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Tanzania: Lessons on building a virtual blogging community

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With a growing number of English and Swahili blogs covering all sorts of topics such as the environment, food, sports, fashion, politics, interior design, and technology, the Tanzanian blogosphere is becoming one of the most vibrant and dynamic blogospheres in Africa. Following this growth, Tanzanian bloggers decided to establish a formal organization. Jumuiya ya Wanablogu Tanzania (Jumuwata) was born.

The Tanzanian experience in building Jumuwata offers important practical and theoretical lessons to bloggers and citizen media activitsts on how to build a collaborative and democratic blogging community.

When Tanzanian bloggers decided to form their organization, they wanted the process to be as open and collaborative as possible. The process started with planning for a virtual conference, which took place on November 18th, 2006:

Tanzanian bloggers held their first virtual conference on November 18th, 2006. The aim of the conference was to discuss various steps to be taken to make the community more effective and expand its reach. Most bloggers feel that there is an opportunity for blogs to be a tool for critical national dialogue and social development. And that, in order for revolution in citizen media to take roots in Tanzania, the blogging community needs take the lead, starting with establishing its own goals and vision.

The conference was organized collaboratively using Doodle and wiki. Because Tanzanian bloggers live in different times zones, Doodle was used to vote for proposed dates and time of the event. Discussions concerning conference agendas and the nomination of the conference moderator took place on the wiki. Selected agendas were announced on the wiki by the conference modetator, Ramadhani Msangi.

Discussions and conference announcements were also taking place on membersblogs. Majira, a local Swahili paper in Tanzania carried an article about the conference and Mwananchi, another Swahili newspaper, had one feature article before the conference and another one after the conference.

Where will the conference take place?

The main challenge at this stage was the appropriate tool to be used to conduct the conference. Since almost all bloggers living in Tanzania use public Internet access, it became clear that the conference had to take place on a webbased platform. Most Internet cafes in Tanzania do not allow visitors to download any software. Following an advice from Ethan Zuckerman, the webbased IRC@Work became the conference platform. Channel #blogubongo was set up and log in instructions were posted on the conference wiki and on members’ blogs.

During the conference, decisions were reached by voting. It was decided, among other things, that November 18th will be the National Blog Day in Tanzania and that an interim committee had to be formed before the end of the conference. Its responsibility was to collect opinions and ideas from bloggers about how to establish a formal organizational structure. The interim committee was made up of bloggers Da’ Mija (the Netherlands), Jeff Msangi (Canada), Ndesanjo Macha (USA), and Ramadhani Msangi (Tanzania).

It was also decided that the organization will establish its presence online through its own website and an aggregator. While aggregators from other African countries have been set up by a group of committed individuals, Tanzanian bloggers decided that its aggregator has to be owned by the community through Jumuwata.

After the conference, a new blog, BloguTanzania, was set up by the interim committee. Through open discussions on the blog, Tanzanian bloggers dealt with issues such as leadership structure, the name of the organization and its abreviation, the name of the aggregator, constitutional matters and catergories for blog awards (to be given on the National Blog Day).

Graphic designers were asked to submit logos to be voted for on the blog. The winner was Gerald Shuma whose logo became the official logo of Jumuwata.

The interim committee announced three leadership positions (namely Chairperson, General Sectretary, and Treasurer) and called on interested bloggers to submit their profiles and start campaigning. There were eight candidates for the three positions. Their photos were displayed prominently on the right hand side of the blog before the election.

Virtual Election: How will we vote?

The main question at this stage was, “How will we vote?” After intense discussions and a lot of thinking, the interim committee decided that voting was to take place on the comment section of the community blog (as if one is leaving a comment). And in order to prevent rigging, only bloggers were allowed to vote. Anonymous comments were not allowed on the voting day. Comments were moderated on that day to prevent potential voters from being influenced by voting patterns.

The virtual election took place on June 30th, 2007:

It is official, Tanzania bloggers are going to hold a virtual election on June 30, 2007. There are eight candidates for different positions listed on the Jumuiya ya Wanablogu Tanzania (the community of Tanzanian bloggers) blog.

Ramadhani Msangi (Tanzania) became the Chairman, Simon Kitururu (Finland) the General Secretary and Da Mija (the Netherlands) the Treasurer. Two weeks ago, the three of them and two other invited bloggers met online for their first official meeting.

They are currently working on a draft constitution, which will be debated publicly before it is adopted and writing emails to specific bloggers asking them to form various committees (Activism, Media Law and Ethics, Technology, etc).

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