Art & Life


Art & Life

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June 2009 Boosting Agricultural Productivity for Economic Growth in Africa Cape Town, South Africa  To address the current developments in the Agri-Food sector in Africa, EMRC is...

In Your Classroom: Achimota School

A famous school with loyal alumni is now struggling to keep up ?its reputation as one ?of the country’s best state-run schools


In Ghana, the bonds of secondary school extend far beyond graduation. “Achimota was a leveller,” says Sarah Asafu-Adjei, a member of the 1978 year group. “We got exposed to different people from different backgrounds and different languages and we got a sound educational foundation too.”?


Few would disagree. Achimota was built as a self-sufficient village, with sporting facilities, a swimming pool, farm and arboretum. Water shortages make it difficult to maintain the farm and the swimming pool has lain empty of water for many years. ?


The school has now also lost its top academic billing. In 2006, the last time the secondary school league table was released, it ranked 25th out of 485 public secondary schools. The student population of 1,564, as in all publicly-funded secondary schools, is supported by government subsidies of about 120 cedis ($85) per child. Schools are allowed to charge an additional 130 cedis a term for each boarder to help pay for food.?


Beatrice Adom, an old Achimotan who is now headmistress, admits Achimota, along with many secondary schools, is facing challenges. “You have to be a magician to be able to do much with the kind of money we get to run our schools,” she says.


Back to Trying to balance access and quality 

Review: Jenifa Parts 1 & 2



Jenifa Parts 1 & 2, directed by Muyideen Ayinde, 180 mins


A satire on moral decadence at university, Jenifa is providing brisk business for Lagos’s DVD sellers. Styled on the Yoruba travelling theatre, this Nollywood video tells of the corruption of a student from humble beginnings. Jenifa makes friends with Tracy, Franca and Beck, and is brought into their fast life of on-campus prostitution. Sleeping with the ready queue of older ‘aristos’, politicians, 419ers and businessmen who pay for sex, Jenifa contracts AIDS and is then suspended for exam malpractice. The production values are decidedly Nollywood but Funke Akindele, in the title role, won the African Movie Academy Award 2009 for best female actress for her performance.

Review: Très Très Fort

Staff Benda Bilili


Très Très Fort, Staff Benda Bilili, Crammed Discs


There is more to Staff Benda Bilili than meets the ear. The group of disabled Congolese musicians caught the attention of the Parisian film-makers of La Belle Kinoise, who have been documenting the band’s story since 2006. Très très fort was recorded in the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa and a sitting room full of empty beer bottles. The four singers and guitarists are backed by an acoustic rhythm section pummelling out infectious beats on hand-made instruments. A vibrant mix of reggae, funk, Latin beats and laid-back grooves, with solos played on a one-string electric lute, or satongue.

Review: Saviors and Survivors

Saviors and Survivors


Saviors and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani, 398pp, Verso


The debate surrounding Darfur is always contentious and often lacking in historical depth. This book provides a weighty antidote, though it brings a little poison of its own. The Abbala Arabs, battered by colonial-era agreements which left the Fur in charge in Darfur and four decades of drought that have changed the sustainability of grazing land in the north of the province, have been pushed into conflict with the Fur. The feared Janjaweed militia are drawn from the Abbala. Mamdani argues that the Darfur conflict requires a political settlement, and that the loud anti-genocide lobby in the US is preventing this from taking place, since it demands a knee-jerk interventionist response. What is needed is to open a middle ground for policy-makers that allows for deliberation and action; the two need not be mutually exclusive.


Nairobi Nights


Before the coming of FM radio classifieds, mobile phones and reconditioned cars, Nairobi was a strangely immobile place. People knocked off work on a Friday evening and trooped to their neighbourhood locals or downtown bars where, over warm beers, they would proceed to decry the failed state of the city’s nightlife. ?


Not any more. The radio DJs scream in your ear all week about the latest, hottest, happening place. Across town, bars and clubs have suddenly become accessible.??


• Afropolitans and expats looking for an ‘authentic’ flavour of the city can home in on Maison Française, off Monrovia Street in the city centre with its Friday night concerts, which features a blend of new and established Afrofusion musicians, before moving on for a beer at Wasanii Bar (above) at the Kenya National Theatre. For dancing, there’s rhumba at Club Afrique on Museum Hill, and for really late-night dancing and rhumba you can turn around and go back downtown to Club Dolce on Koinange Street.


??• Nairobi party central is the Woodvale Grove scene in Westlands, a blend of bars and clubs packed so tightly together you can dance to the next song at the bar on the other side of the wall – if there is space. There is genge and kapuka music at Black Diamond, Red Tape and Rezorus. Havana has DJ sessions on Thursday nights. At Dass, there is a spoken-word poetry session one Friday a month. Watch out for the traffic.


??• There is no-frills drinking in Nairobi West, and Jeans Bar – at the end of an impossibly long line of cheap, unpretentious bars – is still the last port of call for the veteran Nairobi beer drinker. ?


Back to Notes from Nairobi's Revolutionary Underground 

Arts: Notes from Nairobi's revolutionary underground


Nairobi’s youth have cultivated their own underground hip hop scene, but dependence on foreign funding means it lacks lasting roots




On the first anniversary of the signing of Kenya’s National Accord on 28 February, the new British high commissioner threw a party at his house in Muthaiga, the oldest and most exclusive of Nairobi’s colonial suburbs. This was not the usual high commissioner’s garden party: there were no expats, no ex-colonials milling about sipping gin-and-tonics, white wine or Tuskers, discussing the state of the nation and the state of the domestic help with government and NGO big men and their wives. Instead, the party had been taken over by about 300 members of Nairobi’s hip hop community. 


It seemed like a scene straight out of Radical Chic: the new high commissioner, a generation younger than the typical stiff-upper-lipped career diplomat on a last posting, had opened the doors of his home – in a neighbourhood that Nairobi’s angry young hip hop poets refer to as “Babylon” – for a Saturday afternoon concert staged by these same young people. And it got better, or worse, depending on how you saw it. 


As the baby-faced master of ceremonies – with a girlish voice and a Stetson jauntily angled over his forehead – presided over a fashion show on a makeshift stage in the middle of the garden, his voice somehow piercing through the spit and boom of hip hop emitting from giant speakers, it was what was happening inside the house that lent the event its surprising quality. 

Nairobi Nights


A brief guide the city's
nightlife. Read more. 


Three graffiti artists were working on the high commissioner’s living room walls. On one, an innocu ous image was signed off with a message that captured the essence of that Saturday afternoon: “From tha streets to tha castle”. But it was the centrepiece that brought home Radical Chic in all its confusing glory. A 24-year-old artist by the nom de guerre of Uhuru had spray painted a huge, astounding image of the Mau Mau leader and war hero, the much-feared Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi.


Uhuru’s Kimathi dominated the room, dread-locks spiked, eyes spitting fire above a set of fists, which could have belonged to Che or Tupac Shakur, in a manifestly revolutionary poise with gangsta hip hop appeal. This was Kimathi vividly recreated for a generation for whom uhuru was a notion that reeked of betrayal and could only be reinvigorated using perhaps the sole current art form that properly captured the righteous anger of the young and the dispossessed: hip hop.


But even as the image glowed in that Muthaiga living room, speaking defiantly of the street in the castle, it had already been disarmed. Dedan Kimathi, captured and hanged by the British in February 1956 for terrorism against the Crown, was now a ghost in the living room of his former captors, conjured not to terrorise but to entertain. ?


For Uhuru, the artist, the Kimathi image in the British high commissioner’s house was powerfully restitutive. “People always took Kimathi to be a bad person, but he was not. He fought for our freedom,” he said afterwards. “I was trying to remind people that we can actually move forward by look-?ing back and remembering our history, because at the end of the day it was all a misunderstanding. The high commissioner appreciated it, although he seemed a little bit overwhelmed.”?


It is a strange irony of Nairobi’s cultural land-scape that it was the British who enabled Uhuru to paint the Kimathi image in Muthaiga. Uhuru belongs to a group of underground hip hop artists that over the past three years have established themselves on the Nairobi arts and entertainment scene. Called WAPI (an acronym for Words and Pictures, it also means ‘where?’ in Kiswahili), they work in various forms – rap, spoken-word poetry and graffiti.?


The project was conceived by the British Council, which organises a WAPI session every month at the Council’s offices in Nairobi. From a small audience at the first WAPI session in late 2005, it has grown hugely and now regularly hosts between 2,000 and 2,500 hip hop aficionados per session.


?WAPI itself is an odd fusion of ideas. “Around 2000, we started having conversations about what kind of arts work we should be doing,” says David Higgs, the local British Council director. “There was a feeling that, going by the huge impact of the culture industry in the West – it contributes about 7% of GDP in the UK, roughly the same as the financial services industry – we could begin to replicate that experience in Africa, where you have a predominantly young population locked out of the economy.”?


A place to do battle


?At the same time as the British Council was rethinking its arts policy, a group of hip hop enthusiasts were gathering every Saturday evening and staging ‘battles’ – hip hop contests between MCs in downtown Nairobi at a club called Chillers.


?“There was no conduit where ‘hip hopas’ were able to converge, listen to and express themselves within the structure of the hip hop culture,” says Muki Garang. Together with two other MCs, including Mwafrika, a popular radio DJ who had just walked out of his job, and Menirex, another MC, Garang turned Chillers into the only underground hip hop scene in Nairobi. ?


The Chillers battles were advertised primarily by word of mouth and text message. They were important to those taking part because they rejected the mainstream FM radio culture. Young people would gather at Chillers, occasionally watch documentaries of the New York hip hop scene and then battle. Young new believers were committed to maintaining their outsider status in opposition to a mainstream culture infected by commercialism.?


“There were no sponsors. The MCs who availed themselves did so out of their own interest,” explains Muki Garang, adding: “Even the hip hop night sessions were clear-cut deals between the bar owners and the Mwafrika entertainment company that ran the event. It was self-sponsored.”?


When the Chillers scene died out, WAPI took over, opening up new cultural possibilities through it poetry slam sessions, hip hop battles and acoustic jazz sessions.


?It has also created new cultural power brokers. Buddha Blaze (aka Moses Mbasu) arrived back in Nairobi from North America in the 1990s, determined to create an entertainment scene in a city that was, entertainment-wise, slowly grinding to a halt. At a time when crime was limiting the city’s night-life, Blaze set about trying to recreate his American experience. Today, with his entertainment company SPARK-Africa (Something People Aren’t Ready for in Kenya), he has positioned himself as a prominent figure on Nairobi’s hip hop scene. ?


Above and below ground


?“I’m scared of what Kenya would be if we weren’t there,” says Blaze. As WAPI’s first host, he has popularised the event and even exported it across the continent. “We are in a very imperfect situation and we have no support from the government. If we don’t create these platforms, what’s there?”?


In the absence of any government-backed endowment fund for the arts, Nairobi’s foreign donors and embassies have stepped into the breach, creating programmes that promote local artists who are not yet prominent enough to carry their own audience and helping them to launch their careers.?


“If you’re a young musician, fashion designer or artist, where do you go?” David Higgs, the driving force behind WAPI, asks. “The best thing we’ve done with WAPI is exposed a wider population to the creativity of young people.”?


With the potential for cultural expression along the lines of the Dedan Kimathi graffiti displayed in Muthaiga, the spaces being created by the foreign missions have been invaluable for young Kenyan artists.?


The French are especially proud of their achieve?ments. For the past decade they have been promoting Kenyan Afrofusion. They have produced a series of CDs called ‘Spotlight on Kenyan Music’. “We’re trying to promote Kenya’s traditional musical heritage,” says Harsita Waters of the Alliance Française.?


A national cultural policy may yet emerge, but for now the foreign missions run the show, with the risk they could easily change direction any time. David Higgs leaves Kenya for his next posting at the end of August. “The question for us right now is what we’re going to do with WAPI. I want to let it go without necessarily dismantling it,” he muses. “It’s become a boys’ club, almost exclusively hip hop. It should be more. There’s no longer enough dynamism in it to keep it interesting.” ?


Many of the hip hop artists who started out with WAPI three years ago have had enough exposure to make it on their own, but if the programme comes to an end, many others will find themselves back underground. 




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