Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Social media, innovation and technology CAN change the world

Last Monday 23rd September I attended the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Social Good Summit at Radisson Blu Hotel in Lusaka. The summit was all about how social media, innovation and technology can be used to make the world a better place. It brought together bloggers, press, celebrities, leaders, CEO’s, non profits and little old me. You can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of being in the same room as so many thought leaders and sponging off a little of that knowledge.

I'm the one with the huge flowers on my dress. Its a wonder we managed to listen in on the summit as we all spent it tweeting for social good!

 There were some interesting and enlightening panel discussions.

Dr Mupanga Mwanakatwe, the CEO of Zamtel, sat on the panel for “Empowering local communities through connectivity”; he seemed highly enthusiastic about making his company fit for the technological demands of our times.

Mark Bennet of iSchool spoke about the recently launched tablet, Zedupad, which, as well as other informative applications, has the entire primary school curriculum. If you haven’t heard about this interactive educational tool, visit the site. I guarantee you will be as enamoured with it as I am.

Mark Chilongu of Africa Directions told us about Photo Voice a tool that youths in Mansa are using to tell their story. His organisations ethos is about nurturing the creativity of young people and using it as a means of educating them. Lukonga Lindunda of BongoHive had a similar point of view. Their message resonated with me as our education system can be somewhat stifling and probably misses out on some of the imaginative ideas students and young people in general can have.

Someone who stood out for me was Lelemba Phiri of ZOONA. She didn’t come in with a slide show of all the things her organisation does or give us a long speech advertising their services, she told us real stories illustrating the impact ZOONA has had on small business owners who would otherwise have little access to funding. It was a lesson in how to communicate with the youth. We need meaningful discussions. Show us what you are doing in a way that we can relate to. It’s really not that difficult.

This brings me to the politicians. I talk about social issues. I’m not big on analysing every single thing that our politicians do or say but I have to mention this.

It’s absolutely awesome that politicians are getting into technology and social media. Emmanuel Mwamba, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting spoke about how government departments need to make sure their websites are updated, he was at pains to point out that he even has a Facebook account.

Here’s the thing though. Social media and technology has changed the face of political interaction. It’s no longer a one way conversation. We want to talk to the politicians too. We want to be able to see evidence of what they are doing; we want them to be prepared to explain why they are doing it and then be amenable to receiving feedback from us.

I’m not an advocate of his politics. I don’t know enough about him, but a politician who is doing an awesome job of telling his constituents what he is up to is Matero Member of Parliament Miles Sampa. Check out his Facebook page and you will see why I’ve singled him out.

I was honoured to have been invited to the Social Good Summit. 

Later on in the week I had the chance to visit an organisation that is introducing exciting, innovative methods at grassroots level.

You are going to love this! Well, I do anyway. Seeing what this organisation is doing was like having been in a classroom learning the theory and then going out into the real world to experience what it’s really all about.

The Peoples Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia are doing an fantastic job of trying to alleviate the growing problem of inadequate low cost urban housing. They focus on community generated solutions. I’m not going to harp on too much because I've written a lot and sometimes pictures can tell the story so much better.

Here is a project that significantly cuts down the cost of building a house by using sand instead of bricks and mortar. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Female applicants preferred

I’ve spent the best part of a year trawling through endless newspapers and websites. No, I’m not that obsessed about news, I’ve been looking for jobs. You get up in the morning spend what money you have on newspapers, rifle through them, barely glancing at the stories and wonder what you will do with the rest of your day when yet again you realise that that K3 was spent in vain. It’s the depressing face of youth unemployment.

I’ve since abandoned the newspapers and discovered that you get so much further by networking, just putting yourself out there, but that’s not what I want to talk about, yet. I want to talk about something that stood out to me. I saw it scribbled at the bottom of countless advertisements. There seemed to be jobs created specifically to address it advertised everyday. Gender; the new buzzword, its absolutely everywhere.

Of course, I write a lot about gender inequality so I’m bound to notice these things, but it keeps cropping up.

I’m doing a short course at the University of Zambia and almost everyday a lecturer mentions the word gender, often as though it’s some new-found phenomenon imposed on us by those interfering Westerners. ‘In Zambia’, they say proudly, ‘we only have two genders’.

One of my lecturers is a ‘gender person’, works in that field. At the end of his lesson he asked all the Lozis and Tongas who had brought them to Zambia, he also asked the Chewas who chose their chiefs. The right answer was of course women. ‘There’, he concluded, ‘don’t let anyone tell you that it is not in our culture to have women in politics’. I was grinning from ear to ear until the lady in front of me commented that the kind of politics he had described was of a lower calibre. You know I didn’t let that one go, right?

The Junior Reporter is a magazine produced by young Zambians; teenagers, who have been given a platform to highlight issues that affect them. Last months publication was dubbed, ‘The Gender Issue’, there’s that word again. It had articles such as, “I Can Do a Man’s Job, “Why So Few Female Politicians?” and “You Can’t Beat and Love”. Much of the magazine was thought provoking and hard hitting.

As part of the Barefeet Festival, the Junior Reporters hosted a discussion about gender and had the opportunity to question representatives from the Ministry of Gender, Women for Change and Save the Children. It was a lively event and I’m sure it’s true to say that we all learnt a lot about some of the policies government has set in place to combat Gender Based Violence as well as the challenges faced in implementing them.

During the discussion the audience was asked to recount some of their experiences of Gender Based Violence. A young girl stood up and told her story. It was harrowing but it wasn’t about GBV and the representative from the government was at pains to point this out, he said we should be careful to understand what GBV actually is.

Bertha Ngozi of Save the Children summed it up perfectly by placing emphasis on the fact that Gender is a social construct. Only when we truly understand this statement and its implications can we effectively educate people about the need for equality of opportunity.

Oh, and yes, I’m still on the look out for that dream job. Law graduate turned creative, advocate for gender equality, good communicator, seeks employment, will consider offers from men as well as women.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Barefeet Festival; A rip - roaring success.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of being able to cover the Barefeet Festival. I didn't really know a lot about the organisation or the festival. If I’m honest I was just excited about the chance to get plenty of material for the blog, maybe do a bit of networking and have some fun during the week.

You see, I’ve been having a pretty rough month. Has me singing Ronan Keating’s, ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’, and not in a cheerful manner. You know, the kind of month when you do the bare minimum because you just don’t have the inclination, motivation, energy or creativity to do much more.

This festival was a chance to get out of that rut. If nothing else it would keep me busy, just what I needed to get my mind off things.

Let’s just say I got a lot more than I bargained for. This is going to sound a little clich├ęd, but the Barefeet Festival was a truly cathartic experience for me.

One of the things you realise when you return ‘home’ is that your friends have moved on and you need to make new ones.

I got to the launch alone and didn't really know what to expect. I needn't have worried. You know all that talk of the internet and social media destroying ‘proper’ human interaction; absolute poppycock. The only people I knew at that launch turned out to be individuals I’d met through Twitter, but it didn't stop us having a good time.

It was an interesting evening with some exciting tidbits of things to come. I wasn't, however, too keen on the hosts insistence that we ROAR at every possible opportunity.

One of the acrobats at the launch

A funeral for mediocrity

This little boy had us holding our breaths he was tossed about every which way

Randy McLaren a spoken word artist from Jamaica

My friends and I being Pompi groupies

I kept an open mind and attended an acrobatic workshop at the Lusaka Arts Theater. The plan was to go there, take a look at what was happening and maybe take some notes. It was my first time at the theater in many years.  Everyone told me that it was now nothing more than a drinking place. The TV at the bar was showing those ever dramatic Hispanic soaps, hardly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of, ‘the Arts’.

I started to recognise faces, and hair, lots of dread-locked hair. I thought to myself, ‘I hope this is not a festival for us by us’. Can you tell I was a little apprehensive?

Well, true to form I got roped in. Who cares that I wasn't dressed for jumping up and down, sprawling across the, very dusty, hardwood floor. Don’t wear white jeans to an acrobatic workshop!

It was nice to interact with people from across the world, of varying ages and quite questionable acrobatic experience.

Amateur acrobatics 

The enthusiasm was infectious, it crept up on me. I resolved to attend more events and volunteered to take part in a debate about the state of Art in Zambia.

The debate took place last Thursday and I’d say the events of that day marked a turning point in my appreciation of the Festival.

I arrived at the NASDEC sports complex and it was an absolute hive of activity. Incidentally its self evident that the government is far more interested in sports than the arts. There were what must have been hundreds of young people milling around, chalk all over their bodies and clothes made of sacks trailing behind them. OK a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture. It was absolutely buzzing; drumming and singing could be heard around the venue but true to form my experience of the day was a more sedate, cerebral affair.

I witnessed and took part in discussions about innovation, creativity, democracy, even gender inequality. It was a positively, stimulating day. Just to be in the company of so many within the creative industry who are passionate, not just about their work but about their role in the development of our country, really inspired me.

The final day marked my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. Yes, I really did just use that analogy. You might say I’m being a little dramatic; it was after all just a musical concert. Let me explain myself. It was a Saturday night; yet again I walked in alone, apprehensive but didn't spend the evening that way. Instead I spent it singing and dancing along to the various acts on stage in the company of people I’d like to think of as my friends.

More talk of lions

As the acts came on, I started to notice a theme. The Mwale Sisters invited a group of young girls on to the stage to dance and when they inevitably wiggled their way through the music told them that life was not all about winding your waist. Maybe they should have a word with Miley. Mutinta invited us to sing along to Nibani, a song that condemns the tendency of other people to magnify our limitations. Randy McClaren saluted all hardworking Zambians.

One thing resonated with me, as act after act performed, whether through their lyrics or like Hope Masike by their stage presence. It was about empowerment.

This is one talented lady, Hope Masike 
One of the Mwale Sister. I'm not ashamed to say one of the highlights of the evening was a surprise appearance by Anna Mwale.

Pompi and Hope Masike

The lovely Mutinta

I finally got it. Art and creativity lead to innovation and empowerment. I didn't just get it, I felt it. I have been energised by attending this festival and witnessing so many young people, fearlessly pursuing their dreams.

And all that talk of lions and silly roaring? It’s about agitation as opposed to complacency; making an impact in the best, most creative way that you can. So, I’m ROARING through this year, looking forward to what next years Barefeet Festival has in store for us.

Monday, 26 August 2013

How to survive in Zambia

Last Wednesday I attended ‘A Magical Night of Music Under the Stars’. It was a brilliant event for a worthy cause. Action for Empowerment Zambia is raising funds to complete the building of Chibolya Medical Centre in Lusaka.

We were treated to some beautiful music, ranging from violin recitals to original songs in local languages. The array of talent on display was truly impressive.

The musicians all got together at the end of the night to sing a rendition of ‘We Are the World’. This is no longer about people half way across the world helping poor Africans; we are doing it for ourselves.

There was an auction and you could bid on massages, facials, a Bubu from Nigeria, even a goat; the perfect example of an all embracing Africa, borrowing from others whilst retaining our own traditions.

The ambiance was great and I got to meet many like minded people while sipping wine and cowering around braziers to warm ourselves. It was a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan crowd. If you needed proof of the famed middle classes of Africa this was it.

It’s great to be back in Zambia and when I first got here I was overwhelmed by just how much was going on. It was nothing like the lethargic, negative mood in a recession ridden UK. Everyone here seems to be busy taking advantage of the huge potential for growth. Believe the hype people.

If, however, anyone tells you settling back in is easy they are stretching the truth a tad. So here are some useful tips for all the recession fleeing cheetahs out there.

·         Be ready with an explanation for why you have returned.

Remember when you had to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’, and you knew it could mean anything from, ‘Why are you here?’ to ‘Why do you look and sound different to the rest of us?’ Well, it’s pretty much the same here. I mean who in their right mind leaves the prosperous West to come back and live in Zambia?

·         Find other returnees to talk to.

Your family and friends are glad to have you back but they will soon tire of your constant comparisons to your former life. ‘Back home’ was always a mystical land were everyone was laid back and the quality of life was awesome, now you wonder how you will live without a regimented sense of order.

·         Plan your TV schedule.

We are truly in a global village. We can watch TV shows mere days after they premiere in the rest of the world. You don’t have to miss out on the Twitter conversations about live sporting events. Andy Murray about to win Wimbledon? DSTV has you covered. ZESCO, the local electricity supplier, on the other hand might not. There is nothing more exhilarating than the relief of getting to the end of a match just in time to beat the load shedding.

·         Corruption? What corruption?

It’s a fine line between corruption and getting something done; figure out where you draw the line. It may sometimes feel as though bureaucracy is designed to make you give in and pay someone a little extra.

Want a national registration card? If you have dreadlocks you might want to consider wearing a wig to look more ‘natural’, bringing a letter from the Rastafarian Association will also help.

Trying to get a driving license? You will be accorded the opportunity to fast track at every point, you don’t need to see an actual doctor to get your medical form stamped and taking the test is a minor inconvenience best avoided.

·         Beware of the bugs

Your blood has been contaminated by foreign air and the mosquitoes can smell it. They absolutely love it and are all out to get you. When they do get you they don’t just leave you scratching, they leave you with huge tender lumps and bumps. Arriving in the rainy season? Get acquainted with the various brands of mosquito repellents and no matter how hot you feel, close your windows and cover up.

·         No need to restrict yourself to the shops

Why walk into a shop when you can buy anything, anywhere you want to. Stuck for something to eat at home? Why not pick up a rabbit or duck from the traffic lights. In fact stay in the car; you can get everything you need from the traffic lights. Pets, CDs, sunglasses, fruit, newspapers, you name it they’ve got it, remember to haggle as you drive away, don’t worry they’ll keep up the pace.

And my final tip;

·         Take a ride in a mini bus.

No, I mean it. Take a ride in a mini bus. If you really want the heads up on what it takes to make it in Zambia get on the bus.

Watch the conductors shouting and scrambling for customers knowing that if they don’t they won’t be on the journey back. It would be awesome to have sanity on the roads. To do away with call boys and have those talking British buses that always turn up on time. It would all be nice and orderly but how would you ensure that the call boys end up in formal employment?

Upset that you didn't get to finish the latest episode of Mad Men because of yet another power cut? Your fellow passengers are probably living in accommodation were they have to share the cost of electricity across a block of rooms making sure that there are restrictions on the types of appliances they can have.

Does standing in line at the Road Traffic and Safety Agency make you want to take up an ‘agents’ offer to fast track you? Corruption is rife because of poverty but it also exasperates it by syphoning money away from public bodies.  The people on the bus would be happy to line up waiting to pick up their licenses because it means they can afford a car.

Those bugs are annoying but you can get some of that foul smelling spray to ward them off. If you do get ill you’ll probably choose from one of many private hospitals to go to. Some of your fellow passengers don’t have that luxury. I once got on a bus with a man who had to carry his daughter on his back between stops because she had broken her leg and the nearest hospital to him was miles away.

Cut the hawkers at the traffic lights some slack. Don’t knock the hustle. There are thousands of graduates who can’t get jobs, what chance do those guys have?

You’ll be squashed and uncomfortable on that bus but you will have no illusions about the very real disparity between the privileged middle classes and the vast majority of the populace who are only just getting by.

So, what’s the answer to that question? Why did you come back? Why are you thinking about coming back? It’s different for everyone, but something I've come to appreciate is that a lot of the reasons for not coming back are pretty superficial in the grand scheme of things.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The real face of domestic violence; not just another statistic

Very few of us like Mondays. You’ve had a great weekend and want it to continue. You might have had such a ‘good’ weekend that you walk into work feeling a little rough, a little worse for ware.

A few Mondays ago our housekeeper walked into work more than a little rough. Her face was puffed up. She had a black eye and a large swollen lip.

Typing those words reminds me how shocking it was. Yes, it was a struggle to keep a straight face and look directly at her as she told her story, but even more shocking was the fact that she was here, in our house, having walked a considerable distance from her own, expecting to work.

How often have you pulled a sickie because you felt a little under the weather?

She left her house that morning having fought with her husband in front of her children only the night before; knowing that he would be released from jail that morning and would probably be at home waiting for her when she got back.

He hit her on her face to stop her parading herself. She would have preferred some body shots. That way, she said, she would be able to walk the streets without anyone knowing what was going on at home.

‘At least if he had finished paying my bride price , Ba Aunty, at least then it wouldn’t be a big problem but he hasn’t even paid for me and he is beating me’. They tell me a bride price is traditional and does not lead to gender discrimination.

Her brother in law came back home after the ‘fight’. He saw blood on the living room floor and asked his brother what had happened. He refused to listen to his brother’s explanation and barged into the bedroom. It was too much for him and he informed the police.

The police told her they would only charge him if she willed it, but after much pleading on his part they told her to forgive him, he is, after all, her husband and the father to her children. They would keep him in prison overnight and charge him K200 for the assault. He has to pay her the money. I wonder how they will ensure that he pays her. Her husband does not have a steady income. She is the main breadwinner.

Her mother told her to stay unless he did it again. This is the second time he has beaten her so badly. The last time she was pregnant with their first born. Her mother was also a victim of domestic violence.

I have written posts about domestic violence. They have been full of statistics and references to reputable sources. The statistics are shocking, difficult to believe. The stories are shocking too but the truth is after a while it is easy to get desensitised.

Shock, It’s what we are supposed to feel. Who can forget how shocking the image of Rihanna’s battered face was?  I have felt real emotion when confronted with such images and stories but nothing can compare with having someone in front you living that story.

I have seen this woman come into work everyday telling me about the difficulties she faces at home. I have been to that home and seen her children.

I have been back in Zambia about 9 months and haven’t written a blog post in almost a year. I could make many excuses. I wasn’t connected to the internet for the first few months. I’ve been getting used to seeing Zambia not through some rose coloured nostalgia fuelled glasses but as my reality and it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve found that just as I didn’t quite ‘fit in’ in the UK I don’t quite fit in here either and that was a little confusing at first because after all this is meant to be ‘home’.  

I could use all those excuses but the truth is I’ve been a little embarrassed, feeling as though my voice couldn’t possibly have been that authentic. How could it have been? I wasn’t living the reality of what I was writing. How was I any different from the numerous journalists writing about ‘Africa’ knowing they would be going back to their comfortable lives? Yes, I had the unique perspective of someone who has lived both in the West and in Zambia and I know I wrote some pretty good posts about my personal experiences but when it comes to social commentary nothing beats being on the ground. I suddenly understood why so many Zambians had misgivings about those of us living in the Diaspora. How dare we purport to know anything about their lives?

I’m not saying that my reality is the same as our housekeepers. My bedroom is bigger than her house. There is, however, something to be said for proximity and I do have a platform to be able to tell her story. Hopefully I can contribute even in some small way to bringing about change in attitudes towards gender discrimination.

Last Monday was like a wake up call for me. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, come clean with all of you and keep writing. I realised that I wanted to tell this story, had to tell it. I have passed up the opportunity to tell so many stories that deserve to be heard this past year.

So I’m done feeling embarrassed, I’m taking this as a life lesson learnt and choosing to continue telling stories because now, I’m in a position to put faces to the statistics.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Africans: Pawns in the Battle?

Last week I listened to a report by Gabriel Gatehouse on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight. The discussion centred around Uganda, its prospects for economic growth and the rising level of investment from China and Chinese companies. China is now a larger trading partner to Uganda than the UK.

 Mr Gatehouse cited Hilary Clinton's warning about Africa being careful not to allow neocolonialism and used solely for its vast natural resources. He, as so many others have done, fashioned the argument in terms of a clash between the West and China on how to deal with Africa. In fact his opening question was whether or not the battle for Africa was being lost by the West.

 One of the interviewees was the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina; if you have not read his thoughts on 'How to Write About Africa' you must. He emphasised the growth of Africa as one attributable in part to Africans holding their governments to higher account and demanding better infrastructure. He also mentioned some of the successful technological advancements (Wainaina's home country was the birthplace of Ushahidi ).

Try as he might to shift the argument away from Africa being simply a pawn, talked of in terms of its relationship to possible donors/investors, Mr Gatehouse was not interested. The possibility of a scenario reflecting the Cold War seemed a much more exciting prospect than that of Africa's huge population and natural resources proving pivotal to change on the continent.

 I could feel Wainaina's frustration. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I considered writing a strongly worded letter to the BBC about the fact that they insisted on saying that the King of Spain had been hunting elephants in Africa when they knew full well what country he was in. Yes, it would have been very English of me and made a huge difference. In the end I sent a tweet.

Even more recently during the Olympic opening ceremony the BBC commentators insisted on describing every African country according to how long ago they had had wars or how poor they happened to be, without much mention of the competitors.

Trying to change the narrative about Africa can be like hitting your head against a brick wall.  I strongly believe that until we see Africa differently we can not hope for a more mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of the world.

 Frustration can be a panacea for change and in some part lead me on my own personal journey. I told you all about it in a previous post and I now have another blog that I hope will encourage you to follow me on my journey to find my own way to join in the tremendous positivity and growth that there is on the continent right now.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Societally imposed self constraint; appraising my wardrobe

I've been meaning to write this post for a long time now.

The furore in Malawi that came about as a result of women being stripped for wearing trousers presented the perfect opportunity, but I did not take it. I told a friend about it and she urged me to write the post because she could not get her head around the idea that the clothes I wore might be unacceptable in what purports to be a liberal society, but I did not. I read Caitlin Moran's thoughts on the way women regard clothes as an expression of who we are, but still I couldn't get over this writers block. 

And then one of my 'Tweeps' said this and I had to respond!

 That I do not agree totally,when you meet someone who has dressed to attract client you will know ASAP! So let them be.

Its summer! Well, for now; the predictably volatile English weather is set to shock us back into our winter coats and scarves this week.

In my excitement, I've had a total revamp of my wardrobe. pushed my coats to the back and wrestled sandals,dresses,skirts and shorts from the bottom of my suitcases.

I'm not the only one.

Every where I look I see shorts and cropped tops. It seems that the look du jour is shorts that barely cover the derriere . I walked behind a woman clad in such attire in my local shopping centre and I was quite shocked. Perhaps I'm showing my age! Despite my shock I didn't immediately jump to the conclusion that said woman was evil, corrupting all our morals and an indictment on a society that has lost its way. I didn't think to myself, 'she deserves to be stripped for wearing such clothing'.

Stripping is, of course, an extreme reaction. The more subtle way to show displeasure with a woman's clothing would be to be judgemental and simply dismiss her as indecent. This kind of disapproval may not at first seem harmful but here's why it might be.

I know from personal experience the amount of time and effort it takes to carefully select the 'right' outfit taking care to ensure it's not too 'offensive'. You look at yourself in the mirror and decide after some deliberation that you love the outfit and the way you look even with that little bit of extra flesh on show.

Then you walk out of the house and are suddenly conscious of seemingly judging eyes.

A group of men stand on the corner and you brace yourself for what they might say to you. In fact, they need not say anything, their stares say it all. You are like a piece of meat on display at the butchers. You no longer walk with your head held high. You feel as though you want the ground to swallow you up.

The women whisper about how 'loose' you must be. They are threatened. Surely a woman dressed the way you are must be after their husbands. The bible says you must be modest, you are obviously not Christian enough.

You think to yourself, 'next time I wont wear this, next time I'll decide to blend in'.

Society has won, but are you the same person? If clothes are an important form of expression, what does it mean to have that taken away from you?

I look at my wardrobe and I know that a lot of it would be frowned upon in my home country. Do I cull it in readiness for my return or do I decide that it is more important to express myself the way I see fit?

Of course it could be that I'm completely paranoid. Is it only me that feels this way? And why am I shocked about the woman in the really short, shorts?

Oh, and y'all know I'm not a proponent of the over sexualisation of women so please don't use that argument against me.