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Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone's US trip.

Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone’s US trip.

We switched things up a little for our May 21 Technology Salon and had an evening event with Verone Mankou, the head of VMK, a company in Congo Brazzaville that designs and produces the Way-C Tablet and the Elikia smart phone. The event was graciously hosted by ThoughtWorks, and Verone’s US trip was organized by Senam Beheton of EtriLabs.

Verone told his story of starting the first African company to make mobile devices. In 2006, he said, the cheapest computer in Congo cost $1000 USD, and the cheapest Internet package was priced around $1000 per month. Verone worked in the tech industry and wondered why there was no computer or Internet that could be reasonably accessed by people in Congo. Everyone laughed and said he was young, fresh out of school, and that within 2 years he would understand the business and stop dreaming.

Verone persisted with his idea that computers and the Internet were not just for people in offices with suits. Everyone wanted to access Internet, he believed, but they just didn’t have the money. So in 2006, he started working on ideas for a laptop. After 6 months he concluded that it was impossible. To create a laptop you need a lot of money for research and development, and, unfortunately, his bank account only contained about $100 USD. He had no contacts with suppliers. Verone had a big dream but problems executing it, so he put the laptop project on hold.

In June 2007, a friend told him to hurry up and turn on the news. Steve Jobs was presenting the iPhone. “This is what I want to do,” Verone thought. “Make a big iPhone.” He felt keyboards were a deterrent for most people who were new to a computer, and that “a big iPhone” would be a solution. He started working on the idea of a tablet. It was difficult to find any suppliers on the African continent – no CPU factory, no battery factory. He could not find hardware engineers because in Congo there is no engineering high school. He realized he needed to go outside, to Asia. He made a first trip to China in 2007 and learned many things. By 2009 he had a plan, an Android system, and a finished project.

The next problem, however, was that he had no money for mass production. “In Congo we don’t have venture capitalists. Also as a youth, you cannot get any money. You will have a bad experience if you go to the bank to ask. People will tell you to start a hotel and not to waste your money on something different.” Verone did not go quiet when he could not find capital, however. He kept looking.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs presented a new device: a big iPhone – otherwise known as the iPad. Verone was disappointed that Jobs had moved more quickly than he could with his tablet launch. On the other hand, everyone suddenly understood Verone’s project.

His miracle came a few months later when a minister from Congo was on a plane from Brazzaville to Singapore and came across a magazine article talking about a boy in Congo making a tablet. The minister could not believe someone in his country was doing this and he did not know about it. He contacted Verone and asked how he could help. Verone asked for $200k USD and gave the minister a prototype. Within 2 hours, the minister secured the funding and Verone was able to begin manufacturing.

He had enough funds to do a mass prototype of 1000 tablets and imagined that he could sell them in 3 months if they were marketed well. There was a buzz around the tablets, however, and they sold out in 1 week and he increased production to 10,000. Compared to the cost of an iPad in Congo (around $1500), Verone’s tablet was going for $200-300. He set his sights on making a good quality, low-cost smart phone.

Good quality is key for Verone. “Why do Samsung and Nokia come to Africa and think Africans need cheap, low quality devices?” As an African, Verone felt uniquely placed to create something for the continent – something cheap but good quality. He did this by eliminating unnecessary features and keeping only the necessary elements.

Next he needed to ensure that there was good content and an opportunity for monetization. Africans needed applications and content for their own purposes and context, he felt. Not maps of pharmacies in New York City. However most Africans do not have credit cards, so another way to pay for content and applications was needed. VMK created a marketplace for Africans that used scratch cards for payment, since everyone understands how scratch cards work.

VMK launched their smart phone in December of last year and  plans to sell 50K units in Congo Brazzaville. The company is also working on a cheaper phone with lower capacity that should run about $50 USD. In addition, they are working on identifying content partners and launching an “updateable school book” that would be accessible also at around $50 USD, so that students and teachers are not using outdated text books, which stunt the development of African children’s minds.  Verone’s vision is to give people access to good quality technology at a good price.

How will VMK compete with Chinese products as prices continue to go down over the next 10 years? “We will learn fast,” Verone says. “We will not sit while others advance.” He believes that expanding to African countries and developing the industry there will be good for the continent, good for developers and good for business. It’s not yet possible to do mass production in Africa because of poor education and lack of / high cost of Internet. People still cannot easily access relevant and updated information. But Internet is getting cheaper, access is improving and things are changing. People are starting to understand the importance of education. VMK currently has teams working in China and India, but they hope to move these functions to Africa as soon as possible. VMK plans to train staff up, offer internships and to get African youth skilled up in order to do this work.

The important thing is not to sit still, Verone says. “We can’t just keep waiting for things to change. We need to change them ourselves.”

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Starting yesterday (I’m late on writing about this one!) people from across the African continent are meeting at the Conference on Child Protection Systems Strengthening in Sub-Saharan Africa in Dakar, Senegal, to discuss how child protection systems work effectively in the African context. Follow the conference at the #cps12 hashtag or via @CPSystemsS and check out a day one summary on Storify.

“Dozens of African countries are engaged in strengthening child protection systems and mobilizing new sectors for child protection. For example, education and health sectors are engaged in violence prevention work, and social protection is becoming an essential part of efforts to reduce child labour and child marriage. Child justice initiatives are being embedded in broader national justice and security reforms and the health sector is supporting birth registration. Mobile technologies are being used for the reporting of violence, family reunification and rapid assessments. Donors are also increasingly supporting child protection systems….

“’Just the way a health system deals with many diseases, a child protection system addresses a broad range of violations of children’s rights. Children cannot be protected effectively unless social workers, police officers, justice servants, teachers and health workers and communities work together to prevent and respond to abuse and violence…. Investment in national child protection systems leads to better outcomes for children because of children’s improved access to protection services, new investments in frontline workers to identify and respond to children in need; and improved partnerships to mobilize and use resources for children, families and communities,’ according to Joachim Theis, Regional Child Protection Advisor, UNICEF, West and Central Africa.”

Key conference themes include:

  • Mapping and assessment of national child protection systems
  • Strategies and approaches to strengthening national child protection systems
  • Community based child protection mechanisms
  • Children as actors and partners in child protection systems
  • Social welfare workforce strengthening
  • Services delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Aligning traditional child protection agendas with child protection systems
  • Strengthening monitoring and evaluation for child protection
  • Mobilizing resources for child protection systems

Resources and a discussion forum are available at wiki.childprotectionforum.org. Some relevant background papers include:

A few webinars are recorded here on the topics of systems strengthening, budgeting for national system and core competencies for better national child protection systems.

There’s also a good paper on community-based child protection systems that I summarized awhile back.

Coming up soon, a few of us from different organizations will be looking more closely at the role new ICTs can play in child protection systems. Some examples of ICTs and child protection systems are here.

(Thanks to Joachim Theis at UNICEF West Africa for sending over the info on this one.)

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If you have any sort of curiosity about how youth across sub-Saharan Africa

are engaged in social accountability and participatory governance, I suggest downloading and reading the PLA Special Issue 64 on Young citizens: youth and participatory governance in Africa.

[Update: In French now, too!]

PLA 64 goes in depth on the involvement of youth in governance, the particular challenges that youth face in this area and ways young people are overcoming marginalization to participate and make change. It talks through key theories related to good governance, social accountability and social audits and shows concrete examples of putting them into action.

‘Social accountability can be defined as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement, i.e. in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil  society organisations who participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability.  Mechanisms of social accountability can be initiated and supported by the state, citizens or both, but very often they are demand-driven and operate from the bottom-up. Source: Malena et al. (2004).’

Scenes were acted out during the write shop to express how young people might feel about participation and governance initiatives.

PLA 64 aims to share practices that avoid instrumentalizing children and youth or using them as puppets or tools in achieving organizational or political aims. The idea of ‘seeing like a young citizen’ was critical during the writing process, as were authentic examples of youth participation and leadership in good governance and social accountability processes.

‘…Young people in Africa are challenging the norms and structures that exclude them, engaging with the state and demanding accountability. This special issue describes how young people are exercising their right to participate and developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to affect to [sic] change. It explores methods of communication, appraisal, monitoring and research which are involving young people in decision-making spaces. It asks how can we re-shape how young people perceive and exercise citizenship? How can we redefine and deepen the links between young citizens and the state?

This issue demonstrates the persistence, passion and enthusiasm that youth bring to governance processes – and how they are driving change in creative and unexpected ways. It highlights how young Africans are addressing the documentation gap that surrounds youth and governance in Africa and enabling other participatory practitioners – young and old – to learn from their experiences.’

Topics covered in the edition include: youth as young citizens; digital mapping and governance; participatory video; youth poverty forums; youth capturing pastoralist knowledge for policy processes; youth and HIV/AIDS laws; children’s shadow parliaments; mentoring and role modeling to encourage girls’ participation; youth-led violence prevention; local governance work; and budget advocacy.

In addition to the articles by practitioners, researchers, and youth themselves, PLA 64 provides tips for trainers on how to carry out specific activities and programs, exploring expressions and forms of power in youth governance work, conducting a social audit, using a community scorecard as an alternative form of budget tracking when governments lack openness, games to play to engage children in budget monitoring, and conducting youth participatory situation analyses.

The journal closes out with a list of written resources to support youth and participatory governance work, events and training. It also provides links to online or technology enabled examples such as Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative, Daraja, the Technology for Transparency Network, and Twaweza.

PLA 64 offers an opportunity to broaden thinking and learn from youth and practitioners who are involved directly in good governance initiatives in East, West and Southern Africa. It is also a good reminder that although new technologies can enable, enhance or even transform accountability and governance efforts, there are many ways to work on accountability and good governance, and technology is not always the driving force behind this work.

*****

Background: A call for submissions to the PLA journal went out about a year ago. Submissions were then reviewed and ranked by an editorial team. Final authors selected were from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Lesotho, the US, the UK, Ghana, Germany, Cameroon, Somalia and Liberia. Authors attended a “write shop” organized by Plan UK, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in March to share different youth participatory governance initiatives, reflect on challenges and successes therein, gather tips on better writing, and write up final articles. I attended the write shop and a colleague and I have an article included on digital mapping and local governance work.

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Youth learning to use GPS in Pitoa, Cameroon (photo: Ernest Kunbega)

Last Monday I attended Africa Gathering London. The topic was ‘Social Media Revolutionizing Africa: How is new media changing Africa, giving voices to the voiceless, improving governance and transparency, and changing narratives?’

The event stimulated thinking and brought up some hot discussions around technology, traditional and social media, aid and development, participation and governance. (Big congratulations to Marieme Jamme  for curating a great line up that brought in an interesting and engaged group of participants and to William Perrin of Indigo Trust for keeping things on track and generating good debate!) See the program, the speaker bios and some short video interviews.

Some quotes, thoughts and debates from the day:

  • If your purpose is to bring more people into discussions, remember that radio, Facebook, and Twitter audiences are distinct and be sure you are thinking differently about how to engage them all. Remember that many people in Africa prefer to talk not write.  (from BBC’s Africa Have Your Say – @bbcafricahys‘s presentation)
  • You can’t resolve all of Africa’s issues with one approach. The countries are very different and local context really matters. But you also can’t design something for every tiny demographic. Where is the sweet spot between localized and scale? (discussion after the morning workshop)
  • People should not sit in the UK deciding and develop things for Africans. Develop things with Africans, or support Africans to develop things themselves. This idea got retweeted a lot, with lots of agreement. But H Taylor – @HFTaylor88 also commented via Twitter that this rhetoric has been around for ages within NGOs…. (discussion after morning workshop)
  • It’s great that the market has been able to bring mobile phones to so many people in Africa, but the market can’t do it on its own as many are still left out. There needs to be more incentive to reach remote areas. There needs to be education, cash transfers, government regulation if we want to really realize the potential of mobiles. Mika Valitalo – @vatamik commented that in many African countries, mobiles are still taxed as luxury items, making them more expensive than they should be. (Clare Melamed -ODI – @claremelamed‘s “Is the Mobile Phone Revolution Really for Everyone”.)
  • Any big story today on CNN has a social media component, yet there is still the idea that social media only breaks news and ‘it won’t make the history books until CNN or BBC report on it’. If CNN is not planning to do a story but sees everyone is talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, they will cover may rethink covering it. CNN finds good opinions and stories on social media, but their primary news source will continue to be their correspondents. Emrys Schoemaker – @emrys_s however questioned whether mass media use of citizen journalism is a broadening of voices or if it’s cheap content for big media – or both. (Faith Karimi/CNN/@faithCNN’s presentation and resulting discussions.)
  • Social media gives African youth an uncensored worldwide platform, letting them feel included in shaping Africa’s image, but the youth using social media in Africa are still the middle class and the rich. We need to find ways to include other youth. (Faith Karimi – @faithCNN’s presentation and resulting discussions.)
  • The Guardian’s Global Development Site and Poverty Matters blog are trying to get away from the vision of ‘poor Africa’ and have only been accused of ‘poverty porn’ once in 9 months (which Liz said irritated her to no end as they really try to avoid it). (I remember the case…) They stay away from the typical ‘flies in the eyes’ photos, but sometimes there really is starvation in Africa, and in those cases, a photo of a starving child might actually represent reality. (Someone countered that African newspapers should use photos of drunk, vomiting Brits to illustrate stories about parliament).  (Liz Ford/deputy editor/@lizford‘s talk and discussion)
  • Is the Guardian’s Global Development site one-sided, taking the view that aid is good rather than other ideas on how to best achieve development? Development is much larger than ‘aid’ and when talking about development we need to remember the bigger picture and the alternative views that maybe aid is not the best (or only) way to ‘do development’. The Guardian is quite open to new thoughts and ideas and invites anyone with ideas for blogs or stories to be in touch with them. They consider their site a ‘work in progress’. (Note: I like the Guardian’s site very much as it is one of the few media sources that discusses and seems to really promote and engage in the ‘#smartaid / @smart_aid‘ discussion). (Liz Ford’s talk and discussion)
  • Many African leaders, not to mention the public and the media, will listen when high level people call their attention to something, but problems can’t be solved by the same people who created them, especially if those people are considered morally bankrupt. Karen Attiah – @karennattiah  commented in from Twitter that a big part of development work should focus on rebuilding the broken social contract between governments and citizens in Africa. So how can we connect policy makers with ordinary Africans? How to bridge the gap between policy makers and grassroots approaches and implementation. (Panel with Alex Reid/@alreidy and Carolina Rodriguez /@caro_silborn – media heads at Gates Foundation and at Africa Progress Panel)
  • Not all sources are created equal – this is true for traditional and for social media. Social media is not about the technology, it’s about the human need to communicate. You can make traditional media more social also. Even those without access to social media will get around harsh barriers to tell their stories because of the urge to communicate. So the best thing is to create a social experience, not to worry so much about getting ‘jiggy’ with the technology. (from Kevin Anderson/@KevGlobal‘s presentation. See Putting the social in media.)
  • New technologies can impact on public debate, people’s political capabilities, citizen-state relations, relationships with other government actors. Frontline SMS Radio, for example, could be a very useful tool for this because radio is still the main way to communicate with the majority of Africa. Using Frontline SMS Radio, stations can sort through messages they get, understand them better, and use the information to orient their radio programs as well as other things. Radio can play a very strong and useful role in governance. (from Sharath Srinivasan/ @sharath_sri‘s presentation. See FrontlineSMS at Africa Gathering.)
  • Youth can have a big impact on community development if given space to influence. There is money (eg., in Cameroon, at local government level) but it needs to be better spent. Informed and involved youth can hold government accountable for spending it better. Local level advocacy has a greater impact on youths’ lives than global level initiatives because you can make as many laws as you like, but unless people are putting them into place and practice at a local level they don’t matter. Organizations should listen to young people but not make them dependent on NGOs because the real duty-bearers are family, community, government. NGOs need to be models of their own methodologies; eg., if an NGO is encouraging people to criticize the government, the NGO should be ready to receive the same scrutiny around its own work and behaviors. Social media can play a role in this process by showing what is happening at the local level to a global audience. (from my presentation and the resulting discussions. See Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media)
Julia Chandler (@juliac2) did a great round-up of the day’s presentations and discussions on her blog: Part 1 and Part 2. The Guardian continues the discussion here and of course the Africa Gathering website is a great place for more information.
.
Update – more posts about Africa Gathering:
Great perspective from Tony Burkson – @tonyballu – who I really enjoyed talking with at the post-event drinks: A Day at Africa Gathering.

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This is a third guest post by Paul Goodman who is supporting Plan Benin to solidify their SMS Reporting and Tracking of Violence against Children (VAC) project. More on the overall project and process via the links at the end of this post.

Plan Benin uses Ushahidi to map reports of violence against children in Benin. The platform is powerful right off the shelf (or right out of GitHub, as it were) and the latest version offers enough features to get the majority of deployments up and running without issue.

One benefit to working with Ushahidi — there are other options for gathering and mapping reports, of course — is that the global Ushahidi team works hard to cultivate a community of software developers hell bent on improving the software and innovating around new use cases. During my month in Benin I took advantage of a number of resources available to individuals and groups using Ushahidi. A few resources I consulted when working on solutions to technical problems:

In addition to making use of Ushahidi’s standard functionality, in Benin we’ve made some small customizations, configurations, and tweaks to that extend the functionality of the system, making it easier and faster to use.

A few tweaks:

FrontlineSMS – after upgrading to the latest version of Ushahidi, we made use of the new Plugin architecture and activated the FrontlineSMS plugin, which facilitates a seamless connection between FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.

Location highlight – developed by John Etherton, this plugin improves the experience of mapping locations in areas that are not well-mapped. Instead of staring at a blank map, users creating reports can select the program area and nearby city from a drop down menu. Administrators can add as many points or areas as they’d like to aid the mapping process. Furthermore, the relatively slow internet connection in Benin makes loading map tiles and labels a painful process. In many cases, Location Highlight allows users to avoid having to load new zoom levels.

Nested Categories – a visual improvement more than anything, this functionality is supported out of the box. Rather than loading the Ushahidi landing page and seeing 20+ categories, we now see the major categories and users have the ability to drill down on the various categories to filter results.

Custom forms – the use of custom report forms with private fields allows Plan Benin to track information related to cases alongside the public report, allowing Plan staff in disparate geographies to track the reporting and resolution of incidents.

Related posts:

Future-proofing the VAC Benin project (also by Paul)

Update from Benin: charting a course forward (also by Paul)

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin


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Plan just released a new report called ICT Enabled Development: Using ICT strategically to support Plan’s work. The report is part of an on-going process by Plan Finland (kudos to Mika Valitalo for leading the process) in collaboration with Plan USA to support Plan’s country offices in Africa to use ICTs strategically and effectively in their development work. It was written by Hannah Beardon and builds on the Mobiles for Development Guide that Plan Finland produced (also written by Hannah) in 2009.

The idea for the report came out of our work with staff and communities, and the sense that we needed to better understand and document the ICT4D context in the different countries where we are working. Country offices wanted to strengthen their capacities to strategically incorporate ICTs into their work and to ensure that any fund-raising efforts for ICTs were stemming from real needs and interest from the ground. Plan offices were also in the process of updating their long-term strategic plans and wanted to think through how and where they could incorporate ICTs in their work internally and with communities.

The process for creating the report included 2-day workshops with staff in 5 countries, using a methodology that Mika, Hannah and I put together. We created a set of ICT training materials and discussion questions and used a ‘distance-learning’ process, working with a point person in each office who planned and carried out the workshop. Mika and I supported via Skype and email.

Hannah researched existing reports and initiatives by participating offices to find evidence and examples of ICT use. She also held phone or skype conversations with key staff at the country and regional levels around their ICT use, needs and challenges, and pulled together information on the national ICT context for each country.

The first section of the report explains the concept of ‘ICT enabled development’ and why it is important for Plan and other development organizations to take on board. “With so many ICT tools and applications now available, the job of a development organization is no longer to compensate for lack of access but to find innovative and effective ways of putting the tools to development ends. This means not only developing separate projects to install ICTs in under-served communities, but looking at key development challenges and needs with an ICT eye, asking ‘how could ICTs help to overcome this problem’?

Drawing on the research, conversations, workshop input and feedback from staff, and documented experience using ICTs in Plan’s work, Hannah created a checklist with 10 key areas to think about when planning ICT-enabled development efforts.

  1. Context Analysis: what is happening with ICT (for development) in the country or region?
  2. Defining the need: what problems can ICT help overcome? what opportunities can it create?
  3. Choosing a strategy: what kind of ICT4D is needed? direct? internal? strategic?
  4. Undertaking a participatory communications assessment: who will benefit from this use of ICT and how?
  5. Choosing the technology: what ICTs/applications are available to meet this need or goal?
  6. Adjusting the content: can people understand and use the information provided for and by the ICTs?
  7. Building and using capacity: what kind of support will people need to use and benefit from the ICT, and to innovate around it?
  8. Monitoring progress: how do you know if the ICT is helping meet the development goal or need?
  9. Keeping it going: how can you manage risks and keep up with changes?
  10. Learning from each other: what has been done before, and what have you learned that others could use?

The checklist helps to ensure that ICT use is linked to real development needs and priorities and appropriate for those who are participating in an initiative or a project. The report elaborates on the 10 key areas with detailed observations, learning and examples to illustrate them and to help orient others who are working on similar initiatives. It places the checklist into a 4-stage process for ICT integration.

  1. Understanding the context for ICT work: includes external context and internal experience and capacity
  2. Finding a match between priorities and possibilities: rooting the system in local needs and priorities and finding good uses for tools and applications
  3. Planning and implementing concrete initiatives: carrying out participatory assessments, linking to other development processes and addressing technical issues and concerns
  4. Building a culture of systematic, sustained and strategic use of ICTs: linking ICTs with program work, transforming the role of ‘the ICT guy’, and building expertise on the cultural and social aspects of ICT use

Additional material and case studies, ICT country briefings, and an overview of Plan’s current work with ICT4D in Africa are offered at the end of the report.

The report includes input from Plan staff in Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal and Uganda who participated in the ICT4D workshops. It also draws heavily on some of the work that Mika has been doing in Finland and Kenya, and work that I’ve been involved in and have written about in Mali, Cameroon, Mozambique, Ghana, Benin and Kenya involving staff, community members and community youth. You can contact Mika to get the workshop methodology in French or English or to comment on the report (ict4d [at] plan [dot] fi).

There’s so much rich material in the report that I almost want to summarize the whole thing here on my blog, section by section, so that people will take the time to read it…  I think this is a really important and useful piece of work and we’re very excited that it’s now available! Download it here.

Related posts on Wait… What?

ICT4D in Uganda: ICT does not equal computers

Demystifying Internet (Ghana)

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshops

A positively brilliant ICT4D workshop in Kwale, Kenya

7 or more questions to ask before adding ICTs (Benin)

A catalyst for positive change (Cameroon)

Salim’s ICT advice part 1: consider both process and passion (Kenya)

Salim’s ICT advice part 2: innovate but keep it real (Kenya)

Meeting in the middle

I and C, then T (US)

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HSBC Ad Campaign

If you’ve done any international travel lately, you’ll likely have seen the HSBC Ad Campaign on the walkway as you get on your plane. You know the one. It has 3 identical photos, each with one word or phrase written on it, showing different perspectives.

Well, last week in Ndop, Cameroon, I had a random and cool experience that I was a tiny bit hesitant to post about.  But thanks to HSBC Advertisements, I figured something out. (Note, I still really don’t know who HBSC is or what in particular they do nor do I have any intention of using their bank).

I was with some of the youth participating in the YETAM project, filming at a local craft shop called PresPot. When we’d finished filming, we walked down the road towards the local Fon’s (King’s) Palace to meet another group that was filming there. The plan was to eat our packed lunch together.

There were more people than normal out on the road we were walking on, so it seemed to me that something was up. Then one of the kids pointed down the road to show the reason why.

The Ndobo were coming. ‘Ndobo?’ I asked? I could make out what looked like small group of people, some of them dressed in brown grass skirts.

Ndobo

As they got closer, I remembered a blog post (perhaps ScarlettLion’s or maybe a link she posted?) a few months back, where someone had taken shots of people in different places – I think mostly in Africa and in Haiti – wearing similar types of costumes to the ones the Ndobo were wearing. In any case, the Ndobo were definitely something to behold, and since I’d seen that post, they were now sitting within some kind of broader framework for me.

[Update: Thanks to Meghan for her comment below, with this link to the blog post I am referring to with the stunning photos. They are by Phyllis Galembo and on exhibit at the Tang Museum: “These portraits of masqueraders build on Galembo’s work of the past twenty years photographing the rituals and religious culture in Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the homegrown custom of Halloween in the United States. Organized by Ian Berry, Malloy Curator of the Tang Museum, in collaboration with the artist.”]

‘So what are we supposed to do?’ I asked.  ‘Are the Ndobo scary? Are we supposed to run away? Stay here? Get off the road? Bow down?’

‘Just watch them when they come,’ one of the girls told me. ‘They will ask you for some coins and you just give them some.’ ‘Are we allowed to film?’ I asked. ‘Yes, once you give them some coins they will be happy and you can film.’  I dug around in my bag to find some coins.

There were about 6 Ndobo, all teen-aged boys and young men, and a bunch of excited younger boys with them.  They moved in a way that was part stealth, part walking and part dancing as they approached. Someone played flutes as they moved along.

‘Why are they here? Why today? Who are they? What do they represent?’ I wanted to know. The kids had all kinds of different answers. ‘They come out to announce the corn harvest season is here.’ ‘They are just looking for money, so they make those shirts and clothing at home, and then they become Ndobo.’

‘In my village,’ said one of my co-trainers, ‘only certain of the young men are allowed to be Ndobos.’ ‘No,’ said one of the girls. ‘here any boy who wants to can just make his clothing and go out. My brother, when he became that age, he made that clothing and went out just to get some coins.’ Another of the kids said ‘They come out when there is a town hall meeting to ask for money.’ ‘Ha, it’s an income generation project for the youth,’ said one of the other co-trainers.

Meanwhile the Ndobo were approaching, and everyone was waiting and kind of excited to see what they would do. It was one of those amazing and random moments that make me love life. It was not scheduled purposely so that a white person could see some ‘local traditions’. It was not a tourist show. There were no tables with locals performing for respected visitors. It would have happened regardless of me being there or not. In my line of work, those moments can be rare and I was savoring this one.

We stood off the road in a clearing, and watched the Ndobo arrive, their entourage of overexcited sparkly eyed young boys with them watching us from a distance, flicking their eyes at me regularly. Maybe they wanted to know what I was going to do also, how I was going to react to the Ndobo and vice versa. I wondered also if it was going to be somehow weird because I was there. I was thinking how surreal it was, and how cool their ‘costumes’ were, remembering that blog post about young men in similar dress with photos that seemed to be from some kind of museum exhibit… thinking that this was real life, not a museum…. Then thinking about how in museums things from Africa are often called ‘handicrafts’ or ‘anthropological exhibits’ whereas things from Europe are called art…. Wondering what the difference really is.

The Ndobo  took their stance for a moment in front of us. They were carrying little sticks and whips made of grass and palm. They surrounded us and started lightly thrashing me and my colleague Georges with their sticks and whips in a vaguely threatening way, but not one that caused any fear. The feeling was someplace between theater and in-your-face reality. I found my coins again, and several hands came forward to collect them. The kids with us were watching and laughing, the little boys accompanying the Ndobo were giggling.

After I’d given out my coins I looked behind me and saw that one of the Ndobo had a stick against the back of Georges’ neck and another was holding his grass whip against Georges’ shins. Georges rolled his eyes and dug around to find some coins for them, also laughing. He dropped the coins into the outstretched hands and the Ndobo let him go. One of them stood in front of us to get his picture taken, and then they moved off down the road. We carried on towards the Fon palace.

When we arrived to the Fon palace, the other group of youth asked ‘did you see the Ndobo?! They came here and danced right in front of us! We took pictures and films!’  They were pretty animated too, so I felt less like a silly foreigner, getting excited about seeing ‘local tradition’.

We sat on the steps of the local council’s building and started in on lunch – boiled plantains and koki bean. The rest of the day, all the kids could talk about was the Ndobo. I kept thinking that the Ndobo reminded me of Halloween… harvest time festival, costumes to hide your identity, playing tricks and asking for treats.

I posted a picture of the Ndobo on Twitter. But I hesitated before doing it. A colleague saw it and said something about Africa stereotyping. So she had the same reservations.

I held off on the blog post… but then HSBC came to the rescue.

African Tradition

African Stereotype

African Entrepreneur

It’s interesting how uncomfortable ‘Africa’ can make us. But I guess so can anything, anyone or anyplace that is complex and involves human behavior and culture… I guess you could say the Ndobo are a small piece of a much larger ball of string, just like high heeled shoes, plastic surgery, tattoos and henna, and shaved heads. Ask HSBC.

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