This week at the University of Delaware has been a bundle of mixed feelings. The academic sessions ranged from topics as varied as legislative practices in the U.S to challenges facing Africa (not the country; the continent!). In this post I will try to give a brief commentary on each of the sessions.
Monday, June 23
Pathways to participation: Congress and Interest Groups (Prof. Jason Mycoff)
With Prof Jason Mycoff, the Washington Fellows discussed America’s political structure with a particular focus on Congress. As Mycoff, reminded us, the American system is primarily designed to encourage individual citizens to engage with Congress and representatives. Mycoff began this discussion with a focus on the Madisonian Model whose emergence is owed to increasing faction within society. The system, Mycoff told us, is a structure of government in which the powers of government are separated into three branches: executive, legislature, and judiciary. According to this model, there is need to structure the government in such a way to prevent the imposition of tyranny by either the majority or by a minority. The most effective way through which this could be done, Madison proposed, was to separate powers and ensure, at the same time, that these powers (and personnel) worked independent of each other but cooperated in order to govern. The separation of powers was, and still is, done through three processes: Congress passing laws, the president enforcing laws, and the courts interpreting the laws.
Although I found this session quite instructive, I found it too U.S-centred and could not think through how this could work in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa. This is not to argue, in any way, that the U.S system was entirely different from that in Kenya for instance. However, it was important for us to start thinking through our different realities as continental Africans. While a similar system exists in Kenya, for example, the independence of each arm from the other is never guaranteed for various reasons. Also, while in the U.S constituents seem to have access to their Congress and Senate representatives, our contexts have shaped the system quite differently.
Ecosandals (www.ecosandals.com): Michael Meyer
I was interested to hear the founder of ecosandals, Michael Meyer, speak about his work in Korogocho, Nairobi. Although I found this quite interesting, I had more questions than answers and I was disturbed by a number of things. Firstly, Meyer began his talk with a set of mental images that are largely associated with ‘slum-life’. He spoke about disease, poverty and the dangers of slum-life in Nairobi. Although these are rampant in a lot of poverty-stricken areas in Nairobi and elsewhere, I found it unsettling that he found this a necessary starting point. Secondly, I was bothered by the fact that in the videos that Meyer showed us, the Nairobi-based labourers seemed to read from a script and were therefore not speaking their minds, as it were. Thirdly, I found it rather problematic that ecosandals, as a trade mark, had co-opted akala (tyre sandals) that had been long made and used in Kenya for generations. I was reminded of Intellectual Property debates already happening regarding the Kikoi, the Maasai shuka on Italian runways, Roiboos tea and many others. I had various questions on the many ways through which social enterprises are often linked with capitalist motives even when they seek to empower. I am not sure that local consumers (even those who make these sandals) would be willing to spend $ 39 for ecosandals or whether they would go for a version that would cost them less than $3. I found it interesting that even on the ecosandals website, the prices were in Dollars rather in Kenya shillings or both. This is not surprising, however as, although made in Kenya, ecosandals targets a largely Global North market where the money is, both for investment and consumption.
I found this session both interesting and unsettling primarily because of the very thin line I saw between social entreprenuership, exploitation, money and markets.
Tuesday, June 24
Wednesday, June 25
The day started with the comic-tragedy that was a fire alarm at Independence Hall, where we are housed. The fellows, most of whom had never experienced this before, had interesting reactions. One of the fellows packed their belongings, including cell phones, passport, laptop and a blanket. What I found fascinating and what I had to think through was the fact that within less than an hour, someone realized that they were foreign in the U.S. I was interested in how in that instance, notions of home and belonging had been triggered. This fellow, later argued that the blanket was meant for their flight home. I really found that quite interesting, funny but also telling of what people consider dear to them, both in terms of place and material objects. The other thing that I found interesting and equally telling was the reaction by two other fellows who took it into their hands to ensure that if there was indeed a fire in the building they were to find it and seize it. When I later asked them why they did that, the two said that as African men, they could not run away from a fire as it was their responsibility to put it off. This was quite fascinating as a way of thinking about both Africanness, masculinities and senses of danger. I was deeply touched however by how one of these two was the first person to think about the fellows with disabilities who could not use the elevators and sought ways of evacuating them from the building. We learn everyday. We are forever reminded of our own flaws by the actions of others.
Rule of Law and Judicial Independence (Prof. Wayne Batchis)
In this session Prof. Batchis discussed both the U.S Federal and State government and courts. What I found most useful was the focus on Article III, section I of the U.S Constitution which came about as a result of political and social fragmentation after U.S independence. There were debates about a strong federal judiciary as Batchis told us, which called for a necessary balancing act. Through Article III, Section I, a strong supreme court was set up as well as inferior courts in the various states. As a result, the U.S basically has 51 separate judicial systems owing to the different sets of rules and structures in the many states.
Although this sounds like a system that could work to the advantage of every American, Batchis pointed out some of the implications of such a judicial system. Article III, Section I states: “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during Good behaviour”. This means that judges can only leave office if they ‘misbehave’, otherwise they have a lifetime tenure. Of course this is deeply flawed as it leads to lack of accountability as judges can be on the bench for the remainder of their lives. The judges, Article III continues, “… shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office” meaning that judges’ salaries can not be reduced/cut by neither the Executive nor the Legislature.
In spite of this however, the federal system allows constituents to feel like they are in states that represent their interests especially during judgements on controversial bills like legalising Marijuana and marriage equality. Also, in this talk, Batchis spoke about Federalist Paper No. 78 which discusses the power of judicial review. According to Alexander Hamilton (the author), the Judiciary was the least dangerous branch of all arms of government as it had “no influence over either the sword nor the purse” because as Legislature, congress controlled the money flow and the Executive the military. According to Hamilton therefore the Judiciary “[…]may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgement”.
This was an important lesson in which we could imagine the many possibilities that Judicial Independence presents to citizens despite the many loopholes that certain systems may embody.
Morris Library Tour (Gutierrez and Iheanacho)
In the afternnon we took a guided tour of University of Delaware Morris Library Tour. This was rather exciting (of course with the boring bits of the familiar) and an important component of the academic part of the program. What I found most exciting was of course the fact that as fellows we had access to the library (both as a facility as well as e-resources). My favourite part of this tour was the Multi-media section and Special collections. For a minute there I was reminded of the digital divide and the power of resources. I will make the most of this facility while I am still here.
Thursday, June 26
Delaware Coalition against Domestic Violence (Carol Post)
This session was promising and hopeful on many layers as anti-violence work is wont to be. However, what I found somewhat unsettling was the way in which in speaking about domestic violence we have not moved beyond the politics of the 1970s when the Battered Women’s Movement begins. Granted, women are most affected by intimate partner violence around the world than other population groups. However, I think it is important that even with that knowledge we could be a lot more inclusive of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender populations if we are to comprehensively tackle intimate partner violence. Although the Coalition, Post said, was now working a lot more with (cis)men, I was a little shocked to hear her claim that the one impact that the Coalition has had was that there were less cases of murder of male partners by their female partners. There was something there that I found quite interesting in terms of how Post linked these statistics not with women as victims of violence but as victims-turned-perpetrators.
Although, for obvious reasons, I quite understand that African-American women are more likely to be murdered by intimate partners than White women in the U.S, I could not resist thinking about the Prison industrial complex and the constant image of Black men in U.S prisons over the years as perpetual perpetrators of violence and rarely seen as victims and survivors. Generally, this session was good but like, ecosandals, left me with more questions than answers. Afternoon Session Site visit: Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Wilmington This was a highlight for me especially as a lover of the arts. The exhibits were quite creative and intriguing. I really liked the fact that this Centre sought out community members doing art and worked with them from where they were as well as studio artists in residency. One of my favourite painting pieces was by a barber based in Wilmington. In this piece the artist (shame that I can’t remember their name) had a spitting image of what is now thought of as a Native American with the U.S flag in the background. I found this image quite interesting especially given the politics around citizenship and First (Indigenous) Peoples in the U.S, Canada, AustraliaSouth Africa and elsewhere. Copyright Disclaimer: This image is published hereby with no permission from neither the artist nor the DCCA. Objects and people around the piece have been cropped out for purposes of visibility only. The other piece of art that literally blew my mind was an installation titled ‘Illuminated Structures’ by Scott Kip. This installation, built around concepts of the nature of time is inspired by T.S Eliot’s poem, Burnt Norton (here: http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html). I was intrigued by the notion of time as past and future in the present, the massive installation itself and also the links that I could make between literature and photography (if the present is seen as a camera lens). Friday, June 27 Site Visit: Easter Seals Disability Centre, Newark Our visit to Easter Seals was intense and eye-opening. The welcome was quite warm even though we arrived way past scheduled time. I found the range of services that Easter Seals offers quite elaborate. Of all the services, I was quite interested in their services to caretakers of persons with disabilities. Although we did not get to do a tour of the place and to meet some of the persons they catered for in-house, this visit was another highlight for the week. Two of the fellows (who have physical disabilities) gave short, precise and powerful speeches. I was pushed to think a lot more about integrating matters of disabilities into those of gender and sexuality. This is because I am interested in the way in which persons with disabilities are often infantilized (therefore asexualized) and agendered. In my work on public toilets (in which I incorporate persons with disabilities) I thought it was quite telling that even when bathrooms are gender segregated, ‘disabled’ toilets often tend to be all-gender. Also, because persons with disabilities are so often seen as their disabilities and only their disabilities, in this session, I became a lot more reflective on the layers of meaning in which the body could be read and what that might mean for, say for example, a poor, Black, transgender woman with disability in rural Kenya. Intersectionality is always key! I hope to go back to Easter Seals for a tour though! Afternoon Session Challenges Facing Africa (Prof. Dean Ogunnaike & Kelebogile Setiloane) This session began with the question, “with all the natural resources, why is Africa the way it is?” posed by Prof. Ogunnaike. This was an important question that raised a number of answers ranging from corruption to life-time presidencies. In all these answers, it was quite shocking that historical looting or even the expansion of Capitalist empires did not feature; the reason for Africa’s conditions was solely on poor governance. As one might have expected, the session dwelt on Africa’s poor governance and corruption, which Ogunnaike referred to as ‘a pathological lack of awareness’ amongst African office bearers. I found this understanding of Africa and its future interesting but unnuanced. I felt, as someone who does not intend to be in public office, left out in Ogunnaike’s “future state of government”. Also, the fact that young people in Africa, Ogunnaike seemed to say, were Africa’s future leaders, was quite problematic as this narrative has prevailed for generations and refuses to engage with the complex ways in which Africa’s youth continues to lead in the arts, music, activism and the academy. Prof. Setiloane, unlike Ogunnaike, began with the idea that we need to look for the positive in Africa. For Setiloane, this positive side of Africa was to be found in the philosophy of Ubuntu which she very strongly linked with Nelson Mandela. According to Setiloane, African leadership was so pathetic because it had abandoned the principles of Ubuntu, i.e, it had thrown away what was good in African culture. I found this equally unnuanced as I wondered how Mandela was more African than Jacob Zuma or Yoweri Museveni for example. I wondered if this idea of a lost past could be useful in understanding Africa now as a dynamic ever-changing conglomerate of different peoples that have never been static. In the absence of Ubuntu, what is it that we can do to live in the now and to achieve some form of justice and fairness in our lifetime? Ogunnaike and Setiloane’s talks revolved around the proverb, “No matter how far the river flows, it does not forget its source” and advocated for a going-back that I am not sure is still there patiently waiting for a grand return. I wished more African scholars and public intellectuals outside the continent could engage more with the continent and did not delegate the future to ‘the youth’. These are interesting times in Africa and such times require an effort from all of us at home and abroad whether we yearn for the past or the present.