrying my weapon,” he says.

Now Sesay gets his money where he can, doing odd jobs and operating as a “car loader”, one of a legion of young men in central Monrovia who yell out destinations and load bags into the back of taxis.

“I am still taking drugs… I always hustle and save money to buy my drugs,” he says, scratching nervously at a baggy maroon T-shirt.

Skinned alive
Like many former child soldiers, Sesay feels abandoned by a government he says left him with nothing after he handed in his weapon as part of a demobilsation process which disarmed 103 000 rebels and government militia in 2004.

In the years since the conflict ended sympathy has been in short supply for ex-child soldiers, many of whom committed the most depraved abuses, and thousands of young men and women remain traumatised and often jobless.

Two charities, Plan and Family Health International, interviewed 98 former child soldiers for a 2009 study which found that 90% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 65% had a major depressive disorder.

Three in five of the girls had suffered sexual violence and a fifth of girls and boys had attempted suicide.

“The children formerly involved with the fighting forces are more aggressive and more severely affected … And we noticed that they are often blamed and stigmatised by other community members, which makes them become hostile and fight and abuse drugs,” the study said.

One young man described seeing his mother skinned alive when he was 15 while many of the girls described being taken as “bush wives” by rebels when they were as young as nine.

The Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme (DDRR) offered $300 and training schemes to child soldiers in exchange for weapons.

But those who could not hand in a gun or ammunition were excluded, so children who had been recruited for domestic or sexual services received no help.

Michael Wilson, a social worker for Don Bosco Homes, a Catholic group which worked with child soldiers in Liberia, says many are now suffering severe trauma which manifests itself in aggression and sometimes drug-fuelled delusion.

“If you take a walk around the streets of Monrovia you will see one or two of them still portraying armed conflict, with died hair and a stick, running around,” he told AFP.

‘Saved by God’
Both the government and the main rebel groups denied the existence of child soldiers but various estimates put the total number between 15 000 and 38 000.

Augustine Tregbee fled to neighbouring Sierra Leone aged 15 as anti-Taylor guerillas pounded the coastal town of Robertsport with heavy artillery.

When he returned rebels had overrun the town, moved into local homes, taken villagers as their “wives” and made children carry equipment and weapons.

“I came back and found that my grandfather had been killed. There were no civilians here – the town was occupied by fighters,” he told AFP.

He was given a Soviet-era PKM machine gun, trained in guerrilla warfare and told he would be executed if he tried to escape.

“I saw lots of friends die in battle during an attack on Charles Taylor’s soldiers but I was saved by God,” he said.

Now 29, Tregbee is reticent to talk about how many combatants he killed but recalls vividly the 2003 siege of Monrovia, which resulted in the deaths of some 1 000 civilians in heavy shelling.

“I did not look people in the face to kill them while I was fighting. If I killed people, maybe it was through stray bullets. We did not target civilians in our unit,” Tregbee says.

Back in Robertsport he is now a fisherman whose dream of buying a boat looks unlikely to be realised with earnings of as little as $15 a month.

Tregbee along with his wife and two children rent one squalid room of a building with no windows, running water or electricity.

One bed takes up most of the space and puddles form on the hard floor when the roof gives way in the rainy season.

He says he looks to the future with optimism despite having no money, but his dark past is never far away.

“I still reflect on my days as a child fighter. Often I think about the moments of jogging with my friends, moving together,” he says.

Frankie Taggart for AFP

Sudan faces mounting condemnation over pregnant woman’s death sentence

Sudan is facing mounting condemnation for sentencing a pregnant woman to be whipped and then hanged for adultery and apostasy, and for keeping her shackled in prison with her toddler son a month before she is due to give birth.

Governments, the UN and human rights groups have called on the Sudanese government to immediately release Meriam Yahya Ibrahim (27) and overturn both her death sentence and sentence of 100 lashes. More than 100 000 people have backed a call by Amnesty International to release Ibrahim.

Ibrahim was arrested after a Muslim relative claimed her marriage to a US citizen was invalid, and thus adulterous, because he is a Christian. Ibrahim was also found guilty of apostasy. But she said she had been brought up a Christian and refused to renounce her faith.

Her lawyers have lodged an appeal against the sentence, which may be heard in Khartoum this week. Ibrahim is being held in harsh conditions and is constantly shackled, according to Amnesty. Her 20-month-old son, Martin, has been kept in prison with her since February.

Ibrahim has been told that her execution will be deferred for two years to allow her to deliver and then wean her baby.

Her husband, Daniel Wani, who left Sudan for the US in 1998, has travelled to Khartoum to try to secure the release of his wife and son. He said Ibrahim was being denied medical treatment and he had not been allowed to visit her or Martin, according to media reports.

The Sudanese authorities have reportedly refused to release the child to his father’s care because of his Christian faith.

Ibrahim – a graduate of Sudan University’s school of medicine – told the court she was the daughter of a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Christian mother, but was raised as a Christian after her father left the family when she was six.

According to Human Rights Watch, article 126 of Sudan’s criminal code says a Muslim who renounces Islam is guilty of apostasy, punishable by death, unless the accused recants within three days.

‘Barbaric sentence’
The UK government has summoned Sudan’s chargé d’affaires in London to the Foreign Office to hear its “deep concern”.

In a statement, Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds said: “This barbaric sentence highlights the stark divide between the practices of the Sudanese courts and the country’s international human rights obligations.” The Sudanese government must respect the right to freedom of religion or belief, he added.

US senators Kelly Ayotte and Roy Blunt have raised the case with the secretary of state, John Kerry, calling for “immediate action and full diplomatic engagement to offer Meriam political asylum and secure her and her son’s safe release”.

The department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Wednesday the US was “deeply disturbed” by the case and called on Khartoum to respect the right to freedom of religion. The Canadian and Dutch governments have also expressed concern.

The UN has also urged Sudan to adhere to international law. “We are concerned about the physical and mental wellbeing of Ms Ibrahim, who is in her eighth month of pregnancy, and also of her 20-month-old son, who is detained with her at the Omdurman women’s prison near Khartoum, reportedly in harsh conditions,” said Rupert Colville of the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva.

Amnesty said: “The fact that a woman has been sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is appalling and abhorrent.”

‘We are praying for a miracle’
Wani, who has a biochemical engineering degree and suffers from muscular dystrophy, lives in Manchester, New Hampshire and became a US citizen in 2005. He and Ibrahim met in Khartoum, and were married there in 2012. Wani had taken steps to bring Ibrahim to join him in the US.

Last year, a relative accused Ibrahim of adultery, saying her marriage to a Christian was invalid. The authorities later added the charge of apostasy. Gabriel Wani, Daniel’s brother, who also lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, said Ibrahim was in poor physical shape. “Meriam is in a bad condition, she is eight months pregnant. She needs proper medical attention and she needs medical supplies. She’s bleeding and nothing is being done,” he told the Daily Mail.

“She needs to eat well but she is just getting the prison food. When she had her first son it was a very difficult birth, she lost a lot of blood. She is supposed to have check ups with the doctor but it isn’t happening. We are praying for a miracle.”

The Mogadishu you don’t read about

It is 9 o’clock in the evening in Mogadishu. I am sitting in a teashop on Liberia Street in the Waberi district where I live. This street is popular among locals with tea shops, kiosks, fruit vendors and hawkers. Dozens of children from the neighbourhood are playing football in the street, cheering and urging each other on as they avoid the speeding cars.

This is not what you expect to see in Mogadishu, the place dubbed “the most dangerous city in the world” by western media and many journalists who have never actually set foot in Somalia.

While the kids play in the street, young adults walk in groups to the city centre to play soccer. They go to a place locally know as Sallax, a centre that hires out fields for various sports, including football and basketball . There are not enough football fields in the city and with everyone at work during the day, Sallax is very popular at night. Games usually last two hours. From my flat, I can often hear the youngsters chatting away past midnight on their way back home.

The Sallax sports and fitness centre. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)
The Sallax sports and fitness centre. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)

In the mornings in Waberi, the sound of the cock crowing coincides with the azaan (call to prayer) from the mosque, and soon thereafter the hooting of the city shuttle fills the air.

Children in colourful uniforms hurry to catch the minibuses to their respective schools; adults head off to work in public buses or their own cars.

I sometimes take the bus to my work place and always appreciate the lively conversations among the passengers as they debate the latest news or socio-economic issue. During weekends, the beach is teeming  with locals young and old. ‘Local tourists’ from  different parts of Somalia and diasporans also frequent the beach. They enjoy the comfort of the hotels facing the shore and make the most of swimming contests, soccer on the sand, high jumps and acrobats.

Somalis enjoy a swim in Lido Beach, Mogadishu. (Pic: AFP / AU-UN IST)
Somalis enjoy a swim in Lido Beach, Mogadishu. (Pic: AFP / AU-UN IST)

Daljirka Dahson is another popular tourist site which Mogadishu residents visit on  their days off. The monument is dedicated to soldiers who fought and sacrificed their lives for the country. Traditional dancers entertain the crowds and countless photos of the  national flags surrounding the site are captured.

The Daljirka Dahson monument in Mogadishu. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)
The Daljirka Dahson monument. (Pic: Deeq M Afrika)

With every day that passes, I realise how much of Mogadishu’s greatness I have yet to explore. I would never have known this side to the city if I hadn’t decided to move back and see the reality for myself. It was not my choice to leave Somalia but it was my duty and responsibility to come back after having lived in Kenya for most of my life.

The Somali people are associated with hunger, famine, lawlessness, piracy and conflict. These are the stories that dominate the headlines from the horn of Africa  – and which overshadow the tale of resilience, recovery and reconstruction. Despite the increasing number of websites, radios and satellite television channels, success stories from Somalia are rare. It is only the overwhelmingly negative ones that get circulated.

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer  and photojournalist, challenges Somalis to tell their own stories. In an interview with Africa Review  in mid-2012 about her book Mogadishu Then and Now, she said, referring to the Somalis:

“You should be able to tell your own story; if you don’t, people will tell it for you and they will distort the facts to suit their interests. For Somalis, Mogadishu is or was the most beautiful city in the world; they will say the food is fabulous, they will talk about the theatre, and the stadium where they used to play football – and those are the narratives we are not hearing. If you don’t change that narrative, people will continue talking on your behalf.”

It is high time we take up the task of telling our own story.

Moulid Hujale is a journalist now working as a consultant for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). Follow him on Twitter: @moulidhujale