Monday, July 28, 2014

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The evening’s music is two thirds over when Taj Mahal intones mysteriously: “And now…you’re beneath the southern cross…where the ghosts of Mississippi meet the gods of Africa.” He glances briefly at ngoni player and rising star Bassekou Kouyate, and we’re thrown headfirst into the music.

Or perhaps the music is thrown headfirst into us. The concert is more loud and strident than it is atmospheric. Not that this is a bad thing; what the two musicians’ bands lack in subtlety, they make up for in thumping rhythmic power. Perhaps that’s the nature of live blues, whether African or American – it’s hard to duplicate the intimacy of studio recordings and so going hell-for-leather may be the best option when performing in front of hundreds of people.

The first act of the evening is the Taj Mahal Trio. Figuratively, the African American Taj Mahal is as titanic as the building. He’s a big man with a big influence, and at 72 years of age, he’s been around, though it doesn’t really show in his set with the Trio. Famed for incorporating reggae, calypso, rock ‘n’ roll and traditional North African music into his laid-back blues, most of the seven songs he plays here are straight (if nicely choppy) blues. Four of the first five songs alone are from his excellent 1968 album The Natch’l Blues; elsewhere, we have 'Slow Drag' – the only post-1972 song we’re treated to – as well as the celebrated 'Fishin’ Blues' and a lively rendition of 'M’Banjo'. Unsurprisingly, the banjo tracks are jubilant, transcendent.

How much does the limited nature of his material matter? Very little. From the minute he strides confidently onto the stage with Kester Smith (on drum duties) and Bill Rich (a solid, spirited bass-player), our attention is fixed on him without him even having to look at us. An assortment of guitars and a banjo sit waiting at stage right; after a few seconds’ thought, he picks up a plugged-in acoustic, gives Smith the sign, and we’re off.

When Mahal and Kouyate met in San Francisco, US, in 2010.

The thundering drums that open his set with 'Good Morning, Ms. Brown' aren’t really what we’re used to from Mahal – we’re accustomed to the primacy of guitar/banjo, with the drums simply providing a solid backbeat. But the muscular resonance of his guitar easily competes with the booming skins, and his voice is in pleasantly fine fettle after half a century in the business. He is a great storyteller too. One particularly amusing anecdote, whose humour derives partly from Mahal’s sly facial expressions, relates how once as a child he was sitting outside after church when a woman came “undulating” down the street. “If I ever grow up to be a musician,” boomed Mahal, voicing his childhood self, “I’m gonna make a rhythm out of the way that woman walks.” He’s ended up making not only a rhythm but a career out of it.

Much of the audience is particularly looking forward to the two musicians playing together, but before the third act we’re duly treated to a set by the Malian Kouyate and his band. He’s an idiosyncratic performer, shaking and shrugging and shivering his shoulders as if disgruntled at the persistence of a Sahelian desert fly buzzing around his ear. His percussionist looks pretty young, and might even be in his mid-teens; when he smacks the cymbals, he does so with an impish smile. His attentiveness is matched by the more studied seriousness of a tall man who appears to be playing the kora. He too looks young, possibly early-20s, and behind his air of concentration lies a calm, steady professionalism.

Bassekou, by contrast, does not seem calm. He remains fixed to his spot, but he twitches frenetically. He is playing the jeli ngoni – a traditional Mande instrument made of goat skin that covers a hollow body. It’s not dissimilar to the banjo, but Bassekou does some interesting things with it. The first track he plays is like a North Africanised 'Fools’ Gold' – all shimmering lines and steady percussion, creating a pretty piquant mirage. This is the feel of many tracks; for the second track, a female vocalist makes her appearance, turning and swaying gracefully. The sweat-soaked ngoni maestro is full of surprises, connecting his instrument to a wah-wah pedal and letting rip; the vocalist, in her varied vocal tone, is increasingly reminiscent of Yoko Ono, though far less grating.

The tempos vary throughout the set; taken as a whole, the music has a natural ebb and flow, with the players always light on their feet. A couple of the tracks are fast, heady, almost hallucinatory. Close your eyes, and let your imagination do the rest.

Queen Bee by Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate.

When Taj comes on, and the two musics collide, things get even more interesting. At first, the two masters twang their instruments at each other, glancing at one another and vocalising cooperatively – or is it competitively? It’s hard to tell. They playfully poke each other musically, with Taj occasionally singing light-heartedly nonsensical words about his counterpart. There’s a lot of affinity between the two, and Bassekou clearly looks up to his elder. Their relationship is refreshing, and cooks up a sweet spectacle as well as great music.

“I know who my mother is,” announces Taj as they break into 'Zanzibar', their second song together. 'Mama Africa'. The song is like a shuffling waltz; discernible words are "Niger", "Burkina Faso" and, most commonly, "Africa". It’s followed up by the title track of Kulanjan, the 1999 album Taj cut with kora player Toumani Diabaté; it’s a Malian standard, the sort of ‘first song’ all Malian guitarists learn how to play.

But for many, including myself, the highlight is undoubtedly their stunning rendition of another track from Kulanjan – 'Queen Bee'. The original has Ramatou Diakité punctuating Taj’s timeless verses with her glimmering waterfall of a voice; here, in absence of this, is a handful of musicians smiling, singing joyously, plucking and picking and tapping and hitting to create the aural equivalent of a particularly zesty ragoût d’igname. This is jubilance, sheer jubilance, and an unsurpassable musical experience.

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When Pieter-Dirk Uys gets on stage, no one and nothing is safe. Whether through his incisive impressions of well-known figures or his mimicking of ordinary South Africans, his sharp satire touches on all the facets of South Africa’s collective memory, making fun of everybody and anybody. Pseudo-liberal white activists are hung out to dry alongside their hard-line apartheid-supporting counterparts, while Desmond Tutu is treated to the same exuberant parodying as the likes of P.W. Botha and Robert Mugabe. Uys always maintains, however, that he never mocks people − only their attitudes.

Uys, who is now 68, has been performing on stage ever since 1982 when, as a gay white Afrikaner and anti-apartheid activist, he began to use his humour and keen sense of observation to fight oppression. His drag act as conservative stalwart Evita Bezuidenhout ended up being his most powerful weapon, and she went on to become his most famous alter ego.

Evita made her debut in his first show ‘Adapt or Dye’ (1982) which played on the fraught politics of colour in South Africa, and earned Uys much suspicion from the South African Censorship Board and media. Evita was an Afrikaner tannie (which literally means 'auntie', but is broadly used as a term of respect for older Afrikaner women), a resident of the Transvaal, a supporter of the apartheid-governing National Party, and ambassador of the fictional homeland Bapetikosweti. Her musings on stage comically underlined many of the absurdities of apartheid and she quickly became "the most popular white woman in South Africa" as well as a political figure in her own right.

Evita, however, was not loved by all of course, and Uys' drag act incited homophobic abuse as well as ire from apartheid officials − which didn’t stop him continuing to provoke them. At one point, Uys even wrote a letter to the Minister of Police as Evita, complaining about Uys’ offensive impersonations of her and demanding his imprisonment. The response he got, addressed to Evita care of Pieter-Dirk Uys, courteously explained that the Minister would love to imprison him but that the prisons were already full with everyone else. “Your enemy will always have a sense of humour,” Uys reflected, and it was perhaps the authorities’ dismissal of Uys as simply a clown – as well as the colour of his skin – that saved him from the brunt of the oppressive laws of 1980s South Africa.

Thirty years on from his stage debut and twenty years into a post-apartheid South Africa, the power of comedy to overcome fear is still tangible in Uys’s act, although audiences presumably laugh more easily now that apartheid is over. His satire finds new targets today; apartheid is dead but hypocrisy – the "Vaseline of political intercourse" – is alive and well.

In the 2007 documentary Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story, Uys affirmed that Evita would always move with the politics of the time, and she certainly has. After South Africa's first free elections, for example, she renounced her National Party history, becoming an ANC voter instead, and claims to have cooked traditional Afrikaner bobotie and koeksisters for Nelson Mandela during his entire tenure in office. She even interviewed Mandela in 1994, became friends with Desmond Tutu, and, more recently started a Twitter feed whose 70,000-plus followers demonstrate the extent to which she has transcended her maker.

However, Uys is also far more than just Evita, and he too has taken on new battles since the fall of apartheid. For instance, in 2000, in the face of President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS denialism, he began visiting hundreds of schools across the country with his AIDS awareness workshop For Facts’ Sake. On these projects, he appeared as himself and spoke frankly, as well as comically, to students about sex and protection in an environment where embarrassed silence usually prevails. Uys also continued to criticise politicians for the crisis and suggested that the spread of AIDS had become a "genocide" partly allowed by the government's insistence that HIV had no connection with AIDS and its refusal to provide antiretrovirals. He was also appointed to the board of directors of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.

In his comedy today, Uys emphasises that despite South Africa's myriad problems, there is always good news amongst the bad. The balance between optimism and satire is a difficult one to strike, but Uys somehow manages it as he discusses issues such as tik (the crystal-meth-based concoction ravaging communities across the country), rape and xenophobia, whilst still talking of hope and progress.

On the one hand, Uys' comedy is as pointedly political as ever, and his impersonation of Grace Mugabe, for instance, highlights worries over South Africa's neighbour and over the possibility of South Africa "taking the short road to Zimbabwe." Uys wryly mentions that when he first included Grace in his cast of characters, he didn't expect to still be doing the impression 20 years later.

But, on the other hand, Uys' routine is also deeply personal, and his personal narration of experiences as a gay white Afrikaner gives an edge of pathos and intimacy to the overall comic performance. Liberation, Uys whispers, was not just about elections but also about erections, as he recounts illegal inter-racial trysts in his youth. His accounts convey a sense of otherworldliness for the majority of the audience who didn’t know apartheid first-hand, whilst also bringing us closer to understanding that strange time. And his frank treatment of white Afrikaner guilt as well as the contradictions of today’s South Africa is cathartic and much needed. Uys unites the country not by rewriting its dark history but by inspecting it closely, taking stock, laughing about its absurdity, and moving on to champion the issues of tomorrow.

Visit Evita’s home here. An Audience with Pieter-Dirk Uys is on at the Soho Theatre in London until Sunday 27 July.

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Tune Me What? Two Cats!

In this special extended episode, we are joined by Michael Flek, frontman of the legendary Durban punk band Wild Youth. He brought in his private collection of music and, in between some classics, we are privileged to hear some rare demos and rehearsal recordings.

South Africa in the late 1970s was an incredibly repressed society. For young white men in particular, a ‘macho’ and militarised attitude was expected. Television had only been introduced in 1976 and was a novelty, and it was against this backdrop that the punk rebels of Wild Youth grew up with their mission − subversive in and of itself − “to be in a band.”

We chat about Flek's past at the centre of the South African punk scene in the late 1970s and hear about some exciting re-releases on his record label Retrobution Records which has some fantastic re-recorded and remastered material from the time on offer. Aficionados should waste no time and visit their store for some very limited reissues.

Starting a record company to reissue your own records is quite a dramatic step, although it is testimony to the advances in technology that allow smaller enterprises to release short runs. Of course, for many − if not most − South African artists, it is a necessary step if you want to preserve anything of your legacy. Having spent time sourcing and compiling Wild Youth material − much of it nearly lost − and compiling a master, Flek teamed up with Benjy Mudie’s Retro Fresh label which specialises in re-issuing classic albums which would otherwise disappear.

Like their contemporaries, National Wake (featured in TMW S01E21), Wild Youth has benefitted from a resurgence of interest after being featured in the documentary Punk in Africa. Happily, the impetus to revisit his past has reawakened Flek’s creative side. He is back on the music scene having started a new band in London in the UK called Mig21. Check out some footage from their debut performance below:

The show also features Flek’s post-Wild Youth band the Gay Marines, as well as many other bands from the Durban and South African punk scene, including (but not limited to): The Flames, Via Afrika, The Asylum Kids, Leopard, and Powerage.

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

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Hungry Man is a record with a modest mythos surrounding it. The LP is a one-off studio project between musicians Broderick Majuwa and Isaac Digha along with titan producer Odion Iruoje 'Keyboard' at EMI Nigeria.

The exact recording date of Hungry Man is unknown, though thought to be sometime around 1978, and physical copies have been in short supply for over 35 years. The same could in fact be said of a plethora of exciting Nigerian records from the 60s and 70s that have all but been forgotten and out of reach for decades. However, thanks to the efforts of Soundway Records and similar record companies, some of these albums are now being pulled back out of obscurity.

Hungry Man is amongst these. It is made up of six tracks written and performed by Majuwa and Digha along with a selection of West African stars such as Ignace de Souza of the Black Santiagos and Jonni Wood from the SJOB movement.

The result is a cleanly-recorded, funk-heavy afrobeat journey that at times brims with madcap exuberance and at others sits back in the groove. The crisp guitar production allows each strum to be heard and contribute to the swirling funk drive, while Keyboard’s producing skills, as well as those of his sound engineers Emmanuel Odenusi and Kayode Salami, are undeniable as he ensures Hungry Man sounds resplendent, giving every instrument space amidst tight rhythmic hooks.

The most outstanding feature of the record, however, is the use of brass arrangements that sit high in the mix. Majuwa and Digha use trumpets to lead songs rather than as mere window dressing, and soaring brass performances appear in every track. The trumpet solo on ‘Peaceable World’ is especially jaw-dropping, roaring above the slick hooks put together by the bass and drums.

Keyboard seems happy to let the bass heavy grooves just run, which is to the record’s strength. The tracks are relatively lengthy − the shortest is just over four minutes − affording Majuwa and Digha the space to experiment with sounds and textures. Laconic synths seep through some songs. The second track ‘I Wish You Know’ is perhaps the best demonstration of this, but there is noodling too. In moments on ‘Peaceable World’ the synthesiser drops into an undulating pitch-shifted solo that keeps the mellow, drowsy feel to the song despite its frenetic energy.

The song-writing is solid, though ultimately it comes across as perhaps a little too careful. Moments of excess feel conspicuously planned. Solos end quite abruptly, and some of the songs lack the effervescent energy that could make them readily and immediately revisitable.

The vocal delivery is intuitively close to the music and lyrics are not always audibly clear, but the singing itself is a positive addition to the whole record. Without greater context, the distinguishable lyrics on the record come across as a series of spacey reflections and cogitations: “I wish you know what is my mind, my man” becomes a mantra on 'I Wish You Know'. Yet with closer inspection, the lyrical themes are more profound. The song titles ‘A Big Mess’, ‘Peaceable World’ and, most of all, ‘Tomorrow We Can’t Say’ suggest Keyboard’s broader concern with their place in the world, its state and an uncertain future. But amidst the reverb, the more sincere themes contained in the song titles are, at times, obscured.

By contrast, however, the meaning of the music itself is clear for all to hear and, whatever the deeper lyrical meaning of Hungry Man, its message is one of frenetic fun and glossy, infectious funk.

Hungry Man is released on Soundway Records on the 28 July. Pre-order it here.

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‘Township tech’ is an intriguing juxtaposition. It was first coined a few years ago by DJ and rapper Spoek Mathambo, who appointed himself the "prince" of it in the process, and the phrase injects a sense of freshness into one of South Africa’s most misunderstood creative hubs.

“A setup can cost as little as 1500 Rand [$140],” says Mathambo of the basic materials needed to create a track. “Some of the biggest songs this country has ever produced − ‘Township Funk’ by DJ Mujava, for example − were produced on a very simple home computer set-up.”

He is speaking to Think Africa Press ahead of the release of his new documentary, Future Sounds of Mzansi. The film is Mathambo's feature-length debut, directed in partnership with filmmaker Lebo Rasethaba, and it explores South Africa’s upcoming electronic music scene as it ventures beyond Mathambo's stomping ground of the townships of Johannesburg and across the whole country.

Mathambo had already proven his talent for visuals. In his live sets, for instance, flamboyant stage and light shows bridge the gaps between music, dance, theatre and film, clearly influenced by the powerful aesthetics of Nollywood's 'spiritual thrillers'. “It freaks out his family and I can’t argue with that!” says Mathambo of one of his previous producer’s reactions to the horror-film aspects of his work. It seems to be no coincidence that Spoek means ‘ghost’ in Afrikaans.

Mathambo also demonstrated his unique aesthetic approach in the nightmarishly unforgettable music video he created for his cover of Joy Division’s ‘Control’, a film which won him the Young Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. In the video, Mathambo − dressed in a crisp white suit with a vintage megaphone in hand − seems obsessed with images, each one skipping before we have time to comprehend its bizarre meaning: unidentified slithering objects, vomiting milk, heads being clumsily shaved, zombified followers.

A similar style dominates the trailer to Future Sounds of Mzansi as South Africa is once again captured through fast jump cuts between different evocative images. Amidst wheel spins, dust, colourful washing lines, Zimbabwean five-billion-dollar notes, and a ‘Beware of the Dog’ sign, we see shots of sweat-drenched performances, as if glimpsed in the flashes of a strobe light. “We party like our lives depend on it,” says Mathambo on the voiceover. “The groove is thick and infectious, and we give ourselves to it.”

Asked about the film's title, he explains: “Mzansi is more than just the Xhosa word for our nation. It's part of South African slang for a lot of people. I wanted a word to describe South Africa that was more localised than the English term. The documentary is essentially about us as South Africans telling our own stories, and using the word ‘Mzansi’ is an extension of this.”

In terms of debunking stereotypes about South Africa, a good place to start is the assertion, contrary to popular wisdom, that “South African townships are not so dangerous." That line is delivered in the trailer by a DJ called Machepies and is echoed by Mathambo. “However dangerous you think townships are, go and experience one for yourself and you will find enough vibrancy, warmth and love to balance the crime, poverty and injustice,” he says.

Once outside the club scenes and streets of Johannesburg, the visuals of the trailer switch between clips of a big African sun and rain drops on a car windscreen. Out here, the exploration of the sounds was as much new territory for Mathambo as it will probably be for most viewers.

“There are so many completely independent variants and strains of electronic music, each one unique to its territory," he says. "Durban qgom, Shangaan electro, Pretoria bacardi, Nelspruit house. On the other hand, a small city like Cape Town has many different scenes.”

The trailer finishes with slow motion images of bouncing ravers, each seemingly on their own deeply personal trip. Names flash up on the screen − DJ Mujava, Nozinja, Okmalumkoolkat, Zaki Ibrahim − and then the pace increases, too many names and at far too quick a pace to read. “The future looks awesome, blindingly beautiful and bursting at the seams,” says Mathambo. The familiar beats of ‘Control’ fill the audio track, recognisable by his trademark tinny manipulation.

This whole project oozes quality. You wouldn’t want a documentary about South African electronic music to be directed by anyone else.

Future Sounds of Mzansi is premiering at The Durban International Film Festival later this month. It is released by Egg Films.

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A few weeks ago, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) declared that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of people forcibly displaced has exceeded 50 million. This number is startling and has implications for governments and populations all across the world, but it also holds great meaning for humanitarian agencies. In the face of growing numbers of people in need, who should relief organisations target and how? And what should inform the decisions they make?

Shedding some light on these questions and others, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently published the report Where is Everyone? Based on interviews with 116 humanitarian workers and focussed around humanitarian responses to the crises in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Jordan, the report's findings ultimately make for uncomfortable reading.

Amongst other things, for instance, MSF concludes that relief agencies' "technical capacities were not as they should be" though not because of insufficient funding; that "risk aversion was pervasive...meaning that agencies were choosing to prioritise the easiest-to-reach over the most vulnerable"; and that "the UN was at the heart of the dysfunction".

In order to shed light on the issue and answer MSF's call for debate around its findings, Think Africa Press asked a range of humanitarian experts and practitioners:

"How can humanitarian agencies ensure that their operations help the most vulnerable and most in need rather than simply the easiest to reach or those in the least risky environments?"

Raouf Mazou, Representative for UNHCR, Nairobi

The MSF report is a welcome reminder of the importance of early humanitarian action at the onset of a crisis. It is indeed at this crucial stage that the greatest amount suffering is experienced and the largest number of deaths occur. In truth however, responses to large-scale emergencies are invariably inadequate, insufficient and late. It is rare that 'acute displacement emergencies', such as the ones the world has experienced too often in recent months, are preceded by adequate measures of preparedness, regardless of how many early warning signs there might have been. As a result, once the crisis has started, humanitarian agencies are left playing catch-up.

The ability of humanitarian actors to mitigate the consequences of crisis depends primarily on access and in that regard security and logistical constraints should not be downplayed. Humanitarian actors have paid a very high price in Somalia, which as a result has meant the crisis there is among those with the highest level of 'remote management'. Logistical constraints can partially be overcome with financial resources. In parts of South Sudan, with no roads in the rainy season, food and other relief assistance had to be airlifted at steep costs. Should more have been done? Could the response have been better coordinated? Probably. The MSF report and other evaluations done will help draw lessons and improve future interventions.

However, the more fundamental question in my view is over how long a 'massive response' can be sustained in a context of multiple 'acute displacement emergencies' By 2013, contributions to the refugee crisis in South Sudan began to dwindle as donors prioritised other emergencies.

The assumption made in the report that as the humanitarian system grows and expands "surely its capacity to meet these challenges should also be growing” is, in my view, erroneous. It is precisely the contrary which may be observed if the humanitarian aid system does not adapt. A model based solely on training and deploying a growing number of 'emergency response experts' will simply not work, and some of the successes of the humanitarian response in Jordan seem to be attributed to the strong role of the government. Yet state institutions are often ignored and sidelined in humanitarian emergency responses to the detriment of the sustainability of the gains made during the crucial first days of an emergency.

Finally, pre-existing long-term programmes in the geographic area affected by the crisis should not necessarily be seen as hampering or slowing down emergency response. The unprecedented challenges presented by the Syria crisis have re-emphasised the importance of involving development actors from the onset of humanitarian responses. Development actors, which have greater financial means, also often bring a welcome perspective underpinning the fact that humanitarian assistance is not an end in itself and therefore a 'solution' is needed as early as possible to bring normalcy to paused lives.

Sandrine Tiller, Programmes Adviser, Humanitarian Issues, MSF (UK), co-author of Where is Everyone?

From the research we have done, we have found that the organisations that were best able to respond to the most vulnerable shared a few common traits: Firstly, they were looking for problems. In a good way! Getting out of the office, out of the hospital compound, and off the beaten track. MSF’s own programmes improved as soon as good surveillance systems were set up. Then those who were too sick, tired or scared to come to the hospital could get assistance.

Secondly, the most successful brought with them some assistance (just in case) and a flexible assessment methodology. The UN's Rapid Response to Population Movements mechanism in DRC, for instance, impressed us with its capacity to identify a wide variety of needs and provide short-term, flexible responses. The ability to assist immediately is really valued, particularly by hard-to-reach populations who may not have seen any assistance in a while.

Finally, the most effective efforts tried to expect the unexpected. Being able to respond quickly to a changing situation is the key to a good response, and current funding systems and institutional arrangements really mitigate against that. Donors should be demanding flexibility, as it is proof that a response is really adapted to the needs.

David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

I have always thought that MSF’s understanding of humanitarian action, and most particularly MSF/France’s understanding of it, was both operationally more focused and intellectually more modest (this despite its reputation for arrogance) than its peers within what Alex de Waal has called the 'humanitarian international'. MSF resisted attempting to rebrand itself as a human rights agency − a decision that in my view brought such grief to CARE. Unlike Oxfam, MSF has accepted its limitations and not flattered itself it can do everything from relief through development to global campaigning on virtually every subject that affects the poor and still maintain its core humanitarian competencies. And in contrast to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), MSF has nowhere near the same degree of indenture to national governments and corporate funders.

Having said all that, I think Where Is Everybody? is a deeply unsatisfactory and, in important ways, a hubristic, naïve, self-referential, and self-flattering report.

Let me proceed in reverse order and take the self-flattering first. The report is of course right to point out that the external constraints relief agencies operate under “are not always insuperable.” But they are not always ‘superable’ either and there is something churlish as well as somewhat inaccurate in the report’s implication that MSF goes where others fear to tread. In some cases, it is MSF that has left and other agencies have remained, as Bob Kitchen of the IRC pointed out with understandable exasperation was the case in Somalia.

Moving on to the self-referential, the report asserts that: “The core criterion for judging the success or failure of a humanitarian operation should be impact: in particular how many lives were saved.” But while this should indeed be the criterion of a medical relief agency, it is by no means clear that it should be applied to other agencies with different mandates. In most emergencies, the ‘acute’ phase when many of those in need of assistance are at risk of dying is relatively short. On MSF’s logic, the organisation should then withdraw. The fact that MSF, quite correctly, rarely if ever does any such thing illustrates the incoherence of such a blanket claim. To give a specific example, in the report’s Jordan case study, MSF calls for relief agencies to focus more with urban refugees and displaced persons. But few of them were or are at risk of imminent death.

The naïvety of the report is to me the most shocking. MSF denounces the UN in general and UNHCR in particular for incompetence both in terms of the (counter-productive) rules under which it operates and the poor quality of its personnel. But this is not news. The UN has from its founding had failure all but inscribed in its DNA. Its performance is no worse on humanitarian issues than on peacekeeping or the other core concerns of the world body. And the UNHCR has been a broken organisation for more than a decade. To denounce it in 2014 on these grounds is simply silly. It would have been far more useful for MSF to suggest ways to work around the UN than to demand improvement from so irredeemable an institution.

More naïve still is the report’s emphasis on the report's emphasis on the growth in terms of budgets of the humanitarian ‘industry'. To begin with, the humanitarian international is to private industry what an antiquarian bookseller is to Amazon. And naïvety segues into hubris when the report starts by making the point that a shortage of funds is often not the key determinant to the success or failure of a humanitarian operation (and wasn’t in the three cases studied), but then largely glosses over the reality that humanitarian agencies are too small to deal with the multiplication of crises that has occurred since the turn of the century. Even more hubristic is the report’s failure to acknowledge the degree to which relief agencies’ options for operating differently have been increasingly hamstrung by the fact that over the past two decades they have increasingly found themselves in a much weaker position vis-à-vis the governments or insurgent groups at whose sufferance they work.

Justin Armstrong, Research Associate, King's Policy Unit, King's College London

Those who are truly the most vulnerable are likely to be beyond the reach of any external aid organisation − MSF included − in many crises, particularly conflicts. They will be those who can’t access whatever services might exist and cannot easily be found to have their needs measured and efficiently addressed.

These limitations inherent in any attempted humanitarian response within a complex and volatile crisis should not be taken as justification for being content to simply respond to the most readily apparent and accessible needs. Humanitarian organisations should always be unsatisfied with that. Even attempting to meaningfully respond to the needs of the most vulnerable would rather mean relentlessly pushing for access to those beyond the last feeding centre or water point, and beyond the limitations of the existing humanitarian infrastructure.

If nominally humanitarian organisations are to actually operate according to their stated principles of impartially and independence, they must face such grim choices. They would have to base their choices on the extent and urgency of needs, leaving aside their own broader goals, as well as those of local officials, the UN, or donors. They − and crucially their donors, public and private − would need to be willing to accept programmes with higher start-up and logistical costs, erratic timetables, uncertain outcomes, and sometimes unmeasurable impacts. They could offer responses, not predetermined outputs and outcomes, and they certainly could not offer all of what the rote and inflated rhetoric of modern aid claims to offer.

Perhaps even more difficult would be the necessary clear and candid discussion of the difficult choices such an approach would require. Making a choice to prioritise the most vulnerable over more accessible low-risk needs where more cost-effective and likely successful interventions are possible will never be easy, and the humility that such approach would require is too often in short supply within humanitarian circles.

Hugh Macleman, Head of Humanitarian Policy, British Red Cross

The British Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the world's largest independent humanitarian network, and we have operations in some of the most insecure regions of the world. Our Fundamental Principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, along with our network of around 30 million community-based volunteers, grants us unique access to many hard-to-reach areas, including across frontlines in conflict. We believe it is not just our presence but our proximity to communities in need that ensures that we can fulfil our humanitarian mission.

This is not always easy and our staff and volunteers still often take extraordinary risks to reach those worst affected by conflict or disaster. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, for example, together with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement reaches close to 3 million people inside Syria with aid each month (including food parcels, water supplies and health services). This is despite the loss of 44 staff and volunteers who have died since the beginning of the conflict while trying to provide aid to people from all affected communities.

With assistance from the British Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross and South Sudan Red Cross are also working across South Sudan, where there have also been reports of civilians being attacked, including patients in hospitals.

When aid workers are targeted, it becomes very difficult for humanitarian agencies to continue working. There are some basic security measures that can be taken, but sometimes it does become necessary to suspend operations. When this does happen we urge all parties to the conflict to regard the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Red Cross Movement as an impartial entity which provides assistance to all in need. Last year we launched a Joint Call on Syria calling on all parties to respect our humanitarian mission.

Safer access to those in need must be a collective responsibility, honoured by all, especially States. There is significant capacity to deliver assistance directly, quickly and effectively, but this cannot be done if aid workers are not granted safe, quick and unimpeded access to those in need.

Juliano Fiori, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Adviser, Save the Children

If you want something to be done better, you have to ask the right questions. But your answers and your working out are important too.

MSF’s latest polemic has set NGO communications staff rushing to explain exactly where their colleagues are. In reigniting debate within humanitarian agencies about how to support vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations most effectively in the context of conflict and displacement, the report has served its purpose. However, on current terms, this debate will bear little fruit.

As Bertrand Taithe has argued, the proposition that humanitarians are too absent and that humanitarian response lacks impact betrays a conceit about the role of an industry that is only one third of the size of the yoghurt market. To be sure, there are plenty of people across the world – in southern Chad and northern Cameroon, for example – who do not have access to assistance that might increase their chances of survival and improve their well-being. But we cannot understand the genuine potential of humanitarian agencies (which themselves disagree on what impact looks like) nor the reasons why they might fall short of this without setting their actions in historical and political context and without considering the institutional cultures and psychologies that shape their decisions.

The practice of humanitarianism is complex; indeed, it was MSF that once told us that it cannot be "reduced to a technical performance." And even if the report’s criticisms were more substantiated, attributing the subpar ‘impact’ of humanitarian responses in conflict to a clunky and confused UN (what’s new?) along with NGOs' poor emergency response capacity, risk aversion and prioritisations seems to presume that humanitarians are a world unto themselves.

If only improving humanitarian outcomes was as easy as employing a few more techies, playing around with bureaucratic structures, and switching eggs from one basket to another. On instinct, there seems be something to the claim about risk aversion. The irony, however, is that, if it exists, this tendency surely stems from the same technocratic culture that has shaped MSF’s critique.

The report does pose a serious question. But in order to test its relevance and propose serious answers and solutions, we need to gather robust evidence about how humanitarian agencies act, what drives their decisions, and what the consequences are. And we need to consider these questions in their political context, reflecting in the answers a consciousness of what agencies have done in the past.

[Juliano Fiori's contribution was added on 22nd July.]

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Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo:

Last month, a rare thing happened. A video made in the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went viral. Moreover, featuring musicians, dancers, students, vendors and expatriates, the film wasn't depicting the usual themes of grief and crisis associated with the region, but colourfully celebrating Goma's fun, vibrant and joyful side.

The video was an adaptation of Pharrell Williams' song ‘Happy', whose 24- hour music video for the track had already inspired local artists across the world − from Abu Dhabi to Okinawa to Curaçao − to create their own versions. And on 7 June, Goma joined them.

Happy from Goma is the production of Kivu Entertainment Youth, an artisanal multimedia house led by Kelvin Batumike. Working with a dozen filmmakers, photographers, and graphic designers, Batumike's objective is to promote local talent from all walks of life.

In his youth, Batumike started to experiment with music and soon recorded his first album with the help of the international NGOs War Child and UNICEF. Self-taught and determined, he continued to pursue his passion, recording jingles as well as mobilising other musicians in Goma.

“Local radio and television don’t really exploit the local scene and present ordinary life in Congo," he says. "We want to megaphone what’s happening here.”

Talking to Batumike reminds me of Mapendo Sumuni, the owner of a small art house in Goma which was recently featured in Think Africa Press. Both have a burning desire to express themselves and be the masters of imagery in Goma, a town that is often synonymous with instability and conflict and which is located in a region that has been labelled the “rape capital of the world.” Sumuni's vehicle for this is art, Batumike's music and film.

Goma's Amani Festival, in which 25,000 Gomatriciens congregated for three days of music, performances and fun this February, also fits into this category and, according to Batumike, has acted as encouragement for him. "[The event] ignited a spark of hope in Goma that we wanted to keep alive,” he says, his feelings seemingly echoing Happy's refrain of: “Bring me down/Can't nothing bring me down/My level's too high.”

Since it was uploaded, Happy in Goma has been viewed over 35,000 times on Youtube and the some of the comments made below it speak volumes: “We have been through whatever we have been through but we came out of it alive and strong,” one commenter said, while another added “I am happy to see people of Goma smiling again. We will always be proud of what no one can take away: our happiness.” The video of course doesn’t negate the many problems still facing the unsettled region despite the defeat of the M23 rebels last November, but it does highlight the town's resilience, the creativity of its youth, and Gomatriciens' strong desire for change and hope.

Since the video was made, residents of Goma have also tried to keep its message going and launched a photo campaign expressing their pride of calling the city their own.


Furthermore, on 16 June, the Day of the African Child, the crew behind Happy in Goma organised a Happy Concert in the town and released a new version of ‘Happy’ in Swahili, called Tunafurai.

“Clap along.”

If you want to learn more about the filmmakers at Kivu Youth Entertainment, follow them on Twitter at @KEYasbl (#HappyFromGoma), like them on Facebook  and watch their videos on Youtube.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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