Archive for the 'Africa' Category

Blue Sky, Pixar & More Artists Paint for a Cause

What happens when you make a documentary film and just happen to work at one of the top animation studios in the world? If you’re smart, you make friends with the artists and they multiply your creativity. If you’re smarter, you ask them to bring their friends from around the world with them. And that’s just what happened for Brownstones to Red Dirt, the thought provoking film about kids in Brooklyn housing projects paired with Sierra Leonean pen pals orphaned by civil war.

Artists from Blue Sky Studios and beyond (Pixar, ILM, Valve, 2K Games, CTW, more) have provided hand-drawn artwork on postcards as a lovely counterpoint to the very real letters exchanged by the kids in the film. So many ways to evoke pen-pals, whimsy, struggle, thoughtfulness, and much more. Soon there will be 150 unique pieces. And starting March 6 you’ll be able to buy them.

Proceeds go to construct schools and improve education in Sierra Leone. Buy a postcard and help make it happen! Update: the auction is live

Some favorites (click for details):

Find more on the Brownstones to Red Dirt Art Auction blog and see a another fabulous art endeavor at Blue Sky Studios Challenge.

The Road to Kampala


In a few days I’ll be in Uganda, and that’s just the beginning. Scrambling over the last week, we put together a mammoth plan: USA to Uganda, Uganda to Rwanda, Rwanda to Tanzania, Tanzania to South Africa. (And there might be a little Kenya sprinkled in there, too.) All in 3 weeks and all in service of a dream to find ways to make social computing more relevant to the next billion users.

I’ve had a long standing interest in using technology to empower underserved communities, dating back to my thesis work in inner city schools. When I came to IBM, I decided to focus on other things but I never stopped writing about the possibilities. And over the past few years, it became clear to me that the opportunities in developing nations (or in corporate-speak “growth regions”) was too big to ignore. What shocked me, though, is that IBM agreed — and sent me to India as the social computing delegate to a thought leadership study on technology for the “next billion users.”

From there, I was given a year to “figure it out.” What is IBM’s social computing play in developing nations? There are so many questions out there — how do we answer? For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But, then, that’s both a blessing and a curse: given enough rope, will I hang myself? What’s followed has been anything but easy: politics, economics, complex partnerships, tickets bought and canceled at the last minute, seeing the impact of dead aid first hand, losing the person who made so much of our work possible. There are a million moving parts and, as the team lead for the work, I’m consumed by holding them all together. It’s been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life: exhilarating in one instant, soul crushing the next. And through it all, a classic David Mamet scene has been on repeat in my head:


Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.

Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]

Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.

Now what are you prepared to do? With every showstopper, the question keeps coming back. And I keep hoping I have enough of an answer to keep this thing alive, to make it something bigger, to have some chance of making it a career. I’ve always felt I had a few threads I could pull together to define my research identity, but never has it been so crystal.


For my thesis I did what I was good at, at times at IBM I’ve done what I could be paid to do, and in tiny bits of spare time I pursue what I want to do. Now I have a window to bring it all together and hit the sweet spot in the middle. Or watch it fall apart.

So, in getting on that plane to Kampala I’m well aware I have tons to learn. (I’ve been to the continent twice before but never to do work there.) But my hope is that this is at least the end of the beginning — a point where my group and I (because god knows I couldn’t have gotten here on my own) can start in some small way to have an impact. I’ve fought so hard to get to this point, I have to make it matter. Can’t break promises to Jim Malone, now can we?

The trip is booked end to end with conference presentations, meetings with innovative NGO partners, universities, and government. But I hope to have some photos and stories to tell, too. See you on the road!

South African Kawaii

Those who know us know we search out cute. Not that saccharine sweet Barbie + unicorns cute, but the kind of cute that’s got style. (Like, say, Meomi’s fabulous Octonauts.) And, honestly, the Japanese pretty much have that style on lock. They call it kawaii.

So imagine our surprise when, in a sketchy part of Cape Town called Woodstock, we found an art colony. And in that art colony, we stumbled into quite the cache of kawaii — cute culture African style. Meet Mü & Me.

Run by a two-woman team, the store is an unassuming space in a former biscuit mill. The inside, though, is bursting with personality — everything from t-shirts to postcards to wrapping paper to stickers to notebooks, each adorned with people and animals that mix just the right amount of cute and thoughtfulness. But what I love most about the characters is how representative they are of the many ethnicities that make South Africa so special. Mü is a colorful bird and Me is, well, you! Lovely stuff. We bought tons.

See more of our visit to Mü & Me and Woodstock on Flickr and visit the mothership yourself at

African Architectures

What do you know about architecture in Africa? The March issue of Dwell is its best in ages. Where the magazine started out focusing on radically new housing and inclusive community design, the years since have seen it devolve into a slide show of stylish homes for the rich and famous (like so many other architecture magazines). A unique voice was lost.

This month’s issue, though, sees a return to roots — with a cover story featuring small affordable homes and another on inexpensively incorporating sustainable energy. The real gem of the issue, though, is a fabulous interview with Tanzanian architect David Adjaye. Here’s the best bit:

Dwell: You’ve been compiling a book of photographs from African capital cities. What inspired that project, and what is its ultimate goal?

Adjaye: It was really just an archive that I started. I was extremely interested in a sort of anthropological survey of the continent in the 21st century, when its image is still predominantly that of poverty. If there is an image of an African city, rarely do you see a skyline; you see a shantytown or a village or a mud hut.

I’ve found that even architectural students have no idea about the urban quality of African cities! We know South American cities; we know Asian cities like the backs of our hands; we know European cities because they’ve been done to death; we don’t know the last continent.

It’s not a book about architectural style; it’s about the way in which these buildings are used and the way in which the urbanism of the city works.

The African continent has a very particular quality — and I fear that this quality is being lost by leaders who are trying to replicate places like Los Angeles or Chicago. But from my point of view, Chicago is a 19th-century city; it’s really not the way to plan a city now — with this massive infrastructure that gets decrepit and falls apart and is impossible to update because it’s too expensive. There’s got to be a better way to think about the city.

My mouth fell open. Standing in Africa when I read it, I’d been searching for words to describe what I was seeing in the buildings and how they interact with people. This captures it cold. While Adjaye speaks largely of the interaction of architecture and social structures, his quote could just as easily refer to anything from art to politics to health care. Africa is seen as a place where very little works and less works well. Nothing could be further.

A South African friend we met on our travels put it this way: “So many people come here fearful; expecting safety to be a constant challenge. What they don’t realize is that Africa is like anyplace else: some parts of it are safe, some parts aren’t. You have to do your homework traveling here just like anywhere in the world.”

This couldn’t have been made clearer than when I traveled to an informal settlement on the outskirts of Soweto. With no police, makeshift homes that are impossible to secure, a semi-transient population, and no formal records system, you’d expect the worst. And you’d be wrong. Residents were welcoming and the settlement is known to be one of the safest areas in Johannesburg. Safer than some rich neighborhoods. How did this happen? How can new architecture design to support the kind of community that has developed here?

And on the flip side, spending time in cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Dakar drives home a very different architectural and design sense. They all have towering modern buildings but the way those buildings interact with their surroundings — their interplay with communities — is fascinatingly different. Western design language just can’t do it justice.

I have to give Dwell credit for publishing a quote that very well could be taken as a criticism of its own editorial policy — focusing on the rich and sexy and western rather than going the extra mile to communicate why we should care about architecture in developing nations; what we can learn from them. It’s good to see Dwell sticking its neck out again. Here’s hoping that continues. And here’s looking forward to Adjaye’s book!

Adjaye was also recently interviewed in New York Magazine. Read more about him at Wikipedia and flip through the March Dwell. We last touched on African architecture in Astronauts in Africa.

image via timeodanaos

Eyes Wide in South Africa

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Greetings from South Africa! I’m here at the first ACM conference held on the continent (DIS 2008) to present my work on games in virtual worlds (paper). You know I had to come. And let me tell you, it’s been an eye opening experience.

South Africa is a fascinating place — a mix of backgrounds from African to European to Malay, and so many more. Gorgeous rural landscapes punctuated by massive cities. New ideas everywhere the eye looks: clothing, food, advertising, architecture. 11 official languages (but, thankfully, pretty much everyone speaks English).

I mean, I’ve been to Africa before but being in a place where you can easily communicate really changes your perspective. In fabulous Senegal, I could pick up affect in French and Wolof but it’s a different thing entirely to be able to have a conversation and start to find out who people really are. I got to it.

At first blush, Cape Town seems to recovered remarkably in the years since the end of apartheid in 1994. I’ve seen less job segregation here than I did in Atlanta, for example. But peak behind the scenes (or, in my case, behind the wheel of a tour van) and that painful history starts to creep back in — from a tourguide’s inadvertent and unfortunate commentary on “informal settlements” to the clear lingering class distinctions between white, colored, and black in housing as we traveled the countryside and walked through city neighborhoods. We’re told anyone can live anywhere now, but that’s clearly bound by income and the end of apartheid did not magically re-distribute the money. And it didn’t re-distribute long held prejudices, either.

It was interesting to see fear in the faces of some well traveled folks making their first trip to Africa. Would they be robbed? Would the infrastructure be falling apart? Would the plane fall out of the sky? It was nice to see those fears evaporate when we hit the ground. (I’m sure checking in to hotels like the opulent and insane Extreme Sports Hotel didn’t hurt, either.)

Somehow, though, I didn’t have the same fears coming in. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been to Africa before. It’s not the naive notion that Africa is one country but rather that, to me, simply being back on the continent — anywhere on the continent — feels a lot like coming home. Being African American can do that to you.

For more on African roots, see Are You Sure You’re Black?

Soulful African Photos Tell Stories

The past few weeks have brought a flood of amazing photos from all corners of Africa: South Africa to Kenya, Burkino Faso to Morocco, and more. Such diversity, such beauty, such joy, such hardship.

People Of The Klein Karoo – stunning black & white shots of children and families on the Red River Farm, Western Cape, South Africa

Moroccan Road Trip – Stefan Rohner’s luminous candid photos capture daily life in Morocco (via raul)

Learning in Burkino – the Times had lovely, colorful photos from Burkina Faso for its cover story on aid problems in Africa

Kings of Africa – a three year journey produces wonderfully diverse photos of over 70 descendants of the great African dynasties

Born in Nairobi – capturing the moments after birth in Kenya. Four more amazing shots (one, two, three, four) from the same photographer appear as part of Japan’s Uneo Hikoma Awards.

See also War and Weddings, Mark Brecke’s work documenting genocide in Darfur and elsewhere (previously) and Unphotographable, a meditation on photos lost.

Tings Dey Happen: Finding the Real Nigeria

What do you think of when you think of Nigeria? If you’re like most Americans, odds are you think of the never ending flood of email scams or countless tales of kidnappings or the ever-present state department advisories. It certainly sounds like a dangerous place. Dangerous and so distant it disappears into faceless headlines.

That’s where Dan Hoyle’s virtuosic one man play Tings Dey Happen steps in. What his play does so expertly is show us the complexities of Africa’s most populous country through its people: “Media-savvy warlords, pacifist militants, Africanized Texas oilmen, and prostitutes turned anti-Chevron activists.” Having spent a year in Nigeria working to understand oil politics (10% of our oil comes from the country), he’s in a position to know a few characters, and he inhabits them with such passion that he damn near becomes them. The transformation is riveting.

Thankfully, the play balances tough issues with a sense of humor that’s just right — a sense of humor that, in many ways, seems to be the humor of the people portrayed rather than something bolted on to soften matters artificially. A central character, for example, explains Nigeria this way: “You know, in East Africa, South Africa the white people so much love to go there, there are so many animals there, there are so many whites… no, in Nigeria, we kill all the animals and the white people, they just die themselves.” Laughter, but biting at the same time.

Dan never plays himself, though nearly all the characters are talking to him. You’re left with the feeling that you’ve met so many of the people he has. And, ultimately, that’s what makes Tings Dey Happen special: it’s an act of journalism — profoundly humanizing journalism. Hoyle makes Nigeria’s people matter, their circumstances matter; he makes their dreams matter. And, in doing so, he makes Nigeria something you can’t just turn off like so many headlines. That’s what makes the play difficult and, at the same time, not to be missed.

Find an entertaining interview with Dan Hoyle at Story52 and visit the show page at Tings Dey Happen was just extended through December.

Bamako: The Trial That Wasn’t

Melé sings

Bamako is not what it seems. Abderrahmane Sissako’s lyrical, angry film puts the IMF and World Bank on trial for crimes against Africa, quite literally. And that trail happens in lead character Melé’s back yard in Mali. If that sounds strange, it is. But you’ll forgive it because the testimony is so compelling, and that testimony is often matched with camera moves through a beautifully colorful Malian village with women washing clothes, children crying and laughing, men having afternoon tea. It brought back strong warm memories from my time in Africa.

But the key to Bamako really is in the disconnect between the fully formal court proceedings and a backyard setting that’s anything but. Midway through the film, a wedding winds its way down the court’s middle isle and interrupts the proceedings full-bore. It’s a joyous, singing celebration and the way it’s presented is so rich, but so out of place amidst stilted court formalities that it seems almost like a dream. And that was the hint that finally brought the film into focus.

The reason the trial happens in a place that’s deeply interwoven with all aspects of Malian community is that the trial is the dream, not the wedding, not the washer women, not Melé’s backyard. It’s the collective dream of everyone in the community, from Melé’s sick daughter to the elder griot who chomps at the bit to say his piece — each understanding the dream on a different level and in their own way. A collective wish of a village, a country, a continent.

When I looked at Bamako through that lens, it made sense. The beautiful kind of sense that puts a smile on your face when your mind’s eye presents a dream so fully realized. And the crushing kind of sense that knows it’s a dream that will never come to pass.

Bamako has been held over at Film Forum and it seems to keep selling out. Let’s hope that’s a good sign for wider distribution.


As we rounded the corner for the last wall of the African comic show at Harlem’s Studio Museum, one of our group sat down, exhausted. Not physically, mind you — after 35-odd comics, though, he was mentally done. It’s that kind of exhibit. It demands a lot. But it gives back more. It’s a fair trade.

Going in, I expected the intensity of the show to derive from the difficult political and socio-economic messages of the comics, but it’s not quite that. Rather, Africa Comics is a roller-coaster ride from laughter to tragedy, slapstick to slap-back, utopia to genocide. And it’s held together by some truly diverse and stunning illustrations.

There’s something about a good comic that transports you. I was reminded of Joe Sacco’s fantastic Safe Area Goražde, a journalistic comic that reports on the war in Eastern Bosnia. The framing of most every cell makes you feel closer to the people there, and more amazed at their ability to somehow live life under constant, terrifying siege.

Africa Comics transports you, too, but to so many places all over the continent, each with its own story, each told from a different perspective. So, while Goražde gives you love and sorrow over the course of a book, Africa Comics works every emotion you’ve got in an afternoon. Its geographic and emotional coverage is astonishing.

Take “Tintin au Congo,” for example. Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog) presents the Belgian classic infused with racial stereotypes, and uses Tintin’s disarming style to portray a racial attack that’s not what it seems. Yet it somehow manages to walk the line between comedy and tragedy. And so goes the show. For every comic that brings you near tears, there’s another that does just the opposite. Or does both at the same time. That’s what makes Africa Comics one of those exhibits you can’t miss. Even if, like my friend, you have to sit down before you reach the final strip.

Africa Comics is at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 18. For more, see the Times slide show.

Astronauts in Africa

African Astronaut

Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts hinges on a powerful video. In it, we see the response of people in one of the world’s poorest countries (Burkina Faso) to news of men on the moon. Reactions range from disbelief to “How do they eat on the moon?” to “Why are they sending men to the moon when we need food here?” And it’s that last question that’s been with me since long before this show.

As a technologist by trade I certainly love technology, and the space program is no doubt a technological showcase that inspires many (including folks in Burkina Faso). But when such exorbitant expense and effort is applied to that task while basic human needs remain unfulfilled for so many, it really starts to seem that we’ve gone wrong at a basic level.

To be fair, the space program is just an example. It’s not so much about the space as it is about an America that is so fabulously wealthy not being particularly troubled by people starving so long as we don’t have to see them. What this show does is bring that wealth and lack of wealth together in the same room and asks us to think about it. A spaceman on the moon and a spaceman on the African plain — so far apart.

Another piece that brings this issue out is Bodys Isek Kingelez’s New Manhattan City 3021 (part of the fabulous American Effect exhibit). It shows lower Manhattan a thousand years from now as imagined by a Congolian, having risen magnificently from the ashes of 9/11. While this is an inspiring vision for ground zero, it also begs the question: “Where will the developing world be in 3021?” From the multitude of spare-no-expense gleaming towers on display, it seems we may have continued to invest largely in symbols of our own wealth.

For more on African Astronauts and other beautiful, culturally complex imaginings of spaceflight from an African perspective, check the installation photos and background.

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