Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Blogging, Kenyan Women & Opening of Democratic Spaces...

Onyango Oloo Conducts a Grand Tour Into the Kenyan Women's Blogosphere

FIRST DRAFT-Excuse the TYPOS galore....

South Africans have been celebrating one of their main national holidays today- South Africa National Women's Day.

The date was chosen to commemorate one of the highlights of the very storied and layered struggle of one of the world's most significant freedom movements. August 9 is indelible as the date almost fifty years ago that witnessed the

courageous march to the Union Buildings in 1956, when 20 000 South African women presented petitions carrying 100 000 signatures to then racist apartheid regime, against the pass laws, singing the famous song:
"Strijdom, you have tampered with the women
You have struck a rock
You have dislodged a boulder
You will be crushed."

Among the leaders, organizers and mobilizers of the 1956 South African Women's March were such sheroes and stalwarts like

Dora Tamana,

Lillian Ngoyi,

the very popular and venerated Helen Joseph; the incomparable Flora Mkhize,

the one and only Dorothy Nyembe

the revolutionary icon, Ray Alexander and of course anti-apartheid mainstays like

Albertina Sisulu

Another veteran underground and exiled ANC activist is

Frene Ginwala
who is currently the

Speaker of the South African parliament.

One look at Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi's CV details how she graduated to her present status as a South African Cabinet Minister from her early days as a home-based clandestine ANC cadre, an exiled based Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla fighter, an underground anti-apartheid operative leader and at one point the official deputy Chairperson and member of the Politburo of the South African Communist Party.

Jenny Schriener is also another Eighties era South African revolutionary, feminist and freedom fighter who has been through a lot. For instance this is a snippet from her testimony during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when she talked about being interrogated after her capture by De Klerk and Botha's B.O.S.S. intelligence goons in 1987:

"Ruthless prying ... into an area of a person's personal life that they knew was vulnerable. That all the kind of personal pain of a marriage that does not work is brought to the fore and in a context where they were going to send you back to a police cell to sit with nothing other than the emotions that you had scratched upon. You are 30, you are single, therefore there is something wrong with you as a woman and that is why you get involved with politics. They were attacking your identity with their own particular conception of what a woman is.".

Today, she is one of South Africa's Deputy Commissioners for Correctional Services!

And of course, there is simply NO WAY one can talk about South Africa and women's struggles in that country without mentioning one woman whose face and whose name is so unmistakeable that I do not need to call either out:

To the women and people of South Africa we chant:

2.0.Five Women Who Were Way Ahead of the Cyber Curve

Before bloggers were born, netters roamed on the world wide web. Years before Al Gore invented the internet women around the world were networking and communicating with each other across continents using dial up connections, 286 computers and greenish/black text only monitors. Black women, African women, women period were there on day one of the digital revolution.

Personally, I owe a lot to a two or three women who literally showed me the ropes- from how to set up an e-mail account, do a boolean search and post a two paragraph text message on an electronic bulletin board-the ancient ancestors of today's snazzy discussion forums and chat rooms.

Let me restrict myself to two women.

Marva Jackson Lord currently lives in Wales in the UK. A few months ago, she ran into a mutual friend, the Nairobi-based award winning writer and Kwani? co-founder Binyavanga Wainana. I met Marva in the late 1980s when we were both programmers at CKLN 88.1 FM community based radio station based at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Even though I had dabbled with a very primitive form of internet access via my friend's Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta(Colombo based Sri Lankan poet/activist who recently launched his second book of audio-poetry in Toronto) first or second generation Mac where we used to peer at a very dark screen for fast scrolling newswires back in '88 and 89'- it was not until around '91 and '92 that I really started getting cybersavvy and it was thanks to Marva Jackson, who by the mid 1990s(if not earlier, cannot remember) already had her web-based media relations and promotions company Marvalicious; It was Marva who introduced me to some of the coolest nooks and crannies of the net and through her I met some ahead of the curve cyberpreneurs- a group of Black youth out of the much maligned North York neighbourhood of Toronto-they were in their early twenties, barely out of high school, and had set up an ISP called Nu.Net out of their family living rooms, financed by their moms- they were too far ahead of their time, not experienced enough about the financial side of that biz and soon crashed; Warren Salmon who used to hawk his Afro-centric Ashaware kids software at Martin Day's events at the Harbourfront; Marva was a walking encylopedia when it came to starting list servs and bulletin boards and how to use the internet for marketing and social justice activism. I remember when the late Johnnie Cochran came to Toronto Convention Centre on December 6, 1995, it was Marva's PR company that handled all or most of the publicity and promotion. So, long before they were bloggers trawling the net at the dead of night, there was Marva Jackson busy data mining at sites corporate, cultural and gender-centred. In fact it was Marva who sensitized me to the fact that even then, back in early to mid 1990s there were more and more twentysomething and thirtysomething women setting up home-based, web connected small businesses.

My other cyber coach from the early 1990s was a Jewish-Canadian woman called Joan Aitlin and she became my coach by virtue of seeing through my job orientation. Back in November 1993 I had replaced her as the new Provincial Coordinator of the Toronto based Global Education Centres of Ontario a province wide network of social justice/activist groups that included the Global Awareness Project(Thunder Bay) Worldwise Centre(St. Catherines) Global Justice Centre(Waterloo) GIRC(Guelph) Development Education Centre(Toronto) Third World Resource Centre(Windsor) World Interaction Mondiale(Ottawa) Kawartha World Issues(Peterborough) SHAIR International Resource Centre(Hamilton) and other organizations in Sudbury, Kingston and Toronto. Our problem was that our organization GlobaL Education Centres in Ontario(GECO) was based in an office on Richmond and York( just south of the Osgoode Subway near the Sheraton in downtown Toronto) and had to coordinate the work of 15 independent groups dotted across the province of Ontario( with the northern members in Thunder Bay and Sudbury being closer to Manitoba than the rest of Ontario. I found out when I flew to Thunder Bay that it was more expensive to fly from Toronto to the northern tip of the province than it was to fly internationally from Toronto to Montego Bay, Jamaica- at least back then it was). One of the suggested solutions was to use a combination of an internal listserv of all the 15 GECO members augmented by an electronic board for internal discussions or even to jointly work on position papers and grant proposals. When I first started at GECO I was still a relative novice and it was Joan Aitlin who bridged the info gap and held my hand during those inevitable first pratfalls along the information superhighway. By early 1994 when compatriots like Mwangi wa Githinji were introducing me to Kenya-Net, the lessons learned from my predecessor Joan translated into an ease in surfing the net- and by the way, at first I suffered from technophobia....

Back in Kenya, I found out, in July-August 1994 when I went back for my first visit since fleeing the country (via Tanzania in 1987) I found that there was alsready a robust internet demi-monde.

I met

Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki who was working at Econews(and they already had a Canadian hosted website back in 1994!) and was also
filing stories for the Inter-Press Service as can be evidence by this story from way back in 1996. In 1994 I was a rank amateur, a complete newbie when it came to negotiating corners in cyberspace-Kenyan women like Muthoni Wanyeki and Grace Githaiga at ECONEWS and similar NGOs in Nairobi were hundreds of miles ahead, connected to other women via the global Association of Progressive Communications comprising IGC in the USA, Web Networks in Canada, Green Net in the UK and Pegasus or something like that in Australia. My basic point is to challenge the widely held myth that it was MEN who led the first forays into digital communications in Kenya- the evidence points the other way. Many of us men, in our arrogance, do not take time to acknowledge the many women who did a lot of hand-holding for some of us as we overcame our raw naivety about venturing online for the first time.

In the summer of 1997, I had the privilege of making the acquaintance of Ms. Nish Matenjwa a London-based Kenyan patriot with whom we had been in contact since the early 1990s. She was in Toronto for that year's Global Knowledge conference. One of the pleasant eye-openers for me was to find out that African women had a lot of direct in-put in putting together the IT and cyber components of that international gathering. Nish came to town representing Abantu for Development an international development agency registered in both the UK and Kenya through the initiatives of its founder, Dr. Wanjiru Kihoro. That organization had done a lot to promote internet connectivity for African women after conducting workshops and training sessions in Kampala, Nairobi and other parts of Africa. Old regulars of the Kenyan forum at RC Bowen may recognize Dr. Kihoro through her handle, "Pambana Mwenyewe"; Kenyan activists including the present writer recognizes comrade Wanjiru as one of the hard working members, along with Prof. Micere Mugo, Ngugi wa Thiongo(in the USA), Shiraz Durrani(still in the UK), Abdilatif Abdalla( in Germany), Yusuf Hassan(in Namibia) and Dr. Shadrack Gutto(in South Africa) of the London-based Committee for the Release of Kenyan Political Prisoners in the early 1980s. We are all still hanging on, keeping our fingers crossed as Dr. Wanjiru Kihoro hangs on tenaciously to life almost two years after surviving that Busia airstrip tragedy that claimed the life of the first NARC cabinet minister barely a month after KANU was thrown out of power. Coming from such a net savvy family, I was completely unsurprised to see Dr. Kihoro's daughter Kui emerge as the real webstar from the Kihoro clan- first as one of the principals of the now defunct Safari Lady and now with her own blogsite, Mama's Junk Yard.

I guess my other point is that many if not all of the Kenyan pioneers of digital communications in Kenya were not just technocrats looking for nifty gizmos with which to place their stock market bets with Charles Schwab, Fidelity or AmeriTrade but on the contrary were politically conscious organizers who recognized=, decades ago, the untapped potential of an online presence and how that interfaced with social justice struggles.

Back to that 1997 Global Knowledge. Like I said, one of the people I met at that time was Nidhi Tandon Ugandan born,Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe raised and UK educated and eventually Canada based IT consultant, gender activist and international development expert. She was part of a core team that, as she recalls, helped "to raise money here in Canada to run a counter conference just with women from around the world, we created a database of women scientists, entrepreneurs, activists and academics and set up our own declaration of principles. As soon as the money was secured
however, our core group was brought into the mainstream conference program
and listed as co-sponsors.". Click here to see the critical intervention of the women at the Global Knowledge conference of 1997. Nidhi Tandon chaired that particular plenary session. Click here to listen to session itself which took place on Tuesday, June 24, 1997 from 7:45 - 8:55 am a Breakfast gathering with the topic titled: "Global Knowledge-A Partnership for Women and Men" Compliments of the Independent Committee on Women and Global Knowledge with Nidhi Tandon, Director, ABANTU for Development • Shirley Malcom, Director, Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science • Kathryn White, President, Canadian Committee for UNIFEM • Huguette Labelle, President, Canadian International Development Agency.


3.0.A Short Academic Walk About: Where Does Blogging and Gender Intersect?

For what some may argue to be a relatively novel phenomenon, I was more than mildly surprised to be appraised of the scholarly interventions on the subject of blogging. Here is an excerpt which is quite germane to this essay and I will quote a whole chunk so that nobody is under illusions about the source:

...In the weblog world the words ’gender’ and ‘personal blogging’ go hand and hand. In terms of blogging, gender refers to the way that males and females use blogging, what types of weblogs they use and the purpose that blogging serves in their lives.

The Case Study, “Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs,” discusses how gender, age and weblog type affect what bloggers write and examines the relationships between those variables (Herring, Kouper, Scheidt and Wright, 2004). According to Perseus Development Corp.’s random survey of over three thousand blogs, there are currently about 4.12 million blogs on the Internet. Of these, Perseus found that 56 per cent of bloggers are women, which represent 2.31 million blogs worldwide (eMarketing Digest, 2003).

The Case Study shows that gender varies according to blog type. There are three basic types of weblogs currently used by bloggers – journal, filter and k-log. The personal journal weblog is dominated by teenage females and is also favoured by females in general. The content of personal journals is internal and includes the bloggers thoughts, usually an account of their day. Adult males predominated in the creation of filter-type blogs and k-logs, which are news, politics and technology oriented (Herring, Kouper, Scheidt and Wright, 2004).

Lisa Guernsey (2002), journalist for the New York Times says that men write about everything apart from their personal life, mostly politics, while women write specifically about their personal life. The reasons surrounding the question of why men are more likely to write about news and politics than women is concealed in cultural trends that span centuries. It also has a great deal to do with the stereotyped roles of males and females in society, such that men rule the business world and women rule the house (Guernsey, 2002).

One blogger named Raymond Yee said, “I suspect that more bloggers are men since most are those who have easy access to networked computers and aren’t there more men than women who fit this description? My personal experience with blogging has made me think that it is no more male dominated than other forms of media and I have encountered very significant female voices in the blogging world (Yee, 2003).

Clancy Ratliff believes that some of the reasons that women find blogging attractive is because it is a promising, positive activity where they can discover their own interests, and learn the value of their opinion (Ratliff, 2002).

Ms. Sessum and Elaine Frankonis, from Blog Sisters say that they are witnessing some slippage between the stereotypes as men and women become more comfortable with the blogging medium. “I think that what's happening is that we're meeting in the middle. The men started by writing about technology and opinion and the women were writing personal diaries. Now the men are putting more of their hearts into their Weblogs and women are talking about the issues',” Ms. Frankonis said (Trimbath, 2004).

Through statistics, trends and personal opinions it can be seen that gender does have a major impact on the type of blog that people use and their reasons for blogging.


Here is an additional academic take..

Somebody else made a point of counting the men and the women bloggers and drawing inferences from that.

Getting closer home, a Kenyan woman observes:

"There is an almost 50% -50% male to female split on the Kenyan Blogs Webring. How does this compare to the wider blogosphere? Mena Trott reveals, " ... about an even split of male to female webloggers on TypePad and a 75% female population on LiveJournal. The number of women on Movable Type is slightly lower than on TypePad, but is still above 40%."
4.0. Meet The Actual Masista Wenye Mablogu(Sistas With Blogs)

I am sure some readers are wondering WHY it takes Onyango Oloo YEARS to get to the FREAKING POINT!

Chillax, all you chiles out there. Hopefully, your infinite patience will be amply rewarded. And even though you are not saying it, I am sure I have saved at least five people six weeks of research time kwa hivyo musiniletee tafadhali.

So here is a quick tour. Memo to all: if I have overlooked a blog, let me know and I will include it in a subsequent update:

We have already passed through Mama's Junk Yard so it is now time to drop by Feminista who blogs because, "...Because I believe women and girls are human beings and keepers of our own minds and bodies unfettered by patriarchal chains..." to Wangari who informs her surfers that she feels "like the song "Bitch" by Meredith Brooks sort of describes me... can be anything from an angel to a demon..." before we try and read the latest Letter from Lidia who also takes the time to introduce us to her sister Lois Guchu. So many Kenyan and African sistas blogging out there: from the twenty something Akinyi in Cape Town, the Nairobi-based Au Lait, the Boston based Kenyan Pundit; who would resist browsing through the Diary of A Mad Kenyan Woman or take a peek atBlack Looks or try and decipher whether "Nehanda" is really Muthoni over at the blog called Nehanda Dreams; you better remember to retrieve your mind from the gutter and rethink what Cunninglinguistically Yours is really all about; in Finland we find the fascinating Kipepeo. Gishungwa explains the meaning of her name and her blog:

"who am i? why be a gashungwa when you can be the real thing the Gishungwa, the difference the former is small the later is big.I enjoy reading but even more writing on a variety of topics, either in prose or poems or haphazardly(there been waiting to use that word in a sentence). I love to use big words (as jack of will and grace would say 10 dollar words) such as kusambaratika, swahili word for disintergration.I enjoy the shakespeare language of thou thee doth and pray kinda reminds me of naomba in Tanzania( a whole new blog)."

Nyakehu is based in London, United Kingdom and she tells her visitors that:

"I like living where I am but oh how I miss those early morning mists of Limuru, Timboroa and up the Rift Valley. I am Kenyan will never see 40 again unless I reincarnate and what will l come back as? A housefly."

Chanuka is a 31 year-old Kenyan woman who is in the Telecommunications field. She is doing her PhD, is an Aries who was born in the Year of the Tiger who believes in "change from within ourselves".

Now if you are wondering where are the Kiswahili language blogs by African women,in Kenya we haveBangaiza who represents, observing in the first post that:"Juzi katika pilka pilka zangu za kuchakura mtandao nilikutana na ” blogu ” moja ya kaka kutoka tanzania , amabayo kwa kifupi ilinifurahisha sana kiasi cha kwamba nikaamua kuanzisha yangu piaSasa najua wapiga domo watasema kuwa nimeaanza kuiiga lakini kwa sasa nitawaacha waseme kwani wanamuziki wengi tayari washatuambia kuhusu wenzetu ambao huongea sana jioni tu - watalala..."

I must admit very quickly that I am not sure whether Bangaiza is male or female- so I am likely to be shot from several directions for this potential gender faux pas.

However, to dig deeper into the Swahili Blogosphere you have to go south of the Kenyan border to nchi jirani Tanzania where you will find: Jikomboe; Pambazuko; Damija; Mkombozi wa Mwanamke na Kutoka Ugogoni to cite only a sampling of mablogu.

Quite apart from the blogs, there are a number of sites that I thought would be germane to the subject matter:

African Women's Development and Communication Network

FIDA Kenya

Global Fund for Women

Resources for African Women

Anita Roddick
5.0.Kenya Women, Blogging and Opening Up of Democratic Spaces Online and Offline

Several of my women friends simply refuse to venture onto ANY of the Kenyan online discussion groups.


How much time you got?

They are simply DISGUSTED by how we, yes, I am talking about we the Kenyan men behave, or more accurately misbehave in these cyber forums.

There is so much machismo strutting; egotistical chest thumping, tribal gossip, vicious character assassination, pettiness, lies, and plain old ufarasi,utoto, ukabila, ujinga, uduwasi, unafiki, udaku,fitina na masengenyano.

And that is when the cat calls and dogs fights are restricted to the GUYS.

And we are not even going to touch the demon posters, manic handle switchers and deranged gender benders with a fito.

From what they have shared with me, the situation becomes a NIGHTMARE when a new person enters a chatroom discussion forum, list serv or mailing list and identifies herself as female. Within minutes she has received private messages encouraging her to actively participate in a free for all spontaneous sexual bacchanal-in another country or far off city, province, state or region-not to worry all travel and accomodation is catered for; that is when she is not bombarded with a gazillion marriage proposals from creepozoids she would not give a mouth to mouth first aid assistance to if they were croaking...I am exaggerating to make a point that cyberstalkers, serial harassers, undiagnosed lunatics and borderline imbeciles are disproportionately represented in this jinsia that I belong to. Of course, for every sexual deviant there is a SNAG(Marva Jackson told me that stood for "Sensitive New Age African Guy who is close to his Mom"; for every imbecile there is an erudite poster with an overflowing library; for every boor there is an elegant romantic; for every trasher there is a suave conversationalist; for every wanabe will never be there is a modest brother of solid quiet accomplishments; for every machismo chump there is a genial gourmet cook, masseuse, 4 alarm lover all rolled into one; for every demon poster there is a jovial deeply spiritual completely centered adult.

But you do get the point don't you?

So my friends who DO NOT DO the Public forum where they are likely to be flamed on contact welcome the blogging explosion.

I was talking to one such platonic pal long distance. Now, she is ALLERGIC to vulgarity, ukabila and has a very low tolerance for IDIOTS.

As I was doing research on this essay I called her and together we browsed through several blogs by sistas from around the ulimwengu. By the end of it, she was champing at the bit, raring to go. Look out for a brand new Kenyan blog coming to you from somewhere in Canada other than Quebec or Ontario- or from Ontario and Quebec or from Ontario or Quebec- what am I talking about? Hey, figure it out, ok. Why should I do all the heavy lifting?


Blogging is cheap, very user friendly and as a blogger you can really screen out the blather, slander and flamers. You can make it a private web-based journal than you only share with trusted family members and friends or it could be an overtly political blog that you shamelessly plug to shocked and uninterested cyber strangers.

Within the Kenyan context of the prevailing culture of silence and fear the rise of the Blogger will gradually militate against the remaining maruwe ruwe of censorship, self-censorship and a desire to impose ideas on other people. The good thing about blogs from the reader or end user end is that NO ONE can force you to read their blog. And no one can stop from reading anyone's blog.

To my sisters who look for quiet spaces where they can run away from the political cacophony of the Onyango Oloos of this world, the Blogosphere is definitely the First True Blessing of the 21st Century.

At the same time, the whole blogging phenomenon has made it easier for people to know each other beyond the handles on the discussion forums and the ferocious, often highly personalized ideological exchanges of the discussion groups. For instance many people who assumed they knew who Onyango Oloo was were quite shocked that this opinionated Kenyan nerd in Toronto has a mshikaji whom he dotes on, and has a soft spot for poems like this one, this other one and these next ones...

To bring back to where we started, blogging, like all digital and technological innovations is not value free. It is a malleable tool/ and or medium and we all know that one can take a blog in all kinds of directions- from the sublime to the ridiculous as the cliche goes.

Blogs do seem however, to hold enormous potential for our Kenyan and African sisters to level the playing fields in cyberspace that have for too long, drowned out the voices of women....

Onyango Oloo

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