Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ibrahim Shaddad's "Insan"

Sudanese director Ibrahim Shaddad's experimental film, "Insan" is memorable (to say the least). With no spoken narrative to guide me as I watched it, I was disoriented for a while, but eventually, I was able to put two and two together. It's a short film- 27 minutes- but that is more than made up for by the powerful story line: a herdsman undergoes a series of crises that cause him to lose his wife, his livelihood, and eventually, his hand. Quite a sad conclusion to what started out looking like a simple film about a villager's adventures in the city.

Particularly striking is the setting of the film. The film was released in 1987, a few years after the debilitating drought in Western Sudan. Was the film a reflection of that experience? Unfortunately, my grasp of Sudanese history is very weak, so that question will remain unanswered for now.

Truthfully, my interest in the film had nothing to do with intellectual engagement. I watched the film for the same reason that I once watched "Out of Africa": because it was shot at "home". I've never been to the Sudan, but it's just North of my country, and I was curious to see whether the landscape was one I would recognize, and whether I would notice some cultural continuities. Not surprisingly, there were several cultural continuities and in some strange way, I felt like Khartoum (I imagine this was the city portrayed in the film) looked kind of familiar.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Darwin's Nightmare- an East African Tragedy

The documentary film, "Darwin's Nightmare: A Celluloid Dream Release," sheds light on the extremes of globalization and the impact it has had on Mwanza, an East African urban center. Many of the villages around the Tanzanian lakeside town are stricken by HIV-AIDS, and regularly lose their breadwinners. Young women, many of them widowed by AIDS, are forced into prostitution to support themselves and their families. The fishermen who catch Nile Perch from the lake for their livelihoods are unable to eat the same fish: it is too expensive for them. All their catch is sold to the factories that process the fish for exportation to Western Europe.

So what do the fishermen and their families eat? They eat the remains from the processing plants i.e. the rejected fish, and the parts that are unappetizing for the Western European consumers. As if that is not bad enough, it transpires that the Nile Perch are foreign to Lake Victoria, and that their introduction to the lake has created an environmental disaster. Who knows how many indigenous species have been drastically impacted by the introduction of that commercial fish? I wonder what further impact that has had on the people of the lakeside who have, for centuries, depended upon the lake for food.

Within the film, Hon. Joseph Munyao, the Kenyan Minister for Livestock and Fisheries, expresses his disappointment that those who film Africa tend to focus on the negative instead of highlighting the positive. Are politicians right in saying that Western media tends to portray sub-Saharan Africa in a negative light? Yes, they are, but it is also true that the events being filmed do happen, not just in our nations, but also in every other nation in the world. Anyone that reads the news regularly is aware of several environmental crises all over the world. Additionally, poverty in different parts of the world is often highlighted in documentaries. That includes poverty in the most powerful nation- the USA. Remember Katrina.

If a documentary film happens to highlight our actual failings, how responsible is it for us to be preoccupied with our public image? It seems to me it would be more fitting to focus on the problems highlighted by the film and to try to address them.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Inter-African Ties

I read columnist Wallace Kantai’s “Ties with North Africa Shallow” in the February 26th, 2006 edition of the Sunday Standard with great interest. In it, Mr. Kantai expounds on the idea belief that any ties connecting sub-Saharan African nations to North African nations are shallow. However, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions.

In my opinion, Africa is first and foremost a geographical entity. Therefore Algeria,Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are incontestably African. Another articulation of what it means to be African is racial. However, in reality, we can’t seem to agree on precisely what it means to be black. The moment that we try to determine whether it’s skin color, hair texture, the shape of one's lips, nose or physical frame that makes one ‘African’,we hit a roadblock. There’s also the idea that being African is political. A few decades ago, when we were united by anti-colonization movements, we readily accepted Ben Bella, Abdel Nasser and others as African. Today we are less flexible. Our political priorities have changed.

Kantai cites the Algerian experience, referring to its ruling class’s choice to identify it as an Arab nation and seemingly deny its Berber or Kabyle-African identity. It is true that the ideology of Arabism has been given precedence in official state rhetoric, but Algeria has never simply been an Arab nation. The question of ethnic and cultural identity is constantly being contested in Algeria, and is a major contributor to the political tensions there. Several Algerian public figures are explicit about their ethnic identities. They refer to themselves as Berbers, Arabised-Berbers, or Arabs. Several have specifically referred to themselves as Africans.

But let’s make allowance for the fact that several North Africans do identify themselves as Arabs. Is there a contradiction between readily partaking of both Arab and African identities? I think not. Arab identity is cultural, first and foremost, not racial and not continental. Being Arab usually implies a certain relation to the Arabic language. The people we call Arabs today are not all descended from one region of the world; they include Africans and Asians and, arguably, some with European roots. The designation‘Arab’ includes members of several different races (if one still thinks it necessary to speak of race).

It makes practical sense for North African nations to make alliances with Middle Eastern nations: they share cultural, religious and linguistic ties. To a certain degree, they share a common history. This does not make them less African. It makes them complex. We are similarly complex: The East African coast has long been part of an Indian Ocean trading community, and present-day Kenya continues to have ties to the Persian Gulf, the Arab peninsula, the Indian sub-continent and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Does this stop us from being African?

Do the economic ties between North Africa and Europe make North Africa more European? North Africa has a Mediterranean coastline. So do France, Greece,Spain, Italy, Portugal,and Turkey. The regions are in close geographical proximity and have traded for centuries.They have cultural ties as well. Economic pragmatism demands that they take advantage of these ties. How different are we Kenyans? We are largely oriented towards the British Commonwealth, and are highly dependent on the Anglo-American entity for our economic survival. The global economic balance is tipped in Europe’s favor, so just like Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans will obviously try to manoeuvre themselves into more profitable economic relationships. One could argue that the heart and soul of Sub-Saharan Africa belongs more to the West than does that of North Africa. After all, we sub-Saharans have adopted European religions and languages more whole-heartedly. Does that make us less African?

There is no simple African identity. What it means to be African varies from region to region. When Mr. Kantai says that our compatriotism with North Africa is built on shallow sands, he is speaking from a Kenyan standpoint. A Senegalese Muslim would not have similar conclusions, because trade and Islam have long linked Western Africa to the Maghreb. In fact, there are compelling reasons to argue that there are stronger ties between Senegal and Morocco than there are between Senegal and Kenya.It is sometimes valuable to examine the meaning of being African. However, when we restrict the meaning of this term to race, we risk ignoring the continent’s rich diversity and our own cultural, linguistic and historical ties to other continents.

Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.