Africa Active!

Dani McClain
October 10, 2007

Saving Senegal
There's no vague threat that their compatriots must either "vote or die." There's no exhortation to the Senegalese people to "Slam Bush" or his counterpart in that West African nation, President Abdoulaye Wade.

Instead, what you see in the recently released internet documentary Democracy in Dakar is a group of young men using hip hop to put participatory government in Senegal under a microscope before, during and after the February 2007 presidential election.

"Our struggle is not about asking people to vote," an emcee named Eye Witness says in the serialized film's first episode. "But rather to incite them to choose their leaders and let them know that all politicians in Senegal are the same."

To Eye Witness and others in the documentary, the solution is for the country's more than 12 million people to ask the hard questions that will hold their elected officials accountable. The rappers, journalists and academics featured in the film detail the problems plaguing Senegal: lack of jobs, skyrocketed cost of living, frequent cuts to water and electricity service, and a steady stream of young people making their way toward Europe in makeshift boats.

The answer, they say, is for the people to overcome the fear and fragmentation that has built steadily in the nearly 50 years since the country claimed its independence from France.

"The time has come for Senegalese youth to organize themselves in political parties," Eye Witness says.

Scapegoats, heroes and easy answers are few in the seven-part series, which was produced through the collaborative efforts of the Brooklyn-based record label Nomadic Wax and the Washington, D.C.-based Sol Productions.

Herson, the founder of Nomadic Wax, produced two Senegalese hip-hop compilation albums in 2001 and 2003. He said listener response to those projects in the United States compelled him to try to capture the context for the music he had recorded.

"People were saying, 'This is great, but I don't have a sense at all of what things are like in Senegal,'" Herson told WireTap. "'They're rapping in Wolof; I have no idea what they're saying.'"

So he decided to switch media, enlisted a film crew, and set out to document the alternate disillusionment and hope of a music scene to which he was first introduced in 1998 while collecting research for his senior thesis at Hampshire College.

Wade won took 56 percent of the vote in the February election, which brought an unprecedented number of people to the polls. The film succeeds at capturing the shock and deflation of many Dakar residents in the days following the announcement of the results. According to those Herson interviewed, many had expected that Wade and another favorite from the field of 15 candidates would be forced into a runoff.

Herson said he keeps in frequent touch with Keyti, an emcee who acts as a key analyst throughout the film.

"It's sort of business as usual," Herson said of the six months since the election. "But I think people are happy that this whole time period has been documented. It was kind of like a mirror."

Power To The People
Of course, disturbing things can happen when people from the global North hold up a mirror to Africa. Too often, they see themselves in the reflection.

But for Herson, creating the film was in part about shaking Americans out of the narrow understandings of the continent that ad campaigns like these can produce.

Some viewers have admitted to Herson that his film's images were among the first they had seen of contemporary, urban Africans, and that they were surprised to see Senegalese youth making beats and discussing politics rather than sweeping out mud huts or leading pith-helmeted Westerners around on safari.

It's easier to make fun of misconceptions like these when you've had a few romantic notions yourself and gotten called out. I had one of many such wake-up calls nearly six years ago, when I was among the thousands who attended the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

It was there that I heard a young woman from Senegal named Coumba Toure offer a clear piece of advice to us delegates in our teens and 20s who had come to the conference from the United States.

Drunk with the excitement of being at a global conference where debates raged over why the United States had decided to send a low-level delegation (many other countries had sent heads of state) and how the final conference document might address the issue of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans, some of us had adopted a kind of naïve "not my government" stance in discussions on the recently elected administration.

During a youth breakout session where heated discussions and hip-hop performances erupted spontaneously, Toure encouraged those of us from the United States to drop the act and to instead take advantage of our privilege as citizens of the most powerful country on earth.

I'm paraphrasing, but she said something like: "Your government has to register your concerns, so act as a proxy for those of us who feel the ripple effects of U.S. policies around the globe but have few ways to respond."

Herson and some of those whose projects are listed below have opted to reach out directly to the American public, in most cases youth, rather than try to lobby the U.S. government.

Seeking Solutions
As I brainstormed with friends and acquaintances about youth activism we knew to be taking place around the African continent, much of what we generated reminded me of recent critiques of American and European aid to Africa because of the continued theme of dependence on personalities and resources from this side of the Atlantic.

If you know of African-led youth activism projects, please add that information below in the comments section. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for the following:

Bling: A Planet Rock is a recently released documentary by Raquel Cepeda. According to promotional materials, the film is about American hip-hop culture's obsession with diamonds -- "blinging" -- and all its social trappings and how this infatuation correlated with the ten-year conflict in Sierra Leone.

City of Peace in Cape Town, South Africa, uses the performing arts to teach the youth about cross-cultural understanding, leadership and nonviolent conflict resolution.

James Makor directs the Save My Future Foundation in Liberia. Of his work, Makor said: "SAMFU is involved with youth programs in forested communities of Liberia, as to transforming ex-combatants into peace loving youths, thus reducing animosity amongst those communities." Much of SAMFU's work also focuses on the effects of Firestone's extraction of rubber from the country.

The Ghana Education Project coordinates U.S. college students to engage in a number of Ghana-based projects. Since 1999, they have produced 120 AIDS awareness workshops, eight libraries and two documentaries.


Dani McClain is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She serves on WireTap's editorial board.


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this would be a dope teaching tool!