Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Talking Drums on Apartheid in South Africa

Let's have a feature:

Talking Drums's coverage of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Head on over to read it from the source. As usual, I have some commentary.

Talking Drums may have been billed as the West African news magazine but it covered the entire continent. Indeed there was something about South Africa in almost every issue. And not merely talk of boycotts, sanctions, or ritual denunciations. It reflected African opinions on the matter.

The two issues on which all African states agreed in the eighties were the resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the demand for independence in Namibia. While some states favored opening up dialog, all were in favor of sanctions, and many actively supported the liberation movements even with arms.

(Western Sahara caused rifts - Morocco would leave the OAU over the matter; and most other issues were contested, after all, this was the height of the cold war and great games were playing out. African countries were highly fraught terrain - grass, elephants, pick your metaphors)

On the ground, there was a quite visceral reaction to the continued support of the South African regime by the US, West Germany and the UK (and Israel to some extent). Throughout those years, there was continued and increasing pressure for boycott, sanctions and an end to the apartheid policies of Pretoria

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher's disgraceful legacies speak for themselves, standing as they did on the wrong side of history propping up institutionalised racial discrimination. Not for nothing would Fela immortalize them as Beasts of no Nation when he got out of jail.

True, the die had been cast earlier by Henry Kissinger, but the rebrand of US policy (courtesy of Chester Crocker) as constructive engagement fooled no one. The commentary in the magazine was uniformly scathing.

There were the daily atrocities of apartheid in everyday life and then the lowlights, say the Langa massacre at Uitenhage in 1985. The National Party would undertake cross border raids bombing of its neighbors ostensibly to harrass the African National Congress whose local leaders were mostly in jails.

Cubans would commit troops to the fight in Angola and Mozambique. Cuito Cuanavale (1987-1988) would be the eventual tipping point but the early 80s were a hard slog. Especially since the US was actively involved propping up South Africa.

Bishop Desmond Tutu would receive the Nobel Prize, piling on the international pressure from the moral high ground albeit, some readers urged him to reject the prize. The apartheid regime, however, was long used to being a pariah.

talking drums 1984-11-05 Desmond Tutu Nobel Peace Prize - who is a Ghanaian - Amnesty report on west africa

(The Pope expressed "deep sadness" over South Africa, and who could blame him; the regime was unrepentant and bloody minded)

The efficacy of sanctions was debated at length - some called for military action in its stead. But inaction was intolerable. In the hundreds of references in the archive, I couldn't find any non-commital opinion.

Whenever there are sanctions, there are also attempts to evade them. Cue the Salem, the Liberian registered tanker affair: "scuttling the 214,000 ton Liberian tanker... after embezzling its oil cargo, owned by Shell, and selling it secretly to South Africa for $45 million." South Africa tried everything in this respect in its sanction-avoidance efforts.

But the pressure was felt and applied on many fronts. Campus activism urged divestment and boycotts. Sample headlines: President Abdou Diouf of Senegal was an eloquent advocate of sanctions and embargos, holding western governments to their stated values.
President Abdou Diouf for his part issued an appeal to Western countries to strengthen their economic sanctions against the Pretoria regime. He said, "with the system of apartheid one cannot even speak of violations of human rights, it is a question of their being purely and simply negated. This is the reason that African public opinion is less and less able to understand the passivity of certain Western governments, who are normally so sensitive to human rights' issues, in the face of what has become a real genocide of the black South African people today."
Beyond the grocery store boycotts of produce, there was real teeth to the resistance. The frontline states paid a price but persisted. It is easily to criticize the authoritarian tendencies and domestic policies of Kaunda and Nyerere but on South Africa they actively fought the good fight.

The boycotts of cultural exchange added to the isolation. It wasn't just music and arts, South Africa post-1994 would race to see what they were missing. Sports mattered a lot to the country's psyche. A few countries boycotted the 1984 Olympic games citing South Africa. Generally the boycotts hurt.

(Think of Israel currently facing worldwide opprobrium but proceeding without heed. Would Fifa, UEFA or similar organizations weigh in denying the Israelis their own creature comforts?)

When Thomas Sankara proclaimed Jamahiriyah(!) in Burkina Faso, following Gaddafi's lead, it also came with a pledge "to make 1986 a year of the final attack against apartheid, and of the proclamation of a democratic, free and independent state in South Africa."

Talking Drums would cover it all (even a bloodthirsty Mengistu of Ethiopia taking a break from killing at home to roundly denouce the South Africans when he assumed chairmanship of the OAU!!). The magazine would highlight the ironies and the twists and turns of the liberation struggle.

I compiled 70 or so pieces from the archive for this feature but there's much more. Read for yourself...

Apartheid years, a playlist

For good measures here's a soundtrack for this note.

Some Fela, Dudu Pukwana, Mahotella Queens, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Soweto street jive that was reviewed in the magazine. Five hours of listening. Enjoy...

See previously: Talking Drums

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Writing log: April 25, 2024

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Change of Tune

First comes shame, that old friend, ever reminding of inadequacy
It's never enough, however, for it merely highlights the unspoken
Then comes fear, primal, with its forcing function
Fear prompts action, a movement to self preservation

The moral pivot requires fleetness of execution
The Friday night news dump is a long established tradition
To bury consequential events, bad news and policy shifts
Not everyone can erase history but you can attempt a face lift

For grifters are highly attuned to the attitudes of their marks
Their sixth sense is in identifying a losing play, a bad hand of cards
Almost as if on autopilot, they make course adjustments
The idea is to stay in the game, the shell game that is

Public relation consultants advise a short apology
The content doesn't matter as much as its visibility
After all, you never know, that's the thing about human beliefs
You might still be able to salvage some unearned cash from the deal

For sure, some appreciate a serious expression of contrition
But don't mistake buyer's remorse for actual misdirection
Self-criticism is a bridge too far in the rectification of errors
More preferable is the prompt application of the reverse ferret

chameleon at San Antonio zoo

Chameleon, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)

After observing the NFL owners' Come to Jesus moment in light of the George Floyd protests, my long gestating series on Shell Games gained a very au courant hook. As an example of a course adjustment, it was a clarifying case study. Indeed, the headlines were revelatory

In the same vein, an older more classical take on the malleability of opinion and policy is The Vicar of Bray.


This fit of buyer's remorse is part of the Shell Games suite.

Previous notes considered Shame Cultures, The Skeptic's Credo, and posited A Taxonomy of Useful Idiots.

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Writing log. April 18, 2022

Friday, May 10, 2024

Porch Wedding

The bride still wore white, standing there on the porch
Over the fence, we made sure she got a round of applause
The sole entertainment we'd had in this era of lockdowns
A porch wedding, how thrilling, over there in the backyard

It had been rare, months even, to see so many people gathering
More than fifteen would seem to run counter to the restrictions
In a circle on the porch, paying lip service to social distancing
The pandemic improvised a new kind of destination wedding

Earlier, it was the sound of highlife and afrobeat
  That attracted our attention. Really? How could it be?
First Alhaji K. Frimpong's grooves, then Fela Kuti's
Not what you'd expect to hear on Austin Texas streets

We'd seen something like an advance party the previous day
Must have been a sister or bridesmaid trying to spruce things up
Putting up a few sparkly decorations, some balloons on display
Frankly, however, it seemed that their very presence was enough

In such times, you find out what is truly essential
And love finds its way even during times of turmoil
Life goes on, we all seek some semblance of normalcy
Even when stuck at home, bound together in close proximity

A stripped down affair: bride, groom and a few friends
A zoom feed set up, a live stream for their parents
Touching, the exchange of vows in this intimate setting
Still, a leap of faith, over the fence, this porch wedding

The happy couple happily posed for the sole guest, the photographer
A few speeches, then confetti and, (what's that?) face masks tossed up
As they beamed, we whooped and cheered and filled the air with laughter
"Congratulations. You saved a lot of money. Enjoy your life together"

Porch wedding in a covidious time

Porch Wedding, a playlist

The soundtrack that announced the wedding was what first drove notice. It was rather unexpected to hear the sound of highlife and afrobeat in our backyard. We took a closer look at these neighbors that we hadn't spoken to since they'd moved in six months earlier. Great taste all around. (spotify version) Bonus beats: White wedding by Billy Idol

A covidious home wedding

[Update 2024]

Four years later, they have a one year old. Life goes on.

Porch wedding in a covidious time

(Have been revisiting notes I scribbled during the early days of the pandemic. Lockdown really felt like another world)

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: Concept: May 16, 2020; February 9, 2024

Tuesday, May 07, 2024


Sensualist by avocation
Every touch is significant
Leading, probing, teasing, lingering
Every look weighted with flirtation
Promises of escape and fulfillment
A prelude to restless joy

Paying close attention to the sounds
The sound of names, repeated
Names, again and again
Effortless this mantra
Then a high note punctuates the trance
So good, so good, repetition

Together, surrounded by pleasure
Together, covered by a blanket of soul
Singing softly, we compose a new song
Look, listen, feel, dream
Breathless, the sensations
A momentary taste of paradise
All that remains is the heat

kbaka waterfall

Sensualist, a playlist

A soundrack for this note (spotify version) File under: , , , , , , ,

Writing log. April 16, 2022

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Ebony 1978

Serendipity. I'd been listening to José James's new album, 1978, on repeat all week and came across all the issues of Ebony magazine from that year at the library. Let's take a look at the year through that lens

Ebony 1978, an album
Starting at the middle of the year, June 1978 was the music issue.

Ebony June 1978 hottest of hot groups Chaka Khan Maurice White Bootsy Collins

On the cover, The Hottest of the Hot Groups in all their glory:
  • Rufus & Chaka Khan
  • Maurice White, Earth Wind & Fire
  • Bootsy Collins, Bootsy's Rubber Band
The lead article actually focuses on five of the top groups then making waves

Ebony June 1978 hottest of the hot groups Chaka Khan Maurice White Bootsy Collins

Would have thought The Commodores would be sure to feature, what with Lionel Richie and their origin story (meeting as freshmen at Tuskegee University). Ebony bait if there ever was such a thing. (they do get an inside photo)

Ebony June 1978 hottest of hot groups the commodores lionel richie and company

Bootsy Collins was stretching out the funk with his Rubber Band. They had a great live reputation

Note the assertion in the ad: "Jamaica is more than a beach. It's a country". When you market yourself to black Americans, there's less of an emphasis on Jamaica as bacchanalia.

Ebony June 1978 hottest of hot groups bootsy collins

I note the interesting editorial decision that the body of the text discusses Parliament/Funkadelic and quotes George Clinton extensively, but they doesn't print any photos of them. Methinks P-Funk were too edgy for the straightlaced Johnson publishers.

Maurice White and Earth Wind & Fire were more wholesome and perhaps at their artistic peak. They released The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire during the year. Mics were dropped.

This is Ebony so they only cover mainstream groups - no mention of say Cameo, Ohio Players, Brass Construction, Con Funk Shun, Bar-Kays, War, Mandrill or even Kool & The Gang even though all of them were in the mix in 1978.

The specter of disco is not mentioned here, the focus is on the bands with a reputation for their live shows and instrumentation. Albeit, Donna Summer had her Ebony cover the previous year. In 1978, she was working on Bad Girls. Hot Stuff and all that.

Ebony October 1977 Donna Summer

Earlier in 1978, the January cover was Richard Pryor. Sidenote: the more interesting feature is about "Black women - white men, the 'other' mixed marriage". Loving v. Virginia was only a decade in the past.

ebony january 1978 richard pryor

Hey! Cars of 1978 (disclaimer I now work at a car company so I've started to pay more attention to such things)

ebony january 1978 cars of 1978

One of the pleasures of reading Ebony in those years was just how big the magazine was. The full tactile sensation turning those pages was unmatched. Typical issues were 160 pages, packed with advertisements, the style, the hair products etc. Call it the bourgeois id of black America.

ebony february 1978 what i love about my beautiful black man

Hey a Chevy, now that's more like it

the new chevrolet

March 1978 asked: Who is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time? Muhammad Ali or Jack Johnson? Ali was an evergreen topic for all media outlets throughout his life; any mentions boosted circulation.

ebony march 1978 Muhammad ali

The US Army was a big advertiser (after the final draft in 1972 as the Vietnam war wound down), the black community was heavily recruited by the military. All branches of the military placed enticing ads. (opposite The Pips)

ebony march 1978 army recruiting maybe you can be one of us

March 1978 - readers respond to the Ebony class and style poll

The usual suspects win: Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Count Basie, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte. Black royalty.

ebony march 1978 readers respond to class and style poll

Winners of the style poll: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Richard Pryor, O.J. Simpson, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Billy Dee Williams, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Eartha Kitt and Ben Vereen (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame).

ebony march 1978 style poll

Ebony April 1978 black colleges choose campus queens. Ebony was a society magazine.

Note: the special report on "Detroit - Motor City makes a comeback" seemed a bit premature. How many comebacks has Detroit made?

ebony april 1978 black colleges choose campus queens

Andrew Young had been made UN Ambassador under Jimmy Carter's administration. Great in prestige but still a servant to power. I wonder how say Linda Thomas-Greenfield's reputation will fare after the display of the past year shielding Israeli warmongering.

ebony april 1978 a close encounter with andrew young

Natalie Cole was luminous as ever (May 1978 cover). Not quite sure that the feature about Older women - young men applied to her. Interesting juxtaposition though.

ebony may 1978 natalie cole talks about her career, marriage and child

June 1978 focues on What's Happening!! the teenage comedy that was a big tv success, drawing on Cooley High

ebony june 1978 what's happening teenage comedy is tv success

The fashion fair issue includes a spread: dress up for summer evenings. I can see my mother's flowing robes

ebony june 1978 dressing up for summer evenings

Ebony July 1978 considers the new generation. I do wonder, did they leave a mark?

Ebony July 1978 the new generation

Ebony July 1978 sports a feature on Soul Train, The Outrageous Waack Dancers, Kirt Washington, Tyrone Procter, Cleveland Moses Jr, Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley, and others. The latter two spawned Shalamar

Ebony July 1978 soul train the outrageous waack dansers

Ebony September 1978 again wondered Can old man Ali accomplish the impossible?

Ebony september 1978 can old man ali accomplish the impossible?

Muhammad Ali prepares for the rematch with Leon Spinks to regain his heavyweight title at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Ebony september 1978 can old man ali accomplish the impossible?

Note: Lou Rawls' Budweiser ad was doing numbers

Ebony september 1978 can old man ali accomplish the impossible?

Sidenote the second: the ads for mentol cigarettes and liquor are some of the more inventive

Ebony October 1978. Hollywood - how to survive between gigs. The feast and famine of creative types endures. It's the same old story

Ebony october 1978 hollywood how to survive between gigs

Ebony November 1978 Diana Ross debuts The Wiz (no mention of Michael Jackson who would steal the show). All I remember of her album of that year was the cigarette cover and, I guess, Reach out I'll be there. Nothing else stuck

Ebony november 1978 diana ross the wiz

Finally, Ebony December 1978 asked: is it true what they say about twins? Inquiring minds want to know

Ebony december 1978 is it true what they say about twins

Going back to the first image, Ebony did hit on some touchstones in 1978:
  • Earth, Wind & Fire released their greatest hits album and unleashed September. There were showing off by this stage
  • Chaka Khan released her debut album although she wasn't done with Rufus by any means. She said it all with her anthem: I'm every Woman
  • Bootsy Collins continued to made hay, touring on the strength of Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
  • The Commodores came out with Natural High, Lionel Richie gifted us Three Times a Lady
  • Parliament released Motor-Booty Affair and their live shows were the stuff of legend
I did mention the specter of disco that would decimate the funk bands in short order. Some adapted, but many didn't. e.g. Boogie Wonderland was a success, but James Brown didn't handle the transition. Indeed 1978 was the first time that JB didn't have a response to the music that was in the mix.

Not to be too reflective, but I should note that 1978 would mark a high-water mark for blacks and much of the working class in the US for a generation. They might have been grooving to Good Times by Chic or Y.M.C.A. by The Village People but the Reagan retrenchment was just around the corner. Eyes wide open.

The relative leveling of society and the real economic and civil rights gains would take a back seat. The gains that accrued over the next 40 years were unevenly distributed to say the least. It was Baby Huey's Hard Times or Gil Scott-Heron's Winter in America that ensued. But I digress.

On the brighter side, I had no agenda here other than to soak in those images and read up about those times. You had to be there I guess. Kudos to José James for the revival of music that mattered.

And for good measure, here's a massive playlist - the music of 1978. My own albums of the year were Golden Time of Day by Maze, Cool Ruler by Gregory Isaacs and Social Living by Burning Spear. Your mileage may vary...

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Writing log: April 26, 2024

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Vox Optima

The best minds of my generation devoted to optimizing clicks
With an insight a minute they can overwhelm you with their tweets
It was a shrewd bet after watching the inexorable rise of Wikipedia
To fall in wholesale with the new and emerging commentariat

You might have attended the same schools
   as some of these members of the new media
Roamed the same halls
   studying lessons with the same cosmopolitan professors
Surprisingly, their main takeaway
   was a studied pose of technocratic neutrality
They may appear reasonable and sensible,
   but are handicapped by their incuriosity

Jack of all trades, their concerns are cross cutting
Sad that it seems they've chosen to launder attention
The paradox is that they are often on the right side of things
But choose to squander insight pursuing the wonkish instinct

If you follow their careers closely,
   you'll find the skein of careful punditry
Albeit with fetishized concerns,
   they are ever ready to pronounce reflexively
Sweeping arguments even when it's not their area of expertise
Wars, education, immigration, housing, how hard could it be?

Specialists on policy, whether foreign or domestic
Making claims to insightful views on economics
To opine is an inalienable right to them, if not an obligation
To scratch the surface of the discourse is their avowed inclination

Blind spots in abundance, historical amnesia is their lot
They give a free pass, the benefit of the doubt,
  to patent scoundrels
A repeated assumption of good faith of obvious rogues,
   mea culpas galore
They roam from think thanks, to podcasts and columns,
   it's a revolving door

But is there a there there?
   Does Vox Optima have lasting value?
Is this curious brand of earnest ersatz journalism simply filler?
When you play, as they do, the shell game of the media
One can only fail upwards in this celebrity culture

With their pose of arch seriousness and mask of the anxious
It's hard to locate them in the taxonomy of useful idiots
Some would place them between those who should know better
   and the ignorant
Methinks, though, that they're professionals,
   either opportunists or contrarians

cubist painting at pompidou metz

Vox Optima, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried


After some bright young things who came of age with the web. Middle age looms, you know, might be worth leaving a mark...

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Writing log. April 15, 2022

Friday, April 26, 2024

Ammunition Analysts

Once again, the bean counters are having a field day
Ever since the tanks started rolling across the border
Every bullet, every missile, even if wayward, must be tallied
Every drone, every tank, every bomb matters in this accounting

Overflow flights, satellites pressed into service
High resolution images, surveillance analysis
Logistics is all in reality, feel free to talk strategy
Paying lip service to achievable political objectives

Ammunition analysts expound on dogma and distress
Manpower conservation and combat effectiveness
The fool's paradise of precision munition
The ultimate hubris of force projection

The subtle difference between annihilation
And the term of art, the war of attrition
Distinctions raised between regrouping and retreating
Sustained gains by ground forces and unit cohesion

Summoning tallies of the losses and casualty rates
Execution with poor coordination amidst endless debates
Fuel shortages and the care of the supporting cast
Envelopment of forces along the axis of advance

Armies need to be fed, there's the danger of diffusion of effort
The arrayment of infantry troops and their artillery support
Planning salient offensives and platoon positions
Competing priorities of squads, their bounds of operation

A crying shame, as ever,
   That we have normalized the machinery of death
Even the global pause was only temporary
   Viz the return of this madness
Futility, the marshaling of doctrine
   In service of chimeric victories
For when it comes to blood and sin
   There can only be routs and defeats

Jonas Savimbi angola tank

War, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version) A nice coda with reflective piano is The War of Northern Aggression by Van Hunt but sadly that isn't available on streaming services. Nina does the honors here to close things out, isn't it a pity?

congo military africa report 1966-11-041 mobutu reign


I wrote this piece in 2022, it strikes me as perhaps even more timely today as I check the headlines. Isn't it a pity?

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Writing log: April 3, 2022

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Flash Purposes and Pocket Litter

The documents "are not utilized in themselves"
   Is the official word per the agency,
They are used for flash purposes and pocket litter
Entire identities created out of whole cloth,
   Cover for operatives, the memo emphasizes,
The agents never actually charge credit card purchases

Alias document is the term of art,
   Worthy of the expense and effort
To create fake birth certificates,
   Driver's licenses and so forth
Strict controls are in place,
   They merely corroborate identifying documents
The burden of intelligence services
   Who carry out the dirty work of government

Sufficient audit trail.
   Rest assured, we follow rules and regulations
Believable stories we manage to create,
   The essence of misdirection
In bureaucratic prose
   That elevates deeds from their squalid ground
We lay out a potted history
   Of this organ of the executive branch

In tradecraft and intelligence,
   Forgery is a core competency
Pay no attention to occasional slips,
   We manufacture our own reality
The art of understatement,
   Prima facie law violations
Comes with the territory,
   Essential to underlie the fiction

We may traffic in the dark arts,
   But we are the good shepherds
Take us at our word,
   Our budgets are not unlimited
While technically accurate,
  We prefer not to mention blood and sin,
And always leave unspoken
  The source and extent of our funding

Obfuscation is our daily bread,
   We invented plausible deniability
Dabbling in drugs for creative financing
   And even run banana republics
Come to think of it, it is a singular virtue
   of this delayed disclosure
That it could, in itself,
  Serve as flash purposes and pocket litter

pompidou metz exterior 02

Spy, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)
After reading through the bureaucratic trail spawned by the CIA'S family jewels (pdf), those papers that were deemed so dangerous they were buried in for years. Classified skeletons and sanitized misdeeds, a few short phrases concealing a mountain of crime.

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Writing log. April 15, 2022

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Bound Together

Bound together in blood and sin
An odd couple really, the mother and the leader
Death made the introduction, arranging their first encounter
Shock and loss exchanged small talk with guilt and responsibility
From those awkward beginnings there was a progression
Yet in their meeting of minds there was no consolation
There would remain something tentative about their manner
Even as others would be disconcerted with their ease with each other

Bound together by grief
To lose your daughter out of symbolism
Hatred that branded her as a target of opportunity
A target, disembodied. Acts of war they might dare say
It came to this, she'd been reduced to an abstraction
But from the fury came a leap of imagination
Contra despair came a choice to forgive
Once made, the decision would be all consuming
Not everyone would understand your life's new direction
To seek out the flesh that spilled your own blood

Bound together by guilt
You sent those young men out to do their damage
Two comrades enlisted on an armed footing
Equipped with guns and hand grenades that evening
They acted on your orders and were all too successful
Shots fired, they unleashed carnage on that tavern
Escaped cleanly to live another day, they made their return
The whole country would be shaken by this violent action
In the quiet moments of the aftermath and ensuing years
You steeled yourself with the knowledge of your part
But could never forget the burden of regret they brought back

Bound together, the irony of the journey
That comfort wasn't found with those who pulled the trigger
Their story was uncomplicated, they'd shed blood and murdered
They would confess to the commission, we were following orders
Politically motivated, the liberation struggle, we were foot soldiers
Rather, the connection was with the one who ordered the massacre
Instead of wrath and acrimony, the start of a conversation
Uncanny really, genuine and miraculous this pattern of exchange
Bound together, you started talking, you talk to this day

Bound together by a word, apartheid
Spectral, even now, it taints all it touches
Repressive, it leaves no heart unblemished
Daily horror brought home, mundane, it didn't spare any blushes
And now, in its place, hollows and absences
Death, not as a visitor, but as a live-in companion
Cruelty the midwife and, for the many, poverty
Grief as surrogate delivering the contracted newborn
Swaddling cloths dipped in blood to wrap your emotion
And sleepless nights to attend to your condition

Bound together in shame, it's all too tawdry
Picking up the pieces, rescuing comfort from the act of empathy
To make the best of things, finding the sacred even in ugliness

Bound together, and what of the others?
Those who lost loved ones
Those who still walk off-kilter, with injuries and pain

Bound together even at a remove
Those who put the can of peaches back on the shelf at the grocery
Boycott and sanctions, you see, we have to do our duty

Bound together, those who sang Free Nelson Mandela and advocated actively

Bound together, even those who were quick to claim it was ancient history
That is was time to move on from this unpleasant business

Bound together then, the mother and the leader
Bound together, a narrative of connection that goes beyond religion
Bound together, exploring the boundaries of the human condition
Bound together, seeking to understand motivation
Bound together to bear the costs of forgiveness and love
Bound together, the clarifying role of empathy
Bound together, the hard work of imagination
Bound together, the long journey towards truth and reconciliation
Bound together, we tread the hallowed ground paved by conversation

Khayelitsha container housing

Bound together, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note - returning to South Africa (spotify version) Bonus beats: a live version of Busi's urban zulu track


After reading The Cost of Reconciliation and learning about about Ginn Fourie, her daughter Lindi Fourie, and Letlapa Mphahlele.

See previously: Heidelberg Tavern Massacre


I nominate this note for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of The Rough Beast, which asks: who is writing the script?

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Writing log. Concept: February 26, 2004. April 6, 2022

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Talking Drums

I give you the archive of Talking Drums, the West African news magazine, a window into the continent's life from 1983 to 1986.

Head on over to the site to browse through a few issues and take in a slice of those four years and let me know what you think. As always, I have a few notes...

The Talking Drums Story

We need leaders, We need responsible citizens sufficiently dissatisfied with things as they are and impatient enough to do something about it, intelligently, quietly, wisely. We need critics too, for dissenting is a serious, worthy and honest pursuit.

- Elizabeth Ohene, Ben Mensah, and Kofi Akumanyi in the inaugural issue of Talking Drums (September 12, 1983)
Some forty years ago, three Ghanaian journalists, found themselves in exile in London in the aftermath of the Rawlings-Tsikata coup of December 31, 1981. They had been among the first wave of graduates at the University of Ghana, Legon that had gone on to work the Daily Graphic in the early 70s. Starting at the very ground floor of the paper, they had progressed to become senior editors, bringing the newspaper to the peak of its influence in the country.

The Graphic had put the Limann regime on notice and a vibrant discussion was taking place in the country - it seemed quite clear that democratic change would be coming to the third republic. The coup put an end to the country's fledgling experiment with normalcy and its aftermath was bloody and full of peril. The junta were hell-bent on a "revolution" and for safety, it was flight into exile for them and their families.

They likely expected a return to civilian rule within short order but they also intimately knew the cast of characters involved in the coup. Their worst fears were realized as they saw them do their worst. The PNDC leaders encouraged and visited stochastic violence on Ghana, throwing the country into upheaval with all manner of political and economic turmoil. The murder of the judges probably crystalized things, but even before that awful event, news became scarce about what was going on in Ghana. The search for facts about life in Ghana that was their very lifeblood had been summarily curtailed - and not just for them, but for everyone.

What was also galling was the coverage of African affairs they encountered from without. West Africa magazine parroted the official line and the media of the erstwhile francophone countries were suitably neutered. And the less said about Western media sources the better. The professional stenographers, say Victoria Brittain in the Guardian, were in full flow, reputation laundering and devoted all their newsprint to lauding the mostly military regimes that were running rampant all over the continent.

And so they wrote their way out of things. There were letters to the editor, there were guest columns and such, they pestered every media outlet that they could. Thoroughly dissatisfied as the months turned to a year, they simply decided that there was a space for a news magazine that presented an alternative viewpoint. And so they embarked on the grand experiment that was Talking Drums.

The ambition was to create a formidable newsroom, to summon accurate coverage of a continent in bad need of news. To conjure a comprehensive record in a time when coverage of Africa was minimal at best, and misinformed in the main. Talking Drums would be positioned as a critical antidote for a region in upheaval.

The excuse that African soldiers traditionally give for throwing elected governments out of power is that they are corrupt and innefficient and even though the soldiers themselves regularly turn out to be as corrupt and chaotic as the civilians they have overthrown, the fact that corruption does exist when the guns far first taken usually means that the promises made by the soldiers sound like music to the ears of the tired and oppressed peoples

- Editorial in the inaugural issue of Talking Drums
The editorial line, such as it was, was skeptical and often scathing. The core of the magazine however was old fashioned journalism: the search for facts and for the story. Reporting in Talking Drums was about looking at what those regimes of strongmen actually did, what their policies on the ground were leading to, pointing out the likely consequences in advance, the obvious pitfalls and the waste and avoidable suffering that would inevitably ensue.

It wasn't quite naming and shaming rogues - for that would imply that shame would have an impact, it was the journalistic impulse at work - telling the story, making sense of the often chaotic raw material and outlining the narrative strands and the motivations behind them.

From that core, they were joined by others and built a newsroom reporting from the continent. They added coverage on all the things one would expect, from politics to economics, science, sports, music and arts.

A few months after they started, the Nigerian military, led by Buhari, took over in a coup on 31st December 1983 again curtailing democracy. The need for an alternative viewpoint became even more urgent. Nigeria had been a relative beacon for the continent with a civilian government that had even conducted elections whose outcome was not disputed in the country. Instead, the men in khaki seemed set on putting their stamp on the country as elsewhere.

Musa Ibrahim would join the Talking Drums from Nigeria and, with his pseudonymous column, Whispering Drums, would lead their coverage on Nigeria. Others would join the newsroom in short order and Talking Drums would start to be the an effective outlet for the kind of news they envisioned. And the audience responded to the challenge, the letters page became quite active and they garnered the informed readers they expected. Some readers even became contributors heeding to the mantra was repeated in every issue.
Don't whisper in frustration. Get if off your chest now! Write to Talking Drums.
The archive is now available. Just under 100 issues are there to enable you to find out what this was all about. Let me know what you think or if there any broken links and such. Enjoy.

An Oral History of Talking Drums

I moderated a session with some of the principals a few weeks ago; I encourage you to read the linked transcript. Unfortunately I failed to record the video feed but the words resonate

I'll be following up in Part 2 which will I hope will feature Musa Ibrahim giving his perspective on Whispering Drums with Maigani, his pseudonymous column that covered Nigeria. I also hope to engage with Tina Akumanyi, the widow of the late Kofi Akumanyi, on his inspired column A Touch of Nokoko that was a constant in the life of the magazine.

I expect too that all those that were part of the Talking Drums story will undoubtedly be writing their own pieces - they can't help writing, and I'll be sure to update the web site as they do.

The Newsroom

A brief guide to the features of Talking Drums and some of those who produced it every week out of those amall offices in Madhav House in northwest London.
  • Elizabeth Ohene was Editor of Talking Drums. Previously she had been Editor of the Daily Graphic before the 31st December 1981 forced her into exile. After Talking Drums she would join the BBC African Service. Although mostly responsible for editorials and opinion columns, I can vouch that on some occasions she penned a great amount in other areas of the reporting; "our correspondent" was very busy.
  • A Touch of Nokoko. Kofi Akumanyi's delightful column cast his roving eye on every aspect of life. "The column that pulls your leg" was a good description of what he was going for. It was full of the twists and turns, sharp observations and dancing with the absurd. He was a former Features Editor of the Daily Graphic. Sad to say, he passed away in 2009 of cancer. He was 64. His voice is sorely missed.
  • Ben Mensah was columnist and News Editor of Talking Drums. He was a former News Editor of the Daily Graphic. He covered the nitty-gritty of finance, economics and politics. If you want to know about the trials and tribulations of operating a business in West Africa during this time, you couldn't find a better source.
  • Whispering Drums by Maigani. Musa Ibrahim decided to use a pseudonym for his reporting from Nigeria. On many occasions his weekly insights were the best ways to understand what was going on in the country, the various factions that were making hay out of the country's resources while claiming indiscipline. His witty and acerbic provocations roused the military government who were not used to being so plainly exposed. The feared heads of the National Security Organisation (NSO) and other security men would submit rejoinders to his work, which even provoked a few lawsuits. Suffice to say that he touched a nerve.

  • Science and Technology by Poku Adaa
    Tropical Sciences correspondent filed numerous articles on industry and the ups and downs of development
  • People, Places, Things
    The tidbits or almanac pages were very important to the magazine, compiling a weekly view of the news on a country-by-country basis. In many ways this was the meat of the reporting and many readers would hang on the revealed details.
  • What The Papers Say
    A periodic look at the media on the continent. Oftentimes African newspapers were serving as government mouthpieces but occasionally one could find journalists trying to assert their independence - this would typically be on foreign affairs. Sometimes they even strike a nerve, you can get a sense of why mild mannered The Catholic Standard, of all papers, came to be banned by the PNDC.
  • A Stranger's London
    Billed as watching the natives in their natural habitat, in later issues it was retitled A Stranger's Britain.

  • Sports, Music and Arts.
    Ebo Quansah, Kwabena Asamoah and Staccato were the main correspondents turning in acute reporting on sports, reviews of African music concerts. The cultural scene was quite vibrant many artists were turning in prime performances despite their troubles at home (see Fela for example who would face jail and harrassment from the military regime. For what it's worth there's a Talking Drums playlist, a selection of some of the music reviewed in these pages.
  • Short Stories
    From the beginning the magazine solicited and readers contributed short stories. Some were very well executed including a few fascinating stories from Hassan Ali Ganda. I was surprised by the variety of styles and topics.

    I've long bemoaned that our writers have not really tackled the story of the Rawlings years so color me corrected as I read several short stories covering the judges's murders and Ghana must go. Beyond personal memoirs, it seems the writers were aiming at capturing the essence of the times. And the same goes for the stories from Nigeria and Cameroon, some of the stories were expertly crafted miniatures.
  • Poet's corner
    Starting with the work of a young Lasana M. Sekou and later expanding considerably as readers felt the muse.

The masthead shows a long list of contributors Prompted by the lively letters column, the submissions came in fast. Some correspondents initially just wrote letters but were then compelled or outraged by the content they read and came to submit their opinion pieces. Fondly for example, Anis Haffar and the late John Randall.

Tehtey was a striking correspondent at large. Kodwo Mbir Bullard and Colonel Annor Odjidja provoked debate. J.H. Mensah in exile penned a few pieces as he attempted to marshall the Ghana Democratic Movement from exile.

A like minded soul also stepped up; Kodjo Crobsen published Power to the People, his biting satire of Ghana's history and would contribute the occasional cover and cartoon.

Towards the end, Jo Mini started to send some of his cartoons and others like Andrew Scott Stoker weighed in the weight of the Flight Lieutenant.

And for good measure you can also read a few speeches: Shehu Shagari just before he was ousted, a typically rambling Rawlings, or a waffling Kwesi Botchwey dancing around the IMF and World Bank policies he implemented.

"This weekly magazine which has been on the newstands from September 8, 1983 reports news and events and creates a forum for reasonable discussion of the problems of the West African region which are usually written off with simplistic explanations in western media."

- masthead on the back cover

Covering A Region in Turmoil, The Talking Drums Years

The history books talk of lost decades. The majority of living Africans are under the age of 18 and even those hitting adulthood this year will have known only the 1980s from their parents. Simply stated, the Eighties were a disastrous decade - more disastrous even than the Seventies. The early 80s were the nadir for most countries (modulo Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Congo); suffice to say that the Talking Drums years were trying times. Herewith, then, some notes on these troubled times and a timeline of sorts...

(sidenote: 1989 was the year that saw things begin to turn around in most of Africa but "in 1989 only three countries in Africa could claim to have democratic governments." The major damage was done earlier in the decade)

Of Strongmen in Suits, Military Men in Khaki and Rogues in Flowing Robes

The spectre of coups would lead the way but, before we get onto those army minded people, we can perhaps start with the more refined beasts that were laying waste to the continent.

The archive is full of priceless nuggets - take this one for example:
Gabon - Bongo defends one party system
The sixteenth anniversary of the founding of the Gabonese Democratic Party was marked last Wednesday with a speech by President Omar Bongo in which he once again justified the adoption of the one-party system. The first reason, according to Omar Bongo, was the unfortunate experience with the multiparty system in Gabon from 1960 to 1967 which accentuated tribalism, regionalism and clan division.

The second reason given by President Bongo was that the multiparty system is foreign; it belongs to the whites, therefore it is not adapted to or rather it is in opposition to the realities of African politics...

While I am President of this country, there will be no multiparty system.
He was certainly right about this, and he proceeded to suborn and corrupt even when forced by the donors into an ostensibly multiparty system in the nineties - complete with rigged elections. Omar Bongo died happily in power serving as president for almost 42 years. He was succeeded by his son who was carrying on in much the same vein until a recent palace coup.

The rulers that weren't ostensibly military were nevertheless authoritarian and didn't tolerate dissent. In many countries, there were one-party states or, at best, a simulacrum of democracy. Dissent was thoroughly and vigorously neutered. The Francophone operators were particularly smoooth operators - Houphouët-Boigny and others reigned in a similar manner. Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone saw no reason to divert from this vulture trend perhaps setting the stage for the country's descent in the 90s.

A Company of Coup Makers

Coups are inherently unstable affairs as seizing power often involves the use of force. Even for the more efficient coups, the threat of force comes with the territory. Once in power, one needs to stamp out any signs of dissent lest the unnatural situation one has placed the country in be seen as intolerable. Blood is spilled as a matter of course by the various groups that are jostling for power. An era of coups is full of random and arbitrary violence, oppression of the populace, suppression of dissent, intolerance of criticism and vendettas pursued without restraint.

A priori, coup makers start with conspiracy in mind and their mindset is full of conspiratorial lore; they are prone to plots and the thin-skinned among the cabal are wary of losing their place (and perhaps their life). Falling out among the members of the cabal is not unknown. Violence, then, is pervasive even in the most disciplined of juntas. The coup drill is well known: ban on political parties, dissolution of any pesky institutions or norms, troublesome constitutions, nagging judiciary and so forth. Journalists should be stenographers repeating your latest utterances. If you have an agenda - and some of most prominent in this age thought of themselves as revolutionaries, you are throwing a society into upheaval and should expect resistance.

And threats can be both internal and external. Your opposition may have relocated across the border. To clamp down, you would often resort to border closures. The 80s would be full of such dislocation with the consequent effect on trade and normal migration. Sometimes too, the rulers would resort to expulsions of foreigners, mostly as scapegoats and threats to your country. Saber-ratting with your neighbors was all too common. If you were Sekou Toure of Guinea, your legacy would be your increasingly brutal reaction to a series of plots. Late, unlamented in his passing.

The Ghanaian coup makers, the Rawlings-Tsikata lot, were not scared of blood and indeed welcomed it. To read the pages of Talking Drums is to take in the minutia of their project. Public tribunals dispensing revolutionary justice, soldiers on a rampage delivering arbitrary justice, market women targeted and shaked down, curious ideas about land ownership laws, closure of newspapers and the list goes on. There was resistance albeit with a culture of silence but there was resistance nonetheless. More importantly, the background of violence never really stopped in their first decade of rule, one keeps reading about disappearances, beatings and torture almost every week.

The report on the judges's murders had been released confirming that the new regime were deeply implicated. But the melody lingers on and many other articles covered the continuing atrocities and impunity of the very violent cabal that was determined to cleanse and conquer the country bringing their confused vision of marxist utopia.

Ghana had been living under a curfew since the coup - the curfew was only lifted after two and a half years. (sidenote: the curfew destroyed all nightlife and it has taken decades to recover. Burger-Highlife came into being as musicians went into exile. John Collins has noted that the PNDC's imposition of a luxury goods tax of 160% on musical equipment changed the very instrumentation of that music, enter the Casio keyboard)

Many journalists were detained, including John Kugblenu, Mike Adjei, and Tommy Thompson the proprietor and Managing Director of the Free Press. The former two spent a year in detention without charge.
Reports from Accra indicate that the two are in reasonable health considering the one year ordeal but those who have seen Mike Adjei say that he is half his normal size.
John Kugblenu died just two months after that release. Tommy Thompson was a "guest" of the authorities a number of times And these were the luckier ones... Kankam da Costa, former deputy defence minister in the Limann administration, was only freed after 4 years of detention without charges and then only on medical grounds (read: he too was near death).

Government through mob action then. A typical intervention
Under a new law enacted by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) in Accra, on August 30, offences involving the diversion of petroleum products and drugs will carry the sentence of death by a firing squad.

Diversion of goods, including food items, earmarked for educational institutions, hospitals and the general public will also carry the same sentence.
The May 1985 column on Ghana must go decried the hazardous exodus from Lagos, but noted also on its cover Ghana being carried out on a coffin with the comment "victim of the war declared on the economy by General Acheampong".

Sad as it may be, the PNDC were not the only violent actors. Intercommunal fighting between Mamprusis and Kusasis broke out in Bawku. The army wasn't felt to be neutral and could barely put a lid on the bloody conflict that contines to echo to this day.

Ghana's Catholic Bishops would call for representative government - this was in 1984 when people were still being routinely disappeared. The churches were the sole voluble opposition - indeed the only tolerated civil institution since political parties were banned. (sidenote: the universities were closed down for years at a time when students demonstrated against the regime)

This of course prompted vitriol - Rawlings would have many a foul-mouthed outburst against Bishop Sarpong and others he felt slighted by. There was a lot of "who will rid me of this priest?" rhetoric. Indeed a Catholic priest would be murdered in short order just to let people know what was what. And that was that, our truth and reconciliation committee had their work cut out; a lot of blood was shed on Rawlings' watch.

Thomas Sankara had been installed into power in Upper Volta by Compaoré's unit in August 1983. He would eventually acknowledge the main backers of that effort: Libya and Ghana. It turned out that Rawlings had exported his coup to Upper Volta. Not for nothing, June 4th was declared a public holiday "throughout the country, to enable the people to commemorate with joy this historic event along with the Ghanaian people".

The country was soon renamed to Burkina Faso. Sankara is much feted for personal probity and his drive against corruption and imperialism etc. but a number of the various social changes he tried to impose on the country (Defence Committees And People's Tribunals etc.)were resisted vigorously by civil society. Take his decree on the abolition of individual land ownership. Protests would ensue.

He was also quite capricious, for example sending almost his entire cabinet to work on farms (other than a few, including a name who we first read about, Blaise Compaoré - who would later liquidate him - perhaps he wanted to preempt being banished to the farm on a whim)

In Liberia, the erstwhile Master Sergent and now Doctor Samuel Kanyon Doe was particularly paranoid, finding real and imagined plots all around him. To be a vice president or deputy of some sort under him was to live a tenuous life, precarity would be your closest companion.

As he was prompted by Ronald Reagan and company to make nice, he made it very clear to the rest of the country what would happen if you tried to form a party and run against him. Jail and a beating were the lesser fates for many would-be rivals. Dr Amos Sawyer would repeatedly face arrest and detention.

The poor academic. For good measure, the University of Liberia was closed down following student demonstrations for months on end.

Statements were ominous even when Doe tried to make nice
Meanwhile, the government has announced that Dr Amos Sawyer is not a wanted person and therefore should not be molested by soldiers or security men. According to an Information Ministry release, anyone violating this order will be seriously punished.
He would issue a dire warning against socialists
Dr. Doe said Liberia would never become a breeding ground for socialism. He also warned parents, teachers and students against the evils of a socialist form of government. He said all those with the idea of socialism would not live to tell the story. This is the second same warning against socialism in a week. He said the PRC appreciated the support by students and teachers, but it would never allow anyone to bring misery to Liberians by bringing socialism to the country.

And then there's the case of Nigeria, Shehu Shagari had won a second term and Nigeria was standing out as a beacon in tdhe region on the eve of the Buhari coup. Said coup was calamitous and the military intervention was a traumatic upheaval plunging Nigeria firmly into turmoil. Nigeria's military really put their countrymen through the wringer. Indiscipline was said to be the enemy and so a war was waged. All manner of outrages were visited on the populace: public whippings, beatings. Beyond this vague notion of corruption and indiscipline, the junta didn't really have any grand ideas or program to put forth save the abolition of private universities. They just wanted to be the ones who dispensed the loot in the country

Buhari's so called war against indiscipline was exacting. Retroactive decrees were passed when the judiciary were not being complaisant. More decrees were passed when the once boisterous press wrote questioning articles.

The soldiers were fully unleashed on civil society. Maj-Gen Tunde Idiagbon, Buhari's right hand man, was a particularly bloodthirsty leader
The other day, the Sunday Concord published a very startling story. It quoted authoritative sources as stating that an order had gone out to all police commissioners in Nigeria to arrange the execution of 828 condemned persons on death row within two weeks.

The order for the nationwide executions was said by the paper to have been given by the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters Maj-Gen Tunde Idiagbon just before he left for the funeral of the assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Again, as in Ghana, the military leaders did not have the monopoly of violence. The Maitatsine that had been relatively quiescent broke out into fiercesome rioting. The over-the-top reaction of the soldiers to the religious movement would provoke a disaster in Gombe in 1985. The seeds of Boko Haram were sown in what took place there.

Fela's jail troubles were to be expected. The military rulers would not stand his kind of dissent, even if it came in the form of funky afrobeat.

Eventually a palace coup (long rumored) would take place and Ibrahim Babangida would take over (the Buhari/Idiagbon combination was too toxic and bad for business)

Deliciously there was a night of songs for Idiagbon when he was sent to prison - how the mighty fell
inmates were said to have held a night of songs for the deposed army chief.

The report said that although the prisoners did not rehearse the songs prior to the night, they were able to sing uniformly from their cells, such numbers as "no condition is permanent in this world, he who lives in a glass-house should not throw stones, life is like a boomerang, whatever goes up must come down."

Paul Biya would emerge shaken after a failed coup in Cameroon, evidence of how a coup could be resisted albeit with a big death toll. In surviving, he would never look back but he also didn't resist vindictiveness and the thrall of the security services
Officially, 1,053 people were arrested in connection with the coup plot, 617 were freed immediately, 436 cases were heard by a military court, 46 death sentences were passed, three in absentia, two sentence of life imprisonment, 183 received prison terms of between two and 20 years, another 183 were freed while 22 had their cases referred for further investigation.
He would confidently say a year later that Cameroon was a land of plenty and he has certainly enjoyed plenty of what it has to give - he remains in power to this day.

Suffice to say that military-civilian relations were universally poor throughout the continent. Or if you want a graphical illustration of what was in the zeitgest, here's a word frequency visualization of a region in turmoil.
a region in turmoil

Simply consider the consecutive headline stories one week in Ghana: June 3 1985, Note: this is a full three and a half years after the PNDC came to power
  • 2 majors executed
  • 3 executed for fraud
  • 4 sentenced to death
  • Links with dissident - six to die
  • More death sentences
As a later article would put it Africa was a land of political volcanoes

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Against this political backdrop, nature also worsened things considerably bringing the most dramatic drought in the region in 40 years. 1982 to 1985 were tough years in most parts of Africa. Bush fires all over the Sahel caused crops to be destroyed. Food emergencies would be the order of the day even without governments who were actively sabotaging the basis of their economies in the name of a revolutionary reshaping of their society. The food crisis was pervasive on the continent and at its worst in Ethiopia, famine was rampant as predicted, we saw the callous indifference of the government. As well as the images that roused Band Aid, Live Aid and other charitable relief efforts - Bob Geldof (who would be satirized in these pages)

Structural Adjustment

There was almost too much history in 1980s Africa. Beyond the backdrop of drought and famine, the violence and political turmoil, the economic upheaval was also significant. Some might say that the economic distress did as much violence to Africans. What was pitched and experimented on many countries was later rebranded as "Structural Adjustment with a human face". The implication, then, of what became known as the Washington consensus is that what African countries faced in the 80s was the raw, unvarnished, cold blooded treatment.

Many countries had to negotiate debts incurred in the 70s while dealing with failing crops and political change. A certain amount of hypocrisy govens the dealings of the IMF and World Bank with African states for the former were reliant on authoritarian governments unaccountable to parliaments and willing to run roughshod over their populace's interests.

Many regimes would dictate half baked policies and force through onerous burdens on their countries. the countries that were in distress were often not even really negotiating with the donors - Africans who working in the IMF and World Bank would implore the Finance ministers to come prepared and at least argue for better terms. In many cases, however the countries would simply accept wholesale the trial balloon they were pitched.

Ghana would undergo "the steepest overnight currency devaluation in recorded history". Certainly the steepest devaluation since the IMF's founding was an overnight shock to the system.

Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria would also face similar devaluation and debasing of their economy, opening. True the various regimes didn't help but the human toll was severe. Sample headline that would follow Porter dies in bank queue waiting to withdraw money for two days.

There would be many articles quietly observing the effect of devaluation and deprivation, a kind of inflation calypso in day to day life

After a while, no explanations were asked or given, a little sad and knowing glance, muted tones "how much?...... Five? Okay, I'll see what I can do. Will you take four?. Please make it four and a half".

Transaction concluded. For each figure mentioned, simply add a thousand, Ghanaians had become so embarrassed by the worthlessness of their currency, they do not bother to add things like tens, or hundreds any more, if you ask for the price of something and you are told "five" do not make the mistake and think the price is five cedis; "five" is understood as "five thousand cedis". It is this practice of selling personal goods that has come to be known as "affect".

Greater Africa

The OAU was a dysfunctional mess to say the least. The only point of consensus was on the revulsion against the South African apartheid regime (its dire policies inside the country and the repeated raids into neighbouring Angola, Mozambique and Lesotho) and the anti-colonial struggle in Namibia. Thus, Cuban assistance was welcomed. Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's supportive stances on apartheid and against sanctions were duly savaged by all parties. Pik Botha's visit to London was denounced. The anti-colonial message drew countries together but it was a case of see no evil when neighbors were oppressing their own people - so long as the damage was contained within borders no leader complained

Unanimity was lacking in other areas, the once formidable boycott of Israel was breeched. Liberia would resume relations and then Nigeria's new military rules would collaborate in clandestine ways with the Israelis (the money was too good to pass). Morocco threatened, and then pulled out of the OAU over the Western Sahara issue.

Eyadema, the prince of darkness himself, is the emblem of diplomacy and acts as an elder statesman leading negotiations over Chad
"You also know of the proverb which says that when a wall has no crack, lizards cannot enter through it in the evening. The wall, at the moment, has a crack. What I mean is that the intervention of foreign forces today is a result of the leaders' differences.”
A similarly bloodthirsty Colonel Mengistu who never shied from confrontation was made chairman of the OAU and meant to lead negotiations over the conflicts in Chad and Western Sahara and bring peace those areas.

Colonel Gaddafi had previously been OAU chairman but was not a disinterested party as he was propping up one of the sides in the Chad conflict. The French intervened on the other side.

Gaddafi of course supported the coups in Ghana and Upper Volta and was exporting his Green Book ideology across the continent as he would do until his death. Green Book study groups would meet in many countries.

Guy Penne of France visiting his client states. If Francafrique was not his creation, he worked hard to ensure its smooth running, the circle of patronage and back scratching between Paris and the dicatator's club was complete.

In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni's guerillas were battling with the troops of General Tito Okello, their civil war. By the end of the magazine's run in 1986, Museveni had won. Talking Drums would continue to warn about the traps that lay ahead that military men often fall into. Decades later, Museveni continues to rule - power corrupting the men in khaki as it almost always does.

At the same time, there were signs that the culture of silence in Ghana and Nigeria was cracking - the students had turned against the regimes with big demonstrations against the depredatory IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs that had been imposed; Paa Willie's lecture series at the Danquah institute.

In the foregoing, I have picked out a few obvious threads but there are many others that can be woven in the archive. Beyond the heavy political writing, there is much of note in the cultural realm. Any issue has food for thought, consider reflections on the US invasion of Grenada Operation Urgent Fury, waking up to disaster IRA bombs in Brighton, whether Ghana and Poland were poles apart or correspondents asking whether Desmond Tutu should reject his Nobel Prize or try tracing later names of interest, Abacha, Abiola, Compaoré etc. or say perceptions of AIDS - then viewed as a first world disease. Or read some short stories and columns, there's something for everyone in those pages.

I welcome your own readings.

Creating the Archive

It is fair to say that Talking Drums was a family affair. My first job, as it were, as a teenager was helping my mother and her colleagues label envelopes and stuff magazines in them to mail out our weekly subscriptions. I spent my summers in what passed for a newsroom at Madhav House, soaking in the atmosphere as news developed, taking calls with stringers asking them when they were planning to send their reports, proof reading and editing copy and occasionally helping shape the articles that would be conjured up just before deadline. I always marveled at how the issue would materialize in those few hours before we would go to press.

The magazine punched above its weight, was widely read and influential, albeit run on a shoestring budget. Its biggest impact was in telling an alternate story of Africa for those four years. It kept those others, the West Africa magazines and the Jeune Afriques of the world on their toes. Western pundits that would normally blowviate in the pages of The Guardian, Times or Telegraph would pause before glossing and delivering their bromides - everyone was on notice. The energy of the journalists involved amazed me at the time and I trust you'll find lots to savor as you browse the issues.

talking drums collage politics

The archive, such as it was, had been sitting in my mother's garage, having made its way from London to Accra sought out by researchers almost to no avail. Back in 2011, I scanned the covers as a first step to digitize the magazine when I came across them in our garage. The covers alone told a tale. Occasionally since, I'd scan a few articles to illustrate some point. Then, prompted by the pandemic, I finally decided to help rescue the rest to bring it to the web. For a few hours in the afternoon before I would catch a flight back to my current home in Texas, I simply took photos with my camera of as many pages of the magazines that I could find. I found that to be more expeditious, if less professional, than using a scanner.

My next tool was Google Lens to extract the text from the 2,500 odd images which I then used to manually craft this web site - hand writing the html with a trusty text editor. Blame any errors on my lack of photographic prowess and my poor man's toolchain. Similarly the design aesthetic is by necessity low brow, the writing is what I thought mattered.

talking drums word cloud

Some statistics: I came across 99 issues in my endeavors but, for a few issues, I only seem have photographed a few pages besides the cover. I will try to fill in the rest if possible when I next get to the hard copies. I believe Stanford may have some copies - judging by what is on Google Books. If you manage to find any additional issues, I'd be grateful to add to the collection.

I'll let the search engines archive things and add a search page to augment my poor man's indexing. Do let me know if you spot any cobwebs on the site.

I've started to flesh out a few features to highlight a few interesting topics, the first: we're coming up to the 40th anniversay of the Umaru Dikko affair. I hope to add a few more. This being said, I believe there is grand body of work that deserves a wider audience.

Forty years on, Ben Mensah effortlessly recounted the vision that guided those that created Talking Drums:
We said there was a need for visionary leaders... we said there was a need for an informed public... And there was a need for critics as well. Because the work of dissenting is also a serious business. That came to be our motto.
Words to live by and a manifesto of sorts.

Welcome to Talking Drums.

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