Tag: Central Africa

War Witch

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, War Witch is the story of 12-year-old Komona who is abducted by African rebels and forced to fight in a civil war against her government. Her ability to see spirits/visions makes her the favourite of the main rebel leader and she decides to escape them. While war rages, love develops between Komona and her 15-year-old friend Magician. They try to flee to his uncle’s home but fate has other plans for her. Set in sub-Saharan Africa and filmed mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, director Kim Nguyen poignantly captures the stories of child soldiers and the horror of war.



Rwandan journalists under attack despite new press laws

Rwandan president Paul Kagame has signed new press laws and a freedom of information Act, intended to liberalise the media. Yet at the same time journalists are in prison for simply doing their jobs – holding the government to account.

Two of these, Agnes Uwimana and Saidati Mukakibibi, were jailed for allegedly defaming Kagame and “endangering national security” after writing articles that criticised the government’s agricultural policy, its handling of corrupt officials, and the justice system for Rwandans involved in the 1994 genocide. The reporters had been warned by the government-appointed Media Council to “tone down” their criticism, and when they failed to comply they were arrested and charged with genocide denial. Their case has been brought to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, where they say that their right to freedom of expression and a fair trial have been violated.

Agnes Uwimana Nkusi (R) and Saidati Mukakibibi (L) in Rwandan’s Supreme Court for the first day of their appeal in Kigali on January 30 2012. Nkusi and Mukakibibi were both given in February 2011 prison sentences of 17 and seven years respectively following convictions on charges of genocide denial, inciting civil disobedience and defamation. (AFP)
Agnes Uwimana Nkusi (R) and Saidati Mukakibibi (L) in Rwandan’s Supreme Court for the first day of their appeal in Kigali on January 30 2012. Nkusi and Mukakibibi were both given in February 2011 prison sentences of 17 and seven years respectively following convictions on charges of genocide denial, inciting civil disobedience and defamation. (AFP)

Under the new laws, which are the result of international pressure and negotiations that lasted many years, the Media Council will stop being a censor and will focus instead on capacity building and promoting professional journalism. The media will be able to introduce a regime of self-regulation, and the freedom of information act will give journalists access to government information ranging from budgets to infrastructure plans.

However, while legislators congratulate themselves on passing these laws, Uwimana and Mukakibibi are not the only Rwandan journalists being persecuted. Radio journalist Habarugira Epaphrodite is being dragged through the criminal courts for mixing up the Kinyarwanda words for “victims” and “survivors” while reading the news about the country’s genocide commemorations. It was a clear slip of the tongue and he was acquitted, but the prosecution has lodged an appeal which will not be heard until mid-2014. Until then, no radio station will hire him and Habarugira cannot work as a journalist.

These are but a few examples of many. Over the past few years, scores of journalists have fled the country, leaving for Uganda, Sweden or the United States, from where they publish their newspapers online. One of them, in exile in Sweden, has tried to get his newspaper back on the streets in Kigali by importing copies by road from Uganda.

But this can be risky. In December 2011, Charles Ingabire, a Rwandan journalist critical of the president, was shot dead in Uganda where he lived as a political refugee. Two months earlier he had been assaulted by unidentified attackers who demanded that he stop publishing his website. A former soldier, Ingabire had written extensively about the Rwandan military and published interviews with other exiled soldiers.

The introduction of a set of new laws, unconnected with the offences for which journalists have been convicted, cannot be called a first step. Journalists have been jailed for criminal libel, alleged national security offences and vague genocide-related laws. If the Rwandan government genuinely wants to liberalise the environment in which the media operates then the real first step is to release the journalists unjustly imprisoned and reform the laws that led to their imprisonment to begin with.

Peter Noorlander for the Guardian Africa Network. He is the head of the Media Legal Defence Initiative which is representing Uwimana and Mukakibibi at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and provides legal aid to several other Rwandan journalists. Follow these cases at www.twitter.com/mldi

Bamenda: Where politics and music blend

Anyone who views the suffering of the masses as his own is a hero in the eyes of a freedom-loving people. So what causes the pedestrians in my town’s main streets to prick up their ears and redirect their steps is music that is highly critical of dictatorial regimes.

Liberation music is the sound of Bamenda, my city in Cameroon. It’s also called Abakwa town, which means rebellion. Administratively Bamenda is the headquarters of Cameroon’s Northwest Province. But ideologically it is the political melting pot of the country.

Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president, acknowledged this by making Bamenda his first port of call when he took office in 1982. To the pleasant surprise of Bamenda’s inhabitants, he described the town as his “second home”, and he launched his party, the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, there. It was also in Bamenda that the first opposition party was launched on May 26 1990.

Bamenda is where politics and music blend. Up to 20 music warehouses line Commercial Avenue, its most popular street. These shops open and close with music in the air: local makossa stars like Lapiro de Mbanga, Longue Longue and Petit Pays, and reggae stars like Bob Marley, Lucky Dube and Peter Tosh boom and vibrate across the streets.

De Mbanga became famous in the 1990s when he composed a song titled Mimba We (Remember Us) that was highly critical of the Biya regime. In subsequent albums he expressed profound sympathy for Bamenda’s people. When he was dragged to court in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, all hell broke loose.

Major music warehouses celebrated the life of the artist by playing his songs day and night. But the betrayal of a people’s trust is difficult to forgive. De Mbanga discovered this when he back-pedalled on his role as the voice of the suffering masses. In the 1990 dawn of multiparty politics, the Biya regime implemented “Operation Ghost Towns” — a curfew that led to many losing their lives.

Despite the public outrage, De Mbanga sang in favour of the very regime he’d previously castigated. Bamenda’s rejection of De Mbanga was instantaneous — so much so that he no longer deemed Bamenda safe and was reduced to seeking shelter in Yaounde, Cameroon’s seat of government, where at the apex of his popularity he could not set foot.

His support of the regime hasn’t helped him though. This year he released Constitutional Constipation, a song calling on Cameroonians to resist the legal changes allowing Biya to remain in office beyond 2011.

For this rebellion he received a three-year prison sentence and today his fans listen to the song as a way of showing solidarity with their star.

Another makossa musician, Longue Longue, has a special place in the  hearts of Bamenda’s inhabitants. And he returns the sentiment: when Linda, his unfaithful lover in one of his songs, abandons him her destination is Bamenda. She becomes a prostitute there, but the musician continues to cherish her as if she were the most chaste and most saintly of lovers.

His first song, Ayo Africa, in the late 1990s was a jibe at colonial masters in general. He followed this with another bestseller, Privatisation, which derided the Biya regime’s policymakers for the corrupt and inept manner in which they were handling the privatisation of state-owned entities.

Soon after the album hit the market, rumour — the main source of information in Cameroon — made the rounds that Longue Longue was going to be arrested. Longue Longue had anticipated this reaction: in Privatisation he solicited the protection of none other than the people of Bamenda. He sang that he was “pickin for Bamenda”, which means “son of Bamenda”, and dared anyone to lay hands on him. He ended the song by calling on Bamenda’s people to shield him from the vendetta of the white man (the colonial master).

The song’s success was confirmed by the welcome Longue Longue got in Bamenda in June 2007 on the eve of the parliamentary and municipal elections. He staged a live show, pulling in the poor and the rich alike, much to the chagrin of the authorities and the glee of the opposition.

Brasseries du Cameroun, the country’s largest brewery, was first to see the potential of Longue Longue’s growing popularity in Bamenda. It organised a festival for Mutzig (echoing “music”), one of its popular beer brands. It took place at the Guinness Club in Bamenda and Longue Longue’s presence filled the air as hundreds of us turned out to welcome the “liberator”, shouting: “We are behind you, we want to see who will dare touch you.” The rain was unstoppable that night but we partied and danced with our hero all night long.

The popularity of De Mbanga and Longue Longue on our streets in Bamenda has been a source of profound inspiration for other Cameroonian musicians. Petit-Pays, a makossa music maestro, initially sang only of erotic love. His lyrics contained such obscene words that even the degenerates blushed.

But when the musician began to express frustration with the regime his popularity soared. His song I’d Suffer for My Country became a favourite of the Bamenda people because it was seen as an indictment of Biya. And when Petit-Pays scaled the heights of obscenity by posing naked on the album, his fans in Bamenda saw not pornography but radicalism. They interpreted his nakedness to mean the political nakedness of Cameroon. The song topped the charts twice.

Successful political music can be dangerous, though. Nyamsi Kotto Theodore, popularly called “Kotto Bass”, had a hit with his song Yes Bamenda, which catalogues all the great political figures the Northwest Province has produced. But he never lived to enjoy the fruits of his musical labour. In Bamenda it is widely believed that he was eliminated by the regime for daring to hero-worship the people of Bamenda, whom the regime’s most determined apologists take delight in denigrating.

Aaron Kah is editor of Kilum 24 in Cameroon, and former news editor at Abakwa FM media. This post was first published in the M&G.

Digital revolution lights up Africa

As a teenager Noé Diakubama made a sketch map of Mbandaka, on the Congo river, so as not to get lost in the forest while picking a vegetable called fumbwa. “I remember never having seen a map of the city,” he says.

Thirty years later, maps of the city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are still in short supply. So Diakubama decided to create the first one of his home city. He spent hours at his computer in Brussels, where he now lives, using Google Map Maker software and entering the streets he could recall. He hired an assistant to tour Mbandaka by bike and name the streets on a map scanned in pdf format and printed out.

Diakubama’s efforts have been replicated across Africa by scores of amateur mapmakers who have collectively pinpointed hundreds of thousands of roads, cities and buildings in remote areas ignored by colonial cartographers. This is just one example of how the digital revolution has not only caught up in Africa, but is in some respects moving faster and differently from the west.

“New technologies are in the process of transforming the lives of people,” Diakubama said. “Mobile telephony has equipped our lives by allowing communication between cities and villages without having to move; to announce a death in the family, for example.

“Mobile telephony is a true revolution in a country where the landline was restricted to a few families.”

In Africa, necessity is the mother of invention. Instead of sharing photos on Instagram or hobbies on Pinterest, you are more likely to find a service to send money to a rural relative, or to monitor cows’ gestation cycle, or for farmers to find out where they can get the best price for their goods. Technology in Africa is foremost about solving problems rather than sharing social trivia, about survival rather than entertainment – although these are flourishing too.

South Africa hosts the third annual Tech4Africa conference, in Johannesburg on Wednesday, attracting innovators and entrepreneurs from a dozen countries. Among the speakers are Sim Shagaya, a Nigerian-born Harvard graduate planning to create the “Amazon of Africa, selling Lagos’s increasingly affluent consumer class everything from refrigerators to perfume to cupcakes”. His previous venture, DealDey, which offers Groupon-style deals, is now the top-grossing e-commerce site in Nigeria with 350 000 subscribers.

The forum will also be addressed by Mbwana Alliy, the Tanzanian founder of an Africa-focused technology venture capital fund, and Verone Mankou of Congo-Brazzaville, who designed a tablet computer that sells for a third of the price of the iPad. Mankou, 26, has also launched an African smartphone, the Elikia, which means “hope” in the Lingala language.

Tech4Africa is the brainchild of Gareth Knight, a 35-year-old South African based in London. “If you remember in Britain in 2002-4, you would see the vans for ISPs (internet service providers) installing broadband,” he said. “Everyone was getting online even if they still had to use an internet cafe.

“What happened in the UK and US at the turn of the century is now happening in Africa on the mobile platform. It’s being driven by social and commercial utility needs – for example, when people want to send money. The market is much bigger than the original one in the UK and US. More and more people are going to get online in the next couple of years and they’ll want all the same things.”

In the world’s poorest continent, only one in three people has access to electricity – but far more than that have a mobile phone. Africa is the fastest growing region for mobiles in the world, and the biggest after Asia, according to the GSM Association. There are now an estimated 700m sim cards in Africa.

Mobiles overcome some of the endemic problems that have stifled progress on the continent: poor infrastructure (both in transport and power transmission), sparsely populated rural areas and widespread poverty.

The basic feature phones that are still the most popular are vital for this environment. With small non-touchscreens, they have long battery life, though people find innovative ways to recharge, for example from car batteries.

Most have an FM radio, still the greatest communications medium in the developing world. And many have a small torch.

In east Africa, mobile money is used as frequently as paper money; the region accounts for four-fifths of the world’s transactions. With text messages it is possible to send money to another mobile that can be cashed out of the system using tens of thousands of participating agents. It is estimated that half of Kenya’s GDP moves through mobile money, mostly using the pioneering service M-Pesa, which has some 14m users.

Mobiles have fostered communication like no other technology ever before, linking villages in a split second that would previously have taken days to reach on foot or by road. Information services via text message allow farmers to learn more about best practices, market prices and weather conditions. The unemployed can subscribe to text alerts about job vacancies instead of having to travel.

Alan Knott-Craig, a 35-year-old South African tech entrepreneur, said: “It’s lighting up the dark continent. People are talking with each other. In the old days, you couldn’t talk to your family if you were a migrant worker; now you can. The next level is money. When you light it up with money, you’re giving people social freedom as well as economic freedom.”

Local entrepreneurs in hubs such as Accra, Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi have the advantage of knowing Africa’s particular needs when competing with the Silicon Valley giants. Numerous social networks specifically for mobiles have sprung up, offering cheap or free communication for their users. Mxit and 2go from South Africa have 44m and 20m users respectively, the latter mostly in Nigeria. Others like Motribe and FrontlineSMS offer mobile communities.

According to Internet World Stats, Africa still has the world’s lowest internet penetration rate at 15.6%. Desktop PCs and tablets such as the iPad are relatively few and far between and have been leapfrogged by the more appropriate technology offered by the mobile. In conflict-riven Somalia, for example, fierce unregulated competition has made mobiles affordable and prevalent, whereas internet penetration stands at 1.14% of the population.

Among Africa’s broadband-linked minority, Facebook and Twitter, blogs and online magazines, music and video sharing sites, are thriving. That includes the political realm: atrocities that might once have been hidden by an authoritarian regime can be quickly exposed to a global audience, while the follies of leaders are held to scrutiny and mockery as never before. Shrewd politicians such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame have created their own accounts to remain connected and avoid the kind of mass mobilisation seen in the Arab spring.

“The mobile is going to bring in a huge amount of transparency and information sharing that Africa has never had before,” said Knight. “Socially and politically, that levels the playing field. People are not going to be able to say things that aren’t true; propaganda won’t work any more.

“I strongly believe this is the time when technology can make the most difference in people’s lives. There are five- to nine-year-olds today who, by the time they are 20, will have technology so embedded that the old Africa won’t exist for them.”

David Smith and Tony Shapshak for the Guardian Africa Network. This post was first published on October 30 2012.