In Praise of Hot Summer Nights and Seeing Your Name in Print

Unlike blogging, for which seeing your name in print is simply a product of how much you are willing to write and self promote, getting by the banshee gatekeepers of major publishing houses is still a epic task.

Yesterday, for the first time, I saw my name printed in a work from one of these wily publishing houses. I was mentioned in the acknowledgments of Benjamin Barber's 'Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole,' published this year by W.W. Norton.

I did some initial research for this book for Ben, mostly in the NYU Library overlooking Washington Square Park, in the summer of 2003. I hadn't expected my name to be mentioned, but a friend called me when I was on the way to Cameroon saying that he was in a bookstore and saw my name among those acknowledged.

After the trip, settling back in to Cambridge, I finally got around to going to the Kennedy School library to pick up the volume and see for myself. I have to say, its quite nice to see your name in one of those properly bound, hard back books (though I haven't read it yet.)

After picking up the book (oh, what a gorgeous day it was) I sauntered through Harvard Square, up Mass. Ave towards my house, my mind was wandering back to that fantastic summer of 2003, when I was 19 and living in Manhattan. It was a maniacal summer, hot in any number of ways. I was living in a 17th floor apartment (overlooking the other corner of Washington Square Park), dating an (aspiring) actress named Elizabeth, and doing research for a real life writer. Elizabeth had grown up in Manhattan, and family friends let her stay in her own apartment in Hell's Kitchen, so we would go up on her roof (a few blocks from Times Square) with good friends, tell stories and make up rhymes.

In honor of a past summer in New York, a current summer in Cambridge, and the fact that here in the blogosphere we can still publish rubbish, I hereby present the first (and only) rap lines I've ever written, conceived on a hot, New York summer night:

"I was up on the roof
spittin' vernacular truth
wise words interplayed
like we're on a verbal raid
eye's towards Manhattan
our lyrics they were crackin...'"


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7.18.07 Wednesday Links

In Washington, Peter Levine discusses what few political theorists do: their relation to public action.

In Kampala, the GYPA Immersions continue with some fascinating adventures and in Yaounde, the pictures are available from the June trip.

In Kigali, my friend Jen Brea writes about Rwanda, and why we are all so excited about the country.


Iweala's WaPo Piece

Much has been said of Uzodinma Iweala's piece "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa" in yesterday's WaPo. Those in the Afro-blogosphere have heard these points many times, though they seem to stick more when they come from a provocative headline penned by a much acclaimed young novelist whose classmates (he graduated from Harvard in 2005) are the 'perky young blondes' working on Save Darfur and other post-9/11 youth led grassroots movements. I want to address one particular subtle point that Uzo makes.

The article starts with criticism of kids who like "jumping into fashionable causes." There is certainly something disconcerting about a bunch of young, white activists lobbying for people they have never seen, especially when it is the celebrity of the moment tell them it is the right thing to do. This awkwardness has been a theme since Dickens, whose character Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House has "eyes with a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if they could see nothing closer than Africa."

On closer examination, however, we see that this critique holds no water. America's foreign policy history clearly shows that America will do nothing about a humanitarian problem unless its own citizens raise hell. Would as many college kids be involved if Africa wasn't fashionable? Of course not, but I'm still glad they are doing it.

Then something interesting happens. He goes from critiquing American kids "who drop into Africa for an internship" to talking about his own experience volunteering in a Nigerian IDP camp. It doesn't concern me whether or not he considers himself American or Nigerian (he grew up in Potomac, MD and is the son of Nigeria's Finance Minister). What Uzo seems to imply is that it is more legitimate to care about your own culture or the culture that you descend from than about any other culture.

After spending a year in Uganda, this is point I continue to seriously grapple with. In many ways I felt that there were things about Uganda that I would never be able to understand. When I got back to the US, I stumbled upon (the recently departed) Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, who pointed that in a post-modern world, the only real value we can find is choosing to value our own tradition and community, even if we see the irony in the choice itself.

Following Rorty and Uzo, I should learn Lithuanian and start working on EU-Baltic integration because this is where my family came from four generations ago. Of course, culture is never static, and I may be doing much more to honor my own culture by working on African issues than on Baltic issues. Then again, maybe I just go where the weather is better.

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07.11.07 Wednesday Links

In Joigny, France, Bicycling Magazine has produced a wonderful Tour de France Tracker. In addition to on the road updates, they have a great 3 minute video review of each day of the Tour in the lower left hand corner. Watch yesterday's video, it was a brilliant finish. As one cycling blogger wrote, a new cycling term may have been coined: 'Cancellara'.

In Kampala, the lovely Jackfruity launches The Kampalan new website about cool stuff happening in Kampala. This is a much needed site. Well done! Also, after the completion of our program in Cameroon, you can follow the Global Youth Partnership for Africa summer programs in Uganda here.

In Kigali, Jen Brea meanders through the Genocide Memorial and gives her thoughts on the genocide, French relations with Africa, and the role of the state of the Francophone Blogosphere.

In Washington, the infamous Pat Wu joins Facebook, and writes about ICT's in Cameroon.

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World Class Runs Vol. I: Bamenda, Cameroun

Pat, Julie and I jogging high above the town of Bamenda, Cameroun

I love running in foreign countries. I've had some of my most memorable runs in places like Mykonos, Zurich, Kampala and Montevideo. If you get it right, when you run in a foreign country, your endorphins can give you the perfect disposition for traveling: a mix of optimism, happiness, curiosity, with a dash of nostalgia.

I had a world class run in the northwest Cameroon town of Bamenda. The town is surrounded on all sides by steep, lush, green hills. To the east a large waterfall juts out from a rocky mountain face. The hills are so steep that the brakes of many of Cameroon's poorly maintained old vehicles can't handle the downhill and give out. To limit the damage, at the bottom of one of the biggest hills there is a huge sand pit lined with tires.

It is up this hill that I run early one morning with a few colleagues and one of the participants from our program. We got a few encouraging hoots from the cab drivers assembled at the bottom of the hill, who were waiting around to take soldiers and others up the steep switchback roads. I was impressed with the number of people out running on the hill. There were young, ambitious racers, and women who looked like they had done this run every day for years. We also saw whole families walking with baskets of potatoes being carried into town for market.

There is nothing like cooling off under a nature waterfall. I was feeling the steep gradient in my calves, and as the equatorial sun began to rise, I was happy to make a sharp turn and see a waterfall emerge from the thicket of green. After about 20 minutes of this merciless hill, the road began to level off, and we reached a crossroads with a military base and some small shops. This was a good place to stop, stretch, and begin the jog down. Luckily, Julie was smart enough to bring a camera, and we got the above wonderful shot from a massive rock that jutted out from a hill over the entire town of Bamenda.

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07.04.07 Wednesday Links

In Baltimore, fresh off the plane from Cameroon, the magnificent Pat 'Danger' Wu goes online, with Confessions of an American African.

In Cambridge, Ethan writes about the centrality of cell phone networks for development in Africa.

In Kampala, Jackfruity and Jared converse about the current status of the peace process in northern Uganda.

In Arusha, Hans Rosling gives an amazing presentation on understanding development statistics in the big picture.

In Kampala, Jennifer Brea publishes a controversial peace about the TED Global Conference in Arusha.


An Emerging Cameroonian Film Industry

In high school, I happened to be good friends with two amazing actors who went on to Julliard and Tisch acting schools, respectively, in New York. Working for a writer in New York, I spent two summers with them and their friends, meeting some of the most promising young singers, actors and dancers in the city. Zigoto Tchaya Tchameni, a prolific all around entertainer and artist that I became close friends with this month in Yaounde, Cameroon, is easily as talented as any of the performers I met in New York. However, being born in Cameroon instead of America, Zigoto got the short end of resources and support when it comes to the arts and entertainment. To me, this juxtaposition embodies the challenges that young African entrepreneurs with great talents and ideas face.

Zigoto Tchaya Tchameni

The most ambitious project Zigoto has undertaken is to create a Cameroonian film industry out of thin air. Cameroon's neighbor, Nigeria, is famous for producing more films that any other country besides India, but no other Sub-Saharan African country (besides South Africa) has made inroads into the industry. Zoomer's Pictures, Zigoto's company, envisions the Cameroonian film industry as the 'art house' of West African film making, focusing on high quality, thought provoking pictures instead of exclusively on commercializing their content. This is smart, considering that Cameroon has less than 20% of the population of Nigeria and far less of a global reputation.

Zigoto assembled the Zoomers team for our group one night in Yaounde, where we saw a viewing of their premier film, Taboo. Taboo is a film that says a lot, and illustrates the challenging topics of marijuana smoking, lesbianism and more. The movie seems to have successfully struck the nerves of many Cameroonians to whom these issues cause significant tension. However, Zigoto and the Zoomers team recognize the importance of getting into a debate about what the Cameroonian culture values. That's what I like about their work.

In terms of the international networking that unfortunately seems to be obligatory for African entrepreneurs, Zigoto has done quite well for himself, linking up with the British Council, as well as with supporters in Belgium and France (covering both sides of the bilingual support available in Cameroon), but I am certain that Zigoto is only just getting started with what he has to contribute to Cameroonian culture and business.

When I got home from Cameroon, I started catching up with the TED Global talks from last month's landmark conference in Arusha. By far, my favorite talk was by Hans Rosling, a international health professor from Stockholm. At the end of the talk, he elegantly pointed out (through a on-stage sword swallowing demonstration!) that the end of any people's struggle to make life better is not economic development, for this is simply a means. The end, rather, is creating and engaging in culture, the stuff that gives our lives meaning. In this sense, Zigoto and his team at Zoomers are doing some of the most important work taking place in Cameroon.

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With Bicycle Mark

Last time I recorded a podcast with Bicycle Mark I was on a four hour layover in Amsterdam coming back to the US from Uganda. This time, I was jetlagged on my second night back from Cameroon.

Check out the conversation here. Make it to the last few minutes of the interview you get a fade out song from Zigoto 'I am the Cameroonian Film Industry' Tchaya Tchameni.