Sometimes the Internet helps you find interesting people halfway across the globe. And sometimes it helps you find out that interesting people from halfway across the globe are living in your neighborhood.
I had the second sort of experience Sunday, when I travelled to Brattleboro, Vermont (100km away, but in my neighborhood. We drive a lot here in rural New England…) to meet Ndesanjo Macha, one of the key figures of the Swahili-language blogosphere. On a sunny, early spring afternoon, we sat at a cafe overlooking the Connecticut River and talked about Global Voices, weblogs in Africa and several dozen other topics, proving that globe-spanning conversations can occur almost anywhere in the world.
Ndesanjo, a Tanzanian lawyer and journalist, turned blogger, finds himself living on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, adapting to New England winters and teaching Kiswahili at the School for International Training, one of the leading language and cultural training schools in the world. Arriving in the US from a stint as a human rights lawyer in Namibia, where he worked with Congolese refugees, Ndesanjo found himself working with Dr. Rubin Patterson at the University of Toledo. Helping Patterson edit the journal “Perspectives on Global Development and Technology”, Ndesanjo was exposed to weblogs, and soon found himself authoring Digital Africa (in English) and Jikomboe, in Swahili.
Jikomboe (Free Yourself!) is probably the first Swahili-only blog to appear in the blogosphere. It's the first of several Swahili blogs to come from Tanzania – Ndesanjo has just listed eight Tanzanian swahili blogs on the Global Voices bridgeblog index. Like Ndesanjo, most of the Tanzanian bloggers are professional journalists – Ndesanjo writes a weekly column for Mwananchi (The Citizen), one of Dar Es Salaam's leading newspapers. This may represent a psychological barrier for average Tanzanians – if all the bloggers are journalists, do you have to be a journalist to blog?
Why does Kenya have such an active blog scene, while Tanzania's is just getting started? Language is likely one of the key issues. During President Julius Nyerere's reign (1960 – 1985), his socialist philosophy, Ujama, emphasized self-reliance and “villagization” and de-emphasized contact with the outside world. (As Ndesanjo points out, it was almost impossible to get a passport in Nyerere's Tanzania, unless one were studying abroad.) Swahili was heavily emphasized, and English de-emphasized, creating a generation far more comfortable in Swahili than in English.
Needless to say, there are few Swahili-language blogging guides and references, despite the presence of over 100 million Swahili speakers in East Africa. Ndesanjo thinks it's critical for east Africans to be able to blog in Swahili, but be heard by a global audience. He's planning on providing a roundup of the Swahili blogosphere for Global Voices, helping the Swahili-challenged understand what conversations are taking place in the region.
Some of the next Swahili bloggers may be Americans – Ndesanjo is asking his students at SIT to blog in Swahili as preparation for their travels to East Africa. There's an instructional blog for the class (which has allowed Ndesanjo to teach even on days when Vermont snowstorms cancel classes), and journals from students preparing to travel to Tanzania as Peace Corps volunteers, or to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for AIDS awareness.
While blogs are beginning to get traction in Tanzania, Ndesanjo tells me the real political discussions are taking place through hip-hop. Unlike in the US, hip-hop crosses age barriers in Tanzania – Ndesanjo's mom and aunts often recommend hot new artists to him. Political figures in Tanzania routinely feature politically-conscious hip-hop performers in their rallies. Ndesanjo points me to the Tanzanian Hip-hop Summit, as well as to Xplastaz (a unique group that fuse Masai traditions with contemporary rap), BongoXplosion and MrII. To expand the population of Tanzanian bloggers beyond journalists and computer geeks, the global blogging community may need to reach out to rappers and footballers – the heroes who capture the public's imagination. As Ndesanjo puts it: “Just imagine how many Africans we could get interested in blogging if Freddy Adu or George Weah had weblogs?”
The key to opening the conversations in the Tanzanian blogosphere to the rest of the world is translation from Swahili. We may wait for a while before Babelfish offers Swahili machine translation, but Ndesanjo plans to start providing an English-language roundup of great posts in the Swahili blogopshere on Global Voices. And, if we're lucky, maybe we can get him to translate some rap lyrics for us as well. Welcome to Global voices, Ndesanjo!