•April 9, 2009 • 3 Comments


It was perhaps total serendipity that I walked into a cafe earlier this week and came across a poster for an upcoming concert by amazing artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Gurrumul is by far my favorite Aboriginal musician and one of Australia‘s most talented singers. According to the Sydney Morning Herald,“listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and you will  instantly surrender to the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded.” He has “a voice which is so beautiful and so emotion-laden that it invests every song with a passion and pathos which are quite overwhelming.” The Times (UK) calls him “the quiet wizard of Oz.” His voice truly is both heavenly and organic — just listen to his song ‘Djarimirri’ below (the lyrics are on his site).

Gurrumul or ‘Gudjuk’ as he is also known, was born on Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. He is from the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu and his mother from the Galpu nation. He was born blind and learned to play the guitar upside down (he is left-handed and plays a right-hand strung guitar). He sings in Yolngu and speaks only a few words of English.

Geoffrey sings in a mixture of local language and English about his spiritual connection with the land, his love of country, and the importance of his ancestors. He is an inspirational example of triumph over adversity, and of extraordinary talent. National Australia Day Council

 In 2008, he won two ARIA’s (Australian music awards) for Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release for his self-titled album. He was also crowned ‘Australian of the Year’ (Territorian of the Year) in his home state, the Northern Territory. He was definitely a huge sensation in 2008 and this year he is pleasing fans on his national tour.

He performs in Melbourne on May 25th. His album Gurrumul is available at major book/music stores online.



Wangechi Mutu

•April 4, 2009 • 3 Comments

Today I was introduced to the inspirational work of Wangechi Mutu, an artist after my own heart.

Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu has trained as both a sculptor and anthropologist. Her work explores the contradictions of female and cultural identity and makes reference to colonial history, contemporary African politics and the international fashion industry. Drawing from the aesthetics of traditional crafts, science fiction and funkadelia, Mutu’s works document the contemporary myth making of endangered cultural heritage.



Wangechi’s work is extremely confronting. Her pieces are full of disjointed female body parts, mutilations, and amputations. Quite fitting because as an artist, she is not interested in ‘pretty’ pictures. The figures she creates: 

are grotesquely marred through perverse modification, echoing the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery. Mutu examines how ideology is very much tied to corporeal form. She cites a European preference to physique that has been inflicted on and adapted by Africans, resulting in both social hierarchy and genocide.

Through her extraordinary collages, she is able to speak to the different sociopolitical themes which I frequently engage with: race, gender, geography, history and beauty. In her words “females carry the marks, language, and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” As a result, her works underscore various aspects of the experience of femaleness by way of the body.


What a fascinating intersection of cultural analysis and fine art. Check Wangechi out at the Saatchi Gallery to learn more about her background, creative approach and exhibitions. She also appears in this month’s edition of Vogue magazine.



Visualizing Colonization

•April 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

My good friend Jepchumba recently posted an entry titled “Visualizing Colonization” on her site African Digital Art. She shares a short animation from an Amnesty International advertising campaign which she describes as a “moving illustration [that] portrays the darkest moments of modern history.” It is a powerful video and I would encourage you to visit her at Jepchumba to learn more of how she conveys her own social commentary through a number of different digital art forms.


But Africa IS a Country

•March 26, 2009 • 5 Comments

The 'real' Africa.

I recently came across this brilliant essay by Binyavanga Wainaina (first published in 2005):

“How (not) to write about Africa”

Wainaina, a Kenyan writer, exposes the stereotypes and cliches used by non-Africans when writing about Africa. The entire article is a must-read, but here is an excerpt:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama.

After reading the article, my first response was to ask myself how much and how often I subscribe to these stereotypes of Africa in my own writing. I am certainly guilty of romanticizing our continent to those who have never been there and have used my token-status as the ‘exotic African’ among non-Africans to my advantage. After living abroad for many years, it also has become much easier to simply ignore the stereotypes or become complacent with them because they are so dominant. Outsiders just don’t understand.

This is one of the issues which puts anthropologists (the people who are supposed to study ‘other’ people ‘correctly’) in such a bind, and I must admit irks me greatly as I have written before. If you would like to see for yourself, there is a whole site dedicated to ‘the indigenous tribes of Africa’ in the most typical anthropological style. This is what anthropologists love to do — describe and document every aspect of people’s social and cultural existence, typically as outsiders. Admittedly we are not guilty of doing this only in Africa, but indigenous people (the most prized objects of research in the discipline) tend to be treated the same wherever they are found — South America, Australasia, Canada, Europe and the world over.

The often ignorant approaches used by the Western media in their coverage of all things Africa are all too familiar to many of us. They are not hard to find. I’ve come across some excellent cringe-worthy ones just this week. ‘Out of Africa, fashion’s new black’ was published in the Life and Style section of The Age newspaperThe article itself is about the ongoing Melbourne Fashion Festival, but in order to know that you must get past the opening paragraph which reads:

ANGELIQUE Deng was 12 when she arrived at Kakuma, the “hot and dusty” refugee camp in northern Kenya that would be her home for more than two years. Her real home was in Tonj, in south Sudan, where she lived with her parents and younger siblings until civil unrest forced them to flee. Her memories of Kakuma, which means “nowhere” in Swahili, are full of sadness, because it was here she watched her mother die. “I didn’t know what was happening. I thought she was just going to sleep,” she said. Her mother had been sick from a malarial infection.

In just these opening lines we have a big part of East Africa summarized for us: refugee camps, civil unrest, malaria, death, sadness and grief. How much bleaker can it possibly get?


Another stellar example was Newsweek’s review of the new television show The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency titled ‘Put on a Happy Face.’ You can read the review to see how the author questions the overly optimistic and escapist tone of the show, seeing that “there are no wailing babies with swollen bellies, no violent political uprisings and nary a hemorrhagic fever to be found.” We all know that Africa (Botswana in this case) couldn’t possibly be that great and is in fact ridden with HIV and infidelity as the author reminds us. A recent CNN video titled ‘African Albinos become prey’ (on the tragic killings of Albino children in Tanzania) is more characteristic of the narrative that often accompanies ‘deviant traditional practices,’ particularly ‘witchcraft’ which continues to be a popular stereotype associated with indigenous African peoples.  

The challenge: how do we (as responsible writers, both African and non-African) present real stories and experiences that show the realities of the continent without perpetuating unrealistic and detrimental stereotypes? Africa is not as destitute, hopeless or ‘primitive’ as it is often portrayed to be, but at the same time not purely exotic and romantic. We need to find a good balance and design a more accurate image of our continent before we are sucked into all this negativity.

Morality vs. Reality

•March 21, 2009 • 7 Comments


In light of the recent inflammatory comments made by the Pope, there is an important discussion to be had about the discourse of morality with respect to HIV. The Pope’s statement was not surprising knowing the position taken by the Catholic church on artificial contraception. However, it is still extremely shocking for many of us to hear recognizing the toll that HIV/AIDS continues to take on our continent. With all due respect to the Papacy and the Catholic community that has been hard at work alleviating the impact of the disease, there are serious problems with an anti-condom message.

First of all, if we are going to make a moral issue about condom use, we have to talk about how HIV/AIDS has been constructed as a disease of ‘immorality.’ No matter how one contracts the virus — whether it is through sex work, intravenous drug use, rape, male to male sex or by any other non-stigmatized way — the disease is just so loaded with this discourse of immorality and deviance. This is one of the major barriers to dealing with AIDS in the first place, and it is a major barrier in sub-Saharan Africa where Christianity is so strong. It affects how those who are infected are treated, and it affects the way HIV interventions are carried out. One of former Pres. George W. Bush’s most positive legacies was the PEPFAR (US President’s Fund for Emergency AIDS Relief) program which has made great contributions towards AIDS relief in Africa. Despite its successes, PEPFAR has been criticized for its strong abstinence approach.  The countries outside Africa which have had the most success in controlling HIV infection are the ones who have separated the discourse of morality from the discourse of harm reduction. This is something that we in Africa need to seriously focus on if we are going to be more effective in tackling the disease.

Secondly, we cannot have a discussion about HIV without talking about vulnerability: women remain the most vulnerable group on the continent. It is a well-known fact that one of the most significant risk factors for HIV infection among women and young girls in Africa is marriage. This is a fact which the church cannot ignore and in my opinion, demands more attention than a message on abstinence before marriage. Sooner or later the Pope will also have to make an important verdict on whether serodiscordant couples where one person is already infected should use condoms or not. The interesting thing is that if he rules this to be okay (for harm reduction purposes), the whole condom debate will turn into a complete paradox.

As it is, it is difficult to get those who need to be using (male or female) condoms to let go of any related stigmas they may have and to use them correctly and consistently. That is an important area of work for many social marketing organizations who continue to press the message of consistent safe sex practices. More importantly, the negotiation of condom use between men and women is even more complicated and that is a problem that women within marriages are often faced with as research in this area has shown. From a human rights perspective, to say that condoms aggravate HIV infection is an assault on those who are trying to protect themselves from infection, sub-Saharan women in particular. The implications of unsafe sex extend beyond HIV infection and the sexual health of African women will continue to deteriorate if such anti-safety messages are taken seriously.

Of course abstinence only programs can have their successes but they will only work if the church wants to change the entire moral and social fabric of society, such that being married does not make you more susceptible to HIV infection in the first place, because clearly even marriage does not protect everyone from infection. In the end, we cannot rely on ‘morals’ to translate into safe behaviour in every case. The reality is that there are people having unsafe sex with multiple partners and the goal of practical interventions such as condoms is to promote safety and reduce harm for all regardless.

More articles of interest:

Abstinence: The Immaculate Contraception

Does ‘CNN’ (Condoms, Needles, Negotiation) Work Better than ‘ABC’ (Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condom Use) in Attacking the AIDS Epidemic?


Kenya’s Next Top Model

•March 18, 2009 • 2 Comments


For young aspiring female fashion models in the U.S., the words “Top Model” stir up a series of images — lights, camera, and model action. Exotic destinations, high fashion designers, industry experts, spectacular runways, intense catwalks, exposure, and celebrity. Last but not least, a winner with a striking personality and an attitude to match. “Fierce” is the Top Model buzz word.  

The brainchild of former supermodel Tyra Banks who is also the show’s executive producer, America’s Next Top Model allows 12 hand-picked young models to pursue their dream, jumping through a series of hoops to win the glamorous grand title. The girls compete for a $100,000 contract with Cover Girl cosmetics, a portfolio with Elite Model Management and a six-page fashion spread in Seventeen magazine which they also get to grace the cover of. For young models trying to claim a place in the industry, this knockout package accompanied with the endorsement of one of fashion’s most successful icons could not get any better.

This year, Kenya boast’s her first contestant on the beauty show — nineteen year old Sandra Nyanchoka. Born and raised in Nairobi, her passion developed early — she competed in fashion shows at Yaya Centre as a child. At the age of twelve, her parents and six siblings moved to the U.S., making their new home in Rockville, Maryland where she now lives and studies. Sandra was a finalist from the Washington, DC Metro area auditions.

At nineteen, Sandra is beginning to turn heads worldwide. A natural beauty with a pearly white smile that actually dazzles, a stunning profile and a body for days. Her slim figure and height are ideal model features, her dark complexion a striking bonus. Her career so far has led her to do catalogue as well as billboard modeling.  As a Top Model contestant, she is catapulting her way onto the catwalks of New York City and anticipating runways in fashion capitals around the world. At a tender age, Sandra is making big strides towards claiming a spot alongside other African beauties in the industry such as Alek Wek, Oluchi Onweagba and Ajuma Nasenyana. The show has the potential to propel her into major fashion success. 

With the show currently in its 12th cycle, Top Model’s success has been enormous. As a result, a number of franchises in Asia, Australia, EuropeSouth America and Africa have subsequently followed. Ghana’s Next Top Model premiered in 2006 and was followed by Nigeria’s Next Top Model in 2007. The inaugural series of West Africa’s Next Top Model, to be hosted by Nigerian supermodel Oluchi Onweagba, is scheduled for 2009 and set to include contestants from Senegal, Cote d’Ivore and Senegal.kenyan-flag

The premiere episode was met with much excitement, anticipation and enthusiasm from Kenyan followers who were keen to see one of their own debut on the hit reality television show. Many were indeed excited, however, Sandra’s presence was met with unexpected backlash. Some judged what they saw as “arrogance” and “overconfidence,” calling it negative and detrimental. Some even retracted their initial enthusiasm. However, those who refuted these claims issued a reminder that this is television, a reality television show at that, where the contestant’s primary goals as well as the production and network’s greater interests trump everything else. All in all, in the dog-eat-dog world of modeling only the strong survive and in the words of designer Karl Lagerfeld, “there is no justice in the fashion business.” The show itself has been met with its share of criticism over the years for a range of reasons.

The question that emerged in my mind after watching the initial episodes of the show and observing the feedback was what it meant to be a ‘model’ Kenyan. Is it fair that we entrust one person to represent the entire community of Kenyans when they find themselves in the international limelight? As Kenyans, are we mandated to act as ‘good’ ambassadors for our country at all times? If so, by what standards? Or do we only accept our Kenyan icons when they are a charming Barack Obama or inspirational Wangari Maathai? If there is such a thing as a positive representation of ‘Kenyanness,’ then the standard should apply consistently even at the local level, and not only when the rest of the world is watching. Any critique of what it means to be a ‘positive’ Kenyan representative should at least demonstrate that these issues have been considered.

Best wishes to Sandra in her Top Model stint and bright career ahead as a rising Kenyan model.

*This post was cross-published in the online magazine Kenya Imagine.

Blessings and Hypocrisies

•March 13, 2009 • 3 Comments

As my graduate studies draw to a close, I have been reminded to count my blessings. I am on the verge of finishing a Master’s degree, and I do not owe a single cent in student loans. I am blessed beyond measure, so very privileged, and I am eternally grateful for the countless sacrifices my parents have made to get me here. In these tough financial times, I am reminded not take to take all this for granted.

Over the last few weeks, my heart has been heavy for others at home who have not been as lucky as me. I was recently talking to a friend who told me that one of the girls at a foundation run by her family in Kenya had just received a full scholarship to Yale. The girl’s family had been dirt poor, she was orphaned, and later adopted by this foundation. They funded her secondary school education and just recently wrote a letter to Yale pleading for them to consider this incredibly bright young girl. Yale accepted her and decided to pay for everything. These stories are few and far between, maybe there are more out there, but they remind me that opportunities such as these do not come easily. You cannot put a price on education, it is probably the best gift that young girl will ever receive and how lucky she is to have people who mentored her and made it possible for her to achieve what may have once seemed completely unachievable.  

I also remembered a visit I made to Jamhuri Park last January, fresh after the post-election violence had broken out. There were hundreds of displaced people, and so many in the crowds were children. Everyone seemed to be coping, some injured, but most of them sitting around, passing time, talking and watching as other visitors and volunteers delivered food and other items. Little children and big children gathered in the stadium playing a couple of games. I stood there and could not help the sadness which overcame me knowing the tragic circumstances which brought these people here in the first place. Then I met these two children who just lit up my entire visit, chatting and smiling as though everything was okay. I never forgot their names — Tevin and Nora. That girl was so special.

Kids at Jamhuri Park

Kids at Jamhuri Park

These thoughts are some of the things that come to mind as I anticipate the next phase of my life and think hard about the work I see myself doing in Nairobi, both in the short and long-term. I realize a lot of this sounds very cliche, but I think seriously about what it is that I would like to do at home as someone who is interested in development and social change. In many ways, I am discouraged and at times frustrated by the lack of transparency and the self-centredness of many government and non-governmental organizations which attempt to improve the lives of the average Kenyan. I feel that there are so many redundant local and international NGOs which would probably be more effective if they were consolidated into fewer groups, so I am very reluctant to start up on more NGO. Of course, I am forced to think about the role of foreign aid in Kenya and some of the damaging implications of  bureacratic institutions in developing nations. At the end of the day, I realize that I value my own integrity and I am not ready to sacrifice that. But as much as I would like to have a job that rewards me for the years I have spent developing my passions, one which will allow me to live comfortably while making real contributions, I wonder if this is even possible in Kenya.

Where do I work? What do I do? I find myself torn between selfish ambitions, good intentions and the choices at hand. Surely the Kenyan development sector does not need one more hypocrite. Or yet another person who “once had principles.”

I have never imagined myself as an educator, but it is something which has been coming to mind lately. I am still entertaining the idea, and realizing that education can take many forms. Wherever I end up this year, I hope I can find a silver lining around the seemingly dark clouds of career opportunities on our continent.