"The Weekend Read": Visual Arts and the Transformation of the African Narrative

By: Deonta Wortham 

The visual arts. The medium by which so many try to decipher, expose and describe the context of their culture’s psyche. But can these societal attributes can accurately illustrate the vast complexities that is "reality"? Well, that the visual artist steps in - and “shakes” things up.

Mary Sibande,  I decline. I refuse to decline.  (2010) Image Credit: Gallery Momo

Mary Sibande, I decline. I refuse to decline. (2010) Image Credit: Gallery Momo

Like so many before them, contemporary African artists have attempted to answer and expose societal questions and beliefs through the guise of creative visual work. Works that inspire, highlight, and even anger their audience. Their works transform, and unmask the very nature of one's existence - and often the visual artist dares their audience to dream and aspire - in effect to be more.

When one looks at the cosmopolitan inspired works of Angola's Edson Changas, we witness the integrated simplicity of the urban space meddled with the perplexing facets of contemporary cosmopolitan life. Spurring questions regarding the cultural reality of contemporary Africa with that of the world’s growing consumerist society.

Edson Changas, 'Oikonomos' (2011) Image Credit: http://www.contemporaryand.com/

Through photography, videography and the medium of sculpture, Tanzanian visual artist Rehema Chachage explores the topics of gender, alienation, poverty, and loneliness. Each piece seeks to "spotlight" areas of modern life that are perpetually overlooked, or marginalized. In particular, Chachage seeks to note the changing existence of the African woman in societies that are consistently transforming.

Rehema Chachage, Mizizi/Nasaba (Kinship/Roots) Image Credit: http://rehemachachage.com/

At Gallery Momo in Johannesburg, Thandi Sibisi - the first South African black woman to open a major art gallery in South Africa - is "setting the atmosphere" for artists that actively explore issues such as power dynamics and disregarded facets of contemporary South African life.

Thandi Sibisi, Owner Gallery Momo Image Credit: The Guardian 

These artists' stringent efforts to expose the "underbellies" of African life illustrate the vast nature of contemporary existences across the continent. In the efforts of Changas, Chavhage, and those exhibiting their work at Sibisi's gallery, we are able to note that the African "narrative" is steadily being transformed. 

Andrew Tshabang, Sheme members on the way to Nhlangakazi holy mountain, Natal (2007) Imange Credit: Gallery Momo

Every day brings with it a "new" transformed African reality. Our ability to see these changes are due to the creative efforts of visual artist like those aforementioned. The visual arts tell of life in its  most natural form, they expose the dark realities that we are so often presuppose to overlook, and finally they give a physical, creative, and intellectual illustration of the society in which we find ourselves beholden to.

African visual arts does all these things and more, ensuring that Africa both notices its shortcomings and embraces the tenacity of those willing to perpetually question their existence. 

"The Midweek Read": We Have A Problem. . .

By: Deonta Wortham

After enjoying the last few days of our summer vacation Foresight has returned. In our absence it has become clear that there is a problem that is facing the Africa continent, and in particular this problem that has the potential of affecting numerous developmental projects, across the region of West Africa for the next two years.

By now, it should seem quite obvious that I am speaking of the Ebola outbreak that is occurring across the region of West Africa.

Image Credit: Newsweek

Image Credit: Newsweek

To date, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that there have been a total of 2,240 confirmed and suspected cases and 1,229 deaths, scattered across the nations of Guinea Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. As well as two cases involving Americans – who being treat about a mile and half away from me, here in Atlanta at Emory University’s Hospital- as well a fatal case that took the life of a Spanish priest.  To say that the West African region is currently in the midst of a health crisis would be a dire, dire understatement.  

Image Credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Image Credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

This article will not delve into the international community’s response to this pressing matter, nor will it syphon off idea concerning the failure of administering a mass-marketable drug capable of fighting an illness that has been known by the medical community since the 1970s. No, that simply not of this article’s concern – but best believe, sure enough, that topic will be covered by Foresight in the near future!

What is of the utmost concern for Foresight – right now, at this critical juncture of that the African continent is facing in regard to its future – is the impact that the Ebola outbreak will have on developmental programs across the aforementioned West African region.

Today, many non-profits have decided to cease operations in the West African Region due to concerns associated with the recent Ebola outbreak. Some have decided that the time needed to control, contain, and “eliminate” the Ebola illness is too much to continue developmental and experimental programs in the region as it experiences a full blown health crisis. 

Image Credit: New York Times 

Image Credit: New York Times 

But shouldn't organizations, at this critical moment stand firm and support these nations as they push through this difficult period where both their public health systems, and their governing capabilities are stretched beyond measure? Frankly, I think so.

It must be noted that we are dealing with a serious health crisis, and knowledge of the risks that are associated with that crisis should, undoubtedly, be taken into account when placed in the context of developmental work. But today, at this critical point in time, when the African continent’s future is at stake, the fact that multiple non-profits are “pulling out” of the region, over the next year and a half, simply does not warrant the risks that would come in response to their absence.  

To use the USC’s fight song as a figure of speech, these organizations need to “Fight On”! There is work that needs to be completed, there are lives that need to be touched, there are young minds that need to be educated, and there are communities that NEED help. So; Fight On! Recognize the risks associated with working in this region, but stand firm in your commitment to ensure that change - formidable change - on the African continent does in fact occur. The ball is in your hands, it is time that you make your move. 

"The Midweek Read": Addressing the Issues of African Urban Cores

By: Deonta Wortham

As noted in a profile of the Ivorian architectural firm the Koffi & Diabaté Group, urban planners across the continent are developing innovative methods to prepare African urban centers for the imminent arrival of migrants that will flood city centers in search of economic opportunity in the coming decades. The World Bank has noted that Africa is urbanizing faster than any region in the world, and the urban population, which presently numbers 320 million, is forecasted to reach 654 million by the year 2030. That a fifty percent increase over the span of fifteen years!
The importance of developing innovative, and sustainable, approaches to ready urban centers for their imminent population “bulge” will be of the utmost importance to both African governments, and even more so to the citizens that will call African urban centers “home.”

In this respect, action must be taken to ensure that both private and public entities are able to jointly advance the development effort in rapidly urbanizing areas.

Take the work that the Koffi & Diabaté Group is undertaking in Abidjan. The architectural firm has literally “branched out” to include a number of enterprises that contribute specifically to the development of the core of the Ivorian nation’s largest city. Ranging from the development of urban apartment complexes meant to ease the burdens of urban life, to the development of an arm within the firm that directly addresses urban water issues.

The Koffi & Diabaté Group has noted that urbanization in African cities detail not only the construction of sound urban built environment, but additionally that urbanization in the “African” context means directly interacting with the urban populace to ensure that their needs are being met in relation to the development of their cities.

The importance in doing so transcends the notion of “city planning” and “architectural prowess” and instead focuses on the nexus of the capacity building and sustained development within urban cores. The work of the Koffi & Diabaté Group, serves as a prime example of the work that needs to be enacted in urban centers across the continent. As the persistent reality of migration of the African into the continent’s urban centers face the African continent, the need to improve standards of living within the continent’s urban centers will continue to be an issue of concern that will, require prolonged action on the part of both private and public African actors.

Addressing the issue of African urbanization will additionally require the development of an African architectural community that is capable of advancing the urbanization effort in a coherent and sustainable manner. Koffi & Diabaté Group’s Managing Director Issa Diabaté notes that across the African continent, and particularly in his native Ivory Coast, there is a severe shortage of architects. This leads to a hampered ability to envision the capability of an improved urban spaces and leads to the continuation of urban centers that are plagued with issues caused by uncurbed population growth.

An Aerial of Abidjan's City Center  Image Credit: Cedric Favero 

An Aerial of Abidjan's City Center  Image Credit: Cedric Favero 

Changing the African urban landscape, in a conclusive sense, will not come over a short span of time, but by slowly ensuring that certain issues are solved will reduce strains on urban centers in the coming decades.

Noting the importance of African urban centers in the economic development of the continent, is of the utmost significance that African governments begin the process of detailing manners in which these urban centers can develop in a sustainable fashion, with the help of architects and urban planners that are capable of maximizing the urban center’s potential.

In the coming years the number of African dwellers will only continue to rise. Looking beyond the year 2030, hundreds of millions of new African urbanites will call the continent cities their home. Action needs to be done to ensure that such work is possible, and the encouragement of work of private firms, similar to that of the Koffi & Diabaté Group, should be vigorously advocated. 

"The Midweek Read": Change from the Bottom-Up: Lessons from an African-based Development Organization

By: Danielle Taylor 

Tostan is an African-based development organization whose approach is unlike most development organizations. Their unique approach has led to unprecedented, sustained, community-led advancements in areas of health, education, governance, economic growth, and environment.

Through 20 years of trial and error, Tostan has successfully demonstrated the value of a bottom-up approach to meeting community needs. When it enters a community, it does not go in with a bag of money and preconceived answers to the existing problems. Instead, they enter with what can be called a values assessment.

 This starts with simplified conversations among community members in which fundamental values are teased out. In a recent presentation by the organization’s founder, Molly Melching, six values have been consistently found in the communities in which Tostan operates: the primacy of the family and social network, peace and unity, hospitality, fulfilling one’s role in society, respect and dignity, and patience and perseverance (especially for women). With these expressions of underlying values, the conversation then moves to identifying what problems exist in the community, determining the causes of the problems, and deciding how the community members can work together to address these issues while maintaining their values.

Image Credit: Tostan

Image Credit: Tostan

This is contrary to the approach of many international aid organizations, despite their best intentions. Typically, outside groups enter with sermons on particular problems, such as the need for an increased number of health works or the rights of women and girls, thereby failing to consider the interconnectivity of these and other issues. These foreign organizations also usually fail to tap into the internal motivation for and ownership of development by residents in the communities in which they seek to serve. This is the key to the sustainability of their efforts.

Most importantly, Tostan doesn’t use the “blame and shame” tactics often elicited by community outsiders. Keeping value judgments, concerning the people engaged in certain practices at bay, allows for an understanding of the underlying reasons for the continuation of harmful practices.

We believe that through this mission we can ensure every person—woman, man, girl, and boy—is able to live a life of dignity.
— Tostan Mission Statement

For example, there is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). Of the eight countries in which Tostan has operated, over 7,000 communities have made public declarations to abandon FGM. How was this achieved in light of the considerable international uproar over the time-honored practice, and an equal amount of pushback from practicing communities over the lack of cultural respect and understanding? Tostan’s approach was to first assess the underlying values involved in carrying out this tradition. Of those previously mentioned, maintaining the family and social network and the respect and dignity of the girl child were most highly evident. Families wanted to ensure their daughters’ marriageability and prevent the child from being ostracized by the community for being “unclean”.   

Acknowledging the desire to help the community’s girls was the starting point for further conversations about the implications of the practice such as short and long term health problems that often prevented the girl from being productive in later years.

What’s most interesting about the issue of FGM is that Tostan never explicitly set out to end FGM. It was an outcome of the holistic, community led approach to development. Government foreign-aid agencies, NGOs, and even socially responsible corporations should be encouraged to follow Tostan’s model to realize sustainable and desired development results.

"The Weekend Read": The Scope of the African Social Entrepreneur

By: Deonta Wortham

A lot can be said regarding the development effort across the African continent. In last week’s “Weekend Read” we discussed that conclusive development goes beyond the introduction of basic infrastructure to impoverished communities. This week, we pivot to one aspect of development across the African continent which is exceedingly contributing to the wider development effort; that is the work of the African social entrepreneur.

These individuals are initiating tasks that are directly impacting the lives of countless Africans across the continent. They are creating an arena for collaborative communal growth while empowering marginalized communities –such as the poor, rural citizens, and women- that have long been overlooked by national governments. African social entrepreneurs are giving a voice to the voiceless and equipping individuals with the skills needed to positively contribute to their respected societies.

In Uganda, Best Aiyorworth established the Girls Power Lending Organization, an association that focuses on providing women with needed financial assistance to establish businesses. The organization’s hope is that these new financially empowered female entrepreneurs will then invest in the education of young girls in Uganda's Nebbi Region. So far there efforts have been a success; countless women have established local enterprises and many young girls have likewise received an education on the part of female benefactors. Mind you Best is only 21, and has one The Anzisha Prize work the work her organization is undertaking!

In Botswana, Positive Innovation for the Next Generation (PING) is a youth-led organization that has instituted intensive training programs that equip young Batswana with skills needed in the nation’s growing tech industry. These young Batswana are receiving tech-focused skills that are aimed at assisting in the nation's development process, and ultimately contributing to the development of the continent's ICT sphere.

In 2005, South African Neftaly Malatji, who is 22, formed the Diepslott Youth Project which aims to equip young adults in the township of Diepslott, just north of Johannesburg, with marketable skills that are desired across the labor market. So far, Neftaly and his team have help hundreds of young adults attain computer skills and countless others have taken advantage of the other training programs that the organization offers.

Across the continent individuals and organizations are charging forward with a “banner of progress” that will mark the transformation of the African continent. Young Africans, across the continent, are initiating formative steps that will go on to assure that the development of the African continent occurs in a manner that reaches every African, and takes into account every African voice.

The stories that I have mentioned do not tell the entirety of the work that is being done by social entrepreneurs across the continent. These individuals number in the thousands, and are equally making a concerted effort to ensure that the development of the African continent and her people comes on the part of African citizens that are willing, and capable, of transforming the African narrative. 

"The Weekend Read": Development More Than Just a Well. . .

By: Deonta Wortham 

What does development mean? What does development entail? Who ensures that development is beneficial?  There are endless questions that surround the development effort. Additionally, there are countless answers to these endless speculations. Some are rather straightforward;  by and large various arms of the non-governmental oranizations assist in the African development effort. Others not so much; is China contributing to the development of the continent in a favorable manner, that’s subjective. From this one can clearly assume that when development is placed in the context of the African continent things get a little complicated.

For one, I could easily suggest that favorable development across the continent entails the construction of wells, roads, electricity, etc.  To some extent this would be true. But the construction of basic infrastructure across the continent accounts for a small fragment of the development effort. This is not to say that there is no need for the establishment of basic infrastructure across the African continent. But I do want to stress that development, in a conclusive sense, goes beyond the rather minute notion of a well.

Image Credit: Water Charity

Image Credit: Water Charity

Development, in its truest sense, is the formation of social structures that support and connect societies and their citizens. In doing so, development ensures the formation of sound educational, economic, and medical systems, while dually guaranteeing that there is a well in every village and electricity in every house. Development is the harnessing of the collective will, the broadening of a nation’s horizon. Development, in a literal sense is the realization of a changed tomorrow.

With that said what facets of development are being seen across the African continent today?  What needs to be done, what has been accomplished, and what can we except to see over the next quarter century?

The positives are endless,

·         Currently mobile phone usage across the African continent exceeds that of the United States.

·         Tech companies are constantly springing across the continent sparking an African tech frenzy, and creating countless ICT hubs.

·         Democracy and the importance of the Individual’s voices is by and large respected across the continent

·         Primary education is close to being universally accessible to every African child

And the list goes on.

The list that details areas that need improvement is sadly endless as well,

·         Though 97% percent of the African population is believed to be “employed” only 16% of those individuals receive a “steady’ or “normal wage”

·         Though access to education has more the doubled over the last two decades the quality of the education that African students receive is mediocre to say the very least.  

·         Finally, the African economy is currently functioning at levels that are incapable of supporting transformative forms of development, production and efficiency are poor and the development of human capital has thus far been considered a “backburner” issue.

These are the facts. The reality of what is happening on the ground. Is everything bright and cheery; no. But to be entirely honest is anything in life truly all blossoms and buttercups; no. When examining the development effort across the continent the international community must begin to look not at the current hindrances that face the African continent but rather the immense amount of potential within its borders. Africa is on the rise. Its potential is endless.  Current development strategies, such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063, are providing necessary assurance to the continent saying that change is imminent, and that it will come relatively quickly. The development effort, is allowing the continent to realize the possibilty  of a changed tomorrow.

Hopefully, you now see that development, in its truest form, fails to fit into one prescribed box. It is a multi-faceted, comprehensive entity that extends beyond the reality of one’s current existence. Our task is to envision how we can assist in this multi-faceted effort. How we can contribute to the attainment of a changed tomorrow for the African continent. The first step comes with simply knowing the facts. Here's one, development does not simply end with the construction of a well.