The Practical Radical

K’naan – The Dusty Foot Philosopher Steps up

July 5, 2010
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Most rappers would be considered a sell out if they let their song be used by Coke. Not K’naan.

“I have a lot of friends who are from either side, Mos Def and those guys who are in the conscious lane. I know other friends who are in the make-money lane. But for me, I see myself as someone who can speak to both audiences,” he said. “That to me is important, to never claim a position too smart for the listener. I think it’s important to reach everybody.” (read the complete CNN article Somali rapper bucks hip-hop code of violence). His interview with CNN as well demonstrates the basic humbleness of the guy.

I first got to know of K’naan when i was organizing the youth program for the World Urban Forum in 2006. What I learned was that he was both a principled artist and a pretty good businessman. He never did play at the WUF (unfortunate, as we had a great lineup and over 5000 people attending), but one of the EYAers organizing the WUF, Kevina Power, and a EYAer turned Hip Hop blogger/writer Tara Henley helped out on an amazing concert tour in Joburg and Soweto. (I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not attending this was one of them).

K'naan in Soweto, June 2005

I later was able to briefly connect with him at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (of all places) as part of my volunteer work on the media committee. Again, blown away by the guy and his amazing music and poetry.  This is a photo I took of him playing on the mainstage (with the mountains in background … surreal).

K'naan in Vancouver

What moved me about his Wavin Flag was the strong shout out (like my hip hop lingo?) to youth in Africa:

So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
It’s not far away, so for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag
And then it goes back, and then it goes back
And then it goes back

So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
I heard them say, love is the way
Love is the answer, that’s what they say,
But look how they treat us, make us believers
We fight their battles, then they deceive us
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers

I love the in your face realism of his message – yes, we are proud; yes, we will move forward to a promised future; but damn the struggle is hard. Funny enough, this verse is not repeated in the official Coke song. I guess Coke isn’t THAT radical.

He has an earlier song (In the Beginning) that speaks to this message of the struggle – it is really beautiful and quite moving spoken word:

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark
In the eyes of the youth there are question marks
Like freedom
Freedom for the mind and soul
We don’t see them
See them for their worth at all
That’s why we lead them
Lead them to these wars and what is it we feed them
Feed them our impurities and who it is we treat them
Treat them like the enemy humanity will need them
Need them like the blood we spill and where freedom

Freedom for the hearts we fill
Mislead them
They hunger for the love we give
But we cheat them

The cops beat them when all he wants is his freedom
So they defeat them
Whatever spirit he’s got
Beat them

And they teach them that the rest of the world don’t need him
And he believes it’s a disease that he’s heathen
Put up your fists if all you want is freedom

You really have to listen to the song to get the full impact.

It is amazing to see that someone from such a background as his can hit it out of the park the way he has. Gives me some hope for the future.

ps. for those die-hards, here is Wavin Flag … one more time.

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Framing Our World – A Photo Collage

June 30, 2010
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This is a photo collage done for the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006. The photos are part of a larger exhibition focused on youth perspective on the urban environment. The photos exhibition was mounted by EYA and UN-HABIAT. Photos done by KK Law.

Generations of Woodwards

From the roof of Woodwards 1

From the roof of Woodwards 2

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Nairobi Reflection 3: High Touch/Low Tech

June 17, 2010
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Community Mapping has always been quite an amazing tool – it localizes knowledge, draws on the “mappers” personal and community experiences, identifies interconnectedness – all this coming together and increasing social capital (if you are interested in the concepts of social capital read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone; to better understand how it relates to mapping, read up on John Mcknight’s Asset Based Community Development). You can check out some of the work that the International Centre for Sustainable Cities and UN-HABITAT has done on community mapping by checking out their draft asset mapping manual.

As I have written about before, the Kibera Mapper’s project take this to the next level by combining the “soft” components of mapping – working with community, getting them to identify their “assets” or “social capital” – with the “hard” components of mapping – turning out maps which can be used in community organizing and advocacy. These organizing and advocacy outputs can be used to influence decision makers such as planners – I like to thing of it as the “pointy stick” of mapping, where you can drive your message home with great success.

What is even more exciting is how low tech this has become. Using what they call Walking Papers mappers are able to draw directly onto a map and then have it scanned and that be uploaded directly to a digital map. No GPS, no uploading to an onsite computer. The definition of High Touch/Low Tech.

A Walking Paper example - the barcode in bottom right allows the map to be scanned and lined up with an offsite digital map

Anyways, I am re-blogging Mikel’s post from the Map Kibera blog. It gives a lot more detail and new insight into mapping — real-time — in the field.

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Nairobi Notebook 2: The Sustainability of Good Works

June 14, 2010
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Nairobi Notebook

NOTE: I had a wonderful lunch when i was in Nairobi with some of the people from the Map Kibera project (you can read my previous blog on this here, or go to their website mapkibera.org). What fascinated me was the stage they were at in regards to the growth of their project and their concern about assuring that the project was sustainable. This  got me thinking about sustainability and NGOs. Here are my musings on the subject …

Just as the coin for business is, well, coins, the coin for NGOs is change. Positive change. It is what every NGO assumes it will be able to achieve when they start, and what many fail to do. The challenge often for NGOs as with for-profit companies is achieving and sustaining their success.

To achieve success an agency agency needs to plan, to plan they must have a  “business model” – guidelines to better understand where they stand in relation to their own development.

One traditional for-profit model is that of the “business cycle” or “S curve”.

aides1.jpg (11156 bytes)

This model  is used to understand the growth  of industries and organizations. However, the S curve does not recognize key components of a healthy system – specifically the phases of destruction and renewal. A healthy forest is one that has trees grow older, die, and then become the fertilizer for the new growth. The S curve is silent on these phases of destruction and renewal. Ironically, it is the paradox of having things dies that assures the longterm sustainability of a healthy system.

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K’naan at World Cup

June 11, 2010
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Wish I was there!!

Some quotes left regarding the video:

CENTRAL AMERICA, AFRICA, & SOUTH AMERICA WAVE YOUR FLAGS with PRIDE!!!!we might be 3rd world countries but my god we are stronger then any wealthy nations

Respect and love to K’naan. Thank you for waving the somali flag. One day somalia will be the country we knew. Peaceful, best weather on earth and beatiful people like u

K’naan You’re the best ever and your song will be the best song world cup in Africa I’m very proud of you K’naan and thanks for the

woow k’naan well done man,,,, u really made me cry when i sow my flag woow i dont know what to say K’naan love u so much 

You know in a weird way this performance really moved me… just such a mix of cultures in the crowd, thousands of them coming together to sing a song about being proud of who you are and where you come from, and to have a man from somalia, a country thats been through so much to sing it, it was very powerful 🙂

For one month, the world is at peace, and the only battle that takes place is on the field. For a brief moment in time, EVERYONE is united. You can see that in this video


Digital Access for All: Broadband for the People … really

June 4, 2010
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When there is an increase in broadband speed in the North America, we can download more episodes of our favorite TV show (mine is 30 rock); when broadband speed increases in Africa, millions more people get online through mobile technologies.

Whole “development” leaps are being taken on the African continent – mind numbing and corrupt bureaucracy is in one click being overcome with government services going online; banking is being revolutionized with mobile “MPESA” banking;  “urban wilderness”, the unplanned settlements or slums, or being mapped for the first time. And I can go on – read my article on Bridging the Digital Divide.

Just saw this great article and video done by Declan McCormack on the impact of mobile phones and the internet in east Africa that i thought nails it in regards to what is going on. Enjoy.

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Pradical Blog: The Demographic Divide: Are Youth the Angels or the Demons of the New Millenium

May 10, 2010
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The Globe and Mail (Canada) ran a special edition on Africa which touched on the key issue of youth, but they missed the opportunity to put the issues into global context and look at next steps. Here is a bit more of an in-depth analysis.


In the 20th century it took decades for the international community to realize the value of women to the community – even though they were 50% of the population. We are in danger of this same thing happening with youth in the 21st century. Are youth angels, our hope for a new world, or are they demons who will rise up and bring our world crashing down?

Throughout history youth have been the leaders of revolutions and the fodder for generals. They are the victims of poverty and the engines of economy.

Africa is the youngest continent demographically. 70-80% of most African countries are under the age of 30. In developing regions as a whole, least developed countries are younger that the rest of the world and in 2005, the global median age was 28 years. In the 10 least-developed African countries it was 16 or younger.

Yet we need to look at the issues of Africa within the context of the larger demographic divide which exists globally.

In the North or developed world we have what can be characterized as the old geezers. The developed world population is rapidly aging, their productive (and reproductive!) capacity is slowing down, their needs are increasing. No longer can they depend on the entrepreneurialism of the boomer generations and its drive to conquer all, damn the consequences.

The South or developing world is youthful and in economic terms, in the prime of its life. Yet, they are living under deplorable, inhumane conditions and find the deck stacked against them, unable to fight their way out and up.

In the map below we can graphically see how the developing world, especially the African continent, is youthful. If we look behind the numbers we can also see an increasingly urban world, where it has been estimated that half of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing world cities and slums, and over 60% of those being under the age of 18.

So what does this all mean for the developed and developing world?

On the positive side, for much of the developing world this “youth bulge” could bring about, with the appropriate investment in education and training, an economic boom. According to the recent World Development Report 2007 the time has never been better to invest in young people living in developing countries … rich and poor countries alike need to seize this opportunity before the aging of societies closes it. Doing so will enable them to grow faster and reduce poverty even further. Education and training has been found to be the key determinant in youth having an equal opportunity to succeed (State of the Urban Youth Report). Clearly, many people believe, both in the ivory towers of international agencies and on the ground in developing countries, that there is hope.

Yet, there is clearly a darkside to this youthful demographic, stemming from the aforementioned inhuman conditions youth live within, and their inability to attain a proper livelihood. According to the ILO, of the 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 24 worldwide, one out of three is either seeking but unable to find work, and has given up the job search entirely or is working but living on less than US$2 a day. Youth as well face a scourge of other issues: violence at a higher rate than the rest of the community, youth being both the victims and the perpetrators; HIV AIDs rates higher than the regular population; etc. Youth are more often perceived as a threat than anything positive. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute are not welcoming the “youth bulge” as the chance for a new generation to advance their countries out of poverty and destitution, but  are more worried about this as bringing about the growth of terrorism. I have written about this challenge and possible solutions in papers I have delivered recently in the Middle East.

In regards to the developed world there is as well good and bad.

We can see the negative effects of an aging society with schools closing because of the lack of children and a growing drain on our social services because of an aging and needy population. Economically it is projected that due to our aging and unproductive society, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s capital will be in the developing world, compared to just 7.7 percent today. Though it is well understood that we need to keep young people coming in to maintain a youthful and productive society, both policy nor society in general seems to understand this. Society’s response seems to be represented by either the growth of militia groups and  new anti-immigrant laws in the Southern US, or the continuing riots in the suburbs of Paris and other major European cities.

On the positive side there is a greater recognition of the dividend that diversity brings both socially and economically. There has been some excellent work done on this both by researchers and journalists.

In the end we need to look at solutions that recognize youth as assets to their community. Many international agencies are recognizing the benefit of engaging youth as leaders of today, not only tomorrow. The recently published World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series is a good place to start, but there are many more. If you know of any please post them in the comment section and I will put them up in a future blog.

World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series publications

  1. Youth Led Development in Sustainable Cities – From Idea, to Policy to Practice
  2. The Place Of Children – Poverty + Promise
  3. Youth In Urban Development – Bringing Ideas into Action
  4. One Stop Youth Resource Centres – Local Governments Response to Improving Youth Livelihood
  5. Space for Change

May 9th, 1994 – A great day in history

May 9, 2010
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On May 9, 1994 Nelson Mandela was named President of South Africa, ending the apartheid era which began some 342 years ago when white’s settled in the cape.

“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered,” he declared, “We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was involved with an agency in Canada struggling against apartheid, and proudly wore a ANC t-shirt, which honestly not many people really understood. Though my role was only as an educator, and I realize I could never understand  what it mean to live under such a system, I was none-the-less inspired by the struggle, and in awe of the man.

I have since had the honor of meeting ex-President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, a contemporary of Mandela’s, and a winner of the Moe Ibrahim Award for Good Governance in Africa. The presence of this man – it is hard to explain – calm, wise, powerful in a way that lifts people up – it is what I would imagine Mandela to be like. You can read an excellent interview done by Lee-Anne with President Chissano at WUF V in Nanjing, China in her newsletter or in UN-HABITAT’s quarterly publication Urban World.

Though I doubt I will ever meet Mandela, his life has inspired me, and challenge me to attempt to embody and act on the values he espouses.

A great day in history – a good day to remember.

ps. a great resource regarding Mandela can be found on the NY Times website


Posted in Africa, Development

Ideology Kills Update 3 – Africa Invited, Maternal Policy Needs Clarification

May 8, 2010
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Prime Minister Harper has just invited Malawi and Ethiopia to the G20 meeting happening next week – and if they accept they  will be the first African countries other than South Africa to attend. This generous act brings up complications for the government and the bureaucrats who have to deliver any supposed new maternal programs they are going to create.

In 2005 Ethiopia passed a law that IPAS, a well respected maternal health agency, called a “significant precedent for abortion-law reform in other African nations“. This law, passed in 2005, permits abortion in a broad range of situations: when the pregnancy results from rape or incest; when the health or life of the woman and the fetus are in danger; in cases of fetal abnormalities; for women with physical or mental disabilities; and for minors who are physically or psychologically unprepared to raise a child. The revised law also notes that poverty and other social factors may be grounds for reducing the criminal penalty for abortion.

Sounds great. Sounds like Ethiopia has more progressive policy than the Conservative Party of Canada.

What needs to be clarified is Canada’s stance on their stated non-funding of abortion policy and how it affects funding to nations such as Ethiopia. Are they inviting one of the most advanced countries in regards to maternal health in Africa without informing them that a key component of their health policy will disallow funding? How is this policy interpreted in regards to funding? It is grossly simplistic to say that Canada will fund one component of their maternal health care and not the other.

This again demonstrates the continued foreign policy confusion within the Canadian government and demands a re-think on this key maternal health policy … before it is launched next week.

ps. It is also worth noting that Malawi is one of the countries in the world where the greatest number of maternal deaths occur, attributed in part due to their abortion policies, where abortions lead to “complications such as haemorrhage, infection, infertility and death … overdosing on drugs such as quinine, drinking powdered soaps and using herbs from traditional healers were cited as the most common methods of illegal abortion in Malawi.”


Ideology Kills Update – Canada’s stance hypocritical and unjust

May 7, 2010
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The Lancet just published an article stating the Canada was hypocritical and unjust, stating that “Seventy thousand women die from unsafe abortions worldwide every year. The Canadian government does not deprive women living in Canada from access to safe abortions; it is therefore hypocritical and unjust that it tries to do so abroad.”

Here’s hoping for some coherent and just foreign policy.

Click here to download the Lancet editorial.


Posted in Africa, Canadian, Politics
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