Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Weekly Sneak: Feminism, Anti-Intellectualism and Politics

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't mention Cape Town again, but I need to for this blogpost. You see, while there I came to realize that Open Forum 2012 was a heavily feminist conference. This meant an extremely high concentration of high-achieving women, and perhaps even a higher concentration of females than males.

So I came home pumped full of the vim and vigor of all that feminine power, convinced that the future of Africa would have a female face. It was a glorious week of delusion, work was going great and no incidents occurred to burst that bubble. Then the feeling faded and I was back in Dar again. And it hit me that in fact, no. Things are indeed great on a certain level, and I do believe that women are riding the wave of Africa's "emergence" on the world charts. However, this only applies to a minority of us, and only in some spheres of our lives, and only some of the time. The rest of the time we're right there with the rest of humanity, taking bull poop from the patriarchy and just dealing with it.

And then Anne-Marie Slaughter decides to tell us that in America, women can't have it all after all. And that feminism better own up to this, stop misguiding younger women, roll up its sleeves and get back on the job of fixing whatever still needs fixing. A gender equitable society, like a perfect democracy, is still more of an ideal than a reality in our times. Anyways, the article got me thinking along feminist lines, specifically wondering about what the fundamental challenges are for female leadership in Tanzania:

"I think that there are two main culprits, and they are related. The first is our culture of anti-intellectualism, and the second is simply the insidious practice of deference. About the anti-intellectualism: yes, we suffer this problem. We do. But it is particularly offensive in our society to be a thinking woman. Because this then raises the second problem: deference. By our rules, women are expected to defer to men. That's the bare bones of it, and it is far more problematic than the anti-intellectualism. All this expected deference is killing careers."

For the most part I try to stay relatively friendly when in feminist mode, but it doesn't always work. Although I may be writing about general challenges and more abstract ideas, at the end of the day it is deeply personal, as gender politics must be for any woman who just can't bring herself to obediently "stay in her place."

Coming Soonish To a Blog Near You- An Long Overdue Upgrade

I have finally gotten around to getting some support for the blog. It has only taken four years :) The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I have been intending for a very long time to upgrade the blog and refresh its look and rethink a number of things. Hasn't happened. 

When I started blogging, I had all the time in the world plus a free internet connection. It was easy to research what I needed to know more of, manage the blog by myself. These days it's a challenge just finding enough quiet time to write. So I have done a smart thing- I have asked someone else to handle all the non-writing stuff for me. 

In the coming two months we're hoping there will be some decent changes to the blog. A bit of redesign, better widgets, a refreshed blogroll, that sort of thing. We'll try to make it as trouble-free as possible. Thanks for stopping by, keep reading and take care.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Opened my inbox this morning to a wonderful email with very specific instructions:

"Hi Elsie,

...I'm writing to ask whether you could add a 'subscribe by email' feature to your blog to make it easier for me - and I'm sure other - interested readers to follow you.


My pleasure, reader. And thanks for the great suggestion.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Femi Kuti's Hot Sweaty Towel: Open Forum 2012 The After Hours

Open Forum took good care of us while we were in Cape Town. Frankly I didn't have it in me to run through the gauntlet of nightly entertainments they had planned and I did have a night-time mission to fulfill. But here are some selected highlights from behind the scenes:

1. Stacey Ann Chin- performed on the first night. She's like crack for a certain kind of feminist, you know. And maybe a certain kind of poet. Good times- I love the way she doesn't hold back. The conference was small enough to afford me several chances to hang out with her. Got her book, and autographed too- I asked for something that might inspire a failed poet never to give up. She obliged. Maybe with a talisman like this in my library I'll finally get around to producing non-sucky lines.

2. The Mission: live Jazz in Cape Town. I found out from the nice concierge who drove me to Asoka that there weren't many places that still offer live Jazz in Cape Town, which makes me sad because Cape Town without Jazz is like a cat without claws. Still, managed two hours with a nice quartet and a nice single-malt that I only recently learned is NOT pronounced La Frog (don't pick up your style tips from the movies, it will show). If you are a Jazz aficionado going to Cape Town, it might be worth a look-in. The Manager knows some very interesting ways of consuming cheap alcohol, the bartenders are naughty fun and the Congolese doorman doesn't mind sharing a cigarette on the sidewalk if you're nice to him. Must be the coastal thing. Jazz on Mondays and Tuesdays.

3. Femi Kuti's hot sweaty towel: yes, I have it. Femi and his band (plus tattooed dancing girls), two hours of live music with that African beat. Four guys in the brass section, one keyboard, drumkit and percussion, two guitarists I think, bass guitar and of course Femi himself rotating across saxophones and his keyboard. Since I had waited many years to be within sweat-spray distance of Femi, only the scion of the great Fela himself, I did not plan to leave empty-handed. Two hours with this excellent musician just a couple of feet away? Of course I asked for his stage towel. Differences in politics cannot get in the way of passion. :) It's sitting in the freezer while I decide if I should frame it or just keep it frozen for... er...cloning purposes. Don't judge me.

Ok, done now! Officially laying the Open Forum 2012 to rest on the blog. Also I know that the picture has a vertical video problem going on, but I couldn't fix it. So.

Open Forum 2012: Sex

I only made it to one session because I saw the sun come up over CT after a nightcap the previous night that went on longer than anticipated. How people survive conferences is a mystery to me- if I had known how intense they can be I would have prepared for this one like a marathon runner. As luck would have it, I picked a great session to be awake for.

Disclaimer: I’m going to write about the S-E-X now. Please move along if some pretty clinical talk about this aspect of human life might offend whatever sensibilities you have. Please click the hyperlinks if you're curious despite your sensibilities. I won't tell. Undisclaimer.

I attended the talk titled ‘Politics of Sexual Pleasure,’ featuring Kopano Ratele, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, ZaneleMuholi and Rudo Chigudo and moderated by the effervescent Jane Bennett. I highly recommend checking out Nana’s blog and Zanele’s photographs for the artistic element, the information and of course the inspiration. 

There was a lot going on here since sexuality is a very big topic, but clear themes did emerge: how politics impact on our personal lives in amazing ways, such as regulating what sex is to begin with, who should have it with whom and what acts are punishable…not to mention the consequences of sex. Rudo Chigudo started us off with a performance piece about a woman who could not get an abortion in time after being gang-raped to ‘fix’ her lesbianism ‘problem.’ I leaned over and asked- naively- where this kind of thing happens only to be told that it is quite common in South Africa.
We talked about sexual identities and the apparent problems that Africans are having accepting non-heterosexual monogamous coupling and various other hot issues. 

As interesting as it was to go down that road, I got uncomfortable because I was actually hoping- again naively- that we wouldn’t be bogged  down by the pathologies. Here’s an experiment: Google ‘African’ and ‘Sexuality’ right this minute. Out of the top 100 hits, see how many of them manage to avoid HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation, rape, Jacob Zuma (just jokes… sort of), homophobia etc.  One could get the impression that sex on the continent is fraught with nothing but death, disease, danger and a hefty dose of clinical insanity.

There is another side to the story, one that needs to get told. As a friend likes to say, we have Victorian sensibilities*- I guess we were infected by missionaries during colonialism- that we haven't gotten over yet. Frankly I was kind of hoping someone would talk about present-day practices that manifest continuities with our pre-colonial sexual cultures, and the opportunities that some of them present for a much healthier, saner and happier sexual life in modern times. I wanted to hear the sex-positive celebrated and see our history understood for what it was so we can quit stressing about adopting or avoiding so-called Western behaviours. In particular I was curious to see if there are any incidences of people using the accepted practice of polygamy to make the case for polyamory. Early days, guess...

I was tweeting this session and only managed to find this one link to illustrate some of what I was hoping to see more of: Myths and Realities of African Sexualities. If I come across more interesting stuff, I'll post it because this is a conversation that needs to be had. But the conclusions were clear: Sex is good for you, human beings need to be touched with affection to stay healthy. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect. And definitely don't try to fix people's sexuality, bad things happen when you mess with something nature has been perfecting for a very. long. time. 

*The Victorians were one hot mess when it came to sex. They were seriously repressed, which made them hella kinky too. Guess who invented orgasm machines to "cure" female hysteria so that housewives would stop bothering their husbands with their mood swings? Yeah. You could get one of those therapies at your doctor's office without involving the ethics committee. Happy times. And let's not forget: Sigmund Freud. Hard to tell if they were a blessing or a curse, those Victorians. 

Open Forum 2012: Power

I was primed for a day of powerful and passionate dialogue on the POWER day... but then I went to the Google Zone to charge my laptop with the dicky battery when I saw Binyavanga Wainaina in the corner being interviewed. In a lime green Kitenge jacket. That was the end of any morning session plans. 

After I managed to pull myself away from Binyanvanga, I just about barely made it to the main auditorium for a session titled: "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: how elections in Africa confirm and confound what we know about inequality." On the panel: Joaquim Chissano, Mamphela Ramphele, L. Muthoni Wanyeki and Brian Kagoro. Moderator: Siphamandla Zondi

1. When there is a Head of State in the room, no matter how former, S/He will absorb the attention in the room like a dense star. This as the case with H.E. Chissano who, to be fair, didn't maunder on endlessly as some of his agemates are wont to do. It is what it is. I didn't mind so much except that it meant that quieter voices like L. Muthoni Wanyeki didn't get as much mike-time as I was hoping. EA columnist in the house! I wanted to hear more from her, for what she was saying was demanding of reflection. 

2. Mamphela Ramphele and Brian Kagoro frankly got me overexcited. Ms. Ramphele is the kind of leftist I thought were extinct: erudite, confident in her arguments, able to convey her ideas with such intellectual certainty, panache, exquisite vocabulary...in 2012! And then there was Brian Kagoro, inserting humour into what could have been a terribly dense experience and getting away with saying some rather racy and daring things. I want him, quite badly, to be President of Tanzania and of East Africa though I didn't get a chance to tell him so. That campaign is coming. There will be t-shirts. 

But really, the highlight of the day was the panel with the artistes in the afternoon: A New Generation of African Artists and Activists Talk Politics. There were the aforementioned Binyavanga Wainaina, songstress Simphiwe Dana (huge voice in such a tiny body), writer Petinah Gappah, Google lady Ory Okolloh and Femi Kuti moderated by Bibi Bakare Yusuf co-founder of Casssava Republic Press. Some parts of that panel were a holy rolling mess- it only took about five minutes for the yelling matches to start. But, you know: where there are creatives, there will be passion. 

I just want to focus on one little thing here: the pan-Africanist question. Things were moving along just fine until someone raised the issue of language on the continent. And then it got very, very interesting. There are apparently quite a number of Africans who are down with the one-continent-one-language idea. I can't really imagine the politics of that, and I live in a country where we've managed quite well in using a Bantu language administratively without the usual heinous violations of culture that accompanies such nationalist projects. What made me sad was that instead of aiming for real brilliance- such as continuing the African practice of being the most multilingual continent on the planet- we're having arguments about whether it should be Yoruba or Zulu or Kiswahili. Sometimes I think it's not that pan-Africanists are misguided, I think the visions are limited and perhaps not in keeping with the times. 

A little birdie told me...

Follow MikocheniReport on Twitter