WHEN Senegal erupted in violent protests this month over perceived injustice and inequality, artist Omar Ba was tackling the issues in his own way, with paint on canvas.

“What the youth are doing in the streets is the same thing I’m doing in my studio,” said Ba, stepping in black paint and making footprints on a new canvas in his airy workspace outside the capital, Dakar.

Ba, one of Senegal’s best-known contemporary artists, has often used his art to make political statements. A current exhibit at the Galerie Templon in Brussels, ‘Anomalies’, critiques power-hungry leaders through a series of portraits of imaginary heads of state.

Ba said he was shocked to see such intense violence on the streets of his own country, widely viewed as a model of stability in West Africa.

“These are things I had seen on TV, but never here,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“I think visual art is something I have to use to denounce what’s not working or to talk about what is positive, in society.”

The protests were triggered by the arrest of a popular opposition leader but gathered pace on a wave of anger over economic inequality that has widened during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands took to the streets, hurling rocks at security forces, who opened fire on protesters.

Some worry Senegal’s President Macky Sall will try to extend his rule beyond the allotted two terms, following a pattern of African leaders such as Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara and Guinea’s Alpha Conde who used constitutional changes to reset their time in power.

Sall has not commented on whether he will seek a third term.

Ba normally keeps his subjects anonymous, so as to focus on themes rather than individuals, but for his next collection, he said he might depict Sall.

“Once they’re elected, (heads of state) completely change their discourse. I wanted to talk about that, and that’s why I called this exhibition ‘Anomalies’,” said Ba.

Four of the 12 paintings in the series deal with the coronavirus pandemic, conveying confusion and entrapment with the use of interlacing shapes and footprints.

COVID-19 exposed inequality and corruption in Africa, Ba said, and forced even the wealthy to rely on the ill-equipped public health services that they can normally afford to escape.

“Nobody could take planes to get treatment in Europe or the United States, and that was really great because for once people realized that in their own hospitals there was nothing.”

Source - Thomson Reuters Foundation


MORE producers of COVID-19 vaccines should follow AstraZeneca’s lead and license the technology to other manufacturers, the World Health Organization’s head said on Monday, as he described continuing vaccine inequity as “grotesque”.

AstraZeneca’s shot, which new U.S. data on Monday showed was safe and effective despite some countries suspending inoculations over health concerns, is being produced in various locations including South Korea’s SKBioScience and the Serum Institute of India.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for more manufacturers to adopt this model to boost supplies, including for the COVAX vaccine sharing program seeking to speed more shots to developing countries.

“The gap between a number of vaccines administered in rich countries and the number administered through COVAX is growing and becoming more grotesque every day,” Tedros told a news conference.

“The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just moral outrage. It’s also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating.”

Earlier, AstraZeneca released interim data showing its vaccine, developed with Oxford University, was 79% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and posed no increased risk of blood clots.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan called it a “very good vaccine for all age groups”.

Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark have extended suspensions of AstraZeneca’s shot as investigations continue into rare blood clotting events.

Still, WHO officials said African countries getting the vaccine via COVAX are moving ahead.

“They did ask a lot of questions but the demand for the vaccine is extremely high,” said WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward.

It remains possible for COVAX to hit a second-quarter goal of delivering 300 million doses, Aylward said, while acknowledging “teething problems”, with SKBioSciences and the Serum Institute hard-pressed to satisfy COVAX orders.

“We simply cannot get enough vaccine,” Aylward said. “We’re hoping both companies will be able to scale up and keep up with the rate of deliveries we’re aiming for.”

Source - The African Mirror

CONGOLESE teenager Bienvenu dreams of owning a clothing business but spends his days illegally driving a motorbike taxi in busy Kinshasa to support his family during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Navigating traffic and dodging cops in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, the 16-year-old has been working as an underage moto-taxi driver – the legal minimum age is 18 – since his uncle lost his travel agency job five months ago.

Bienvenu is one of thousands of Congolese children estimated by charities to have joined the labour force over the last year due to the new coronavirus. As schools shut, many children started working to help put food on the table at home.

Bienvenu – whose full name has been withheld – wants to stop driving but his relatives now rely on his income.

“It’s not my choice to do this job. I decided to do it in order to help my family, with my uncle’s blessing … every night I bring my earnings home,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in a parking lot while scanning for clients.

With no reliable public transport, an informal network of moto-taxis – known as “Wewa” – is the main way many people in Kinshasa move around. Moto-taxis often carry whole families and huge deliveries while weaving through traffic.

“If I can find a secure job, I want to quit. I dream of one day being a great clothing merchant,” Bienvenu said. Working six days a week, most of his earnings go to the moto-taxi owner, leaving him with about 3,000 Congolese francs ($1.50) a day.

On the streets of Kinshasa – a sprawling metropolis of 17 million people – countless children sell everything from bags of crisps to face masks. Their ranks are swelling due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, child rights campaigners say.

About three-quarters of Congo’s 90 million people live in extreme poverty – surviving on less than $1.90 a day – and the African Development Bank has warned that its export-reliant economy could be particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Congo is a key global producer of copper and cobalt and mining accounts for about a third of its national output. The pandemic slowed demand for metals last year, leading to mine closures and job cuts, but prices are recovering.

With more children seeking jobs to support their families, working for a moto-taxi owner is the most lucrative and appealing option, according to Annie Bambe, head of the NGO Forum for Youth and Children’s Rights in Congo (FODJEC).

“At first, it’s like a game and then it becomes a job,” Bambe said. “Adults should refuse to ride on motorcycles driven by children … owners must stop using children to make money.”

“No-one stands up to condemn this work,” she added.

A 17-year-old motorcycle taxi driver repairs a flat tyre on his motorcycle in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, February 26, 2021. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Jordan Mayenikini


The National Road Safety Commission, part of the transport ministry, said it had limited resources to stop underage drivers and that traffic police could not “regulate the situation”.

“Everyone must get involved, in particular the mayors and heads of neighborhoods to discourage these children from driving,” said Jean Bome, the commission’s executive secretary.

Prior to the pandemic, about 15% of children aged 5 to 17 in Congo were engaged in child labour – mostly doing dangerous work – a 2019 report by the National Institute of Statistics found.

From the age of 15, children in Congo are permitted to do light work for a maximum of four hours per day with the approval of labour inspectors, but the legal driving age is 18.

Boys like Bienvenu have tactics for evading fines or arrest.

“I try not to arrive at crossroads where I can easily cross the path of traffic cops. If I am pulled over, I know how to negotiate with them,” Bienvenu said, explaining how he had paid bribes worth about 5,000 francs to avoid punishment.

One moto-taxi owner, Patrick Maweja, said he did not hire children but knew of several others who did because they saw young drivers as hard-working and reliable.

And the head of the Association of Moto-Taxi Drivers in Kinshasa’s Tshangu district, Jean-Pierre Kabangu, said he did not condone underage moto-taxi drivers but recognised that the pandemic gave some children no choice but to work.

For these children, Kabangu offered some advice.

“Underage drivers are asked to circulate in outlying districts and not to drive on the boulevard, which is very dangerous,” said Kabangu, whose association supports moto-taxi drivers and helps to mediate in disputes with traffic police.

Bambe of FODJEC said parents were also to blame for failing to stop their children from working as moto-taxi drivers.

“For many parents, the important thing is that the child brings back the fruits of their labour at the end of the day.”

This rings true for 17-year-old Joel who started driving his father’s moto-taxi in December while school was shut and plans to juggle working with his education, which has since resumed.

Joel said he sometimes feels ashamed when his classmates see him driving the moto-taxi, but must work to support his family.

“They don’t know that this job enables me to study,” said Joel – whose full name has been withheld – while fixing a flat tyre in a garage. “It’s my family’s bread and butter.”

– Thomson Reuters Foundation

NIGERIAN students have built a machine they hope can one day help hospitals remotely treat COVID-19 patients, taking temperatures, transporting medicine and allowing medical workers to communicate with patients with a webcam and screen.

The robot is a remote-controlled cabinet on wheels, decked out with a vibrant, floral pattern and dubbed “MAIROBOT”.

In a demonstration, a school nurse loaded MAIROBOT with medicine and a student, using a controller and goggles to see through a camera, trundled the machine through a corridor and into a mock isolation room to scan a student’s forehead for her temperature.

“I hope this MAIROBOT can curb and reduce the risk that these health personnel get – I want health workers to be safer,” said Nabila Abbas, one of the robot’s creators.

The robotics team at the Glisten International Academy in Nigeria’s capital Abuja started out trying to build MAIROBOT by collaborating online but eventually had to come together to finish the project in their lab.

But MAIROBOT, which took about three months to build, is still in its early days. During the demonstration, the isolation room door had to be left open for it, and it can only carry medication, so patients would self-administer while a nurse watches over the camera.

“Right now we are working on upgrading it,” said David Adeniyi, the teacher overseeing the robotics team, who says the students hope to make MAIROBOT commercially available one day.

For Abbas, the robot’s use will not stop at the coronavirus.

“Other infectious diseases can also be curbed using MAIROBOT like Ebola, Lassa fever and all these infectious viruses,” she said.

Source – Thomson Reuters Foundation