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On who gets to speak for Africa…

This is something that I would generally have kept off-record for a number of reasons including the fact that I don’t want to come across as having a big ego and I’d like to give the BBC panel organizers the benefit of the doubt. However, I’m have been pretty outspoken about the fact that I’m tired of the Bono’s and Sach’s of this world articulating my views as an African. It’s one of the reasons I’m very quick to respond to media requests for interviews, profiles, etc. (I really could be a media slut) – I think it’s important for Africans to get our views out there. So while I understand that the BBC panel organizers had other considerations to worry about, I’m miffed that the panel turned out to be just another debate of “experts” with the same sound-bites and superficial views of what the issues are.

But first, some context.

A couple of days ago, Hash wrote an interesting post about the OLPC debate and the fact that the debate has generally been conducted by a variety of white men who feel strongly about whether African children would be better off with food in their stomachs or with laptops (OK, I’m being facetious, but most of the debates really boil down to some variation of this).

I was thrilled when I read the post, because the following day I was going to be part of a panel that would address issues around the OLPC debate – my presence on the panel (being that I was not the typical technology, development, or education expert) suggested to me that at least the BBC was trying to get some different perspectives.

The other panelists were:

Abdul Waheed Khan – Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.

Matt Keller – One Laptop per child project. Director for Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Martha Stone Wiske- Lecturer on Education Technology, Innovation, and Education Programme at Harvard.

John Dada – He is Programs Director, Fantsuam Foundation, Nigeria. The Fantsuam Foundation is sharing and building information for rural development, facilitating the achieving of MDGs in rural Nigeria through ICT-enabled community development.

I was planning to respond to Hash’s post with my experience on the panel. I was going to speak from the perspective of-an-African-parent-who-would-love-to-see-this-in-schools-flaws-in-the-program-notwithstanding and boy-most-African-students-are-sorely-deprived-off-the-opportunity-to-tinker-and-be-creative -and-anything-that-can-change-that-is-a-good-thing (and yes you can work on feeding them at the same time, I don’t see how one negates the other).

But as I said in my previous post, I didn’t get the chance to ruffle feathers and all because I was replaced about 2 hours before the panel was about to be filmed. This after “urgent” emails requesting my participation, and suffering through a bad phone connection to “prep” for the interview. And me stressing about what I would wear since my luggage was still in
Dubai. Who replaced me? A Malaysian professor of medical education who apparently had experience with learning and technology.

Couldn’t they just have had 6 panelists?

Anyway, they offered me the opportunity to ask a question at the end of the debate so that I can at least “get in my perspective.” In 30 seconds? What the hell?

I almost said no. But then I figured I might as well learn to master the art of the subversive sound-bite. I thought I did a pretty good job. Hopefully it doesn’t make it to the cutting floor. Especially after this post.

It could just be a fluke, or bad timing, or the fact that I wasn’t an “expert” or some other really convincing explanation, but my experience got me thinking about just how screwed up things are when it comes to getting in an alternative view of Africa.

Was this a microcosm of what happens with the media all the time? Am I overreacting?

Yes we have blogs, and Global Voices, and progressive media – but lets not kid ourselves – that’s nowhere near the reach of the likes of BBC World.

Hash asks “Will No One Speak for Africa?”

I am wondering “Will No One Let Africa Speak for Itself?”

19 comments to On who gets to speak for Africa…

  • ke

    My advice to you is to stop attending these panels filled with outdated United Nations employee’s and overrated academics like Jeffrey Sachs (he thinks mosquito nets will resolve the problems of malaria in Africa) forgetting that mosquito’s don’t only bite when people are sleeping!! they bite when you go out to take the cows to graze, when you go to draw water from stagnant rivers, etc, etc….I’m not even going to mention Bonehead Bono (see how his red campaign totally flopped?)

    I was watching the documentary on darfur last night (sand and storm) another annoying piece on Africa with this mzungu called John Pendergrast (google him, he’s another overrate d Africa savior with no qualifications whatsoever).

    Only the Sudanese people can save Darfur; the same thing happened in Rwanda – the genocide stopped only when Kagame and his rwandese soldiers put an end to it.

  • It is really sad that the sons and daughters of the continent have abdicated their duties and left the task of being Africa’s voices to the Sachs and Bonos of this world.

    The problem is not the Bonos and Sachs, these people mean well and are doing a lot to help Africa.

    That said. Where are our distinguished scholars? Doctors, Economists and what not? Why are they content with their jobs in the Hague, New York and other UN host cities? i say that instead of criticising those that choose to help we should look into ourselves and ask why our own are not standing up for us.

  • Ssembonge

    It is their media. Let them choose how they will use it.

    The Arabs, tired of being put down by the western press have built Al-jezeera from scratch. Let us do the same.

    Beggars cannot be choosers.

    PS. I could say the same about the aid we receive.

  • Many years ago, two famous black academics had an exchange in which their sad conclusion was: we could learn how to speak in “white” academese (structuralism and poststructuralism at the time); we could attend conferences, write books, give lectures, but we had no guarantee that we would have an audience, that anyone would listen.

    My response to Hash, and one I take seriously, is that Africans have been talking for a long time. But, for just as long, we have been ignored or filtered, listened to selectively or not at all.

    By the by, in case you end up on the floor: what was the subversive comment? (I adore subversion)

  • alexcia

    Is there an african country buying those laptops?

    Why doesnt olpc sell the damn laptops to the TW governments and let the TW governments decide what to do with them?

    Is this an open market transaction or what?

    since when did TW governments begin accepting conditionalities from ngos? And on goods they have actually purchased (should i say paid for coz when you BUY something it is yours, you can do with it as you please) , imagine if microsoft tried the same thing!!!

  • anonymous

    Hey Ory

    Ive been a fan of you since you began blogging. I have to make some comments about this post.

    1. The fact that you got kicked out of a panel 2 hours before the event is nothing short of blasphemous. Who does that? I don’t care what sort of apology the organizers give for that but that just waters down the integrity of the whole event. I am disappointed by high calibre organizers that have no respect for their speakers. I am going to have to stop at that because I don’t want to get too emotional and guessy guessy as to the reasons why a young eloquent educated black girl gets disrespected like this. I am sure that you have enough self esteem to surf through this minor hiccup.

    2. I have to disagree with your comments on Bono and Jeffery Sachs. Granted that these types of people may not always know whats best for Africa from an African perspective but you have to examine their intentions before you pass judgement. I believe that Bono is an honest human being that is deeply touched by the haplessness of Africa and that is his way of reaching out and soothing our wounds. He may not do it the way we want him to do it because he did not grow up in Africa but at least he is doing something about it. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Bono and I hope that you will come round because this man has helped a lot of individuals in Africa get the AIDS medicine that they need. Its okay to criticize but you have to be careful how you to it so that you do not disrespcct people of pure motives.


  • DRE

    As Ssembonge puts it, Africa and Africans will have to create their own space to tell their stories like the Arabs are doing with Al Jazeera, we are the only place where working for the roughing it out in Africa for a couple of years qualifies a westerner as an ‘African Expert’. I have seen quite a few then on CSPAN.

    I hope Salim Amin and A24 ( African News Channel) come through. The at least Africans will have a channel through which Africa can speak for itself and most importantly, get heard!

    Hope to see your ‘subversive activities’ on BBC. When is the ‘debate’ being aired?

  • Mwari

    Let us not fight what others are doing for Africa. I am sure there are people out there who do charitable works for Africa with a clean heart, and that, we should applaud. There are alot others, who do ‘charitable works’ for africa out of other alteriour motives.
    Sometimes it is difficult to draw a line between the two. The bottom line is their actions are based on the information they have about Africa.

    I have often felt disappointed at how African nations are potrayed on western media, obviously through the eyes of foreign journalists and reporters.

    The challenge for us African people is to rise up and correct the situation in whatever way we can. A- World- wide -fully-African- owned news channel sounds a good place to start. SABC Africa has such plans.
    And I agree with other commenters above. Africa problems will only be solved by Africans. We will have face up to the fact that we have serious problems, take ownership of those problems then dig up some solutions.

  • Africa needs help, that much we understand.

    What we want are solutions to our problems that respect the dignity and worth of Africans. From the history of aid in Africa, we are always tugged into indebtedness one way, then another. When will we gather ourselves and say ‘no more shackles’ ? Are these laptops given out free and clear, and is this clear to the OLPC country recipients?

  • Sijui

    This is a minor hiccup indeed, personally I am quite amazed at the deluge of positive news stories on Africa lately…….the recent R&D investment announcement from IBM being the latest……it seems the mantra that Africa is Open for Business is now quite passe

    My point, I think general ambivalence about ‘expert’ talk shops is drowning out their relevance when it comes to Africa. I take smug satisfaction in that, folks who are interested are doing things not talking , and the results are spreading the word……….

  • Mama Pundit:

    Grr. On your behalf. You should be outraged. I am.

    The truth is, things will never change as long as we remain dependent on their aid. Unfortunately, with corruption and all the other political shenanigans that are the norm in African politics, the viscious cycle will continue. None of this is rocket science, yet our dependence onYT’s cash/voices/pithy commentaries will never end and in accepting all this aid, we are essentially accepting their interference and speculative ideals on “what’s right/what the Africans need”.

    Regarding Bono’s Gap “Red” campaign: The thing was a flop because the crap they were shilling out to the masses was just that: overpriced crap! Americans are the ultimate consumers, and what drives Americans to part with their cash is the perception of “getting a good deal”. Trying to sell leather strings with a red bead (aka a $30-40 dollar bracelet), in the name of “Saving the poor Africans” is just not enough. That stuff was overpriced, and, as displayed next to the other crap at the Gap (Made in China) at a fraction of the cost, “Red” was never, ever going to sell (although I did end up snagging a lovely “Red” dress on sale for $20…so I did my part).

    That is all. I have nothing constructive to add.

  • KE

    C-Span has a lot of these international panels on it’s show and the truth of the matter is, I only pay attention to the panelists if they fall under three main categories.

    Category one:
    The billionaires: If Isee a Bill Gates or a George Soros talking about Africa, I’ll stop and listen, mainly because I know they can make a real difference with their money. Another example in this group would be the new Indian billionaires – people do listen to them when they talk about their home countries. So, until Africa starts producing legally made billionaires, don’t expect the west to take any of them seriously; Money talks.

    Category two:
    High ranking government officials. For example, Lee Kwan Yeuw, the former PM of Singapore – when he speaks, people listen to him. Also, finance ministers of important countries like China and India – they tend to get prime seats at these panels. If I see the finance minister of Burkina Faso, will I listen to him? probably not; South Africa is a different case – people will listen to Trevor Manuel. Again, unfortunately, for Africa, they are just not that many leaders who’ve done an inspiring job. I have yet to see Kagame appear on one of these panels, but he’d make a fascinating guest and more western media outlets should contact him. I can’t think of anyone else in Africa who’d carry the same cache as Kagame.

    Category Three;
    The practical activists – people like Wangari Maathai or Muhammed Yunnis the founder of Grameen Bank; Lately, the founder of Equity Bank has been getting international attention for what his doing with the banking sector in kenya.

    I honestly don’t know anyone who is listening to Jeffrey Sachs or even taking him seriously. :roll:He doesn’t fit into any of the above 3 categories.


  • Wow Ory, we won’t get a break unless we do something ourselves. I think it is still good that they thought you were an expert. It is just too bad though that is was according to their convenience. When it no longer suited what they wanted to do, they pushed you to the side.

    But we are having the dialog and working on creating those vehicles. With all the work Africans are putting at solving such problems, I believe it is only a matter o f time before we get there.

  • Nice Blog, apart from the ODM slant?:roll:
    Well, for starters, I think the likes of Bono are important because they speak to a market that few ‘Africans’ there is a word I don’t like, can speak to. Cool kids, the apolitical and so on.

    The bigger questions is, does Africa need help? I have always promoted both through our magazine and in my discussion with anyone who matters, the idea that is a culture of trade and investment that will turn African countries around.

    Finally, would it be asking too much that we realise every country is different? The notion that there exists an entity called ‘Africa’ is so beloved of the global press and seems to me an essential part of the presentation of black people as helpless and needy of foreign assistance.

    Did you notice for example that West Africans seem to have no conception whatsoever of the effect of a settler population on a country? This explains their lack of sympathy for Zimbabwe’s predicament, even as Southern African countries take a less strident stand.

  • Andrea

    Please continue to attend such conferences and debates…..even if they don’t put you on the panel.

    If it wasnt for the fact that you were there, i wouldn’t be reading your blog now, and discovering a whole new world of non-western blogging, and being able to get the inside perspective, for once.

    As for the ‘does africa need help’ question ? Sure, Africa needs help, so does India, Middle East, Eastern Europe. There are a lot of places in this blue green marble that need help.

    The thing that frustrated me about the debate – because it didn’t seem to be addressed, and worries me about the ‘Help’ the ‘developed’ world gives, whether by Aid, or spreading democracy…or whatever – is that there is way too often an inherant neo-colonial paternalistic flavour to the help.

    ‘We’ll help you to become like us’…..pretty much that is the flavour, and i’m sorry, but unless you want us to all boil down and come up Euro/American……

    There has to be another way?

    I’m from the so called ‘developed world’ and I really want to know…how do you ‘help’ without being paternalistic, or neo-colonial?? How? It can be done, I know it, but what is the right way???

    And did Bono ever ask the question – how do you want me to help you??

  • Andrea

    P.S Sorry…i’m ranting now but you guys all got me thinking.

    You know the more technological that cultures get…the more you start to lose old cultures…and it isn’t simply about nostalgia. we have so much to learn from the old cultures.

    but, much as I hate to admit it, change will always happen, and as the world ‘technifies’ ‘develops’ (whatever you want to call it) the question is how do you make change but consciously take the best knowledge of the old cultures with you forward into the future.

  • Thanks pal. Nice site you have here. Have some more sites to point to which have more info?

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