africa

Africa’s Media Explosion

Charles Muigai is concerned that two years after violence broke out in Kenya following disputed elections, Kenyans have done little to avoid a repeat in the 2012 elections. Muigai said Kenyans are not having in-depth discussions about what happened.

“Post-election violence has been the hardest topic to discuss,” Muigai said. “A lot of Kenyans do not read beyond the headlines.”

Even in the diaspora, Kenyans still distrust each other. Mingling across ethnic groups is rare. Muigai said he wants to change that. He spent $5,000 of his own money to build an Internet radio station in Dallas, Texas, to give Kenyans a medium they can use to discuss various issues.

On Sept. 9, 2009, the Truthsayer Show went online and has been broadcasting every Thursday at 8 p.m. Central Time. He chose that date because Kenyans dial 999 in emergencies. In addition to listening, the audience can call in and even log onto a chat room while the two-hour show is in session.

African immigrant entrepreneurs are increasingly taking advantage of low cost of starting online media to launch Web sites facilitating discussions between the Diaspora and the continent. Although the Internet has been a bridge between other immigrants and their home countries, connecting African immigrants to the continent has been slow because of underdeveloped infrastructure.

However, countries like Kenya have developed their infrastructure and now have broadband, which has increased the number of people online. Even those in Africa who don’t have computers are able to access the Internet through mobile phones. Blogging and social networking sites rank highly in countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan, according to Alexa.com, the Web site-ranking company.

“That’s an indication that more and more people are getting online, and that’s good news for us,” said Julia Opoti, co-founder and publisher of KenyaImagine.com, a citizen journalism Web site that publishes news analysis and commentary.

Opoti said she and her partners were so excited by the promise of Africa’s growing Internet users that they have spent more than $10,000 to build and improve KenyaImagine.

Cyril Ibe, a Nigerian-born assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, called the blogs, chat rooms and sites that have sprung on the Web “an explosion.” Although most African media online consist of chat rooms of mere chatter that doesn’t produce any meaningful discussion, Ibe said their existence was a good thing.

“What they have done is give Africans that much-needed, almighty voice that every human being strives to have,” Ibe said. “Many are just noise. Whether it is the Congolese or the Nigerians chatting about their political problems at home, they very easily degenerate into media of name-calling. But where the medium is backed by professionalism there is always a big difference.”

Ibe said he had seen some Africans, especially those trained as journalists, take advantage of new media and Internet technology to improve their careers.

“Living in this country, they know that journalism is no longer on the traditional route,” said Ibe. “They also see knowledge of new media as an avenue to adapt and blend into American journalism.”

Opoti said the desire to be distinctive from unregulated online chat rooms is the reason she and her partners invested thousands of dollars to improve KenyaImagine. In addition to paying for maintaining the Web site, they have used the money to pay for Internet access for their Kenyan-based editors, who help run KenyaImagine like a newspaper.

“What we have done is refine that discussion,” Opoti says. “We have found a niche in people who are interested in more than news – people who say, ‘Yes, this has happened, but what are the implications on the people in Central Kenya or Northern Kenya?’”

While sites like KenyaImagine focus heavily on issues of the continent rather than of African communities in the United States, others are increasingly doing both. Nigerian immigrant Chido Nwangwu, for instance, owns USAfricaonline.com, a Houston-based “small media company with a strong, muscular reach,” that has been publishing in multimedia since 1993.

“We are not your typical news site,” says Nwangwu. “News is not as rare to get as is informed insight. That is where we have an edge. We can report the same thing that the mainstream media report on, but beat the daylight out of them in terms of insight.”

Nwangwu, who has served as an analyst for CNN in South Africa, said that although USAfricaonline initially offered news and analysis on Africa to Africans and others interested in the continent, the rise of the African immigrant population in the United States demands that their media address issues that affect them, such as immigration and the economy.

“In the African community, we can’t even spell ‘stimulus package,’” Nwangwu said.

Small businesses in African communities across the country have been hit by the recession, which he said has added to the fact that they rarely get any business from governments and corporations.

“We were hit badly,” Nwangwu said. “We drink the same milk, drink the same juice, buy the same Mercedes, buy the same Toyotas, fly the same airlines, but for some reason they pretend like our children are not part of the main culture. Our children are number one in competitive scholastic achievement. Number one. At least in Harris County where I live, they are shattering the records. You go to the NFL, there are many young African fellows who play there. Do you see the corporations acting like we exist?”

Between 1960 and 2007, the number of African immigrants to United States grew from roughly 35,000 to an estimated 1.4 million, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Most of the growth has occurred in the last 10 years, with more that 500,000 Africans gaining permanent U.S. residency between 2000 and 2007.

Muigai, the Internet radio station owner, agreed with Nwangwu, that there is an increasing need for African communities to start conversations about their problems in the United States.

“We don’t just do [Kenyan] politics,” Muigai said. “Yes, we talk about issues back home, which are important, but at the same time we have to make it diaspora-edible. We’ve talked about careers, finance and credit, and why businesses in the Kenyan community don’t succeed. We’ve even talked about the U.S. military’s recruitment of non-citizens. We try to be a place where anybody can come and listen.”

Still others like Paul Waithaka are not giving up on print media. Waithaka recently published the first print issue of the Kenya Monitor, a Boston-based monthly newspaper for Kenyans in the United States. Waithaka distributed 7,000 copies, most of them through churches attended by Kenyan Americans. The 24-page paper carries stories ranging from politics back home to information from the community’s experts on such topics as health, real estate and business.

Waithaka acknowledged the power of the Internet in bringing communities together. He has a digital copy of the paper online and plans to launch a Web site that would be updated more frequently.

“We thought about having it online-only, but to have something online-only could be leaving a whole lot of people out,” Waithaka said. “We have elders in the community. Those are not the people you find online.”

Like his fellow publishers, Waithaka funded his newspapers with his own money.

“If I’m not careful, I’m going to be homeless,” he said, laughing. “But it is exciting.”

Most of the entrepreneurs make little or no income from their ventures. In fact, some are publishing while working full-time jobs. But they said it was important for them to tell the stories of their communities, rather than rely on outsiders, who often portray Africans negatively.

“My motivation is that children like my son will grow up to know that we made efforts to build the community they will inherit,” said Nwangwu,”so they can expand it and create their own networks with other communities.”

By Edwin Okong’o. This article was first published on New America Media.

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