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Condemned by Robin Hammond_Winner 2013 FEBA

“Wherever there is conflict the mental health aspects of everybody is affected… when you bring in poverty, the little thing that somebody has, he loses it in conflicts, and that frustrates them a lot.” These are the words of Médecins sans Frontiers Mental Health Officer, Birongo Mogaka, at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya and they hit me like a train.

‘Condemned’ by Robin Hammond is more than a collection of images. The background information and extensive interviews with patients, their families and those who ‘care’ for them, arm the reader with facts as well as awakening them to the horrors of African mental healthcare in the visual sense.

The photo-book was the winner of this year’s FotoEvidence Book Awards and deservedly so. It exposes the social, psychological and physical imprisonment of mental health illnesses in African countries with limited understanding and non-existent resources, and yet it was not always this way. In an interview, Janice Cooper (Country Representative for Health and Project Lead for Mental Health for The Carter Centre in Liberia) explains that before the conflict in Liberia mental healthcare resources may not have been excellent, but a basic system for helping sufferers was in place. Now, what little there was has been taken away. She says “It broke down because fighting forces went into the hospitals…many of the people who were mentally ill were killed or shot…”

As highlighted by Mogaka, conflict is also the source of mental health problems for many African people. Post traumatic stress disorder is rife, not only amongst those who witnessed and suffered horrendous violence but also amongst those who committed it. As child soldiers they were forced to kill under threat of becoming subject to the violence themselves and are now endlessly tormented by the memories of their actions. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to forget in the absence of professional help and medication. Many spend their lives in chains and, without family members to bring them food, starvation in often the cause of death.

Hammond’s images capture the hopelessness of the situation and the overall feeling of helplessness amongst patients. As I look upon an image of a person lying half naked, face down on the floor, in the corner of a bare room with their foot chained… even the word ‘patient’ seems grossly misrepresentative. A lone figure reenacts a fight scene against an invisible enemy, holding a piece of wood as if it were a rifle; the effects of war remain long after the conflict is over.

These may be some of the most shocking and saddening photographs I have ever seen, and I certainly won’t forget them in a hurry. Mental healthcare continues to be overlooked across many developing countries and yet its sufferers are vast in their numbers. Hammond has achieved something incredible here by giving a voice to a group of people who are systematically ignored, misunderstood and ultimately failed by society. His images, however, cannot be ignored and will undoubtedly help to raise awareness.

You can buy the ‘Condemned’ photo-book from the FotoEvidence bookstore.

About Robin Hammond…

Robin Hammond is a 37-year-old freelance photojournalist born in New Zealand. He has been part of the photo agency Panos Pictures since 2007. The winner of four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism, Robin has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2011, Hammond won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award which allowed him to document in Zimbabwe for four months. Actes Sud published a book of the photos to coincide with an exhibition of the work in Paris in November 2012. His long term project on mental health, Condemned, was exhibited in September 2012 at the photojournalism festival Visa Pour l’Image.

After spending time in Japan, the United Kingdom and South Africa, Robin Hammond currently lives in Paris. He contributes to many international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, and Polka. He also works regularly with various non-governmental organizations.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. With many thanks to FotoEvidence.

captain-phillips-international-posterAs it was only a few years ago, it’s likely that you’ll remember the events that ‘Captain Phillips’ is based on. In 2009 the cargo ship of Captain Rich Phillips and his crew was boarded by four young Somali pirates. Events escalated, leading to Phillips being captured by the Somalis and enduring a hostage situation on the escaping lifeboat.

At the time, the news reportage of these real hijackings and the simultaneous portrayal of pirates as fun adventurers in Western cinema couldn’t have felt more at odds with each other. It is pure conjecture, but I wonder whether there is something about the word ‘pirate,’ and our cultural associations with it, that stops us from truly understanding the severity of the issue. Perhaps, by wrapping it up in an entertaining Hollywood production, ‘Captain Philips’ will raise some awareness about real piracy and the global economic issues that surround it.

At its core the film is a survival thriller, and director Paul Greengrass grips us by pumping out heart thumping tension. The pacing is consistent, even in the quite lengthy third act. In comparison to ‘Argo,’ another recent film based on a real international hostage incident, ‘Captain Phillips’ plays with the audience’s sense of hope and fear with more intensity. There is, however, the feeling that there has been a small bit of miss-marketing and some action fans may be expecting a modern ‘Under Siege,’ but this is not an action film. There are plenty of exciting sequences, but the title protagonist is not a one man army. It’s a portrayal of a real man’s attempts at escape and painful endurance. Despite his situation, there is plenty of humanity and sympathy from Phillips which, unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks expresses excellently, bringing a heart breaking performance as the film progresses.

Greengrass’ experience of handling true tales such as this one shines through, as the wider picture is also explored without any deviation or affect on pacing. The piracy issue is handled in the best possible way: without unnecessary blame and with plenty of room for interpretation and discussion.

Early on, the film pictures a poverty stricken fishing village in Somalia and the conditions of recruiting pirates.
There’s no demonisation of the Somalis as a ’threat’ to the Western economy or suffocating portrayal of them as forced victims. There are subtle references to an organised crime figurehead and a hierarchy of power, but they’re explored in appropriate doses; enough to spark interest but without providing overly simplistic answers.

There are moments between Philips and his lead captor, Muse, that explore the relationship between Africa and America. In one scene Muse tells Phillips about his ambition to go to America, imagining the country as that iconic land of opportunity. Unfortunately, no economy is stable and even work in the Western world is not guaranteed. This is subtly acknowledged by the captain himself at the start of the film, in conversation with his wife. This insight into Muse’s aspirations makes him an interesting character as he is brutal and dislikable but also desperate and sympathetic.

There has been some controversy surrounding the portrayal of the title man himself, with Phillips’ real life crew describing actions he took as reckless and even blaming him for the hijacking. Authenticity is always a point of contention when it comes to films based on true stories and, in this particular case, most of it probably stems from the use of Phillips’ own memoirs as the main source for the plot. That said, I didn’t feel that he was overly portrayed as an American hero.

Despite acknowledging his quick wittedness and bravery in the face of adversity, and despite being called ‘Captain Phillips’, the film is not just about Captain Phillips. It is an intelligent thriller that will rock your emotions whilst subtly engaging you in the wider context of the piracy issue.

Released in the UK on October 16th 2013.



From the 21st-24th of September 2013 the world watched in horror as the tragic events of the Westgate attack unfolded in Nairobi, Kenya. For most people in Nairobi, the enormity of this tragedy hit so close to home that it will take a long time to wrap their heads around it.

Westgate is such a hub for residents and visitors to Nairobi, so much so that everyone who wasn’t at the mall that particular Saturday is thinking ‘That could have been me in there.’ I believe this was the point; that is why the militants chose Westgate. For a terrorist group that has lost ground significantly in the last few years, it’s one hell of a point to make.

Al-Shabaab (“The youth”) is a Somali-based Islamist militant group. It’s an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Al-Quaeda backed group that rose to power in the 1990s and was later defeated in 2006 by a United States backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace ant Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

Al-Shabaab is thought to have members in the thousands with several hundred recruits from Middle Eastern countries and young recruits from Somali communities in the U.S.A and Europe. That said, they are fond of exaggerating their numbers and their ‘victories’ so who knows how many there actually are out there?

This is not the first such attack Al Shabaab has carried out in the region. This group has staged multiple major attacks within Somalia for years. In July 2010 they attacked two popular restaurants in Uganda as gatherings of people merrily watched the world cup final. More than 70 people were killed.

The Kenyan government suspected Al-Shabab of conducting a series of grenade attacks in two bus stations and a bar in Nairobi in 2011 and 2012. These incidents in Kenya and Uganda are apparently retribution for the role their troops have played in diminishing Al Shabab power in Somalia. Al Shabab demands Ugandan and Kenyan troops withdraw from Somaila. That is not likely to happen for very many reasons but here’s my pick of the winners:

Firstly, no government on earth wants to be seen to give in to terrorist demands. That’s just really bad PR. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” is the mainstay as far as political stands go. Kenya has a reputation for being tough, (at least in the region.) This country has been through a lot, the people as a whole are so resilient and they are not afraid to stand up. Kenya doesn’t get bullied (at least not in the region.)

Secondly, Somalia is the ‘most failed state in the world’ according to the Foreign Policy and Global Fund For Peace. Violence is rampant with military factions and international military forces constantly doing battle. Somalia suffers from extreme tribalism, fighting warlords, terrorists and hunger. The African Union has peacekeeping troops, a collection of military from African countries including Kenya and Uganda, which support a UN-backed Somali government.

Al-Shabaab’s animosity towards Kenya is mainly due to the fact that Kenyan troops, since establishing their role in the AU mission in 2011, have managed to drive the militants out of a key port Kisimayu which was their main base and essentially their lifeline. Since then the group has been faced with a major loss of resources and a brutal power struggle among top leaders.

Some have said this attack was a final kick by the rapidly failing terrorist group, or perhaps an attempt to retain and reunite disillusioned members. Perhaps the new leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, is trying to prove himself?

Al-Shabaab claims that the international military operations in Somalia have led to the loss of countless innocent Somalis and that this attack was punishment to Kenya for its role in this. While it is true that innocent Somalis have been lost in the crossfire, killing more innocent people is not the way to make this point. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab is guilty of carrying out systematic attacks on Somalis in Somalia itself. Forgive me if I don’t buy their proclaimed concern for their fellow countrymen.

There is no denying the sophistication it took to execute this attack, which leads to more speculation about possible help from their more experienced allies in terrorism a.k.a Al-Quaeda. Al-Quaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 killing about 200 people and injuring scores more.

Thirdly, their mission statement as of 2007 was “Seeking to establish an Islamic state along the lines of the Taliban-ruled, by-the-law-of-Allah in the land of Somalia; regards the rulers of the Muslim world today as branches of the international conspiracy against Islam, and thus they are to be regarded as infidels and overthrown; [and] seeks to expand the jihad to Somalia’s Christian neighbours, with the intent of driving the infidels out of the Horn of Africa, along the same lines as al-Qaeda has been striving to do under the slogan, ‘expelling the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula.'” This point is pretty self-explanatory. The world ‘Lunacy’ has bee thrown around…

During the Westgate attack, Al-Shabab live tweeted: “The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf,” The reference is clear: they consider themselves participants of some sort of ‘holy war’ and they are specifically targeting ‘Kenyan Kuffar’ i.e. Kenyan Non-Muslims. Reports that the militants selected out Muslims during the attack and let them go while they killed non-Muslims reaffirm this fact.

Many prominent public figures in the Islamic community, ordinary Muslims and Kenyan-Somalis have stood up to denounce the attack. It is very easy to synonymise extremist with Muslim, given that the majority of acts of terrorism the world over are perpetuated by self-proclaimed ‘Mujahideen suffering for the cause of Islam’. Concerns over Islamist militants are growing; but let us not confuse the fight against extremists with a fight against Islam. That said, the need to address the issue of hardline Islamic views leading to extremism cannot be overstated.

There were initial fears of revenge attacks on Somalis living in Kenya. After the grenade attacks in 2011, many people took to the streets rioting and spreading negative messages against Somalis. What people forget is that Somalis, particularly those living in Somalia, have been by far the most victimised by Al Shabaab activity. Thankfully, Kenyans have steadily moved away from ethnic divides. Heaven knows they have learned from their past mistakes.

The issues leading up to this attack on Westage are complex. Of course with any story there are three sides, your side, their side, and the truth. When all is said and done, any normal (non-extremist) person can agree that attacks like this are never the solution. No doubt Al-Shabaad did this to provoke a response from the Kenyan government and the international community at large. What will actually be done about Al-Shabaab is yet to be revealed but we can be sure it will not be a white flag.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.

Image © UN Photo/Stuart Price
Caption: “Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) walk at dusk under a rising crescent moon near the outskirts of Afgooye, a town to the west of Somali capital Mogadishu. On the third day of the SNA’s joint offensive with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), dubbed “Operation Free Shabelle”, troops have advanced to almost two kilometres outside the strategically important town, having captured along the way swathes of territory previously under the control of the Al Shabaab insurgent group.”

The Italian island of Lampedusa is a thriving tourist destination attracting people from all over the world, but not all of its visitors are holiday makers. For years staggering numbers of migrants have been landing on its shores, having survived the treacherous boat journey from countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Their intended destination is mainland Europe: Their dreamland of opportunity.

A large proportion of the migrants come from Libya, trying to escape persecution or looking for work. Although the journey from Tripoli (in Libya) to Lampedusa takes approximately 16 hours by boat, bad weather and other unforeseen circumstances often result in it taking much longer. People regularly drown in shipwrecks or die of thirst along the way.

Having heard stories about the migrants and the poor conditions in which they were being kept when they arrived, photographer, Simone Perolari and his journalist friend decided to make the trip to Lampedusa in 2004. What they witnessed confirmed everything.

“We were led to the place where the boat arrived. It was being dragged by the border control officers. It was the beginning of a traumatic experience. Seeing all those people arriving, counting the men and women as if they were objects, helping women and babies. Everything left us in shock. On the first night the people were sent to a place called the ‘shelter’ (which had nothing of a shelter about it) and then they were left to themselves.”

Perolari is referring to the ‘Contrada Imbriacola’ initial reception and accommodation centre. It has since been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its inhumanely cramped conditions. In 2009 it was found that the centre, designed to house a maximum of 850 people, was actually housing approximately 2000 with many sleeping in make-shift tents outside.

“The lucky ones, in 2004, were sent to (mainland) Italy and then, according to the authorities, transferred to their country of origin” says Perolari. “It is clear that no one goes back though, they all become clandestine and outlaws. The unlucky ones were sent back right away, forced to reorganise a trip to Europe and relive this dangerous and life-threatening experience.”

That very year an agreement, that defied existing national and international laws, was made between the Italian and Libyan governments. It obliged Libya to accept deported African immigrants from Italy, despite lack of endorsement from the European Parliament. This led to an overwhelming number of deportations to Libya in 2004/2005 and denied many the right to apply for asylum (a violation of the Geneva Convention, signed by Italy.)

“This work, being the first important experience of this kind for me, was probably the most difficult. I couldn’t understand why the legitimate desire to achieve freedom and better living conditions resulted in men being treated like animals and risking their lives for nothing.”

Moved and troubled by the plight of the migrants, Perolari went on to photograph similar situations in other European countries in collaboration with Amnesty International. In 2009 he travelled to Patrasso in Spain, and in 2010 to Calais. He was also commissioned by Amnesty International to provide photographs for the ‘Invisibili’ campaign; an Italian and Belgian campaign aimed at raising awareness of the rights of undocumented minors in detention centres.

“After Lampedusa I went to Mellila, a Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory, where the situation was no better. That said, in 2005 the refugees were given maps and could at least enter and exit the refugee centre. Unlike Lampedusa, Melilla is not a tourist location, so they were given more freedom but still had no chance of reaching Europe.”

For many years in Lampedusa, the government had ensured that the ‘ugly’ issue of immigration was kept well away from the island locals and holiday-makers. Migrants were confined to the centre for weeks, before being transferred to other mainland centres. Perolari describes it as, “A real island prison where human rights are optional.”

In September 2011, a riot and arson attack at the centre resulted in 800 migrants escaping onto the streets of Lampedusa, where they were met with hatred and violence from police and fascist thugs. Shortly afterwards, almost all of the escapees were rounded up and deported and the centre was closed.

The closing of the centre meant that future migrants arriving by boat would have to face a significantly longer journey to the Sicilian harbour of Porto Empedocle, located an extra 200 kilometres away. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva criticised the closure, saying that the longer journey would cause an increase in migrant deaths. In 2011 alone, 1931 migrants are thought to have died whilst making the crossing.

It was around this time that Lampedusa had been experiencing an unsurprising surge in asylum seekers from Libya, following the outbreak of the NATO war against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. The already stretched facilities on the island struggled to accommodate the hundreds of Libyans arriving on a weekly basis.

The centre finally reopened in July 2012 with a maximum capacity of only 350 places. Today its problems are even worse than before, with continuing high numbers of migrants, extreme overcrowding, and frustrated locals.

Lampedusa is only equipped to function as a stop-gap, where migrants stay for a maximum of a few days before being sent to mainland centres. Nevertheless, due to the continuing failure of the Italian government to put any regular transfer schedule in place, most are held for over a month. They sleep on the floor in crowded rooms where minors and adults are mixed, they receive little food, and only have access to extremely basic amenities. Unless the Italian government stops ignoring the issue, this inhumane treatment will continue indefinitely.


Simone Perolari is an Italian photographer living in Paris, represented by the LUZ photography agency. His photo-project ‘unWelcome’ documents the struggles faced by migrants in immigration centres across Europe. To see more of his work visit www.simoneperolari.net


Written by Francesca Bassenger with many thanks to Simone Perolari.
Photographs © Simone Perolari.

The issue of gay rights is a hotly debated subject all over the world. Some cultures are more tolerant than others to homosexuality. In the majority of African countries, homosexuality is illegal, therefore punishable by law.

Recently officials of the Ugandan government announced that as a ‘Christmas gift’ to the Ugandan public, parliament would pass a bill that seeks to prohibit the promotion of gay rights and punishes anyone who funds, sponsors or abets homosexuality. This bill carries a series of jail terms for ‘convicted homosexuals’ including life imprisonment. Before it was amended due to international pressure, this bill sought to introduce the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.

Uganda is perceived to be one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Homosexuality is considered not only ‘deeply immoral’ but a ‘condition’ that needs to be eradicated through punishment, rehabilitation and prayer. In 2010, a Ugandan newspaper published the names and addresses of 100 gay individuals with a banner alongside them saying ‘Hang them’. This lead to multiple attacks and deaths of a number of the victims. In addition to the marginalization, discrimination, harassment, detention, attack and murder of gay individuals, there are reported cases of ‘correctional rape’ of lesbians.

The government claims that this bill is what most Ugandans want. The jury is out on whether this is a statistical fact or not. Even if this claim is shown to be true, the question of majority verses minority groups in situations where right and wrong are clearly a matter of opinion, exposes a major weakness of democracy. This is nothing new; history is littered with tales of minority groups rising against their oppressors. Not too long ago, the gay community was also marginalised in the western world. The question now is will Uganda (and Africa as a whole) follow the west into recognition and even integration of gay rights into society? Should Uganda follow?

Western countries, particularly America and Canada, are now seriously pushing for gay rights to be recognised in Uganda (or at least decriminalisation of homosexuality) by using economic threats such as withdrawal of aid. This has been perceived as move towards neo-colonialism and an attack on the sovereignty of Uganda. Ugandans refuse to be ‘bullied’ into accepting ‘western values’. This is not just a rejection of homosexuality in Ugandan society; it is a rejection of western influence and an expression of the right to self-determination.

Before steps can be taken to change anti-gay sentiments in Uganda, it is important to understand why there is such a profound disdain for the gay community in this country.

Homosexuality is considered by many Ugandans (and other Africans) as wholly ‘unafrican’ and an import from the western world. It has been speculated that the whole idea of homosexuality threatens the heterosexist social order which maintains the patriarchy that is characteristic of traditional African culture. Gay men are a lot more hated than gay women because being a gay man challenges the masculinity, therefore superiority, of men. It is an abomination.

These claims that homosexuality is a foreign concept to Uganda are false because the history books reveal several accounts of the existence of gay individuals in Ugandan history. One of the major kingdoms in Uganda had a famously gay King. Gay individuals have been in Africa a long time but they were neither persecuted nor promoted. The issue was not a debate. So what changed?

Not only are the current laws that criminalise homosexuality a remnant of British Colonial times in Uganda, it is mainly western-based religious views, particularly U.S. evangelical Christian views have been a major driver of this intense homophobia in Uganda.

Uganda is a deeply religious country with the majority of the population Christian (about 85%) or Muslim (about 12%). Religion dominates most aspects of life there, at least publicly. Almost all schools are affiliated with a religious institution, most healthcare facilities are linked to a religious institution and many forms of aid to needy communities are implemented through religious institutions at a grass-root level. As a result religious leaders wield great power both socially and politically.

A number of American evangelists including Scott Lively, author of ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’ have travelled to Uganda and held conferences maligning the gay community and accusing them of planning to replace the marriage based society with a culture of sexual promiscuity. Mr Lively was recently sued by a gay activist group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. This group maintains that Mr Lively, along with politicians and religious leaders in Uganda conspired to incite anti-gay hysteria by claiming that the gay community was seeking to sodomize children and corrupt Ugandan culture.

The Muslim community in Uganda is also quite vocal about its position against homosexuality. Many politicians and religious leaders in Uganda perpetuate the misconceptions that gay people are deeply immoral, sexual predators, defile children, recruit them into this ‘evil’ lifestyle and infect them with HIV. This propaganda is what exacerbates the hatred of gay individuals in Uganda and as long as these are the beliefs held by the Ugandan population, the battle for gay rights will be lost. It’s really a shame that these religious leaders are completely misrepresenting the religions they claim to uphold by promoting such intolerance and hatred.

Several observers have pointed out that it is highly likely that this great debate over gay rights is not just a matter of ‘morals’ but it is a political move orchestrated by politicians to reclaim a disillusioned public’s faith. Perhaps the government ‘s attempt at convince people that this bill is what they want, then passing the bill, is an elaborate ploy to convince the Ugandan people that their government does deliver. Frankly it would be more impressive if these very politicians could deliver on decent healthcare for the people of Uganda, or better roads, or better schools, or a reasonable pay rise for public service men and women instead of persecuting a minority group simply because they do not agree with their lifestyle choices.

Nevertheless, this renewed controversy has pushed a previously taboo topic into conversation. So far this has had a profoundly negative effect on the gay community. It is hard to tell whether these sentiments will change any time soon or even with time. It remains to be seen if the ‘Christmas gift’ will be delivered by the end of the year and what its true impact on international relations for Uganda will be.

Twitter: @IrrizleK

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photographs © and courtesy of Kaytee Riek

Like anybody who starts their own creative venture, there are times when I doubt the relevance of my work. Some days I look at No Borders Magazine and think ’What am I doing this for? What is its purpose?’

And yet, I left ’Call Me Kuchu’ feeling more assured than ever that my purpose, and my responsibly, as the editor of a publication is to help spread the word about issues that really matter. Achieving equal human rights for gay people in Uganda, matters. The documentary follows a ’Kuchu’ (gay) group in Uganda as they fight for exactly this.

As they speak out against the rampant homophobia in Uganda, fuelled by American religious fundamentalists and their own media’s anti-gay propaganda, we see the true implications on their everyday lives. Shunned by their families and friends, those brave enough to ‘come out’ live in constant fear of violent attacks.

The group is headed by David Kato, a kind and determined man, who was tragically killed last year in a savage homophobic attack. His life and death are both heavily featured and he is very much the protagonist, both within the film and with regards to the real life issue.

His death catapulted the Ugandan gay rights issue into the international spotlight, but you can’t help but wonder why it had to come to that.

Despite the portrayal of daily struggles, there are beautiful, joyful moments that show this marginalised community as strong, defiant and optimistic for a better future. The subjects of the documentary are incredibly open about their emotions and background stories. By the end you feel as if you know them personally.

It’s a well-rounded and extremely moving contribution by Dirctors, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, who compile the film with excellent balance, compassion and criticism. But, first and foremostly,’Call Me Kuchu’ leaves the audience with a powerful feeling of injustice and need for change. It’s no wonder that it has won a number of awards at film festivals. After all, what else should a world issue’s documentary make you feel, if not a personal involvement with the problem and (more importantly) the solution.

 Twitter: @callmekuchu


Written by Francesca Bassenger, images courtesy of callmekuchu.com

africacuteIn England, ‘Black History Month’ is October. In America and Canada, it’s February. While I understand the sentiment behind it, it seems wrong to me that the history of an entire race is generally ignored (especially in schools) and then one month a year comments are made on The Civil Rights Movement and the end of slavery.

This month is supposed to to not only correct the spread of propaganda about Africans in the old days, but also highlight the journey of the African peoples.

The focus on the persecution of Africans by other races simply alienates people of other races. Who among us is willing to listen to a month-long lament about how their ancestors persecuted their friends’ ancestors? It’s hardly the brightest topic to bring up over lunch.

Don’t get me wrong, while these events were tragic and condemnable in every sense, they don’t define Africa. In the end they simply contribute to a wholly inaccurate image of Africans, and people of African decent, as eternally victimised or claiming to be. This in turn breeds hostility from all sides. I suggest that African history should be seen for what really is. When people think of where this continent has been, they should think of the greatness of the Empires that have come and gone.

They should think of the architecture ancient civilisations left us such as the Empire that was Kemet (aka Egypt), the Kingdom of Meroë and the Kingdom that was Great Zimbabwe. Of the evolution of African culture and of the diversity shown in the 3000 languages on this continent.

People should remember the advancement of knowledge in science, mathematics and medicine in the ancient Mali Kingdom, and marvel at the wealth of the West African Kingdoms (like Ghana) that were practically swimming in gold and other minerals.

We should also remember the crazy characters that ran some of these Kingdoms like Mansa Musa of Mali, or his brother who abdicated the throne and supposedly sailed to America. The world should never forget the incredible Kingdoms like Axum, a trade powerhouse that was amongst the first to mint its own currency and influenced trade routes between the Roman Empire, Asia and the Middle-East.

Of course, Africa has also had its fair share of blood-shed, pointless wars, inhumane behaviour, and questionable ideologies. We’re talking about thousands of years’ worth of history here…

Contrary to popular belief, slavery was already a practised trade in Africa, it was not introduced by the Western world. Europe simply catalysed its explosion to the biggest business for centuries. Towards the end of slavery came the ‘Scramble for Africa’ which was the advent of colonialism on this continent.

The colonialism of Africa was a gruesome, tragic, filthy period in human history. But after colonialism came independence, and Africa has been on the road to prosperity ever since. Progress may be slower in some countries than others but they are all heading the same direction.

There are so many unresolved issues from the past that still haunt Africa, and this continent of 3000 tribes is still figuring things out. One thing is for sure though, Africa’s past is greatness and its future is greatness too.

In Africa we don’t celebrate ‘Black History Month’ because, as Africans, African history is simply history. In the Western world, it’s slightly more complicated because of the immense diversity of people there. Nevertheless, the separation of Black history from the everybody else’s history doesn’t make the elimination of separatist and racist attitudes any easier.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi. Photography © futureatlas.com

Twitter: @IrrizleK

kony2012 kony2012 2 kony 2012 3

A great number of movements started on YouTube. The clearest example is the ‘Beliebers’ who are responsible for catapulting Justin Beiber into a world of fortune and fame (or infamy, depending on what your position is.)

Granted it’s mostly teenage girls, still, never underestimate the power of millions of teenage girls. Facebook is another platform that has fuelled a great many movements which have had both local and global impact. Let’s not forget Twitter, where ideas explode but seem to disappear as fast as they came.

All in all, there is no question that these platforms have served as outlets for new ideas and have allowed anyone to have a voice. Many people and organisations have used this as a new avenue to bring awareness to various things that they are passionate about. Some tend to be heard a lot louder than others. Not least among these is the Kony 2012 video by an organisation called Invisible Children.

The video went viral and gained millions of viewers in a matter of hours, making it the most viral video of all time. It aims to shed light on the notorious war criminal Joseph Kony who’s been a problem for the past twenty-five years in the east and central African region. And what an explosion it was! Very few things have elicited such a polarised debate.

Many people were completely behind it, but just as many people were heavily against it. The point is, everyone heard about it. Everyone suddenly had a strong opinion on the issue even if very few actually knew the history of Kony and his movement.

Supporters posted the video on their Facebook walls and urged their friends to do the same, and because of the overwhelming momentum, talk of the video spread to newspapers, online articles and CNN.

There are many more videos on YouTube about important humanitarian efforts to protect human rights by a number of organisations including UNICEF, World Food Program, Oxfam and many others. But none of them have had anywhere near the success the Kony 2012 video has. So what’s the secret?

The Kony video targets, specifically, social media. The message has three key ingredients: Kony is bad, something should be done about it, and sharing this video ensures something is done about it. These points are presented in a very simple manner, with epic music in the background, vivid images and an innocent child to clarify the ‘simplicity’ of the choice. It’s a winning formula.

However, the critics will tell you that the Kony issue is not something you can summarise in thirty minutes. This is a complex, twenty-five year long situation, sometimes with no definitive clear line between the good guys and the bad guys.  Nevertheless, this video hit a nerve with people.

It stirred one of the most noble human traits- compassion. People have listened and are showing support, from global leaders in the UN, to the International Court of Justice, to Amnesty International, to the millions of individuals who have pledged their support. In an incredibly short amount of time, Kony went from being a little known war criminal to a very famous one.

So with endless images of poor starving African/Asian children, war torn countries, child soldiers, disease and disaster, in constant circulation in the media, is it possible that people have become desensitised to it? Has it become a matter of simply sharing a YouTube link to convince ourselves that we’ve done enough? Does it now take more shocking images to move us into action?

From humanitarian causes to political ones, social media has put a twist to the word ‘revolution’. You only have to look at the uprising in the Middle East to realise the real force social media can have. You could argue that these uprisings would have happened eventually, even without social media, but you cannot doubt that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube mobilised efforts at such a speed that the governments barely had time to react or intercept. Information could be sent and received by thousands in a number of seconds.

That said, not all speedy mobilisation of people leads to freedom and justice. You don’t have to look further than the London riots in 2011. Whilst many youths in the Middle East were on a mission to win freedom, their counterparts in London were looting stores and setting the city ablaze. Not a proud moment, but this event gained its momentum from social media. Some tactless youth even went as far as posting their pillage on Twitter!

Social media is a powerful tool. It is also a fast tool. So is this the new form of raising mass awareness? Definitely. But the implications of this are only beginning to emerge. Watch this space.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photography (image 1) © Madalena aka ‘She was Anouk’ (www.flickr.com/photos/myfes)
Photography (image 2) © Dallas Backus aka ‘Jalopy Go Far’ (www.flickr.com/people/jalopygofar)
Photography (image 3) by No Borders Magazine

Twitter: @IrrizleK