It's easy to get the impression, reading most popular weblogs, that all bloggers are white American males obsessed with technology. If that's your impression of the blogosphere, you're reading the wrong blogs. A good place to start your re-education is “Black Looks – Musings and Rants by an African Fem”, the afro-centric, informative, passionate, sometimes angry and always fascinating weblog produced by “Owukori” for the past year.
“Owukori” is the nom-du-blog of Sokari Ekine, a Nigerian feminist, human rights activist and scholar who blogs from her organic farm in Almeria, Spain, south of Madrid. (“Owukori” is her grandfather's name.) Sokari and I caught up via SkypeIM last week, talking about women's rights in the Niger delta, the difficulty of convincing activists to blog, and her personal path towards becoming one of Africa's most prominent and widely cited bloggers.
Sokari has recently started a new blog, called Afrotecnik, which focuses on technologies to bridge digital divides in Africa. She's also just published a paper on her Niger Delta research: “Women's Responses to State Violence in the Niger Delta”.
Ethan: So… who are you? Tell me a little about who you are, where you live and what you do?
Sokari: I am a Nigerian woman, living in Spain. I moved here two years ago from London where I had lived for about 18 years. My professional background is a real mixture: education, technology, gender issues especially gender violence and human rights.
Ethan: Were you studying gender issues in the UK?
Sokari: Yes in some ways. I briefly taught on a gender and technology course at the University of East London but I also studied gender and techology at University where I did a first degree in New Technology – a sort of social-political-economic-gender view of technologies,
especially information and communication technologies. Later I left and went into IT training, as this gave me an income which then allowed me to do the work I really wanted, which was with the Niger delta and research into women and violence.
In the early 80s I was involved with the Black women's movement in London, and in fact the whole Black movement at that time which centered on women and education and employment. I was part of two organisations: the Camden Black Sisters and Black Parents, both of which were grassroots community type organisations.
It was in the 90s that I began to move towards working with the people of the Niger Delta, which is where I am from.
Ethan: What town are you from, originally?
Sokari: I am a Kalabari woman from Abonnema in Rivers state. Kalabari is part of the Ijaw ethnic group which is the 4th largest in the country
though still a minority. There are about 12 million Ijaw, but the whole of Ijaw is broken into three groups, eastern, western and central. Kalabari is part of the eastern group, and is based in the southeastern delta region.
Ethan: Has there been oil-associated violence in your region of the delta?
Sokari: There has not been any physical type of violence in Kalabari land as such but we have been affected by what I call “environmental violence”, though again not as badly as other delta areas. However, I would prefer to look at the Niger Delta as a whole, since we are all
working together not just as Ijaw, but all the ethnic groups.
Ethan: Were you able to spend a lot of time in the Delta while working in the UK?
Sokari: I visited regularly every year. It was around '96 that things started to happen in terms of the struggle against oil companies and the Nigerian governemnt. Remember, we had Ken Saro Wiwa fighting the Ogoni battle and of course General Abacha and his henchmen.
Ethan: Did you get to work with Saro Wiwa?
Sokari: No unfortunately I did not have that priviledge. I was and still am part of an organisation called the Niger Delta Women for Justice, which was created to address specifically women's issues in the region. NDWJ was founded in '98.
While working with NDWJ, I wrote a report titled “Blood and Oil”. (The book, unfortunately, is out of print, but Sokari plans to offer it online sometime soon.) The book was based around interviews that I had with women from different Niger Delta ethnic groups. We discussed the
issue of state violence, multinational corporation violence and environmental violence.
In fact I interviewed the women of Odi, which was a town in Bayelsa state, that was invaded by Obasanjo's troops in November '99. In fact more people have died under Obasanjo in the Niger Delta than under Abacha.
Ethan: I wasn't aware of that. That's quite incredible. Were you able to interview the women in Odi after the troops invaded?
Sokari: Yes I did – I have photos of the devastation they left. I visited I think in February, so it was about 2 plus months after the invasion. Few outside Nigeria or even in Nigeria are aware of Obasanjo's crimes in the Niger Delta.
Ethan: Are you still active with NDWJ?
Sokari: Yes I am – We all are, but unfortunately two of us are now out of the country and one is in Lagos, so things are lying dormant. One is in the US and has been for the last 4 years. Her name is Annie Brisibe and she is the president. We have run a number of projects around human rights education, micro-credit start ups and related projects.
Ethan: I think there's an increasing interest in the relationship between oil and politics in Africa – I'm seeing a lot of people ask hard questions about China in the Sudan, and about the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. But the Niger Delta doesn't get as much attention as it did a
few years back…
Sokari: No, once Ken had left it was hard to get publicity. Not just for NDJW, but for Environmental Rights Action, the Ijaw council for Human rights, the Ijaw youth council, and all the youth organisations that formed and made their independent declarations. We all worked together in one way or the other
Ethan: Do you spend most of your time these days on Niger Delta issues and working with these groups?
Sokari: I am still in regular contact with everyone and keep up to date for blogging purposes but most of my time is now spent blogging or working on the small holding we have… We are lucky we have the internet as the world is completely changed. Ike Okonta who writes on my
blog, and who is the author of “Where Vultures Feast” – he worked on that with Oronto Douglas, who is also a colleague of mine. (Oronto Douglas was one of Ken Saro Wiwa's lawyers.) He is now working for Bayelsa state and is actually representing Bayelsa in the National conference going on in Abuja. I had a lot of support from both Ike and
Oronto whilst doing the research (for Blood and Oil).
Travelling in the Niger Delta is very difficult – it is still under occupation by Nigerian troops who man the highways and surround villages in the region.
Ethan: Are any of your colleagues weblogging? Or publishing online?
Sokari: No, I cannot get anyone to blog, Ethan! I have tried so hard to get a couple of women, one from the NDWJ and a lesbian activist friend from Uganda..
Can I just mention about my other activist passion which is lesbian rights in africa? I haven't worked much on this but I am happy to say that there is a lot going on in that area right now especially in southern Africa. I have an activist friend in Uganda who is one of the
bravest women I know. Her name is Victor Julie Mukassa and the organisation is FAR/UGANDA.
It is not just about being out, but being out and shouting about it and demanding rights. More people are becoming visible – I was happy to discover from your del.icio.us a Ghanaian gay and lesbian site…
So back to blogging: I started a few times and never published as it was a big decision. I don't know, but I think for Black women especially coming out on the internet is very difficult. I don't mean coming out lesbian – just coming out as a person. It's about exposing yourself – being secure and confident to do so as a female and a black female and as an African and then again as a lesbian.
That is why I said Victor Julie was very brave. People get killed in Africa for being gay and lesbian – FannyAnn Eddy was murdered recently in Sierra Leone. People put their lives at risk.
For example, on international women's day I wrote a poem but in the end I didn't have the nerve to publish it as I felt it was too personal. That is why I try as much as possible not to “personalise” my blog.
Ethan: You strike an amazing balance between being factually based and letting people know why you think certain issues are important. I admire the way you frame issues a great deal.
Sokari: It's not in my nature to “expose” myself in this way, and I think that is an African or Black thing. I know many black people do not want to do it because of that and remain anonymous. It is a bit silly as most people that know me know my blog, so it's the ones that don't know me to whom I'm anonymous, which rationally doesn't actually make sense.
But I wanted to blog as I felt there was a need to write about what African women were doing and saying.
Ethan: Do you have a sense for what percent of the people who read your blog know you personally, and what percent, like me, found you online?
Sokari: Very few know me personally. I have a couple of friends I know read it regularly, but most don't seem to. I don't think they use the internet much. For example, my kids don't go there much. I guess they are interested in other things like football and music.
Ethan: Are your kids aware of how widely read and popular you are on the internet?
Sokari: Not really. They think I am a bit off the wall anyway and this is just another example.
Ethan: When did the Black Looks blog start?
Sokari: I think it was June last year that it finally went out, but I had two other starts until I finally got what I wanted. The title comes from a book by bell hooks which I carry around with me. It's in her usual style – essays on race and representation. I think she is an excellent reader of American race politics and cultural critic.
I would say the three most important areas on the blog for me areAfrican women, lesbian issues and the Niger delta. I am also interested in technology for community.
Ethan: The new blog on tech looks great. Any reason you decided to same it a separate blog?
Sokari: I haven't publicised it at all, as I'm not sure it will warrant a whole blog of its own. Searching for material has been very difficult. I thought that if I included technology in Black Looks, it would get lost.
Ethan: I've noticed you don't write about farming. Is that a conscious choice?
Sokari: Well, I belong to an organisation called Wwoofers, which puts volunteers together with organic farmers all over the world. I did write a diary for them for about a year. However I just thought it didn't fit the blog and would be boring.
I do have a diary category but have not really written anything for ages, and that's where it would go.
Ethan: How did you end up on an organic farm in Spain?
Sokari: I can tell you a bit on that: I had breast cancer in 2000 which was actually when I was due to start writing “Blood and Oil”. In fact, I wrote the book during chemo. I did the research for the book travelling extensively in the Niger Delta and seeing some awful sights and hearing very sad and horrendous stories.
Then I had a breast exam and was told to come back to the next week, but I had a conference in Banjul on the Delta so never bothered to go. When I got back they phoned and I had to go in again and then it all went pear shaped.
Ethan: The cancer had advanced by that point?
Sokari: Yes, it was quite bad – a mass rather than a lump. Another learning experience.
Anyway, that is really the start of how I ended up here in Spain. I just thought I wanted to get away from London and its madness, filth, pollution and stress of work to change my lifestyle and get the poison out of my system.
Ethan: Organic farming is a big change from London, I would think….
Sokari: Yes, absolutely. And we knew nothing when we came. Talk about townies! I never even gardened. Everything I tried to grow indoors died. So this was a biggie. But it has been successful, but very hard for both of us.
Ethan: Organic farming is one of the few ways farmers in my area are able to make money these days.
Sokari: Here it is not profitable at all as people are not interested in organic produce and we don't have enough to export. We have olive trees but that is so labour intensive that unless you have a thousand trees, forget it. We compete with the “plasticos” of Almeria where food is very, very cheap and easy to grow.
Ethan: You seemed to suggest on your blog that you're looking for ways for blogging to become your main job. Is that a direction you're exploring?
Sokari: Yes, I would say so – I retired from teaching. We are not sure we will stay here. As I said, it is very hard and labour intensive for little reward, except of course we have our own veggies, fruit and olives. We are thinking of moving to nearer Granada and just having a
small plot to feed ourselves and that's it.
One of the problems is we feel we are on our own and that makes it so much harder. You see, here the locals are not interested in farming any more, only the old people. The young people just want to leave and the 30s and 40s have either left or are not interested.
Ethan: That's a big problem for us as well. When farmers leave, the land gets sold for houses and farming dies out as an industry…
Sokari: That is exactly what is happening here. I have never seen so much building work – it's as if the whole world wants to eat concrete.
Ethan: Are you committed to staying in Spain?
Sokari: Oh yes, very much. Not just Spain but in the country. Though we would move nearer to a city, as we do miss cultural events such as dance and theatre and film. But I couldn't live in Madrid or Barcelona.
Ethan: Do you have plans to expand Black Looks or start other blogs?
Sokari: I wanted to start a community blog with an African NGO that would include members based in Africa and in the diaspora. I had the idea that they would write about what was happening in their communities, report on projects, events and just day to day experiences.
This is what I try to do: get my friends at home to tell me what is happening and then write about it. In some ways this has been a sucess with the Niger Delta and also with slavery. But people are always so negative when it comes to technology and Africa. Yes, of course there
are problems, but there are also opportunities.
Ethan: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me – I'm so glad we were able to meet online.
Sokari: Igualmente. Adios.
You can contact Sokari at firstname.lastname@example.org