African arts, culture + politics

Aria code


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) The success of novelist Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency has spawned a film, starring Jill Scott; an entire tourism industry in Botswana, where it is set; and even an opera house. The No 1 Ladies Opera House was opened in 2008 in a converted garage, comprising a 60-seat theatre and a cafe. After a brief closure, it reopened last March and has re-established itself as one of the best coffee houses in the capital, Gaborone, according to the Botswana Guardian.
Of course music is high up on the agenda too; as well as training and providing a platform for young Botswanan musical talent, the opera house presents musical evenings, opera, films, exhibitions, even farmers markets.
Under the new direction of Rosalyn Beukes, also director of Gaborone’s Maitisong Theatre, the musical programme for 2012 features Cavalleria Rusticana in April and extracts from The Marriage of Figaro in November.

African arts · culture + politics · London culture

On the buses


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) A mutual love of eavesdropping inspired illustrator Olu Oke and writer Michael O’Kelly to create a graphic short story set on a London bus. Now the duo’s four-page creation, Ding! (above), has been named runner-up in The Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize 2011.

It’s a welcome validation for Oke who has been working in the industry for almost ten years, supplementing her work as a freelance illustrator with part-time jobs as a cinema projectionist and theatre manager. Born Oluyinka Adunola Omoyeni Oke to Nigerian parents in south London, Oke says her family’s background is a major influence on her work. “As an illustrator you tend to draw from life; if someone asks me to draw a large granny, it’s not your ubiquitous Red Riding Hood granny; it’s my granny, who is big, colourful, wears a headscarf, is always feeding you.”

However, these drawings aren’t always received well in the industry, says Oke. “If you, as a black artist, draw black characters, no one will employ you because they think that’s all you can draw. And I was told quite clearly that if I wanted to work I needed to draw white people. It’s good that someone’s that honest but really? Now?”

Oke’s decision to ignore that advice and draw as diversely as she wants has, in the end, made her work stand out. There are plans to release a short edition of Ding! in February, Oke and O’Kelly are working on another four stories – each set on a different form of public transport, and then there are children’s books for Oke to illustrate. The five-year-old Oke, who drew on walls at the family home and precociously declared she would one day be an illustrator, would have been proud.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Word play


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare. Now all the world is taking to the stage as London’s Globe Theatre presents Globe To Globe, an Olympian series featuring all 37 of the bard’s plays staged by 37 international theatre companies in 37 languages. Africa is represented by five productions: The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona by Zimbabwe’s Two Gents Productions, The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba by Lagos’ Renegade Theatre, Venus and Adonis by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble, The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili by Bitter Pill and Theatre Company Kenya, and Cymbeline (right) in Juba Arabic by the South Sudan Theatre Company, the first-ever adaptation of Shakespeare into Juba Arabic. The season runs from April 21 to June 9.

African arts, culture + politics

Kingdom come


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “It’s the continent with the oldest Christian traditions, oldest earth-built buildings, oldest ceramic  traditions – it completely blows you away”. For historian and presenter Gus Casely-Hayford, Africa was the obvious subject for a documentary series. So in 2010 Hayford, whose family is of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean descent, and his team travelled through Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique into South Africa and Zimbabwe, and from Mali down the River Niger into Nigeria. The result of their explorations is Lost Kingdoms Of Africa. The four-part series aired on BBC Four in 2010 and received positive reviews (UK newspaper The Times called it “not only powerful but moving”). It’s now set to be released on DVD for the first time.

The series explores the long-lost kingdom of Nubia, Judeo-Christian influences in Ethiopia, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and fine metalworking in Nigeria and Mali. “I’ve travelled a lot in Africa over some decades but what this offered was a kind of immersion, not just in local traditional practise but also African expertise,” says Casely-Hayford. “I spent most of the time with my eyes on stalks and jumping around in delight!” For the second series of Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, currently being aired on BBC Four, the team document the history of Zulus in South Africa, the royal Asante family of Ghana, as well as Morocco, Asmara and Uganda.

Lost Kingdoms Of Africa DVD [Acorn Media], out February 6.Lost Kingdoms Of Africa book [Bantam Press, £25], out February 16

African arts, culture + politics

One to watch


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Exactly one week after the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, three other inspiring women sat in the picturesque town of Deauville in France nervously waiting to hear if they, too, would be winners. The trio were the Sub-Saharan Africa finalists of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual competition giving much-deserved recognition to socially responsible women entrepreneurs from six world regions – including this year, for the first time, the Middle East and North Africa.

The 2011 winner of the Sub-Saharan Africa category was Lorna Rutto from Kenya, who left her banking job to tackle the mounting problem of plastic waste in Nairobi (“They call the plastic bags our national flowers!”) by turning the discarded material into plastic fence posts. Rutto’s company, EcoPost, now employs 15 permanent staff, while also drawing on the  services of some 300 other workers – including marginalised local women, who buy plastic from street ‘scavengers’ to sell to EcoPost. As well as removing unsightly plastic waste from the landscape – so far, more than 600 metric tonnes – the posts reduce deforestation.  “For every 25 posts we make, we save a fully matured cedar tree,” says Rutto. The economic benefits of buying EcoPost’s new product have not gone unnoticed, either. “Customers love them because they don’t rot,” Rutto explains. “They are resistant to termites; easy to work with, just like timber; and environmentally friendly.”

As one of this year’s six Women’s Initiative Awards winners or ‘Laureates’, Rutto will receive vital publicity, $US20,000 in funding and ongoing business coaching from Cartier and its partners INSEAD and McKinsey & Company. Already, she has been able to refine her business plan, which could see the scheme rolled out across Kenya.

Bikes, Bananas And Business Plans

One of the two runners-up in the Sub-Saharan Africa award category, Lauren Thomas also hails from a banking background – Wall Street to be exact. After moving to Mozambique from the US four years ago, Thomas (together with Rui Mesquita) founded Mozambikes, which sells high-quality, affordable bikes to low-income communities and NGOs in rural Mozambique.

Key to the bikes’ price tag is advertising. By branding the bicycles advertisers can reach low-income consumers in rural communities, while also allowing Mozambikes to sell the bikes at up to six times less than the market value. “The opportunities [the bicycles provide] for income generation and for minimising issues such as absenteeism in schools are huge,” says Thomas.

The Chinese-made bikes, carefully selected to suit Mozambique’s terrain and their intended use, are assembled and customised by Thomas’s experienced staff of six – which includes a member of the Mozambican national cycling team. There are also plans to partner up with a local basket-weaving organisation to make bicycle baskets, and an enterprising Mozambican has approached Thomas with a prototype for a bicycle trailer.

Healthcare boost

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards is a joint project with the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, an annual conference attracting women from business, media, finance and beyond. Many of its key speeches and debates are filmed, giving those unable to attend an opportunity to discover new information and ideas.

This method of sharing knowledge via web-based videos is vital to the second runner-up, Zimbabwean Linda Ravenhill, a former intensive care nurse based in South Africa who founded the ground-breaking VideoLive. The company provides free web-based videos and information to healthcare professionals across sub-Saharan Africa.
Uniquely, its technology can be used on very low bandwidth, with videos designed to play for 20 to 30 minutes without buffering. Web TV and mobile applications are also offered. Besides filming medical conferences, speeches and the latest surgical techniques, VideoLive provides basic healthcare information. “This
is a very rewarding business to be in,” says Ravenhill. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s what you do with it.”

African arts, culture + politics

Ten Minutes With… Vieux Farka Touré


(, January 2012) Words Carinya Sharples  Image credit Zeb Goodell

He’s called the Hendrix of the Sahara and has wowed crowds around the world with his fresh take on the Malian music made famous by his father Ali Farka Touré.

Now, on the eve of an eagerly anticipated UK tour, Vieux Farka Touré tells ARISE about carving his own musical path in his latest album, The Secret; rocking WOMAD and the important legacy of his father in his music.

What can audiences expect from your tour? Or what do you hope to achieve?

It’s been a long time since I have toured in the UK, so I want to reconnect with the public there.  We had a great show with my new rock trio at WOMAD last summer, so I want to keep up that high energy on this tour.  Good energy – there’s nothing more than that when it comes to live music. I feel good about the energy of the rock trio.

On the tour you will play alongside Tim Keiper and Johann Berby, and you have collaborated with BLK JKS. Do you find fresh energy or inspiration playing with musicians of your generation? Or is age not important?

No, age isn’t important to me. If you’re 17 or 71 if you have the right feeling in music there is no problem, we can relate.

For your London concert, UK artist Oli Brown is opening for you. Will any other special guests join you during the tour?

Ahh, I never know what will happen!  I think there will be some special guests playing with us, but I cannot tell you who now

Is it frustrating that the crowds you will play to in the UK will not generally understand the words of your songs? Or is it enough that they will appreciate the music?

For me it’s enough if they get the feeling, feel the energy of the music. No one except the people in Mali understand the words in my music anyways. I’m very used to it. So the music must express the message just as much as the lyrics. It’s a good challenge.

The Secret was called a bold change of direction, mostly because of collaborations with American artists such as Derek Trucks and John Scofield. Was this an attempt to open up your music to new audiences or did you just want to play with them?

I just wanted to do an album where I collaborated with other guitar players so we could have an exchange between African music and Western music.  Derek, John, Dave Matthews – they are all guitarists I really respect and admire, so it was really just fun to experiment and make music with them.

Rolling Stone said these collaborations work because “the players come to his music [i.e. your music], not the other way around”. Did you feel this too? Or did you feel stretched into new musical areas?

Yes, I think in this case we were asking them to come to my style more than the other way around. In most cases we gave the guests the songs very well developed, then they did their part, and we figured out what to add or take away to make the sound its best.

You have said your music is now more mature, more evolved. In what way? Do you feel it’s less rough and unsure than before? That you’re getting closer to making the music you want to?

I think I am moving forward with every new project but I have always made the music that I want to – but what I want changes and gets deeper.

What was the response in Mali to this musical departure?

The people in Mali loved the new album.  When they heard the song with Dave Matthews people could not believe it.

Vieux’s latest music video, All The Same (feat. Dave Matthews)

Are there any artists from Mali or elsewhere in Africa that you’re itching to play or record with?

Yes – hundreds of them! I am very open to play with new people all the time, but I can’t think of one person in particular right now.

Are there any lesser-known Malian artists that you would like to champion? Who are we missing out on?

The son of Toumani Diabaté, Sidiki Diabaté, is a very good young kora player. You should watch out for him!

Femi Kuti was also discouraged by his father to become a musician but earned his respect and pride by pursuing his dream anyway. How important was it to get your father’s blessing to be a musician, before he sadly passed away?

It was enormous. It was everything. To have this blessing meant the entire world to me.

Do you feel your father’s presence or spirit when you play music? How important is his legacy to your music?

Of course I can feel my father though music. His legacy is very important. My style is my style, his style is his style, but of course we are part of the same tradition. I am the next branch on the tree, that is all.

Do you still live in Mali? How does the country influence or affect your music?

Yes I still in Mali and I will always live in Mali.  My music does not exist without Mali, period.  It is my inspiration and my motivation.

What do you think of the title “the Hendrix of the Sahara”?

That is nice if people want to compare me to Hendrix. He was probably the best ever. But I play my style and he played his.

What would you like to do next?

I would like to go cook a steak!… No, but seriously, I am working on the new idea for my next album, but I should keep it a secret for now.

You recently went to the Festival au Desert. How was that?

It was very fun. So many great musicians, everyone happy… Also every year the organisers do a better job.  Soon it will be one of the biggest festivals in the world.

Finally, will you be following the African Nations Cup? Do you think Mali have a good chance?

No no, I do not follow sports really.

Vieux Farka Touré is on tour in France on February 2, 3, 17 and 18, and in the UK from February 5 to 16. Later in the year, from April 3 to May 4, he will be touring the US. For more details visit


A rubbish way to die


(The Pavement, 10 December 2011) Last month The Pavement ran its first advert warning of the dangers of sleeping in bins (pictured). But how widespread is this issue and what is being done to discourage it? We asked Biffa, one of the UK’s leading waste management companies, if this is something they’re aware of and, if so, do they have any records to indicate the scale of the problem?

“It is on our radar,” confirmed Shaun Davis, Biffa’s Group Director of Health & Safety and the Environment. “In terms of statistics we’re quite fortunate because in the last three years we’ve had one accident involving a person in a bin, which resulted in a guy injuring his leg.”

Sadly, over the years, The Pavement has learned of and reported on much more severe, and sometimes fatal, cases. Just last month, two homeless men who were sleeping in a bin in San Antonio, Texas, were accidentally dumped into a waste truck compacter. According to KSAT news, one of the pair, Richard Salinas, managed to escape and raise the alarm but it was too late for the other man trapped inside, who was crushed from the waist down and later died.

In a bid to avoid tragedies such as this, Biffa has implemented a series of “pre-lift” procedures, designed to make sure no one in sleeping inside a bin before it is lifted and tipped into the waste truck. As well as visually checking that no one is in the bin, the bin is rattled once the lifting forks are in position to give anyone inside another opportunity to make themselves known. The trucks are also fitted with cameras, which film the rubbish material as it is tipped into the truck and relay the images back to the cab, giving staff another opportunity to spot a body.

Similar procedures were recommended in People in Commercial Waste Containers, a guidance document issued by the Health and Safety Executive in June 2010. Although not a legal document, it is made clear that “if you adopt the practice and principles described, you should be taking sufficient action to discharge your legal duties, and secure compliance with the law.” Required actions include carrying out a risk assessment of “all of the significant risks relating to the storage and subsequent collection of commercial waste, including the possibility of people gaining entry into bins.”

As well as implemented on-theground procedures, Biffa is keen to make sure its employees are aware of the risks. “We’ve created a DVD called People in Bins, which we rolled across the entire organisation to educate people,” says Mr Davis. “Secondly, as we know we’re coming into that season now which is particularly wet and cold, we run refresher programmes – what we call Toolbox Talks – which are short briefing sessions on the risk of people in bins and the dangers associated… Obviously it’s a risk all year round and particularly a risk in winter when it’s cold and wet, so we’re particularly active at discouraging it then.”

Another step Biffa is currently taking is to introduce a “near miss” reporting programme. “We are looking at actually identifying how many people we think might have been in a bin prior to us lifting it,” explains Mr Davis. “And also when we actually do move it, if anybody is found to be in that bin, making sure that our people report that internally as a near miss because that’s a potential accident – it might have been stopped at that time but we still need to know why.” Under the new scheme, staff will be able to call the Biffa call centre to notify the safety team immediately.

Biffa, like other waste management companies, has also introduced lockable tops and warning stickers on bins, although how effective such stickers are is unclear. The bin slept in by the two men in San Antonio had warning stickers on, and warning stickers were introduced in Brighton long before the death of teacher Scott Williams, who was crushed in a rubbish lorry after falling asleep in an industrial bin. Following that accident, in July 2009, City Clean “upgraded” its warning stickers on large bins and worked with the council’s homeless team to put up posters in hostels and other buildings visited by rough sleepers to warn them of the danger of sleeping in bins.

While Mr Davis sounds a note of caution about raising the issue of sleeping in bins – “people may not have thought of bins being nice and warm and dry and cosy” – he believes educating people is vital, and shouldn’t stop with Biffa. “If you were to lobby the ESA [Environmental Services Authority] then they in turn might get behind a campaign like this and get a number of the other waste organisations behind this. It’s something that I’m particularly keen on promoting and if it came from both sides – from the industry and pressure groups or public groups such as yourself – it could be really worthwhile.”


Unemployed pushed to back of housing queue


(The Pavement, 8 November 2011) Unemployed people will be pushed down the housing register under a new proposal from London’s Westminster Council, introduced to “discourage a benefits culture.”

Under the council’s new housing allocation policy, which will come into force on 30 January 2012, applicants who have been working for more than two years will receive 50 extra ‘points’, moving them closer to gaining a council home.

To qualify, the applicant (be it an individual or the main applicant from a family) must have been working at least 16 hours per week under a written contract for at least two years. Applicants with temporary contracts, meanwhile, must have been employed continuously, with no more than one month’s gap between contracts.

Successful applicants will keep their bonus employment points until they have been re-housed or their application is closed. If they lose their job, the points will not be removed, as long as there is a “realistic prospect of re-employment.”

Those who have been looking for work for more than two years will also receive 50 extra points, as long as they have been “actively engaged” with the council’s Homeless Employment Learning Project, which aims to help those in temporary accommodation into work or further education.

According to Westminster Council’s cabinet member for housing and corporate property, Councillor Jonathan Glanz, “These changes ensure that not only do we prioritise the most vulnerable, including those living in overcrowded properties and those with medical needs, but we also reward those who are doing their best not to be dependent on the state by working or actively seeking work.”

The council is also hoping that the employed people they house will later move out of their council home into private accommodation, leaving their former property available for other people on the housing list.

The plans have met opposition and criticisms from a number of homeless groups and MPs. Alastair Murray, deputy director for Housing Justice, told the Evening Standard that many people would find it difficult to provide the required paperwork, adding: “Quite a lot of homeless people do work but the kind of work they are able to do is quite unstable, so they may not be eligible.”

For Kay Boycott, Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, the real issue is not the allocation of social housing but the amount of it: “Britain’s desperate shortage of social housing makes decisions around how to allocate it incredibly difficult. What we really need is to build more truly affordable homes for families across the country so we do not find ourselves in this difficult position of having to judge who is most worthy of this scarce resource.”

Earlier this year, Councillor Guthrie McKie, Labour’s Housing spokesperson, described the proposal as “very unfair and extremely divisive.” However, Councillor McKie may find scant support higher up in her own party. At the annual Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband declared: “When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t? My answer is ‘no’. Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.”

Additional priority will also be given to applicants who have lived in Westminster continuously for 10 years. While priority is already given to applicants with young children, who are homeless or have special medical needs.

Westminster’s plans are just one example of a wider trend, which is seeing unemployed social housing applicants penalised across the country.

Similar policies have already been introduced or proposed in Manchester, Wandsworth and Newham. While in its recent Housing Allocations Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham stated: “The council is proposing to provide a fixed number of new lettings each year for people who have taken part in specific council-supported programmes to get back into training or employment.”

On a national scale, the minister for housing, Grant Shapps, has pledged to give local authorities the freedom to draw up their own social housing priorities list. In an article for Inside Housing, Shapps wrote: “I believe that many councils will use their new powers to reward and acknowledge those actively working and contributing to their local area, as Westminster and others have done. And rightly so.”

Shapps insisted that “we will retain the ╘reasonable preference’ criteria, establishing proper priority for those in greatest need”, however the vulnerable are not immune from the shifts in policy. Under the new Localism Bill, homeless applicants would be forced to accept offers of “suitable private accommodation” – or face a penalty. This shift, it is explained in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (CLG) Localism Bill Impact Assessment will allow local authorities to “discharge the duty they owe to homeless households.”

If passed, the law would also allow local authorities to operate closed waiting lists, removing the right for anyone (without restriction) to apply for social housing. According to the CLG’s impact assessment, “Under this option, the rules determining which categories of applicants qualify to be considered for social housing would be decided at the local level,” although “the rules determining which applicants receive priority for social housing would continue to be set centrally via the statutory ╘reasonable preference’ categories.”

Shelter issued a briefing for the second reading of the bill, in which it expressed concern over the “undermining” of the legal duty to homeless people: “The proposed changes sever the link between homelessness and recognising the need for a settled home by allowing councils to discharge homeless households into the insecure PRS [Private Rented Sector] rather than find them a settled homeâ•” there is a distinct lack of good quality housing at the bottom end of the PRS market meaning that many of the most vulnerable households will be placed in unsuitable accommodation.”

Another proposal Shelter has requested to be removed from the bill is the removing of tenancy lease security, which would allow councils to reassess tenants after a minimum of two years and evict them if they no longer met the criteria, in terms of for example income and benefits.

The Localism Bill is to have its third reading in the House of Lords on 31 October.

African arts, culture + politics

Wonder women


(, October 2011) Pictured Winner of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award for sub-Saharan Africa, Lorna Rutto, with Jury member Nigest Haile, founder and executive director of the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment

Words Carinya Sharples

Gatherings of influential women are increasingly common in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold the majority of parliamentary seats. But for participants of the 2011 Women’s Forum, the occasion was an all-to-rare treat.

The Women’s Forum is an annual assembly of inspiring, influential and innovative women from around the world. Over three days, 1,250 delegates from 80 countries participated in workshops, debates and discussions on everything from tweeting to social entrepreneurship.

ARISE went to the event in Deauville, France, to meet the nominees for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. This was the fifth year Cartier has held the prestigious awards, which recognise and support “audacious and promising women entrepreneurs from all over the world”.

The winner of the Cartier Women’s Intiative Award 2011 for Sub-Saharan Africa was Lorna Rutto from EcoPost in Kenya. EcoPost tackles waste and deforestation by collecting the plastic waste that litters the Kenyan landscape and recycling it to make durable, affordable fence posts.

Receiving her award from a tearful Wendy Luhabe, the South African author and winner of 50 Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, an equally tearful Rutto called the recognitition “a great opportunity for men and hundreds of women in Kenya”, referring to the women she hires the services of to collect the plastic.

The two runners-up from sub-Saharan African were Linda Ravenhill, founder of VideoLive – a low bandwidth online education tool, which gives healthcare workers across Africa up-to-date information, training and news – and Lauren Thomas, whose company Mozambikes sells affordable, quality, branded bicycles in Mozambique.

Outside of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, the programme was no less inspiring. Highlights of the Women’s Forum, for example, included the debate Will the Arab uprisings truly become Arab springs? The knowledgeable panel included human rights activist and former Minister of State for Family and Population of Egypt Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, the executive editor of the International Herald Tribute Alison Smale and Tunisian cyberactivist Amira Yahyaoui. Watch the full debate, including the remarkable call to arms speech by human rights lawyer and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, below:

As well as keynote speeches and debates, the Women’s Forum programme included smaller discussions and workshops, which took place in the more informal Discovery Hall. Here delegates networked over coffee and champagne and took advantage of sessions such as Becoming a 21st Century Leader and What if we all stood up for African mothers?

In one eye-opening debate on violence against women, Vice-President of the Italian Senate Emma Bonino declared “women’s rights have no borders”, and while many at the Women’s Forum recognised the different needs and battles of women in every country, there was a  united sense throughout that women’s rights can and must be universal.

For more information, videos and inspiration visit and

Look out for ARISE’s full report on the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and the Women’s Forum, including interviews with the three nominees from sub-Saharan Africa, in the next issue of ARISE magazine – out later this year.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Senegal in London: Sabar Dance Classes


(Visit London, 10 October 2011) Senegalese director and choreographer Diene Sagna moved to the UK four years ago to run his own dance company, Yaye Dib Sabar. He also holds sabar dance classes in London:

“Sabar is the drum, and also the dance – they go together. Of all the dances in the world that I know, it’s only sabar where you have to be in the air all of the time! You have to be light but also energetic and powerful. In the past it used to be just women who danced but now men are dancing sabar too.

“I’ve been dancing for a long time. When I was six years old I won a competition and after that, even though I was also going to school, dancing was my focus. When I was 17 I started to work professionally, going to Europe and working with big artists. I’ve worked with Youssou N’Dour, dancing on his video for 4444. I’ve also toured and performed with [bestselling Senegalese singer] Coumba Gawlo Seck.

“There are a lot of different African dance classes in London. They used to be mainly from Ghana or Nigeria, but now I can see the interest in Senegalese dance is increasing. It’s hard to make African dance respected in Europe – people think it’s just for fun. You can find contemporary and hip hop dance in the big theatres, but not this West African dance. I want to bring it onto the stage, that’s my fight.

“In London this June we held the first Yaye Dib Sabar International event, a weekend of Afro-dance workshops called Jump for Joy! We will be holding this every year in memory of my mum (who died in 2009) as a way of celebrating not only her life but also West African culture and in particular Sabar dance and drumming.

“I invite all students, from London and the UK as well as Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium where I do workshops every year. I also organise an annual two-week dance training holiday in Dakar, Senegal, called Kaye Fecc, meaning Come Dance. The next one will be from 23 January to 4 February 2012.

“When my students see sabar they say it’s powerful, fast, fun and energetic also. But some people also say sabar is harder because they cannot understand the timing, the breaks. People also say sabar is the most difficult West African dance because it’s changing every week in Senegal. If I stay in UK for two years without going to Senegal I’m going to be lost! That’s why I go every year and spend two or three months there, finding out what’s new.”

The next Yaye Dib Sabar dance and drumming class in London is on Sunday 23 October 2011 at Studio 68 dance studio. More information


Homeless people victims of slave trade


(The Pavement, 6 October 2011) Following the rescue of 24 “slaves” from a traveller’s site in Bedfordshire, it has emerged homeless people are being abused as slave labour.

The dramatic police raid at the site has received huge national and international coverage, as details of the conditions in which the men were held emerge. Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neil, from the Bedforshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, said: “The men we found at the site were in a poor state of physical health and the conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped. We believe that some of them had been living and working there in a state of virtual slavery, some for just a few weeks and other for up to 15 years.”

Although Bedfordshire Police were unable to confirm this to The Pavement, the Guardian has reported that those found were “all vulnerable men who had been recruited from homeless shelters and dole queues”. They ranged from 17 to 30 and include ten British men, three Polish men, two Romanian men, a Latvian man and a Lithuanian man. Of the 24, nine chose not to assist the police and left the medical reception centre where they were initially taken. The police have been working with the UK Human Trafficking Centre on the operation, which is according to a report in the Times is suspected to be part of a wider slavery chain holding up to 100 captives. Although in a statement from Bedfordshire Police, Detective Chief Inspector O’Neil said: “I am confident that while the investigation is in its early stages this is a family run ‘business’ and is an organised crime group that has been broken up by the Netwing operation.”

Following the raid at Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, four men and one woman were arrested using new legislation under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010. The men – James Connor, 23, Tommy Connor, 26, Patrick Connor, 19 and James Connor, 33 – appeared at Luton Magistrates Court and have been remanded in custody to appear at Luton Crown Court on the provisional date of 5 December 2011. The fifth defendant, Josie Connors, 30, was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit offences of holding people in servitude, plus two counts of requiring people to perform forced labour, appeared in court on 22 September.

For many homeless charities, although the accusations are appalling, they are not a surprise. Thames Reach spokesman Mike Nicholas said, “We’ve been concerned for a number of months now that unscrupulous gangs are targeting homeless people. We’ve been made aware of cases where people from these gangs have approached people where homeless people gather, like soup runs or day centres.”

In total, Thames Reach has been approached by 22 people who’ve run away from the gangs, and received reports from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton, Dover and Luton. “Many were trafficked across from Central and Eastern Europe with offers of jobs and accommodation,” explains Mr Nicholas, “and then when they got here these jobs failed to materialise and often people were subject to physical assault, maybe had to take credit cards or bank accounts out in their names, or were forced to work in factories. We were aware of people being shipped every day from a property in the Midlands to a bakery in Luton.”

In response, Thames Reach put out a warning to other homeless organisations and projects last March. In terms of helping the victims themselves, Mr Nicholas outlined a few possible avenues: “We could help put them in touch with the police if they had been victims of these gangs… Some of them are very fearful and don’t want to talk about their experiences and they’re worried about repercussions and so we’ve been helping some of those people go home. Other people are currently here in safe houses and there are police investigations taking place.”

For Jad Adams, Chair of Croydon Nightwatch, the practice goes back much further: “Around three years ago we were getting a number of people who were coming to our soup run in Central Croydon and trying to recruit people. We challenged them and asked what they were doing and they were evasive. One of our team also followed them and took the numbers of their vehicles.”

Croydon Council also stepped in to help, collating the information to pass to the police, while the soup run’s volunteers began issuing leaflets in English and Polish. “Even if the clients themselves aren’t particularly concerned,” said Mr Adams, “the gang leaders are savvy and they know that we’re on to them.” Since then the Croydon Nightwatch hasn’t seen any more such recruiters.

So what was the advice in their leaflet? “It was to be aware,” explained Mr Adams, “but also to know exactly what the work is, what the rates of pay are and where you are going to be working. And never give away your passport or identity documents.”

This need for awareness has been echoed by many, including Mike McCall, St Mungo’s Executive Director of Operations, who said: “These reports are very concerning. Rough sleepers are some of society’s most vulnerable people. We need to be ever watchful that they aren’t being exploited.”

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Nigeria’s No 1 Samba School


(, October 2011) Pictured Seyi Ajeigbe, founder of Eko Samba School in Lagos, with his growing bateria

Words Carinya Sharples

It’s the national music and dance of Brazil, yet the roots of samba stretch back to Africa – from the semba rhythms of Angola to the Yoruban agogô bell. Now one musician is completing the circle by setting up Nigeria’s first samba school.

Seyi Ajeigbe moved to the UK from Nigeria ten years ago and it was in London that he discovered and learnt to play samba. “I was amazed and dazed at the same time,” he remembers. “I had never seen anything like it … the energy was so gripping I had to get involved immediately”.

After performing with many groups – from the London School of Samba to samba reggae band Eri Okan – Ajeigbe decided to share his expertise with young children in his home city, Lagos.

Through his new project, Eko Samba School (named after the traditional Yoruba name for Lagos), Ajeigbe aims to teach samba to kids in disadvantaged communities in the Nigerian city. “The children just love being able to play drums, a lot of them would love to but haven’t got access to anything like it,” says Ajeigbe. “Samba for them is something they’ve never heard of, but they are willing to learn something new, they truly enjoy it and I think it makes them feel like they’re part of an international community.”

On the ground, setting up Eko Samba School has had its obstacles. “We’ve had a lot of difficulties getting any support or recognition from within Lagos itself,” says Ajeigbe. “We couldn’t get into the Lagos carnival… it was also impossble to get an audience at the Brazilian Embassy. No one really knew or understood what we were trying to do except us”. However, he adds, the music has made it all worth it. “The best part so far has been the music itself. It brings a lot of satisfaction to hear the samba swing in the middle of a slum in Lagos, it’s as if the souls of those slaves taken via Lagos to Brazil are returning.”

After returning to Nigeria earlier this year to set up the school, Ajeigbe is back in London to raise capital for the project – to buy much needed resources and instruments. A night of live music will be held on October 30 at East London music venue Cargo to kickstart fundraising. Ajeigbe will perform at the one-off event with his band Agemo, alongside Maracatudo Mafua and a special samba bateria.

For more information on the Eko Samba School fundraiser on October 30 and details on how you can donate to the fund visit


The future of soup


(The Pavement, 16 September 2011)  It’s been branded illegal by human rights group Liberty, but Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw banning soup runs around Westminster Cathedral Piazza has still not been withdrawn.

Soup run representatives agreed to move out of the area to avoid the ban, but despite this the council has not ruled out enforcing the byelaw.

Furthermore, having moved away from Westminster Cathedral Piazza, soup runs are facing fresh complaints from local residents and businesses in their new locations.

Liberty highlighted the illegality of the byelaw with a high-profile stunt, in which it delivered letters to Westminster City councillors, urging them to rethink, in a giant can labelled ‘Cream of Conscience Soup.’

In its letter, Liberty said the plans were unlawful on a number of human rights and common law grounds. It also quoted lawyers from London chambers 11KBW as describing the proposed byelaw as “over-broad and draconian, criminalising lawful and benign conduct which… is entirely unconnected with any legitimate aim which Westminster claims to pursue.”

The lawyers, it is reported, go on to ask: “Is it genuinely the case that a mother who gives her child milk while travelling home [..] is to be criminalised? That a diabetic cannot be given a piece of chocolate? Or that two students sharing a soft drink [..] should be subject to arrest and criminal fine?”

The human rights group also drew attention to fellow organisations against the campaign, including Housing Justice, Church Action on Poverty and the British Medical Association. While in a further letter to Alastair Reeves from Westminster City Council, Liberty’s policy officer Sophie Farthing declared the human rights group would “consider seeking redress in the courts” if the byelaw was passed.

Soup run organisers operating around the Westminster Cathedral Piazza were made aware of the decision to move out of the area through the recent Cathedral Soup Month awareness campaign and on-the-ground promotion by Housing Justice, The Passage and other groups and individuals.

In response, as The Pavement’s listings demonstrate, a number of soup runs have relocated and others, , including Harlow Chocolate Run and Winchmore Hill Quakers, are taking a break until further notice, The Pavement has been advised.

Coptic City Mission, Missionaries of Charity and Street Souls all moved to Brewers Green, while Sacred Heart relocated to Tothill Street. However, some groups have had to uproot once again after residents, owners and staff of luxury flats on Brewers Green issued complaints. Housing Justice has also been contacted by concerned residents around Tothill Street.

“The council didn’t inform residents who live around Tothill Street that the soup runs were going to move there, which residents were quite upset about,” explains Housing Justice Soup Run Forum Support Worker Ellie Schling. “They’d had problems with people sleeping in their doorways, so they were worried that the soup runs being on Tothill Street would increase that and they wondered why the council didn’t talk to them about it.” So far there have been no specific complaints about increased rough sleeping in the area.

All the upheaval has also provoked confusion around where the soup runs are taking place, as readers in the Victoria area will no doubt have found. “People are frustrated,” continues Ms Schling. “They feel like it’s almost as bad as the ban, having to move every two weeks. I think people in Victoria are missing out on food, there’s less food available, there’s a lot of confusion but hopefully it will settle down.”

Chief Executive of Street Souls David Coombe has also noticed frustration and confusion among soup run users. Street Souls recently moved to Brewers Green – away from its previous site on Ashley Place, adjacent to Westminster Cathedral – but was forced to leave away just one week following reports of complaints from residents. Street Souls’ soup run now operates from Christchurch Gardens, a non-residential spot, surrounded by offices. The first run in the new location proved a success, says Mr Coombe: “The problem was getting the word around. But we had quite a big team come out and what we did on the way up was drive around where we used to distribute food… We found probably 30 people on Brewers Green, about 10 at our old place – Ashley Gardens, and around 20 in Tothill Street.” Street Souls plan to continue their twice-monthly distributions at Christchurch Gardens – unless a better offer comes up. “If an indoor service became available in Central Victoria we’d certainly favourably consider it,” says Mr Coombe, “but we will not move out of the Central Victoria area. We’re being pressured to do that – even by The Passage – but we’re not going to do it.”

Until a new routine is established, the advice is to keep an eye on the Housing Justice website and The List. Westminster City Council’s aim is to engage people with “building-based services”; however, turning outdoor soup runs into indoor soup kitchens is not so simple. The problem is not lack of interest, as demonstrated by a recent questionnaire carried out by Miranda Keast, from The Passage, Ms Schling and Christian Morgenstern, from Imperial College Community Action Group (CAG). The survey found that 64 per cent of respondents would prefer indoor services if available, 28 per cent did not mind and eight per cent preferred outdoor services, some because it meant they could bring their pet. The real problem is lack of provision.

Although Westminster City Council frequently cites its three build-based services – The Passage, St Mungo’s and Connection at St Martin’s – these don’t constitute a suitable or even potential space for soup runs to move into. The only option at present seems to be King George’s, an already small space where several runs have now relocated. With no assistance from Westminster City Council on finding suitable indoor venues, Housing Justice has taken on the task of calling churches and hostels in a bid to find more space. “The council hasn’t helped at all, hasn’t come up with anywhere for us to go, which is a problem,” said Ms Schling. “We could really, really use more indoor places.” Westminster Council is however still meeting with the small group of soup run representatives, made up of residents groups, hostel representatives, police, members of the Soup Run Forum and Westminster Council’s manager of Rough Sleeping and Street Activity Janet Haddington. The meetings are chaired by Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain, who has recently been out visiting soup runs in Victoria. “I have seen two soup runs in action myself tonight,” he reported recently on his blog, “and I’m told by those who have gathered that another two are expected… The sheer drama of the scene and its compelling actors is seductive. But this is the summer of 2011 and I have witnessed the mass feeding of the poor on the streets of central London. There has to be a better way. ” How long the multi-party meetings will continue for is unclear, although a spokesman for Westminster City Council said that the group is to report back in another couple of weeks and suggested the council may be able to say about the situation then.

Ms Schling from Housing Justice believes that although there are still reasons for them not to pass the byelaw, the council don’t want to withdraw the threat of the byelaw because that means it can still be held over their heads. Also, she adds, “I don’t think the residents of the Cathedral area are satisfied because there are still homeless people sleeping in the Cathedral Piazza and hanging around McDonalds.”

Cllr Daniel Astaire, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for Adult Services and Health, gave The Pavement his update of the situation: “There have been productive discussions between providers, the council, charities, residents and other interest groups, chaired by Thames Reach, to find the best way to address the over provision of soup runs in this particular area of Westminster.

“Indoor provision of food is one way to help rough sleepers and great strides have been made towards increasing such this provision, with a number of organisations already making space available. We would also urge voluntary groups and local authorities across London and the UK to work together to tackle rough sleeping. In some cases we know that people have been told to travel into Victoria from outside London to wait for food. This is not a dignified way to treat people, especially when their best hope of finding somewhere to live lies in their local connections.

“The byelaw remains a last resort, we would much rather find other solutions. And whilst taking provision indoors, where people can also access other forms of help, is a positive step forward it is by no means the complete solution to tackling the difficulties faced by vulnerable people and rough sleepers. We are encouraged by the work done to date, but are under no illusions that more still needs to be done.”

Meanwhile Camden Council has shown signs of joining neighbouring Westminster Council’s drive to bring soup runs under local authority control. In a letter to Mr Morgenstern, Camden Council’s Community Presence Manager Guy Arnold highlights “ongoing community safety concerns with regard to the provision of free food in public spaces, including Lincoln’s Inn Field” – despite, as pointed out in Mr Morgenstern’s reply, the CAG soup run taking place in a non-residential area within Westminster.

As well as muting the idea of CAG moving into a building, Mr Arnold offers a deal: “If, for example you were to consider ceasing to provide actual soup runs and instead offering homeless people practical help in different ways then I would be able to assist in bringing about this change… There are for example many useful voluntary roles including providing escorts to assist those who decide rebuild their lives in their home area and I believe that your organisation could make a valuable contribution to this work.”

London culture

Ecuador in London: Fashion Designer Soraya Fernandez


(Visit London, 6 September 2011) Soraya Fernandez is a fashion designer inspired by the colourful cultural art of her home country, Ecuador. She lives and works in London, creating unique designs for her own fashion label, Soraya Fernandez DF.

Why did you leave Ecuador for London?

I love London, it is a city that always hypnotised me. I came to live in London more than one year ago because I feel it is one of those perfect places to experience a new life and is ideal for me to develop my profession – there are many opportunities.  I always search for a historical aspect to the places where I walk, and find a lot of inspiration.

Is there an Ecuadorian community in London?

Yes, there is a very large Ecuadorian community in London. I am more connected to communities based in South East London, where I live. I am involved with a group known as Nueva Generacion, which is a workshop for Latin American people who raise awareness of social issues, stimulating change and promoting our culture.

Do you know of any Ecuadorian places to visit in London?

Around Elephant and Castle there are some very good restaurants and shops specialising in Ecuadorian food. On the weekend at La Tienda Latina in the shopping centre you can taste typical food. And there are some very good live bands on the weekend at Costa Azul restaurant and Parrilladas del Sur on Old Kent Road.

How would you describe your designs? Are influenced by Ecuador?

My designs are a reflection of my vision of the Andean world view. In Ecuador we have many ethnic groups which provide a colourful magic and allegory in their traditional costumes and handicrafts.

I like that people are not dressed for reasons of fashion or trend – clothing is something that identifies each individual. So I don’t repeat my designs, they are each unique.

How can people buy your clothes?

I sell my work online and to individual customers. My work includes designing and making tailored suits, cocktail dresses, wedding dresses, luxury dresses – all to suit an individual style and made with the highest quality.

What do you hope to do next?

I’m currently working on the release of my autumn/winter collection for stores that sell work of independent fashion designers in London. I’m also working on a project called Almas del Cuarto Oscuro (Souls of the Darkroom) with Fotosynthesis,  which is a community project founded by a group of photographers.

Where else can you find Ecuadorian culture in London? Tell us in the comments below.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Ten minutes with… Mayra Andrade


(, July 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

Her rich, earthy voice and beautiful lyrics have captivated fans across Africa, Paris, London and beyond. On the eve of her first performance at London’s legendary jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s, we spoke to Cape Verdean singer-songwriter Mayra Andrade about her freedom fighter father, living a nomadic lifestyle and singing The Beatles.

Did you already know about Ronnie Scott’s before coming to London?

To be honest not really but everyone around me knew about this place… For example my boyfriend’s dream, when he was a child, was to go and see a show in Ronnie Scott’s! So I’m happy because I understood how important this place is.

Will you be performing songs by other artists too?

Yes, Michelle from The Beatles – I recorded it on my last CD – La Javanaise, Serge Gainsbourg, a song from [Brazilian singer-songwriter] Caetano Veloso, and other Cape Verdean composers. I also have my own songs but I’m composing for my new album [out in 2012] so I’m not playing any of the songs yet.

You’re very connected to your roots in Cape Verde.  Now you live in Paris, how do you find life there?

I arrived in Paris when I was 17 so I’m very connected to that city – Paris saw me becoming a woman and growing and making my career. But you know, I’m very nomadic. I’ve lived in five different countries [Andrade was born in Cuba and raised in Cape Verde, Senegal, Angola and Germany]. I’ve never stopped more than six years in a country and I’ve been in Paris for nine years so I’m already looking for the next place. [ARISE: Where might that be?] I’ll tell you when it’s decided! I have my little ideas…

In your songs, you often mention freedom fighters from Cape Verde’s history.

Yes, my father is one of them you know. He went to Guinea Bissau when he was 15 years old because Cape Verde and Guinea fought for independence together. So I’m very concerned about this – recognising what these people did for us.

Is the connection still strong between Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde?

No because it’s also political. We had the PAEGC, which was the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde. When the two countries got independence they didn’t agree with what they wanted to do or how to move on so they split and the Cape Verdeans did their own politics and so on. The situation in Guinea is quite complicated.

Do Cape Verdeans think of themselves as from Cape Verde or Africa?

You have these two sides. I consider myself as an African woman – I don’t have any doubt about this, because Africa is so many things together. We are a mixed country, because when the Portuguese arrived nobody lived there… But some Cape Verdeans like to say ‘no, I’m not African. I’m Cape Verdean, because we are too mixed to say that we are African’. So I say, ‘OK, are you European?’ ‘No, not exactly’. ‘But you try to be, right?’ ‘No I’m Cape Verdean’.

We are ten very, very small islands – separated just by ourselves. So it’s not only a racial aspect it’s also a geographic thing. In Africa you can walk and go all over Africa, in Cape Verde you can’t. It’s a particular mentality – but a good one. We are very open to people and friendly. I love to be with people when they are going to Cape Verde for the first time because I’m like, ‘Oh I know, I know! I know it’s wonderful. I know every woman is beautiful here. I know they all say welcome to my home’. I feel proud.

You’ve collaborated with many African artists, including Angélique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and Asa. How did that happen?

I met Angélique about nine years ago; I was opening for her. Since then we’ve met so many times in so many festivals and we’ve sung together – she invited me and other African singers to join the last song of her show.

I met Asa when she spent two months in Paris four or five years ago. I was preparing my first CD – I already signed with Sony – and was invited to a conference to talk about my culture with other guests. Asa just came to sing two or three songs at the end and I was like, ‘Introduce me to her, I want to meet her!’ and then we became friends. I tried a little bit to present her demos to the labels but they didn’t pay attention. But when she came out with [French music label] Naïve, I called that guy and was like ‘you see!’ And then she invited me to sing in a show, which is on her live DVD, with Yael Naïm.

Are there any new, Cape Verdean singers you would recommend?

Yes, Sara Tavares; Carmen Souza, a Cape Verdean singer here [in London]; Tcheka, Tito Paris, who is not so known unfortunately… There are so many.

Mayra Andrade is performing tonight at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, before heading to Festival Nuits du Sud in France (July 21) and Luanda Jazz Festival in Angola (July 30)

African arts, culture + politics

New build


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Still buzzing from the reactions to their award-winning  documentary about Ethiopia’s coffee industry, Black Gold, brothers Nick and Marc Francis explore equally hot waters in When China Met Africa. The film explores Chinese investment in Africa and was filmed in Zambia. It captures the difficult, often uneasy, relationship between Chinese project managers and African employees. But Nick says this is not exclusive to Africa: “You could be on a construction site in Beijing and the way workers are treated there isn’t so different. But it’s often misunderstood as being just in Africa.” Tension is caused by cultural and lingusitic differences. Says Nick: “I think in ten years that will change. There’ll be more Chinese speaking English and more African employees speaking Chinese.”

The Francis brothers chose Zambia because its ties with China stretch back to a 1964 diplomatic agreement. The Chinese constructed the Tanzal railway between Zambia and Tanzania and Zambia was the first African country to create China-Africa economic zones, in the copper-belt region and in Lusaka.The brothers hope their film will raise both debate and understanding around the China-Africa relationship. “What’s interesting is when you show the film in the US or the UK,” says Nick. “In this story the West are spectators and that throws up massive insecurity issues. They talk about China’s insatiable appetite for resources but so much of that is driven by our consumer need to have cheap goods”.

African arts, culture + politics

Search and enjoy

(ARISE magazine, issue 13) What do you do when you need to look up something in Afrikaans, Swahili or Malagasy? Google Soek, Tafua na Google or Fikarohana Google, of course. After high demand from Africa, the search giant is recruiting volunteers to its Google In Your Language project to translate its interface. Said program manager for African languages, Denis Gikunda, “For so many people in Africa, with technology, there’s this idea that I have to master English first, and then I can be good at it. But if you see a user interface in Swahili, you feel like you understand the product more.” Somalia is the latest beneficiary of the Google Africa community translation program after receiving its Google domain name on June 3. The standard interface was translated by volunteers and then verified by a group of native speakers, language specialists and journalists in Nairobi – where Somali is also spoken. Other 2011 additions include Ghanaian dialects Ewe and Ga, Northern Sotho from South Africa and Seselwa Kreol from Seychelles.

African arts, culture + politics

The revolution will be digitised


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution that swept North Africa earlier this year, artists around the world have been creating works of resistance. Responses range from Soviet-style graphic posters, as seen on Flickr, to a dedicated exhibition at Cairo’s Safarkhan gallery entitled To Egypt With Love. Egyptian artist/designer Marwan Shahin created an image entitled The Dictator after participating in the revolution: “I was so inspired by what was happening. After the crisis and Mubarak stepped down I created another piece called The 2Vth.I was told it was such a powerful image, I took time to graffiti it on a wall here in Alexandria.”

Online creative platform African Digital Art (ADA) compiled a gallery of graphic art inspired by the uprisings using submissions from its own creative community. Editor Jepchumba explained: “The Egyptian revolution was all over the news, all over the world, so it was no surprise to see that being reflected in artists’ creative portfolios. This was an important thing for us to show at ADA.”

African arts, culture + politics

Wants list


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) He’s on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, as well as his own website. And now newly re-elected Lagos state governor Babatunde Raji Fashola is encouraging his constituents to go online – to share their visions for Lagos.

At the time of writing, 332 Lagosians have logged on to I See Lagos to upload their photos and requests. Many dream of a constant power supply, affordable housing and good transport. Others have more specific wishes: from an end to the “illegal collection of money from bus drivers and conductors” to simply “C-Train. 15min 4rm Ogba to Aja”.

“What was really the driver behind this project was that we were in a political campaign period and just felt
we need to get people better engaged in what they want a government to do for them,” explained one of the project’s coordinators, Moji Rhodes. The I See Lagos team will be monitoring feedback over the next four years and inviting those who share their visions to high-profile events, such as Governor Fashola’s recent inauguration.

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: July 25 1992 South Africa returns to the Olympics


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Draped in flags, two exhausted but exultant women – one white, one black – embrace each other and raise their joined hands aloft. Out of context it’s an uplifting picture of racial and sporting unity, but to spectators at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona it was an affirmation that the long, bitter fight against apartheid was over.

The shot was taken moments after Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu won the 10,000-metre women’s race, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold. Yet instead of revelling in her own glory Tulu waited for her South African challenger, Elana Meyer, to cross the finish line in second place. The pair embraced then embarked on an emotive joint lap of victory around the stadium, hand in hand. “The scale of the response was unexpected, overwhelming,” Meyer later remembered in an interview with Running Times. ”People, white and black, still stop me to this day to tell me where they were when that race was run.”

Before its long-awaited return, South Africa had not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Its application for the 1964 Games in Tokyo was turned down after it submitted a white-only team roster and refused to amend it. Later a swathe of African nations ensured their neighbour’s absence with a threatened boycott in 1968 and with a real one in 1976, involving some 22 African countries. Finally in 1970 the International Olympics Committee (IOC) banned South Africa from competing – the first major international body to impose a sanction on the nation.
The Olympics wasn’t the only arena in which South Africa was shunned. International rugby, cricket and football contests were also made off limits – hitting sports-mad South Africans as hard as the economic, trade and music sanctions already in place. Some complained sport was being unfairly politicised. Yet South Africa had arguably already done this with its discriminatory sporting regulations. Black and white athletes were forbidden from competing together, for instance, and resources for black athletes were scarce.

South Africa’s return to the Olympics was the result of slow political wrangling. In 1988 the IOC set up the Apartheid and Olympic Commission and in 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, sent a delegation to meet with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other members of the African National Congress (ANC). Having initially pushed for South Africa to be banned from the Olympics, the ANC now saw the potential for change its readmittance offered.

And change did come. On June 17 President de Klerk began repealing the core laws of apartheid, starting with the Population Regulation Act, which classified South Africans by race. On July 9 the IOC elected to allow South Africa to return to the Olympics. But it laid out a number of conditions; including the abolishment of all remaining instruments of apartheid, an end to segregated sporting competitions and better sporting facilities for all.

The road back to Olympic competition was not smooth. The unveiling of a new team anthem and an alternative flag – a replacement to the orange, white and blue standard, which was felt to be too associated with the minority white administration – ruffled the feathers of many white South Africans. Sports minister Louis Pienaar called it,
“a slap in the face of South Africans”. Others had more practical concerns. After years away from the starting line, would South Africa’s athletes be up to the job?

Despite rumbles of discontent and concern, on July 25 1992 the world watched South Africa’s hopefuls join Barcelona’s glitzy opening ceremony. Of the 95-strong team, only eight were black – even though black South Africans constituted 81 per cent of the population. Mandela, who led the team, commented: “I would have liked it to be a reflection of our population, but there has to be a starting point. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s concern ourselves with our presence here”.

Although the ghost of apartheid haunted South Africa long after 1992, the Games inspired change and unity across the country – and Africa. Tulu’s victory helped advance women’s rights in Ethiopia, while Meyer went on to run the JAG Foundation organising sports programmes for disadvantaged children. “Running transformed my life,” she said. “My dream is to give the same opportunities to young kids in South Africa. I really believe in the power of sport.”


The Westminster ban


(The Pavement, 12 May 2011) Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw banning soup runs and rough sleeping is looking increasingly shaky as opposition grows, deadlines are delayed and Conservative councillors come out against the plans.

Reported as the policy of a “callous” and “heartless” Tory council (Daily Mail and Mirror, respectively), it seemed the byelaw was unanimously backed by the Conservative councillors who hold the majority in Westminster City Council. However, this does not entirely seem to be the case.

The Pavement emailed all of Westminster’s 48 Conservative councillors to ask whether they support the byelaw, oppose the byelaw or have not made up their mind. Three responded: Councillor Philippa Roe replied “this is not my portfolio” and suggested speaking to Daniel Astaire; Councillor Michael said “I strongly support the byelaw”; while Councillor Glenys Roberts, a Daily Mail journalist, stated “I oppose the byelaw, I think this has to be handled more sensitively.”

And it seems that Cllr Roberts is not alone, with reports that a Conservative councillor had voiced his opposition to the byelaw on a visit to a soup run. The Pavement also spoke to Labour Councillor Adam Hug, who said: “What’s not clear to us is precisely what the mood on the Conservative backbenches is. I think there will be a lot of concern… There are lots of people who have generally held concerns about the issue, and I think probably you’ll have to speak to some of them to find out what exactly is going on behind closed doors.”

The Conservatives have an even more high-profile dissenter to add to their list, too, namely the Mayor of London. Under persistent questioning from Liberal Democrat Member of the Greater London Assembly Mike Tuffrey, Boris Johnson finally clarified his position at Mayor’s Question Time on 23 March, saying: “I do not want to ban soup runs, provided they are part of a strategy to help people off the street”.

The 12 Labour councillors at Westminster City Council, meanwhile, have already come out in joint opposition, releasing a statement which says: “Labour Councillors have condemned this hard-hearted and mean-minded action at a time of rising unemployment and increasing homelessness amongst the most vulnerable.”

More protests and direct action

Inspired by the multi-organisation flashmob demonstrations and the protest picnic held outside Westminster Cathedral on 20 March, campaigners have continued to take to the streets.

On 2 April, another horizontal flashmob, Everybody Lie Down In Westminster Day, took place on Westminster Cathedral Piazza; while on 14 April, campaigners gathered outside Westminster City Hall to take part in the Protest Against Benefits Cuts & Mass Food Give Away! Plans are also underway for events on the day of the council meeting and, possibly, to coincide with the Royal Wedding (tentatively entitled ‘Let Them Eat Cake’).

Online, meanwhile, Henrietta Still and Co from Goldsmiths College have produced a short film entitled the Big Soup Society (on Facebook), while Pavement photographer Rufus Exton’s film ( documenting the 20 March protest has received more than 1,000 hits. Over on Twitter, the hashtag #homelessban is focusing support, while anti-byelaw Facebook groups and pages continue to attract fans.

Housing Justice is also still calling on Westminster residents to lobby their local councillors, and asking anyone doing a soup run to sign up to their newly updated Soup Run Code of Conduct.

Finding alternatives

As well as the Soup Run Code of Conduct, other practical alternatives to the byelaw are being put forward.

On the Labour Matters website (, Labour councillors have outlined a three-point plan, which they say would enable soup runs to continue. Suggestions include a system of licensing/registration and regulation; Council-supported efforts to provide daily building-based alternatives; and a code of conduct.

Alastair Murray, deputy director of Housing Justice, has called on the council to make use of the knowledge and experience of soup run volunteers, and widen building-based provision, saying: “More hostels in Westminster could be opening up space in the evening, and they could be more supportive of the idea of indoor drop-in services open in the evening and at the weekend.

“If we can work out a timetable of doing that and really encourage soup runs to look at moving somewhere indoors in their local area or Westminster, then I think it would be very difficult for Westminster to say ‘well, we’re going to ban soup runs anyway’. Because we have to show some kind of willing and make an effort to do it together and improve services, and that has to be the way forward.” Westminster City Council has even showed signs of softening their approach, increasingly referring to a preference for a non-legislative approach and proposing in a press release dated 29 March to “meet with interested parties in the coming weeks to try and reach a solution before resorting to formal legal action”.

Rough sleeping ban proposal could be dropped

As it stands, the byelaw would criminalise rough sleepers and those distributing free refreshments in a designated area around Westminster Cathedral. However, there are suggestions that the council could be planning to remove the clause relating to lying down, sleeping or depositing bedding on the street.

Mr Murray reported: “They are saying… that they would be willing to meet and explore a non-legislative solution, but they seem to me to be fairly sure to be going ahead – at least with the anti-soup run bit. I think they’re going to drop the proposal to ban rough sleeping.

“I’ve heard this from a couple of different sources, but I think they’ve realised they’ve they have got no support whatsoever for that from any organisation… they don’t have support, from anybody in the field, so it looks as if they’re on pretty dodgy ground with that.”

Cllr Hug echoed this, saying: “My impression is that they may be more willing to move on rough sleeping because of the overwhelming opposition, . I mean obviously there clearly has been majority opposition to the soup run ban, but it’s [the rough sleeping ban] is not quite clear cut.”

Delays and doubts on the final decision

Westminster City Council is currently compiling some 500 responses that it received during the consultation, which ended on 25 March. A summary of the consultation will be made public in due course, although when is not yet known.

After the consultation document has been prepared, it will be up to Westminster City Council to decide whether or not to push ahead with the byelaw. And if it does, there’s little chance of it being taken down by Labour, predicts Cllr Hug: “My understanding is that it will go to full council. Although if I’m absolutely honest, if it goes to full council… , it will go through irrespective of what I say or what my colleagues say … Certainly, in my time (and I’ve only been on the council for a year ), I’ve never seen a vote.”

The decisive council meeting was expected to take place on 4 May. However, this now seems to have now been delayed. Mr Murray wrote to Councillor Daniel Astaire, cabinet member for society, families and adult services, offering to meet to help find a non-legislative solution. In response, said Mr Murray, “he [Cllr Astaire] told me they aren’t going to be voting on it on the 4th of May [but] it’s not going to be included in the council meeting then, and that he would be keen to meet.”

The Pavement contacted the Westminster City Council press office for confirmation, but on asking when the decision would be made the spokesperson replied: “Are you talking about… I saw something on Twitter from Housing Justice. Is that what you’re referring to?” and She said she didn’t believe there was a council meeting on 4 May (there is), and that no further details are yet available.

Looking back to a Westminster City Council press release from 28 February, however, the process is clearer: “Depending on the results [of the consultation, the council] will then to seek provisional permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG] to pass a byelaw before taking it to a meeting of the full council in the summer.

“If approved, the byelaw could be in place by October. Vulnerable individuals will not be enforced against, and all individuals will be asked to leave the area before being subjected to any enforcement.” The next meeting of the full council after 4 May is on 20 July at Council House, Marylebone Road. The Public Law Project (PLP), a legal charity concerned with access to justice for disadvantaged groups, is advising campaigners on the possibility of legal challenge to the passing of the byelaw. PLP solicitor Jo Hickman confirmed that PLP had concerns as to the lawfulness of Westminster’s proposals and would be pleased to offer campaigners legal support.

Ms Hickman told The Pavement, “This unprecedented proposal seeks to criminalise acts of charity. If that were not bad enough, the proposed byelaw is so widely drafted it also criminalises a host of other entirely innocent activities. Councils are not lawfully empowered to pass byelaws that are oppressive, and as such we consider there may be grounds to seek judicial review of any decision to implement this proposal.”

We asked DCLG for their stand on the byelaw, but was just sent their previously released statement: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London, with all the dangers that entails.

“There is no need for anyone to sleep rough in Westminster as there are a range of services that can help the vulnerable off the streets, and assist them make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track.”

Asked about the process for passing the byelaw, the spokesman replied, “If the byelaw were to be passed by the council, it would require DCLG Secretary of State’s confirmation before it could take effect. But we are still some way off that stage, if things ever get there.”

UPDATE 12/5/11: We have just received news that Westminster City Council has decided to drop its attempt to criminalise rough sleeping via its proposed byelaw. It has not given up on getting rid of soup runs, so we will continue to cover the story as it develops.

African arts, culture + politics

Inside An African Election


(, 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

“What we do we know about African elections other than they mostly go wrong?” It was this rather depressing question that drove director Jarreth Merz to go behind the camera and find out what an African election – the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, to be specific – really looks like on the ground.

The remarkable thing about the resulting film, An African Election, though, is not what goes right or wrong but the unprecedented access Merz and his team have to the two main candidates, their people and (a first for any film crew) the Strong Room – where all Ghana’s election results are sent, where accusations fly and where presidents are made. Eventually.

How easy was it to get the politicians on board? “I think they are hungry to be shown and seen in a different light, bottom line,” says Merz. “They understood very early that this was different … We were embedded in all the major political parties and we built trust over time. So I think they got this sense of ‘they’re not in here to make us look bad’. That wasn’t the case but at the same time I told them they had no control of the footage … I didn’t want to make a political movie, so to speak.”

Director of An African Election, Jarreth Merz

Another point in Merz’s favour was his Swiss-Ghanaian stepdad’s connections to Ghanaian society and family links to the king of Ashante. Merz himself grew up between Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, later moving to the US to study directing and go in front of the lens in hit US TV series ER (as Charles Baruani) and The Passion of the Christ. But it was the death of his Nigerian father in 2007 that put into motion the chain of events that would lead to An African Election.

“I was the first born so I had to attend the funeral otherwise he couldn’t be buried … my brother [Kevin Merz, co-director of An African Election] came and we started a diary – just a family diary – which turned into a documentary called Glorious Exit. And I just realised I didn’t know anything about Nigeria. And then I wondered well, what do I know about Ghana where I spent my childhood? What do I know about Africa? The debates are always about colonialism and neo-colonialism… what about day to day life?” Returning to Ghana in search of his “roots”, Merz instead found a country on the brink of an all-important presidential election – and, quickly, the idea for the film was born.

An African Election begins with just 28 days to go until the elections. The two main candidates are swiftly introduced – John Atta Mills of the NDC and Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP – and the boxing match begins, each contender trying to knock out the opposition and give the crowds something to cheer about. It is the fifth election since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, so the Ghanaian people are not new to this sort of thing. Yet they’re anything but apathetic – something clear throughout the film, from the initial rallies to the vote counting, when crowds of observers watch the election officials hawk-eyed to make sure not a single vote is miscounted. “Politics is embedded in families [in Ghana],” explains Merz. “People speak about politics, they’re engaged. There’s an amazing political sensitivity. They understood very early on that they were the ones to decide, they wouldn’t let the politicians decide.”

Perhaps inevitably – for a documentary, not for Africa – the film cranks up the tension as accusations are made about electoral fraud. A car is suddenly pictured in flames, crowds gather on the darkened streets, rumours spread of “macho men” on motorbikes snatching ballot boxes before they’re counted. Is it real or exaggerated for impact? For Merz, his presence as a filmmaker obviously made him more aware of events: “This was like wow, the shit’s going to hit to fan. Other people were in their homes, they were having dinner. People watched the film and said there was no violence. I think that’s dangerous – we cannot take democracy in Ghana for granted.”

Now the film is out, Merz’s focus is getting it seen – not just at Western film festivals and cinemas but across Africa. When we spoke, Merz had just got back from Zimbabwe where An African Election had passed the censors and was being screened. “Harare Gardens open air was packed,” says Merz. “People were laughing. It was just insane. I think they thought it was an inspiring story, an African success story. It wasn’t just the good, it wasn’t just the bad – people recognised their own political leadership.”

The important role played by the unshakeable Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, has also been commended far beyond African. “I got an email from a Superior Court judge in California who said he was a hero to him and his colleagues,” says Merz.

The focus now is on sourcing funding to take the film to Ghana and planning a “political safari project” to engage people at a grassroots level, using the film as a platform to start debates about democracy in, for example, universities. Then there’s Merz’s planned biopic on the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (who was of African descent) and a documentary on how love is seen across Africa.

So how does Merz think the presidential winner, Atta Mills (surely not a spoiler?), is faring. “I think he’s doing pretty much the right things, he’s trying to stop this conscience of vengeance. He’s not the most sexy politician on this planet, the most charismatic, but he’s trying to reason with his party to consolidate.”  With the next round of elections due next year, Atta Mills’s got another fight on his hands.

An African Election is out in UK cinemas now. For more information visit

London culture

Honduras in London: Central America Women’s Network

CAWN's Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011
CAWN’s Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011

(Visit London, 29 March 2011) We speak to Laura Ouseley from London-based organisation Central America Women’s Network (CAWN), which supports women’s rights groups in Honduras and across Central America – and is celebrating its 20th birthday this Thursday.

What does CAWN do?

We help women’s organisations in Central America with advocacy and campaigning, for example organising speaker tours and building links between women’s groups in the UK and Central America.

Our main areas of work are around gender equality, women’s rights and violence against women. CAWN’s main project at the moment is supporting a women’s organisation in Honduras to set up self-help groups in order to tackle gender-based violence.

How long have you been running?

We’ve been going since 1991. This Thursday is our 20th anniversary.

You have a speaker tour this week in London, what’s that about?

We have two women’s rights activists from Honduras coming here, Evelyn Cuellar and Mercedes Lainez. They’ll be here for two weeks to talk about their work for Centro de Estudios de la Mujer Honduras (CEMH), our partner organisation in Honduras.

What events are planned in London as part of the tour?

Tonight the two speakers will be at a public meeting we’re holding with the London Feminist Network in the House of Commons, talking about femicide and the role of feminists in social transformation.

Then on Thursday we have a smaller meeting at The Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London about violence against women in Honduras. Later than evening it’s our 20th anniversary celebration at the Human Rights Action Centre, which anyone is welcome to attend, whether you have been involved with CAWN over the last 20 years, or would like to know more about our work.

The two speakers are then going to Manchester and Scotland before coming back to London for a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club on 12 April for the Women Reaching Women Conference 2011.

How can people learn more or help with the work you do?

We often rely on volunteers to help us carry out and promote the work we do. Some CAWN volunteers and activists help with translations, for example, while others organise events, fundraise and promote our work.

The best way to get involved with CAWN is to become a member and receive more information about the work we do, or come along to one of our events and speak to us in person.

Where else can you find out about Honduras in London? Tell us in the comments below.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Ghana in London: Nzinga Dance

Credit: Ludo des Cognets
Credit: Ludo des Cognets

(Visit London, 11 March 2011) For the latest in our World in London series, we put on our dancing shoes and spoke to Deanna Michel-de Sousa, leader of African performing arts ensemble Nzinga Dance, which teaches African drumming and dance at south London’s Horniman Museum

What does Nzinga Dance do?

Our main remit is bringing African history, culture and tradition to life – telling its story with dance and music. The classes are about coming along and learning traditional dance and drumming – and about their importance in African culture – but in a fun and creative way.

We do lots of performances at the museum and elsewhere too – for Refugee Week, Adult Learners’ Week, at summer festivals… We’re not just at the Horniman!

Are all the Nzinga teachers Ghanaian?

There’s a mixture of people, mainly Ghanaian and a couple of us from St Lucia – the one person that isn’t is from Pakistan, so there you go! We’re an African-Caribbean group but a lot of what we teach and perform is from Ghana.

Ghanaian dance is a big part of what we do. In terms of African dance culture, Ghana has prolific dancers and musicians. You have one country but within that country so many different nations – whether it’s Ewe, Ashanti or Ga – and each has their own style. You find literally hundreds of dances and that’s what’s quite unique about Ghanaian dance and drumming – there’s a lot to learn and pick from as well. So within one course, we may say to people we’re teaching Ghanaian dance but that can include completely different styles.

Who comes to your dance classes? Ghanaians living in London or a mixture of people?

We get a mix of people, although we do have Ghanaian students who come along that haven’t learnt so much about their culture in that respect and just feel that they really want to touch base and learn.  It’s nice that people want to come along – both Ghanaian and non-Ghanaian – and learn about African culture in a creative way, and in a really social atmosphere.

What do your students think about the course?

Most of them say they enjoy coming along because it’s a non-competitive atmosphere and they feel that what they’re learning is authentic. We can be specific – we can say you’ve learnt Kpanlogo dance from this place in Ghana – and they like that feeling of knowing what they’ve been taught and the significance of it in history and culture. For example, that when I’m dancing this step, it means this or that.

I think we get lots of students, too, because of the live drumming [the djembe drummers who accompany the dance classes]. Not knocking anyone who uses a CD, but I think it being authentic is a big part of drawing people. I think that’s why we’re still going strong.

See Nzinga Dance (and their students) perform at the Nzinga Dance Ensemble Concert on 27 March 2011 at Horniman Museum. The next term of Nzinga dance and drumming courses for adults and children at Horniman Museum begin on 1 May 2011.

Do you know anywhere else you can experience Ghanaian culture in London? Let us know in the comments below.

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: 3 March 1991 Rodney King and the LA riots


(ARISE magazine: issue 12) A home video that captured Rodney King being beaten viciously by white police officers shook Los Angeles – and the world – in 1991. It exposed the racism and prejudice still engrained in America decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Twenty years on, the raw brutality of the grainy, black-and-white footage is as powerful and shocking as ever.

In 1991 the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had no senior black police officers and, according to the independent Christopher Commission, formed later that year to examine the workings of the LAPD, racism
and prejudice were rife. It was in this setting that Rodney King was caught speeding as he drove home with two friends on March 3 – triggering events that would change the course of his life and his country’s history.
King was no angel. On parole from a prison sentence for robbery, under the influence of drink and fearing arrest, he refused to pull over. Instead he led the California Highway Patrol on a high-speed car chase, pushing the car to over 100mph. When he was finally caught, he was surrounded by LAPD squad cars and ordered out of his vehicle. The four accused officers later claimed that King was aggressive and tried to resist arrest. So, they said, they restrained him, first with two Taser stun-gun shots and then with blows from their batons – all supposedly in self-defence.

That might have been the end of the story had it not been for local resident George Holliday, who video-taped the incident from his balcony. The story that his amateur video showed was very different from the one told by police. Far from acting in self-defence, at least two of the officers repeatedly beat King with their batons and kicked him as he lay on the ground, almost motionless, while several other officers looked on. The pounding lasted more than a minute and a half. When it finally ended, King had fractured bones in his face and leg, deep cuts and heavy bruising.

Holliday took the video to TV networks and its subsequent broadcast caused public outrage across LA, the USA and beyond. The officers were charged with using excessive force and appeared in court the following year. In the face of the video evidence, their self-defence claim seemed incredible, yet even more incredibly, it worked for them. On April 29 1992, an all-white jury acquitted all four.

The response, particularly in the predominantly black neighbourhoods of south-central LA, was instant and furious. For communities that had been at the receiving end of police profiling, racial prejudice and harassment for years, the verdict was the final straw. In the four days of rioting that followed, cars were set alight, retribution attacks were carried out on white and Asian people, and National Guard troops were sent in. In total, 53 people died, more than 2,000 were injured and at least 7,000 were arrested; the cost of damage caused to property came in at around US$1bn. Horrified, King made a public appeal on TV calling for peace and promising “we will have our day in court”. His desperate entreaty, “can we all get along”, became famous, and the riots soon came to an end.

A year later, King did finally get his day in court. This time, the four police officers that had attacked King were charged with violating his civil rights. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were cleared but the jury found Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell guilty and each was sentenced to 30 months in prison. In 1994, King was awarded US$3.8m in damages from the City of Los Angeles. King’s life since has been eventful. He’s been arrested
for domestic violence and drunk-driving, spent time in prison and had another close shave with death after he was shot while riding on his bicycle.

He has returned to the public eye with bizarre appearances on reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew, a televised boxing match with a former police officer, and his recent engagement to Cynthia Kelley, one of the jurors in his civil case against LA City. Nevertheless, as long as King’s name remains synonymous with police brutality, his story will continue to serve as an important reminder of a dark period in recent American history.

African arts, culture + politics

Streets ahead


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) After storming Broadway and London’s West End with an all-black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, producer Stephen C Byrd is now assembling a star-studded cast for his upcoming update of another Tennessee Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Already involved are Blair Underwood, Boris Kodjoe, Zoe Saldana (pictured), Anika Noni Rose and, possibly, Djimon Hounsou – Byrd says he’s currently looking into signing up the Blood Diamond star. Grammy Award-winning musician and composer Terence Blanchard is onboard to create an original score.

Unlike Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which starred James Earl Jones, not all the performers in Streetcar are African or African-American. The multiracial cast will also include Hispanic actor Jimmy Smits, Indian actress Sulekha Naidu and a white actress playing Blanche’s best friend. “We wanted to reflect the true culture of
New Orleans as it is today,” explained Byrd. “Streetcar has always been a culturally encoded play, with white
cast members in both the film and other stage productions. This will be the first time we are seeing
this production done with a non-traditional cast on a Broadway and West End stage”.

A Streetcar Named Desire begins a 20-week run on Broadway around June, before moving on to London’s West End. “I’m very excited,” enthuses Byrd. “It’s one of Williams’ most intricate plays, the diamond in his repertoire. The director, Emily Mann, lived with him for a year and has a very visceral feel for his works and how they should be interpreted”. And with March 26 marking what would have been Tennessee Williams’ centenary,
the timing couldn’t be better.

African arts, culture + politics

Vote with your tweet


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) How do you inspire apathetic young voters? By getting them to fill in their Twitter status. That was the idea behind a campaign by Vote or Quench that urged young Nigerians to tweet about how the upcoming election could change their country, using the hashtag IfNaijaVotes.The one-day action in January provoked a chorus of tweets; as well as trending locally, it was covered by Yahoo and USA Today while celebs such as US rapper Nas and Nigerian singer Nneka tweeted about it. Young voters also joined in via Facebook, smartphones and BlackBerry Messenger.

“We wanted people to donate their status, something that was easy,” says Vote or Quench founder Nosarieme Garrick. “We wanted people to be creative, to have fun with it.” It may have been fun, but there was an important message behind IfNaijaVotes: 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under 30, which could mean serious electoral bargaining power, if they take advantage of it.

Through its lively online hub of debate and information, Vote or Quench’s aim is for more 18-35 year olds to become aware of their voting power. “We’re not saying social media is the answer to all our problems,” says Garrick, “but it’s helping to fan the flames. It changes the idea of social activism.”

Vote or Quench is now recording video diaries of first-time voters and calling for a presidential debate on youth issues. In Nigeria’s last ballot, less than half of the electorate voted. With the help of Vote or Quench, that might be about to change.

African arts, culture + politics

Size matters


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) Africa is bigger than you think, and software pioneer Kai Krause has produced a map to prove it. Named The True Size Of Africa, Krause’s representation neatly undermines our preconceptions by demonstrating that Africa is considerably larger than it’s commonly believed to be. In reality, it takes up the same area as the US, China, India – what we think of as the world’s biggest countries – as well as much of Europe, combined.

Krause blames our bias, in part, on popular mapping projections, such as the Mercator, which dramatically distort the size of land masses. He even has a phrase for our geographical ignorance: ‘immappancy’ – as in illiteracy or innumeracy – and calls his diagram “a small contribution in the fight against rampant immappancy”.

Krause’s map has been criticised for not representing accurately the different countries’ shapes and proportions. However, the calculation was worked out using the area mass of each country (taken from Wikipedia) and comparing the total to that of Africa. As Kai himself points out in the accompanying explanation: “the graphical layout of this map is meant purely as a visualisation… the map purposefully uses the familiar shapes, as if you are ‘moving pieces’ in Google Maps”.

Now we just need someone to remind the world that Africa’s a continent, not a country.

African arts, culture + politics

Double vision


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) She’s been admired, vilified, imprisoned and tortured, now Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to be immortalised – on screen and on stage anyway – with both a film and an opera about her set for 2011. Winnie The Opera, a sequel to 2007’s The Passion of Winnie, previews at Pretoria’s State Theatre on April 28.

It explores the dark period in her life when she appeared in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused of involvement in murders and beatings carried out by her then-bodyguards. In contrast, upcoming biopic Winnie promises to be “the ultimate women’s movie” (according to its South African director, Darrell Roodt), focusing on the love story between Winnie and Nelson.

Despite initially facing legal threats from Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyers, Roodt is now confident she will “love” the film – although he stressed it won’t shy from controversies. Although critics are concerned this is exactly what will happen. The filmmakers have also received fierce criticism from the Creative Workers Union of South Africa for casting African-American stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard in the leads, instead of choosing local talent.

Whether or not you agree with Roodt’s assertion, reported in UK newspaper The Telegraph, that Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the anti-Apartheid movement was “as extraordinary, if not more” than Nelson Mandela’s, there’s no denying this is going to be Winnie’s year.

African arts, culture + politics

Voices in exile


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) The concept of ‘home’ can provoke feelings of displacement and guilt in many migrants. The Last Gift, a new book by Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah, explores this issue through the tale of Abbas, a migrant father struggling to hide his past from his English-born children.

Migration, post-colonialism and identity are recurring themes in Gurnah’s books. They’re also matters of personal interest; Gurnah was forced to flee Zanzibar, aged 18, after a bloody revolution in 1964. It was 17 years before Gurnah was able to return, following an amnesty. “Being away has a guilt to it: you’re out of touch, you can’t help people. Going back was terrific because you are able to renew things.”

Gurnah, professor of English at the University of Kent, now visits Zanzibar regularly. But his past is never far from his mind – or books. “I often have characters thinking back to other times. Many people who live this migrant life live both in reality and in their imagination.”

The Last Gift [Bloomsbury], out May

African arts, culture + politics

Out of this world


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) It’s one small step for man, but for South Africa the launch of its own space agency is a giant leap, uniting the country’s fragmented space organisations that have been surveying the universe for 50 years.
The new South African Space Agency (SANSA) is not the first of its kind in Africa – there are others in Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria – yet its ambitions are just as stellar.
At the official launch in December, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, declared: “Our medium-term goal is for our country to have a fully operational space programme within the next five years, and to be globally positioned within ten.”
The new space agency, set to start operations on April 1, will bring together existing space bodies such
as the prominent Satellite Applications Centre in Hartebeeshoek, and focus its expertise into six key areas: earth observation, space operations, space science, space engineering, human capital development and science advancement.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Pandor, with critics objecting to its estimated first-year budget of R400-500m, which they argue would be better spent on alleviating South Africa’s continued healthcare and poverty concerns. However supporters argue the space agency will help do both. At the launch, Pandor declared: “Our efforts in enhancing space science and technology will also assist in addressing the persistent challenges of healthcare provision, water resources, agricultural mapping, urban planning and communications.”

As well as launching SANSA, South Africa is vying with Australia to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array. And with a number of key space projects already under its belt, such as the microsatellite SumbandilaSat, South Africa has a good chance of success.

London culture

Guyana in London: Stockwell’s Bronze Woman

Bronze Woman. Courtesy of Lambeth Council
Bronze Woman. Courtesy of Lambeth Council

(Visit London, 2 February 2011) London is home to many people from the small South American country of Guyana, but there are few indicators beyond the odd Guyanese takeaway (think delicious hot curries and roti bread) or famous figure – be it reggae star Eddie Grant or former Southbank Centre writer-in-residence John Agard.

However, venture into the south London pocket of Stockwell and into Stockwell Memorial Gardens and you’ll find another piece of Guyana – a 10-foot bronze sculpture of a woman holding a child. It’s a powerful image, not least because of its fascinating history.

The first public statue of a black woman in England, Bronze Woman was the brainchild of a black woman: Guyanese poet and local resident Cécile Nobrega.

Based on and named after her own poem, Bronze Woman took 10 years of planning, fundraising and determination by Nobrega and other groups and individuals who wanted to mark the struggles faced by Afro-Caribbean women, as well as their contribution to society.

The statue was designed by renowned sculptor Ian Walters, whose many famous London sculptures include the Nelson Mandela statue next to the Royal Festival Hall.

Sadly Walters died before the project was completed. But the project was picked up by London-based sculptor-artist Aleix Barbat, then a final-year sculpture student at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.

Eventually, on 8 October 2008 – during Black History Month – the sculpture was unveiled, with the help of the then 89-year-old Nobrega.

Do you know anywhere else you can find a bit of Guyana in London? Tell us in the comments below.

London culture

Guatemala in London: MAYA The Musical


(Visit London, 31 December 2010) Guatemala is best known for its fascinating Mayan heritage. Sadly London’s Guatemalan Maya Centre has closed its public gallery and craft shop, but you can still learn about this ancient civilisation in MAYA, an unusual new musical set in the final days of the great Mayan empire.

Facing a devastating drought, a desperate Mayan king is torn between seeking personal power and pleasing the Gods. Amid this disaster, two brothers compete to follow their dying father’s instructions and embark on a quest, discovering along the way what’s worth living for – and dying for.

Katy Lipson from new musical theatre initiative A Stage Kindly, the organisation behind the production, says:

“This is a unique and very exciting work, and from the moment we first heard it we knew we were on to a winner. With its contemporary score and strong Mayan theme, MAYA is entirely different from previous productions.”

You can catch the UK premiere of MAYA, written by American Rick Williams, at The Baron’s Court Theatre, an intimate subterranean theatre below The Curtains Up pub.

After discovering Guatemala’s history, explore its present in a powerful retrospective of work by Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo at ROLLO Contemporary Art gallery near Goodge Street.

This exhibition shows that while the Mayan civilisation perished long ago, violence and political power games remain a part of life in Guatemala. Works on show include Galindo’s unsettling video-performance piece No perdemos nada con nacer (We don’t lose anything by being born) 2000, in which the artist was self drugged, put in a clear plastic bag, placed in a bin and left at the local rubbish dump.

MAYA is on at The Barons Court Theatre from 24-30 Jan. Regina José Galindo is on at ROLLO Contemporary Art until 11 Feb.

London culture

Brazil in London: Brazilian Music in London


(Visit London, 26 November 2010) Rebeca Vallim, a singer from Rio de Janiero, tells us about the exciting Brazilian music scene in London for our World in London project.

How long have you been living in London?
Almost six years now. What I really like about living in London is all the different cultures in one place.

Where have you performed in London?
All around London, including Guanabara, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Favela Chic, Pizza on the Park, Rose Theatre Kingston, On Anon, Barbican and The Green Note.

I’ve also performed at different London festivals, like Thames Festival, Carnaval del Pueblo, Summer in Holborn and Bloomsbury Festival.

What is your favourite place to perform?
It’s really hard to say!  Probably the Southbank Centre as they’re very supportive of artists, and encourage and promote Brazilian music, like with Festival Brazil this summer. The audience are great too, people aren’t busy drinking or chatting – they come to appreciate the music.

What is the Brazilian music scene like in London?
The Brazilian music scene in London is very varied, with rhythms from North to South of Brazil. It’s exciting, there’s so much happening.

You can hear all kinds of Brazilian music in London: bossa-nova, samba, maracatu, forró, samba-rock, pop, country, chorinho, samba-reggae and others…

Where do you go to listen to Brazilian music in London?
The last places I’ve been to hear Brazilian music were Guanabara for a concert by Diogo Nogueira, a great sambista of the new generation; Royal Albert Hall to see Gilberto Gil, an icon of Brazilian music; and Koko to see the great singer Maria Rita.

I also recommend the Tia Maria restaurant in Vauxhall, which has live samba and choro every Thursday.

So where can we see you perform?
I perform in a number of different bands: Rebeca Vallim & Band, Mafua de Yaya, Viramundo, Umpatacum and Maracatudo Mafua.

My next gig is Brazilian Night at Ronnie Scott’s Bar, upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, on 9 Dec from 8pm.

London culture

Into The Wild: Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery (review)


(Visit London, 22 October 2010) Yesterday I popped into Heaven & Earth, a striking new exhibition of African photography at the Menier Gallery.

Snapped by Cape Town photographer Caroline Gibello, the sundrenched, over-exposed photos show the wildlife, landscape and people of Botswana and Namibia in a new light – literally.

Instead of lush greenery and the bright colours we usually associate with Africa, the photos have a stark, dried-out feel. This is intensified by the choice of subject matter – the cracked texture of elephant hide, dry grasses and local people walking through clouds of dust.

The photos reminded me of the increasing water shortages in Africa, and beyond. However, the unusual beauty of the wildlife and landscape, plus joyful photo names such as Courage, Spirit and Reverence, can’t help but lift your spirit.

Judge for yourself by stopping in at the exhibition. Make a night of it by nipping next door to Menier Chocolate Factory for dinner or to catch Samuel and Timothy West in A Number, the downstairs theatre’s thought-provoking new show.

Myerson Fine Art presents Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery until 30 October.  Entrance is free.


Who decides?

(The Pavement, 3 July 2010) If you’ve struggled with a drug or alcohol addiction, refused help from an outreach worker or had mental health problems, chances are you’ve been discussed at a Safer Streets partnership meeting. Also known as multi-agency meetings or Local Strategic Partnerships meetings, these gatherings take place in boroughs across London and are a chance for homeless service providers to get together and discuss how to help individual rough sleepers off the streets.

To give you an insight into what is decided at these meetings, we spoke to Sam Ball, deputy director for London of Crime Reduction Initiatives (CRI), the national social care charity which is commissioned by Camden Council to run Camden Safer Streets Team (SST).

Camden SST provides “street-based outreach work” in partnership with a number of key agencies:
• Hostel providers
• Drug/alcohol services
• Drug-intervention teams
• Police
• Mental health services
• Primary care services
• Local day centres
• Drop-in services
• Street wardens

Input is also provided by “Community Auditors” from StreetSafe, a Camden SST scheme through which, Mr Ball explained: “concerned members of the community can report on street activity directly to a single point of contact and are assured of a prompt and helpful response”.

Of these agencies, representatives from the Drug and Alcohol Agencies; Drug Intervention Programme; Police; Hostel Providers; Day Centres; Drop-in Services and Street Wardens attend regular meetings at Camden SST’s London regional office. These so-called “tasking and targeting meetings” take place every fortnight in King’s Cross, Holborn, Bloomsbury and Camden Town, with two additional monthly meetings for the north of the borough. Organised by Camden SST, each meeting is chaired by the team leader responsible for that area.

So what is the purpose of this type of partnership meeting, a format used by many local authorities? “It’s designed to allow coordination of a comprehensive and consistent care package for clients,” explains Mr Ball. “It includes both service interventions and enforcement interventions where appropriate.”

The implementation of these enforcement tactics, such as Anti Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), is made clear by Camden Safer Street Team to homeless people in the borough, according to Mr Ball: “On initial contact we explain that street activity is considered anti-social behaviour and that continuation of that behaviour could lead to enforcement.

“We do it this way because we’re aware then that we’re able to give a clear, consistent and honest message to clients. Our aim is to enable people to break free from harmful patterns of behaviour, therefore reducing the impact of this on the individual and as well as on the community around them.”

A “care package” – also known as a service plan or care plan – is basically a way of identifying what support or services you need. “Decisions are made about which agencies need to be involved in a case,” explains Mr Ball. “In terms of hostels, for instance, each hostel has a specific designation, for instance those able to cater for individuals with mental health needs or those requiring continued-use placements”.

Rather than discussing budgets and homeless services in general, the meetings are focused on the “clients”. For Mr Ball, “it isn’t about funding, it doesn’t come down to that – it’s who is best placed to meet this client’s needs. That’s very much the focus of those meetings.”

So deciding, for example, increased funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation is not on the agenda. “That’s kind of out of our hands,” Mr Ball explains. “We might request and advocate for that on behalf of the client if we felt they needed that but we wouldn’t be able to make that decision.”

According to a street count carried out on 22 April 2009, Camden has just six rough sleepers. However, statutory homelessness figures for January-March 2010 (Supplementary tables – Local Authority Breakdown – Statutory Homelessness: 1st Quarter (January to March) 2010, England) identify 668 people in temporary accommodation in Camden, plus 88 instances where duty of care is owed but accommodation has not yet been secured.

With such a fluid homeless population, the partnership selects particular people to discuss at each meeting. “We wouldn’t necessarily go through every single client known to Camden Safer Streets Team because, as you know, there can be a changing picture and we want to prioritise in terms of need … to make sure people get the right level of input in a timely manner,” Mr Ball adds.

After the meeting, the next step is to offer targeted support to clients. “Obviously we’d want to agree a care plan with the client so … if we or the client were to identify that actually they might benefit from, [for example], a mental health service then we’d look to do what we can to support them to engage with that service and get that service involved.”

Although Camden SST has a contract with Camden Council, they are not required to give the council an exhaustive account of every meeting. “We wouldn’t report back, naturally,” says Mr Ball. “But, as with any service provision, our communication with the council happens along the lines with which they commission us, so we have an ongoing communication with Camden Council.”

London culture

Brockley Max Festival Opens The Door To Local Talent


(Visit London, 7 June 2010) For the past week, Brockley has been a hive of activity with the return of community arts festival Brockley Max.

Following the recent arrival of the East London Line in Brockley, it seemed the ideal time to showcase the area’s talents.

There was comedy at Jam Circus, Sonnets From Shakespeare at The Brockley Barge and poetry in the bizarrely named Toad’s Mouth Too Cafe.

In fact, there was something going on wherever you turned. Tree-stump sculptures mysteriously popped up in Hilly Fields Park, and on the opening night of the festival I stepped off the train to find half the neighbourhood crowded round the colourful murals of Brockley Station for a free music concert.

The week’s festivities ended on Saturday with live music, food, DJs and children’s activities at the Hilly Fields Park Stone Circle – South London’s answer to Stonehenge. Brockley wine bar/shop Mr Laurence was doing a roaring trade in Pimm’s at the bar, while excited kids tore around the newly refurbished playground.

Brockley Max may now be over, but there are still many events happening in Brockley where you can discover local talent, including:

  • Tea Leaf Arts Summer Open: exhibition of work by local artists at Tea Leaf Arts Gallery, until 12 Jun
  • Working On A Groovy Thing: art exhibition with music at Lewisham Arthouse, until 13 Jun
  • Books In Limbo: get involved as a huge installation is constructed from salvaged books at Tank Gallery, 28 May-19 Jun

Plus, keep an eye out for our review of The Last Five Years at Brockley Jack Theatre, which opens tomorrow.

London culture

Markus The Sadist at Bloomsbury Theatre (review)


(Visit London, 19 May 2010) It’s going to be hard watching hip hop videos without a heavy dose of cynicism after seeing Markus the Sadist at Bloomsbury Theatre last night.

Created by Jonzi D – the man behind Sadler’s Wells‘ street dance sensation Breakin Convention – Markus The Sadist is a darkly comic diatribe against the fakery of the music industry.

Talented London emcee Markus (played by real-life grime artist Ashley “Bashy” Thomas) is spotted at a local hip hop battle and promised fame and fortune. Success comes at a price though, namely abandoning his intelligent lyrics and adopting a groin-grabbing rap persona and a sneering American accent.

Markus’ transformation from wide-eyed boy next door to hip hop stereotype is hilarious yet uncomfortably recognisable. One of the best moments is Markus’ first video shoot, when the flamboyant director (played by the scene-stealing Rob Broderick) demands the ubiquitous rap-star props of guns, bling and scantily-clad women dancers (“otherwise I’m shooting a documentary”).

Halfway through many scenes, you realise all the characters are talking in rhyme – which works surprisingly well. The musical thread is strengthened with jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch as composer/musical director, while much of the cast are clearly talented artists in their own right.

There were a number of technical hiccups that need tightening and the play could be shorter and tighter. But on the whole, Markus The Sadist makes for a fresh, intelligent addition to the British theatre scene. Interested? Don’t hang about – the last performance is tomorrow night (Thursday)! Buy tickets (£14-£17.50) at


Iceland accused of bleaching waste food


(The Pavement, 5 May 2010) Staff at Iceland’s store in Bridlington have been accused of pouring bleach on waste food to deter homeless people and ‘freegans’ from eating it.

Local homeless people whom he met while researching a system to distribute food to the home- less first reported the allegations to Councillor Liam Dealtry. The former mayor of Bridlington told the Daily Telegraph: “I was mortified. They said Iceland staff had been pouring bleach and the blue toilet cleaner onto the food they would normally eat.”

The frozen food firm’s marketing director, Nick Canning, responded saying: “One of our store staff suggested to one of the freegans [people who take unwanted food] not to do it because it might have been treated with chemicals… It has never been and it wasn’t actually done.” Tania Barry, a spokeswoman for Iceland, told The Pavement: “it is not Iceland’s policy to tamper with our waste products in any way. Our waste in the Bridlington store has never been treated, and it is outside company policy to even suggest this may be the case. Our staff are not encouraged to tell people that food has been covered in bleach or tampered with in anyway.”

She added: “We are not allowed to sell any chilled products past their use-by date and it is company policy not to offer any out-of-date food to charitable causes and the suchlike as we can’t guarantee it will be suitable for human consumption.”

Mr Dealtry has now pledged to write to local shops and hotels to encourage them to donate food. He has also called for the council to set up a taskforce to help homeless people in the area.

London culture

London International Documentary Festival: Rio Breaks


(Visit London, 5 May 2010) The weather may have been miserable this Bank Holiday Weekend (surprise, surprise), but in Kilburn the surf was up, the sun out and bikinis on.  Unfortunately, it was only in celluloid form, as Tricycle Theatre hosted the European premiere of Rio Breaks, a Brazilian surfer film with heart.

While the rain poured outside, we were transported to the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro to meet two best friends; 13-year-old Fabio and 12-year-old Naama. For this cheeky duo, surfing is a total obsession – but also a saviour.

Born into a dangerous favela (or slum), the boys face obstacles as high as the hill they live on – including hunger, poverty, drugs, gangs and even murder. Their escape route is provided by a local surf club that offers free lessons and board loan to young people – on the condition they attend school.

Beautifully shot, the film is inspiring and funny – but still realistic; the boys aren’t angels, their future isn’t fixed and the violence continues around them. Yet their talent and passion shine through. And there’s some pretty amazing surfing, too!

We ended the night at local Brazilian restaurant Barraco, with a plate of juicy steak, rice and beans – and a berry caipirinha cocktail made with a liberal pouring of cachaça. Delicioso!

Rio Breaks is just one film from the ongoing London International Documentary Festival, which began on 23 April. The festival continues until 8 May and there are still lots more films to see, including:

  • Children of the Desert / Figli del deserto, 5 May, Free Word Centre
  • Andrew And Jeremy Get Married, 6 May, The Horse Hospital
  • H.O.T. Human Organ Traffic, 8 May, British Museum

For full listings, visit the London International Documentary Festival website.

Visit our London film festival calendar for more cinematic treats in the city, such as the current Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

London culture

Breaking free: London’s Best Dance Crew

The Definitives at London’s Best Dance Crew 2010. Bruce Woods of Tactical Innovations Limited
The Definitives at London’s Best Dance Crew 2010. Bruce Woods of Tactical Innovations Limited

(Visit London, 4 May 2010) If you’re into street dancing, this weekend was designed for you. Breakin’ Convention returned to Sadler’s Wells with another top UK and international line-up, while over in Croydon the finals of London’s Best Dance Crew set Fairfield Halls alight – nearly literally, when organisers thought the stage curtains had caught fire!

For months, young dancers across London have been honing their routines and competing to reach Friday’s final. The atmosphere backstage on the night was one of nervous excitement, as last minute rehearsals were squeezed in and costumes tweaked.

Three groups battled it out in the first half. Trilogy’s fresh take on West Side Story earned them third place and they bowed out with a slick piece that made you realise how tough the competition was.

A fierce, African-inspired performance from The Definitives, featuring a troupe of drummers from London group Maracatu Estrela do Norte, and a hard-hitting show tackling bullying from Retaliation took these two groups into the final.

While we waited for the final showdown, we were treated to shows from a series of top performers – including former Sugababes singer Mutya Buena, Avant Garde and Peridot.

Then, finally, it was time for the final showdown. It was a close call, but in the end it was The Definitives who impressed the judges most. They were presented with a trophy and cheque for £3,000 by Private Johnson Beharry, the first soldier to be awarded a Victoria Cross since 1982.

And if two great street dance shows in one weekend wasn’t enough, the UK dance film Streetdance 3D is out at cinemas from 21 May. It’s time to invest in some lessons in popping, locking and breaking!

London culture

Silent film: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (review)


(Visit London, 30 April 2010) Murder, mysticism and eerie music – the screening of 1920s silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at Greenwich Picturehouse on Wednesday night had it all.

The live rescore came courtesy of music maestros Minima. I had expected a tinkling piano, so was delighted by their electrifying mix of drums, base, cello and guitar.

Celebrated as a classic of German expressionist cinema, the film makes good use of menacing shadows, agitated characters and bulging eyes ringed in thick make-up – even for the men!

The strange story centres around the sinister Dr Caligari who tours fairgrounds with his ‘exhibit’, a hypnotised sleepwalker called Cesare who “knows the past and can see into the future”.

Alternately hilarious and mystifying, I found the film a fascinating change from today’s slick flicks, with its slow-building story, flimsy stage sets and descriptive title cards.

Minima’s score was fantastic. I loved the exotic African-style drumming that accompanied Dr Caligari’s fairground show, the slightly sleazy background music for a bachelor pad and the well-timed drum beat that made me (and half the audience) jump out of our seats!

Minima are sadly coming to the end of their performances of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but they have one more show in London at The Prince Charles Cinema on 18 May. You can also keep an eye out for more Minima performances on their website.

London culture

Southern Showcase in Arty Deptford

Dan Coopey´s Urchin Eating
Dan Coopey´s Urchin Eating

(Visit London, 7 April 2010) Deptford and New Cross have long been hailed as the new Shoreditch. So when an invite to a local art showcase case came through, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

The action was taking place at BEARSPACE, a tiny gallery nestled among the colourful grocery shops, fish stalls and Caribbean bakeries of Deptford High Street.

The room was already packed with local artists and creative types; mingling, enjoying a free glass of wine and trying to avoid knocking over Dan Coopey’s geometrical Urchin Eating sculpture. Again.

All had gathered for the P&B Cultural Showcase, a thrice-yearly celebration of the best local designers, filmmakers and craftspeople in the area.

In a nod to Deptford’s naval history, the exhibits included a ceramic anchor by Katie Bonham, while Angela Buffini had transformed photos of junkyards into art with some neat symmetry.

There was also music, illustrations and a video performance from Heart n Soul, a company of learning disabled actors and musicians based at Deptford’s popular performing arts venue, the Albany.

The BEARSPACE does its fair share to promote up-and-coming artists too, and has recently launched a new Portfolio range, selling limited-edition art and design works.

With Goldsmiths College just up the road, which counts everyone from Antony Gormley to Damien Hirst amongst its alumni, there’s plenty of local talent to showcase.

If you want to discover other galleries and public art works in the area, such as the APT Gallery and Cockpit Arts, download a Deptford Art Map or book a slot on the Deptford Art Tour.


Rough count


(The Pavement, 2 April 2010) The Pavement did its own ‘street count’ using a calculator and a telephone

According to government statistics, there were 464 rough sleepers in England in 2009. But how does this figure compare to the number of rough sleepers counted by cold weather shelters? The Pavement decided to find out.

The figure of 464 was quoted by Dudley North MP Ian Austin, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, in response to a written question from Slough MP Fiona Mactaggart. It is based on local authority street counts. Official figures from the same period – June 2009 – claim that 263 of these were in London and, of these, 110 were in Westminster.

To provide a comparison, The Pavement contacted every cold weather shelter in London, using Homeless Link’s Winter Shelters 2009-2010 list. We asked each how many people stayed there on the night of 13 January 2010.

Cold weather shelters, as readers will know, provide temporary shelter to rough sleepers during extreme winter weather. By finding out how many people stayed in every winter shelter in London on one night, we can get an idea of how many people would have otherwise been on the streets.

Here are the results:

Barnet Churches Winter Shelter: 14
Community of Camden Churches Cold Weather Shelter: 14
Croydon Churches Floating Shelter: 14
Hackney Winter Night Shelter: 25
West London Churches Night Shelter: 49
Haringey Churches Winter Shelter: 12
Caris Islington Churches Cold Weather Shelter: 16
Kingston Winter Night Shelter: 13
The Robes Project: 13
Bromley Winter Shelter: 14
St Mungo’s Severe Weather Emergency Provision in London: 114
999 Club Winter Shelter: 17
Route 18 Winter Shelter: 6
Hillingdon Winter Shelter: 3
Waltham Forest Emergency Churches Night Shelter: 24

The total is 348; a massive 75 per cent of the government’s estimate for the amount of rough sleepers in England, and nearly 100 more than the official figure for London. If we subtract our London total from the government’s total for England, we are left with just 116 as a an approximate figure for the number of rough sleepers in England outside of London.

Even allowing for the general fluctuating nature of rough sleeper statistics and differences in date, it suggests there are more rough sleepers than government statistics suggest.

This is a story we’ll be following up, and getting an official response to, for next month. As we go to press, the Simon Community, Housing Justice and the Sock Mob will be conducting a street count prior to the official count.

African arts, culture + politics

The Write Stuff: Kwani Trust


(ARISE magazine, issue 9) Nairobi’s literary scene is buzzing, and much of the excitement can be attributed to Kwani Trust – a local, literary network and publisher.

Kwani Trust began as an informal group for local writers who had returned to Kenya after years abroad and were looking for a platform to showcase their work. “We returned from Canada, the US and South Africa to find the same African Writers Series books we’d grown up reading [still] on the shelves,” recalls author and Kwani Trust managing editor Billy Kahora.
Determined to move beyond post-independence issues, the group set about championing writing that
dealt with modern issues, such as changing generations, insecurity and HIV/Aids. Their project gradually gathered steam and, in 2003, was officially launched as Kwani Trust.
Since then, the group has published journals and books, mostly by Kenyan writers. About half of the contributions are local, the rest come from across Africa and the diaspora. The Trust also holds poetry readings and a book festival. Later this month they’ll publish three books – a reissue of The Stone Hills Of Maragoli by Stanley Gazemba, Tale of Kasaya: Let Us Now Praise A Famous Woman by Eva Kasaya with Jackie Lebo and Cock Thief by Parselelo Kantai – as well as a poetry anthology. And later this year they will publish Kwani 6, a short-fiction anthology of young African writers, as well as a graphic novel and a visual, collaborative narrative of Nairobi. South Africa and Nigeria may have spearheaded the continent’s literary revolution, but in Kenya the writing’s on the page – not the wall.


Food Not Bombs


(The Pavement, 4 March 2010) When someone mentions free food, most of us think of a soup kitchen – perhaps a church group quietly serving cups of steaming tea. We don’t think of one of the top terrorist groups in America, yet this is the title that has been applied to Food Not Bombs, a global movement with two peaceable aims: to give food to the hungry; and to protest against war, poverty and injustice.

The first Food Not Bombs group was formed in 1980 by eight antinuclear activists in Massachusetts. Since then, the concept has spread across the globe, throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Middle East. There is no ‘top-down’ organisation; each group is created autonomously and simply adopts the Food Not Bombs title and consensus-based structure. Their only other unifying characteristic is that they always serve vegetarian or vegan meals, cooked using unwanted food collected from local groceries, markets and health food shops.

In January, one of the founders of the first Food Not Bombs group, Keith McHenry, gave a talk at the London Action Resource Centre as part of a world tour to mark the 30th anniversary of Food Not Bombs. Following a letter about the talk in our last issue, The Pavement went to McHenry’s second London appearance at Housing Justice’s offices in February, where we caught up with him for a chat.

Other projects
As well as sharing food with homeless people, Food Not Bombs volunteers can often be found feeding protestors at demonstrations against everything from the war in Iraq to globalisation. With their strong organisational skills and ability to respond quickly to unpredictable situations, some groups have even become unofficial emergency food providers. Food Not Bombs groups, for example, were the first to serve hot meals to the rescue workers at the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the first to provide food and help to survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami.

There are spin-off campaigns, too, such as Bikes Not Bombs; Homes Not Jails; the community gardens project Food Not Lawns; and Really Really Free Markets, where nothing is ‘for sale’.

The main function of Homes Not Jails is to house homeless people in unused buildings. The project began in San Francisco in response to a persistent campaign to move on homeless people by the city’s police and mayor during which the belongings of some local homeless people were reported to have been destroyed and their pets put down. In protest, the San Francisco ‘chapter’ of Food Not Bombs provided food to the homeless – for which they were arrested, collectively more than 1,000 times – and began taking over empty properties. In the end, Homes Not Jails had keys to over 400 houses, and housed people in over half of them.

From San Francisco, Homes Not Jails spread, but only as far as Toronto, Boston, Baltimore and Washington DC. Why wasn’t it as successful? “I think it’s just more complex than cooking,” explains McHenry.

“It’s kind of harder to get into a building and fix it up, and I think the laws are more severe. In America, you can get [convicted of] trespassing, which could be a year or two of prison, so it’s a little more scary. Although, we’ve had nobody convicted – we’ve been arrested, but no one’s been convicted”.

However, despite a slow start, Homes Not Jails is now gaining renewed interest and, according to McHenry, several communist and socialist groups are creating similar projects in an effort to re-house people recently evicted from their homes.

“Sometimes we’ve done actions where we take over buildings [where] you’ll freeze to death if you actually stayed in them, but they’re symbolic buildings. Once, we took over these houses on a military base because there was a law that they had to give you the house if you were working for a non-profit group, that kind of thing.

“It’s much more powerful to talk about how society should be changed while actually implementing changes through direct action than it is to talk about ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great if sometime something happened that was better’. I think that makes a big difference.”

Food and politics
Food Not Bombs calls itself a movement, not a charity, a distinction that separates it from soup kitchens with no agenda other than to serve food. “We’re trying to make a point that we think the way society’s organised is just not right,” says McHenry. “That no one should really be homeless and there’s no reason for people to be homeless except for the need for economic exploitation.”

This political, grassroots philosophy often ruffles feathers – and not just those of the police: “Sometimes the government tries to get Food Not Bombs groups to become charities and says ‘oh, just don’t have the literature and banner, and then you can serve the food'”.

Occasionally the authorities go even further. McHenry describes a US policy called Weed and Seed in which food donations will be withheld if a population is not “cooperating”. This could include getting people to move out of an area so it can be gentrified. “They will say ‘we’ll give you food if you do what we say and we will not give you any food if you don’t do what we say'”, McHenry explains.

Even charities, including UK-based ones, try to get Food Not Bombs to change its agenda or name. “They often approach us and say ‘oh, you’ve got to change your name’, we can’t work with you unless you change your name'”.

Food for thought
During the Q&A session after the Housing Justice talk, McHenry defended soup kitchens, which have been criticised by some UK individuals and organisations in recent years: “if people are not spending their energy trying to find food, and struggling and starving, they have more freedom to come up with other ideas of things to do.

“And the message of just giving out free stuff is pretty dramatic, which is one of the reasons why we have a policy of giving it to anybody – whether they’re rich or poor, drunk or sober. Because in a capitalist system, free stuff kind of destabilises people’s image of what’s happening.”

However, for McHenry, giving free food is not enough – there also has to be a political message, most importantly to drive social change, but also to balance the often unequal relationship between giver and receiver. Having been homeless five times himself (and still struggling with housing troubles now), McHenry is well aware of this divide: “In America, I always felt the way that most charities treat homeless people is like they’re above the homeless… they try to make you feel like you should be really appreciative of it and that you’re kind of maybe retarded or stupid or something and that’s why you’re homeless.”

In fact, sleeping rough has made McHenry more determined and given him “a good impression of how painful it is to be homeless”. It’s also, he says, why he’s so dedicated to Food Not Bombs being a force for social change: “I don’t want to spend my days working so that everybody gets to be in a soup line – I want to spend my days working so that no one has to go to a soup line and everyone has a warm place to go to sleep.”

Could this happen by 2012, as so many are promising?

“I think we could end homelessness by 2012,” says McHenry, “but it’s going to take total undying dedication to ending capitalism, and it seems to be going to opposite direction currently. “We have to get to a point where either we have made it so uncomfortable for the owners of property that they decide ‘OK, surplus property is illegal and we’re going to just let people live in it’ or some major shifts of consciousness happen. And in America, actually that is happening… People who were diehard capitalist Republicans have lost their homes and are now seeing that maybe this political and economic system is not realistic.”

This economic system, in which a huge proportion of the budget is spent on defence, is a key bone of contention for McHenry and, as its name suggests, for Food Not Bombs as a whole – particularly in the US, and here in the UK where the defence budget is set to increase from £32.6 billion in 2007/08 to £36.9 billion in 2010/11.

The role of Food Not Bombs, therefore, is to provide “a foundation of how to work together, how to make decisions together by consensus and how to work cooperatively to directly solve problems like hunger, homelessness, transportation, energy, healthcare – things like that”.

Getting involved
Food Not Bombs is growing all the time and the creation of new groups is always encouraged. For a guide to setting up a chapter in your area, visit and read the ‘Seven Steps to Organising a Local Food Not Bombs‘.

There are groups across England, in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Leicester, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and York. In London, the Brixton and Whitechapel Food Not Bombs groups have now combined under one Hackney chapter and can be contacted at


Still a big problem


(The Pavement, 4 March 2010) An Emmaus companion was discharged from Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital, London, wearing a pair of pyjama bottoms, prompting fresh concern about the aftercare of homeless patients.

Harry Dixon, 48, said he was “really embarrassed” as he waited at Victoria Coach Station for over six hours to catch a coach back to Bolton.

Mr Dixon had come to London to volunteer with Crisis at Christmas, as he has done for the past 15 years. On New Year’s Eve, he was out in Leicester Square when someone poured a drink over him.

As he chased the man around the corner, Mr Dixon was attacked with a champagne bottle. “I got whacked in the face and the next thing I know I was on the floor, in a pool of blood,” he told The Pavement.

At Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust, the police took Mr Dixon’s clothes for forensic testing, leaving him with nothing to wear, as his luggage had also been stolen during the attack. When he was discharged on 6 January, hospital staff provided a shirt, jumper, jacket, shoes and pair of underpants. Although he says they tried their best, the staff could only find pyjama bottoms to replace his trousers.

At Mr Dixon’s request, the hospital called a taxi to take him to St Martin-in-the-Fields, but by the time the taxi arrived, it was already too late for him to get into The Connection day centre. St Martin’s referred him to Charing Cross Police Station, where he secured a travel permit to return to Bolton.

“I was sitting round Victoria from 5pm till 11.30pm in pyjama bottoms,” Mr Dixon said. “I tried to keep away from the doors because obviously it was too cold. Everyone kept looking at me… I felt like I was from a mental hospital because all I had was a carrier bag”.

What about the guidelines?

Back in December 2006, Homeless Link and the London Network for Nurses and Midwives released a set of guidelines for discharging homeless patients from hospital, as reported in The Pavement (Issue 32, London edition, June 2008).

Issued in partnership with Communities for Local Government (CLG) and the Department of Health (DH), the guidelines stated “safe discharge is the duty of the hospital trust”, citing the need for hospitals to work in partnership with local authority housing departments, social services and voluntary groups working with homeless people.

According to Alice Evans, head of policy analysis at Homeless Link, the guidelines were sent out to all their members, and the DH included links to it in their mailings to NHS hospitals and Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). The guidelines have not been redistributed since, though Ms Evans said Homeless Link have continued to promote them.

Although not legally enforceable, the guidelines were intended to educate hospital staff on dealing with homeless patients, covering subjects such as ensuring the patient does not lose their space in a hostel or contacting their key worker. Provision of clothing, however, is not mentioned.

“We haven’t been prescriptive in the guidance,” explained Ms Evans. “It’s saying to each hospital you need to think about what is suitable for you… [Homeless patients] need to have appropriate clothing whether that’s the hospital’s responsibility or the hospital liaises with the day centre, who may have the clothing that they can provide.”

For Guy’s and St Thomas’s, the issue of lack of clothing is apparent in a public appeal on their website which reads: “Washed clothing is urgently needed for patients admitted who are either homeless, have had their own clothes cut off, or who have been brought to the department in their nightwear. These patients often have no-one to bring in their own clothing from home, so the donated clothing helps make sure that everyone leaves the hospital with dignity.”

Despite the guidelines having been available for more than three years, in the interim findings of Homeless Link’s Health Audit, published in October last year, only three out of the 17 respondents admitted to hospital were helped with their housing before being discharged.

“There is more work to be done around getting the guidance adopted and implemented by hospitals,” Ms Evans conceded. “There is movement across the country, but it’s sporadic in terms of what’s happening.”

Defending Homeless Link, she added: “We have limited resources… it’s a long process getting [a hospital protocol] set up because of the number of different partners involved in it.” In response to the slow take-up, Ms Evans said Homeless Link was “thinking ourselves what more we can do around promoting the guidance and encouraging uptake”. Yet she could not yet provide any specific examples of what this action might be.

“We’re just talking, we’re starting to think about it,” said Ms Evans, instead highlighting the Health Needs Audit and the hospital discharge case studies it was commissioned to conduct by the Housing Learning and Improvement Network.

“We have [also] promoted West Sussex short-term housing provision for people when released from hospital who are waiting for appropriate accommodation and are temporarily housed by an RSL [Registered Social Landlord] in disabled-access flats. We were also involved in evidencing and getting set up an innovative intermediate care provision for homeless people, which has now been set up with a hostel in Lambeth.”

Ironically, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust is seen as a beacon of excellence when it comes to homeless hospital discharge. Communications manager Malcolm Bennie told The Pavement the hospital was aware of Homeless Link’s guidelines and follows them. It also has its own protocol and, for the past two years, a dedicated homeless patients’ discharge coordinator. This role, Mr Bennie said, is “primarily for supporting patients who are in acute hospital beds and to facilitate and support discharge. However, the person is also available if there are problems for patients who attend A&E, but a number of homeless patients do attend A&E out of hours.”

Mr Dixon requested to see the homeless coordinator during his time at Guy’s and St Thomas’s and told The Pavement: “He tried his best… I wanted to go to Winchester [at the time] but that never happened.”

As well as a homeless-patient coordinator, the hospital also has use of the Simon Patient Hotel, which offers bed and board and a minimal amount of personal care for patients who are unable to return home when they are well enough to leave the ward. Patients can stay in the NHS-funded facility for between one day and six weeks.

Although Mr Bennie was unable to talk to The Pavement about Mr Dixon’s case, he said, “Each patient is assessed on an individual basis for discharge requirements, including pre-paid transport… If required, we will attempt to contact a homeless person’s keyworker. This will depend on the time of day and the individual patient’s requirements.”

The next step

While Homeless Link thinks about its next step, other organisations are making homeless discharge a priority issue.

In the summary to its 2008 Health Strategy, St Mungo’s has pledged to “press for every resident discharged from hospital to have an appropriate treatment plan with follow up” and to set up a pilot “hospital at home” project. In January 2009, it implemented this through the launch of The Intermediate Care Pilot Project at its Cedars Road hostel, which aims to ease discharges from hospital and provide key health and medical care for its clients. A report on the project is due to be released this April.

In terms of governmental response, the CLG publication No One Left Out: communities ending rough sleeping reported in November last year that “recommendations have been made to NHS London – through the London Delivery Board – for the establishment of Homeless Ward Rounds to prevent people leaving hospital with nowhere to go.”

The Pavement contacted Daniel Pople in the NHS London communications team to find out whether these “homeless ward rounds” have been implemented, and to ask how many homeless patient discharge coordinators there are in London, but at the time of printing still had not received a reply.

However, according to Ms Evans, the London Delivery Board is making homeless hospital discharge a priority. “Over the next few months, the Board’s Health Subgroup will lead a project working with London hospitals, supporting them to ensure that rough sleepers are discharged in a planned manner that takes them off the streets,” she explained.


Homeless man’s body stolen for WWII plot


(The Pavement, 4 February 2010) The body of a homeless Welshman was illegally used in a British plot to deceive the Nazis during World War II, it was recently revealed.

Glyndwr Michael’s corpse was dumped in the sea off the Spanish coast, in 1943, carrying fake secret documents outlining plans to switch the British invasion of Sicily to Greece.

The plot, known as Operation Mincemeat, was “swallowed rod, line and sinker” (a telegram to Churchill triumphantly reported) and Hitler moved his troops to Greece.

Speculation as to the identity of the body has followed over the years. However, a government cover-up meant Mr Michael’s name was concealed until 1996, when files on Operation Mincemeat were declassified.

Even then, it was not until Professor Denis Smyth, a historian at Toronto University, came across a “secret” memo written by Mincemeat’s chief conspirator, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, that the truth finally came to light.

Mr Michael had been found in an abandoned warehouse near King’s Cross on 26 January, 1943. He was suffering from acute chemical poisoning, having ingested rat poison, and died two days later.

Times journalist Ben Macintyre has also uncovered a disturbing chain of events behind the celebrated plot, which formed the basis for the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. Montague had previously claimed that the dead man’s relatives had given their permission for the body to be used “for a really worthwhile purpose” on the condition his identity was never revealed. However, Mr Macintyre discovered this paperwork had been falsified by Sir Bentley Purchase, the coroner of St Pancras, and no attempt had been made to contact Mr Michael’s family.

Sir Purchase also failed to carry out a post mortem examination, identified Michael as a suicidal labourer of no fixed abode and a “lunatic”, and informed the registrar that the body was being “removed out of England” for burial. However, he had secretly agreed to keep the corpse in cold storage until it was needed.

This is not the first time a homeless body has been used without the relatives’ permission. In 2004, a Siberian pathologist was reported to have sent the corpses of homeless people to German anatomist Günther von Hagens, the man behind the recent Body Worlds exhibitions.


Street Heat


(The Pavement, 4 February 2010) Celebrities love to do (or be seen doing) their bit for homeless people – bar Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies, who bit a homeless man instead. In honour of their selfless deeds, we’ve collected a number of stars that have made the news for helping our readers over the festive season.

Not one known to gush, Hollywood hard-man Russell Crowe proved he was a softie at heart when he gave his winter coat to a homeless fan, known as Radio Man, who had cycled to Pittsburgh just to see Crowe on set filming The Next Three Days. The coat in question was a grey, downy number with a fur hood. Good job Radio Man’s favourite actor isn’t Sex And The City clothes horse Sarah Jessica Parker.

Russell Crowe’s coat pales into insignificance, however, in comparison to the generous gifts of the French first lady, Carla Bruni, who has struck up a friendship with a homeless man living near in her Paris home. Denis, 53, said Ms Bruni regularly hands over €50 or €100 notes, and the pair discuss books and music. The 41-year-old ex-model has also given her neighbour a military-style duvet and offered to put him up in a hotel, an offer he turned down. “It’s not that I enjoy being in the street, but I’ve got my habits,” Denis told reporters. “People say it’s cold. That’s true, but I’m well covered up.” It’s also a good excuse to use when his new friend asks if he’s listened to her latest album.

Rather than handing out CDs, living music legend Bob Dylan is donating the sales of his latest musical offering to homelessness. In the festive spirit (or possibly after one too many festive spirits), the grizzled singer-songwriter recorded an album of traditional Yuletide favourites entitled Christmas In The Heart. Released on October 12, the royalties go towards Crisis UK and the World Food Programme. Bob Dylan rocking out ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’? The times they are a-changing.

But first prize goes to fashion oddball Lady Gaga, who last year raised US$35,000 for a Toronto shelter, toured youth shelter Eva’s Phoenix and dished out free concert tickets to young volunteers as part of Virgin Mobile’s RE*Generation campaign to help homeless youngsters in the US. “If I can be inspiring to them and be a part of it, that makes me feel more powerful than any of the stage drama or the flashing lights,” gushed the Paparazzi star.

London culture

Disabled Arts Given Boost for London 2012


(Visit London, 7 October 2009). There was a buzz of excitement at the Southbank Centre today as Unlimited, the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad project to support disabled-led arts, culture and sport, was launched.

“Bring it on!” was the enthusiastic verdict of Jenny Sealey MBE, Unlimited’s Artistic Advisor and Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company. “There are plenty of us waiting in the wings to come and fly.”

We were given a sneak peek of the sort of talent Unlimited will be supporting over the next three years as The BLT Crew – an upbeat trio of DJs with learning disabilities – spun a selection of feel-good party tunes, from My Guy to Baby Love.

There was also a performance by Cando2, the Candoco Dance Company’s Youth Dance Company, which runs weekly classes for disabled and non-disabled youngsters at London’s Siobhan Davies Dance Studios, The Place and Aspire.

£3 million has been earmarked for the project, which will provide funding, training and a platform for disabled and deaf-led organisations and artists.

Other speakers included Tony Hall, chair of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Board and Chief Exec of the Royal Opera House – who wasted no time in getting on the decks with The BLT Crew and picking up some tips – and Chris Holmes. The nine-time Paralympic gold medal winner and London 2012 Director of Paralympic Integration entertained everyone with some sporting anecdotes before getting us all to shout “Unlimited” – and refusing to accept our feeble first attempt!

Like the project, the event was as inclusive as possible; with a sign-language interpreter on hand and instant subtitles on a large TV screen. Jenny Sealey even created a new way to “sign” Unlimited – an energetic combination of the sign language words for “create” and “explosion”.

After the launch, we spoke to Jenny about the two main obstacles facing many disabled artists:

  • negative attitudes
  • physical obstacles (such as lack of interpreters, lifts etc at venues).

“There’s still a perception that disabled performers can’t do Shakespeare, for example,” she says, with frustration, “but it’s still Shakespeare, there’s just another undercurrent to the performance. We all have our own unique selling point.”

To apply for funding or find out more about Unlimited, visit

If you’re interested in exploring the disabled arts scene in London, why not check out Crossings, a new play by Julie McNamara at The Cochrane Theatre in London this November – it comes highly recommended by Jenny. And who knows what new talent Unlimited will uncover… watch this space!