Mind your own goal Africa – and bring the football talent home

First: serious warning for those who think that the media is already full of football. So is this posting. It is mostly about football, but also about attitudes – and the lack of faith and national effort in African football. Stay tuned or alternatively stop reading and wait for another posting. Yet, there is a high likelihood that the next posting is also about football, as the World Cup 2014 has only just begun.

In fact, I am actually taking a big risk now by throwing my faith behind African football after only a few Group Stage matches. No one knows how this world’s biggest sporting event will end, and who takes the trophy home. All can still go sour also for the currently high-flying African teams of which three – Ghana, Nigeria and Algeria – have had great two past days. However, the performances of these three African countries have already made the continent proud. First the Black Stars of Ghana challenged Germany by ending with a draw, then Nigeria’s Super Eagles took their first victory in the World Cup level in 16 years, and finally Algeria’s Fennec Foxes won South Korea 4-2. Right now, it’s time for Africa and everything seems possible.

But can this hype continue? How could it continue as football in Africa is believed to have just problems? Before the games the ‘This is Africa’-website, among many others, analyzed why African teams never win in big international tournaments. The triple burden of backwardness, class suicide and lack of sporting culture are all convincing arguments, and seemingly widely shared in the social and conventional media in the continent. So not a surprise, if the same doubtful attitude is mimicked by football analysts in the Nordics where I have followed the recent games. In fact, according to many sport commentators, it is almost given that no African team can ever fare well, and if they do, it is a ‘super surprise’, ‘just poor luck’ or, most often, a bad day for the contesting (European) team.

These attitudes and analysis carry again also a great deal of eurocentrism. When Ghana was playing against Germany, the Finnish commentators concentrated almost entirely on how German team was playing or rather not playing, ignoring the fact that Ghanians had long ago taken the control of the game. Silence or ignorance was shown when Ghanian defense once again blocked German attempts or advanced to make yet another great goal. What a relief for the commentators when Klose finally ‘normalized’ the game and prevented Ghana’s victory. The world order of European commentators and audience a like was about to shaken had the Ghana managed to win the game. It just does not happen in the Eurocentric world of football.

Football is a great sport but also a lot of politics – global and domestic. African continent of one billion people and 55 countries is represented by only 5 countries in the World Cup while Europe has 13 slots. The number of slots allocated per continent is widely debated. Main arguments circle around the difference in criteria to which slots should be allocated to regions – whether it is based on number of population or country ranking based on talent. Whichever criteria used, African football federations have rightfully demanded a bigger quota. Being so few compared to the other continent’s teams, the few five African teams – this time Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria – have the double burden of not only representing their own country but also ‘ the Africa’ .

Although many are rightfully content of flying the pan African flag when any African team plays, there are also disadvantages. Once again, Africa is lumped as one homogenous continent, and its performance in football is analyzed with no nuances or country specifics, as if there were no differences between the regions, countries, governments and their approach to football and culture of sport. And in that analysis the continent’s usual evils such as lack of national team spirit, weak discipline and low respect, corruption in the sport (and public) administration, shortage of human and financial resources, absence of long term vision in identifying and developing sports and young talent, as well as overall weakness in general institutional capacity are always named as the culprits for no success. The analysis of African football is more of analysis of continent’s bad politics than actual performance of the different national teams and players.

In comparison, have you ever heard anyone accusing the British Conservative party for England’s poor performance or EU’s austerity measures for recent Portuguese loss and draw? Yet, Africa cannot succeed in sports, as Africa is ever the continent of trouble. And the countries and their teams are all the same anyway. According to this logic, the Nordic countries with their globally praised successful governments, well managed public finances as well as systematic and well resourced youth and sport administration should be on the top of the World Cup every time. Yet, no Nordic country has ever won World Cup and this time none of the countries are even represented – and we blame rightfully our weakness in sports, not politics.

African soccer fans and their global supporters would better now, in this hype of early success, start scoring some own goals, and change the tune on African football. And make some drastic decisions. In fact, any continent with so much football talent and many success stories both inside and outside its borders could be really proud of and supportive to those who despite all the well known challenges do make it. In fact, we ought to congratulate all African players, coaches and support personnel who do actually make the African football world famous. Committing oneself to playing, coaching or providing any other support to national football in many African countries is still a tough choice to make and would scare away many well resourced youngsters in other continents. Football career for an African youngster often costs his/her home, family and fatherland, as the opportunities to nurture one’s talent and survive by playing lay outside the continent. In her book ‘ Belly of the Atlantic’ Fatou Diome describes how Champions League, League 1 and Serie A are any Senegalese boy’s ultimate football dream and how there is only one direction to advance: across the Mediterranean. But very few African talents score big; most do not even get to the bench to wait for their turn. Returning home empty handed and consumed is often bitter, and there is no local or national league where to use the skills acquired. Many organized local soccer teams are actually just scouting platforms for foreign teams.

So African football decision makers: bring the talent home and concentrate playing your own game in the ‘New Africa’. The continent keeps on importing all kinds of raw materials to enrich the rest of the world – so the same applies to football where body and brain drain is allowed in the expense of the continent’s own success. Follow Algeria’s example that has paid off in these games so far. The country has allocated a great deal of time and resources to attract its players from all over the world to its national team which is now turning into success. Yes, football is an international game and we Nordics do not mind to have some African vibe in our teams as well. But a hat trick of fairer representation for the continent, more resources for national sport federations and youth development as well as a great deal of good old patriotism would give African football the boost it deserves. And kiss those Nordic and other Eurocentric and sarcastic football commentators a very good night and good luck.

High life pays out in Higher Life – Christian faith, money and politics in the New Africa

‘Hallelujah, even that old Marxist has turned to religion’, remarked my in-law when I told him how I was served fasting food in Addis Ababa by a common relative. My most recent visit to East Africa collided not only with fasting period in Ethiopia but also with the neighboring country Uganda’s decision to pass the law criminalizing homosexuality, applauded by the country’s various religious leaders. The same happened in Nigeria.  So the hot topic around the dinner tables and other gatherings alike in Addis was the role and influence of faith and religion in the New Africa.

Let me first make it clear that my intention is not to question or criticize anybody’s religious beliefs. Not me, who even as a young girl bought her first ever below-the-knee-dress when sent to highly religious Northern Namibia to work after independence. I knew what rescue and relief religion and local churches provided to people during the oppressive apartheid regime and therefore wanted to be properly dressed. Eventually, the local ladies I worked with asked my colleague, a returnee SWAPO-comrade, why I never started the day’s work with a prayer. That had been the custom of all the other Nordics who had worked in the area before independence. My colleague’s cool response was: ‘here we work, in church we pray’. And that was the end of the discussion, then.  I actually never wore that long dress either, as miniskirts were perfectly fit for the local Evangelical Lutheran Church I attended mainly for weddings, baptisms or funerals.

So, what I am now puzzled with is the increasing social and economic role of the Christian faith and religion in the New Africa. And how over the recent decades millions of African people – rich and poor alike – have found a new home in the so called Christian Pentecostal or Charismatic denominations spreading over Africa. I mean the churches whose names sound similar to township drinking holes and shebeens (=bars). ‘Put more Fire‘ (=bar), ‘Fire to Fire Ministry ‘(=church), ‘Peace of Mind’ (= bar), ‘High Tension Ministry’ (= church) – you got my point? And how at the same time many people formerly ignorant to or being only passive members of elder established churches like the Orthodox Church have started to follow and obey more actively the practices and rituals of their religion.

Indeed, according to various sources, recent years have seen tremendous growth in the number of Christians in Africa.  Christianity in the continent varies a lot, from the ancient forms of Oriental Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea to the newest African-Christian denominations of Nigeria. Nigeria in fact has experienced large conversion to Christianity in recent times. By the year 2000, there were already approximately 380 million Christians in the African continent. 147 million of them were Pentecostals and Charismatics. According to World Council of Churches the Pentecostal movement includes a large number of denominations, independent churches, and para-church organizations that emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian believers.  Curiously, some of the 552,000 active congregations throughout Africa are completely unknown in the other continents. So it seems that recent growth of Christianity in Africa is due to African evangelism rather than European missionaries. But some movements have backing from sister organizations in other continents.  Many have links to the US Christian Right Groups that promote conservative values, market capitalism and support the African churches via various channels. Many have indeed used this connection to explain the Ugandan and Nigerian governments’ negative attitude towards sexual minorities. This link has its religious and moral but also economic and political dimensions that all interact in a complex and powerful manner.

When I lived in Mozambique late 1990s and in Angola in mid-2000 it was still difficult to differentiate a church from a local baraca (=bar) by its name or appearance. Commonly known as padres brazileiros and other foreign pastors were filling up the spiritual vacuum people felt after collapse of socialist state system and facing new pressures of the competitive market society. And those padres were vacuuming the people in other ways as well: many church leaders emptied poor people’s pockets while filling their spiritual and social needs. Church-like simple shacks and barracks were erected and tiny congregations led by a self-proclaimed ‘pastor’ established all around Mozambique and Angola as well as elsewhere in the African continent, often among the poor communities.

The situation has somewhat changed in recent years as many of the new churches have managed to consolidate their presence and influence. Funded by local pockets and from external sources many of these churches today occupy prominent geographical and social space in African cities. In fact, when in Namibia last January, I could hardly tell the difference between the majestic Namibian High Court building and one of the religious temples at the prime spot in Windhoek’s main business street just a stone throw away from the City Hall. These churches have also managed to reach out to the up-and-coming middle class and those in power with equally needy spiritual lives. Sometimes, aspiring middle-class and wanna-be-politicians also seek religious advice to achieve personal prosperity or success in social and political life from the new churches and their leaders. Advice and influence work both ways and is often rewarded by money and more influence in other walks of life. Highlife matches with Higher Life: both material and spiritual.

As a consequence, churches’ and their leaders’ wealth and power have become a factor in African political life. Conservative and capitalist values they preach combined with decreasing tolerance towards non-believers or those who are seen to break the ‘right’ Christian code lead to moral judgments and strong political opinions. Conservative interpretations of Christianity have become more intertwined with politics as they influence people’s choice of political leaders and create new expectations towards them to uphold the very same moral values. My mini-skirt so well tolerated in the Namibian church in 1990s would rule me out of these circles today, I am afraid.  

Well,  the new churches and the way they stir the New Africa interestingly reminds me of the 1980s classic South African movie from Jamie Uys The Gods must be Crazy’. The movie tells of Xi and his San community living well off the land in the Kalahari Desert. They are happy because the gods have provided plenty of everything. One day, a Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane and falls to earth unbroken. Initially, this strange artifact seems to be another present from the gods. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one glass bottle to go around. The San community soon find themselves experiencing envy, anger, and even violence. In the end there is no other solution than get rid of the bottle to restore the peace in the community and ask the gods to send them no more bottles. In the New Africa, the Gods must not only be Crazy but Prizey as well: in the name of the gods and Holy Spirit combined with churches’ economic muscle they disturb the peaceful co-existence of diverse African communities.

Fast food in New Africa: a dressing or a splurge?

I always remember first months of 1990 of my white bread and coca-cola diet. That was my stable diet when living with an underground ANC family in Dobsonville, Soweto, in South Africa. The lady of the house was running a tuck shop with the usual stock: white bread loaves, Rama margarine, jam, biltong (=dried meat strips), tins of sardines, mealie meal, matches and candles. And of course cans and bottles of fizzy drinks of all flavors and colors, something completely unknown to a Nordic milk drinker like me.

The diet was stable also at the youth camp I went with some South African students. We were building schools and teaching kids English at one of the South African bantustans (= homelands designed for non-white populations). There were mamas at the school road side selling bread together with cooked meat, fried chicken and portions of pap (=maize porridge). The few kids who could afford to buy food were happily munching their bread and drinking soft drink during the breaks or on their way home. There was of course no authority to teach kids about the consequences of too much sugar to one’s health. In retrospect, for me, the white-bread-fizzy-drink –diet was comfort food, a steady intake of sugar and carbs to ease the confusion caused in my young mind, for the first time experiencing the life of black South Africans under apartheid. It was like a dressing to my wounds caused by uneasiness of a first world student in a third world country.

Apropos, Northern Namibia in 2014: back to the white-bread- Rama- jam -fizzy drink – diet in Oshoopala informal location. Kids run day and night in between the corrugated shacks and more established housing. Every now and then they stop at doorstep to pick up a slice of bread with jam or peanut butter and a cup of coke. Occasionally I see someone munching an apple or adding egg between the white bread slice. But seldom. When I announce an idea to go to town to get some proper food, all kids scream with one voice: Let’s go to Kentucky!

The poor diet of poor African households is seen as one reason for child malnutrition and health problems, but also for growing obesity. It might be as well, because as long as market decides that food of low nutritional value is also of low price, poor people must buy it.  Although this blog posting is not about hunger but of changing dietary habits in Africa, it is worth recognizing that the number of hungry grew in Africa during the last 20 years from 175 million to 239 million. Nearly one in four persons in Africa is hungry.

At the same time, overweight and obesity in Africa has also increased by 35 % between 1992 and 2005 alone. The phenomenon is often linked to eating habits due to urbanization but also to rural poverty, changes in wealth and lifestyles – to the negative or the positive- as well to level of education – less or more of it. So the question is; does overweight and obesity affect more the poor or the rich population?

Some statistics show that thanks to changing dietary habits, the growing African middle class is also growing by their dress size. The cover photo of January issue of African Business magazine pictured a hamburger, illustrating the new food habits of the new middle class.  Africa’s fast food love affair–story explains how Africans have joined the rest of the world in taste for fast food. According to Euromonitor fast food sales in Africa and Middle East have grown by 50 % in the last five years. The investments, emergence of local and foreign brands in fast food industry as well as employment in the sector have increased fast. One common explanation is that the growing middle-class has bigger appetite for fast food. But it also matters that Sub-Saharan Africa is the youngest region in the world, and youth’s preference to fast food is well known.

Food is not only nutrition, but takes many meanings in people’s lives – especially among those who can practice choice in their diets. People all over the world express themselves via their dietary choices, so do the growing number of new Africans. A latte generation is taking root in the continent as well. People demonstrate their political or ideological views via food. Also socio-economic changes, such as women entering the job market affect food habits in families. Europe has already seen generations fed by the microwaves. However, in Africa even urban families often still consist of multiple family members, who can cook home meals while others are at work. Or many families can afford domestic workers, so readymade box food is not an ultimatum.

For the African middle class, perhaps the choice of food is also of demonstrating one’s identity, to showing one’s belonging to the new urban class?  Or just a matter of developing new tastes and being curious of new food? Or could it be that for many, as for me in 1990s South Africa, the food high on sugar and fat can also be a matter of comfort or convenience? It becomes a medium to ease one’s frustration in an uncomfortable situation or life in transition. A Big Mac at hand makes a young New African part of the gang?

And what the affluent create as a trend in New Africa, so follow the poor and those who would like to belong.   Naturally, politics and economics of food affect the poor population more than the middle class. Hungry people eat what is available and what they can afford. At the moment, rapidly growing fast food culture and expanding supply of candies, ice creams, soft and energy drinks reach out to poor too, and start influencing their dietary choices. And often those choices are bad as they mean turning away from more nutritious traditional meals.

Alas, street side food has been a part of lifestyle in many African countries for long. As long as there have been schools, offices or factories, someone has brought her cooking pot and started a business. Or what else represent those road side vendors selling fried corn, peanuts, fried meat and chicken, chapatis, maandazi and bananas cooked in oil? So pick-up food in itself in Africa is nothing new.

But what is new in the New Africa is the growing economic and industrial interest in feeding the new African middle class with standardized franchise junk – hamburgers, drumsticks and potato chips. Growing interest for one-Super-size-fits-all food means also new demands for agricultural production and choice of crops. The fast food industry needs products that meet the industry standards, but local chickens for example cannot measure up to Kentucky’s breast size of a turkey.  African agricultural productivity is still only 56 % of world average, and only 5 % of land is artificially irrigated. So more needs to be produced but is the product necessary of better nutritional quality if fast food industry starts to dictate the demand and supply? The danger is that the New African middle class’ love for fast food might turn from a dressing to a splurge – wasting away old eating habits and introducing junk food destructive for the food security and health of the whole continent.

Africa rising or Africa overpricing?

House-hunting blues of the young African middle-class
I have a friend in Namibia, let’s call her Selma. Selma has a university degree, works for an international organization, has a car and a smart phone of the latest model. In short; she lives a life of a single urban professional in Windhoek. Except that she cannot afford a home of her own. With the growing cost of housing in Windhoek and other urban parts of Namibia, there is no way Selma can afford a house in the near future. Even with her recent pay-raise, she still keeps counting her dollars, but comes not even near to qualify for a house mortgage that would give her a decent flat in a decent area of town.  Her best chance is to get lucky with one of the social housing projects in the country. But that will take some time, as queues are long – today housing loans are awarded to those who have been in a queue since 2009. And quite frankly, Selma is a little bit too well off for a social housing scheme, which she admits herself too.

There are many Selmas in Namibia, as the young generation, so called born-frees (born after the country’s independence in 1990) are now graduating from various education institutions in the country and entering the job market. Jobs are scarce (some estimate that almost half of Namibian youth is unemployed), but those who have education at least stand a decent chance.  My other friend Tuafeni is one of those young Namibians who never completed any professional training. He lives in ‘a converted garage’ rented from a cousin of his brother-in-law’s sister’s nephew – the best support networks even in towns are still extended families. He shares the space with two other guys who all live by odd-jobs here and there. There are more Tuafenis than Selmas in today’s Namibia (out of the total population of little over 2,3 million) as despite post-independent efforts the education is not yet of reach of the growing young population. Many of them have to do with a shack or makeshift dwelling somewhere outskirts of town.

But we leave Tuafeni out of this blog posting, and concentrate on Selma, to discuss on the faith of middle class in many African cities. The growth of the middle class has been celebrated as success of the Africa rising –narrative. These young, dynamic, IT-savvy urban professionals are considered the best insurance of African bright future development. They are both the guarantee and the best beneficiaries of the economic growth all over the continent.  And the growth continues even this year, as according to recent statistics four African countries (Libya, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Zambia) appear in the Top 10 of best performing countries in 2014. Many have said that poor can’t eat economic statistics, and the poor are many in Africa and might also be on the increase, if growing inequality is not tackled. But what if in addition to that, the current economic boom with high price increases is affecting negatively even those middle-class people who should according to the Africa rising –narrative be doing well?

Just before last Christmas Selma and other Namibians learnt from Wall Street Journal that Namibia has the fourth ‘hottest’ property market in the whole world in terms of house price increase (after Hong Kong, Dubai and Brazil). Indeed, a real boost of self-confidence to realize that a little desert country in the Southern hemisphere can be ranked alongside well-known global business centres! Average house prices in Windhoek are today double of what they were six years ago. Good for those who managed to benefit from the scheme for privatization of government houses in the early 1990’s or invested in a piece of urban land after independence when apartheid legislation separating housing areas was dismantled. But, the price increase is sour grapes for the young middle class buyers.  If earlier bank tellers (with a monthly income comparable to Selma) could afford a house in town, now even the bank managers cannot buy one!

According to Africa Report  Namibia’s problem is not unique: with high population and urbanization growth rates, similar stories apply to many African countries.  Booming African cities and towns are drawing in rural migrants eager for jobs. Urban dwellers are sett­ling down and starting families. Urbanism as a way of life and its lived realities are increasingly defining Africa. However, these processes are often ridden with contradictions. Therefore, struggles, inequalities and conflicts shape African urbanism as well, and diverse urban situations are of interest of many studies e.g. at the Nordic Africa Institute.

Often based on colonial­ era plans and infra­structure, African cities are struggling to cope. Governments have been slow to create solutions for the housing problem, but perhaps in recent years the situation is changing a bit. In the North African uprisings lack of housing played a heavy part to trigger unrest, but even less dramatic effects can wake up the governments. Both Selma and Tuafeni can vote this year for the first time in their lives. Although Namibians are according to Afrobarometer rather satisfied with the government performance, unemployment, lack of decent housing and poor public services are considered as alarming problems.

Private companies see rapid rates of urbanisation as an op­portunity. They consider the potential of the African market as a way to make money, and often target their business to the wealthy, while governments are left to deal with the poor. The key is to find a way around conflicts between property developers and governments.  The governments wants the developers to focus on cheap housing, and the developers seek to make money. And money is booming in African cities with the current investment rate.

But who is there to cater for the middle-class? Land is scarce in urban areas, and even scarcer are the urban services in an arid country like Namibia with lack of water and overburdened electricity networks. So competition for decent urban space increases – and money rules the game. Foreign investors, established segments of the urban population, well connected new elite with public housing allowances as well as local businesspeople benefitting from the current resource boom can afford to pay the current prices, or negotiate decent financing. Consequently, Namibian urban areas are again differentiated despite laws and policies stating the opposite, and people from different social strata separated. Many who cannot anymore afford to live in town are from the previously disadvantaged groups – frankly speaking black. Scholarship programmes, better educational and employment quotas for all do not help, if only the markets determine the price of land. The future prospects of new productive middle-class are becoming bleaker. The Africa rising –narrative can become a story of Africa overpricing for its own population.

So, as for Selma, what are her solutions at the moment? Stay in a queue, get a job with a housing allowance, move to far away area so called ‘ex-black township’ and drive a long daily way to work, or look for another job in another town where the market is not ‘so hot’? But if all Selmas move out of town, who is then left to make the New Africa happen?

African women in the entertainment media – a race to the bottom?

Let’s admit it from the very beginning: this is a middle-age white woman speaking again. Woman who has literally been in pains to learn how to dance ‘the African way’, and has enjoyed it ever since. In my native Nordic dancing style only two organs in one’s body twist and swing to the music – any music – that is the elbows and the knees. The quicker the music, the busier are the elbows and knees swinging, sometimes accompanied by heavy shaking one’s head if the going gets really tough. We young Nordic expats must have been a funny bunch when dancing in the early 90s in the legendary ‘Put More Fire’ disco in the Northern Namibia. It was a lot of swingy knees and elbows, but little if at all hip movements. My friend of that time, Beatrice from Zambia, found our efforts so embarrassing, that she volunteered giving us dance lessons. She made me discover my hips and bottom and showed how I can add some African flavor in my Nordic moves. The lessons were serious stuff and really challenging at times, but she was patient enough not give up but pushed us even further until our bodies really hurt. Since then I have always been happy to blend into the dancing floor when I hear popular African beats like kwasa-kwasa, zouk or kizomba and continued my lessons with many more skillful Africans.

So last week I danced in Monrovia, Liberia.  We were another odd Nordic bunch, going around the clubs in the Monrovian heat of the night. It was great, inspiring and fun. The amount of local energy and vibe was captivating and the glorious Liberian ladies just simply conquered the dance floor.  The African dance styles, placing special attention to moving hips and sensual bottom shaking – some called it booty dancing – are so captivating and fun to look at.  Booty dance styles have existed in various forms in both traditional and modern African communities. And dance in general has long been a medium through which many African people – in African continent and diaspora – descent worship, express creativity, communicate, and pay homage to ancestors and spirits. So in war-recovering Monrovia, what could be more fitting than to dance the night away celebrating the country’s sure yet fragile way towards post-war transition?

But, another reality hit the following morning. And I do not mean the babalaz (=hangover), but the new African music video industry and its way of portraying African women dance. That is really the bottom of it, to say as(s) it is! Black women’s thrusting, vibrating buttocks seemed to be the primary object in many videos. As for the positive side, African produced and owned media channels have even increased and become more popular since my latest stay at DSTV radar in Tanzania. Now apart from Channel One there are more music channels like Afro Pop and many other African entertainment channels, mostly produced in the new entertainment capital of the world, the Nollywood, Nigeria. Nollywood industry has created movies and music videos for African audience with local themes, scenes and actors that are more interesting and fitting for African reality, winning back African audiences from Western (mainly Hollywood) produced soap operas and video clips. And black women are indeed plentiful in music videos. But why on earth I got the feeling that most often women wear next to nothing and they main job is to titillate male viewers with vibrating body moves during a four minute musical peep show?

Many African produced music videos repeat the American hip-hop music genre where women have for long been degraded, materialized and made object of male desire rather than subjects of their own. It is common but sad fact of the global entertainment world, and perhaps we should not be so surprised that the growing New African entertainment industry follows the suit. But does it have to be a race to the bottom, as it comes to the female representation in new African music industry? Do the African music videos really have to ridicule the African traditional dance styles, promoting black women just as bottom body parts? Quoting Valerie Johnson at RabRehab website (http://raprehab.com/ ) many modern music videos perpetuate the continued assault on the sexual integrity of black women’s bodies. As it is not simply the depiction of black women as big booty, scantily clad, gyrating, voiceless sex toys. But, there is so little to counter these images anywhere else in the media. I can only wonder, what kind of an attitude these videos offer to our daughters and to our sons too, of women’s position and gender relations?

Gender equality, women’s participation and empowerment are generally making important inroads in the African continent. Mind you, the very country where I just danced, elected Ellen Johnson Shirleaf as the first female President of the African continent (with the help of a strong women movement), and can be proud of another female Peace Nobelist Leymah Gbowee. A survey ‘Best places to be a woman’ awarded first places in some categories not only to usual-suspects, the Nordic countries, but also Rwanda, Burundi and Lesotho. They came first as regards to number of women parliamentarians (Rwanda is the only nation in which females make up the majority), female literacy (in Lesotho literate women exceed those of men) and labor force participation (in Burundi the female labour force participation rate is higher than that of men).  Although these numbers are not product of a scrutinized academic research, it can still be argued that African countries have made progress in bridging the gender gaps and creating more opportunities for women to participate in all walks of life. Yet, serious imbalances remain as regards to gender equity and equality as well as power relations between men and women. Achieving gender equality in Africa has for long been an objective of many African countries’ official policies, donor interventions as well as academic research. The large body of gender research has studied the women’s issues from many different perspectives and it is practiced ever more by African women themselves.

Yes, we might easily think that entertainment industry is a world of its own, and it is the other sectors in life that matters. But these downgraded and dehumanizing African women’s images in entertainment media make all the time a bigger part of everyday realities of young African generation with better access to popular culture via modern media. And entertainment images create behavior patterns and attitudes that are hard to counter-balance, when satellite TV-providers, cheaper TV-sets, smart media gadgets and the internet are all over and show all the same stuff.  I think it is essential that African women – and in fact women over the world – take joint action against the media images and decide to make a difference. With a quick search, I noticed the women’s image in music industry is recognized and already vividly discussed in African popular media websites such as This is Africa (http://www.thisisafrica.me/). Better media literacy among young generation is but one important way of empowering them to differentiate fact from fiction.

At the same time, African booty-dance styles deserve respect as it takes a huge amount of skill and effort to master the dances. Dancing should continue to be an act of joy and expression that all women and men can enjoy with their head high on top, rather than to be downgraded to some bottom class show business.

Sorry folks, I am not alone

Call me Afro-pessimist if you like, but could I propose skipping the blaming and shaming and get finally a real conversation going on here? For starters: Africa is a diverse continent – in good and bad. So there are also diverse ways of looking at the African development, politics and performance. My way of questioning the uncritical Africa hype is but one – and sorry folks, I am not alone. Or what could one say after the recent release of the Afrobarometer Round Five Survey?  Already the fifth time in 14 years the survey has gathered current, reliable and comparable data from the continent’s 34 countries (with 51 605 respondents) concerning poverty, both government and individual economic performance, freedom of speech, democracy and governance. So as some of my commentators have already asked, let’s listen to the Africans! Afrobarometer is a good channel to transmit what the African people in the African continent say about their own situation – and whether they agree on Afro-pessimism or Afro-optimism, or perhaps something else?

Afrobarometer indeed gives a colorful picture of the continents performance. As regards to poverty, the survey shows little change in reduction of poverty at the grassroots using what they call ‘Lived Poverty Index’. Despite record economic growth rates many Africans still report shortages in basic needs, including water, food, healthcare and cash. So either the economic growth is not trickling down to average citizens or there is a reason to question whether the reported growth rates are actually real. The latter refers us to the already vivid discussion on the continent making headlines such as ‘Lies, damn lies and African statistic?’’ as some researchers have questioned the reliability of the continents statistics.  What Afrobarometer also shows is that in those 16 countries where there is comparable data from the previous decade, there is in fact little improvement in lifestyle, and poverty has been reduced only very slightly. So that’s some ammunition for the Afro-pessimists, if you like.

To add some insult to the injury, majority of Africans seem to have little trust on their governments’ ability to manage their economies, create jobs, improve the living standards of the poor and narrow the gaps between the rich and the poor.   A striking majority of 76 % of the respondents are on the opinion their government handles the matter of reducing inequalities very or fairly badly. No wonder if and when, in other news, magazines like Ventures and Forbes are already able to list 55 African billionaires, which many say is actually an underestimate of the number of mega-rich in Africa.

Well, some arguments for the Afro-optimists, too:  according to Afrobarometer more and more people are nowadays able and willing to express their opinions and perceptions on their own lives, government’s performance as well as continent’s development. Just half of Africans surveyed by Afrobarometer (49%) across all 34 countries say that they are completely free to say what they think; while another quarter says they are at least somewhat free. Popular demand for media freedom is solid, with 57% endorsing a right to publish. And where people feel that they are free to say what they want, they also report that their leaders are more trustworthy and less corrupt than do their peers. Freedom of expression is consistently linked to better ratings of government performance, especially with respect to government effectiveness in fighting corruption, but also in other sectors such as managing the economy.

Let’s zoom to a country-level perspective to hear some more Africans talking. Almost exactly a year ago I had a chance to visit my old querida, Cidade de Maputo, the capital of Mozambique where I lived almost five years in the 1990s.   We had a happy reunion with my old roommate Ivone and her sister Sonia who as then 20-something, city girls who taught me how to navigate through the potholed avenidas of the war-stricken town. Sitting in our old neighborhood in a recently renovated bar for some copos I was still steaming with excitement of my arrival. First time I was passing through the tube to airport not needing to step on the broken tarmac as always before, thanks to new shiny airport.  ‘Mas minha amiga’ remarked Ivone, ‘you must have recognized the same old buracos (potholes) at Bairro Aeroporto when leaving the airport? Indeed, they were still right where I left them some 12 years ago.  

Since then both Ivone and Sonia had started small businesses and were living the new Mozambique to the fullest, recognizing the government’s slow but not yet so steady progress. Afrobarometer survey shows that a majority considered the economic conditions in Mozambique much better or somewhat better than before, but the individual economic situation has still a lot to improve.  Living in a changing cidade like Maputo is like dancing the local dance kizomba – setting yourself in a rhythmic swing with a careful motion to avoid the buracos and not stepping on your partners toes.  Ivone and Sonia like most Mozambicans according to Afrobarometer show great optimism towards the future: 68 % of the respondents believe that both overall and their personal economic situation would still get better. The same applies to continent-wide results:  57% of respondents expect Africa’s future economy to be brighter, despite strong reservations on their government’s performance.

On one hand new airport tubes, on the other the same old buracos – but perhaps less dead ends? Another recent release of African data echoes this perspective; the Mo Ibrahim Index. According to the index, 94 % of African people live in a country that has shown overall governance improvement since 2000. Mozambique is one of them. But some other countries and some other categories have not improved at all – in fact in some aspects the safety and rule of law category has regressed. Something for the billionaires to worry about, as personal safety category slows the highest downward slope? Overall, there is a widening gap in performance between the best and the worst governed African countries, increasingly noticeable differences between the performance across different categories and conflicting trends within the categories.

So indeed, I am not alone. Mo Ibrahim said it all:  ‘Neither Afro-pessimism nor Afro-optimism do justice to modern Africa. This is now the age of Afro-realism – an honest outlook on our continent. It’s about a celebration of its achievements but also a pragmatic acknowledgement of the challenges that lie ahead.Então, for a change, I am not puzzled but could not agree more. Do you?

Europe-Africa Partnership: Still Fitting in the Little Glass Slipper?

Once upon a time in an African desert I decided to go on strike. As 20-something development activist I took many things for granted, such as people’s rights to decide their own affairs by choosing their own leaders. But with limited tool box at my disposal, I just could not figure out any other way to make it happen than to stop working. Because, after many prolonged discussions under a Namibian acacia tree the returnee women could not decide whom to elect to lead the cooperative they were planning to establish. Fair enough, as during apartheid regime they had never had a chance to vote.  So they kept looking to me for advice. After all, I came from the North and represented the Friendly Generous People there. So, I decided to sit at home until they had made up their minds. The Northern organization I was working for was not very happy about my illegal industrial action. They reminded me of the need for quick decisions as we were entrusted with and accountable for Tax Payers Money. I responded by saying that in fact we were entrusted with Namibian Women’s Own Future. Miraculously, the North left me in peace. The ladies came to pick me up a few days later and announced their elected chairperson. And since then the Green Namibia Community Cooperative has existed (almost) happily ever after. And I could tick the box in the project report that I had Successfully Harnessed Ownership.

I remembered my illegal industrial action more than a decade later when guarding much bigger Tax Payers Monies in Tanzania. We were spending long hours negotiating on Performance Assessment Matrix – a tool to assess performance in aid relationship related to budget support. It was when the big words Ownership, Accountability and Mutual Responsibility had already become a common mantra of the Northern and African relations after the Paris Agreement. Unlike the women born in exile and with little education in Northern Namibia, I was now working with Senior Civil Servants With A Doctorate in Aid Management. That was the reality in many African countries those days: Northern development partners making African governments to believe having ownership on the aid resources and on the direction of their own agenda. And African partners making Northern development partners to believe they were happy to comply with conditionalities linked to Big Aid Monies. After all, their state budgets depended upon those Monies. I often wanted us all to call a General Strike and re-boot the Aid Fairy Tale. It was so much empty talk and unreal intentions. Some aid critics have in fact compared the aid relationship with Hans Christensen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Aid Based on Partnership is rather an illusion than real cooperation based on Ownership, Mutual Respect and Equal Opportunities.

But as in most fairy tales, a miracle happened. African economic growth and its governments’ increased assertiveness have created a whole new situation where aid is more and more irrelevant to many African state budgets. Mind you, I do believe that Northern aid has played a role in providing conditions for economic growth and better leadership – and can still act so. However, in the new situation, many African countries are less dependent on the traditional Northern (= European) aid pledges, due to their own domestic resource mobilization and because of the New Kids on The Block: The New East’s investment and South-South cooperation. So African development can finally stand on its own feet, and rid itself from old aid paradigm.  Consequently, ownership can have a true meaning, not just be a box to tick in the aid project manual.

Again a Happy Ending? Not quite, as the Northern partners and especially EU seem to have got stuck in yet another fairy tale: the Cinderella. Looking for his long lost beauty, the EU now behaves like the handsome prince searching for an innocent and obedient maiden to fit in to the Little Glass Slipper she left behind. According to that narrative, Africa needs to be saved from its evil ugly Stepmother that is enslaving the continent and alienating its ties with the old Good Fairy. In other words, EU still thinks it has the monopoly to give meaning to Ownership and that only it possesses the knowledge on What is Best for Africa.

The new Europe-Africa partnership agreement being discussed at the moment will be a real litmus test of the new global reality.  How can future EU-Africa relations be based on a real ownership and genuine partnership and what would the relations be all about? Africa is no more willing to fit in to the shoes tailored solely by the North. So EU should be ready to face the real truth: the Cinderella grew up. For example the way EU has been force-feeding the Economic Partnership Agreements, EPAs, to Africa with double standards would rather illustrate the arrogant behavior of the ugly Stepsisters than someone trying to broker a true partnership. Partnership in essence also means compromises.

African governments and institutions of today want to write their own fairy tale and manufacture their own shoes to fit in. EU needs to start recognizing the heterogeneity of the African continent, its regions and societies and have strategies that fit for different situations. EU is at face-value promoting the formal features of democracy in the African continent: elections, human rights and good governance. Yet, there are exceptions to the rule whenever it suits the European intentions. As long as the African regimes are not openly too ugly or evil and the people are not too brutally repressed, EU is willing to make a deal. This is because EU’s own resource extraction, trade and security interests are at the core of its relations with Africa, however nicely packaged in the Human Rights and Good Governance wrapper. While Africa can now have more say on its own affairs and define its own interests and partners, Europe should also be bold enough to reveal its true intentions. In that way they could get real with genuine partnership.

In the real world, equal partners tolerate disagreements and are even prepared to fight for their rights. In the real world, there is no need for old paradigms and feelings of guilt or remorse. Let’s indeed hope the world is real in 2014, when EU-Africa Partnership Summit will be held.  To tackle the common global challenges there is need for joint action; otherwise it is our common planet that will call in a General Strike.