Death Of A Native Son

On the night of October 15, 1987, in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Ouagadougo, a group of soldiers arrive by truck, and begin frantically digging in the earth. Their bodies attack the hard ground with shovels, as other men stand at a distance giving them orders in low voices. Hidden by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, the soldiers fight with the ground and against the fear that fills their hearts. There are twelve corpses carelessly tossed in the back of the truck. Some of the bodies are still in their military fatigues, while others are near naked and show signs of beatings. All are riddled with bullets. A couple of soldiers stand at guard near the truck, smoking cigarettes, kicking at the dirt and anxiously waiting for this night to be over. As far as they know, they are alone in this forsaken spot. But they are wrong. Despite the lateness of the hour, the darkness of the night and the desolation of the location, there are eyes that watch them, for in the shanty town that lies on the edges of the cemetery, the people listen, watch and wait.

The corpses are dragged out from the back of the truck, and one by one, thrown into the freshly dug grave. Orders are shouted and the soldiers get

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An Incomplete Triumph

“Don’t shoot, you cannot kill ideas!”
Surrendering Cuban revolutionary, after the failed attack against the Moncada garrison.

Within hours of Thomas Sankara’s assassination, the French government sent messages of congratulations to the coup leadership. But the job was not as yet done. Sankara’s family is harassed, their homes raided and personal belongings removed. His papers and documents disappear from all state archives and government offices. State television and radio stations were ordered to change programming and begin to dragging his name through mud, broadcasting stories about his corruption, and spreading rumors of his siphoning of money from the state exchequer. His social and public works programs are immediately halted. His companions and colleagues are jailed if not killed. His personal history and political ideas are re-written and re-cast, as history itself is employed to remove his presence from the minds and consciousness of the country’s people. Soon, all official evidence of Thomas Sankara, his political imagination, and his social programs are removed. The people who attempt to resist this erasure, they too are silenced: media is repressed, journalists are fired or killed, public discussions and political gatherings outlawed, student groups broken up, activists jailed and in some instances, killed outright. Details »

Who Makes History?

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Image: School children at the Nyange massacre site during the Nyange Memorial Day event sponsored by the Chancellery For Heroes, National Orders And Decorations of Honor. March 19, 2015

“Debates about [history] involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of the many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. They grossly underestimate the size, the relevance, and the complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia.

Most [people] learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees.

Long before the average citizen reads the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.

Yet the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history. Beyond a broad – and relatively recent – agreement on the situatedness of the professional historian. there is little concrete exploration of the activities that occur elsewhere but impact significantly on the object of study.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past: Power And The Production of History

How do citizens learn about history? Why do certain historical narratives become ubiquitous and dominant?

What political, social, cultural and economic factors influence the writing and selection of historical events? Why do certain sites, buildings, memorials and locations become ‘historical’? Who are the people who make these choices, and what factors influence them to select certain events and sites, and ignore others?

These are just some of the key questions this project raises to help us see the contingent, and contested nature of what we call ‘history’. It asks us to rethink the history we see, hear, and learn, and instead begin to understand it as a series of narratives that is constantly reviewed and revisited as new materials, and new political and social realities come to the fore. From school text book boards, management teams at memorial sites, and tourism departments designing historical itineraries, citizens and visitors alike receive a carefully curated and edited version of ‘national history’, one that is influenced as much by the political and social realities of the present, as it is by historical facts. And few places offer a better opportunity to study this process than modern day Rwanda which is in the midst of one of the most well managed efforts in memory and history making in modern times. Bureaucratized and administered by a series of government ministries, designed and designed in collaboration with a number of foreign NGOs, the state of Rwanda is creating a new historical consciousness among the country’s citizens.

From memorials to commemorations, text books to radio and television programming, the state is carefully curating facts and history to fit a specific political idea of itself, and of the country.

Though Rwanda is the first country I examine as part of this investigation, it is hardly unique. These questions I raise here can just as well be applied to any nation. Hence, this is not a project about Rwanda, as much as it is a project about the ways in which nations manufacture the idea of themselves, and put institutional, educational, cultural and social assets to work to create these ideas. This process remains largely invisible to the visitor, and to the casual citizen, but a close examination of the details of it, reveals its design, and its limits.

Acknowledgement: This project emerges out of a conversation over dinner with Erin Elizabeth Mosely, then a PhD candidate at the Department of African And African American Studies at Harvard University. The year was 2013, and Erin was in Kigali conducting her field research. I had recently arrived in the country and was at a loss as to how to produce a body of work that challenged the  dominant narratives of post-genocide Rwanda, and did so without rancor or hysteria. The challenges of producing a critical study in a nation where freedom of speech, expression and action are carefully monitored and managed, was no easy task. It was during a discussion with Erin that a possible way forward offered itself, and produce a work, when closely examined, is a critique of the idea of nation building, and the uses of historical and personal memory for political and nationalist ends.

 

Why Africa?

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

“Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.”

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

In the course of the coming weeks, I will post work from two projects I began work on in 2015; The first in Rwanda, and the other in Burkina Faso. Each project engages with the people, history and politics of a region I have long felt has been choked under our wish to ‘represent’ or ‘give voice to’. These projects do neither – they do not represent Africa or Africans, and nor do they give ‘voice’ to them. What they do is engage with modern African politics, history and society, and see them as the result of ordinary human beings dealing with the same challenges and coping with the same prejudices as those in other states. They shun the exotic, and the colonial classic ideas and images of Africa we continue to see today. They avoid reducing complex social and political realities to cultural and genetic essences. They reject judgements of  ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarism’ or ‘moral inhumanity’ as something innate, but instead look at the historical and economic roots of a place, a people and a politics. They refuse the  decades of colonial visual cliches and social prejudices that have come down to us over the years, and that continue to influence so much of visual work done in and about the African continent. Even some of the most ‘enlightened’ attempts to cut past the reductive and inhumane ideas about the people of the continent, still stay mired in efforts to change ‘representations’, as if to undo what has been done to the continent is simply a new public relations campaign. What is required, and what is reflected here in these new works, is a quiet but serious engagement with the continents modern political and social history, and an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural chains it remains trapped in. It is from this material base that we can begin to hear and see the continent for its lived reality, and possibly understand a way to work in it.

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Eradicating Politics Or How Technology Can Help Keep Annoyances Away!

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How do you respond to an article that carries the seeds of its own negation? Blakemore is excited, but it seems the excitement comes from spending too much time with people with technology tools and a story to sell.

This entire article read like a promotional brochure because:

– the GPS mapping companies with a vested interest in promoting their projects and products are repeatedly mentioned in the article.

– the owners / employees of those companies are the only voices we get to hear.

– the technology is placed at center stage, manufacturing that most perfect of TED-elusions i.e that technology overcomes politics, policies, interests, governance, history and the agency of people itself.

This latter point is critical: what the article veils is the ordinary and lets-get-our-hands-dirty work that people who need to confront the local government, demand action and change, and improve their lives, still have to do. the GIS products mentioned here actually only enable them to do this better, but they do not create their ability to do it at all. In fact, that the local communities are in fact engaged in demanding rights and services from the city, state and federal governments is nothing new, and in fact, had the writer bothered to look carefully, one of the most obvious things that she would have seen in such deprived and marginalised areas. there are dozens of groups and community activists fighting to improve conditions, and to push back an exploitative and indifferent city government. this is true across slums around the globe. Details »

AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS: Hassan Hajjaj

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AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS: VIvian Sassen

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AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS: Alexia Webster

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AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS: Santo Mofokeng

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AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS: Daniel Naude

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