Q&A: Sean Jacobs on Africa Is A Country

When Sean Jacobs started blogging in 2005, he named his page after Leo Africanus, the 16th century Moroccan-Andalusian traveler whose book “Descriptions of Africa” corrected ill-informed European notions of Africa (the northern region at least). 

Jacobs, who is from South Africa, had recently joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. The narratives he saw of Africa in western media at the time, he says, either focused on terrorism or “save Africa” stories. “A lot of that stuff reduced Africa to not this continent with 54 countries, you know, 800 million diverse people. It basically, in effect, became one place,” he said. 

In 2009 he renamed his blog Africa Is A Country, and it is now a website devoted to writing about the news, stories, and opinions that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora find most interesting. CJR spoke to Jacobs from his home in Brooklyn. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Feven Merid: First things first. Why the name?

Sean Jacobs: I got obsessed with the way people were talking about Africa in the West. So what I did on that old blog, whenever I was exasperated, discussing political happenings or some art I would say “and Africa is a country.” Coming to the New School in 2009 to teach, I was kind of like, I think I should change the name of this blog, and I just came up with that and it stuck. Once I called it Africa Is A Country I noticed people were reading it a lot more because it’s like clickbait so it got way more readers. 

You’ve written in a piece that there are some benefits to thinking of Africa as one?

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I wrote a piece actually where I quoted one of the people [Neelika Jayawardane] who was involved in the site, she said on the one hand you’re trying to debunk this notion that it’s one place, but on the other there’s also this way in which we were building some kind of community. 

Like a Pan-African type of thing?

It’s doing what a couple of other magazines did before it, like the magazine Transition in the 60s and 70s. It was published by this Ugandan Indian guy called Rajat Neogy and that was the place that you had [Wole] Soyinka debating [Ali] Mazrui debating [Nadine] Gordimer. Kwame Nkrumah was there. It was a place where Africans thought about the future, and I kind of think about it like that, that it’s got to be that space where we try to imagine the futures we want.

Are there other inspirations or influences that you draw from for Africa Is A Country?

I grew up under apartheid. At the time I was in high school, there were a lot of protests and so I was impressed by the big political movement which was called the United Democratic Front. On top of it, South Africa has a really strong history of not just activist media but what was called in South Africa the “Alternative Press” — small nonprofit newspapers that weren’t interested in making money, but exposing information and really reflecting the debate of the progressive left-wing [and] Black consciousness movement[s] in South Africa. When I came to the US, I was reading a lot of Black journalists who wrote for the big American papers in the late 80s, early 90s, like Joe Wood and Adolph Reed Jr. at The Village Voice, Brent Staples at The New York Times. And I was quite influenced by publications like In These Times and the style, though not necessarily the politics, of The New Republic.

I noticed this distinction: in the US you have opinion magazines or sections, in the UK and other cultures you have more a journalism that is unafraid to tell you about its ideological orientation. In South Africa historically, newspapers and magazines … didn’t pretend to be everything to everybody like The New York Times likes to pretend to be. Those things drove how I thought, and where I’d place Africa Is A Country

How did you go about finding the team of people you have now? 

I would say we found people who thought of themselves as writers, but didn’t have access to formal journalism outlets. For example, there was Ndeye Debo Seck, a Senegalese school teacher I met who had ideas and opinions I thought were really interesting about the Senegalese experience. There are other people, like academics, who wanted to write in a popular medium, but they just didn’t have that sort of journalistic lexicon. So that’s how it was, sort of by osmosis, it wasn’t really a strategy, it was just kind of picking people up with you as you meet them so if a topic came up I might know somebody. I’d ask them to write something and say, “try and say it in 900 words and don’t worry we’ll edit it.” 

There was a point around 2012 where we made a conscious decision to be mindful of the balance of the people. They can’t all be from the diaspora because if you’re writing about a cultural phenomenon like “Black Panther” you’re viewing it differently if you’re watching it in Accra than New York. We have a fellowship that we offer to ten young writers and of those ten we made sure most were Africans living on the continent.

How does funding the site work? 

When we started nobody got paid, including myself. [In 2019] I became a Shuttleworth  fellow and they give you $275,000 per year for the project you’re working on, and I’ve been lucky to have received that fellowship three years in a row so that meant I could employ people. I employ a managing editor; he gets a salary. Then I employ a number of contract employees including copy editors, a senior editor, and our staff writer. 

I think I’m always going to have to fundraise. However, we are trying to do other things; we’re trying to integrate merchandise. We’re actually working on simplifying the process for people to donate. All our content is free, it’s published under a Creative Commons license so you can copy it, run it on your website translated, you don’t have to pay us for it.

Africa Is A Country has projects focusing on climate change and capitalism in African countries. Why those topics?

It’s about the fact that these resources are there and multinational corporations and governments are going to extract them. So the question becomes, if that is a fact and it is happening, how do we ensure they are accountable to the communities who live in the Niger Delta, or the platinum belt in South Africa, or the natural gas fields of Mozambique? The other part is to say the model of extraction is not sustainable, this idea that we should just have this continuous growth is not sustainable. It’s not just about making the corporations accountable, it’s also about how do we strengthen the capacity for governments to ​​make things better.

There’s an idea that Africans are on the margins of capitalism, that they’re not part of the way that money is moving. But actually they’ve always been part of capitalism, since the arrival of colonialism, and they are intimately involved in it. A place like Nairobi is a capitalist city and one of the things we did there is connect with this group called the Mathare Social Justice Center. 

It doesn’t do much theorizing, its work has to do with police brutality, housing––very local struggles––but around them they have young intellectuals emerging, people who are thinking about how they are living. They set up a little team and made this proposal to us called “Capitalism In My City” to make videos showing things like pollution, and unemployment. 

The way we’re going to write about capitalism can’t be like the New Left Review or some obscure leftist journal type thing. It has to be in line with regular people and also people who are not necessarily interested in Kenya or might think the life somebody lives in Nairobi is not like theirs in New York.

Coverage around African LGBTQ rights is one particular area that tends to be very bleak in Western media. How does your site approach it? 

There’s a lot happening that might be oversimplified. One example: when Binyavanga Wainaina came out in his piece headlined “I am a homosexual, mum”. He was interviewed by NPR and said he did not want this to be published in a Western publication because opponents of gay rights in Africa would say, ‘Oh, you’re promoting that Western thing.” So the essay was published in Chimurenga and Africa Is A Country. That’s the function we serve: it’s a conversation among ourselves about what’s already there. 

If you think these countries are only homophobic, it turns out there is a long history of multiple sexualities, of non-heteronormative sexualities. If the state is not there yet to make laws happen, that’s only one part of the story. 

Lastly, you recently wrote about your site’s efforts to make more connections with communities in other parts of the world, like Asia, South America, Australia etc. What’s the thought behind that? 

The connection to the diaspora — South America has a large and very influential population of Africans. And there are communities who are not necessarily African but their place, their relation to the world is similar. We’ve run articles on “what can Africa learn from Asia.”

And for a long time nobody second guessed or questioned Europeans and Americans on why they were talking about other parts of the world. We took it [for granted] that somehow they could speak on anything while we were only supposed to speak about the little places we’re from. Eventually, when people go to the site, they will be able to read about stuff in other parts of the world written by Africans. 

It’s interesting that it’s not deemed as normal. But if an American person goes to a place or has an interest in it, that somehow gives them some level of objectivity or insight. It’s a strange phenomenon. 

 

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Feven Merid is CJR's staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Zachary Rosen