Africa: SMS Uprising – Mobile Activism in Continent

Published on allAfrica, by Sokari Ekine, 7 January 2010.

… ‘Social change is actually driven not by technologies but by ordinary people being able to exert an authority over their own experience and, through common actions, developing the courage to determine their own destiny.’[5]

It is important in the context of this book to point out that the projects and innovations discussed within it do not follow a traditional development model, where technology tends to be shaped by the economic forces that created it. Instead, the social change model is driven by the forces of people’s local needs and is therefore more able to respond quickly and appropriately to specific events and political changes. This means that people at a grassroots level can think about what works for them and how can they use technology to foster social change and collective action. 

What makes the mobile phone such a dynamic tool for supporting social change is its sheer range of actual and potential functionality, making it an extremely versatile technology. Erik Hersman, who authors the leading blog on high-tech mobile and web technology change in Africa (White African and the Africa Network: An Idea by Erik Hersman), coined the phrase, ‘If it works in Africa it will work anywhere’, referring to Africa’s many innovative ideas, projects and people.[6] Activists and campaign groups have also chosen to use mobile phones – SMS and video – for mobilising, advocacy, campaigning, social networking, citizens’ journalism and crowdsourcing.[7] Campaigns can be short or long term and planned in advance, but quite often they are spontaneously reacting to an event. For example:

  • •The International Center for Accelerated Development (ICAD) in Nigeria used mobile phones to bring people together for a rally during the Global AIDS Week of Action campaign, which began in April 2008. ICAD Nigeria also used SMS to mobilise supporters in the Plateau State elections in 2008[8] (see Chapter 4 of this book).
  • •In 2007 WOUGNET in Uganda used SMS as part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women campaign. 170 messages were sent out in 13 countries across four continents[9] (see Chapter 8).
  • •In Egypt, activists have used both SMS and the video cameras on their mobile phones to mobilise and expose police torture. One particularly harrowing video showed a 13-year-old boy, Mohammed Mamdouh Abdel Aziz, being tortured by the police. Using video and testimonies, activists have been able to document torture in Egypt thereby giving their claims real credibility.[10]

However SMS or the phone in general is not always the most effective or appropriate technology as Bukeni Waruzi’s paper (see Chapter 11) on using mobiles in the DRC shows – in a crisis writing an SMS takes time. It is far quicker to make a voice call. In another example, the UmNyango project (see Chapter 6) found that women preferred to report domestic violence face to face rather using a phone … //

… Within 24 hours of the outbreak of the 2008/2009 post election violence in Kenya, Kenyan blogs were posting hour-by-hour reports. On 31 December, there was a complete shutdown of the mainstream media. Erik Hersman of ‘White African’ said:

‘The only way to get any up-to-date news for the past 24-48 hours has been through the blogosphere (like Kenyan Pundit, Thinkers Room, Mentalacrobatics), Skype and Kenyan-populated forums (like Mashada). The traditional media has been shut out and shut down for all intents and purposes.’[15]

Within days, the online community and blog aggregator, Mashada, had set up an SMS and voice hotline calling for people to send in local news and opinions on what was happening. This was followed by Ory Okolloh (Kenyan Pundit) who suggested using Google Earth to create a mashup16 of where the violence was taking place and called upon ‘any techies’ out there willing to help create a map of it. This was 3 January and by 9 January a group of Kenyan bloggers had put together a mashup and created Ushahidi, a site for people to send SMS or email reports of acts of violence directly. What the Ushahidi project shows is that if you build a strong community then it is easier to come together in a time of crisis and take action.

Why was the Kenyan blogosphere able to rally in such a positive and productive way in such a short time? What can we learn from their actions that will help others deal with local crisis? These are some of the questions, Juliana Rotich and Joshua Goldstein address in ‘Digitally networked technology’ (Chapter 10).

Bukeni Waruzi’s chapter provides an overview of the use of mobile phones for monitoring and reporting abuses of children’s rights. The Kalundu Child Soldier project used members of local communities including some former child soldiers to monitor and report acts of violence such as from rape, torture and forced marriage. The project is based in the Kivu region of eastern Congo, which is the centre of the violence in the country as militias, multinationals and governments all vie for control of the rich mineral resources such as coltan. It is ironic that the main mineral required to manufacture the mobile phones being used to report human rights abuses is the very mineral which is causing the conflict in the first place.

The contributors in this book come from a variety of occupational backgrounds, a fact that is reflected in the different writing styles and approaches to the usefulness of mobile technology as a tool for social change and advocacy in Africa. While they are all aware of the need to overcome infrastructural, economic and cultural obstacles, they also have a strong desire for social change and have the vision to see what could be possible and how best to achieve this. We are facing increasing amplification of social differentiation – the rich continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. In the face of this inequality mobile phone activism in Africa, as examined in this book, emerges as a powerful force for achieving social justice.

Mobile phones as tools for social change and advocacy are at a relatively early stage of development, but that are growing at an exponential rate, and it is quite possible that within two years the whole landscape will have changed. There are, of course, many other innovative projects and ideas which could have been included if space permitted. There is also the need for more research to fill the vacuum of information that exists such as from North Africa, Egypt and other non-English speaking countries. I am quite confident that there will be an academic exploration of some of the experiences discussed in the book. SMS Uprising is offered as the beginning, and showcases positive examples of what is possible and what can inspire people to use technology to support their actions.

Compiling this book has been a learning experience for me both as an editor and in terms of understanding how mobile telephony is being used in Africa. It has also been a privilege to work with Fahamu, who have been supportive and patient throughout. … (full long 4 pages text).

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