My first peer review academic article on Chinese-African encounters is out

This paper analyses the context in which a group of African workers interact with their Chinese employers within a specific ethno- graphic space: Chinese-owned shops in Kampala, Uganda. By exploring enjawulo, the locally embedded cultural, social and economic notion of work and labour, I reveal how relations between Chinese employers and Ugandan employees are shaped by the former’s knowledge and acceptance of this practice. This analytical lens contextualises the two groups’ divergent goals, opinions and aspirations, examines the interpersonal dimensions of their social relations, and also analyses employers’ and employees’ opinions on labour conflicts, cooperation and understanding. The goal of the paper is to explore and deconstruct the context in which Chinese store owners and their local employees interact, cohabit, and sometimes even find common ground, despite markedly different economic, social, cultural, racial and linguistic backgrounds.

Arsene, C. ( 2014 ). Chinese Employers and Their Ugandan Workers: Tensions, Frictions and Cooperation in an African City.Journal Of Current Chinese Affairs, 43(1), 139-176. Retrieved April 13, 2014, from Cialis no RX

You can get a copy of the article at the link above or by clicking here.

 

Rough Aunties (2008) for rough times

 

Heartbreaking and nerve wrecking, even eye-jarring, Rough Aunties is an inconvenient documentary set in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a movie that explores the type of subject matter which has, somehow, fallen through the cracks of development-related discourse. Rough Aunties tells the story of a group of women (Jackie, Mildred, Eureka, Sdudla, and Thuli) from Durban South Africa who work for Operation Bobbi Bear, an organization fighting for the rights of child victims of sexual abuse. Coming from distinct cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, these women are relentless in their quest to bring child-rapists to justice. They provide counseling to rape victims, work closely with the police to have perpetrators arrested and trialed and collaborate with social workers to find new families for battered children.

What makes this movie different even if shot and produced by a westerner (the direct cinema documentary comes from British director Kim Longinotto, Sisters in Law, 2005) is that it makes no attempt to stylize, edit or censor the all too horrifying issues it is set to present.  What makes this documentary exceptional is that the director has inserted herself in the background so seamlessly that, for the most part, we get to see people acting in their natural habitat, facing impossible choices, dealing with excruciating real-life situations, and somehow remaining sane in the process.

The documentary begins with flashing images of the city of Durban with Brenda Fassie’s famous Sum’Bulala song in the background, and a quote from Nelson Mandela who is credited for saying that “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The rest of the movie deals with those neglected souls who seem to have been long forgotten by (or never acknowledged to begin with) by the South African state.

The director followed the five women for approximately ten weeks capturing on camera some of the most appalling cases they dealt with. In such a small period of time which for the usual viewer would pass without major, life-changing events, the workers at Bobbi Bear dealt with multiple rape victims (both girls and boys), a vicious murder, the drowning and funeral of Sdulda’s only child, the brutal beatings of a 12 year old, and the rape of an adult woman by multiple family members (brother and grandfather). How can anyone work in such extraneous conditions and not go completely mad? The women work together, side by side, united in their despair and anger. They find comfort in each other, assist one another and through compassion and dedication they literally made the world a better place.

With very little editorial input, viewers are expected to simply catch up with what is happening in each scene. For the most part, the documentary almost unfolds like a daily diary. One which, unfortunately, seems to start in the middle of the day. This strategy is both a blessing and a burden.

It is a blessing because the main protagonists get the opportunity to speak for themselves, as they see fit, without any scripted screenplay to fall back on.

It is a burden because at times, the protagonists – especially the white folk – seize the camera in order to produce and disseminate their own guilt over the past and the present.  Something even a masochist even a myself seems to lose interest in after a while.  Especially Jackie Branfield, the owner of the organization, seems to dedicate every other speech to either apologizing for white oppression under apartheid or to inform and convince African women that they too fought for independence. Those who have been to South Africa, however briefly, know that such words very rarely come out of white people’s mouths. But when Jackie continues to repeat the same message again and again, one could only wish Longinotto had, at times, exercised some editorial discretion.

Jackie Branfield, founder of Bobbi Bear

For Jackie not only comes off as liking to listen to herself speak in front of the camera, but at times she seems blatantly racist, albeit without knowing. In a particularly telling scene, she gives one of her employees some relationship counseling. The person in question is separated from her husband and Jackie wants to introduce her to another man who appears to be fond of her. It all goes well until Jackie drops the bomb: “He is an African male. And it doesn’t matter what color they are and what language they speak, they always like their women barefoot, pregnant at the kitchen sink.” Given the fact that Jackie’s own husband seems to be very much invested in her work and that he is indeed assisting her with the organization, one could only wonder if the color of the skin really did matter to Jackie, even if she doesn’t realize that.  A similar head shaking instance involves Jackie literally demanding forgiveness from one of her employees regarding an instance in which the organization could not help her when she was in need. All these scenes really seem to suggest that at least some protagonists are more aware of the camera’s presence than others.

Another uncomfortable segment of the documentary has to do with one of the tough aunties, Sdulda and her son, Shababa, who had just drowned. First, the director chose to include in the movie the discovery of the body, the mourning of the mother and the child’s funeral. Together, it seems this episode takes the largest amount of screen time of all the case studies presented in the documentary. Watching this is simply unbearable. But even more disconcerting and morally troublesome is the very inclusion of this passage in the movie. First, this has nothing to do with the overall message of a group of women fighting to bring child abusers to justice. In fact, in many ways, this is a distraction from the main plot. Second, there is nothing more intimate than the morning over the loss of a child. Having that played on screen again and again for millions more to see just seems unfair. Third, even if the point of this segment is to show that the five women are united, and supportive of each other, I see absolutely no value in showing a frantic woman squirming on the ground as she attempts to make sense of the unexplainable. That is just unacceptable.

This is not the only instance where there seem to be some double standards and, well, editorial discrimination. And this relates to what seems to be the fundamental tension with what we see in this documentary. On the one hand, the director puts together a complex story of hope and despair, of camaraderie and joint destinies which, on its merits, is a superb and encouraging sign that a racially-divided country can pull itself out if its own tormented history. On the other hand, I cannot stop thinking of the very women, girls, boys and, yes, even perpetrators that we get the chance to take a glimpse at. For the one thought that continues to haunt me after watching Rough Aunties is that this sort of documentary can only be made in South Africa. Or any other third world country. If images and the identity of a 12 year old girl or a three-year old boy  talking about being raped by a neighbor or family member belonged to, say, American subjects, then the documentary would have been met with public outcry by the audience. If a young woman with clear mental problems were to be on TV, people would scream of the wrong that has been done.

Protecting the identity of these victims in the Western world would be of paramount importance for we would automatically think of the stigma that would accompany these people for the rest of their lives. But when the same victims are Africans, we don’t even think of them in the same terms. Showing the scars of a girl abused by her uncle is just as acceptable as providing close shots of the three year old boy and the adults waiting to see whether he tests HIV positive.  Which brings me back full circle to the fact silent dehumanization that might very well be at play here.

My last criticism with Rough Aunties is that it is, par excellence, a synchronic movie. There is almost no attempt made to suggest or look into how things ended up where they are today. We get almost no information about the historical context in which these tensions and social injustices occur (name-dropping apartheid really doesn’t cut it), or who the five women that are the heroes of this story come from. How and why did Jackie start this organization? What was her personal motivation for it? How did the organization manage to stay afloat over the years? How did the women manage to work closely with the police? Better yet, what is the extent of this collaborative relationship? How did the three Zulu women end up working at Bobbi Bear? Sometimes, getting just a slice of life served to you can be exactly what you need. But I really don’t think that’s the case with this documentary.

For all its flaws, I actually did enjoy Rough Aunties quite a lot. Even if not directly, the image of South Africa emanating from this movie is that of a mosaic of unfitting pieces. It’s not that the right pieces aren’t’ there. It’s more like the matching of the pieces is a work in progress, one where the pieces need to polished, realigned and restructured. I loved it because it truly shows a world that continuously makes and remakes itself. There is a certain dynamism, interdependency and cross-cultural cooperation that this movie manages to capture which I find utterly refreshing.  There’s an inescapable mélange of empathy and despair this movie emanates.  Rough Aunties provides a welcoming and much needed dose of realism and idealism which most of us rarely get to experience.

 

Rough Aunties trailer

Full Transportation Guide of Kampala for Foreign Tourists

Kampala is the capital city of Uganda, the country Winston Churchill once called the Pearl of Africa. With over one million foreign tourists visiting the Ugandan capital every year, the city has a reputation for being a tourist-friendly African metropolis. Visitors who wish to interact with locals in order to learn about the Ugandan culture might find it convenient to use the transportation system in Kampala. There are three options available – matatus (mini-buses), boda-bodas (motorcycles), or special hires (private taxis). This short guide is designed to introduce you to the normative rules that are attributed with each mode of transportation.  The first section covers the general rules for using the matatus, boda-bodas and the special hires along with the particular rules for the matatus. The second and third sections only cover the specific rules for the afferent means of transportation. Consequently, most of the rules for the matatus apply for the boda-bodas and the private taxis as well.

 

 

Matatus (mini-buses)

Mini-buses are typically ancient cars, licensed to carry 14 passengers that often accommodate about twenty two people (on the car seats or folding stools), their belongings and various small animals. If you don’t like this it’s a good idea to sit in the back of the vehicle, since usually most people are squeezed in the first two three rows. Behind the driver’s seat, on many cars, there is a small TV playing loud East African music and soap-operas. These are sturdy cars but you will often feel each and every bump in the road given the aggressive style of driving in Kampala and the poor infrastructure. The following rules apply to all rides on a mini-bus:

Confusingly, matatus are known as taxis in Uganda. Each matatu has a driver and a conductor, both of whom will shout the destinations of their vehicle out the windows. If you don’t understand what they are saying, simply ask one of them for your destination and you’ll be told yes or no.

Except for the terminal station, mini-buses do not stop on a regular basis (though they tend to follow relatively preset routes). As such, when the mini-buses approach the stop you are at, raise your hand in the air to signal your interest to hop on board. If the car doesn’t stop, it means it has reached its (i)llegal capacity. Do not despair; the next car will typically arrive in less than 10 minutes.

If you are interested in getting off the mini-bus, you must yell at the driver or conductor the name of the street / point of interest where you want  the bus to stop (if the mini-bus is full, and no one calls out a particular stop, then the driver will simply drive past it).  Though most drivers in Kampala speak a little bit of English, this is not always the case. Consequently, it might be useful to remember the local word for stop – Kuacha. The proper way to ask for the mini-bus to stop would be: “Kuacha Sheridan hotel” or “Kuacha Kilimanjaro Road.” The English word for a stop in Kampala is “Stage.” You can say “Stage” at any point and the driver will stop within 100 feet.

If you plan to take the mini-bus, it is important to carry small change with you. The driver’s assistant (who will normally sit against the sliding door, collecting the fare) often deals with paper-money no higher than 5000 shillings (US$2.5). If you offer a banknote larger than that, the driver might be forced to stop in front of a shop to allow the conductor to run inside and get some change. This will derail the ride and will reflect negatively on you as a passenger. Given the fact that the city fare ranges between 1000-1500 shillings, it is considered the passenger’s duty to have obtained change prior to hoping on the matatu.

You must always pay the conductor when you exit.

If you decide to hop on the mini-bus, you are automatically giving your informed consent to interact with other Ugandans. Given the sardine-in-a-box physical proximity to other passengers, people will often wish to interact with you and chit-chat about your experiences and your visit to Uganda. Not interacting with locals is seen as patronizing them – a highly charged emotional reaction given the country’s colonial past. Therefore, if you are not willing to speak with locals taking the mini-bus is not advisable.

Try not to fart, burp or yawn on the mini-bus. Any detectable bodily function exercised on the mini-bus is considered highly inappropriate.

It is customary to compliment passengers transporting animals on the mini-bus. “What a lovely pig/goat/rooster you have there” can be an excellent conversation starter.

If you have been talking to a local for more than ten minutes (especially to the young folk) he/she might be asking for your email address. This is not an attempt on behalf of Ugandans to try to scam you at a later stage. Having “friends abroad” is a sign of social distinction. As such, simply being in touch with you from time to time represents a type of symbolic capital locals like to tap into.

Speaking on the phone is considered inappropriate on the mini-bus (not to mention, unfeasible given the loud music playing in background). It is inappropriate because it might prevent other passengers from successfully announcing their stop to the bus driver. Similarly, reading a book or a newspaper or listening to music are all considered improper activities on the matatu.

Do not consume any beverages or food items while on board of the mini-bus. The food smells would soon be felt throughout the car while the bumpy roads will ensure that any drink you carry will inevitably be spilled.

Do not take pictures while on board of the mini-bus. Taking photos without permission might cause a visceral reaction from other passengers either because they might consider the act as an intrusion on their personal space or because of culturally-defined local moralities (some passengers might think you are attempting to steal their souls when taking their pictures.)

Keep your belongings in front of you and ideally empty your pockets before riding the matatu and put the items in your bag/backpack which should then be placed on your lap for the duration of the trip. Pickpocketting is a common occurrence on the mini-bus.

Do not object to people opening the windows next to them. It is a common practice in Uganda, one which is ultimately preferable given the dry-hot climate in the city.

Bear in mind that all it takes is for one person on board to not have taken a shower in order for your olfactory functions to attempt to shut down.  Do not express your disproval either vocally or through your facial expressions. Chances are everyone felt the Hellish Breeze of Dawn that accompanies a certain passenger. However, it is understood that other people might just get back from work on a hot summer day (which is basically every day of the year!); or that other impediments might have prevented a person from washing him/herself prior to the ride. If you feel a particular odor is about to scratch your soul, simply open a window or ask the person next to you to do so. It is unlikely anyone would ever object to that request.

Boda-bodas

 

There are over 20,000 boda-boda drivers in Kampala waiting for clients on a daily basis. The motorcycles range is size and shape and can accommodate from one to three passengers in addition to the driver.  The boda-bodas are, at once, the most unsafe means of transportation in Uganda and the most commonly used. Given the congested traffic in a city designed to accommodate half a million people which has an estimated population of three million, using boda-boda services is the only way you can get from one part of the city to another one, in record time.  Tourists are encouraged to try the boda-boda out, for the sake of the experience, but are recommended to use matatus or special hires if possible.  

There are no pre-set prices for hiring a boda-boda driver. As a tourist you will always be overcharged. The question is not whether you can get a fair price, but by how much you will be overcharged. The cost of driving a boda-boda for the driver is, on average, 500 shillings per mile. You should expect paying at least three times that much, as a tourist.

Always negotiate the fare at the point of departure, having in mind that haggling for the fare is not only expected, but required (for the same trip, the author of this guide has received more than 40 different price demands from boda-boda drivers ranging from 50 cents to 100 dollars). The fool is not the one who demands a high price, but the one who honors it (Romanian proverb).

The rule of the negotiating your price is simple. Drivers will always agree to a profit of 1000 shillings (fifty cents) per mile, probably even less. Therefore before scheduling a boda-boda trip, you should check Google maps for the estimated distance between the departure and the destination points so as to have in mind the price you should be paying. For example, a five mile trip would require you to pay 500 x 5 for the gas plus 5 x 1000, the driver’s share, or, no more than 7500 shillings (as of 2012); add 2000 shillings to the price if you are sharing the motorcycle with a friend.

After you have determined the price for the trip, and when you reach the place where the boda-boda drivers are stationed, you can either ask for an estimate from a driver, or simply tell him your price (drivers are always men). If he declines your offer, move to the next one. If five drivers decline your offer, simply start walking towards your destination. 9 out of 10 times, one of the drivers who initially declined your offer will drive in your direction and let you know that he agrees to your price.

Helmets are only required for motorcycle drivers in Uganda, not for passengers. Most of the drivers will not even have one for themselves. Consequently, unless you see two helmets attached to the boda-boda, you should not ask for one.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask your driver to slow down or go faster, according to your wishes. They will accommodate your request either way.

If you wish to avoid haggling on your next boda-boda ride, you should take the phone number of the driver that gave you a reasonable price and drove you safely to your destination. Drivers are always in search for regular customers and they will offer you discounted fares if you call them back. Allow for 30 minutes between the time you make the call and the time of departure for a new destination so that the driver can get to your location.

Boda-boda drivers are also known for propositioning potential customers, especially tourists. If you are not interested, simply decline their offer politely (“no, thank you”) and they will usually not continue bothering you.

 

Men usually ride the boda-bodas facing forward while women are expected to ride side saddle. Though some locals might make fun of females riding the boda-boda facing forward, they tend to understand that tourists have other habits / cultural norms.

 

Special hires

Rules of engaging with private taxi drivers are the same as for the boda-boda drivers. Almost no taxis in town have meters. This means you must negotiate the price at the point of departure.

You are allowed to consume food and beverages while taking a taxi ride.

You are also allowed to smoke if you may choose to do so inside a taxi, provided that you lower the window.

Make sure, once more, that you know where you are going before negotiating the fare you will pay to a taxi driver. A trip in the city should not exceed 20000 shillings (approximately US$10). However, taxi drivers in Kampala are known for taking you in circles, around the city, only to drop you off at your destination, half an hour later, less than two miles away from the point of departure.

Renowned Cape-Verdian singer, Cesaria Evora dies at 70

Renowned West-African singer, Cesaria Evora passed away on Saturday in her native country of Cape Verde of cardiorespiratory insufficiency and hypertension. Credited for putting Cape Verde on the world map, Evora was often known as the “Barefoot Diva”. She always sang barefoot, a way for her to express her solidarity with poor women all over the world. She was born in Mindela, on the island of San Vincente, in 1941, as one of the seven children in a fisherman’s family. After her father died, when she was 7, she was temporarily placed in an orphanage due to the fact that her mother could not make ends meet. Known as an avid liquor drinker and smoker, the singer had been dealing with heart problems for the last four years. She formally retired in September on account of her health issues. Cesaria Evora sang in Portuguese, French and a Creole language indigenous to Cape Verde. Though becoming successful only late in life (her major breakthrough occurred in 1988, in France, where her debut album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus, became commercially successful), she relentlessly toured the world bringing fame and pride to her native country. The President of Cape Verde, Jorge Carlos de Almeida Fonseca declared two days of national mourning to celebrate the life of one of the greatest African singer in recent times. May she rest in peace. I posted a couple of videos for those readers who might not have heard of Cesaria Evora.

Cesaria Evora – Besame Mucho

Cesaria Evora and Salif Keita – Yamore

Awesome quote of the day

I’m going through my research material from Uganda as I’m preparing to write my masters thesis. I just came across one of the most hilarious quotes on my tapes. Check this out (it’s by a woman craft maker):

 

A  man who speaks and gives orders is that who has money to meet the needs of his wife. But if a man cannot fulfill those duties, then he is not a man after all, right? He’s just a nagging woman with a penis.

 

 

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African film : new forms of aesthetics and politics

This is an interesting quote from the book I am currently reading, African film : new forms of aesthetics and politics by Manthia Diawara:

While it is true that everywhere from Hollywood to Nollywood producers have their say in what goes into a film, nowhere are they as arrogant and paternalistic as in African cinema funded by France. The African director is forced into a schizophrenic situation where he/she, born and educated in the city, is told to represent an Africa that is only ‘real’ in the deepest fantasies of the European producer: an Africa outside history, an atavistic Africa, and an Africa full of exoticism. The African director is treated as if his/her vision does not matter, as if African audiences are not relevant to the success of the film.

bin Laden in a Romanian church

As expected, the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed made it around the world in a heartbeat. In the light of this event, some Romanian journalists did some research and discovered that there is a church in the western part of Romania (Timisoara) where an image of Osama bin Laden is actually painted on the walls. Bin Laden can be seen “riding” a plane, with a pitchfork in his hand while attacking one of the World Trade Centers. Whoever thought painting this inside a christian orthodox church was not thinking properly. In fact, one may suggest, he wasn’t thinking at all. Check the disturbing pictures yourself.

 

 

Woooow. That’s all I have to say.

 

In memoriam Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros

Two acclaimed American journalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros lost their lives last week in Libyan city of Misurata covering one of the latest civil conflicts in North Africa, a geographic area which has been struggling to shrug off the mantra of long-standing authoritarian governments.

Their deaths have been widely disseminated all over the world as many of us, journalists ourselves, are trying to come to terms with the fear that this could have been our fate.

Journalists enter the profession with the hope that their reporting will change the world, even in small ways, one day at a time. We feel it’s our duty to report on the lives, actions and inactions, of those we meet or hear of. We correctly determine that truly remarkable stories often remain untold and that if we don’t speak about them, then there’s a good chance they will be lost forever in the nebulous track of history.

We feel the urgent desire to bring the ardent, sometimes inconvenient truths to the people that read the stories in the comfort of their houses. We sometimes believe (maybe in a naïve manner) that for one story, for one person, we represent their only chance of having their voices heard. And from this belief stems our vocation – that of news messengers, of storytellers who adamantly believe that that real life is often more impressive, more challenging and outstanding than fiction. That the world doesn’t have to imagine heroes and great characters but simply look around and find them in our backyard.

War journalism, a risky business with few personal satisfactions for the journalists embarking on this mission, involves the type of calling that often goes beyond the responsibility of the job. It comes with real and tangible risks, it requires journalists to go past the boundaries of safety and comfort in hopes that their work product will mean something. That it will stand witness long after we are gone from this world. That it will talk of the atrocities and injustices that hundreds of thousands of people are going through when the rest of the world graciously drinks its cup of coffee in the morning.

As a journalist, I instinctively hope that the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were not in vain. But I also know that the products of their work are the long-lasting testimony of lives well lived.

Modern human cultures and languages born in Africa

Scientists have long ago established that our genetic heritage can be traced to the African continent, that humanity was literally born in Africa some 250,000 years ago. With the massive migration that occurred about 70,000 years ago, people left the continent towards other lands and climates. With this migration, the human genetic diversity has also increased, namely the further away people went (let’s say, to South East Asia or Latin America), the less modern people have in common from a genetic point of view with African subjects. All this has pretty much been proven.

What has been a subject of contention among scientists has been the degree to which language patterns follow the same rules. If it did, then there would still be African traces in the languages spoken today which would suggest a new level of connection among people all over the world. Quentin D. Atkinson, a New Zeeland linguistic researcher has undertaken the task of proving that there is an African origin of most modern human languages.

Mr. Atkinson analyzed the phonemes – distinct units of sounds that differentiate words – from 504 contemporary spoken languages. In an article published in the Science Magazine on April 15th, the researcher has argued that there is a “serial founder effect” model of linguistic expansion from Africa. More specifically, that the distinct units of sound from all these languages can be traced to a point of origin on the African continent.

The conclusion of the article is quite simple yet of crucial importance to all of us. The fact that to some small degree all people share the same language with their African ancestors suggests that people all over the world are intrinsically connected to each other not only from a genetic point of view but also from a cultural perspective.

In the world of Quentin D. Atkinson (quote taken from a recent article in Business Week):

“”If our languages can be traced to Africa, and language is a marker of cultural ancestry, then . . . we are a family in a cultural as well as a genetic sense,” ”

You may access the pdf file of Dr. Atkinson’s article here.

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