i-37c7119cbc90896e4e9d69d2e942ff5e-Black Looks logo.jpg

Mark Glaser is traveling this week, but we’re happy to have Sokari Ekine filling in as a special guest blogger. Ekine started the award-winning Black Looks blog in 2004, and covers challenging issues such as gender, sexuality and racism. Glaser will return to the blog next
Monday.

Within 24 hours of the outbreak of the post election violence in Kenya, Kenyan blogs were posting hour by hour reports. On December 31st there was a complete shutdown of the mainstream media. Erik Hersman reported:

The only way to get any up-to-date news for the past 24-48 hours has been through the blogosphere (like Kenyan Pundit, Thinkers Room, Mentalacrobatics) Skype and Kenyan populated forums (like Mashada). The traditional media has been shut out and shut down for all intents and purposes.

Within days, the online community and blog aggregator, Mashada had set up a SMS and voice main hotline calling for people to send in local news and opinions on what was happening. This was followed by Ory Okolloha (Kenyan Pundit) who suggested using Google Earth to create a mashup of where the violence was taking place:

Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something — any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?

This was the 3rd of January and by the 9th a group of Kenyan bloggers had put together a mashup and created Ushahidi a site for people to send SMS or email reports of acts of violence direct to the site.

Daudi of MentalAcrobatics explains the importance of Ushahidi:

We as Kenyans are guilty of having short-term memories. Yesterday’s villains are today’s heroes. We sweep bad news and difficult decision under the carpet; we do not confront the issues in our society and get shocked when the country erupts as it did two months ago. Ushahidi gives everybody, anybody, the opportunity to get his or her experience recorded. Through SMS, through email, through the Internet, through meeting an NGO worker who will write down what happened and share it with us. Ushahidi is a project that has to be owned by those who use it; they have to believe in it.

Why was the Kenyan blogosphere able to rally in such a positive and productive way in such a short time? What can we learn from their actions that will help others deal with local crisis? It will be interesting to observe how the African blogosphere as a whole and Zimbabwe in particular approach the elections of 29th March. What the Ushahidi project shows is that if you build a strong community then it is easier to come together in a time of crisis and take action.

Evolution of the African Blogosphere

Kenyan bloggers were the first group of African bloggers to create an online community, first with a webring and later in March 2005 the Kenya Unlimited site was launched. This was at a time when blogging in Africa was in its infancy.

I remember when I started blogging in June 2004 the number of African bloggers was quite small and most were in the Diaspora. There was also a substantial number of Westerners blogging on Africa. I used to have Darfur and DRC categories because there was hardly Africans writing on these at the time. Now I hardly write about either as there are so many Sudanese and Congolese bloggers who are far more knowledgeable than I am.

Interestingly it was around the time of the 2006 elections that I began to notice Congolese bloggers. There are now active blogging communities across languages — French, Portuguese, Arabic and Swahili — and across countries and regions. Nonetheless three countries dominate the blogosphere, South Africa* (see below), Kenya and Nigeria, and there is a tendency for bloggers to remain within their linguistic and geographical communities.

Some of the early blogs by Africans which are still published regularly are Chippla’s Weblog (Nigeria), Mshairi (Kenya), Timbuktu Chronicles (Nigeria), AfroMusing, (Kenya) and Thinkers Room (Kenya) to name a few. By 2007 the number of blogs had grown exponentially and continue to do so.

There are a number of landmark periods which I can identify with my own posts of the time. One was called “Where are all the African women bloggers“ written in response to a piece “Where are all the women bloggers“ in which I wrote:

Now all this talk of women bloggers, minority bloggers, bloggers of colour etc is great stuff BUT no one is talking about AFRICAN women bloggers, especially those blogging from Africa rather than the Diaspora. If anyone’s voice is lost it is that of the African women. When it comes to the mainstream media and even the “alternative” so called “progressive” media and that includes Blogger world, technologically we don’t exist – but actually we do.

The importance of this post was that it not only made non-Africans aware of African women but many African women including myself were largely blogging in isolation without knowing about each other. It was at this time that I discovered the Kenyan webring which was dominated by women. I also found there were a significant number of women bloggers who were not registered with any blog directory, did not have blog rolls and did not want any publicity.

The question where are all the bloggers was raised again more recently when a white South African blogger, Inside Candy wondered why there were so few Black South Africans blogging:

I realise that this is a potentially loaded question, but where the hell are all the black bloggers hiding? To date, I’ve only met one (I repeat, one) black South African blogger – Obakeng, “The Chief” of ONC Today.”

A simple Google search produced predictable statistics on internet usage and access in South Africa:

Black Africans (BA) make up 79% of the population v. whites (W) at 9%
BA with higher eduction 5% v. W 95%
BA with landlines or mobile phones – 35% v. W 95%
BA with own computer 1.8% v. W 97%
Unemployment of BA 28% (has risen since 2001) v. 4% of W
Medium annual income of BA 12,000 rands v. 64,400 rands for W

So yes, there are issues of access, cost and time — if it takes you up to 4 hours to get to work and back then blogging is not going to be a priority even if you could afford to have your own computer or access an Internet cafe.

Emergence of Gay Bloggers

The second landmark post was a very short one; it was four sentences plus a quote titled “Gay Rights Banned”:

Nigerians banned same sex marriage! not exactly surprising news – still don’t understand the point of this since homosexuality is alreadly illegal in the country.

The post set off a huge debate amongst mainly Nigerian bloggers with homophobic and misogynist comments winding their way through the few rational thoughts. Although this was not the first LGBT post, it was the one that received by far the most comments at a time when few Africans were blogging on LGBT issues. There are blogs I have not returned to since this post and readers/bloggers who at least no longer comment on my blog.

Things have changed since 2005 as a recent article in Reuters highlights. More and more African gays and lesbians are coming out online. Some of the blogs are journals, others political, all have received varying degrees of abuse in their comments. Their presence is a sign that the African LGBT community are becoming more assertive and even though still in hiding, they are prepared to express themselves and speak out against the continued violation of their human rights.

Eighteen months ago in September 2006, “African” bloggers came together to attend the “African Indaba“ held in Grahamstown, South Africa. The meetup was hailed as the first gathering of African bloggers from across the continent. Kenyan blogger African Bullets and Honey made the following comment:

From the list of speakers, listed below, it appears to my untrained and possibly quite mistaken eye that their last names are not very black African; at least they wouldn’t be in East Africa. (Whisper: Will it be a roomful of white folks working for the betterment of the African? Please, I beg you, do not tell massa that I asked cause I know how much he is trying to help me speak and develop into a full, happy human being.)

Like the Nigerian gay marriage post, this one also caused waves of animosity across the continent’s bloggers. In some ways the fallout between bloggers has never been really bridged. Those that attended insisted it was “African” even though the majority of speakers were white and many not even white Africans. There were accusations of racism and counter accusations and so it went on. Notedly last September’s meetup was more appropriately called “Digital Citizens Indaba” so some lessons were learned.

Grassroots Reporting Project

Many African bloggers are now using their blogs as tools for social responsibility and entrepreneurship, human rights and advocacy, campaigning and grassroots activism. Blogs like Afrigadget which is managed by a team of four and aims to showcase African ingenuity.

A team of bloggers and readers contribute their pictures, videos and stories from around the continent. The stories of innovation are inspiring. It is testament to Africans bending the little they have to their will, using creativity to overcome life’s challenges.

Recently AfriGadget launched the “Grassroots Reporting Project” which will create a network of field reporters from across the continent who will report stories on “Ingenious innovations“ and “Practical Ideas that solve problems.”

Jackie Tumwine is the Ugandan correspondent for Global Link, an online anti-smoking lobby. Jackie reports on tobacco related stories from across Africa covering stories on new legislation, law suites against tobacco corporations, local anti-smoking initiatives and so on. Sokwanele and Abahlali baseMjondo are two “peoples movements” from Zimbabwe and South Africa. Sokwanele: This is Zimbabwe reports on life under Robert Mugabe and campaigns for his removal in the forthcoming elections of 29th March. They have already created a Google map to show possible areas of election rigging.

All election talk in Zimbabwe revolves around rigging: a certainty that Mugabe has rigged and is doing his best to rig the elections; what tricks has he up his sleeve this time; what has he said to SADC to persuade them to look past the fraud; can we hope the police and army and teachers etc in the polling stations will blow the whistle and reveal the truth?

The Durban-based shack-dwellers movement, Abahlali base Mjondo was formed in 2006 to campaign against the forced removals of residents in the settlements which have existed for some 30 years. Abahlali is a movement of the “militant poor” in the province of KwaZulu Natal and includes thousands of residents in some 30 settlements.

Amongst other victories the Abahlali have democratized the governance of many settlements, stopped evictions in a number of settlements, won access to schools, stopped the industrial development of the land promised to Kennedy Road, forced numerous government officials and projects to “come down to the people” and mounted vigorous challenges to the uncritical assumption of a right to lead the local struggles of the poor.

Africans complain endlessly about the lack of accountability, transparency and corruption in government but do very little other than talk! In March 2006, Kenyan bloggers, Kenyan Pundit and Thinkers Room chose to go beyond the talk and created Mzalendo: Eye on Kenyan Parliament. Last November, Ory Okolloh (Kenyan Pundit) spoke to African Path about Mzalendo and the role it could play in the elections:

Mzalendo is a website whose goal is to shine a spotlight on the performance of Kenyan Members of Parliament, and to make information about the goings-on in Parliament widely accessible. We believe that Kenyan voters have a right to know what their representatives are doing once they have been elected…

We hope that the data we have been able to publish…and the comments that have been made by constituents will help voters focus on issues and on performance, rather than ethnicity and personalities as has traditionally been the case in Kenyan politics.

Unfortunately as the post election violence showed voters did exactly that.

African Path and African Loft

In just four years the African blogosphere has grown from a hundred or so Africans to over 1,000 presently registered on Afrigator alone and I believe this figure is way below the real number. Despite the launch of an African wide aggregator there remains a tendency for bloggers and readers to remain within their own national and thematic spaces. This is not just an African trend as most blogs operate within a circle of blogs and friends and enemies mingling amongst themselves. Two sites launched last year, African Path and African Loft, have tried to address this trend and encourage bloggers and readers to move into a more continental and international space.

Joshua Wanyama, founder of African Path, describes the site as:

an online portal on Africa that allows Africans to own and tell their stories on the global stage. By doing so, we receive better representation of our cultures and history instead of an outsiders’ perspectives. We accomplish this through blogs and news aggregation, a business portal on Africa, a growing African social network and a music and movies section.

African Loft with the tagline “Where the People and the Friends of Africa Mingle” was launched in June 2007. The site offers a blend of daily news, original essays, a social community space and multimedia sharing features for members. Like African Path, many of the contributors though not all are bloggers and both sites encourage social networking and the use of Web 2.0 technologies to enhance the sites and the users’ experience.

Although both sites can safely be described as portals, there are differences in design and presentation of content as the African Loft founder explains:

One of the differentiating features of African Loft is the ChatterBox- the first intelligent algorithmic tracker on the African web that presents the conversational links and relationships on the top 50 news/blogs.

Also available on African Loft are scores of exclusive interviews and reports, podcasts, and an eclectic compilation of videos on African- related topics – ranging from news to documentaries. In addition, African Loft comes with a Job Board that presents mainly mid-to-top level career opportunities in Africa.

The importance of the two sites is twofold: First they act as bridge sites and platforms which cut across national and regional boundaries and second they provide a way to promote lesser known blogs which perform poorly on sites such as Technorati and Alexa and never really become known outside of their small national readership. Both portals have the potential strength and readership to counter this as they also have a strong international following.