Deafening Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling

Form Follows Function

I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.

Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.

This morning my Facebook feed…

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An Atlanta Risk Assessment

What would a risk assessment for a field mission to the US from Congo look like?

When I traveled to Atlanta for the annual International Studies Association conference, I was traveling there from eastern DR Congo. I thought, if I worked in Atlanta, and had to travel to Congo for work, I’d probably have to do a risk assessment. What would it look like if I had to do one traveling from Congo to the US? I wondered. I realized I knew nothing about Atlanta. So I did a little research and, just for satire’s sake, wrote a hypothetical context analysis to assess the risk involved in traveling to Atlanta for a conference. I think most of the stats are pretty easily Google-able, because I did this in one afternoon. Unfortunately I didn’t save the links.

This was written in the spirit of/inspired by the “If It Happened There” series by Slate.  Enjoy!


Risk analysis for the mission to Atlanta:


Atlanta is a city located in the southern part of the United States, about 564 miles southwest of the capital, Washington DC. This is a region that continues to suffer from centuries of ethnic tensions, and today these tensions can be seen between the descendants of African slaves and the descendants of the Europeans that owned slaves and the plantations on which they worked. This scenario is complicated by the existence of a police force which is ostensibly meant to protect the community, but was initially established to, among other things, imprison runaway slaves or return them to their owners.

Today, 80% of African-American children in Atlanta live in extreme poverty, compared to 6% of their European-American counterparts; the level of unemployment of African-Americans in Atlanta (22%) is more than three times the level of European-Americans (6%); and the number of African-American and Latin-American students that graduate from public high school is 57% and 53% respectively, compared to 84% for European-American students. African-American and Latin-American students are more than three times as likely to drop out of school as European-American students.

Persistent inequality in Atlanta sustains these ethno-political tensions, which may, in the current political climate, be exacerbated by the broader national context. For example, frequent police brutality against African-American citizens throughout the country – while historically prevalent – has gained increased public awareness and notoriety in recent years thanks to social media platforms and the democratization of information-sharing it affords; and the grassroots response to police brutality has been the nonviolent civic resistance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Atlanta is the capital city of the state of Georgia. In that state, it is not against the law for citizens to own, carry, and/or conceal arms (for example, in their vehicle). The law of Georgia, furthermore, includes a stipulation known as “Stand Your Ground” – that is to say, the law stipulates that an individual has no obligation to retreat from a perceived threat and can use any level of force they deem necessary, including lethal force, if that person reasonably believes they are confronted with an imminent and immediate threat of grave injury or death. A “perceived” threat and “reasonably” believing one is confronted with grave injury are highly subjective.

It was this law, in the state of Florida, which allowed the European-American killer of a 17 year old African-American boy to be acquitted of manslaughter in 2012, even though the boy was unarmed and did not constitute a threat. This event received widespread international attention and built momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement. The availability of arms in the country and the laws, particularly in states such as Georgia, that protect those who own and carry arms (implemented in a way that favors European-Americans) thus contributes to the reproduction of ethnic tensions and the broader context of insecurity in the country.

Risk :

Atlanta has a high level of crime. The greatest risks are theft and assault, rape, and, to a lesser extent but still high compared to the national average, homicide.

Means of Reducing Risk:

Avoid leaving or returning to the hotel at late hours and stay in a hotel in a secure area. Do not go out alone at night, but always be in the company of trusted acquaintances that are also attending the conference. Do not walk alone after dark. Take a registered taxi to return to the hotel if it’s late at night. Make sure you have the phone numbers of the local police stored in your phone in case of emergency. Stay in contact, every morning and every evening on return to the hotel, with the office in Congo.

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…Free Books on race, gender, sexuality, and class that are bound to get you woke!


In need of some new reading to spur your mind? Here is a great list of FREE BOOKS in PDF form to educate oneself on race, gender, sexuality, class, and culture!

Please feel free to share this with anyone who you feel might benefit. Special thanks you to Tracie of Emory University.

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Human Trafficking between Uganda and the Middle East: An Interview with Mayambala Wafrika


Earlier this year the Ugandan government enacted a ban on its citizens from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. I interviewed Mayambala Wafrika, a Ugandan human rights activist and Chair of the Justice for African Workers campaign, to find out why.


  1. What got you interested in this issue?

In January 2016, many young girls from Uganda around the age of 16 to 25 years sent audio and video recordings home, crying for help. Their outcry was in search to be rescued from torturous houses in Arab countries. Many of them were claiming to be raped, tortured and forced to work under inhumane conditions. Their videos went viral, forcing me and the general public to take interest in their plight.

As the chairperson of the Worldwide African Congress, I invited my colleagues to join me in the Justice for African Workers campaign to help rescue our sisters. Those who joined the campaign include Ronald Nsubuga of R. Nsubuga and Co Advocates, and Doreen Assimwe the Managing Director of Uganda Fire Experts.


  1. Why do you think Ugandan women, in particular, are attracted to opportunities in Saudi Arabia, in particular?

Women from poor African and Asian countries are lured to work as housemaids in Arab countries due to high unemployment rates back in their home countries. Uganda, for example, has one of the highest unemployment rates among young people below the age of 25 in the world. It stands at 83 percent according to the World Bank’s African Development Indicators for 2008-2009.

One girl (her name withheld for security reasons), currently held inside a house in Saudi Arabia against her will, approached our group for assistance. She graduated as an I.T. specialist from a university in India. Upon returning back home, she failed to get a decent job. She decided to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia in search of greener pastures. The agents from Uganda who transported her sold her to a Saudi company called Besher Recruiting Agency.

Besher confiscated her travel documents including her passports and forced her to work without any formal contract. She first worked in 4 houses without pay but kept on running away due to inhumane conditions. A Saudi family later bought her from the agency at a cost of 16,000 Saudi riyals (around $4,200). A trade similar to the trans-Atlantic slave markets in America in 1800s. In Uganda, she was promised work that would pay $300 per month, but instead she received only around half of the promised salary.

She says the household she works for forces her to do hard labour including cleaning from 6am in the morning until 3am at night. Her daily chores include degrading services like flushing toilets after family members, washing the underwear of household girls and cleaning after them during their monthly periods. She demands to be brought back to Uganda but the agency won’t allow her since it already took a lot of money from the family she works for. Her story is similar to reports narrated by several girls. Another girl in Oman is paid only $40 dollars per month but she has to clean 3 different houses every day.

But the problem is more than just unemployment. Many girls are lured to Arab countries by devious relatives or friends. These relatives promise to keep them safe, claiming to know the agency they will be working for. Little do they know that their relatives are actually paid around $500 per girl they deliver to the Arab agency. And that upon arrival, their relatives or friends will not be able to protect them since they essentially become property of the agency they are sold to.


  1. Do you think the issue receives sufficient attention from governments and the international community? Why or why not?

The international community is strangely silent. The US embassy normally makes official statements when reports of human rights violations are egregious, but they’re strangely silent on the plight of these Ugandan housemaids.

After rigorous lobbying, the parliament of Uganda managed to put a ban on the exportation of housemaids to Arab countries. Unfortunately, little or no measures have been implemented to enforce the ban. Many girls are still recruited openly. Agencies now use Kenyan airports to traffic them. Recently, the Kenyan police arrested a group of 26 Ugandan girls who were being held in a lodge, waiting to be trafficked to Saudi Arabia.

The assistance we need from the government is simple, like processing new official travel documents so that we can transport these girls back home. But our organization has moved from one government office to another in search for assistance in vain. On 28 April 2016, under the Justice for African Workers campaign, we decided to take a petition to the parliament of Uganda demanding the resignation of the Foreign Affairs Minister and our ambassadors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on grounds of neglecting our citizens.


  1. What do you think are the biggest public misperceptions about this issue?

Many people in Africa hold the misperception that life outside the continent is by default better. They’re not aware of the perverse racism against black people that is still rampant in Arab countries. While western governments have implemented different policies to try and end racism, many Arab governments are in denial of the existence of racial prejudice in their society. As a result, a survey published by the Washington Post in 2013 pinned Arab countries as the most racist places on earth, only after India.

We have cases where girls claim that family members they work for look at them like animals. They don’t want to talk to them, share the same dining room or eat on the same plates. It’s common to find black housemaids who are given leftovers of food of their bosses. One girl claimed that her boss would rather throw away leftover milk than give it to her.


  1. Do you see this more as a crime, or more as a human rights abuse? Why? Is the distinction important in your opinion?

Given the way how most girls are trafficked, raped, tortured and forced to work against their will, its appropriate for one to conclude that this is a syndicated crime. The maltreatment of our girls in Arab countries today is similar to the enslavement of Africans during mediaeval days. The only difference is that today girls are offered some small money as a form of consolation but the misguided racial attitudes and inhumane treatments are the same.

The human rights of these housemaids are obviously abused in the process but the extent to which it is done proves that this is a criminal enterprise that must be halted. We have reports that indicate there are ministers, ambassadors and powerful people in the government who are involved in this human trafficking.


  1. What do you think are the best strategies to fight trafficking?

There is need for greater coordination between African governments, the international community and Interpol. For example, the names of agencies that are involved in this human trafficking scheme are openly known. But since Arab governments keep denying the mistreatment of housemaids in their countries, nothing can be done to hold these Arab based agencies accountable. It is only Interpol in coordination with the International Criminal Court that can arrest and force these agency kingpins to face the wrath of justice.

Other poor countries like Philippines have banned taking their people to work as housemaids due to torturous conditions. African governments must impose and enforce a similar ban.

Our ancestors like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King struggled to ensure that we, their children enjoy life with dignity. African people need to be reminded that nothing should ever take us back to life of servitude. Poverty should never be substituted with slavery.

Mayambala Wafrika

Chairperson, Justice for African Workers campaign

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6 façons dont le Congo gagne

Please forgive my terrible French, but this is an attempt to make this post more accessible for French speakers in DRC… 

S’il vous plaît pardonnez mon mauvais français! Je souhaite que rien n’a été perdu ou mal interprété dans la traduction …

Au départ, je l’écrit cet article en août 2013.

J’ai vu quelques histoires dans les nouvelles au cours des dernières années; histoires qui disent que la République Démocratique du Congo (RCD) est le pire pays dans le monde pour ceci ou cela. C’est vrai, en 2011, le RDC occupe le dernier rang dans l’indice de développement humain (HDI) du PNUD (bien que par lui-même, il a augmenté entre 1980 et 2012).

Tandis que le Congo a certainement d’énormes problèmes, certains de ces proclamations sont basés sur les données qui proviennent de les provinces les plus en difficulté (ou même de locale très spécifique) et extrapolée à appliquer à l’ensemble du pays; et la plupart d’entre eux sont fondés sur les ou en conjonction avec des idées préconçues sur la RDC – pour trouver les manchettes de journaux sensationnalistes et / ou des dons.

Depuis que je suis à Bukavu, la capitale provinciale du Sud-Kivu en RDC, il y a environ cinq mois, il m’a fait penser à certaines des façons dont Congo – bon, gagne véritablement.

Voici six façons que le Congo, à mon humble avis, est le meilleur.

1) Réutilisation

Les gens ne réutilisation pas les choses pour des raisons pragmatiques (comme les sacs en plastique, ce qu’ils font). L’ensemble du système de l’achat de boissons gazeuses et de caisses de bière est basé sur la réutilisation. On n’a pas tout simplement acheter les boissons, on paie aussi pour les bouteilles en verre des «dépôts» ou points de vente de l’entreprise. La plupart des re-vendeurs ne vous vendre des boissons en bouteille, sauf si vous avez une bouteille vide pour échanger pour cela en plus de payer pour la boisson (sauf si vous demandez gentiment et ils vous avez confiance pour retourner la bouteille à l’état neuf). Re-utiliser des bouteilles ne pas seulement d’éliminer les déchets, mais élimine également le coût du recyclage.


Près de Kinshasa, sur le Fleuve Congo

2) Les grandes bières

Aux États-Unis, vous pouvez commander un 12 ou 16 onces Budweiser dans un bar. Au Royaume-Uni, vous pouvez commander une pinte de bière, à 20 onces par rapport à la pinte de 16 onces d’États-Unis. Mais au Congo quand vous commandez une bière, vous recevez un magnifiquement grande bouteille de Primus ou Tembo ou Simba ou Nkoyi – à 72 cL, ou un énorme 25,34 oz. Et généralement pour environ $ 3,50 (moins de £2) dans un restaurant haut de gamme. $ 1,80 si vous savez où aller. Santé!


3) Nourriture fraiche

Au Sud-Kivu, si vous voulez de la nourriture, vous allez au marché ou d’un vendeur de rue où le pain a été cuit le matin ou les tomates ont été cultivées pas plus de quelques miles de là. Dans les restaurants lorsque vous commandez poisson pour le dîner, il est probable qu’il a été capturé après-midi même dans le lac Kivu ou Tanganyika. Et si vous voulez le poulet, il n’y a pas dans les forfaits réfrigérés sous film rétractable à l’épicerie. On trouve la dame dans la rue avec un sac de poulets vivants sur son dos, achète un, le laisse se promener dans le jardin pendant quelques jours, et on espère qu’on peut trouver quelqu’un qui n’est pas délicat comme vous pour couper la tête et le cueillir. Puis il y a le pilipili. Poivre savoureuse qui emballe juste la bonne quantité de chaleur, dont le jus vous serrez sur votre déjeuner ou faire dans une sauce savoureuse.


Poisson et frites, à la manière d’Uvira

4) L’harmonie entre chrétiens et musulmans

Dans un endroit où la politique est explosive et l’identité ethnique est un point d’appui contentieux autour duquel tourne un conflit violent, la religion est en comparaison un non-problème complète. Et pas parce que les gens ici ne sont pas dévots – en fait, la religion joue un rôle extrêmement important dans la vie des gens. Pourtant, de jour en jour, je vois des chrétiens et des musulmans se mêlant dans les magasins comme si leurs religions étaient invisibles. Des mosquées et des églises coexistent dans les mêmes quartiers et personne ne semble penser beaucoup. Les quelques personnes que j’ai demandé: “Alors, y a t-il des problèmes entre chrétiens et musulmans ici?”  Ils ont essentiellement m’a répondu avec une déclaration comme, “Pas vraiment. Pourquoi devrait-il y avoir? Ils croient ce qu’ils croient et Dieu nous aime tous. Il est le même Dieu.” Lorsque je l’ai écrit le rapport de Freedom House pour le RDC en 2012, je devais améliorer la note de la liberté religieuse, car après plusieurs jours de recherches, je ne pouvais trouver aucun rapport de discrimination religieuse. Dans les échanges au jour le jour, en tout cas, le RDC bat les Etats-Unis et de l’Europe en termes d’harmonie entre chrétiens et musulmans.


Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Bukavu. Photo by Timothee Rolin

5) Musique et la mode

Quand je suis dans le Royaume-Uni et des États-Unis, je l’entends merde nouveau et re-mixte étant joué partout. Ici, les gens ont vraiment bon goût pour la musique. Depuis les derniers hits de danse régionales à la toujours populaire Bob Marley; Hip-hop américain; hip-hop en swahili (par exemple, cette chanson); et ballades d’amour, le mélange qui dérive sur le lac dans mon appartement le samedi soir est mélodique et agréable et comprend souvent des vieilles pièces de rumba. Ce dernier est considéré comme peut-être la contribution la plus importante du Congo à la culture mondiale. En plus de cela, les gens ont un sens aigu de la mode. Que habillés en costume d’affaires à puce, ou les motifs de couleurs vives de kitenges / pagnes / kangas, ou une touche de grunge des années 1990 de cru – les gens d’ici savent ce qu’ils aiment, et d’être bien habillé est important, même pour un voyage rapide au marché pour ramasser quelques oignons.


Mama Ada




À Uvira, après un très long voyage de Baraka

6) Fumeur

On voit presque jamais une personne qui fume des cigarettes ici, au moins à Bukavu, Uvira et Baraka. Il est parfois associé à des militants ou des groupes armés; parfois avec des intellectuels. Mais surtout, il est une chose expatrié. Donc, les Américains et les Européens fume. Mais rarement congolais. Panneaux cinquante pieds de long peuvent orner la frontière avec la publicité de la bière locale, mais vous ne verront aucun espace publicitaire tels alloué pour le tabac. Après avoir été ici pendant un certain temps, il est presque surprenant de voir quelqu’un fumer dans la rue.


RDC est certainement un pays avec de nombreux défis. D’un héritage colonial lamentable qui a laissé le pays avec (entre autres choses) 19 diplômés du collégial à l’indépendance, une structure gouvernementale qui dépend de réseaux patrimoniaux, et les politiques de citoyenneté qui sont toujours une source de conflit aujourd’hui; à l’assassinat de leur premier Premier Ministre démocratiquement élu avec l’aide de la Belgique et de l’acquiescement des États-Unis; à des décennies de mauvaise gestion par un régime autoritaire soutenu par les établissements de crédit occidentaux et le soutien diplomatique et militaire de l’Occident; à la censure des médias; élections truquées; conflit violent compliquée par l’absence de réforme du secteur de sécurité suffisante et la présence de quelque 30 groupes armés locaux et étrangers – et voilà que la pointe de l’iceberg – le RDC est encore loin de l’endroit où il sera vraiment prospérer la façon dont il devrait être. Mais ils vont y arriver.



Considérant tout cela, il est un pays non seulement riche en ressources naturelles, mais riche en capital humain; avec une population qui est intelligent, bouscule pour gagner leur vie, et travaille dur pour joindre les deux bouts malgré les défis. Je l’ai pas encore rencontré une personne analphabète, même dans les villages reculés. En fait, selon une étude réalisée par l’African Economist Magazine, le taux d’alphabétisation du Congo est à 67,2% (classement 25ème sur 52 pays africains étudiés), relativement impressionnante par rapport à d’autres pays avec des évaluations similaires en termes d’indicateurs comme PPP et de l’insécurité.

Et comme un récent article dans The Guardian titrait, “Quand nous disons pays qu’ils sont le pire, il ne les aide pas.


Lac Kivu, à Bukavu

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Poetry Break

Somo la Kumi na Mbili

Au: Mzee na Kiboko Wake

Poetry break: I wrote this poem last weekend after a long day of working on my PhD dissertation. (translation in the comments below)    



Kulikuwa na kiboko
Ndani ya soko
“Ala!” alisema mteja,
“Kwa nini uko na kiboko?”

“Eh — ” sauti ilitoka kwa ndani;
“Tafadhali, nisamehe, samahani!”
Na yule mzee, anayebeba milele,
Alitaka kusema kitu fulani:

“Usikufe bila kuishi,
Na usiishi bila udadisi;
Unapaswa kusafiri dunia kila nafasi
Unayopata; twende pamoja, sisi!”

“Eh!” Mteja ashangaza!
“Hilo shauri linanifurahisha,
Lakini niambie kitu kimoja, tafadhali —
Na pia, nisamehe,
Na pia, kwangu, samahani —

Nitajifunza kitu gani,
Kutoka soko lako,
Na kiboko ndani?”




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Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

The Disorder Of Things

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story…

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