Every year, around this time, we take a month long break from publishing. We need it.
The name of this site is meant to be ironic, though a few on Twitter still take it literally and remind us that Africa is not a country. Similarly, the title of this annual post is meant to be tongue in cheek. It marks our annual month long publishing break that we take every August. But it is hard to imagine “taking a break” these days. Like everyone else, we’ve all been living with a global health pandemic since March 2020—for at least a year and a half now. And it doesn’t seem like things are looking up. Some of us, by virtue of our location in the first world, are fully vaccinated. (It even allows us to travel: In fact, I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for much of July 2021; more on that later.) A few of us, those members of the team living in countries like South Africa or Zambia, have one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine only, while others will have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, more variants of the coronavirus appear.
Nothing could have prepared any of us for the challenges and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is far from over, but most of us have probably lived through its worst period. As the world opens up again, we recognize that our work has been irrevocably changed, in some ways presenting new challenges, in others new opportunities.
That said, the last year we were quite productive. Here’s what I wrote at the start of our last break in August 2020:
… while it easy to focus on the failures of post-independence Africa (and there’s a lot there), we feel that, going forward, it is more useful to ask what world we joined and what can we do to change that world. And what conversations can we have with fellows in Asia and Africa or with the movements of marginalized people in the global North (and places like Australia and Japan) to arrive at new ideas and new tactics to deal with old and new problems: class inequalities, racism, climate crisis, political representation, authoritarianism, erosion of work, and migration and borders, among others.
For starters, that means looking at the experience of Latin American countries and societies (here, here and here) or exploring the connections between Africa and Asia (here, here and here) or forming partnerships, like the ones we have AJ Plus, The Wire (part of Progressive International), The Elephant, the Africa Institute in Sharjah (more on the latter after we come back from our break) and via our Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to republish our content.
At the same time, we have started a number of projects. First up, we started a weekly talk and interview show, presented by our staff writer, Will Shoki, and me. The show is produced by Antoinette Engel. The show is truly transnational. Will is in Johannesburg, I am in New York City and Antoinette in Cape Town. A couple of guests have come back regularly and contribute to the show’s unique flavor. They include Anakwa Dwamena, one of our contributing editors and our new book editor, based in Mexico City. Another, Wangui Kimari, who is on our editorial board and based in Nairobi, Kenya as well as Grieve Chelwa, currently living in Lusaka, Zambia. More on both later. Footnote: Anakwa has just heard he has been awarded a Fulbright to do some research and writing about how climate change affects faith, traditional beliefs and how we understand who we are in a changing environment. He will travel to Ghana. Anakwa’s Fulbright is among the latest testaments to the very talented crew we have assembled.
On the transnational production of AIAC Talk: That visit to Cape Town I talked about, was also the first time I met Will Shoki in person. We had been working together for at least two years (Will started out as a contributor and once we were funded was appointed Staff Writer). You can watch the moment we finally met and broadcast the last episode of our first season in person from the offices of the Alternative Information and Development Center in Cape Town. Of course, we discussed football.
You can watch the archive of the show via our Youtube channel, on our Facebook page or via our Patreon. Since we started broadcasting in June last year, we have done forty-six episodes in total. The show will be back in mid-September. Once the show returns, it will have some changes. These changes are geared to, as Will reminded the subscribers of our weekly email newsletter (“Weekend Special”), make AIAC Talk more accessible, increase the quality of the content, and better nurture the community of supporters we are so grateful to have.
Long before we had AIAC Talk, we’ve had Africa Is a Country Radio. The brainchild of managing editor, Boima Tucker, the radio show took on a new format in the last year: each season has its own theme. Right now, Boima is focusing on African club culture. Already he has covered Nairobi and Cairo. Before that he looked at port cities: Freetown, Sierra Leone; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Cape Town (Dylan Valley and I made cameos here); Luanda; and Dakar. All those shows are archived here.
Three other projects started in the last year or so deserve a special mention: The first is Climate Politricks (full name: “Climate Justice, Tax Justice and Extractives in African spaces”). This project, edited and managed by Grieve, is funded through a grant from the Africa Regional Office of Open Society Foundations. We’re doing a bunch of things with it: a series of op-eds by scholars and experts from the diaspora and the continent exploring the politics of climate justice; documentary shorts; and, finally, providing a forum for climate activists based on the continent to amplify their ideas.
Climate Politricks is part of a larger effort aimed at decolonizing and shifting public narratives around the climate crisis. The big idea is to deepen and move the needle on mainstream conversations in Africa (and globally) about natural resource extraction, the distribution of wealth and the effects of climate change, as well as to galvanize popular pressure for reform toward lasting political change. A key goal is to amplify the voices of Africans on the frontlines of struggles around climate and tax justice.
Grieve is perfect as the lead on this project: He is an economist with a commitment to public facing scholarship and quite adept at the new media environment. Just check his Twitter account, his media interviews (here and here, for example) or his archive of writings on the website. Until recently, he was on the faculty of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business; this year he was appointed as Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute on Race and Political Economy at The New School, where I happen to work too.
Then there is our fellows program. 2020/2021 marked the first year of our fellows program. Funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation (through a generous fellowship I have been awarded for the last two years), we support original work by ten fellows. They’re mostly young writers based on the continent. The fellowship supports my long term goal with Africa Is a Country, to construct a world where Africans are in control of their own narratives. The fellows—list here—started their work at the end of last year and you can see work they’ve published thus far, here. They’re all working hard, but shoutouts to Youlendree Appasamy, Amar Jamal Mohamed Ali, Liam Brickhill, Ricci Shryock and Fatima-Ezzahra Bendami, who have all published pieces already. (Also, a special shoutout to our mentorship coordinator Siddhartha Mitter and our mentors Aida Alami, Benoît Challand, Grieve Chelwa, Marissa Moorman, Sisonke Msimang, Anjali Kamat and Bhakti Shringarpure.) Watch out for more of the fellows’ work as we extended their fellowships into the Fall. Also, look out for our call for new fellowship applications later this year. I am proud of the fellowship because it builds legacy.
Then there’s Capitalism in My City. In this, we partnered with the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Nairobi to produce a series of posts and videos to document everyday capitalism in Nairobi. The project, like the fellowships, is funded via my Shuttleworth Fellowship. Capitalism in My City aims to “… analyze capitalism in the manner with which we interact and observe it as opposed to a very academic approach of analysis.” Eight local activists and other community members have received training to produce publication-ready articles and publication-ready videos. The first two videos are archived here and here. The articles are published in both Swahili and English and the videos come with English subtitles. Shoutouts to the editors of Capitalism in My City, Gacheke Gachihi and Lena Anyuolo. Gacheke is a social justice and human rights advocate in Nairobi and Lena is a writer and social justice activist with Mathare Social Justice Centre and Ukombozi library. Also, thanks to Wangui Kimari and Jorg Wiegratz as well as the Mathare Social Justice Center.
I could go on and on, but the point of all of this is to encourage you to also stop what you’re doing and visit our site and our social media handles and check out our work for the rest of this month.
Finally, a personal note from me. August is now also a heavy month for me. My mother, Eliza, passed away last year, on the 21st of August, in Cape Town, of a stroke. She was only 75 years old. I couldn’t travel to South Africa for her funeral and had to follow it on Zoom. It was a surreal experience. Last month was my first visit to a Cape Town without her. My father, Paul, 79, and 7 siblings—I am from a large working class family—still live there. Her passing made me appreciate how much she shaped me (as poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote, “my mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived”) and how far she came in a life that did her no favors. At some point, I want to write about her. One of 12 children of a poor, coloured farm worker family in the small Karoo, she grew up as apartheid was intensifying. On turning seventeen in 1962, she had the courage to leave the farm for the city on her own to work as a live-in domestic worker for a white family in Cape Town’s northern suburbs. She created a new life, later a family and a community on the Cape Flats where I was born and grew up. People who met her—I had a habit of taking my friends to meet her, and later in her life she came to visit us in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Brooklyn, New York—always marveled at her calm energy; at how unruffled and centered she seemed. It would be easy to forget that how many worlds she traveled and the kinds of challenges she took on, all with a lot less support and none of the recognition that began to come to me once I left the Flats for the University of Cape Town and beyond. I hope someday to live up to her example.
We will be back on Monday, September 13th.