Incorrectly named by Europeans as Lake Lake, Central Africa’s Lake Chad once sprawled across the region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Camaroon and Chad meet. This massive lake district was once home to 100 million people, where numerous tribes utilized the lake’s bountiful fish and reed islands, grew crops and grazed cattle. In the 1970s, the lake and its tributaries started drying up. Drought descended, followed by tsetse files, famine and disease. Now the tribes and the jihadist extremist group Boko Harama battle over territory and scrarce resources.
On the morning of July 22nd, we set off by boat in the direction of Médi Kouta. The chief of the island, a seventy-two-year-old Boudouma named Hassan Mbomi, met us at the shoreline and guided us uphill, through a grove of charred palm trees. He had returned to the island twenty days earlier, to try to grow millet, because he was starving on the mainland. About two hundred people had followed him. “When we got back, everything was burned,” he said. “We have to build our village from scratch.” A large group of men were waiting for us in a dusty clearing, but Mbomi said I couldn’t speak to them. He said that they had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and forcibly conscripted into the jihad before escaping.
To comply with U.N. safety rules, we were accompanied into the islands by a Chadian soldier named Suliman. He seemed ill at ease on Médi Kouta, and the people there eyed him with suspicion. When we left the island, Suliman told me that he didn’t accept the chief’s explanation. “Sometimes they go away, sometimes they come back,” he said. “But they are all complicit.” Some jihadis have a branding on their back—a circle with a diagonal line through it—but, in most cases, “we can’t distinguish who is Boko Haram and who isn’t,” Suliman said.
For two years, Suliman had been fighting in the islands. The Army had no boats. Sometimes his group commandeered fishermen’s pirogues, and he had come to believe that many fishermen worked as spies, alerting Boko Haram to the military’s movements. Like most soldiers, he grew up speaking Chadian Arabic, and cannot communicate with people in the Lake Region. We passed another island lined with burned palm trees. “The jihadis used to come to these islands at night, and we couldn’t see them,” Suliman said. “So we would light the trees on fire, so they wouldn’t come back.” He had torched the trees on Médi Kouta.
At The Millions, Steve Paulson interviews Teju Cole about why he left Twitter, his photographic inspirations, how he delights in the beauty of sentence fragments, and his meditative approach to combining text and photography in his book, Blind Spot.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
It was a Tuesday in the district of Merhabete, in central Ethiopia, and the smell of burning spices infused the air. Hundreds of people — men and boys herding donkeys and goats, and women cloaked in white cloth with baskets atop their heads — lined the gravel roads leading to the government-run health clinic; some had walked for hours to trade and sell goods at the weekly market.
Yeshi estimates she is 37, based on the age of the eldest of her six children. She and her husband left home around 7 a.m. that morning. For a few months, Yeshi had been unable to perform basic tasks. She was too weak to visit the neighbors and bled profusely, like she was menstruating, every time she drank coffee or water. She had lost weight and was concerned she was dying. But on this Tuesday, the day her husband would make the hour-long walk to sell bananas at the market to earn the $7 USD that would sustain their family of eight for the week, Yeshi would accompany him to the village. If she were able to make the trek, she would visit a doctor and nurse from Marie Stopes International, a non-governmental organization that provides sexual and reproductive health services around the world. One of Marie Stopes International’s 12 mobile outreach teams in Ethiopia, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), would be at the village’s health clinic. They would offer family planning consultations and perform what they call the “permanent method” — vasectomies and tubal ligations.
A Maki Oh presentation during New York Fashion Week. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
For The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.
Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.
Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.
Nina Simone in 1968. Simone had been disheartened by the civil rights movement in America, and found solace by moving to a newly progressive Libera in 1974. (David Redfern/Getty)
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
“Drawing was always my thing,” Ojih Odutola says. “I always signed up for competitions. I won a lot of first-place prizes, but I was very traditional in my renderings.” Her parents lauded her gift but viewed art as a hobby. It was Dana Bathurst, a high school art teacher, who challenged their assumptions: that good art must approximate European traditions and that pursuing a career in art wasn’t possible. Bathurst introduced Ojih Odutola to a new conception of portraiture through the work of African-American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and fellow Alabamian Kerry James Marshall. Gyasi, similarly, excelled at writing from an early age but couldn’t imagine a literary career before AP English. That year, the only black English teacher she would ever have, Janice Vaughn, took her writing seriously. Then, in her senior year, Gyasi discovered Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” The language was spectacular; the author a brown woman; the sensibility familiar, Southern.
“If you forbid people from doing stuff but don’t replace it, if you don’t provide jobs instead,” Makiese says, “then it’s clear that people will turn to trafficking and crime.”
The trade in goods from Angola such as cement and petroleum products is substantial, and provides a livelihood for many local people. But the legal status of these shipments is hazy. Most operators don’t have a license to import, but the authorities have embraced the commerce.
“You can’t separate the official from the unofficial,” Collet says. “In the law it’s all illegal but they pay all the taxes to the government agencies when it comes into the port.” Collet is especially aggravated by kibubu, a method of smuggling the gasoline hawked by the likes of Makiese. On the Angolan bank, fuel is poured into the bottom of specially adapted boats and driven across the mouth of the river into the mangrove forest at night.
Which is why he sometimes avoids his parents when they call him from home. He doesn’t know how to explain to them that daily he’s reminded of the fact he is temporarily inhabiting a space that was never meant for people like him — not just black, but poor too — and that, as a result, he constantly feels like he’s there on borrowed time.
There were the gut-wrenching moments that confront every black person. Like the October afternoon when the police had pelted him and other protesters with tear gas, and he’d rushed to shelter in another building. Two white students dashed in ahead of him. When he reached the entrance to safety, Tjie realized a man was blocking his way.
“Where’s your student card?” he recalled the man asking him.
What happens to age-old traditions when the animals on which their symbolism depends all but vanish? At Hakai Magazine, Jori Lewis chronicles her journey along the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau coast looking for sawfish — a creature so venerated it appears on all Senegalese currency, but which few people in the region have actually seen in in recent decades.
Twelve years ago, Marine Robillard began surveying residents in West African coastal communities about the cultural importance of the sawfish. Now an environmental anthropologist at a French consulting firm called AnthropoLinks, Robillard says that most people could not believe the sawfish was gone for good. “When we were in Senegal, they would say, ‘Oh, there were some sawfish here but now they have migrated north. Go north.’ When we arrived in Mauritania, they would say, ‘Oh, there are no more sawfish here, but go south, go south.’ And when we arrived in Guinea Conakry, they said, ‘Oh, no, up north.’ People think that this is true for the sawfish, for sharks, and for fish, too. People don’t think they can disappear; they think that they have only moved.”
In her essay in Pacific Standard, Rahawa Haile writes about identity, the anxiety of origins, and the search for a grounded life in unstable, isolating locales. Born to Eritrean parents, Haile grew up in Miami, Florida, speaking English and Tigrinya in a low land of built of hurricane deposits that felt doomed to rising sea levels. As America and Europe argue about how to treat refugees from war-torn nations, Haile struggles to reconcile the two parts of herself, and wonders what will happen to Eritrea, and to all the people who flee their homes in Africa and the Middle East.
When politicians campaign on platforms of keeping Africans out of their country. When the anti-blackness in the surrounding MENA region goes largely unreported. When the refugee camps in the country you gained independence from are overflowing with your people. When the journey to South Africa, a popular refuge for African migrants, is met with xenophobic attacks. When crossing the Red Sea into Yemen means entering a war zone; when Yemenis are crossing the Red Sea into the Horn you fled. When human traffickers are harvesting your organs in the Sinai. When the open ports of Libya have no despot to keep you on your side of the grave. When drowning is the best option. When the world asks wouldn’t it be convenient to stay in place? To see your doom as your salvation? Now that they have all tried their hand at exploiting your land, your people, your geography—and since autonomy can only be granted by those who have control over the physical world. After all this, how, how, how. How can we keep you there?