Out of Africa

Arlington businessmen Charles Biney and Eric Owusu disagreed mightily about what to name their magazine.

Both natives of Ghana, the men had worked hard to put together a distinct, informative publication about the African continent for readers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

They began bouncing around a title. Biney came up with African Advocate, an apt title for him, a political activist well-known in the Dallas-area Ghanian community for his stances against abuses in Africa. Biney is so outspoken in his criticisms of dictators and the West's contributions to African strife that other Ghanian expatriates living in the Metroplex sometimes avoid being paired with him in public forums.

"Four to five years ago," Biney admits, "People didn't want to be seen with me."

As his partner Owusu dryly puts it: "Charles is going to get everybody in trouble."

Owusu nixed the word Advocate. The 44-year-old president of Midland Financial Services in Arlington, he is the publication's managing director. The magazine, he argued, must appeal to a variety of folks from different cultures and backgrounds. Advocate seemed too political.

Biney, the Amnesty International member, sees the magazine as a tool to fight fascism, colonialism, and human rights abuses in his homeland. Owusu, the financial consultant, sees the publication as a business. "To Charles, it was to advocate," Owusu says. "To me, I wanted to sell magazines. I wanted people to pick it up and go on their way, not be put off."

After a monthlong debate, Biney and Owusu decided to call their publication The African Monthly.

They pooled their money, hired a small staff, and began putting out a magazine that is a veritable bounty of information on African countries and their issues. Since April, the staff of nine has printed and distributed four issues of the Monthly, a richly reported, well-written publication about the mysterious land of Africa. The articles are in-depth and intriguing, offering information about African affairs that is hard to find in the mainstream press. And even though most new magazines in the United States fail, the two Ghanians think theirs will take off because it fills a void.

"We found out a lot of information about Africa that is written in the Western press is full of half truths, untruths, and misconceptions," Owusu explains. "We have allowed the African story to be told by people who are not of African ancestry."

African Monthly, they say, will change all that. The magazine's stories are timeless and informative. The publication is semi-glossy, with a cover that shows outlined flags of African countries. "We met to discuss the cover and African symbols and said why not use the flags of the African nations? We added the flag of the United States as the host country of the magazine." Joli McClain does the typesetting and graphic layout. The Rowlett resident had typeset Biney's book The African Manifesto.

In the cover story, entitled "Africa's Killing Fields: Ethnic Cleansing in Rwanda," Biney and writer Napolean Abdulai painstakingly explore the ethnic and socioeconomic relationship between the Tutsi and the Hutu, who have committed atrocious massacres against one another. The ghastly feuding, the writers say, is not an ethnic war because the two are not from separate tribes or ethnic groups. Instead, they explain, the difference between Tutsis and Hutus is wealth. Tutsi refers to cattle owners, generally well-to-do, and Hutu implies "poor farmer."

The article reveals just how much former colonizers France and Belgium contributed to the unrest in Rwanda and how the U.S. and other countries supplied arms to that country as late as 1994.

In the June issue, Kwabena Osei-Boaten explains in minute detail the workings of the deadly Ebola virus which has resurfaced in Zaire. Osei-Boaten also explores the virus' possible origins. "Africans have co-existed with the rain forest ecosystem for thousands of years and never contracted these so-called emerging viruses. What seems to be going on?" he asks.

Women and women's issues are conspicuously covered in the magazine's pages; African Monthly sports its own women's affairs section. The May issue reveals that Cameroon still maintains laws prohibiting women from owning land. In the April issue, Theresa Ewusie-Jabialu offers an interesting piece on how women fare in Ghanian universities. Also in May, Biney wrote an involved and sympathetic piece on South African rebel Winnie Mandela.

African Monthly also covers the actions of the military rulers who pervade African government: Gnassingbe Eyadema in Togo; Ibrahim Babangida in Nigeria; Siad Barre in Somalia. In a piece entitled "The Military in Africa," Dr. George Ayittey, a Washington, D.C. scholar, points out that the military "has become the scourge of Africa and the bane of its development."

On the lighter side, the magazine includes sections on arts and culture, opinion, religion, and profiles. It also offers a unique business section that has included articles on budgets and taxation for African development and instructions on how to create an investment atmosphere in Africa. The magazine profiles African singers, writers, and performers and features African-Americans among the pages as well; several local residents have written columns. In all, African Monthly is an engrossing read that fills a news and information void, just as its founders predicted it would.

Still, serious financial challenges remain. Owusu and Biney did not finance the magazine through a bank, choosing instead to pay for the first issues themselves. As they prepare their fifth issue, the directors also are seeking more advertising. "We chipped in our few pennies and exhausted our resources in a matter of a month," Owusu says. "We are hoping subscribers and advertisers respond."

Most of the advertising is now local; Owusu says they intend to reach out to national advertisers in the near future.

So far, the two print 1,000 copies per issue, but Owusu says he expects circulation to grow quickly. The magazines are distributed in several outlets across the Metroplex, including Black Images bookstore, Home Food Markets, and Sahara Foodstore. There are also distributors elsewhere, including California, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Canada, and Germany. The publication is not, however, distributed in Ghana.

The journalists spend the bulk of their money on printing costs. Metro Printers in Arlington prints the magazine.

All the writers were found through various African organizations. Biney met Ayittey through the latter's founding of Free Africa, a pan-Africanist organization dedicated to unifying Africans with the African diaspora. Kwesi Pratt, who comprises the magazine's West Africa bureau, edits a Ghanian newspaper, and Napolean Abdulai, the London bureau chief, writes for a magazine there.

Biney also recruited writers he felt had special expertise in technology, politics, and social issues.

"Technology is definitely my issue," says Kwabena Osei-Boaten. "I know Charles likes to deal with women's issues. Eric is more of an entertainment writer."

Osei-Boaten, a Dallas computer network engineer, says he believes his articles, while heavily focusing on technology, have widespread appeal. "Even though it's technology, I try to reach anybody who can read on an eighth-grade level, the person on the street."

The journalists work mostly from their homes; the international writers submit their work by fax. The local writers and editors meet periodically in the offices of Owusu's company to talk about content and format. The publication also runs International Press Service wire stories downloaded from the Internet.

So far, the magazine is not well-known; most sales come from people who stumble across it in the few spots that carry it or are families, friends and acquaintances of the people who produce it.

Yet the founders see their potential readership as multicultural. Whites and other ethnic groups are as likely to glean valuable information about African countries as is the African diaspora, they say.

While the magazine focuses on every country in Africa, the men's homeland of Ghana inspired the product. The ancient and medieval West African kingdom, although rich in gold, diamonds and manganese, is tense and poor under the military rule of J.J. Rawlings. In May, Rawlings reportedly cracked down on demonstrators protesting economic conditions in the country. Biney says it was the relatively positive image of Ghana surfacing in American reports that convinced him to produce the magazine.

"The white press are pawns," Owusu says. "They point at Ghana as a symbol of success in Africa. But at the same time, you have 100,000 people in the streets, crying for redemption."

Both Biney and Owusu left Ghana for the United States in their early 20s to attend college. They met here through various social organizations in their small Ghanian community in the Metroplex. (Biney says it numbers about 1,000.) Biney's first attempt at publishing was the Ghana Star, a newsletter aimed at the community. But that venture ended in failure because the majority of people who signed up to contribute didn't.

"It takes a lot of work to put a magazine together," he says. "They were not willing to sacrifice to put it in print. It's apathy."

Now, the men cultivate a small cadre of dedicated contributors and watch the magazine's bottom line as carefully as they watch developments in their homeland.

"All we are doing is pursuing a dream," Owusu says. "If what we have written can touch some hearts and change some minds, then we will feel we have fulfilled a dream.

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Denise Mcvea