Sean Jacobs

 Seminar on African Cultural Production and the Challenges of Digital Technology

a response to the Seminar’s Provocation

Sean Jacobs [i]

this presentation also appears on Jacobs’ blog, Africa is a Country

Africa is a Country blog logo

It may come across as self-indulgent and somewhat presumptuous that I named the first version of Africa is a Country “The Leo Africanus.” But it was also a fortuitous choice of nomenclature that helped me initially draw links between the Early Modern “Moorish diplomat” who similarly reported on the wonders Africa to his European audiences; this previous incarnation of Africa is a Country provides a way into talking and writing about the issues of this roundtable.

If you may recall, Leo Africanus refers to the sixteenth century writer and traveler. “Few facts are known about the man,” but we do know is that he was born al-Hasan al-Wazzan, in Granada, which was known as “the New York of that time”[ii] in Islamic Spain (as part of al Maghreb). He moved with his family to Fez, in Morocco, after the Spanish defeated the Islamic rulers there. In Fez, Al-Wazan studied at the famed University of Al Karaouine. As a teenager, he accompanied his uncle who traveled as an envoy of the Sultan of Fez. Al Wasan was later employed as a diplomat himself and claimed to have traveled to Timbuktu and Gao in what was then part of the Songhai Empire, and what is now Mali[iii], Sudan (“the land of the Blacks”), Egypt and Constantinople. Then, in 1518, as he was travelling back to Tunis, he was kidnapped in the Mediterranean by corsairs (pirates) who brought him to Rome. The normal fate of Muslim prisoners was slavery, but al-Wazzan was taken to the papal court where he became a confidant of Pope Leo X.  The Pope personally converted and baptized him; from thenceforth, al-Hasan al-Wazzan became known as Leo Africanus.  He would live in Rome for the next 9 years and serve as an adviser to his Catholic hosts, providing political and military intelligence on the Maghreb.

While all these details about an exotic African man’s encounter with Europe might be fun to reminisce about, what links my own project (now our project, and I’ll get to that in a moment)—of disseminating information, truth-telling, providing a platform for multiplicitous viewpoints of our experience of Africa and its diasporic people, and sometimes calling out those who are in error—is that we modestly attempt to do online at Africa is a Country what Leo attempted to do in a book he published while in Italy, “The Description of Africa.”

That manuscript was completed in 1526.  Its significance lies in the fact that for a long time it “shaped European ideas about Africa.”[iv] Clifford Geertz, in a review of historian Natalie Zemon Davis’ biography of Leo Africanus, concluded that it was “a remarkable book [that] for centuries [was] a shaping force in the European imagination of Africa.”[v]

What was in it? Africanus’ writing is variously described “a collection of learning, hearsay, and personal anecdote”[vi] and it is often said to reflect the world of someone  “straddling two warring cultures.”[vii] And invariably, Africanus is similarly described as “a man between two worlds,” and “with a double vision.”[viii] For other Western critics, the book was characterized by a “tolerant and non-sectarian tone.”[ix]  Zemon Davis, the Princeton historian, has written that Leo Africanus offers “the possibility of communication in curiosity in a world divided by violence;”[x] Africanus became, like his book, known for his tolerant views on race, sexuality, Islam (even after he converted) and for getting along with Jewish colleagues.

Why should we refer back to this Early Modern traveler, who, to our modern minds, may come across like a fabricator with too much obsequiousness towards his European masters? Leo Africanus is important for a reason that remains relevant across the centuries:  he translated the things he knew for people into a language they could understand.

Firstly, I am not so stupid as to compare myself to Leo Africanus.  I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, under Apartheid. I went to segregated, working class schools. My parents were domestic workers.  I first came to the US in the mid 1990s as a graduate student in Chicago. I returned to South Africa working for a NGO and then lived briefly in London before making Brooklyn my home.  I edited some books on postapartheid politics and media culture. But that’s all. Nothing spectacular.

I arrived to live in New York City a few days before 9/11.  It was post-9/11, when I, and many others like me, were bombarded by negative, a-historical and decontextualized images of Africa—whether that ahistoricity was connected to the general anti-Muslim atmosphere or not is unclear, but it seemed to be a wave of American exceptionalism that threatened to fashion anything un-European into something backward. What was popular go-to pages about Africa on the blogosphere at the time? It was what can best be described as “development” blogs, concerned with US foreign policy and USAID’s programs and budgets.

Around 2004, I haltingly volunteered to edit an online edition of Chimurenga Magazine, a Cape Town based literary magazine. However, that effort (which continued to 2007 or so) proved frustrating for various reasons, chief among which was my location in New York City.  Meanwhile in 2005 I started my own blog, choosing Leo Africanus as my avatar, and as the blog’s title. Leo Africanus was hosted on Google Blogger; my posts were infrequent, and I was merely experimenting with the platform. But already, I had developed a template for the blog. And it also developed a small, dedicated readership though I hardly actively promoted the blog. (Among these was someone who used the identity Ibn Battuta; he later introduced himself to me as the novelist Teju Cole. But that’s a story for another day.)  And I made connections to other early adaptors of blogging—including those on the continent like Jeremy Weate, who ran Naijablog from Abuja and a few others. The South African blogosphere, with which I had a few run-ins were mainly about rugby and rightwing or “liberal” politics.

Then, in the summer of 2007, a friend and fellow South African Tony Karon, who worked for Time and blogged as “The Rootless Cosmopolitan” (his blog title references a slur Stalin used for Jews) asked me to write a commentary for his blog on Vanity Fair’s special Africa issue.[xi] Reading it now, it sums a lot of the postings and preoccupations of what Africa is a Country still are. Here’s a sample like:

Africa, of course, is now everyone’s pet cause. It offers an opportunity to shine for northern political leaders unpopular at home, and for Hollywood actresses and former and current pop stars to be seen doing their bit for humanity by lining up to visit the continent (mainly its children) or pleading its case in Western capitals.

Anyway, that post was widely circulated. I had received some reaction to my posts on my own blog, but this new thing—writing for an established blog—proved to be an intense experience: the response from readers, at that time, felt like a deluge. I was also struck by the immediacy of the reaction to my piece: on the site itself, my piece received 48 comments, at that time still unusual for posts.  I had worked before as a journalist in the early 1990s and worked for a public policy institute in the late 1990s in South Africa, so was no stranger to opinion editorials.  But save for a few letters to the editors, I’ve never got this kind of feedback from readers.

Gradually I started to take blogging more seriously, studied up on developing a style and tone (I drew, for example, on the snarkiness of Gawker and the irreverence of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish[xii]—though not their politics) and purchased a URL, and a month later moved to WordPress.  I started blogging more regularly—at least one substantive commentary daily that consisted of 500 words or thereabouts. The commentaries also became more timely, and related to topical events.

In January 2008, I changed the name to Africa is a Country. The name change was deliberate.  I had been lampooning journalists, celebrities, public officials and politicians, who had made the elementary mistake of referring to the whole continent as one big, monolithic nation. From then on, the blog would combine my commitment to knowledge production, with a nod to the popular, the frivolous, and the crazy.   Posts became a mix of links, indented quotes, music, rapid-fire criticism and also some thorough critical investigation.

One year later, the blog ceased being just about my “description of Africa” as I invited others to join me. The first was a young, former New School student Sonja Uwimana. The daughter of a Rwandan diplomat and with a sharp wit, Sonja proved to be invaluable in that first year of joint blogging, posting as often as people said ridiculous things about Africa and Africans.  Later, I invited other graduate students, professors, activists, development workers, journalism students, art critics, novelists, photographers and filmmakers, a DJ, a curator, to the mix.

That brought it’s own challenges, but also possibilities. The blog is now more a collective rather than carry my individual stamp. Writing posts together online has become standard. We of course give credit to individual writers, but we definitely write some things together. Some have better editing skills (like Neelika Jayawardane, a literature professor), while others know more about a certain angle.[xiii] My strength has been to gauge the ‘feeling’ of a piece. The editorial skills I bring has to do with how the reader will encounter the information—whether we are being snarky for no reason except to show off our wit, or the snark is there for a ‘reason’.

We also direct each other to opportunities, writing competitions, publications, etc.  Neelika reminded me last week that it removed, for her at least, the isolation of academia/geographical isolation/intellectual isolation. She’s now more aware of some of the latest scholarship, the angles being pursued, music that speaks to that critical angle, art, etc.

The arrival of Twitter changed the nature of blogging somewhat. Short posts that didn’t require much analysis or reflection would, instead, become tweets; blogging was now more for longer, considered pieces. It helped immensely that the blog was no longer a one-person outfit. And along with the changes that we were experiencing at Africa is a Country, blogging as a whole was also changing around this time.  We witnessed the emergence of a range of other voices—that of the African diaspora, of young immigrants engaged in boosterism and identity politics, which I can discuss during the roundtable.

Simultaneously, we’ve been wondering what it means to de-centering the blog from the US to include not just London and Paris for example, but also African locales; and how to define ourselves as something apart from traditional journalism, as well as the slew of new blogs. Finally we’ve arrived at some kind of identity. As Neelika writes on our Facebook page:

The ironic title of the blog, Africa is a Country, acknowledges the re-hashed images of ‘Africa’, undermines those notions, and re-inscribes the image and narrative bank that ‘Africa’ evokes.

Beyond the project of ‘re-imaging’ Africa, the blog is a project of re-imagining a nation-ness that exists outside the borders of the classic nation state and continental boundaries. While counter productions like ours are hardly ever ‘networked’ within existing power structures, we use the image field of the blogosphere to construct a new vision of self vis-à-vis networks outside the mainstream.

Africa is indeed a ‘country’: the ‘citizens’ of AIAC critique the story and images, contributing to the intellectual dynamics of image consumption and narrative engagement.[1]

Like with Leo Africanus’ “Description of Africa”—heavy on North Africa and Morocco—there are questions about geographical spread. The blog grew out of my obsessions with reporting and critiquing what passed for analysis about South Africa in Anglo-American media. While the blog has adopted a larger continental remit—with the arrival of other contributors enhancing our coverage—it has retained some of its South African focus to its detriment, undermining its claims to a greater focus on all corners of Africa and its diaspora.

Some of us use the blog as a testing ground for ideas we want to publish elsewhere and at times we’ve had some success. In May 2008, a post I had written about the deep roots of xenophobia in South Africa—which was initially published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site—made it into the newspaper’s print edition.   Pieces that first appeared on Africa is a Country have appeared in Caravan (India), Chimurenga, and Transition Magazine. And we’ve now formed partnerships with the leading Dutch magazine with an African focus, ZAM Magazine and a few others are in the future.

As we’ve become more successful, we’re faced with other issues—i.e. we’re having to deal with the considerations of a “publication.” Now, we have to think about editorial decisions, an “editorial line,” so as not to contradict previous posts (though we’re very open to those possibilities) and with vetting contributors. And demands on us to comment on “topical issues” have become more insistent—nowhere was this more evident than with the viral #Kony2012 video.  But #Kony2012 also exposed other tensions: whether we were letting it define our blog agenda and whether we would be seduced by the attention (one of the posts on #Kony2012 received nearly 30,000 page views on its own in one day).

We’ve also been confronted with copyright issues. We still continuously find that our words, word for word, have been copied and pasted on other blogs, and even columns of “legitimate” journalists. Because we’re unpaid, attribution and recognition is the only reward. All we ask is a hyperlink, but we don’t always get one.

But let me end with reference to #Kony2012 and one of the key questions about our blog and something that dogged Leo Africanus, i.e. questions about authenticity and representation.

At some level, we at Africa is a Country were of two minds about getting caught up in the hyped-up “discourse” about #Kony2012. We were, in fact, going to let this circus pass. I had actually blogged last November about the hunt for Joseph Kony; that post included a link to an Iranian (!) TV program where 3 Ugandan experts discussed Barack Obama’s announcement to send advisers to Uganda to deal with Kony’s small, ragtag army. The Ugandans speculated on the reasons for announcement and essentially concluded Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army had not been a threat since 2003 and that the real issue for Ugandans was the 26-year reign of Life President Yoweri Museveni.

Since our post—written by Elliot Ross, a comparative literature PhD student at Columbia University, went up three days after the video went online—we were contacted by various people and media (and big media linked to Elliot’s post a few times), who were now obsessed with finding out what “African voices” say: meaning, what do ‘authentic’ Africans think about the film — as if the authenticity of the African will make the criticism ‘real’, add ballast to #Kony2012’s fading truthfulness.

Obviously, we agree that the lack of voices of Africans from the regions in which the Lord’s Resistance Army operates (or once operated) is part of the problem in this ‘activist’ film, with its easy ‘to do’ list aimed at the Facebook slacktivist. (After all that’s something that’s part of Africa is a Country’s remit.) But we were not sure how being ‘authentically African’ makes someone a purveyor of opinion on the issue. And we don’t just say that as a blog composed of like minded people who came together because our politics and our passion for writing intelligently about Africa are aligned in similar ways, rather than because we have our skin colors and aligned within the ‘correct’ spectrum, or because we believe our origins give us some sort of authenticity juju.

Even Invisible Children has “African voices” on their staff. In fact, that was part of the filmmakers’ defense when they responded to criticisms.

Africans can also go badly wrong when they draw uninformed (or purely self-interest driven) conclusions about what’s going on in their own backyard. So we were unclear if the ‘authenticity’ of the Africans engaged in (or critiquing) any given ‘African’ situation is the solution, per se.

The Western media seemed to be thunderstruck with the sudden “awareness” that if you report on something happening in Uganda (or name your country) without bothering to talk to any people from said-country (a noble tradition in Western media coverage of the continent since forever), you’re likely to come up with something that looks as utterly crackers as #Kony2012. Since then they’ve been anxiously casting around for as many Africans as they can find to provide some kind of unchallengeable African Truth. You’re Nigerian? You’re from Sierra Leone? Oh well, close enough, you’ll do, now tell us what to believe, and please do try to be polite and not say anything horrible about racism, especially if it might be ours.

#Kony2012 is above all about Americans, not Uganda. It has little to say about Ugandan history or politics, but as a phenomenon, it provides much insight into American mass culture.

So in conclusion, sure, AIAC knows how to write snarky responses to all sorts of inane media reports on Africa, but we also recognize that lots of it has little to do with Africa or Africans. Which is something I think Leo Africanus knew very well.

[i] Like most things at Africa is a Country, this is a collective piece. Thanks especially to Neelika Jayawardane. The piece also draws on discussions I’ve had with other AIAC bloggers (Tom Devriendt, Elliot Ross, Boima Tucker and Basia Lewondowska-Cummings) that made it into the piece.

[ii] BBC

[iii] Buchan, Guardian

[iv] New Yorker.

[v] NY Review of Books.

[vi] New Yorker

[vii] Zemon Davis

[viii] BBC

[ix] Buchan, Guardian

[x] quoted in Buchan, Guardian.

[xi] “Bono’s Vanity: Showcasing Africa and its Glamorous Patrons,” The Rootless Cosmopolitan”

[xiii] Like Tom Devriendt, another AIAC contributor, telling Neelika about the “Black Dutchmen,” who brought Indonesian batik back to west Africa after fighting in The Netherlands’ colonial wars. This ended up being a major point of interest in her recent blog essay about wax cloth. Neelika was credited as author of the post (it later made it into the Dutch ZAM Magazine) and Tom didn’t get official ‘credit’ for it.

This paper is circulated by the author under the terms of a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. For details, see:

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