Women are the backbone of agricultural and rural economies in Africa, yet are often deprived of the means to become self-sufficient
If Africa is to feed itself, and if land rights are to be applied universally, the advancement of African women farmers is a fundamental necessity, and the ability of women to access microfinance is key.
Over the past few years, international banks, financing institutions and micro-funders have increased their focus on the most stubborn obstacle facing female farmers in Africa – the inability to expand beyond subsistence farming due to patriarchal systems that prevent them from owning land and enjoying a degree of control over the means of production, which in turn stifles their ability to leverage finance.
Disrupters of traditional banking practices, and micro-finance funders, are essential in transforming this scenario. Among these one stands out: Echo Network Africa (ENA), formerly Kenya Women Holding (KWH), the brainchild of micro-finance banker and entrepreneur Dr Jennifer Riria.
Over more than three decades, KWH’s subsidiary, Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), has distinguished itself as the largest micro-finance bank in Africa, having disbursed $1.3bn in loans to more than five million women, some 80% of them living in Kenya’s rural areas. Each loan averages less than $600 – a small amount but it can enable a woman to generate enough profit to feed and educate her children, and often, to scale up to a profitable farming business.
“Our landmark achievement at KWFT and ENA has been to open the banking sector to women,” Riria told Fanaka TV, Kenya’s premier business channel, in August 2018. “If women in Africa are to be empowered, they need to be financially independent. And that means access to resources – to land, to houses, and to businesses.”
The case for women joining agricultural value chains is clear. Women contribute an average of 40% of crop production labour across six sub-Saharan African countries, according to the World Bank’s LSMS-Integrated Surveys on Agriculture, and more than 50% in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. Yet they produce significantly less than men per hectare, ranging from 23% less in Tanzania to 66% less in Niger, according to the Cost of the Gender Gap report by the World Bank and UN Women, published in 2015.
Male-female differences in farm labour, non-labour inputs (for example, volume and quality of fertiliser and pesticides), childcare responsibilities and crop choice are identified by the World Bank as the chief drivers of Africa’s gender productivity gap. In addition, gender differences in the access, control and use of land also play a role, since having land available is a precondition for entry into agriculture, and determines access to finance. “Credit may be linked to many of these factors, as it can be a pivotal source of liquidity to help women farmers access inputs, including labour, and even to switch into higher-value crops,” says Flore de Préneuf, Communications Lead, Food and Agriculture Global Practice for the World Bank.
According to the World Bank’s statistics, the annual costs of these gaps range from $67 million in Uganda to $105 million in Tanzania. “In other words,” says de Préneuf, “these are the annual gains that could be achieved through parity in agricultural yields. These costly gaps can also drag down welfare: our estimates show that closing farm gaps could lift many individuals out of poverty in Malawi (238,000), Tanzania (80,000), and Uganda (119,000).”
In Kenya, it was the enduring poverty of the female smallholder farmers she grew up with that seeded Riria’s desire to extend them lines of credit. “I left my job at the UN and joined KWH. We began with small loans of two or three dollars, and the women would pay this back and graduate to larger loans. One of our women farmers began with $200 and is now running a manufacturing business, and borrowing over $10,000. Banks, once closed to women, are now finding that women are bankable and creditworthy,” she says.
Microfinance in Africa, a village savings and loans association in Malawi.
One of these farmers is fish farmer Betty Nyongesa, who with loans from KWFT has paid for her children to go to school, built a house, acquired a herd of cattle, and bought a plot of land where she has built a small shop, from where she runs her business. “My community used to believe that a woman was meant to stay at home and take care of the kids. They never thought that we could be the backbone of our community,” Nyongesa told her interviewer in an ENA documentary. “Kenya Women has empowered us, and our men now respect us.”
KWFT today has a network of 245 offices spread out across 45 of Kenya’s 47 counties, and as at December 2017, it had a loan book of $192 million, assets valued at $286 million and deposits of $162 million. ENA, meanwhile, is the development arm that bolsters KWFT’s micro-financing activities, collaborating with broad community-based organisations (CBOs) and alliances to innovate viable initiatives and provide mentorship to women in the agricultural and entrepreneurship sectors.
“The KWFT clients (801,317) are all members of ENA, because women need more than finance, they need knowledge of business and accounting practices, and access to the markets and digital support systems,” says Riria. Digital technology is proving revolutionary for women farmers across the continent, giving them access to both finance and knowledge. “Our banking services can now be taken to the women in their villages, where they can do their own banking online,” Riria says.
There is a proliferation of other initiatives in this space. In May 2018, the World Bank approved a $70m e-agriculture project in Côte d’Ivoire, which will help women farmers and other beneficiaries harness new technologies to learn about farm practices, find linkages to buyers, and access digital financial services. “This project will ensure that farmers have timely information on key aspects of the agriculture value chain such as the seed market,” says Pierre Laporte, World Bank country director for Côte d’Ivoire.
A feasibility study is also being done on integrating information communication technology (ICTs) into two large World Bank investment programmes: the Irrigation Development and Support Project (IDSP) in Zambia and the Kenya Agricultural Productivity and Agribusiness Project (KAPAP), with the specific aim of strengthening women’s participation in commodity value chains.
Meanwhile, one of the recommendations of a 2017 World Bank report, Mobile Technologies and Digitized Data to Promote Access to Finance for Women in Agriculture, is to leverage, through digitisation, the strong role that collective savings groups play in rural women’s lives. The aim is to increase their efficiency and transparency and enable women to ultimately build their own digital financial profiles.
Third-party credit scoring companies that use smartphone data for analysis, such as Lenddo, which provides credit scoring to banks and MFIs, as well as direct lenders such as Tala, are also being encouraged to expand their services to women in the agricultural sector. According to the report, investment is called for to design gender-responsive bundled and customised service offerings that meet the financial priorities and life-cycle needs of women farmers. Currently, products are designed around cycles most relevant to men.
Finally, the report recommends: “Drive the collection and use of digitised data to expand bank offerings and financing to women in agriculture. The trend in alternative credit scoring holds promise for women, who, research corroborates, frequently lack fixed collateral and financial histories they can present to a lender.”
As these interventions transform the agricultural sector in Africa, its female farmers will begin to make far more significant contributions to their agricultural economies. In Kenya, Riria and her organisations, KWFT and ENA, have set Kenya’s 2022 general election as their deadline to make a marked difference in women’s political and financial power overall.
“Women can now benefit from a ‘democracy fund’ that we have set up to train and facilitate women to become more competitive and to take up political leadership positions, ahead of the 2022 general election,” Riria told Kenya’s Daily Nation news channel in March 2018.
Lucy Asuagbor, Member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi during press conference at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 27 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré
The African Union’ s Maputo Protocol provides member states with a comprehensive policy framework for ensuring women’ s rights across the continent
In 2003, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, now known as the Maputo Protocol.
According to the United Nations, this key document has since been integrated into several constitutions and into national laws and policies across the continent.
In her 2017 report on Women’ s Rights in Africa, Lucy Asuagbor – commissioner and special rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, acknowledged the strides made in pushing women’s rights and the gender agenda on the continent.
Some of the progresses recorded in the report included the adoption by a number of member states of legislative, policy, institutional and other measures for addressing violence against women, access to land and inheritance rights, gender equality and economic empowerment of women and women’s political participation, as well as harmful cultural practices, including female genital mutilation (FMG) and child marriage.
The report also highlighted some of the gender equality initiatives on the continent, which included increased access to education for girls, an increase in the number of female professionals and women in leadership positions, and the observation that women were now taking on roles, which were traditionally reserved for men.
However, among the challenges, she singled out the urgent need to reduce the high maternal mortality rate, the high rate of sexual violence and human trafficking, the high rate of unsafe abortions, and the high rate of HIV infections among women.
Asuagbor reported that there were now provisions on sexual and gender- based violence, economic, social and cultural rights and the principle of equality and right to non-discrimination in constitutions, policies and in legislations across the continent.
Female participation in African legislatures outpaced many in developed countries. Rwanda (at 63.8%) was ranked number one in the world, with Senegal and South Africa in the top 10. Fifteen African countries rank ahead of France and the United Kingdom, 24 rank ahead of the United States, and 42 rank ahead of Japan. However, the remaining challenges and gaps that needed to be overcome for the full realisation of women’s rights was daunting.
In every African country, as was the case globally, women continued to be denied full enjoyment of their rights.
“In Africa, one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lifetime,” Asuagbor said. “In six countries, there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence. In 2013, African women and girls accounted for 62% (179,000) of all global deaths from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, while in sub-Saharan Africa women comprise the highest percentage of new HIV infections.
Globally, an estimated 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, mainly in Africa, and 125 million African women and girls alive today were married before the age of 18. Protection gaps in the areas of health, marriage, and family relations are particularly striking as is the non-recognition of intersectional forms of discrimination. In many countries, these gaps are also compounded by political instability and conflict.”
Article two of the protocol requires states to take positive action to address inequalities between women and men, and to ensure women are able to exercise and enjoy their rights. Other articles define states’ obligations to be, among others: the right to dignity; the right to life, integrity and security of the person; protection from harmful practices; rights in marriage, which include entitlement to property and the custody and guardianship of children; protection from child, early and forced marriages; the right of access to justice and equal protection of the law; the right to participate in political and decision-making processes; the right to peace; the rights to adequate housing, food security, education, and equality in access to employment; reproductive and health rights, including control of one’s fertility; and the right to be protected against HIV infection.
Thirty-seven countries have ratified the protocol. To date, however, while 46 African countries have reported to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, only four countries have submitted reports to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights under the Maputo Protocol.
In her recommendations, Asuagbor called for states to ratify the protocol and adopt a comprehensive national human rights action plan to “domesticate” the Maputo Protocol. She recommended the lifting of reservations to the protocol, in particular those that reinforce the notions of inequality of women in the home or deny women autonomy in decision-making about their own bodies.
Asuagbor said states should make use of existing analysis and reports to the international human rights mechanisms (including the UN human rights treaty monitoring bodies, the UPR and special procedures) for reporting under Article 26 of the Maputo Protocol. They should establish a multi-sectoral mechanism with a mandate to track progress on domestication and to call on different ministries to account in line with the Maputo Protocol or, at the minimum, include tracking and monitoring in the mandate of the existing National Mechanism for Reporting and Follow-Up.
States were also called upon to:
Strengthen support for institutions in relation to gender equality and the empowerment of women, including the systematic integration of a gender perspective in all ministries, as well as national human rights institutions.
- Adopt and enforce targets to end all forms of discrimination and violence against all women and girls, including domestic and sexual violence as well as harmful practices such as child and forced marriage and FGM.
- Repeal any law which discriminates against women and hinders gender equality in all spheres of life: in the family, in economic and social life, in public and political life, and in the area of health.
- Repeal or eliminate laws, policies and practices that criminalise, obstruct or undermine access by individuals or a particular group to sexual and reproductive health facilities, services, goods and information. At the very least, they should bring laws into compliance with the protocol.
- Adopt targets to ensure women full and productive employment, recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work, and give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources.
- Expand sex disaggregated data collection to capture, among other things, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination for advocacy and gender- responsive programming.
- Strengthen domestic criminal accountability, responsiveness to victims and judicial capacity.
- Affirm the primacy of international and regional human rights law and constitutional laws over religious, customary and indigenous laws as a means of ensuring women’s emancipation and autonomy.
- Establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and raise public awareness on all forms of discrimination against women, including violence against women and girls, and ensure that awareness- raising campaigns address the needs of women with albinism.
- Work with all partners and women’s groups to create a dialogue between different stakeholders and engagement with human rights mechanisms.
- Create a space for community-based organisations, including women human rights defenders, to concretely contribute to the promotion of human rights on the continent, and encourage and strengthen networks among these groups to support the process of implementation of the Agenda 2063 and its related document, as well as the outcome document of the African Year of Human Rights.
- Ground all efforts for the promotion and protection of women’s rights, including the context of Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063, in human rights norms and standards – particularly the Maputo Protocol and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, as well as the work of Special Procedures, in particular of the working group on discrimination against women in law and in practice and the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
Women make up almost exactly half the population of the region, but you’d never say so based on how few there are in senior management
It is rather surprising that African women, who raise and support future national leaders – and who therefore count among the founders of nations – are seldom allowed to participate fully in the economic and political lives of their nations. Despite the fact that they constitute around half of the population, women are marginalised and disadvantaged in all sectors of the economy, as well as in relation to the development agenda.
All around Africa, governance practices still give little credence to the views of women. In Anglophone West Africa, things are no different. In Ghana, the proportion of female to total board members generally ranged from 7% to 25%, according to a 2016 study by the International Finance Corporation, Gender Diversity in Ghanaian Boardrooms, while the highest number of women on any particular board amounted to a quarter of the total board membership. Some 24.05 % of the sampled boards consisted only of males. In other words, one out of every four boards had no female representation at all.
This skewed situation is not peculiar to Ghana; it is prevalent across West Africa. In Sierra Leone, for example, only 7.9% of firms have a woman among the principal owners, according to a 2015 International Labor Organization (ILO) study, Promoting Jobs, Protecting People. In Gambia, for example, some 16.8% of firms have female participation in ownership, while 12.3% of firms have female majority ownership and 9.6% have a female top manager, according to a 2018 World Bank study.
Why are there so few women in decision-making positions in companies, businesses and institutions in West Africa? Well, for one thing, women’s cultural roles are often defined by outdated ideas that exclude them from decision-making roles in society. These cultural roles are enforced by gendered socialisation, the process by which social expectations and attitudes associated with one’s sex are learned. Gendered socialisation begins at birth, and gendered socialisation continues during adolescence and into adulthood, according to a 2017 discussion paper by UNICEF on adolescent gender socialisation in low- and middle-income countries.
In West Africa, women are seen as homemakers and nurturers who have no place in the world of paid work. Though this view is slowly changing, women working in the formal economy – the public or private sector – are usually relegated to the lower levels of employment, where influential decision-making is non-existent. Thus, women are affected by the decisions of a majority male leadership, while their lack of representation in top-level hierarchies prevents them from having agency and shaping their societies in formal spaces.
At an International Woman’s Day event held in Gambia in 2015, Saiba Suso, a programme officer with Activista Gambia and a lecturer at the development studies unit of the University of Gambia, said African women continue to experience discrimination in many areas such as education, the labour market, religion, job opportunities and decision-making. Her remark was borne out, three years later, by a UN Women 2018 report on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “There can be no sustainable development without gender equality,” the report says. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, women still suffer more poverty than their global counterparts, and more hunger. Women in the region also face higher rates of maternal mortality than the global average, while 48.1% of girls are less likely to learn to read and write at primary school as compared to 43.6% of boys in the same region.
In Ghana, some 61.4% of females interviewed had no formal education compared to 39% of males, according to a 2016 report by the Institute of Economic Affairs in Ghana. After primary school, the proportion of males far exceeded the proportion of females at all levels of educational attainment. Lack of access to education means that women are less employable in formal sectors and they often have to resort to informal jobs, which help to pay the bills but do not contribute to their financial independence.
In Liberia, more females (4.5%) are unemployed than males (3%), according to a recent (undated) World Bank Institute report, Striving for Business Success: Voices of Liberian Women Entrepreneurs. Most women are self-employed and operate in the informal sector. Some 13.4% of males are employed in the formal sector as compared to 4.5% of females. Female entrepreneurs in Liberia work mainly in the small retail and trade sector, and 60% of women own informal enterprises, as compared to 45% of men, according to a 2012 World Bank report.
In West Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, women also make significant contributions to crop production, animal husbandry and marketing. But this work is unstable, poorly paid and usually invisible, resulting in a high incidence of unemployment among women as compared to men. Globally, the unemployment rate of women for 2018, at 6% – is approximately 0.8 percentage points higher than the rate for men. Altogether, this means that for every 10 men in a job, only six women are in employment. For Africa as a whole, the male employment-to-population ratio was estimated at about 69.2% compared to the female employment-to-population ratio of only 39.2% (Gender Equality in Employment in Africa: Empirical Analysis and Policy Implications, 2014). Women’s lack of access to education means that companies have a smaller pool of developed talent to select from when recruiting for high-level positions in public and private companies and governmental organisations. In West Africa, women face a “glass ceiling”: the higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer women are to be found in senior positions. In her 2013 M Phil thesis on the glass ceiling phenomenon among managerial women in Ghana, Dorcas Gyekye argued that men’s promotion into leadership positions was based on their perceived potential as leaders, while women’s promotion was adjudged on the basis of their perceived performance.
Members of the “old boys’ club” – an informal system through which men use their positions of influence to provide favours and information to other men – will see potential in people they deem to be more like them. So it is that more men are promoted than women. Women who succeed in getting to the top may be there as a form of tokenism – which, in my view, goes some way to accounting for women’s rivalry in such contexts, since surviving can depend on factors other than professional performance. According to the Gender Diversity in Ghanaian Boardrooms report (2018), some 49.37% of the women on company boards were non-executive directors, while only 6.49% of organisations had women as the chair of the board.
Away from the world of employment, whether formal or informal, African women face additional burdens. According to a 2017 report by the UN, women do at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. Since household work is unpaid, this leaves women with fewer resources and even less time or opportunity than men to focus on career advancement. According to a 2016 report by the IEA in Ghana, women spend most of their time on household activities such as cleaning (94%), cooking (90.2%), water collection (73.8%) and childcare (68.5%), while a significant proportion of men (65.0%) control the household finances.
Worldwide, women are also often paid less than men for the same work, and West Africa is no exception. According to the ILO Global Wage Report 2014/15, women’s average wages were between 4% to 36% less than men’s; and astonishingly, this gap widens in absolute terms for higher-earning women. Similarly, women in 32 African countries were paid less than men for comparable roles. In West Africa, Ghana heads the list: women earn $3,484 per annum as compared to men’s $6,485, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum on the global gender gap. Unequal rates of pay further reduce women’s ability to make investments, support their families, and establish their own financial independence.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that women take less-demanding jobs – to be able to do their unpaid labour. Employers often cite this as a reason to exclude women from decision-making positions, whether public or private, saying that they will have to attend to household tasks and decisions while at work. Contemporary changes at the workplace that are now quite common in the developed world – such as working from home and longer or parental leave – would help to alleviate the strenuous conditions many African women experience. Other social changes, such as sharing household labour, would also help.
The inclusion of women in high-level positions makes economic and social sense. Research has shown that when there is an equitable representation of male and female voices at the higher levels of corporations the results are improved performance, more innovation, an enhanced quality of decision-making, better use of the talent pool, deeper customer intelligence (customers are, after all, both male and female) and an improved quality of corporate governance and ethics in decision-making, according to a 2014 document on achieving gender equality in the workplace by the Australian government’s Gender Equality Agency.
It will be obvious that boards on which there is an under-representation of women will make decisions skewed towards a male point of view. If both sexes are fairly represented, by contrast, there is a much higher likelihood that decisions will be balanced around the views of both men and women. Companies with a more equal distribution of the sexes in the boardroom financially outperform companies with a less representative gender mix, according to a McKinsey and Company’s report, Diversity Matters (2015). In short, globally, women are good for the bottom line. The same will be true of every region in Africa, including our own.
In this Africa in Fact edition dedicated to culture, Fred Khumalo paraphrases our mutual friend Mondli Makhanya who, in the midst of a debate with a right-of-centre interlocutor, asserted that, “I am a South African and that’s where it ends”. Much as this position is apt within a national discourse on identity politics, if we zoom out to the continent, Africanness has to be our departure point; for in one simple sense, culture is the outwardly radiating manifestation of our being in the world.
To elaborate, Max, a cab driver in DC who hails from Ghana, shares the following insight, “African culture teaches us from the earliest days to have respect for other people; you would think that with money and technology we would be happy and content but we have lost that culture. There is no respect for other people.” Culture often portrays more than a colourful aesthetic or funky tone, instead promoting a value base to what we represent, what we do, and who we are in the world. Hence the lament when culture loses its charge.
As our readers will appreciate from our zesty cover, however, the manifestation of culture on the African continent, as we have presented it, is all-embracing and flies effortlessly across the spectrum from food to fashion, soccer to the sounds of Afrobeat, religion to the Congolese rumba and beyond. Challenges may abound, but it’s an exciting time to be African.
Recent work events confirm the current fuss over all things African. At the Africa Transformation Forum in Accra, dazzling shades of Kente cloth were proudly worn by overseas delegates, while a more recent event at Ikoyi in St James, London, verified the hype associated with this West African inspired menu of plantains, jollof rice, efo, suya and other culinary treats, with cuisine fit for a lady and a lord; literally. South African wines are increasingly fêted in North America, as confirmed by Cape Classic wines recently wining a prestigious award in the US.
In short, there is increasing traction for Africa’s cultural sharing and export. With this comes the tension of protecting local intellectual property rights and balancing this with an expanding global market of incremental consumers. Nicky B highlights this in a poignant piece on African music, with respect to songs such as Wimoweh and Soul Makossa. Charmain Naidoo picks up on the issue of cultural contestation in her presentation on African fashion, while Anna Trapido suggests that on the foodie savoir-faire front, pitted against the EU’s 837 Geographical Indicator (GI) protected goods, Africa has only four. These inequalities are palpable.
Yet, as Andrew Panton recognises, in Africa the beat goes on, at least in the DRC where music sustains society. And it is not only melodies, food and fashion that take to the stage; African film is a niche market in the industry that holds much potential for development. Verónica Pamoukaghlián tells us that Nigeria and South Africa contribute $1 billion to the continent’s annual GDP. Whereas the former’s production dwarfs the latter’s, in box office revenue the southerners pull in 7.5 times as much, at $90 million.
Analytically, the very notion of culture, which John Kakonge engages in detail in his piece, needs to be retraced back to its beginnings and this necessitates some attention to history. This, coupled to the mantra that “Africa is not a country”, leads Luke Mulunda to suggest that we refer to “cultures of Africa” instead of “African culture” to promote an appreciation of the diversity and magnitude of the phenomena at hand.
Taking history at its broadest reach, we present an article by Delme Cupido on the plight of Africa’s “first peoples” with notable challenges and significant advances to recognise their human dignity before focusing more specifically on the San in Zimbabwe in a provocative piece by Owen Gagare that exposes their difficulties. Keeping with the theme of migrant peoples, Ini Ekott dives into the lives of Fulani pastoralists who since time immemorial have been nomadic and who now face major adaptive pressure in an existential threat to their culture.
In terms of concomitant diversity, we see Khumalo’s “Afropolitan” squaring off with so-called “white” Africans, who are, according to Kevin Bloom, still in the process of negotiating the identity of their Africanness. Meanwhile, Terence Corrigan and Vaughan Dutton find no evidence of a consistent religion-governance nexus, which flies somewhat in the face of intuition given the significance of faith-based traditions proselytised onto the continent and their cultural richness.
Ronak Gopaldas unpacks the “reverse flow” migration of sporting Africans onto the terroir of old colonial masters, with reference to France’s recent victory in the FIFA World Cup, using this as an exemplification of the outflux of some of Africa’s best and brightest human and cultural capital. Tom Osanjo provides the flipside of this coin, discussing the success of ex-pat sports stars back in their home countries, such as footballer Dennis Oliech from Kenya.
After all, our African identity is only the beginning, the rest is what we choose to retain, create, inspire. In January, the world lost one of its most talented sons, the late, great, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela. I still remember him turning to me during a live performance of The Boy’s Doin’ It in England, pointing and belting out “and this Durban boy’s doing it here in Cambridge”. I felt proud of being African and proud of the funky Africa Bra’ Hugh was representing on the global stage. In the face of adversity, racism and inequality, those warm, colourful, cultural strains of Africa streamed out sweetly through his lyrical trumpet on that cold, frosty, northern night. “Africa’s century is only just beginning,” I thought to myself, as I smiled infectiously.
Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture
Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan,
Michigan State University Press | East Lansing; 2018
Aristotle noted that man was a social animal, but also that we are the only species that laughs. What we laugh at remains something of a mystery.
We humans also practise professions that make of laughter a source of livelihood: court jesters have been around since the time of the pharaohs, but now we also have professional comedians and cartoonists – as well as those unwitting comedians, politicians. Cartoons, which often ridicule this latter species, are by definition funny. This is all the more reason why we should be Taking Africa’s Cartoons Seriously, as the authors of this book argue.
The flourishing of Africa’s cartoonists indicates that democracy is taking root. Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan, the book is meant to correct the lack of analysis of political cartoons, and to introduce new approaches to the phenomenon. It contains an introduction and overview, seven essays, and five interviews with prominent cartoonists from sub-Saharan Africa.
The works analysed are by practitioners in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, while those interviewed are from Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Most of the essays present analyses of how and why cartoons work, while two present the vagaries of media freedom in South Africa and Ghana.
It is instructive that the cartoonists’ countries of origin influence their works and their thoughts about what they do. The political regimes in power in each case determine the form and content. Democracy is a necessary condition for cartooning that does not descend into hagiography.
Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, has a long history of military rule and sporadic attempts at democracy. Ganiyu A Jimoh’s examination of cartoons about the Nigerian police uses semiotics as a methodology to demonstrate how cartoons work. He also provides a brief history of corruption in the police force before turning to cartoonists’ use of physical features: the potbelly – to denote corruption and ill-gotten wealth, as well as indolence and a dereliction of duty.
Caricature is a favourite device of most cartoonists, exaggerating the physical features of leaders and the elites – a nose enlarged, a look in the eye made hyperbole, a character trait rendered hilarious. Caricature diminishes the authority of the powermonger, stripping him (more often a him) of legitimacy and reducing him to less than ordinary.
Olaniyan examines the work of Bisi Ogunbadejo, a veteran cartoonist who focuses not on political failure but on “how such failures come to be” because of the human condition. His work, says Olaniyan, exemplifies the cartoon of exploration rather than the more common cartoon of display, where ridicule is paramount. While Ogunbadejo’s exploratory cartoons do not produce belly laughs, they present “irresistible humour at its most troubling unhumorous best”, plunging the reader into contemplation of a paradox.
Baba G Jallow explores the decade after 1957 in Ghana, during the reign of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana. Nkrumah went from being the nation’s saviour to declaring a one-party state, crowning himself president-for-life and encouraging his people to see him as a god.
Cartoonists showered him with praise, but the day he was deposed, the very same cartoonists ridiculed him and celebrated his downfall. Jallow argues, unconvincingly, that excessive praise can be a coded form of critique. “What appears to be caricatures of one person or issue might actually be caricatures of those who caricature the person or issue,” he argues. It seems he fails to see that not all cartoons achieve their aim. Some simply aren’t much of anything: neither funny, nor acute, critical nor interesting.
Joseph Oduro-Frimpong examines a later period in Ghana, the fourth republic of 1993, after which “Ghana boasts a robust press freedom”. He focuses on The Black Narrator, “the first to exemplify the changing nature of cartooning in Ghana since 1992”. This cartoonist tackles corruption in government, the judiciary and sanitation – the latter an issue that posed a grave threat to public health. Oduro-Frimpong is concerned to break the distinction between entertainment and political resistance, seeing cartoons as “one of the myriad ways ordinary people cope with and undermine the politics of hegemony pursued by the political elite”.
Seeing cartoons as a “running commentary on events”, Gathara sets out a brief history of the media and cartooning in Kenya, paying homage to pioneers such as Paul “Madd” Kelemba, “the first indigenous political cartoonist to reach national prominence” who emerged in 1986. Madd was succeeded by Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, now one of the foremost cartoonists on the continent.
These days, the state sometimes uses the threat of litigation to silence critics, and in 2014 the editors of The Standard, a Kenyan news outlet, were summoned to State House in connection with an exposé about state overspending. Gado was the victim in April 2015, asked by his editor to “take a break” before being sacked in February 2016. As a consequence, says Gathara, self-censorship has become the greatest threat to media freedom in Kenya. But the state is not the only threat: advertisers also play a nefarious role in keeping certain issues out of newspapers.
Paula Callus explores tactics of subversion in her chapter on animation, a form allied to cartooning but requiring technological devices rather than two-dimensional paper. She points to the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, smartphones and new forms of production and distribution for cartoonists, filmmakers and media practitioners. She focuses particularly on emerging animators – such as Gatumia Gatumia, whose The Greedy Lords of the Jungle, a short animated film that could be interpreted in myriad ways, is a critique of colonialism but also of power relations in post-colonial Africa.
The producers of these animations rely on the moving image as a way of bypassing the eye of the censor to get to children, thereby producing sublimated critiques of power relations. But she cautions that rather than simply being oppositional, some of these artists are prone to imbrication in the systems they question, sometimes becoming complicit with the aims of funders, or of government’s desire to develop the IT sector.
South Africa looms large in the book. It has unique features, most notably a history of oppressive relations between white overlords and black subjects, a condition that has not been entirely eradicated by more than two decades of democracy. The country’s early cartoonists – mainly white, exploiting the space made possible by a whites-only democracy – appear to have long experience of how to cock a snook at power, a tradition continued by Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, one of the most respected practitioners in Africa.
Post 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been angered by Zapiro’s disillusionment with the failure of the post-apartheid project, especially when he portrayed younger leaders as monkeys, devolving rather than evolving, betraying the traditions set by Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Zapiro has laid himself open to charges of racism, which the ANC has exploited.
A new mood swept the country during the reign of Jacob Zuma, when democracy waned, corruption became a structural feature of the economy, service delivery plummeted, and a new smartphone-carrying generation began to agitate against the inequalities that weighed on them. Andy Mason and Su Opperman, in both their interview with Zapiro and their history of the media after apartheid, foreground quite radical shifts in relations between cartoonists, the public and the powers that be. They present a history of debacles: rude depictions of Zuma caused outrage among ANC leaders and supporters – more so if white artists produced these, as they were more prone to charges of racism.
Mason and Opperman’s interview with Zapiro seems overly concerned with the cartoonist’s disengagement from a new public, lamenting the reactions of young black people who, they imply, should know that Zapiro is a struggle veteran. One can’t help thinking these writers are failing to come to terms with a new set of struggles inspired by new conditions. But they raise the question of self-censorship: should Zapiro watch what he says lest he offend a new generation? The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and the awful dialectic between Islamic terrorism and Islamophobia. Cartoonists have to court outrage as well as take a side, and sometimes are able to convey the difficulty of treading this fine line. Effective cartoonists use irony to overcome this duality, but this is not always welcome.
The book raises a series of questions, the central one being what cartooning is meant to do: should it reflect, enlighten, or castigate? All of the above? For Aristotle, comedy was the representation of people “worse than us”, and what we laugh at is the ugly and the shameful. He was right!