The Narrative That Is Africa

By: Robert Bernstein (adapted from an article that I wrote for “Applause Africa Magazine”)

We just observed a first in the USA – a summit of African leaders over a three day period that took place in Washington, DC and that attempted to produce some positive results for the Continent. Interestingly enough as the comings and goings of the summit were reported, they were often followed by the latest bad news about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. This situation coupled with the still unsolved abduction of 200 plus schoolgirls from Chibok seemed to keep things in perspective or at least keep the status quo in the mind of mainstream media.

As the world ruminates about these issues, some quarters of the mass media seems to utilize these situations to reinforce and reiterate the tired depiction of Africa. The continent with civil strife, mass criminal activity, pandemics and governments at war with their people.

There is the other side of Africa. That view emphasizes educated and motivated Africans who are contemplating and executing plans for projects to benefit both themselves as well as their home lands.  The businesses and organizations range from major technology start- ups to locally based NGO’s that are designed to work where larger entities have failed.

It is through media coverage like this, that there will be change in the narrative that is Africa. The effort to locate and report these stories is crucial if the image of Africa is to change.

It has been nearly sixty years since independence for most countries on the continent and in that time the first post-colonial leaders have come and gone. These men were basically vetted before independence took place to ensure their continued attention to the colonial power. In these cases this meant business as usual in the relationship between country and the former colonial power. As elections take place, these older leaders are being voted out or in some cases pushed out for a new generation of leaders.

In this generational change there is the possibility for a fresh, new look to governance as well as development.

 The younger generation understands that there are two important factors if Africa is to reach its full potential for its citizens. First, the economies have to be re-directed and guided to serve the nation and not some foreign entity. Secondly, there is a large population of young people with a huge reservoir of energy. Somehow and someway these younger Africans must be integrated into the plans for success so that they believe in the future of their homelands. It is crucial that they are part of the resurgence.  If these young people do not see their place in a vibrant recharged Africa they will use that energy to demonstrate their displeasure.

Africans have been resilient as well as innovative in their solutions to local problems. As Dayo Olapade stated in her recent book, “The Bright Continent”, “If necessity is the mother of invention, Africa’s adversities are the mother of necessity”.

We have seen some successful and wonderful efforts on the part of the young entrepreneurs and project directors as we put this issue together. And yet, this is not the end of the narrative. In future issues we will bring you more positive profiles on these innovators. All we ask is that you join us on this journey and imagine the beauty of the continent standing tall and proud.


Photo Courtesy of :The White House

Ferguson, Missouri

By: Robert Bernstein
The situation in Missouri is completely and totally intolerable. The militarization of police in America has risen since the involvement of the USA in Southwest Asia.
To observe local police in camo uniforms standing in military lines with combat vehicles lined up with snipers atop them in the USA is disturbing. Likewise the complete and total use of tactics that trample civil rights is unacceptable. These scenes are reminiscent of Rab’a Square in Cairo.
Arresting local political leaders and the media does not calm any situation. Preventing people to peacefully protest is also unacceptable.
Since the beginning of this incident, the police reaction has been totally over the top. I understand due process and I understand an investigation has to be completed to determine what occurred on Saturday. That said, I am not clear as to why witnesses with possible credible accounts have been turned away and information has not been released.
By the way- why was that young man’s body left out in the open for so many hours on Saturday?
From the first day, when K-9 dog units were deployed to “control” protesters to the use of these “nonlethal weapons” such as rubber bullets, tear gas, smoke grenades the authorities are not attempting to defuse this crisis and work with the community; it seems that they are retreating inward and becoming more reactionary. The image of these law enforcement agencies brings back direct and strong memories of the time in the 60’s when the fight was on for civil rights or of the disturbances outside the ‘68 Chicago DNC Convention.
By the way- what is a “beanbag” non lethal weapon? If that thing hits you in certain places you can still be seriously injured.
The governor of Missouri needs to take charge and deploy State Police of National Guard units to take over this incident and calm things down. If that does not work then it is time for the USDOJ to deploy Federal Marshals.

As Washington, DC became the center of the African Universe last week for the US - Africa Summit, the world was still watching and waiting for some positive developments regarding the kidnapped schoolgirls.

Chibok - 100 Days Plus

A few weeks ago the world marked the 100th day of captivity for the 200 plus schoolgirls held by Boko Haram. The day was marked with ceremonies and demonstrations in many parts of the world. Here in New York City a candlelight vigil organized by Kechie’s Project led by Nkechi Ogbodo was held across the street from Nigeria House.

Since the kidnapping of these girls took place, the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, had not met with the parents or with some students that escaped from Boko Haram. Recently, Malala Yousafzai visited Abuja and met with the president and his wife. This young Pakistani girl had been shot by the Taliban for pursuing her desire to get an education. Malala urged the Nigerian leader to meet with the families and former captives. Although President Jonathan’s response to Malala was non-committal, it now appears that he took her advice as he met with the family members. He used the occasion to explain why the Nigerian Government has not freed the girls as yet. “Our commitment is not just to get the girls out, it is also to route Boko Haram completely from Nigeria. But we are very, very mindful of the safety of the girls. We want to return them all alive to their parents. If they are killed in any rescue effort, then we have achieved nothing,” President Jonathan said to the parents at the meeting according to a press release issued by the Nigerian Federal Government.

Despite his effort to appear sympathetic, Mr. Jonathan’s meeting seems to have created further criticism of his response to Boko Haram and the kidnapping in particular. Some commentators have even stated that the tepid response to Boko Haram was energized by a young girl who was not even from Nigeria.

Sadly, as the children languish somewhere, their parents have been suffering from the stress and the absence of their girls. Some parents have died from a variety of maladies including heart attacks without ever having seen their children released.

The plight of these young girls seemingly has disappeared from the television screens and newspapers of the USA, after a period earlier in the spring when it appeared that the issue was going to be the new cause célèbre of Americans.

As this situation has dragged on through the summer months, it has been eclipsed by many other issues: an Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, a missing Malaysian Airlines plane, a civil war in the Ukraine being instigated by Russia and the crash of another Malaysian Airlines aircraft over the portion of Ukraine territory in dispute. Now with the state of war between Hamas and Israel this incident will fall further from the collective consciousness.

The attacks by Boko Haram have taken a new and more intense direction in the past week. The former leader of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari was travelling in a motorcade when it was struck by a bomb. Then in a brazen attack across the border, Boko Haram hit the town of Kolofata, Cameroon. During the incident the wife of the Cameroonian Vice Prime Minister, Ali Amadou, as well as the Mayor of Kolofata, Lamine Seini Boukar, were kidnapped.

Since the beginning, the actions of Boko Haram have created many questions without answers. The incident is framed as a part of a campaign to bring down the Nigerian government and establish a Muslim Caliphate in the heart of Africa. What part of this dispute is tied to the economic system of Nigeria? Who is funding Boko Haram – Al Qaeda as we are being told or some other group, perhaps from within Nigeria?

A short time before the kidnapping occurred, Nigeria had just been declared the biggest economy in Africa. If Nigeria is designated as a state with an active terrorist problem, what will be the effect on its economy and further investment?

As the days pass and the girls are not released or heard from these questions remain. More importantly, when will see these children returned to their families and what is the overall strategy to end the scourge of Boko Haram?

With last week’s kidnappings, maybe the time has come for a regional effort against this problem. What is certain is this – the world has yet to see these children returned.



Violence in America - Peace is a Lifestyle Conference

The American culture is infused and steeped in violence. Essentially, violence has formed the basis of American life from the beginning of this country. From the time we are children, we are indoctrinated in the “rugged individuality” of America and that indoctrination includes many lessons on being strong, tough and inherently violent.

The tendency to violence is playing out in our contemporary society in many ways that are not only questionable but absolutely terrible. This country has experienced  the so called “Stand Your Ground” incidents, quite a number of school and university shooting incidents and the use of violence (particularly with firearms) in domestic situations or everyday disputes. We rarely have a day in contemporary times that is free from violence of one type or another.

With this as a backdrop, Fordham University recently hosted a conference entitled: “Peace is a Lifestyle” at the Lincoln Center Campus. The meeting celebrated the efforts of a few brave and dedicated people who risk their lives every day to advance an agenda of slowing and then stopping violence from further engulfing our society and country.

The conference covered many topics and experts and specialists from many fields had the opportunity to present their work. From my perspective, the issue of gender image, entitlement and the violence that results from it was of particular interest. 

One of the most pervasive problems in American life concerns the image that we have of both males and females. Our process of cultural valuation along with advertising and marketing   have created these images that are gross misrepresentations and stereotypes of the sexes. Americans have taught their males to be tough, independent and when “necessary” - violent. 

We cheer when a fight ensues in a baseball game when a hitter is “brushed back” by a pitcher; we will say that is part of the “unwritten code” of the game. In terms of sport, the NFL with its brutality has become the most popular game to watch and as a result has become a multibillion dollar industry. Unfortunately, with all its riches, the NFL will not provide relief for its former participants, now suffering a variety of life ending ailments due to the violence of the game. As we seek greater thrills, we have gone well beyond boxing and now cheer battles between two fighters in a steel cage that basically permit fighting until one participant is down and out due to the beating taken.

We develop an image of our girls and women that is overtly superficial and sexually charged. The American woman is treasured for her physical characteristics and her sexual availability.  We will criticize the television networks for presenting shows that constantly place women in situations of conflict yet at the same time we will deconstruct the behavior of these women and offer opinions of the righteousness of the behavior demonstrated. It is this perverse desire to watch these programs that leads to more of them being offered to satisfy what some call “guilty pleasure”.  Recently, Nicki Minaj released a new single with cover artwork that depicted her in a rear view with revealing attire. When comments were made as to the inappropriate nature of this art, social media became hot with comments deriding the criticism of her depiction. This need to pummel the so called “haters” seems to feed into this stereotype of women as objects of sexual desire.

 The society seemingly devalues intellectual and academic curiosity while valuing physical strength and sexuality. As a result, our heroes become the sports star or the actress. Their failings in terms of interpersonal relationships and issues stemming from these failures are either minimized or enabled.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is a prime example of this response. He was given a mere two game suspension by the NFL,after his arrest on the charge of abuse to his girlfriend. According to witnesses, while in the lounge of an Atlantic City casino during an altercation, he repeatedly  struck her until she was unconscious. Video shows him dragging her body out of the elevator at the casino.After being accepted  into a program for domestic abusers and avoiding jail time the victim and he were married. At a press conference, his wife apologized for the incident and she expected that he would be a better man.

The incident has generated even more anger when Rice received a standing ovation from his Raven fans when he arrived at training camp for the 2014 season. In addition, some journalists have provoked more anger by questioning the seriousness of the incident as well as wondering if perhaps the victim “provoked” Rice and thus bears responsibility in part for his actions.

Through the work of Imran Siddiquee, “The Representation Project” ( attempts to educate young people about the stereotypical world they live in with the goal of helping young people to work their way out of these images. The project will shortly be releasing a film for young men entitled “The Mask You Live In”, which illustrates the cultural norms for American males and how young people can break out of them.

Another aspect of contemporary society is the sense of entitlement that many of our youth across economic and social levels acquire.  This entitlement leads to another problem and that is fulfillment and almost instantaneous gratification. Often this inability to be fulfilled or gratified leads to a demonstration of anger and eventual violence.

The anger often manifests itself in the form of the mass shooting or “active shooter” scenarios we have seen and experienced in too many milieus in everyday America.

In terms of developing mechanisms to alleviate this trigger to violence, we have pushed people into treatment programs under the rubric of “Anger Management”; these programs attempt to teach the participant how to cope with unrealistic expectations and the subsequent reaction to these unfulfilled desires. The problem is that these programs fail to get to the source of the behavior and as a nation we often minimize it by the use of expressions such as “acting a fool” or “wilding out” when the aggression is far more serious a sign of deeper and long term issues.

Author and activist Kevin Powell sums it up succinctly: “I don’t want to manage my anger, I want to get to its root causes”.  Slowly, communities are embracing the therapy programs that go beyond basic counseling but it will be a long journey because in many communities, therapy is considered to be “inappropriate”.

The economic divide in the USA plays an important role in the values development of our young people. Poverty and deprivation causes extreme pain and thus leads often to violent methods to alleviate that pain. Likewise, we live in a materialistic culture that prides individuals who acquire things particularly new or expensive. Young people in poverty often define themselves not through inherent qualities or skills but by the items they collect and own. The goal of the activist is to break this cycle and to teach children to live “authentically” by self-assessing and developing outlets for issues.

With this conference the community has begun to explore the avenues that can be utilized to tamp down the violence in the USA particularly with young people. While some may see the problem of violence in America as an intractable, this conference has demonstrated that while the road ahead is long, the journey definitely is worth undertaking.

Photo courtesy of:


Peace is a Lifestyle Conference

We watched as fans of the Baltimore Ravens stood and clapped for Ray Rice when he arrived at training camp.

The NFL “slapped his wrists” with a mere two game suspension for spousal abuse and sports pundits weighed in with their opinions as to why the punishment was sufficient.

Remember - the NFL is all about violence and the USA is a violent country so do not expect anything more!


In this world there parents who are committed to their children. Some parents will sacrifice a career or personal fulfillment to ensure their progeny’s future.  Then there are the parents who sacrifice their very lives for their children. These children realize when they reach adulthood that they have been given a privilege; they hope to keep the memory of the parent alive by achieving success.

Sesima Kamara grew up in the turbulent civil war years in Liberia. Her biological father sacrificed his very life to see that she was able to leave Monrovia and live a life of normalcy.  Living in Staten Island with her adoptive parents she knew at an early age that she would work to be successful as this was her way of demonstrating how grateful she was for her extraordinary father.  “They make sacrifices”, Sesima recently said, “So we don’t want to let them down”.

The route Sesima took to reach her goals was not direct. She studied fashion merchandising at the Katherine Gibbs School and then worked for a company that marketed smart boards, the very firm that contracted to sell these products to New York City’s public schools. From there she went to work with Tekserve, a supply, support and repair company that satisfies New York City’s appetite for Apple products.

While all of these experiences were interesting, they did not satisfy Sesima’s desire to create something new, exciting and different. Realizing that working with scents and aromatherapy was interesting, she was determined to create a product that was fun while also being innovative. The world of aromatherapy has many types of body butters, candles and perfumes; many have the same ingredients and do not create that buzz that make them a product that consumers will specifically desire.

Many of the aromatherapy products contain ingredients that harmful to both the environment as well as the user. For example, most scented candles on the market use a paraffin wax base which is a petroleum by- product.  The flame from this candle burns with a dirty black smoke at times. The oils for scenting these candles have a high degree of synthetic ingredients including phthalates. Studies have found that these phthalates can cause changes to the endocrine system.

Through the use of soy base, the Sesima’s “Cecret Candles” provide a healthier alternative while also ensuring that local farmers that grow soybeans have a new outlet for their crops. These vegetable based products also provide scents made from essential oils. The products are therefore are paraffin, phthalate and lead free.

With the introduction of these products, Sesima Kamara embarks on her five year plan. Within this period of time she expects to earn an MBA as well as establish her business both here and on the continent. Sesima envisions a life of travel between the USA and Africa. One of her goals to provide another opportunity to develop economic opportunities to spur change in Liberia. “Change does not happen overnight, the newer generation will provide impetus for change”, she related when asked about the future of Africa.

The influence for the product line is worldwide and not just limited to Africa. This aspect of product development is very important to Sesima. Although Shea Butter is an important ingredient in her products, she wants to provide a cultural outlet for ingredients, scents and beauty traditions from other parts of the world.

Cecret Candles are available at various festivals, and events. Additionally, Sesima will gladly arrange a home party to introduce her product line. The products are also available on line at: