Panel 42

Voice for the voiceless: knowledge, technology and transformation

Panel organisers: Paula Uimonen, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, Sweden & Vicensia Shule, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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We are living in a time of intensified mobility. Our lives are characterized by multiple movements, migrations from one space to the other, physically or technologically. These movements are mediated through new communication and media technologies, which shape our daily lives as well as our social and political engagements. The sharing and exchange of information and knowledge has become so central to shaping the activities and outlooks of people in all spheres of life that it is hard to think of mobility without mobiles and other forms of communication technology.  The sharing and exchange of knowledge can be in the form of images, words, sounds, artistic expressions and other sociocultural modes. This panel focuses on the circulation and exchange of knowledge in various forms and how it transforms societies. It focuses on how technology has facilitated communication by giving the voiceless voices in ‘marginalized’ areas in Africa. While recognizing the transformative power of new media and communication technologies, it also explores the structural challenges of digitally mediated forms of expression and exchange in a politically volatile world.

Approved abstracts panel 42

1. Shrinking freedom of creative expression and the artists’ struggles for alternative spaces in Tanzania

Author: Vicensia Shule, Senior Lecturer, Department of Creative Arts, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The election and sworn in of John Pombe Magufuli in November 2015 as the fifth president of Tanzania was received with enthusiasm and expectation of better life and more freedoms. Magufuli was presented as the ‘savior’ who would crack down on rampant corruption and embezzlement of public resources. The ‘euphoria’ did not last long. On 26 January 2016 his government banned the live streaming of bunge (parliament) sessions. This was followed by a number of media bans through presidential speeches and ‘draconian’ legislations.  Artists’ abduction, arrests and torture related to their artistic works escalated. Use of social media was restricted and several arrested for questioning president’s statements under what has been referred to as ‘sedition’.

The nature of the censored acts and individuals has raised concern, why now? Where is the ‘free space’ for artists to ‘indulge’ with their creativity? Looking at the sample of unfolding events it is important to research further on the nature and the consequences of the imposed restrictions on arts and artists. This article not only assesses cases related to state control of arts and artists in mainstream and social media but also analyse the implication of state control on arts and artists. The observations reveal that the issued state restrictions on freedom of expressions are politically motivated and have consequences on the creative fraternity. Fear of abduction and torture, dismissal of ‘political’ content in the mainstream media, reduced incomes amongst artists are some of them. In order to ‘survive’ artist have created survival mechanisms including refraining from producing part works which seem to challenge the existing regime, compliance with the state propagated ‘moral’ dress codes as well as (re)joining the ruling party membership.

2. VIUSASA: Visual Mobilities and Mobile Audio-visuals that ‘Fixed' Film Distribution Challenge in Kenya

Author: Rachael Diang’a, United States International University - Africa, Kenya.

The audio-visual industry in Kenya has been identified as a key growth industry, with great potential income generation ability. Key in ensuring this potential are two things: quality film productions in good quantities and meaningful distribution mechanisms. Successful distribution of films motivate Newer and consistent productions hence self-sustenance of an industry. It is a pity however, that shaky distribution and exhibition management has caused a missing link that has largely contributed to Kenya’s film industry’s slow growth towards. This has killed the dreams of many creatives. Producers have failed to make profits, let alone break-even. Luckily, since 2017, the industry has seen advancement in the films distribution thanks to the introduction of VIUSASA. VIUSASA is a Kenyan video on demand (VOD) platform that offers users entertainment and information on video content at the users’ convenience. It offers a variety of short videos in Kenya, and it is an initiative of Citizen TV, one of Kenya’s leading TV broadcasters. This paper interrogates VIUSASA’s impact on the Kenyan Film industry, especially in the area of distribution. Of the key areas this paper delves into are VIUSASA’s approach to film distribution, its catchment audience, strengths and achievements as well as possible challenges. This paper therefore basically documents the various aspects of this new trend in the audio-visual industry in Kenya. This study is motivated by the fact that VIUSASA has unleashed to the audience a lot of information that was otherwise ‘locked up’ and rendered immobile.

3. Reconsidering unequal access to mobility: the use of social media to overcome immobility

Author: Parvati Raghuram & Markus Roos Breines, The Open University, UK.

The question of how opportunities and limitations for mobility intersect with people’s social positions has been widely debated by scholars such as Massey (1994) and Sheller and Urry (2006), who have demonstrated that mobilities are part of the everyday power geometries and is a resource to which people have unequal access. However, it remains unclear how transnational mobility and immobility perpetuate existing social hierarchies. This paper addresses the question of how different opportunities for transnational mobilities are contested through the lens of an often overlooked group; international students in Africa. Analysing the data collected through a large-scale survey and phone interviews with students in different African countries for the IDEAS research project (, we seek to identify how transnational mobility and immobility interweaves with social, racial and financial factors among Namibian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean distance education students at the University of South Africa (UNISA). By emphasising the diverse strategies students in different countries and social positions employ to navigate administrative practices that remain highly localised and reliant on human interaction, we shed light on the use of social media as a means for people to counter the disadvantages of immobility. Although distance education institutions may be contributing to reproduce social inequalities by rewarding students’ mobility, we argue that the use of new communication technologies challenge existing social hierarchies by complicating the social outcomes of unequal access to mobilities. As such, this paper identifies the transformative power of social media in Africa, which highlights emerging strategies for overcoming immobility while simultaneously problematizing how spatial mobility is valued amidst shifting technological opportunities.

4. Interstices of Belonging: Cyberspace and Queer Youth (Im)mobility in Nigeria

Author: Diekara Oloruntoba-Oju, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.

This paper examines how young queer people in Nigeria negotiate legitimacy and contest social mobility on virtual communication and information platforms. In the light of burgeoning conversation around the democratic possibilities new media provides for marginalized groups, it questions whether the Cyberspace really enables queer Nigerian youth to transcend the offline social immobility imposed on them by law and societal attitudes. In order to do this, this paper primarily offers a reading of Kitodiaries, which is a website for Nigerian LGBTQ people -predominantly youth- where queer narratives are shared in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry among other genres. Through this platform, it examines how queer youth represent themselves and how they form an alternative community of belonging. While offering a celebratory reading of this alternative space, this paper also examines the counter dimension of unbelonging that is reconstituted within the space. Beyond sexual orientation, it examines other expressions of identity, for instance gender and class, which influence accessibility to and mobility within the Cyberspace and explores how they determine what sort of queer narratives and discourses are produced and privileged in these spaces.   

5. Silicon Valley as a Colonial Metropole

Author: James Siguru Wahutu, Berkman Klein Center of Internet and Society at Harvard University, USA.

Recently, revelations to the extent to which social media giant Facebook either willfully or due to sheer incompetence shared user data with a third party (Cambridge Analytica) which the latter used for nefarious electoral reasons have shocked many. Keen observers of Africa however, were not surprised by these revelations since we have long viewed cyberspace as the new colonial frontier. In this essay, I show why and how digitally mediated exchanges and expressions in Africa can be studied through a colonial approach.

The largest and most influential tech companies are located in the global north, specifically Silicon Valley. Companies such as Facebook have gained immense control and influence over communicative structures and cultures of millions in the global south. With this in mind, this paper begins from the premise that cyberspace, and the current battle for hegemonic control, has become the new arena where contemporary colonial masters enact their imperial ambitions. Consequently, cyberspace's colonisation points to the fact that the traditional notions of ‘state-centrism’ have to be rethought since we can no longer assume that “nation/state/society is the natural and transhistorical form of social relations” (Go 2009:783). As argued by Hall (1999:40), the internet’s growth “mimicked Europe’s first colonial expansion,” in Africa.  In this sense, this paper argues that Silicon Valley has become the new metropole from where control of the colonies and the colonised emanates. In the same manner through which early trading companies were agents in "global colonisation in the 17th century,” (Hall 1999:47) Silicon Valley companies are their successors.. However, unlike the European trading companies, companies in this new metropole are birthed and influenced by notions of American "exceptionalism" which argues that the U.S. is unique for its enduring "liberal, democratic, individualistic, and egalitarian values"  forged at its founding moments (Go 2008:203).

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