Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dying for Straight Hair: The Danger of Relaxers for African Women

(intimicacy revealed) homemade hair relaxer by...
(intimicacy revealed) homemade hair relaxer by angela (Photo credit: celinecelines)
In the past few years, more African women with kinky hair are opting to ditch their hair straightening products for ‘natural’ or chemical-free hairstyles. The resurgence of natural hairstyles by Black African women needs to be unpacked in light of the newly revealed health risks associated with relaxers. Hair relaxers have been known to cause cancers and fibroids in  Black women. Yet, many Black women still use relaxers. To understand why these women are still using them we need to examine the usage of hair relaxers in the back drop of historical movements in African societies.

Although it is not often discussed, wearing a natural hairstyle has been a contentious issue for much of the African continent. During the colonial era, the Western aesthetic was the dominant standard of beauty in Africa. Looking White provided Africans with social and political advantages under the colonial system where Africans that looked more like their “colonial masters” were more likely to get work and gain other privileges.

This was very evident in countries like South Africa wear the ‘pencil test’ determined your racial classification, and hence your social, economic, and political standing. Therefore Africans began using skin lighteners and hair straightening products  in spite the knowledge that these products were damaging skin.

English: Unidentified African American woman w...
English: Unidentified African American woman with Afro-textured hair, cerca 1850 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During the late 1800s different methods were derived to straighten hair. One popular method of straightening hair invented in France made use of a metal hot comb and oil (pressing). Although this was a popular method that lasted for several decades, and was less dangerous than chemical methods, it provided a temporary change in hair texture.

By 1877 Garret A. Morgan had invented the lye hair relaxer in the USA and its use soon became the more popular method of straightening hair. Chemical relaxers offered longer lasting results (often called ‘permanent’ or ‘perm for short’) and soon became the preferred method of straightening hair. Hair straightening increased immensely in the 1900s because of Madam C.J. Walker and her multimillion dollar hair straightening business.

Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, played a major role in the promotion of hot combs, relaxers and other hair straightening products throughout the USA. The use of these products to straighten curly hair became more popular in the Caribbean and Africa as well because fashion trends often traveled across seas.

Politics and Hair

English: Wild hair
English: Natural hair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the wake of Africa’s independence in the 1960s and early 1970s, Africans returned to wearing natural hairstyles. Afros became popular in the African world as a fashion and political statement. Afros and natural hairstyles embodied an era of new found freedom and self expression. As a political statement that grew out of the civil rights era in the USA, there symbolism were perceived as a threat to governments.

In many African countries another popular natural style, dreadlocks, were worn by the Rastafarian populations and liberation fighters in the 1960s like the Mau Mau in Kenya. Like with the Afro, this natural hairstyle became associated with dissidents or ‘trouble-makers’.
The illegal use of marijuana by the Rastafarian also linked locks to drug usage which is a taboo in contemporary main stream African societies. Hence, many Africans wearing locks were automatically seen as criminals and vagabonds.

Alternative natural styles like cornrows (plaits) and braids have also faced various forms of opposition over the years in some African institutions (i.e. schools and workplaces). In brief, the wearing of natural hairstyles in Africa has not been without its stereotyping and push-back from members within African societies.

Return of the Relaxer

Jheri Curl Smile
A man with a Jheri Curl  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During the 1980s, straight relaxers became popular again. The Jheri curl in particular, became a staple of the 1980s amongst the urban populations. Natural hairstyles began to fade. In part, this was due to changes in fashion and taste.

In part, it was due to the political statements natural hair made. By the new millennium, Africans that did not want to use processors were perceived as old fashioned or unwilling to embrace “modernity”. Kinky hair was associated with “backwardness”, rural areas and village life. Those that embraced western aesthetics were perceived as more sophisticated, fashionable, urban, and modern.

They did not want to get caught with "village hair"! The standard of beauty continued to be set by the Global North (West) and reinforced through television, magazines and social practices like preferences in hiring. Therefore, African hair fashions are influenced by aesthetics in the west which in turn were dominated by White aesthetics.

In spite of the opposition faced by those wearing natural hair, in recent years, Africans in urban areas have been embracing the ‘natural’ look. More Black African women are now wearing afros, dreadlocks and many other variations.

Similarly, there has been an increase in popularity of hair extensions, pieces, and wigs that are kinky or curly or closely resemble the hair texture of the majority of Black African women. This new trend in Black women’s hair care that is currently sweeping across the African continent is a welcome move for many reasons. One pressing reason is that chemical hair relaxers have been linked to several heath problems.

How Relaxers Harm Us - The Medical Risks

Recent studies indicate that there is a link Black hair care relaxers and health risks. Research in this area has been under researched in the past but we need to take heed of the existing research and the new revelations.

There is a plethora of science-backed concerns about Black hair products.  The Chemicals used in Black hair products such as relaxers, enter the body through the scalp, particularly when there is a  burn or cut on the skin (this includes non-lye relaxers). They upset the internal chemical balance which leads to complications.

These topical applications can also cause chemical burns or blindness. Black hair care products (relaxers in particular),  have been linked to ailments such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems and other health risks. Many of these health risks are life-threatening and therefore should not be ignored by African women.

Many African women still do not know that they are risking their lives by straightening their hair. It is actually a topic that can and should be addressed with other women’s health issues.  The ministries of health should work to create public awareness about the dangers of relaxers, and greater regulations are needed of harmful products that enter the market.

In the United States, the Safe Cosmetics Act is being debated that would ban unsafe products in hair care products sold in salons. For African women living in countries where changes in legislation can be slow or where regulation can be difficult women need to exercise greater agency on matters of their health.  It is important that African women pay attention to the labels in the hair products and avoid relaxers altogether.

“Good Hair”

English: Example:hair being straighten with a ...
English: Example:hair being straightened with a regular curly iron. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Avoiding relaxers altogether may mean addressing the standards of beauty that African women are beholden to. This means changing the way we think and speak about natural hair. Many urban Africans continue to  mock natural hair and associate it with being ‘rural’. They also continue to strive to rank straight hair above kinky hair.

As an example, the term ‘good hair’ is still a part of African vocabulary in many countries. Although some use the term to refer to hair that is more manageable or easily combed, it typically means having European traits or “close to white”.

This shows that the aesthetics in Africa still place Caucasian hair as the standard which African women have to live to – even at the risk of their lives. As Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) aptly notes, “take the kinks out of your mind…instead of out of your hair.” Our attitude towards natural hair needs to improve. ‘Good hair’ for African women should ideally refer to hair that is healthy and free from damaging chemicals.

There are health benefits to going natural. The resurgence of chemical-free or natural hair styles should be conceived as a health and wellness change. There are many alternatives to hairstyles using relaxers. This includes dreadlocks, corn rows (plaits) and hair braiding. Various wigs, falls, hair extensions or other hair pieces do not require chemical hair straightening products and are viable substitutes. African women should continue to embrace ‘natural’ styles not only because it is in fashion, but also because of the associated health benefits.

A version of this article was publisehed on Africa on the Blog on May 28th, 2013
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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dikembe Unchained: Mutombo’s GEICO Commercial

Dikembe Mutombo, speaking during a press brief...
Dikembe Mutombo, speaking during a press briefing at the New York Foreign Press Center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Congolese basketball player Dikembe Mutombo has been receiving largely positive responses with regards to his new advertisement for GEICO, an auto insurance company in the United States of America. The commercial, "Happier than Dikembe Mutombo Blocking a Shot" depicts Mutombo running around blocking ordinary people from making ‘shots’ in everyday situations.

In the commercial, he blocks a crumpled ball of paper from being thrown in to a trash can, a boy from throwing a box of cereal in to a shopping cart and a woman from throwing laundry in to a washing machine and in other similar situations. During this time, he is making mono syllabic statements like "no, no, no", "not in my house!" and "ha ha ha."This is supposed to be a commentary on his defense skills as a basketball player where he blocked numerous shots.

For many basketball fans, it brings about nostalgia from the days that he was playing in the basketball leagues. However, for some of us the commercial shows an African basketball athlete, running around town hitting objects out of people’s hands, who is also seemingly inarticulate. One almost expects him to yell, “yabba dabba doo!” like Fred Flinstone . Simply speaking, the commercial makes Mutumbo look like and oafish cave man. He evokes images reminiscent of the arch stereotype of the African male who may not be intelligent, may not be articulate, but ‘can sure play ball!’.

This portrayal of Mutumbo is really unfortunate because Mutumbo is a very accomplished man. There is an above average brain lurking behind this Neanderthal representation of him.  Mutumbo was the recipient of an academic scholarship to the highly ranked Georgetown University as a pre-med student. His original goal was to become a medical doctor!  Albeit playing time-consuming college basketball, he eventually graduated with two degrees in Linguistics and Diplomacy from Georgetown. As an entrepreneur, he is the founder of the cable network ‘Africa Channel’ and has embarked on other business ventures. However, outside of basketball, he is mostly renowned for his not for profit ventures.

English: Dikembe Mutombo speaks to the Senegal...
English: Dikembe Mutombo speaks to the Senegalese population about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mutombo is the founder of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation which builds schools and hospitals in Kinshasa, Congo. In addition, he has made several donations to charitable foundations both in Congo and the United States which have earned him recognition as one of the most generous professional athletes in the world. Due to his philanthropy, he was inducted in the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame and has received the President’s Service Award. Lastly, not only can he speak English well, he is in fact a polyglot conversant in many languages. He speaks French, Portuguese, Spanish, Tshiluba, Swahili, Lingala and two other central African languages. Multilingualism is useful and compliments his many international endeavors which involve communicating in boardrooms, at conferences and with the general public. Therefore, playing an ‘oafish’ mono-syllabic caricature for the commercial is a misrepresentation of who he actually is.

Of course, it needs to be said that no one should take themselves too seriously. There should always be room for African athletes to represent multiple sides of themselves which includes a humorous side. However, we are still in an era where African athletes continue to be represented as all ‘body’ and no ‘brains’ as athletes and as scholars. Since athletes are considered ambassadors for their country of origin, how they are received and perceived becomes a concern for many at international levels. It is of particular concern for African athletes who continue to face racism worldwide when competing in various sports. They are often susceptible to taunting, heckling and stereotyping by fans based on their ethnicity.

English: GEICO logo
English: GEICO logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some may recall an incident when a basketball fan heckled racist slurs at Mutumbo from the stadium stands.  This would have been a more opportune time for him to run around unhinged, feverishly blocking verbal shots and uttering words from his GEICO ad like, ‘no, no, no… not today… not in my house!’In response to the heckling incident, Mutombo actually remarked, “I am not going to take that. He was insulting my race, my family, my integrity. For him to call me a monkey ... that should not happen today,"indicating that he is quite aware that racial stereotypes continue to exist today. It is therefore ironic that he was able to take the GEICO commercial script as lighthearted humor thereby perpetuating a popular African stereotype. Players and their agents/managers have control over the image of a celebrity and his decision partner with GEICO in this manner is very problematic for his own representation and that of the continent. Unfortunately for Mutombo, with great fame, comes great responsibility. Asking the GEICO team for a new concept is typically an option for stars of his stature that should have been exercised. In a world where Africans are still battling stereotypes about Africa, it is too soon for our biggest and brightest stars to be dumbing themselves down for sport.

This article appeared on Africa on the Blog , February 26, 2013
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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Fighting Fat: The Growth of Childhood Obesity in Africa

English: Fighting Obesity
English: Fighting Obesity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In today’s globalized world, African children living in the cities are increasingly at risk of contracting middle class diseases. The lifestyle and eating habits in the urban areas in Africa has been undergoing transformations over the past few years. Factors such as food choice and social conditions have contributed to this increase, making obesity rates amongst middle class African children problematic. Childhood obesity is linked with serious health problems and increases risks of contracting premature illnesses later in life.

Obesity rates are reaching epic proportions in sub-Saharan AfricaIn a World Health Organization study published by De Onis, Blossenr and Borghi (2010) in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, they estimate that the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in Africa in 2010 was 8.5% and is expected to reach 12.7%  by 2020. The situation has become so severe that in countries such as Mauritius, one third of children aged 6 to 19 are either overweight or obese. Similar patterns of obesity can be seen in the adult populations in Mauritius. Other countries are experiencing similar trends in their youth and adult populations.

The growth in obesity has been accompanied by an increase in lifestyle related to non-communicable diseases in children and adults in all countries such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and heart disease. This is beginning to put a strain on the fragile health systems in Africa as new health related problems are rising.

The cause of this increase of obese African children is accredited to a variety of factors including food choices and social conditions. With the rise of the middle class, there has been an increase in sedentary behavior, purchasing power, high fat diets and consumption of low-cost imported foods in this group.

The African diet in urban areas is increasingly laden with high fat foods. There has been a growth in the presence of local, regional, and international fast food restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steers. This means many more people are relying on burgers, fries, fried chicken, and pizza as part of their regular diets. This has been accompanied by an increase in the availability and numbers of processed foods in supermarkets, many of which are cheap imports. In Luanda, Angola, these imported processed foods are at times less costly than buying healthier locally grown foods. Additionally, vendors in the city typically fry their street foods in high fat oils making fatty foods easily accessible to a range of middle class budgets. Furthermore, there has been more frequent consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
A breakfast very high in saturated fat
A breakfast very high in saturated fat (Photo credit: Just some dust)

The change in social conditions has also contributed to obesity. African children are becoming more sedentary in their lifestyle and engaging in less activity. Many African children are choosing to spend their days playing video games, surfing the internet or watching satellite television rather than engaging in physical activities. Although this appears to be the same issues faced by their middle class counterparts in the global north, there are a few social issues that further complicate Africa’s growing obesity problem. Unlike in the global north, labor in Africa is less costly, therefore more African middle class families have domestic workers, which means the children are less likely to perform chores or other work. Many of the affluent also rely on drivers and do not engage in much short-distance or long distance walking. The legal drinking age in African nations  is lower (typically eighteen) than in countries such as the U.S. where the drinking age is twenty-one. Additionally, those under the legal age are often still able to purchase alcohol at stores. Therefore, middle class African children have greater access to obesity causing alcoholic beverages than those in the global north. In many African countries, cultural attitudes have lead to overweight people being admired because large size signifies prosperity. Therefore you are less likely to find mass supporters for weight loss for young children.

The growing rate of obesity-related problems coupled by the lack of awareness of obesity related issues though is concerning and needs greater attention. Many programs by NGOs, governments and civil societies do not often target obesity problems for various reasons. Obesity is a new problem on the continent and data is few. Additionally, food security has been an on-going problem in many African nations and many people on the continent still face starvation. This means governments, international non-profits, and civil society are unlikely to focus on issues encouraging healthy diets in the middle class. The problem, however, needs to target both demographics since many of the lower income classes will move into the middle class.

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...
A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in products such as soy milk and low-fat yogurt, has been shown to reduce breast cancer incidence in rats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There needs to be a greater focus on creating awareness and decreasing obesity amongst the middle class. When it comes to serving a balanced meal, nutritional education at the household level is needed. Some in the middle class are educated but may be ignorant when it comes to nutrition. Others may have the income to buy the food but may not have extensive formal or nutritional education. Therefore nutrition education is needed across the board. When people belong to the middle class, their diets sometimes change. In many countries, eating meat is seen as a sign of affluence as well, therefore it is common to find a household meal comprised of a starch and several meats. The over reliance on food like nsima (foo-foo) or rice during meals is also problematic since they are high in starch (and calories) but eaten in abundance with the main meal. In brief, nutrition awareness programs should be targeted to rich and poor alike as they are needed across demographics.

Obesity is a growing problem in Africa and needs to be addressed in the middle class and affluent urban areas. As Africa changes and adjusts to new lifestyle, there is a need to readjust so that we are not creating new health problems. We are already witnessing changes in the types of diseases being diagnosed and need to start to prevent them early. Middle class African children should be encouraged to engage in greater physical activity including chores, playing, and participating in sports at school. They should also decrease their video game, Facebook and television watching hours. Lastly, they should be taught good nutrition habits from a young age.

Although there are health-conscious parents on the continent who teach healthy eating habits to their children and encourage an active lifestyle in them, the increase in obesity among the youth signifies that there is a problem. Globalization for Africa has meant the acquisition of global health problems in addition to the ones already there. The government of the island-nation of Mauritius has already taken steps towards preventative measures by actively managing its obesity problem and encouraging healthy diets and lifestyles. This should be emulated in other Africa countries facing obesity related health problems.

-- This article appeared on Jan 25, 2013 on Africa on the Blog.

 key worsd "fat African Kids, stravin marvin"
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Africa's Greatest Non-Inventions?

This image  of  an African man with rubber man around his head has  gone viral with a new country named in each e-mail in order to ridicule the nationals of that country although it probably originated in South Africa as signified by the references on the computer screen.. Photo credit:unknown

Many people have received the popular email of the African man with an elastic band and cell phone tied around his head with the caption reading “hands-free cell phone”. A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to a blog with similar images depicting African non-inventions, entitled “11 amazing devices that could only have been invented in Africa”.  The blog consists of a number of ‘inventions’ - or rather African adaptations of contemporary technology credited to Africa. These adaptations include a hand held sprinkler system made by attaching the top of a plastic bottle to a hose pipe; a box ball (foosball) table carved from an actual box box; and many similar ‘humorous’ non-inventions.

The latest series of such type of photos were included on a blog run by the Africa Geographic Safari magazine which also has some of these images on its Facebook page. It credits the source of the photos to another Facebook page, Africa, This is why I live here – owned by AfricaThisiswhyI livehere.com- a wildlife blog that promotes conservation of Rhinos. There is a note on the ‘about’ section of the Facebook site of the latter, reading “not intended for anyone with a bad sense of humor”.  On the Africa Geographic magazine, the user comments also make reference to the humor in the photos and the ‘ingenuity’ of African peoples. Whilst no malice is intended by displaying these images, the messages conveyed cannot be viewed simply in jest because of the context that they are presented and their messages.

Pictures Worth a Thousand Inventions

In light of the blog’s content, the title “11 amazing devices that could only have been invented in Africa” is problematic. It introduces an element of ‘otherness’ to African people and products coming out of Africa. It writes that this type of ‘inventiveness’ can only occur in one geographic location, Africa, and not another. This suggests that Africa invents one type of invention (makeshift ones) and not any other (true inventions). It implies that real inventions occur outside of the African continent and not within it. Furthermore, it implies that nothing new really comes out of the continent; instead, innovation takes the form of crude adaptations –that make use of anything in reach-to things already invented elsewhere.

They give the impression that Africans simply mimic things without a deeper understanding of how they function or in what context they function in. The stereotypical associations that these images conjure have real life consequences for many Africans  in classrooms and in work places that are prejudged as bringing no real innovation.

Equally problematic for Africans are that the ‘African inventions’  photos are presented by wildlife and safari themed sites in the middle of content primarily about wildlife. This poses problems because since they primarily focus on Africa’s environment, and seldom people, the way they present people makes a more pronounced statement. When a magazine about flora and fauna frequently depicts people in a similar manner, it creates lasting impressions in the mind of the viewers of the images of those people. It contrasts clever animals adapting to nature in their natural habitat to slow humans trying to adapt technology.  Readers of the site are bombarded with numerous photos of animals doing a variety of tasks, whilst the few African people being shown are doing ‘silly’ things like tying numerous tires around a car for ‘safety’ purposes.

There are other nuances surrounding the relationship between Africa’s wildlife and African people that manifest given that these images appear in the context of ‘environmentally’ – themed platforms. African people are usually not depicted as part of Africa in much of the popular imagination of wildlife enthusiasts -Tourists go on Safari to look at animals and conservationists are looking to save them! When people are rarely featured in the backdrop of African nature for tourism purposes, they are usually adding to the ‘exoticism’ of the environment. The dynamics of the Global North and Global South also play out here because typically tourists shown are from the Global North or ‘outlander’ types who are ‘roughing’ it in 'wild Africa'. When depicted in conservation magazines, people are destroying the environment with their ‘modern ways’. Conservationists from the Global North are depicted saving the environment where local people are usually destroying it. Therefore, the fact that these images appear in the backdrop of many stereotypes and grand narratives surrounding the romanticism of African wildlife, how African people are depicted becomes more conspicuous. So, rather than inventions portraying ‘ingenuity’ ‘humor’ and ‘cuteness’ in the continent; the photos begin to come across as patronizing and projecting the idea that  when it comes to inventions, Africans are a little dull.

Africa's Real Inventions

A urine powered generator
A urine powered generator was invented by Nigerian teenagers, Duro-Aina Adebola (14), Akindele Abiola (14), Faleke Oluwatoyin (14) and Bello Eniola (15) in 2012. These types of real and useful inventions though are less likely to go viral on social media. (Photo credit: whiteafrican)
Although there is little space for these nature-themed sites to focus only on a presenting a balanced view of people, greater consideration is needed. Africans have historically been denied credit for their inventions or receiving acknowledgement for their contributions to civilization.  In the traditional western belief system, Africans and women do not feature as inventors, innovators, or holders of knowledge. African inventions are typically given less value or are not seen as significant unless certified by someone from the Global North. There are a few sites such as Kumatoo , South African Info, and  International African Inventors Museum, that aim to highlight genuine African inventions that are rarely given space nor enough attention to ‘go viral’. Although, the nature sites do not need to go in to detail about those other inventions since this isn’t their main purpose, they do need to be more conscious about the messages they send about the continents people. For a continent that produced the pyramids, Great Zimbabwe, writing systems, irrigation systems, vaccines, and more recently, the urine fueled generator, reinforcing the stereotype that African’s inventions are rudimentary or lack any ‘real world’ utility is problematic.

Whilst all these nature site platforms are enthusiastic about the continent, its peoples, and its wildlife, the messages they are sending out about African people through these series of photos needs better reflection. To the credit of Safari magazine, they do have a blog post about the Mozambican Fashion Show that does show African people in positive light in terms of invention. There is also another post that shows Santa sightings throughout Africa that is humorous without bordering on offensive. However, it is important to note that the final video on that page from a charity called Ripple Africa in Malawi is problematic and needs an analysis on its own.  The majority of the site does not have images of Africa’s real ingenuity and inventiveness to provide for a more balanced representation. There are many inventions that came out of the continent that need greater awareness so that they can balance out such types of 'non-inventions' that often circulate around the internet. In a world where both Africans and non-Africans believe no inventions came from Africa, the popular image of Africa's ingenuity should not be limited to  make-shift non-inventions on the internet for amusement. It should also incorporate the real inventions coming out of the continent that should drive Africa's future.

This article also appeared on 'Africa on the Blog' on 12/21/2012 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Africa (Re)invented:Africa's Innovative Past

Maker Faire Africa: Ghana 2009
Maker Faire Africa: African Invenmtion fair in Ghana 2009 (Photo credit: whiteafrican)
I can’t recall the number of times I have heard people say ‘nothing’ was invented in Africa or that Africa never contributed anything to modern civilization. Naturally, this statement is far from the truth but is still a popular lingering stereotype about Africa. Although ‘western’ centered (Eurocentric) history has taught us that Africa was a dark continent that was underdeveloped until the European man ‘civilized’ it, this is not the case.

Africans had a different way of living that was not understood or valued during the period of renewed foreign contact with Africa. Africans were just as creative and innovative as any other civilization. Assessing the continent’s history provides insight as to why there is little knowledge of Africa’s innovative past,  why there have been periods  in Africa’s history where few inventions occurred, and why their hasn’t been much recognition for African inventions where they did occur. The idea that Africa was a place where no innovation occurred though needs to be debunked and reassessed.

Africa was a continent where the earliest human beings lived. Therefore many of the inventions made during the earliest moments in human history were made by Africans. This includes the discovery of: 
  • ·         Fire in Southern Africa;
  • ·         Palm oil in West Africa which is used in cooking and as a lubricant;
  • ·         Yam cultivation (and hence, modern farming methods) in West Africa;
  • ·         Shaving tools made from glass around the Njoro River;
  • ·         Water pipes (bong) for smoking hashish in Ethiopia; and
  • ·         Iron smelting methods in Nigeria that enabled tool shaping.

There are many other such types of early innovations by Africans throughout the continent. Egyptians for example, were the inventors of papyrus, embalming and medicines. During the same time, Africans outside of Egypt (Ehiopia, Sudan), were also making their own advances in paper technology and medicine. Africa was also home to architectural super structures like the Pyramids in Egypt and Sudan, the trading center at Great Zimbabwe, and ancient mosques. In addition, some of the world’s earliest universities were in Mali and were the precursors to contemporary educational institutions. Africa was a center of knowledge in ancient and pre-colonial times and information was regularly traded between ancient Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, Italy and the rest of North Africa. Some of this history has been forgotten or lost due to historical processes like slavery, colonization or war. Many will recall the famous incident where a significant amount of history and knowledge was burned in Egypt by Alexander.

Slavery Museum
Slavery Museum (Photo credit: timbrauhn)
There is evidence that many advancements in Africa occurred in early human history and Africa’s pre-colonial history. Much of this advancement faced challenges as foreign contact with the continent began in earnest. The Indian Ocean (Arab) slave trade and the Trans Atlantic slave trade that began in the early15 century made it challenging for Africans to continue their progression or continue to innovate. The slave trade led to the forced removal of Africa’s talent and labor that would have otherwise been contributing to African advancements in technologies.  This means that many of the continents innovators and knowledge were transferred outside the continent by enslaved Africans. This includes foods, vaccines, and other methods that they brought from the continent. African slaves were not taught to read write and were made to work much of the day. This provided little time for innovation. In the case of the enslaved in the Atlantic, their own struggle for recognition of their contributions and inventions in their new countries began. It was not fashionable or popular to give slaves recognition for being smart because this threatened the slavery system. Some of the few inventions that were made by enslaved Africans were to become credited to their owners or to the new world but not to Africa.

The Trans Atlantic slave and the removal of Africa’s labor and innovators left a void on the continent. This trade continued through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – roughly, a period of 350 years and involved an estimated 12 million enslaved people that made it to the new continents. Many others did not make the journey. Slavery disrupted the way of life for Africa and affected its knowledge base. There was the routine looting of Africa’s artistic treasures, items and artifacts that remain in foreign museums today. Many of the structures, trade routes, villages, and support systems that were responsible for passing on the knowledge were abandoned or destroyed. It meant those left on the continent would need to concentrate on meeting daily needs and on avoiding becoming enslaved themselves. During this time, the remaining young children on the continent had to fill much of this labor void. This situation affected the type and quantity of inventions coming from the continent for nearly 400 years.

The colonial era further placed Africa in a state of arrested development in terms of innovation. For a period ranging from just prior to the 1884 Berlin Conference through the 1960s Independence movements, Africans were under foreign domination.  The colonial system was inefficient for African development. The educational system that was introduced in Africa was largely centered on Biblical knowledge or on domestic sciences. The educational system also only catered to a very small percentage of the African population. In addition, many of the prohibitive taxes under the colonial system meant that Africans were forced to work for little money. There was little time to explore formal education in literature, math, science or philosophy. Much of the knowledge was passed on orally. Many of the innovations that did occur were not given significant international recognition in order to help sustain the colonial system of subjugation. Although there were some innovations that were made during the colonial era, 350 years of slavery followed by nearly 100 years of colonization took a toll on the continent’s ability to invent and be innovative. 

Maker Faire Africa: Buglabs
Maker Faire Africa: Buglabs (Photo credit: whiteafrican)
Although there have been some low-tech and high tech inventions in recent years these are not well known. Africans continue not to receive full recognition or acknowledgment for their innovations. This is a part of its historical legacy. During the post-colonial era, Africa has also been plagued with the brain drain. Many of Africa’s innovators are living in the African Diaspora and contributing to the technological advancement in countries that they have moved to voluntarily. Therefore some of the greatest inventions in contemporary times may be coming from Africans in the Diaspora. Africans on the continent have began to contribute greater numbers of low-tech and high tech-inventions. They are also more likely to receive recognition for their inventions. In recent years there have been attempts to chronicle Africa’s former innovative past and its current contributions. Information about African inventions can be found on sites like Afrigadget , International African Inventors Museum, Kumatoo , and South African Info. There are many innovations that have occurred and continue to occur on the continent. The idea that Africa is a place that has no inventions of its own needs a (re)invention. Africa, like any other continent, has contributed to modern civilization.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Afrobloggers in Action: (Re)branding Africa One Blog at a Time!

108 Glossy Black Comment Bubble Social Media Icons
Social Media provides a space for African bloggers and micro bloggers to write their won stories (Photo credit: webtreats)
The old African proverb “until the lion learns to write, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” exemplifies literary tradition in Africa. It is an adage that encourages African people to take action by writing their stories in order for African stories to be heard from African perspectives. Since the early days, African communities have been passing down their histories, cultures, science, technology and education through the written word.

The long history of oral tradition in Africa and the dominance of colonialism had such a profound effect on the continent that it is often overlooked that Africa has equally had a long tradition of written history. Africans began writing on a progression of materials from rocks, papyrus to paper. African rock “art”, scripts, and hieroglyphics can be found all the way from the Cape in the south, to the northern most parts of the continent in Cairo. It is only natural that with current technological advances, this literary tradition has now entered the computer age through the blogosphere.

African bloggers (Afro-bloggers) play an important role in telling the stories of the continent. They bring African narratives to the foreground in a continent whose narratives are constantly under threat by internal forces (government or interest groups) and external forces (western hegemony and belief systems). They bring the traditional and contemporary topics in to a new medium. Blogging creates a space where Africans can write about the issues that are important to them.

African bloggers are not limiting themselves to familiar stereotypical themes on the continent that center only on war, poverty, disease, corruption and European narratives. Topics range from clean water, female circumcision, starting a business, professional development, history, their culture or whom they think will triumph in this year’s Big Brother Africa! Those that do comment on traditional or familiar narratives about Africa are “writing back”. They represent a diversity of African voices and allow Africans to write about a variety of issues affecting the continent.

Telling African stories has been problematic on the continent for various reasons including censorship, publishing costs or gender and racial bias. It was not long ago when enslaved Africans in the Diaspora were not permitted to read and write. Then this was replaced with a world view where only one overarching perspective was told – that of the Global North. The act of writing our own stories or blogging is therefore important for a continent. It balances ubiquitous enlightenment period grand narratives that erase the African narrative from world history. It engages both Africans and non-Africans alike in changing the narratives of Africa. When Africans ‘learn how to write’ by writing African stories on the blogosphere, Africans are reclaiming Africa’s place in the world. They are carrying on the long tradition of sharing ideas, technology, science, legends, and myths through literary tradition on the continent. A large source of empowerment on the continent stems from being able to express our “Africaness” in writing.

This includes the ability to tell our collective narratives the way we want them to be told. Our ancestors realized the empowerment that both oral and written tradition can bring. They ironically used oral tradition to pass on this idea. The old African proverb is therefore centuries ahead of its time even though blogging is of our time. Whether Afro-bloggers are telling stories that are extraordinary or mundane, what is important is that the collective tales of the hunt are bringing marginalized narratives to the center.

- The article, "Afrobloggers in Action Writing about Hunters and Lions!"was originally published for Blog Action Day in Oct, 2012 for Africa on the Blog.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Defects in Reporting Olympic Defections

English: Olympic medals revealed in Trafalgar ...
English: Olympic medals revealed in Trafalgar Square, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since the Cold War, athletes worldwide have been using sports to defect to countries other than their birth countries. During the time of the Cold War, a number of Europeans would use international sporting events to escape the conditions in their home countries.  In the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympic Games, there have been several reports of “African” Athletes disappearing from the Olympic Village. Many of the stories are sensational or stereotypical, laced with the familiar narrative of ‘Africans’, trying to ‘escape’ poverty, war, and disease.  I have found some of this reporting to be sensational and somewhat removed from the contemporary African experience.

In the cases where journalists referred to similar European defections, authors often cited political ideology over economic as the reason for defection. In contrast, the authors writing about African defections seem to be overwhelmingly attributing the defections to poor economic situations. However, we need to look beyond economic factors in making these claims. In the past, as famously enshrined by the Economist, Africa was often depicted as an economically ‘hopeless’ continent. This is no longer the case. Africa’s economies are on the rise and many more Africans have been lifted out of poverty than ever before. The new economic projections place seven out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in Africa. Although there are certainly economic woes in African countries, economics is not the only reason these athletes leave. In fact in 2009, an entire Eritrean soccer team ‘vanished’ during a soccer tournament in Kenya. Therefore, the goal is not necessarily to leave the continent for better economic conditions in the Global North.

Additionally, if economic concerns were the over arching reason for athelte’s decisions to defect, than one should expect defections to be srpead out evenly across the continent. The 12 defectors came from countries like Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Guinea, and Congo. The majority of these missing atheletes came from Cameroon. Cameroon is the 5th largest producer of cocoa in the world and has oil reserves. Therefore we need to examine what is going on in Cameroon as an independent nation that has lead to seven of its atheletes leaving. Most likely, the economic prosperty from Cameroons natural resources is not trickling down to its atheltes. In other words, political will by Cameroonian authorities to support sports is key. It is not so much the poverty in these nations that drives them away, rather the economic system. Many athletes are not adequately supported by their government in their profession. The infrastructure, training and even moral support is not always readily available to the athletes. Likewise, some of the other defecting atheltes notably came from oil-rich Guniea and the cocoa-rich Ivory Coast (incidentally also one of the financial capitals of Africa). Except for the Coltrane-rich Congo, arguably, economic conditions in these countries are no worse than in other African countries.

Many of the reports also unfairly refer to the monolithic term “African”, thereby branding the entire continent as one country whose inhabitants are all trying to escape poverty. Less than 5 countries out of a total of 54 African nations have been affected by these defections, yet the whole continent has been branded. When one delves deeper in to the countries of origin, one can begin to make a better analysis of this pattern of defection.

Out of the 60 athletes that Cameroon brought to the Olympic games, five boxers, one swimmer and one footballer were reported missing. Numerically, this is not indicative of the type of reported desperation by African athletes to leave their home countries. The fact that Fifty-three Cameroonian athletes planned on returning also reflects 53 Cameroonian athletes that decided not to defect. In a larger context, the same argument can be made for the total number of African athletes that came to the games versus the number of total African athletes that decided to go home.

Many reports have also exaggerated the number of defecting athletes. So far, the official count of missing athletes is twelve, yet there are reports of ‘dozens’ of ‘Africans’ missing. Providing a grossly exaggerated number is disingenuous to the continent as it is simply not true.
Most articles concentrate on the push factors that lead to defection but fail to cite the pull factors. African athletes being wooed by countries in the Global North in order to contribute to their own medal counts. Much like the brain-drain, Africans are being aggressively wooed for their bodies, in what I refer to as an ‘Olympic body-drain’. They are being offered citizenship, training facilities, and contracts that they find beneficial. African athletes should therefore not only be viewed as running away from economic problems back home but rather, running towards economic prosperity.

Much of the reporting about the athletes provides little insight about the contemporary economic conditions in Africa or non-economic conditions that contribute to the defections. Both the push and pull factors need to be discussed. Lumping all African countries together provides for an unbalanced analysis too since we are dealing with individual nations. The journalistic narrative of the defecting African atheletes at this years games has been problematic at many levels. As an
African I hope to see more journalists stray away from this long travelled path.

*This post was originally published  on August 31st, 2012 on Africa on the Blog.