UKRAINE: Podcasts

There’s a LOT of podcasts on Ukraine available right now, mainly focused on the the Russian invasion and analysis about Ukraine’s future. As always, I’m trying to prioritize podcasts that by Ukrainians or feature Ukrainian voices, though there’s plenty of good material out there otherwise – understandably, Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind lately. Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks:

BBC: Ukrainecast – A daily podcast that the BBC started when the Russian invasion happened, focusing just on stories, interviews, news, and analysis on Ukraine and the war.

Highlights from Ukraine – To bolster the previous podcast, Highlights from Ukraine is a short summary in English of what’s in Ukraine’s media that day. It’s run by Ukrainians, and gives even better coverage of internal politics that may not make it into foreign reporting.

UkrainianSpaces: Queer Pride – UkrainianSpaces is an English language podcast that gets into discussions on Ukrainian life, culture, and reality that may be missing from foreign narratives. This episode is both on and by Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. The hosts speak with one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, who has been getting requests from foreign media to comment on how the war has affected them and the community. However, the media has been asking for stories of suffering, and ignoring the stories of Queer Ukrainians fighting the invasion, or how Ukraine had been making significant strides for the community before the war. Really interesting and introspective podcast.

Fighting For Ukraine – Short daily updates from Yuriy Matsarsky, an Ukrainian journalist who is actively fighting in a civilian militia. Warzone updates, what he’s seeing on the ground, and what he’s feeling as a Ukrainian fighting for his homeland. He also has a GoFundMe up to help support him and his family – they’ve left the country and like all fighting-age men, he is staying.

The Conversation: The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – A really interesting podcast with discussion on the creation of Ukrainian identity out of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and how it waned during the Soviet years, and is now being recreated – pushed by opposition to Russia.

Deconstructed: The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity – An interview from the Intercept with an Ukrainian sociologist that takes a bit of a different spin from the above podcast. It’s a more non-nationalist interpretation of Ukrainian identity looking at how the Ukrainian government is structuring identity, and the problem of corruption and oligarchs in Ukraine that has rarely been spoken about since the invasion started.

UKRAINE: In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas by Stanislav Aseyev

Stanislav Aseyev is a Ukrainian journalist and writer from Donetsk, who first gained notice for writing for Ukrainian papers about the reality on the ground in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. He was jailed in 2017 by separatist militants, tortured, and was eventually released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange. In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas is a collection of his writings from 2014 to 2017, the last piece “A Knack for Losing Things” written while being held captive. After his release, he wrote his memoirs about the ordeal in The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

The translation and release of In Isolation into English last month is extremely timely, not just because the world’s attention is on Ukraine, but because this gives some well-needed nuance and complexity to the war. Aseyev himself is pro-Ukrainian, and watched how propaganda, economic desperation, and a nostalgia for the Soviet past turns his friends and neighbours from Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationals to ardent supporters of the DPR as a breakaway republic. It’s an incredible study of shifting identity and the re-establishment of the idea of “Novorossiya“, while showing the absurdity of war – little old ladies crossing monthly back into Ukraine to double up their pension, voting in in the DPR’s “primaries”, the merging of Orthodox Christianity with old Soviet holidays, and the lives of separatist militias shaking down cars at checkpoints for cash.

The ominous part of the book is that it lets you extrapolate what’s now happening in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian-Russian war is now centred. Repelling a Russian invasion from proudly Ukrainian locations is one thing, but fighting over parts of Ukraine that have felt cut off (and have cut themselves off) from “the mainland”, have been building a pro-Russian identity for almost a decade, and have been living in a state of war for just as long? Unfortunately, no matter how else things fall between Russia and Ukraine, things are going to stay ugly in Donetsk for a while.

UKRAINE: Jewish Chernobyl

The ruins of Chernobyl’s synagogue – Source: Pierpaolo Mittica

The town of Chernobyl didn’t just spring out of nowhere on April 26, 1986 – it was a long-standing town in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl the town is about 15km south of the power plant (most plant workers lived in Pripyat, the company town built around the reactor). The town has a deep Jewish history, and has been a site of Hasidic pilgrimage for decades – there still is the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty today.

The Jewish community in Chernobyl, like other Jewish communities in what was the Pale of Settlement, faced pogroms and violence through the centuries. The majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. After the war, the surviving Ukrainian Jews faced the repression of organized religion in the Soviet Union, and many left for Israel or North America. Those who emigrated over the years still feel deep ties to the region, like the Twersky family of Chernobyl Hasidic lineage (warning: Holocaust footage):

When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the town of Chernobyl was evacuated and abandoned, with the Ukrainian and Jewish populations scattering across the Soviet Union. Most of the USSR’s Jewish population would later emigrate to Israel, the US, and Canada at the end of the Cold War, though there still is a solid Jewish population in Ukraine today, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Ukraine still remains an important site of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews, including the Chernobyl dynasty’s tombs (as well as the location of many family graves). For a personal account of reconnecting with Chernobyl, I’d recommend the article “Why Chernobyl’s Jewish History Still Matters — 31 Years After The Accident” by Anna Khandros, plus Pierpaolo Mittica’s photoessay “Chernobyl before Chernobyl: The Hasidic Jews’ Pilgrimage“.

If you’re interested in learning about other Jewish communities in the former USSR, I covered the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan last year.

ECUADOR: The Ecuador Reader

When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.

As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.

The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.

ECUADOR: Real life on the Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George in 2006 – Source

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being an incredible untouched wilderness with some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; species that gave Darwin the insight into developing his theory of evolution. These islands were uninhabited by humans initially and only visited by whalers and explorers until the 19th century, when it was annexed by Ecuador.

The human impact on the Galapagos’ ecosystem has been immense – the introduction of goats (leading to Project Isabela and the use of Judas goats), invasive species and diseases, consumption of tortoises and other wildlife for food, permanent human habitation, the massive tourism industry that has grown over past decades, climate change, and plastic pollution.

Radiolab made an incredible podcast on the reality of the Galapagos – asking how and if conservation can actually work, and if we can ever really return nature to a “primeval” state. They also touch on Lonesome George, goats, Darwin’ finches, but also the politics in Ecuador, including with voters permanently living and working on the Galapagos. Listen here.

For those living on Galapagos, the reality isn’t too rosy either – there’s deep poverty and a sense of being ignored by the central Ecuadorian government, while trying both to support a livelihood and not destroy the wilderness that provides this livelihood.

As for the rare and varied wildlife itself, there’s a lot of classic and current documentaries, with the BBC / David Attenborough ones clearly setting the gold standard for nature docs. However, I wanted to share a REALLY old school one from the 60s, narrated by Prince Phillip, of all people.

GABON: The CFA franc

Building on the last post about la Françafrique, another element of France’s neo-colonial influence on Africa remains the CFA franc. The franc is actually two interchangeable currencies, one for West Africa (XOF) and one for Central Africa (XAF).

While a single currency does help trade between the 14 countries using it, and it is pegged to the Euro for stability, it is a deeply unfair deal. Each country must put 50-70% of their foreign currency reserves into France’s treasury, and to use their own money, France will loan it back to them at fixed commercial rates. I’d suggest the below video for an excellent look at the CFA franc and how it continues to disadvantage these countries:

There has been movement from West African countries to ditch their side of the CFA franc and start their own monetary union with a currency called the Eco, but the countries of the Central African half of the CFA, including Gabon, have not signed on. An African monetary union is definitely a point of discussion, and definitely seems like the CFA franc it can’t continue on in its current form. There’s differing viewpoints – I read an article by Gabonese economist Mays Mouissi calling to keep the franc, but reform it so France is not controlling access to funds and to un-peg it from the Euro: “Gabon: monnaie unique, non, évolution du CFA, oui“. I’d also suggest the interview with Togolese activist Farida Nabourema about France’s influence and the CFA franc.

GABON: La Françafrique

Presidents Omar Bongo and Jacques Chirac – Source

While the period of decolonization in the 60s and 70s held dramatic changes for all European colonial powers, France has remained deeply engaged in its former colonies – militarily, politically, and economically. This gave rise to the term “Françafrique” – where France agreed to the sovereignty of its colonies, while still retaining a level of informal control over the new countries’ politics (including vetting leaders) and continuing to extract resources. France had just been forcefully expelled from Algeria at the start of the 60s and did not wish to repeat the experience, especially as it had lost access to Algeria’s oil. (Check my Algeria month for more on their war for independence.)

The need for a new source of oil brought Gabon squarely to the middle of France’s neo-colonial attention. As with other former colonies, France aimed for a stable and friendly government in Gabon – they supported the first Gabonese president, Léon M’ba, including directly intervening militarily to stop a coup, and then supported Omar Bongo‘s one-party rule after M’ba’s death, as well as ensuring Ali Bongo’s smooth transition to power after his father’s death. France still runs Camp de Gaulle, an active military base in Libreville, which was installed in order to stop the first coup.

There’s a couple great articles in English on this -“Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa” and “Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word, plus this brief news report in French on Gabon and Françafrique:

If you understand French, I’d strongly strongly recommend the 2010 documentary film, Françafrique, which includes testimonies from many involved in French Africa in the 60s and 70s, including French political chiefs and oil executives. It’s available on Youtube, but embedding is disabled so I can’t post here. It focuses particularly on Gabon, opening with French presidents’ Chirac and Sarkozy (sitting at the time) attending Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009. Gabon’s oil, timber, and uranium, make it immensely valuable to France, and the documentary really lays bare the amount of influence France has had over the country and how much wealth France continues to extract.

This isn’t just a relic of history from a bygone era – in 2010, details surfaced through Wikileaks of Gabonese officials embezzling funds from the Bank of Central African States and donating to the two main French political parties – led by Chirac and Sarkozy.

GABON: Biodiversity and wildlife

Gabon has some of the most richly biodiverse forests and ecosystems, with a stunning variety of wildlife. Most of these forests are in a relatively untouched state, and are home to many endangered species. Here’s what was seen by just one camera trap along a trail in a nature reserve near the town of Nyonié – forest elephants, jaguars, gorillas, chimps, miniature deer, pangolins, and more.

The same photographer who sets these camera traps, Xavier Hubert-Brierre, went viral for setting up a mirror along a trail and watching the wildlife’s reaction to it. There was everything from silverback male gorillas trying to fight their rival in the mirror, elephants and jaguars trying to seduce their reflection, and a team of chimps that had realized it was their own reflection and mourned the loss of the mirror when it was taken down.

Gabon is home to the majority of the critically endangered African forest elephant, the smallest living elephant. Human encroachment, climate change, and conflicts in neighbouring countries have put huge pressure on the species.

There’s a lot of work happening in Gabon to protect the forests. Here’s a great spotlight on Gabonese ecologist Andréa Minkwe and the work she and her team does to protect Gabon’s wildlife and nature.

Gabon is also hoping to build up an ecotourism industry, which would both create jobs and investment, and protect and manage forest – right now logging is the main economic “use” and is putting unsustainable pressure on the forest.

There’s also a really interesting quirk of geography – in the far southeastern corner of Gabon, there is the Batéké Plateau, which is shared with the Republic of Congo. This is a spot where the thick equatorial rainforest that covers most of Gabon runs smack into the northernmost point of the savannah that stretches down over southern Africa. This is the only known place where the habitats of gorillas and lions overlap.

GABON: Podcasts

Kongou Falls, one of the fastest flowing waterfalls in the world – Source

A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.

WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?

Institut Français Gabon: Le podcast du Mardi (Fr) – Short podcasts by the local Institut Français (a French organization that supports French culture and language study around the world) interviewing Gabonese personalities and thinkers. I listened to Toutes les opinions sont-elles tolérables? (Are all opinions tolerable?) about Spinoza, and the limits of opinions, facts, and the truth. I also listened to an interview with Chérine from Chey Libreville, a Gabonese influencer (I shared her post about traditional weddings here). Chey speaks about social media, sharing Gabon with the wider world, developing online shopping in Gabon, and the challenges she’s faced with being a full-time blogger, especially since she is a one-woman operation.

Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.

Le Grand RDV: Gabon: Et de trois pour Ali Bongo? Que peut l’opposition? (Fr) – A recent episode from Africa Radio’s podcast series on current events on the continent. Gabonese civil society leaders from various sides of the political spectrum debate if Ali Bongo could or should run for a third time in the upcoming 2023 presidential election. There’s a mix of supporters and critics, and they touch on his capacity after his stroke, why his ministers are trial ballooning him running right now, who would run instead if he could not, and the (weak) state of Gabonese democracy.

Ckilsenpensent : les réactions à la future adhésion du Gabon au Commonwealth (Fr) – Gabon announced that it plans to join the Commonwealth this year. It wouldn’t be the first country with no connections to the British Empire to join – I looked at why Mozambique joined, and Rwanda and Cameroon have also come on board (former Portuguese, Belgian, and French colonies, respectively). However, there’s been debate on if this is just a way to gain distance from France, and if this is just switching one former-colonial relationship for another. This podcast from Info241 is vox-pops from the Gabonese public, with many people framing this as a language question – does this signal a larger turn to the Anglosphere and will it involve dropping French in favour of English to take advantage of business opportunities?