Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Storytellers as Change Agents in West Africa?

In Bamako on Sunday, I got to a wedding event (they spread through the weekend) where the families gathered and griots sang their praises. Griot is sometimes translated as "storyteller," and as a caste they have a fascinating and precarious place in Mali society and across West Africa: they traditionally depend on the patronage of wealthy families whose stories they sing at events, but they also sometimes speak truth to power.
    In this photo the female griot at right sings praises to the accompaniment of the djembe drummers in the foreground.
In Griot Time    Banning Eyre's book, In Griot Time, is a fun way into his story of learning Malian guitar from griots.
    In a growing global push against malaria, some health advocacy campaigns in Mali have enlisted griots. Recognizing how they have the ear of everyday people and thought leaders, the campaigns invite griots to integrate lyrics about how mosquito nets help protect children from getting malaria into their work. Some griots at the local-level have included that messaging at wedding gigs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Now for Something Completely Different

Now in West Africa for a month with an IRP reporting fellowship, and just getting my bearings in Mali's capital with a walk through the main market. Two quick and simple observations on the changes since Richard Wright's tour of these countries at independence just over a half century ago:
1) West African fashion is timeless but changes in communication and public relations move at warp speed (I exaggerate). Witness the teeming boys on every corner selling cellphone minutes, and a heightened perception by everyone here of how the world sees images from Africa. They know journalists usually go for the poverty-makes-sympathy shot.
    Twice I framed a photo and got the stink eye. First an older man insisted I pay for the opportunity (he relented when I sounded incredulous about paying a building to take its picture). Then a teenage girl said my shot of people at a railroad crossing was "pas beau" -- not pretty. Both showed a consciousness of putting Mali's best foot forward and not getting exploited.
2) Impressive variety of food in the popular market. Where are they growing cool-weather items like lettuce? Lots of potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, mangoes, beets, peppers, fish of various sizes, and much more. And this is the hot season when wind kicks up dust and the temp spills over 100F.
The billboard for the cellphone and Internet service provider says 'Business is Everywhere.'

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reporting on Civil War in the Mediterranean

An amazing exhibit at the International Center for Photography in New York captures the images of three photojournalists as they peered through their lenses at the Spanish Civil War. All three came from elsewhere in Europe: Robert Capa, born in Hungary; Gerda Taro from Germany; and David Seymour (aka Chim) from Poland.
    The Spanish Civil War itself came from elsewhere in some ways. Many across Europe saw it as a foretaste of the ideological battle looming for the rest of Europe, between Fascism and its opponents. Hitler and Mussolini backed Francisco Franco’s army. The Soviet Union and communists elsewhere supported the Republican forces. For many progressive Americans, volunteering in the “Lincoln brigade” in Spain to support the Republic was a test of ideals.
    The Mexican Suitcase exhibit is dramatic for its story of how the photographers came together in love and friendship in a war zone, as well as how their story in images became a time capsule, lost for decades before emerging from a single valise.
    It’s especially resonant now as another wave of violent change shakes Libya and the Mediterranean.
    For many WPA writers in the U.S., the Spanish Civil War posed a crisis of conscience: Would they go abroad and put their lives on the line for fellow travelers for the cause of a more egalitarian world? Richard Wright wrote his friend Nelson Algren back in Chicago, asking that very question.
    In California, WPA writer Eluard Luchell McDaniel was one who responded. He had run away from Mississippi at age 10 and worked his way across America, growing up through odd jobs along the way, and writing. After gaining notice when his fiction appeared in Story magazine in 1935, he went to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade before returning to San Francisco.
    Just as it did when Gerda Taro lost her life covering the war in Spain, bearing witness can still mean risking everything. Recently photojournalist and former IRP fellow Chris Hondros died while covering the civil war in Libya. Read about him and the continuing perils of war reporting here.