Talking back – Malawi, social media and the public sphere

“We have our own voices. We just need you to listen” – Aya Chebbi, Tunisian activist and youth leader speaking at 2016 Bond Conference hosted by the London School of Economics

I met Zilanie Gondwe at a market in Lilongwe. I was speaking to a colleague who introduced me to her. It was one week after a story aired on BBC’s World Service about a Malawian man referred to as a “hyena” who is paid by families in his community to have sex with adolescent girls as part of traditional practice in that community. Zilanie, a Malawian woman who owns a marketing company in Lilongwe, outraged and upset tweeted about the dangers of this harmful traditional practice and advocated for the man featured in the story to be arrested. She, along with other Malawians started to tweet using the hashtag #ArrestAllHyenas. The hashtag picked up traction. Malawi’s President Arthur Peter Mutharika publicly called for the arrest of the man (the ‘hyena’) featured in the BBC story. He was arrested and soon the BBC was contacting Zilanie for a live interview.[1]

Zilanie is one example of a growing number of Malawians who are using social media through blogs, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to highlight issues, discuss and actively debate. Social media has opened up the conversation about development in Malawi and offered Malawians a platform to participate in discussions on development. The blogosphere and other forms of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) serve as a public sphere (Habermas, 1989, 1991) where Malawians are able to have discussions with a wider range of persons from that of their own circles and can discuss challenges in the society that influence political action. Facebook and Twitter are the most popular forms of social media used in Malawi (StatsMonkey.com: https://www.statsmonkey.com/sunburst/21403-malawi-mobile-social-media-usage-statistics-2015.php). Most recently, the hashtag #BringBackMutharika was trending as some Malawians asked about the location of their President, who after delivering a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, had not returned to Malawi and had not been heard from. His absence started rumors about his health and social media provided the platform for Malawians to express concerns and ask questions of their government officials.

The blogosphere, while not as popular as other forms of social media in Malawi, is another platform for more in-depth and focused conversations about development . My search for development-related blogs written by Malawians, living in Malawi discovered two that caught my interest. Both conformed to the theoretical framework of the blogosphere as a public sphere for debating issues of public interest (Habermas, 1989, 1991) and also as ‘invisible colleges’ (Knorr-Cetina 1999, 2007; DeLong 2006; Wagner, 2008; Fourcade, 2009) or communities of experts “for creating and verifying knowledge and expertise” as noted by Manning (2012).

The blog, “Afrika Aphukira” written by Steve Sharra describes itself as “midwiving the African rebirth” featuring posts about Malawi, PanAfricanism and social justice. As an author, much of his blog features topics of literature, language and teaching. It is an interesting read that on quick review had me making notes of books and events to search for and introduced me – as a foreigner to Malawi – to events and initiatives undertaken in Malawi aimed at giving readers a greater understanding of Malawi and issues around education and overall development. This blog definitely contributes to the ‘invisible college’, community of experts for the knowledge it creates and expertise it provides.

Vincent Kumwenda’s blog, “Kristungati” (VinceKumwenda.blogspot.com) presents the author’s thoughts and opinions on primarily technology trends and innovations in Malawi. The tagline for the blog reads “making a difference” and its most recent entry describes a ten year old boy who created a programme code that captured the first prize in a local competition with the first prize of a trip to California, USA to meet Facebook’s founder, Mark Zukerberg. Like Sharra’s blog, this blog presents information, opinions and ideas that contribute to the public interest and discussion of issues.

These blogs are in keeping with the characteristic features of blogs; the authors are central to the blogs, they are dynamic (although both had not been updated vey recently) and they are interactive, flexible and written in a reader-friendly tone (Manning, 2012). Of course, while these blogs widen the conversation and provide bloggers with the opportunity to express their views to a wider public, they raise questions of how inclusive the blogs are and who is able to participate (DiMaggio et al, 2004), especially for Malawians where internet connectivity and mobile access may vary widely. I interviewed Vince who told me that most of the people who read his blog reside outside of Malawi.

It is also interesting to note that these two blogs go beyond their intended contributions to the public sphere in presenting knowledge and ideas on development issues in Malawi but also strongly contribute to how Malawi and Malawians are represented and perceived. If the blogosphere is conceptualized as a public sphere for debating of issues (Habermas, 1989, 1991) these blogs through their content and appearance contribute to the variety of voices and play a role in how Malawi is represented.

“Blogging has a lot of potential…[traditional media] is slow to get real and accurate news. [with blogging] there is the power of user-generated content. People are able to say things that they want to say in the way that they want to be said,” Vincent says. “Bloggers can write about Malawian stories in the way they want them to be told. It is authentic views of people on the ground.” Manning (2012) looks at online blogs as a new forum for discussions of development and concludes that the blogosphere provides space for wide participation but is limited to those who have access to the internet and – what is described as – providing privilege to certain types of expertise. I would imagine this also applies to Malawi. However, Vincent believes this new movement cannot be stopped and access will only improve. He says it is already “disrupting” traditional media and “disrupting” development.

Zilanie too sees a future of more female bloggers in Malawi and increasing opportunities for the silent to be heard. “Development solutions must be internally conceived and driven no matter how well meaning the bearers of foreign development aid may (or may not) be,” she says. “The revolution will not be televised, it will not be trivialized, it will be social media realized,” she concluded.

Zilanie Gondwe in her workspace

Zilanie Gondwe in her workspace

References

DeLong, J.B. 2006, “The Invisible College”, Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 52, pp. 47-60.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C. & Shafer, S. 2004, “Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to

Differentiated Use” in Social Inequality, ed. K. Neckerman, Russell Sage Foundation, New York, NY, pp.355-400.

Habermas, J. 1989, “The Public Sphere,” in Seidman, S., ed. 1989, Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, ch.10.

Habermas, J. 1991, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Manning, R. 2012: FollowMe.IntDev.Com: International Development in the Blogosphere, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.

http://mlauzi.blogspot.com/

http://vincekumwenda.blogspot.com/

 

[1] As part of a longer term response to the harmful traditional practice, a strategy was collectively developed by government, UN agencies, civil society, NGOs, communities and is under implementation.

One Comment:

  1. Charlene,

    Thanks for mentioning these Malawian bloggers. I’ve only been familiar with Afrika Aphukira.

    It would be interesting to find out how well-read these blogs are and by whom they are read, considering your mention of blogs not being as popular compared to social media.

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