PICNIC08 – Surprising Africa

Some impressions of the daylong Surprising Africa event at PICNIC08:

Binyavanga Wainaina, an extraordinary Kenyan writer, talked about the problem of naming, figuring out what language we can use to describe the Africa we encounter today. He’s recently travelled to Lagos, a city that he used to think of as scary, which is now a place he’s come to love and be fascinated by. Driving from Lagos to Ibadan, he finds himself passing huge churches by the side of the road. He stops in and begins talking with people at one compound, called “Redeemer’s Camp”.

It quickly becomes clear that it’s more like a small city than a camp. There’s a huge suburb of tidy houses, and warehouse-sized churches – put together, the churches can seat hundreds of thousands. The community was built by an applied mathematician, who had apocalyptic visions and began buying property outside of Lagos in the 1980s. Members of the church – bused in from Lagos in old American schoolbuses – decided that it would make sense to live closer to the church. They came up with a novel arrangement – you could get land, power and water for free if you’d build a house with a spare room that could be used by visiting church members. Now many of the people who live here aren’t active in the church – they just wanted a quiet and safe place to live.

Lagos is huge and unfamiliar, but Binyawanga finds it filled with people looking for ways to make good, to solve problems. “to thrive in this city, people have to search for good. There’s an unbelievable quest for good.” How do we describe a place that’s so unfamiliar, is portrayed as so threatening, and is so hopeful and filled with good?


It’s always great to see Erik Hersman on stage, talking about the work he’s doing on the brilliant Afrigadget. In the best “point, don’t speak” fashion, he never talks about his hard work documenting African ingenuity – he just gets out of the way and lets the projects tell their stories.

His talk today hits some of the highlights of Afrigadget over the past couple of years: the spread of mobile phones, the amazing variety of applications developed to take advantage of them, the complex work done to localize technology into African languages, the creative solutions to the power and infrastructure problems of the continent. But, frankly, his documentation of his talk is so much better than anything I could come up with, you should just read what he has to say.

The punchline – Africa’s an amazing lab for innovation, because if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.



Montskilelelo Veleko is a South African photographer fascinated by the ways in with South Africans are making their own fashion. She meets people in the streets of Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town who’ve made their own clothing, setting themselves apart from local styles and fashions. In some cases, their clothing serves as a walking advertisement for their services as fashion designers. The heart of her presentation is a series of photos showing at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, set to the music of BLK JKS. The track in question was so hot, I’d bought the album off iTunes before her talk was through. But that’s only because I’m not brave enough to dress like the folks she’s portraying, or talented enough to get the shots she gets.


Filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa addresses the theme of the day – how do we look at Africa in a different way – in a very direct fashion. Her film, “This Is My Africa“, is a close look at the continent through the eyes of a dozen or so Africans, who talk about their favorites colors, flavors, smells, sounds and sights on the continent. While this sounds like a recipe for sentimentality, it’s actually an exploration of the creative energy of the continent – she shows us a fifteen-minute excerpt, where her subjects show energetic paintings coming from the continent and look at the wide range of astounding music to be found between E.T. Mensah and Fela.

Saro-Wiwa plans on making the film expansible, allowing viewers to record and add their own contributions, so that no sound, sight or smell goes undocumented. You’ll be able to add the pieces you care about on her website in the near future. Can’t wait to see the film, which is screening in locations around the world.

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7 Responses to PICNIC08 – Surprising Africa

  1. Henok says:

    thanks for blogging PICNIC08.

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  7. I agree with you and also feel great to see Erik Hersman on stage when he is explaining the hard work which is being done by him for the better condition of South Africa.

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