Last night I arrived in Arusha, Tanzania to find a slower pace and approachable Africans and foreigners full of news: there was a demonstration yesterday, and three police and a couple of demonstrators were shot and critically injured—unusual in this peaceful country. The authorities have cooled their jets and dropped charges (for peaceful demos!), to calm things down. It was a case of falsified election returns, and the politicians in power wanted no argument, as I hear it.
East Africans are serious about democracy, and mobile technology has made a difference. Ushahidi is a recent tool for change worldwide—a web app that brought calm to violent protests in Kenya in 2007 after disputed elections (then allowed rescues in Haiti). The development of Ushahidi was driven by young Kenyan geeks eager to make a difference—an open, crowd-sourced tool.
Afterward, lots of Kenyans realized that politicians did not have their interests at heart , I’m told, and began more grassroots efforts to shine light on corruption. Three years later and a few days ago Kenyan minister was pitched out for illegal imports and taking bribes. That swift action against corruption is a new thing for Kenya—driven by among others, Ory Okolloh, who is now the Project Manager for Google Africa, having moved to Johannesburg. She and Erik Hersman, who co-founded Ushahidi and a few blogs, left behind a wonderful gathering place for brilliant young Kenyans, iHub. I spent three days there interviewing the founder of afrinnovator.com, Afrigadget.com, matchamaker.com and the inventor of a phone app for dairy farmers that links to markets and best practices. Lively place.
Late afternoon in Arusha, and I’m sitting in a laid back, bistro garden frequented by expats. I’m using their (slow) free wifi and reflecting on the air of boredom and self absorption in a few uppercrust English accents I hear. At the other end of the economic spectrum, Africans on the streets hustle crafts and tourist products on the street to survive in this second largest city in Tanzania, at the foot of Mt. Kilamanjaro. It’s a systemic symbiosis, and the safari hotel parking lot is full of Landrovers—some owned by NGO people paid handsomely.
I had a delightful chance lunch with a young German graduate student (politics and international relations) working here for a few months who doesn’t believe the aid/charity industry or volunteerism achieves much. “These concepts are not working since the 1960s,” she said. “What Africans need is not another bloody unskilled worker coming over here. They can make their own solutions.” Tori Hogan says the same at www.beyondgoodintentions.com. I’m here to taste what’s happening in a few weeks, originating with Africans, in partnership with young Americans and without them.
So look for the bright stories of Africa that contradict the stereotypical disease and “dark continent” message in “The World is Flat” by Tom Friedman, which so annoys the young founder of www.afrinnovator.com. My German lunch friend reports that a talented African American producer, who covers East Africa for ABC/USA, cannot sell her bosses on stories about what’s really happening in Africa today. Their list includes only violence and disease. In fact, we may learn something from young Africans when these emerging stories are told.