Archive | February 15, 2015

From Egypt to Rwanda Musical Traditions Mingle to Protect the Nile*

From Egypt to Rwanda Musical Traditions Mingle to Protect the Nile*

By Valerie Schloredt

The Nile Project is made up of musicians from different countries, musical genres, and traditions. Their purpose? To promote cooperation and cultural understanding as the diverse peoples of the Nile face threats from water scarcity and climate change.

It starts with a drum, a line from the bass, or a few notes from the oud. At some point there is saxophone and guitar, the riq tambourine, and the cane flute known as the kawala. More instruments and voices join in, weaving one song from many elements. People in the audience are grinning, and by the end of the evening they’re on their feet, dancing.

Large musical collaborations usually contain some talents that are more polished than others. Not so here—every one of the 13 musicians in this performance by The Nile Project is in top form. The women are particularly dazzling—this iteration of the musical collective boasts five fabulous divas. There’s

Ethiopian singer Selamnesh Zemene, in a blue mermaid gown, getting the house moving with dance and vocals influenced by her Azmari family tradition.

Alsarah, from Sudan and Brooklyn, rightly hailed by The Guardian as “the new princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.”

Sophie Nzayisenga, Rwandan singer and virtuoso of the inanga, a stringed instrument that, in her hands, produces mellow tones and enchantment.

Ethiopian-American Meklit Hadero, Nile Project co-founder, bringing a pure voice and jazz/hip-hop/folk aesthetics to her own compositions.

Dina El Wedidi, a youth favorite from Egypt, where her powerful vocal performances range from classical epics to an Egyptian Revolution anthem.

And then there’s Jackline Kasiva Mutua, the first woman to break into Kenya’s male drumming tradition. Her high-energy rock star performance makes us glad she did.

The band members sound as if they have been playing together forever, but in fact The Nile Project is made up of musicians from different countries, musical genres, and traditions. Highly accomplished in their own fields, they’ve had to learn foreign scales, tunings, and rhythms to collaborate.

Their purpose?

To promote cooperation and cultural understanding among the diverse peoples of the Nile. Flowing through 11 countries and four climate regions, at 4,160 miles the Nile is the world’s longest river. It may set another record for world rivers—as the most geopolitically challenging to manage sustainably.

The Nile’s headwaters in tropical Rwanda and Burundi eventually feed into vast Lake Victoria, which is shared by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. From there the White Nile, so-called for the clay clouding its waters, spreads out through the Sudd marshes of South Sudan before gathering again to flow north toward Khartoum. There it meets the Blue Nile, rushing from the wet highlands of Ethiopia. Now one river, the Nile flows north through the Sahara Desert in Sudan and Egypt, drains into the Nile Delta and, finally, the Mediterranean.

For thousands of years, Nile Basin cultures developed food systems to suit conditions on their part of the river. But today human activity demands more from the environment, with increased water consumption and pollution from expanding cities, industry, and industrialized farming. At present rates, the current population of Nile Basin countries is projected to double over the next 30 or 40 years—to 945 million. Experts fear the Nile just won’t have enough water for all those people. Then there’s climate change. Four of the Nile Basin countries are water scarce. Prolonged periods of drought and floods pose a real threat to human life where water is already a precious resource.

All these pressures mean that Nile Basin countries have to work together to manage their interdependent ecosystems. The Nile Basin Initiative, signed by nine countries in 1999, was formed to create a platform for regional intergovernmental dialogue. But in 2010, five upstream countries signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to access more water from the Nile. Political progress has been slow, and undermined by distrust between nations. Meanwhile, populations grow and economies become more complex and globalized. Ethiopia, for example, now the second most populous country in Africa, is emerging as an “economic lion” in need of energy. What is done upstream is of great concern downstream—Egypt is dependent on the Nile for 97% of its freshwater resources­—and environmental impact statements are contested in the context of highly charged political rhetoric. Reacting in 2013 to the start of construction for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia’s major hydroelectric project, Egypt’s then-President Mohammed Morsi threatened military retaliation if building the dam reduced Egypt’s water supply, “even by one drop.”

Building cultural understanding is a starting point to preventing conflict, according to Mina Girgis, co-founder and CEO of The Nile Project. “And music can be a tool,” he says.

“You can use music to change the nature of the conversation before the conflict reaches a flashpoint. But it has to happen before people have reached the point of conflict.”

An Egyptian ethnomusicologist based in San Francisco, Girgis visited Cairo in 2011, where he was inspired by spending time in Tahrir Square as the Egyptian revolution unfolded. Shortly after returning to the Bay Area, Girgis attended an Ethiopian funk band concert and was struck by the fact that he hadn’t heard Ethiopian music when he was growing up in Egypt, even though the two countries share an important river. Over a beer, he and Ethiopian-American friend Meklit Hadero talked about the lack of cultural knowledge that prevents countries with common interests from working together. They sketched out the beginnings of The Nile Project—a big plan to use music to promote cultural understanding and environmental sustainability in the Nile Basin.

After a scouting trip to find top musicians to take part, Hadero and Girgis launched the first Nile Project gathering at Aswan, Egypt, in January 2013. The site was significant—the iconic dam, built in the 1960s, had tremendous political, cultural and ecological impacts on the region. One of these impacts, the displacement of 100,000 Nubian farmers in southern Egypt and Sudan, is the type of issue considered at that first Nile Project gathering. So far there have been two more gatherings: at Kampala, Uganda, in early 2014, and Minya, Egypt, in November 2014.

Then there is the music. Working in small groups using a participatory leadership process, 18 musicians at the first Nile gathering learned entirely new musical forms and created new songs in just two weeks. The collaboration worked so well that Aswan, the live album of their first concert, garnered international praise.

“We became aware that this idea, this cultural project, is something people have been looking for,” says Girgis.

“When we first started the project, the people most excited about what we were doing were people working on water conflicts. They found it to be really relevant. In order to promote the sustainability of the Nile Basin, you have to first address the question of how people treat each other, how they relate to their ecosystem. If we can’t solve our problems as people living in the same ecosystem, we’re not going to be able to make this ecosystem more sustainable.

“We found that the musicians we’re working with have a lot of leverage in changing the nature of the conversation and getting a wider base of the public to change the way they feel about each other.”

During its first Africa tour, in February and March 2014, the project performed in eight cities along the Nile and offered river-related workshops at universities in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt. They’re following up on growing interest among young people with a suite of Nile Project university programs, including a Nile Fellowship, student chapters, and a Nile Prize to incentivize innovation for solving some of the developmental challenges facing the region. “Even governments themselves,” says Girgis, “are excited about what we’re doing.”

Now on their first American tour, the group is performing and holding workshops at universities and colleges across the United States. Topics discussed with academics and activists along the way include civic engagement and the management of water resources, the role of musicians in social movements, and female perspectives on the Nile. The group has also performed for K–12 audiences.

The Nile Project’s U.S. tour is aimed to help build a network of global Nile citizens, people across disciplines and geographies interested in contributing towards the creation of a sustainable Nile Basin. But the project also provides extra value as a cultural learning opportunity for Americans. The U.S. mainstream media does a poor job of covering aspects of African life other than war and disaster. The Nile Project offers an innovative example of citizen-led, cross-cultural dialogue and environmental action­­—in a continent Americans should know more about. As collective member Alsarah points out,

“Africa has always done grassroots, always. All change in Africa has always happened at the grassroots level. We’re building off of something that has already existed in Africa. I feel like what we’re doing is turning back to an older way, a more traditional way of truly conversing with each other, and rebuilding a knowledge that I think has been lost in time.”

One grassroots solution conveyed by The Nile Project is universally easy to tap into. In the words of saxophonist, Ethiopian Jorga Mesfin,

“For me, living and working as a musician in Africa is different because most of the music is functional … it has to have a role in the society. There are work songs, wedding songs, songs of critique. We didn’t just invent the songs and melodies we play for this project; they exist in the population, as either love songs or songs of historical narrative.

“The project is really different and unique because we’re not just coming together to play music, we’re on tour for four months living together. So it’s really an experience of Africans living together. I’m living with an Egyptian, a Sudanese, a Rwandese. That’s really what the whole project is about—it’s about living together and sustaining life. The audiences feel the love more than they feel the music, you know? We’ve been performing in many countries—Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Tanzania—and regardless of the background of the audience, they get it. And that’s what’s been amazing. And I think they get it because they feel the love is genuine. If these countries do as much as we do to live together, to understand each other, then we’d have a better place. A better life.”


For more information on The Nile Project tour, and to find out about becoming a global Nile citizen, go to

Related Topics:

Is the Nile Running Out of Fish?

Setting the Record Straight on the Nile

Stepping Back to Afrika!

Portugal: Addiction Rates Cut in Half by Linking Addicts with Communities Instead of Jailing Them*

Portugal: Addiction Rates Cut in Half by Linking Addicts with Communities Instead of Jailing Them*

By Johann Hari

It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned—and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted: There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.

This theory was first established, in part, through rat experiments—ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advertisement by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The ad explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently?

So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have coloured balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was—at the same time as the Rat Park experiment—a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20% of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95% of the addicted soldiers—according to the same study—simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

Rats in the Park

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for 57 days—if anything can hook you, it’s that.

Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is—again—striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them.

When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be? This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense—unless you take account of this new approach.

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief.

The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right—it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them—then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe, as I used to, that chemical hooks are what cause addiction, then this makes no sense.

But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

The Opposite of Addiction Is Connection

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts.

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find—the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me—you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.

But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.

Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism—cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7% of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7% of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about chemical hooks is, in fact, real, only a minor part of a much bigger picture.

This has huge implications for the 100-year-old war on drugs.

This massive war—which kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool—is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction—if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction—then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona—Tent City—where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record, guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more.

How Portugal Halved Drug Addiction Levels

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world—and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly 15 years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with one percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse.

So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society.

The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One group of addicts were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50%. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50%.

Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect: more crime, more addicts. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together …

Happiness in “the Age of Loneliness”

This isn’t only relevant to addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s: “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live–constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander, the creator of Rat Park, told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention—tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives.

But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction—and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever—to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.


Related Topics:

Rising Above Addictive Behavior

The Idols of Our Lives

What Frequency Am I Traveling on Right Now?

The Importance of Self-Compassion

Love Misplaced By Capitalism*