Listening to ‘Africa’s Voice’
To finish off the week is a guest post by former student now working at Creative Commons and volunteering for Akili Dada, Allison Domicone The main question, as I see it, is what if we used technology not to talk AT Africa, but to LISTEN!
“Africa is dying in silence for no one listens to its voice” – Ryszard Kapuscinski
I came across this quote while trolling the net for possible topics of discussion for a weekly meeting of Akili Dada interns and volunteers a few weeks ago. I found it on an Italy-based website called Afronline: the voice of Africa. Afronline seeks to “encourage the development of cultural relations between Africa and Italy. In particular, its aim is to diffuse, through the offer of quality information, a better knowledge of social conditions on the African continent.”
While I didn’t find it all that strange that a Polish journalist’s quote would show up on an Italian website seeking to give voice to people on the African continent, I did find the whole thing somewhat troubling. First of all, I find Mr. Kapuscinski’s quote to be a bit alarmist, and I question anyone who puts Africa and dying in the same sentence – how many times and to what end must we hear about the myriad ways the continent and its peoples are suffering, enduring, and fading away into diseased, war-racked nothingness? I’m nowhere close to being African and I find the whole picture dismal, reeking entirely of prejudice and self-fulfilling prophesied doom.
Certainly, I will admit to having bought into, on occasion, this Western view of a dying, withering Africa that I must do my part to save (whatever that means). How could I not, with so many centuries of thinking and acting in such a manner bearing down upon me? Luckily, two things have occurred in my life in the past three years that have helped me rethink the whole Africa-is-going-down-the-hole-faster-than-we-can-say-starving-child mentality that pervades Western economic, social, and political thought and actions. One, I met Wanjiru. If you read her blog you’ll understand how an educated but relatively sheltered young white woman from a middle class background could stand to learn a lot from her.
The other was that I started working at Creative Commons , an innovative nonprofit that promotes easy and legal sharing of content online – be it academic, scientific, artistic, or educational – so that anyone, anywhere in the world can access and benefit from the rich and diverse culture that surrounds us, especially in the vastness that is cyberspace. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to a world of ground-breaking technology coming from organizations who share the same values of openness and access as Creative Commons – technology that has the capacity to level the digital playing field, so to speak, and allow anyone with access to the web a chance to participate in global culture.
For Africa, this is huge.
Perhaps for the first time ever, we have the opportunity to listen to the voices of Africans themselves. Forget Western filters. Forget gigantic (U.S.-headquartered) non-governmental organizations. Let’s listen to a blogger in Sierra Leone tell us how she views the world, rather than force her to listen to our view of hers. Let’s shut up, for once, and relinquish control over the power of information and let information technology transform the world, as I believe it has the power to do. Transformation begins with uprooting all preconceived notions of the way the world works, of who has power, who deserves it, who speaks for whom and why, and who doesn’t get to speak at all.
Something that Wanjiru said during our discussion that day in our meeting really struck me (to the point where I hastily jotted it down like the eager university student I haven’t been since graduating nearly two years ago), and continues to influence my thinking on this topic: namely, the idea that Africa has been unable to participate in global conversations, even on matters of grave importance to Africans themselves, because the powers that be have been undermining Africa’s legitimacy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For far too long, we have been relaying the message: “No no, no one wants to listen to you. You don’t know any better.”
Luckily, the internet is making it harder and harder for those in power to squash the voices of its citizens. It’s proving to be quite the convincing tool for democracy and peace and I hope it can continue to spark the kinds of cross-border awareness that afronline.org is, for better or worse, promoting.
In the meantime, I’m encouraged to see sites popping up all over that directly address the concept of Africa’s legitimacy, without any of the damaging neo-liberal baggage. There’s Maneno, a website completely built from the ground-up to be a blogging and communication platform to meet the needs of the Sub-Saharan blogger and writer. Or Global Voices Online, a community of bloggers around the world working to bring translations and reports from blogs and citizen media everywhere, with an emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media.
While I’m still not sure what Africa’s “voice” does currently or might at some point in the future sound like, I’m optimistic that there are tools that exist and more that are being developed everyday that will encourage Africans to continue to speak up, talk back, and make themselves heard.