Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City

How does one tell stories of people whose lives bear scars and wounds of trauma and violence? Jonny Steinberg’s book, Little Liberia (2011), is a testament to the complexities of representing the life of the Other. Steinberg’s book shows the challenges of negotiating the self, the other, and disciplinary norms to craft a story that honors the wishes of the informant without compromising the ethos of scholarly work, which in the case of literary ethnography may include, inter alia, commitment to greater good, taking responsibility for the freedom and the well-being of the other, being open and transparent, and being cognizant of bias. Steinberg’s Little Liberia like his other works – Midlands (2002), The Number (2004), Three-Letter Plague (2008), and A Man of Good Hope (2015) – blends ethnography and biography to tell the stories of Jacob and Rufus whose lives are intertwined in many ways.

I chose Little Liberia for review because Steinberg’s works exemplify what it means to push the boundaries of disciplinary focus to craft narratives that straddle the lived experience of people while remaining anchored in the systematic way of producing knowledge. Steinberg traces Jacob and Rufus’ lives from the present-day streets of Staten Island in New York to Liberia, their country of origin, and back to New York. At the core of the story is the quest for relevance on the part of Rufus and Jacob. They are children of war; born into a tumultuous and chaotic country with a deeply entrenched system of structural violence that limits any form of personal development or fulfillment. They both fight this system, albeit differently. Rufus is the older of the two; a trained tailor with a passion for improving the lives of the youth in Liberia through soccer. Jacob was a student at a university who was keen on taking an active role in liberating his country from the warlords who were tearing it apart. They both fled the conflict, at different times, but ended up in Park Hill in Staten Island – a place where the majority of Liberian refugees in the United States have come to regard as the “Little Liberia.”

Steinberg follows these men as they go about their business of community building in Park Hill. They both work with a large community of Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island, particularly in Park Hill, which has become a microcosm of the country the refugees fled. Here, refugees reenact the very politics that led to their exile and homelessness. Steinberg quickly learns that Jacob and Rufus do not like each other. Even though they share a similar heritage, their trajectories are marred by controversy and back-biting as they compete for attention, influence, and grant money. Steinberg is not a stranger to these kinds of stories. He has remarked in several interviews that his works explore stories of people and communities in transition; that is, he investigates how political transition changes the filigrees of unwritten rules through which people come to understand themselves and the other. 

In Little Liberia, Steinberg maps the landscape of Park Hill like a linguistics landscape ethnographer. For instance, as the story unfolds, he lets us into a long shot of the Park Hill neighborhood. The place was quiet. He comments, “perhaps I was on the streets of some abandoned utopia, that this place had once been crowded, but that nobody lived here anymore” (1). He then zooms in to let us see an “ABC Eyewitness News” pitch-black van parked on the side of the road, which lets us into the soundscape, “a disembodied voice, a reply, then another – a veritable commentary tossed from one window to the next.” For several pages, Steinberg does not let us see living bodies; he wants us to take in the landscape and understand its contours. Later in the story, I began to understand that Park Hill neighborhood is as much a character as is Jacob or Rufus. The landscape demands the same attention as do human characters. It is through its description and documentation that we begin to understand how Liberian refugees reenact their lives in the US. Steinberg unravels this landscape in ways that allow us to smell, see, hear, and experience the lives and of people in the neighborhood. 

His extraordinary reflective practice draws us into his writing process. He places himself in the story and lets us know of his thoughts. Furthermore, he actively questions his conclusions and even engages his interlocutors to reach a better understanding. For instance, at one point while walking home with Jacob, he says:

I brooded over his (Jacob) last comment: Remember where you are from. The Kids in the room all had American accents and dressed like gang bangers in their low-slung pants, their exposed underwear, and their converse shoes.

‘Was every kid in that workshop African? I asked.

‘They were all Liberian.”

‘Why were there no-African-American there?

He said nothing, and we walked in silence for a long time. 

Here, Steinberg honors silence. He wants to understand an issue, but his informant is not willing to diverge any information. He waits for another time to pose the question. This practice is an excellent lesson in literary ethnography – the ability to understand that often, informants do not have a language to articulate their story or even to answer your questions. Steinberg’s practice resists imposing his interpretation on silences. Instead, he waits patiently to reframe the question.

In addition to observation and interviews, Steinberg travels to Liberia to talk with people who knew Rufus and Jacob’s lives before they fled to the US. The visit allows him to present a well-developed story about his informants. It also allows him to ground his interpretation on much wider evidence. His earlier work as a journalist in South Africa plays a role here – he wants evidence, and he goes looking for it. Although this step does not seem necessary, especially if one acknowledges that the value of a literary ethnography does not lie in how well it represents the “objective truth,” it does serve a function in this particular story. Rufus and Jacob make claims about a violent conflict in Liberia that can potentially affect the lives of many families. Thus, it pays to countercheck their claims and the contradictions in their stories. 

After spending a year and ten months shadowing Rufus and Jacob around New York, Steinberg completed his manuscript and gave copies to both Jacob and Rufus to comment, clarify, or contest any issue in the manuscript. He told Rufus, “if there are things you disagree with, not just matters of fact, but of perspective, about your fight with Jacob, about your vision for Rosa, about your trip to Monrovia, please share with me” (259). He lets us into his mind to peek on his reason for letting his informants shape the story he will finally publish. “My mind drifted, I felt anxious. I found myself wondering whether I could ever know much about this man’s experiences without being there, next to him, as they unfolded” (259). Here lies Steinberg’s gift as a literary ethnographer – the capacity to understand the limits of your craft. Ethnographers can learn a lot from his practice, that is, allowing the informant to challenge your conclusion and interpretation of their lives. 

Later, Jacob called him to complain about problems in the manuscript. Problems that might affect families in the Park Hill neighborhood and even back home in Liberia. How did Steinberg address Jacob’s concerns? He reflects on the role of an ethnographer and the imagination of the informant. I share his reflections here to underscore the complexity of representing the life of the other and how ethnographers can exercise empathy without compromising their ‘agency to represent.’

Reading a book-length depiction of yourself for the first time is shocking, always, for everybody who has had the experience. You have spoken into a voice recorder for months, years. As you talked, you’re censored here and embellished there; you felt increasingly comfortable and in control; you were, in fact, writing a persona into the pages of the book that was still to be written. When you finally open the manuscript, you discover that you never were the one with the pen. The person, the writer, has contrived is recognizably you in detail. But in the spirit, something is awry. The writer has cheated. He has written a you that is not you: certainly not a you that you would care to present. You have given him material that you ought to have kept to yourself, that only you should have the right to clothe and display (260).

This quote underscores the major challenge of literary ethnography: the ethnographer takes the informant’s words (words that may have been carefully selected to build a specific persona), his interpretation of those words, and weaves a story of a persona the informant would rather keep hidden. Steinberg sat with Jacob and tried to understand his complaints. In the end, he managed to change a few passages in the story, but mostly let the story be. He remarks that while a writer of fiction is a master of his house with the freedom to do whatever he wishes; the writer of nonfiction is a renter who must obey the conditions of the lease. It seems then that a literary ethnographer – in this case, a writer who blends ethnography and biography to represent the other has the freedom to use the creative techniques of fiction but must always remember his duty to ethnographic truth (whatever that may be).

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.

In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries.  Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.

Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.

Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure.  In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.

Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.

In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries?  What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.

If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.

Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.

In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.

Going Back to the Basics?

Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.

Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.

Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.

I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies.  It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.

Video Game Development Industry in Africa: Reflections from Eyram Tawia’s Uncompromising Passion: The Humble Beginnings of an African Video Game Industry

Video Game Development Industry in Africa: Reflections from Eyram Tawia’s Uncompromising Passion: The Humble Beginnings of an African Video Game Industry

Tawia’s story captures the challenges young video games entrepreneurs face in Africa as they work with new technologies. Due to low access to broadband internet, lack of well-developed technology infrastructure, and uninformed market, the video games industry took a long time to develop. Often, pioneers like Wesley Kirinya and Tawia could not raise enough funding for their projects. Despite the abundance of talent and enthusiastic young people, governments did not prioritize this creative industry. Instead, countries like Kenya supported other crafts such as carpentry or masonry while ignoring the video industry.

The establishment of iHub in Nairobi and other hubs across Africa has allowed developers to collaborate and have access to human and financial capital needed in the development of video games. Kenya’s Vison 2030 includes the construction of Technology cities – Silicon Savannah, Tetu City, and Konza City – that will support young entrepreneurs. These cities will provide larger platforms for local and international developers to collaborate as video game development involves an amalgamation of specialties such as computer programming, design, and creative writing among others.

Broadband internet and wide access to smartphones has ignited an interest in video games and increased its demand in major cities in Africa. For instance, in Nairobi some cyber cafes specialize in video games playing. Furthermore, universities are running competitions that encourage students to develop video games, and the Kenyan government initiative to provide primary school pupils with iPad gives a platform for distributing educational video games. In short, this is a great industry with rising potential for both developers and entrepreneurs.

Tawia’s book reads like a motivational book and a guide post for those interested in developing video games in Africa. He has given a map of his journey from a boy reading comic books, creating them, and developing video games based on some of those books. Some of the challenges he faced such as lack of access to high performance computers can now be addressed in many ways. But the greater challenge – gaining funding – is still prevalent. Although this is not unique to Africa, it is well pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa where the idea of Venture Capitalism is in its infancy.

Another challenge Tawia has highlighted is the cultural orientation of most consumers in Africa. Most people are used to, and to some extent prefer western super heroes. So, young companies interested in African culture must go an extra mile to persuade consumers and investors on the significance of developing African heroes.

It seems that Tawia learned a lot from attending local and international video game developer’s conferences where he met experienced people in the industry who mentored him. But as he noted, most of these conferences are by invitation only, thus locking out many interested young people. Governments in Africa or institutions of higher learning can solve this challenge through organizing their own conferences to enable young entrepreneurs to meet investors, and learn new skills.

Tawia’s success story encourages young entrepreneurs to actionalize their ideas. Do not wait for a perfect time. Just go out and do it!

You can buy the book here.

 

The Chinese Community in Kenya: Pitfalls and Possibilities

The Chinese Community in Kenya: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Two years ago, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese restaurant owner who allegedly had a “no African” policy in his restaurant. The restaurant, simply known as Chinese Restaurant, is located in Kilimani, an affluent suburb for the upper class in Nairobi. Local newspapers reported that the restaurant only allowed tax drivers or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European or Indian patrons.  Most Kenyans were outraged by these reports; they took into social media calling for the deportation of the Chinese business owners. The government was at first reluctant to act but they finally gave in to public pressure and arrested the restaurant owner for running a business without a license – but not for racism as most Kenyans would have preferred.

The restaurant cited security concerns as a reason why they barred Africans into the restaurant but this does not hold considering that they even barred prominent Kenyans, a former cabinet secretary, and a permanent secretary who would not by any chance be members of Al-Shabaab, the militant Somali based terrorists that the Chinese patrons were afraid of. Even if the threat was plausible, it is not a viable reason for profiling people and singling out a race as potential terrorists. Most Africans considered the actions of the Chinese patrons as racist but there is no way of knowing their true motive. It could be that they were truly concerned about their safety or they did not simply consider Africans worthy of their company. I have considered this question carefully, and I contend that what happened in Nairobi was a matter of misguided cultural power dynamics between Africans and Chinese patrons.

Most Chinese in Kenya have no previous experience with the various ethnic groups that make up the country. Even though Chinese contact with Kenyans dates back to Sung Dynasty (960-1279), it’s only recently that their presence in Kenya has become noticeable.  There is archeological evidence of Chinese presence in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly in Lamu. Local legend has it that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors washed up on the shore hundreds of years ago, and the locals rescued them.  The sailors converted to Islam, intermarried with Africans, and were assimilated into the community. A report on China Daily, July 11, 2005 indicated that DNA tests conducted on Kenyan women in Lamu confirmed that they were of Chinese descent. This indicates that Africans and Chinese have had a cordial encounter and are not incapable of living together. However, the recent wave of Chinese migration into Africa while beneficial economically, it poses new type of cultural challenges.

China established diplomatic relationship with Kenya in December 14, 1963, shortly after Kenya’s independence. Despite the two country’s different economic models – Kenya having embraced capitalism while China favored communism – they have continued to enjoy a cordial relationship. According to the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies’ 2008 report on China-Africa Economic Relations, The Chinese embassy in Kenya is arguably their largest embassy in Africa both in terms of size and employees.  This may perhaps explain the surge in Chinese immigrants to Kenya in the last two decades. The Chinese contractors are managing major government and private constructions across the country.

Despite the thriving construction industry, the major Chinese immigrants are mostly merchants, importing merchandise and selling to retailers in Kenya. I have observed that Chinese traders in Kenya rarely deal with the locals directly; they prefer working with middlemen, thus avoiding the necessary contact that can boost their familiarity with the host.  Furthermore, the Chinese construction companies do not hire Kenyans; they do all the work and sometimes prefer living in their own quarters. With this kind of lifestyle, the Chinese have little exposure with local people, and have no way of learning about local culture, leave alone embracing it.

Interestingly, due to Chinese investment in Kenya, some Kenyans are learning Mandarin through the Chinese sponsored Confucius Institutes around the country. However, one cannot stop to think that the cultural literacy is only happening one way, hence creating a cultural power dynamics. Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New empire in Africa, has extensively covered this aspect of cultural power dynamics between ordinary Chinese investors and Africans. French writes a story about a Mr. Hao Shengli, an investor in Mozambique whose belief about Africans is in the lines of “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully” Obviously Mr. Hao does not hold Africans in high esteem. To him African culture is subservient to his.

As much as Mr. Hao is not a representative of Chinese people, in a way he is typical of most investors who now flock various cities across Africa. Most countries in Africa have yet to reflect on the impact of Chinese investment in their countries. But with the increasing immigration of Chinese businesspeople into African cities, this kind of reflection is inevitable. As often is the case, the most noticeable effects are on cultural compatibility. The Nairobi incident demonstrates that there is a wide cultural divide between Africans and Chinese. This issue must be addressed with utmost urgency lest the cordial relationship China enjoys with African countries be ruined.

Of course it is upon the Chinese businesspersons to learn the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanness), and African Values of community. There is a lot to be gained through mutual respect and honest dealing. As much as the Chinese government is investing in Africans who are trying to learn Chinese culture, it should do the same to the Chinese who want to learn African cultures. For China to represent a new awakening, it must do, and behave better than the European colonizers at whose hands Africans were humiliated and their dignity violated.

The incident in Nairobi, for all we know, may have been a misunderstanding but nevertheless it sowed seeds of discord and loss of trust that the Kenyans had for Chinese business-people.  Deliberate steps must be taken to restore the relationship to its better form. It seems to me that cultural knowledge may be the most important business skill that any Chinese hoping to invest in Kenya or Africa ought to possess. History shows that most Asians who have come to Africa for whatever reason usually prefers to build a home in their host countries. The Indians who built the railway in East Africa are now part of our proud heritage. Even though most of them never made any effort to integrate or assimilate to the local culture, they somehow found ways of maintaining a healthy relationship with Africans. There are a few exceptions to this, for instance, the tragedy that came with Dictator Idi Amin of Uganda who in the 70s expelled Asians from Uganda. The Ugandans saw the Asians as a threat to their economic lives. Of course they were wrong but populist ideas and reasoning often do not go together.

There is no better way of securing the future of Africans and the Chinese than to invest in cultural programs that foster mutual respect. Such programs might include student, farmers, businesspeople, and government exchange programs among others. Of course, such programs often take long in impacting a society. But they are worthy looking into.

 

Taybeh Beer Festival

I recently attended a beer festival at Taybeh, an all-Christian Palestinian village in Ramallah. The village has about 1, 500 people. Taybeh is an historical city that has changed hands several times – from the natives to the crusaders to Saladin to Ottoman Empire to the British, to Jordan, and to Israeli Occupation Army. It is believed that Jesus retired to this city after resurrecting Lazarus. It was a place of safety far away from the Pharisees who wanted him dead. I counted about three ancient churches including St. George Church, which was built in the 5th century.

Taybeh festival is more than a beer event; it is a reconstruction of Palestinian cultural image in an effort to maintain the relationship to the land and a sense of hominess in the face of the Israeli physical isolation of Palestinians. The brewery was founded in 1995 by David Khoury who was buoyed by the wave of optimism that followed the signing of the Oslo accords. This is an indication that a peace agreement can potentially bring more investments in Palestine. Palestinians in the diaspora will be more than happy to return to the homeland and develop their economy.

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Outside Teybeh Factory

This brewery that has made the city famous and attracted many tourists is surrounded by Muslim villages that abhor alcohol consumption. The brewery owners are cautious not to offend the Muslims. Thus, we were requested to not to carry beers beyond the gates of the factory because villagers do not want to see people drinking alcohol.

I noticed that the event attracted many people especially foreigners and Arab Christians. There were people even from the US embassy. To me Taybeh project represents the unlimited economic activities Palestinians can engage in if they were allowed to.  One of the reasons why Palestinians are suffering is their lack of economic opportunities.

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