Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Les Journaux Africains: Byoona Amagara, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda - 21.00 12/04/2010

It's been a slow day on the island today. With the majority of our travelling party having spent the day at Karambo Primary School, things have been peaceful - in-between the sporadic fainting of one of our students. The day reminds me of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire when she says, "don't you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour - but a little bit of Eternity dropped in your hands". The only difference of course is that we were at Lake Bunyonyi and the weather was fine.

Playing cards. Photo © 2010, Matthew Jenkins.
Not long before sundown we waved goodbye temporarily to Greg and Jeff who were returning to add the finishing touches to the Kabale Arts Centre at the Edirisa. Most of the work I believe has been done, but such details as name plates under each painting and organising the press to attend the opening needs to be done.

For the rest of us the night has been generally quiet. The exception to this is that we have been playing our own music through the sound system in the main building. A particular highlight of this was when, on my iPod, the song 'Fire Anthem' by East African Bashment Crew came on. Friday (one of the workers) plus loads of the kitchen and bar staff started to shout, sing and dance along. It was a surreal moment for all involved.

Tomorrow, we have to pack the tents up and get everyone back to the mainland in one piece. I'll do as I did today: have an early morning swim in the icy cold and mist-covered lake, followed by an open-air shower looking out over the water.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Five Questions: Asya Satti, Singer-Songwriter

Photo © www.aysamusic.com
Every so often Twitter can bring to light something a little bit special. This may be anything from something free you never thought of asking for, to a musician starting out in the big bad world of the music industry.

Asya Satti is of Sudanese extraction, but has spent time in both Sweden and Egypt before starting out in music from her North London home. Her website describes her musical and lyrical style as 'unhinged', 'honest' and 'humourous' and she has just released her debut EP online.

Ayohcee: Music, many people feel, is “in their blood”. Is this true with you or did your interest in singing and song writing really only start in your teenage years?

Asya Satti: I definitely think singing is in the blood. According to my mum I'd lie on my back after having my nappy changed and 'croak' to myself for hours - I must have been enjoying what I was hearing! Lol! I started working on my singing technique in my teens and started songwriting around the age of 17.

AÓC: ‘Do You Think About Me,’ a song on your debut EP, has a distinctive Middle-Eastern feel to it. Do you make conscious attempt to stay in touch with your roots musically, or is it something that comes naturally to you?

AS: I try to avoid being to conscious about it as I don't want anything to come off too contrived. However I love a bit of Arabic music as it takes me back to my days in Egypt. I love listening to Sudanese, Congolese and reggae music - it's where I get a lot of melody ideas from.

AÓC: Songs such as ‘Bitch in the Bedroom’ and ‘Reputation’ reflect very normal situations that perhaps anyone could find himself or herself in. How important do you think that this is for singer-songwriters to do?

AS: I think its easier to relate to a song if you feel the person singing it has experienced it in some way, even if they experienced it through a friend. So I guess it doesn't have to be a normal situation, it just has to feel like whoever has written the song has connected to the message behind it.

AÓC: We often hear that the music industry is notoriously difficult to get into. Would you agree and do you see yourself as part of a business?

AS: I don't know if I would call it 'difficult', studying biology is what I call 'difficult'! Doing something you love doing never feels hard, but most of the challenges you face in the industry are how you feel about yourself and the material you're creating. It definitely makes you confront yourself a lot. Yes, I definitely see myself as part of a business.

AÓC: With your debut EP under recorded and available to download, what comes next for you both musically and in life more generally?

AS: An album for the end of September, lots of gigs over the summer. That's all I can get my head round at the moment!

Ayohcee would like to thank Asya for taking part in this interview. For more about her, including the songs referred to in the interview visit: www.asyamusic.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@asyamusic).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Les Journaux Africains: Byoona Amagara, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda - 13.30 12/04/2010

Karambo. Photo © 2010, Zertashia Hussein.
After the hilarious mystery of the alleged tribal drumming and incantations had been solved - a Sunday school group and some midnight praying respectively - the pace of proceedings slowed right down yesterday. The students were satisfied with talking to teachers, talking to each other, or falling out with each other, albeit not terminally. Some made use of the dodgy internet, others chose the jetty from which to watch the moon and stars.

I opted, after my freshly landed crayfish curry, to sit and do nothing of great value. I also decided on an early night.

As it was, I have woken up with ridiculously severe sunburn across my shoulders - a small oversight not to reapply sun-cream whilst playing cricket, following a swim.

Most of our group have today headed over to another island to a school - it is Monday after all, although I quite literally don't know what day of the week it is. The purpose of their island-hop is to visit Karambo Primary School. Greg and Jeff had been before last summer and had promised to return with visitors and fresh ideas in conjunction with their Riza Group initiative.

I have, due to my sunburn and a lack of gluten-free snack foods, decided to stay at Byoona Amagara with Raj and a handful if students - one of which has been fainting a lot due to low iron.

Raj and myself have been having a detailed discussion about what happens next with regards the partnership, seeking charitable status and who will lead the trip in 2011 as Raj is getting married.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Five Questions: Matthew Jenkins, trustee of Solomon's Children

Photo © 2010, Tugce Ozcan.
Navigating your way through the maze of charitable ventures is seemingly getting more difficult. There is quite literally a UK-based charity for everything imaginable and I am convinced that they all deserve our attention. In amongst this labyrinthine web of .orgs, one charity that I have become close to is Solomon's Children.

Matthew Jenkins is one of the trustees, a colleague and a good friend of mine. Along with his university professor and fresh batch of trustees, he is transforming Solomon's Children as a charity, expanding its remit and preparing for a large relaunch later in 2011. Matthew talks to Ayohcee about the charity and where it is going.

Ayohcee: What are the main goals or objectives of Solomon’s Children and how do you go about accomplishing them?

Matthew Jenkins: Our primary goal is to provide an ever expanding network of support for disadvantaged young people in Uganda. Our main focus in achieving this is to provide a link between potential sponsors from the UK and elsewhere with individual students from various parts of Uganda. Our team works with volunteers and teachers from Uganda to select young people to support there on the basis of individual merit. In addition to this, we work with local communities on small to medium sized projects to be of benefit to various groups of people within the areas in which we work. These range from providing financial assistance to build a nursery to more practical skills-based experience and training to put on art exhibitions.

AÓC: Solomon’s Children was founded in 2003, but has recently undergone a bit of a reinvigoration. What has been changed?

MJ: Solomon’s Children was founded in memory of Solomon Ochaya. The commitment to his family and to the education of his children was truly inspirational. The charity was mainly focused in providing assistance in Kampala. It was quite limited in its ability to expand due to the nature of being a small charity with a limited number of volunteers.

At this time there was a link between William Morris Sixth Form in Hammersmith, London and the Warriner School in Boxham, Oxfordshire. Both were working with a school in Kabale, in the southwest of Uganda. After a chance encounter and a number of very productive and exiting meetings, the charity incorporated the linked schools into its existing commitments and a new remit which satisfied the goals of all parties was drawn up. To put it simply, we are now able to provide a greater number of sponsors for deserving students and have a larger number of volunteers. This allows us to take on additional projects and have greater access to a more diverse number of ideas from a bigger group of people.

AÓC: With there being an ever increasing number of charities working in East Africa, what makes Solomon’s Children stand out when compared to any of the other charities working in there?

MJ: I think that an increasing number of charities working in this part of Africa can only be a positive thing. As a small charity we are able to provide a really personal and highly coordinated level of support to the individuals and communities we work with.

We are also able to allow students from the UK based schools to visit our partner schools in Africa. This provides our own students with the fantastic and immensely valuable opportunity to experience all that a very beautiful and fascinating country has to offer. This helps us to raise awareness of the challenges people in this part of the world face within the very diverse communities from which our students are drawn.

We are also trying to get as many of the students who are unable to visit Uganda involved with the charity by linking elements of our curriculum to the charity. We allow them to put on events which, in addition to providing a fantastic learning opportunity, raise much needed funds for the charity.

AÓC: Ayohcee recently contributed to Africa on the Blog starting a discussion on the subject of ‘The Right Kind of Aid’. If there is such a thing as a right kind of aid, do you think that Solomon’s Children is a good adherent to such a principle, as unquantifiable as it may be?

MJ: The idea of there being a ‘right kind of aid’ is of course a difficult thing to quantify and is by nature of the statement, entirely subjective in itself. Whilst being difficult to assess the impact of the aid you provide, a simple test could be to ask ‘what does this enable the beneficiary to do today that they could not have done without assistance and what impact will this have in the future?’ If you are to accept this as a suitable measure of the ‘right kind of aid’ then my opinion is that we are very much adherent to such principles. Our main aim is to empower individuals to develop their own communities by providing them with opportunities to obtain the education they need to do so. We are not trying to provide solutions to the people we work with on how to move forward, but simply enable them to generate their own ideas and gain the skills they need to see these through to fruition.

AÓC: Your operations are currently focused around the Ugandan capital Kampala and Kabale in south-western Uganda. Are their any plans in the pipeline to further expand the operations and scope of Solomon’s Children?

MJ: We are very open to the concept of any expansion of our charity.

In the medium to long-term, I am very confident that we will indeed expand our reach much further and perhaps even the remit of the charity. However, at the present time, we must focus on developing what we currently do and not try to expand too quickly. We must maintain our sustainability as a charity and continue to work to improve the way we operate and deliver the assistance we promise to our partners in Africa. We are always looking for additional sponsors of individual Ugandan students as well as for any donations that people or organizations can make to help our cause.

For more information about the charity Solomon's Children visit: www.solomonschildren.org. Solomon's Children are also on Twitter (@SC_Uganda) and have a page on Facebook.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit!

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit, or that's Happy Saint Patrick's day to you if you're not up to speed with your Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) lessons - which I'm not anyway!

If you've ever met me in person you'll know that it isn't immediately apparent from my voice, but I am actually a proud passport-wielding Irishman. Back in 1959 my father left Ireland as a little boy and settled in the United Kingdom, albeit via Luanshya, Zambia. From a very young age, and much to the confusion of my friends during the 1994 World Cup in the USA and thereafter, I was taught to cheer for a team that wore green jerseys, not white ones!

A few years later, I have for some purposes re-adopted the Gaeilge spelling of my name - there is, after all, no 'k' in the Gaeilge alphabet. I then used this name when I started this blog back in 2005.

Anyway, by way of a Saint Patrick's Day offering, I have included Sinéad O'Connor's version of 'Óró, Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile' - a fantastic version of a traditional song that celebrates a victorious homecoming for Gráinne Ní Mháille.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Five Questions: Chris Horner, member of The People's Supermarket

You would have had to have had your head buried in the sand to have missed the buzz that has been growing concerning The People's Supermarket recently. This supermarket takes aim at the ruthlessness and soullessness of the big supermarkets in attempting to create a local supermarket that sources its produce ethically.

Chris Horner, a colleague and friend of mine, is responsible for bringing The People's Supermarket to my attention. He is a member and thus a worker at the supermarket in Lamb's Conduit Street, Holborn, London. He agreed to take part in a Friday Five Questions interview for Ayohcee about his involvement in the project. 

It must be stressed that his views are his own and don't necessarily reflect the views of The People's Supermarket.

Ayohcee: The People’s Supermarket (TPS) has risen to prominence over the last month or so, thanks in part to the Channel 4 documentary about it. What’s all the fuss about?

Chris Horner: I’d say it was an idea whose time has come, or is overdue. The question of how we source, waste, sell, and consume food is a hugely important one on many levels – I could write several pages on each of those and then add some. Part of the importance of the TPS is the fact that it involves people in not only thinking through, but also acting in order to improve things. Some examples of why it’s important: 

  1. We live in a global context, and the questions of sourcing and paying for our produce fairly must be addressed –TPS tries to work with suppliers here and abroad in a way which keeps them fairly and sustainably in a partnership with the retailer/consumer. 
  2. Food waste is appalling. TPS acts to avoid that; part of what it does here educates and shows others what can be done. It’s an ethical, political and environmental scandal to chuck the amount of perfectly good food away that the typical retailer and consumer does every day.
  3. Being active in making things better is good. Co-ops are good! Taking responsibility for ones own locality and the way one’s quality of life develops is a positive thing. TPS tends to have a subtle ‘educative’ effect on all those who work there – we decide together what we’ll do and then we do it – ourselves. That changes people.

AÓC: Can TPS every really challenge the might of Tesco and it’s 33% of the market share, or is that not really the point of the idea?

CH: We’re realists and idealists. We know that one co-op won’t threaten Tesco, and won’t overturn these large organisations with their unhealthy grip on the nation’s alimentary canal – and their appalling way with the people who labour to grow the stuff they sell. But apart from the fact that the TPS is a good thing in itself, I think we can be a beacon to others. ‘Propaganda by the deed’ was an old anarchist slogan. I’d adapt it to our context: showing what can be done and making it a success has already begun to inspire others to set up similar enterprises elsewhere (just as we were inspired by the version of the TPS they have in Brooklyn NY).

Whether or not that kind of thing rivals the big supermarkets or just helps to change the way they do business, and raises people’s consciousness who know, but it’s got to be worthwhile.

AÓC: David Cameron recently paid a visit to TPS which coincided with the re-launch of the ‘Big Society’ idea, and took time to speak to Arthur Potts Dawson in front of the TV cameras. Is TPS what Big Society is all about, or is Cameron jumping on the bandwagon to rescue the somewhat confusing idea of Big Society from the scrapheap?

CH: I could be thee latter, I think. I wasn’t too happy with our role in it all, as I wanted us to be a bit more media savvy about politicians’ photo opps. The Big Society idea isn’t 100% rubbish precisely because it is an amorphous, hard to pin down idea. Who could be against society? We are society and the TPS is an aspect of the desire to act rather than wait for others to do it for us.

But what does ‘big’ in Big Society mean – does it mean instead of ‘small’ state provision for the vulnerable? Does it mean competing interest groups carving up the commons – denying a citizen’s right to be treated equally wherever s/he is? I don’t worship The State but I’ll fight to defend the sense that the state embodies our shared life together, and tries to ensure justice and solidarity.

AÓC: Now, I know you in your professional capacity as a teacher at the same Sixth Form College as I teach. On top of this I know you are writing a book, that you keep a blog, are a regular tweeter and now you are involved in TPS. How much of your time and energy does being a member take, and does a member have much of a say in the decision-making process?

CH: I’m also a member of the London Equality Group, promoting a more equal society, and a few other things! TPS asks me to do 4 hours a month in return for being able to help decide in members’ meetings what we will do, as well as a 10% discount at the till. It’s not much of a commitment, I find. I also enjoy it – it’s a refreshing change from what I usually do. All members get an equal vote at members’ meetings – we decide on the kinds of stuff that comes up in a co-op, very much including fair trade, supporting the local community, as well as the mundane issues of bulk purchasing etc.

AÓC: Finally, what will the future hold for the TPS? Will it rely on more charismatic Arthur Potts Dawson-types to come forward to open more People’s Supermarket, or do you believe there will be a different strategy for growth?

CH: I think I partly answered this in my response to the second question, but I’d add that we’re mobilised around achievable goals: making the one TPS we have a success, for now. Charismatic characters are a real help – but the TPS was/is more collective than the Arthur Potts-Dawson centred TV series may have portrayed it. If the TPS idea is to spread, my hunch is that it will need both: people with the wherewithal to start the thing and a collective will to really make it happen.

For more information on The People's Supermarket visit: http://www.thepeoplessupermarket.org/ or follow them on Twitter (@TPSLondon).

Monday, March 07, 2011

Born To Write: Save the Children Blogging Conference

A great cause and a great event.
There's nothing better than an early morning ride on a Boris Bike from Waterloo, through the old part of London, past the Old Bailey, towards Smithfield Market. The fresh air blasting against one's bearded face and the cold air piercing one's eardrums. This is exactly what I did on Saturday 26th February en route to Save the Children UK's headquarters in order to attend their Born to Write blogging conference.

I must admit the thought of networking first thing on a Saturday did not strike me as a top priority, but thanks to a variety of people engaging me in conversation, not least Denrele who was in charge of tweeting for the day, and some coffee - I hope it was FairTrade guys - I was coerced into being sociable. I'm glad I was too.

The day started in earnest with a couple of speakers: Adrian Lovett, who spoke on how social media could be used to get people thinking about poverty now in a way that the 'Make Poverty History' wristbands did in the early 2000s; this was followed up by Gareth Owen, whose job title is the interesting Director of Emergencies, who talked about how social media is used to get information from the coal face to the public when disaster strikes. Both made compelling arguments.

With one eye firmly on my impending trip to Rwanda and Uganda this April, I attended the workshop run by Colin Crowley, whose role is that of a multimedia journalist in times of disaster. He demonstrated wonderfully the manner in which even the most simple of video and photographic techniques can garner the most potent of responses from the world - taking time in many cases to focus on the story of the individual and not the thoughts of the journalist as news channels often do. A great example of this being an interview he filmed with Andrise, a young Haitian girl.


To round things off, author Melvin Burgess came forward for the key note address discussing the importance of providing a voice for people through listening and retelling their stories. What one could gather from his message was that if, through social media, we can share the voice of the forgotten, the oppressed, the dejected and the downbeat and connect them with the millions of ears out there, we can make a difference.

The day was an immensely worthwhile experience. Every speaker could be said to provide some sort of encouragement for moving my own social media enterprises forward, but doing so in a way that continues to point firmly towards helping others who find themselves in need of a voicebox. 

I'm going to be a busy man in East Africa this April.

I would like to thank Save the Children UK for the opportunity to participate in the conference, with a special thank you to the speakers and Colin Crowley for providing some real inspiration. Save the Children can be followed on Twitter (@SaveChildrenUK).

Friday, March 04, 2011

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

My desire to read something by Ngugi wa Thiong'o stems from a couple of different things. On the one hand my involvement with developmental and cultural exchange projects in East Africa meant that it was about time I read a work by an East African author. The second reason was curiosity aroused by the author's name which, to this day, I am still slightly unsure of how to pronounce.

That aside, this book does not disappoint. In a manner that is typical of postcolonial literature, the richness of the language use and narrative style surpasses a large number of texts written by English authors of a similar period.

The story that Thiong'o creates feels epic. The weight of the book's content and the intertwining of its characters' tales, as the small Kenyan town of Thabai prepares for Uhuru - Swahili for 'freedom' - from the British Empire, almost seems too much to take in.

We follow the story of a seemingly simple man, Mugo, who is revered by all of the villlage folk and people of the surrounding hills as being a hero of the fight against white rule. What Thiong'o does so subtly is to show that independence was not something that was gained easily and was not a battle fought in rose-tinted, cinematic slow-motion as heroes fought their oppressors. 

This village in pre- and post-Independence Kenya is, instead, filled with flawed heroes and Mugo is just one of them.

This book is not only a great example of African literature, but one that shows the reality of any situation  in the world where people suffer from oppression, suppression or colonial rule. It demonstrates how, more often than not, humans seek to serve themselves first and choose to keep their heads below the parapet, regardless of the universal needs of the many.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Les Journaux Africains: Byoona Amagara, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda - 13.01 11/04/2010

The beautiful Lake Bunyonyi. Photo © 2009, the author.
A very quiet night's sleeps was had by most of us, although I wake up to a variety of strange tales. Some of these I will, for a number of reasons, retain only temporally.

The most bizarre tales that I have heard this morning relate to some sources hearing what sounded like chanting in the night. Now, upon first thinking of this, I figured that they meant the chanting of silly boys and girls - our students. This appears not to be the case though.

At around three or four in the morning, female voices could be heard engaging in something akin to spiritual incantations. This lasted for around fifteen solid minutes with no one sure how near or far the voices were. 

Other claims relate to early morning 'tribal' drumming. Maybe we've all been out in the sun too long.

The Ugandan staff and students leave us soon to return to Kigezi High School. What a night.
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