The Africanists

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Koert Lindijer

Freedom is unknown and the future not so certain in Ethiopia

Rally in support of Abiy Ahmed(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Back-lit and draped in palm leaves, Abiy Ahmed bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ in the stickers you see plastered on car bonnets, shop windows and sign boards. The 42-year-old appears equally Messiah-like in his posters, which show him folding Ethiopians in a warm embrace, encouraging them to love one another. Men and women wear T-shirts with his image and the radio plays the praise song “He awakens us”. “Let us forgive each other from our hearts and start a bright new future”, Abiy told parliament after his surprising appointment as Prime Minister end of March. He released tens of thousands of political prisoners and lambasted the state apparatus that tortured them as “terrorist”. He declared Ethiopia’s border war with archenemy Eritrea at an end by saying: “The border has been demolished and replaced by a bridge of love”. Abiy Ahmed’s appearance on the political scene represents something that has been missing for too long on the African continent: a chance for profound change.

The population worships its new prime minister. A spell of euphoria and positive energy has been cast over all. “He deserves the Nobel Prize”, argues young construction worker Bekede, “Abiy Ahmed is young and charismatic, he unites all Ethiopians in ecstasy”. Bekede lives in Bole Michael, a bustling working-class area squeezed between a new highway and the busy airport, deafened by the roar of aircrafts. In the neighbourhood cafe Esther serves coffee, Ethiopia’s national drink. Her husband fled to Canada last year and she was planning to close her coffee-shop this month to join him. “Abiy Ahmed won me round. I am not leaving “, she says resolutely, “I phoned my husband and told him to come home. Thanks to our new prime minister, I can now see a future for us here “.

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Leaders in Africa disappointed me- Jan Pronk

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

The time has come for Johannes Pieter Pronk’s memoirs. After surviving a major heart attack last year, the former Dutch development minister, born in 1940, feels as if every new day is a bonus for him. At his home in The Hague he whips through reports of his many diplomatic encounters and does that with with the same strict discipline as he showed as minister. Some of these meetings took place in presidential palaces but many were with guerrilla fighters along the Nile or desperate Rwandans deep in the Congolese jungle. His first volume is called “Battle of the Great Lakes”, and it focusses on the crises in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the nineties.

Pronk was always helpful towards journalists during his working visits. I often travelled with him, but one never really got to know him. Pronk always came across as an intellectual, not an emotional person. The latter only very occasionally, very briefly. We were once flying to Northern Kenya when suddenly the windows were covered with thick black slurry. The pilot warned us he might have to crash-land. After a successful emergency landing, unloading ourselves while peeing side by side on the runway, I heard some emotion in Pronk’s voice. “Life is certainly worth living,” he sighed. But a few minutes later, when the pilot had screwed the cap on the oil tank, he sounded distant again: “Luckily I’m am still in time for the parliamentary debate tomorrow.”

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Read further:

-How Kofi Annan let Pronk down

-How Pronk in vain asked Kagame not to hurt a dissident minister

-How Meles Zenawi wanted to do his masters with Pronk on the subject of human rights 

All pictures of Jan Pronk and Kofi Annan by Petterik Wiggers  {read more…}

“What an irony that Ethiopia is now the last country in Africa to become democratic” – Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega(Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Eskinder Nega is tense. The Ethiopian journalist travels next week to meet his eleven-year-old son Nafkot in the United States after being in captivity in Ethiopia for six years. That makes him nervous, because he barely knows his son. Nafkot was born in prison in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, when his father and mother were imprisoned there. “Would he recognize me?”, Eskinder Nega worries. “He only knows me as a legend, as one of Ethiopia’s most famous political prisoners. But I also have my weaknesses and many mistakes. Will he accept it?”

Nine times, Eskinder Nega went behind bars since he returned from America to his native country in the early nineties. The last time was in 2011 on charges of terrorism. In February he was unexpectedly freed among hundreds of other political prisoners after the Ethiopian regime began to make remarkable reforms. The new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed down the infamous Kaliti prison, where Eskinder was stuck for years.

After communist regimes fell around the world in the early 1990s, including that of the Ethiopian military Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eskinder Nega expected change. “The end of the tyranny came into view and my wife and I started the first independent newspaper in Ethiopian history”, he says during a short visit to Nairobi. “Mengistu’s successor Meles Zenawi however turned out to be a Leninist, he did not allow opposition and closed my newspaper.”

The authorities put him and his wife Serkalem Fasil behind bars in 2005 for seventeen months because of high treason. “I heard in prison that she was pregnant. And later that she gave birth to our son”. After his release, the wife and child went to America for safety reasons, but the father did not want to leave. “To be a real journalist in Ethiopia, you have to be an activist.” He became a blogger and inevitably ended up in prison again.

In 2009, Meles Zenawi’s party had adopted a draconian anti-terrorism law. That law made critical journalists into terrorists. In 2011 he was sentenced to 18 years under this law. PEN, the international organization for the freedom of writers, gave him the Freedom to Write Award in 2012. He continued to write, even in prison.

“The prison authorities wanted me to stop writing. But I refused and that is why I was branded as a troublemaker who had to live separately from the other detainees. I received neither a pen nor paper and my books were taken away. But sometimes I managed to smuggle a pen and paper inside. I also wrote on every piece of paper or cardboard I could get my hand on, also on toilet paper. Thus, my life in prison became a daily fight. I never stopped writing. Because I knew that if I stopped doing so, my will would be broken. If I had stopped writing, I would have subjected myself to tyranny. ”

According to Eskinder Nega, democracy is the goal of all the peoples of the earth. “If democracy can work in a state as diverse as India, and even in South Africa, which is highly polarized because of its history, why not in Ethiopia? We are the oldest nation in Africa and we helped the African countries become independent in the sixties. What an irony that we are now the last country on the continent to become democratic.”


Eskinder Nega is optimistic about the chance that the new Prime Minister Abiy can steer the nation into democratic waters. But for now, as a journalist, he remains an activist. “If the new prime minister backs away, there will be big demonstrations against the government again.” He wants to start blogging and writing for newspapers. “In the social media you get your information, while the old media like newspapers gives the analysis. Social media will never eliminate the old media. I want to be active in all media.”


This article was published in NRC Handelsblad on Tuesday, 8 May 2018

How foreign aid has become unwanted

Airport Juba(Photo Petterik Wiggers)Photo Petterik Wiggers

Immediately upon arrival in the South Sudanese capital Juba, the sight of white relief workers is overwhelming. At the airport there are long rows of white-painted aid aircrafts and helicopters, from the United Nations, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. In the city one gets stuck in traffic jams of four-wheel-drive vehicles owned by foreign aid workers. The aid industry has taken over South Sudan, it organizes air transport, arranges tasks for ministries and keeps the economy running.
Such aid dependency increasingly irritates African governments, this is in strong states like Rwanda and Eritrea as well as in ‘failed’ states such as Congo and South Sudan. This has been the case for years, but since the turn of the century, Africa has seen remarkably high economic growth and increasing political stability. That is why governments have become more assertive. The painful dependency on the one hand and self-confidence on the other creates tension.
African countries increasingly consider the presence of foreign aid groups and the UN as an unwanted interference. Foreign aid is in danger and becomes a political toy.

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South Sudan: crying in despair

(Photo Johannes Dieterich)Nyaruch Kuon anxiously holds the stick that her granddaughter used to lead her through a war zone to the primary school in Akobo. After a week of wandering, the old woman sinks down to the ground in a classroom between other displaced people. She wildly rubs her dull eyes on her wrinkled face. “I cried and cried and I wept over the death of my sons, until my eyes gave way,” she says.

Last month, when government soldiers set fire to her house, three of her sons died. Yesterday she lost her youngest son, killed by a militia affiliated to the government.

Never before has South Sudan sunk so deeply, never before has the misery been so great. Between 1955 and 1972 and again between 1983 and 2005, the South Sudanese fought for separation from the Arabized north of Sudan. Once independent, they attacked each other with so much venom, that an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy broke out: hundreds of thousands of people were killed, 4 million people fled, half of the 12 million South Sudanese became dependent on foreign food aid.
There is political solution is in sight. Both government and rebels camps are fragmenting, the economy is broke and the outside world does not know how to stop the violent implosion.
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Death eroticizes the senses and erodes the norms at the frontline

A reflection on the Oxfam scandal

The area around the NGO worker’s tent is littered with cigarette butts, his sleeping mat surrounded with half-eaten food remains. Every day he eats beans and smokes two packs of cigarettes. His body is covered in tattoos. He does a lot of talking and does not listen much. I recently saw him establish a base for thousands of displaced people in a war zone. If you travel to the remote corners of disaster-hit countries you need to be a little crazy. Those who do it – aid workers and journalists – sometimes resemble psychopaths.
On the front line, aid workers and journalists run the risk of losing their naivety, their health and sometimes their minds. You feel like a mercenary or a fool. Three United Nations employees wrote a book about it in 2004: Emergency sex. Their bosses in New York wanted the book banned. They could not believe the passages which honestly talked about sex in response to violence and even sex during violence. They did not understand that it is precisely in these circumstances that the need for a hot body and a cold glass of beer is so dire.
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The Last Male Standing

Sudan(Photo Christan Paulussen)

Panting from the heat he lies in a pool of mud. Bubbles of air emerge from his derriere, caused by the fermented food in his stomach, and deep sighs escape from his large nostrils. Sudan is already 44 years old, a considerable age for a rhinoceros. “Just a little while and he will be dead,” Zacharias says sadly, one of his permanent guards. “Sudan is my father and brother, Sudan is my best friend”.
Sudan is the last of its kind, the only living male of the northern white rhinoceros. With difficulty he gets up, slips away, threatens to fall and stands up again. Sudan is The Last Male Standing. With pain and compassion, documentary filmmaker Floor van der Meulen follows his fight against extinction. “What is so attractive about extermination, that is the question I ask in the film The last male standing. Why do people from all over the world want to meet Sudan”, Van der Meulen wonders. “What does that say about us as people”.
Van der Meulen had previously made films about Syria, such as Paradise Stormers and Greetings from Aleppo*. Her new fascination is with a rhinoceros, which she has been following for two years now.

What do you have with that beast?
“I saw a picture in the newspaper with Sudan standing on the savannah with four armed ranchers around him, his own personal bodyguard team. Why should such a large and powerful and dangerous animal be protected by four armed men? That is the world upside down”.

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Military superpowers try to elbow each other out in Djibouti and China is winning

Djibouti oct 2017

On the island of Mouchas, an hour sailing from the mainland of Djibouti, lie the remains of pirate tombs. They date from the 19th century. Already then pirates were a threat to cargo ships in the busy Red Sea lane as they brought their treasures to this coral island.

In the blue-green sea container ships with cargo for hinterland Ethiopia lower their anchor. In the sweltering air flies an American fighter plane which has taken off from Djibouti; a ship from Shanghai sails to the port near the Chinese military base. Sometimes the inhabitants of Djibouti can hear the Saudi air force bombing the coast of Yemen.

Nowhere in Africa are there as many foreign bases situated as in the Horn, and especially in Djibouti military superpowers try to elbow each other out. China has recently gained a solid footing there and Saudi Arabia also wants to set up a base. Turkey and the Arab Emirates established their military support points in the neighboring countries of Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia. Soldiers from all directions of the wind come to this strategic region to combat modern pirates, smugglers, human and arms traffickers and radical Muslims in Yemen and Somalia. Their attempt to control one of the most important seaways is part of a global game of military dominance, by which the barren desert state annually raises millions of dollars. Jokingly the mini-state is sometimes called the International Republic of Djibouti.
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A tribute to the rains


The pungent smell of raindrops in the dust after a long drought can make a Kenyan lyrical. There is a cacophony of mating sounds in the kraals of nomads where they live with their cattle. Sexually aroused donkeys keep the Samburu’s awake. It is raining heavily in Kenya; nature is reborn and every animal wants to reproduce. Six months ago, at the height of the drought crisis, three million Kenyans needed emergency aid.

Now birds chase after the fluttering termites. Fresh flowers smells on the wet earth. Children glide through the mud on their bare buttocks and try to catch the birds. “The world is laughing again”, says the young shepherd Lengai. “With drought, nature is silent, you cannot even hear goats and sheep from a distance anymore. Now they run and jump. Everyone is happy”.

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When police start throwing stones

scannen000001When policemen become rioters. This picture in the Kenyan Standard of the 20th of November shows it all.

On that day the Supreme court declined two petitions to nullify the 26th of October repeat elections, won by sitting president Uhuru Kenyatta with 98 percent of the vote. The opposition under Raila Odinga refused to participate.

The electoral scene is most likely now going to switch from the court room to the streets: Jubilations in the case of Kenyatta’s supporters, demo’s in opposition areas.

Violence got dirtier this weekend. First, several people died when Odinga was welcomed at the airport by his supporters. His supporters that day also allegedly attacked cars owned by Kikuyu’s, seen as supporters of Kenyatta. As a revenge, presumably members of the Mungigi Kikuyu sect attacked Luo supporters of Odinga in a slum Saturday night.

With this rapid deterioration violence may get out of hand. And going by these pictures, the policy seems not to be neutral anymore.

A democratic muddle

It appeared to be a relapse to 1966, the year in which the democracy in Uganda was given a farewell. The Ugandan army last week surrounded the parliament in Kampala to influence a debate about whether president Museveni, after having been in power for more than 31 years, would rule forever. The last time the people’s representatives were intimidated in such a shameless way was in 1966, when premier Milton Obote sent the army to parliament to enforce the adoption of a new constitution. Early this week skirmishes broke out in parliament, with chairs flying through the air.
In Kenya, in early September, the Supreme Court declared an election result null and void for the first time in African history. This remarkable decision was seen by many as a victory for democracy in Africa, because the judiciary has shown its independence of politicians. But since then, part of the Kenyan political class has done everything in its power to undermine the judges. “We will fix them”, president Kenyatta fulmined about the Supreme Court judges, who he called “thugs”. The opposition uses similar language. Raila Odinga called the president “a madman”. There is a danger now that Kenya will fall back to the days of chaos that followed the elections in late 2007. “Kenya stands on the edge of the precipice,” wrote the Star Thursday in a special editorial.
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How fear and violence became part of elections in Kenya

Election violence 2007/8 Phot Petterik Wiggers

Women of the Nandi and the Luo no longer want to wash their clothes together in the River of Lions, the river dividing their tribal areas. Because of the forthcoming elections, tensions between their tribes have risen to boiling point.

“I see signs of violence,” says Atieno Atito, teacher in the village of Kopere on the right bank. To the right of the river, on the plains of Lake Victoria, live the Luo’s, to the left in the hills live the Nandi’s. Every day Atito sees Luo’s with trucks full of household goods departing from Nandi dominated area. In schools and churches in Kopere, preparations are made for the reception of displaced persons.

“They are different from us,” Atito points out to a hill across the river. “They are voting for the government party of President Uhuru Kenyatta, we are for the party of opposition leader Raila Odinga. These people at the other side of the river think that in a democracy the winners take all, including our fields. That’s why, since the introduction of the multi-party system, Kenya has no longer known peace.”
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God has lost the key to make rain in Turkana

Turkana areaA dark cloud emerges above the cruel landscape of sand, stones, rocks and thorny bushes. On the plains as dry as cardboard live the last hardened cattle nomads. “The pattern of the blood vessels on the intestines of a goat we slaughtered yesterday show that there are still a few showers coming”, the tribal elder Muchu points to the cloud. Muchu belongs to Turkana, tribal people living in this extreme northwestern corner of Kenya around the borders of South Sudan and Ethiopia. Again, the rainy season has failed in most parts of Kenya this year. One drought has come on top of the other, for years now. In inhospitable areas like here, the nomads have come to a standstill because of climate change.

Maybe one car a day travels to the hamlet of Lokamarinyang, there are no roads but tracks. Children with little blubber buttocks pray for food or water, the elderly have protruding chests and legs like sticks. “Look at our mouths”, points an elder to his lip ring. “Did we have tea this morning? Our women and children eat the hides of carcasses”.

A group of slow-moving men sits down on boulders under an acacia tree. They talk about old days. A crisis that started many decades ago has reached its breaking point. It is not just about the devastating drought of 1960, that the Turkana refer to as Namator (“the time when the bones of camels showed themselves”). Or the one of 1980, or of 2011, or the present one. Due to the culmination of the increasingly occurring droughts, life is hardly possible any more in Turkana. “God has lost the key to making rain,” says a man.
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New tactics of Nigerian army drives Boko Haram away but keeps the population hostage

 Prominent faces on the wanted list

The helicopter lands on a field that is littered with bullets. We have arrived in Gwoza, an area in northeastern Nigeria where only military vehicles can safely reach the cities. In the surrounding countryside, the militias of the Boko Haram terrorist group still prevail. Mostly women live in Gwoza. Their husbands were forced to remain in the countryside, captives of Boko Haram.

Today, the weekly military convoy has arrived with goods. The soldiers also brought new displaced people. “Stand in rows, we must do a body check on you”, a soldier commands the refugees. “Do they really think we may be planning suicides?,” protests Gaji Saida.

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Fighting against the demons created by Boko Haram

kFFatima Akilu

Fatima Akilu

Violent memories rage in their heads, as if possessed by demons. Every night Amina, a young woman, falls into a deep hole. Because two years ago she saw the way her father was beheaded by Boko Haram. She ran away, dragging the headless body and her baby on her back. But in her panic, she fell into a deep pit and lost the child. When she later found it, it was dead. “I cry and I pray. What have I done”, says the young woman.
The psychological trauma of brutal conflict in Africa is huge, but international aid organizations usually do not pay much attention. However in Nigeria that is different, thanks to a special Nigerian woman, Fatima Akilu. She founded the Neem Foundation last year and together with twenty psychologists she attempts to fight trauma caused by the war. “It’s a drop in an ocean, because there are hundreds of thousands with memories of atrocities,” she says.
They are sitting on an orange mat in an unfinished house in Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, the Nigerian state ravaged for eight years by Boko Haram. The groups terrorizes civilians and commits both huge material and mental damage.

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The child captives of Boko Haram: “Suddenly we were all alone”

Ontheemde kinderen in MaiduguriWe agreed to meet at the zoo in Maiduguri. There, the two girls aged nine and seventeen and the thirteen-year-old boy feel comfortable talking about their captivity under Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group which in eight years killed an estimated 20,000 civilians and drove millions more from their homes. The face of the nine-year-old girl gets tense and she moves evasively as she remembers the strokes of the whip. The boy holds his hand on his throat during his story about an execution. The seventeen-year-old avoids eye contact when she talks about her rape. They are the victims, but could they also be the perpetrators?
Every loud noise seems to cut into their soul. Like the helicopters of the Nigerian government army which take off from Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno. The population has doubled to two million because of people fleeing for Boko Haram. Nobody travels outside the city without military escort.
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Pygmies: How the oldest people of the world became the poorest of the poorest

Bernard Wewela teaches how to climb a tree to fetch spinage(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Winding rivers make their way through the rainforest. A fisherman casts his net into the steaming brown stream. “U-aah, u-aah” comes from the river’s edge, primal sounds of the Pygmies in the jungle. This is one of oldest communities in Africa, dating from the times when people lived solely by hunting and gathering plants. The Pygmies, or BaAka as they call themselves in the Central African Republic, live in the Congo basin along the equator.

The visitor must first be cleansed of bad village spirits. The BaAka never used to live in villages but rather stayed with their family throughout the year as nomads in the jungle. There they felt safe and secure and had enough food. After their expulsion from the forest by loggers, poachers and farmers, village life meant deep poverty, alcohol and discrimination. The old man Bernard Wewela throws leaves in a circle, the young people begin to beat their branches on the ground. “Buu-uu, buu-uu”, they call. “We drive out the bad energy of the contaminated village life.”
Wewela teaches young people from the village the secrets of the forest during a trip over several days. Wewela resides most of his time in the village. Reluctantly. Because after their dramatic expulsion from the jungle the BaAka live as outcasts, the village life has heralded their demise.
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Is nature conservation in Africa ‘a big white lie’

Dzanga Sangha(Photo Petterik Wiggers)


Photo Petterik Wiggers

Colorful butterflies flutter in the few rays of sunlight that penetrate the bottom of the humid jungle. At a water hole where two days ago poachers killed a forest elephant the stench of rotting flesh fills in the air. The biological cycle is particularly fast here; the poached animal has already for the most part been devoured by soldier ants and other insects. “This is the heart of the Congo Basin”, says German biologist John Kirchgatter, “this area is unique for its biodiversity”. John Kirchgatter works for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
A little further on a gorilla with a bulging belly sits leaning against a tree picking his ear. Attentively he follows his females who are eating leaves nearby. He coughs, then they answer. When there is no response, he calls “hu hu”, followed by threatening strikes on his chest. The wildlife park Dzanga Sangha is a haven for biologists and an abattoir for poachers.
Photo Petterik Wiggers

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‘One day there will be an uprising in Kenya. Things have to change’

Robert 'Rowbow'Ochola(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola(Photo Petterik Wiggers)


With a new constitution since 2010 and with social media as a new tool for communication, Kenyan politics has been re-energised. But tribes and old political blocks still dominate the political discourse. Will there be space for young and independent candidates in the general election in August? Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola is as real as they come; a man from a hood in Nairobi. He is as poor as his voters.

“People are angry”, he says, “They are not happy with the beneficiaries of theft, corruption and shoddy dealings in the government. One day there will be an uprising, an uprising by the poor majority who also want a piece of the cake.

An interview:

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The invading cows can’t be stopped anymore

drought in Samburu district(Photo Koert Lindijer)

The gate stands wide open and the fence is destroyed on this normally heavily guarded farm. At the entrance there are some empty cartridges. No landowner can resist the invasion of the mooing cows and the government seems powerless. The stubborn cattle nomads of Kenya show their strength originating from an archaic past, when they were the strongest power in a large territory. Faced with a severe drought, the nomads and their herds have occupied large tracts of private land in the Laikipia region around the equator.
Dust clouds hang above everything that moves in the country. In their rivalry for the last grass and water humans and livestock as well as elephants and giraffes pulverize the fragile soil with their feet. “Yes, it is possible that the owner of this farm holds the title deed,” smirks a nomad of the Samburu who has invaded the farm. “Yes, he has the title deed, but I have the soil. If you are sitting in a protected place in the shade and I sit on a bare rock in the sun, I have the right to come and sit with you.” He points into the distance. “See that smoke over there? Go there. Let the smoke tell the story.”
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Gambia, a country of slaves, sex tourism, alcohol and peanuts

-6Tens of thousands of European tourists come to Gambia annually, while thousands of Gambians leave for Europe illegally. The number of Dutch tourists in particular is large. “Would the Dutch and British holidaymakers stay away, then the economy goes kaput,” says Marc van Maldegem, manager of the Kombo beach hotel near the capital Banjul. Welcome to “the smiling coast of Africa”, as Gambia advertises itself to tourists.
Welcome to the most unreal country in Africa, a monster of colonial history. The smallest country in mainland Africa is also one of the poorest. Therefore Gambians look elsewhere. “I will marry only with a Gambian in Europe, only then will I be assured of a good future,” says a girl in Bintang, a village located a hundred kilometers inland.

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Jammeh left in dignity leaving his tormented victims behind


A red carpet was laid out at the airport of Banjul and a brass band played. That is how Yahya Jammeh was escorted out of the Gambia on Saturday night January 21. The dictator, with an oversized ego and a childish love for cars, wanted to take one of his Rolls-Royces with him, but the new president Adama Barrow put a stop to that.

The dignified departure of Jammeh from Gambia after 22 years was made possible by international negotiators. After his pledge Friday January 20 on television that he would resign – he had his rule extended after his election defeat by a declaration of a three-month state of emergency – yet he refused to immediately leave the country. He succeeded to get a good deal with the negotiators of the UN, the African Union and the regional grouping ECOWAS. A document of the three organizations praises Jammeh for its goodwill and statesmanship.

In the village of Tujereng, forty kilometers south of the capital, five torture victims throw their hands in the air -out of disbelief- when they hear about the document. “How is it possible that he could leave this way?”, says an old man called Ibrahim Jaban. “I want to do to him what he did with me. I want to kill him.” Jaban lost an eye and broke his shoulder blade during torture.
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Only a strong judiciary can guarantee progress in 2017

Willy Mutunga and Al Capone(the Star)

Money does the talking in Africa, now that the continent is growing fast. Increasingly cartels and mafias are taking charge. Leaders can act with impunity. I will therefore in 2017 closely follow the beleaguered presidents of Gambia and Congo, because they will only resign if they get a guarantee from their successors that they may take their riches amassed through corruption with them. And that they will not have to stand trial for their actions.


Justice forges a nation, but these rights are still missing. The biggest challenge for Africa remains the development of an independent judiciary. Judges are the last hope for justice. As in South Africa, where ombudswoman Thuli Madonsela bravely continued to dig into corruption by president Zuma. She has resigned and it will in part depend on her successor whether South Africa remains a democracy, or it will become a nation of thieves as Congo is. If a citizen feels disenfranchised, he turns away from the state. Corruption in the judiciary is destroying the whole fabric of society, a process of erosion which threatens to unravel Congo this year.


Like Thuli Madonsela the Kenyan Willy Mutunga resigned last year. The Chief Justice of Kenya tried to tackle corruption in its own judicial system. He described himself as someone who tries to tame a tiger while the beast is trying to devour him. Courts can be a counterforce to the cartels. If that fight has been won, maybe democracy has a chance. Mutunga want to hand over the banner to a young, digital generation to keep watch. He has hope for citizen groups such as is in Senegal and Burkina Faso, which have ousted presidents. And civil society activists in Congo, which agitate against the entire political class. Is a new pan African civil movement emerging?


The law often brought no justice in the past. Capital punishment for murder? That one you bought off with $ 500. Accused of rape? That remedied you with $ 250. Why would you pay for a lawyer if you can bribe a judge? The result was that no one believed in judges any more, the last resort for a citizen if there is no democracy and freedom of press.


In Africa the greatest population explosion ever unfolds. Three quarters of Africans are young people and the authorities have not succeed in creating enough opportunities for them. After more than half a century of independence a strong state and economy are still unrealized goals. Strong economic growth in recent years has not lead to better politics.


Will the political class excel again by opportunism in 2017? Will the confused Robert Mugabe keep on wetting his pants? Will the Zimbabwean president depart or will he stand again? Will the magic witchdoctor of Gambia go or stay? In the soap opera that has become of African politics only a strong independent judiciary can provide a guarantee for progress.

Can robots in Congo bring order where humans fail?

Congo river at Kinshasa facing Brazaville


The Botswana diplomat politely presents his passport at Kinshasa airport. He is startled when the customs official slaps it down on the desk with a bang. “That is a false visa. Come with me to the police.” Forged visas are indeed issued by corrupt employees working at Congolese embassies in Africa. But the distinguished diplomat, who is in Kinshasa to do some training, is merely a victim of bad luck: the date on his perfectly-legal visa is incorrect. Welcome to Kinshasa, probably the most intimidating capital on the continent.

The chaos starts outside the airport – sometimes it is the kind of friendly disorder that characterizes any informal society, sometimes it is cruel, planned disorganization, which leaders use to stay on top. On the wide main road to the city of 12 million people, honking cars swerve wildly into the path of oncoming traffic to avoid the snarl-ups. The police do nothing, focusing instead on beating up a driver who refused to pay a bribe.

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The pearls in the mud of Congo

Kinshasa Photo Johannes Dieterich

In the narrow, muddy streets of Masina, one of Kinshasa’s popular quarters, the sound of rumba blends with hysterical singing from Pentecostal churches; the stench of rotting garbage is peppered with the smell of marijuana. By the site of a clogged sewer, women seated under umbrellas sell fresh pineapples, a man with a tray of eggs on his head steps over a drunk guy. On a wall is written boma biso, Lingala for “Kill us.”

There’s not an inch of space to spare in the crowd. A young man grabs me by my shirt. “What do you want here, are you looking for Filimbi”, he shouts. He’s a government spy, one of many to be found on the streets of the Congolese capital of 12 million inhabitants. Despite the official ban on demonstrations, Filimbi, a citizen group, plans a demonstration in Masina today, demanding the departure of president Joseph Kabila. But the secret agents begin arresting the protesters before they can shout “Kabila must go”. “We are not frightened by this repression anymore,” cries one Filimbi activist before taking to his heels. “We are ready to die.”
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The threat of genocide

South Sudan, Juba, July 9, 2011

The discourse about South Sudan these days is whether a genocide is in the making. The discussion is not about politics, not about power struggles, and certainly not about the development of the country. More and more horrors are being reported. Tribal hatred boils over.

Genocide requires a good organization, as was the case in 1994 in Rwanda. The authorities in South Sudan show themselves hopelessly incompetent in ruling the country. So when they really would want to have a genocide it is questionable that they can organize one. But in massacres they are highly skilled, as in 2013 when thousands Nuers were killed by soldiers of Dinka descent. And the opposition has shown itself to be capable of mass killings as well, see what happened in retaliation against Dinka’s in Bor and Bentiu in early 2014.
So it remains an academic debate whether or not a genocide is imminent. The number of large massacres is already frightening.

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Once more thousands threatened by drought in Kenya

Samburu area near Wamba

In traffic this morning a mighty bull caught up with me. The throbbing cars were soon surrounded by skinny beasts, a long tongue licked salt from my side mirror. The open window at times let the sweet aroma of cow dung in, until a swirling cloud of dust made me to close the window.
Once more the cattle from the neighboring Maasai people invade the outskirts of Nairobi, looking for the last lush greenery around filthy sewers, or for sprinkled flowers in public lawns or gardens of the rich. The usually agitated motorists gracefully give way to the cattle. For Kenya, as well as large parts of East Africa, is on the verge of a new burning drought. According to the Kenyan Red Cross already 1.3 million Kenyans are going hungry, a number that may increase to 2.5 million in the coming months.

It is the season of the jacaranda. In a desperate attempt to survive this tree with blue-purple flowers drops its seeds just before the rains and creates a colored carpet on the streets. The flame tree, an Australian tree with red plumes, is ablaze. Normally these trees announce the spring after many dry months, but this time the weather services predict the failure of the rainy season. Kenyans are preparing for disaster.
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Let the horror begin

Daily Nation

“Let the horror begin”.

That may be a good summary of the reactions in Africa regarding the victory of Donald Trump.

Where Obama was Africa’s hero, Trump is seen as a racist.

My shocked sister in law jokingly but with a serious undertone said she expects me to send a rapid intervention force from Kenya to evacuate her family from the US.

Fears of mass deportation of Africans from the US looms more than ever, writes a Kenyan American in the Daily Nation. There are roughly 1.8 million African immigrants in the US, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research centre, with the number doubling every decade, writes Macharia Gaitho in the Daily Nation. Trump’s threat to deport all illegal immigrants was a message that no doubt was badly received by both the African diaspora in the US and Africans in Africa. It was seen as based on exploitation of latent racism in the US, and that sought to capitalise on white resentment off two term Barrack Obama, a much loved man in Africa.

Africa did not feature at all in Trump’s campaign, only in references Obama’s roots in Kenya.

In Nigeria Bolaji Akinyemi, a professor of political science, described Mr. Trump’s victory as a worrisome development, according to the Premium Times.

Mr. Akinyemi, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, said: “It brings uncertainty into international politics because the world now has to deal with a man who is inexperienced, does not understand the complexities of international politics and has no respect for anyone who is not white or American; I think that is dangerous.

“There has always been an ugly side to the U.S. just as there is with every country in the world but the good side in the U.S. has always prevailed so that in tackling American problems, the interests of the U.S. are not defined in antagonism to the interest of the whole world.

“But this victory of Trump is a victory of the ugly side of the U.S.”

Dapo Fafowora, former Nigerian ambassador to the UN, said Mr. Trump’s victory was a lesson to Nigerians and Africans to remain in and contribute to the development of their countries.

He added that “there is nothing in his background to suggest he has any durable interest in Africa.

Trump’s victory may give a push to populist nationalists in Africa. “I think it is a lesson for Nigerians; people should stay here and make contributions in developing our country.

“I think it is a good development for Africa that we should look inwards and try to develop ourselves without relying on any major economic power.”

African presidents all did send congratulations to Trump. Only the Liberian president could not hide her feelings.

Liberia’s President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says she is disappointed that Hillary Clinton did not win the US elections.

In an interview with the BBC, Africa’s first democratically elected female president said: “We are extremely saddened by this missed opportunity on the part of the people of the United States to join smaller democracies in ending the marginalization of women”. At least some honesty here.

Biggest question off course is whether Africa will develop its own version of a Trump. Where Europe has already got its own Trumps in France and the Netherlands, Africa still does not have many. But don’t be fooled, in Africa many politicians come up with a lot of rhetoric, little substance, a lot of lies and show their illegal acquired wealth as proof of their capacity to lead. Africa will not be immune to populists.

Columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo concludes in the Nation: Now in Africa, we are not about to have a Trump(although the venality and cruelty of some of our leaders are probably worse), simply because elections are stolen or there is repression. But eventually, as we have seen recently in Ethiopia, the dams of anger will still burst.







Fifteen years ago, a deadly silence descended on Eritrea


Issayas Aferworki in 1986 in the bush. Photo Koert Lindijer

Issayas Aferworki in 1986 in the bush. Photo Koert Lindijer

The Eritrean exile Dawit Mesfin is a bitter man. “There is no news at all of the prisoners”, he says from London. “They have totally been isolated in secret detention since their arrest fifteen years ago. That is an extremely cruel measure against Eritreans who sacrificed everything for the liberation of their country”.

Mesfin is still affected about what happened on the morning of September 18, 2001 in the capital Asmara. President Isayas Afeworki on that day committed fratricide. He put 23 critical senior government politicians and soldiers behind bars – all comrades of the thirty-year liberation struggle – as well as twelve prominent journalists. “Of the twelve journalists, we think, five are still alive,” said Abraham Zere, another Eritrean exile. “The last survivors wait in jail for death to come”.

The arrests ushered in a period of repression without end. Eritrea is at the bottom of the world list of press freedom, it has never held elections since its independence in 1993. Almost thousand youngsters flee the country every week.
Zere calls it “a chilly police state where fear has been implanted in people’s genes”. Independent researchers and journalists rarely get permission to visit the country, so the scant information usually comes only from exiles.

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South Sudanese run away from their new nation

A small van from South Sudan enters Uganda with a group of refugees. All of them are children. “The South Sudanese army stops the men coming out”, the driver says, “they cannot leave the country”.

It’s eleven o’clock in the Ugandan border town of Elegu and four hundred South Sudanese have arrived since sunrise. Since the civil war erupted again in July in Southern Sudan, hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed the border. Many others fled to Ethiopia and Kenya, bringing the total to one million.

South Sudan has already one and a half million displaced citizens. Half the population of twelve million cannot live without food aid. The UN call it an emergency.

Rural dwellers from just across the border tell of their fear for South Sudanese government soldiers. They go from house to house and pick up young men they accuse of supporting rebels. They also tell of looting by the army, about undisciplined rebels and robbers who attack food trucks.

“Everywhere armed men scour the country side”, says farmer Sunday Ngawana. Their enemy is the civilian population. “One group first stole everything from my house, then a other group took off with the leftover stuff when I escaped to Uganda”.
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Who tells the African story?


The Ugandan poet Harriet Anena crawls from the stage and -groaning- invites a spectator to undress her. Anena performs a stage adaptation of her latest book of poetry A Nation in Labour during the literary festival Writivism in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Her sexually abused body is Uganda, her exploiter President Yoweri Museveni. The play – I bow for my boobs – is an example of a vibrant emerging literature in Africa.

Since about ten years everywhere on the continent festivals like Writivism(which was held at the end of August)take place. In Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya but also a festival was recently held in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. And every year there is a book festival in the city of Hargeisa in Somaliland.

African writers suffer a miserable existence. Only in Nigeria and South Africa, the market is big enough for writers to earn a living. “Meetings like Writivism get writers out of their cultural ghettos and give them self-confidence,” says Sumayya Lee, a South African author and co-organizer of the festival in Kampala.


Disinterest of publishers and lack of a distribution network are the biggest problems ambitious writers face. “In South Africa my books are everywhere for sale but not at all on the English-speaking market in Nigeria. So like mules we writers travel with our books on the continent trying to sell them.”

Storytelling plays a central role in ancient tribal cultures. “Africans love stories, the problem is not that Africans do not want to read,” says Lee. Publishers focus on producing profitable school textbooks, they’re not looking for literary talent. Governments or large commercial companies refuse to invest in the development of writing skills, as is the case in the rich West.


Schools don’t stimulate literature either. “Our school curriculum is for drilling kids, not to stimulate their creativity,” says Kenyan teacher and writer Gloria Mwaniga Minage, who released her beautiful short story Boyi at Writivism. In African schools the great heroes of the African literature of the sixties are taught, such as the Nigerian Chinua Achebe and the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o. “In their literature the story always revolves around the anti-colonial struggle or the resistance to African dictatorships,” says Mwaniga Minage. “But how can young people identify with literature if it does not touch their world? Issues like sex and technology, these are the things that they are daily dealing with.”

Which literature is relevant for young Africans, who make up three quarters of the population on the continent? During Writivism the authors discussed about their role. “Some of us ponder how to write in order to win a European award,” says the Kenyan writer Stanley Gazemba, who wrote three novels and eight children’s books since 2003. “From our income we can not make ends meet, so to organize these festivals we have to talk to white donors. So should we also please them? Some writers manipulate their story to make it fit the mindset of the Europeans.”


The most famous and best-selling African writers live most of the year outside the continent, like Binyavanga Wainana, Taiye Selasi and Chimamanda Adichie. “Those celebrities can not tell our African story” sneers Stanley Gazemba. “The heart beat of the continent is in our slums and villages. You can not peep though a keyhole at Africa from a luxury position in Europe or America and then claim that you write African literature. That is voyeurism. They do not represent our continent.”

Photo’s: Sumayya Lee, Gloria Mwaniga Minage and Stanley Gazemba

Sugar daddies are on the rise

Rwanda, around Kigali, September 2012 Girls at a private school.  Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos PicturesRwanda, around Kigali, September 2012
Girls at a private school. They say that all their friends have sugar daddies
Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures

Boys loiter at their usual hang out on the outskirts of a slum in Nairobi, when an expensive SUV stops. A young woman – flashy dressed, bright lipstick, high heels – walks on the muddy path to the car as the door swings open. “Lucky Devil”, the boys say. They know they have no chance with Sarah, because she has a relationship with a rich man, her sugar daddy.

Sarah’s friend and fellow student is called Kali. She is jealous. “I want a sugar daddy too,” she whines. “I also want to live a good life. I have so many friends with sugar daddies.”
A financial sponsor of an older age, who in exchange for sex and other entertainment provides a younger girl with what she needs: that’s a sugar daddy in Africa. Or a blesser, as these sponsors are called in South Africa. This relationship between young and old is also called generational or transactional sex.

Sugar daddies are not a new phenomenon, but there are on the rise. In the Liberian capital, Monrovia, I once saw a girl in a ragged T-shirt branding the inscription “Your boyfriend is my ATM”. In South Africa girls are looking on special websites for their blessers. “The phenomenon is increasing in both urban and rural areas,” says Kopano Ratele, an influential psychologist and professor at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences in Cape Town.

A study in Kenya earlier this year done by the communications company Well Told Story shows that two out of three respondents have no problem if someone has a secret wealthy lover. One in three does himself have such a “sponsor”.

In neighboring Tanzania previous research shows that a majority of both young people and their parents find transactional sex acceptable. “Girls want security, they want a good providing partner. Therefore they turn towards sugar daddies. They want to be independent of men”, says Maura, a Kenyan student of 25 years. “The problem for us guys is how can we compete with rich and experienced sugar daddies. Can we do better than them in sex?”

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Deep rooted historic schism fuels the fighting in South Sudan

Monday 18th of July:

After the serious fighting that took place around the fifth independence anniversary of South Sudan on the 9th of July some calm has been restored. But all the parties are sharpening their knives once more. The White Army, traditional Nuer forces, is preparing to march on Juba, former rebel leader and Vice-president Riëk Machar is hiding south of Juba, and the government soldiers with maybe their Ugandan allies are willing to go after him. When the resolution of the Igad Plus countries yesterday to send in peace keeping troops is not implemented soon, it is very likely that there will be another round of fighting soon.


Let the battle beginLet the battle begin


Deeply rooted tribal schism underlies the conflict which flared up in July between on one side President Salva Kiir and his ally, army chief Paul Malong – both belonging to the Dinka ethnic group – and their Nuer rival, Vice President Riek Machar. Under the direction of these leaders South Sudan in the past five years has become a land of hatred and revenge. A young nation that is poisoned by feelings of tribal superiority.

“Dinka’s right,” “left Nuer. Even the signs to the UN camp in Malakal did not hide this tribal xenophobia when thousands of displaced people poured in after the outbreak of the first civil war in December 2013. In a UN camp in the capital Juba Nuers saw as the only solution a last fight to the death with the Dinka.

In a displaced persons camp near Bentiu Dinka and Nuers live strictly separated. Nyakuoth, mother of six children, had just removed the mud that entered last night into her hut of plastic sheeting, when I spoke to her. “The Dinka have destroyed my house. They murder us”, she said. They, that are the government soldiers. Nyakuoth did not dare to go outside the camp. “We will be killed if they do to us that quite terrible thing.” She meant rape.
The deep tribal hatred feeds the atrocities. A South Sudanese aid worker, who lived through the decades-long war of independence against (North) Sudan: “The difference with the war against the Arabs is that the supporters of President Kiir also go the countryside to destroy civilians. A war in which civilians are targeted, is a tribal war”.
Therefore, hospitals are burned down in areas of a rival tribe, are grandmothers being raped and children are slain. From the point of human rights the war in South Sudan has become one of the most brutal conflicts on the continent.

Southern Sudan has for centuries been oppressed and exploited by the Arabized north. From the beginning of 1800 onwards there were two million black slaves sold on the market in the northern capital Khartoum. South Sudanese of diverse tribes live together in an extremely rugged and inaccessible area with hardly any infrastructure and without any modern development. Before the arrival of the Arabs they lived peacefully together but the slave trade distributed that peaceful coexistence.

There were tribal conflicts during the first war against the north (1956-1972) and the second (1983-2003). In the interest of the fight against the common enemy they were however settled. Nevertheless from the two million dead in the second war most were victims of the conflict between South Sudanese themselves.

During the second war in the bush all kinds of opportunistic military alliances were formed, which were solidified by marriages and exchange of livestock. Now Army chief and then warlord Paul Malong dominated his region of Bahr el Ghazal, a dominance that he perpetuated by being godfather (and sponsor) of many young couples. Thus he became godfather of President Salva Kiir. Malong recently paid the bride price for the presidents new young wife. Such clan and tribal commitments determine the dynamics of how South Sudanese deal with each other, how they group themselves during conflict and how political alliances are being formed. “A primitive form of tribalism that barely exists elsewhere in Africa anymore,” says a South Sudanese minister. “That’s because the South Sudanese were separated by the war and lived isolated from the outside world.”

Many generations of South Sudanese have been living in tight tribal structures, and they know only violence with other tribes. “All South Sudanese are traumatized, high to low,” lamented a pastor last year. “Fighting it appears is the only way to get that trauma out of the way.”

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Photo Petterik Wiggers

The landscape has turned naked and brittle

 -1 in de plantage met op de achtergrond een boom van het oerbos

Vet Roland Suluku rides every day over scorched earth with the bike owned by his local priest. “The country is getting warmer and poorer,” he says about his working visits to the rural villages of Sierra Leone. “Rain forests almost entirely covered my country thirty years ago, now they are almost nonexistent.”

Up to the mountains and to the horizon, everything is blackened. The landscape shimmers and lacks the sounds of birds and crickets. Having all been put to flames by farmers who practice shifting cultivation.

A trail of empty plastic hard liquor sachets leads to a patch of forest. “Traditional hunters” sighs Suluku. Hunters, farmers, logging companies and diamond prospectors penetrate deeper inside the already depleted rainforests. But nature strikes back as the invaders come out of the forest with dangerous diseases. Viruses such as HIV/AIDS, Chikungunya fever, West Nile fever, Rift Valley Fever, Dengue, and Ebola Marlburg have emerged in the last century from the animals in the woods.

Deforestation is perilous. The famous Frenchman Louis Pasteur(born 1822), the father of microbiology of the microorganisms, predicted it: “The microbes will have the last word.”

A century ago, in West Africa most areas of the coast and further inland were dazzling green. British writer Graham Greene describes travelling in the region in his book “Journey Without Maps” published in 1936 as going through “a green tunnel with no end.” All those woods made him claustrophobic, in panic he began “thinking about things to think about.” Further eastward three hundred years earlier Dutch entrepreneurs plowed for weeks through scarcely penetrable forest in search of gold and slaves.

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A crisis is emerging in the fight against Aids

A crisis is emerging in Africa in the fight against HIV because of increasing resistance to the most commonly used antiretroviral(ARV) drugs. “The problem is very serious. In our hospital we see more and more patients who after several years of treatment develop resistance to the medicine against the HIV virus”, says internist Furaha Lyamuya. He works at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC), a regional referral hospital in Moshi, a small Tanzanian town at the foot of the Kilimanjaro. “In the hospital we can only see the tip of the iceberg. In the countryside there is fear, because many patients have already died because of the failure of antiretroviral therapy.”

The experience with the failing antiretroviral therapy in KCMC is confirmed in a study conducted in 36 countries between 1998 and 2015. Based on that research, the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases(May 2016 issue)  publishes an important article about increasing resistance to one of the most widely used antiretroviral, tenofovir.

Co-author of that article is the Dutch fellow infectious diseases Raph Hamers, affiliated with the Department of Global Health of the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. He is stationed at KCMC for several months as part of his research on HIV therapy resistance in Africa. “Treatment fails in one out of five HIV patients in Africa, and in six out of ten of them it is because the virus has become resistant to tenofovir.”

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How a village in Sierra Leone fought effectively against Ebola long before the aid workers arrived


Devils dance madly among the rattling inhabitants of the village of Njala Giema in Sierra Leone. The spirits, who are masked and draped with colourful strings of beads, press their pelvises suggestively against the visitors to welcome them. These rainforests where the three borders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea meet, formed the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic which swept across West Africa from the end of 2013, killing 11,300 people.

The epidemic is still not completely under control. But residents of Njala Giema managed to bring the disease under control long before international aid workers dressed in moon suits took action.

What did the locals do right, what did the foreigners do wrong? How can Sierra Leone better defend itself against a possible future epidemic? With these questions in mind, researchers from the universities of Wageningen in the Netherlands and Njala in Sierra Leone travelled to Njala Giema. With financial support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs they want to research and learn lessons of the indigenous response to the Ebola epidemic, because the international response fell so far short in what was needed.

The welcome ritual belongs the visible world. But who hide behind those devil masks? These are the invisible village leaders. The ancient secret societies in the rainforests of West Africa maintain a parallel power structure, an essential part of the daily management of a well-organized society. But invisible to anyone outside of the village.

DSC01286Devil dancer in Nyala Ngiema

This morning the spirit of an old village man departed this earth. Although everybody is aware of this nobody weeps because his death is not yet official. First, the chief Musa Kallon and members of the secret society will perform the proper rites, so that the deceased makes a peaceful transition to the afterlife. Without touching the body an Ebola test is taken. “That lesson we have learned,” said Musa Kallon. “Soon after the beginning of the outbreak, I told my people not to touch dead bodies and not to shake hands. We took those measures because there were no aid workers. “

DSC01397The play begins

Today in the community hall the villagers perform a play that will show how the epidemic struck Njala Giema. Tears appear in the eyes of the chief when weeping women throw themselves on a fictional Ebola corpse. Musa Kallon’s wife was one of the first victims. Spectators look sombre, the devil dancers do not move, the play has become real. The village has 500 inhabitants, 89 were in 2014 infected by Ebola, of whom 68 died.

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Anas Aremeyaw Anas: My anonymity is my strength

Anas Aremeyaw Anas in Accra 26th of March 2016

He is a world-famous journalist but can’t show his face. To make an appointment one has to use different telephone numbers and go to a secret place in the Ghanaian capital Accra. Then suddenly he stands before me, without a mask. He turns out not to be a very flamboyant man, with his thick glasses he resembles rather the nerd of the school class than the hero of the people. Anas Aremeyaw Anas shows himself to be a real Batman. 

“I fight against the bad guys”, he says while he puts his wig with curly hair on for the interview and his mask with beads hanging from the front.  During the meeting my eyesight pierces through the beads. Anas excuses himself: “I want to be left to tell the next story. Because I do undercover work, I want to keep my anonymity. That has always been my secret weapon, it helps me to get into places and nobody recognises me”. 

Anus has many different appearances since he started work as a undercover journalist in 1999. He dressed like a rock to film smuggling activities along the border. And he acted like a madman to report on abuses in a psychiatric institution. He behaved like a beggar to catch money extorting policemen, or dressed up like an American oil worker in the Middle East to unmask a syndicate of dealers in the sex industry.

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Jirmo, a Kenyan game warden who did his masters on the disappearing lions


Tuqa Jirmo Huqa Tuqa Jirmo HuqaIMG_0868
The lion, a symbol of Africa’s raw wilderness, is disappearing rapidly. The number of lions in Kenya stands at 2000, in the seventies there were 20 000, more than half a century ago 100 000.  Less than 20 000 lions remain in the African wild. Tuqa Jirmo Huqa is the first Kenyan who graduated on the subject of lions. Last year in his final dissertation at Leiden University in the Netherlands Jirmo highlights the impact of climate change on wildlife. “There used to be one drought every ten years, now they’re three”, he says.Jirmo works for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a government organization. He leads a group of 450 armed rangers in the 4000 square kilometer Meru Park. The park differs from other game parks in Kenya because of its dense thickets. “This is what the African savannah looked like a long time ago”, says Jirmo. “The original ecosystem has hardly been affected by invading cattle, tourists and other people.”Humans however transformed the landscapes outside the park. The first major challenge for Meru Park can be seen higher up on the densely populated slopes around Mount Kenya. What is more important: the drug mirra (khat) or wild animals? Rainwater for wildlife on the savannah below is increasingly diverted for cultivation in the highlands for the soft drug. The descending road to the plains of sand and rocks below is surrounded by houses and fields, right to the entrance of Meru Park. An electric fence keeps elephants away from the cornfields. Foreign tourists will pay a hefty $ 70 for a day in the wilderness. {read more…}

Kenya is faced with home-grown muslim extremism

Ahmed (32) joined the islamic terrorist movement al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia two years ago. His sister Halima has not heard from him since. “Fortunately,” she says in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. “Al-Shabaab will only make contact if your family member has arrived in heaven.”

Ahmed is one of the hundreds of young people in Kenya who have become radicalized in recent years. Most come from Mombasa, or from the slums of Nairobi. “Al-Shabaab recruits them to carry out terrorist attacks in Somalia and increasingly in Kenya itself,” says social worker Phyllis Muema. Muema, who heads Kecosce, a group in Mombasa trying to dissuade youngsters from their radical ideas, calls it “an explosive situation.”

Mombasa has become a hotbed of extremism. About a quarter of the Kenyan population is Muslim. Most live at the coast and in the northeast of the country, in the region bordering Somalia. When the first major terrorist attack took place in Kenya – in 1998 by Al-Qaeda on the US Embassy in Nairobi – the perpetrators were merely foreigners. Now Kenya is faced with home-grown Muslim extremism. President Kenyatta labelled this terror recently as “a threat to the survival of the nation”.

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Kenya has become a “bandit economy”, says Chief Justice Willy Mutunga


According to Kenya’s chief justice, Willy Mutunga, the country’s citizens are at war with mafia-style cartels run by political bosses and corrupt businesspeople. He says that Kenya harbours mafia-style criminals similar to Al Capone’s mob in 1920s America, and that this “cartel collects millions every day”.

In a recent interview with Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, the respected Mutunga claims that corruption stretches from the very bottom to the very top of society. He says, for instance, that a Kenyan policeman who extorts a bribe from a motorist must share the booty with the head of the local station, who in turn shares the money with superiors possibly all the way up to police chiefs in Nairobi. Larger cartels, he explains, make money through trafficking illegal migrants, counterfeit money, weapons, drugs and consumer goods.

Mutunga, 69, has been nicknamed ‘the Robin Hood of the Kenyan judiciary’. The son of a tailor, he rose up the system through talent and sheer determination. Previously a left-wing academic, he stood up against the dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi, leading to Mutunga’s dismissal from the university and a prison sentence in 1982. After the end of Kenya’s one-party state in 1991, Mutunga became president of the Law Society of Kenya and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. After the election violence of 2007/8, which claimed more than a thousand casualties, Kenyans demanded fundamental reforms. Mutunga was made Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court and was tasked with reorganising the judiciary. The heads of corrupt judges began to roll.

Nevertheless, Mutunga claims corruption in Kenya has never been worse than today.

“The influence of the cartels is overwhelming,” he says. “They are doing illegal business with politicians. If we do not fight the cartels, we become their slaves. But leaders who do take on the cartels must be prepared to be killed or exiled.”

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The bathroom of Kenya in trouble: will climate change destroy Kenya’s tea?


His gaggling geese flee from the water that wildly flows from the battered forests. “Before”, points the old farmer Alfred Soi threateningly to the Mau summit above, “before, when were young, tribal elders warned us that destruction of these forest leads to the destruction of life. Why is it that politicians cannot see that? I wish I could curse them.”

The region of Kericho, in the southwest of the country, is the main tea growing zone of Kenya. Hundreds of workers on the rolling hills pick the leaves from the bushes. A car dangling sacks of jute makes its way through the mud and down the slope. The produce is weighed in the valleys. In the food kiosks in the town of Kericho everyone drinks tea. Almost a century ago the colonialists founded the first plantations. The zone at the foot of the mountain proved ideal for this. Tea became the green gold of Kenya. But for how long will that be the case?

Tea is Kenya’s main export product. The country is the third largest producer and the first exporter in the world, with two million Kenyans working in the sector. Samson Kamunya is deputy director of the Tea Research Institute just outside the city. “The tea varieties of half a century ago no longer grow. If we do not act, soon there will be no more tea around the Mau. The production is already going down”, he says. His institute observes a temperature rise of around 0.2 degrees each year. And it develops new tea plants to adjust to the climate change. “The climate has become unpredictable. For the first time we experience frost and drought. We had never seen that before.”
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The pope’s first visit to Africa. Kenyans easily go on their knees

Daily Nation

A papal serenity hang in the air. Nairobi became inundated with women with white caps and men with white collars: hundreds of thousands of faithful flocked to the capital for the pope. A usual cynical view of the opportunist Kenyan politics was briefly replaced by a moral worldview. President Uhuru Kenyatta declared in the name of the Holy Father a new war on corruption. The pope watched his solemn declaration, as did the two former presidents Moi and Kibaki, who both were embroiled in major corruption scandals.

Kenyans easily go on their knees and cry out for God for earthly political affairs.

Supporters of Uhuru’s ally, Vice President William Ruto, recently organized weekly prayer services for a divine intervention to save the Vice President of “the neocolonial ICC”, the International Criminal Court. Ruto must defend himself in The Hague against charges of crimes against humanity committed during the election violence in 2007/8. Dozens of parliamentarians, tribal and religious leaders and other supporters of William Ruto raised their hands to heaven every week. Against the backdrop of a poster Ruto full of Bible verses.

“An unbridled form of contempt for the ICC”, called Chile Eboe-Osuji, a judge at the ICC, these prayer meetings. Which must cease immediately, he says. President Uhuru Kenyatta hit back: “No judge can deter Kenyans to pray.”

These prayer meetings fit, says the ICC, into a pattern of harassment. In Kenya one witness involved in the case of Ruto was killed and at least two are missing. The ICC issued arrest warrants against some Kenyans for the bribery of six witnesses for the prosecution against Ruto.

Kenyan and later ICC investigators began work immediately after the election violence in 2008. Uhuru Kenyatta, who was deputy prime minister, could count on the cooperation of the Kenyan secret service. But not Ruto, who was still in the camp of the opposition. So probably much evidence against Ruto was handed over to the investigators while potential evidence against Kenyatta was pilfered. The case against Kenyatta has stopped “for lack of evidence” earlier this year.

Prominent human rights lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria called in a newspaper column the prayers for Ruto contempt of the ICC by Kenya. “The prayers must stop immediately, because they damage the law in Kenya and our international reputation,” wrote the lawyer.

For now, the papal visit, with all it’s blessings and prayers, has polished up Kenya’s international standing .


After the attack in Mali: will increased aid to the Sahel stop terrorism and migrants?

After the recent attack on the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako new international focus will be put on the Sahel region. “Security” will have the prioritiy. In that lurk imminent dangers. A terror group led by the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibiliy for the Raddison siege. The same group attacked the mines of the French company Arewa in Northern Niger in 2013. Will increased aid stop terrorism and the flow of migrants? A report from Niger.


‘Viva Europa! “, the villagers of Kodo cheer. Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, has just visited their village in Niger. Their tribute to Europe does not express the hopes of hundreds of thousands of West Africans for a better future in Europe. No, the villagers praise the sharply increased European aid to Niger. By giving more aid the EU hopes to reduce the breeding ground for terrorism and migration.

But not everyone sees the benefit of it. “You Europeans do not understand Africa”, sneers the Nigerien journalist Boureima Hama. “Migration is big business in Niger, for the police, soldiers, government officials and the government. That you do not stop with additional development. ”

Aid to Africa, and in particular to the countries in the arid Sahel region, is once more high on the international political agenda. The drying region south of the Sahara was in the European perception a vast and remote area with extreme poverty and indigenous rebellions. Bad, but not threatening.

That vision has been adjusted radically within the past two years. The Sahel is now seen in Brussels as a dangerous area on the threshold of Europe. Against this background, the European Development Fund for 2014-2020 has made available almost 600 million Euros for Niger (18 million inhabitants). Western military aid is being increased. The UN sent a peacekeeping force to Mali, France stationed 3,000 soldiers in the region and America delivers drones and military advisers to Niger.

Niger is the main transit country and therefore critical to stem the flow of migrants from West Africa. This year an expected 120 000 immigrants will pass through the country. Last year that number was 80 000. Through the northern city of Agadez, the crossroads of the migrant routes, they migrate to North Africa. A large number tries to stay in Libya and Algeria. Others try to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.

All the migrants are young. Hassan Koroma from Sierra Leone is 21 and wants to study law. “My father lost his job and could not afford my tuition fees. I informed myself on the internet about the route to Europe and my football club collected money for me. With $ 700 I started my journey”,he says in the Nigerien capital Niamey.
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A revolution in Maasai land: the great alternative rite of passage

 Photography Anja Ligtenberg

Pink and yellow balloons hanging on the acacia trees sway, under the thump of a disco beat, in the wind.   In the schoolyard shrill voices of Maasai schoolgirls can be heard. They sing to the tune of ancient songs about brave warriors and dangerous lions. But the lyrics are different, because they call for the banishment of female circumcision and ditching the practice into the dustbin of history. While posing for a group portrait they unabashedly jut their pelvis forward. Then under the stars and a waning moon, they light hundreds of candles. The young girls are now ready for the important event tomorrow: the ceremony marking their transition to womanhood. But this time no blood will flow.

A zebra does not despise its stripes. The Maasai pastoralists in Kenya and Tanzania are proud of their tradition. The between one and two million Maasais have a culture of open doors.  In their shelters made of mud and manure every group member is always welcome. Together they undergo rites for the transition from one age group to the next, and together they receive instructions in social skills, sex and martial arts. That community spirit made the Maasai a formidable tribe feared by neighbouring peoples, and until recently protected them against external influences. But now a revolution has begun which is to the benefit of the generally submissive Maasai women. For the past seven years a campaign is being waged in Maasai land against the amputation of clits. The elders have even devised a new way of performing this ceremony for modern day girls: the great alternative rite of passage.

. "Ngai Ngai" they chant – the blessing of God for the girls“Ngai Ngai” they chant

The next morning, a group of colourful warriors waits at the entrance of the kraal fenced with thorny branches. They perform traditional dances, making vertical jumps, their necks swaying like those of camels, to a rhythm of screams emanating from deep within their chest. In a winding snake like fashion the long line of girls approaches. The girls perform their own dance with rhythmic jerky movements of their upper body which makes the beaded necklaces around their necks swing in the air up to their chins. A hollow sound is heard from a kudu horn and the men at the gate start swishing their fly whisks made from wildebeest tails. “Ngai Ngai” they chant – the blessing of God for the girls! Now the girls have become women and it’s time to eat meat and dance.”

The young woman Nice looks fulfilled at the spectacle. “I am the change,” she proudly says. When she was nine, she was almost circumcised. “My grandparents took me out of school for the circumcision. In the early morning I escaped and hid in the bushes. I cried and cried. In the evening, upon returning to my ancestral kraal nobody wanted to relate with me. I had become an outcast”. For months she continued to resist until the family again let her go to school. She received support from the teachers who participated in a campaign by the medical organization Amref Flying Doctors against circumcision.  “So I became a role model for the Maasai”, she enthuses. Within the past seven years up to 7000 girls have been rescued by the campaign of Amref Flying Doctors in a quarter of Maasailand. {read more…}

Western Mali, where migration is a religion

The road from Bamako to Kayes

The road from Bamako to Kayes

The minarets plastered with azure colored tiles tower above the baobab trees on the desolate savanna. In this region in the west of Mali signs of prosperity are dissonant with the image of an otherwise poor country. Besides the beautiful mosques, stone houses and shops with corrugated iron roofs catch the eyes in contrast to the traditional mud dwellings with thatched roofs.  A school, a clinic, a small water treatment plant – all these are fruits of the labor of migrants in African and European countries.”Welcome to the port of departure for migration,” says Mayor Sega Sissoko in the dusty village of Ségala in the western region of Kayes. “Migration is for us a religion. If Europe does not allow migration it means that you do not grant us a life. ”

Migrants from Ségala transfer money to their families, and in consultation with the village elders  they invest in social and infrastructure projects. “Our young people cherish just one desire: migrate” The adviser to the mayor has also recently left for France in search of work.

Moussa Fofana in SégalaMoussa Fofana

From far and wide mopeds strapped with coolers ride on and off at the house of Moussa Fofana in Ségala. On his property are two second hand Mercedes cars and a satellite dish which he uses to watch French television.  After 44 years working as a steward on French express trains he has now retired to his hometown. He bought with his little capital a generator and fridges with which he began to produce ice water. “I rebelled against poverty. When I left in 1971, the Malian government banned migration, but you will always find a way out. I bought a Ghanaian passport and chose the adventure.”
Why did he go to France? He pulls the woolen hat which he brought from Paris over his face and says, “My father served in the colonial army. At home we were always talking about France. It was a logical choice. ”

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South Sudan: The hope of a better future lost

The school in Pilieny The school in Pilieny(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Game Dock had run out of school exercise books for his students some months ago.  He is a teacher at a village school in Pilieny. “Can you miss a few leaves from your notebook,” begs one boy. The children are seated in the rubble remains of their looted primary school, trying to remember everything they learn by heart. “God created paradise” is written on the blackboard. “That was a lesson befóre the outbreak of the war in southern Sudan,” laughs Game scornfully, “Now I do not have any chalk to write with.”

Every sign of development is lacking in this harsh habitat of the Nuer, the second largest tribe in South Sudan. On the sun-baked plains around the swamp of the Nile there is no asphalt, no electricity, and no water. In a heat wave of over 40 degrees a strong wind rages over the bending reeds, the crumbling stone buildings, the wrecked four-wheel drive cars, and whistles through the windows of the school.

This is the situation in the north of South Sudan, less than four years after the independence of the country. The new war had driven teacher Game Dock back to his hometown. He had always dreamt of going to college at the University of Juba. But when in December 2013 a dormant power conflict between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riëk Machar erupted, he had to flee the southern Sudanese capital.  Dinka soldiers loyal to President Kiir killed thousands of Nuers, the population group to which vice-president Riëk belongs.

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A child soldier who became a monster



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Dominic Ongwen made a confused impression in the fishbowl of a courtroom at the International Criminal Court in The Hague recently. From behind the bulletproof glass a grandstand full of white people spied upon the 40-year-old Ugandan, a rebel leader who  for most of his existence led a wild life in the African bush.  Ongwen listened uncomfortable to the charges against him – heavy crimes of which he himself was a victim.

Perpetrator and victim at the same time. Shortly after his arrest mid-December in the Central African Republic the former child soldier who became a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had said: “I went to the bush as a blind and deaf person. It is the same way I have come. I am now like a new born child, who you cannot blame for doing anything wrong. I am like a mad man now.

The LRA has been the most murderous rebel group in Africa over the past half century. But also the Ugandan government soldiers committed atrocities. Maybe that’s why nowhere on the continent such fiery debate rages about what to do with perpetrators and victims. What judicial system can alleviate the trauma’s caused by this brutal and bizarre war that took place first in northern Uganda and later fanned out over the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic? Does peace sometimes contradict with justice, punishment with reconciliation? Do the West and Africa fundamentally entertain different conceptions of justice?

In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against five leaders of the LRA. Of those five LRA leaders Joseph Kony is still on the run. Three others were killed by him or died during fighting. The ICC formulated three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes against Ongwen. These accusations are connected to a massacre on May 19, 2004 of more than fifty people in the hamlet of Lukodi in northern Uganda.

In the shadow under the roof of the grocery store in Lukodi all men shake their head resolutely. They say: No, Ongwen should never be released, he must for ever be locked up in The Hague for his committed sins. “At six o’clock in the afternoon the attack began. The LRA fighters shouted and shot,” says the old man Gibson Ogot. “They killed one of my sons. I saw how they threw a child into the fire. Ongwen is a monster.”

From intercepted radio contact between the attackers in Lukodi and the Altar, the command centre of the LRA, it appears that although Ongwen did not lead the attack, he played a major role in it.

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The lessons to be learned about fighting ebola

The number of ebola patients in West Africa is declining.But it will be a daunting task to completely eliminate the epidemic.Epidemiologist Ger Steenbergen works as a health expert at the Dutch Embassy in Ghana.He calculates that around 20 000 people have died last year of ebola. Last year, he travelled extensively in the ebola affected countries Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Steenbergen expects the last patient in June, but he warns against complacency.“We’re not there yet.Every patient with suspected symptoms should be tested.If even one case is overlooked, everything starts from the beginning.Everyone still should stay away from his sick neighbour, because he is potentially dangerous.It remains impossible for someone to give instinctive care to a sick person and touch him. “

Ebola is known since 1976, but this epidemic is unique.“In previous outbreaks in and around the forests of Central Africa, the virus died out by itself because of the remoteness of the affected villages.That does not happen this time, because in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea there were outbreaks simultaneously in villages, towns and slums.Never before has an ebola epidemic raged on such a scale. “

From the beginning the fight was addressed incorrectly.The outbreak began in the place where the three countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea meet around the town of Guéckédou.Doctors without Borders (MSF) was first on the spot and used a script that was based on previous outbreaks in remote areas in the Congo.That scenario however was not applicable to the busy trade routes in Guéckédou.“According to the scenario, the patients were isolated.But you cannot just take people out of their home, place them in an internment camp full of nurses dressed in moon suits, to finally put them under the ground without any rituals and without relatives present to say goodbye.That is the reason the population attacked the camp of MSF and freed the patients. On motorbikes, lorries or buses they fled in all directions.Then outbreaks started to happen everywhere.”

In the perception of many West Africans the world consists of good and bad spirits.Purification ceremonies are important for sending the deceased to the magical world of the ancestors.The epidemic exposed the gap between citizens and governments.

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Give value to the spirits in the fight against ebola

Roadblock in Sierra Leone

“Mi no dae” – I do not want to die – says Alpha through the window of the isolation room. The doctor of the small hospital in Yele, a little town in the heart of Sierra Leone, tries to comfort her. But the doctor knows her chances of survival are small: Alpha has diarrhoea, blood in her stool and she vomits. All symptom of ebola.

Yesterday, Alpha and five other suspected ebola patients were brought from neighbouring Maraka to the hospital. One of them died last night. Several weeks ago, the first ebola workers travelled over the dirt road, lined with long grass and towering palms, to Maraka village to spread the news. None of the 700 inhabitants took them seriously. Not even when a little boy died. They buried him in the dead of night, many villagers touched his body. Then his brother became ill too, followed by his mother.

It’s dead silent in Maraka. Terror has stuck. This morning the deceased child’s grandmother died. Ebola, the invisible enemy, has become real. Everyone hides indoors. “Finally they believe us,” grumbles an ebola officer dressed in plastic jacket and helmet.

Village head Fodo Tulli, who wears an orange hat decorated with two tassels, peeks through a wooden shutter. The ebola workers persuade him to gather his people under the big mango tree, where he sits on a bench. Some bewildered men rally around, each keeping a distance from one other. “Are you infected?” whispers one to the other. When the ebola officers tell them everyone could be infected and everybody should stay home for three weeks, some people start to grumble. “I still have to get the harvest in,” protests an old man.

Villagers are being told by ebola workers that Maraka has been hit by ebola              The head of the village calls a meeting. The ebola workers on the left inform the inhabitants of Maraka, while keeeping a distance


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Fear without borders: You are brain-fucking me

The UN flight stewardess puts her goggles on and places a guard over her a mouth. “Welcome aboard,” she says, and aims a digital thermometer at each passenger’s forehead. “Do not sit in the front rows. We like to keep a distance from you.”

Almost all airlines have suspended flights to ebola affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Experts had advised against a no-fly zone, because the virus does not spread through the air. But ebola has caused wide spread panic. A fear without borders. So the UN set up its own air service to allow aid workers to shuttle in an out. Cargo planes are unloaded at Monrovia airport by men in space suits. The crew aboard the Karel Doorman, a transport ship sent by the Netherlands, have orders not to set foot ashore when calling at the ports of the ebola countries.

“We are in the frontline,” shouts an American soldier in his camp at the Monrovia airport. Armoured vehicles pass by; a helicopter takes off for a patrol flight. More than 2,000 American soldiers are leading the fight against ebola in Liberia. In Sierra Leone, far fewer British soldiers do a similar job. Infections are on the wane in Liberia, thanks to a well-coordinated campaign, in Sierra Leone the aid agencies stumble over each other and the epidemic is not in retreat.

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Albinos:tortured by the sun and hunted in the shade


The Maasai boy Molle in 2009

The Maasai boy Molle in 2014

The Maasai boy Molle in 2009 and in 2014

A long high wall shields students of the elementary school Mwerereni from the cruel world outside. It is necessary because 35 out of its 620 student population are albinos. “That wall protects us from witchdoctors who want to chop albinos into body parts,” says the school Principal Damas Urengi in the Tanzanian town of Moshi. “Otherwise our children may fall prey to ritual sacrifice.”

Blind pupils, albinos and children with other serious skin diseases shuffle cautiously along the neatly swept paths under young trees. A special building equipped with screens that shield them from the pernicious bright light of the sun gives them solace. Bryan is an albino. Nurse Rose examines him in the school’s clinic. “There is nothing going on with you, you just ate too much,” she laughs. “We give our students extra care. And we teach them to love each other,” she explains. “So they will later become our ambassadors in a world full of hatred and superstition.”

For many albinos Africa is a curse; tortured by the sun and hunted in the shade. Because of their lack of skin pigmentation, which protects against ultraviolet rays, they quickly get skin cancer. The bright light cuts like a knife into their eyes. In Tanzania for instance, only 2 percent of albinos do grow older than forty years. A nurse at a clinic in Moshi says that since 2008, the dermatology department has surgically removed 500 deadly tumours from albinos.The hospital now provides free sunscreen.

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South Sudan: The mothers of Bentiu burry their children

Mother brings child to the hospital tents

The white hospital tents are surrounded by a puree of mud, shit and waste. Latrines nearby spill over and children splash in a lake with waste water of foreign aid workers. Inside the tents children scream and mothers wail. Nora Echaibi, dressed in wellington boots, gives a tour of what they here call a hospital, a facility run by Medecins sans Frontieres Holland.

Eight months old, four kilo's

In the reception tent an emaciated child is weighed in a laundry tub: eight months old with a weight of four kilo’s.

Young men with amputated limbs

In the next tent are young men with amputated limbs, victims of the bitter power struggle which broke out in December between President Salva Kirr and his former Vice President and now rebel leader Riëk Machar. Nora Echaibi wades through the mud and says: “And now we go to the worst tent”.

“That little child will not reach the end of the day,” she points to one of the dozens of mothers clamping their babies to their bodies. A silent cry jolts against the ribs of his small chest. Pneumonia. Besides diarrhoea, malnutrition and malaria, this is the leading cause of death in the camp of 45,000 displaced persons near Bentiu in South Sudan. “Fifteen percent of the children in the camp is severely malnourished, a percentage that indicates an emergency “.

A mother begins to weep loudly. Her child has just died and Nora Echaibi tries to comfort the woman. This is the fourth death in “the worst tent”, and it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon. “It will get worse today,” she predicts.

Toby Lanzer, UN humanitarian coordinator of the United Nations, calls the situation in South Sudan an “almost catastrophe”. “I do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. The rainy season has started. Almost all roads are unpaved, and it is increasingly difficult to get through the mud to reach victims.  Cities and markets were destroyed by the fighting and traders have fled.  In large parts of the country people could not plant because of the violence. The damage has already been done, even if fighting would stop straight away”.

He uses superlatives to combat a lukewarm response from donor countries. “By the end of the year the situation will be just as bad as during the great famine in Ethiopia in the eighties. There exists in the world a huge disappointment about what is happening in the youngest nation and that frustrates me a lot. ”

Of the eleven million South Sudanese inhabitants four million need help, more than one million are displaced in the country itself and 400 000 walked to neighbouring states. Tens of thousands of civilians sought protection in camps  of the United Nations, which were intended for the accommodation of peacekeepers and are not equipped to lodge masses of hungry and sick people.

Mud, everywhere mud

In the four sections of the camp near Bentiu, the Dinka and the Nuer have been separated. What began as a power struggle within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), degenerated partly in brutal tribal killing. President Kiir is a Dinka, Riëk Machar, a Nuer. Bentiu, which was occupied twice by rebels since December and is now again in government hands, is in Nuer territory.

Nyakuoth, mother of six children, scoops the mud out of her shelter and starts cooking porridge of millet on a fire of reeds. “The Dinka’s destroyed my house in Bentiu. The Dinka’s murder us”. She means government soldiers. She does not dare to go outside the camp to gather firewood. “We are afraid to be killed. Or they do the terrible thing to us”. She means rape, a taboo which is not discussed openly.

A young man called James Michael shits in the open, this part of the camp lacks toilets. “Always rain, always floods. I wish I had a piece of plastic sheeting at night to protect me”.

Throughout the day he does nothing and is terribly bored.”I wish I could go to school again”. His father got stranded in a UN camp in another part of the country; he lost his mother during the fighting. He sends his youngest sister to fetch firewood.  “She runs less risk that the terrible thing happens to her. You must be very brave to go outside the camp”.

The morgue in the hospital is next to a shed where the first suspected cholera patient has been separated. Nora Echaibi washes the children’s bodies; she removes the needle of the infusion from their arms, wraps the bodies in blankets, puts them in white plastic bags and hands the packets over to the mothers.

She hands the white packets over to the mothers

Another child died in the last hour, the fifth kid today. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon when the four wheel drive car filled with the mothers and their white packets works itself through the mud a way out of the camp for the funeral.

The car filled with the mothers finds it's way in the camp for the funeral outside

The women walk through the tall rustling vegetation to the already dug holes. They seek a pit not filled with rainwater, they lay the corpses on the wet ground and make a cross of reeds.

The women walk through the high vegetation to the graves

A sob, a prayer and men splatter the wet soil on the plastic bags. A little further four UN soldiers stand guard, because even for a funeral it is not safe outside the camp.

The filth of the UN camp in Bentiu

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 1-7-2014

A genocide that never ends

He does not like to tell his story. Edouard Bomporiki rubs his eyes. That terrible image in his head. He was eleven years, too young to participate in the genocide that began on April 7, 1994 in Rwanda, and cost the lives of 700,000 Tutsis and 100,000 moderate Hutus.

“I was lying on a hospital bed with malaria when an old Tutsi man ran inside carrying a baby. He hid under my bed. The extremists of the Interahamwe militia pursued him. They beheaded him and then split his skull into two. The baby they beat to death with a club full of nails. I did not understand. My mother said: ‘Oh my son, you will never understand.’”

Twenty years after the genocide, Rwanda is still a traumatized country. The survivors live with a shadow in their souls, with a daily feeling of emptiness. Many of the one million Hutu perpetrators of murder, rape and theft are haunted daily by the memories too: the images of how they routinely hacked to death children and the elderly with machetes. The people under 20 years, to whom the stories were handed down from their parents, equally become victims: they either carry the stigma of the atrocities of their father and mother, or the feeling of hatred because their families were exterminated. The killers and the survivors must live on the same hills and in the same villages. “Rwandans are working hard on reconciliation, but we are still injured. Everyone is looking for recognition for what happened to him. Therefore, every Rwandan has his story to tell. That is the only way out,” says Edouard Bomporiki.

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Chaos, chaos everywhere in Central African Republic

Koert Lindijer returns to the village of Zèré, where in November he saw how Christians had been attacked and slain by Muslim gangs. Now the roles are reversed.

Amidst the rubble of the destroyed mosque of Zèré, in the middle of the Central African Republic, kids make mockery of the Muslim mode of praying. They push their butts in the air and jeer: “Allah, get the hell out of here “. The elderly also join in and shout: “We never want to see them here anymore.”

Deep hateful cries sound in all corners of the country. Christian youths with machetes cleanse the land of Muslims. More than a thousand mosques and Koranic schools have been smashed into ruins; more than a hundred imams have been killed. A handful of remaining Muslims has become trapped, and are sheltered in enclaves guarded by international peacekeepers. The roles are reversed in the Central African Republic. The country hidden in the heart of Africa, with the approximate size of France, is in an even greater chaos than it was a few months ago. The terror of one group has been replaced by that of the other.

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South Sudan: Mediocre fighters from the guerrilla crush their new state

South Sudan has only a one paved highway, the one linking Nimule on the border with Uganda to the capital Juba, two hundred kilometres further north. Along the road wrecks are scattered everywhere, of overturned busses, mangled cars and trucks. The two years old country with the size of France had until recently no paved road at all. “We are not used to asphalt, it feels slippery”, says Richard my driver. “That’s why we drive recklessly. On the paths in the bush we felt much safer.”

A van loaded with Dinka’s rushes over the road to Nimule. A power struggle in December within the ruling party SPLM between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riëk Machar degenerated in a civil war. Factions of the disintegrated government army have been fighting each other for two months. Feelings of revenge between the two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, have free rein. President Kiir is a Dinka, his opponent Machar a Nuer. Probably more than ten thousand people are dead because of this political fight. More than 700,000 people have been driven from their homes.

Like the occupants of the van, many Dinka’s have fled from Bor, a town two hundred kilometres north of Juba. The fighting in recent weeks razed the town to the ground. “Life was good when independence came in 2011,” says James Kuol who with 17,000 other Dinka’s has sought refuge in Nimule. “I had a wife and a couple of goats and sheep. Old wounds of the conflict with the Nuer were healed.” Kuol is referring to 1991, when another tragedy occurred in Bor. Then as now, the resistance movement SPLM had fallen apart. With the tacit consent of Riëk Machar Nuers attacked Bor. And like now, the city was reduced to ashes and hundreds of Dinka’s were slain.

James Kuol tells how at the end of last year Nuers attacked his house near Bor, how they burnt the granary and killed his brother and two children. “The vice-governor invited my brother and other elders to a meeting to discuss ways to avoid a tribal fight. But my brother walked into a trap: the Nuers killed all those present. ”

Suddenly children start throwing stones. “Go away, you strangers,” they shout to James Kuol and his family. South Sudan has no national identity. Inhabitants anxiously protect their own tribal home land. It is a country full of distrust, with politicians inciting mass murder. “I feel stateless,” sighs James, “during the war of independence against the Arabs in the north at least we had an enemy in common.”

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South Sudanese in the grip of fear and anger

Behind the gate of the compound of the United Nations in Juba, South Sudan, an odour of decay hangs around thousands of displaced people, birds of prey swarming over their heads. Children relieve themselves next to the tap where women fetch drinking water. At the entrance a man jostles with a suitcase on wheels, a woman with a laundry tub. Aid agencies cars push for space with a military tank of the UN peacekeeping force.

In the UN camp near the capital Juba airport stay around 17,000 people, all members of the Nuer tribe. All speak of killings in Juba by Dinka’s in the government army.  Most sleep in the open air, others under staircases for airplanes and some in small tents. “President Kiir,a Dinka , ordered the murder of all Nuers after he got into a political power struggle on December 15 with his former vice president Riëk Machar, a Nuer ” says Paul . Until recently Paul was an aid worker, now he’s a victim. “I live two miles away from here, but my neighbours are Dinka’s. I cannot go home anymore”.

The displaced are in de grip of fear and anger. And sorrow. Frank is a singer. “I, my brother and my sister lived on a church compound in Juba. The day after the fight in the ruling party SPLM broke out, Dinka soldiers arrived in the parish. They demanded that all Nuers come forward and they started shooting. The pastor tried to intervene and he was slain”.

Frank swallows. “And then it was the turn of my sister. They dragged her to an abandoned building, I could hear her scream. They raped her”. Frank cannot continue anymore. He walks over to the shade of a blanked hung in a tree and starts pampering a young baby.  He cries. “That’s the baby of his murdered sister,” says his friend Patrick.

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It is war once more in South Sudan

The communiqués of aid workers and armed groups in recent days sound like déjà vu for anyone who followed the war in Sudan between 1983 and 2005. “Our brave warriors, clobbered the opponents (the supporters of President Kiir) and will take Malakal within 24 hours,” was a statement this week in the name of the dissident forces of Riëk Machar. The current Vice President of South Sudan, James Wani Igga, while touring his home region Equatoria for new recruits urged civilians “to fight against Riëk Machar, to defend our democracy.”

The number of deaths since the outbreak of the conflict in mid-December is now estimated at 10,000. An estimated 400,000 people have been displaced. Aid agencies report 32,000 refugees who fled to Uganda and 10,000 to Sudan. Kenya receives 800 South Sudanese daily.

Optimism about a quick end to the conflict which began in mid-December has evaporated. The country which became independent in 2011 is now embroiled in civil war. The chance of a speedy peace between the warring parties of President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riëk Machar seems nil for now.

“There’s no way out. South Sudan has started a new war, “says Daniel Deng. He was a minor in the nineties when forced to fight in the war of independence against the Arabized northern Sudan. When in 1991 the then liberation movement SPLA did disintegrate, his family became the target of reprisals in Bor. History has repeated itself in the last weeks.

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It is eery in the Central African Republic

It is eerily quit in Zèré. Until, in this empty village with burned houses in the west of the Central African Republic, the hammering of a piece of iron on a car rim tears apart the silence. The signal that the coast is clear. The village chief had told the team of Doctors without Borders – Holland (MSF-H) to ring a church bell, but there is no church, not anymore. Out of the elephant grass and from thick forest of mango trees people appear. First, one by one, and then large groups. Babies whose mouths had been gagged by their mothers start screaming. Men tap their foreheads against each other in greeting. Some of them carry machetes, spears, or an antique shotgun. After ten minutes, there is a cacophony of excited voices.

An old man grabs the arm of a MSF nurse. “We hide around the village, living like animals in the bush,” he wails. “We have no clothes, no salt, no soap, nothing to survive. The soldiers looted all our belongings. Our chickens, goats, our grain. “He shows me around. In the clinic, needles and pills lie in the grit. In the church charred roof beams have fallen on the pulpit. Some people were burned in their homes when, on the afternoon of 7 September, fighters set the village alight. Near the remains of a house lies a corpse partly eaten by pigs.

In the Central African Republic, a country lost in the heart of Africa, Militias have for several months been preying upon the population. This nation of four and a half million people is trapped in a cycle of revenge and crime. Several militias without any ideology are fighting each other and the population. It is chaos for personal benefit. Even compared to earlier nasty conflicts, like in Northern Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, these thugs are motivated by sheer greed.

Marauding militias, looting gangs and foreign mercenaries fight for control of gold and diamond mines and squabble over villagers’paltry assets. Religious and ideological motives barely played any role when the fighting first broke out earlier this year, but after several months of chaos there appears now a dividing line between Christians and Muslims. The looters pulled a small Muslim minority – 15 percent of the population – gradually into their camp. Christians responded by setting up self-defence militias. They are increasingly out to eradicate Muslims.

A small and ineffective army of regional African peacekeepers fails to create even a semblance of order. Tens of thousands of civilians have been fleeing. They hide in the bush or seek safety in churches. Priests and imams warn of a potential genocide, if the fury among Christians against Muslims will further increase.

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How Islam from the north spreads once more into the Sahel

In the narrow streets of Mopti, the sweet smell of cow dung mingles with that of the exhaust fumes from mopeds. Opposite the mosque, some youngsters play a game of table football.  Mamoudou Fané strolls with his work tools into the house of prayer. “There goes the Wahhabi plumber”, the young people mock at him. An irritated Fane throws back his arms. “In the mosques of Wahabites I get work and food,” he retorts. “I am poor and have to feed a family.”

“Turncoat!”  shout the boys.

Mali witnesses a steady religious revolution that may have dire consequences for the entire Sahel, and may eventually also pose a danger to Europe. The predominantly Muslim country was once a cradle of religious tolerance.  In recent years there has been an insidious change with the advent of the fundamentalist Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. The religious situation in Mali last year came under stress because of the rise of armed Muslim extremist groups from the north which had the whole country in their grip. It was only the military intervention of France that contained it.

Centuries ago trading empires developed around the cities of Djenné, Mopti and Timbuktu. The basis of the wealth was their geographical position which lay between Africa above the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa.  Islam arrived with the traders from the north. The black population absorbed the faith and merged it with their own religions, an interaction of religious and spiritual influences, and thus created an African Sufi form of Islam.

Hundreds of years later, Islam again comes to the Sahel, this time with an unstoppable mission mentality and the way paved by money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan. Foreigners, and also Malians who received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia, introduce this strict form of Islam, and condemn the sufi’s.

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Conservative islam is on the rise in poor Mali

The mosquitoes in the car do not observe Ramadan and eagerly attack when we drive away from the Malian capital Bamako in the early morning. The pockmarked road to Segou has given way to a perfect highway, built by Chinese. An imported second-hand van from Germany with inscription Fahrschule pushes Chinese mopeds on the roadside, where bottles filled with gasoline are on sale.

Suddenly there is a traffic jam on the tree savannah of the Sahel. A long line of trucks of the French army drives north. The heavy equipment-tankers, security of dozens of soldiers, lorries with mineral water- does not give an impression that the French military intervention has come to an end. The Muslim extremists have been driven out by the invasion in January, but 3,200 French soldiers were left behind. Soon 12,000 troops of the UN will be stationed in Mali. “Every day I see the French army bringing in more material,” says my driver Amadou when we arrive at Segou after four hours.

The break I have in this historic town on the Niger is spoilt by children beggars. “My father is dead,” complains one. And when that does not evoke a reaction, the other one says: “And my mother died.” Amadou tells them to buzz off. Two European election observers are less abrupt, and the nagging beggars keep on swarming around them like mosquitoes.

After Segou, endless plains start with only gnarled baobab trees as landmarks. It rains in Mali for a few months in a year, and this brings jubilation time. Shepherd boys desert their goats and splash in the puddles. Where little sandstorms had ravaged the desiccated landscape, there now lays a green carpet. There are even nets thrown in puddles to catch mud fish which had somehow survived the drought miraculously.

These are busy times in the rural areas. A Fulani shepherd crosses the road with hundreds of cattle, and the sweet aroma of cow dung penetrates inside our car. Some villages along the road to Mopti are dead quiet; everybody makes his contribution on the fields. Only the rich farmer owns an ox for ploughing. With little hoes women, children and old men work the sandy soil, seed by seed, and plant by plant.  It is a farming method that still exists only in the poorest regions of the Sahel. I have seen only one tractor and we have already covered four hundred kilometres.

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From Mungo Park to the UN invasion of Mali

“Hello mate,” writes Matt in an email. “Welcome! You can come back to the Sleeping Camel. I’ve decided to stay open. Because the UN has arrived in Mali the hotel is full again “. Matt, the Australian manager of a cheap hotel for backpackers in Bamako is filled with optimism once more.

After the capture of northern Mali by Muslim extremists from North Africa last year, the tourism sector died in one stroke. No traveller, not even the adventurer riding on a motorbike through the Sahara, comes to a land of terror groups and crumbling government authority.

After the French intervention against the Islamic radicals in January, a manager of a large hotel had predicted to me: “First will come the journalists, then follow the hordes of aid workers until finally the United Nations will arrive and take over. And that will mean a much better business than tourists”.

In November 2011, Sjaak Rijke, a Dutchman, stayed at the Sleeping Camel. A few days later he travelled north and was kidnapped in Timbuktu, together with two other foreigners. The train driver from Woerden remains in captivity up till today. A group of white Africans now occupies some rooms at the Sleeping Camel. They work with a private company hired by the United Nations to remove landmines. “We come from Rhodesia”, says one of them standing under a huge painting of a classic hippie whose artistic brains are exploding all over the wall.

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The Great Digital Leap Forward in Africa

IHub is an oasis of modern order in the otherwise so chaotic Kenyan capital Nairobi. Absorbed on their screens and with headphones strapped on, young technologists work on new apps. A football table gives some relaxation. Rachel Gichinga of iHub orders an espresso at the bar. “Coffee is an essential part of the digital age,” she laughs. Previously Kenyans hardly drank coffee. Nowadays middle class youths hang around in coffee shops with free wifi.

At iHub, technological innovations which find following worldwide are being devised. Africa slowly shakes off the image of being the most backward continent. The continent that had for so long been characterized as a lost one, is now evolving into a global trendsetter for innovative applications in communication, banking, agriculture and other sectors.

Kenya is spearheading this evolution . It first began in 2007 with M-pesa, an easy way to transfer money using the mobile phone.  M-pesa caused a small revolution: 31 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product is now going through mobile phones and there are now eighty similar systems in and outside Africa set. As of recent, the mobile can also be used to save money. In Kenya, also as a first, a rechargeable smart card to provide health insurance for the poor was introduced. “We are working on communication for farmers, herders and students”, says Rachel Gichinga.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said recently during a visit to Kenya, “Nairobi is emerging as a serious technological center and may be the captain of Africa”. He visited iHub among others. In the glass and concrete building, which lies along one of the busiest roads of Nairobi, iHub occupies two floors. “This is the breeding ground for web designers and social entrepreneurs. Here the ideas are born,” says an employee.
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Kenya elections: Tribal politics lead to violence and bad governance

Go into one of the many new shopping halls in Nairobi and you will be amazed how much Kenya has become part of the global consumer society. The latest computers, mobile phones, honey from Australia, greasy unhealthy hamburgers and brown bread to make you healthy again, everything is for sale. Leave the shopping hall and outside you will be welcomed by huge potholes, traffic jams on bad roads, begging and stealing policemen, dangerous thugs. Between private and public lies a huge gap. Leave Kenya to the private sector and it will be fine, leave it to the greedy inapt government and it will be decay.

Kenya has modernised so much over the last 20 years or so. But it is still so tribal. I don’t know whether there is a contradiction here. After the violent elections in 2007 everybody had his tribal identity reinforced. Not just in rural areas, but also in the cities. Don’t think that only “ignorant rural people” stick to their tribe. Professors and other intellectuals do the same. During the violence five years back every Kenyan was forced to acknowledge that he or she belongs to a certain ethnic group. Because the tribes were at war and one had to take sides. Also during elections it seems your group is under pressure, so you come to its rescue. You can’t be neutral, it seems.


Abdul “Dubai”, a Kenyan of Arab origen, campaigns in Kisumu. Photo’s Patrick Wiggers

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No easy solution for a divided Mali

Proud ladies in expensive, colourful costumes ride on mopeds through the blue smoke hanging above the streets of the Malian capital Bamako. The perky presence of women in public life in Mali is very common. In the Sahel, along the thriving transit route for trade caravans from north to south, because of the cultural communication back and forth for centuries a very specific lifestyle, religion and politics developed. But nine months of occupation of the north by extremist Muslims, has put on edge the divisions between North and South Mali, between currents within Islam and between tribal and racial groups.

Mali has a liberal Islam and a secular constitution, but conservative groups strive for more influence and the establishment of the Islamic Shari’a criminal law. There are signboards everywhere, with the inscription “donated by Saudi Arabia”, near the mosques in the cities or villages, and near new the water wells and schools in rural areas.

“For about 25 years we have noticed among us the Wahabites with their long beards,” says the MP Baba Haidara. “They have us pitted, with money and by the training of our marabous in Saudi Arabia.” Haidara hastens to distinguish between the Wahabi movement of conservative Muslims and the extremist fighters who impose their beliefs by force.

Many long beards were shaved off after the French intervention. Out of fear for revenge, light colored Malians in Bamako also keep a low profile. Many fled from northern Mali to Bamako through neighbouring Burkina Faso, because they do not trust their own countrymen anymore.

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The enemy has become invisible

The old man Lamine Traore comes chuffing towards an army roadblock, sixty kilometres from the western frontline in the city of Diabaly. Malian soldiers at the roadblock watch a French television channel to get the latest news about the war. Traore gives “un petit cadeau”, corruption money, to the soldiers to pass. It’s war time, but old habits don’t die. “Almost everyone has left Diabaly”, says the old man. “We fear the extremists, but I also rather stay away if the Malian army returns. The insurgents withdrew into the rice fields. Or they fused with the population in the surrounding villages. They have become invisible. ” The government soldier stops journalists. “We do not know where the Islamic extremists are hiding,” he says. “It’s too dangerous for you to continue, they can take you hostage.” Does he have an idea when his army will advance to Diabaly? “When the French army tells us to”.

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Kenya coast boiling of anger

Mombasa (Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Mombasa (Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Trucks and tourist buses race down the highway from the port of Mombasa to the African interior. The road is a symbol of economic progress. Turning away from this highway of progress, every sign of prosperity goes immediately up into dust. Barefoot women and bored teenagers are hanging around in the shade along a dirt road. “We do not belong in Kenya”, complains Hamisi Kanona, a motorcycle mechanic in the hamlet of Kasemeni, near Mombasa.

Mopeds serve as public transport. “With a moped young people can earn two euro’s per day,” says Hamisi. “There is no other work here. The government in Nairobi does nothing for us. Why would I still vote? We young people do not talk about elections anymore; we don’t belong to Kenya anyway. On the coast an election means fight and die. ”
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Achebe’s “There Was a Country” risks opening old wounds

There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra

Chinua Achebe

Allen Lane, 318pp £20.00

The author is one of Africa’s finest novelists, the subject is one of Africa’s greatest tragedies, the accusations he makes could not be more serious, and his prognosis for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is grim indeed. The combination should make for a compelling read. Instead the result is a quirky mix of opinion and autobiography, history and polemic, uneven in quality and partisan in perspective.

It has been more than forty years since Nigeria’s civil war over the breakaway state of Biafra ended and Chinua Achebe, its best known son, has at last broken his silence on the subject: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”

The story he tells has all the elements that were to become so familiar across the continent: ethnic divisions, religious rivalries and regional tensions, a problematic colonial legacy, and an elite of venal politicians and ambitious soldiers who plundered national resources. {read more…}

Liberator with a tyrannical tendency


Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Meles Zenawi was, as the Ethiopian culture prescribes, distant and polite. But after an interview he also could talk straightforwardly. “I am a communist and have no reason to hide it,” the guerrilla fighter said in 1990 in a Tigrayan village at the time of the collapse of the Communist empire. Later as Prime Minister in the capital, Addis Ababa, after a conversation of three hours, he put his feet on the table and said: “I just had the French ambassador for a visit. What an asshole that guy was. These Western envoys think they can impose anything on me. Do you have a cigarette? ”

Meles was not the leader to break the traditional authoritarian power system in Ethiopia. Under the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) Ethiopians could not think for themselves. Under his successor, the ruthless military Marxist Mengistu (1977-1991), no one ventured to express his own opinion. Under Meles Zenawi it was also better not to deviate too much from the ideas of the ruling party. Rulers in Ethiopia tend to rule like gods. {read more…}

South Sudan’s Independence: “We are just muddling through”

One year after independence morale is still high in South Sudan. But the initial hope for a rapid start towards development, establishment of human rights and economic prosperity has faded. “It is as if the war never stopped,” sights the catechist John Deng in Bentiu. Bentiu lies in the centre of the South Sudan’s oil industry, but the town still looks like a dirty hamlet, with hardly any sign of visible progress.  John has to look for fuel on the black market, a jerry can of 20 litres cost 280 South Sudanese pound when I was there in June 2012. Basic foodstuffs are, if available, very expensive because of the border closure with Sudan. “There is a shortage of everything, like during the war,” he laments.

“The Sudanese government closed the border and is hoping South Sudan will collapse,” says Governor Taban Deng in his office in Bentiu. Besides him sits generaal James Gatduel Gatluak, who directs the troops along the frontline with the disputed territory of Heglig. “You can never trust an Arab,” he sighs. Like during the war, the ruling Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) is still in guerrilla mode.

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The truth behind Dutch diplomacy in South Sudan

Admittedly, travelling abroad with the Dutch deputy development cooperation minister is not the most exciting journalistic assignment. Dutch involvement in Africa has waned in recent years. There was a time when former development minister Jan Pronk used his influence to get involved in the peace negotiations in South Sudan.

Nowadays Dutch interest is limited to development aid: building water wells, agricultural projects, aid for setting up programmes to improve justice and training police. “The spearheads of the new policy,” as the caretaker deputy minister stresses during his visit to South Sudan.

But the journalists travelling with the minister knew that already; we want to hear news. So I focus on the opening of the new Dutch embassy in Juba. It’s been open for 11 months already, but now Mr Knapen has come to perform an official ceremony. Could there be a snippet of Dutch news? For, what did Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders have to do with the new embassy?

The Dutch government has closed ten embassies across the world (five of them in Africa), including the economically important country of Cameroon. So why did it open one in South Sudan of all places?

For some time I’ve been hearing rumours in Dutch diplomatic circles  that this embassy has been set up in exchange for support from the Freedom Party for the coalition deal. Put simply, in the conflict in Sudan, the Christian south has seceded from the not-so-friendly Muslim state in the north. So is it an anti-Islam decision?

Although the Dutch government has already fallen, the caretaker deputy minister declines to confirm that Mr Wilders is behind the move. “I can’t understand where you got that from,” Mr Knapen says innocently.

Mr Knapen is quite prepared to talk about why South Sudan rather than Sudan was selected for development aid. The embassy in Khartoum remains open, but no Dutch aid is given to Sudan anymore. Many Western countries have followed this example and Khartoum isn’t pleased. In response, diplomats posted in South Sudan are not given visas to travel via Sudan.

As there is nothing new to report from the Netherlands, there is plenty to report about South Sudan itself. In recent days, the press has been dominated by a leaked letter President Salva Kir sent to his ministers and other government employees about corruption.

Four billion dollars have disappeared in the past few years. President Kir has called on those responsible to hand the money back. At a meeting with Vice President Riek Macha, Mr Knapen “expressed his concern” – as they say in diplomatic language – about corruption in the country. He promised to consult other donor countries to take joint action.

“Of course, there is corruption,” Mr Knapen says after the meeting. So, it’s been said. But then he says something that sounds like an appeal for people’s understanding:

“The information from the IMF which looked at Juba’s government income and spending, is that it might not all be down to corruption. When South Sudan suddenly started getting oil revenues in 2005, there was no Central Bank, there wasn’t even a Finance Ministry. And that in a non-existent state, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Then Mr Knapen adds: “I am glad that President Kirr is taking action. Because this is a huge amount.”

Harsh reality
Harsh diplomatic language, but for whose ears: for South Sudan or for home consumption, where every cent of development aid needs to be defended vigorously?

Reports about large-scale corruption first came in five years ago, when South Sudan became autonomous. In the beginning, the Western donor countries looked the other way. After all, South Sudan was young and inexperienced. However, in the past two years, representatives from donor countries have been telling Juba that they are no longer prepared to ignore the corruption.

The United States handed over a list of corrupt ministers to President Kirr some time ago, but the president failed to take action. Critical members of the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement say that misappropriation of funds has been rife for years.

The corruption keeps a system of patronage in place that indirectly ensureds stability for the political class. Corruption will be allowed to continue in the interests of stability for a while. A visit by the Dutch caretaker deputy minister won’t change that. That’s because there is a difference between harsh reality and diplomatic truth.

Oumou Sangare sings – audio

In the capital of Mali, Bamako. I met the famous singer Oumou Sangare.
She sang a song for peace.

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Mali: If the music dies…

Bamako — Huge posters in the capital Bamako tell it all: a map of Mali, tears rolling down the North and the South covered by a big question mark. In the wake of the Tuareg rebellion that began in January, Al Qaida affiliated Islamic extremists have taken control of many but not all towns in the North.

A military coup d’état led by captain Amadou Sanogo against President Toure on March 22 had made the situation worse. Sanogo was quickly forced by the West African regional organisation Ecowas to step down in favour of an interim civilian government, but behind the scenes he is still calling the shots.

“Malians feel very sad”, the famous singer Oumou Sangare told me. She then sang a powerful song: ” We need peace, we need peace to sing and dance”.

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Shuga may shock

It has never been too difficult to shock a Kenyan. Liberal westerners will often brand Kenya as a traditional country – conservative and puritanical – but now this image is growing dated, in the capital Nairobi anyway.  The soap opera Shuga on Kenyan TV may be a metaphor for these fast-changing times, thanks to new technologies and a growing middle class.

A heated Angelo tries to open the miniskirt of his girlfriend Kipepeo. As his temperature continues to rise, he makes an attempt to dive right in.

This scene definitely shocks in a country where just 25 years ago the then president Moi banned the American TV show Solid Gold for showing bikini-clad ladies performing some mildly sensual dances. Also not a fan of modern art and music, Moi preferred to promote traditional dancers and slowly swaying church choirs.
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Bonoko looks young and innocent, but he is hardened and shrewd. He gained his life experience on the streets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where thousands of kids live. A strong genge beat under a TV interview with him talking about police brutality, made him instantly famous in Kenya. “When you see a cop, you better protect yourself and run away”, he raps in the song.

“My father was a street kid, my mother is still alive. She used to sell glue for sniffing”, Bonoko says. Streets kids don’t have a long life in Kenya. “There is always war, there is always violence”. Thugs and sects do kill, but the major killers are the police. “No money for a bribe and you end up in jail”.

All the people of the Nairobi slums, all passengers in the public transport matatu vehicles, sing loudly along with the Bonoko. “What we experience on a daily basis is being said by Bonoko”, they praise the 21 year old boy whose real name is James Kangethe Kimani.

Bonoko was born on the streets. As a baby he slept with his mother under the verandas, as an independent street kid he preferred other places, like the gutter under the highways. The government started to pick kids up from the streets in 2011 and send them to special schools to be reformed. After being caught Bonoko ran away twice, once walking for a week from Kakamega in Western Kenya to Nakuru, on his way back to Nairobi. “The watchmen at these schools beat us too much”, he complains. He ended up completing only two years of primary school education.

Back in Nairobi Bonoko made Ngara his home and place of work. Kipande became his close friend, a young butcher who sold mutura, a traditional Kikuyu sausage, on the streets. “Me and my street friends gave him our pennies for safekeeping, and he gave us leftover meat. He was a good man”.

His big rival on the streets was Kisi wa Central, a nickname for a cop who exhorted money from people in the neighbourhood. “That cop had already killed some kids. One day a rich man hit me with his car. He wanted to take me to hospital and gave me money as compensation. Kisi wa Central took it and told the rich man to get lost”.

One day Bonoko’s life took an unexpected positive turn. Kisa wa Central had apprehended Kipande because of urinating in an alley. Knowing the reputation of the cop, Kipande fled. Kisi wa Central shot the butcher dead and planted a fake gun near his body, a ‘bonoko’ in local slang. James Kangethe Kimani saw it all happening and from that time onwards he would be known as Bonoko.

That afternoon a crew from Citizen TV came to do a story on the killing. “The butcher is not thug, the cop is the dangerous one”, the words flowed out of his mouth for the TV camera. Many months later he heard his words back as a ringtone on a mobile, and after a while also on his favourite Ghetto Radio. Somebody in the slums had used his interview to make a raw rap song on his computer.

The angry cop has sworn to kill Bonoko and that is one of the reasons Ghetto radio has given him a safe place to stay. “I finally sleep without lice on my body”. Ghetto radio dj Mbussy has given him a slot on his daily show. “I have been liberated from police terror. It is so nice to go to sleep, knowing you are safe from the police”.



Recruting for Al Shabaab in Nairobi

John is gently kicking the ball against the wall, still a bit insecure after his long absence from the football team in Majengo, one of the many Nairobi slums. “Once recruited to fight in Somalia, you never come back to Kenya”, he says. “I had already been taken by al-Shabaab to the northeastern town of Garissa and was on my way to Somalia, but after Kenya’s intervention in Somalia last month al-Shabaab got nervous and sent me back.”

His coach Ochieng has welcomed John back, but not without a stern lecture. “I have been telling all of you in my team not to listen to these recruiters for al-Shabaab here in Majengo. They are cheating you, they are brainstorming you, and they don’t take care of you”. Little John grumbles. “It is not true, coach. These people of al-Shabaab gave us shelter in the mosque, they gave us food and clothes, and even some pocket money”.
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Stranded in the war of Sudan’s Nuba mountains

I don’t want to start writing this story. I’ve been stuck in a rebel area in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, surrounded by hostile government soldiers, without any way to reach the safety of the outside world for several weeks now. I feel smothered by lethargy. Hope leads to hopelessness. Writing takes energy but energy creates expectations. In order to get through this I have to put my feelings on standby.

A new war has broken out in Sudan. In 1955, the black South Sudanese started a rebellion against domination and exploitation by the Arab people of northern Sudan. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended decades of fighting and eventually led to the independence of South Sudan on 9 July 2011. But the CPA didn’t solve Sudan’s fundamental problem: is this an Arab or a black African nation?

The black tribes in the Nuba mountains and neighboring Blue Nile State, as well as in the western region of Darfur, continue to resist marginalization and Arab domination. Civilians are the main target in the Nuba mountains; in order to cover this vicious conflict, I have to be here where it’s happening and so here I am. The resistance is being led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army–North (SPLA/N).

Everyday, government bombers fly overhead. The Sudanese government is using the same tactics it used during the first war: bomb the civilians in the rebel areas into submission. Tens of thousands of Nuba people have fled into the mountains to escape the bombs.

They can’t do much farming and the blockades around the cities mean that trading has stopped as well. Students don’t go to school because the bombing is indiscriminate. There is no medicine because foreign aid organizations have been prevented from entering the area. A few weeks ago, a pilot took a chance and flew me in. It’s been raining since then and the landing strip is just a mud pool.

There is no way to tell one day from another and sometimes I wonder if the sun will ever shine again. I want to be a cow and just endlessly chew and chew. Watching insects is a way to pass the time; sand flies during the day, mosquitoes in the evening and fleas during the night. Ants bite me anywhere they can and leave nasty red bumps behind. Tonight I’m going to imitate the goats: they climb up a rock-face and then slide down, scraping insects and bites off their hides. I want to scrape away the itching and the pain.

Julud was a mountain village during the first war. After 2002, the thousand inhabitants came down the mountain and created a new village; first there was a little shop, then a market with ten little shops and then more houses. Every day I go and eat my plate of beans at Arafa’s, she’s an attractive young tea lady. She serves beans with sugar or beans with crumbled cookies and sugar. She also has milk with sugar and tea with sugar. People in Sudan like sugar with everything.

Arafa brings Adam some cucumber and sour milk. When fighting broke out in the regional capital Kadugli four months ago, Adam fled to the rebel-held territory. “President Omar al-Bashir’s government wants to wipe out us Nubas,” he says loudly.

Government soldiers ransacked his house in Kadugli; anything that had any value was taken, including the furniture, the roof, the toilet and the kitchen sink. Then the soldiers brought in a bulldozer and flattened his house: Adam has nothing any more. His long political tirade in Arafa’s teahouse betrays a deep hatred of ‘the Arabs’. “It’s a genocide of the Nuba people.”

Adam tells about a bombing that took place yesterday, some ten kilometres up the road. Two women were killed by shrapnel wounds to the stomach. Exhausted rebel fighters stumble into Julud from the front lines; the government troops went on the attack but were intercepted, eight people dead.

The SPLA/N commander decides to move me to a safer area, further away from the front line. It’s cheaper in Tima; smugglers have managed to bring goods in from the besieged towns. There are tubes of toothpaste and lollies on the dusty shelves of the little shops and on market day, even a few bottles of fizzy drink. The richest person in the village has a teaching diploma and a television. In the evening, the silence is broken by a police siren screaming on a TV show.

There’s excitement in the air the following evening; the fighters welcome a man, they clap him on the shoulders and embrace him: “SPLA oyé,” they say jubilantly. He escaped from the nearby garrison town of Logowa and, after a two-month trek through hostile territory, finally made it to SPLA/N territory. He laughs, “I’m free here, I’m home.”

Will I ever get away from here? Will this ever end? I haven’t got anything left to read and there’s nothing else to do. I’m even running out of paper to write on.


The graves of Garba Tulla

Yussuf Ammo Halake lives in Garba Tulla in an area called Prison. “It was once a concentration camp”, he says. “There is a mass grave here of the shifta war in the sixties. At that time we nomads of the Wuasa Boran were dying an invisible death. Now we are living an invisible life”.

Garba Tulla lies on the vast and mainly dry savanna’s of Northern Kenya. The wounds of a vicious war nearly fifty years ago are still open. “Thousands of civilians were killed, we were imprisoned in this area and our cattle was driven away to the highlands”, laments Halake. “That is the way the authorities deal with us nomads in the North”.
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Dadaab: Anyone here dying and speaks English?

Galgayo, Somalia - Petterik Wiggers/Hollandse Hoogte

Cynical press
International networks and journalists shamelessly focus their cameras on hunger and death. African leaders are embarrassed. Ethiopia wants to get rid of its image as the famine capital of the world. That’s one of the reasons its government has worked hard since 1991 towards guaranteeing food security. In his book Famine and Foreigners, Ethiopia since Live Aid, Peter Gill describes how in 2003 and 2008 the government tried to keep famine victims away from Western cameras. And now it is reluctant to let foreign correspondents cover the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

“Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” The title of this book by war correspondent Edward Behr reflected the cynicism in the press coverage of the violence in Congo in the early 1960s. Africa had only recently become independent and Western journalists found it difficult to write in an informed way about the continent. The de-colonisation of the Western mind had yet to begin.

Visible bones
“Anyone here dying and speaks English?” Fifty years later this line haunts me during a visit to Dadaab, the refugee camp in Northern Kenya crammed with Somali refugees. Nobody knows the exact dimensions of the disaster. The epicentre lies in inaccessible territory in Somalia. There is no mass starvation in Dadaab, but the journalists need shocking images to reinforce their tales of misery so they go looking for death. There is no room for subtlety.

A staggering cow eating the straw from a nomadic dwelling, a desperate goat sucking the toes of his herder, these images may give an idea of the dimensions of the crisis for local cattle herders, but don’t contain enough drama to titillate the dulled appetites of Western readers. So the reporter goes for the kill. “Put your baby a bit more in the light, please”, a photographer asks a mother. And yes, take its clothes off – otherwise the bones are not visible.

Aid workers larded their announcement of the disaster at the beginning of July with superlatives: the worst drought since, the biggest humanitarian tragedy now. And the ace in the pack: worse than 1984’s famine in Ethiopia.

Referring to “the worst” seems the only way to get attention. Journalists copied the fundraisers’ chorus of woe. Hunger caused by a war raging in Somalia became a famine in the entire Horn of Africa. Some media even started talking about “the famine in Africa”.

When asked what he needed most, a Somali herder near the border with Kenya told me “I need respect”. Do aid workers and journalists show respect for the victims when they toss around figures like “four million dead in Congo” or “hundreds of thousands killed in Darfur genocide”.

When will figures become people? There is great suffering in Somalia, but how can aid workers claim that thousands of people have already died there because of the famine? Tens, hundreds, thousands? Is there a difference? Or have these calculations been made on the back of a matchbox to feed the journalists and the fundraisers? It seems perfectly understandable that African leaders are reluctant to join the hype created around this serious food crisis.

‘Lost boys’ of Sudan may not have been so lost

Daniel Deng leads a protest march in Juba, Sudan.  Photo  Arne Doornebal

Daniel Deng leads a protest march in Juba, Sudan. Photo Arne Doornebal

Dave Egger’s book What is the What tells the story of Sudan’s ‘lost boys’. But the term is “bullshit,” one lost boy claims.“We were not lost, we were led.”

Daniel Deng feels like he is still being treated like a child. “The South-Sudanese government spent so much money on campaigns for the Sunday elections and now it has suddenly withdrawn its candidate at the very last minute. Who should we vote for now? Don’t we have anything to say here in South Sudan?”
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