Friday, July 22, 2011

The Weekly Sneak: Keep it Green

Not that it comes across very strongly, but I have a thing for environmentalism and the green movement and all that tree-hugging stuff*. I am a bit of a provincial actually: Dar es Salaam is the biggest city I have ever lived in in my whole entire life. Mega cities give me the willies actually. I like them the way people like rollercoasters. A couple of rides and it is time to go home. Trouble is that Bongo is trying to become a bit of a modern urban mess. Which makes me sad because if there was one thing that I always relished, it was the feeling that by living in Dar I was getting away with a delicious advantage. Everyone is obsessed with Nairobi, thank goodness, leaving us tourist-free residents to our own devices. It has remained a wonderfully under-appreciated corner of tropical heaven for the longest: hot, humid, torrid, complex, confounding, stagnant, vibrant, dynamic, sarcastic, inscrutable, welcoming, warm, playful... evidently I could go on for a bit, this here love affair has twenty-something years on it.

But of course, change must come. Recent work with some activists was instructive: the practice of urban farming is alive and well. I hope we stick with it, that would go some ways to making up for the visual assault of all those inorganic, mirror-fronted, puce- and violet-tiled, no-car-park having monstrosities that are going up around the city with impunity. Anywho, I wanted to do a combination love-letter, nostalgic commentary and "think green" piece for The East African this week. Here's a bit:

"Now that prosperity is trying to knock on Tanzania’s door- in spite of the fact that all of the lights are off inside- we seem to have found entirely new uses for the open spaces in our lush city. Land grabbing seems to be in Tanzanians’ blood, as anyone will tell you who has legally bought a plot and left it unattended for a month or less. Bars and food establishments are usually the first offensive: it is a rare space that hasn’t at some point been taken over guerrilla-style by a handful of plastic chairs to become the refuge of after-hours folks who prefer to have dinner and catch the evening news away from their domestic arrangement. Such a gentle approach to land-grabbing usually left a little patch for neighborhood kids to play, not to mention a corner for an enterprising sort to hook up an illegal water connection and grow vegetables."

Don't worry, the ranting comes later. One way of getting a bit of a feel for the Dar that rarely shows up in popular consciousness is, of course, to buy the Dar Sketches book :)

*a propos tree-hugging: how is that an insult? Everyone has tried it at some point in their life. Believe me, you ate bugs as a kid and we both know you've hugged a tree or two in your time. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Weird Glitches

Folks: I have a policy of responding to every comment on the blog. It might take me some time, but I do get around to it on days when Tanesco is feeling generous towards Mikocheni Kwa Watu, which is not all that often. So today, having found the power on and wrestled with my ISP over whether or not the account was paid for, I sat down to get back to folks only to find that The Google is having interesting issues with Blogger.

If it ain't one thing, it's another.

Anyways, I apologize. I will keep trying to respond at some point and if you have been waiting I thank you for your patience. Might take me some time to get back to you. As for Udadisi and SN: y'all got jokes now, eh? Thanks for the concern. Tanesco isn't going to be the cause of death, this blog is unbwogable ;)

Alright. Back to the holiday.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Winter Holiday Break

It's July. The weather is great. Everyone is in holiday mode. I haven't updated the blog regularly in the past couple of weeks, and let's be honest- the content these days is a little bit flat. All of this translates to*:

I'm taking the rest of this week and probably much of next week off for mental, social and physical rejuvenation. Please come by again in a few days. And if you live in Bongo remember to take a break and enjoy the fact that you live within spitting distance of world-class beaches.

*yeah, the picture is blurry but that reflects my state of mind. Also: I don't know how to use this particular camera :(

...And the Winners Are:

Hi folks, so the results for the Tanzania Blog Awards are out. TMR didn't do too badly, all things considered. Thanks to the readers who voted, and remember to check out the blogs that were put up for nomination so that you can support the Bongo blogosphere. By next year hopefully we will see some more new and interesing URLs up there.

And in other news, here is a correction from Kate Bomz about the post I wrote on BarCamp accrediting the right people for organizing this watershed event:
"Great post. "Google's Barcamp Dar es salaam" is incorrect Barcamp Dar is not a Google event, though it was sponsored by Google along with other companies which we greatly appreciate. Also, the event was organized by team members with various backgrounds, just not techbots..."
I should have known la Bomz had something to do with it :) Anyways, apologies: any incorrect information imparted was certainly the fault of the blogger, who couldn't seem to figure out what the what was. Of course, having Google at a conference is a bit like having The Hulk at a kiddie party- tends to draw some attention.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Social Media School: Safe Surfing

I recently attended a two-day workshop titled 'Securely Exchanging Information Through Technology' that was offered by EncourageXchange for, like, free. As a blogger I found my technical limitations very early in the game, so any opportunity to learn how this ICT world works is welcome. In that sense this course was great: with a little elbow grease and some reading I can actually embrace the DIY spirit behind the net and get myself sorted out. What I didn't expect was to find out just how fraught with danger the internet is. I am not paranoid by a long shot, but the training did get me thinking...

Just to give a little context: sure, you could say "it's not that bad." Really the basics are so simple that we ignore them all the time- don't bother with pirated or out-of-date software, update and use your antivirus, use secure browsing where possible, have strong passwords and don't use the same one for your million-and-one online accounts just to save memory space in your head. Who actually does that all the time? We have trouble remembering to put on a seatbelt, secure browsing is beyond most of us.

But it's worth at least attempting to master some computing security. I remember waxing lyrical a month ago about how the internet is the last truly free space on the planet where pure thought and ideas and freedom of expression is allowed. In retrospect, that's exactly the kind of moon-brained thing that a comfortably complacent web user would come up with. It turns out that the intertubes are governed, thank you very much, and that it is in the best interest of any netizen to actually inform themselves and take some protective measures. Where the threats might come from are pretty diverse, and might just surprise you.

Beyond that, however, it did make me think a little bit about computing in general. Social media is taking off like a bushfire gone wild, and in the development sector this area is becoming extremely sexy. To confess, I might be working at the intersection of social media and development myself in the near future. All the technological leapfrogging, and uptake and 3G mobiles in every household is fantastic. Trouble is, as users we're not exactly well informed about the security risks of these technologies, especially those that pertain to the privacy of personal information, the nature and frequency of security threats and the gatekeeping that is a part of this social media world.

This worries me as a user. I think it's a challenge for anyone who promotes the use of social media, and certainly a responsibility for anyone who earns a living getting us to use their ICT services. And as life would have it, here I am listening to another presenter right now at Bar Camp tell us that "we plan to make internet use an integral part of Africans' lives..." More to come.

Social Media School: Bar Camp Dar Es Salaam

I'm attending: Google's Bar Camp Dar es Salaam. What is this beast, you ask? I am told that it is an "unconference": an organic collection of people with similar interest who present to each other, discuss presentations and move between simultaneous events as needs dictate. At least, that's what it says on paper.

The good thing is that this is an event organized for and by techies to bring the Dar es Salaam community together. The not-so-good thing is that as a non-techie I am having a little trouble understanding which way is up. So far topics of interest that have come up address various organizations plans to develop software and services for African markets, with a very heavy emphasis on the business side of things: everybody is looking for customers. Fair enough. Most interesting so far in this area was a presentation from PAYU Computing, who are working on a way to make computers accessible to people very affordably by bypassing the hardware cost. It is a fantastic idea.

What else I have learned: Africa is a big, fat, untapped market for ICT. Google is working on establishing its Africa presence. Which is a massive industrial and employment opportunity. Lots of for-profit interest in that, naturally, but also a human welfare angle in the concern with how ICT can materially improve the quality of life of its users. Ultimately the common goal is faster, cheaper, seriously accessible internet and ICT services/products for as many people as possible that will (hopefully) do good. What's not to love?

Okay, now let's talk about actually being one of the lucky millions who are on this cutting edge of ICT receptivity. As a semi-techliterate user and independent content producer, I have a couple of questions. Such as: in Tanzania, a country with a functional literacy rate that is in serious trouble, how does the tech community cope (or not)? Follow up: what do techies project in terms of user interfaces, content type etc in the next ten years, considering that we don't read too good and it's not going to get better for a little while? Finally, a question about security: what about the effect of ICT and specifically social media on citizens' privacy, especially as we bank online and have phones that give geodata and so on and so forth...

And then, an even bigger question: as we millions get online, whose content will we be consuming, and to what ends? Intellectual products, arts and culture, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship? Having worked through the tech-heavy presentations I think I might have finally found the niche that Bar Camp Dar has offered as an opportunity: content producers unite. There are platforms out there looking for your work. Gotta race the clock: trying to wrap up here and have a content producers/platform owners meet-n-greet over lunch. Wish us luck.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Weekly Sneak: Customize Your State

Every so often I have this recurring discussion: is Tanzania really a democracy or is she not? Reason being, we've had the same party in power since independence in spite of nearly two decades of multi-party rule. I get the premise- a change in party is a good measure of the robustness of a democracy, or its maturity. While I agree that this is not something that will happen in Tanzania anytime soon, that one measure* is no reason to go pretending we don't live in a democracy. It just needs a bit of tweaking. Anyways, this argument never fails to make me indignant. So of course I rushed back to my keyboard and pounded out another take on a familiar theme: polities are quite individualistic entities. You can't prescribe universal measures of democracy or change without looking at the reality of the political structure in question... and in Tanzania, we have a rather unique set of circumstances:
"This is a measure of how good we have it- we think that we can afford our complacency. Tanzanians know that we don’t have to take to the streets in order to effect change. We can and regularly do talk ourselves into it, however incremental it is. Multiparty politics have done us a world of good in the past decade: the political competition in Bunge is starting to weed out the weak, Zanzibar is coming along quietly as an experiment in power-sharing. We need not fear that Jay Kay will do anything ridiculous to try to stay in power indefinitely, like pretending not to know how old he really is. We can afford to anticipate a change in administration, and we can afford to let complaint be our main method of political action. But we shouldn’t end there."

I do find that the positive political articles are not particularly popular on the blog or in print- readers love a good rant, I guess we all have the taste for blood. And the macro-level stuff really tends to make eyes glaze over :) Well, sometimes I feel optimistic and it will be interesting to see if this one sinks or swims in next week's East African.

*Seriously, folks: we're not Europe. We're not America. Deal with it. And the quest for a political party that is not embarrassing to belong to goes on...

Links in Education, the Arts and Politics

It's time to close some tabs on my overloaded browser. Here are links I've been keeping open for the day I could get back into my blogging chair:

Education: Twaweza have put out a report on the state of education in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. It's not pretty by any means across the board, but Tanzania is particularly dismal. I honestly cannot imagine what this means for industry and labor in the coming decade or two. On the other hand, here is an inspiring short video of a talk given Ken Robinson (via La Bomz) about what education could look like if it worked for the student rather than The Man.

Writing: Binyavanga Wainaina is back on the scene! If you have never read him you could start with the Granta article that propelled him onto the international stage, but really "Discovering Home" is a gorgeous piece. I hope he never mellows. And then there's Tolu Ogunlesi who conveniently self-publishes online. He's a fantastic poet. Best of all he's prolific so there is plenty of Original Content backlog to work through.

Politics: Apparently M7 is being a bit cagey about his age. And he got a protest birthday party to celebrate the fact. There is something quite stylish about the way Ugandans go about their protests, I have to say. Over here, rumors of protests against the power rationing have emerged and fizzled out with some regularity- at least we are consistently inconsistent. I did enjoy how January Makamba (CCM-Bumbuli) has taken charge of the Tanesco debate in the past week in the papers via a well-crafted blogpost. Speaking of which, Edward Lowassa is back in the newspapers after condemning Kikwete's government for indecisiveness. I found the positive reactions quite interesting...

A little birdie told me...

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