A short remark on (the type of) mobile phones in urban Kenya

When being asked about my PhD-research (which is on the meaning of mobile phones in urban Kenya), I all too often hear the question: „Do ‚they‘ have phones there?“

The short answer is: Yes.

A slightly longer answer, with a bit more of an interpretive touch, may well be given by a participant of my field research – the person here talks about what happens if you get robbed (which might happen in Nairobi), and a robber ‚catches‘ you with a cheap mobile phone (referred to as a kabambe in Nairobi):

Nowadays, if you walk with a kabambe, they [the thieves] even beat you up. Coz it can´t be that nowadays in Nairobi someone can walk without or doesn´t have a smartphone. field research participant (2014)

Remark: 
The word kabambe in Kiswahili refers to a very basic mobile phone, often not even a feature phone. A kabambe is typically locked to be used with one specific provider only. Its main functions usually are calling and texting – maybe also a calender, calculator and FM radio.

Example of a "kabambe" (© Michael Waltinger, 2013)

Example of a „kabambe“ (© Michael Waltinger, 2013)

Talk on fostering Digital Literacy @ Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) 2015

SIF15

The Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) 2015 with more than 400 participants from over 90 countries –  hosted by The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) – is in full swing and the first day of the main conference just came to an end. There was plenty of lively and fruitful debate on issues of internet access from a multi-dimensional perspective with a strong emphasis on social and structural inequalities.

I was pleased to be chosen to give a talk on „Promoting Digital Literacy in Developing Regions: Business Goals and Media Education in unison“, where I shifted the emphasis slightly from issues of physical access (i.e. the digital divide) to a more skill- or digital/media literacy-based approach to viewing barriers in access to the (mobile) internet – the so called „2nd-level digital divide“. My talk was inspired from and drew on my field research experiences from my ongoing PhD-research on the meanings of mobile phones in everyday life of urban Kenya (Nairobi).

SIF Unconference programme

While I was stressing the possibility of the corporate sector to bridge those gaps in media education that are not covered by public education curricula, I also pointed out the need of teaming up with professional (media) educators in order to carry out such trainings in a sensitive manner and not make them serve business interests alone. Here is the abstract of the talk I gave:

Physical access to the internet is still an issue in many sub-Saharan nations. What matters equally, however, are the still low levels of digital literacy among users. This is to say that the availability of digital media does not really help, if people have problems in using these services.
This is not only a problem because it means that people who can not fully use digital tools will suffer from further societal exclusion and economic disadvantages. The other problem is that media literacy training is often not part of public education and, if private lessons are taken, mostly expensive.
Since the digitally semi-literate represent a vast clientele of sub-Saharan media markets, I suggest that the mobile industry sets up training camps to bridge that gap in media education. This is not only to serve the public good (CSR) but also to develop businesses, because customers will be able to use the future services/devices. Users would benefit from media skills-development that leads to improved usage scenarios, while at the same time being part of the product design process and not having to appropriate technologies that were originally designed for other times and places (i.e. the west).

There was a short interview conducted with me just before the talk, which can be viewed below:

I am already looking forward to the second part of the conference tomorrow!

Konza Technology City, Nairobi (Kenya). This is Africa (too)!

Konza Technology City from Urban Graphics on Vimeo.

More information on konzacity.co.ke & konzacity.go.ke.

African Community Development (Indigenous Style): Chamas and Harambee as a case in point

Dandora with Nairobi river
Parts of Dandora with Nairobi river (© Michael Waltinger, field research, 2013)

 

The latest edition of one of my favorite sources for non-mainstream reporting on certain parts of Nairobi, the African Slum Journal, is on the changing faces of Dandora – a well-known place in Eastlands Nairobi that I have visited myself severally over the course of the past years. What I find remarkable about this particular episode is that it provides an excellent example of locally and culturally sensitive community development.

Dandora is a settlement in Nairobi (Kenya) that, according to the African Slum Journal report, was established in 1977 by the World Bank and the Nairobi City Council as a means of planned and affordable housing for low income populations in the area. Over the years, the area also became ‚home‘ to one of the largest dumpsites in East Africa; which massively affects and pollutes the environment.

Local initiatives, however, have started to clean and color up the space with a two fold purpose: to develop their own community from within (through chamas as a financial and organizational form) in terms of developing a more habitable environment and also to bring down criminal activity by youth involvement and empowerment that in turn avoids idling.

As the community came to see the meaning and effect of the local initiative (health benefits, increased security, and so forth), residents of the area were increasingly ready and willing to contribute the monthly installments they could spare to that greater good. The organization, in turn, has then employed even more youths and equipped them with the tools necessary to carry out the community activities.

This is, in my opinion, a perfect example for the harambee-spirit that I got to know as being so typical for Kenya (and maybe other African communities as well) – and that is often used to fix community needs where the government fails to act 1 (which is in many instances) or where western ngo’s fail to engage with local needs in meaningful ways. It then is also an example of what non-top down grass roots approaches might look like that are locally relevant (by listening to the voices of the residents) and culturally embedded (chamas, harambee) and not designed from far away-world high-rise office desks.

 

 

  1. Harambee, or „pulling together“ for a common goal, is a form of community participation for which the late first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, has called for. This cultural mode is also very visible e.g. in the educational sector, which in Kenya is often heavily underfunded by the government, thus requiring parents and other bodies to contribute to (private) schools teacher salaries, the land on which schools are to be constructed, furniture, school materials, morning snacks, and so forth. All in all, self-help projects (as an expression of underfunded infrastructure and services) are omnipresent in Kenya and lively proof for the vitality and efficiency of indigenous community development.
    See for example in Swadener, Beth; Kabiru, Margaret; Njenga, Anne (2000): Does the village still raise the child? State University of New York Press.

Life after high school in urban Kenya

Life after high school in Nairobi often differs from people’s dreams. This episode of African Slum Journal vividly depicts the experience of many people in Nairobi by the example of Collin, who dreamed of being an aeronautical engineer. However, a lack of employment opportunities (i.e. long term contract work) in Kenya’s capital often makes it difficult to get into something stable.

As many people in Nairobi, he chose to take fate into his own hands, dipping into the rich so called ‚informal‘ or ‚jua kali‘ business sector that provides about more than three quarters of the urban population with a livelihood. Collins is selling earrings and shirts now, instead of passively waiting for a formal employment opportunity that is probably never going to come.

So now he is his own boss –  a thing to be  proud of. “Use your talents, with or without high school”, he says.

Source:
Life after high school – African Slum Journal

Minimalism in Germany (and Kenya?)

minimalism-9_jpg

The article Throwing Ballast Overboard – Minimalism as a lifestyle is a very brief but fairly interesting account of the „minimalism“-lifestyle movement. Since the short article is posted on the website of the Goethe Institute, it uses Germany as a case in point to illustrate some lifestyle peculiarities.

However, since the article is also posted on the dedicated website of the Kenyan branch of the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, I would have found it very interesting to contrast Germany and Kenya in terms of this said concept of  „minimalism as a lifestyle culture“.

I pondered:

What can „minimalism“ mean in a Kenyan sense; how would it be defined and perceived – if such a thing existed at all? Would it be a lifestyle that – in it´s voluntary practice – could be associated with elites only? Is it the default-lifestyle of the non-elites in its pervert inversion and with an entirely different meaning – „minimalism as struggle“? What if we further take into account rural-urban contrasts?

I have some hunches, but do not really know for now.

remembering #147notjustanumber

  

African Slum Journal – giving the slums of Nairobi a voice

African Slum Journal is a  biweekly video episode which tells about the life of people living in slum communities. A weak media sector provides scope for corruption and inequality. By giving African slums a voice we will strengthen the local media sector together with the people who live in the slum.

The video journal is mostly from Nairobi (Kenya) – at times from other parts of East Africa. It’s a great source of non-mainstream coverage of the everyday lives of a certain urban population. Often hopeful, sometimes less – but always real, at last.

Source:
African Slum Journal – Giving the slums of Nairobi, Kenya a voice | African Slum Journal

10 Things Europe can learn from Kenya in Media and Innovation

1. Social Community Management
E.g. rural politics and governance via Twitter

2. Maximizing the Utility of Simple Technology (e.g. Feature Phones) that almost everyone has access to
Dating services, fan culture, market price-information, mobile healthcare, job listing-services, and many more

3. Political and Social Activism
Using widely available mobile media technology such as WhatsApp and Twitter to mobilize society e.g. against gender violence (here: #mydressmychoice)

4. Social Media for Formal Functions
Applying for a passport, locking a SIM-card, complaining about power cuts, applying for higher education college loans  – all via Twitter and SMS. And get sorted out!

5. Mobile Banking (m-Pesa)
Workforce from the cities can send money to rural relatives; pay for airtime, bills and taxes; allow for ‚online banking‘ without having access to the internet; micro-credits without complicated bureaucracy; withdraw money from mobile money agents; substitute for credit cards and formal banking while ‚banking the unbanked‘ – all via SMS and even with a simple ‚brick phone‘

6. Mobile Learning and Education
Allowing for exam preparation and revision with other students; substitute for expensive text-books in certain income levels (not a perfect substitute, though – but better than no text-book at all); child development information for young mothers for early disorder/disease prevention and support-information for raising and educating kids

7. Keeping up and Simplifying Diaspora-Home-Relations
Sending gifts, school fees or money for projects from the diaspora back home

8. Chamas (engl.: Merry-go-Round)
I.e. saving groups and small-scale bureaucracy-circumnavigating ‚community banking‘ (via mobile phones)

9. Accounting
‚Mama Mbogas‘ (grocery selling women in estates‘ streets) use phone apps to track stocks, income and expenses and do some business analytics

10. Crowdsourcing
Extending the longstanding harmabee-culture and taking it ‚online‘, e.g. a child from a certain village shall go to university and the whole community contributes to the admission/tuition-fees // crowdsourcing traffic information for circumnavigating massive traffic jams, e.g. ma3route.com // crowdsourcing information for conflict, crises or hate speech mapping, e.g. ushahidi.com

Many thanks to the colleagues from iHub, Nairobi!

Kenyan Short Film „Yellow Fever“ Explores White Beauty Ideals on African Women

„My sister is asleep.

She is chocolate.

I am toffee.“

These are the thoughts of one of two Kenyan teenage sisters who are having their hair braided at the hair saloon, that lead into the short film Yellow Fever – a mixed-media animation by Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii.

The short film explores the colonizing influences of Western, caucasian beauty ideals on young African women as these are disseminated through mainstream media and advertising.

„Any white complexion“, as the film notes, seems to be „beauty. And that is now what drove the girls to try and use ‚beauty creams to bleach themselves.“ So did the women that braids the hair of the other teenage sister in the short film. She is what is commonly known as Mkorogo in Kenya – someone that uses skin bleaching products, but had just enough money to apply it on the hands and face, which are most often visible, but now yellow.

During my own research in Nairobi, I have also partly noticed this more-than-disturbing imposition of beauty ideals on anyway beautiful people. Due to economic reasons often an ‚elite-problem‘, women that bleach their skin are also infamously known as rangi ya thao. This is a mash-up from the Kiswahili words rangi ya (=color of) and thao, which is a sheng abbreviation for „thousand“. The notion refers to the 1.000 Kenyan Shilling note, which is sort of brownish in color – and this is seemingly the color one gets when one bleaches, which, in turn, can only be afforded when one has enough thaos in the pocket. In short, rangi ya thao refers to a wealthy woman that bleaches her skin as well as to her skin tone which is a result of the bleaching.

This is what Ng’endo Mukii says motivated her exploration:

I am interested in the concept of skin and race, in the ideas and theories sown into our flesh that change with the arc of time. I believe that skin and the body, are often distorted into a topographical division between reality and illusion. The idea of beauty has become globalised, creating homogenous aspirations, and distorting people’s self-image across the planet.Ng'endo Mukii ( Director, Animator, Editor)

 

Source:
Kenyan Animated Short Film ‚Yellow Fever‘ Expores Colorist & Self-Image Among African Girls And Women“ (Article on okayafrica.com).