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D. R. of Congo: Interview with ‘Best Francophone Blogger’ Cédric Kalonji

It's always heartening to see a good blog make the leap from a niche audience to wider recognition. The major blog awards can certainly make that happen, or at least seal the deal.

Global Voices readers and editors have been paying special attention to the nominations for Deutsche Welle‘s Best of Blogs awards (aka ‘The BoBs’), probably because of their relatively global / multilingual scope and the jury's proven willingness to look for new voices rather than established stars. (Not to mention that Global Voices Online was itself a winner in 2005, and co-sponsored this year's awards.)

Those who worried about how few African blogs had been nominated will be applauding the jury's decision to give 2007's Best Blog in French award to Cédric Kalonji, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Here is my description of his blog in a round-up for Global Voices in July: ‘Probably the most consistently interesting Congolese blog is kept by Cédric Kalonji, whose photographs and commentary bear humorous but often sorrowful witness to the struggles of ordinary life in Kinshasa, the country's heavily populated, run-down capital.’)

On hearing he'd won, Cédric wrote,

Grande joie de voir que mon travail est reconnu sur le plan international et grande fierté de pouvoir parler au nom du grand Congo. Cette reconnaissance me donne encore plus de force, plus d’énergie pour poursuivre cette aventure et même aller encore plus loin.

Great joy to see my work recognised internationally, and big pride to be able to speak in the name of the great Congo. This recognition gives me even more strength, more energy to pursue this adventure and to go even further.

screenshot
A proud winner – Cédric's blog on the day the awards were announced.

The next day, fellow bloggers Nayembi and I met Cédric for a celebratory lunch of poulet à la moambe, plantains and ngai-ngai in Kintambo, a lively neighbourhood of Kinshasa. We talked about Cédric's double life, his growing readership, corruption, the need for discretion and even the ubiquitous Facebook.

[Quotations have been translated from French, with some reordering for coherence, and links added for illustration.]

Starting out
“I started on the Internet very early. In 1995, at the end of Mobutu‘s rule, only the government could go online, but I had a friend whose father worked in the Presidency, so I used to go and use their connection. It was very slow! Then after Mobutu's fall, the first cyber cafés began to appear, and more young people started to get interested. But at first they didn't know how to use it to search for information, and mostly looked at pornography.

“I had an idea for a TV show to explain the Internet to beginners, but it didn't work out because the guy in charge preferred to concentrate on music videos instead. Then I proposed something similar to Radio Okapi [Fr] – they called me in and liked my voice, so I got the job and learned about radio there.

“I began blogging about two years ago. A bunch of us started at the same time. It's not the same thing as radio, and for me the subject matter is different, so I don't mix the two. I've a double life, really. That's what's great about blogs – everyone can be a kind of journalist. One of my favourite blogs is kept by a taxi driver in Quebec [Un taxi du nuit – Fr]. He's great, that guy – he eavesdrops on all sorts of strange conversations in his car!

“At first I just wanted a photo album for my friends – I would write something like, ‘I saw a bunch of street-kids on my way to work this morning’, and that's it. Then I started to include more commentary. For instance, I would write about every day corruption, like traffic police demanding cash from drivers. But the policeman doesn't do it because he likes corruption, but because he has no choice. He's a father, he has children to feed and send to school, his pay doesn't cover the rent, what is he supposed to do?”

A growing readership
“I started to get feedback from readers asking for more. People in the Diaspora especially seemed to like seeing pictures of their country. My main audience today is still the Congolese Diaspora. I enjoy meeting some of them for a drink when I go to Europe. Then there are other people who have lived in the Congo or want to come here. Not that many Congolese have access to the web here. Many of those that do seem to like forums, where they feel free to say whatever they like.

“I saw the readership stats climbing from 8 visitors a day, to 15, 35, then – ah! 100! When I reached 100, I was really motivated. I said OK, let's make an effort. Having friends doing the same thing also helped. It became like a drug for me. I started getting up in the morning and immediately thinking ‘What shall I post on my blog today?’

“When I was featured in Le Monde [Fr, subscription only] in July, the stats suddenly jumped to 6000, eventually slowing down to around 1000. Yesterday, I had 4000 visits. Lots were from the Best of Blogs website, and also from an article about the awards by Reporters Without Borders. I get a lot of comments. I have a friend who enjoys refreshing the page to see how many minutes it takes for the first comment to appear on a new post. It's a problem actually, because now I want to move to a new blogging system (WordPress – partly so I can add links more easily) and I think it will be difficult to transfer all the comments.”

Photography in the Congo
“Often, my posts start with a photo I have taken. I take my camera everywhere, and I like to look around, noticing and photographing things that other people don't seem to, even fellow journalists. As I'm walking away, I'll immediately start thinking about what to write. I want to capture my mood at first sight of whatever I've just photographed. It's more direct that way.

“Sometimes, though, I have something I want to write about and I'll look for a photo to illustrate it. I don't always ask permission, in fact 85% of my photos I take discretely. It helps that I have a small camera [Cédric's readers paid for it after the first one was stolen], and a press card to get me out of trouble. Sometimes I have to set up a situation in order to get the photo, like buying something from a street vendor so I can hang around. Funnily enough, I don't have a single printed photo after four years of taking them. I've talked to someone here about the possibility of an exhibition, though.

“On the 1st of January this year, I was watching television, and I saw four photos from my blog in an ad! C'est quoi ca?! The guy hadn't even asked. I made him pay and sign a proper contract. It's the principle – I often give photos to people who ask for them, although I did sell a few during the elections.”

Self-censorship
“I don't get involved in politics on my blog. I'm very careful. I rarely cite names, just verifiable facts and my own observations. I know a lot of things that go on, but sometimes I can't talk about them, even though it eats me up inside. People would get upset…”

The future
“I'm proud of what I've achieved. Even if I leave the Congo, my blog will be there, and in ten years people will be able to look at it and see what it was like to live in the Congo in this era. And it's been an interesting time, with last year's elections and all that. But I think I'll be blogging for the rest of my life. What I'd really like to do is to travel around the Congo, blogging from all the different provinces. It's crazy that more people aren't doing it. I've suggested it to a couple of good journalists, and I've also talked to a friend about offering training for people who want to learn. People here still don't know what a blog is.”

And Facebook?
“I'm a huge fan. That's another drug: first thing in the morning, I check to see if I have any new friends – though maybe I wouldn't if there was a woman by my side! Look, I'm a web developer, so I look at the technical side. The work these guys have done, it's simply magnificent. It's a great demonstration of the open source concept. Like Firefox, it's better because so many people are contributing. I don't really worry about privacy – my phone number is even on there. But my profile picture is actually one I took of a park ranger in Bombo-Lumene – he represents me now, like I'm ready to defend myself.”

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