The ironically titled blog aims, among other things, to do away with the the narrative told and retold by western media that Africa is “a perpetual sob story”, Africa is a Country founder Sean Jacobs told Global Voices.
At the same time, Jacobs said, the blog is a collective of scholars, writers, artists, filmmakers, bloggers, and curators who together produce online commentary, original writing, media criticism, short videos, and photography that is working to reimagine Africa as a community.
We recently caught up with Jacobs, a media and international affairs scholar who currently teaches at The New School in New York, to talk about the blog.
Ndesanjo Macha (NM): Will you briefly tell us about yourself?
Sean Jacobs (SJ): I was born in Apartheid South Africa and grew up in a working class coloured township in the city. I am very much a product of segregation, anti-apartheid student movements, affirmative action and the euphoria represented by political freedom in South Africa. I went to the University of Cape Town (still very white at that time) on a scholarship and worked briefly as a journalist before I came to the US as a Fulbright Scholar in the mid-1990s [...]
I returned to South Africa at the end of my studies as I felt I would miss out on the experience of working there while democracy was still fresh. So, in 1997 I got hired by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, an organization which played a central role in South Africa’s political transition. [...]
In 2001, I came to New York City to take up a graduate fellowship at The New School. I eventually settled in New York City and got married.
I suppose I consider myself an African immigrant in America now (I have two children who were born here) and while I keep up with specifically South African politics, I have also come to care more for how the continent and its people is represented in media here. That’s where Africa is a Country came into the picture.
NM: What is Africa is a Country?
SJ: Africa is a Country is a blog that developed over time — and I want to emphasize this process as it wasn't always clear what it would be become — into a collective of scholars, writers, artists, filmmakers, bloggers, and curators who together produce online commentary, original writing, media criticism, short videos, and photography that deliberately challenge and destabilize received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media (that definition includes “old media,” new social media as well as “global news media” like Al Jazeera).
Our main outlet at present is the blog, though we've collaborated with film festivals, print publications and co-hosted public events. We also count as part of our community people who read or comment on our site each day. We've sourced some blog posts and eventual regular contributors from amongst our readers.
NM: Why “Africa is a country”? Isn't Africa a continent?
SJ: Of course we don’t literally believe Africa is a Country. The title of the blog is ironic and is a reaction to old and tired images of “Africa.” As one of the core members of the collective, Neelika Jayawardane, explains in the “About” section on our Facebook page, the blog is that and more. That is, Africa is a Country is also about constructing a kind of “country.” One where the “nation” operates outside the borders of modern nation states in Africa and its continental and conceptual boundaries. So, yes, the blog announces that Africa is indeed a “country,” an imagined community whose “citizens” must reinvent the narrative and visual economy of Africa. I hope that makes sense.
NM: How did you come up with the title of the blog?
SJ: I can’t pinpoint the exact source or moment. It was definitely a mix of factors. There were countless instances of celebrities, politicians (including some who denied immediately that they had said so) who would make the mistake of talking about “the country of Africa” or be very vague of where they traveled when they visited the continent or who exactly (a country, a people, a city, etc) they were describing. In other cases, some journalists implied that Africa was a country in their writings or reporting. But there was something else I did regularly. While blogging as Leo Africanus, I started writing the words “Africa is a Country” in one or other incredulous post about some clearly misdirected reporting from and about Africa. One day I decided to just rename the blog Africa is a Country. It helped that the title attracted more people to show a sudden interest in or reading the blog or that searches for “Africa is a country” led to us.
NM: Who are other authors involved in creating content for the blog?
SJ: Currently the collective consists of about 30 core members and a fluid cast of contributors. So we’re a mix of graduate students, professors, activists, development workers, writers, journalism students, art critics, novelists, photographers, activists, filmmakers, a DJ, and a film curator, among others. [...]
NM: What kind of readers visit your site and where do most of them come from?
SJ: We now have more than 11,000 Facebook “Likes,” close to 20,000 Twitter followers, and average between 7,000-10,000 hits per day on the blog, which has had over three million total views since we made the name change. Readers come from all over, though a fast reliable internet connection helps. So most readers live, work or study in the United States and/or Europe. On the continent, most of the readers come from Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.
NM: What are your greatest achievements with the blog so far?
SJ: That’s for our readers to decide. Again, let me drew on something Elliot and wrote down recently when asked the same question: We feel that global, by definition that’s usually Western, media — with few exceptions — have shown themselves time and again to be utterly unable to cover the continent in the depth and detail it demands, still less with any appreciation for Africa as a site of astonishing cultural and artistic production. Africa is a Country aspires to offer an international-scale corrective to this, not in terms of patronising “positive” news stories or PR-style neoliberal boosterism, but through the sustained daily work of presenting and engaging critically with the cultural and political life of Africa and its diaspora. [...]
Of course, not everything we do is hardcore: Something we are very excited about is the launch recently of a page on the blog titled “Football is a Country.” We've managed to convince some excellent writers, photographers, film makers and bloggers to commit themselves as contributors and we’re hoping to expand on it.
NM: What is most read post so far?
SJ: The most read post on the blog thus far has been by Elliot Ross on Kony 2012.
But I also want to mention a number of other excellent posts (and I am going to have to leave some posts out of this list, though that does not make them less deserving): There’s Boima Tucker’s explorations on DJ culture and Jeremy Weate's “When Kim Kardasian Came to Lagos and “419ed the 419ers”. Separately, we’ve featured a number of interviews such as Zachary Rosen’s interview with artist Toyin Odutola, Corinna Jentzch’s interview with the German photographer Gregor Zielke, Amkelwa Mbekeni’s interview with Bongeziwe Mabandla and historian Dan Magaziner’s interview with the author of a book on Marcus Garvey.