African Style Goes Global, Despite Little Tangible Support From African Leaders

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ACCRA, Ghana — Every day on the downtown streets of Accra, debonair men and fashionable women can be seen proudly attired in Western-style skirts, shirts and slacks, all made from African prints by local tailors.

In recent years, local designers created ready-to-wear outfits with these prints. But today the quintessential British fashion emporium, Burberry, has taken similar patterns and built a collection in stores that takes “Accra style” global.

The prints and fabrics ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa have long inspired European and American high fashion, but Burberry’s Prorsum collection is the most prominent.

Ironically, this African design moment comes at a time when Ghana has gone from having 44 textile manufacturers to just four, employing a scant 2,500 people down from about 30,000.

In an interview with Italian Vogue, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, said, “I really believe in the textile industry and I’m firmly convinced it can revitalize the country. Ghana is totally open to fashion, which is part of our history, and I think there’s a lot of untapped talent in this country. We need to return to the golden years.”

The golden years have been eroded by prints now made in China with Ghanaian patterns.

“We have very strict laws that impede the Chinese from bringing cotton fabrics into our country with Ghanaian patterns printed in China. If we find them, they are burned at the border,” Mr. Mills said before having his photo taken for Vogue.

The current May-June edition of L’Uomo Vogue is entirely dedicated to African fashion and also includes an interview and photo spread with Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Mr. Jonathan understands the power of images and was happy to tout his efforts at re-branding Nigeria to the magazine: “You know our designers. They’re talented and very creative.”

Indeed, Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, hosts an exciting fashion week, even though it lacks substantial government support and is bedeviled by power failures and other infrastructure challenges.

Last March, Lagos Fashion Week provided an international platform for local talent and lured the Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng to Africa from his Saville Row outpost in London.

As the IHT’s Suzy Menkes noted recently, designers around the continent are leaping into fashion’s mainstream with quality and creativity. If harnessed properly, they have the potential to spark huge economic growth in these countries.

For continental designers to go global, they have to toot their own horns loudly and hope someone hears. This is exactly what has been going on for the past three days in Soweto, South Africa’s famous township outside Johannesburg.

The organizer of Soweto Fashion Week, Stephen Manzini, 23, raised about $7,500 for a bare-bones operation showcasing 16 designers, some inspired by Nelson Mandela’s pre-inaugaration wardrobe.

“We refused to be stopped because we don’t have funding,” Mr. Manzini told The Associated Press.

It was local fashion showcases like these that caught the eye of Theo Omambala, a former model whose Ubuntu International project showcased smaller Ugandan, South African and Nigerian designers during the 2011 and 2012 London Fashion Weeks.

Organizers say a new initiative, dubbed Theo’s Vision: La Haute Culture (TVLHC), aims to repeat that, but this time in New York, expanded to designers from various countries.

Last year larger designers and jewelers from Nigeria got exposure to buyers and retailers worldwide when they were spotlighted at the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week in a “Made in Africa” segment sponsored by Arise magazine.

Yet, despite appearances by West African leaders in Vogue, and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appealing for support of African designers, there seems little chance of an effort from Ghana and Nigeria to push local talent onto the world stage — or even to commit to creating an international shopping hub in Abuja, Lagos or Accra.

Something akin to Los Angeles’s Rodeo Drive, or Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. A destination where boutiques can feature high-end local and foreign designers, the ones fashionable wealthy Nigerians wear.

Neither West African president made any tangible promises to Africa’s designers before smiling for the cameras. To see more and leave a comment click here.

A Female President Demands Equal Rights for Africa’s Gays

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MAY 20 1012

ACCRA, Ghana — The endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples by Barack Obama, the African-descended president of the United States, has struck some observers as a political calculation, others as courageous and some here in Africa as outrageous.

But might Mr. Obama’s words have also inspired an African head of state to change her country’s course?


Just nine days after Mr. Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage rights, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, denounced the continued persecution of gays and lesbians in her country. “Indecency and unnatural acts laws shall be repealed,” Mrs. Banda said in her first state-of-the-nation speech on Friday, according to The Associated Press.

There are certainly other motivations pushing Mrs. Banda to support gay equality. In her address, for instance, she noted that her government seeks to normalize relations with “our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws.”

Malawi is a small country, with up to 60 percent of its 15.4 million people living below the poverty line. So when Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recently threatened to cut off aid to countries that violate the civil rights of gays and lesbians, it likely resonated with Mrs. Banda. One of her very first acts was to devalue the currency by a third to appease the International Monetary Fund and restore funding.

Standing up for sexual minorities and publicly attempting to decriminalize homosexuality hasn’t been a priority of the current crop of elected African leaders. Last summer, after increased visibility and vilification of Ghana’s gays and lesbians, President John Atta Mills proudly rejected Mr. Cameron’s call for decriminalization, to the cheers of many here.

Mr. Mills said, “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana.” And even in South Africa, a beacon of gay rights internationally, activists are fighting a proposal from the House of Traditional Leaders to remove the term “sexual orientation” from section 9(3) of the South African Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against myriad categories of citizens.

So Mrs. Banda, 62, a mother of two, is bucking a trend. And the reaction to her proposals will be interesting. African culture generally demands respect for elders and mothers, so rebukes may not be easily forthcoming.

Still, it will take an act of Parliament to change those “bad laws,” and whether she can convince lawmakers to do so is an open question.  Two years ago, Malawi made international headlines when two men were sentenced to 14 years in prison for celebrating their union. That ruling was widely condemned by Western nations and international organizations — including donors. Mrs. Banda’s predecessor ultimately pardoned the couple

Then-President Bingu wa Mutharika, nonetheless, declared they had “committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws.”  Mrs. Banda’s is not an isolated voice, however. Last year, Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, who championed providing H.I.V. medication to all who needed it, joined an African elder statesman, Kenneth Kaunda, a former Zambian president, to urge decriminalization of homosexuality.

They went to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, in June 2011 as part of their campaign to reduce H.I.V. transmission. “We can preach about behavioral change, but as long as we confine gays and lesbians into dark corners because of our inflexibility to accommodate them, the battle on H.I.V. and AIDS can never be won,” Mr. Mogae said. He admitted to the BBC that he hadn’t risked losing an election by trumpeting gay rights during his years in office, from 1998 to 2008, but he said he had never sought to arrest gays either.

Mr. Kaunda, who was in office from 1964 to 1991, said, “We are not only condemning African leaders who are criminalizing same-sex marriage, but we are urging them to start recognizing these people, for the sake of H.I.V. and AIDS.”

Mrs. Banda is the first African leader to respond with action. She was Mr. Mutharika’s vice president when he died in office in April. She stepped in to serve out his term, which ends in 2014.

In Ghana, Mr. Obama’s words were soothing to the small but vocal community of gay rights activists. And around the continent, and in the West, gay and lesbian Africans are increasingly tossing off the veil to proclaim their right to exist.

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‘Comfort Women’ Controversy Comes to New York


NEW YORK — Every Wednesday since January 1992, protestors have held a demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul demanding an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government for women held in soldier brothels during World War II.

Now, a New York lawmaker’s proposal to memorialize the plight of the women, often called sex slaves, through a monument and a street in a largely Asian neighborhood of New York City, has brought the passions here.

The legislator, Peter A. Koo, a Hong Kong immigrant, and 50 other lawmakers on the New York City Council have been flooded with letters from angry Japanese from around the world.

Renaming a street is one of the ultimate municipal honors in New York and while largely a symbolic gesture, it has been known to cause tumult, anger and anguish from time to time.

Historians have said the “comfort women” were largely Korean and Chinese women and while Japan has apologized for any mistreatment the women suffered, it has denied that women were forced to act as prostitutes or sex slaves.

One Japanese opponent of the proposed New York monument wrote in a letter dated April 29, 2012, “the term ‘comfort women’ refers simply to prostitutes in wartime. But Koreans have been promoting a false version of history that Japan abducted hundreds of thousands of Korean women ….This is for practical and logical reasons, a fictitious version of history.”

The letter writers contend that Mr. Koo is smearing the Japanese in order to appeal to Korean New Yorkers, whose votes he needs to return him to another term in City Hall.

Mr. Koo, a wealthy businessman who owns several pharmacies, remains undeterred. He is asking constituents to present him with options for which street in Flushing to rename and where exactly the monument should be placed.

He told Rendezvous through his chief of staff, James McClelland, that he will “continue to meet with community leaders and discuss this issue further. Together we are committed to finding a fitting and respectful way to remember these women.”

New York City would not be the only place in the United States to install a monument honoring the women. The first city to do so was a small New Jersey town with a majority-Korean population. That monument was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, in 2010.

In December, two Korean women who said they were forced into prostitution by Japan visited the monument. The Record, a local newspaper, quoted Yongsoo Lee, then-83, as saying, “The Japanese government is waiting for us to die, one by one, because all the victims are so old and there aren’t many victims in Korea.”

“They call us ‘comfort women,’ but the term ‘comfort women’ is such a bad word. I’m not a ‘comfort woman.’ I am Yongsoo Lee. ‘Comfort women’ is a term that the Japanese government gave us, and they say that we voluntarily became comfort women to make money … and that’s not true.”

This week, The Record reported, “four officials from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Par­ty claimed that there is no proof sex slaves existed and asked for the mon­ument’s removal, saying it portrayed historical inaccuracies, Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo said.”

Japanese officials offered to fund youth programs, donate books on Japanese culture to the Palisades Park library, and plant cherry trees in the town, if the monument were removed, the paper reported. It also reported that Japanese officials denied making any such offer — a denial that Fumio Iwai, the Japanese deputy consul general in New York, repeated in a letter to the International Herald Tribune dated June 29, 2012.

According to The Record’s story, the Korean women’s trip last year to Palisades Park was sponsored by the Korean American Voters’ Council, “a non-profit with offices in Hackensack and Flushing, N.Y.”

The Flushing neighborhood where the latest monument is proposed has been welcoming the world to New York since the World Fair was held there in 1965. The America grand slam tennis event, the U.S. Open is also held in Flushing Meadow.

A letter sent to New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio.

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