An African city – through a neighbor’s lens

Khartoum Exhibit Flyer - Arabic - w logo

I came to Sudan for a photography/storytelling residency as part of the East Africa Media Lab. Initially my plan was to do a follow up to an URBAMORPHOSIS series that we had begun in Addis. I came and realized however that it might not be as meaningful in the context of Khartoum as I had thought. So I struggled to answer that question. What was I doing here and what angle would this project take? What questions of socio-cultural/political importance would it interrogate, if any? How would I, as a non-Sudanese come and add value to a space that had a rich array of storytellers and documenters capturing everyday Khartoum? I felt stuck and anxious.

On one hand, I argued with myself that as a pan-Africanist, this was my city too. I should feel home in any African country. On the other hand, I couldn’t be audacious enough to believe that I could capture and investigate as I had done with Addis. My reference points – cultural, historical, social, economic and political were nowhere near the same and I was just beginning to learn about everything. I soaked in all the tales and viewpoints that were offered to me, making a mental note to cross-check ‘historical’ references to see if they corroborated or contradicted what I was hearing. I asked many that I met endless questions about this city.

I got a range of responses but most were nostalgic references to a more beautiful, clean, green Khartoum that had character and class. Most seemed to want to return to this time and place before the current regime assumed power and war followed, ravaging the country and leaving it split into more than two pieces. Crippled under sanctions that has frustrated but not prevented people from moving forward.

As this residency comes to a close, I will leave with a deeper appreciation for this country and its people who have endured decades of civil war, a separation of their own and yet still manage to maintain a level of warmth and hospitality that is unmatched anywhere in this world.

What I settled on was a story told through my viewpoint  – Khartoum – through the lens of a neighbor. If you are in Khartoum, make sure to come out and experience this one day exhibit that will be taking place at Impact Hub Khartoum on 117 Street in Riyadh from 2-10PM. See you there.

Khartoum Exhibit Flyer - w logo

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unfinished thinkings: justice as afterthought

We have not finished thinking…..

ku[to]starehe

Is it justice that Michael Dunn will go to prison for shooting a 17 year old because that young man played his music too loud and was black? No, it isn’t. Justice would be if black kids stop getting shot.

-Aaron Bady, Waiting For

in the wake of many happenings, i have been thinking incomplete thoughts about women and justice.

oscar pistorius killed reeva steenkamp. yesterday, justice masipa sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 10 months.

following the sentencing, #thingslongerthanoscarssentence was trending on twitter. many, many people are not happy with judge masipa’s leniency.

many, many people have been demanding justice for reeva steenkamp.

the loss of life can’t be reversed. hopefully, judgement on sentence will provide some sort of closure for all concerned.

Judge Masipa

does justice look like five years in prison? does it look like ten? twenty, or forty or a lifetime?

justice…

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Grumpy Old Men


Lots of old grumpy (English) men on this train. There seems to be a mix-up with reservations and they’re having a go at each other when they come to claim their reserved seats. It’s quite amusing except it’s getting a bit out of hand.

An elderly woman passes by, brushing an elderly man to my left who is attempting to put his suitcase away in the overhead compartment. He shouts ‘you stupid woman!’ to her as she passes. She either doesn’t hear him or completely ignores him as she doesn’t even turn to give him a second look. His wife, on the other hand, is completely exasperated and very cross with him. She turns her face and her body away from him, facing the window after telling him, incredulously, that he can’t talk to people like that.

Another set of elderly men in front of me, ones who hadn’t reserved refused to get up for those who had. One of them assures the other who is getting visibly upset not to worry as he’ll go get the guard. He comes back a few minutes later with a train conductor. He leaves unsuccessfully a few more minutes later unable to get the man out of the seat and returns with a second conductor who cajoles the man out of his seat.

Wonder what will come of us as we age? Will we become grumpy old folks who insult all in their way?

The icing on the cake – I of course was sitting in a seat I hadn’t reserved, but no-one had come to claim it so I thought I was safe. And it was a nice seat too, a single by the window. Anyhow the ticket conductor came by and took my ticket. It took her a bit of time to give it back to me or say anything to me. Wondering what the problem was, I asked her if there was a problem. She tells me, quite annoyed, that my ticket is for 2nd class and this is first!

Of course the grumpy old men had a field day as I walked past them with my luggage. I’m sure they were shocked at the audacity of this girl, decades their junior, without a reservation, and one class down, who sits unmoved in a first class seat while seniors battle it out.

No such thing as the future

Agi and her six year old nephew

Agi: Do you think I can be a writer? Do you think I can write a book?

Ezu: yeah, you just need paper.

Agi: so you think I can do it?

Ezu: yeah, I can do it too.

Agi: OK good, I’ll do it.

Ezu: so, are you going to do it today or tomorrow?

Agi: umm, in the future

Ezu: There’s no such thing as the future.

Agi: what do you mean?

Ezu: you can’t press a button and go to the future like in the movies.

The wisdom of kids is something we must heed to. Raw and real. Things we often forget as adults. 

31

Today, on the 31st, I turn 31.

Following 30 lessons over 30 years posted this time last year, here are thirty-one lessons learned over the years and reminders for the years to come insha’Allah:

1. Put the Almighty first, always.

2. Don’t dignify nonsense. Regardless of its source.

3. It’s scary. Jump still. Headfirst.

4. Some things can be bought with money. Don’t let your dignity be one of those. Or your sanity.

5. You’ll be surprised at how unimportant something is when it doesn’t happen and the world doesn’t crumble. Don’t sweat it. 

6. Your capacity to come back after being beat down is much more than you imagine. Believe in it. 

7. Don’t allow your worth to be measured by others. Something so important shouldn’t be at the whim of anyone other than you.

8. Be kind. Most of all to yourself.

9. That thing you think is undoable…go and make it happen. It’s possible.

10. Master your mind. It’s more important than any other organ in and out of your body.

11. Bring all of you. Every part. Even when you think it’s not appropriate. No entity or person is worth only pieces of you.

12. Failure is good. It keeps us humble and grounded. Keep at it.

13. Games are essential. Play them often.

14. Laughter keeps you young and fresh. Laugh and do so out loud. Unapologetically. 

15. Exercise not only your body but your mind. Linked to #10.

16. Be present. Wherever you are, with whoever you are, be there and nowhere else. Multitasking is an overrated skill. The true skill we must master is the skill of presence.

17. Know your limits. Don’t compare your limits to others. Our bodies are built in a way that we know when enough is enough. Respect that.

18. Appreciate that everyone has differing value systems, ways of thinking about and understanding the world. A hareri saying goes: an kut khunu baytee, jenam khunu bayteenta. Asking for people to be like you is asking them to be crazy. Require of no-one to be crazy.

19. Allow people to be who they are. Expect of them and yourself nothing more or less.

20. Listen. Even to words unspoken.

21. Chase the sun. Sunrises and sunsets are daily miracles that most of us miss, either because we’re asleep or because we’re not alive to the beauty around us.

22. Seek storytellers. Travel is also possible through their tales.

23. Stop making excuses. Stop hiding behind the pretence of ignorance or bewilderment. Own your actions.

24. Declutter. Constantly and consciously. Our homes, our offices, our lives and most importantly our minds.

25. Use the best of what you have today. It’s only now that we own. Everything else that we get beyond now is extra. 

26. Find and breathe beauty. Even in the most mundane.

27. Fear none but the Almighty. Ultimately it’ll be just you and Him.

28. Devour knowledge voraciously. Read. Listen. Absorb. Share. 

29. Document as a way of preserving culture, history… Recipes. Duaas. People. Places. Moments. Keep #16 in mind as you do this.

30. Make time for the things and people that matter. Be both selfish and generous with your time. Discern carefully how and with who you spend precious time you’ll never get back.

31. Love wholeheartedly. Yourself first.

The birth of URBAMORPHOSIS

Two African photographers, one Ethiopian and the other Congolese, embarked on a project to document the immense changes taking place in the new flower, a birth city for one and a city that the other has come to love as his own – Addis.

For those of you who’ve been following this blog, you know I’m the Ethiopian. The one who was birthed in what is referred to as the capital of Africa. Addis Ababa is not only the city of my birth, it’s the city I grew up in, left and came back to 14 years later. It’s a city I’m relearning and getting acquainted with. It’s the city that has safeguarded the remains of my ancestors, but sometimes also thrown them up whole to make way for ‘development’. It’s a city that accommodates both old and new – although much of the old seems to be giving way to the new.

I’ve wanted to put on a photo exhibition for a long time – it’s been one of those items on my bucket list I wasn’t ever sure I would cross off. Then John comes along and pushes this idea of capturing the skeletons of Addis. Why not? If I had to start somewhere, it should be by paying tribute to the city that birthed and raised me. So there you have it – the birth of URBAMORPHOSIS!

As we took these images, we journeyed through Addis, conscious and witness to its past, its present and its looming future. The Addis we knew, or even know today is not the same Addis that will be tomorrow. The only constant being change.

This project forced me to see the city differently. Everywhere I looked, I could see the cityscape dominated by new high rises, even the most iconic of Addis’ treasures was framed by construction – and destruction.

This project aims to capture some of the rapid transformation taking place in this city. For both of us, it is a tribute to the people who are constantly negotiating their place in this new flower and to the city which is forever trying to outpace its name.

URBAMORPHOSIS kicks off a week from today on Thursday, May 11th, 2017 at Dinq Art Gallery in Addis Ababa. We hope you’ll come out and experience for yourself.

Flyer - URBAMORPHOSIS

11 Rules of the Streets


1. Don’t look in the direction of the approaching car. If you must, and you see a car coming, cross. Particularly when not at a zebra crossing. That’s the only way to assert oneself and gain respect on the streets of this city.

2. Occupy as many lanes as you can. Swaddle, at a minimum, between two lanes. You know you’re doing what you’re meant to when you’ve frustrated the living daylights out of the driver behind you.

3. Don’t indicate. If you do, do so at the last minute when you’re already making a turn. How much advance notice does one need, anyways?

4. Put your hand out of your window for a guaranteed yield from drivers behind and to the right of you. You can throw in a thumbs up if you please, but that has less to do with their volition and more to do with your bullyish behavior, which we encourage.

5. When stopping to pick up pedestrians, feel free to stop your vehicle where you see fit. Don’t bother yourself looking for a space closest to the curb so as not to hold up traffic. In fact, try and aim for the middle of the street. It’s always fun seeing cars trying to maneuver around you.

6. Don’t give way to another car, particularly one driven by a woman. Hurl insults at her, both subtle and explicit depending on the situation and your mood. None of them know how to drive anyway. They should’ve never been allowed on these streets. As long as they’re there though, make their driving experiences hell.

7. Don’t allow pedestrians to cross the street, even if they’re at a zebra crossing. Show ’em who’s the boss of the streets.

8. If you’re a diplomat or have a diplomatic license, or that of the defense forces, drive like a maniac. No-one will dare stop you, and even if they did, just flash your credentials. Don’t they know you have license to disobey?

9. Once you’re done with a bottle, or a banana, feel free to throw it out the window. The streets will welcome your trash, with open arms. Be warned, though – the streets will sometimes throw it back at you – especially if your window is still open.

10. As you pass a driver that’s been acting a fool on the streets, stare him/her down. Glare as hard as you can. That will be sure to get them to act right on the roads.

11. If you’re a pedestrian, don’t limit yourself to the pedestrian walkways. The streets are your oyster baby. Claim them. This may be the only place you can!

9 Rules of the House


1. Pick up the phone when it rings. Don’t let it ring too long. Interrupt whatever you’re doing, be it eating, having a deep conversation, bathing, driving to answer. If you miss the call, call right back. Don’t allow time to lapse. That would be irresponsible.

2. Be perky and upbeat at all times. What reason have you not to be? You have not been scolded or beaten. Don’t give anyone reason to.

3. Always be doing something. Rest only when sick or incapacitated. Or if you’ve just given birth. Then it’s allowed. Otherwise, idleness is the workshop of the devil. Some part of your body must be moving – your hands, your feet… Something!

4. Be available at all times for whatever may arise. Work hours are the only exceptions. And even so, only formal work hours between 8 and 5, Monday to Friday. The work that you do beyond those hours is your own doing and is still factored into your hours of availability.

5. Eating is obligatory. Skipping meals is abomination. Eating greens only insults our culture and our ancestors. Meat must be consumed, and in hearty proportions.

6. Show emotion and empathy. Failure to do so is demonstrative of your inability to be human or tap into your humanity.

7. Laugh, but not too loud. Everything must be in moderation. Don’t speak too loud, but not too soft either…You’re not a mouse. Speaking of which, the walls have mice so don’t go around saying whatever comes to your mind. Be tactful in your speech. Know who’s in the house when speaking and even who’s not as our walls are thin.

8. Wake early. There is no known or proven benefit to staying late and waking late. Just as idleness is the workshop of the devil, so is laziness. The world must not pass you by while you snooze your life away.

9. Trust no-one. No further explanation needed but keep rule #7 in mind

My FEMNET journey – Six Years Ago Today

BBOG - NebsSix years ago today, April 18, 2011, was my first day of work at the FEMNET Secretariat. New city, new position, new challenge. Little did I know that my four plus years would mean I would criss-cross the earth, deepen (and question) my pan-African and feminist politics, be an active participant in game-changing global, continental and regional policy making processes, lead campaigns and take to the streets (on numerous occasions), be in the same spaces with presidents, movers and shakers, incredible and passionate activists and idealists who put everything on the line to make sure the earth would be better than the way they found it.

We made magic happen, with sisters (and brothers) from across Africa and across the globe, and for those experiences and more, for working with colleagues who became family, for being allowed to build wings and fly, to innovate and renovate, to imagine and deliver, to be challenged and to grow exponentially, both professionally and personally, I am forever grateful.

My FEMNET journey will always be a part of my story, and all of you characters who populate it. Thank you for fighting the good fight, for your love, your warmth, your passion, your courage, your persistence and so much more. I miss you, on a day like today and on many days.

Excerpts – A Lesson Before Dying

a-lesson-before-dying1

By Ernest J. Gaines

A black man in the South of the (not-so-united) States of America finds himself in the middle of a shootout in a store that leaves one white man (store owner) and two black men dead. His own defense describes him as a ‘hog’ to the jury who sentence him to death by execution. The story is of another black man, an ‘educated’ black man, a teacher – who is tasked with turning the convicted into a ‘man’.

A book about deeply rooted injustices, but also about seeking and reclaiming dignity, love, resistance and triumph.

A few excerpts that stood out to me – and some deeper analysis, if that’s what you’re looking for.

 

P8
We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience.

P31
Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?

P47
I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be. To show too much intelligence would have been an insult to them. To show a lack of intelligence would have been a greater insult to me.

P56
And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.”

P73
His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? his eyes said.  They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don’t you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew what my eyes knew.

P146
No matter how educated a man was (he meant me, though he didn’t call my name), he to, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins.

P157
How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?

P158
They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is a convenient date and time.

P166-7
We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle-which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.

P171
These old people, you know—all music except church music is sinning music.

P174
It was the kind of “here” your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?”

I took the money without looking at her. I didn’t say thanks. I knew she didn’t want to hear it.

P191
Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth – and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’ And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so.

P198
Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers…Anything not to work alongside the niggers. Dumb as hell, but prejudiced as hell. They had no other place to go to do their drinking—they would not dare go to any of the white clubs—so they would come here and bring their prejudiced attitude with them.

P214-5
‘You think you educated?’
‘I went to college.’
‘But what did you learn?’
‘To teach reading, writing and arithmetic, Reverend.’
‘What did you learn about your own people? What did you learn about her—her ‘round here?’ he said gesturing toward the other room and trying to keep his voice down.
I didn’t answer him.
‘No, you not educated, boy.’ He said shaking his head. ‘You far from being educated. You learning your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.’

P216
‘Don’t you turn your back on me, boy.’
‘My name is Grant,’ I said.
‘When you act educated, I’ll call you Grant. I’ll even call you Mr. Grant, when you act like a man.
 
‘You think a man can’t kneel and stand?’

P217
‘You think you educated, but you not. You think you the only person ever had to lie?’

P218
Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings–yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling god when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ‘cause they have pain too, and you don’t want to ad yours—and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bled from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it.

And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”

P222
‘Reverend Ambrose say I have to give up what’s down here.’
‘He meant possessions, Jefferson. Cars, money, clothes—things like that.’
‘You ever seen me with a car…with more than a dollar in my pocket…more than two pairs of shoes…then what on earth I got to give up, Mr. Wiggins?
‘You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions –and that is love…’

‘Walk like a man. Meet her up there.’
‘Y’all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old nigger who never had nothing.’

P224
Yes, I’m youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn’t know that ‘fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody thought that’s how it was s’pose to be. You to, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn’t neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do…Now all y’all want me to be better than ever’body else. How, Mr. Wiggins? You tell me.’

‘And like Reverend Ambrose say, then I’l have to give up this old earth. But ain’t that where I’m going, Mr. Wiggins, back in the earth?’

My head down, I didn’t answer him.

P251
Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him— and I will not believe.

Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body the chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.

P253
‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room…He was the strongest man there…We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked’. And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.

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