The Globalization of the Pavement

March 1, 2011

Social media as ‘Pavement Radio’ – New Media Publics; a Tanzanian case study

By Ylva Ekström, Hugo Boothby and Anders Høg Hansen

While the cameras, microphones and spotlights of the world media were targeted towards the wave of people’s demonstration in northern Africa a disaster was taking place further south on the same continent. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as it has in north Africa, social media would play an important role in enabling a group of people often excluded from news production an opportunity to report their own stories and construct a narrative of the nights events.
 On the evening of the 16th of February 2011, a series of explosions started in an ammunition depot in a military base located next door to the high-density residential area Gongo la Mboto, on the outskirts of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam. The multiple blasts went on for several hours, and could be seen, heard and felt all over the mega-city. Julius Nyerere Airport (Dar es Salaam’s international airport), located nearby, had to be closed down for a day and night, and homes neighboring the Gongo la Mboto military base were destroyed. At least 20 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and in the turmoil and chaos several hundred children were separated from their parents (but according to information from the Tanzanian Red Cross most of them were reunited with their families within a week;

The Tanzanian national media was slow to report the Gongo la Mboto blasts, information was vague and the coverage when it did come was considered by many Tanzanians to be insufficiently critical of those responsible for the explosions and the government’s policy of housing large quantities of munitions close to residential areas. The international media was also largely disinterested in the Gongo la Mboto explosions, judging the events of February 16th of little interest to those outside Dar es Salaam and Tanzania. The BBC’s African Service did cover the explosions but the coverage on the English language radio and website was limited.

Despite the slow response of Tanzania’s traditional media and the lack of interest from the international news networks a constant flow of well informed on-the-spot reporting, comment and analysis found its way from those in Gongo la Mboto to others in Dar, Tanzania and the rest of the world. The media vacuum that had surrounded Gongo la Mboto quickly began to fill with reports from the residents directly effected by the blasts. People living in Gongo la Mboto were eager to share information with each other and concerned friends and family in the diaspora. Updating Facebook status bars and posting images that they had taken themselves

”This is what blasted some 350 Meters from my Residence” accompanied by a picture of an empty shell casing, (a friend living in the Gongo la Mboto area).

The Tanzanian diaspora were also quick to respond sharing information and reporting their own personal stories

“Just spoke to mum, she is ok very shaky, after the bombs explosions in Dar es Salaam she had to run for her life, thanks mum for being brave..! We r still not sure of my aunt’s whereabouts praying for Allah protection n guidance!” (a friend in the Tanzanian diaspora, UK).

The popular blog published a slideshow showing pictures of the explosions, damaged houses, wounded people, people sheltering in tents, President Kikwete and CCM officials dressed in green uniforms visiting the site, and empty shell casings. References to some of the few international reports, and a prayer: “Mwenyezi Mungu aziweke roho za marehemu wote mahali pema peponi na awaponye majeruhi wote.” (God Almighty, save the souls of all the deceased in a good place in Heaven, and heal the wounds of those injured).

During the explosions and in the days afterwards we see social media used to communicate about things happening within a community as the traditional media lags behind, networks are quickly activated, involving people on the streets of Dar, Tanzanians in Berlin, Uppsala and Copenhagen, an integrated circuit that stretches out but always returns again to Dar. A system that develops content much faster and with more nuances than any government or major news Internet site.

As discussions on blogs and on social networking sites began to develop and evolve they carried criticism of the military and its poor safety record, highlighted the problems of having military camps in the middle of residential areas, criticized the Government and demanded that the Minister of Defence resign, but as these threads of discussion developed they also became increasingly intertwined with rumour and conspiracy theory.

Gongo la Mboto explosion aftermath picture posted on the Michuzi Blog

Genres also started to become blurred, in the popular blog Michuzi, pictures, information and critical discussions about the explosions became mixed together with calls for people to join Big Brother Africa 2011, wedding pictures from local celebrities’, and gossip about the president. Information, news and entertainment. Seriousness and humour. Private and public. Here we see evidence that Tanzanians don’t have the same tradition of media genres as the western media audience. Oral tradition and other traditions of communication get mixed into the modern media culture. There is also a tradition of using media together that is crucial here; media engagement and usage as a social activity (see Ekström 2010).

The African city and Pavement radio

Perhaps we can trace a direct lineage between the way social media was used by many Tanzanians during and after the Dar es Salaam explosions and what Triulzi refers to as ‘Pavement Radio’. For Triulzi the postcolonial city is a disinformed city, a place where the comment of the street easily replaces or modifies government releases (p84). We may rather ask, where and how people on the street get or engage with news and information? Triulzi invokes the traditional African radio trottoir or ‘pavement radio’ (English translation), as an example of a modern continuation of an African oral tradition, a street version where popular oral discourse is commenting on those in power. Louise M. Bourgault (1995) writes:

“Pavement radio indeed refers to the circulation of lively news through unofficial oral channels of interpersonal communication which penetrate African cities. The stories which circulate typically treat topics of interest that the official press ignores or covers scantily in coded language. Thus, radio trottoir is underground news, an alternative to the official press, which is tedious, censored, uninformative, and often unintelligible.” (Bourgault 1995, p. 202)

Pavement radio can be traced to, among other places on the continent, the twin cities of Kinshasa/Brazzaville where several examples of user driven radio have existed. A journalist before taking political office the former president Mobotu of Zaire (1971-1997, now DR Congo, eds.) took these socially channeled oral discussions of current events very seriously. This was more than rumour. Credibility was important; the stations became a venue for exploring common ideas that could be woven together with other sources (Ellis, 2004: 28-29).

Pavement radio has traditionally been important in societies where critical public information has not been available through the official media channels. Bourgault (1995) describes how the content of the pavement radio often had foreign shortwave broadcasts as its source, but where the news may only have been partly understood. There was also, naturally, much more room for criticism in the unofficial public space created by the pavement radio than in traditional media.

Tanzanian media has certainly become freer and more diverse since the introduction of a new constitution in 1992, this transformation has given the media more autonomy, and as media scholar Jill Johannessen (2006) argues, “the increase in media channels allows for the articulation of problems and the dissemination of knowledge, along with the presentation of different priorities and views than those of the state-owned media” (Johannesen: 99). However, fifteen years after the liberalisation of the media “steps towards a free press are still gradual”, Lawrence Kilimwiko (2007:78) argues, pointing to the concentration of ownership and lack of journalist professionalism, and to continuous self-regulation and state interference.

The experience of February 16th suggests that despite an increasingly plural media market there is still a need for Pavement Radio or the specifically Tanzanian variation Radio Mbao, which in Swahili, literally means wooden radio, and refers to the kind of radios that were produced and distributed to the people in the Nyerere years, on which Tanzanians could listen to the government and party propaganda, public information and educational news. Nowadays the expression radio mbao has been given the transferred meaning ‘traditional radio’, by which is meant the oral news spreading tradition of pavement radio.

The explosion of mobile telephony and increasing number of those online in Tanzania provides an environment where the oral traditions of pavement radio or radio mbao can start to move into a different sphere. There has not been that much research done on how the internet and social media are used in the Tanzanian context. However the digital anthropologist Paula Uimonen (2009), observes in her in-depth analysis of Internet engagement among Arts students in Bagamoyo, social media helping to connect Tanzanians not only transnationally, but also within the nation.

Social media as an extension of pavement radio

When we look into the function of, and interpretations of, radio mbao or pavement radio, the more we see interesting similarities to contemporary social media. Vessels or environments where the real and the unreal, or true or false, could take place together, or at least could co-exist without knowing ‘really’ what was what. The content could easily develop a mythical character (Triulzi in Chambers and Curti, p85) and become a collective form of psychotherapy (Ellis p30).

When talking about user circulated popular mythologies, we may emphasise the significance of social events, formulations and interpretations with which we also articulate and make sense of our individual memories and experiences. The social aspect of pavement radio is interesting. It is not always clear who initiates. The initiator or sender is not important, it is the process of creating, responding, or sharing that matters – or as we also say about social media; neither producer nor consumer, nor announcer nor listener are appropriate terms.

Pavement radio relied on repetition or rave, the name wicked radoteurs,´radoter´ meaning to repeat senselessly, (Triulzi, quoting Nkanga, p87), a Facebook or blog commenting stream can develop a similar character of ‘raving’ ‘ping pong’. A blog, a Facebook chat or text message chain can become the citizens’ direct engagement with a mediatized public sphere (Bosch in Wasserman, p76) in a subversive fashion. And rave and rumour will only spread if valued interesting enough (Ellis, p30).

Pavement radio and today’s social media may be seen as popular discourse commenting on those in power, an informal economy of communication that also builds identities. Like movements (that come and go), this type of interaction builds identities powerfully because they give people the chance to get involved, invest themselves, be part of the stream, or the oral waves. It has to do with voice.

A Tanzanian in Denmark (very close to one of the authors) read contemporary popular blogs where the commenting stream ‘sweated’ with anti-government satire. Official clips of information were brought into a new platform, possibly cut out from traditional media platforms – and now the blog stream flows. BBC World service pictures circulating on Facebook amongst peoples own images. On major government or other central media you may find blog stream options given, but they do not contain this kind of ‘information’. Blogs are linked in to Facebook and other sites, people quickly add what they have heard, maybe after texting with friends and family members 2 minutes before making the entry. A web of street talk and shouting develops, connecting people in Dar and in the diaspora, in an entanglement of various forms of old and new media web, phone calls, yahoo chat, messages from an iPhone and so on. A variety of formats and choices are available, but not all are available for all – this makes the variety of media crucial.

But while the increasing access to social media and its use by the population around Gongo la Mboto on the night of the 16th seems to offer an agency and voice to an urban population, usually regarded as victims of suppression in the peripheries of the world, there are also reasons to critically discuss whether the consolidation of Tanzanian media in urban areas and the diminishing of international public service broadcasting, specifically the loss of short wave public service radio with a mission to reach the peripheries of the periphery, may lead to a widening of the digital divide?

In the report So this is democracy? State of media freedom in Southern Africa 2005, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) makes the analysis that, since the media are still largely city-based in Tanzania, the rural population (comprising around 70% of the total population) are denied their right to access to a free and immediate flow of information. From a democratic perspective this is a serious shortcoming, a point Lawrence Kilimwiko (2002) also makes in his critical analysis of The Fourth Estate in Tanzania:

“When large proportions of the population does not have access to the media, it means that they are not informed about their rights nor do they have access to information, which will give them an opportunity to influence political decisions. […] Thus the media may actually be increasing the widening gap between rural and urban life and culture.” (Kilimwiko 2002:66)

The glimpse of the active citizen journalist that we saw during and after the Dar es Salaam explosions on 16th was seductive to these authors. The notion that a means of communicating to a mass audience could be appropriated and used by a group of people often excluded from the process of news production, and that these relatively new communication technologies could be used in such a way that sustained an established oral tradition that is distinctive from much conventional news coverage is exciting and makes much conventional news coverage directed towards an African audience from outside the continent seem archaic and obsolete.

International broadcasting as spaceship radio

If social media with its multitude of reporters and its consumer/producers is the radio of the pavement, fleet footed, irreverent and close to the ground, then conventional international public service radio is looking increasing like ‘spaceship radio’ distant and removed, in the case of the BBC’s African Service beaming its programmes to Africa from London while receiving reports on the Dar es Salaam explosions via a crackly phone line.

We should not however misunderstand the BBC African Service’s conventional and comparatively slow response to the explosions in Dar as the consequence of an organization unaware or disinterested in social media’s Pavement Radio. In recent years watchwords at African Service editorial meetings have been ‘participation’, ‘interaction’ and the ‘global conversation’. Producers and managers are acutely aware that increased participation and interaction will enrich programmes and bring them closer to the street. In 2005 Africa Have Your Say was launched, a phone-in-show specifically for Africa, conceived as a space for a continent wide conversation in which listeners could set the agenda and put difficult questions to those in positions of power.

Twitter and Facebook are now integral to the Africa Have Your Say production and provide valuable channels of communication between listener and producer. Text messages from listeners now also play a vital roll in news and current affairs programmes like Network Africa and Focus on Africa, enabling listeners to share their views through a presenter mediated dialogue. It is the comparatively lo-fi technology of the SMS that perhaps brings the spaceship down to earth most easily, a quick and cheap way for listeners a long way from the studio to have their say.

Although the African Service has moved a long way very quickly towards embracing listener participation and user generated content, a phone-in-show and reading texts and tweets on-air is also a far cry from the unruly and lightening fast digital-Pavement Radio that my co-writers, their friends and families were participating in on February 16th and the days afterwards. If the strength of pavement radio is its instability, a nourishing mix of the true and the false, a radio network that allows its listeners to filter, disregard or re-tweet the voices of others while adding their own, then what part should the BBC’s African Service play in its broadcast. The BBC has A-C-C-U-R-A-C-Y inscribed in its genotype. To report something that you have not seen yourself or that cannot be confirmed by two ‘reliable’ sources is unthinkable. Does this old fashioned approach make the BBC irrelevant? Should it resign itself to being just another source of information to be re-versioned and re-interpreted in the digital-market place?

In January (2011) the British Government cut 16% of BBC World Service funding. These cuts will mean the loss of a large amount of broadcast output, including the cessation of short wave transmissions to East Africa in Swahili. In 2014 the WS will loose its Government funding completely and rely instead on receiving a share of the British television licence fee. These big changes indicate the uncertainty around the future of international public service broadcasting. Should we care? Perhaps digital-Pavement Radio fulfills the role that the BBC African Service once did. With such a lively and active ‘public space’, invigorated by the many different forms of social media that now exist, has the role of a distant voice from London however committed it is to accuracy, out lived its usefulness?

Some of these questions are no doubt being asked by senior management at the BBC and perhaps even within government. Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, has recognized the role social media plays in cultivating a vibrant public space, and that its role is in many ways similar to that of a public service broadcaster. In his introduction to a recent policy review document he wrote

“New categories of public content providers have emerged at Community, national and international level, driven more then ever by their users. Wikipedia, Twitter and many other websites broaden and enrich public space in new ways which can be very close to the spirit of public service broadcasting” (Thompson, 2010).

In the same document Thompson follows this celebration of social media, and by implication its boisterous bedfellow Pavement Radio, with a timely reminder not to get carried away by the seemingly endless possibilities that social media might offer the news hungry and voiceless

“Above the vast and unruly world of the blogosphere, professional media power may actually concentrate in fewer hands. Individual plurality may increase but collective, effective plurality decrease—with societies around the world left with fewer reliable sources of professionally validated news. The risk of bias and misinformation and, in some countries, of state control, may grow. Again, public space is threatened” (Thompson, 2010).

Can the digitally mediated Pavement Radio make the long walk out to rural Tanzania, where short wave radio from the BBC will soon disappear. Will the market support a network that allows all access to the Pavement microphone and transmitter or will corporate mergers and takeovers consolidate digital-Pavement Radio as public space for only the privileged urban citizen – and as privileged people in the diaspora.

Conclusion: Social media, social change and the globalization of the pavement

The fatal explosions at a Dar es Salaam military base on the evening of February 16th 2011 and the process of citizen media production that developed around it suggests to the authors a ‘globalization of the pavement’. A news production process that started with Facebook status updates and blog postings from the residents of Gongo la Mboto and spread quickly to a Tanzanian diaspora eager for the news and comment that was not forthcoming from major news networks. The way in which social media was used to construct a narrative around the explosions also suggests the logical progression of a media practice that has long existed in Tanzania. Media as a social activity, an oral tradition where bits and pieces of information are picked up from a variety of sources, including international news broadcasts, to be re-mixed and re-versioned with comment and criticism from the street. An information flow where genres become blurred, satire intertwined with eyewitness accounts and personal testimony.

There was certainly a need for this unofficial information flow, the radio mbao or pavement radio, in the post-colonial strictly controlled media landscape of the Nyerere era, and there clearly still remains a crucial role for this type of open public space in the more liberal and multiple media market that Tanzania has today. A media landscape that is uneven, self-censoring, often uncritical and still not very open and democratic (in our understanding of a democratic media). The consolidation of Radio, TV and Internet access in urban areas not only diminishes the viability of Tanzania’s conventional media as a useful and productive public space but also forces us to consider the inclusiveness of the ‘globalized pavement’ that we have begun to witness. Large parts of Tanzania’s rural population are at present denied the opportunity to participate in the mediated process of constructing news, sharing memories and building identities, that are now afforded their urban Tanzanians, and even at the most fundamental level large rural communities are often without the information and news that will enable them to participate as full citizens in basic political and social processes. The cessation of BBC short-wave transmissions to rural Tanzania will further isolate these rural populations and widen the growing digital divide. If nothing else the disappearance of short-wave broadcasts will leave radio mbao with one less source of information to be re-articulated and mixed into the burble of ‘the street’ discussions.

The streets of Tanzania have always been abuzz with rumour and stories evolving quickly from eye-to-mouth-to-ear – but now much wider spaces of rumour have opened up, for some, and become ‘the street’. We have seen a similar trend in many other countries in North and East Africa and in the Middle East. This opening public space facilitates a process whereby memories and identities now are, as we write, quickly transformed into debate and actions – but it is also a fragile process of change where it remains unknown how various forms of political and social development (democracy, the public sphere) and economic development may change the region and the world further. The old and new media of Tanzania still remain, as with many other countries in the region, consolidated in urban areas, something that considerably diminishes the potential of the public space that is gradually opening up. Perhaps there still exists a role for the distant spaceship of the BBC, publicly funded with a mission to reach the peripheries of the periphery. It is certainly an interesting time for those of us interested in how new and conventional media can be used to develop and enhance existing media practices and traditions, and the public spaces that are being opened up.


Bourgault, L M (1995) Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ekström, Ylva (2010) “We are like Chameleons”. Changing Mediascapes, Cultural Identities and City Sisters in Dar es Salaam PhD Dissertation. Uppsala: Uppsala University.

Ellis, Stephen (2004) Worlds of Power Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Johannessen, Jill (2006) ‘Gender, Media and Development: The Role of the Media’, in The Cultural Struggle of Gender Transformation in Tanzania Doctoral/PhD dissertation, Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Kilimwiko, Lawrence (2002) The Fourth Estate in Tanzania Dar es Salaam: Color Printers Ltd.

Kilimwiko, Lawrence (2006) “So this is Democracy? State of media freedom in Southern Africa 2005”, Annual publication of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. Windhoek: MISA.

Kilimwiko, Lawrence (2007) “So this is Democracy? State of media freedom in Southern Africa 2006”, Annual publication of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. Windhoek: MISA.

Thompson, Mark (2010) Introduction to BBC Strategy Review, available at e.g.

Triulzi, Alessandro ‘African cities, historical memory and street buzz’ in I Chambers and L Curti (1996) The Post-Colonial Question. London: Routledge

Uimonen, Paula (2009) ’Internet, Arts and Translocality in Tanzania’, in Social Anthropology, Journal of European Association of Social Anthropologists, 17:3.

Bosch, Tanja ‘Talk Radio, Democracy and Citizenship in (South) Africa’ in H Wasserman (2011) Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa London: Routledge.

Internet sites: / BBC various including world service

Other blogs, not quoted, e.g.

All sites accessed Feb 2011


Thanks to Alex Mwingira and Happy Singu


Søren Sønderstrup March 16, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Thank you for a well informed and comprehensive analysis of the media situation ‘on the ground’ in Tanzania. I share your impression of the cut’n’mix appropriation of rumour based talk of the pavement, new communication technologies and traditional media that is shaping the public debate in Tanzania, and which I learned of as an observer of the recent elections in the country. From the many interviews I conducted during my 2,5 months there I got the impression that although media literacy in general is low, and rumours abound, most people will use sound common sense to distinguish fact from crap. But because of widespread political apathy (voter turnout was very low and had decreased since the last elections) and mistrust in authorities it seems to me that most people are turning their attention in other directions, i.e. abroad and elsewhere. There’s a profound lack of interest in public debate on national issues. Hopefully, new media and new social dynamics will change this picture.

I think that to the extent ‘average’ Tanzanian citizens manage to overcome the digital divide the trend you’re describing has the potential to inflict some changes in the public sphere in the urban centres in Tanzania. But it will account for only a limited proportion of the urban public, and I doubt that it will seriously challenge the established order of things. Therefore it is vital to maintain the media ‘space ships’ that have the capacity to provide sound journalism and potentially (political) debate as well (something which is lacking currently). If the media organisations learn to better incorporate citizen media in their broadcasts and stick to the ethics of critical and informed journalism maybe it will contribute to social media literacy and to the democratization of social movements as well.

Hugo Boothby March 21, 2011 at 10:31 am

Sören, Thank you so much for such a thoughtful response. It’s very interesting to hear how our observations correspond with your own experiences of living and working in TZ. Particularly interested to hear your ideas about the continuing need for both ‘Spaceship’ and ‘Pavement’ radio.

Sorry it took me so long to respond. I have been on leave for a couple of weeks.

We hope that this will be a continuing research project and will be interested to hear your thoughts in subsequent versions of the paper.

Many thanks

Ben Taylor March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm

An interesting article, and one which has a lot in common with two earlier posts looking at traditional and social media in the aftermath of the Gongo la Mboto blasts – one on Vijana FM ( and another on the blog I write ( If you haven’t seen these already, they are well worth reading.

The intersection and interaction of “spaceship” radio, mainstream Tanzanian media, social media and redio mbao is certainly interesting, and Gongo la Mboto is an ideal case study to use. But what I think all these posts are missing (including mine) is discussion on how to combat the biggest problem of both social media and redio mbao – accuracy.

Going back to Gongo la Mboto, Facebook posts and tweets in the hours immediately following the explosions were plentiful, but were also full of information that turned out to be wrong. I was up country at the time and it took place at night, so almost no redio mbao information was reaching us at that time, but the word on the street the next morning was full of exaggeration and falsehood.

Unless and until a way can be found to address this, I’m not sure we should be so positive about “globalising the pavement”.

Hugo Boothby March 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Hi Ben
Thanks for your feedback. Just read your blog post. Very interesting that you had such a similar experience to us with regards the response of local media. Also very well observed point about problems with accuracy with social media as news media.

What is your background? Do you have a previous connection with ComDev or Malmö University? What type of project or work are you doing in TZ at the moment?

Thanks again for taking the time to read the article and for the very useful response and link to your post.


Ben Taylor March 24, 2011 at 9:49 am

Hi Hugo,

Thanks for your reply. I have no connection with ComDev or Malmo, but your article was linked by several facebook friends and twitterers earlier this week, which brought it to my attention.

I have in mind another post exploring this theme – particularly on the accuracy/reliability issue – which I expect will make it online sometime next week.

And in response to your other question, I’m working in Tanzania for a local NGO (Daraja –; and most of the posts at relate directly to our work). We’re working on local government accountability issues, working with both social media and traditional media (we run a local newspaper), and on a programme using mobile phones and the radio to increase local government accountability in the water sector.

Best wishes,

Hugo Boothby March 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Nice to meet you! Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I hope that we can stay in touch. We hope to continue our research in this area and develop this article into a longer piece for an academic journal. I am looking forward to your next post on this subject.

All the best

Ben Taylor March 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm
Hugo Boothby March 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm

thanks for this addition to the conversation Ben.

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