Monday, October 31, 2011

Three Weeks in October

So I just spent three extremely intensive weeks co-facilitating a course on social media for social change. Yup, helping do-gooding meddlers improve their communications strategies so that they can reach your mind, your heart and your wallet through the internet as well as traditional media. Empowerment, behavior change and social justice driven by the interwebs- you're excited, neh?

Of course- and I should have known this- turning a passion into work was wonderful. It also meant that I burned off my fun faculties and have had to take a media fast for the week. I think yesterday was the first day I comfortably got online and bushwhacked my way through the gmail inbox (only 40 unread emails, down from 400!). I like to keep a clean inbox, it calms me down. But back to the issue at hand: facilitating the adoption of social media for professional usage.

The best thing about this is how wide open the field is. Total playtime: there are formulae and best practices, but because this is social media they have to be customized and localized. There is a strong element of selection, design and creativity in social media that can only be 'learned' through use and individual strategy. That was the point of the course actually: to help the participants become social media stewards* for their organizations and then draft up as comprehensive a strategy as they could using free socmed platforms to enhance their work. That part went better than expected, but several of the participants raised a very relevant question that is still bothering me. What's the point when hardly anyone has access to the internet in the first place? We're talking developing SSA countries here, hardly connected to themselves let alone the internet.

This chart was supposed to contain all forms of media that we could think of. I knew we'd hit the jackpot when people threw in talking drums next to iPhones. Media is indivisible from its technology.

Made me toss and turn, that. Inappropriate technology? Was this course just jumping on yet another NGO world trend (socmed is SO HOT right now)? It's not like Tweeting will guarantee safe childbirth, or better pastoralist-agriculturalist relations. However, isn't that a bit like asking television to solve world hunger? A little perspective here: social media are just a communications tool like any other, enhanced by the fact that "target audiences" are not passive consumers of your grand ideas, they are active partners in a conversation and potential allies in action.

Here's the thing though: social media is riding in nicely on the wave of technology. Due to technology leapfrogging and our increasing prosperity in the next five to ten years there's going to be a lot more 3G phones, WiFi spots and assorted accoutrements in the hands of Africans than the poverty-obsessed would like to admit. It is politic, I think, to start creating the foundations for this form of literacy and world citizenship now lest we create a class of left-behinds out of a questionable desire to be 'relevant'. Local realities are always in flux, and when an NGO worker starts talking 'relevance' it too often means that someone is about to be heavily patronized. I don't happen to see any problem with discussing equitable access to technology as well as clean water, and reasonable food prices. Simultaneously.

So yes indeed: what's the point of being a social media pusher in SSA when there's Al Shabaab and drought and run-away petroleum prices to contend with? Ask me again in ten years, hey. But I'll give you a hint: Nokia gets it. Google's found a clue. M-Pesa, Ushahidi, the list grows on. Social media is a wonderfully capacious bandwagon, it's probably not a bad idea to get as many people on there as possible. Yes, even Africans.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A New World Order: Occupy Yourself First.

Lots of high profile people have kicked the bucket this year, haven't they? It's like the globes social polarities are in flux. Ghaddafi's death, thinking about Libya and governance and the challenges facing African countries in the coming decade or so has got me all twisted up in political theory again. Don't laugh, but I have been wandering around Wikipedia's political portal in a kind of shopping spree. Picking an ideology has been even harder than choosing a political party* : libertarian socialism, or anarcho-communism? Does egalitarianism make my behind look fat? Does Civil Rights come in summer colors? How does one combine the absolute freedom of choice of the individual with social justice and the welfare and functioning of the collective? Quandary.

There is only one thing I am sure of, and that is that African citizens need to go active and keep claiming their rogue governments. Coming to an East African near you:
"There is no Peer Review Mechanism, Treaty or African Leadership Prize that can address this level of social organization, let alone influence it. Those schemes, perhaps they are effective but from the bottom looking up they reek of technocratic impersonality, removed from the sugar and salt of daily life. Tanzania, for example, is hardly new to the idea of peaceful presidential transitions: we're on our fourth administration and counting down towards the fifth when we may or may not flirt with changing parties. But even in this relatively stable environment it, is clear that there is deep crisis of faith brewing. We are looking for someone or something to believe in, and clearly the Big Man model is severely compromized in an age of increasing transparency, affluence and access."
One good read I have enjoyed on the Ghaddafi story is this sideways glance from Charles Onyango-Obbo talking about how the revolution will be Tweeted. Watching journalism cope with new media has been absolutely riveting. Heh.

And then, there is the Occupy movement. We have a local activist trying to get it off the ground in Dar es Salaam- as of last Friday I believe. The resounding silence has been... instructive. I threw a comment up on there, let's see if the blogsite is dead or alive. To readers who have been saying the revolution is necessary and just around the corner etc... what do you make of this? After all, Occupy is a global movement now. Can it work in Bongo? I'd say we need to Occupy ourselves long before it makes sense to Occupy anything else, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, October 21, 2011

We Live In a Post-Ghaddafi World Now.

Muammar Ghaddafi, Revolutionary, Brother Leader, Despot is no more. I am disappointed at the manner of his demise simply because I don't believe in rapid execution/murder, and I think he had a few questions to answer in a court of the people. The official position is that he died of wounds sustained during battle. Mh.

I was no fan of his, and no amount of "but Libyans have the highest GDP/capita, levels of education, standard of living, etc" argument will convince me that his rule was justified. Benevolent despotism is simply about building a gilded cage: you might "enjoy" certain "perks" but you are still a slave, and a prisoner. Anyways, that's what revolutions are for: to decapitate a polity so that it can hopefully grow a new head that is keeping with the values of the time. A form of social pruning, if you will.

Ghaddafi's death marks the beginning of the end of the independence movement era in Africa. As one of the chief Pan-Africanists, I think he has shown us how hypocritical and compromized many revolutionary leaders of the era turned out to be. They spoke the language of freedom and brotherhood, they practiced control, corruption and murder. They made promises with breath that smells of the blood of their own people. They leave their children and grandchildren names to be ashamed of in public. I can't imagine what they were thinking but I have heard that power corrupts and in the end Big Men are just men. Nothing more, nothing less. So can we get over our African penchant for Bigmanism already?

Let's see what Libya is going to do now that the man who built a nation in his own image is dead. I don't hold out much hope, it looks like the institutions of governance have to be reconfigured and that always results in opportunistic political conflict. But I wish them every luck and success. In the meantime, Mahmood Mamdani's piece for Al Jazeera says all there is to say about the other problem that Libya is suffering from: intervention.

Lord Palmeston said it best, and I paraphrase: in international relations there are no friends, yo. Yeah: the other playaz will play you, given a chance. There are those who are cheering Africa's "emergence" on the world stage*, but I am not one of them. Put simply, every time "the world" takes a deep interest in Africa, we seem to get royally shafted six ways from Sunday. The secret to China's success on the continent is their model: no BS, just barter. Seems to work. Now that Libya is firmly intervened with, and they have oil, they might want to look over at Afghanistan and Iraq which seem to have developed a severe neo-colonial infection. Their occupiers just can't seem to leave... (all that free oil behind...)

*ati emergence? We never went anywhere to begin with. Is this one of those silly things, like the way colonial explorers had a habit of "discovering" geographical features that the locals had always known were there? Mxiii. Let's call this what it is: the rest of the world now thinks we're cool enough to hang out with. Structural racism is taking a hit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We Live In a Post-Jobsian World Now...

I am still processing what I want to say about Steve Jobs, who passed away far too young and far too soon. I might as well out myself as a long-term Apple fan, and do feel free to tease me about it. As it happens, I wanted this week's article to be topical about the internets and stuff because I'm in the middle- literally, the middle- of a course on social media for social change. Topical, yeah. But I had to shoe-horn Steve in because I ran out of wordcount making the case for a computer in every home. It might be ambitious and unrealistic, but so was universal suffrage at one point in time. Coming soon to an East African near you:
"And now we live in a post-Jobsian world. Computers as they work these days collapse the walls between work and play, and increasingly through social media they are bridging the gap between the personal and the public. With the internet becoming increasingly accessible, physical distance is becoming negligible. Information in the blink of an eye, saving the time that it used to take to go to a library or a bookshop or an expert. The planet has witnessed the emergence of the communal human superbrain, and it lives online."
I hoped that the term "post-Jobsian world" might be my neologism, but Google tells me otherwise. I suppose it was too obvious a term not to be coined. Anyways, the point of the article is that projections of a Tanzanian future seem a bit short-term and conservative to me, recycling through the same problems that face us now. Have we run out of imagination, or are we afraid to dare? Have we lost our mojo? I hope not. While we build schools and roads and lay down water pipes, we should be dreaming very big dreams about things like eco-friendly public transport systems in urban centers, and e-learning, and boosting our intellectual productivity...

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week I asked What Would Nyerere Do in the East African because it has been a tough year, politically speaking, and I was working for a little Mwalimu inspiration. This week I put the WWND idea into play with regards to governance style. Mwalimu didn't live in easy times, he navigated more than one crisis over the course of his career...but the man was undeniably cool under pressure. That's a quality we could do with in our public servants because I don't know about you, but I am officially tired to death of the unending "crisis" mode our government operates in. Pull it together, people.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Here's an anecdote for you: so the other day we're setting up the rules for a course on with Social Media for Social Change. Participants from Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi. On the flipchart, one suggested rule is "No Jokes" and when it was time to select the final rules and this issue was raised, the Tanzanians protested immediately and vigorously. "Humor is necessary!" And so the suggestion was killed.

The incident made me think of another recent convo with some Kenyan and Zambian friends who regularly grill me to find out about Tanzanian norms and cultural oddities. I've been accused of romanticizing Tanzania and it might be true*. Part of the reason is because we're mostly free, kinda into the peace thing, and humor is part of our social contract. You won't read that in an AfroBarometer study...

How does this relate to Mwalimu? The thing about countries with a strong presidential culture is that heads of state have a massive impact on the culture and social norms that can last long after they are gone. Legacy. Listening to the radio, watching people get ready for Nyerere Day, knowing Mlimani is going to be full of people eager to debate WWND, I realized that of all the secular public holidays, this one is the most genuinely festive in Tanganyika. We're celebrating a man who, with whatever else was going on, regularly took the time to talk to citizens and crack jokes while he was at it. When there's no sugar or maize flour in the shops, it of matters that the guy in charge not mess up in the people department.

Amongst other things, Nyerere came across warm and friendly and ready to tease a chuckle out of his audience. I have heard Tanzanians described as... wait for it... warm, friendly, playful. You dig? And that's what I'm going to celebrate Mwalimu for this year. He made it fun, and he made it cool, to be a Tanzanian. Happy Nyerere Day.

*Yeah, I know it is unfashionable to genuinely happy these days. I should be obsessing about some respectable dissatisfaction or other for your delectation because, hey, who likes happy people anyways? Sorry to disappoint :) Happy African Alert!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Global, Local, Expert?

Sorry to be a bit boring, got development in mind lately. The movement to democratize the industry and let people self-determine is finally picking up steam in tangible ways. Rakesh Rajani's piece about the business of development provides a nice framework for the global-local relationship. So Ben Taylor's piece offering two possible approaches to Open Government in Tanzania is a nice follow up. What was it again? Oh yeah: think global act local. That must have been a few development paradigms ago. Plus ca change.

On the issue of global/local and 'expertise,' by stalking William Easterly on the Twitter I came across an article published in 2008 by Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon titled 'The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.' Anyone who can claim to know the origins of mistrust in Africa is already taking a huge risk in my opinion. I find the article objectionable on any number of levels, but in the interest of saving time let me just ask you to contrast their approach to 'Africa' with this anthropologist's approach to studying a complex issue in an African setting. Social scientists, all three studying a culture not their own. The economists do come out of this looking like aliens trying to puzzle out human behavior. Sigh. Economists.

So, Chadema lost Igunga. Here's Omar's original piece on the importance of this election for Chadema, and a follow-up that dips into some past analysis. And a post-mortem from The Citizen that contains interesting opinions from 'the man on the ground'.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Don't Know What You've Got Till Its Gone?

"One key question for example is why mainstream women and feminist groups are happy to claim Wangari Maathai and Wambui Otieno now when they did the opposite at the times when both were most challenging gender dynamics and the patriarchy."- Jetsetter.

I have some ideas, but let's start with the Vandana Shiva thing: her ecofeminist philosophy has certainly influenced me and continues to do so. However after watching her during an IDS speakers series I realized we have bad chemistry. There are a number of men and women whose work I admire immensely, but whose person I can't really stand. And there are a number of "controversial" types whom I find immensely to my liking. What to do?

Re Maathai and Otieno, complicated. I see a combination of factors: part of it is just Kenya, which has its own rules about what happens to people who take on the patriarchy. Another stems from the conservative habits of the 'sisterhood': conformity matters, don't rock the boat, women are the transmitters of tradition even when those traditions work against them, women are rarely rewarded for individualism esp. in SSA where that is seen as getting above yourself or trying to be like a man... and so on down the list. And the worst sin of all: aggression. Displaying aggression in public on the part of a woman is still a huge no-no.

So when women come along who break these rules in pursuit of something different, perhaps better perhaps not, they don't get lauded as the strong leaders that a man might be in a similar situation. They get cast in the role of villain, get called 'crazy' or any other form of deviance that will stick. Only the ones whose spirits remain unbroken who survive to eventually become feminist icons (preferably after their controversial selves have departed this life). The implication being that we like our feminists quiet, or dead, broadly speaking. Heh- broadly speaking...

But if we get deeper into this, each SSA country has its internal dynamic on how they handle women of power. Some do better than others.

A little birdie told me...

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