30 June 2017 09:45:53 IST

Status update from Africa

22 African countries are changing the way they view the world

A quick online search for Liberia brings up visuals that not many would care for. Interspersed with pictures of child soldiers, piled-up corpses and Ebola workers, are a few of people dancing in traditional costumes. As I was leaving from India, exactly a year ago, my expectations of Liberia was a discouraging pastiche of these disjointed images. Now, on the eve of the first anniversary of my arrival in Liberia, I can confess that my idea of Africa was as far from the truth as those images were.

Many Indians tend to think of Africans as “poverty-stricken, drug dealers, indulging in cannibalism to satiate the hunger pangs they get from all the traditional dancing they do all day”, a relative of mine put it to me, giggling at her own wit. What worries me is the sheer number of others who think like her.

The recent attack on Nigerians in Greater Noida, and the subsequent demand by the locals for the expulsion of all Africans living there, are testament to this mentality. As an Indian hoping to spend the next decade working across Africa, I pray fervently that this reductionist idea of “Africa” among my fellow Indians will change soon. Right now, I’m placing my bet on an unlikely person to make this happen — Mark Zuckerberg.

Back in 2015, Facebook introduced Free Basics as a means to connect large swathes of the developing world to the internet. The technology was simple: smartphones would come preloaded with a lighter version of the internet, which people could browse without data subscriptions. One had free access to a text-only version of Facebook and affiliated websites. For a payment one could gain unfiltered access to the internet; otherwise only a fraction of it would be available, essentially curated by Facebook. Zuckerberg offered it to several African countries and 22 have since adopted Free Basics.

Having spent the better part of last century decolonising itself, and much of this century trying to quell civil unrest, the African continent hasn’t had enough time to stabilise itself. Post-conflict countries such as Rwanda and Congo, especially, lack the infrastructure to connect with their citizens. Phone and electricity lines are non-existent in many African countries. In a region devoid of any consistent source of visual stimuli or engaging entertainment, it’s evident why Facebook has assumed the all-encompassing role of a multimedia communication tool.

Continent on fingertips

The surge in the sale of smartphones preloaded with Free Basics is just one indicator of the space that internet.org is making for itself. It’s user-friendly even for first-generation technology consumers and, more importantly, serves as the user’s gateway to the world around and beyond. So unidimensional and streamlined is this exposure to the internet, that people often confuse internet.org as being the entire internet. In a GeoPoll survey in Nigeria, 65 per cent respondents vouched that “Facebook is the internet”.

In February 2017, Facebook announced it plans to lay 500 miles of fibre cable in Uganda, connecting about three million new people to the Web via Free Basics. Facebook reportedly declined to disclose the investment, but given the huge sums such ventures usually entail, the “no-strings attached” claim is a little hard to swallow. Facebook is, after all, a for-profit organisation. What returns it could gain by becoming the gatekeeper of the internet in Africa, is a subject of worry for free expression advocates the world over. When a private entity becomes the de facto source of information across a continent, the power it wields in defining the sensibilities of the people is nothing short of frightening.

In this context, Liberia is a fascinating case-study. It was never colonised, but was ravaged by two decades of a bloody civil war that destroyed all remnants of its past, with barely even photographic evidence left of its pre-war history. Liberians, specifically the younger generations, hardly have access or exposure to traditional media of mass communication. None of the dozen newspapers have a circulation above 1,000 copies and the penetration of television is zero in some of the 15 counties. In this scenario, social media is now synonymous with freedom for the average Liberian; freedom from ignorance and being ignored; the freedom to create their own narratives.

Online social networking enables Liberian youth to build an identity for themselves in a society that still doesn’t promote individuality. This identity gives them agency to connect on their own terms with their peers. They create a facsimile of their “best” selves through their photographs, their “profiles” and their reactions to their friends expressing themselves. The smartphone has become a beacon for those escaping the feeling of being marooned, of shaping an identity unhindered by their socio-economic plight; it provides access to hitherto unavailable information, even though truncated.

As the primary platform for sharing visual and aural content, Facebook has managed to transcend its role as just a social networking site, and turned into a curator, a referential look book and an archive for documentation.

Thus, it’s becoming central to the changing aesthetics of the Liberian visual landscape. The way it’s influencing the perceptions of beauty, image-making and the definition of what is worth preserving for posterity by means of a photograph makes for an extremely interesting study. The subtle nuances of this mammoth reconstructive surgery of a country’s visual culture are visible in the pout that suddenly appears on the face of a seven-year-old girl from an isolated village when she’s asked to pose, or in the frantic selfie-taking of a group of teenagers on a beach during a picnic.

Africa by the people

It is interesting to note that Liberians are not just new consumers of content; additionally, they are new creators of content. People using the internet evermore to document their everyday realities are essentially content producers building an alternative visual archive of this African country.

Even though the situation in Liberia cannot be extrapolated to generalise the situation in all of Africa, 22 countries currently have Free Basics and millions of new users are joining Facebook each year to share their everyday experiences.

For once, it’s Africans telling Africa’s stories and not being made the subject of someone else’s gaze. Women, who still don’t constitute half of the internet users, are exploring the internet as a space where they can opine without having to fight the battle of finding a physical space that allows them that.

Advocates, both for and against internet.org’s expansion into Africa, are constantly debating its impact on the larger narrative of the continent. From introducing the boon of free markets into a nascent economy to allegations of “digital colonisation”... neither side can deny the fact that by connecting Africans to the world on their own terms, Facebook has the power to negotiate the way the world perceives them. Beyond visuals of “poor and emaciated cannibals”, Africa is readying for a fascinating makeover of its glorious story and needs the world to realise its fragility and be kinder to its people.

It remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg remains a mere referee in the construction of the bridge between the Africa of misplaced prejudices and the Africa of reality.

(Ravisha Mall is a freelance journalist based in Liberia. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)