Botswanan Sakhile Reiling (left) became Air Botswana’s first female pilot
African women are world leaders when it comes to taking top jobs in the aviation industry
In December 2017, a Boeing 777 made African history when it flew five hours from Addis Ababa to Lagos, Nigeria with an all-female crew. Captain Amsale Gualu piloted the plane, with the help of women cabin crew, check-in attendants, flight dispatchers and ground staff. Captain Gualu told the world media on landing: “This flight shows us that if women get equal opportunities and work hard, I’m sure they can achieve whatever they want in all fields, including the aviation industry.”
Two years earlier, Air Zimbabwe flew an all-female domestic flight, making pilots Chipo Matimba and Elizabeth Petros the first female pilots to fly internally on Air Zimbabwe. The women took to social media: “History has been made! First all female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737!”and “Two CAPTAINS!! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!”.
These women-only flights were no accident; both airlines were making a point, pushing an agenda to encourage African women to think about the career possibilities available to them within the heavily male-dominated aviation industry. Women in aviation around the world make up at least 50% of personnel – mostly as cabin and ground crew. This figure dips dramatically as positions become more senior.
Figures recorded by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that less than 5% of airline CEOs are women. The figure for female pilots falls to between 3-5% worldwide. Women are less represented in aviation than in any other industry. But, not in Africa. An IATA meeting in Sydney in June this year announced that African airlines, and the aviation industry on the African continent, are bucking this trend.
Air Namibia’s acting managing director, Mandi Samson, told the conference that her airline had four top management positions filled by women. “For once, Africa is leading in something,” she said.
Samson is correct. In South Africa, for example, women hold significant positions. Poppy Khoza leads the critically important SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) as its CEO, while Zuks Ramasia is general manager of operations at South African Airways (SAA). And it is now 20 years since Asnath Mahapa made history in 1988 by becoming South Africa’s first female African pilot.
But success has not come easily for the women at the top. For Mahapa, flight school came with challenges, and she remembers being “the only woman in my class and I had to work ten times harder than the men”. Since then, while the global average of women captaining aircraft stands at around 5%, the actual number of female pilots in South Africa is in the double digits. And the number of black female pilots is steadily growing across Africa, much more quickly than in the rest of the world.
The number of women in senior positions in the aviation industry in Africa has impressed the airline industry sufficiently to ensure that they are constantly called on to give motivational speeches or talk to aviation conferences.
Siza Mzimela is the recently appointed interim CEO of South African airline SA Express. She also has the distinction of being the first black woman in South Africa to start and own an airline, Fly Blue Crane. (The airline is no longer operating. It was suspended by IATA in September 2017 and bankruptcy proceedings are under way).
However, Mzimela’s list of accolades includes being the first black executive vice president of SAA as well as the first woman to make it onto the IATA board. Mzimela is not surprised that Africa ranks as having the largest number of women within the global aviation industry. But she points out that the numbers are coming off a ridiculously low base.
“There might be more women engaged in aviation on the African continent, including here in South Africa,” she told Africa in Fact, “but make no mistake; it’s the toughest environment for women and we have to work twice as hard as our male counterparts to prove ourselves. It is still challenging for women, and there is vast room for improvement. We need more women pilots and technicians and women in key organisational positions.”
Mzimela believes that the reason South African women in aviation have had more success than their global sisters is due to race rather than gender bias.
“When men have to promote someone, they choose one of their own,” she said. “Fortunately, and unfortunately, black men did not automatically come through as pilots. It was the preserve of white men for a long time and black men and black women were equally disadvantaged. We, therefore, are on a fairly equal footing regarding entry into the aviation field, and therefore we have a better chance of getting into the industry.”
Mzimela points out, however, that while 50% of South Africans are women, the number of CEOs and captains of industry does not reflect that split. “We need an aviation policy to correct the imbalances of the past. In this industry, there is a low turnover of pilots – nobody leaves until they retire. That has meant that transformation will take longer because it will take longer for pilots to work their way up the chain of seniority.”
Khoza notes that an “overdue dialogue” to improve the numbers of women in the African aviation industry has begun. “This assertion was corroborated by women from various corners of the world during discussions at the first-ever Global Aviation Gender Summit hosted by SACAA,” she told Africa in Fact.
“Close to 500 top-ranking represen- tatives of the aviation industry – including airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airports, as well as governments from across the world – gathered in Cape Town in August  to chart a new path that will bring about meaningful gender transformation and equality in aviation.”
“From our discussions,” Khoza said, “we heard that the challenges of a female aviator in Chile are the same as those faced by a female aviator in China. It was encouraging to note that everyone at the summit agreed that the status quo cannot continue unchallenged. In South Africa, in particular, we are witnessing some improvement, even though women still constitute less than 10% of aviation technical personnel.’’
More young women, Khoza insists, have to join the ranks of other pioneers who “trounced gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the aviation industry. We do have success stories and each one of them deserves recognition and acknowledgement.”
Refilwe Ledwaba is one of those success stories. She is a pilot, a flight instructor, and the first black woman in South Africa to fly helicopters. In 2009, she also started a non-profit organisation for young women in the SADC countries, Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry (SAWIA). “I wanted to ensure that the aviation industry provided a platform for women to grow, to find mentorship and guidance and to fund the opportunities for young women who wish to join the sector in the future.”
Ledwaba introduced the Girl Fly Programme in Africa, aimed specifically at high school girls. The non-profit organisation, endorsed by the SACAA, has an informal database of about 1,000 members from all over the Southern African Development Community (SADC). “I’m passionate about the development of women, which is why I saw the need for such an organisation,” Ledwaba told Africa in Fact.
It all started when, on a flight to Cape Town, she heard the woman piloting the plane, Captain Margaret Viljoen, say: “This is your captain speaking”. “Until then, I had not even considered that a woman could fly a plane!” she said.
Botswanan Sakhile Reiling, who became Air Botswana’s first female pilot back in 1988, now describes herself as “an aviation consultant (with Saxon Wings Aviation Consultants) as well as an aviation safety auditor currently involved with a number of significant clients around the world. I travel to where the work is.” Reiling’s career includes two years spent as CEO at Botswana Air and five years in senior management positions at Comair. She also spent time as the GM of Air Safety Operations at SACAA and spent five years in senior managerial posts at SA Express Airways.
“Africa has made significant progress in ensuring that women are not overlooked for aviation-related jobs,” she told Africa in Fact. “However, more still needs to be done to dismantle legacy practices that continue to hamper growth. For example, support is required at policy level to mandate current industry players to play greater roles in accepting women within their various organisations.”
Reiling agrees with other female aviation executives that young women must be exposed from an earlier age to the possibilities of an aviation career. “Many do not realise that they too could enter the aviation industry and contribute in an important way,” she said.
Zuks Ramasia, GM of operations at SAA, believes it is up to women to help women in aviation.
“In aviation, most opportunities for women in meaningful management echelons are still determined mainly by men since there are few women in senior roles to influence and motivate women in junior positions across the value chain,” she told Africa in Fact. She blames the high attrition rate on the promotion limitations placed on women with potential.
“We, the women in influential positions, need to mentor and coach women, challenge the status quo and not be deterred by the men in office who often pretend we do not exist.”
“As women in the industry we need to stand together to promote awareness, to develop, to nurture, to celebrate and to empower women in our industry, starting by shaping young minds at school.”
Khoza points out her success rate at helping achieve parity. “In the organisation that I lead, when I took over, the executive management committee was male dominated. Five years later, 50% of the executive is female and black. It starts at grassroots level.”
SACAA funds the training of young South Africans, especially female students from economically deprived households, who want to become aviators.
“Transformation is not a responsibility of government and regulators such as the SACAA only,” Khoza said, “but a collective responsibility of all, including the business sector. Transformation is a moral obligation and a human rights issue that should not be limited to race only but extended to gender and business opportunities.”
Stereotyping, she said, is the hardest challenge that women face in aviation, “coupled with unconscious bias”.
“The picture that people imagine of a pilot is not likely to be that of a Captain Boitumelo or Fatima in the cockpit. Our young girls cannot picture themselves following in the footsteps of women pioneers in the aviation sector primarily because aviation is still seen as a preserve for men.
“What then becomes important is the socialisation of young girls, to instill a belief that they can be anything they want to be. We need to move away from creating a mindset of categorising industries based based on gender.
Young girls can be aeronautical engineers, they can be air-traffic controllers, they can successfully pilot any aircraft of their choice. However, the limiting mindset, which we instill in them at a young age, only perpetuates the stereotypes, which we must demystify.”
In 2017, 26-year-old Second Lieutenant Thokozile Muwamba broke another glass ceiling when she became Zambia’s first female fighter pilot. She told the BBC her ambition was to become the first female Zambian air force commander. “Wow, to be in the air… it feels… it’s wonderful,” she told the broadcaster then. “You feel like you don’t want to come back onto the ground.”
Muwamba joined the military in 2012 and was chosen to be part of a Zambian airforce programme specifically designed to shift the gender bias towards men.
She told the Times of Zambia: “Women should begin to participate and realise their abilities. Because I understand this, I am ready to undertake this task ahead of me.”
And she is not the only woman who’s taken to the skies as part of her country’s airforce. Lieutenant Ouma Laouali, 31, became Niger’s first female pilot in 2015. As a member of the Nigerien airforce, she was trained by the United States to help in the fight against the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
The women who are important in Africa’s aviation industry are clearly united in what they see as the way forward: expose young women to the world of flying and work tirelessly to reverse the stereotyping that has discouraged young women from taking flight, accompanied by policies to facilitate transformation.
African food entrepreneurs need government support to protect the value of their heritage products
When it comes to international food fashion, Africa is the new Asia. So, say über-influential, absurdly chic London food design studio Bompas & Parr. Their 2018 report, The Imminent Future of Food, predicts that internationally the “obsession with food from Asian countries will dwindle in favour of African cuisine because (Africa) is arguably the main remaining world food culture left to be adopted, adapted and commercialised.
“Bompas & Parr has already worked on African-focused projects for European commercial clients which reveal starkly different flavours, consumer expectations and notions of hospitality,” the report continues. “At our bar, Alcoholic Architecture, we also hosted sell-out special events incorporating Ghanaian bitters in cocktails, revealing a profound curiosity on the part of consumers for new tastes and flavours. This is just the start.”
Traditional Ethiopian dish consisting of a meat, vegetables, grains, rice and served with pancake-like injera.
The continent is also suddenly super-food central, with the worldwide wellness blogger brigade ditching last year’s chia seeds and turmeric in favour of African indigenous ingredients such as baobab and marula. Confusingly, the American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who runs lifestyle brand and website Goop, has recently referred to both sorghum and fonio as “the new quinoa”. Since both are gluten-free, low GI, African ancient grains it is all much of a muchness as regards nutritional value – though both taste significantly better than South American quinoa.
The hipster health nuts and the foodie fashionistas aren’t wrong to recognise value in African cuisines. They offer a plethora of fine flavours, from the aromatic cumin and cinnamon infused lamb tagines of Morocco to the generous peanut and ginger joys of Ghanaian hkatenkwan chicken and on into the comforting floral flavours of a Congolese cassava kwanga bread. Interesting ingredients abound, including the rich, soured splendours of South African amasi curds and the berbere-spiced grace of an Ethiopian wot pot.
What is unsavoury is the implication that the continent’s deliciously diverse time-honoured epicurean expressions of identity exist to be “adopted, adapted and commercialised” as transient novelties in northern cosmopoles. Try adopting, adapting and commercialising a regional French food without so much as a by your leave! You’ll quickly find yourself slapped with a geographical denomination suit.
Tangible and intangible benefits can and should accrue to all sectors of African society by way of the continent’s “new Asia” status. But it is also possible that the trend will become yet another round of cultural appropriation, bio-prospecting and/or piracy. To prevent such a situation, African food entrepreneurs are attempting to take the lead in curating the commercialisation of their continent’s cuisine at home and abroad.
Turning food culture into economic value for Africans is especially important given that the Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that in 2017 there were 224 million under-nourished people in sub-Saharan Africa. On this score alone it would be morally repugnant if the fashion for African food further exploited and impoverished the continent’s culinary cultures.
Currently, the global fine-dining world is focusing on heritage flavours reimagined to delight modern palates. This trend is as true in the New Nordic cuisine of René Redzepi, chef-patron of two-Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, as it is in the work of Pierre Thiam, executive chef of the contemporary African restaurant Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria.
Nok, located within a bespoke building designed by Ghanaian-British architectural superstar David Adjaye, serves a signature starter of ofada rice balls sauced with egusi (wild gourd seed pesto) and ndole (bitter, leaf salsa). At Epicure – Johannesburg’s culinary kingdom of Afro-optimistic elegance – Burundian-born chef/patron Coco Reinarhz engages in an exquisite ancient-to-modern culinary dialogue that includes a plate of fried plantain aloko topped with a swirl of tuile biscuit and a quenelle of ruby bissap rouge (hibiscus) sorbet.
This style of cooking often requires relatively rare traditional ingredients and indigenous knowledge. Chefs often have to seek out and commission such crops from relatively isolated, traditional subsistence farming and foraging communities, many of whom exist on the fringe of the cash economy. In so doing, they create and maintain profitable markets for otherwise endangered heritage foods, and go some way to promoting biodiversity and supporting indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge.
This is as true for Brazilian Chef Alex Atala, who uses Amazonian ingredients at DOM, his Sāo Paulo restaurant; Atala won the Chef’s Choice award at the 2014 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014. It’s also true of Paternoster, where South African chef Kobus Van der Merwe creates perfect plates, such as maasbanker bokkom and pear salad with ice plant, dune spinach and sea lettuce tossed in pickled ginger, celery and almonds.
Executive Chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: supplied
Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin, CEO of Yswara fine African tea, describes her business model as “luxe ubuntu”. A recent winner of a Brand Africa award, she processes and blends African heritage ingredients sourced from fair-trade growers, using equipment commissioned and manufactured in Africa. She says, “luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model in which all the members of a supply chain are beneficiaries of the economic value generated. We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value add in Africa.”
Martin, who opened her flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Johannesburg in September 2017, has concluded deals with Selfridges in the UK and Galeries Lafayette in France. Such international links not only provide tangible benefits of export earnings and profit repatriation, but also play a role in distancing Africa from hitherto commonplace negative stereotypes by encouraging desirable associations with elegant, world-class wonderful artisan offerings.
Some government interest and assistance could further promote such image improvements. In Peru, government promotion of regionally specific, high-end heritage cuisine, and the restaurants that serve it, brought significant economic benefits. Until recently, for instance, tourists commonly considered Lima to be a kidnap risk and begrudged the stopover on the way to Machu Picchu. It is now a “must-visit” food experience destination, with five restaurants in the top 50 of the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the Mexican government has promoted the country as a culinary destination and inscribed Aztec food culture in the UNESCO-administered list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How is it that the government of Mozambique has not applied for piri piri to be classified as such? This classic southern African sauce/seasoning is increasingly popular worldwide with an appreciative audience – most of whom have no notion that their favourite flavour originates in the Afro-Lusitanian fusion food culture of Maputo. Meanwhile, the “peri peri” (sic) potato chips sold all over the US are an inferior interpretation that undermines the value of authentic piri piri and may limit the long-term potential for Mozambican food entrepreneurs to create a food tourism industry around their fiery birthright.
Burundian-born Coco Reinarhz, chef/patron of Epicure in Johannesburg. Photo: Clinton Nortje
Real Mozambican piri piri is made from an African Landrace chilli, according to a regionally specific recipe. It would, therefore, be an ideal candidate for an international Geographical Indicator (GI), which would protect the value that resides within such heritage. Currently, the European Union (EU) has registered more than 837 GI-recognised products, including Cheddar cheese, Parma ham and Rioja wine. Following World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute resolution proceedings, the EU was forced to amend its GI legislation to recognise third-country GIs.
It is now possible for producers from non-European countries to register GIs under EU Regulation 510/2006, provided the GI is protected in its country of origin. Colombian coffee was the first product from a developing country to be granted such GI by the EU. With Europe being a major export market for many developing world products, this law affords producers a valuable opportunity to protect their GIs throughout the EU member countries by submitting a single application.
GI applications under the EU system require detailed documentation on the product’s specificity and link with the territory. To date, the only African products registered with the EU GI are Rooibos, Honey bush, Karoo lamb and Essourian argan oil. Yet African governments neglect to protect foodstuffs in their own jurisdictions, while they hamper food entrepreneurs’ ability to put a premium value on their intangible cultural heritage at export.
The world is waking up to the beauty of African cuisines. Recognition is all well and good. A share in the tangible and intangible value of such food cultures for the people from whence they come would be better. A culinary coalition is required to make this a reality.
African restaurateurs and other food producers are increasingly creating partnerships, upstream with suppliers and downstream with end users. What they lack is sufficient governmental support and respect. A trend is transient. African epicurean entrepreneurs must campaign for a permanent seat at the table of great world food cultures. As we saw earlier, this would be just the start.
Many in the music industry believe African music to be the source of most of the music we hear today
African music is as diverse and broad as the continent itself, with thousands of musical styles ranging from North African, with its strong Arab and Islamic influences, to that of the west, central and sub-Saharan regions of Africa. Along with indigenous instruments and traditional forms, there are modern variations, countless interpretations and a multitude of crossovers; and it’s clear that African music is not simply confined to the continent.
Actually, many in the industry consider African music to be the source of most, if not all of the music we hear today. While this is difficult to prove, it’s clear that African music has had a massive impact on contemporary music and that many significant styles of the past two centuries are rooted in the Motherland.
Balaphonics combines West African rhythms with western brass sections Photo: supplied.
Solomon Linda’s Mbube, also known as Wimoweh and The Lion Sleeps Tonight, for instance, is one of the most covered songs of all time. Composed by Linda, a Zulu migrant worker, and first recorded in 1939, this song has traversed oceans and been reinterpreted by an unexpected array of artists. Interestingly, it’s because of Henri Salvador’s 1962 version, Le Lion est Mort ce Soir, that many people in France today are still under the misconception that this South African classic is authentically French.
In the 1960’s, South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela made their mark in Europe and the US, bringing African music to western audiences. Makeba was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition, and Masekela made an indelible print on the evolution of American jazz.
In 1972, Paris-based Cameroonian artist Manu Dibango recorded Soul Makossa and a year later, after being picked up by some New York DJs, it became a worldwide dance-floor hit, and the first disco song ever to make the Billboard Top 40. Decades later, the song’s catchy rhythmic chant, Mama-ko, mama-sa, maka-mako-sa was appropriated by two major pop artists – first appearing in Michael Jackson’s 1993 hit Wanna be Starting Something and later Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music.
Decades on, Linda’s estate is also finally the beneficiary of royalty payments after a campaign by veteran South African journalist Rian Malan. And following a lawsuit, Dibango is also one of the few artists of African origin to ever reach such a settlement.
Soul Makossa may have sparked the disco movement, but ultimately its groove is pure funk. This is confirmed by the bassist Idris Badarou, a seasoned session musician who’s played with the best – working with funk masters like Fred Wesley and touring the world and recording with contemporary African stars like Nigeria’s Femi Kuti and currently Algerian superstar Rachid Taha.
Born of Beninese parents, Badarou spent his formative years in what was then Dahomey, but has lived most of his life in France. He describes himself “as a true Parisian, but I’m also an African”.
“We’re all influenced by music from other continents,” he told me in an interview in Paris. Working with many of the giants of African music, he insists, is first of all about making music. “We’re just making music. If it comes to the African music then it’s African music, but at first we’re just making music!”
Funk, Badarou says, is essentially African music. “That’s how I got hooked on funk, because when I first heard the funk groove, that’s when I heard African music.” He credits James Brown for launching funk in 1971 with Sex Machine. Later in his life, after he met Bootsy Collins, who became his mentor, he learned that these typically funky basslines emerged when Bootsy had come back from a tour to Nigeria with James Brown.
Right: Tony Allen, 78, creator of Afrobeat drumming, found international fame with Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Today he is still playing and is honoured as one of the great innovators in 20th century rhythm. Photo: Bernard Benant
Bootsy had spent time at Fela Kuti’s legendary venue, The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria, which is where, according to Badarou, he learned the style he, Badarou, describes as “stretching out in the rubber band”. “Bootsy’s baselines were really African – because of the groove. For me, funk was African music.”
The 1970s also saw groups such as the Senegalese family band Touré Kunda settle in Paris. Singing in different languages to reflect the multicultural mix of the people of their region, Casamance, they released their debut album in 1979, which was the first of many that went gold. “When we arrived, we started listening to different music – French music, South African music inspired by Miriam Makeba,” says one of the Touré Kunda brothers, Sixu Tidiane Touré. “So we thought we could use our folk music and we started to work on our repertoire from Casamance, to play our own music.
“It was the first time that African people living in France had seen African people play in their own language in the country of Victor Hugo,” says Touré. Credited with transforming the perception of African music in Europe, they were soon noticed and invited to collaborate by the likes of Talking Heads and Carlos Santana – who, incidentally joined them again recently, on a salsa remake of their hit Emma as featured on their new 2018 album, Lambi Golo.
The 1980s also saw the rise of artists such as Senegalese superstar Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita (the “golden voice of Mali”), and “world music” initiatives such as Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio and label. In 1987, the Guinean singer Mory Kanté released Yeke Yeke as a single from his third studio album, Akwaba Beach. The song was an instant hit, reaching number one on the European charts in 1988, and becoming the first African album to sell over a million copies internationally.
African music had always flourished on its own ground, but with increasing globalisation it began to expand beyond its previously regionalised presence. In the late 1980s, the term “world music” was established as an industry category. While many differ as to the source of this ridiculously broad global genre, some saw it as a derogatory way of subjugating all music from non-western cultures. Yet ironically, its strength and longevity lies in its vagueness.
Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal is one such critical voice. He has been widely quoted as saying, “I think that African music must get more respect than to be put in a ghetto like that. We have something to give to others. When you look to how African music is built, when you understand this kind of music, you can understand that a lot of modern music that you are hearing in the world has similarities to African music. It’s the origin of a lot of kinds of music.”
With a large immigrant community and the world-music boom of the 90s, Paris became the international centre of African music. And although the digital era is affecting the way we consume music, this city remains the global epicentre of African music. As we have seen, African artists have had huge commercial success in recent years – but it is usually through their collaborations with big names from the US or Europe.
With over 35 million albums sold worldwide, Senegalese-American Akon, sits solidly at number one on the Forbes Africa’s 2017 list of the top 10 most bankable artists on the continent. Some critics question whether the music from artists like him is really African. What does that mean? For me, and beyond the hype, distinctively African music has an underlying pulse that sustains and remains, even when times are tough. Only a handful can ever become superstars.
The sounds of African music have inspired maestros and music makers across the globe. Consider Afrobeat, the musical genre that originated in the 1960s as a blend of Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Fuji music, with American funk and jazz influences.
Percussion-driven, with complex polyrhythms and vocal chants, the style was made famous by Nigeria’s outspoken musical activist, the saxophonist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Kuti, who saw himself as a messenger who used music as a means of advocating for social change, was undoubtedly Afrobeat’s frontman. But it was the inimitable drummer Tony Allen who put the distinctive beat in the Afrobeat sound. Fela Kuti died in 1997, but Paris-based Allen is as prolific and energetic as ever. He continues to influence contemporary musicians and performs with a mastery that satisfies jazz purists and a dynamism that captivates youthful audiences. Recently, in June this year, he played to a packed house as part of the Paris New York Heritage Festival. With two distinct sets – the first a jazz tribute to Art Blakey and the second a solid Afrobeat excursion – he proved that at the age of 78 one can still be progressive and relevant.
More than half a century later, the Afrobeat sound, deemed “underground” for so long, lives on stronger than ever. Fela Kuti’s legacy has been immortalised on Broadway in Fela!, a musical about his controversial life, a creative contribution that celebrates his pioneering blend of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms. Today Afrobeat is bigger than ever, with groups on every continent and artists from even the most unexpected countries.
Along with all this, recent years have seen the integration of Ethiopian music into the cultural landscape of Paris. Two groups worth mentioning in this regard are Akalé Wubé and Arat Kilo; both groups began, independently, about 10 years ago. Initiated by young French musicians, they found inspiration in the “golden age of Ethio-groove”, with its big-band sound, horn sections and vocal arrangements. Akalé Wubé started by covering music from the Éthiopiques series – an archival collection of compilations initiated in 1997 and released by the Paris-based record label Buda Musiqualso – but also drew from the pop idiom of the 1960s and 1970s. Immersed in Ethiopian music, the band increasingly explored collaborations with musicians and dancers from the rest of Africa and Europe, performing over 200 concerts in Europe, Asia and Africa over the past decade.
Significantly, the band collaborated with Girma Bèyènè in the latest release of this series with the 2017 album Girma Bèyènè & Akalé Wubé – Éthiopiques 30: Mistakes On Purpose. An Ethiopian legend but almost forgotten, Bèyènè hadn’t performed for over 25 years, and the collaboration began when the group invited him to perform a song at their monthly residency, L’Hermitage. Founding member of Akalé Wubé Etienne de la Sayette told me that it was “a very emotional experience”, which sparked more performances.
With the help of Francis Falceto, the producer of the Éthiopiques series, they collected all of Bèyènè’s songs, some of them live recordings, which Akalé Wubé adapted for this album. The living legend had never released as a solo artist. “I was born again because of you,” he told the band. The collaborating musicians have had successful shows in Ethiopia as well. “We are proud to play this music, but what’s important isn’t to do it like others, but to do it your [own] way,” De la Sayette told me. “We are French, we do it our way.”
Fabien Girard and Samuel Hirsch, of the group Arat Kilo, originally connected through their common love of Ethiopian music. They drew inspiration from the “swinging Addis seventies”, referenced “the grandfather of Ethio-jazz”, the veteran multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke, and explored the specific structure of Ethiopian music scales. Over the years, they’ve increasingly integrated West African, Afrobeat, funk and hip hop elements into their blend of Ethiopian groove. For their latest album, Visions of Selam, they’ve join forces with Boston hip hop artist Mike Ladd and Malian songstress Mamani Keita.
While they focus on touring with Arat Kilo, both founding members also have other projects rooted in African music. For Girard, it’s playing balafon (a traditional wooden xylophone) with Balaphonics – an outfit that combines West African rhythms with western brass sections. Hirsch, meanwhile, is a member of the Bim Bam Orchestra, a 15-piece collective that combines Fela’s Afrobeat with jazz, hip hop, ragga and Caribbean rhythms. “There is a whole big family in Paris,” says Hirsch, “musicians that play African music, mixing it with music from around the world.”
Other groups such as Abdul and the Gang borrow from the east, combining Morocco’s Maghreb and Chaabi melodies in a blend of Afrobeat groove, which they call Gnawa funk. Likewise, the Lyon-based group Super Gombo infuse their Afrobeat sound with jazz, Senegalese mbalax and other West African elements.
Such cross-cultural integration is nothing new in Europe, but some say that the approach fell short in the past, with not enough appreciation of the authenticity of sources. But in my view, the current wave of cross-cultural work does aim at an inherent understanding of the African music from which it gains inspiration. This authenticity can be attributed to the African presence in France, and as Hirsch explains: “We live alongside people coming from Africa everyday, everywhere in Paris and we love it.”
He points to a Parisian tradition of mixing music from Africa. “Radio Nova has been doing it for about 30 years now, so there’s a tradition. We have it in our blood. We’ve been listening to African music since we were little, so it comes to us naturally.” Indeed, Hirsch insists that his band makes typically Parisian music, “a new kind of folk music, mixing African music with other music”.
Aside from Afrobeat, Paris’s electro scene is also growing, with DJs and producers more informed and better equipped to authentically interpret the ancient future. Styles such as Afro house, tribal house and ancestral, previously underground, are now reaching new generations across the globe. Moreover, Africa was the focus of this year’s biggest international music conference, Midem, in Cannes, in June. That affirmed the influence of African music on the international scene today. As Hugh Masekela is reputed to have said: “I’ve got to where I am in life not because of something I brought to the world but through something I found – the wealth of African culture.”
A tuk tuk driver in Lagos Photo: Olasunkanmi Ariyo
Commuting between mainland Lagos and the central business districts on the island remains a lot more onerous than it should. Long delays on the Third Mainland Bridge during peak periods (what Lagosians refer to as the “rush hours”) is both time and energy consuming. This constitutes a major drain on productivity while hindering the city’s strategic economic role. Slow mobility ranks alongside power shortages as a key structural constraint to Lagos’s competitiveness. Implementing creative ideas to optimise existing transport infrastructure will help. The Third Mainland Bridge especially requires urgent planning interventions to unblock what is arguably the most important transportation artery in Nigeria’s commercial capital.
This will bring relief to motorists even as city planners work on devising more long-term solutions. As the urban conglomeration that accounts for a full quarter of Nigeria’s economic output – and Africa’s first genuine contender for the status of a megacity – Lagos must think boldly and tweak more at the edges. Otherwise its longer-term sustainability and bid to consolidate itself as Nigeria’s economic engine will hang precipitously in the balance. A dysfunctional transport system with worsening mobility will have knock-on effects, likely hobbling Nigeria’s potential to drive integration and prosperity.
A system of scheduled lane switches on the Third Mainland Bridge will help to expand capacity for travellers to Lagos’s islands in the mornings and commuters bound for the mainland in the afternoon. The following are proposals around lane optimisation on the bridge, which could significantly expand capacity for accommodating Lagos’s growing vehicular traffic. This author draws on his own anecdotal experience of early morning commutes on the bridge from the island side in Ikoyi to Ikeja on the mainland, a route he plies about four to six times each month. From about 4am to 8am on work days, island-bound commuters using the bridge contend with steady traffic build-up, which slows to a crawl at around 7am. During the afternoon peak hours, usually from 4pm to 8pm, the direction of the pile up is reversed. Workers leaving the island for their homes on the mainland contend with hours-long traffic delays.
On most working days, an observer entering the bridge at about 7am from the Ikoyi/Osborne ramp towards the mainland will notice the build-up of traffic on the four lanes coming towards the island. This usually tails back several kilometres, sometimes snaking unbroken all the way to the Oworonshoki entry to the bridge on the mainland end. A commuter travelling in the opposite direction towards Oworonshoki at this time might struggle to count up to 100 vehicles plying the entire four lanes. It should normally take about 10-15 minutes to travel the 11.8 km length of the bridge from Osborne to Oworonshoki, but commuters travelling this distance at peak periods sometimes need as much as one to two hours. This raises important questions about how a dynamic lane-switch and expanding system could help improve mobility via co-opting excess lane capacity on the opposite side of congested traffic.
Reshuffle to relieve
The whole Third Mainland Bridge needs creative rethinking. Since the bridge consists of four commuter lanes in each direction, there is a strong case for optimising peak flow through co-opting two proximate lanes from the opposite side to supplement the congested direction. This solution will see a dynamic optimisation of the 4+4 lanes, switching it to a 6+2 system when needed. It essentially requires reversing the normal direction of flow on two lanes on the other side (that is, the two closest to the congested side of the bridge). Some traffic can thus be diverted to the other side to supplement capacity. The two makeshift lanes will add to capacity by forming six lanes, thus freeing up the vehicular flow. The two lanes left on the lighter traffic side will still be sufficient for travellers heading in that direction.
Piloting scheduled lane shifts during peak period promises an exciting template that could be applied elsewhere in the city. The process should operate only on work days (Monday to Friday) with a coordinated arrangement in place to smoothly reverse the flow: six lanes will convey traffic towards the island from 7am-10am and six lanes will be open to vehicular flow towards the mainland from 4pm to 8pm.
The importance of good proactive management of dynamically switching lane systems along major commuter arteries cannot be over-emphasised. The devil is in the detail. Many world cities already implement similar approaches based on capacity expansion and constriction in each direction as needed. That has kept commuter cities from Cape Town through to Los Angeles and Tokyo ticking through peak traffic hours. Since the opening of the Third Mainland Bridge in the 1980s, the rapid expansion in the number of vehicles has not seen a corresponding expansion of road infrastructure. Under-capacity of the bridge relative to vehicular traffic growth is therefore one consequence.
Other measures, such as prohibiting some vehicles from plying congested routes on specific days or during specific hours, are more draconian than the capacity-switch system proposed here. Lane switching can alleviate the perennial hardship faced by motorists pending the actualisation of Lagos’s plan to build a 38 km Fourth Mainland Bridge. However, at the core of getting this right – like every public-administration issue in Nigeria – will be good governance of the system. This will require advance publicity, effective commuter education, adequate signage along the entire route, redesign of exit lanes and all other such measures required to create a well-functioning, dynamic and easily understood traffic optimisation system on the bridge.
Piloting this system could allow for another big transformation in Lagos’s traffic management: the creation of a small but uniformed corps to monitor motorists’ adherence to the temporary lane-partition system. This will help deter some of the notorious habits that slow down traffic on the bridge, especially the hundreds of slow-moving vehicles that stay in the fast lanes and obstruct faster moving vehicles. Poor education of motorists over the years, and a general lack of awareness of the drawbacks, has led to “lane-hugging” contributing probably as much as 30% of the traffic build-up, with increasing vehicular entry onto the bridge inevitably slowing down finally to a crawl. The bridge corps will also need to oversee a robustly implemented network of makeshift lanes marked by cones placed at one metre intervals. This will safely partition the two directions of travel. The cones will come into place an hour before the start of the lane expansion at peak-periods in either direction.
A bridge safety corps
While the bridge is a federal road, piloting a state traffic monitoring corps there could help lay the foundation for a dedicated bridge and highway corps. It could gradually grow into a specially trained unit within the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA). Diligent planning and a smooth roll-out will be important to maximise benefits and mitigate potential risks in the system. A careful spatial redesign at specific points is needed to facilitate entry and exit onto the convertible two lanes on the proximate side of peak traffic. This redesign requires some investment but the likely gains for commuters will justify the expenditure.
Even as the fine points of the design and implementation are worked out, extensive precautionary measures will need to be in place to guarantee safety and achieve the intended goal. First, clear signage should be erected well in advance. The bridge corps officers must also be stationed at the entry and exit to the makeshift lanes. They will display information on placards reminding motorists of possible exits if using the two extra lanes.
Second, core components of the system should be carefully piloted before the actual roll-out. One possibility is to dedicate the two extra lanes during the mornings to only those motorists exiting at the Osborne and other ramps further into the island. Another option is to allocate one of the makeshift lanes for the exclusive use of commercial passenger vehicles, which is probably viable given the general shift to longer routing with fewer stops by commercial passenger vehicles.
Third, Lagos is notorious for the large number of motorists (particularly the commercial operators) who ignore road signs, routinely endangering the safety of other road users. Oversight systems and physical barriers will therefore be needed to compel all drivers, for example those needing to exit the bridge earlier at points such as the Oyingbo/Adekunle ramp, to opt for the normal four lanes from their point of entry onto the bridge. Continuing public education and clear and adequate signage throughout the route will guarantee public trust and buy-in for this dynamic-lanes system.
In the longer term, solutions focused on spatial reordering in Lagos will complement short-term tinkering of traffic lanes on the Third Mainland Bridge. In particular, creating safe and well-maintained business clusters and parks in strategic axes on the mainland will help to reduce workers’ commute through congested traffic. Even as city planners pilot such redesign and structural solutions, Lagos stands to derive immediate and sizeable efficiency benefits from switching the existing bridge lanes to aid decongestion at peak traffic hours.
- The Lagos state government needs to explore bolder innovations in traffic management, including the redesign of lanes along major commuter routes and arteries to optimise carrying capacities, even as planners work on longer-term solutions.
- Lagos should leverage the dynamic-routing experience of commuter cities such as Tokyo and Los Angeles. A scheduled switching of the eight-lane, Third Mainland Bridge to form a 6+2 lane system during peak traffic will help optimise flow and expand the bridge’s carrying capacity. This should partially alleviate morning and afternoon traffic congestion.
- More calibrated infrastructure investment is needed in Lagos. An explicit bias towards boosting commercial property development, security and business-enabling amenities on mainland Lagos is needed. Businesses should be incentivised to relocate from the island business districts to modern business parks situated close to working-class neighbourhoods on the mainland.
- In a next step, a holistic spatial redesign of the city should be pursued within a new city masterplan that gives careful thought to decongestion, commuting, and access to services and infrastructure on a more inclusive, sustainable basis. This will create a better urban experience and deliver efficiencies in terms of integrated transportation, housing and commercial zoning.
- A bridge corps should also be created to police makeshift lanes demarcated by cones placed at intervals, better to guarantee partition of the travel directions.
Dakar, Senegal. Photo: Jeff Attaway
Due to the economic relevance and growing concentration of voters in African cities, these territorial entities represent sites of intense political competition