The Royals' Problematic Obsession with Africa


By Eve Fairbanks, InStyle, May 18, 2018

Soon after they marry on May 19, Prince Harry and his Hollywood bride, Meghan Markle, will jet off to the African country of Namibia—a desert nation of scarlet sand dunes and ice-white beaches—for their honeymoon.

They follow Harry’s older brother, William, who in 2011 whisked his new bride, Kate, to the coconut-strewn African island republic of the Seychelles for their honeymoon, after he surprised her six months earlier with a sapphire engagement ring in a log hut beneath Mount Kenya. And both men embrace the tradition of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, who in 1952 found out that she would become Great Britain’s ruler while vacationing in another hut built into the forest around Mount Kenya. Her private safari warden scribbled the amazing tale in the lodge’s guestbook, memorializing it as the day the globe finally learned that fairytales really do come true: “For the first time in the history of the world,” he wrote, “a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess [and] climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

The royals—normally known for curtsies, palace guards in stiff bearskin hats, and banquets whose china takes eight men three weeks to polish—have another, somewhat less-discussed tradition: a long, unusual relationship with what the explorer Henry Stanley called the “Dark Continent.” Read more ...

Accused in Kenya

By Eve Fairbanks, OZY, October 12, 2014

As a writer working in Africa, I’ve come and gone from Nairobi, Kenya, a dozen times in the last two years. Always, the immigration staff has been friendly, welcoming me to the country or expressing the hope I had a good time when I left. Until June.

That month, trying to head out of Nairobi to meet my mother in Italy, a pair of passport-control officers accused me of forging my visa. The curious thing wasn’t the accusation itself, but the way they did the accusing. They alternated between fierce and nonchalant, and the most prominent feature of their interrogation was an attitude of total and contemptuous certainty I had done the wrong.

“Why did you do it?” the female agent asked, fingering the visa page in question and shaking her head sadly.

“But I didn’t do it,” I said. Read more ...

Smile. Snap. Repeat

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, around 10am, I went to his house in Houghton. I stayed for three hours, just hanging around, paying respects, getting a sense of what the mood was like. A shrine of candles and flowers had begun to rise on a street corner. Some hundred bouquets were already there when I showed up; and hundreds more people arrived to lay down new flowers.

What surprised me, though, is that, save for one wizened old man dressed in a suit, hat and patent-leather shoes who left a carnation, not a single person who left flowers for Madiba did so without taking a selfie in front of the flowers. Young people, old people, everybody took grinning photos of themselves in front of the shrine.

It felt kind of weird, as though we were all tourists posing in front of the Big Hole, not mourners. "I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!" one woman instructed her iPhone-wielding ­husband as she bent backwards over the pile of flowers to get the right background.

The smiling selfie Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped at Mandela's December 10 memorial at FNB Stadium unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation. The New York Times tsk-tsked that he "did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie" appropriate to the event; even less generously, the New York Post suggested he had gone "into sugar shock over a Danish pastry" and "lost … his dignity".

But have we behaved any differently? Read more ... 

Slum Infrastructure: A Local's Guide to Kibera

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By Eve Fairbanks, Wired, November 14, 2013

African maps are notoriously problematic. Much of the data is old; roads, particularly footpaths, languish unnamed. Africans often navigate by informal landmarks like bars or gas stations, places not represented on standard maps. The slums have it even worse: On Google Maps they figure as blank expanses, in keeping with their reputation as shadowy, marginal places.

Enter Spatial Collective and Map Kibera. These two organizations, a company and a nonprofit, are mapping a Kenyan mega-slum called Kibera—the name is derived from a word meaning “jungle”—according to how its 200,000 inhabitants actually navigate it. The maps started with crowdsourced landmarks important to locals: water taps, schools, pharmacies. Residents with Internet access were invited to add to an open source map; others contributed data by SMS or attended community workshops, where they wrote on giant empty maps. Read more ...

Africa's Obsession With Shopping Malls

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

A year ago, a friend from rural South Africa called me full of excitement. His hometown, a large village called Burgersfort, was finally “getting on the map,” he said. I had read that the Burgersfort region had been selected to host 15 new chrome and platinum mines, a huge source of jobs in an otherwise jobs-starved country. I assumed it was the mines he meant, and congratulated him on them. But that’s not what he meant at all, he said. “We’re getting a shopping mall.”

There’s a reason the Al Shabab terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday chose a mall instead of a government building, a downtown street, or a transport hub. Malls are increasingly central to urban African life; they’re the social hearts of the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, places where everyone from Savile Row-tailored diplomats to surfer-shorts-clad backpackers to the upwardly-mobile local middle class and even to the slum-dwelling poor, gather to act out a dream of the African future, one without the gates and barbed wire that divide the rich and poor in their residential areas, without the provisionality and roughness that mar the continent’s public infrastructure. As the Westgate shooting unfolded, a narrative settled that the attackers chose it because it’s frequented by white expats. But the photographs that emerged from the scene showed a different story: An amazingly wide range of people got caught in the crossfire. Attacking a mall struck right at Kenya’s emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky. Read more ...

"You Have All the Reasons To Be Angry"

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

On the morning of Thursday, August 16, 2012, as thousands of striking South African miners marched in circles atop a pile of red rocks, the police lined up their tanks in front of it. Roughly 30 feet high and 50 feet across, the rock pile was the closest thing to a mountain for miles, jutting out of the flat expanse of the mining area called Marikana, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The miners, who had been on the hill for six days demanding a raise from their employer, the platinum giant Lonmin, were unbowed. Cloaked in tribal blankets, they sang protest songs and waved knives and knobkerries, wooden batons given to boys at their tribal initiations as a symbol of power.

The miners’ strike has an integral place in the history of South Africa. Ever since mining began here at the end of the nineteenth century, poor shaft workers have chafed against the mining-enriched white establishment. Mine strikes in the 1980s kicked South Africa’s black-liberation struggle into high gear, setting the stage for the fall of the white-run apartheid government. On the face of it, the strike at Marikana seemed like a continuation of this classic conflict between rich white and poor black: Lonmin is headquartered in London and has mostly white managers.

But something was different this time. Read more ...


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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

OUTJO, NAMIBIA -- Growing up in Namibia in the 1980s, Willem Bezuidenhout was alone with his cowboy dream. He wallpapered his father’s house in the capital of Windhoek with posters of Hopalong Cassidy and shunned play dates to watch The War Wagon again and again in his darkened bedroom, pausing the tape to trace John Wayne’s image onto pieces of translucent paper that he pressed up to the screen. His playmates—the sons of Namibia’s white farmers, doctors, or lawyers, like his father—made fun of him.

But that was before the white communities of southern Africa went crazy for country. These days, Bezuidenhout is a star. At an annual cultural festival in the dusty northern Namibia town of Outjo this past May, he shared top billing with a South African pop idol. Bezuidenhout’s show was an American-style rodeo with all the trimmings, including a lassoing demo that drew on the skills he picked up at the San Francisco Cow Palace, where he went to learn roping in the early ’90s, before the potential for a cowboy revival in rural Africa was fully understood. “In Namibia, as a kid, I had my twenty country-and-western records, and everybody looked at me strange,” Bezuidenhout told me the morning of the festival, panting as he lugged his ropes over to a homemade wooden corral. “Now everybody here loves Garth Brooks and Randy Travis.” Read more ...


Overtime in Soccer City

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New York Times Magazine

On the second Sunday in July, exactly one year after the final game of the 2010 World Cup was played here at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, the cappuccino machine inside the V.I.P. suite was firing up. A bottle of wine cooled in the fridge across the bar. In the stadium’s bathrooms, fresh liners were tucked into the wastebaskets and the soap dispensers were refilled to the brim, as if the 90,000 fans that flooded the venue in 2010 might reappear at any moment. Ephraim Nong, a stadium tour guide, showed me the pitch from the V.I.P. viewing deck. It is maintained religiously, he said: cut three times a week, the grass in shadow artificially sunned using giant lamps hung on wheeled racks.

“When was the last event here?” I asked.

“When was our last event?” Nong dropped his head. “Yeah, man, let me see. I think it was May.” Read more ... 

Dreaming of Tripoli

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

Somewhere amid the burning oil pipelines and wrecked tanks, among the wounded filling the hospitals and the homeless winding out of their ruined cities, lies another potential casualty of the Libyan war: five and a half million olive trees the Italians planted in the desert in the 1930s. Few worldwide may be thinking of these trees as they watch the latest news. But, in South Africa, some people are praying for them. In late 2009, during happier days, Muammar Qaddafi’s regime invited a group of prominent South African farmers to the country to consider helping to revive Libya’s moribund agricultural sector. The Libyans had many abandoned farms to offer, but the old olive estate at Khadra was the most incredible. The trees were “in beautiful condition,” remembers Theo de Jager, one of the farmers who saw them. “There was massive potential.”

But Khadra is south of Beida, in the hotly contested east. What must the trees look like today, de Jager wonders? Have bombs broken their little, gnarled heads? Read more ...