Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith teaches African Studies at Duke. He is a former Africa editor at Le Monde.

Mother and Tata: The Mandelas

Stephen Smith, 21 March 2024

Imade​ my first trip to South Africa towards the end of 1988. I had just become the Africa editor of Libération after years as a regional correspondent in West Africa. I went to visit Emmanuel Lafont, a French Catholic priest who was one of the very few white people living in the vast black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg. I sat with Lafont in his ill-lit office at the back of...

Diary: On the Applegarth

Stephen Smith, 13 April 2000

Applegarth. Seaforth Radio, 13 January. Following received from British steamer Perthshire (Glasgow for Beira) at 8.13 p.m. GMT: Just sank tug (Applegarth) south of Woodside in River Mersey.

Diary: in Medellín

Stephen Smith, 21 May 1998

Of the two cathedrals in the city of Medellín, the one in Parque de Bolivar has far and away the lesser association with murder. It’s the largest brick building in South America and its confessionals are open-plan. You can see the priests, frowning, ears cocked, twiddling the cords of their vestments. The brick walls gave shelter to many mourners in the days when Medellín was ruled by Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s nabob of narcotics. But if you want a cathedral with a past, make for the mountains. The second great building in the Medellín see was founded on a prime slice of real estate overlooking Parque de Bolivar. Actually, ‘La Catedral’, as it’s known, isn’t a cathedral at all. Or if it is, then only in the same way that the expression ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ refers to a royal palace. The title was conferred by the people of Medellín on the soaring jail in which Escobar served his debt to society, until six years ago, when he got fed up and escaped. Presumably, this had nothing to do with the layout of the place, about which the principal inmate himself had been consulted. The one generally available guidebook to Colombia – published by Lonely Planet – describes La Catedral as ‘a huge hotel complex with sports facilities including football ground and swimming pool, all surrounded by barbed-wire fences and several guard towers. There is a marvellous view over the Aburra valley.’’‘

Diary: a 17-year-old murder victim

Stephen Smith, 5 February 1998

The evening paper was leading with the police calling in a ‘Cracker-style’ forensic psychologist to help them solve the case. There was a poster with the same headline for the newsstands, which was a banker of a shot for us. But the vendor we approached wouldn’t bark his wares for the camera. He was probably on the dole, according to a passing policeman. That was all this affair needed, I thought. As if the story of a slashed corpse in a seaside resort wasn’t already like something out of Brighton Rock, here was a nervous newsman to set alongside Hale of the Messenger, with his ‘inky fingers and his bitten nails’.‘

Diary: In Havana

Stephen Smith, 16 October 1997

Cubans like to say that their impoverished country is a land of miracles. How many people can pack onto a bus? Only God knows. The same irony was there on the road to the Church of St Lazarus at Rincón. The pilgrims had set out on their trek to the church for the saint’s feast-day as perfectly able-bodied men and women, but were inviting disability by grinding themselves against the blacktop for mile after mile. ‘Some of them mix up St Lazarus with a god called Babalú-Ayé,’ said Sister Rita Llanza tolerantly. It was a mix-up typical of Santería, Cuban voodoo, a profane marriage of the Catholicism imported by the Spanish and the faith of West African slaves. Adherents of Santería believed that Babalú-Ayé would look down on their prostration and find it pleasing. Sister Rita wasn’t in the least put out by the Scriptural inaccuracies of the pilgrims, accepting their candles across the altar rail in exchange for a cheaply printed parish newsletter. Wasn’t it a cardinal rule of Santería that initiates must first have been baptised? The Church in Cuba, for so many years oppressed, welcomed sinners wherever it could find them. ‘And you: I suppose you are Episcopalian?’ Sister Rita asked me. A fat bald man was standing at the door of the church, holding his hand out and intoning in a funny high voice: ‘Could you give me something because I cannot see?’ I’m sure the sister wouldn’t have minded, that she would perhaps have looked on me as a challenge, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was a Santería man myself, a Santero, or rather that I was part of the way down the road to initiation, a chicken having been sacrificed over my head in a comical ceremony in a bloodstained chapel.

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