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There’s a tendency among technophiles and people in the development industry ‘to state the obvious and make it sound incredible’, writes Sokari Ekine, in this week’s round-up of the African blogosphere, but AppAfrica’s insights on Google SMS in Uganda make a refreshing change.

I read an article from the online site Mobile Behaviour a few weeks ago in which the author made the very obvious observation ‘mobility connects one person to another’. I mention this because one of the drivers behind the mobile hype in Africa is the tendency to state the obvious and make it sound incredible. The other hype driver is to take one example and universalise it without any context. The author of the piece went on to say:

‘Mobile devices are a beacon of hope: The government might fail them, the education system might fail them, but this one connected device can access the world’s knowledge and help them catch up to their more developed counterparts.’ I find irritating about these kind of mobile hype articles, usually written by technophiles or people in the development industry, is the absence of any real critical evaluation particularly in terms of sustainability and social hierarchies. I was therefore relieved to read a a blog post on AppFrica in which Jonathan Gosier writes about SMS and some of the limitations of this technology in an African context. Commenting on the Google SMS service in Uganda he writes:

‘Now, I am not criticising Google SMS per se, as it provides information that might be difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere in rural areas in developing countries. It’s potential for receiving true widespread adoption is limited, however, by the fact that each SMS query sent to the service costs between 110 and 220 Ugandan Shillings (UGX). Google is already subsidizing Google SMS Tips, which is targeted primarily at low-income rural users, to reach the 110 UGX price point.

‘To truly understand this limitation, just think about how you or I perform a basic Google search. Very rarely do we find what we are looking for on the first try and, instead, it might take three or four queries to get to the right information. Assuming similar search behaviours in the Ugandan market, this would result in a cost somewhere closer to 400-800 UGX. Putting this in perspective, a basic local dish in Uganda may cost around 1000 UGX, which suggests that a simple Google search might cost around a half of what a low-income family pays for dinner.’

There is no doubt that there are some extremely valuable and innovative uses of mobile phones for advocacy etc but we just need to stand still for a while and observe the reality for much of the continent. Projects are out there being publicised but if one looks closely you find that really there isn’t that much happening – there is just too much hype. with development and yet another ridiculous idea from a do-gooder acting without consultation with people on the continent – the ‘One Million T-Shirts’ campaign – or as blogger TMS Ruge of African Diaspora’s Project Diaspora describes this misguided project –‘The 1 millionth stupid idea by wannabe do-gooders’:

‘The 1 Million T-shirts campaign aims to collect and “send 1 million t-shirts to the people of Africa.’ You know, those poor 1 billion shirtless inhabitants of the world’s only dark continent.

‘Quick! Send in your discarded Star Wars souvenir shirts before someone dies!! If you are feeling bold, how about envisioning that extra poser Abercrombie and Fitch shirt in the back of your closet on the back of an unsuspecting Kenyan.

‘This is a marketing gimmick from the word go. Not. 25 seconds into his promotional video, Jason Sadler, the brainchild behind this campaign, throws out a not-so subtle marketing pitch for his other company, Kudos for self-promotion, but come-on, seriously. We are not that stupid…’

However this time Africans hit back, yelled out loud with Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and ‘they’ had to listen. Instead of sending T-shirts to Africa why not be totally radical and actually BUY T-shirts from Africa? Buying stuff from Africa at a fair price might actually help people – I wonder why these guys and similar do-gooders haven’t come up with that revolutionary idea? Works reports on an interview by Angolian civic activist on the theft of oil revenue in Angola:

‘Marques is a lonely voice in the international community, battling against what seems like the impunity of Angola’s corrupt government officials. In his interview, Marques calls for more international pressure on Angola’s government – and not only over oil but also diamonds. A journalist for whom exposure is not enough, Marques wants to help change the behavior of Angola’s government as well mobilize the victims of Angola’s shameful misrule.

‘Marques is a curious invaluable figure on the landscape of African activism. He operates in the intersection of journalism and accountability, bearing witness to the wholesale thievery in which his benighted country functions with the explicit assistance of international oil companies and the very consumers of Angola’s oil – in China, in the U.S. and elsewhere – who do not take any responsibility for the crimes committed in the place where the oil originates. As Marques writes of his anti-corruption campaign, which he calls “Maka” from the word for complex problem in his indigenous Kimbundu language, “Maka is a response to the public’s silence, whether motivated by fear or by complicity, in the face of the looting and destruction brought about by the actions of the current leadership, and by the venal behaviour of the public administration in general.’, Soil & Everything In Between by KonWomyn is one of many blogs commenting about the recent documentary ‘Welcome to Lagos’. The Nigerian High Commission in UK has made a formal complaint to the BBC saying the programme was not balanced which is frankly ridiculous. It was a three-part documentary on the people who live in Lagos’s many ‘slums’ and try as the government may, they cannot and should not be hiding the poor. Professor Wole Soyinka also joined in the condemnation saying the programme was patronising and reinforced colonialist stereotypes. I don’t agree – yes I did find the commentary at times annoyingly patronising, but what the programme reinforced was the sense of community and trust amongst neighbours and traders and if anything, one felt proud to be Nigerian.

Fortunately the overwhelming response from Nigerians has been a positive one. Thinking about Chris Abani’s ‘Graceland’, one could use the same criticisms – except of course it is written by an ‘authentic voice’ – but the book deals with the invisible masses and underbelly of Lagos and Nigeria. KonWomyn agrees that the narration was patronising but not the programme itself:

‘I co-sign with Soyinka to an extent, but I also appreciate the docu for what it reinforced about the power of community, faith and culture. Significantly, the indomitable survival spirit of the Lagos slum dwellers is an observable truth that resonates in the narratives of poor people all over the planet. The docu also made a very salient point about the crucial importance telling one's own stories. Nigerian writers, Chris Abani and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie both convincingly argue that there is not one story that is truth, but many stories and stories that must be told by their owner.’ Looks has been blogging overtime this past week, so you can read a comment on the murdered of three Nigerian journalists on ‘Press Freedom Day’,a brief report back on The Call anti-homosexuality prayer meeting in Kampala last Sunday, and ‘Movement of Jah People’ on brutal repressive immigraion laws across the world.


* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.