Black and Wired, Here and Across the Water


A few days ago, I was talking to my mother about the internet. My mama is one of those older folks who haven’t really caught on to email, let alone looking online to research for information, or connecting with friends from high school, etc. Frankly, I think it’s because she is wary of strangers and despises undue familiarity from folks who haven’t earned the right to really know her.

And also, folks who come from the country don’t need the internet. They just have that one nosy person who gets in everybody’s business—that person you might call a “microcosm” of an online informational system. Usually, that person will start a conversation with the following phrase, “You know I don’t like to gossip, but…”

Anyway, I have to admit that sometimes I am a bit put off by the sense of instant intimacy that some folks try to claim with me online, but I’ve learned how to fend it off and still maintain my basic sense of friendliness.  I’ve only had to “bless out” (the ladylike version of “cuss out”) maybe five people since I started my blog—a personal best record for me. And I kept it classy.

But what Mama does admit is a good thing is that the internet has allowed me to connect with people that I never would be able to meet simply because of the distances between us: people from across the North American continent and Western and Eastern Europe.  But what we in the United States take for granted as a “global network” is not truly that for many of the people living in Africa.

In 1999, writer Anthony Walton wrote a piece for the Atlantic called, “Technology vs. African Americans.” (Click here to read the piece; it’s fascinating and Walton keeps it real and smart, as he always does.) Walton talks about the fact that he was concerned that Black folks might get left behind technologically. Well, some of us got that hint—I know I did—and now, Black folks have caught on to the “internet revolution.”

African Americans love us Twitter, we’re all on Facebook, we have started our own blogs, some of us have started our own magazines and literary journals online. And we can even shut folks down when we band together collectively, as when Black folks got Satoshi Nanazawa fired from Psychology Today for publishing a “scientific” piece on PT’s website that asserted that Black women were less attractive than women of other races. He even had his “empirical proof” together. Oh, you know the Sisters were mad, and rightly so. (The link to this article was taken down because of all that outrage.)

But there are other even bigger, ways to come together on the web and effect change.

Some of you might not know, but I’m planning a research trip to Senegal for a book of poetry I’m writing that imagines the life and times of the Eighteenth Century African American poet, Phillis Wheatley. And for me, the notion of “transatlantic” has become really important over the past three years that I’ve been working on this book. It’s opened my eyes to the connections that remain over her and over there. And it’s got me thinking about other kinds of connections.

For months now, I’ve been reading about an organization that seeks to connect folks living throughout the “Third World” with a creative and original use of the World Wide Web. The organization is called Envaya. Co-Founded by Americans Joshua Stern and Jesse Young, and African sister Radhina Kipozi, who is the Tanzania Program Manager, Envaya is unique because it focuses on real needs that the internet can help Africans meet.

Surely, social contacts are important. I can’t tell you how lonely I would be out here on the prairie if I didn’t have friends that I could talk to, many of whom live out of state. But Envaya is leveraging the internet for even bigger game: because many of Tanzania’s citizens live in what we Americans would call “the country,” they are cut off from urban areas (truthfully, the urban areas also suffer form problematic information technology resources) and when they have a basic problem like, for example, getting a water well dug in a certain type of terrain, it can be a problem of a magnitude we can’t imagine over here just to get information or even be aware that others are out there trying to solve those problems, and may, in fact, have solutions.

Envaya has established a software platform, so that local groups in rural and urban areas all over Tanzania can set up websites. The websites and the software designed to work with them, also provided by Envaya, provide a means of communication with each other and the wider world, Then, they can talk to each other about how to raise money to get things done in their small towns/villages or they can collaborate with information on solving larger issues—without being face to face.

For example, they can find resources about educating special needs children. Or they can get the information about how to fight deforestation—a real issue in the Third World—or how to provide clean water for everyone, which is something we Americans of all races take for granted over here. They can organize conferences with the country to meet and get to know others with the same concerns and interests, and, as is already happening, they can connect with supporters and people of similar beliefs who are already on the web for information exchange and monetary support.

Stern calls what they are doing “grassroots to grassroots,” and it is one of the brightest hopes of the organization. Click here to read a Forbes magazine feature on Joshua Stern’s global venture with Envaya.

Envaya is doing really good work, y’all, but they are a non-profit organization and they need donations, because Envaya provides this service and technology for free to Africans. And it’s open source, which means any engineer can use the code, for free, and can add to it and help build the system.

Another part of the plan is to train and mentor African programmers so that they can contribute directly to the Envaya platform. Already, Tanzanian programmers and web designers are working with the code, and the big dream is for African computer engineers to create civil society tools directly based on their own interpretations of what their local needs are without any need for intervention from others and to add them to the platform.

Now that the pilot program has proven wildly successful in Tanzania, they are expanding this month to Rwanda in a partnership with the Canadian Digital Opportunity Trust, and have plans over the rest of the year to roll out to Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Egypt, and perhaps Southern Sudan. This network is attempting to help Black folks across the water do something fantastic: help themselves. They are empowering Africans to find local solutions instead of depending upon outsiders to do the work for them.

Ultimately, the dream is to provide the concept and the technology to “civil society” groups throughout the underdeveloped world, allowing them to begin to participate in the benefits that the internet can provide, and to work on and share “bottom up” solutions rather than being dictated to by the powers that be. Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt provide a small hint of what could be possible as people gain the tools to communicate and organize themselves.

Isn’t this a great idea to bring the world-wide web to, like, the actual wide world?

Click here to donate to Envaya, y’all, and do our African Brethren and Sistren a solid. You know you want to, and every little bit helps. But if you don’t have any money, they are also looking for help, from volunteers of all kinds: software, engineers, folks interested in the nonprofit sector in general, people interested in international development, and partners who might help Envaya deploy in new regions and countries. You can go to their website and find out how to help at Envaya.org

One thought on “Black and Wired, Here and Across the Water

  1. Honoree- When I moved from Los Angeles, a very diverse city, where I had many wonderful friends to semi-rural Northern California – a distance from the State Capitol I found that my world just wasn’t the same any more, I felt isolated. One thing facebook as given me back is friends from all over the country and the world. I am careful on who I befriend, and have been mostly lucky. Because of facebook, I have met so many wonderful people, including the joy of reading some of the best books. Some I talk to on the phone, some I write to on email and some I hope to visit in the future. Facebook brought the diversified world into my house. Actually facebook lifted my spirits. Thank you for this great article, Barbara

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