Between Tragedy and Art: Keeping Up Hope for Africa

19 May

Earlier this month came news of a boatload of African migrants who became stranded on the Mediterranean crossing, all but nine of them dying from hunger and thirst after days of drifting. It’s not all that uncommon. Desperate Africans, whether fleeing repression or poverty, die in untold numbers in the attempt to reach Europe. This time however the story came with details, the kind that almost make me wish I was illiterate: several boats and helicopters saw the ailing boat and did nothing to help, a baby was lifted into the air to make graphic the need for rescue, its brief life only to be cut when it, a sibling and its parents all died and, upon washing up again on the shores of Libya, the boat’s survivors were put in prison where another one of them died.

It is difficult, almost impossible, at times to keep any sense of the positive happening in Africa when I read articles like this. But talking this week with The Voice Project’s Hunter Heaney in New York helped a bit. In a couple of weeks, Mr. Heaney and a few others will be taking some of the donations the Project has garnered and travelling back to Uganda. The money will go in part to help stimulate new micro-projects run by women who first began using song to send messages of forgiveness to children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  The remaining funds have allowed the purchase of MP3 players with copies of their Acholi songs, which Mr. Heaney will be bringing to jungle radio stations in the Congo where the remnants of this terrible force are now mostly believed to be holed up.

I also went to an exhibit of African art and design while I was there, crossing a kind of mental and emotional bridge to another aspect of Africa I believe we can’t ignore: the creativity, innovation and artistry of its vast populations. Among them were a copy of the book about William Kamkwamba, who built windmills based on a book he saw in a library, a painting by Turner Prize winner Yinka Shonibare, sleek furniture designed by people like Vincent Niamien, Kissi Agueney and Greg and Roche Dry. The fact that most of these no longer live in Africa is a stark one; there is still a world of difference between Kamkwamba’s windmills built with scrap material and Agueney’s beautiful blue-lit ‘Soisson’ lamp. Yet as the Institute for Art and Design write-up put it, they are all part of the “psychic and physical space that is known as Africa.”

There’s not a lot of consolation to be had for the cruel and tragic death of the 61 migrants who perished in the attempt to change their destinies, or any at all really. Yet the very spirit of the songs that underlies and buttresses efforts like The Voice Project to also change destinies has to be the evidence I’ll take to keep believing that African communities have power. Women who don’t even have the right to own land have power and it, not that of repressive governments and obtuse big funding agencies, will some day be the dominant one.

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