Congo’s Self-Taught Guitarmaker Caters to the Stars

In a tin shed in the backstreets of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, a barefoot 61-year old Jean-Luther Misoko Nzalayala, aka Socklo, hacks with a machete at a lump of wood that is starting to resemble the neck of a guitar.

Later, he hammers bits of white plastic chair into it as inlay to help guide players around the fret board, and fixes threads of motorbike brake cable as strings.

"First it was a chair that you were happy to sit on. After it died, I gave it a second life, and it will be resurrected," he said, surrounded by jumble of broken and half-built guitars, and a fading picture of Congo's late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

For over 40 years the self-taught luthier has used a variety recycled materials and local hardwoods to create guitars that sing with the raw intensity of one of Africa's musical meccas.

Socklo's passion began in his village in Kikwit, southwestern Congo, in 1975, when he dismantled and copied a guitar a friend had given him.

"I didn't measure anything... and when I played it, it began to collapse," he said. "I was really disappointed by the result, but I kept trying."

Three years later, he moved to Kinshasa, where he sold his first guitar to his cousin. "I couldn't imagine that people in a city like Kinshasa could like a guitar like this. It gave me courage."

He used negative feedback to improve his craft and finesse his designs. Soon there were fewer complaints, and local and international musicians were flocking to his tin shed.

Congolese music star Jupiter Bokondji loved Socklo's sound, and asked him to go electric. The result, Jupiter said, is far more authentic than top guitar brands, which cost upwards of 20 times more.

"I have played it all over the world; everyone is amazed. To see that guitar doing what it does, the way it plays, it's like a tornado," Jupiter said.

Yarol Poupaud, a French guitarist who toured with rock-and-roll singer Johnny Hallyday for years, has bought four of Socklo's creations.

"It has little imperfections; it's not perfect, but that really makes the magic," Poupaud said, strumming on a blue starburst guitar emblazoned with Congo's flag.

Source: Voice of America

Africa’s ‘Great Green Wall’ Shifts Focus to Contain Sahara

KEBEMER, SENEGAL — The idea was striking in its ambition: African countries aimed to plant trees in a more than 8,000 kilometer-line spanning the entire continent, creating a natural barrier to hold back the Sahara Desert as climate change swept the sands south.

The project called the Great Green Wall began in 2007 with a vision for the trees to extend like a belt across the vast Sahel region, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, by 2030. But as temperatures rose and rainfall diminished, millions of the planted trees died.

Efforts to rein in the desert continue in Senegal on a smaller scale. On the western end of the planned wall, Ibrahima Fall walks under the cool shade of dozens of lime trees, watering them with a hose as yellow chicks scurry around his feet. Just beyond the green orchard and a village is a desolate, arid landscape.

The citrus crop provides a haven from the heat and sand that surround it. Outside the low village walls, winds whip sand into the air, inviting desertification, a process that wrings the life out of fertile soil and changes it into desert, often because of drought or deforestation.

Only 4% of the Great Green Wall’s original goal has been met, and an estimated $43 billion would be needed to achieve the rest. With prospects for completing the barrier on time dim, organizers have shifted their focus from planting a wall of trees to trying a mosaic of smaller, more durable projects to stop desertification, including community-based efforts designed to improve lives and help the most vulnerable agriculture.

“The project that doesn’t involve the community is doomed to failure,” says Diegane Ndiaye, who is part of a group known as SOS Sahel, which has helped with planting programs in Senegal and other countries across the Sahel, a broad geographic zone between the Sahara in the north and the more temperate African savanna to the south.

The programs focus on restoring the environment and reviving economic activity in Sahel villages, Ndiaye said.

With the loss of rainfall and the advance of the desert, “this strip of the Sahel is a very vulnerable area to climate change,” he said. “So we should have projects that are likely to rebuild the environment ... fix the dunes and also help protect the vegetable-growing area.”

On Senegal’s Atlantic Coast, filao trees stretch in a band from Dakar up to the northern city of St. Louis, forming a curtain that protects the beginning of Green Wall region, which also grows more than 80% of Senegal’s vegetables. The sky-reaching branches tame the winds tearing in from the ocean.

This reforestation project started in the 1970s, but many trees were cut down for wood, and work to replant them has been more recent. More trees are also planted in front of dunes near the water in an effort to protect the dunes and keep them from moving.

“We have had a lot of reforestation programs that today have not yielded much because it is often done with great fanfare” and not with good planning, Ndiaye said.

Fall, the 75-year-old chief of his village, planted the citrus orchard in 2016, putting the trees near a water source on his land. His is one of 800 small orchards in six communes of a town called Kebemer.

“We once planted peanuts and that wasn’t enough,” he said in the local Wolof language. “This orchard brings income that allows me to take care of my family.” He said he can produce 20 to 40 kilos of limes per week during peak season.

Enriched by the trees, the soil has also grown tomatoes and onions.

The village has used profits from the orchard to replace straw homes with cement brick structures and to buy more sheep, goats and chickens. It also added a solar panel to help pump water from a communal well, sparing villagers from having to pay more for water in the desert.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi A. Adesina spoke about the importance of stopping desertification in the Sahel during the United Nations’ COP26 global climate conference. He announced a commitment from the bank to mobilize $6.5 billion toward the Great Green Wall by 2025.

The newest projects in Senegal are circular gardens known in the Wolof language as “tolou keur.” They feature a variety of trees that are planted strategically so that the larger ones protect the more vulnerable.

The gardens’ curving rows hold moringa, sage, papaya and mango trees that are resistant to dry climates. They are planted so their roots grow inward to improve water retention in the plot.

Senegal has 20 total circular gardens, each one adapted to the soil, culture and needs of individual communities so they can grow much of what they need. Early indications are that they are thriving in the Great Green Wall region. Solar energy helps provide electricity for irrigation.

Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate at the U.S. State Department, visited Senegal as part of an Africa trip last month, saying the U.S. wants to partner with African nations to fight climate change.

“The desert is encroaching. You see it really moving south,” Pershing said.

In terms of the Great Green Wall project, he said, “I don’t think that very many people thought it was going to go very far,” including himself. But there are indications of progress, as seen in the community projects.

“It has a global benefit, and people are prepared to make those kinds of long-term investments through their children and their families, which I think is a hallmark of what we need to do in other climate arenas.”

Source: Voice of America

‘A Fragile Win’: Climate Pact Reached at Glasgow COP26 Summit

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — World leaders hailed a new climate deal signed by nearly 200 countries late Saturday to speed up action on tackling climate change as the two-week COP26 summit came to an end in Glasgow, Scotland.

The signatories to the Glasgow Climate Pact pledged to continue working to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target first set at the Paris climate summit in 2015.


The gavel came down on two weeks of intense negotiations around 9 p.m. local time (9:38 p.m. UTC) Saturday evening, more than 24 hours after the originally scheduled ending of 6 p.m. Friday.

“This is real progress in keeping 1.5 degrees within reach. Progress that we have made together. But the need for continual action and implementation to match ambition must continue throughout this decade,” the COP26 President Alok Sharma told delegates after the agreement was signed.

Coal pushback

As negotiations wrapped up Saturday, however, India and China insisted on a watering down of a commitment to phase out coal and fossil fuels. It was a subtle but significant change that left the summit president visibly upset.

“I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” Sharma said. “I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think, as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.”

India, along with China and South Africa, argued that phasing out fossil fuels was unfair. Close to 70% of India’s power generation is reliant on coal.

“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication,” the Indian Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said.

What was agreed?

So what was agreed to at Glasgow? The text acknowledges that existing commitments to cut emissions of greenhouse gases are nowhere near enough to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. In the deal, countries committed to come back next year with improved targets on cutting emissions, much sooner than the previous five-year cycle.

Signatories agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal and fossil fuels and to cut subsidies for the industry.

Rich countries agreed to increase their commitments on climate finance, doubling the money they will pay to poorer countries to adapt to climate change and decarbonize their economies by 2025.

For the first time there’s recognition of the need for richer nations to compensate developing countries for loss and damage from climate change, because rich nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions.

There was also further detail on international carbon markets, whereby carbon emission credits can be traded between countries, potentially unlocking trillions of dollars for protecting forests, building renewable energy facilities and other projects to combat climate change. However, critics fear the complexity will enable countries to hide their true emissions.

Earlier in the summit, there were significant deals on reducing deforestation, while around 100 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised delegates for reaching an agreement.

“Of course, there’s still a long, long way to go before we can say we’ve dealt with climate change. But the great news is, together, the world has made some important breakthroughs. We’ve kept alive the hope of restricting the growth in temperatures to 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and we’ve made huge progress on coal, cars, cash and trees,” Johnson said in a video posted online Saturday.

The deal was a clear compromise — a text that all 197 parties signed, some with evident reluctance. Is it enough to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius and prevent catastrophic climate change?

“On the whole I think it's a meek, weak outcome that doesn't meet the moment of the climate emergency,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, told Reuters. “It keeps the 1.5 degree alive — barely alive — and I don't think that the youth activists and the Indigenous peoples are going to tolerate another COP like this.”

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg dismissed the deal.

“The COP26 is over” she wrote on Twitter. “Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah.”

US upbeat

The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry was upbeat on what has been achieved.

“We emerge from Glasgow having dramatically raised the world's ambition to solve this challenge in this decade and beyond. I really do believe that as a result of this decision and as a result of the announcements that have been made over the course of the last few weeks, we are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet.”

Kerry said the inclusion of a commitment on coal was significant.

“As a result of what took place here with nations that have never considered even having the word ‘coal’ in a plan, where it remains even today after what took place [at the summit], coal and the phase down of coal is on the books, it's part of the decision,” Kerry said at a press conference Saturday.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was circumspect in his assessment.

“The approved texts are a compromise,” Guterres said. “They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today. They take important steps, but unfortunately, the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions. As I said at the opening, we must accelerate action to keep the 1.5 degrees [Celsius] goal alive. Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

What’s next?

After two weeks of intense negotiations, delegates are now heading home. For some it is a journey of several days and thousands of miles, back to remote, low-lying Pacific islands, or to rainforest settlements threatened by deforestation. They depart Glasgow with a climate deal, but with many of their hopes and demands unfulfilled.

The next big milestone is the COP27 climate summit scheduled for 2022 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Source: Voice of America

Author Wilbur Smith, Chronicler of African Adventures, Dies at 88

PARIS — Zambia-born novelist Wilbur Smith chronicled dramatic adventures on the African continent, creating internationally acclaimed fiction that drew on his own action-packed life.

Smith died in South Africa at age 88, his publisher announced Saturday.

He gained recognition in 1964 with his debut novel "When the Lion Feeds," the tale of a young man growing up on a South African cattle ranch that led to 15 sequels, tracing the ambitious family's fortunes for more than 200 years.

"I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about Black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women," he said in a biography on his official website.

He also leaned on meticulous historical research and his own extensive travels, establishing a method he would use over a career spanning five decades in which he wrote nearly 50 novels and sold about 130 million books.

Another golden rule came from his publisher, Charles Pick.

"He said: 'Write only about those things you know well.' Since then I have written only about Africa," Smith said.

Born hunter

Born on January 9, 1933, to a British family in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Smith encountered from an early age the forest, hills and savannah of Africa on his parents' large ranch.

He credits his mother with teaching him to love nature and reading, while his father gave him a rifle at the age of 8, the start of what he acknowledged was a lifelong love affair with firearms and hunting.

"There are more big-game hunters in Smith's oeuvre than spies in the works of John le Carre, and yet it is possible that he has slaughtered even more animals in real life than on the page," Britain's Daily Telegraph wrote in 2014.

Also a scuba diver and mountain climber in his time, Smith was not afraid to throw himself into his research, saying that for his 1970 novel "Gold Mine" he took a job in a South African gold mine for a few weeks.

"I was a sort of privileged member of the team, I could ask questions and not be told to shut up," he told the Daily Telegraph of his experience.

'Action-man author'

Smith studied at South Africa's Rhodes University, intending to become a journalist until his father said, as he recounts on his website, "Don't be a bloody fool. … Go and find yourself a real job."

There followed a "soul-destroying" stint as a chartered accountant, during which he turned to fiction.

The success of "When the Lion Feeds" encouraged him to become a full-time writer and led to the Courtney series, which runs up to "The Tiger's Prey" published in 2017, more than 50 years after the first book.

The four-part Ballantyne series is themed on colonial wealth and the racial struggle in the former Rhodesia, today's Zimbabwe. There is also a series on Egypt, while standalone novels include "The Sunbird" (1972) and "Those in Peril" (2011).

His books have been translated into around 30 languages and some made into films, including "Shout at the Devil" with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore in 1976.

Describing Smith as the "ultimate action-man author," Britain's Daily Mail in 2017 remarked that it was perhaps surprising his books still appeal considering their "politically incorrect whirl of sex, violence, casual misogyny, big-game hunters, mining, full-breasted women and slaughtered beasts."

A life of adventure

Answering a question on his site about the secret of his success, he says it is about "embroidering" a bit on real life.

"I write about men who are more manly and beautiful women who are really more beautiful than any women you'd meet," he said, confirming he sometimes worked with co-writers.

Published in 2018, his autobiography "On Leopard Rock" chronicles his own adventures, including being attacked by lions, getting lost in the African bush and crawling through the precarious tunnels of gold mines.

He was married four times, with his last wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, his junior by 39 years.

Smith spent most of his time in South Africa and had homes in Cape Town, London, Switzerland and Malta.

Source: Voice of America