Picnic 2008 report: Surprising Africa
Citizen journalism in Africa
‘Bring the world to Africa and bring Africa to the world.’ (Gisel Hiscock, talking at Surprising Africa)
Hiscock, one of speakers at the Surprising Africa conference, held a lecture about Google’s interest in giving information-access to the one billion Africans. Apart from giving them access to information, these same Africans need a way to share their information with the rest of the world: they need a voice. According to Hiscock the focus should be on developing technologies that answer local needs, empowering communities and in this way achieving the most. She finds Africa interesting because of it’s innovative character. Another speaker, Ethan Zuckerman, shares this interest: ‘A hammer isn’t a hammer in Africa. In the West a hammer is solely a tool to hit nails, in Africa they use it to do a lot more.’ Surely this is a necessity due to poverty, but nonetheless a capacity that has great potential in using new technologies. His presentation was far more interesting than the Google-presentation Hiscock came up with, since the latter seemed to be more interested in putting Google on a shiny pedestal instead of discussing relevant issues.
Zuckerman started off with an overview of the growth of the web: From 1990 to 1995 internet moved on from the geeks to the general public. In 1997 the weblog came into being and appeared to be a powerful and political tool: people could peddle their opinions and share their every thought. The speaker then continued by giving several examples of the powerful effect blogs can have in underdeveloped countries. Some blogs of missionaries and A-workers in Africa give an interesting perspective on African business and politics. Their blogs are written in English and mostly read by people in the West. There are native African bloggers too, presenting their views in English, to the same readers. Zuckerman gives some examples of bloggers criticizing their own government, and at the same time questioning the interference of foreigners. This ‘bridgeblogging’ has an important mediating function and has proven to be a strong political tool. On the other hand, African bloggers writing in their local language, have an important function in making their African public part of the global discussions. However we should not forget that most of the Africans are not online yet.
Zuckerman, speaking of citizen media rather than citizen journalism, explains how internet could be a great addition to the uses of radio and the mobile phone by bringing the news, and also providing the opportunity for the African people to share their opinions. With a mobile phone it is possible to call someone who has access to internet in order to gain information. Radio and the mobile phone have proven to be a fruitful combination in case of political violence in corrupted societies. Instead of turning to the untrustworthy police, people can call the radio instead, and thus put pressure on the authorities and the police to act correctly. Additionally, radio is a very important tool because of the huge illiteracy in Africa. By creating internet connections in radio stations and spreading the (world) news via the radio, whole communities can profit from just one internet connection. There is, however, still the issue of the ‘digital divide’, as people tend to call it. As this is a concept that cannot encompass the complexity of the difficulties, Zuckerman breaks up the concept into four aspects:
-‘Power divide’: Africa is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dark Continent’, due to the lack of power systems that supply electricity. And without electricity, there is hardly any chance of technological revolution.
-‘Connectivity divide’: The digital information exchange between the USA and Europe is huge; physical transport of this exchange is provided by an extensive cable network between the continents. Between Africa and Europe there is some connectivity, but in comparison it’s negligible. As for the USA, no cables at all cross the Atlantic to Africa.
-‘Language divide’: Little content on the web is available in African languages, which makes it hard for African people to participate in global conversations.
-‘Relevancy divide’: A lot web-content and technology is oriented on the West; There is not much concern for the needs of the Africans in this sense.
These problems need a longterm focus in which infrastructure has to be increased enormously; everybody should get a voice. Zuckerman gives an example of a mother with a sick child (Baby Kamba). She created a blog and her story got so much attention that she managed to raise enough money to pay for an operation. Zuckerman states we should not look at the baby here, but at the mother. Citizen media at it’s best. Why is Africa surprising? Because we just don’t pay enough attention!