Interviews

One Year Strong, CompareAfrique Urges Young Africans to Take On Pressing Issues on the African Continent with Online Forum

by Adeola Olagunju

 

I had the pleasure of grabbing a few cocktails and chatting in April with Jumoke Balogun and Kizito Byenka, two founders and the current editors of CompareAfrique.  For those who do not know, CompareAfrique is an online forum and blog dedicated to discussing difficult political, economic, and social issues related to the African continent from an African perspective.  CompareAfrique also has a comparative slant: articles often offer best practices taken from examples around the globe and apply them to African contexts.  The name comes from a desire to incorporate the continent’s diverse cultures— both Anglophone and Francophone (submission guidelines on the site are in both languages).

To tell you a little bit about the founders, Kizito is a Ugandan citizen, but spent his formative years in Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan, Bangladesh and Cambodua before settling in the United States for college.  In his spare time, he enjoys playing soccer, graphic design, and painting.  Jumoke is Nigerian and emigrated to the States as a child from Oshogbo.  A pescetarian, she spends her free time whipping up healthier concoctions of traditional Nigerian meals and thrifting.  The two met at American University’s School of International Service while getting Masters in International Development and Comparative Studies respectively.

Jumoke and Kizito started the blog exactly one year ago in May of 2012, with the hopes of engaging today’s generation of Africans in the current trends and issues on the continent.  A mixture of socio-cultural, economic, and political critique, the blog solicits articles that help foster a space for healthy debate and idea-sharing. “You know, we go to these events around town and those speaking on our behalf are neither young nor African,” Jumoke says.  “It is important to have Africans speaking authoritatively on African issues.”  The biggest misconception about the site, however, is that you have to be an expert on international affairs or development in order to contribute.  CompareAfrique seeks to engage the scores of young African professionals working in business, engineering, medicine, law, and other fields who care about these issues as well.

Although the two started out by asking their friends to contribute articles to the blog, in one short year they have grown to the point of having an impressive list of contributors and a Board of Advisors.  They pride themselves that the conversations on CompareAfrique are very different from those on other websites on similar topics; here, commenters provide well-articulated analysis and debate in response to the articles posted.  Kizito is most proud of a poignant critique of African economic growth trends that Jumoke wrote called “Africa is Rising. African’s Are Not.” Which even attracted attention from Howard French on Twitter.

Ambitiously, however, Jumoke and Kizito are not content at stopping with their current medium.  CompareAfrique continues to expand its vision and is currently taking its forum-based discussions to a practical setting.  On May 22nd they will hold their first forum entitled “What is the African Diaspora’s Responsibility Towards Africa?” to go hand-in-hand with their current series on the Diaspora.  The forum will take place at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. from 12 to 1:30 PM.  All are welcome.

On a final notes, the editors implore: go to CompareAfrique and share your ideas on these pressing issues.  Engage in the debate and comment earnestly.  I urge you to do the same.  Happy Reading!

**Read “Culture Clash: What Can Liberia Teach the African Diaspora About Returning Home” by Sia Vue from CompareAfrique’s Diaspora Series featured in this month’s Pencil Tribe issue here.   You can follow Compare Afrique on Twitter @CompareAfrique **

 

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John Agbaje of Central City Tower

 

John, 26, is the artist and elder brother of the duo. He sets the visual direction for Central City Tower. With experience running public art exhibits, professional strategy roles, and a background in business schooling from both Wharton and Harvard he provides the corporate anchor for The Tower. A natural born artist despite being a business major with little formal training. htalcitytower.com. Support Central City Tower and Spider Stories by donating to their Kickstarter campaign. http://www.centralcitytower.com

 

 

How did you come to create Central City Tower?

My brother and I have really been building this for the past 20 yrs, since we were kids. So we started by doing fan art for some of our favorite characters, like the Eternals. Then we started doing our own characters and beyond coming up designs, creating stories for them, over 10 years or so. Then when we got to H.S. and thought we would grow out of it, we kept developing the characters, and they grew and matured and evolved with us. When we graduated from college, we decided lets move this from pencil and paper into a product, a graphic novel Project Zero, and that’s what we did. It was our first production of Central City Tower. We were able to get good feedback on it, with something that we weren’t as protective of.


Tell us about your most recent project Spider Stories?

Now, for the first time, we’re trying our hand at animation with a different series, Spider Stories, which we introduced at the Harvard African Business Conference in February and are currently raising money for with Kickstarter. Spider Stories is one of the first series featured in an African context. There are a lot of stories featured in other places like Asia, but like Pencil Tribe it fills a void. At its core, it is a classic fantasy tale about a princess who loses her kingdom, and the question is how do we win it back.

 

How did you develop this passion for animation?

We’ve been interested in animation since the beginning. Even with Project Zero we were drawing storyboards. Now that we were able to gain a hold on graphic novel we are ready to dive into animation. We’re raising money to assemble our team and get the project started. I’m acting as the art director, my brother’s writing the script, we have a great team that’s assembling.

What inspired you to create these characters?

My parents are both from Nigeria, when we were kids they would tell us stories, folktales and different fables. It wasn’t until 3 or 4 years ago when we realized that none of our original creations are drawn from African mythologies. It was from these stories that we got a lot of our inspiration, for different features including the design sets. We also did research because the stories that we were raised with are from Nigeria, so you’ll see aspects from South Africa, Kenya, as well as other African countries.

               

Which character do you relate to the most?

I would say that my favorite character, hands down is Tinker. Tinker is Zahara’s caretaker, he’s the one who’s looking out for her and giving her a dose of science along with the spiritual stuff she has to undertake. From a design standpoint, he has to be one of my favorites.

 

What do you think will draw viewers to Spider Stories?

Quite a number of things. At the core of it will be a great story. It will have the Drama, the Action. Beyond that it’s going to have great choreography, great design sets. It’s going to take you to a world that you’ve never seen before. We’re putting the stories of princesses and bandits in a new context, and it’s going to give the story a lot of color to say the least and make it really excited for viewers.

 

What are your next steps? Any new projects or goals?

We’re focused on Spider Stories right now. Once fundraising is complete at the end of march, and then we will begin production with our first animated series. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re bringing in the team and we hope to have our 11 minute pilot complete by October/November of this year.

 

Why is storytelling important?

One of my friends said it best when he said “Our culture flows through the media, the same way it flowed through storytelling before.” As a storyteller, you have a responsibility to affect culture and the values in how people operate and interact with each other.  Especially when you come to something like Spider Stories, there is a pervasive story of Africa in the media, that is negative with corruption, poverty, and despair and that’s not the Africa that we grew up with. So we want to have a chance to tell a different story about the continent, and use that to change the global media view of Africa. We think those effects could have some pretty cool general effects in the media.

 

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Obehi Janice: FUFU & OREOS

OBEHI ["God's destiny"] JANICE ["God is gracious"] is a Nigerian-American performer/writer/speaker with two first-names. Her solo work and writing explores the power of voice in identity, politics, cultural exchange, and testimony. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and has trained with Shakespeare & Company and Sojourn Theatre. She is the creator/performer of two solo shows: suddenly BLACK, at Georgetown and FUFU & OREOS. A Boston-based theater artist, Obehi has worked with Company One, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Underground Railway Theater, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Whistler in the Dark, and the Huntington, among others. She is also a director, teaching artist and voice over actress. Upcoming performances for FUFU& OREOS include productions with MPAACT (Chicago, February 2013) and Sleeping Weazel (Boston, March 2013). Obehi is currently writing two new full length plays, Ole White Sugah Daddy and OLU/OLA. www.fufuandoreos.com

 

 

How did you come up with this title “FUFU & OREOS”?
Well, I came up with the show my senior year at Georgetown and I was trying to think of names for the play and I thought, I love Fufu and I love Oreos! It literally took two seconds. Actually the original title was Fufu, Cake, and Oreos, which definitely did not work. I finally struck out the “cake” and it was perfect.

 

What do you think draws viewers to “FUFU & OREOS?”
I’m surprised when people tell me that they’ve heard of my performance from other people and that it’s so popular. I think a lot of it is the name. I know Africans get it, and Black people kind of get it, especially if they know Nigerians and Ghanaians, but my performances are based in Boston where a lot of the theatre-going community is white. So I find myself explaining to people a lot about the title and what the show is about. I talk about a lot of controversial things, I don’t shy away from issues like race relations, but no one has seemed uncomfortable with these topics.

How would you describe your show in 1-2 sentences?
Three things: Decisions, depression, and daddy issues. This piece was created during my senior year at Georgetown. It was a hard year in Georgetown, we lost our good friend Terrance in the theater community and my parents were getting a divorce and we lost a lot of talent; keeping it all together was rough. It’s still hard, dealing with two different families and trying to resolve those issues. The great thing about my work is that I’m dealing with a lot of serious issues, and yet the show is funny! I haven’t had any comedic experience but people tell me my show is funny, which is a good way to receive such heavy issues that I’m dealing with in this show.

 

What other projects are you working on?
I’m acting in a project entitled “No Place Like Home.” I filmed the pilot for that series in NY. It’s about this girl who wants to move to Nigeria, and it’s hilarious. It was my first time delving into film. I’m also doing a few shows as an actor around Boston.

Are you performing any upcoming shows?
May 9th at the Haley House Roxbury. I’ve been doing a lot of shows with colleges, which has been great. I recently did a show at Harvard. Girls who come up to me during these shows tell me that they never see shows like this; they don’t exist, so it’s been great to do something so unique.

 

Why is storytelling important?
I’ve been doing a lot more writing. Writing can be a form of prayer; the fingertips to my keyboard. It allows me to connect with God better, connect with myself. I feel that this is what I’m meant to do. If I don’t allow myself to do storytelling, I’m not exercising what God has asked me to do. So storytelling has been extremely important to me in my personal journey with myself and with God.

 


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