Arts + Culture

How Is Digital Technology Changing Africa’s Cultural Landscape?

World Policy Institute's Nahema Marchal looks at digital technology and its impact on arts and culture in Africa.


Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Chatbot Avatar. Courtesy of the artist.

Okayafrica and the Program for African Thought at the World Policy Institute present the third in a series of stories at the intersection of politics, policy and culture in Africa. In the third installment, WPI's Nahema Marchal looks at digital technology and its impact on arts and culture on the continent.

Digital developments are happening at a remarkable pace in Africa. In just over ten years, mobile adoption has skyrocketed, and the declining costs of handsets and broadband mean it is now easier than ever before for thousands of Africans to get online. From mobile banking to social networking, news and health apps, internet access via mobile devices has ushered in a revolution in information sharing, particularly in tech-savvy nations – South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria – where usage is widespread.

But despite the increasing role of information communication technology (ICTs) in people’s daily lives, few people are exploring the less conspicuous side of this digital boom: its impact on arts and culture.

It is partly to fill that void that Tegan Bristow – a digital media artist and the Head of Interactive Media at the Wits School of Arts at Wits University in Johannesburg – developed her research on digital and communication technologies as mediums of artistic expression.

“While teaching Visual Arts at Wits, I realized very quickly that my students had no framework for understanding new media and technology in the African context. Most of what they find in textbooks is strongly Euro-American, and does not accurately explain their experience with technology,” she told me when I spoke to her on the issue.

Yet, unbeknownst to the Western art market, contemporary African artists have been experimenting with digital technology for many years. Collage artist Nkiru Oparah for example, utilizes the digital space to reclaim, subvert or refashion typical representations of Africa, often by superposing ethnographic documents and digital imagery. While others, like Nolan Dennis or Bogosi Sekhukhuni, focus instead on animation as a new conduit of storytelling, that can playfully challenge conventions about how and from where information about Africa comes.

Nkiru Oparah, via African Digital Art

For Bristow, that’s precisely what makes the digital arena such an interesting space for African culture. Beyond its obvious social and economic implications, it is also a site of cultural resistance to globalized systems of knowledge. “Digital and communication technology is something that has unfortunately been very reliant on the violent subjugation of African culture and African societies,” she explains, “but in practice, it has given rise to very distinct ‘cultures of technology’, linked to specific histories, and to specific experiences of oppression and resistance.”

“In South Africa, for example, where the government was one of the first to use technology to keep track of people, there’s a very particular visual culture that comes out of township life – one of representation and differentiation, with a sort of low-fi, glitch anti-commercial aesthetic – whereas in Kenya, it is more the oral tradition, storytelling, and social justice engagement that dominate the space of digital practice.”

It is a common view to see technological innovation in Africa as a direct legacy of colonial and postcolonial intervention, rather than a product of genuine, fruitful interactions between new technologies and indigenous practices and customs. Sadly, this lack of awareness together with an ongoing media obsession with the “digital divide” – a term coined in the mid 1990s to address uneven access to digital resources – mean that, more often than not, African people are viewed as passive recipients of foreign R & D, when in reality, “if digital and communication technologies are these great modular thing, they only augment systems of knowledge transfer that already exist quite naturally and quite substantially within Africa”.

Today, countless projects are breaking social, geographical and infrastructural borders by redefining what is means to be a citizen, an advocate, an artist or a writer in the digital age. 2012 saw the launch of Badilisha Poetry X Change, for example, the first and largest digital archive of pan-African poetry in the world. Keeping up with Africa’s rich tradition of oral poetry, the site, accessible via mobile phones, serves as a platform for poets to showcase their work in both written and radio format.

Zamani Project, 3D Model, x-ray of the Apedemak Temple (Musawwarat, Sudan)

In recent years, spatial digitization has also gained prominence as a tool to preserve heritage sites from cultural terrorism, vandalism, theft and decay. The Zamani Project, spearheaded by Dr. Heinz Ruther (professor at the University of Cape Town), uses spatial data to create striking 3D models of African heritage sites, with the ultimate vision of an “African Heritage database for the preservation of the past for future generations”. Since 2004, Dr. Ruther and his team have recorded 40 sites in 14 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and scanned and modeled more than 150 individual buildings, monuments and rockshelters.

By making information that was previously unknown or only available to a fraction of researchers available to all, “digitization, in combination with advances in communication, has changed the speed at which this knowledge is spread as well as its range,” notes Ruther. And this is but one of many examples. One could also mention DASI (Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions) or the Virtual Freedom Trail Project – a community archive and online museum seeking to map the heritage of liberation struggle in Tanzania.

Given the growing hold of foreign investment in Eastern and Southern Africa, and of what some call the “scramble” for African indigenous knowledge, it would be easy to see digitization projects (most of them funded by foreign organizations) as Trojan horses for a new wave of cultural imperialism. But if these efforts are no panacea for the vast inequalities and issues of access and social resources that remain within the continent, they nonetheless reflect genuine efforts to assume greater control over African arts and culture, and save them from marginalization.

More importantly, they invite us to go beyond the idea of digital divide as a simple split between haves and have nots, and interrogate instead the role that language (the domination of English online), digital literacy and education might play in stopping Africans everywhere from benefitting from these advancements. Who do those histories reach? And who is enlisted to write them? Only by asking ourselves these questions can we begin the difficult work of ensuring fairness in access to African digital resources.

Nahema Marchal is a Program Assistant at the World Policy Institute.

popular
Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

Read an exclusive excerpt from the Sierra Leonean reporter's new book, which offers firsthand accounts of what happened to the girls while in Boko Haram captivity in an attempt to make the world remember.

Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

popular
Wizkid in "Ghetto Love"

The 12 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Wizkid, Stonebwoy x Teni, Thabsie, Sampa the Great and a classic Funána compilation.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our Best Music of the Week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's new playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Sowetan/Getty Images

South Africa has Ruled that Spanking Children is Now Unconstitutional

The judgement was unanimous.

Back in 2017, the South African High Court ruled that it was illegal for parents or guardians to spank their children i.e. use corporal punishment in the home setting. The ruling arose after a father allegedly beat his 13-year-old son "in a manner that exceeded the bounds of reasonable chastisement". Today, the Constitutional Court has upheld the High Court's 2017 ruling and declared that the spanking of children is a violation of the constitution.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Nigerian Women Have Taken to the Streets to March Against the Serial Killing of Women

"The women in Port Harcourt no longer feel safe," the protesters say.

Hundreds of Nigerian women have taken to the streets in protest of the the spate of murders that have taken the lives of eight women in various Port Harcourt hotels thus far. Dressed in in black clothing and holding placards denouncing the femicide in a scene quite similar to the protests led by South African women last week, Nigerian women are demanding that the police as well as the government do more to protect the women living in Part Harcourt especially. The BBC reports that the police have arrested two individuals who are thought to be suspects in the killings.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.