Blogger of the Week: Victor Kaonga

Victor Kaonga 2

Today's Blogger of the Week series takes us to the heart of Africa, where we catch up with our Malawian blogger Victor Kaonga, who talks to us about his journey with blogging, the media and technology scene in Malawi and his special relationship with God.

A radio journalist, 35-year-old Victor, who blogs in English, is currently working towards obtaining a Masters degree in Global Journalism, from Orebro University, Sweden, which he hopes to complete by the summer. Once back home, he aims to coach his colleagues, where together they will embark on a fascinating journey of learning how to communicate with people and the world at large, using modern technology, in a country which had its first television station opened in 1999.

Following is our interview with Victor, who left his home in August 2006, started blogging the following month and joined Global Voices Online in January 2007 to amplify the “untold stories of Malawi to the global community.”

When did you start blogging and why?

In September 2006. I was looking forward to blogging having heard about it the year before at a Highway Conference in South Africa. At that time, I did not know how until I came to Sweden for the course, when one of the former course mates taught us about blogging and how to do it.
I have been blogging for several reasons: One to share information about and on Malawi. I thought I am a privileged person being a journalist in Malawi who can say something on the Internet especially through blogs. Two, I really wanted to tell my own stories in a way that I had never thought of before hoping to expand my social networks. Three, I just wanted to grow and learn more about this Information Highway by ‘being in it.’ Fourthly, I come from a background where I have always admired participating in global issues and I thought the blogosphere was the perfect place for me to start from.

Being a career journalist, how different is blogging from journalism?

I have lots of freedom to express myself, put things into both global and personal perspective in ways I cannot in a normal media outlet. Blogging gives me space also to mix text, images and sounds sometimes, which is not possible in radio alone where I am used and where I started working in August 1999. In my career as a journalist, I have mostly been in broadcasting hence blogging is a way of making putting words into sentences on ‘paper.’ Otherwise, I am mostly a voice person.

How many languages do you speak?

I speak four fluently and can use them all on air also and I am able to hear a few others, which I cannot speak.
I am fluent in English, Tumbuka, Lambya and Chichewa – the last three are all Malawian languages spoken also in parts of Zambia and Tanzania.

How many Malawian bloggers are there? And do they all blog in English?

There are about 60 known to me and all of them blog in English except for two, who blog in Chichewa and Lambya.

Amazing! Why is that? Are they all in Malawi or abroad?

Many bloggers find it tough to blog in their mother tongue as we have grown up using English for instruction in school – but I also think that many have not been that patriotic!! We tend to look down on our own languages but that seems to be changing now. Our political background also has had some influence in Malawi. We were taught that an educated speaks or writes in English. For now, I would say that most of the bloggers are in the diaspora, where it is much easier as they have better Internet access and a few are in Malawi – with not so regular access but one I would describe as considerable access! The ones blogging in Malawi mostly access Internet at places of work or cafes as extremely few people ever access Internet from their homes. In fact, the number is almost negligible.

Do blogs have a big following of readers?

By readers in the diaspora, yes, but not at home, due to limited access to the Internet as as well as lack of awareness. Many people who have the potential do not know what blogs are but my personal observation is that the number of readers and bloggers is picking up now.

Do you expect that to change soon?

Already it is changing I think, as there is growing Internet access according to people that work with ISPs in Malawi. There is also a popular Malawian online paper, which once in a while features stories from Malawis blogs.

What are the main issues effecting your blogosphere?

There is a whole range largely on politics especially the elections coming up in 2009. We also have lifestyle issues, and a mixture on socio-economic challenges. On a few occasions we have Information and Communications Technology (ICT) stories.

How would you like to see the Internet and blogging utilised in Malawi? Would you like to see bloggers spread say health awareness? Or be an outlet for news mainstream media doesn't cover?

Mostly, it would be important if blogging could be used as lobby tool. If several bloggers make noise, the authorities wake up and respond. The issue is that the authorities in Malawi (in my view) are scared of many things published online. As such, if there is some pressure on them on a particular issue, they tend to respond and attend to the problem at hand. So the blogging can be on anything of concern to Malawi and it will work as long as the bloggers are consistent and write with facts.

Is the media in Malawi free? Do you have censorship issues?

There is considerable amount of freedom in Malawi. Censorship is there but I would say mostly, it is self-censorship, having come from a background of 30 years of dictatorial rule until 1994. But the biggest challenge in my view in Malawi is political influence on and in the media and not necessarily censorship per se. There is both public and private media and I think private media is doing a very commendable job.

Victor, you have a foot in both worlds. One is Radio – which reaches to people and doesn't need technology and the other is really hi-tech considering that not many people even know what blogs are. Which one is more gratifying for you as a journalist and why?

Interesting question! Radio is more gratifying to me for many reasons. With radio, I am able to impact or reach more people. In Malawi, radio is still the main mass medium, contributing about 70 per cent of the media. Ambition wise I wanted to be on radio right from I was eight, in primary school! Having said this, I enjoy writing and find it fulfilling as it gives me a written record that I can turn to later on. But also writing is enriching me as I hear or get feedback from those who have read the posts. So indeed I am between two worlds but I believe I serve two ‘audiences.’ I have learnt that if you have an idea, share it in writing, and not just on radio alone! So now with blogging, I have that opportunity to balance those interests and audiences.

Why did you only work for radio then? Why not TV or newspapers?

When I was in primary school, I only knew of radio, no newspaper – of course there was one but dad never bought it. And there was no TV. Television only came to Malawi in 1999. And I am that kind of person who grew up in a very rural area where all we had was radio to connect us to the world.

You come from a country where there are people who are suffering from famine – and with the high incidence of AIDS – can you envision a way to use technology, specifically online tools, to help them?

Yes. I have always thought that such people in any situation can share their experiences, diarise them and share what keeps them on or what inspires them. In fact I have mentioned to several people to jot down and share their life stories, in a kind of a online journal and as long as it is a personal story, someone will find it exciting. So people going through any problems of health, such as with AIDS in Malawi, market vendors in town, small entrepreneurs and young girls cantell their stories online but I know the challenge for most of them is knowledge and fear of the Internet!

Fear of the Internet?

To begin with some people feel challenged by the computer. So when you start talking about writing something for online consumption, you are scaring them further and that is why some people fear the Internet. We have very few people who are well exposed to the ICTs. Of course, there is a lot of interest but this is only by younger people but not those categories whom you would want to target immediately. We have majority of secondary schools that do not computers at all.

So when are graduates first exposed to computers and the Internet? And who has access to them?

These days the computers are becoming more available but still limited to the urban schools. Most secondary students before say 1990 saw computers at the university or in colleges only.

So they saw computers before TV?

Yes, that was the case in Malawi. People saw computers before TV. We could hear of TV in neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania but not in Malawi itself. Of course there were video screens but then they could just are movies and those who had screens were elites! Also note that I think our society is an oral one mostly. So some people are not keen to write down things.

How are people taking on to TV? Was it seen as a positive development? And do you only have a state channel or are there now private stations?

We only have one state channel. There was attempt for a private one but it was suspended, so I am told. Otherwise, people welcomed it only to be disappointed by politicians who are using it for their ends. But being the only TV station, many people are glued to it and are proud to watch a relative, friend or Victor in the box.

What did you cover when you were a radio journalist?

A whole range issues, mostly Christian lifestyle, since I work with a gospel radio station but my work has also been around youth issues and news and then the last four years, I have spent relatively more time in managing the programming and developing programmes and projects.

What do you hope to achieve when you return with your degree home?

When I return, I want to mostly be available for coaching as I think that is most of our work lies. We have a wonderful team in Malawi of media people there and normally they admire those with further qualifications, so coaching in general programming yes, but also I want to spend time help out in ICTs coverage as well if possible mobilise ourselves for internet journalism. By that I mean to promote use of the Internet for journalism in which case blogging too.. We have a tremendous lack of even basic skills in Malawi, among journalists especially.

What are your hopes for Malawi and its people?

I am just hoping that Malawians would have better health systems and facilities and then they can grow into knowing about the world as well as contribute to global conversations.

Talk to me about your family, whom I understand are back home in Malawi? What are your hopes for them?

I have three daughters. My first born is Nayumo, who is almost six, my second is Sayiwe, four, and the third is Angana, who is 18 months old. All these names are in my mother tongue Lambya. I hope that they grow into women who fear God, and are responsible. Most of all that they will respect their mother Thembi at all times. I miss them as I am way from home Malawi. But I look forward to returning to them this June.

My most memorable blogging experience also revolves around my family. On Valentine's Day, I wrote about how I met my wife. I was scared to blog about it yet I wanted to. This was the second Valentine's Day I was far away from my wife so I really wanted to do something special for her. The best I thought was to write about her and tell the ‘world’. I got and still do get comments from people. Some younger ladies laugh and are thankful I shared the story. They say they have learnt one or two things. Younger men have said they are encouraged theirs is on the way…..

And what is your relationship with God?

I grew up in a family where parents were Christians and all of us as children were taught to obey and fear God. In secondary school I made a personal decision to be a Christian much as I had grown up with that background. I was encouraged by many Christians I met in Secondary school to be a committed Christian. The same encouragement was available at the University of Malawi -the only one then and then finally in 1998 I joined campus organisation where were worked amongst university students. Then in 1999 I started working with a Christian organisation where I still belong to date – Trans World Radio. Something worth mentioning is that I am one of the 11 children in our family! But our parents encouraged us to fear God. Of course we have failed many times but ….whenever we failed, God picked us up.

Being a Malawian abroad, what are the stereotypes you face? Do people you come across know about your country?

Many many say they have never heard about Malawi, some ask if it is in Sudan or South Africa. It can also be implied that some people think I am an asylum seeker. I can tell this from their statements or actions, basically those are the main ones. Otherwise, I find lots of nice people and I have had to learn to adjust.

As a media person, do you feel you have a role to play to spread more awareness about Malawi and its people?

Part of my adjusting is based on the fact I am a journalist who has a role to inform them about my country and myself. I also take myself as diplomat. As much as I can, I feel that as a journalist, I am duty bound to share information about Malawi. I would live like a Malawian if they can allow me. And that makes me a very happy person.

Thank you Victor for your time and insights!

Zikomo, Ndagha (thanks)


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