Serengeti Advisers Media

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Archive for February 2010

Upcoming Attractions

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The Serengeti Advisers Media RetroSpective 2009 is on its way. Have you been wondering what topics and news stories received the most ink, or why the media is interested in some issues and not others, or which stories kept the newspapers’ attention the longest? There will be some answers to all those questions and more. In the meantime, here is a glimpse:


The percentage of Top Story headlines in relation to other stories that made the news in 2009


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February 25, 2010 at 10:15

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On Writing

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Continuing with the theme of  writing, here are ten rules from writers on writing fiction. Margaret Atwood has one of the more interesting ones:

You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

That is pretty useful, don’t you think? Part two can be found here.

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February 23, 2010 at 15:21

Posted in Culture

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The Exchange: M.G Vassanji

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M.G. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania. Having immigrated to Canada in 1978 with a PhD in nuclear physics, Vassanji began writing fiction while teaching at the University of Toronto. Mr. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. He won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize with his first novel The Gunny Sack (1989). He is the first Canadian writer to have won the Scotiabank Giller Prize twice with The Book of Secrets (1994) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991), Amriika (1999) and The Assassin’s Song (2007) and two short story collections, Uhuru Street (1991) and When She Was Queen (2005). His latest book is the historical travelogue, A Place Within (2008). He currently lives in Toronto, Canada. While on a brief visit to Tanzania last month, Mr. Vassanji took a moment from his busy schedule to sit with Serengeti Media for a brief chat.


Below is an edited transcript of the interview:

Q. You were born in Nairobi, grew up in Dar es Salaam and then you went back to University in Nairobi…

M.G. Vassanji: Well, I was sent by the Tanzanian government. To study Engineering. But I left after three months. Because [the government] gives you a free high school education they could in principle tell you what you should be studying. The only thing was they didn’t give me the course that I wanted to study.  And at that time, for some reason, I was following other kids, I had applied to the United States and I even heard that they give scholarships. And I found, actually, I was admitted [with a] scholarship and financial assistance. So I left. And now when I think back on it, it took a lot of courage […] because it was a long way to go.

Q. On Travel

MG: I don’t know, there was something within me which was a kind of a vagrant. I remember once our school was asked to send two or three students to Mkwawa, I was in Tambaza [High School], in Iringa and I said I would go and my mother said, ‘No, I wouldn’t let you go.’ I don’t know why I said [I wanted to go]. I just wanted to go to a different place.  Even though I was brought up in a very close family […] So I suppose it was that thing in me, which despite being very grounded, also wants to get away.  Very contradictory attitudes. I like a place but I also want to get away and return to that place.

Q. On returning to Tanzania

MG: When I went to the United States, I went with all the intention of coming back. To teach. Tanzania was home.

Q. Why do you write?

MG: Now if you ask me […] for me it’s like breathing, it’s not a question I have to justify to myself. If I don’t write, I cannot live. For me it’s the air I breathe. I’ve been lucky, you know. You can say that but can you actually do it and can you do it successfully, can you make a living out of it? Those are different questions. So I may have not written if I had not been successful. That’s why I said when you ask me now, it’s the only thing I want to do. Besides […] some responsibilities, I feel [like] this is what I live for.

Q. How much of your writing is an act of returning, and also of remembering.

MG: I am not sure. Perhaps all. But, there is also in writing […] an exploration going on, a ‘what if?’ […] so there is some element of returning but my last novel [The Assassin’s Song], for example, was set in India.  And you could say that […] was a kind of return, because it was inspired by [questions of identity]… You see, when I left Tanzania [my] Tanzanian identity was there […] But I also now got interested in my Indian heritage. [I] just wanted to find out what it was, why it was […] I didn’t know much about it except the fact that we carried certain things. One of which was the spiritual, not only attitude to life, but it was expressed in certain songs that we had that came from medieval times.  Many of us could not understand them, [or] partly understood them. Some people even now [can’t] understand them but they can be understood. So I took an interest in that, that aspect of my identity. And that’s what I was exploring. When I was traveling in India I could visit places which had direct bearing on this spiritual heritage, spiritual [and] ethnic heritage that I had.  And I thought I would set a novel [in one of these places]. It was […] in shrines. In the Indian language it’s called Dharga. I don’t know what its called in Kiswahili or Arabic, where a holy man is buried and people go there to pray and say prayers and so on. In India there are millions of these [shrines]. And people from all backgrounds, if they find a particular place of significance to them, then they would go. [Actually] there is a place between Mombasa and Nairobi which has [a similar] significance, where some railway worker was buried who was supposed to [have] a spiritual status and when the trains and the buses pass that area, they slow down. In India, there are many [such sites]. One of those, a few of those, had a direct bearing on my own spiritual heritage so I set a novel around such a place. I just imagined what it would be like to grow up there.  But then you could ask, ‘was that a return?’ I say, in a way, it was.  But it was also an exploration of a certain historical situation, what it means in the modern age.

Q. On Identity

MG: I am an African Asian, [but] Canada is where I live [and] where my children [were] born and brought up, so it’s very much a part of me. But I cannot dissociate that from, you know, my heritage or […] the place where I was born, where I grew up where I was formed, you know, sounds and sights [that] I carry with me. Part of […] growing up in Africa, was growing up as an Asian African or as an Indian African, because everyone has a tribe and my tribe was Indian tribe. [There were] certain cultural practices, certain spiritual attitudes, certain foods we ate, and languages. Besides, the sort of language of the land, Kiswahili, everyone had their tribal languages, our tribal language was Kachhi, Gujarati or both. That’s how I saw it. Having grown up here and having gone away, I sort of ask myself, what it is, I cannot say that I am this and no longer that. For me that’s baloney. In the same way that there are people in India who have started following a Holy man who was from the Near East. I don’t believe there was a conversion. It’s just following one tradition and a guy comes and you follow that guy also. In India that’s very common, what’s called hybridity or syncreticity. For me that’s all a part of what it means to be human. You know, If you are talking in [terms] of historical circumstances, and I am told many people are, even in India, where you are many things and when you narrow yourself down it is an artificial construction. I remember when people first went to Canada from Tanzania and I was in the United States, they imagined that they were in a new country. But I had just come as a student from the United States and when I observed them, they lived exactly the way they lived in Tanzania (laughter).  Tanzanians lived in a single building or close to each other.  So, you know, the rhetoric and the inner reality are very different.

Q. What is the role of public history on individual lives in your work.

MG: We were shaped not only by our own history but by history that happened elsewhere. I mean the Cold War had an impact on us. It dictated how our politicians behaved, those politicians then determined our lives. The fact that I had to go to the United States was based partly on [the] ideology of this country, which was affiliated with the ideology of the Eastern bloc countries and an antagonism towards the West. Therefore, going to America had in fact become anathema, it was not seen in a positive light. If you ask[ed] for permission to go to the United States it would not be given. So what I am saying is we were determined in many ways by events outside us and therefore one has to understand […] and it’s also very fascinating. When you put yourself in a small country, in a small town, in a small community and then suddenly you realize that you are not divorced from the world. The First World War had an impact on you, in many different ways. And the second World War had an impact, the independence movement was there [too]. So I find [it] very interesting placing myself, or the people I grew up [with], the community I grew up in, and by extension the town I grew up in, within a context, placing it, in a sense, in a historical situation and extending that into the world. We don’t live in isolation.  We don’t live in historical isolation. We don’t live in political isolation or economic isolation. It’s all part of who we are.  And I think when you get to go away and try to understand, especially the way we were brought up, from the colonies, […] the whole universe suddenly seemed open when I went to the United States, from a small community, small town, very in-ward looking, suddenly you are out in the wider universe, and obviously the questions arise, how do I fit in? Where do I belong? And in what way? The interest in the Indian part of me, the interest in the African part of me was just a part of trying to understand myself in this world that I arrived in.

Q. Who and what are your influences?

MG: I don’t know. There are books that I’ve read which I’ve drawn from. But I discovered them later. [Fyodor] Dostoevsky was one. He was not an influence, but the questioning aspect of his work […] I took a lot of, I wouldn’t say inspiration, [but] I suppose some sort of comfort, you know. As I was saying, when you are out in the wider world, you make discoveries about yourself and you start forming new attitudes, new beliefs. And then you realize, but after all [this] time, people have thought about it, obviously.  [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky was one. He asked moral questions. The questions of faith and guilt. And [Joseph] Conrad was another writer whom I read because of his characters, who found themselves alone in situations and who try to cope and find themselves […] that aspect I found fascinating, when people attempt to find themselves. But I did a lot of reading, experimental European Literature, [Leo] Tolstoy. Nobody who wrote after [Salman Rushdie’s] Midnight’s Children was unaware of it. So it was there. There were other writers, usually different writers for different reasons. Ngungi [wa Thiong’o]I appreciated, although his style of writing is very different. But the fact that he was dealing, again, with very small situations, bringing it out into the world, the Kikuyu world. Again looking at the historical situation with the Mau Mau period […] There may be others, but those I can recall.

Q. What is your writing process?

MG: I never think about it. At present, at this age, I write when I can. I am in the fortunate position of not having to go out to work. Although I did that once. Doing my work and coming home and then write until midnight and putting the baby to bed. At present I can just wake up and go to Starbucks and come back and start writing. Unless I have to assist my wife, she is a small publisher, sometimes I have to assist her also, we’ll discuss a few things. But other than that […] writing for me is not just writing, it’s also reading. So I do a lot of research, in the sense that I read books. And I am writing a book set in Tanzania at present, so I’ve been […] ordering and reading a lot of books on Swahili Culture and on Utenzis and on Muslim movements in Tanzania, and on the Maji Maji wars and so on. For me that’s also writing. And then editing or revising something I have written is also writing. So that I do whenever I can […] I also write, specifically, I pick a time when everybody has gone to bed and I work late into the night. But […] I am not like some other writers with very fixed schedules. I am man of habit. If I start something […] which occurs to me [while] sitting on a chair, then I’ll sit on that chair for months to write […] So it’s not very rigid. But you could say, if you wanted a rough thing, I write at night and in the morning.

Q. What is your opinion of Tanzanian Literature?

MG: People say it is there, but it is very rudimentary. What I am excited about is the poetry, the Swahili poetry, especially the Utenzi. I am not very keen on religious poetry, some of it is very primitive […] I don’t know any Tanzanian literature except ones I have read. The Swahili Utenzi poetry I have read, I think [is] a wonderful tradition of telling long stories and also of dealing with historical events. I know Abdulrazak Gurnah, he can be considered […] Tanzanian, [so] he is there. I don’t know who else. My headmaster [Peter Palangyo] when […] I was in High School, wrote a book, a novel, which was published.  But other than that […] I am sure there are some books [but] it’s not what you would call a national literature.

Q. What is your advice to young Tanzanian writers?

MG: Keep on writing. You can talk about writing or you can just write. And it’s not just to Tanzanian writers, to any young people who want to write, you should just write. Of course by extension sometimes there are no venues to publish, in which case, you start your own venue. You start a magazine. There is a lot of self help that has gone on in the wider world, literary world. So when T.S Elliot went to England he started a literary magazine.  This has happened in many parts of the world. In the Soviet Union, people were producing their own stuff and reading to each other. So you don’t have to wait for an NGO or some foreign aid to enable you to write. It’s really absurd. I remember once I was invited to a conference in Arusha, near Arusha, where African publishers, and some writers, were invited to discuss the problems of African Literature. So there were people from Ghana, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from Uganda, from Tanzania and Kenya and the whole thing was sponsored by the Swedes […] I don’t think you need that.  If you don’t have that sense of pride and achievement then it’s not surprising that there is no Tanzanian Literature.

SAL Abroad: Lagos, February 2010, Ctd

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It all happened rather quickly. By Wednesday last week, Nigeria had, in former Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, an Acting President, a position which is apparently unrecognised in the country’s constitution. There are only two ways in which an incumbent President can be removed from office in Nigeria. Either the Federal Executive Council, i.e the Cabinet, can dislogde him for reasons of permanent incapacitation. Or he can be impeached by the Senate.

Neither of these happened last Tuesday. Instead, Goodluck Jonathan was declared Acting President by ‘a resolution of the National Assembly.’ Apparently the basis for the National Assembly’s action was an interview given by President Yar’Adua on the BBC on January 12, 2010. You can listen to it here. The interview was transcribed, printed and thus became the physical ‘letter’ which was needed to prove that the President had declared himself too ill to govern.

So, this expedient solution to the crisis of a President-less country raises interesting conundrums. Is Goodluck at once both (Acting) President and (former) Vice President? From Next:

According to the lawyers, while Mr. Jonathan now serves as the commander-in-chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, there currently exists no vacancy in the vice presidency, the position Mr. Jonathan occupied until last week when a resolution by the National Assembly declared him the Acting President of the country. The lawyers said that Mr. Jonathan will continue to run the presidency without an official deputy until 2011 unless the ailing president, Umaru Yar’Adua, ceases to be president as a result of his impeachment or permanent incapacitation.

Constitutional quandaries aside, the jostling for the non-vacant number two position is in full swing. Given that Jonathan is from the south of the country, all five front-runners for the non-vacant vice presidency are from northern Nigeria.

The fallout from this change of guard was not without its casualties. Michael Aondoakaa, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, who had fought tooth and nail to keep Jonathan from the Presidency was the first to lose his job. He was redeployed to Special Duties. He also had to apologise to one Prof Dora Akinyili, the Minister for Information who had led an impressive and spirited one-person campaign in the Cabinet for Yar’Adua to hand over power, even if temporarily, to his deputy. This was for allegedly accusing the minister, during one of the heated internal debates, of being less than clean while running the country’s food and drug administration (NAFDAC).

It seems like the old proverb still rings true: she who laughs last, laughs longest. Maybe.

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February 16, 2010 at 09:51

Keeping It Real

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John Githongo, the former Kenyan Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics, ‘burst[s] the myth of Kenyan exceptionalism’ in today’s East African. To wit:

What we had in truth was a rapacious state dominated by a small elite that was prone to mobilise ethnically; had no real concept of national interest nor was even bothered to develop a coherent foreign policy.

It used violence, the threat of violence and economic exclusion, at will against individuals and entire sections of the population considered “hostile.”

This has been the reality covered tightly under a lid that hissed steam with every detention order, every assassination, every demonstration, every exile.

The whole piece is a fascinating read. Money quote:

The bigger transition underway in Kenya today is from the first generation of thieves to the second.

And so the next convulsion, if it comes, will take new forms. It won’t only be political and ethnic, but will also assume class and racial overtones.

Ethnicity, race and class are now inextricably intertwined in a toxic cauldron of divisiveness, sitting on the fire of youth empowerment lit by politicians who then took a break to build Spanish villas and buy SUVs.

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February 15, 2010 at 15:20

Deep Thought

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Do you feel more intelligent after reading this morning’s newspapers?

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February 15, 2010 at 14:08

Posted in Press

On Richmond, Fake Degrees, Parliament and NGOs

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So in the end, Parliament lacking the guts to deal with the Richmond scandal, place the issue, lock, stock and barrel, squarely on the President’s desk. Investigations into the case remain unsolved, the public’s questions remain unanswered and no one at all is censured or held accountable for what has been, undoubtedly, a very dubious and murky deal.

One could be forgiven for asking, ‘who are these guys and what exactly do they do all day long in that August house?’ Two recent publications help shed light on these questions. The first is a report titled, ‘Do they work for us’, published by an outfit known as Uwazi, an institution based at Twaweza and housed by Hivos Tanzania (go figure). According to this report, which is actually worth reading in full as opposed to getting snippets of it from the print media, the Tanzanian Parliament is very transparent, elected MP’s perform better than their nominated counterparts and three prominent CCM MP’s appear to have taken some vow of legislative omerta.

The second eyebrow raising publication doing the rounds amongst Tanzania’s chattering classes is ‘The List of Shoddy Degree and Diploma Holders” a slim booklet authored by the improbably named Kainerugaba Msemakweli. Amongst those named as degree cheats are a number of CCM frontbenchers, but the booklet contains few new revelations. However it is marked by a vitriolic language that will no doubt result in the author being hauled into court to answer charges of slander, libel and other character assassination offences in the very near future.

It is hard to know what to make of both these reports. The Uwazi report carries the sheen of work done by well funded NGO’s. As a result, its biggest audience will be the Birkenstock sandaled, batik shirt wearing, earnest liberals mostly found eating at the Ethiopian restaurant in Dar, dancing at the Busara festival in Zanzibar and cooing at the Makutano Art Fair. Well meaning as these folks are, they remain positioned at a safe distance from the wananchi. Msemakweli on the other hand seeks to appeal to the Everyman. His tone is shrill and incandescent, his facts pounded out in a langague more apprproiate for a demagogue on a rostrum as opposed to a level headed commentator. Both works will have their supporters even though one senses that both are missing something.

While, the Uwazi report is informative, it is difficult to make any substantial conclusions from it, other than, to put it crudely, that Wilbroad Slaa (Chadema-Karatu) is more talkative in parliament than, say, Estherina Julio Kilasi (CCM-Mbarali). The report claims to document the number of times MPs have intervened in parliamentary debate but nowhere does it talk about the quality of these interventions or how effective these interventions were? As Pernille over at Louder Than Swahili points out, the whole thing reads like ‘just a summary which makes [one] ask more questions’ than reveal anything fundamental about the nature of how our parliamentarians perform at Bunge.

Mr. Msemakweli’s efforts also have their flaws. The accusatory tone of his delivery doesn’t quite give his contributions to public discourse the spirit of high-minded debate. His assertions do not seem to backed up by incontrovertible facts. If a public official claims to have a degree from Oxford University, it would be good for Mr. Msemakweli to say something like, ‘I contacted Oxford and they had no idea who this fellow (or lady) is and here’s the letter from Oxford saying so.’ But that doesn’t look to be how he rolls. So instead those he has accused are likely to sue him for damages which will mean months of wrangling in court but in the end nothing concrete is likely to come out of his proclamations (in fact he has already been the subject of a libel case against him from Deputy Minister for Employment and Youth Development Dr. Makongoro Mahanga for suggesting that the latter had falsified his qualifications. Swahili needed to read the article). Which makes you wonder, why do they do this in the first place?

UPDATE: Swahili Street has an interesting take on Mr. Msemakweli’s little booklet:

There’s an initial prurient interest. Who is in and who is out? Next you want to check his sources, but in most cases he’s trying to prove a negative, so that’s frustrating.

And finally, the medium. Kainerugaba Msemakweli, writer and publisher, is nothing less than a pamphleteer.

So you look to his style. Forthright:

Naudhibitishia umma wa Tanzania kuwa nitapambana nao mpaka mwisho / I swear to all the Tanzanian community that I will struggle with them to the end.

Ninaudhibitishia umma wa Watanzania kuwa kuna siku moja nitafanya mapinduzi katika nchi hii / I swear to all Tanzanians that there will come a day that I’ll make a revolution in this country


Language is interesting. The only English is the final statement above and the sub-title, pictured. So it’s more of a badge of…. learning, I guess, than a means of communication.