Immigrating through the arts

New York City is the central hub of arts in the United States. Home to hundreds of theaters and the ultimate theater center “Broadway”, performing artists from around the world move to this city to hopefully make their mark in the artistic world. For African immigrants, opportunities to perform in mainstream theater, music, and dance companies are limited and far between. There are currently only four shows on Broadway that have opportunities within the cast for starring roles played by black actors (Memphis, Fela, The Lion King and In the Heights). The competition within broadway theater is already extremely high but this added pressure for limited roles, (especially as many of these shows set to close in 2011), means that Black actors must be extremely talented and often well known, to obtain roles.

Many choose to create their own productions and performance companies in order to create opportunities for other African and Black artists. Their hope is to increase the stories and performance opportunities for people of African descent.

We are profiling four African artists that have traveled to New York to share their talent with American audiences. For many this has been a journey full of ups and downs and many have successfully reached goals beyond their dreams.

Sifiso Mavuso is a dancer and choreographer that has performed with Cirque du Soleil in the United States, Canada and throughout the Caribbean. As one of the choreographer’s of The Beatles Love, currently running at the Mirage in Las Vegas, Sifiso has become an international choreographer sharing his talent with a major performing company. He has also used his art to increase the exposure of traditional South African dance in the U.S. He currently is the choreographer and director of an African dance company here in New York called Juxtapose.

Nomsa Mazwai is currently in the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship studying for an MA in Economics at Fordham University. She is also a poet and singer and an author of a book about resources in South African education. Sai Sai, Little Girl follows a young girl as she navigates the university system at the University of Fort Hare. Nomsa served as the first female SRC president at the legendary university that once housed Nelson Mandela and other liberation leaders. The book has been reviewed as “A brilliantly painted picture of what has become of the “African Cradle of Intellectualism and Leadership”. The younger sister of Thandiswa Mazwai (formerly of the South African group Bongo Maffin), Nomsa comes from a family of activists and musicians.

Nick Mwaluko is a transgendered playwright from Tanzania whose work raises awareness of LGBT issues within African culture, history and throughout the continent. His work has received numerous awards and his play Waafrika, recently received critical acclaim during its run in South Florida.

Ron Kunene is a part of the Ensemble for Disney’s the Lion King on Broadway and the international dialect coach for all performances of the Lion King around the globe. He is the producer  and performer for Themba (sing for hope) a singing and dance troupe comprised of South Africans living in the USA. The aims and objectives of the group include being cultural ambassadors, educating the world about South Africa, celebrating African heritage and working to bridge the gap between the USA and South Africa. Since the 1980s Themba has been featured in numerous films and recorded songs with a number of well known singers like Miriam Makeba, Q, New Jersey Mass Choir, Paul Simon, JoeZawnol, Little Stevens, David Fogelberg, Hugh Masekela, and many more.

Over the coming weeks, full profiles of these artists will be available on the blog but we have created a small trailer with highlights below.

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UB40 Leaving Namibian Orphans in the Cold?

In 2005, I spent a semester studying abroad in Namibia and from time to time I like to check out the online newspaper The Namibian to keep myself up to date on what’s going on in the country. The headline today criticized the band UB40 (anyone remember Red, Red Wine or Can’t Help falling in Love) for canceling a concert last minute.

 According to The Namibian, Hope Village orphanage spent nearly $3 million Namibian dollars in preparations for the event.  The orphanage had expected to regain costs from the 6,000 tickets sold for the event.  Although UB40 is supposed to reschedule, skeptics fear that they won’t  and Hope Village will be forced to close its doors.  

UB40 canceled the show because its percussionist was given instructions by his doctor to rest due to a medical condition.  Before the concert was even canceled, Namibians were feeling discouraged with the band when UB40 announced that their lead singer had left the band and his brother “who sounds just like him” would be singing instead.  

Sure medical problems come up and unfortunately concerts need to be canceled, but where does the responsibility of the band come in? Should they ensure that this orphanage doesn’t close? For all of the stars out there who want to “help” Africa, maybe now is their chance.  Let’s recruit the entertainers who were a part of the digital death campaign to donate some money to this cause. And while they’re at it, maybe they can get a better band to perform too.

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Forget Rudolph, Santa Has Wheels!


This past Sunday, South Africans gathered together to try to break the world record for the most Santa’s on wheels in one place.  Santa’s left their reindeer at home and arrived in cars, on bikes, on skates and in strollers. Unfortunately, according to, they were 9,700 Santa’s short of breaking the record, but if thousands of Santa’s gathered together still doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.

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Media Activists in Rwanda

Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, the country has made immense progress in areas of economic development and increased political stability.  Per capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, national health insurance has been implemented, education access has improved, there is broadband internet access in major cities and the death penalty has been abolished.  These improvements are remarkable for a country that less than two decades ago was in the throes of a brutal genocide.

Amidst all of the successes though, the Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his ruling government have been criticized of stifling press freedom.  Leading up to the Presidential elections in August of this year, the independent press was increasingly restricted.   In April, two of the nations’ leading independent weekly newspapers were suspended for six months. The Umuseso and Umuvugizi newspapers were cited with “violation of the media law and inciting public disorder”. Deputy Editor of Umuseso, Didas Gasana left the country for fear of being arrested and launched a new independent weekly, “The Newsline”.  The website has been blocked within Rwanda, and while Gasana has been able to distribute it over email, only 300 copies of each edition reach Rwanda.

Kagame’s restriction of media outlets has been noted by Reporters Without Borders 2010 World Press Freedom Index, which lists Rwanda as one of the ten most repressive countries towards journalists. According to the site, Rwanda is on the list because of “the closure of independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the Presidential Election and “Umuvuvgizi” deputy editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali.”  The Rwandan government dismissed the ranking as “unfounded and misleading”.  Kagame has refuted the allegations of media suppression by reminding people of the hate media that emerged during the genocide of 1994.  He believes some control needs to be exerted over the media so as to prevent a repeat of that situation.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor agrees with Kagame, believing Rwanda was ranked too low.  Jina Moore, the author of the article, contends that Rwanda should not be in the bottom ten with countries like Somalia; claiming that journalists in Somalia are “fleeing very real, dangerous and ongoing violence.” I don’t know what that looks like to Moore, but journalists being killed in Rwanda certainly counts as real and dangerous violence to me.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists have been killed since 1992 in Rwanda, while 34 have been killed in Somalia.  While the number is indeed higher in Somalia, it’s an issue that should be taken seriously in both countries.

Kigali Wire, a blog run by Graham Holliday out of Kigali has a list of media outlets and blogs based in and related to Rwanda.  The list of blogs is quite substantial and left me wondering how many of the bloggers were writing within Rwanda and how many were writing from outside the country. Holliday, who himself is British, states that the media environment in Rwanda is more welcoming to foreign journalists than to Rwandan journalists. 

So what is the situation for media activists and journalists in Rwanda? Is it one of oppression and violence or is it one of careful monitoring to ensure hate filled rhetoric doesn’t consume the media? I believe there is a way to allow everyone to express their opinion while preventing another genocide.  Kagame and his government must find the fine line that falls on.

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Colonial Africa’s DNA discovered in Disney Cartoon

Trapped in this polished tree sap is a mosquito with colonialism's DNA

Just like Dr. John Hammond in Jurassic Park discovered dinosaur DNA in a mosquito that was trapped in ancient tree sap, I stumbled upon a Disney cartoon from the 1940s that contains the DNA of colonial Africa. In this clip, Goofy goes on an African safari  that is narrated by somebody who might as well be Marlo from Heart of Darkness. The descriptions are not too flattering and in the first 10 seconds Africa is described as “the dark continent, the unknown, black forboading, mysterious, and vast stretches of wasteland”. Despite this, I think the cartoon is valuable from a historical perspective because it frames how Africa was percieved by the west during the 1940s. This is sad because today, 7 decades later, many people in the West still view Africa in this manner.

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Death to Aid

In this audio commentary, we reflect on the work of Dambisa Moyo and her book Dead Aid – Why Aid isn’t Working and Why There is a Better Way for Africa. A Harvard and Oxford educated economist hailing from Zambia, Moyo sees aid as a problem that is hurting the economic growth of African nations. Though not against humanitarian aid, she sees large government to government loans and grants, as roadblocks to positive economic development in countries throughout the continent. In her New York Times Best Seller she explains her stance on why aid breeds corruption and the ways that celebrities have created negative images of Africa. She believes all aid to Africa should be cut over the next 5 to 10 years. These countries should instead access the bond market, set up microfinance opportunities, work with China and have increase opportunities for trade and investment. Only with these changes, does she see African nations as having a chance to progress and improve. For the interview with Sir David Frost that is included in the commentary visit THIS PAGE on Youtube. For the full story on Brian Williams and Bono in West Africa GO HERE.

She was one of 20 individuals highlighted in Oprah’s 2009 list of Powerful Leaders and has spoken all over the globe on issues of Aid and African Development. She has used her Facebook Page, Youtube Channel and Twitter to spread the word about her book and work, quickly becoming an international representative for the African perspective in any development discussion.

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Professor Chris Blattman speaks at the New School

Professor Chris Blattman

Last week Chris Blattman, Assistant Professor of Economics and Political Science at Yale, came to speak at the New School regarding his work with ex-child soldiers in Uganda and post conflict development. After his presentation the floor was opened to the audience for questions.

One of the first topics discussed by Blattman was manner in which  international advocacy campaigns conduct their work regarding issues in conflict and post conflict zones. Campaigns such as these are important and have achieved good things, but they usually focus on what is catchy, and not on what is most important. The catchy stuff, said Blattman, is what galvanizes the masses to pressure their politicians and donate funds to a certain cause. This has been the case with ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone, and more recently with coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In many instances, when a particular campaign has been deemed to be ‘solved’, the issue tends to disappear from the public’s radar, despite the fact that the problem may still persist.

Another type of action he criticized is the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) issuance of warrants against the top leaders of the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for committing atrocities against civilians. This warrant may have made things worse by preventing the peaceful resolution of this war.

The warrant issued by the ICC may have impeded local initiatives of amnesty and forgiveness in fostering cohesion in Ugandan society. At present the LRA has been chased out of Uganda, but it has now relocated to the remote south eastern corner of the Central Africa Republic where it continues to abductand kill civilians.

Why aren't these guys included in the ICCs most wanted list ?

Upon visiting the ICC’s website, I learned that all the people who are on its most wanted list are all African. If this isn’t already ridiculous, I find it more absurd that there is an international court hounding people in Africa for war crimes, when Western leaders, who themselves are culpable for war crimes around the world, are immune to such international courts.

Blattman was also asked to give his thoughts on Paul Collier’s influencial ‘Greed vs. Grievances’ argument. This argument states that all rebellions fought in developing countries are fought and sustained by greedy purposes (i.e. the control for a country’s natural resources), and that grievances are not the real fuel for rebellion. Blattman compared Colliers’s Greed vs. Grievances to what he referred to as the ‘Sylvester Stallone Model’ (where an individual, or a group, decide to rebel to avenge or regress an injustice inflicted upon them) 

'Blood corn'?

His responses in a nutshell were:

  • In Northern Uganda, where the LRA was operating, there were no natural resources to exploit such as diamonds, timber, or cocoa. In the north there were only cornfields and cattle.


  • In conflicts where natural resources have been used, the great majority of the soldiers fighting are definitely not rich, and they rarely see profits from mineral exploitation, so an important question to ask is why do they still fight? 


  • Finally, he said that many of the rebel groups across countries  did not begin because of greedy purposes, even though later on it acquired this aspect of greed (e.g UNITA and diamonds).

Dr. Collier, have you considered Stallone's marriage proposal?

However, Blattman he did not discredit Collier’s analysis, but simply said marrying both  ‘Greed vs. Grievances’ and ‘Sylvester Stallone model’ would be a smart thing to do and is where research should try and focus.

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