When Sean Jacobs started blogging in 2005, he named his page after Leo Africanus, the 16th century Moroccan-Andalusian traveler whose book “Descriptions of Africa” corrected ill-informed European notions of Africa (at least the northern region).
Jacobs, originally from South Africa, had recently joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. The accounts he saw of Africa in the Western media at the time, he said, focused either on terrorism or on “saving Africa” stories. “A lot of these things have reduced Africa to this continent with 54 countries, you know, 800 million diverse people. In fact, it has become one place, ”he said.
In 2009, he renamed his blog Africa is a country, and it’s now a website devoted to writing about the news, stories and opinions that Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora find most interesting. CJR spoke to Jacobs from his home in Brooklyn. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Feven Merid: First of all. Why the name?
Sean Jacobs: I became obsessed with the way people talked about Africa in the West. So what I was doing on this old blog, whenever I was exasperated, discussing political events or an art, I would say “and Africa is a country”. Coming to the New School in 2009 to teach, I was kind of like, I think I should change the name of this blog, and I just found that and it stuck. Once I called it Africa Is A Country I noticed people read it a lot more because it’s like a click trap so it has a lot more readers.
Did you write in an article that there are advantages to thinking of Africa as one?
I wrote an article where I quoted one of the people [Neelika Jayawardane] who was involved with the site, she said on the one hand that you are trying to debunk this notion that this is a place, but on the other hand, there is also this way we are building a sort of of community.
Like a pan-African type thing?
It does what a few other magazines have done before, like the magazine Transition in the 60s and 70s. It was published by this Ugandan Indian called Rajat Neogy and that was where you had [Wole] Soyinka debate [Ali] Mazrui debate [Nadine] Gordimer. Kwame Nkrumah was there. It was a place where Africans thought about the future, and I kind of think about it like that, that it has to be this space where we try to imagine the future that we want.
Did you find other inspirations or influences for Africa Is A Country?
I grew up under apartheid. When I was in high school there was a lot of protest and so I was impressed by the big political movement called the United Democratic Front. On top of that, South Africa has a very strong history not only of militant media, but also of what in South Africa used to be called the “Alternative Press” – small nonprofit newspapers that don’t were not interested in making money, but were exposing information and really reflecting the debate. of the progressive left [and] Black consciousness movement[s] in South Africa. When I came to the United States, I read a lot of black journalists who wrote for the major American newspapers in the late 80s, early 90s, like Joe Wood and Adolph Reed Jr. at The Voice of the village, Brent Staples at New York Times. And I’ve been quite influenced by posts like In these times and the style, but not necessarily the politics, of The New Republic.
I noticed this distinction: in the US you have magazines or opinion sections, in the UK and other cultures you have more of a journalism that is not afraid to tell you about its ideological orientation. In South Africa, historically, newspapers and magazines … did not claim to be everything for everyone like The new York Times likes to pretend to be. These things drove how I thought, and where I would place Africa is a country.
How did you go about finding the team of people you have now?
I would say we found people who saw themselves as writers, but did not have access to official media. For example, there was Ndeye Debo Seck, a Senegalese schoolteacher I met who had ideas and opinions that I found really interesting about the Senegalese experience. There are other people, like academics, who wanted to write in popular media, but they just didn’t have that kind of journalistic lexicon. So it was like that, sort of by osmosis, it wasn’t really a strategy, it was just kind of taking people with you as you meet them, so if a topic came up, I might know someone. I would ask them to write something and say, “try to say it in 900 words and don’t worry, we’ll change it”.
There was a point around 2012 when we made a conscious decision to consider people’s balance. They can’t all be diaspora because if you write about a cultural phenomenon like “Black Panther” you see it differently if you watch it in Accra than in New York. We have a scholarship that we are offering to ten young writers and among those ten we have made sure that most of them are Africans living on the continent.
How does the financing of the site work?
When we started, no one got paid, including myself. [In 2019] I became a Shuttleworth scholar and they give you $ 275,000 a year for the project you’re working on, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been awarded this scholarship three years in a row, which has allowed me to employ people. I employ an editor; he gets a salary. Then I employ a number of contract staff, including editors, an editor, and our editor.
I think I’ll always have to fundraise. However, we are trying to do other things; we try to integrate the goods. We are currently working to simplify the process for donating people. All of our content is free, it’s released under a Creative Commons license so you can copy it, run it on your translated website, you don’t have to pay us for it.
Africa is a country has projects focused on climate change and capitalism in African countries. Why these subjects?
It’s about the fact that these resources are there and that multinational corporations and governments are going to extract them. The question then becomes, if this is a fact and happens, how to ensure that they are accountable to the communities that live in the Niger Delta, or the Platinum Belt in South Africa, or the fields. of natural gas from Mozambique? The other part is to say that the mining model is not sustainable, this idea that we should just have this continuous growth is not sustainable. It’s not just about holding companies accountable, it’s also about how to build the capacity of governments to make things better.
There is an idea that Africans are on the fringes of capitalism, that they are not part of the way money flows. But in fact, they have always been part of capitalism, since the arrival of colonialism, and they are intimately involved in it. A place like Nairobi is a capitalist city and one of the things we did there was connect with this group called the Mathare Social Justice Center.
He doesn’t do a lot of theorizing, his work focuses on police brutality, housing – very local struggles – but around them emerge young intellectuals, people who reflect on their way of life. They put together a small team and made this proposal to us called “Capitalism In My City” to make videos showing things like pollution and unemployment.
The way we are going to write about capitalism may not sound like the New review on the left or something obscure left-wing newspaper type. This should be in line with ordinary people and also with people who are not necessarily interested in Kenya or who might think that someone’s life in Nairobi is not like theirs in New York.
One particular area that tends to be very dark in Western media is the coverage of African LGBTQ rights. How does your site approach it?
There is a lot going on that could be oversimplified. An example: when Binyavanga Wainaina came out in his article titled “I’m homosexual, mom”. He was interviewed by NPR and said he didn’t want this to be published in a Western publication because the gay rights opponents in Africa would say, “Oh, you are promoting this Western thing.” The essay was therefore published in Chimurenga and Africa is a country. This is the function we perform: it is a conversation between us about what is already there.
If you think that these countries are only homophobic, it turns out that there is a long history of multiple sexualities, of non-heteronormative sexualities. If the state is not yet there to pass laws, that is only part of the story.
Finally, you recently wrote about your site’s efforts to connect more with communities in other parts of the world, like Asia, South America, Australia, etc. What is the idea behind this?
The Diaspora Connection – South America has a large and influential African population. And there are communities that are not necessarily African but their place, their relationship to the world is similar. We have published articles on “what can Africa learn from Asia”.
And for a long time, no one guessed or questioned Europeans and Americans as to why they were talking about other parts of the world. We took it [for granted] that somehow they could talk about anything when we were only supposed to talk about the little places we came from. Eventually when people go to the site they will be able to read things in other parts of the world written by Africans.
Interestingly, this is not considered normal. But if an American goes to a place or is interested in it, it kind of gives him a certain level of objectivity or insight. It is a strange phenomenon.
Feven Merid is CJR Editor-in-Chief and Senior Delacorte Fellow.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Zachary Rosen