From Wolof to Olof: A Photographic Glance at Senegal and Gambia

These photos were taken during my time living and working in both Senegal and the Gambia and they are not images to fuel either side of the Afro-optimism or Afro-pessimism debate. Nor are they photos intended to highlight poverty porn or exotic otherness that has historically been the cornerstone of the image economy when it comes to the African continent. I am not a photographer so I cannot argue the technical aspects of light, shutter speeds and f/stops of a 35mm, but I do believe that the result of a photograph is largely based on what the photographer is looking for, or the narrative she/he is attempting to create consciously and unconsciously. This leads me to what is the narrative I was trying to tell. Unfortunately I do not have a dramatic story to tell except that these scenes caught my eye on a personal, political and cultural plane and I wanted to capture it. Here they are.

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Rainbow Over Dakar/ Dakar 2011 This was just after a downpour during the rainy season between June and September. Photograph by Adolphus Washington / © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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Writing Is On The Wall/Dakar 2010  Visual protest from when former President Abdoulaye Wade pushed for controversial constitutional reforms to ensure his reelection. His proposals sparked a wave of protest and violence that spread throughout Dakar, neighboring suburbs and the country. Photograph by Adolphus Washington / © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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Car Rapide Depot/ Dakar 2011 These colorful minibuses usually blue and yellow and beautifully adorned, with the names of Marabout and religious inscriptions are truly the life blood of public transportation in Dakar.  © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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Football Table in Ouakam/ Dakar 2011 In Ouakam (a residential suburb of Dakar), a weathered and disused football table that has seen better days. © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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Wade’s Immortality/Dakar 2011 Off in the distance and what appears to be erecting out of the rubble and debris is the African Renaissance Monument (French: Le Monument de la Renaissance africaine) the brainchild of former president Abdoulaye Wade which cost $26 Million to build and has been criticized by hundreds of Senegalese[1] in the context of the economic crisis and has become a symbol of Wade’s policy failure and squandering of scare resources. © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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The Walk/Dakar 2011 The photo was taken relatively early in the morning and if I had to bet I would say great certainty the child with the bowl is a Talibé (students of Daaras or Koranic schools) who are sent out  by their marabout to beg for money. © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

UCAD Library - African Fractal design

Fractal side of Université Cheikh Anta Diop/Dakar 2011 After reading the book ‘African Fractals’ and meeting the author and ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash who cited the fractal design of  Cheikh Anta Diop University Library[2] I was inspired to check it out. ©Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

there is a MLK boulevard in every hood even in dakar in the neighborhood called Medina

From Birmingham to Dakar/Dakar 2010 While walking along the Corniche, I came across this street sign and immediately Chris Rock’s joke came to mind about the socio-economic stereotype of streets named after the slain civil rights leaders[3]. © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved

Buba taxi

Bush Taxi Caliente Supreme/Banjul 2011   When it comes to taxis (aesthetic, cleanliness and safety)  hands down Gambia is head and shoulders above their neighbor (Senegal). A bush taxi is basically a taxi that operates as a bus picking up more than one passenger at a time, which is very similar to dollar vans/cabs[4] that you will find in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

ethnic group in gambia jola's are known for their hard work

Ethnic Ethos and Occupation in Gambia pt.1 /Kololi 2011 .© Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

ethnic group in gambia Serer are fisher men (1)

Ethnic Ethos and Occupation in Gambia pt.2/Kololi 2011 © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

etnic group in gambia and fula are herders etc

 Ethnic Ethos and Occupation in Gambia pt.3 /Kololi 2011 © Adolphus Washington. All Rights Reserved.

 References

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[1] Köpp, D. (2012). Controversial monument casts shadow over Senegal’s elections. Available: http://www.dw.de/controversial-monument-casts-shadow-over-senegals-elections/a-15762835. Last accessed 18th January 2014.

[2] Eglash, R. (1999). Futures for African fractals. In: Eglash, R African Fractals Modern Computing and indigenous design . United States of America: Rutgers University Press. 217.

[3] DA9THCHAMBERS – Chris Rock:Bring the Pain. (2007). Black people.Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7HHB3sDtfA. Last accessed 18th January 2014.

[4] Brown, T. (2012). Brooklyn’s Dollar Vans: Bringing Shadow Transit Out of the Cold. Available: http://thisbigcity.net/brooklyns-dollar-vans-bringing-shadow-transit-out-of-the-cold/. Last accessed 18th January 2014.

An Africanist Journey: In my own words

In the beginning

Political theories such as neopatrimonialism and the words of Africanist like Patrick Chabal and Nicolas van de Walle or African historians such as John Henrik Clarke and Cheikh Anta Diop all played out like an academic mixtape in my mind, competing for the space that serves as reference points for my analysis and perception of Africa. So as I write these words I struggled to find the right ones to describe who Africa is and my relationship with her.

The seeds of interest and passion tend to begin within the realm of informality or non linear structure. For example, before a basketball player turns professional the journey often begins after school at a neighborhood playground and for many they cannot even recall the very first time they were introduced to the sport, as it was always there. My journey toward becoming an Africanist which is in short is someone who specializes in the study of African affairs i.e., history, culture, language, politics began somewhere between being black in America and the emergence of hip hop.”

Courtesy of the golden era

There was a seminal point in hip hop where groups like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers and Boogie Down Productions ushered in a paradigm shift in lyrical content from gold chains, misogyny, and overall indulgence of materialism to social and political consciousness. It was far from an understatement when Chuck D said “Rap music was the CNN of the Black community.”[1]  I would go a step further and say that rap music during this era also functioned as supplemental education. The lyrical content prompted and enticed the listener to want to learn more about Black history and actors within it past and present.  To illustrate this point, on A Tribe Called Quest album Midnight Marauders there is a song entitled “Steve Biko (stir it up).” I had no idea who Steve Biko was as the song was not exactly a biography of the man. The title alone sparked my curiosity which led to my informal introduction to late South African anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. Then there was Public Enemy’s “Who Stole the Soul,” which cleverly intertwined our struggles here in the United States with the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa:

Ain’t, no, different
Than in South Africa
Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul
Like over there they stole our gold

As I mentioned rap music functioned as a kind of supplemental education that politicized and illuminated my existence and power within the black body politic of America and beyond. It was the anchor of my journey as an Africanist and it led me to lectures of those whose shoulders I was standing upon. The words of the giants who were left behind were fundamental in reinforcing Africa to the core of my identity. Haunts like Harlem’s Oberia Dempsey Center, National Black theater and Brooklyn’s Slave Theater was basically the chitlin circuit for Afrocentric scholars. The style and feel of these lectures accompanied by the colorful oration filled your soul with controversial discourse, pride and sometimes…racial superiority. From Dr. Molefi Kete Asante to Dr. Phil Valentine the works of Afrocentrist have been criticized and often dismissed by mainstream academia on the grounds of making untenable historical claims and being accused of promoting reversed Eurocentrism.

Academic roadwork                                                                                                              

Corporate restructuring not only meant that I would lose my job but also afforded me the time to find employment within African affairs. My point of entry into this field was through internships with NGO’s, whose missions were largely advocacy based. Offices from New York City to London were stocked with multilingual, multicultural, transnational people whose political leanings ranged from right of center to far left. Between the work I was doing for these organizations and the stories shared from workers in the field, it all challenged my ideas of Africa. For example, it became harder to entertain overshadowing and championing Robert Mugabe’s anti-colonial and neo-imperialist rhetoric over his policies that have been detrimental for the majority of Zimbabweans for decades or recanting the historical significance of the empire of Ghana and Mali if its own people are unable to read about their history because of the high rate of illiteracy.

As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” so the time arose for me to delve into the nit and grit of African politics. My enrolment in the postgraduate program at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies was perfectly suited for pouring over case studies like Ujamaa: villagization and modernization in Tanzania, 1962-1985 to Nation, Clan & Authority in Somalia, 1920-2007 and doing presentations and writing papers on Ethiopian land tenure and modernization to Superpower involvement in Africa during the Cold War and more. Despite gaining greater insight into the dizzying complexities of African politics and practical sensibility regarding who Africa is today; I knew that I had to go beyond the theories, panel discussions, African ex pats, food and western media sound bites.

“Change and uncertainty are not to be feared but embraced because they are the fabric of our potential.” STICMAN DEADPREZ

After many submitted applications and networking with those who either worked in or had connections with those who currently work in Africa, the door finally opened for me. I secured a teaching gig with a small English services/bookstore based in Dakar. Granted it wasn’t my ideal but there was no way I was passing up this opportunity to work and live in Africa. Next thing I knew I was in at the travel clinic getting shots for yellow fever, prescription for 6 months worth of malerone, visa for Senegal; hand recharging flashlight and other miscellaneous bits and pieces.

My disposition of favoring sobriety over romanticism and false expectations with regards to Africa developed over time. I was not looking for Kunta Kente only to find Biggie and Tupac nor was I expecting to be received as the prodigal son only to be received as just another westerner. This outlook served me well while living and working in Africa as it allowed me to accept her as she is and not who I consciously and unconsciously built her up to be during my journey as an Africanist. That did not mean I was not in awe that I had made it to the continent. In many ways Africa remained an abstract expression despite all of my knowledge of its geography, culture, history and people. To experience it physically held a different kind of weight. Africa hosts everything from gross deprivation and crimes of all kinds to resilient family networks in the absence of adequate state sponsored social services along with industrious creative entrepreneurialism embodied by “Afropolitans” and more. With that being said, I am still learning to take comfort in the uncertainty regarding who Africa is and my relationship to her, and not constructing the reality of Africa around a need for a static identity or narrative. It is as the ancient Latin saying – Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, which translates as “Out of Africa, always something new.”

Reference


[1] Thorpe, David. (1999). Chuck D. Available: http://bombsite.com/issues/68/articles/2251. Last accessed 16th Sept 2012.

Framing the City: Bringing Indigenous Values to Africa’s Urban Society

 

When one says that a city is alive, this statement is not an overused metaphor. Examining the anatomy of a city reveals a striking similarity to that of the human body and tends to operate in analogous fashion. In cities, buildings represent the skeletal frame of the human body. The streets, highways, and bridges serve as the vascular system. The people who occupy and move throughout the city are the lifeblood. The institutions that delegate what municipal services are to be carried out are the organs. To illustrate this further the sanitation department is comparable to the kidneys whose primary function is to rid the body of waste or the criminal justice system whose purpose is to uphold social control. Deterring and mitigating crime parallels the function of antibodies response to antigens that attempts to disrupt the normal function of the body. The body’s vitality and maximum output is compromised whenever it ceases to operate according to its own natural orientation. This generally occurs when disease is present. Similarly, a compromised city fails to deliver, maintain, and produce basic services and infrastructural requirements for its citizenry when the natural orientation of its citizenry is not honored.

Many African countries resemble Nigeria, whose display of venality and corruption has contributed to its arrested development. Much of the problems in Nigeria stems from the lack of investment in the basic infrastructure that enables a city to function. Both civilian and military have enriched themselves on earnings from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves, leaving the majority of the country’s 140 million residents to struggle in poverty. Lagos is Nigeria’s former capital and currently its most densely populated city and arguably the most economically important state of the country. Lagos has a crumbling infrastructure that is a major problem for all the city’s residents. A poorly developed central grid subjects Lagosians to an unreliable supply of electricity. Those who can afford to, buy their own generators to provide 24-hour power. However, the majorities go without, having their homes and work places plunged into stifling darkness in the middle of the afternoon. In addition to electricity problems, the city does not have potable water. Most of Lagos’s residents must buy water from street sellers or line up and collect it from shared stand-taps. Nine out of 10 Lagosians live in slums, according to the U.N., and less than 1 percent has flushing toilets. Cell phones are the main means of communication, as there are few working landlines. The postal service barely functions. Zip codes and a system for residential delivery has never been developed. An African city like Lagos has become the standard across the continent. Under these circumstances, few actually ‘Live the City’; most simply survive it.

In response to this deprivation Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatune Fashola in conjunction with international institutions like the World Bank has developed initiatives to tackle the systemic challenges. From this union the World Bank Board of Executive Directors approved a US$200 Million credit toward the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project. Under this project, the aim was to target infrastructure, water supply and sanitation, rehabilitate neighborhood roads, public finance reform, and the strengthening of overall good governance. Given the current climate of international aid distribution to developing nations, along with the recent fanfare and tidal wave of celebrity style attention toward African affairs, such as Oprah in South Africa, George Clooney in Sudan and Madonna in Malawi it would appear at first glance that the realities of Africans are changing for the better. However, that is up for debate. Historically, aid packages have generally failed to meet the needs and demands of the people and have yet to produce sustainable results. Despotic African elites are typically the deliberate recipients of funding in exchange for ideological and material resources. This has stifled real growth especially during the Cold War as both the United States and Soviet Union lured African elites to their respective camps of either capitalism or communism with virtual blank checks in the form of aid. These funds would then find their way to offshore accounts, general lavish spending, and military hardware to neutralize dissenters with state sanctioned violence. Consequently, this creates an environment of fear and underdevelopment. Typically, when aid is appropriated and construction of infrastructure projects are underway, general labor tends to be accompanied by imported labor, equipment, and specialization. This means less employment and no technical training for native workers, which pose a grave problem when it comes time for maintenance and repairs. As a result, the local economy is not empowered and human capital is not fully utilized. What is left is infrastructure that cannot be maintained and the debt incurred by its implementation.

The origins of modern urban policy for African cities lie in the European points of cultural reference. The colonial planners of African cities largely ignored the indigenous historical, geographical, cultural and social context and precedents before beginning the design process. The primary emphasis was placed on the extraction of natural resources. Re-systematization of African cities was relegated to the physical infrastructure and indigenous political frameworks that would later guarantee the successful execution of this process. It was these transformations that conventionally reoriented Africans themselves and the optimum function of public and private institutions.

Presently Mr. Yacoob Abiodun, an urban planner and former secretary of the Housing Policy Council in Lagos, has pointed out the knowledge gap in specialized planning and policy analysis at both the state and federal levels. He further emphasized the need for specializations like urban design, transportation, housing, community development, and urban renewal/rejuvenation. Additionally he recommended these disciplines be taught in institutions of higher learning for the purposes of producing a trained cadre of specific-purpose planners. Although accurate in his assessment of the gap, the historical relationship between Africa and the West, which has been primarily based on the extraction of resources, must be considered. Despite advancements in modern urban planning, it still follows in the same legacy. To create a national training program based on the same framework is likely to produce more of the same inefficiencies, disorganization, and ineffectiveness that is so commonplace in Africa today.

The first president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere answered the call for new governance frameworks. In 1974, he attempted to resolve the issue of capitalist encroachment, which he saw as an expression of Western imperialism by creating a synthesis between indigenous knowledge and communism. Through Nyerere’s pan-Africanist lens, he maintained a romantic view of pre-colonial Africa where no man served as subjects of labor for the exclusive purposes of another man’s accumulation of wealth. Everyone worked in the interest of the community on a non-hierarchical basis where no one ever went without. For Nyerere this egalitarian perspective inherent within pre-colonial African culture was the common denominator with socialism. The intertwining of the two brought forth African socialism. Inspired by social engineering models utilized by the Soviet Union and China, Nyerere adopted similar schemes. The ujamaa village campaign from 1973 to 1976 was a massive attempt to resettle most of the country’s population into planned villages in an effort to harness the labor of the peasant farmer for maximum agricultural output under the guise of modernization. The execution of this scheme undertook massive resettlement programs under “Operation Dodoma,” “Operation Sogeza,” “Operation Kigoma,” and many others to create “communal villages.”These villages were planned according to grid block patterns, accompanied by streamlined farming techniques.

In spite of Nyerere’s good intentions for Tanzania, empowered by an economic scheme that is solely based on the premise of output without considerations for human capital is destined for failure not development. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the nation’s population resides in the rural sector of an agriculturally based economy it is economic suicide to embark on a rural resettlement scheme without seeking the consultation of the farmers. This is because they are the custodians of vital agricultural knowledge. As a result, the Tanzanian government spent 1.2 billion Shilling on food imports to feed its population, because agricultural production in the new village settlement area was not suitable for sandy soil, relied too heavily on mechanization and the chaos of the move itself and the slow process of adapting to a new ecological setting meant further disruption of production. The Nyerere administration favoring an imported rural design and agricultural techniques over the indigenous one revealed the shallowness of African socialism. The rural planning was a grid design whereby each family lived in linear formations with the rectangular plots behind their living quarters. The village settlements all ran parallel long the roadway. Crops also had to be planted along the same geometric pattern to mirror order. The flaw in this scheme was that the administration emphasized aesthetics over functionality and efficiency. Rural farmers were forced into a regimented living space where the intent within the design was to restrict movement and direct energy towards output. This was diametrically against the peasants existing rural practice, which included shifting cultivation and pastoralism. Both farming techniques involved migratory and cyclical methods that required not living near roadways while movement for space was crucial for successful production. The bureaucratic enclosures also impeded their enclosed natural orientation for social engagement and cultural practice, as assembly and movement outside of the village was highly discouraged by the state and closely monitored. Ultimately, rural planning along Euclidian lines gave way to chaos and disorder as resistance from the peasants invited various acts of coercion by the administration. The imposition of growing crops along a standardized formation was also met with disastrous results as this technique yielded crops well below expectation. Meanwhile, polycropping as traditionally practiced by the rural peasantry proved far more ecologically and economically sound. The exaltation of African socialism by Nyerere himself and other top officials stemmed from a prevailing bias against indigenous cultural practice, presentation and knowledge while favoring stylized frameworks, which proved inconsistent with the natural rhythm of the people.

The inevitability of African urbanization is readily apparent. Africa’s urban populations are exploding, and will continue to do so in the near future. Thus, a final key opportunity presents itself in the growing realization by governments in the region that rapid urbanization is here to stay. Responsive leaders realize that the demands of growing urban populations must be met and new approaches to development, including expansion of public-private partnerships, are both inevitable and desirable.

With this in mind, it is important to observe the fact that urbanization ideas were not grafted on to Africa from modern Europe. Africa has a historical reservoir of urban settlements templates from all regions. For example, lle-lfe is an ancient Yoruba city in southwestern Nigeria. Evidence of urbanization at the site has been discovered to date back to roughly 500 AD. It is located in present day Osun State, with a population of 501,952. By examining the relationships between economic systems, family and political institutions as well as religious beliefs, within pre-colonial African cities, we can unearth the guiding principles for new urban policy frameworks to ultimately create sustainable living environments. The research should particularly investigate key features of urban planning and management from both functional and aesthetical perspectives as it resonates with the overall orientation of the citizenry. As I have illustrated, the degree of deprivation in African cities like Lagos and Tanzania have been brought on by the neglect of indigenous point of reference. The advent of urbanization will not only offer an insightful anatomy of the evolution of cities but it may usher in a paradigm shift whereby penetrating interventions and innovations are developed and aligned to galvanize human capital so that citizens will advance from surviving the city to living it.