Cairo’s street music mahraganat both divides and unites

Stroll through Egypt’s capital and you can count on hearing two kinds of music. The first has been around for decades: the rich, sedate voice of Egypt’s favourite diva, Umm Kulthum. The second is a more recent phenomenon. A raucous mishmash of auto-tuned rap and pounding drums, this is mahraganat – Egypt’s latest musical genre.

The rise of mahraganat – which translates from the Arabic as “festivals” – has been as relentless as its drumbeats. Its stars have millions of YouTube hits, have appeared at European festivals and at sprawling street weddings, and recently hosted British grime and dubstep DJs for a week of collaboration.

“It’s the ultimate thing in music,” boasts Diesel, AKA 24-year-old Mohamed Saber, one of mahraganat’s most innovative artists. “Everyone listens to it – even those who criticise us.”

Diesel’s words hint at a vexed relationship with some Egyptian listeners. Popular though it is, mahraganat’s roots within Egypt’s underclass mean its artists strive for wider acceptance and a place within Egypt’s formal music industry. Things are changing, butmahraganat musicians often record their music at home, rely on peer-to-peer distribution via the internet or flash drives, and are rarely played on mainstream radio or television. “May God end my life,” winced a representative of Egypt’s musicians’ union after listening to mahraganat last year.

The genre first emerged in 2008 in Madinet al-Salam, or Salam City, a rundown district on the fringes of northern Cairo. Its pioneers began to mess around with drumbeats on basic mixing programs such as FruityLoops – downloaded for free online – and recorded simple auto-tuned vocals. Then some of them began to play their frenetic creations at sprawling street weddings and carnivals – hence its name – and a genre was born.

Mohamed El Deeb, a 28-year-old rap and hip hop singer, poses during the making of his music video, in front of a wall with graffiti near Tahrir square in Cairo June 4 2012. (Reuters)
Mohamed El Deeb, a 28-year-old rap and hip hop singer, poses during the making of his music video, in front of a wall with graffiti near Tahrir square in Cairo June 4 2012. (Reuters)

“People were shocked when it came on,” recalls Sadat – AKA al-Sadat Abdelaziz, 27, one of mahraganat’s trailblazers and probably its biggest star. “But [our] subjects and issues went straight to people – and that’s why it got bigger.”

According to Mahmoud Refaat, the founder of one of Egypt’s most influential contemporary music studiosmahraganat’s lyrical appeal lay in its honesty. Unlike schmaltzy Egyptian music from the 60s and 70s – or the pop artists of the 80s and 90s who “just sang about love and hair” – mahraganat was the first genre to properly deal with issues affecting the poorest Egyptians.

“It’s the very first time, for as long as I’ve heard Egyptian music, that I can say there is truly music for the people – [music] that actually expresses the reality of young people,” says Refaat. “The way these musicians were thinking is very radical and very minimal. They had no shame of dealing with their struggle, using their dialect that they and their friends and the community had developed. And that made it very new.”

British DJs who visited Cairo in March to collaborate with mahraganat artists compared the sound to London’s grime – for both musical and social reasons. “It’s a bit quicker in tempo – grime is about 140 beats-per-minute, and this is around 150bpm or 160bpm – but it’s got the same energy,” says London DJ Faze Miyake, who visited Cairo with the British Council.

Mahraganat stayed largely in Salam City and the surrounding suburbs until 2011, when the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak brought its artists greater exposure. Sadat released a series of songs over the internet that dealt directly with politics. Tracks such as The People and the Government and The People Demand Five Pounds of Phone-Credit (a riff on a revolutionary chant) gave him and his colleagues a prominence far beyond their hometown.

But mahraganat artists resent the oft-made suggestion that theirs is a genre born of the revolution. They started making music long before Mubarak fell. And though their lyrics are often political, Sadat says they feel cut adrift from a national tug-of-war that often ignores the basic needs of struggling communities such as theirs.

“Journalists think everything is related to the revolution. This music has been going on for a while,” says Sadat. “Not all the Egyptians are part of the revolution – the slum areas until now are not interested in anything other than eating. If these masses started to move, it would get messy.”

But for Noov Senarye, who manages a number of mahraganat stars, including Sadat, the more liberal environment created by the 2011 uprising did expose them to bigger and wider audiences. Senarye’s involvement is a case in point. Previously a human rights lawyer, she heard their music by chance in early 2011 – and, inspired, went to Salam City that March to offer to manage them. “In the beginning,” she remembers, “they couldn’t understand why a girl from different community and [social] level came to see them.”

Three years on, most mahraganat artists’ primary source of revenue still comes from playing at sprawling street weddings – thousands crashed Sadat’s own ceremony last year just to see him perform. And they still gauge their popularity not by radio airtime, or album sales, but by how often they hear their music blasting from Cairo’s mopeds and tuk-tuks.

“I know it’s doing well when I’m in the street and I hear it everywhere,” says Diesel. “Some songs will take a week to get to their peak, very few will take more than a month and a half. If they take longer than that – then that’s it.”

But much change has been afoot. For one, says Figo, the DJ known as the movement’s godfather, the music has become more sophisticated. “When it all started the lyrics were meaningless,” says Figo, whose real name is Ahmed Farid. “But now we sing about the revolution, drugs, harassment.”

A song by Sadat that deals with Egypt’s endemic street harassment, “Catcall yes, grope no”, is a much-cited example – even if its condemnation of sexism is only partial. Meanwhile, big companies have tried to co-opt mahraganat’s popularity – with some artists recording tracks for phone, food and Viagra adverts. And as the British collaboration shows, there is a drive to inject the genre with new musical ideas – a move accelerated by younger artists such as Diesel.

“That was the main intention of the studio to work with these musicians – to formalise this as a music genre, not to look at it as wedding-party music,” says Mahmoud Refaat, the studio owner who has taken some mahraganat artists under his wing. But as this evolution gathers pace, some are wary of selling out, of abandoning their roots for international influences. “People like this music as it is. The change and development of this music should be about the way we sing – not to change the core of the genre,” says Sadat. “It’s about what you sing for the people, it’s not about what you sell to the people.”

More support needed for SA’s community food gardens

Community food gardens can provide an important tool for household sustainability in South Africa, where less than half the population is food secure and 12 million people go hungry every day.

“I now have food to put on the table every day of the week,” says Sibongile Sityebi from Cape Town’s Gugulethu township. “I did not have that before. I was unemployed and did not have money to buy healthy food.”

For the past five years, Sityebi has worked at the Asande Food Garden in Gugulethu, an initiative of non-profit organisation Abalimi Bezekhaya. Meaning “Farmers of Home”, this Cape Town-based organisation encourages local township residents to grow their own vegetables. The objective is for these farmers to feed themselves, their families and the community.

Community members pack vegetables at Harvest for Hope community garden. (Pic: Alexandra Farrington)
Community members pack vegetables at Harvest for Hope community garden. (Pic: Alexandra Farrington)

Food insecurity remains a widespread problem across Cape Town and the rest of South Africa. According to a study by the African Food Security Unit Network at the University of Cape Town (UCT), 12 million South Africans – almost 25% of the population – go hungry on a daily basis. This figure excludes individuals who are at risk of being hungry, which is another 25%.  Food security has declined over the past five years, with only 45.4% of South Africans categorised as “food secure” in 2012, compared to 48% in 2008, according to the Human Science Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

Sityebi, who is now leading Asande and managing three other farmers, says community vegetable gardens can bring much-needed relief.

“The gardens of Abalimi make food insecurity in our areas a bit better,” the farmer says. “People here don’t have enough money for healthy food. We at Asande for instance donate part of our produce to soup kitchens and give it away to people who have nothing.”

It is difficult to determine exactly how many South Africans benefit from food gardens, as comprehensive figures are not available. A quick Google search however shows that there are many hundreds of community vegetable initiatives scattered across the country, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, from Bloemfontein to Durban.

Abalimi’s impact is easier to calculate, with 200 food gardens. Each of these are tended by five micro-farmers each supporting between five and seven people – the size of an average household. This means that a minimum of 10 000 people directly benefit from Abalimi gardens, excluding thousands of residents in neighbouring areas who are now able to access affordable and healthy food.

“Twenty-five percent to 50% of Abalimi’s output is consumed locally, by the farmers and their dependents as well as their fellow community members,” says Abalimi co-founder Rob Small, adding that the gardens grow a wide variety of seasonal crops. “These are people whom are most affected by food insecurity. The rest is sold to more affluent consumers as well as some retailers. This is what keeps our operations going.”

The gardens’ impact on farmers’ health has been significant. “The universal response of our farmers is is that they felt desperate and unhealthy when they started and healthy and empowered after being with us for a few months,” Small says. “Our farmers love the food they are eating and the fact they are working outside. People are less sick, and have fewer doctors’ bills. They feel psychologically better and more dignified. Community vegetable gardens, in other words, definitely have a positive impact on food security – and on overall well-being.”

University of the Western Cape graduate Marc Lewis agrees. Last year he did extensive research on the positive impact of urban vegetable gardens and food security in Johannesburg for his master’s degree at the university.

“When initiated and run properly, vegetable gardens can improve food security at household and community level,” he says, adding that the gardens he looked at alleviated food insecurity in two ways: by providing food for the farmers and by selling produce straight to the community at much lower prices than produce available in the shops. “This is where healthy affordable food is needed the most.”

Support from other stakeholders, such as the government, municipalities, corporates and non-governmental organisations, can be a critical success factor for gardens, particularly for access to land and water.  International NGO, recently launched a new pan-African campaign known as Do Agric, It Pays, calling for more and better investment in agriculture by African governments.’s executive director for Africa, Dr Sipho S. Moyo states that better structured support for small holder farmers and their needs, such as irrigation and access to land, is essential not only in combating poverty, but also in assuring sustainable economic development. Such investments could help further transform South Africa’s community gardens and multiply the gains.

“In 2003, African leaders pledged to invest 10% of their national budgets in agriculture – only eight of them have kept that promise. Do Agric, It Pays calls on governments to not only meet this promise, but to implement policies that are targeted towards protecting and promoting small holder farmers, leveling he field for women, and developing the value chain, among others. The private sector cannot do it alone. In countries such as Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the government has come to the aid of the private sector with targeted investments in agriculture, and the results hav been significant in terms of poverty alleviation, job creation and overall economic development.”

“Some of the gardens I studied had free water access,” Lewis says, adding that good management of gardens and resources is important. He stresses that someone needs to take control to prevent initiatives to become fragmented.

“Lastly, community gardens should be informal market, and not formal market, orientated,” he says. “It is in the communities in which these farms operate where good and healthy food is needed the most. The market is solid.”

Miriam Mannak for

‘My Heritage, My Inheritance’

This is a clip from My Heritage, My Inheritance, a highly anticipated fashion film by South African knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo. Through his knitwear line, Ngxokolo seeks to preserve culture through contemporary fashion, and now film. This film was created to capture the deeper meaning behind the brand.

Centered around the theme of the Xhosa Ulwaluko (male circumcision and initiation) ceremony, the film chronicles the events that take place during this time – one of the most important events in the life of a young man as he graduates into manhood. Ngxokolo gives us a powerful and rare glimpse into a world reserved only for those entitled to undergo this process and educates us about the philosophies behind his brand.


What’s the point of polygamy?

Do you have a concubine, a ‘side dish’ or a ‘small house’? In Kenya, now is apparently the time to bring them out so they can be registered officially. Do not be shy, do not hide them. It is time to make the illicit clean and chaste.

It’s been official as of March 20 2014, when a Bill allowing polygamy was passed by our Parliament. If you’re married to a Kenyan man, he can bring home the other woman without your consent – and with the government’s blessings.

One MP, Junet Mohammed, even told her colleagues, “When you marry an African woman she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife..”

But the question is, why?

What do African men need with all these women? What good does it do to the women in the relationship or even the men themselves?

To answer that, I think one must tackle a more important question: What is the point of polygamy? What is the basis for it other than men wanting to have more than one ‘honey’ and a host of different places to sleep at night?

There have been a number of arguments for the role of polygamy within tradition, but none remains as strong as the core one: “It’s our culture”.

As much as we must pay homage to culture, we need to remember it is based on the needs of society and is not static. We must analyse if the reasons for having a particular tradition still hold true.

In the case of polygamy, one can see why the reasons for this practice no longer apply.

Firstly, the economy in Kenya is not what it used to be. The boom that we saw at the beginning of the Kibaki regime has stalled, halted (and some say even reversed) in the past years. The price of food has risen and there is barely enough money going around for people to run one household, let alone two, three or four. Having one household is not a cultural or moral issue; it is just good business sense.

What tends to happen to the average woman in a polygamous relationship is that one household suffers at the expense of another. When one household starts living the good life (cars, expensive schools, holidays etc), funds are diverted from another household. The man benefits regardless of which wife has these ‘perks’, but it’s not an equal arrangement for the women (and children) involved.

On argument that stems from ‘pre-colonial times’ is that polygamy was a way of empire-building. A full house was a powerful house. Children were seen as a source of wealth. However, in this day and age, one need only look at the price of higher education and the children-turned-adults who live with their parents for extended periods of time, sometimes till the ripe old age of 30. Children are not the investment they used to be.

Furthermore, with the rise of absentee fathers in our society, one must question whether men can really be entrusted with the responsibility of parenting children in multiple households when some can barely manage being a father in one.  The strange thing is that these very men who are already negligent of their parental responsibilities are the most vocal about wanting multiple households.

Other reasons for polygamy hold equally as little weight:

  • It is a form of birth control for women: No, we have the pill now.
  • For political alliances: Now you can merely join your local political party. They will handle the alliances on your behalf. Or you can run for office yourself.
  • Agricultural manpower: Children helped farm the earth for food. Well, try going to your local supermarket today with more than two family members and then explain this to me as a justification for polygamy.
  • For male sexual gratification: Now this one is a good one. The world has gone through waves of sexual revolutions and women are no longer passive participants in sex.  The statistics are that a large majority of heterosexual women have never had an orgasm. Handle one woman first, then we can talk.

And if we are going to have polygamy then why can we not have polyandry? If men can be seen to run more than one household then, in the spirit of gender equality, should the same courtesy not be extended to women? Give the average woman an Excel spreadsheet, a car with fuel and some stretching exercises to keep limber and in top shape and watch her show you what running more than one household is about.

A great number of households already suffer from a chronic case of absentee fathers and ‘men-missing-till-midnight’ syndrome. Should we really then institutionalise a practice that is already being somewhat abused? Or could this law possibly strengthen the entire sordid situation by giving women and children who remain in vulnerable situations legal rights?

Could this law possibly be a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, register them’?

I believe there are many men who do not understand the emotional, financial and social responsibilities that come with polygamy. We need to figure out why exactly polygamy is so important outside of being ‘part of tradition’. And if we cannot answer this question then we should not be engaging in polygamy.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter@tiffmugo

Classroom heroes in CAR

“We, the teachers, we try to make the violence and the war that we have experienced disappear,” says Nguinissara Rita, a primary school teacher at the St. Charles Louanga Missionary displacement site in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic.

It is almost an impossible task in a country in the grip of a humanitarian crisis that affects some 2.3-million children.

Nevertheless, Ms. Rita takes the challenge head-on. In the overcrowded mass of tents, people, bags and mattresses in this makeshift camp, the classroom serves many purposes: For her pupils, it is a form of protection against potential recruitment and abuse; for her, it is a place to help lay a foundation for reconciliation in a conflict with no end in sight.

“We teach forgiveness to our children because we need to forgive the others,” she explains.

Temporary learning spaces
The school year in the Central African Republic has been disrupted for the better part of two years, and since 2012 most schools have been closed. To help provide educational opportunities to children, Unicef has supported international and national partners in setting up about 118 temporary learning spaces, covering more than 20 displacement sites in Bangui and other areas affected by conflict. As a result, over 25 000 children are back in a learning environment.

These temporary spaces are meant to operate only until schools reopen. “In the meantime, at least these children, who are living in difficult circumstances in the displacement camps, will regain some sense of normalcy and routine in a safe environment,” says Celeste Staley, chief of education at Unicef Central African Republic.


There have been efforts to reopen schools, but the process is slow and full of challenges. Many schools have been looted and damaged in the conflict. And given the continued insecurity, getting teachers back into classrooms is extremely difficult. Additionally, staff salaries are in arrears, which discourages teachers from returning.

Rebuilding and strengthening
Unicef supports the education cluster, a group made up of the national Ministry of Education along with NGOs and UN agencies engaged in the education sector. The cluster supports coordination among partners, joint assessments, identification of funding opportunities and sharing of information.

To support the reopening of schools, Unicef is providing basic school materials, light school rehabilitation, teacher training, and catch-up classes for children who have missed several months of classes.

The cluster is working with the transitional government to rebuild and strengthen the education system, which even prior to the crisis was among the least developed in the world.

“We know that it will be difficult to rebuild what was already a broken education system,” says Judith Leveillee, Unicef deputy representative in the Central African Republic. “But we must do what we can to get children back to school. This is where they should be. They have already lost so much.”

Back at the Louanga displacement camp, an energetic and passionate Nguirissara is teaching her young pupils a song. “Maybe it is my destiny; I don’t know,” she says. “But teaching children is something I like doing – and this way I can help them and my country.”

Suzanne Beukes is communications officer at Unicef’s Africa Services Unit.