Today's installment of the Blogger of the Week series takes us to the beautiful island of Trinidad and Tobago, home to Global Voices regional editor for the Caribbean Janine Mendes-Franco. I had the opportunity to meet her for the first time at the Citizen Media Summit in Budapest last June, where she left a very good impression on many fellow bloggers. Recently I had the opportunity to get to know her a little better and to catch up with her on how she became hooked on GV, Caribbean identity issues and her gardening talents, among other things.
- How did you first hear about Global Voices and when did you start writing there?
Global Voices showed up on my radar towards the end of 2005, which was when Georgia Popplewell (GAP) first began covering the Caribbean for GV. I started following her posts and soon became hooked on the site. I was recruited by GAP to cover for her while she attended the 2006 GV Summit in India and the rest, as they say, is history! I was officially a GV-er from then on…
- What was your main motivation in getting involved with Global Voices?
It sounds really magnanimous to say I was helping out a friend – and while I was genuinely happy to do that and eager to keep up the standard that Georgia had set, the truth is that I really enjoyed the work! I would look forward to going through my blogroll every morning to see what Caribbean voices were saying. I really wanted to be part of the conversation.
- Now about your personal blog: When did you start blogging and what was your main motivation to start a blog?
(Bows head in shame). My personal blog has been like what Trinidadians call an “outside child” ever since GV came on the scene, honestly. I started it in April 2005 after much coercing by Georgia (do you see a theme emerging here?) because she kept going on about how it was such a great outlet with which to hone your writing skills (writing is a key part of what I do in my job as a TV producer). But looking back now, I think she had a dastardly plan all along – I was just a helpless pawn in the whole scheme! Joking aside though, she was right.
Blogging has done so much more for me than simply providing an outlet for exercising my writing muscles – it’s opened up the entire world! That said, my blog should be undergoing a major overhaul very soon. It started as an eclectic “here’s what I have to say about anything that strikes my fancy” kind of forum and now it needs to determine what it wants to be. It also wouldn’t hurt if I posted more regularly…
-What do you blog about? How would you describe it to someone that has never read it?
I called the blog Francomenz to play off both the pronunciation of my surname and a colloquial term called “franko-men”, which basically means “to be frank; to tell it like it is.” Because I haven’t blogged regularly in so long, I’ve been able to take a step back and assess what the site’s challenges are. I’ve written posts about everything from art to politics, and I haven’t always kept a regional focus, which I think is one of the issues. It’s like a smorgasbord of opinion; me weighing in on whatever gets me passionate or riled up or amused. But I’ve realised this isn’t the best approach for encouraging site traffic, because, to quote Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
- What is your most memorable blogging experience?
Devastating effects of natural disasters aside, I really enjoyed blogging about the earthquake that hit the Caribbean region last November. There’s something invigorating about blogging breaking news, especially when the entire region has something to say about it. The Caribbean is generally viewed as a monolith by the international community, but anyone who has been here knows that there are tangible differences from territory to territory. This was one event that made me understand how interconnected we actually are.
- How many languages do you speak? In what language do you blog and why?
(Bows head in shame once again) My mother tongue is English. I used to be able to speak both French and Spanish quite fluently; even studied French up to university level in Canada. And then, sadly, through lack of practice, I’m tremendously out of touch. It’s not like riding a bike. If you don’t keep speaking the language, you forget vocabulary, grammar, etc. So while I’m usually able to pick up the gist of what someone is saying when they speak either of those languages, I seriously need some refresher courses – podcasts, here I come! Hey, it worked for Hungarian!
Photo of Janine at the Global Voices Summit 2008 by Neha Viswanathan
- What do you do for a living – when you're not blogging or writing at GV?
I have my own communications firm called The New Cheeze.
- Describe the blogging scene in your country. What are the main issues affecting your blogosphere?
Trinidad and Tobago has a fairly active blogosphere, but it really should be more crowded given the fact we have – according to the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago – 27.3% Internet penetration in homes. This figure does not specify household size, nor does it take into consideration how many more people access the Internet at work or in Internet cafes, so I would guesstimate that in reality, penetration is probably well above 30%.
One government ministry, as part of their ICT mandate, has actually established Internet cafes in several rural communities where people are taught computer skills and are provided with free Internet access, so the fact that the local blogosphere still appears to be inundated with middle-class voices is mind-boggling to me. It’s either that the penetration is lower than estimated, or people are not being taught about citizen media and its tools.
I suspect it’s the latter; I once visited one of the rural Internet cafes and noticed that patrons were basically checking email, logging into social networking sites or downloading music. YouTube was also popular, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that they could participate by uploading videos, rather than just watching what other people posted. There were also a few folks trying to get into porn sites, so clearly more education needs to happen to make people understand how the power of the Internet can be used constructively – blogging and citizen media, self-publishing, marketing, etc.
- What are your interests and hobbies?
I enjoy reading, although, as my GoodReads network will tell you, I haven’t picked up a book in a while. I started one on the way to the summit in Budapest and well… let’s just say I have to start over :O) An offshoot of my interest in books is that I also love to write. I have two personal projects in progress, which I hope to finish soon.
I sing and play guitar, so that’s always a great way to relieve some stress, as is working out, which I do regularly – whether it’s in the gym or taking the two dogs for a run. And I love gardening! Our kitchen garden is just about ready for another planting of short-crops, and I’m happy to report that the rest of the garden is thriving thanks in no small part to the rainy season.
I love to dance (started ballet at the age of three) and now thanks to Neha, I have a version of Bollywood dancing under my belt! :O) And oh yes… I play a decent game of table tennis and kick butt at iPool!
- And last but not least, what are the things which concern you most in life and your profession?
Wow! What a big question. The state of my country concerns me. I believe we’re focusing on the superficial rather than the necessary. It’s a very shortsighted approach to development and a dangerously shaky foundation on which to build. Erecting generic-looking skyscrapers makes no sense when your health care system is in shambles; when crime is out of control; when there is no environmental awareness. I do not accept that the changes happening in Trinidad and Tobago (and indeed much of the region) are solely as a result of the effects of globalization. We need to stand up and be masters of our own destiny.
This, I suppose, is also what concerns me about my profession, both in terms of television production and what I do at GV. Call it a result of colonialism; call it what you will, but I’ve noticed that the Caribbean has, in varying degrees, been afraid of seeing itself. This is why Trinidad and Tobago is, in the 21st century, just attempting to build a serious cinema industry, when the stories and talent and tools have been there for almost four decades (proof of the pudding is in films like The Right and the Wrong  and Bim ). It is why Jamaica is still seeing the phenomenon of skin bleaching. It is part of the reason so many regional territories are struggling with spiraling crime rates.
Self-examination is critical to any sort of progress and I’m afraid we’re not being honest with ourselves. If we don’t have constructive conversations about what we’ve been through and where we’ve come from, then we’re going forward in the dark. When you don’t know yourself and what you stand for, then you’re likely to listen to the chatter; you begin to believe that your identity is what other people tell you it is.
Photo of Janine's earring by Razan Ghazzawi, at the Global Voices Summit 2008.