[25 June 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
NAIROBI, Kenya - In Nigeria, bloggers documented chaotic scenes at polling places in April’s presidential elections, which international observers said were marred by widespread fraud.
In Ethiopia, they outpaced the international media with detailed, often dramatic coverage of the recent trial of 100 opposition supporters and journalists.
Here in Kenya, they debate news, politics, music and local gossip with equal gusto.
Africa’s bloggers are coming of age, thanks to fast-expanding Internet access and a growing awareness of the power of the medium, creating a public space in countries where traditional media still face repression.
Until recently, the African blogosphere had a foreign tilt, with the vast majority of Web sites manned by Africans living overseas or by missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers and other foreigners passing through the continent.
“There’s still a strong expatriate influence. But over time we’re seeing more people in these countries working with blogs,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and an expert on technology in the developing world.
Internet access is expanding faster across Africa than anywhere else in the world, albeit from a very low base. There are 33.4 million Web users on the continent now, a six-fold increase from 2000, according to Internetworldstats.com, a Web site that tracks worldwide Internet usage.
Still, that represents only 3.6 percent of Africa’s population - by contrast, 70 percent of Americans have Web access - so blogging mostly comes from the urban, college-educated middle class. As a result, many sites focus on current events, with writers voicing frustration at the corruption and bad government plaguing African nations.
The center of the trend is Kenya, which enjoys one of the continent’s most open societies. Although the government periodically cracks down on news media, voters have dealt blows to incumbents in the past two nationwide elections - defeating longtime President Daniel Arap Moi’s handpicked successor in 2002 and rejecting current President Mwai Kibaki’s draft constitution in 2005.
“The powers that be have lost the last two elections. Subconsciously, this makes people think that we all count, that my voice counts,” said Daudi Were, a 28-year-old who blogs as Mental Acrobatics and who co-founded the Kenyan Blogs Webring.
Established in 2004 with 10 member sites, the group now includes more than 430 blogs about Kenya. Were describes it as a democratic space, with roughly half the blogs written from in Kenya and half written by women.
When Kenya Airways Flight 507 crashed mysteriously in a jungle in southern Cameroon last month, killing all 114 people aboard, some of the most thoughtful reactions came in Kenyan blogs.
“I don’t know if I’d want to fly Kenya Airways again,” wrote Kenyanentrepreneur.com, a blog about business. “I’m sorry ... this is the second fatal accident in less than ten years.”
On his site, Were countered that Kenya Airways’ safety record was good. “The plane involved in the incident today was a brand-new Boeing 737-800” that had been in service for only six months, he wrote. “No ramshackle plane this.”
Thinker’s Room rebuked Western media outlets for playing up the handful of European casualties. “They were energetic enough to say five Brits, one Swiss and one Swede, but could not be bothered to break down the African casulaties, settling for `The remainder were Africans,’” he wrote. “Are we second class human beings?”
In a sign that the medium is maturing, Were said that many of the sites saw a surge in traffic from in Kenya in the days after the plane crash.
“More Kenyans are looking to blogs for news and information, like people do in the States,” said Were, who first began experimenting with blogs as a university student in Manchester, England, in the late 1990s.
Now he balances blogging about politics and technology with his day job as an administrator at the Uzima Foundation, a youth-oriented nonprofit group founded by his family. He keeps a computer geek’s hours, often tinkering with his site into the early morning on his Toshiba laptop, using a painfully slow dial-up connection.
Another well-known Kenyan blog, Mzalendo - the Swahili word for “patriot” - is an ambitious project to scrutinize the country’s parliament. The site, launched by two young bloggers - one 30, one 28 - attempts to track every bill that’s proposed and every speech that’s given by the country’s 210 lawmakers, whom many Kenyans regard as lazy and overpaid.
Launched last year, the site now gets about 200 hits a day and contributions from volunteers who attend floor debates and take notes. The founders call this a major step in educating the country about politics, especially with a nationwide election looming in December.
“People should think about their vote - why should I give it to this person, what has he done, how has he voted,” said Conrad Marc Akunga, one of the founders. “Most people don’t even know what a constitution is.”
Other sites do little more than give young Kenyans a chance to express themselves. For readers overseas, these blogs offer intimate glimpses into daily life in the developing world.
In one recent post, Marazzmatazz, a graphic designer, wrote about walking home to his Nairobi neighborhood, where power outages are common, and worrying whether the lights would stay on long enough for him to finish a project before his deadline.
“If (it’s) dark, do I even have any candles left?” he wrote. “If I get no lights, that work will stall for another day. That client ain’t that understanding. And what happens to my credibility? Damn, I think I’ll lose the account. ...
“(P)lease let there be light today when I get home.”