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Keeping Hope Alive: A Tribute to the Women Who Are Rebuilding Somalia

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The death of Dr Hawa Abdi Dhibwale has highlighted how critical women’s contribution has been to the provision of healthcare and other services in war-torn Somalia. Her work shows that if more women like her had been allowed to govern their country, Somalia wouldn’t still be a dysfunctional state.

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On my first visit to Mogadishu in November 2011, what struck me most about the city – apart from the shattered, bullet-ridden buildings and the broken infrastructure – was how visible the city’s women were. Women of all ages – some veiled in black hijabs, others donning colourful headscarves – were all over the city running all manner of enterprises, from selling petrol stored in huge drums (apparently, there were no petrol stations in Mogadishu then) to hawking khat and vegetables from makeshift stands along the roads.

Outside the mayor’s office, there were long lines of women queueing up for jobs, mostly those of street cleaners. The entrance to the office was also “manned” by a few female security guards who obviously had little training but who had been hired nonetheless. Women were literally running Somalia’s capital city.

“Where are the men?” I asked a male Somali aid worker. “Busy having coffee and gossiping about politicians,” he quipped, only half-jokingly.

Throughout Mogadishu, especially in the late afternoon, I would see men gather in coffee and tea shops and restaurants to gossip, chew khat or ponder the future of their war-torn country. Women were not part of these gatherings, I realised, because they were too busy working and taking care of their families

In fact, throughout the civil war in Somalia, it was women who kept the country running. Like in many countries ravaged by conflict, Somali women have developed a deep resilience and a practical business acumen. Women became the main breadwinners during the conflict when battles between clans and “revenge killings” had decimated large sections of the male population. Gender roles became confused and distorted, because physical and social disruptions caused by the conflict had eroded men’s gender roles as providers and protectors. So women took on greater financial responsibilities, but with little authority within the family and community. (Authority in much of Somalia rests with male clan elders, who are considered the leaders and arbiters of their respective clans. Even women who head households have little decision-making powers within their own families.)

So while men sat around in cafés sipping tea, gossiping or jostling for power or influence in Somalia’s highly dysfunctional clan-based federal government (whose capacity to provide basic services is almost nil; most services, such as education, are provided by private individuals or Islamic charities), women were taking the lead in providing essential services, such as healthcare.

Although provision of healthcare is scanty or virtually non-existent in many parts of Somalia, in places where there are health facilities, you are likely to find women running them. The reason, I believe, is because when there are no healthcare facilities, women suffer the most, because not only do they need these services more than men (especially in their childbearing years), but also because they are the primary care providers for their children and families. Hence, they have a vested personal interest in ensuring that these services are available.

One woman’s hospital

The death of Dr Hawa Abdi Dhibwale in Mogadishu this month at the age of 73 has highlighted how critical women’s contribution has been to the provision of healthcare in Somalia. Dr Hawa Abdi was born in Mogadishu when Somalia was still a United Nations Trusteeship under British administration. (After the Second World War, Italy lost its colonies in Africa, including Somalia.) In the 1960s, after Somalia gained independence, she studied medicine in Kiev, which was then part of the Soviet Union. After obtaining her medical degree in 1971, she returned to Mogadishu where she worked as a physician while studying law at night. (The decision to study law was made after she learned that Somali laws prevented female relatives from inheriting land.)

In 1983, she set up a one-room clinic on her family-owned farm 20 kilometres outside Mogadishu, where she provided free obstetric and gynaecological services to rural women. In an interview, she said she decided to open the clinic because she couldn’t believe that rural women in Somalia had almost no access to neonatal services. The clinic eventually evolved into a 400-bed hospital and relief camp. During the 2011 famine in Somalia, the camp housed 90,000 drought-stricken people on the 1,300 acres surrounding her hospital.

Working in Somalia was, of course, fraught with difficulties. She faced constant pressure and threats from the terrorist group Al Shabaab, who in 2009 tried to shut down her hospital. Many of her experiences of running the hospital under precarious circumstances are captured in her 2013 memoir, Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman, 90,000 lives.

Dr Hawa Abdi’s amazing work in a hostile and difficult environment gained her recognition and awards internationally. In 2016, the University of Pennsylvania awarded her an honorary Doctor of Science degree. The following year, she received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Harvard University. In 2012, Dr Hawa Abdi was also on the shortlist of nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. If she had won, she would have been the first Somali to have ever been awarded this honour.

Dr Hawa Abdi’s two daughters, Deqa and Amina, who are also medical doctors, are continuing with her work through the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation.

Providing maternal care in Somaliland

It is interesting – but perhaps not so surprising – that Somali women are leading the campaign to provide healthcare to their people. In Somaliland (which broke away from Somalia in 1991 but has still not gained international recognition as a sovereign state), Edna Adan Ismail, who qualified as a nurse-midwife, established a maternity hospital that has gained international acclaim.

In a part of the world where maternal and child mortality rates are extremely high, and where there is a high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) – which makes childbirth complicated, if not life-threatening – Edna Adan’s maternity hospital in Hargeisa provides much-needed assistance to thousands of pregnant women.

Adan, who was circumcised when she was just eight years old, also campaigns against FGM, though she does not talk openly about it like many Western feminists might because it is still a delicate topic, and being so widespread (it is estimated that almost all Somali women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone this painful procedure), it is difficult to broach the subject in a way that will not offend the women she is trying to reach.

I met this remarkable woman at the Hargeisa Book Festival in 2014. I found her not only to be extremely articulate and fluent in English (she was once Somaliland’s foreign minister), but very committed to her work and vision. She spoke about her well-equipped maternity hospital that has trained more than 1,500 nursing students, and the need for more women to go into the field of medicine.

When I asked her about what she was doing to eradicate FGM, she did not answer directly; instead, she handed me a brochure, which had detailed drawings of the procedure, and which explained why it was a health risk for women and girls. (It was only later that I became aware about why most Somali women do not like to talk about their personal experiences of FGM. It is because, as one female Somali writer based in the UK told me, “Somali women don’t like to be reduced to their vaginas”.)

The obsession with FGM and hijabs also obscures the fact that women’s oppression is structural and systemic – women and girls will be raped, violated or oppressed even if they stop undergoing FGM and even if they throw off their hijabs. As the Sudanese women’s rights activist Hala Al-Karib noted, “Most Northern institutions reduce women’s rights and violations against women to a one-dimensional fight against FGM . . . In this context, the rhetoric of gender mainstreaming becomes a box-ticking exercise while minimising the root causes of women’s subordination and the politics behind the subordination. The few publicly-aware activists become the outsiders, bearers of bad news, and are often labelled difficult – too political.”

Coming home

There are many Somali women living abroad who have decided to go home and contribute to their society. It seems astonishing to me that so many of these women in the diaspora would choose to do this, given the dangers and risks involved and given that Somalia is a highly patriarchal society where the threat of sexual discrimination and violence are ever-present. Hodan Nalayeh was one such woman.

Hodan, a Canadian citizen and broadcast journalist, returned to her homeland in 2014 to make a documentary about Mogadishu. She said she made the decision to leave Canada and go back to Somalia because “nobody looked at me like I was strange, nobody cared if I had a dark complexion . . . And we never had that belonging in the diaspora”. More importantly, she came back because her “country needed her”.

She then launched the popular Integration TV on YouTube to tell “positive stories” about Somalia. After visiting Kismaayo (once the stronghold of Al Shabaab), for example, she posted images of its beautiful beaches and stunning sunsets. She told the BBC that her mission was to “uplift the spirit and inspire young Somalis around the world to take charge of their destinies”.

Hodan and her husband were tragically killed last year in an attack on a hotel in Kismaayo believed to have been carried out by Al Shabaab. She was 43 years old and pregnant at the time. After her death, a Twitter user posted: “I don’t know a single Somali who didn’t fall back in love with Somalia through Hodan Nalayeh’s broadcasts”.

Giving women a voice

Hodan’s death was a tragedy, but her resilience and spirit reflect the desire of so many Somali women to see their country become a functioning state. I truly believe that if more women like Dr Hawa Abdi, Edna Adan and Hodan Nalaye took over the running of their country, Somalia wouldn’t be in the mess it has been in for the last thirty years.

The civil war in 1991 devastated Somalia, but rebuilding the country has been an almost impossible enterprise due to clan divisions, corruption, and Islamic fundamentalist forces that are sustained through extortionist practices (such collection of “protection money” – a form of taxation imposed on people who live in Al Shabaab-controlled areas) and foreign meddling and financial support to regressive forces within Somalia.

I don’t mean to generalise, but I do feel that if there were more women entering Somalia’s very divisive and corrupt politics – where clan and gender often determine who gets what position – the country would have more schools, more hospitals and better services.

Women would also ensure that regressive legislation that is harmful to women and girls, like the “Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill” that was tabled in Somalia’s parliament recently, would not see the light of day. This bill, if passed, will not only allow child marriage once a girl’s “sexual organs are mature”, but would also allow forced marriage “as long as the family gives consent”. Critics say the bill would weaken protection for victims of sexual violence, especially girls, and would contravene international human and women’s rights conventions.

Anarchy and lawlessness in Somalia have embedded a culture of violence that allows men to rape with impunity. A survey by Trust Law, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, found that Somalia was one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. There have been cases of women being ostracised and even killed when they report having been raped.

Therefore, male-dominated governing bodies in Somalia, including clan elders’ councils, cannot be trusted to ensure that women and girls in Somalia are protected and get the services they – and all Somalis, including men – need. Women should be given a voice in the running of their country because, being the “invisible clan”, women are more likely than men to unite their divided, clan-based country, and bring about a semblance of sanity, gender-sensitivity, order and accountability in the country’s nascent governance and administrative structures.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Culture

The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.

Recent movements like Rhodes Must FallFaidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”

To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!

Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.

As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?

There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.

Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.

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In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.

The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”

He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.

We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”

This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.

Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.

Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.

At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”

Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”

Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”

It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”

The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo

The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.

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On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.

Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.

With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.

Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.

It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.

As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.

Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.

For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.

That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.

While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.

Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.

Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.

An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?

Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.

Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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