The Woyingi Blog

Documentary Review: These Girls by Tahani Rached (Egypt)

Title: These Girls

Director: Tahani Rached

Year: 2006

Country: Egypt, Cairo

Language: Arabic

Genre: Documentary

These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.

A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.

Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble.  Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.

However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:

These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.

The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.

As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:

Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.

Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.

In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.

After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.

Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:

When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.

In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.

Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.

These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.

Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.

Further Reading:

Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online

Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online

Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online

Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online

Radio Documentary: Feeling Good The Nina Simone Story

Posted in Documentaries, Jazz, Nina Simone by the woyingi blogger on January 18, 2011

I just discovered that BBC Radio 2 is playing a two-part documentary about the life of Nina Simone. Unfortunately I missed the first part because I didn’t know about it. The documentary is narrated by Nina Simone’s daughter Simone (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), whose father, a former police officer, was Nina Simone’s manager for a time. According to the BBC Radio 2 site:

Nina’s daughter Simone explores the life and career of her mother – the protest singer, jazz chanteuse, blues artist and live performer – sharing her personal thoughts and providing a glimpse of the real woman behind the distinctive voice.

In part one, we hear about Nina’s musical beginnings as Eunice Waymon, a 5-year old child protégé, learning classical piano with the help of people in her home town. She won a place at New York’s famous Juilliard School but was turned down by the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. This was an incredible blow to the young Eunice Waymon, who turned to teaching piano and playing in bars to make ends meet. At this point she took the stage name Nina Simone.

She moved to New York City and signed her first record deal [not reading the small print which would cost her dearly later in her career]. New York was the place to be and Nina became closely associated with the civil rights movement, connected with both the radical black playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. She wrote her first protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, in 1963 – an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama.

She also met and married Andy Stroud, who became her manager [and Simone’s father]. Throughout the 60s her output was prolific and she toured constantly in the US and Europe, always highlighting the civil rights message. When her marriage ended in the 70s, she left the US and became a global nomad, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and finally France.

I was able to listen to the second part of the series, which concentrates on her later life, and her live performances. The second part is described as follows:

In part two, Simone explores her mother’s musical style and what she was like as a live performer. She began her performing career working as a singer-pianist in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. A commanding, if sometimes difficult, live performer, Nina often displayed an irrational temper but her shows were always an experience. Friends explain that this was due to her being bipolar, a condition she refused to admit to during her lifetime.

A fluke UK hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in the 1987 UK charts, thanks to its use in a Chanel No 5 commercial. She also gave a series of mesmerising performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this decade. She recorded the classic album Baltimore and her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993. We hear from A&R man Michael Alago about how he signed Nina and got her to record again.

Her musical style can only be described as fearless: she refused to be categorised and often sang soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and Broadway tunes over the course of an album or concert. An uncompromising personality, Nina Simone was one of popular music’s great divas.

During the documentary, Nina Simone’s friends and family are interviewed. So are her drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, and music producer turned photographer Michael Alago. But the majority of the documentary is occupied by Simone’s reflections on her mother’s life. Sometimes she shares anecdotes while recounting her mother’s career from the 198os to the time of her death.

Here are some of the highlights:

Mommy’s regal bearing and unique stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts but as an experience. She compared it to mass hypnosis. On stage she moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk and classical to numbers infused with all types of different stylings. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience and often used silence as a musical element.

She’d be under incredible pressure form a young age, being the musical genius and having the onus of a whole town depending on her success. It is understandable that she developed certain mental problems call it manic depression, call it bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, she suffered.

She had quite a painful life. She lost many of her closest friends and family. She had a number of broken relationships, and she was angry with a lack of equal rights progress in America. But on a more personal level Mommy didn’t love herself and was always looking for peace outside of herself and not within. Amazingly, she was able to channel this, all of this, into her music.

She always paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert, Mommy could move from extreme happiness to tragic melancholy. You realized that on stage Mommy was truly free. She was able to express herself without being edited or judged and it was there that you actually saw the real Nina. Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions.

Her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, but in later years Mommy particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related her to career in music and soliciting requests.

At this point, we get to hear a recording a live performance by Nina Simone, where she chats with a very enthusiastic audience:

Love songs are never ending. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I say “They’re still at it!” (Audience laughs) No matter what the language, they’re still at it. They want it and when they get it they run from it. (Audience laughs) Then they say we want a natural woman. Then they get one. Scares them half to death (Audience laughs and bursts into applause)

Simone continues to tell her mother’s story of the reemergence of her mother’s career in the early 198os thanks to a perfume ad and in the early 1990s thanks to an action film. Simone explains:

30 years after Mommy had originally recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” for her very first album, the song was re-released after it was used in a European advertising campaign for Chanel #5 perfume. It became a Top Ten Hit in the UK, bringing Mommy to a new generation of listeners and her career soared. And “My Baby…” became one of the most listened to songs of the 20th Century.

Mommy returned to Europe and as the 90s dawned, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her music that’s to the publication of her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” and the release of the hit movie “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda who played a character fascinated with the music of Nina Simone.

Towards the end of the documentary, we learn about Simone’s own career and her mother’s declining health:

Towards to end of the 90s, my own theatrical career was beginning to blossom. I was playing the role of Mimi Marquez in the musical Rent, on the first national tour of the United States. I remember we were in Chicago at the time, and I got a call from Mommy. “Hi darling, I’m here. Just flew in from Poland and I want to see your show. So typical. She came the next night and she came the night thereafter and enjoyed the show immensely as she sat right next to my husband who regaled me with her reactions to every scene.

There’s a point for every parent and child when suddenly the caring roles are reversed. This happened for my mother and I in January 1998 when I received a call that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had to undergo and emergency mastectomy. I knew exactly where her mind was and that I had to get to her quick fast. Mommy had previously lost her father and her elder sister my aunt Lucille to the disease and it was something she hadn’t gotten over. When I got to her, she was almost catatonic with shock. But I pulled her out of it and I let her know how much I loved her and how much I needed her to stay with me. I told her not to let this thing beat her and that if she wanted to live, and not for herself, then perhaps for me. Then she looked at me and said “Baby, I’ll do it for you.” And sure enough a year later, I fulfilled my dream of sharing the stage with her at the Dublin Music Festival in Ireland, July 24th 1999.

My favourite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Michael Alago, who, at the time when he met and worked with Nina Simone, was the A&R representative for Elektra Records, during which time he also signed Metallica. Alago’s anecdotes about Nina are often outrageously funny. Here are a few:

I first met Nina in 1989. I knew she was coming to do a gig in New York. I had been in touch with her brother Sam Waymon. I told him I did A&R for Elektra and I wanted to meet her. So I decide that I’m going to go to sound check. She’s already at the piano. And the hall is half-lit and she sees me in the back of the room and she says “Hey, man! This ain’t a freak show. Who are you? What do you want?” I said “Hi, I’m Michael Alago. I work for Elektra Records.” “Ah! You’re the man.” And she starts laughing and she says “You have any money for me?” And I said “No, I came to say hello.” And I went up on the stage and I kissed her hand and she just kept staring at me curiously and I just kind of went off just telling her how much I loved her all these years. And, you know, of course she loved that so immediately she said “Would you like some tea?”. And I said “I’d love some tea.” Like did I know that her favourite tea was a Black Tea with honey, lemon, and tonnes of cayenne pepper. So I take a huge sip of this tea and I’m almost dead. I can’t speak for a moment. My eyes are watering and she’s laughing and when I got my bearings again, I was laughing. I think it was three years later in 1992 when I actually signed her. We made a beautiful recording in Los Angeles with a 50 piece orchestra. She was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the records she loved most was called A Man Alone. She reinterpreted it as A Single Woman. Little did I know that that would be the last full-length record that she would make.

There was a story that one day there was a fire at her place. So immediately I dialled and I said “What happened?” They said “Oh, she doesn’t want to talk to you. She says the fire was your fault.” I’m sitting here in New York City and the fire is my fault. Explain. She says “You sent her too many faxes that day. She’s not a White Man, she’s an artist, and why are you sending her all this paper work?” I said I think you should remind her that I was sending her all that paper work ‘cause it was part of the advance that I needed to send her. And he said “Oh, when I tell her that, she’ll be happy.” And I said “I know that why I tell you. Now tell me the real story.” He said “Well, she was walking up to the second floor and underneath those stairs was a linen closet and unfortunately she dropped a cigarette, didn’t pay attention, and there was a fire.”

Alago also makes a great observation about Nina Simone’s covers of other artists. I know that I personally often prefer the Nina Simone version of a song than the original. Alago states:

When she sung Bob Dylan, Kurt Weil, George Harrison, it made you feel like she wrote those songs. She sang with such heart and soul that it could tear your heart out, it could make you smile and that was the beauty of her.

Nina Simone’s drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, also has some interesting anecdotes about working with Nina, who he met at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He recalls:

She would look sometimes and she’d give you this look and you’re not sure what it was. So if you were unsure of yourself, you might take that look as being a look of hatred, whereas really she was just trying to find out what’s going on. Nina never told anybody what to play, or how to play, she didn’t even tell to what key you were going to play in, she would just start going and the guys, if they didn’t know it, had to find it pretty quickly and then get on with it. You never really knew where we were going, which, you know, was sort of spiritual jazz. That was the beginning of creating a chemistry between Nina and myself. And it was working really well. But we went backstage and I said “Nina, I got to talk to you about money.” And she had a glass of champagne in her hand, and she got angry and she threw this glass of champagne. But I’m still staring at her and I’m only a couple of feet away. And it hit the wall right next to me and I knew that I got my money because otherwise she’d have punched me or the glass would have hit me. It just hit the wall. She was just showing her anger that I’d broached the subject. And I went away feeling quite confident that at the end of the week I was going to get it, and I did, I got the extra money, which was great.

At list of songs available on Youtube that were played during the documentary and that I particularly like:

Sinnerman (Original), Sinnerman (Remix by Felix Da Housecat)

Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)

Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)

Wild Is The Wind

Feeling Good

See-Line Woman (originally an American Folk song) See Line Woman (Remix by Masters at Work)

Further Reading:

Nina Simone

Interview (1999) with BBC News available online

Obituary on BBC News available online

Profile by James Gavin the New York Times available online

Profile available online

Audio Profile on NPR available online

Excerpts from the biography of Nina Simone Princesse Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas available online

‘Why?’: Remembering Nina Simone’s Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. on NPR interview available online

1969 Documentary by Peter Rodis about Nina Simone available online


Simone’s World: The Website of Nina Simone’s Daughter

Interview (2006) with Simone on the All About Jazz site available online

Simone, daughter of famed singer Nina Simone, wins rave reviews for her performance in ‘Rent.’ article available online

Michael Alago

Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online

Documentary Review: BBC Radio 2’s The Story of Funk

Posted in Documentaries, Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, The Last Poets by the woyingi blogger on January 13, 2011

As you know, I love that I can listen to the BBC online. Bizarrely, I have probably gotten more high-brow Black, African, and Caribbean programing off the BBC than off of Canadian or American radio or television.

I just finished listening to part one of BBC Radio 2’s One Station Under the Groove, The Story of Funk, hosted by Blaxploitation film diva, Pam Grier.  The first part of the series, Funk Used to be a Bad Word, can be summarized as follows:

In this first part, Pam goes back to the source, when funk – in the words of George Clinton – ‘used to be a bad word’. Pam reveals how jazz and the R ‘n’ B music of the 50s informed the rhythms and energy of funk music. As well as the all important architects of the sound like James Brown and Sly Stone, the programme also shines a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes such as Charles Wright and the Last Poets.

At the beginning of the documentary, Pam states:

…Funk was not just the soundtrack to my films but also to a very important time in African American history, a time of struggle and self-discovery and ultimately finding pride in who we were. The music reflected all of that.

But the fact that this music came to be known as Funk is strange, seeing as Funk used to be a bad word. According to journalist Rickey Vincent, who wrote the book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Press):

Funk was in the vernacular as something dirty, something downtrodden, something kind of country and unrefined. If it’s funky it’s not quite refined, it’s not smooth, it’s not together.

One of the first times the word funky was used in the title of a song  was with Funky Butt, controversially attributed to Buddy Boldon (1877-1931), of of the key figures in the development of jazz. The song goes: She got stinky butt, funky butt,/leave it alone `Cause I don’t like it nohow.

The documentary explores the possible origins of funk. According to Grier: “Many people credit Little Richard as the originator of Funk for switching the emphasis of the beat to the beginning of the bar.” But it is clear that James Brown was the key figure in the development of funk, even though he is also the “Godfather of Soul”. But Brown’s choice of musicians was also very important. He worked with some of the best musicians in the industry such as Alfred Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Jimmy Nolen. Brown and these musicians created the blueprint for funk. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, is considered the first funk hit because of “its funky backbeat, choppy guitar licks and syncopated brass riffs. Brown’s success did not blind him to the conflicts of his times, and he risked his career by going political but he found support in the Black community. According to Grier:

This is when James Brown realized that he was in a position of power that could affect change. He assumed the role of a soul-powered preacher standing up for the rights of African Americans like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also advocating, Brown encouraged African American communities to stand on their own two feet and run their own affairs. He led by example, purchasing his own businesses like radio stations, restaurants and hotels.

According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Even at his shows, backstage, he would hold court with local leaders in the community and by leaders I don’t mean city council people and that type of thing, it would be folks who are respected in the community for doing activist work, organizing work, preachers, spiritual work, and so in every town James Brown went to he was hearing, he was aware of what was happening in these communities and these communities were filled with rage and anger and a sense that its time for change to come.

It was during this time that Brown wrote a song that would become an anthem for that time in African American history: Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud. According to Adiodun Oyewole, from The Last Poets:

That was a very important piece because it really served almost as a chant for our movement. I don’t think there was anybody in America, Black or White, who did not know “Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” and as a matter of fact even today if I say it to the kids in the classroom they know it, they’ve heard it, it’s in their DNA.

According to Khalis Bayyan (formerly Ronald Bell) of Kool and the Gang: “The music’s part of that besides the message. That’s some serious funk, I mean listen to that, that’s some hot stuff, man.” According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Say it Loud, it kind of was a watershed event, he was saying what people were feeling but weren’t sure if they had the courage to say that out to the world in triumph and Brown gave a whole generation of Black people the freedom and the courage to say that to do something like that to say yes, I’m black and I’m proud and the whole world needs to know it.

James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader who would fine his band members if they made mistakes on stage, eventually, most of the musicians who help to make Brown’s sound in the 60s left by the 70s. However, he would find other great musicians to work with, such as bassist Bootsy Collins who recorded such funk hits with Brown as Get Up-Sex Machine, Soul Power and Super Bad. Brown’s tracks were key to the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s as it was often his tracks that were sampled from to form the backbeat of hip hop hits.

The documentary continued by focusing on the group The Last Poets.

One of the most influential to funk and later hip hop was a New York band of Soul Brothers called The Last Poets. The Last Poets were the single clearest articulation of revolution in Black music. Nobody delivered the message harder, or clearer or with more insight and love for Black people than The Last Poets were able to do.

According to The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole:

Gotta understand Martin had just been killed on April 4th of that same year so I was fired up ‘cause I had completely changed when they killed Martin Luther King even though I would never had marched with Martin because Martin was letting the dogs bite him and letting people call him names and pushing him and mistreating and abusing him and I’m a fighter I mean you push me I’m gonna push you back, you know, you get a dog to bite me I’m gonna get a bigger dog but I really respected what he was trying to do because somebody had to do something in the south, it was just total out of control.

At this time, the Last Poets included Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Umar Bin Hassan,  and percussionist Nilaja Obabi. The purpose of their music was to wake Black people up. Their style included the use of proto-raps/Spoken Word over conga drums. Key songs from this time included Niggers are Scared of Revolution.

Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ruled pop at the time and Berry Gordy despised the word funk so much that he would veto any record with the word on it. But the studio’s musicians, who backed most of Motown’s tracks from 1959 to 1972, were nicknamed the Funk Brothers  and are considered the unsung heroes of funk, most notably drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. Motown producer, Norman Whitfield, kept the label competitive while funk became the dance music of choice. He’s considered responsible for turning The Temptations funky with tracks like Cloud 9. Motown’s Southern counterpart, Stax Records, based in Memphis, Tennessee, took to funk more easily and produced funk hits like Rufus Thomas’s Do The Funky Chicken.

On the West Coast, Charles Wright, another of Funk’s unsung heroes, was writing great funk tracks like Express Yourself. Wright grew up in Mississippi with no education. His exposure to music began in church. But although blues legend Muddy Waters lived across from his grandmother he didn’t get to hear much R’n’B until he left home because his father considered it to be the devil’s music. In the documentary, Wright spoke about his experiences of police brutality and how this was leading to civil unrest at the time:

You know that at that time I had moved out of town because the police were giving me a hard time, the police were really really brutal. They are the reason it happened because of their brutality and the way they were treating people. I mean they would stop me-I hate to say this on the radio-and feel my testicles, you know I just got tired of that and I moved out of that part of town.

Wright worked with DJ Magnificent Montague, who was key in turning on thousands of West Coast radio listeners to Funk. His famous catch phrase, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” became the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.

According to British soul singer Beverly Knight:

One of the great funk classic songs is Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” which very famously was sampled by N.W.A. and became a world-wide smash hit record and again took on that mantle of civil rights struggle , the whole I’m black and I’m proud thing which he was at the forefront of.

The documentary then went on to explore the contributions to Funk of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) and is considered the “Godfather of Funk”. His creation of Sly and the Family Stone was innovative as bringing together male and female vocalists, as well as Black and White musicians, was unprecedented at the time, and also spoke to the group’s values of racial harmony at a time of racial conflict. They were initially not very commercially successful, with only a few hits, like Dance to the Music. But with the album Stand! (1969), the band achieved mainstream success, with tracks promoting racial harmony like Everyday People, written by Sly. They even performed at Woodstock.

In the documentary, Italian American Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico reflected on an incident with National Guard Troops:

Just looking for a gas station in an inner-city somewhere, you know we get pulled over by National Guard Troops protecting a city that is in riot, racial riot, pulling over a van full of male and female, black and white, dressed funny and “what are you doing here?” “what are you” and it was like get out of the car, hands up against the wall, spread your legs and we got machine guns . The thing that made it a little more scarier was Sylvester was frisky at this point and he kind of challenged the situation and it got hairy and you don’t want to do that when you got 20 guys with whatever kind of machine guns they were lining you up against a brick wall in the inner-city during a riot at 2 o clock in the morning.

Unfortunately, Sly Stone’s growing drug addiction led to erratic behaviour, like not showing up to shows when thousands of people had bought tickets. Eventually, the band slip up. Sly Stone’s addiction continued, eventually leading to imprisonment. In the documentary, Grier states that he now lives as a virtual recluse, in relative poverty as he had signed away his recording rights.

BBC’s The Story of Funk Part Two can be heard online for the next 7 days.

Further Reading:

Rickey Vincent

Rickey Vincent’s Website

Interview (2009) with Rickey Vincent available online

James Brown

Interview (1980) with James Brown and Al Sharpton available online

The Last Poets

Profile of The Last Poets on the PBS Website

Profile of The Last Poets by Russell Porter available online

Profile of The Last Poets by Jalal Nurriddin available online

Interview (2009) with The Last Poets available online

Jalal Mansur Nurriddin’s Website

Umar Bin Hassan’s Website

Charles Wright and DJ Magnificent Montague

Charles Wright’s Website

DJ Magnificent Montague’s Website

BBC Interview with Thandika Mkandawire about Malawi’s Journey to Independance

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Independence for 17 African Nations, including Nigeria. The achievements of this landmark year inspired other African nations’ independence movements. To mark this year in African history, Tanzanian journalist Adam Lusekelo, presented on BBC Radio 4 the five episode documentary series Africa at 50: Wind of Change in which he interviews five Africans who grew up within African British colonies that achieved independence in the 50s and 60s and lived through this pivotal year in African history. There are five episodes in the series, each focused on one former British colony. Episode One is an interview with former Deputy Editor for BBC Worldservice Elizabeth Ohene from Ghana, which achieved independence in 1957; Episode Two is an interview with writer Adewale Maja-Pearce from Nigeria, which achieved independence in 1960; Episode Three is an interview with Brigadier General Hashim Mbita from Tanzania, which achieved independence in 1961; Episode Four is an interview with historian Zarina Patel from Kenya, which achieved independence in 1963; and finally Episode Five is an interview with Professor Thandika Mkandawire from Malawi, which achieved independence in 1964.

The title of the series comes from what is popularly known as the “Wind of Change’ Speech by British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The speech demonstrated that the Conservative-controlled British government, which had earlier halted the decolonization process begun by the Labour government from 1945 to 1951, intended to grant independence to Britain’s African colonies and that these were indeed the last days of the British Empire. Although actually first read on January 10th 1960 in Accra, Ghana, the speech first garnered media attention in Britain and across Africa when it was read to the apartheid South African government on February 3 1960 during Macmillan’s tour of British African colonies, which began on January 6th 1960 . In the speech Macmillan states:

The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.

Although the speech showed support for the apartheid South African government, it also clearly expressed criticism of apartheid laws, as is demonstrated by the following statement:

As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.

I chose to review the fifth Episode of this series because Malawi is a country I know very little about except from the media attention it has received because of American pop icon Madonna. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and Madonna, at the urging of Malawian Victoria Keelan, the managing director of a Malawian agricultural supply company, in 2006 visited the country (her first time in Africa) and made the controversial decision to adopt David Banda, a Malawian child of about two years old at the time who was suffering from malaria and pneumonia. Madonna set up the organization Raising Malawi, with Michael Berg, head of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles,  in order to alleviate the extreme poverty experienced by Malawi’s orphans. In 2008, Madonna wrote, narrated and produced the documentary film I Am Because We Are, which depicts the plight of Malawi’s orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS.

I always long to learn about African countries from Africans themselves instead of Western celebrities, journalists, and academics so the Africa at 50: Wind of Change Series was refreshing. This post is a review of Episode 5 of this series which focuses on Malawi through an interview with Thandika Mkandawire, who holds the first chair in African Development at the London School of Economics, and is the former Director of the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

When it was a British colony, Malawi was known as British Central Africa and Nyasaland, after Lake Nyasa (Nyasa means lake in the language of the Yao people), now known as Lake Malawi in Malawi. The word Malawi in Chewa, the national language of the Republic of Malawi, is thought to derive from Maravi, the name of the state built by Chewa iron workers in the area of Lake Malawi. The Chewa were migrants to the region from the modern day Republic of Congo. Maravi is believed to mean “rays of light”.

The following is a Synopsis of the programme on BBC Radio 4:

Malawi was the first country in the south to gain independence. By 1958, Nyasaland – as it was then called – was experiencing a mounting tide of political unrest. Dr. Hastings Banda, a respected medical doctor based for many years in the UK and Ghana, returned to lead the struggle for independence.

Professor Thandika Makandawire was still at school when a state of emergency was declared in Malawi in 1959, and Banda was arrested. It was a turning point in his life, and he became more active with the youth league of the nationalist movement. “You could see colonial rule was coming to an end”, says Makandawire. “It was very exciting for a young person.”

When Harold Macmillan toured southern Africa in early 1960, Makandawire took part in a rowdy demonstration outside his hotel. The police reacted violently, and he was arrested. But he believes that the incident dispelled the “myth of peaceful natives” and helped inform Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech.

In 1962, Thandika Makandawire won a scholarship to study in the USA. “The dream was that I’d go to the US and come back as soon as I could.” But within three months of independence, the new government was convulsed by a cabinet crisis and Makandawire’s passport was withdrawn. Unable to return to Malawi, he spent 30 years in exile.

Despite the price he paid, Makandawire is proud of the role he played in the independence struggle. “In my lifetime, I have seen the whole of the continent liberated. That’s priceless.”

Producer: Ruth Evans
A Ruth Evans Production for BBC Radio 4.

In the programme. Thandika Mkandawire reminisces about his student days during the final years of British colonial rule in Malawi from about 1958 to 1964.

Mkandawire explains that in the case of Malawi, there is no reason to romanticize British Colonial government as having been better than African government. The colonial government in Nyasaland was called the British Overseas Military Authority (BOMA). Mkandawire describes it as a garrison government that had little interaction with the countryside and could hardly be compared to a real state government that oversaw education, health care and the like.

Sir Hastings Banda, who had leaved abroad since 1925, and was educated as a doctor returned to Malawi in 1958. Throughout the episode, you can hear excerpts from Banda’s speeches and interviews at the time. Mkandawire observes that because Banda was an educated Malawian, and there were so few educated, he was seen as a national hero who could lead the country to independence. When he returned, according to Mkandawire, Malawians got “all worked up” and were clamouring for independence. This led to a crackdown of colonial authority. A state of emergency was declared in 1959, Banda, along with hundreds of Malawians involved with the independence movement were detained and imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia. Mkandawire remembers that the only African teacher at his secondary school was detained and eventually the headmaster of the school decided to shut it down because the students were proving too unruly due to the growing nationalist youth movement. Mkandawire reflects that the declaration of a State of Emergency was a turning point in his life as it was at this point that he became more active in the nationalist youth movement. He says that this moment in Malawi’s history was “incredibly exciting for a young person.”

in 1960 17 African nations became independent. Mkandawire reflects that although this gave the Malawian national movement hope, there was also a suspicion that things were easier in West Africa because they were not facing an apartheid regime. At the time, Nyasaland had been recently forced into a federation with Northern and Southern Rhodesia, states settled and ruled by Whites.

Mkandawire reflects that Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, was the least segregated town in Southern Africa at the time and many South African liberals would come to Blantyre. According to Mkandawire, African American musician Louis Armstrong, during his African tour, only agreed to play in Blantyre so many Whites from South Africa and the Rhodesias came  Blantyre to listen to him perform. After secondary school, Mkandawire went to Blantyre to work, while waiting for his Cambridge School Certificate Exams results. He found employment in the Public Works Department of the Colonial government. He also began writing for the nationalist newspaper, The Malawi News, in the evening.

Mkandawire had read that Nigerians had demonstrated for the release of Banda while British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was visiting their country so Mkandawire and his fellow young nationalists organized a demonstration in front of the hotel where Macmillan was staying when he came to Malawi. According to Mkandawire, the colonial police were unprepared for the demonstration, and, embarrassed, responded brutally. British media that came with Macmillan were shocked by the level of violence meted out by the police, because they didn’t understand that “this is what happened in the backyard of the empire”, according to Mkandawire.

Mkandawire was arrested and detained over night. The police, according to Mkandawire, cooked up a story, accusing him and his comrades of inciting a riot and sentenced them to 18 months in prison. Orton Chirwa was Mkandawire and his comrades’ lawyer and he had an easy time winning the case on appeal. Chirwa, excited for having won their freedom, took Mkandawire and his comrades, still dressed in prison garb, to Banda’s surgery in order to celebrate. Banda was furious that Chirwa had brought them there and they all had to leave. Mkandawire didn’t understand why Banda didn’t want to celebrate their victory and he states “He was a strange man.”

Mkandawire shares another incident involving Banda’s temper. Mkandawire was at Banda’s house in order to interview him. He thought that Banda had asked him what he wanted to drink so Mkandawire said he would like to drink Coke. Banda was furious and insulted that Mkandawire would dare think he could drink Coke in Banda’s house. Banda took the incident all the way to the Malawi Congress Party’s disciplinary committee because he felt so insulted by Mkandawire. 

Before Banda returned to Malawi, Mkandawire reflects, the Malawian nationalist movement had fairly democratic internal politics. Banda didn’t think this was  good for mobilizing a movement so he centralized power. Mkandawire states at this point that “The Young Pioneers was a paramilitary thing,” and that “Among the young people there were a lot of jokes about a dictatorship emerging but I don’t think we fully understood what it would mean eventually.”

In 1962, Mkandawire won a scholarship to study journalism in the US. He had hoped to return to Malawi as soon as he finished his studies but this was not to be. In 1964, Malawi was granted independence. Three months later, there was a cabinet crisis and the national movement was split. Because Mkandawire supported the opposition to Banda, he was unable to return to Malawi. He couldn’t stay in the United States either because his passport was withdrawn so he had to become a refugee, living in exile in Sweden.

According to Mkandawire, the cabinet crisis was a result of all these grievances Party members had with Banda. These grievances had been suppressed during the struggle for independence in the name of solidarity but after independence,  Party members became frustrated with Banda’s disrespect (He called him his boys). They wanted him to change his behaviour. He said he wouldn’t and if they didn’t like it he would resign. They asked him not to resign but instead he took revenge on them. Mkandawire reflects that the members of the cabinet were a brilliant group of young people and “if they had been allowed to stay on it would have been a different story for Malawi history.”

Banda eventually consolidated his dictatorship by declaring Malawi a one-party state and in 1971 he declared himself President for Life. However, by 1994, the Malawi people had had enough and despite that fact that the Young Pioneers were still on the loose, according to Mkandawire, people voted to end one-party rule in a referendum in 1994. It was only at this time that Mkandawire could return to Malawi after an absent of some 30 years. He had only been able to see his parents twice during his exile. Luckily, his parents were still alive and able to meet their grandchildren.

Mkandawire reflects that in Malawi today many people are still hurt and suffering because there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Process. People still don’t know who betrayed them or informed on them to the Banda government.

When asked what young Malawians think about colonialism, Mkandawire states that young Malawians just see that as part of the past because all the problems they have faced have been under an African government. It’s only Mkandawire’s generation that still talks about colonialism, he says. Mkandawire states “I’m proud that I was very involved in it. It was worth it. In my lifetime I have seen the whole continent liberated. That’s priceless. That’s priceless.”

One remarkable thing about the entire interview is that Mkandawire is laughing throughout it, even about troubling incidents. I guess, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Personal Reflections

Each episode in this series was only about 15 minutes long. Enough time for a good interview, however, seeing as many people don’t know much about the colonial or postcolonial histories of African countries there is a lot can be misunderstood or simply overlooked with such a short interview. For example, on a few occasions, Mkandawire makes reference to the Young Pioneers as “a paramilitary thing” and that even during the 1994 referendum he says “the Young Pioneers were still on the loose”. Who the Young Pioneers are is never explained; it’s as if it is assumed that the listener already has a firm grip on Malawian history. Perhaps in Britain more people are informed but for a North American listener like myself, I was at a loss. Luckily, there is the internet and I soon discovered who the Young Pioneers were. According to Timothy Parsons in his book Race, Resistance, and the Boys Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa:

Banda recognized the political value of a disciplined youth movement and sent representatives to Ghana to study Nkrumah’s National Workers’ Brigade. After deciding that the Ghanaians lacked sufficient discipline, he turned to Israel for assistance in developing a paramilitary youth organization modeled on Gadna, the Israeli youth corps. Banda won funding for the plan from the World Bank and other international donors by depicting it as a development project. In reality, Banda’s Young Pioneers were a paramilitary political organization that helped him transform Malawi into a single party state. Recruits studied Kamuzism, the “teaching, philosophy and life of Ngwazi Dr. Kamuzu Banda, Father and Founder of the Nation of Malawi.” By the late 1960s, there were approximately three thousand Young Pioneers, five hundred of whom received full military training. They served as Banda’s personal bodyguard and had total immunity from arrest by the civil police. By the 1970s the Young Pioneers were better trained and equipped than the regular Malawian army and provided the coercive underpinning of Banda’s authoritarian regime.

So, it appears that the creation of the Young Pioneers was crucial in the development of Banda’s dictatorship. Another fact which I think it was necessary to mention in the episode is the truly dire consequences of Banda’s tyranny. Orton Chirwa is mentioned by Mkandawire as having been his lawyer. But Orton Chirwa is a central figure of Malawi’s colonial history and he was a leader of the opposition to Banda. Chirwa would pay dearly for this, eventually dying in prison in 1992. According to Chirwa’s Obituary in the Independent:

Orton Chirwa was Malawi’s first black barrister. A founder of the Nyasaland African Congress, he was one of a group of young nationalist leaders who in 1958 took the fateful decision to invite Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then living in Ghana, to return to Malawi. Chirwa and his colleagues felt that the experience and gravitas of an old man – Banda was already about 60 – would impress their African constituency.

In later years Banda would boast how he had single-handedly smashed the ‘stupid’ Central African Federation. Orton Chirwa and others of his generation were written out of history.

In 1959 the Federal Government banned the NAC and arrested many of its leaders, including Banda. As the senior leader at liberty Orton Chirwa set up the Malawi Congress Party and became its first president. The following year, after Banda’s release, he stood down and handed him the leadership.

At independence in 1964 Orton Chirwa became Attorney General, but fell out with Banda over the slow pace of African advancement in the civil service. Banda sacked Chirwa and three other ministers, driving them into exile.

Chirwa settled in Tanzania, where he taught and practised law. His new political party, the Malawi Freedom Movement, appears to have had little active support inside Malawi which was now a one-party state with Banda president for life.

On Christmas Eve 1981, Orton, Vera and their son Fumbani were visiting Zambia when they were abducted by Malawian security officials. What exactly happened that night remains a mystery. The Chirwas maintained that they were visiting a sick relative. Perhaps they were tricked into going to the border area. The lurid official description of the now elderly Orton ‘infiltrating’ the country with two members of his family was clearly nonsense.

Two years later Orton and Vera were put on trial for treason. Malawi’s legal system had changed since he was Attorney General. The Chirwas were tried before a ‘traditional’ court, with judges directly answerable to Banda. There was no defence counsel and they were not allowed to call witnesses. The procedural irregularities were bizarre: thus the police officer in charge of the investigation doubled as an ‘independent’ handwriting expert.

They were found guilty – of course – and sentenced to death. In 1984, after many appeals from governments and colleagues from their student days in London, Banda commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.

Life imprisonment proved to be a further sentence of death. The Chirwas were denied contact with each other and the outside world. Last year Orton tried to smuggle letters out to Tanzania. They were intercepted and he was punished with two days’ squatting in handcuffs and leg-irons, without lavatory facilities.

It seems strange to me that Chirwa’s tragic fate was not mentioned at all in the episode. That said, the interview did help me gain a better understanding of Malawi’s history and politics and has pointed me in the right direction for further study.

It appears to me that Banda wasn’t really needed for Malawi to gain independence. It seems that the Malawi people placed so much stock in this idea that Banda, as an educated man who had lived in the West, could properly lead them to independence because he would be in a better position to stand up the British because he could speak their language and was educated in their schools. But he had been away from Malawi from 1925 to 1958. How could he even be considered to still really understand the needs of his country of origin? I think that too much importance has been given to Western education and experience by colonized peoples, much to their detriment.  Banda proved to not only be a dictator but to have a great deal of contempt for his own culture. At one point, he banned the speaking of Chewa, the national language in schools and demanded that students learn Greek and Latin. This sort of move seems straight out of the book of a British Colonial Headmaster. Banda also had a close relationship with apartheid South Africa, having full diplomatic relations with them, something which most independent African nations refused to do. I just wonder what made Malawians feel that Banda deserved to be a national hero? This begs the question: Is it better to be oppressed by foreigners or your own people?

I wonder if Madonna has ever consulted with Mkandawire in relation to her work with Malawian orphans, considering that he is an expert on development. One of the things that has always troubled me about Western celebrities who wish to do good in Africa is their reliance on expertise from non-African economists. It appears that many don’t seem to even know that Africa has produced economists and experts on development, despite the fact that many of these Africans are academics working in the West.

Further Reading/Listening:

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s February 3 1960 “Winds of Change” Speech available online

Adam Lusekelo’s 2003 BBC Radio Documentary A Fresh Start for Africa available for listening online

Adam Lusekelo’s Blog

I Am Because We Are, Madonna’s documentary about orphans in Malawi, available to view online

Works by Thandika Mkandawire

Our Continent, our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment by Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo (Text available online)

Social Policy and Human Development (Essay available online)

Targeting and Universalism in Developing Countries (Essay available online)

On Tax Efforts and Colonial Heritage in Africa (Essay available online)

Institutional Monocroping and Monotasking In Africa (Essay available online)

Thinking About Developmental States in Africa (Essay available online)

Keynote Speech (2006) available online

Subverting Banda’s Dictatorship in Malawi: Orality as Counter-Discourse in Jack Mapanje’s Of Chameleons and Gods by Reuben Makayiko Chirambo (essay available online)

Gender and Ethnicity in Banda’s Malawi by Edwin S. Segal (essay available online)

Documentary Review: Seules by Bashir Bensaddek

Seules (Women Alone) is a French-language documentary directed by Emmy Award-winning Algerian Canadian director Bachir Bensaddek. Seules follows the lives of two Algerian women, Hafida and Fatiha, who chose to leave Algeria during the civil war in the hopes of finding a better life for their children in Montreal, Quebec.

However, by the end of the film, both have left Canada. Why?

Hip Hop Artist Rabah Ait Ouyahia shopping with his mother Hafida in Montreal

The film is narrated by hip hop artist Rabah Ait Ouyahia who is the son of Hafida.

Segments of the film are divided up along of Maslow’s Hierarchy Needs: The Need for the Basics of Life (Food, Air, etc), The Need for Security and Safety, the Need to be Loved and Belong, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization.

Because their need for security was not being met many Algerians chose to leave Algeria during the Algerian Civil War which began in 1991 when the Algerian government cancelled elections fearing that an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was becoming too popular. A military coop and armed conflict with Islamist groups soon followed. Many educated Algerians chose to come to Quebec because they already spoke fluent French. But they found it difficult to find jobs in their fields as their previous education and experience were not recognized in Quebec.

Fatiha, a nurse and widow, chose to leave Algeria with her children because she feared for their safety. In her late forties, she decided to return to university in order to restudy nursing. But in Montreal she could only find part-time nursing jobs. At the end of the film, we see that she has been recruited by a Swiss agency to work in a hospital in Lausanne. She now works full-time and is well paid. She doesn’t regret having come to Canada because it gave her the opportunity to improve her nursing skills and get a well-paying job…in Switzerland!

However, Fatiha mentions earlier in the film that she feels like she has lost her children because while she was in Canada she didn’t have the ability to spend much time with them. She was too busy working and studying to even cook meals for them so during that time they mostly lived on take-out. We know that by the end of the film Fatiha’s need for self-esteem and self-actualization have been met but we wonder about her need to be loved and feel that she belongs.

For Hafida, immigrating to Canada eventually cost her her marriage. Her husband couldn’t find work in his field, became depressed and frustrated and eventually returned to Algeria and divorced Hafida, leaving her behind with their three children, Rabah, Siham and Mohamed. Hafida, who although educated and a fluent speaker of French had lived most of her life as a housewife, had to go to work to support herself and her children. She eventually became a qualified childcare worker and ran a daycare out of her home. 

By the end of the film, Hafida has returned to Algeria where she says she has time to live, something she didn’t have in Canada. She deeply regrets having immigrated to Canada. Two of her children, her daughter Siham and her son Mohamed (who does the music for the film), have decided to stay in Montreal.

In a fascinating discussion with her daughter Siham, in which Hafida tries to convince Siham that life would be fine for her in Algeria, Siham says that she wants to stay in Montreal because she wants to work and be a “business woman” something she believes is only possible for women in Algeria if they come from rich and well-connected families, whereas in Canada, a woman can come from nothing and still become a success: “You can come from Saint Michel (an ethnically diverse and lower-income neighbourhood in Montreal notorious for its street gangs…but also the home of Cirque Du Soleil) and end up in Westmount (a rich neighbourhood in Montreal),” she says. Siham tells her mother that she is so adamant about being financially independent of any man because she saw how Hafida suffered because she was financially dependant on her father.

We learn at the end of the film that Hafida’s son Rabah has decided to move back to Algeria. The film closes with Hafida presiding over Rabah’s wedding.

I would recommend the documentary Seules to anyone who wants to better understand the myriad ways in which Canada’s immigration system is failing immigrants and their families.

Rabah’s new life in Algeria should be a subject of a documentary on its own.

Rabah is a hip hop artist (under the stage name El Winner) and his group Latitude Nord is a child of the Montreal Hip Hop music scene. Their track Young Gun Killers (2002), in reference to the Columbine High School shootings, is a classic of Quebecois Hip Hop.

I first saw Rabah Ait Ouyahia in the 2001 Quebecois film Tar Angel (L´ange de goudron) directed by Denis Chouinard. Tar Angel is about an Algerian immigrant named Ahmed Kasmi (played by Zinedine Soualem) whose family fled the civil war in Algeria in order to make a better life in Montreal. The remarkable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who has starred in such films as Paradise Now, The Nativity Story, and The Visitor, plays Ahmed’s wife. The family is finally about to get Canadian citizenship but Ahmed’s teenage son Hafid, played by Rabah Ait Ouyahia, goes into hiding because the police are searching for him after he’s been caught on tape freeing illegal immigrants who were about to be deported. Ahmed discovers that his son has become involved in a militant activist group and the only way to find him is with the help of Hafid’s Quebecois tattoo-artist girlfriend Hugette. At one point in the film, Ahmed is forced to drink alcohol by the atheist leader of the militant group Hafid is involved with in order to get information about his son’s whereabouts.

Further Reading:

Review of the film Tar Angel in The Globe and Mail

Documentary Review: girlhood by Liz Garbus

Posted in African Americans on Film, Documentaries, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on May 29, 2010

At the opening of the film girlhood by Liz Garbus, viewers are informed that the rates of young girls being charged with violent crimes is on the increase in the United States. Well, it’s also said to be on the increase here in Canada. As much of my work is with teenage girls in high school, this issue is both personally and professionally relevant to me, however, I often wonder if girls are really becoming more violent or if our society is just admitting something that has always gone on but we didn’t know how to label because of our stereotypical image of girls and women as somehow less aggressive than men. I don’t think girls are really less aggressive than boys, nor do I think we should somehow pathologize aggressive and violent behaviour by girls but see it as a given among boys. What is more important is that both boys and girls develop a sense of agency in relation to their aggressive behaviour, and take responsiblity for the consequences of their violent actions.

girlhood tells the story of Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen. We follow them over a period of about three years. We are introduced to them while they are incarcerated in Waxter Juvenile Detention Center, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Shanae is 14 and has served two years at Waxter for the murder of her friend, a crime she committed when she as only 12 years old. Megan is 16 and is in Waxter for Assault with a deadly weapon.

Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen in girlhood

Early in the film it is apparent that Shanae doesn’t really feel remorseful for the murder of her friend. At one point she tells her parents that the girl she murdered actually has it easy because she’s just dead whereas Shanae is suffering because she is in detention. Thankfully, her parents point out that being dead is definitely WORSE than being in detention! Shanae’s ability to feel remorse for her actions is seen as a key benchmark that needs to be achieved before she can leave Waxter.

Megan, we are told, has been in 11 foster houses by the age of 16. Her mother is a heroin addict and is herself often in and out of jail on prostitution charges. Over the years, Megan has run away from most of her foster homes in a desperate attempt to reunite with her mother. Megan admits that when she leaves Waxter she will only be going back to another foster home. When we meet Megan at Waxter it is clear that she is something of a troublemaker but probably more out of boredom than any malice (Garbus in her DVD commentary says that Megan is actually a very respectful young woman and that one of her main criticism of the Waxter Facility is that there is not really much structured activities for the inmates.). It is also quite clear that the staff at Waxter have a special affection for her despite her antics. At one point, Megan states that she feels that she is an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body because she has so much to regret. In contrast to Shanae, who has a great deal of family love and support, Megan only receives letters from her mother sporadically, and in one scene in the film desperately wants to call her grandmother to see if she is going to visit her. During this scene Megan whines that nobody loves her, she seems to be half joking but one has to wonder. Megan admits to having a special relationship with a fellow inmate which seems to be of a romantic nature. At Waxter, Megan’s need for attention and affection, her vulnerablity, are on display for everyone to see. She is also silly and childish which is what you expect for a girl her age. But one is left wondering how this silly girl took it upon herself to attack another young woman with a box cutter (the main reason why she is locked up). Is the Megan inside Waxter the same Megan outside Waxter?

Liz Garbus has made other films about life in prison, such as the Academy Award Winning The Farm: Angola. Before starting the film girlhood, she actually meant to do a film about young men in juvenile detention centres because from her work on the film Angola, she was intrigued and disturbed by how many of the inmates there said they had learned the tricks of their trade from their experiences in juvenile detention. But while researching junvenile detention centres she met Shanae who suggested that she make a film about girls. In her commentary on the film, available on the DVD, Garbus admits to being struck by Shanae’s intelligence and cutesiness (she was wearing pigtails at the time) and then shocked to discover that Shanae was locked up for murder! Garbus followed Shanae’s suggestion and was determined to include her in her film. She then had to go about getting permission to film. The extent of Garbus’ access to the girls while in detention is remarkable (she states that she eventually had keys to the inside of the Waxter facility because the staff got tired of her and her crew’s constant requests to get into different rooms). Garbus remarks that the structure within Waxter allows the girls to actually be girls. This comment is echoed by Mr. Godsey, a staff at the facility, who states in the film that although the girls don’t like structure they need it because they haven’t had it at home. He also states that although many of the girls leave Waxter and go on to live lives free of crime, others’ lives deteriorate when they get back home because of the dangers and tempations of life in their often crime-filled neighbourhoods (remember most of the inmates at Waxler are coming from Baltimore!).

So what will be the fate of Shanae and Megan when they leave Waxter?

The second part of Garbus’ film follows Shanae and Megan’s lives after leaving Waxter. Shanae moves into a lower security halfway house because her mother does not feel ready to take her back home. Megan, after a failed escape attempt from Waxter, goes into another foster home.

It is during Shanae’s interview to get into the lower security facility that we learn that she was also gang raped by five men. We have already learned that starting at the age of 10, Shanae began drinking alcohol heavily, was running away from home and having unprotected sex. This led to a pregnancy at the age of 11 which her mother arranged for her to have terminated because it was feared that because of Shanae’s heavy-drinking the baby would have fetal alcohol syndrome. Garbus in her commentary points out that Shanae does not believe that the gang rape should be seen as some sort of excuse for her murdering her friend. As the film progresses we see Shanae go from feeling very little remorse or even understanding of the consequences of her violent actions,  to feeling real remorse and a sense of responsiblity. A lot of this seems due in part to her mother Antoinette’s support.

One of the most educational parts of the film I felt was the example set by Antoinette. She demonstrates that you can support and love your child while not making excuses for them. Too often, I have seen parents make excuses for their children and this I feel has actually stunted their children’s moral growth and led to them continuing to commit violent acts. Antoinette refuses to allow Shanae back home until she is convinced that her daughter has really changed and has gotten all the help that she needs. I think this is key to Shanae’s eventual success. One may wonder how Antoinette could be a good parent considering all the trouble Shanae got into at such a young age. But if the viewer pays close attention to the film and Liz Garbus’ commentary we learn that Shanae’s mother was a single parent working two jobs trying to support Shanae and move her family out of the projects.  Unfortunately, this meant that she wasn’t around to supervise Shanae. Shanae started drinking with her cousin. Sometimes, it is members of our own families that expose our children to drugs and alcohol, something I have often seen growing up in my own neighbourhood. Antoinette does her best in extremely difficult circumstances.

In contrast to Shanae’s successes, when out of Waxter, Megan soon runs away from her foster home with no consequences (despite the fact that staying in foster care is a requirement of her patrol), couch surfs for a while and eventually gets her own place with her cousin. You watch Megan go from being a silly little girl at Waxter to being a bitter, angry and hard woman so quickly that you can’t help but be reminded of Mr. Godsey’s point about these girls needing structure. The structure of Waxter allowed Megan to be a child, the streets provide no structure and force her to be more of an adult than most adults ever have to be.

Garbus remarks during her DVD commentary that she was torn while making this film because her ultimate conclusion during her experience following these girls’ lives was that Family Matters. As a left-wing filmmaker, she worried that this appeared to be some sort of right-wing Family Values advocate conclusion. But the reality is that Shanae, because of the support of her family, is able to overcome the trauma of her childhood and the impact of her crime and graduate from high school and go on to community college whereas Megan, without really any family support, is only able to struggle, her greatest achievement being that she doesn’t return to crime or become a hardcore drug addict. In my own opinion, considering that Megan has to do all this on her own, hers is the greater achievement.

I don’t think it’s a right-wing conclusion to say that everyone needs family and that strong families raise strong, healthy, happy children who can grow up to be adults who can contribute positively to our society. But not everyone has families like this. So the question is to what degree do we all have to support children whose families can’t? This is where politics comes in and things get ugly.

I remember being struck at the end of the film that one of the staff at Waxter came to Shanae’s home to congratulate her on graduating and see her off to the prom. The staff person made it clear that she wasn’t there on official business. She was there as a member of the community and Shanae was a child of the community and therefore her child.

Further Reading:

Profile of Liz Garbus by the Center for Social Media

Video Clip from girlhood

Movie Fire Craker Website (Liz Garbus’ Film Website)

Documentary Review: Trouble the Water

Posted in African Americans, Documentaries, Hurricane Katrina, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on April 12, 2010

Yesterday, after watching the premiere of Treme, from the creators of The Wire, I finally had a chance to see the documentary Trouble the Water.

Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the producers of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and executive produced by Danny Glover, follows Kimberly Rivers Roberts aka Black Kold Madina and her husband, Scott Roberts, who live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a ward that was devastated during Hurricane Katrina. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2009 Academy Awards.

The filmmakers met Kimberly and Scott at the New Orleans’ Superdome where the city’s residents who had not fled the hurricane came for shelter and FEMA aid. The filmmakers were looking for possible subjects they could work with for a documentary about the disaster. Little did they know what great subjects Kimberly and Scott would make.

On August 25, 2009, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was preparing for Hurricane Katrina by videotaping her neighbours. She couldn’t leave her home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward because she couldn’t afford to, neither could many of her neighbours. She had recently sold her car and didn’t have any means of transportation out of the city and the city’s government wasn’t providing any. Roberts’ footage of life before the hurricane is pretty amusing: there is a neighbour who asks if she has some weed, the neighbourhood children who proudly exclaim that they “ain’t afraid of no water”, her two dogs, her uncle who obviously has a drinking problem and who she has to wake up so that he can take shelter in doors (He later dies during the storm and Kimberly discovers his decomposing body upon her return to her neighbourhood).  Kimberly videotapes the news as New Orleans’ mayor insists that everyone evacuate, however, no assistance has been given to New Orleans residents who can’t afford to leave. Kimberly began filming the storm in the hopes that she could sell some of the footage to a News Station after the storm. Little did she know how videotaping this disaster would change her life.

Kimberly’s footage of subsequent events is startling. We get to see firsthand how it was like to live through Hurricane Katrina. At one point we see that Kimberly’s house begins to flood. The filmmakers inform us at this point that the levees are failing. Kimberly and Scott decide to go up into their attic. They take in their neighbours who are unable to get to higher ground. They end up having to leave their two dogs to fend for themselves (We will later see that the dogs manage to survive on their own and are reunited with Kimberly and Scott soon after the hurricane).  From their attic, we see that the water has risen so high that only the top of a street stop sign is visible from above the water. The filmmakers play 911 calls from other New Orleans residents who are afraid of drowning in their houses. These recordings are chilling as 911 operators coldly inform people that there is no one coming to rescue them. “So I guess I’m going to die then.” one resident responds. 

What is very moving about the film is how despite not having very much Kimberly’s community comes together to survive the storm. Larry, a neighbour who we learn later doesn’t even like Scott, ends up risking his life in order to rescue Kimberly, Scott, and their neighbours from their attic and take them to higher ground. He manages to take people across the water using an old punching bag. 

People like Kimberly, Scott, Larry, and other people from Kimberly’s community are generally the population of New Orleans that the city officials try to hide from tourists. They are poor and in trouble with the law (We learn that Scott and Kimberly were drug dealers) but we see that despite all this these people are also everyday heroes who are willing to share what little they have with their neighbours, and even risk their lives for them. 

Kimberly, Scott, and their dogs

The film follows Kimberly and Scott after they eventually flee New Orleans (in a stolen truck with their neighbours) and are able to access FEMA services. Kimberly and Scott begin to see the disaster of the hurricane as an opportunity to start their lives anew and escape their past as self-described street hustlers. Later on in the film, Kimberly reflects on the fact that for many of New Orleans’ poor Black residents, their flight from Hurricane Katrina was the first time they had left Louisiana and got to see how Black people live in other states. It appears to them that the standard of living of Black people in other states is much better than for those in New Orleans. 

As we watch the film, we will learn that Kimberly is already a survivor. Her mother died of AIDS when she was thirteen years old. Kimberly lived on the street with her little brother, stealing in order to survive and avoid child services who she worried would take her brother away. She eventually got into drug dealing. Kimberly is also an aspiring hip hop artist and we get to see her perform in the film. 

By the end of the film we learn that Kimberly and Scott have started their own record company Born Hustler Records. Scott has given up his life as a drug dealer and got a job in construction rebuilding homes damaged by Katrina. 

Through my own research, I’ve learned that Kimberly and Scott now have a daughter named Skyy, who was born on Martin Luther King Day. 

The filmmakers intersperce Kimberly and Scott’s story with facts about the disaster. We learn that the Louisiana National Guard was not on the ground at the time to help New Orleans’ residents evacuate because they were stationed in Iraq. When they finally return, Scott thanks them for coming but says that he hopes they stay in Louisiana because “it’s not our war.” We learn that the levees that eventually broke had been sited several years earlier for not being adequate. We learn that New Orleans’ residents who were homeless at the time of Hurricane Katrina, such as Kimberly and Scott’s friend Brian who is a recovering addict who was living in a group home, don’t qualify for FEMA compensation because they can’t prove residence. We learn that although the majority of white residents have returned to New Orleans, the majority of Black residents have not, thus dramatically changing the demographics of the city. 

Personal Reflections 

I found the film truly inspiring. It showed the power of community and how crisis, which we often think would bring out the worst in people, can actually bring out the best.

I found it interesting how often the city’s affected residents reflected on how their experience reminded them of people in Third World countries and how if America is the richest country in the world it could let its citizens suffer like this. In many ways, the victims of Hurricane Katrina were made refugees by the disaster. Many of the cities Black residents have been resettled in other states and might never return to New Orleans. Kimberly and Scott’s journey reminded me of the stories of survival of many of my neighbours who were refugees of war. Perhaps this experience could help people living in the First World better understand how easily things can fall apart in a city. We also need to reflects on the standard of living of everyone in our own countries before we judge other countries for their poverty and human rights violations. Living in Canada, a reality is that many of the Aboriginal peoples here live in “Third World” conditions, with no adequate drinking water or shelter. We have developped some parts of our country and underdevelopped others. And, just as in New Orleans, your race and class determines whether or not you will get to live in “First World” conditions or “Third World” conditions.

Further Reading: 

Website for Trouble the Water 

“Trouble the Water star, rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, readies her cd” by Randy Lewis in the LA Times April 2009 

Four years on, Katrina remains cursed by rumor, cliché, lies and racism” by Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian August 26 2009

Zeitoun, a work of non-fiction by Dave Eggers, based on a true story that took place during Hurricane Katrina

Race and Reconciliation in South Africa, a BBC Radio Documentary

Originally written July 5, 2008

I encourage people to check out the BBC World Service Radio Documentary Race and Reconciliation by Audrey Brown about issues of Race in South Africa, including the recent attacks on migrants in cities across the country.

The reality is that aparteid only ended 14 years ago.
Why would anyone expect the deeply racist ideology that divided people into sections: White, Coloured, Blacks to have changed over such a short time?
Look how long it took for the US to recover from the racial divisions of slavery after slavery was abolished. Over a hundred years!

Although the focus is on race, poverty is really the central issue here. When there is a scarcity of resources people will compete desperately for them and divide themselves by race, religion, and nationality in order to justify their entitlement to these scare resources. Sadly, this is human nature. Why are people surprised? I don’t get why people where so surprised this happened in South Africa, just because aparteid is over. You can’t erase the economic, social and psychological dammage aparteid has done in just 14 years!

Migrant Labour is coming to South Africa because South Africa is one of the strongest economies in Africa. South Africa also needs skilled labour because many of the Whites have left and the Blacks were barred from getting the skills needed to run their own country under aparteid. Migrants, coming from such places as Nigeria, Mozambique, and Somalia, come with skills or with some capital to set up businesses. You also have poorer migrants coming from conflict zones, particularly Zimbabwe, who are willing to be paid lower wages than Black South Africans. There is also the belief that the foreigners are involved in organized crime. These fears sound pretty similar to what whites here in North America feel about migrant labour. But because our economic situation isn’t as desperate here we don’t see this level of violence.

There also seems to be bitterness among more well to do migrant Africans who believe South Africans should be grateful to them and allow them to benefit economically from South Africa because they came from countries that took in South African exiles during aparteid or somehow fought against the Aparteid government. I have a serious problem with this concept of collective gratitude. Just like I don’t think all the citizens of a country can be guilty of what their government does because they can’t be held individually responsible for their governments wrong actions, they can’t be held individually responsible for the good their government has done either. Nor should they demand collective gratitude from other people. The division between South Africans and migrant Africans will not be resolved if well off migrant Africans consider themselves superior to Black South Africans, which from many of the blog postings and Facebook groups I’ve read after the violence against migrants started seems to be the financially well-off migrant Africans attitude to Black South Africans. Black South Africans were called ungrateful, lazy and stupid and not deserving of the economic benefits of South Africa. This situation reminds me of the attacks on Korean convenience store owners by Blacks during the LA riots.

On a positive note,the violence seems to have brought some of these more privileged migrant Africans closer to the poorer migrant Africans for the first time, as they have volunteered to help the homeless refugees.

I get the impression that many migrant South Africans don’t actually interact with Black South Africans as friends. It also appears that Brown and Coloured South Africans don’t interact with Black South Africans as friends either. Again, you can’t expect the hatreds and prejudices between these groups to change if they aren’t even interacting with each other. But how can you begin such interaction if everyone is scared for their phycial safety, is worried about losing their homes and livlihood and/or thinks they are superiour? Again, class plays a role because as much as the poor Black Africans and the poor migrant Africans are fighting each other for scare resources they also actually interact with one another, live and work together, and in some cases marry each other.

Race and Reconciliation

Fourteen years after liberation and sixty years since the beginning of what was then ‘apartheid’, this documentary series explores and uncovers the extent to which race still plays a part in everyday life for those living in South Africa.
Part One – Rainbow nation or racial tension?
In January this year, an 18 year old white farm boy, Johan Nel, walked into the black settlement of Skierlik in the North West Province and shot dead four people, a mother and the baby on her back, a 10-year-old boy and a man.

Audrey Brown meets South Africans from all walks of life to find out whether recent racial incidents have revealed cracks in what has been dubbed the miracle of ‘the rainbow nation’.

In the face confrontation and controversy, she asks difficult questions about how different South African communities view one another.

Can issues of race and reconciliation comfortably sit side-by-side?
What do South Africans really think about one another?
How do you get people to engage on the issue?
And can racism ever be eradicated there?

A generation after Nelson Mandela walked free, race now seems as dominant an issue today as it was in the darkest years of apartheid.

In the first part of this series, Audrey Brown travels to Skierlik to explore how racial tensions are quietly erupting – and how the ripples are being felt around the country.

At one point, one of the White South Africans Audrey is speaking to says that he can’t marry a Black woman because he’s a Christian and it’s against his religion to mix races. What kind of Christianity is he talking about?

I was deeply moved by the story of the young White woman who was raped by Black South Africans who invaded her house but refused to blame their crime on their race. I was also happy to hear that her family had been visited by a Black South African Church group. Bringing people together in this way after crimes of this nature are committed is so crucial if there is going to be real reconciliation.

Part Two – The Politics of Race

BEE or Black Economic Empowerment has formed one of the central planks of government policy for the last 14 years.

It has created a new generation of determined, young black people – known as ‘black diamonds’.

But what about other South Africans?

Where do they fit in?

Audrey Brown travels to the Western Cape to explore how privilege and access to resources is increasingly being seen as an issue of colour.

She speaks to people from the so-called Coloured community to find out how black and brown populations feel about one another.

Is there real hatred, or is race simply being used as a political tool?

In the new South Africa, it’s not Whites versus Blacks, it’s Coloured people and Brown people versus Blacks. Just Great.

Part Three – New waves
Since 1994, South Africa has been seen as a place of hope and opportunity.

And the latest wave of people are from Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.

But how has this new wave of immigrants altered the ‘rainbow’ and how are attitudes and the recent attacks by South Africans on foreigners, painting a disturbing picture of a new type of conflict, based on race, colour and nationality?

Audrey Brown travels to Atteridgeville, a township outside the capital, Pretoria, to explore what really lies behind the recent troubles.

During an interview, a Black South African says that he believes that the attacks by Black South Africans on Black African migrants is a result of internalized Black self-hatred. He says it must be this because attacks haven’t happened on White and Asian migrants. Although, I think he has a point, the reality is that attacks aren’t happening on White and Asian migrants because White and Asian migrants don’t live near or among Black people. They are safe in gated communities. But many poorer Black African migrants actually live and work among Black South Africans, making them more accessible targets of violence.

The producer of this documentary is Audrey Brown. Audrey Brown is herself a Black South African. She was born in Klipstown, near Soweto.

Audrey Brown

Audrey Brown

Who is Audrey Brown?

Here are excerpts from a personal interview:

I knew I wanted to be a journalist from the age of about seven and I’ve been dipping in and out of it ever since university, as I’ve tried to find different ways to find out about the people of the world.

My first job in radio was here at the BBC between 1992 and 1994. I fell in love immediately and irretrievably.

But then I followed other paths first – television, writing, teaching and curating, before coming back to radio, my first love. I rejoined the BBC in January 2005.

While in South Africa, I co-presented a morning radio show. One morning the sports presenter said something that was only vaguely funny, but I suddenly got an attack of the giggles and I couldn’t stop.

I infected the rest of the team and, as I found out later, a substantial part of the audience as well. After struggling unsuccessfully for several minutes to contain my laughter I had to leave the studio.

I have too many broadcasting heroes to name, but have to mention the late great Chris Bickerton. He is the only person I knew who sounded like the same person on and off air.

Also, Tim Modise, a broadcaster in South Africa, for his natural charm and courtliness.

Your favourite African novel?

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah …and almost everything written by Bessie Head.

What makes you angry?

Stupidity, spite, cruelty, selfrighteousness and smugness.

Why do you love Africa?

Because it is often better than anything one can imagine.

What depresses you about Africa?

That it can be worse than anything you’ve ever seen.

Documentary Review: Where I Belong by Arinze Eze

I watched the documentary Where I Belong by Arinze Eze. The documentary was funded by the Reel  Diversity Program of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), which gives young Canadian filmmakers the opportunity to make a film that reflects on Canada’s ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. (The documentary Me and the Mosque  by Little Mosque on the Prairie creator Zarqa Nawaz was funded by this program).

Check out a promo for Eze’s  film.

Arinze Eze is a young Nigerian of Ibo descent who has been living in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the last nine years since leaving his family in Nigeria in order to work in Canada. He’s lucky because he was born in Canada (It appears that his parents lived in Edmonton, Alberta for some time) and so is legally a Canadian citizen although he was mostly raised in Nigeria. The film, “Where I Belong”, focuses on Eze’s worries that his parents won’t accept the life he has made for himself in Canada, particularly his Jewish girlfriend of 5 years, Tina. During his visits to Nigeria, he’s kept most of his personal life a secret. His parents will be coming to visit him for the first time and he will have to finally be honest with them about what he’s really been up to the last nine years. Arinze hasn’t told his parents that he’s given up engineering to be an artist (music, painting, theatre, and filmmaking). This is a real worry because he knows his father worked hard to put him through school so that he could eventually make a good living in the West and support the family. He is not going to be able to do that as an artist. Also, Arinze’s mother wants him to marry someone the family has chosen for him. She is also a born-again Christian so he doesn’t think she will be very accepting of his Jewish girlfriend.

Arinze and his girlfriend Tina end up breaking up just before his mother comes to stay with him. It appears that Arinze believes they are just too different. He is very concerned about what identity conflicts his children with Tina would have: Would they be Nigerian? Canadian? Both? Neither? He also mentions that he might want to retire to Nigeria.

Arinze has difficulty getting his parents to Canada because their visas are rejected. This is pretty common for Africans wanting to bring their family members here to Canada just to visit. The fear is that they will never want to leave.

Arinze's parents at a hockey game

Arinze's parents at a hockey game

Eventually, Arinze’s parents’ visas are approved. His mother comes first. I really liked Arinze’s mother. She was so elegant, almost regal in her bearing. Although she began by saying that she didn’t approve of mixed race marriages because the children would end up being confused, after learning about how much Tina has taken care of her son while he’s been living in Canada, she decides she wants to meet her. Tina and Arinze’s mother meet and Arinze’s mother thanks Tina for taking care of her son. She admits that she didn’t know white people could be so nice given her past experiences with racism while living in Edmonton. Tina ends up crying during much of this meeting while Arinze’s mother remains coldy composed (but I think that’s just the way she is).

Arinze’s dad proves to me more emotional, even something of a romantic. He has no problem that his son is an artist. Actually, he says he always knew Arinze would become an artist. He also thinks Arinze should get back with Tina because “everyone needs someone to love”. It’s pretty obvious that Arinze’s own parents are still very fond of each other. When Arinze asks his father if it is too late for him to so dramatically change his career path (from engineering to arts) his father reassures him with an Ibo proverb: “When you wake up, that’s your morning”. I’m definitely going to be using that one.

So, in the end, most of Arinze’s concerns were in his own head. He gets back with Tina and feels more grounded now that his parents know the truth about his life in Canada.

I enjoyed watching the documentary particularly as I am a “confused” half-Nigerian child of a mixed race couple…the kind of creature Arinze’s mother dreads he will produce. The truth is it is a confusing experience to be of mixed race but probably not any more confusing than being second generation. Acceptance, both by your parents, and the world outside is what we all long for. Having to live a lie isn’t good for anyone but far too often second-generation children do this because they feel they have to. Sometimes they really do have to and sometimes their worries are really of their own creation, because they have misjudged their parents.

Check out a music video by Arinze Eze

Documentary Review: The Imam and the Pastor

Posted in Blacks and Islam, Christianity in Nigeria, Countries: Nigeria, Documentaries, Islam in Nigeria by the woyingi blogger on June 3, 2009

Last year, I had a chance to see the film The Imam and the Pastor about Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, two Nigerians, one Muslim, one Christian, who have been able to put aside their differences and come together to fight communal violence in Northern Nigeria. This film really gives me hope. It is also a great example of what real interreligious dialogue, with a vision towards reconciliation, can achieve. It was also just great seeing a documentary about Nigeria, this place I long to see, where my father lives, but which I have yet to journey to.

Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye

Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye

According to Imam Ashafa: ‘Religion is a candle to light the house or to burn down the house. It is an energy, and like nuclear energy, it can be used for good or destructive purposes. Our task is to see religion used for positive purposes.’

According to Pastor Wuye, ‘Nigeria is a very religious country. The conflict entrepreneurs use faith as the medium to inspire violence. We’re using faith to de-programme violence.’

I really recommend seeing the film. It premiered at the United Nations in New York and was screened at the House of Commons in the UK.

The following in an excerpt from an interview with Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa by Africa Today:

I put it to Pastor James that there are those – and there is an extensive list – who do not believe that after vowing to kill each other and confronting each other murderously for a long time, all is now forgiven and that they have kissed and made-up. Is this a match made in heaven or a match made in Hollywood? Pastor James replies, almost shouting: “This is your journalist instinct running wild,” but he admits there are ghosts to be exorcise. “I know some people would find the documentary too good to be true. But I truly believe that this is a marriage. From time-to-time we’ll disagree on things, however, I love this guy and we’ll never get a divorce,” stressing: “Imam and I are in this together, to promote co-operation for the long term in Nigeria and wherever we are called upon.” “I am no quitter. What our story proves is that communication is best,” he adds.
Ashafa told E K’ABO about how they faced opposition from their respective religious groups when they first came together to promote their inter-faith initiatives and local reconciliation in their communities. There was strong rejection. Some incensed people branded them compromising traitors. “Sceptics mocked us and our idea. But today we have majority support in my country and we are being called upon by other countries, organisations and small communities to sort out conflicts before they get out of hand and sometimes to quench already smouldering conflicts threatening to engulf communities.

The source for the following profiles of Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye and the description of their initiative come from

Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa believe the only way religious violence can be reduced or stopped in Nigeria is by having leaders of each faith promote religious teachings of peace and non-violence. Their organization, the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum, deals with the psychology of religious violence and addresses its causes and effects. Wuye and Ashafa are influencing schools, houses of worship, and community centers to prevent violence and intervene when conflicts erupt. Their education and media outreach strategies have afforded them unprecedented, widespread support and legitimacy for their efforts to promote peaceful coexistence.

The son of an Islamic scholar from a long line of Muslim clerics dating back 13 generations, Mohammed Ashafa grew up in a conservative family that espoused Islamic socio-cultural values and held deep suspicion for all things Western and Christian. As a young man and the eldest son, he followed the family vocation and became an Imam. To promote his family tradition of Islamic custodianship, Ashafa joined a fanatical Islamic group committed to completely Islamizing the North and chasing away all non-Muslims from the region. Ashafa became the leader of this militant group and also the Secretary General of the Muslim Youth Councils. The Muslim Youth Councils incited great violence in the North, which resulted in the Christians creating their own counter organization, the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, led by Pastor Wuye.

Born in Kaduna State, Pastor Wuye, an Assemblies of God Pastor, was the son of a soldier who served in the Biafran War. From a young age, Wuye was fascinated by battle and war games. In the 1980s and 1990s he was involved in militant Christian activities and served as Secretary General of the Kaduna State chapter of the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization for all Christian groups in Nigeria for 8 years. He recounts that his “hatred for the Muslims had no limits”. He hated seeing people being intimidated and abused, so when Muslims were blamed for inciting a violent conflict in Kaduna, he immediately volunteered to lead a reprisal attack. He lost his right arm during one of the battles against Ashafa’s militant group in Kaduna; increasing his vengeance and deep hatred for Muslims in general and Ashafa in particular.

Ashafa also experienced loss at the hands of Pastor Wuye. In one of the violent clashes between Muslim Youth Councils and Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, two cousins and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor died while fighting Pastor Wuye’s Christian group. For years, both Ashafa and Wuye vowed to avenge the deaths and injuries of their loved ones by killing each other. However, a chance meeting in 1995 brought the two clerics together and through intermediaries and months of soul searching, both leaders decided to lay down their arms and work together to end the destructive violence plaguing their country. This chance meeting and Imam’s extension of the olive branch to Wuye led to the formation of the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum.

Their collective work in peace building began in 1997, and they have since managed to spread their messages of conflict-resolution to all corners of the globe. Their work has earned them numerous accolades including the Peace Activist Award of the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding; a joint Honorary Doctorate degree in Philosophy bestowed upon them in Kolkata, India; a Heroes of Peace Award from Burundi; Search for Common Ground on Interfaith Cooperation Award USA; and the Bremen Peace Award from the Threshold Foundation on interreligious reconciliation, among others.

Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have designed a strategy to both prevent religious and political violence and resolve it when it happens. Their early-warning mechanism, developed in 1996, helps communities identify inflammatory situations and provides the means to reduce tensions. For instance, Ashafa and Wuye defused potential violence surrounding the 2006 Dutch cartoon fiasco, which inflamed many communities around the world. Sensing danger, they immediately asked the heads of the Christian Associations of Nigeria to appear on radio and television to publicly condemn the negative depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in the cartoons, and asked the Chief Imams to accept the condemnation and ask for calm. Their tactic of publicly encouraging Muslim and Christian leaders to support each other and sign peace agreements has proven successful in building ties between the two communities and towards their shared goal of mitigating violence.

Another early-warning technique is the “deprogramming” of violent youth through Christian and Islamic instruction that emphasizes forgiveness and non-violence. To reverse a “theology of hate” that is often taught to children at home and in school, Ashafa and Wuye set up Peace Clubs in pre-school, primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. The Peace Clubs have peace-building and peer-mediation components and involve class representatives who mediate conflict between classmates and teach their peers how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Students throughout Nigeria receive religious instruction, and particularly in conflict prone states learn that one religion is superior to others. So in 1998 Ashafa and Wuye developed a curriculum entitled “The Ethical Code for Religious Instructions in Schools” which is now used in schools and by other organizations interested in promoting peace. Coupled with Peace Clubs, the curriculum is reducing religious violence in schools. To date, over 30 schools in the majority Muslim Kaduna state, and primary schools and universities in Plateau, Kano, and Bauchi states have Peace Clubs and peace curricula.

They also created “deprogramming” Youth Camps which bring together militant youths from different communities for 5 days of intensive interaction. Camp participants are involved in activities that replace demonization of those of a different faith with the humanization. These militant youth attend skill-building activities such as financial and computer literacy classes. Ashafa and Wuye have also trained youth leaders from across the country to become trainers in their communities.

In addition to their preventive work, Ashafa and Wuye also focus on peace building and resolution. Since 1997, they have been training religious leaders of both faiths on conflict mitigation and organizing peace-building workshops for community members. They organize seminars with opinion leaders and elders that encourage dialogue about differing views on politics, society, and law. There are also practical workshops that encourage good governance, legislation, budget tracking, and building bridges between communities and political and religious leaders.

Ashafa and Wuye also help communities use peace building methods that may have been forgotten or abandoned. They train women of both faiths to monitor elections and educate their communities on the electoral process. Their studies have shown a sharp decline in rigging and violence at polls where the women operate.

The pair offers trauma counselling for those who have suffered losses at the hands of religious violence and trains religious and community leaders to assist those affected by violence. Ashafa and Wuye use scriptures from their two holy books to help people deal with suffering and tragedy. They also force men to deal with the ramifications of trauma; challenging African notions that men should not show emotion.

Media outreach is their main approach to spreading their work beyond the areas where they operate directly. Both clerics have television shows dedicated to preaching the tenets of their respective faiths as well as peaceful co-existence. They are featured in a documentary on conflict resolution which was showcased at the UN headquarters, at the House of Commons in the UK, and in Washington DC. This was made into a case study by the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding.

The Center comprises a Secretariat of 14 people (7 Muslims and 7 Christians) with joint deputyships, coordinators, and program managers. Ashafa and Wuye have a rotating portfolio of responsibilities and enjoy an equitable division of labor. The sensitive nature of their work requires participation of both the Imam and Pastor in the programming the Center offers. Due to the dangerous nature of their work, they have succession plans in place for appointed deputies to assume executive leadership positions should anything debilitating happen to them.

They have set up offices in three states in Nigeria, two in the North and one in the East, and have partnerships with various religious groups in other areas. To ensure widespread impact, Wuye and Ashafa set up committees and advisory councils made up of religious and community leaders to monitor peace-building efforts and provide feedback, using a hotline to report religious violence nationwide. At least two people (1 Muslim and 1 Christian) from each of Nigeria’s 36 states are trained in conflict resolution (with more staff in conflict-prone states) and stay in close communication with the Center’s headquarters in Kaduna state. Their work has also spread beyond Nigeria to Northern Ghana, Burundi and Kenya. Their Center is sustained through support from international donor and religious organizations, and local and regional governments in Nigeria.

Ashafa and Wuye want to bring peace to all nations plagued by religious violence. They have assisted organizations in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Native American communities in the United States. They also work with Muslim and Christian entities in conflict areas outside of Nigeria. They have partnered in Sudan with the New Sudan Islamic Council and the New Sudan Church Council and in Kenya with the Kenyan Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and the Kenyan Council of Churches. Their goal is to work with organizations in the Niger Delta region, Middle East peace groups, and are building an office with the African Union staffed with Muslim and Christian practitioners.

Their next steps include the construction of an Interfaith Peace Village, with land donated by the Kaduna state government. They are planning to host a summit on peace and religious harmony which will convene religious leaders and peace practitioners from across Africa. Because they believe peace building without development is ineffective, they have organized Muslim and Christian women rice farmers to work together as an effective peace building and income generation scheme.