Will Africa Benefit from the Rise of Personal Media?

Young people in West are increasingly finding Africa's endless cycle of hunger, violence and disease unacceptable. This can be seen in increased travel to Africa and massive interest in campaigns like Save Darfur and Make Poverty History. At the same time, these youth are increasingly turning to personal media (blogs, vlogs, podcasts, wikis), instead of mainstream media, to shape their world view. One important question of our time is how do we harness the emerging power of emerging technologies to give youth a richer picture of the problems and opportunities in Africa, while also enticing them to act in coherent and effective ways.

Especially in the United States, there is a long tradition of media being a pillar of democracy. De Toqueville wrote about the connection between civic engagement and newspapers and Watergate was investigatory journalism's pinnacle. None of this is new. What is new is the elastic nature of personal media to be both an accurate and balanced information source, and a source of mobilization for real world participation.

What is participatory media and how is it different from the mass media it is replacing? As David Sifri, founder of Technocrati aptly stated: mass media is a lecture from media company to an audience, while personal media transforms these lectures into conversations. Blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other internet based communicative technologies allow people to create their own content, as well as be their own judge (no longer the media company) of what is quality content. (For an overview of personal media, see the Economist.)

What does this mean for Africa? First, many would agree that mainstream media has lost its chance to give Africa a fair shot. Land on the main Africa page for CCN or NYT on any given day, and see the cycle of war, famines and disease repeated ad nauseum. Africa is far away, and it is expensive to send and maintain a correspondent to cover the continent. Also, editors dictate content based on what they believe consumers will find interesting. With limited print space, editors choose to cover seemingly apocalyptic disaster, but fail to capture either the remarkable potential that lies behind these struggles, or the successful projects already being undertaken to break their cycle. Will African benefit from the rise of participatory media? The tools are available, the potential is unmistakable, but the benefit will not come without smart, strategic action.

To illustrate this potential, here I assess the state of blogs (the most popular form of new media and the form I am most familiar with). Watching the Afri-blogosphere closely for the last two months, I have noticed two types of quality Afriblogs. The first group are practitioner blogs, either in the realms of politics, policy, or business. Even when they involve theory, these blogs overwhelmingly deal with solutions. They do not underestimate the challenges on the continent, but they recommend or point to practical changes in business or policy that would make life in Africa better. Further, they tend to write within the historical narrative of failed African leadership, pinning the problems closer to home (and thus fixable from home), instead of choosing the narrative of foreign neo-imperialism.

Stephen Schwenke, a leading development ethicist, and a former professor of mine, likes to emphasise the common humanity shared by seemingly completely different people. A relatively wealthy American professor from Washington DC, he says, and a poor, illiterate subsistence farmer from northern Uganda may not have lots to talk about. However, they both know what it feels like to be a father and love a child. This simple tale shows alot about why many people want to help Africa: they simply want to help other human beings. Connecting on this most basic human level is how we elucidate our common struggle. The second group of Afribloggers, cultural bloggers, can play similar role at creating human connectedness. These bloggers depict the worlds of African music, theatre, movies, fashion, or architecture. This family of blogs is incredibly important because it demonstrates Africa's creative component, paints a more human, nuanced view of Africa that disaster based reporting from the mainstream media never approaches.

It's interesting to look at the profiles of these bloggers (see my sidebar for some examples in each category). They are often journalists, former Peace Corps volunteers or entrepreneurs, both African and Western. I've also noticed that they are definitively cosmopolitan, comfortable engaging with both African and Western viewpoints and styles. They are almost exclusively either Africans who are or have lived in the West, or Westerners who are or have lived in Africa.

This highlights an important point. What I have learned from running several programs focused on exhcnages between Americans and Ugandans is that even Ugandans who speak fluent English are still speaking a different language from Americans. Africa desperately needs people who can be understood both in Africa and the West. I believe this is simply a matter of exposure ,acculturation and exchange. Talented bloggers cut this barrier in a way that allows important stories and information to travel between these two 'worlds.'

The myriad of voices contributing to Afriblogs makes for a richer contextual picture of the continent. However, blogs also have the revolutionary potential to encourage people to take practical, focused action on the issues that they find important. Two organizations illustrate this point. One of the most innovative technology firms in the world, EchoDitto (Click here for an interview on Africa I did on EchoDitto's blog with co-founder Michael Silberman), is a leader in inspiring real world action through online content. While they largely work in the American domestic sphere, through their innovative web based campaigns, they have encouraged millions to vote, raise money, or call their Congressman. They understand that people can be connected and empowered through the web.

However, mobilizing for efficient, effective change is one thing when dealing with American domestic politics and activism, but it is quite another when dealing with international development. There are language and time issues, digital divides to conquer, and difficulties in measuring success. As a foundation for change, I think we have to take advantage of what blogs and other emerging technologies can bring us: the best African political, intellectual, policy, business and cultural innnovations.

Take the example of Global Youth Partnership for Africa's (GYPA) Uganda Immersions (Full disclosure: I am Associate Director of GYPA). Next week, 13 American undergraduate, graduate and young professionals, interested in print/radio/video journalism, marketing and public relations will arrive in Kampala. Over the next two weeks, they will meet with some of the exciting social entrepreneurs in several different issues areas throughout the country. Their goal is to literally create media that will both help change the way that Africa is looked at in the West, but also incite young Americans to contribute to the solutions put forth by these entrepreneurs. Telling a balanced story about Africa is important civic action in itself. However, once young people from the West and from Africa can connect over exciting ideas and commonly held beliefs, the potential for practical partnership skyrockets.

A new global market is emerging. The sellers are intelligent, energetic and pragmatic young African leaders with innovative projects in their respective fields. The buyers are equally intelligent, energetic and pragmatic young Westerners yearning to apply pragmatism to their idealism. The market place is new media, where stories are told, opportunities are elucidated, connections are made, and action is taken.

Labels: , ,

This Week

It's a busy week in Kampala. I've got two exciting posts coming this week:

K'LA City Jam Session
: It's been a long time. It's been a long time comin'. The long awaited launch of the weekly East African hip hop podcast, featuring an interview with Kampala's finest DJ St. CA, will take place this Wednesday. Each week, it will feature 5 choice jams, and an interview with a local artist.

Where New Media Meets Africa: I'm finishing a fairly major piece this week. Here is the intro paragraph...

Young people in the United States are increasingly finding a renewed interest in Africa. This can be seen in increased travel to Africa, massive interest in campaigns like Save Darfur and Uganda-CAN. At the same time, these youth are increasingly consuming personal media; interactive websites like Facebook, blogs, vlogs and podcasts, as their main sources of information. One important question we need to ask is how do we harness the emerging power of personal media to give Americans a richer picture of the problems and opportunities in Africa, while also enticing them to contribute, coherently and effectively, to ending Africa's endemic problems.

Stay tuned, friends.

Labels: ,

Life in Uganda: Musings on Israel (in Uganda)

It's very sad to think about Israel at war. It's harder still to think of the civilians and soldiers that have lost their lives on both sides of this most recent clash.

I came to Uganda from Tel Aviv, where for two weeks in late May and early June I crashed at a friends apartment, ate delicious Israeli salad with feta cheese, sabech (that addictive and delectable pita stuffed with eggplant, onions, potatoes, hummus, tahini, and various other sauces) sat on the beach endlessly and wrote a little bit at Mersand, a coffee shop a few blocks from the beach on Ben Yehuda Street. One day, at dusk, I ran down the beach, and watched the sunset from the ancient Arab port city of Jaffa.

Uganda has been the host of two fascinating moments of Israeli history. Perhaps most obscurely, in 1903, the British Foreign Minister offered Theodor Herzl and his Zionists cohorts a prime piece of Ugandan real estate (land naturally richer than Israel). Hertzl desperately wanted to accept, mostly because he had seen the pogroms in Russia, but many of his compatriots would only accept the Holy Land. It's fascinating to think what might have been if the Jewish state was established in East Africa.

A bit more prominently (at least in Israeli history) is the 1976 raid on Entebbe. To summarize a several day long epic: Palestinian and German terrorists highjacked a plane traveling from Tel Aviv, via Athens, to Paris. They landed the plane, first in Libya, then in Uganda, where the maniacal and profanely stupid Idi Amin welcomed them. They were kept at the airport terminal in Entebbe, where 3 days later, Sayaret Matkal, an elite Israeli special forces unit led by the charismatic Bebe Netenyahu, staged a night time landing at the airport. They rolled out a replica of Idi Amin's limousine, pretending to be the leader visiting the hostages. They hopped out of the limo guns ablaze and freed all the hostages except two. There was only one Israeli casualty, the unit commander, Netanyahu. The success of the rescue was a huge boost of Israeli pride and a huge embarrassment for Amin.
Last evening I went to the airport at Entebbe to pick up a close friend. On Entebbe Road, just before the new airport, framed with the beautiful background of Lake Victoria, I briefly saw the shell of the bombed out old Air France plane, kept as a memorial to the highjacking.

Labels: ,

Life in Kampala: A Malarial Mystery

So this time around I've been in Africa for about 8 weeks. In the middle of one night at the end of my second week, I came down with a nasty, debilitating fever, which left me barely able to move. I craved sugar and water, lost all other appetite, alternately shivered and overheated. In the morning, I crawled over to my neighbors, who are doctors, and even though I had been taking the prophylaxis called methfloquin, they seemed to agree with my malarial self-diagnosis. I sent my roommate out for medicine, and spent the next two days alternating between sleeping and watching John Travolta movies on my laptop.

After these two days, I recovered to full strength, but for the last four weeks, each week for two days, I have been experiencing the same symptoms, though often not as serious. I had been working hard and traveling around Uganda alot, and each time I went to clinics of varying degrees of shadiness in Kampala and Gulu, and got malaria treatment. I became debilitated again this weekend, and decided I should probably go to a non-shady doctor. In fact, he was so non-shady, that he was the best tropical medicine expert in Uganda. This doctor, who at my moment of weakness, jokingly criticized me for not wearing trousers (I was wearing shorts), immediately told me I had never had malaria. In fact, in East Africa there had never been a reported case of malaria from someone taking mefloquine.

As he rattled off the list of possible crazy tropical diseases that I could have to his petite German med student assistant (Amebiasis, Leishmaniasis, Denge Fever, ect..) I began to get a bit nervous. They needed an hour and half to process the blood test and let me know my fate. With Joanna (who was doing an excellent job of taking care of me!!! Thank you!!), we walk to the downstairs coffee shop and spent the time reading shallow gossip magazines from Africa and Europe. At the end of the hour and a half, the doctor again commented with a smile about my lack of pants, and told me that I was free of any crazy tropical diseases, and in fact, I was among the 10% who are allergic to methfloquin, the very drug I had been taking to prevent malaria.

Last night and this morning, as I roused out of the latest (and hopefully last) methfloquin stupor, I again regained the ability to read, and read Ryszard Kapuscinski's excellent 'The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life'. It may be the best narrative of Africa I have ever read, but more importantly, I read a passage that added circumstantial evidence to the confirmation the doctor gave me: that I had never really had malaria.

Here is his description of getting malaria in a small African village:

What can bring relief when you have a malaria attack? The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you. This thing you are being covered with must crush you with its weight, squeeze you, flatten you. You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.

I once had a powerful malaria attach in a poor village, where there weren't any heavy coverings. The villagers placed the lid of some kind of wooden chest on top of me and then patiently sat on it, waiting for the worst tremors to pass.


iDev: Strong Democracy in Mali

During GYPA's June Uganda Immersion, in a discussion between American and Ugandan youth leaders, I overheard one very bright American participant ask: 'It seems like northern Uganda and southern Uganda are completely different countries. Wouldn't it be easier to just rewrite the borders?"

I've written before that I agree with Fukuyama that 'we know relatively little about how to build strong political institutions in poor countries,' and that this project demands careful thinking and action. I think the first step is assuming that rewriting national borders will not happen in our lifetime, and if they did, many people would die.

Following that assumption, the question becomes, how does one create a sense of national unity within a country that has been divided for as long as the country has existed? Robert Pringle writes a fascinating article in Wilson Quarterly about Mali, a country where this process of national unity is taking place:

"Malians say that their history and culture have nourished interethnic tolerance. They cite a whole tool kit of conflict resolution and avoidance mechanisms. There are, for example, “joking relationships” between clans and tribes. People involved in such relationships are licensed to greet each other with jocular insults. My Tuareg research assistant liked to remind my Dogon driver that the latter’s ancestors had once been slaves of his Tuareg ancestors. The driver would joke back in kind. While it always made me a bit nervous, this traditional practice seems to relieve tensions among Malians, perhaps because it is well understood as a substitute for tribal hostility. In a more subtle way, the joking relationships are an affirmation of a broader Malian identity."

And later...

"Malians are creating a national foundation mythology. Like Americans, they are selective. We stress the Bill of Rights, not the Pullman strike or what we did to Native Americans, and we like to believe the story about the young George Washington making a clean breast of it after he chopped down his father’s cherry tree, even when we know that this appealing story was invented by an early biographer. The Malians emphasize the three Great Empires and pass lightly over their ancestors’ later complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, though they do not deny it."


"What is most important about Mali’s mythology is not whether or to what extent history is being embellished, but rather the underlying assumption that reason and creativity can maintain harmonious relations among people of different cultural backgrounds. The Malians believe that equitable, responsive government has become a national tradition in part as a response to harsh conditions."

Last week, concurrent with the publishing o this article, the Ugandan government agreed to another round of peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Juba, Sudan. It's important to keep in mind that the divisions that exist between people and tribes in Uganda are not simply the product of the 20-year long conflict with the LRA. These divisions have deeper historical roots. Uganda's political and cultural leadership should gather the moral courage to take steps to create a sense of national unity that will stop the next Joseph Kony from keeping the country divided. Perhaps, by looking at this process in Mali, Uganda can gain insight into the practical steps needed to begin the long process of national reconciliation.

Labels: ,

East African Travel: Lake Bunyoni

Thanks to my buddy Oliver from Orphans of Rwanda, I spent the weekend with Joanna and some Rwanda based Americans, lounging on the beautiful Bashara Island Camp on Lake Bunyoni, a lake surrounded by lush hills and patrolled by fisherman paddling canoes fashioned out of hollowed out logs. I was in need of serious exercise (Kampala Marathon is only 4 months away!) so instead of driving, we took an enchanting two-hour hike from Kabale, the southernmost town in Uganda, near the Rwandan/Ugandan/Congolese border.

Bashara Island is one of the most well planned and executed tourism projects I've seen in Uganda, with a near perfect blend of luxury and modesty, set in midst of a clean, swimmable, fresh water lake. There were outside showers with views of the lake, clean and comfortable beds, a strong menu with the best fresh mint tea I have ever tasted.

My particular interest in tourism is to investigate how to maximize the profit that stays within the community and contributes to development. From this perspective, there are two exciting subsectors developing within the Ugandan tourism industry. I have spent the summer working in one subsector, which we can call 'Youth Immersions.' 'Youth Immersions' is a nearly untapped tourism/community development hybrid, meant to bring together pragmatic, connected American students and youth 'social entrepreneurs' throughout Africa. You can read about this in a previous post.

Bashara Island Camp is an excellent example of the other fascinating (and more well know) subsector, which has been growing for many years, called eco-tourism. Most of the profit when you pay the bill at Bashara Island Camp goes to fund an orphan care program, an agro-forestry project, and pay school fees. Bashara does it right: offering an incredibly high level of service at an affordable price, all while providing a market based (non-donor based) source of income to help develop a community that has long been unable to survive on subsistence farming.


Life in Uganda: Where I Write, Part I

I take a peculiar interest in the physical space where people write. It helps me remember that the people I'm having a conversation with in cyberspace are real. For any of you who share this curiosity, here is where I often write:

I live on Gaba Road. If I take this road west I get into the madness of Kampala City Centre (K'LA). In K'LA, you find crowds, dirt and motion, basically everything you expect from a busy capital city (sans road lines).

If I take Gaba Road east, the air clears, the pace slows, and soon I am in view of Lake Victoria. The area near the lake is serene, palm tree laden, and lined with fisherman and mango merchants. A few stops before I reach Gaba, a small fishing village at the end of the road, I yell to the matatu (bus) driver 'Masau' (stop), and I get off at Munyonyo.

In addittion to being one of the most beautiful places near Kampala, it has free wireless DSL connection!! The fastest internet connection in the country combined with clean, breathable air (and decent coffee) makes for a stunning locale. This is where I have been writing the last few days.

If you are into feeling an uptempo, Soweto vibe while you enjoy the view, I highly recommend the South African artist Zola, brought to you by Benn Loxo

Labels: ,