Archive for the New Writing Category

We Aren’t the World: Kony 2012, Kenyans for Kenya and the Cultural Roots of Greg Mortenson

Posted in Africa, Clips, New Writing on April 5, 2012 by frankbures

A few years ago, I was on an assignment in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu, when I stopped at a cafe run by the organization called Invisible Children, now made famous by their Kony 2012 video.  The restaurant was sleek place, with wifi and coffee and a bunch of aid workers sitting around in their down time. I thought I might order something, but the prices were beyond my traveler’s budget. It wasn’t a business that seemed viable once the UN and the other NGO’s went away.

That was more or less the extent of my experience with Invisible Children until this year, when the Kony 2012 video was unleashed and we were were deluged with stories not really about the LRA or Joseph Kony, but about the video and its makers.  It’s hard to explain what was so maddening about this.  After all, weren’t they doing something good?  Didn’t they mean well?  Wasn’t what they were saying true?

The answer is a highly qualified “yes” to all those. The problem, as others have pointed out better than I can, is that the storyline in the video is tailored to a 200-year-old narrative where Africa is a helpless child that needs help from a Western adult.  It’s a narrative that Teju Cole now famously called the White Savior Industrial Complex and it still has the power to move mountains of money, as we saw with the Greg Mortenson affair last year.  Mortenson grew up as a missionary in East Africa and studied this fundraising technique well.

One reason for the persistence of this storyline is that it’s embedded in the very idea of culture, which was formalized (in English) with the 1871 publication of Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture, the book that effectively launched the field of anthropology. In it, Tylor outlines his vision of the past, cribbed partly from Darwin and partly from the Bible.  He asserted that human beings began in a primal state of nature called “savagery.”  As things improved they picked up skills like metallurgy, manufacturing and morals, which marked their transition into “barbarism.”  Then in the final stage, they arrived at civilization, which he also called Culture with a capital “C.”

Anthropologists, Tylor wrote, were not supposed to merely study human culture, but to improve it.  Their task was to root out the old savage beliefs and replace them with newer and better ones.  Civilized ones. “[W]here barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with a clear view,” he wrote. “It is [the] office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.”

This is the soundtrack that plays in the background of Kony 2012.

The problem is that, for those of us who have spent time in different parts of Africa, seeing those places through this frame makes them barely recognizable.  It simply doesn’t correspond to the present-day reality, which is far more complex and interesting and human.

Last fall, for example, I was in Nairobi and one of the stories I was working on was about the famine in the Horn of Africa. This was not your typical Africa-as-helpless-victim story, a la Nicholas Kristof.  It was about a group of relatively well off Kenyans who were raising money for famine relief in their own country.  The people I was writing about were Nairobi-based Rotarians, but they were part of a larger effort called Kenyans for Kenya which raised $8 million to send food relief to the Turkana region of Kenya.

This is all fairly straightforward stuff,  to fans of Kony 2012, Kristof and Greg Mortenson, it might seem like something new.  I would never have done the story if it had fallen on the Kony 2012/White Savior spectrum, because the point of those stories is never the story itself.  As Dinaw Mengestu observed, “the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us.”  It’s about the viewer as savior.  What I loved about Kenyans for Kenya is that it wasn’t.

The story, The Land that Rain Forgot, is not one that will change the world. But I hope it at least shows how the world can change.  You can read it here.

The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa

Posted in Africa, Clips, New Writing, Travel, World Hum on April 25, 2010 by frankbures

Last week, my five-part series, The Roads Between Us:  A Journey Across Africa, went live on Worldhum.com.  Watching it roll out was almost as satisfying as finally arriving in Dakar after nearly a month on the road.  It was a long journey in many ways, but like all long journeys, well-worth the effort.  Also included in the package were an interview I did on the way with writer/publisher/blogger Jeremy Weate, and an interactive map full of anecdotes, because a lot happens when you travel across a swath of planet as big, complex and fascinating as West Africa, and some things, no matter how funny, telling or meaningful end up getting cut. Here’s last one outtake. If you’ve ever dealt with bureaucracies in Africa, you know the feeling:

The Niger Consulate was a sparsely furnished place off a busy roundabout in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.  I was sitting in the secretary’s office when a middle-aged American man burst in.

“Hi,” he said, in a cheerful tone to the secretary. “I’d like a transit visa!  I’m going to the fish festival in Sokoto in, and then to Niger and…

The secretary, who looked like Maya Angelou’s evil twin, cut him off:  “You are traveling through Niger?”

“That’s my plan!” the man said.

“And you want to go today?” She asked.

“Yep.”

The secretary regarded him for a minute.  “Are you aware of the formalities?”  she asked finally.

“What formalities?”

“You must fill out the application, and pay the fee.  Then we have to send it to Niamey for approval. The cost is  25,000 Naira.”

“For a transit visa?” he asked, a little flummoxed.

“There is nothing we can do,” she said, taking some relish in her helplessness. “A treaty was signed between America and Niger, so you must pay the fee.”

“But I can fly to Burkina for less than that!”  He looked at me. I shrugged. Then he picked up his passport and stormed out.

The secretary turned her eyes back to me. One of her problems had been solved but the other was still sitting here, waiting. I was going to Niger too, but I knew that wasn’t the way to get in.

“What do you want?” she said, annoyed.  “What can we do for you?”

“I need a transit visa,”  I said going through the same charade I had gone through several times already. I had been waiting in her office all morning, as well as part of the previous day.  She knew exactly what I wanted.

She tried to control her rage.  “I have told you the situation.  There is nothing we can do.”

Actually, I knew this wasn’t true, and that a transit visa should only cost about 6000 naira. I wasn’t sure if this was a willful scam, or some kind of incompetence.  But I learned a long time ago that the way things get done was with a strange combination of respect, deference and gritty determination. Just wait.  Wait long and well.   Time is not wasted in Africa, as many outsiders think. It’s simply a different kind of currency.

Finally, after a half a day of staring at the walls in her office, Ms. Angelou came out of the consul’s office. She had apparently had enough of me.

“Do you want to leave?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said calmly.  “What can I do?”

She held out her had for my passport.  I gave it to her.  She took it into the Consul’s office, and a few minutes later she came back.

“The Consul says that because of the agreement, we can only give a one-year visa. But if you insist, we will give you one-month visa.  The fee will be 6000.”

“Thank you.” I said.  I filled out my paperwork, gave her my money then went on my way.

Into the Twittersphere

Posted in New Writing, Writing on April 15, 2010 by frankbures

There’s probably no development that has polarized the ranks of writers more than Twitter.  Many of the most serious writers and thinkers I know and admire shun it, dismiss it or just don’t get it.  Others love it more than their children, and talk about it with a warmth that makes my inner technophobe deeply uncomfortable.  Their enthusiasm sometimes feels a little like being invited to visit–just visit!–a kind of Jonestown of the mind.

But for those of us who spend our time trying to hold it together, trying not to be buried under a mountain of information, trying to push back the chaos long enough to get lost in our work–and lost in others’ work–the way we used to, Twitter looks like so much loose snow on a Himalayan ridge.  Do we go forward?  Or do we just head back down to base camp?  Is twitter the most powerful social force known to humanity? Or is it a glorified gossip and time-wasting machine?  The new center of gravity or a black hole?   Or both?

In his book on Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuściński talks about how as a young man, he found a book on Hinduism that contained instructions for how to increase one’s “creative powers” through breathing. After that, he would lie on his floor and try to cultivate “prana” or “vital energy” in his solar plexus, since it was a precious, finite thing not to be wasted.

Kapuściński may have used a little too much prana in his own reporting, but I think he had a point, as studies on attention are starting to show. It turns out we have (so they think) two separate attention systems. One is controlled attention, in which we make ourselves focus on something. The other is a stimulus-driven attention.  So the question is whether Twitter (and the internet in general) amplifies or dissipates that creative energy.  Do we control it, or does it control us?  And as a writer, how do you balance between intake and output, consumption and production?     Where, in other words, do you draw your lines?

Obviously, I have more questions than answers, and more ambivalence than enthusiasm.  I can’t even decide whether social networks are the new connective tissue of society or a substitute for the real-world social ties we need to feel alive.  But on the off chance that Twitter might be more the former than the latter, and in the hope that Twitter has some tangible use that has escaped me, I am treading lightly into the Twittersphere.  And even though I don’t know where it’s all going you can follow me there: twitter.com/frankbures.

New Year, New Mind

Posted in New Writing, Science, Video, Words to live by on December 26, 2009 by frankbures

As the planet completes one more turn around the sun, it feels like time to reflect on something that I think about a lot:  How best to spend the time we have on it.

It’s something that was driven home by a line I came across in the book,  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences, which notes that in 70 years of life we can take in about 185 billion bits of information. That information, in turn, makes up our consciousness.

“It is out of this total that everything in our life must come–every thought, memory, feeling, or action, writes, Mihaly Csikszentmihahyi,It seems like a huge amount, but in reality it does not go that far….an individual can experience only so much.  Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; It is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of our life.”

For the last few years, I have been allowing a torrent of information into my mind, mostly via the Internet. Much of it good, and much of it important.  But at some point you have to choose.  I’m nearing 40 and according to Csikszentmihahyi, I have less than 90 billion bits left, and I have wasted too many already.

The internet is a powerful tool, but sometimes I feel like it is hungry for my mind, and up till now, I have been giving it too much, doing too many things online that up add up to nothing.  As a result, I’ve had this gnawing unease, like I was sliding down some scree slope of trivia, like my mind was a balloon with a million tiny holes.   Until reading that passage, I didn’t know exactly why.

So in a small but significant gesture–a finger in the dike–I’ll be spending each Monday this year offline. There is plenty of other work to be done (that used to be all we did!) and if there is anything urgent, there is a jurassic piece of technology on my desk called the telephone.

As far as I can see, this may be the only way to wrest back some control over the content and the quality of my life, and over my mind. This year, I want to remember how to lose myself in things again.  I want to regain the focus that has carried me so far.  And I don’t want to waste time on distractions, because I have too many things that I haven’t done yet.

So with that, I wish you all the best in the new year.

See you on Tuesdays.

Muslim Punk Redux

Posted in America, Books, New Writing on September 28, 2009 by frankbures

images-3Down in Chicago, I caught a concert by a muslim punk band called “Al Thawra,” and did a short piece on it for Mother Jones.  But now that the “Taqwacore” scene’s prime mover, a promising young writer named Michael Muhammed Knight, has come out with several new books, is appearing on NPR, in the New York Times, and being calledone of the most necessary and, paradoxically enough, hopeful writers of Barack Obama’s America,” I thought it was a good time to put a longer version out there. So if you’re interested in the intersection of punk and Islam, the search for identity and religion in the modern world, or what may well be the birth of a new American Islam, read on:

The Rise of Muslim Punk and the Birth of an American Islam

Michael Muhammad Knight and I were sitting at the very end of a long wooden bar on the west side of Chicago.  At the other end, the bartender was slurring his words and swearing at his customers.    “You don’t know shit about shit!” he said. “Get the fuck out of my bar.”images-2

They did.  And while there still plenty of drunk people in the bar, we were not among them. After a while, the bartender stumbled down to where we were sitting and asked in a thick Latin accent (he said he was from Florida) what we wanted. Knight answered.

“Coke,” he said.

I ordered the same, trying to keep with the spirit of the night.  We’d come to hear Al Thawra, or “The Revolution,” one of the new bands in the nascent scene known as “Muslim Punk” to outsiders, and “Taqwacore,” to insiders, meaning a hardcore genre center on “taqwa,” which is Arabic for “faith,” or “love of divinity,” and which is about anything but dogma.  The genre has lit a fire with those young American Muslims who don’t feel quite accepted in either post-9/11 America or in the larger Muslim world.

images-1“It’s still very young,” says Mark LeVine, author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and a professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at University of California Irvine. “But it’s certainly growing, and it’s certainly going to keep getting bigger.  It shows there was a need that was waiting to be filled.”

The story of Taqwacore is a story of rage and anger and lost faith and, oddly, professional wrestling.  It’s a fundamentally American story of the search for a new identity, for a new cultural space, and even for a new kind of Islam.

That story begins with a 31-year–old, white, blue-eyed convert named Continue reading

Destination: Ibadan

Posted in Africa, New Writing, Travel on July 22, 2008 by frankbures

In most of the interviews I’ve done about penis snatching in Nigeria, people have referred to it as a superstition. And while this struck me as off the mark, it’s only after mulling it over that I think I know why: Because really, belief in penis theft is part of a complex spiritual landscape. In other words, it’s one of the varieties of religious experience. And least that’s the question I went north to the once-famous Nigerian university city to investigate:

When I arrived in Ibadan, I checked into a small hotel, then took a bus over to the university campus. As I walked thought the gates and down the boulevard into the run-down grounds, I stopped to read a startling sign.

CULTISM puts you in bondage,” it said, “Renounce and denounce it so that you can enjoy your God-given FREEDOM. CULTISM is evil and destructive. Do NOT be part of it.

Cultists were kidnappers—the supposed harvesters of body parts. But who exactly were they? Who was doing all this kidnapping? Nigeria was said to be a country of 50 million Christians, 80 million Muslims and just 13 million traditional believers. The Pentecostal pews were packed. The Muslim call to prayer blared across the city five times a day. Shouldn’t penises and persons be safe inside churches and mosques? How was it that men across Nigeria were so terrified of witchcraft, which the new faiths had supposedly displaced.

I walked through the university on broken sidewalk blocks. The road was lined with trees, and students milled around, lying the grass, talking and reading. Cars rolled in and out of the campus and minivans carted students around the university for a small fee.

I found the Religious Studies Department and climbed up to the second floor, where I found the office. It was a small room, and in it a few people sat talking. An old, thin man dozed in a chair. Another man came in and asked what I was looking for. I told him I was hoping to talk to someone who could explain a little about Nigerian religions.

After a few minutes, I was shown into the next room, where I was introduced to Michael Nabofa, a small man who sat between a mountain of papers on one side and a huge stack of books on the other. When he finally looked up, he told me to write down my questions, then come back in a few hours.

I went back outside, got something to eat, roamed around the zoo a little—a muddy, depressing affair, with a mountain gorilla, a couple hyenas, a lion and some snakes (the python was dead and bloated). Then I headed back to see Dr. Nabofa.

When I got there, he was with someone, so I sat in the front office and waited. On the file cabinet there was another sticker urging the reader to reject cultism. I asked the old man sitting next to me what it meant.

“These ritualists,” he said, “are very bad. They are killing people and making money with their rituals. But if you get into the cult, you can’t get out. They can kill you if you try to leave. That is why we want people to stay out.”

“So they are killing people to make money with the rituals?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think it really works.”

“What?” he looked shocked. “Yes! It works! Don’t say it doesn’t work. It works. These people are just doing their rituals, and saying some things, and money is falling every where.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

A few minutes later, I was called in to see Dr. Nabofa. He ordered some tea, and when it came, he took out the piece of paper with my questions on it and read them out loud. The first question I’d written was about who the ritualists were.

“These ritualists,” said Dr. Nabofa, “they are Christians–and Muslims and traditionalists. In the daytime you see them in the church with their white robes, praising Jesus as the prophet. But below you don’t know what they are doing in secret.”

“I’ve heard,” I said, “that these ritual killings were not part of traditional African religion?”

“No!” he said, “they were not.”

“When did they come in?”

“Well,” he said “there’s a difference between religion and magic. So we can’t know exactly when the ritual killings and magic came into the religion.”

“What is the difference?”

“In religion, it is: ‘Let your will be done.’ The will of God. In magic, it is ‘Let my will be done.’ The magician commands. The religious person prays.”

Dr. Nabofa looked back at my question and read aloud, “What percentage of Nigerians have some traditional religious beliefs?”

I tried to explain, “I was talking to some people, asking about the penis snatching. And at first, they tell me that it doesn’t exist.”

“That traditional religion doesn’t exist?”

“Yes, I mean….”

“They are liars! They just want deceive you. Because if you go into the town now, you can go and see the shrine where they go to worship.”

“But my question is…”

“There has not been a proper census in this country,” he interrupted. “Some claim that the Muslims are the majority. Others claim that the Christians are the majority. But there has not been a proper census, so you cannot get exactly 50% Christians, 40% Muslims or the other percent traditionalists. No. It is difficult for us to know right now. But you cannot get someone who is fully Christian who doesn’t believe any traditional things, or who is fully Muslim who doesn’t have any traditional beliefs. No, that is a lie.”

“You mean, if they say they’re totally one or the other?”

“Yes! If you scratch every African, below his skin you will get traditional African religion.”

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