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Y’en a Marre – music and mobilization in Senegal

I’m in Dakar, Senegal this week for a meeting of Open Society Foundation’s Global Board, along with the boards of our four African foundations (East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, South Africa). The formal meetings begin today, but for the past two days, we’ve been visiting grantees and projects in Senegal, including an ambitious election-monitoring project called “The Situation Room” and a set of projects underway across the country.

Yesterday, I visited a group called Y’en a Marre, a truly impressive collective of rappers and journalists who have turned their frustration with Senegal’s development and politics into mobilization of the nation’s youth. They claim responsibility for mobilizing 300,000 young voters, a massive number in a country of fewer than 13 million citizens. We heard from three of the group’s founders both about their work to register and turn out young voters, and their efforts to hold the new Senegalese government accountable to their campaign promises.

Kilifeu – Mbess Seck – offers a history of Y’en a Marre in rhyme

After their formal presentation, I got the chance to talk with Thiat, one of the most influential rappers on Senegal’s music scene. (I’d been told by fans of Senegalese hiphop to look for tracks by “Junior”. I asked Thiat and his friends about whether they recorded with this guy, Junior, and one of Thiat’s crew just pointed a finger towards him. “Thiat” means “Junior” in Wolof, and he explained – bluntly, if immodestly – that he would draw at least twice as many youth to a concert as Senegalese stars known in the west like Darra J.) I’d been impressed by Thiat’s passion about social issues, and I learned that his musical impact may be as impressive – Y’en a Marre is planning collaborations with M1 of Dead Prez, Talib Kweli and, possibly, Mos Def. Thiat hopes that Kweli and M1 will be willing to offer verses in Wolof, while Thiat and his crew will offer English verses.

There’s some information on Y’en a Marre’s musical and social impact online in English – a good story in the New York Times, and an excellent, in-depth piece in Africa is a Country. I was happy to see an article on the French-language Wikipedia, but sad that there wasn’t one in English. So I banged one out, and the text I posted last night follows below. Please feel free to fix it up if you have a chance.

“Y’en a Marre” (“Fed Up”) is a group of Senegalese rappers and journalists, created in January 2011, to protest ineffective government and register youth to vote. They are credited with helping to mobilize Senegal’s youth vote and oust incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, though the group claims no affiliation with Macky Sall, Senegal’s current president, or with any political party.

The group was founded by rappers Fou Malade (“Crazy Sick Guy”, real name: Malal Talla), Thiat (“Junior”, real name: Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré), Kilifeu (real name: Mbess Seck. Both Thiat and Kilifeu are from celebrated rap crew “Keur Gui of Kaolack”) and journalists Sheikh Fadel Barro, Aliou Sane and Denise Sow. The movement was originally started in reaction to Dakar’s frequent power cuts, but the group quickly concluded that they were “fed up” with an array of problems in Senegalese society.

Through recordings, rallies and a network of hundreds of regional affiliates, called “the spirit of Y’en a Marre”, the group advocates for youth to embrace a new type of thinking and living termed “The New Type of Senegalese” or NTS. In late 2011, the collective released a compilation titled “Y’en A Marre”, from which the single “Faux! Pas Forcé” emerged as a rallying cry for youth frustrated with President Wade and his son and presumed successor. They followed with a single, “Doggali” (“Let’s finish”), which advocated for cleansing the coutry of Wade and son.

The group and their members campaigned door to door to register young Senegalese to vote and claim that more than 300,000 voters were registered with Y’en a Marre’s assistance and urging. On February 16, 2012, three of the group’s founders were arrested for helping to organize a sit-in at Dakar’s Obelisk Square. Despite arrests, the group continued to organize protests up until the election that unseated Wade.

Despite reaching the goal of ousting Wade, Y’en a Marre remains active, hosting meetings and shows, urging the new government to implement promised reforms, including reforms of land ownership, a key issue for Senegal’s rural poor.

Y’en a Marre is particularly significant in Senegalese politics, because in his 2000 campaign, Abdoulaye Wade prominently featured the support of Senegalese rappers as a way of connecting with young voters. 12 years later, Y’en a Marre demonstrated that Senegal’s youth were not unquestioningly loyal to Wade and were searching for a leader who could credibly promise reform.

Who let all those Ghanaians on the Internet? Jenna Burrell on internet exclusion

Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.

Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana

Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.

Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.

Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.

Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.

This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.

Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.

When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.

Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.

Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.

Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”

Other blocks are more explicit., a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.

Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:

From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”

Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.

She leaves the group with a series of questions:
- How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
- How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
- When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?

These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.

I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.

I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.

Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.

It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?

Ghana Decides, 2012 – the story so far

Here are a few things we know about Ghana’s 2012 elections.

It’s going to be close. With 168 of 275 constituencies reporting, incumbent John Mahama has 49.83% of the vote and his chief rival Nana Akufo-Addo has 48.68% of votes. That’s lots closer than polls, which predicted a victory for Mahama, had been suggesting. Given that the third party candidates have less than 2% of the votes, a run-off seems possible, if both Mahama and Akufo-Addo remain below the 50% mark.

It wasn’t perfect. This was Ghana’s first election with a new biometric voter identification system. A massive registration drive issued voter ID cards that include information on the bearer’s thumbprint. Voters present their card, verify their thumbprints and are then able to vote. This system malfunctioned in some locations, leading to long lines and hot tempers, and the electoral commission extended voting into today to ensure everyone can exercise their franchise.

People who do hard work with their hands will have some problems with the machine..EC must act now.. #GhanaDecides
Edward Senyo

One of the reports I read yesterday on Twitter suggested that some of the people having bad problems were people who work with their hands, suggesting that scars or blisters might be interfering with the scanner. An article today offered advice on cleaning hands using Coke or akpeteshie (locally distilled sugar-cane or palm wine liquor) to create more readable prints.

Ghana invested heavily in biometric systems because there’s understandable concern about voter fraud. The 2008 election was settled by less than 40,000 votes and there was widespread concern that voters were sneaking across the border from Togo to vote, or voting multiple times. Stories like this one, in which biometric machines are revealing multiple attempts to vote, are getting good play in Ghanaian social media. (Great article, from the headline that implies a Robocop-style machine arresting the miscreant to descriptions of the gentleman’s alacrity in eluding authorities. :-) Given successes like this one, it’s likely that biometric voting will continue, with some fine tuning, in subsequent elections.

It was pretty damned impressive. Ghana has had a series of increasingly credible elections, starting in 1992, and capturing international interest in 2000, when a free and fair election ousted the party of former dictator (and later democratically elected leader), Jerry Rawlings. 2000, you may remember, was the year of endless Bush v. Gore drama in the US, and my friend Koby Koomson, then Ghana’s ambassador to the US, sent me a copy of the letter he’d sent to President Clinton, offering Ghana’s assistance to the US in election monitoring.

There’s a wealth of articles that celebrate Ghana’s successful democracy, including helpful insights from economist George Ayittey, who attributes democratic success to a strong and independent media, a vibrant set of NGOs, and maturity on the part of the nation’s politicians, who notes that the 2008 election could easily have turned chaotic, had not Akufo-Addo graciously conceded.

What’s interesting for me, as a passionate Ghanaphile, but an outsider to the political process, is that watching Ghana’s elections is a helpful tutorial in global good electoral practices.

The video above, from the Ghana Decides project, shows the vote counting process in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Accra, the historically Muslim neighborhood of Nima. The transparent boxes, the public sorting of ballots and the crowd watching the process are all parts of an intricate system that helps remove uncertainty from the results.

So are images like this one: the results from a specific polling place, publicly posted. In Zimbabwe’s last presidential election, posting these votes allowed the opposition MDC to conduct a parallel vote tabulation and contest ZANU-PF’s assertions that they had won outright. Parallel tabulation efforts are underway in Ghana, as well, with multiple monitoring, civil society and media organizations trying to ensure that the electoral commission’s results are in line with the reports at tens of thousands of polling places.

I’l be very interested to learn what my friends Mike Best at Tom Smyth at Georgia Tech and the team at PenPlusBytes learn from their experiments in social media monitoring. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of PenPlusBytes, and am advising Tom’s on his dissertation.) They’ve been aggregating tens of thousands of reports via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and following up on reports of violence or conflict. By monitoring Ghana’s peaceful elections, they hope to establish best practices for using their tools in monitoring more contentious ones, hoping to defuse violence before it unfolds.

I’ll offer two disappointments in Ghana’s elections. One is that Ghana continues moving towards being a purely two-party state. One of the benefits of a two-round electoral system (which forces a run-off if no one receives 50% + 1 vote in the first round) is that it encourages people to vote for smaller parties to express preferences, knowing they can vote strategically in a second round. But Ghanaian politics appears to have turned into a battle between NDC and NPP, with few surprises, even when the third party candidates are smart, engaging and adding to the dialog.

Second, NDC and NPP allegiances often have more to do with geography and tribe than with platform. I saw a dispirited tweet last night that suggested the best way to improve your electoral chances was to increase the birthrate in the parties’ respective strongholds. It’s disappointing to see elections based more on ethnicity than on issues, but it’s also clear this isn’t the reason behind everyone’s vote.

Here’s hoping that a close race remains and peaceful one and that Ghanaians continue to have justifiable pride in a robust and transparent electoral system and a healthy democracy.

Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad, and you should feel bad

Shortly after I posted a review of Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador”, a film that raised some interesting questions about what constitutes ethical and responsible journalism about Africa, I got a reminder about just how low alleged journalists can go in reporting about places they don’t know. I got a PR pitch from the folks at VICE:


Wanted to hit over a link to War Gin, VICE’s latest investigative news/travel piece on Ugandan alcoholism that I think you will enjoy for your readership. In the documentary, VICE correspondent Thomas Morton travels to Uganda and experiences “Brickellian pandemonium” in the drunkest country on the planet, to learn about the culture of Waregi, the country’s locally brewed moonshine.

You can watch the doc here:

Ugandans are the hardest drinking Africans in the motherland, both in terms of per capita consumption and the hooch they choose to chug. Waregi, or “war gin,” is what they call the local moonshine, and it makes the harshest Appalachian rotgut taste like freaking Bailey’s.

Additional footage of a goat being slaughtered for a boozy feast can be viewed here, but warning! Graphic footage:

Let me know if you have any questions about this piece, or VICE’s news and travel series. Release attached.


Communications Associate

Drunkest country on the planet, huh? Bonus footage of goat slaughter? Not the sort of “investigative news” I usually seek out, but certainly worth a quick watch, no? Particularly since Google searches weren’t helping me figure out what “Brickellian pandemonium” was.

The first seconds of the “documentary” aren’t promising. The narrator, Thomas Morton, begins by declaring: “Uganda’s had a pretty good spell the last 25 years. No major civil wars, a little bit of an Ebola outbreak every so often, including right now, and they are the alcoholism capital of Africa.”

So… let’s unpack that statement.

For the last 27 years, Uganda has been ruled by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who’s systematically silenced opposition and clung to power. Evidently the armed struggle between the Achioli people in the north against the government doesn’t constitute “major civic war”, though the conflict spawned the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for abducting and enslaving children as soldiers and sex slaves. And Uganda’s key role in the two Congo Wars, the deadliest conflict since World War II, evidently doesn’t take the shine off Uganda’s “pretty good spell.”

You’ll be surprised to discover that Morton’s analysis of alcohol consumption statistics is equally careful and sophisticated. He cites a 2004 WHO study that, allegedly, finds “Uganda as the top contender for per capita alcohol consumption in the world, making Uganda the drunkest place on earth.” He then asserts that Ugandans have been drinking even more since 2011. So I looked up the latest statistics from the WHO. Morton is right that Ugandans drink a lot, by African standards. Average per capita alcohol consumption is 11.93 liters per capita per year. That’s not as high as in Nigeria, where per capita consumption is 12.28 liters a year… which is especially impressive as nearly half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, while less than an eighth of Uganda’s population is. So Uganda’s not the most drunken nation in Africa.

And it’s not even in the running globally. Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, the UK and Ukraine all drink more per capita than Uganda. The most inebriated nation is Moldova, which at 18.22 liters per person per year, leaves Uganda in the dust. Uganda’s far closer to the UK, or to the US, which at 9.44 liters per capita, drinks 79% as much as Ugandans do per year.

So it’s obvious why Morton decided to film a story on Uganda’s “Moonshine Epidemic“. He was there already, doing hard hitting investigative reporting on Ugandan sex slang, and on storks, who are scary.

Or maybe Morton chose Uganda because those other harder-drinking nations, with the exceptions of South Korea and Nigeria, are in Europe, and filled with white people. And while poor Africans drinking moonshine makes for great video, who really wants to watch French people drink too much wine?

I watched the whole video. Don’t bother. Morton ventures a whole 40km from downtown Kampala and gets drunk in a village, where villagers slaughter a goat and share it. There’s lots of footage of people getting drunk and acting silly, and embarrassing, uncomfortable footage of people passed out. Morton goes back to Kampala, finds that people make alcohol there too, and also enjoy drinking it. There’s a wonderfully uncomfortable moment in an outdoor Kampala bar, where one of the drinkers Morton plans on documenting gives him an effusive and kind welcome, thanking him for coming to his neighborhood and honoring him as a friend and a brother. For Morton, this warm greeting is more evidence that Ugandans are really, really drunk, as he and his crew are there to make fun of them. He ends by walking through a red light district of Kampala, offering his insightful analysis: “This is sort of Britain’s lasting legacy here – Instead of rum, sodomy and the lash, Uganda opted for gin, no sodomy and hookers.”

It’s a good thing that Uganda exists, because otherwise Morton might have to prove his manhood (one of his Vice bios explains that “his nickname is ‘Baby Balls’ because he is a small man but absolutely fearless”) by exploiting people who are more likely to fight back against their misrepresentation. And, thank goodness, other exploiters haven’t found the comic potential of Uganda – an earlier piece by Morton decries the phenomenon of journalists descending on Detroit to engage in shooting “ruin porn”.

So I responded to the inquiry from XXXX from VICE. My note follows below.

XXXX, do you ever get embarrassed about working for a company whose approach to poor people in the developing world is to portray them in the worst, most shocking and exploitative light possible? Of all the stories one could run on Uganda – a corrupt autocrat and his attacks on the free press, a systematic campaign to persecute gays and lesbians and the role of US evangelical Christians in that persecution, the nation’s role in Central Africa instability – it’s really a priority to let us know that desperately poor people drink too much?

There’s not a prayer that I would run this story except to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And most of the questions I have for you and your colleagues are about how you manage to sleep at night. War gin, perhaps?


PS: “Bruegellian”, not “Brickellian”. You’re trying to compare an impoverished Ugandan village to the scenes evoked by a Renaissance Flemish painter, not a neighborhood in Miami.

And while that was satisfying, it doesn’t address the real problem. Most Americans hear little about sub-Saharan Africa. When we do, we virtually always hear bad news. And most Americans haven’t traveled to Uganda or know Ugandans. So they often find it hard to relate to stories from these unfamiliar parts of the world. It’s a really interesting problem to develop new approaches that get people who don’t know about a country to spend half a hour thinking about it.

I suspect people like Morton justify their work by telling themselves that sensationalistic coverage is the only way to get people to pay attention to African stories. Bullshit. Watch Anthony Bourdain cover some of the same territory in his hour-long celebration of food and culture in Ghana. He visits a village, watches local moonshine being brewed, and drinks it. But instead of showing contempt for his hosts and their culture, he tries to understand it and celebrate it.

VICE gets a lot of attention. CNN has shown their content, as has MTV. Their online videos are widely viewed. That they are this racist, exploitative and disgusting is a problem.

Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad for anyone who watches it, and you should feel bad.

On hating – and occasionally loving – Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador”

Before I traveled to Ghana for the first time in 1993, I attended an orientation in Washington DC for Fulbright scholars who would be working in sub-Saharan Africa. Returning scholars gave us lots of advice, some mission-critical (many people react badly to Lariam, the most-prescribed anti-malarial drug), some merely anecdotal and amusing. In the latter camp was a story about bribery in Ghana:

A Fulbright scholar had been warned he might be solicited for a bribe at Accra’s Kotoka Airport. He came prepared with a thick stack of US $5 bills. As he made his way through immigration, baggage claim and customs, he began handing bills to anyone who crossed his path. Word of this spread quickly, and he ended up running a gauntlet of baggage handlers, touts and officials, all with their hands out. He left the airport exhausted, devoid of bills, convinced that Ghana was, indeed, the most corrupt country he’d ever encountered.

The point of the story is not that Ghana is corrupt, but that your expectations about a situation have everything to do with what you will encounter. I’ve flown in and out of Kotoka dozens of times now, and have never been asked for a bribe, except in jest. (Indeed, in twenty years of doing business in Ghana, I’ve never been solicited for a bribe, though I’ve occasionally tipped low-level government employees, like the post office worker who spent three hours helping me wrap fragile xylophones in foam for shipping to the US.) But I’m confident that, had I offered bribes to anyone who was bribable, I’d be able to spend hundreds on each journey to Accra.

Trailer for “The Ambassador”

I thought about this story after watching Mads Brügger’s new film, The Ambassador. Brügger is a Danish journalist who gained international fame and notoriety for his previous film, The Red Chapel, where he poses as the communist director of a comedy troupe in order to be invited into North Korea, where the government – predictably, clumsily – tries to steer their work in a pro-regime direction. In this new film, Brügger attempts to expose those involved in the trade in blood diamonds: the government officials who are willing to sell diplomatic credentials to allow buyers in and out of diamond-producing countries, and the title brokers who make such trade possible.

To offer this exposé, Brügger creates a character, Mads Cortzen, who embodies every cliché of European colonialism in Africa. In tropical suits and knee-high boots, Cortzen smokes cigarettes in a long, ivory holder, hires two Pygmy assistants because “they are good luck” and spouts offensive dialog at every turn. His antics are recorded by an array of hidden cameras, sometimes placed in hollowed-out books, sometimes worn on Brügger’s body, as he pursues his agenda: obtain diplomatic credentials as an ambassador from Liberia, establish himself as a dealer in diamonds in the Central African Republic, secure conflict diamonds and bring them back to Europe.

Brügger’s point, apparently, is that this isn’t hard to do, and that corrupt businessmen from around the world are routinely engaged in this trade. But the narrative of the film complicates that premise. The drama of the film is all generated by the difficulties Cortzen experiences in carrying out his plans. His title broker, the hapless Willem Tijssen, delivers a handwritten diplomatic passport, not the biometric passports now used by Liberia and other ECOWAS nations, and seems unable to provide more believable credentials, despite the interventions of a powerful, and heavily compensated, lawyer. Cortzen’s diamond-mining partner appears likely to abscond with the funds Cortzen has invested, or to turn him over to the authorities when he tries to leave the country carrying diamonds. It’s not clear whether Cortzen’s fixer is even on his side, or whether he’s working for the diamond miner, the government, or other unknown parties. Near the end of the film, it seems possible that Cortzen, who came to the Central African Republic to transfer the nation’s mineral wealth to Europe will end up losing his investments, and locked in a Bangui prison. And given my increasing annoyance with his colonialist caricature, that’s the outcome I found myself rooting for.

At the end, Brügger’s character gets his diamonds, but doesn’t get the credentials he’d need to smuggle them safely. The film avoids the issue of what happens with the diamonds, archly noting the importance of discretion in diamond smuggling. Brügger has told interviewers that he wasn’t willing to break international law to bring the diamonds out of CAR, and sold them within the country, giving the proceeds to the Pygmies who’ve worked with him on his cover scheme, a match factory that promises jobs to impoverished workers. Not knowing whether the Cortzen character could have left the country with the diamonds leaves the central question of the film unanswered. Had he left without incident, it strengthens the narrative that diamond smuggling is easy and commonplace, while if Brügger were betrayed by his diamond mining colleague, it would complete a story of an arrogant interloper who wasn’t as smart as he thought, and who ended up victim of the people he thought he was manipulating.

When I first heard of the film, I thought it was likely to be a Vice-style “look at how crazy and dangerous Africa is” documentary, like The Vice Guide to Liberia (reviewed here.) I’m both intrigued and annoyed by this style of storytelling, angered by the clichés, but interested in anyone’s efforts to build narratives about sub-Saharan Africa that capture wide audiences. It’s clear that Brügger is a more sophisticated and complicated filmmaker than the Vice folks – they seem blissfully unaware of their racism and privilege, while Brügger’s character revels in a performance of colonialism. But at the end of the day, I’m not convinced he’s accomplished anything all that different.

In interviews, Brügger clearly sees himself as a crusader against corruption. He’s thoroughly aware that he’s on ethically shaky grounds: “I am fully aware that in some regards the ethics in my film, to say it simply, kind of suck. They do.” But his behavior is in the service of two higher goals: getting western audiences to pay attention to an African story, and to exposing those involved in the diamond trade. He asserts that Liberia has identified eight Cortzen-like characters in their diplomatic corps thanks to his efforts.

But Liberia hardly seems grateful for the assistance: they’re attempting to extradite him and to prosecute him for bribery and fraud. This, in turn, supports Brügger’s narrative: not only are Liberia’s officials so corrupt that they sell diplomatic passports, they are shameless in persecuting him, a journalist just doing his job, rather than rooting out corruption in their ranks. There’s a more complicated story that Brügger isn’t interested in addressing. He dismisses the legitimacy of the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by noting that a truth and reconciliation commission placed her on a list of people who should be disqualified from office for her financial support of Charles Taylor, rather than engaging in the complicated debate over whether the TRC’s recommendations were the right ones.

It’s hard to see how Brügger’s expose is going to lead to real change. It’s likely to be harder to obtain diplomatic credentials to set oneself up as a diamond smuggler… but Brügger’s film shows that this was hardly easy to begin with, and that credentials likely wouldn’t have enabled him to leave the country with those diamonds, without needing to conceal them, as his diamond mining partner delicately puts it, “in your pants”. In an interview, Brügger rubbishes the Kimberly Process, the regulatory system designed to make it difficult to sell diamonds from conflict regions, but the example he gives – DeBeers being pressured by the French government to leave CAR – seems to point to Kimberly’s impact, at least on the legitimate diamond trade. The real problem is that CAR has a deeply corrupt and ineffective government and has no control over most of its territory. While Brügger’s story brings that truth home in an interesting way, CAR’s problems aren’t news to anyone who studies Central Africa, and he offers no helpful advice beyond “Don’t trust white guys who are interested in Africa.”

Brügger has told interviewers that he wanted to make a film that portrayed Africa in a different light than those commissioned by NGOs, which he believes misrepresent the continent: “Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black — it’s almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.’s are to get funding for doing what they are doing.” Lots of documentary-makers would argue that their work is awfully far from that bleak narrative, but there’s certainly no shortage of documentaries that portray African suffering as a way of raising funds. But Brügger’s alternative is even darker. Anyone who’s given agency in his film (not the Pygmies, who aren’t permitted to be anything but stage-dressing for his character’s colonialist fantasies) is portrayed as corrupt, selfish and amoral, and Brügger explicitly questions the motives of anyone who would come to a place like Bangui, noting “Of course, a country such as this works as a magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It’s worth considering whether the white men and women working for NGOs and aid organizations in countries like the CAR have hidden and damaging agendas – the white savior complex, the continuation of a dependency on aid over development through trade – but Brügger’s analysis isn’t nearly that subtle. He’s interested in the persistence of a class of amoral raiders raping the continent and, unable to put one of these criminals on camera, he becomes one.

I realize it sounds like I’m trashing this film and the man who made it, and, to some extent, I certainly am. But it’s more complicated than that. As Aaron Leaf notes in the introduction to an interview on (the indispensable blog) “Africa is a Country” with the filmmaker, “Even if you like Mads Brügger’s documentaries, chances are you hate him.”
I’ve now spent a dozen hours watching the film twice and reading about it because I’m fascinated by the challenge Brügger chose to take on. It’s difficult to gain direct attention to countries like the CAR, and Brügger captures our attention. That he falls far short of the film I’d like to see him make – one that looks at the complicated and contradictory motives of Africans and non-Africans trying to transform the continent, one that offers solutions not just critiques – is not just a comment on his limitations, but on the difficulty of the task. I didn’t like “The Ambassador”, but it’s given me a great deal to think about, and I want you to watch it because I want more people to join in the discussion of whether a film like this one is more helpful than exploitative, whether Brügger’s motivations justify his ethical lapses, whether playing a colonialist is critique or privileged playacting, and whether “The Ambassador” is anything more than handing out $5 bills to everyone you encounter in the airport.

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