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"We throw the ball as we throw our spears"

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Elisée wrote:

Maasai warriors are known to be excellent hunters. I've always been impressed by their dance (jumping dance)  and their eternal red tunic. But here's something I never imagined: The Maasai playing cricket! An amazing video...

Artists Struggle in Africa - NYTimes

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I don't often post from the NY Times, but this was a pretty decent article.  Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso has a lively arts scene.

Even in stable times life can be hard for artists in West Africa. Not that art ever stops being made. Cities like Abidjan, Dakar in Senegal, and Bamako in Mali are saturated in it. Murals cover public walls and the sides of trucks and buses. Pottery, metalwork and weaving, in styles new and old, fill open-air markets. Portraits of jazzy beauties, Sufi saints and culture heroes (Che, Mandela, Obama, Madonna) are for sale everywhere. But the elements that in the West make a healthy contemporary scene -- galleries, museums, collectors, journals, critics and a steady, responsive audience -- are in short supply. And the degree of isolation of individual artists from others across the continent and from art developments worldwide is almost inconceivable to an urban Westerner who takes instant global communication for granted. Both despite and because of such isolation, local artist networks coalesce occasionally into tight and efficient collectives like Huit Facettes in Dakar, more often as loose affinity groups of fellow art students and friends. For a visitor, like this art critic on a monthlong trip in Africa, such groups can be difficult to find in cities that have nothing resembling art neighborhoods. But they're there. So are a few alternative spaces, conceived on a Western model, often with Western backing, like Raw Material Company in Dakar; Appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco; and Zoma Contemporary Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Raw Material, run by Kuoho Koyo, a curator from Cameroon, encompasses a gallery, a library stocked with foreign catalogs and magazines, and a cafe-bar. It's more than just an urbane hangout. You could practically live there.

Fabulous Pictures from FESTIMA 2012

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Every other year in Dédougou (a city in northwestern Burkina), a festival of masks takes place called FESTIMA or Festival International des Masques. It showcases masks from Burkina as well as other west African countries. There are several performances each day, each featuring a different type of mask. The concept of a mask is not as simple as it is in the United States. It is said (in Burkina and I'm sure elsewhere) that once a person places a mask on their face, they embody the spirit of the mask they are wearing, whether it's a bird, an alligator or an antelope. Also the person does not only wear the mask, but they also wear a suit of sorts, made out of tree fibers, leaves or other materials.

I did not attend the mask festival, though I am somewhat familiar with the masks that are a part of the Bwaba culture because of Abdoulaye in Boni, a sculpture and a good friend of FAVL. When I was in Boni for reading camp last year, there was a funeral, and Jonas (the librarian in Boni) took me and the other volunteer to see the masks dancing. People were playing drums and balafones in the background and the masks were dancing in a circle to celebrate the life of the man who'd died. Women (who are not allowed to wear masks) danced in a bigger circle around the masks. The dancing and music went on day and night for four nights, the masks going in shifts. It was really interesting to see, though I've heard that some masks can get violent (they hit people with sticks) and ask people (especially tourists for large sums of money).

A fellow PCV and another friend of FAVL, Scott, did attend the festival and also happens to be an excellent photographer. For absolutely amazing images of FESTIMA 2012, visit Scott's blog.

Photo courtesy of Scott Worthington (available on his blog).

"Aya" Film to debut tomorrow

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The Aya de Yopougon film will debut tomorrow at the Salon du Livre in Paris.
(from Clement Oubrerie's here.)
I've found that books always tend to be better than their movie versions, no matter if it's a novel or comic book (after all the great memories of reading The Adventures of TinTin in French with my mom as a child, the film did not compare). But who knows, maybe the Aya film will surprise me.

Em's Movie Review: "The First Grader"

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1st grader.jpgIt's 2003. The Kenyan government has just promised free education for all. Kimani Maruge is thrilled, because now he can finally learn how to read and write. Kimani Maruge limps to the school gates and asks to be admitted to the school. The teachers laugh, and send him away. Why?
Because Maruge is 84 years old.

"The First Grader" is the true story of an old man who wants nothing more than to learn to read and write after never being able to afford school. Despite his being turned away, Maruge continues to show up to the school everyday, finally winning over headmaster Jane Obinchu.

In between his present battle of fighting for his right to an education against the parents and administrators determined to kick Maruge out of the school, we learn about Maruge's horrific past as a Mau Mau veteran, a man who fiercely battled for the independence of his country. He witnessed his entire family murdered before his eyes. He was held in detention camps for years and brutally tortured (beat, whipped, toes chopped off, sharp pencils jammed inside his ears).

Despite being illiterate and sharing a desk with children nearly 80 years his junior, there is no doubt that Maruge is a smart man; a man who understands the importance of education and literacy.  "A goat cannot read or write," he tells his classmates. "If you don't learn how to read or write, you will become an old goat like me."

It's beautiful to see the relationships develop between Maruge and the young children. "The First Grader is a powerful and uplifting film, one that I definitely recommend! It's proof that literacy and education are important and valuable at any age.

(At right, the real Kimani Maruge, Guiness World Record holder for the oldest person to start primary school, died in 2009)

Em's Film Review: "The Constant Gardener"

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Constant Gardener.jpgI popped in the 2005 film "The Constant Gardener" into the DVD player, not really expecting much. By the end of the movie I was still not impressed, but I can't deny that the film left me thinking about, as one reviewer put it, " the world leaves Africa behind."

Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a calm and reticent diplomat in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is a feisty, passionate activist. Rumors run rampant, and Justin believes that his wife is having an affair with her Kenyan colleague. But when Tessa is brutally murdered, Justin discovers the real motive behind her death. She was working to uncover a global conspiracy: the illegal, unethical testing (with lethal side effects) that pharmaceutical companies were doing on innocent, unknowing Kenyans, and the organizations, governments and individuals that helped them do it. It is said that the film is based on true events that occurred in Nigeria in the mid 90s. Maybe so, but I would not be surprised to learn that this sort of thing had/has been going on for years in numerous other underdeveloped African countries.

To be frank, "The Constant Gardner" is just too Hollywood for me. If true, this conspiracy is absolutely horrific and deplorable. I wanted to know more; I wanted to know the truth. Unfortunately, all the Hollywood explosions and high speed chases sort of ruined it all for me. I also found it strange and ironic that, in a film that portrays how the "rich, white" world abused Kenyans, that not a single one of the film's protagonist was an African. I think that if this story were made into an investigative documentary, it would have been a much more interesting and powerful film (though unfortunately probably wouldn't have made a dime).

I'd be lying if I said that I didn't cry in the film. There were a couple really heartbreaking scenes. In one, Justin has just arrived on a plane dropping off food and supplies to a refugee camp. Soon after, the camp is attacked by rebels. The violent scene that follows includes rebels heartlessly shooting anyone that gets in their way, women being raped in front of their families, children running and screaming while the rebels chase and capture them to become child soldiers. In another scene, still during the rebel attack, all the white aid workers are whisked away on a plane. When one tries to bring a young Kenyan girl with him on the plane, a girl who has been by the aid worker's side since day one, the pilot refuses. The man and the pilot argue back and forth over the girl. Quickly and quietly, the girl simply jumps off the plane with this sad look on her face, as if saying "I know my place. I know I'm not wanted in your world." Within two minutes the aid worker apologizes for the scene he caused and forgets about the girl.

My appreciation of these two scenes had nothing to do with the film's direction or cinematography. Instead I considered these scenes, a daily occurrence in Africa, as a reminder of how damn fortunate and lucky I am. I easily could have been like the girl in the above scene, a child whose only misfortunate was to be born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the "wrong" skin color. Especially during the ridiculous hustle and bustle of the holiday season, the hundreds of dollars spent on frivolous gifts, it's nice to be reminded to simply appreciate life.  

FELA! on Broadway

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On Saturday Elisée and I went to see the musical production of FELA! in San Francisco. We both absolutely loved it! The singing and especially the dancing was incredible. The musical was full of hilarious but also sad and disturbing moments, and jaw-dropping scenes that left even the dancing-disabled tapping their feet.

FELA! is based on the true story of the famous musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who used his music to fight against the oppressive military regime in Nigeria. He was arrested more than 200 times, was beaten more times than he could count, and even lost his mother after she was thrown over a two story balcony by soldiers. His music and courage inspired not just the nation but the entire world.
When he died in 1997 (of AIDS), one million people attended his funeral.

What I loved in particular about the performance was how the actor who played Fela interacted with the audience. Throughout the play he frequently addressed the audience, asking questions and demanding the response "Yeayyy UHH!!"
By far my favorite number was "Underground Spiritual Game (The Clock)", where Fela forced the entire audience to stand up and learn the dance moves. This dance included thrusting your hips in the different directions of hours on a clock. The audience was definitely a diverse group, but I can't deny how hilarious it was to see stuffy old white men forced to get up and thrust their hips to "Twelve and six, twelve and three and nine, three and nine." As Fela would say, "It's fun to tell time, ey?"

While the actor who played Fela was great, I thought he was overpowered by a couple of the other secondary actors, who were simply outstanding (like the actress who played his mother). Elisée also was disappointed that they did not play some of Fela's greatest hits that he was hoping to hear. Nevertheless, the show was incredible and I've already told Elisée to get me some music by Fela!

Interview with David Pace Winner, Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Work-in-Process Prize.  The full interview is here.  Very interesting.  Great photos.  Look carefully... in one of them a guy is wearing a typical full-on Barack Obama shirt!

The images in Friday Night seem formally quite different from your other work, such as Re: Collections, or even the series Kiosks and Market Day from Burkina Faso. Would you agree?

You are quite right that the images in Friday Night are different from my other work. I am by nature very formal in my approach to composition. I favor simplicity and symmetry in an attempt to foreground my subjects, whether they are people or objects, and emphasize their similarities and differences. This is clear in the Re: Collections project and in the Kiosks portfolio. Both are classic typologies in the tradition of August Sander and the Bechers. I think my African portraits fall into this category as well.

But I also like to experiment with the element of chance and challenge myself to move outside my comfort zone. That is what is behind Friday Night. I am literally shooting in the dark. I can see my primary subjects dimly, but the background of each image is unseen until my flash fires. Everyone is in constant motion, including myself, so every image is a surprise. The juxtaposition of contorted bodies, hands and feet, shadows and expressions is not something one can predict.

Another thing that distinguishes Friday Night from my other work is that I am an active participant in the process rather than an objective observer. I am caught up in the music, moving and sweating alongside the other dancers, reacting and interacting. This was not possible the first two or three times I visited Bereba. I had to get to know the villagers and earn their trust. I now feel very much at home in the village and an insider at the dance. Everyone expects me to make photographs and they are delighted with the results. I should add that I take back and distribute all the images that I make on each subsequent trip. I have more than 500 prints that I'll be handing out when I visit Bereba in December.

Dzaomalaza et le saphir bleu

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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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