Jeffrey Wright Speaks On His #CrushEbolaNow Campaign

Jeffrey Wright speaks on the Ebola Survival Fund and his #CrushEbolaNow campaign in an interview with Okayafrica.

This Wednesday afternoon a new PSA addressing the Ebola outbreak that has focused so much of the world’s attention—and anxiety—on the West African nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone since late summer, premiered on CNN. The full 1-minute, 20-second TV spot (watch below) conforms to a viewer’s expectations about the outbreak and the way such crises “should” be covered in many ways; it is a star-studded affair (with on-screen cameos from movie star Idris Elba, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, OG supermodel Naomi Campbell, soul singer Alicia Keys and basketball icon Dikembe Mutombo, just to drop a few of the boldface names that appear in lower thirds) and comes complete with a hashtag-ready catchphrase: #CrushEbolaNow. It also knocks quite a few of those expectations on their sub-conscious ass.

For one, the spot features any number of West Africans who read more as heroes than disaster victims--both recognizable icons such as Liberian Nobel peace laureate Leymah Gbowee and ordinary Ebola survivors—and repeats the oddly optimistic leitmotif ‘Ebola is not a death sentence’ as often as it does its official catchphrase. For another, it arrives with some context. Actor Jeffrey Wright—best known these days for his turn as Beetee in the The Hunger Games and his recurring role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire—is the brains behind the campaign and producer of the spot and is there to candidly spell out the campaign’s aims with CNN’s Isha Sesay.

Wright himself departs from the expectations of celebrity-causism in several key ways. Not least among these, he has ongoing interests in Sierra Leone that go back to 2001 and are completely unrelated to the present crisis (for a nuanced and expansive look at Wright’s mineral exploration company Taia Lion Resources and the various ethical and economic pitfalls it has placed in his path, see “Jeffrey Wright’s Gold Mine,” Michael Christopher Brown’s excellent piece for the NY Times Magazine this past January).

We took the opportunity to get Wright’s thoughts on the crisis, what’s wrong with the way it's been covered until now and the future of the region...

Eddie for Okayafrica: Tell us why this crisis is so close to home for you.

Jeffrey Wright: I first went to Sierra Leone in 2001--during the war--and I’ve been involved ever since. I set up a company and a foundation that work together for developing a natural resource project there but in close partnership with local communities, trying to create a mining company for the 21st century. So we’ve been operating in the Eastern part of Sierra Leone in the Kailahun district since 2003.

Kailahun was the first district in SL to be touched by the Ebola outbreak. We operate largely within a community that is situated directly on the Guinea border. When we first got news of the fatalities from Ebola in Guinea we began having regular conversations with the paramount chief--who is essentially the governor of the chiefdom that we work most closely with, the Penguia chiefdom--and other representatives of the community, to determine what the conditions were there and what they might need from us in terms of staving off transmission among them. We also spoke to representatives of the World Health Organization, to understand what they thought would be the best means of early intervention.

In I believe late May, Early June 2014, we became alarmed because when got news that a doctor had become the first person to succumb to the disease within Penguia--apparently, he was infected by a visiting practitioner nurse from outside the community--and passed away. We then immediately coordinated with the chiefdom authorities and pushed monies through Taia Peace Foundation over to them so that they could purchase--I think at that time it was 120 liters of chlorine and a couple hundred boxes of medical gloves--and they organized the distribution of those items themselves. Subsequent to that we pushed some more funds over to put up a hundred public wash stations within the chiefdom. All the public gathering places were to be equipped with a disinfectant station.

So I’m not certain if it was a result of the organization within the chiefdom and community or whether we were early or whether we were lucky or some combination of the three. Or it’s the result of theyre being an isolated community among the isolated…but they’ve experienced no fatalities from Ebola since that first doctor passed away.

OKA: So tell us exactly what’s the mission with this PSA--and why is it so important to reshape the way the crisis has been covered in the West so far?

JW: The worst aspect of the narrative to this point, I think, is that it has further served to do what we too often do when we view the people of this region--and that is to rob them of their dignity and their strengths and devalue them. With this PSA—understanding that people are facing some extraordinary challenges—we are trying nonetheless to celebrate their strengths and their beauty and their dignity in the face of these challenges and remind people that there are not only Americans and Europeans who have survived this thing but there have been heroic Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans who have survived as well--and they survived because they managed to get early and proper medical treatment.

OKA: To play devil’s advocate for a sec---I don’t think there’s any question that the way the Ebola crisis is being depicted is true of a larger syndrome around representation of Africa in the Western media: stories are framed with a sense of alarm or fear and there is also this persistent trope of victimization, images or narratives of people who need to be saved by Western intervention. But are you concerned at all that by trying to counter that in a moment of crisis, that you may undercut the urgency of the message? Is it possible those narratives, troubling as they may be in their repetition, sound a louder alarm or activate people more effectively than a more nuanced message?

JW: If we are to respond and respond effectively we’ve got to understand what were looking at. And I don’t think we’re most effective when we’re operating from a place of fear. Or when we’re operating from a place of dehumanization of those we hope to assist. We think we framed the narrative that explains through an optimistic lens that engagement Will. Be. Successful. We want to emphasize that: your engagement, your deployment of resources will be well spent, will create greater survivor numbers.

So, no, I’m not concerned about that—I think part of the reason we're having this conversation is because of the continued victimization narrative that’s delivered around people like the people who live in this region—that’s why we need to have this conversation, because in order to convince people that the folks over there are more than victims, are willing economic partners who can bring something to the table with equal value to what we can bring to the table…if we can have that conversation, then we can start to create the economic and social strength in these areas that will make these type of conversations pointless. I think we balanced the message in such a way that it remains effective.

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Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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