Saturday, September 3, 2016

Keep An Eye Out

I was supposed to write a thing for an online outlet that says it is about African opinions. We didn't agree on how that goes. Oh well. Here's the raw material, complete with holes in the argument and questionability. Still, if it makes you want to Google something, my job is done. Namaste.

Come Bearing Gifts.
by Elsie Eyakuze

Thursday 1st September 2016

This article is the result of my online indignation at Mark Zuckerberg's recent visit to Kenya, where he offered to support various tech related projects... and provide cheap and affordable internet to the poor people of Africa. The online tantrum was a violation of conventions- some Tanzanian blogger had a meltdown over the fact that an American tech billionaire was offering “something good” to my fellow dwellers on the continent of pity. But if India can say no to Mark Zuckerberg, then by jolly goodness so can Africa.

Just a quick note on structural racism: the assumption is that Africa is a poor continent populated by poor people who are simply poor and prostrated by their poverty. We are not supposed to have a past, a dynamic and self-aware present, let alone a future, unless a non-African of means comes along to say so. Because we're poor. But material poverty, much as it has been manufactured over centuries of exploitation, land grabbing, colonialism and slavery, hasn't resulted in poverty of mind, spirit or body. If anything, Africa is emerging with grand vigor at the moment and everyone is trying to jump on that bandwagon. To which I say: nope, not again. This time it has to be on better terms. Our terms.

The Zuckerberg offer for cheap internet in India was tied to giving his company control over the content that his clients would be able to access. There is a lot of literature on 'net control that I can't get into right now for word limit reasons, but please feel free to search on your affordable internet connection about it. Indians are superbly competent in the area of technology as we all know, having been tech-supported by them for the last decade. They looked at these conditions he was proposing and asked him to vacate their online premises thank you very much. Is there poverty in India? You bet. Did they believe for an instant that the Zuckerberg offer was going to make any difference? Nope.

So having observed from them, I feel empowered as an African who uses the internet to resist the offer of good things. I know a scam when I see it, even if my foremothers did not. The bible, the gatling gun, the replacement of local political systems and culture, the imposition of western clothing, taxation as a tool to rob people of their autonomies? Familiar territory to a dying breed of Africanist. I don't reach for the golden ring, I don't thank oppressors for oppressing me economically and I don't want Mark Zuckerberg's drones allegedly providing internet to “poor” Africans. If information is power, you best believe I am going to bring the geopolitical argument into the situation.

On to the numbers: yes, I am part of the economic elite that can afford ridiculous amounts on online presence. But here's what's up in Tanzania at least, and let me quote extensively from an article in the Guardian (Tanzania) about the African Peering and Interconnection Form meeting that recently took place in my city, Dar es Salaam. Ahem. “Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority (TCRA) figures show that the number of wireless internet users reached 16.26 million last year” which makes me think that there is more penetration because of shared gadgets- e.g. children who are heavy users don't necessarily get their own simcards. There's roughly 50 million Tanzanians.

Tanzania also has three major competing service providers- Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo- with another one that is challenging the market due to rural penetration - Halotel- as well as a few minor dedicated companies that focus on internet provision like Smile. The market here is hot with competition, and almost nobody uses only a single provider for all services because our gadgets and our markets skew in favor of the consumer. Several providers even provide access to Facebook for “free” with airtime, with one offering a memorable WTF package (Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook) on the cheap for its customers.

For all the competition we have a playful environment, with marketers intelligent enough to appeal to the masses in most cases. Tigo does this best, Vodacom is woefully inadequate but we forgive them because of their cheap, cheap internets. We price-compare, we have several simcards and we always choose the cheapest option. But most of all, we like the freedom to manage our communications how we want, when we want, as cheaply as possible.

I'm sorry if this essay violates any fantasies you have of Africans being static, open to exploitation, prone to bad decisions every time. Not so much. We're having internal conversation that Zuckerberg has no place in. His version of philanthropy can go shove itself up the same hole in history as the bible, the gatling gun, King Leopold and suchlike. Neocolonialism is real, and it must be resisted, especially in times where everyone demands that the world be painted in the simple colors of black and white.

I fully expect, accept and welcome the failure of this small campaign to keep Big Internet out of Africa. Our political leaders have a bad habit of colluding with the oppressors for their own benefit. I might even be wrong, god forbid, about the extent of Zuckerberg's evilness. But the point remains: there has never been a time when a gift has been offered to Africans that they would not regret accepting. Capitalism does not do gifts. Neither does Mark Zuckerberg. Sometimes saying NO is the best thing you can do for yourself and more importantly for future generations.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: Goddammit, UKUTA!

You made me lose at least four arguments. Just last Sunday I declared with grand pomposity that there is no way the government was going to shut the planned September 1st demonstrations. That the force of discontent would burst through all restrictions as Tanzanians' quest for freedoms and rights breached the damn walls of stupid middle-aged patriarchal crap. I even went so far as to denigrate those who said it would not happen as being stuck in their gilded cages of privilege, unable to smell or taste the sheer fury of the people in the air. 

Full. Blown. Wrong. 


I know the story is not over but there is a reason I didn't comment on it earlier and there is a reason I will probably not write about TZ politics again for a while. In the meantime, here's a nibble:

"How did it come to this? The mechanisms of Tanzanian peace and stability are intricate, and retaining the balance through our various stages of growth is always challenging. I like to say that we cycle through phases characterized by the incumbents we choose. Mwinyi was seen as having been a touch too laissez-faire so his successor Mkapa provided just the right touch of pedantry and discipline to appeal. After a decade of his dyspeptic guidance, we ran happily into the warm and charming embrace of Kikwete. We were in need of fun and relaxation and hope and modernity, what can I say. And after too large a serving of his brand of leadership, well. It was time for discipline again. 
So we swing between the poles. Sometimes we are more open, sometimes we are more conservative. Sometimes we are channeling a very masculine energy, sometimes it is a very feminine energy. Always, it is Tanzania first: that's the “tax” we pay to be so lucky as to be her citizens. Our incumbents usually come to understand, accept and sometimes even be defeated by the fact that our complex society believes in the social contract between the state and the people. Live, but let live."
And for duck's sake, Tanzania: solar eclipses have nothing to do with Magufuli. It is a natural phenomenon, not a sign. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: You Are Who You Eat

First of all, a little notice. I am perfectly aware that the Frankenmonster of an opposition that we have is headed for a full-bull encounter with my stubborn and frightened state security system. There will be more than enough time, with Government The Fifth, to talk about it. 

So this week was the second segment about weird future stuff that I am into and I made a mistake. I crossed the streams. I wrote about food! Ugh. It has not gone well, to be honest. I love food. I love tech (what I can understand about it) and I love sci-fi. Putting the three of them together for a staid, middle-aged regional newspaper though? Was not a good idea. I blame it on the fact that I have been watching Mr. Robot. Things will be better next week. In the meantime:
"The world can feed herself and have plenty left over but we don't, because of politics and power. Tanzania can feed herself and have plenty left over but we don't because of politics, money and power. Well, you know what they say. If you can't stand them, join them? Outside of the nefarious world of terminator seeds there are interesting things going on with GMOs that are worth some contemplation. Two recent innovations that are fun to speculate about are the advances in 3-dimensional printing and the manufacture of meat grown in laboratories."

See you next week and remember that we really are who we eat. That's not a grammatical error. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: Let's All Get Scared Together

This week it is about the potentialities of CRISPR technology, except not really because my mind doesn't quite work that way. It is more a freakout about the social consequences of genetic manipulation and what the future holds. 

Heh. Okay, nothing ever works out the way we imagine it will. Leonardo da Vinci would soil his toga at the sight of an Airbus 380. Even Elon Musk hasn't been able to deliver the Jetsons' flying cars and it's 2016- we've only gotten to self-driving. We've eradicated diseases except antibiotics are starting to  lose the biological warfare race and things are starting to come back that shouldn't. Futurology is a weird and unpredictable unscience. But it is fascinating. Oh, genetically modified humans are here, people. I can't wait to see world religions handle this one:

"...okay, what's this. What is this thing? And most importantly: what does it mean for Africa, Africans, East Africans and Tanzanians in particular. Will it harm the children? Are our babies going to be okay? I do not know. Nobody knows yet. Which is why this essay is now going to turn into a discussion about the importance of education and what we think it means. We need a generation of people who might be able to answer these questions.
For the longest time we have embraced the outmoded British thinking that Arts and Sciences are separate crafts. They are not. Science, when done right, requires not only rigor and persistence but imagination. Arts, when done right, require discipline and intellect and range and of course imagination. And both of those, done right, will probably be based in a spiritual or philosophical examination of what life means to begin with."

For the record: there is definitely a good side to this technology. The problem is, well, humans. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

This Writing Life: Context Is Everything.

Here is a story, but first let me emphasize that the biggest take-away from this experience is that the people of Zimbabwe offered grace and friendliness and most importantly a wonderful sense of humor. In the few hours I spent in Bulawayo I made a couple of new insta-friends, was greeted with many delightful attempts at learning how to say hello in Kiswahili and enjoyed mutual political curiosity.*

And then I had to leave because I had foolishly stated “media consultant” on my immigration form under “occupation.” In August of 2016. In Bulawayo. Immigration wasn't having none of that mess, thank you very much. People: context is everything. If I was paying even a bit of attention, I would have put down 'development specialist' or 'NGO consultant' or any number of dubious two-word terms to describe whatever it is that I do. But... I didn't. Foolish!

On the bright side, I am now a member of the club of people who have been honored with a request to leave Zimbabwe for lack of the right press accreditation. Did I tell you about that time I went to Pakistan? Yeah. “War” stories, baby, buy me a double of mid-shelf firewater and I'll tell you some. But I am still not a journalist, even if the Government of Zimbabwe is being overly broad in its definition.

This is the point at which I tell you that the authorities took me into a back room and beat the truth out of me with a chain-wrapped tractor tyre until I confessed to having eaten my fraternal twin while in utero. In keeping with the idea that critical cranks like me are always out to vilify governments, and that repressive regimes are run by thuggish bureaucrats in ill-fitting suits.

The Zimbabwean authorities I interacted with were polite. Every refusal was issued with an occasional smile and an apology about the official's inability to help with the situation. Who wouldn't fall a little bit in love with a country where the people are so determined to practice the idea that laughter is the best medicine? Even if the laughter is sometimes only implied, due to the constraints of the circumstances?

I hope to come back to visit sometime. Perhaps when things are a little more relaxed, and maybe for pleasure rather than work. To putter around some stone buildings and enjoy a few beers with people with a deliciously wry perspective of life. Whatever might be happening politically is not something I need to comment upon- everybody goes through tough times. I'm just glad I got to experience, first hand, 48 hours of Zimbabwean hospitality.

So well-met, friends, and thank you for the street cred. Now I can hang out with baby journalists and exaggerate about that one time I was thrown out of Zim and watch them swoon with envy. As per tradition. Stay well.

*Africa: what is it with you guys and the crushes y'all get on Tanzanian Presidents? We've got three retired ones to spare, feel free to adopt one (except Mwinyi. We need him for powerwalking fundraisers). Jay Kay likes to travel:  think of all the gorgeous smiling you would get in exchange for footing his  wanderlust. Any takers? AU? Hmmm?  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: Hidden in Plain Sight

Almost a year ago exactly I asked some American citizens what they thought of Donald Trump vying for the Presidential candidacy of the Republican party. The answers ranged from dismissive amusement to...actually there was no range. Just dismissive amusement. And here we are, today. 

Reading around I found out that not only is this not Mr. Trump's first attempt at the Presidency but that a cartoonist- of course- actually envisioned his campaign 29 years ago! As much as I respect academics, they never quite seem to be able to see beyond the event horizon in quite the way that the creative class does. 

It was with this in mind that I chose to broach the idea of a President-less Tanzania for the week's column. Primarily I am just doing this to play with the idea of a state that looks different from what we have now. All things considered, Africa shouldn't be all too scared of experimenting beyond the strongman habit: what do we have to lose? And no, I don't mean the horrendous vacuums left when despots die so much as evolving the state by- you guessed it- devolving power:

"I consider public servants of all echelons analoguous to doctors. Yes, they are experts at what they do but at the end of the day you have rights. You should ask questions and always seek to understand and participate in your own care to the best of your ability. In Tanzania this is guaranteed to annoy most clinicians and all politicians. Yet they work for our benefit and we are paying them, however little, however much." 

I'm also doing this because whereas I was generally opinion-less about Magufuli in spite of his every attempt to charm by playing those drums, I no longer am. This piece by Chambi Chachage puts it well, I think. This incumbent is testing our democracy, and not in a good way.  

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Weekly Sneak Problems of American Imperialism

The Black Lives Matter movement is one which I don't think should remain an American one alone. This is a watershed issue that is kicking up all of the racial silt laid down through centuries not only of American imperialism but the colonialism that preceded that. It has deep roots in this thing we call globalization, and maybe it is time to acknowledge that globalization's history has been a bloody one. 

"Global citizenship is a hard concept for the United States of America. How can it not be in a country at war with itself? Black Lives Matter is a movement with deep historical roots, and an essential lesson in power and it's misuse. This is not the only, or even maybe the main story of American civic illness because the Native American experience doesn't get nearly enough attention. But in all honesty, the Africanist in me makes it hard not to gravitate towards this particular fight. 
Racism is wrong in all of it's iterations. It has no discernible function outside of justifying the worst of human behavior. I can't help but think that if America is going down the path of Strange Fruit, yet again, it might be the global community's responsibility to rectify that. America probably needs economic sanctions for it's wars against its own civilians as much as South Sudan does. And no, that' not a joke: I am not that funny."

Seven hundred words of commentary isn't nearly enough to even begin this particular conversation... 

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: How to Curmudgeon

As the last piece in a series about the internet, privacy, freedoms etc I really got to let fly about my perspective on these technologies. To which La Dee said: do you realize you have turned into a grumpy old lady? Yes, I have. And yes, I know. My defense is that it is harder to catch a pessimist off-guard than your average bear:

"In the relationship between woman and machine I am firmly on the humans' side. Sometimes this means being a very careful non-consumer. I don't respond to advertisements voluntarily, and take pains to avoid too much capitalistic stimulus. It means being content with the limitations this places on my life, and it is liberating. Having no need for the latest newfangled doodad is salutary: it means that marketing departments can't exploit my self-esteem to make me a cash-spitting zombie. 
More importantly, I think, is that it keeps life rich. I am coming to believe that the more convenient life is for us, the less complex, then the worse off we are. It is a contradiction of modern life: never have humans been smarter as a species. But then again: never have we been more violent to the environment nor more subject to the manipulations of economic elites."

And I didn't even get to the parts about Net Neutrality wars etc so had to do it by implication. I figure there is only so far down this road I can go before I get a polite call from the Men In Nairobi about perhaps taking a chill pill. 

Anyways, a propos the topic of the column let me leave you with this lovely piece of news I just found thanks to Reddit:

Ah, the joys of modern life. 

A little birdie told me...

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