Monday, January 23, 2012

No, Walter. You're Majorly Racist Wrong.

Ah, hello Afropessimism. It has been a while, old foe. I see that like most pathogens you have failed to die, and in fact taken on a whole new dimension of virulence. Now you're getting Generation Free Africans to sign on to your perspective.

You see, this just won't do. The single-narrative ahistorical account of African's development problems is part of the hegemonic package, isn't it? Especially when delivered by someone who is clearly morally bankrupt and on his way to service an economic 'hit' on Zambia. I have met these kinds of people, they are far creepier and more intellectually manipulative than Field Rue's account would suggest.

The old adage is true, you know: for a lie to be truly effective, you should only embellish things a little bit where you might get away with it. By all means, I concur: what on earth are African intellectuals and academics doing? Or not doing, as the case may be. As no one has bothered to do a scientific study of this diverse social group, I am comfortable offering a divergent view of African academics and intellectuals and development and colonialism than his.

First of all, the 'colonial history doesn't matter' argument is pure manure. I dare that bald Walter man to say that while standing in the middle of a Native American reservation, or to the chief of an Aboriginal tribe in Australia. If nothing else, at least Africans can thank genetics for a surprising physical resilience that survived systematic and sustained physical and psychological warfare of the most inhumane kind. My own beloved folks lived under an English-designed colonial apartheid system of job and education allocation before independence and I can still see the scars- how dare this man say that our history doesn't matter*? What he got right is this: our history shouldn't cripple us. It is time to rise out of the ashes, and all that.

Secondly, laying the whole burden of African development on the slim shoulders of a minute and extremely recent intellectual class is a bit of a gamble. By all means, call us out...within reason. There have been, and I count them: two. Precisely two generations of Africans trained in Western science, culture and art- with some struggle. What's worse is that they belong nowhere: our unmeritocratic governments avoid them because they are often too scrupulous, the West allows them to emigrate only after a decently long enough time to be assured of their economic loyalty, and their nationalists and leftists despise them because of an obsession with "class" distinctions drawn from the European Industrial Age. Tip of the iceberg: in Tanzania, Dr. Julie Makani recently won a pretty dope accolade for her research into Sickle Cell Anaemia. Erasto Mpemba discovered the Mpemba effect. This is world-class work, and both scientists live in Tanzania driven more by patriotism than economic sensibility. But who cares? Hint: not Bald Walter. He's too busy bribing Presidents.

But that's the third trick in How To Lie Effectively book, isn't it? Put the opposition on defensive if all else fails. By raising the issue of corruption, Bald Walter manages to make any respondent feel uncharitable. Here is where Feminism comes in handy: a lifetime of cracking the nuts off hostile opposition has taught me a survival trick or two. An important one is 'don't let them get you frothing at the mouth,' because then rationality goes out of the window and so does dialogue. So in that spirit, I say that if Bald Walter has the time and the inclination to do so, I would be delighted to hold this conversation at a deeper level face to face someday. Everyone deserves a second interpretation, even if they come across as DNA-deep racist, neocolonial, predatory, psychopathic economic mercenaries.

*So: The Jewish people of the world have Israel And Africans shouldn't raise the specter of colonialism (slavery, torture, trafficking, mass murder, etc) viz their current situation? I don't understand how that works. I don't understand how that's not racist. This is a genuine question. Please, somebody, explain it to me so it sticks.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Woman For President?

On Wednesday, think it was anyways, I was idling on the couch watching TBC1 when a news story caught my eye. A camera man with palsied hands had been allowed to film the Tanzanian delegation (Minister of Defense plus retinue) that visited Dr. Asha Rose Migiro's offices in New York. The lady in question was dropping mad heavy hints about life after the UN, which she was saying would likely happen sooner rather than later.

And now, she has quit the Deputy Directorship of the United Nations to come home. The Twitterverse is rife with speculation about What It All Means, because as we know Tanzanian international bigwigs don't just "come home." No. Tanzanian international bigwigs repatriate With Intent, usually political. The question is, what are Dr. Migiro's intentions?

If there is one thing that I love about this polity, it is the fact that we respect our social contact for avoiding President-For-Life disease. With 2015 barrelling towards us at high speed, it is definitely time to start shopping for candidates and speculating about what the future should hold according to our diverse political beliefs. Our excited gossip around Dr. Migiro's career shift is indicative of at least one thing to me: we're that country that would just vote in a woman without sweating it.

Rumors about Dr. Migiro's potential as a President have been around for as long as Jay Kay has been a Celebrident himself. CCM has some wonderful internal training and succession mechanisms that tend to offer a bevy of beauties for national delectation when it comes to polling time. Well, that's if you are in the party. Actually, scratch that: who knows how democratic CCM's internal mechanisms are. But let's just say that Dr. Migiro's name is at least one star in a constellation that comes up during pointed political discussions of the speculative kind.

Just to fantasize constructively for a minute here, I hope that Dr. Migiro does have presidential aspirations. And if she does, I hope that she packs a mean punch and that she will bring out all her heavy weapons for the presidential battle because she'll need them. Lest you think that I am in favor of her just because she's a woman: you're only partially right. Tanzanian politics is full of women, most of whom I wouldn't pee on if their wigs caught fire. Gender, when it comes to presidency, is invariably trumped by quality.

In the past six months I have managed to lose faith in a lot of politicians whom I was passionate about. Friends have cause to tease me about my hopelessly naive belief in: Chadema, CUF, Mizengo Pinda, Jakaya Kikwete, Halima Mdee, just to mention a few who have broken my stupid heart. The good thing about that is, hello! Now I am free to fall into desperate adulation with other politicians. There are MPs out there who have no idea just how much of a fangirl I am. Dr. Migiro is kind of one of them.

That she is a capable and competent woman is not exactly news, and isn't even the main reason why I would love to see a Migiro presidency come to life. Intelligent and competent Tanzanians are as common as dirt, believe it or not. I think that what I like about her most is that she projects a bad-ass can-do managerial vibe. I know that there are people who want their Presidents to be Christian, or heterosexual, or Bantu or some other flimsy criterion. I don't care a whit for that. All I want from my President and number one public employee is overwhelming amounts of intellect, political acumen, agency and stone-cold republicanism. When I look around at the potential offerings, Dr. Migiro is definitely a step above other ambitious people who have me researching emigration schemes. The fact that she's a woman? That's the chocolate-raspberry coulis on that particular cupcake.

But it's all just speculation, isn't it? Yeah.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Weekly Sneak: Keeping the Internets Free

One of my greatest passions is under threat. So I wrote about that in The East African this week:

"My biggest fear is that SOPA could amputate the Internet, thereby restricting the best mechanism humankind has come up with yet for sharing knowledge, cutting off flows of information which Tanzanians should be benefitting from as much as possible. Also, it is an alarmingly imperious bill. If the land of the not-so-free is keen to start policing the Internet just because Big Business told them to, who is to say that other governments- which have a woeful habit of copying American trends- won't start getting ideas? The mechanisms that would enable SOPA to function would also be very useful in monitoring activists and intellectuals and dissidents around the world. Even as far away as a sleepy backwater emergent economy like Tanzania, which frankly needs to ignore as much intellectual property rights bullying as possible at present to survive."

I fell terminally in love with the internet in 1999 on campus when two things happened: I could afford my first ever personal computer, a boxy little Compaq, and I had 24 hour unrestricted access to a Local Area Network (LAN). Prior to this the only contact I had had with the internet in Dar es Salaam had been disappointing: seedy cafes with sticky malfunctioning keyboards, the half-hour wait just to read a five-line email, the (expletive deleted) cafe attendants who have perfected the art of driving me batshit crazy with their rolling eyes and complete. effing. disinterest.

Ah, but 1999. The power of that dormroom PC and free high-speed LAN went straight to my head, literally. Online, a body can research anything she wants to know without the restrictive "guidance" of third-party gatekeepers. Surfing the net became my favorite transcendental activity- I would regularly lose myself for entire weekends online playing games, reading about subjects both taboo and mundane, and discovering just how vast the human store of knowledge is even if only a fraction of it lives on the 'net. I blissed out, regularly, and still occasionally do.

Which is kind of why I am a wee bit of an internet activist- this is a personal crusade. Development work here, especially in the NGO world, is focused on maximizing utility and ethical/moral karma points for every action, which means tallying the numbers of people for whom you do good. Why work with the internet when people (or victims, or actors, or whatever you call them depending on your cause/arrogance) don't have water/goats/food/latrines/insert specialist concern. The I'm-so-nationalist-my-blood-is-green-gold-blue-black windbags like to point out with great satisfaction that Mtanzania wa Kawaida doesn't even have access to the internet so this is a minority bourgeois preoccupation that has no place in The Building Of This Great Nation.

While, of course, Tweeting their opinions.

Which is why I want to address issues of power viz the net. If knowledge is power, and one believes in empowering people, doesn't it make sense to push as many people onto the internet Ark as possible? Yes it is expensive in terms of access, but the net can provide you with an education that is comparatively cheaper and certainly broader than conventional schooling in some instances. It is also a wonderful way to remain a perpetual student. Who can afford the kind of library you need to read all the topics you can get for free online, fully stocked with the latest cultural products, intellectual discourses, professional and amateur journalism, conversations around innovation etc? Besides, with time and greater adoption the internet will become an even more accessible and affordable place and only those lacking in imagination believe otherwise.

Which is why it is important to support the free sharing of knowledge through the best platforms available. I believe Tanzanians should be literate in the sense of reading and writing and computing so that individuals can discover for themselves the vast potential of human intellectual life and creativity. Training, social inculcation, employability... etc. these are all secondary considerations to me. Empower people with as much knowledge as they can stand by any pacific means necessary, I say, and then we can talk about informed choices and agency and active citizenship and designer democracy. And the Internet, as free and egalitarian a space as we have ever come up with to date, is crucial to that endeavour.

As nature dictates, where there are freedoms there are parties interested in curtailing them. The latest threat to the Internet in America is unfortunately targeting the whole world. I don't think that SOPA will pass, at least not in its current format, and I am not yet sure what it would do to TZ's blogosphere if it does. However I am desperately opposed to state censorship and control of information and so must throw my hat in. The last time we slept while the Americans were legislating with an eye on them strange and foreign peoples, Tanzanians ended up with biometric passports.

A note on Intellectual Property Rights: because this discussion wouldn't be truthful without one. Basically I am not a fan of the extreme neocolonialist form, which is what the US is promoting. I won't bore you with the details, but if you have time Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very accessible piece about IPRs that kicks the legs out from under them in his recent book, 'What The Dog Saw.' And because this is one of those Great Unresolvables since it deals with the battle between Good and Weevils, Yin and Yang, Chaos and Entropy, here's a link that summarizes-slash-discusses the concept without necessarily agreeing with Malcolm.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Aid a Right?

No. Aid is many things, but a right it is not. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sex and Politics: The Rebuttal

And I quote:

"I think there is actually more nuance to this story than you have included. First, I believe the British have only threatened to remove aid where gay and lesbians are actively discriminate against, not where gay marriage is illegal. My understanding is that the British already actively enforce an anti-discrimination policy for aid recipients, so this is not actually a change of policy except to make gay rights explict.

Second, the US has not threatened to remove aid, but rather to establish programs that promote gay rights as human rights. As the Americans say, it's the carot or the stick (in this case, the stick is the British and the American is the carrot). Also, I encourage you to do some research before you write: same sex marriage is only legal in a few locations in the United States. there is no way that same-sex marriages are the condition being set.

I find all of the discussion about this these days, including your post, unfortunate. When will we stop arguing that it is ok to discriminate some people?"

I do believe I got my you-know-what handed to me there. Read the rest of Zakia's fiery response in the comment section of my first official foray into the murky waters of legislating Tanzanian sexuality. And by all means, tell us what you really think :)

Social Media School: Empowerment And Politics

So during this little hiatus I have been thinking about the teaching of Social Media for professional purposes- which was my last job and might become a thing I do from time to time. Social Media is a funny thing. As a new phenomenon it has people scrambling to come up with definitions and to describe how it functions and predict its impact. But this is a real game-changer, a paradigm shift if you will, and I don't think we can accurately predict yet what social media will do to humanity any more than medieval serfs could tell you what the long-term impact of mass literacy would be once the printing press was invented. We're all still groping along in the dark.

Philosophical musing aside, the core question that is always asked about social media when you teach it is a simple one: effectiveness. People and organizations want to know how to harness the powers of social media for their own uses. Usually that use is to tell people what to do, no matter how sweet and socially-conscious your intentions. This is politics at play. It all sounds very feasible until you embrace the fact that social media is driven by the social aspect of it more than the technology. That's when we have to admit things complex.

Traditional communications thinking is quite linear: you develop content or messaging, usually from an assumption that you are expert at what it is you want to say and that you are saying it to passive tabula raza recipients. You broadcast to your "target audience" (tabula raza, passive recipients) and sit back and monitor your impact. You then analyze what data you have, fix the problems, make new and improved content, broadcast, monitor your empty-headed little consumers, rinse, repeat. Very imperious in its approach. Social media? You can do that- in a sense that's what blogging does even if it allows for comments. However, mobilizing people through social media is a dastardly game for one simple reason: everyone is a politician. By virtue of the fact that fellow social media users are just as free as you to act upon you, the near-equal footing demands a whole new approach to politics. It demands... egalitarianism. This is revolutionary stuff.

We call it social because what a nice word 'social' is, you know, friendly. It masks the inherent power plays. When people are starting out a campaign and they ask how to get Likes on a Facebook page, what they are really asking is: how can I make lots of complete strangers come to my page and think I am cool enough to Like so that I can increase my social capital/influence by appearing to be a popular choice (and therefore a valid/authoritative one)? Same with hits on a blog, retweets and Followers. Playing the numbers game in social media gives the illusion of security and power: if lots of people are around me, I must be doing things right. Maybe you are, but then again maybe you are just the flavor of the month. That happens more often than we like to admit. And if almost no one reads your stuff, then it must be terrible right and nobody loves you? That might be the case, but then again you might be a wonderfully valuable niche commodity that is adored by true believers, connoisseurs and those with esoteric tastes.

Yet even this distinction is porous. Once you put something out there anyone can access it and use it. You might intend social media content for a particular group but it isn't exclusive*. Interested parties of any kind can join in the fun... or shut you down. Assuming you get it right and you manage to attract a community- for one must humbly beg for attention, no imperiousness allowed here- then how do you then convince them to do your bidding? In other words, how do you exercise the power of influence over them? Especially since your fellow citizens of the net not only consider themselves absolutely your equals if not your superiors, they are also your clients/consumers who can decide to abandon you at any moment.

Social media power is very fragile, everyone you are relating to is just as hip to the game as you are. You can't even speak on anyone's behalf: if they are online they will simply speak for their damn selves, thank you kindly. This precludes the comforts of traditional power: you can't always claim expertise, you must constantly beg for attention while staving off competition and challenges, and there is no such thing as a captive audience. To make things worse, it is time-bound: you can never work fast enough. Basically, it is survival of the fittest and wittiest, the most creative, and those who don't follow trends so much as make them.

None of which qualities matter if they are not supported by less tangible skills like some humility, longevity, acumen, craftsmanship and the willingness to remain a perpetual student. For all that it is democratic in nature, social media is ultimately as elitist as any other human endeavor. If you want to win, you have to learn to be good at it, exploit every advantage you have to the fullest and compensate for your weaknesses or just hide them. Basically, become a politician, and a damn good one at that.

If you got this far down the rant, high five and let me know your thoughts. Am going to end here for now but ultimately this is all supposed to be background thinking to support the eventual design of a social media for social change Master Class which I would love to co-run at least once in my life before becoming as obsolete as parchment :). Happy surfing.

*Target audiences don't exist, and I know it. Here's why: the internet was never designed to 'speak' to an African woman of indeterminate age (ahem) with feminist leanings and a fetish for Tanzanian politics, or any of the other million "minorities" it never considered during its design. And yet. So, don't sweat the audience thing. Ever.

Weekly Sneak: Shopping for Politicians

That was my title for this week's article: Shopping for Politicians. The East African has a fetish for improving upon the titles I give to my articles, so I though I would pre-empt them this week because I know whatever comes out on Monday will be designed to titillate beyond any charms that the article itself possesses. Sigh.

Moving on. Having been told numerous times never to fall for a politician or a party, and having done so regardless...let's just say I got a little familiar with the idealist-horrified-cynic cycle of political faith. But giving us is for quitters, so rather than wallow, I have found a silvery lining for this particular cloud. Been kicking this idea around for a while that we need to get beyond the party method for organizing political movements. I don't know yet what this beyond will look like, but it will lack the all-or-nothing element that partisanship brings to democracy:

"This is a very real dilemma, the perpetual quest for a political party that is not likely to crush you with disappointment at its folly. Or, failing that, a politician who doesn't make you slightly ashamed to admit their acquaintance in public. Or failing even that, at least a group of people who don't make you want to tear your hair out and wear ashes at the thought of them reaching the top levels of public office. Politicians are such fickle creatures- idealistic and hardworking one moment, stealing public funds and abusing their powers the next. Even grouping them into parties doesn't seem to help much- if anything it is a liability, they do goad each other on so."

Like crabs in a barrel. To illustrate this point, I jumped off with the CUF situation. Naturally, I checked my Facebook account only to find an announcement from one of the CUF worthies that suggests that either the situation is about to escalate in Zanzibar, or it is effectively over for Mr. Hamad (CUF-Wawi) and his supporters. Love it or hate it, politics is never really boring is it?

A little birdie told me...

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