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Photo: Julius Kasujia

In Conversation: The Ugandan Supermodel Fighting Climate Catastrophe

We talked to Aamito Lagum about the climate strike and what her activism means to her

You may know Aamito Lagum from the first season of Africa's Next Top Model in 2013, where she blew away the competition in the popular reality television show. After taking the crown, she moved to New York and started walking in many of the world's biggest fashion shows. Dozens of magazine spreads, campaigns and photo shoots later and Lagum is a globally recognized face with a big following. But she's also a person deeply concerned about climate change. In 2018 she spoke at the Global Climate Action Summit bringing her experiences as a Ugandan into the discussion. This month she took part in the Global Climate Strike, meant to push leaders to deal with the crisis. We talked to Lagum about what the climate crisis means to her and how she hopes to empower fellow Ugandans on issues of climate justice.

How did you first get involved with climate change activism?

I grew up in Kampala and used to visit my grandmother in the northern part of Uganda. It was there that I started noticing the climate literally changing. It was beginning to feel hotter and hotter, there were shorter rainy seasons and a much longer dry season. I especially remember that there used to be a river near my grandma's where people would fish and get their drinking water—it was the life of the village. As time went on, the river dried up, and there's been less and less activity there. I was in Uganda this past year and travelled up north. It was so hot, worse than I've ever experienced. Activism is something I'd say I had been curious about for a long time and wanted to know more. Now that the world is talking about climate change, I feel like I can now put into words what I saw when I was growing up in Uganda—and that I see to this day.

Why is environmentalism close to your heart?

For me, it's a very personal issue. In America, there's enough to sustain us throughout the year. During the winter, we don't have to worry about whether we'll have enough food to get us through the dark cold months. But in Uganda, people are eating only one meal a day because there just isn't enough food. This isn't because they're lazy and can't work, it's because the climate is too unreliable. When the rain comes, it's too heavy that it spoils the crops. When the hot season comes it takes the crops a really long time to grow—so the harvest has a small yield and the food isn't enough to sustain them. People starve, to be honest. And when it comes to hunger, I know it's the women and children who suffer the most.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the continent in regards to climate change?

The continent is one of the most susceptible places on earth to climate change, at the same time we are the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that have created this crisis. The biggest effect on Africa right now is the erratic weather patterns. In countries like Ethiopia, there are people who say they used to see drought every five or six years, now they say it's happening every two or three years. In the Somali region, people say the 2017 drought hasn't really ended in some areas and people are unable to recover between dry periods. At the same time, there is too much rain in Mozambique during winter months. Just this year there were violent storms like Cyclone Idai, which was literally one of the worst storms on record in that part of the continent.

Oxfam, for instance, is pushing for governments and large companies doing business in Africa to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But they're also working with farmers in parts of the continent to adjust their crop cycles to the changing weather patterns, even to take out loans or help build up their savings so they have a kind of buffer. I think we also have to be careful to protect some of the continent's greatest natural resources—our rivers, lakes, forests. I realize that work and new economic opportunities are important to fighting the very real and heart-breaking poverty there, but we have to also be sure to protect the nature that millions there rely on for things like fishing and even tourism.

Photo: Becky Davis/Oxfam

Can you talk more about the work you do with Oxfam and how it's improving happenings on the ground?

Oxfam is fantastic. When I went to Uganda with Oxfam, my main focus was on women and the work Oxfam and its partners are doing do to help women. It's the women who have the power to make change on a household level, who focus on the children and what they need to thrive. The men don't make those kinds of decisions. The work Oxfam is doing helps women make the kind of small-scale decisions that lead to big change.

One example of an Oxfam program we saw was at a refugee camp in Uganda, where women were making sanitary pads for girls who couldn't afford or access them. The girls couldn't go to school because of this. Something so basic has the potential to reduce the number of school dropouts and have a much larger impact on these girls' lives.

It's important to realize what power women in Africa have to affect long-term change. For instance, it's the women who do the cooking and decide whether to burn charcoal, firewood or briquettes. If they begin to use briquettes versus firewood, that teaches their children that firewood isn't good for the environment—briquettes are often made of recycled materials, they produce less smoke, and they don't require cutting down trees. These are the kind of simple, but important choices that kids will grow up knowing. Oxfam is empowering women so women can pass on their values and knowledge to their children, so they'll make better decisions growing up.

You work in what some would consider two very different worlds: modeling and activism. How does one inform the other for you?

I actually don't think they're two different worlds. The world is one, and everything is interconnected. Modeling provides an opportunity for activism. As a model you have to ask how do you influence people, what do you say to people to create positive change? If you've been given some sort of platform—even if it's not modeling—it's so important to ask how you can create some kind change. That's the direction we're going in. We now have a lot of access to people with just one click. We can post something and 100,000 people will see it instantaneously. It's fantastic and I feel very blessed that I'm living in this day and age.

I also see the fashion community paying lots and lots of attention to the need for more sustainable products. I know examples of denim companies that are more sustainable—they're into more sustainable fabric and more sustainable ways of running their business. Stella McCartney is always advocating for sustainability, holding people accountable, and researching how products are made. There's also an increasing amount of information on fast fashion companies which aren't sustainable or ethical. Lots of people I know no longer buy from them and are becoming more conscious. The more that people talk about these issues and become aware, is how change happens.

How do we empower people on the continent to take action against climate change in order to protect their livelihoods?

I think many of the things that happen on the continent is because people aren't aware. They don't know that years of what they've been doing will have an impact on generations after them. People coming together, getting information, spreading the word about climate change is one of the ways we can make change.

Africa is so rich in oil, minerals, and other natural resources, that many large foreign companies are looking to do business there. But there isn't lot of information about the kind of damage they can do to the environment and people's health. For instance, major mining companies on the continent create so much coal dust that it causes people to have asthma and pollutes the harvest rain water.

In Uganda, only a percentage of people own phones. So this means not many people have access to information through Facebook, and other social media channels. Most people still listen to the radio and that's not reaching people our age. So how do you get to the woman in the small village who doesn't know about these huge companies? That they are polluting the land, that the animals are dying because they're drinking polluted water from companies that are dumping waste water everywhere? I believe if they knew, they would come together, and they would hold their governments and decision-makers more accountable.

One of the things that's most important for everyone to understand is that nothing will get better unless rich countries most responsible for climate change –including the US, Germany, and the United Kingdom – reduce emissions and take serious climate action. I truly believe information is power.

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Featuring Sarkodie, Cassper Nyovest, Elaine, Darkovibes, Stogie T, Phyno, C Natty, and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our best music of the week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."









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Nigerian Officials Drop Charges Against Naira Marley for Violating Coronavirus Lockdown Order

The Nigerian star was arraigned on Wednesday for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele.

Naira Marley has been pardoned by Lagos authorities, after being arraigned in Lagos for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele last weekend, which violated the city-wide lockdown.

According to a report from Pulse Nigeria, the "Soapy" singer and two other defendants—politician Babatunde Gbadamosi and his wife—were ordered to write formal apologies to the Government of Lagos, give written assurance that he will follow the ordinance going forward, and go into self-isolation for 14 days.

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Photo courtesy of Bebe Zahara Benet.

In Conversation With Cameroonian Drag Artist Bebe Zahara Benet: 'You Don't Stop Doing Your Work'

The U.S.-based Cameroonian artist speaks to us about her upcoming EP, Broken English, and how she's navigating the world of music amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Bebe Zahara Benet is three things: fierce. fabulous, and a force. For avid followers and fans of the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, you may remember Bebe Zahara Benet as the winner of the inaugural season of the program back in 2009. Since then, she's gone on to star in TLC's Dragnificent and more recently, has been back in the recording studio working on her upcoming EP, Broken English.

Last week, she dropped "Banjo," the first single o the EP. It's a fun, energetic and uninhibited number that likens romantic pursuits to the sweet harmonies of the stringed instrument. Naturally, the accompanying music video is just as vibrant and light-hearted.

The Cameroonian drag artist moved to the United States when she was 19-years-old and has grown to see herself as belonging to two homes. She's put out a ton of music including including the EPs Face and Kisses & Feathers, as well as a number of singles including "Fun Tonite", "Get Fierce (Lose Yourself)" and "Starting a Fire." Currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she says that it's been two years since she's put out original music and it's time to give her fans what they've been asking for.

We spoke with Bebe Zahara Benet on lockdown from her home in Minneapolis, and got to hear more of what went into creating her upcoming project, the challenges of being an alternative artist from a conservative African country and how she's navigating the world of music during the coronavirus outbreak.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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